Sunday, June 30, 2013

Vacation Bible School and Worship

Today, we have a worship service that's part traditional (the Eucharist), part church camp, part Vacation Bible School.  Once I would have avoided this kind of service.  Now, I find myself looking forward to it.  Why the change?

Part of it is that I'm older and more tolerant (please, please, let tolerance ever sprout and bloom more brightly in me!).  Once, the cute kid aspect would have been a real turn off for me.  Now, I'm happy to be in a church that has more than 5 children.

Part of my change is that I've gotten ever more involved in Vacation Bible School, and so, I like having a worship service that highlights what we've been doing.  And like every good ceremony, it's good to have a ritual that helps us with closure.

But something more essential has shifted in me.  I have been to too many regular services which are so dreary.  I have been to too many services where three of us in the congregation sing boldly and everyone else looks uncomfortable. 

In short, the VBS kids today are likely to be fully involved, and I'm looking forward to that energy.  The VBS kids are likely to be enthusiastic.  Sadly, I can't always count on enthusiasm in our regular services.

Last year's VBS Sunday was the start of our Worship Together service, our experiment where we used a combination of curriculum from Faith Inkubators, art activities that we've dreamed up, and an assortment of materials.  We've tried to create an experiment that combines worship, teaching, creativity, and community.   It's a service that can sometimes feel more like Vacation Bible School than worship.

Here's the thing:  many Sundays, I go to the 9:45 Worship Together service, and then I go to the more traditional 11:00 service.  And I've come to prefer the 9:45.  It feels more engaged.  It's a smaller group; it's harder to hide.  And because of that, it feels more like a community than the late service.

Our VBS this year has been unusual, in that almost 70% of the children aren't from our church.  Will they return to us after this week?  I'm glad that if they do, we have a service that might appeal to them.  It's not a huge jump from VBS to our Worship Together service.

The chasm between VBS and regular church is huge and deep.  We might spend some time wondering why that is and how to fix it.  I've met many a child who loves, loves, LOVES VBS.  I don't meet many children who feel that way about church.  I know of several families who spend the summer going from one church's VBS, a different church each week, because the children love it so much.  They don't spend the rest of the year going to church.

And we wonder why most mainline churches are seeing shrinking memberships. 

We talk about capturing children while they're young, whether through church camp, VBS, or groups of various sorts.  Most of us don't talk about making church more like those experiences which capture the hearts of children.  Why are we so resistant to that?

I'm not saying we have to abandon our traditions.  Most churches have room for more than one service, after all.  Keep the ossified service for those who feel that church must be done a certain way.

But let's spend some time thinking about how worship would look if we did it the way it's done in Vacation Bible School.  Let's try to recapture some of the innovations of campus groups.  Let's look to church camps who do amazing community building in a very short time. 

What can we learn?

Friday, June 28, 2013

The Theology of Vacation Bible School

One of the good aspects of being the Arts and Crafts leader at Vacation Bible School is that I stay safely tucked away in the Arts and Crafts area.  I thought about this last night when the clean up didn't take as long, and I could see the evening wrap up.  In going over what we learned last night, my ears latched onto one idea, the idea that Jesus came to save us so that we could be in Heaven with him when we die.  It made me a bit fretful that the evening's lessons had focused on our sinful natures.  It also made me wonder about the time between childhood and death.

We can be with Jesus right now.  We don't have to wait until we die.

I don't subscribe to the Jesus as sacrificial lamb theology that we get in so many churches.  Last night's closing session made me wonder what a VBS curriculum that was centered on a different theology would look.  For example, what if VBS taught kids a Rob Bell/Brian McLaren kind of approach. 

You may be wondering why Jesus died on the cross if not to save us from our sins.  I would argue that Jesus died on the cross because he ran afoul of the authorities, because his Gospel of social justice was so radical that the people with power saw him as a threat that had to be extinguished.

The story that I love to tell (to borrow old hymn language) is the one of a creation that is in the process of redemption right now, and we get to play a part.  The story that I love to tell is one of God who doesn't stay in Heaven, distant and removed,   Our God so much wants to be part of our lives that we find God showing up in all sorts of unlikely places.

We get our VBS materials from Concordia, the publishing arm of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, the very conservative brand of Lutheran practice, so I shouldn't be surprised at the theology of the materials.  Part of me thinks that most of the theology that the week imparts is good theology, so I shouldn't worry about some of the stranger concepts.

I remind myself that much of my theology would be very strange to many people.  I remember a conversation that I had with a grad school friend where I said that I thought the idea of Heaven was very nice, but that it wasn't the reason why we should be Christians.  She said, "If there's no Heaven, then I don't see why anyone would bother with any of this."

I know that she's got a majority view.  I do not.

So let me focus on the good things we've stressed this week.  We've focused on the idea that God loves us.  We've focused on praying for what we need.  We've focused on how our families and friends can help us stay strong.  We've learned great Bible stories, like the story of Esther and the story of Jesus.

Tonight we finish, and Sunday we worship.  Overall, it's been a good week.

But I want to think about creating alternate curriculum--not necessarily in the next few years, but I want to be ready, just in case some company should say, "Here's a chunk of money.  Create your dream Vacation Bible School."

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Marriage of All Sorts and Sanctification

When I was young and radical, I thought about deciding not to get married until all people were free to marry.  Even then, back in the 1980's, I was thinking about marriage and discrimination and social justice and the best way to make/take a stand.

Of course, when I was first thinking about these issues, I didn't really know anyone, of any sexual orientation, who was particularly interested in getting married.

When I first got married, I was shocked to discover that as a married couple, we had less of a standard income tax deduction than we would have had as 2 single people living together.  That situation was changed in the 1990's, but I remember spending several years wondering about all this talk about how married people had it so much better and not really seeing it.

Of course, if my spouse had died, it would have been different.  If my spouse had been in the hospital, I'd have had more rights than I would if a significant other (of any gender) was in the hospital.

Yesterday's rulings still don't extend marriage benefits to everyone.  But it will be easier now, and I suspect that within 10 years, a marriage of two committed people will be recognized by almost every state.   Perhaps the Supreme Court will have stepped in to force recalcitrant states to extend marriage benefits to all.

I do not feel that having gay people have the ability to get married diminishes my marriage one whit.  In fact, seeing the joy of so many people who can now have their relationships recognized makes me happy to be part of a deeply committed relationship.

I do not feel the Bible condemns gay marriage.  The idea of gay marriage would have been completely alien to Bible writers--in fact, the kind of marriage like the one that I enjoy would have been completely alien too.

That's why I think that Paul is a bit more radical than we usually give him credit for being.  He gives husbands the task of cherishing their wives.  And yes, in the next breath he tells wives to submit.  But he goes on to instruct husbands to treat wives as well Christ loved the Church (Ephesians 5:25) or as deeply as the husband loves himself (Ephesians 5:28).

Let us recognize how foreign that idea would have been.  Treat your wife like she's an extension of your body?  That would be like telling us to love our ________ the same way we love our own bodies.  I'm not sure how to fill in that blank.  What would adequately convey the low status of women?  Donkeys (but not a modern metaphor)?  Cars?    Computers?  Washing machines?

Conservatives who trot out Christian ideas often make ridiculous assertions about what Christ would have believed.  But go back and read the Gospels.  Go ahead.  The Gospels are short; it won't take you long to read them..  They're very anti-family.  Again and again, Jesus reminds us that we will likely have to abandon our families to stay true.  Hmm.

I'm a Lutheran, part of a more liberal tradition, and thus, I don't read the Bible literally, although I do see it as true.  I don't read the Bible as a behavior manual.  Conservatives are fond of referencing Leviticus.  But read that book too.  Those of us who aren't part of Orthodox Judaism just don't follow most (any?) of those principles.

I have said before, but I will say it again:  if I believed in a judgmental God, and I don't, I would believe that we will be judged on the quality of our relationships.  I do believe in a loving God who wants what is best for us.  A wide range of relationships can fit into that definition.

I do believe that committed relationships, whether they be parental or marital or friendships of all sorts, help us develop into the best people we can be.  I think one of the problems of our modern life is that we're not deeply committed to anyone or any place or any group of people.  We walk away from any situation that's difficult at the very first moment it becomes difficult.

David Brooks has written the best essay I've read about why we should all be in support of homosexual marriage:  "The conservative course is not to banish gay people from making such commitments. It is to expect that they make such commitments. We shouldn't just allow gay marriage. We should insist on gay marriage. We should regard it as scandalous that two people could claim to love each other and not want to sanctify their love with marriage and fidelity."

Does marriage have the power to sanctify?  I once would have scoffed at such an idea.  But now, as I prepare to celebrate my 25th wedding anniversary, I have to say that I understand so much more about the power of love by having experienced it in this way.  I try so hard to treat my husband well, but so often, I fail.  I apologize, he forgives, and we go on.  He, too, makes mistakes, often the same ones, over and over again.  He apologizes, I forgive, and we go on. 

I want to believe that some day, we won't make mistakes, but I know that we are human, and thus will always make mistakes.  It's amazing to me that people will choose to forgive me, to stand beside me, and to walk with me on this journey.

It's an experience that I wish that everyone can have.  May we all become sanctified.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, June 30, 2013:

First Reading: 1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14

Psalm: Psalm 16

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20

Second Reading: Galatians 5:1, 13-25

Gospel: Luke 9:51-62

I write this meditation just after the feast day of John the Baptist, which makes an interesting counterpoint to the Gospel lesson for Sunday. In the Gospel, we see Jesus headed towards Jerusalem. He meets people who want to go with him, and some of them he seems to turn away, by warning of a sort of homelessness, a psychic isolation that comes with nestlessness.

Other people he invites to follow him, and they want to, but they have these responsibilities that they need to attend to first. And just like that, they've lost their chance. Many of us must understand the plight of the man who needs to bury his father. In the time of Jesus, this obligation would have loomed even larger than it does today.

Jesus seems to suggest that we forsake family responsibilities, and this theme recurs periodically throughout the Gospels (and I always smile when I hear various religious types preach about the family friendly politics of Jesus--they've been reading different Gospel texts than I have). Or maybe he's suggesting that we shuck off the things which are already dead.

Our society gives us many rules and regulations that torment us as surely as the demons tormented the man in last Sunday's Gospel. Ask any sociologist, and they'll tell you that socialization binds us more thoroughly than any other aspect of our being. It's socialization that demands that we mop the floors when we'd rather be making music. It's socialization that tells us we must attend to our families, our jobs, our various responsibilities, in certain ways, even when those ways put our souls in danger.

Jesus warns us again and again of the dangers of taking our hands off the spiritual plow. Of course, most of us aren't leading agrarian lives anymore, so the metaphor may not be as powerful. But in our time of increasingly fragmented attention spans, the central message remains: Jesus tells us to keep the focus on him, not on our iPhones, our Blackberries, our iPads, our e-mail accounts, our televisions, all the screens which rule our lives.

The life of John the Baptist gives us a powerful role model. John the Baptist had a belief and a mission so powerful that he was willing to go into the wilderness and to eat locusts. Would you be willing to eat locusts?

If we're not willing to brave the wilderness for our faith, perhaps it's time to deepen that faith. If our mission doesn't move us to eat locusts, perhaps it's time to adjust the mission. What would excite you so powerfully that you would never lose your grip on that Gospel plow, that you would never look back? How can you get that excitement into your daily life?

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Report from the First Day of Vacation Bible School

I only have time for a quick note this morning. But I wanted to make sure to record a few things from Vacation Bible School last night.

The most important thing from last night: many of the children were there last year, when we also worked with clay, which was last night's activity. Several talked about how much they liked working with clay. One girl said, "I made a big chocolate chip cookie. Do you remember? I still have it. It almost broke, but it didn't, and I still have it."

If I ever think that the work I do is not important, it's good to have this example in mind. Sometimes we just don't know what affects people. The trick is to approach every part of the day, and every interaction with each human, as if it might have some importance that will be revealed later.

You may or may not know that I'm leading arts and crafts at Vacation Bible School. Our evening is divided into 4 groups of time; our VBS is divided into 4 groups of children. The pre-K age is its own group, and the other groups are mixed. I worried a bit about that, but it went just fine. Each group had 25 minutes for Arts and Crafts. Last year the time seemed too short. Last night, I had a bit of lag time.

Last night I had the clay divided into sandwich bags, and I gave every child a lump of clay and a paper plate. I told them they could make whatever they wanted, and I made some suggestions. One little boy looked at me and said, "We're allowed to make anything?"

I refused to think about all the ways this could go terribly wrong, and I said, "Anything. You're only limited by the amount of clay that you have and the fact that you've only got 20 minutes."

His eyes lit up, and he got to work. For those of you worried that he would make something troubling, have no fear. He made an object that was more abstract.

Last year, the students could have worked with clay all night; I had to force them to come to a stopping point. Last night, many of them finished with time to spare. I should have probably had some sort of other activity. Last night, I had the children who finished help me set up for the next group.

I love working with children in this kind of forum. I also love working with the other adults. I like the way that it feels like a team effort.

On the way home, my spouse (who is on hand to take the pictures that turn into a "movie" that we watch at the end of the night) and I talked about the lessons that children learn from all of this. My spouse asked, "What will they remember about the Gospel?"

I can't really answer that, since I don't get to see all of the activities. But I hear the songs, and I watch the puppet show, and I know that we're doing a social justice project to raise money to bring clean water to developing nations. Even if children aren't going home with stories of Jesus ringing in their ears, they're going home with good lessons about relying on God and how much God loves them no matter what.

So, tonight, day two of VBS: we'll be decorating paper crowns. I'll also bring paper so that students can draw if they get done early.

(this post will appear on both my creativity blog and my theology blog, since I don't have time to write 2 posts)

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Feast Day of John the Baptist

Today is the feast day that celebrates the birth of John the Baptist.  I have a blog post up at Living Lutheran that celebrates his life and example--but it also offers some solace to those of us who don't feel up to the challenge of adopting him as a role model.  Go here to read it.

This morning I was thinking of the fact that this day celebrates the birth of John the Baptist.  I thought about his mother Elizabeth, how she must have yearned for a child, how her yearnings were finally answered.  Today would be a good day to think about our own yearnings.

What miracles do we need in our lives?  Where and how do we hope that God will answer us?

For those of you who need some encouragement on this day that celebrates a man with hard-core faith, here's a paragraph from the blog piece I wrote:

On this day in June when we celebrate John the Baptist, it’s good to be reminded that I’m not my final, improved version of myself. I still have work to do. And I need to hear that message that the prophets bring us. I’m lazy and inclined to coast, and it’s good to know that God has a vision for me that is vaster than any I could dream myself.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

In Praise of Spiritual Friends

--Yesterday, a woman from my old church sent me a Facebook Friend request.  I'm always happy when someone I know wants to be my Facebook Friend, but yesterday's request made me very happy.  This woman was one of my favorite people at my old church:  she was a quilter, and she is the only person I know who seems to have recovered completely from a broken hip, a hip broken when she fell from a ladder changing the banners.  When I decided to change churches, I wrote her a card to explain why.  But I haven't heard from her or seen her since.  So, it was neat to get that request.

--Yesterday I sorted through our backpacking equipment.  It's time to admit that I won't be doing this again.  But what to do with all this equipment which is still in fairly good shape (3 mess kits, 2 interlocking utensil sets, 5 canteens, a plastic poncho)?  I thought of a different woman from my old church, one who does a lot of work with both the Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts.  I decided that I'd be very happy if I could donate this equipment.  I wrote to her to ask if she knew of anyone who could use the equipment.  She wrote back to say yes.  Hurrah!

--Tomorrow begins 5 nights of Vacation Bible School, an experience which makes me keenly aware of how many spiritual friends I have, and how we're all rooting for each other.  Until I was an integral part of VBS, I wouldn't have thought that it would be such an enriching experience for the adults involved.

--Last week, at our Worship Together service, our small group talked about our joys and challenges of the past week.  I talked about my anxieties and how I was having trouble quelling them.  One of the group members said, "You should have called me.  You have my number."  Two of the other group members nodded.  I was touched, although reaching out in that way isn't natural to me.  I don't want to admit that I'm less than perfect.  It's tough for me to admit that I'm still struggling with anxiety, even after all these attempts to deal with my anxiety by praying and meditating on letting go of worries.

--Those small group members who said I should call them are also part of the VBS team.  There are so many elements of a church which ideally should bring us together.  For me, VBS has been one of the most important ones.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

The Answer to Existential Angst: Vacation Bible School!

For the past several weeks, I've been waking up in the middle of the night worried about all sorts of aspects of the home buying process: inspections and money, primarily. One night this past week, I woke up in a panic because I hadn't bought paper plates for Vacation Bible School. I reminded myself that I still have time, and I drifted back to sleep.

I don't need paper plates because I'm in charge of the food.  I need them because I'm in charge of Arts and Crafts.  Yes, I did a good enough job last year that they asked me to come back this year.  Either that, or nobody else wanted to do it.

This week-end is the time to get all my supplies together. I'm mostly there.

We are using the pre-packaged curriculum with the theme of Kingdom Rock.  Some nights we'll be doing crafts that tie into the theme.  Other nights, we're not.  I keep in mind that last year I had lessons that I hoped to impart with the crafts, but I had to spend so much time quelling chaos that I never mentioned the larger lesson.

Here's what we'll be doing:

On Monday, we'll play with clay.  This project was such a success last year that I had to repeat it this year.  We'll use the paper plates both as the creations are being made and as a platform where the creations will dry.  The lesson:  God shapes us, as if we're the clay.  And VBS will shape us too.

On Tuesday, we'll decorate paper crowns.  This fits with the overall lesson of the day.  I worry a bit that this activity won't take long enough.  I worried about the same thing last year, but never had a problem.

On Wednesday, we'll make string beads together to make prayer beads; we're Lutherans, so we won't call them rosaries.  We'll also write prayers on strips of cloth and paste them around the bulletin board that shows a castle that's part of the decorations for the week.

On Thursday, we'll paint.  We'll paint the clay creations, and we'll paint on paper.  My sister's best piece of advice last year was that she had never met a child who didn't like to paint.

On Friday, we'll decorate T-shirts.  Children can bring their own or buy one from me.  We'll be using markers only so that everyone can take their T-shirt home.  Last year I had fabric paints, which meant we needed to have space for them to dry (along with everything else that was drying:  the clay and the painted pictures).  We need cardboard so that the paint didn't soak through.

So, what do I still need before the week begins?  Paper plates, beads, and as the week progresses and people place orders for T-shirts, I'll make sure we have enough.

Although it's exhausting, I'm looking forward to it.  I know that for some of our church's children, VBS is the favorite thing we do all year.  It's also one of our big outreach opportunities:  we see kids from the community who we don't see at any other time of the year.

But I'll be honest here:  I'm looking forward to it because it's come to be one of the favorite church activities all year for me too.  I love the camaraderie that comes from working with the other adults; it's a closeness that lasts all year.  I love feeling like I'm part of a team that's working well.  I love the enthusiasm of the children.  It makes me happy to be leading activities where I see instant appreciation.

I spend a lot of my work life involved in activities which don't have that instant satisfaction.  VBS is an antidote to my existential angst. 

Friday, June 21, 2013

A Sestina to Celebrate the Summer Solstice

Ah, the dawn of another summer solstice! Here we are at one of the hinges of the year, the day when we have the most light.

I woke up thinking about a sestina I wrote a long time ago that mentions the solstice and gardening and all the things we might be thinking of today. 

You ask, what is a sestina?  It's a poem written in a specific form, 6 stanzas, 6 lines per stanza, with the end words of the line repeating in a certain pattern.  It ends with a stanza of 3 lines, each line using 2 of the words, one at the end of the line, one within it.
Here's the sestina that I wrote in 1999 or so--hopefully the form will be preserved, but if not, here are the end words which you'll find in varying patterns at the end of each line in the stanza: sanctuary, grace, peace, chord, burn, body.

This poem appeared in my first chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard.

Solstice Sanctuary

Under Gothic arches, I sit in this sanctuary,
sing the hymns, hear the promise of God’s grace,
while trying not to let the outside noise distract me. That promise of peace,
so elusive in everyday life. I let the music soothe, the chord
progressions familiar to my fingers. The candles burn
as I accept the Host on my tongue: “This is my body.”

Alas, that Sunday calm does not hold. Children’s noise assaults my body.
I find no rest. I seek elusive sanctuary.
My body aches, my brain can’t sleep, I burn
to serve a greater purpose but can’t find the grace
of time and silence to sort out possibilities. Nothing strikes a chord
with me. All I want is a bit of peace.

I sort seeds and start a garden on a tiny piece
of land, a corner of my yard. I feel new muscles in my body
as I dig and hoe, stake the tomatoes, string a cord
for the beans to climb. My hour weeding grants me sanctuary,
a solitary silence. I catch a glimpse of grace
slipping into my day as I my skin burns.

My children are not amused. They burn
for my attention. They fight and expect me to make peace.
I want to snap their heads the way I do weeds, but my motherly grace
saves them. I set them to work, admire each body
as we reclaim the yard together. At last, family sanctuary.
To ward off grouchiness, we sing old songs, relishing each familiar chord.

Our gardening time will be short. My children already gnaw every cord
which connects them to me. Sometimes I burn
for them to leave so I can reclaim my house, restore sanctuary,
revel in the quiet, luxuriate in peace.
My children suck my bones brittle, consume every inch of my body.
Over this constant dining, they don’t even deign to say grace.

But for now, we have shared purpose, a sense of grace
and easy living, a constant harmony, no chord
of discontent. We sleep soundly, every body
in the household exhausted, all our energy consumed in a slow burn
each day. The light lasts late; a summer peace
descends with the solstice, and we find sanctuary.

God’s grace descends from strange quarters, granting sanctuary
in strange moments, a series of chords singing peace
to the body, our dissatisfactions dissolved in digging, a slow burn.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Spirituality and Buying a House

We've been immersed in the process of buying a new house.  It's a process that you might not think would offer spiritual insights, but I have found it to be profound.  Certainly it's not profound on the level of other experiences, like immersing myself in monastery life, but it's been full of insights nonetheless.  I thought it might be interesting to capture some of the ways:

--As we've moved through the process, I've found myself praying for wisdom and guidance and protection at every step of the way.  I have atheist friends who would scoff at this idea that God might be interested in my house purchase.  I have social justice friends who might point out that God wouldn't dirty God's hands with commercial transactions.

But I believe that God wants to be involved with us on a daily basis.  If I'm talking to my friends and family about my home-buying process, I should also be talking to God.

And more importantly, God has a larger perspective than I do.  Why would I not want to consult God and ask for help?

--Yes, I do worry a bit about the social justice aspect of buying a house.  That purchase will tie up a lot of resources that could be used to improve lives in all sorts of ways.  I feel deeply conflicted about this purchase for just that very reason.

I use my conflicted feelings as a prod to pray for those who have no housing.  I pray for those who don't have the housing options that I do.  I will look for ways to improve those conditions.

--As we've moved through this process, I've felt protected and guided at every level.  You might say it's because I've been praying more.  You might say it's because I'm delusional. 

--It's important to remember that throughout my life, I have often felt most protected and guided as I've taken risks and taken leaps toward the life I really want to be living.  I believe in a God of abundance.  These times of risk taking and being open to possibilities can test that belief.  I don't want to live in a fear-based economy.  I want to live in faith, not in fear and doubt.

--That being said, I am also amazed at how much of this house buying process feels out of my control.  I feel like when I was younger, this process didn't feel so full of anxiety and angst.  I didn't worry about losing my shirt.  I wasn't haunted by the possibility of bankruptcy.  I assumed that the future would be ever brighter.

Again, my response is to pray.  Do I really think that God can guide the appraisal process?  On some days, I do.  On other days, I simply hope that God can help me cope with my anxiety about it all.

--Again, I hear my agnostic friends sneer at my belief in a God that is so involved with me and my little anxieties, when there are so many larger issues that God should focus upon, like the war in Syria.

But I believe that God is capable of helping me, while at the same time sending help to the people in Syria who pray for it.

--And of course, I make it a point not to pray just for me.  As I pray, I widen my scope to include friends and family who are struggling, and I pray for the larger world too.  And since I've been feeling more anxious and using prayer to help cope, I've been praying more for friends and family too.

--I have prayed not just out of a place of anxiety, but also out of gratitude.  At every step of the way, as things go right, I've said a prayer of thanks.

And gradually, the gratitude outweighs the anxiety.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, June 23, 2013:

First Reading: Isaiah 65:1-9

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 1 Kings 19:1-4 [5-7] 8-15a

Psalm: Psalm 22:18-27 (Psalm 22:19-28 NRSV)

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 42--43

Second Reading: Galatians 3:23-29

Gospel: Luke 8:26-39

I must have read this Gospel lesson over a dozen times through the decades, but this time, the depiction of the demons leaps out at me. These demons who drive the man to distraction--he lives naked by the tombs, he is so distracted. These demons who disturb the neighbors who try to contain the man and his demons by chaining him and guarding him. I recognize these demons!

I also recognize our helplessness in dealing with these demons.  We may be horrified at the idea of this man kept in chains, but I suspect that future generations will be equally appalled at the ways we've dealt with troubling humans, or refused to deal with them.

Now, let me stress that I read the demons as metaphorical. I've met people who believe in literal demon possession, and some of them make a compelling case. But in the end, I agree with those who say that ancient people couldn't explain mental illnesses any other way. I've also met plenty of mentally ill people who would make me believe in demon possession, if I didn't have a medical explanation.

I don't want to spend much time writing about true mental illness, but instead about the demons who possess us all. Who among us hasn't spent an anxious night worrying about things we couldn't control (finances, our loved ones, our health)? Perhaps we fall into a sinister pattern of sleepless nights being haunted by the world's worries. Most of us have probably gone through periods where we come perilously close to wrecking our relationships with our loved ones because of our obsessive worries about them.

If only my inner demons could be driven out into a swine herd, or whatever the modern equivalent would be. If only I could be free from those wretches of worry that wake me at night and won't let me sleep for fear of all that could go wrong.

Perhaps I should try giving these cares to Jesus and let Jesus drive them away.  I've tried doing that.  When I can't sleep at night, I pray. I can't do anything to solve most of the world's ills, but I know a power that can. When I wake up at night and start worrying, I try to remember to turn to prayer. Eventually my mind quiets, and I drift off to sleep.

I'm also struck in this story by the formerly demon-possessed man who begs to be allowed to travel with Jesus. Jesus sends him home. It's a powerful story for people like me. I often feel that if I was a better Christian, I'd be doing more to give up my worldly goods and live amongst the poor. If I was a really good Christian, I'd be off somewhere in Africa, alleviating suffering in some way.

Some of us are called to do that. But most of us are called to stay put, to declare the goodness of God right where we live.

Perhaps if I did a better job of declaring God's goodness, my demons would find it harder to find a dwelling place in me. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Summer Malaise and Holy Spirit Nudges

There are times in any church when the pastor must be away.  At my church, the pastor always asks lay leaders if they want to preach.  If no one can do it, then he looks for a supply pastor.  We take this approach for several reasons, among them, the money that we save.  But it's also good for us as a congregation to remember that the pastor is not the only one with those particular gifts.

As Lutherans, we declare the priesthood of all believers, but we don't always practice it.  Of course, it's difficult.  After more than 25 years of teaching, I'm comfortable speaking in public.  Most people would rather do anything than speak in front of a group of people.

On Sunday, I was the substitute for our pastor.  Often when I fulfill that role, I feel a little nudge.  Often, I get similar nudges from parishioners who ask me when I'm going to seminary.

On Sunday, all went well, but I didn't feel that nudge.  Most of the departing congregation members were kind and complimentary, but no one asked me when I was going to seminary.

I won't read too much into this, of course.  I had a tough text to preach, the one in Acts with Simon the magician who offers to pay money to be filled with the spirit.  That's not the toughest passage in Acts, of course.  I took the approaches you would expect:  you can't pay for God's grace and salvation, you can't control God, you can't capture God's powers for your own purposes.

I confess that of all the books in the Bible, Acts is high on my list of least-favorite, just under Leviticus and some other Old Testament texts.  I confess that I feel guilty about that fact.  As a Christian, I should treasure these stories from the early Church.  They just don't move me the way they move others.  I would be the first to speculate that the fault is mine, that some deficiency in me keeps me from fully appreciating this text.

So perhaps I can attribute Sunday's malaise to the book of Acts.  Maybe it's the general lethargy of summer.  We didn't have high attendance, which is a drawback to having congregation members lead the service.

Or maybe it's that I'm unlikely to attend seminary for a few years, thus I'm less likely to be open to Holy Spirit nudges.  I've come to believe that my current full-time job may well be the last full-time job I have, one with a good salary and full benefits, and so I don't want to leave it too hastily.  We'll stay put, hopefully move to a house that's a better investment, and see where we are in a few years.

Or at least, that's what I'm thinking today.  But I've read my Bible.  I know that the Holy Spirit often has other plans that can be irresistible.  I'll work on softening my heart and staying open to the possibilities.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

God as Father: Does this Metaphor Work?

It's Father's Day, and I have parenting, metaphors, and God on the brain.  I come from a religious tradition that emphasizes God as Father more than any other metaphor I've encountered.  I've often found it irritating, even though my own experiences with fathers has been overwhelmingly positive.

I know how lucky I am to have emerged from an intact family, to have a mom and a dad who continue to love each other, and continue to love my sister and me. I grew up in the 1970's and saw plenty of wrecked families. I've always wondered how people who come out of those wrecked families, especially those with absent or abusive fathers, react to the idea of God as a Father.

Even though I have a good relationship with both of my parents, I'm not crazy about the idea of God as Parent of either gender. I think that God as Parent is an infantilizing metaphor. If God is a Dad--or so much more rarely, a Mom--then it follows that we're children, and too often, we see that as a reason for inactivity. But God needs us to be active in the world. I'd go further and say that God is counting on us. I much prefer the idea of God as partner. God can be the Senior partner; I'm cool with that.

Of course, I see the value of viewing God as a loving parent, but I'd love for us to expand our metaphors for God. I'd also love us to take our view of God, and see if it could have impact on our own lives. How might our parenting change, if we used God as the parenting model? How might we change our creative lives, if we used God as model? Maybe we'd be more forgiving, in both instances. Maybe we'd look at all that we create and call it "Good" and "Very Good," as in the first Genesis story, the one that comes before Adam and Eve and the snake.

Or maybe it's time to work a bit harder to make the God as Father metaphor fit our current lives.  Many of the fathers whom I know today are much more involved in the lives of their children than fathers of past generations were.  They change diapers, they cook meals, they're part of the car pool, they coach teams--what if we viewed God as someone who packed our lunch for us?  What if we saw God as soccer coach or the one who taught us to sail or program computers?

Most fathers I know these days seem infinitely patient and even-tempered.  Many religious traditions have not focused on that aspect of God, but have instead seen God as a fiery judge.  But what if we saw God as someone who encourages us to try again, even though we've fallen short?  What if we saw God as an older, wiser presence who tries to help us discover the best way to live our lives?

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Shalom and Hesed

I've been thinking about this post on Living Lutheran.  The post wonders how our communities would be different if the book of Ruth was our central faith formation document.

Some of us might recoil at even playing with this idea.  Are we not verging on blasphemy?  Some of us might argue that we've crossed the line into blasphemy.

But I could argue that many Christian churches are rooted in books other than the 4 Gospels.  Many churches offer a much more Paul-centric theology than Christ-centric.  And some are downright Old Testament based, especially the law-as-cudgel part of the Old Testament.

I have a friend who loves going to Mepkin Abbey because she prefers the central place of the Psalms that monastic traditions often offer in their worship.  She feels that the Psalms are so much more honest than the feel-good theology that she encounters in her local church.

I find my thoughts returning to this part of the blog post about Ruth:

"An Old Testament professor of mine defined 'shalom' as that state where 'You have everything you need to live and be happy and I know it. And I have everything I need to live and be happy and you know it.' The word shalom does not (to the best of my knowledge) occur in the book of Ruth, but that sense of mutual concern for each other’s well-being seems to undergird the entire narrative.

If the Hebrew word shalom does not occur in Ruth, the word 'hesed' certainly does. Hesed signifies something like 'extravagant, faithful, merciful, kind, loving, loyalty.' It is a rich concept and an important theme in this book. It is an attribute of God but also a human attribute modeled by Ruth in her treatment of Naomi, and Boaz in his treatment of Ruth. My imaginary community of faith would be a community of hesed."

A community based on shalom and hesed is not something I've experienced often or for long periods of time.  I'm much more likely to be rooted in the soils of fretting and anxiety and needless worry.  What would my life look like if my faith formation texts had stressed the shalom and hesed aspects of God?  What would I have learned if I had lived in communities faithful and fiercely committed to these ideals?

And here's the question that's even more important to me this morning.  I'm only halfway through my life.  Could I consistently change my inner narratives?  Could I commit to shalom and hesed and reject fear and anxiety?

Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Spirituality of Home Repair

Yesterday I wrote a blog post about home repair, its difficulties and what those experiences can teach us.  Along the way I began to formulate ideas about the spirituality of home repair.  I began to think about writing a book.

It could be the kind of book that would teach people about different kinds of religions along the way.  Let me daydream:

Zen and the Art of Home Repair:  Accept the fact that the tile has already broken in the place you did not want it to break.  Let go of your expectations of how the project will look at the end.

Christianity and the Art of Home Repair:  Home repair teaches us a lot about forgiveness and the need to ask for forgiveness.  Home repair teaches us about how/why the quest for the perfect paint color will ultimately leave us empty and thirsting for something else, why the work is never really finished, and how it helps to have a team of friends.

Existentialism and the Art of Home Repair:  Why do plumbing parts so rarely work with the first attempt? Why are there so many different finishes in faucets--except for the one you need? If so many other tools and pieces of equipment can be made in a cordless version, why not a cordless vacuum?  What does it mean that these projects will never last, that we will have to redo them again and again and again until we're dead.

Feminism and the Art of Home Repair:  What does it mean that we'll get better service at Home Depot if we show up in a dress than if we show up dirty in our home repair clothes?  Why, after all these decades of feminism has no company made tools that fit a smaller hand without sacrificing precision and power?

Atheism and the Art of Home Repair:  There is no God.  There is no one protecting us, as water breaks the pipes to cascade down the stairs, as we saw off parts of our body by mistake, as we touch the wrong wires together.

Clearly, I can't do as much with other world religions, like Islam and Judaism, at least not now. Of course, in some ways, this is an exercise in silliness.  I'm not going to write such a book.  I have so many possible projects to write. I will need to live to be 120, with every year a productive writing year, to write the books that I can already picture in my head. That's if I have no more ideas between now and then.

So, if you want to steal my idea, feel free. You'd likely write a different book than mine anyway.  If I live to be 120, we can compare notes.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, June 18, 2013:

First Reading: 2 Samuel 11:26--12:10, 13-15

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 1 Kings 21:1-10 [11-14] 15-21a

Psalm: Psalm 32

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 5:1-8

Second Reading: Galatians 2:15-21

Gospel: Luke 7:36--8:3

In our day, Pharisees have come to have a bad name as the rigid, judgmental Jews who didn't recognize the greatness of Jesus. It's important to realize that in many ways, they were the most devout of the Jews, not just religious officials who kept rigidly to hollow rules and restrictions, as Christians often paint them. In his book, The Jesus Way, Eugene Peterson notes, "They had the best track record in Palestine. They had historically proven their sincerity and loyalty to the demands and promises of God wonderfully. They were the strongest and most determined party of resistance to the ways of the world, represented in Herod. . . . There was much to admire in the Pharisees. Every Jew owed a debt of gratitude to the Pharisees for keeping Jewish identity alive" (212).

It's important to remember that the Pharisees were rigid about rules and regulations because they thought the way to God led them to follow that route. They weren't being judgmental and exclusionary out of meanness. No, they thought the future of the faithful depended on right action. It might be worth examining our own individual behavior and the behavior of the church both as an individual group and a larger institution--where do we see ourselves? How might we be the Pharisee in the story?

Those of us who have grown up in the church or who have been attending church for many decades forget the radical nature of this story. We have this vision of Jesus that no matter where he went, people were swept away by his message and washed his feet or poured oil on his head.

This woman was an outcast, marginalized in so many ways. We don't know the nature of her sin (the fact that she was a woman in a deeply patriarchal society would have been damning enough), but we know the fact that Jesus allowed her to touch him was profoundly shocking to the Pharisee. Jesus uses this encounter to teach about love and forgiveness.

Today's Gospel also reminds us of how religious people can be so blind to the sacred as it appears in our midst. We religious people forget that the God of our Judaic-Christian scripture is most often found in communities of the poor, destitute, and outcast. We prefer to stay in our sanitary structures, to not let the poor and destitute trespass in our hearts. In doing so, we're likely to miss out on a deeper relationship with God.

People who are part of institutionalized religious structure face dangers that we often forget to understand. We lose ourselves in rules and regulations; we create a rigid hierarchy to help us determine who is holy and who is a sinner. It's so easy to forget that our central task is to love deeply and widely. Jesus comes to tell us strange parables so that we'll remember. Jesus comes to show us a way to live that will be a way of love and far-flung community. Jesus comes to give his life, to show us that the way of love is such a threat to the larger culture of empire and conquest that we can expect the same. But God incarnate in Jesus comes to show us that the risks are worth the reward.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Sprouting Seeds and Sandy Soil

We are in the process of buying a new house, and I'm intrigued by the questions that we've gotten.  Many people have asked if there will be room for a garden.

In our current house, we've had more success with container gardening, and I suspect the same will be true of our new house.  Our part of Florida used to be sea bed, and so, we try to garden in sand and coral.  We've spent years trying to mix good soil in with the sand, but in the end, it's easier to fill a pot with dirt and plant tomatoes there.

As we get to the part of the lectionary that appears periodically, and we work our way through the  agricultural metaphors, I have to wonder about their effectiveness. How many of us have seen wheat grow? For that matter, how many of us have seen anything grow?

Once upon a time, many generations ago, we were an agricultural nation. Most of us grew our own food. We'd have understood intimately the metaphors of good seed and bad, good soil and rocky soil.

Even when I was a child in the 1970's, it seemed that more people gardened. Everyone in my suburban neighborhood was growing something, even if it was just tomatoes. I remember going to church in the summer and seeing tables with the garden bounty that individual families couldn't consume. Church members were encouraged to take what they could use.

I am only two generations removed from my farming relatives. Had my grandfather not decided to go to seminary, I might still be on the farm--or more realistically, we'd be trying to decide what to do about the farm. My grandmother kept a letter that the seminary sent my grandfather as they tried to persuade him not to come to school. The seminary letter writer points out that at least on the farm my grandfather will always have food--and in the height of the Great Depression, this was no small thing. But my grandfather pressed ahead with his plans, and that's one reason why I'm not still on the farm.

I was lucky enough to be able to go back to the farms of my relatives as I was growing up. My grandmother came from farming people too, and I remember at a family reunion, we took a hay ride tour of the land, with commentary about which relative had farmed which parts of the land and what had grown there. As a teenager, I read about industrial farming and decided to become a vegetarian. But when we went to my grandfather's farming family, I got to see what a humane picture of animal husbandry could be. Everything we ate at Thanksgiving came from the farm. Everything we ate, except the desserts, had been alive just a week ago: the turkey, the pork, and the vegetable side dishes.

Most people these days have no memories like the ones that I have. And I wonder if the agricultural metaphors still work for those people when they read the Gospel. As an English major, we talked about readers having to understand both sides of the equation of the metaphor. If the reader doesn't, the comparison might be lost.

What would a modern metaphor be? Would we talk about good investments and bad investments in the stock market? Would we talk about exercise maybe? I need to think more about this.

In the meantime, I'll look for ways to enjoy the gardens that are part of my life. My spouse plants everything in the yard and sees what will happen. We have flourishing herbs and all sorts of tropical plants. My friend planted a garden in the planter boxes in the balcony outside of my office. It's a beautiful space, even if it's not the kind of garden that my grandmother would recognize.

Let's say a prayer of thanks for all the soil bewitchers in our lives. We may not be growing wheat, but at least we can still enjoy the sight of a seed sprouting out of the soil.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Saint Columba and Modern Mortgages/Monasticism

Yesterday was the feast day of Saint Columba.  It's interesting to think about this saint, both a monastic and a traveler, in this time when I'm going through so much effort to get a new house and to sink down serious roots in South Florida.

Saint Columba is one of the great early Irish Christians, whom some would give credit for spreading Christianity to Scotland. He also helped spread literacy and founded a school for missionaries. He's one of the great monastics.

He's associated with Iona, that thin place in Scotland, a place that remains an important force in Christianity to this day. I could make a good argument that some of the most exciting music and liturgy of our current time period comes to us because Iona exists. Some day, I'll make a pilgrimage there. I should start planning this soon. It would be neat to go with my church musician mom.

As I think about it, I can think of a whole slew of friends who might also like to go. What I love about monasticism is that it isn't as offputting to non-believers and the less devout. For some reason, people just get monasticism, in a way that they can't comprehend other expressions of spirituality. Perhaps it's because monasticism is such an ancient tradition. Perhaps it's because monastics have a sort of discipline, a steel-like strength at the core, that other forms of spirituality lack. Maybe it's a holdover from the Thomas Merton days--and of course, Kathleen Norris made monasticism cool to a whole new generation (including me!). All I know is that when I tell people I'm intrigued by monasticism and that I go to monasteries, people accept that--and often want to go with me. It's a different matter when I tell people that I go to church most Sundays. People want to argue about what a waste of time that is.

But for now, I will not be going on a pilgrimage any time soon.  I figure that the next several years will be tight financially, as we take on a new mortgage.  But my hope is that it will all be worth it in the end. 

I will try to remember the ancient monastics and the value of creating community in the place where one has washed up.  Saint Columba had to leave Ireland because of a dispute with another monk which led to a pitched battle, a literal one, in which many men were killed.  Instead of excommunication, Saint Columba had to serve as a missionary to Scotland.

At that time, Scotland was a fierce and scary place.  But Saint Columba sailed off with his supporters and managed to turn a punishment and exile into something positive.

I am not in a situation that's similar at all.  But buying a new house comes with its own terrors and purgatories.  I will remember Saint Columba this week, as I prepare for what's to come.

Friday, June 7, 2013

The New Pope: "Symbolism . . . Seeping into Substance"

Michael Gerson has written a wonderful essay about Pope Francis.  He points out that this new pope appeals to both left and right, but the traditional division of left and right fails to explain this pope.

Gerson writes this wonderful explanation of how and why Catholic thought starts from a completely different place than the American left and the American right:  "Both American liberalism and conservatism put a priority on negative rights — the freedom from external restraint. For some, this means unrestricted social autonomy and choice; for others, unrestricted economic liberty. Catholic social doctrine asserts that human beings have moral and social natures, and that true freedom is found in their fulfillment. Men and women are liberated by ethical behavior; their happiness is completed in family and community; and all who share a community are diminished when any are destitute and hopeless. This perspective is fundamentally at odds with moral relativism and economic libertarianism. It transcends our ideological debates and challenges all sides of them."

I would argue that human/Christian formation that comes from other denominations is similar.  It would be interesting to see if other religions are similar too.

We have now had several generations growing up with the idea that the human individual should be unencumbered from any sort of expectation at all:  responsibility to family, keeping the economic promises one has made, on and on I could go.  And then, we have a nation of grown people acting like toddlers, and we wonder why it feels like the social fabric is ripped and torn.

I am not one of those people who thinks the past was a better place to live.  I know the repression that can come when society has rigid expectations.  I do think we've gone too far in the other direction.  We seem to have very few expectations at all as a society.  So children don't have to do chores, and they grow up to be adults who default on their loans.

I also know that I'm simplifying.  I know that there are issues of gender, class, and race that come into play.  But this is a blog post, and so I will not be undertaking a deep analysis here.

To return to Gerson's point, let's think about the new pope.  Like many others, I'm fascinated by his simple lifestyle, by his modeling the behavior of Christ.  It gives him an authenticity that so many of us lack.

Gerson concludes this way:  "Whatever your view of Christianity, the example of Jesus remains one of history’s most surprising constants. A man who never wrote a word, who spent three years teaching in an obscure corner of a vanished empire, still stirs the deepest longings of the human heart. When we see his image even partially reflected in another human being, it appeals beyond every political division. When we see his image even partially reflected in the church he founded, true authority returns."

It's a good reminder that we're not individuals, working for our own salvation.  We're part of a larger Church, and the world will not only judge us, but will judge the whole Church by our actions.

It's wonderful to have a pope showing us some ways that we can get back to authenticity. 

Thursday, June 6, 2013

What Type of Prayer Is Your Favorite?

I have been invited to write intercessory prayers for Sundays and Seasons, an Augsburg Fortress worship resource.  That invitation made me think about the different kinds of prayer and my experience creating them.

I realize that some people will scoff at the idea of someone else writing their prayers for them.  I know how many people believe that their relationship with God is their own personal thing, and they wouldn't dream of using words created by someone else.  That would be like using other people's words in your relationship with your beloved.  Who would do that?

I could argue that we do it all the time--witness the wide greeting card world.  And likewise, throughout the history of the Church, Christians have prayed using words that others have written.

I've written before, in numerous places, about my experience over the past few years writing prayers for Bread for the Day, which is a book of devotions.  I was given the reading for the day and asked to create a prayer.  It was a wonderful experience.

Intercessory prayers are different.  Perhaps the most major difference:  prayers of intercession are designed to be used in a group setting.  You may have prayed this way in church or camp without even realizing that you're doing intercessory prayer.   The pastor/leader prays a sentence or two, gives a signal at the end (like "Lord in your mercy,") and the congregation/group says a given response (like "hear our prayer").

As with Bread for the Day, I'll be given the readings, and I'll be aware of where we are in both the liturgical and seasonal world.  Since I'm working on a resource that won't be used until the future, I won't refer to specific current events.

When I first got the invitation, I thought, have I written these kind of prayers before?  We've done a bit of this kind of writing in camp settings, but I was part of a group, not on my own.  I'm intrigued to see how this process will be similar and yet different.

Some congregations may be shocked at the idea that the intercessory prayers come from outside of their local church.  Perhaps you thought your pastor labored over those prayers week after week.  Some pastors do. 

Or maybe you're saying, "Aren't these the prayers of the people?  Why aren't the people writing them?"  For the same reason that we aren't reinventing the service or rewriting liturgy week after week, even though it might be immensely satisfying:  many of us are just too busy to meet those weekly deadlines.

When I told my spouse about this invitation, he said, "Cool!  That's my favorite kind of prayer!"

I had no idea that intercessory prayer was my spouse's favorite kind of prayer.  I've known this man for 30 years, and I didn't know that fact.  There's still so much to discover.

As I make discoveries along the path of writing intercessory prayer, I'll report back.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, June 9, 2013:

First Reading: 1 Kings 17:17-24

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 1 Kings 17:8-16 [17-24]

Psalm: Psalm 30

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 146

Second Reading: Galatians 1:11-24

Gospel: Luke 7:11-17

Today's Gospel gives us the kind of miracle that's hardest to explain away (if we're in the mood to explain away). Other miracles, like the one of multiplying loaves and fishes, we understand: maybe one act of generosity inspired other people to share their food; maybe the disciples miscounted the loaves. After all, we see this kind of miracle all the time: one person is assigned to bring the main dish for potluck, and other people decide they'll bring a main dish too, and pretty soon, we've got enough food to feed all the hungry people on the block.

But bringing a man back from the dead, now that's a miracle. Even in our modern time of all sorts of medical possibility, we're still amazed when people beat their cancer, when people who were dead for several minutes are saved, when the body rallies and defeats death. We know it's just temporary. We're all headed towards the grave, and medical intervention can only hold that off for so long.

Why is it so hard for us to accept the miraculous? We are part of a religious tradition that tells stories of the miraculous week after week. We worship a God who rescues humanity again and again: from the degradation of slavery, from the oppression of societal structures, from the very grave itself.

We often forget how very often we see miracles on a daily basis. Even the non-religious have been known to comment on the miraculous nature of hurricane ravaged foliage that regenerates, of cancerous cells that shrink or vanish, of the wayward child who returns to sensible behavior, of the relationships that regenerate into a deeper love. And if we think about the even larger picture, if we consider how unlikely it is throughout the universe that carbon combines with other elements to create life forms, it becomes harder to think that miracles don't exist on our own planet. Think about our own planet, and how life manages to adapt and thrive under the most adverse conditions (like in volcanic vents under the ocean).

Wendell Barry said it best: "Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine--which was, after all, a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes" ("Christianity and the Survival of Creation" in Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community, page 103).

Most of us have probably already abandoned our New Year's resolutions, so perhaps it's time to make a mid-year resolution. Let this be the summer that we take note of the miraculous on a daily basis. We live in a world that delights in delivering bad news; let this be the season that we train ourselves to recognize all the good news that God sends us each and every day.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Zen Garden Tranquility in a Christian Tone

It's summer time.  Isn't the living supposed to be easy?

I feel many people coming unraveled, and for all sorts of good reasons.  Deadlines loom.  Hurricane season begins.  A school year ends, and transitional times descend.

I've been trying to utilize every tool for serenity that I have in my spiritual workshop.  I've been breathing deeply.  I've been repeating soothing Bible verses.  I've been repeating that line from Julian of Norwich about all manner of things being well.  I've been trying to distract my frazzled mind.

Today I've wondered if my brain needed a picture to help it focus on the good instead of the possible disaster.  You might need some pictures too.  Here are some photos that I took at this year's Create in Me retreat.  This blog post will focus on gardens. 

First, our version of the Zen sand garden:

Here's a close up:

Before the retreat, one of our potter friends made all sorts of stones with words on them:

It was interesting to see the different configurations that people created:

One of the things that I love about the group of artists that comes to Create in Me is that we don't always do what is suggested, which often leads us to whimsical places:

Which soothes you more, pictures designed to inspire tranquility or whimsical photos designed to make you smile?

Some close ups of the above picture:

May the garden of your mind sprout seeds of peace and tranquility today!

Monday, June 3, 2013

Losing Her Religion

I have stayed up half the night reading Nora Gallagher's Moonlight Sonata at the Mayo Clinic. I read a bit before I went to sleep, and then I woke up 45 minutes later and read some more. I slept a restless sleep for about 5 hours, and then I couldn't fall back asleep. I thought I might get up, read a bit, feel sleepy, and go back to bed. But I never really felt sleepy, so I kept reading.

It's a good book. It tells the story of Gallagher's journey through an illness. She begins losing her peripheral vision, and her doctors can't find the cause. As they do more exploring, they find more cause for concern.

I did something I rarely do, which was to read the last 20 pages before I got very far along in the front of the book. I couldn't take the anxiety.

When I was young, illness narratives didn't disturb me, except for the rare book I'd read about a young mother with cancer--and then, I didn't identify with the mother so much as with the child who would be left motherless.

Now, as I move through midlife, I find myself terrified at the ways that illness cuts us down. Once I assumed I wouldn't face much illness until the last 8-10 years of my life. Now I know it's only the lucky ones who escape that long.

Gallagher paints a vivid picture of how lonely it is to fall through this rabbit hole. She makes me think of all the ways I've failed friends facing similar crises: the one whose house burned, the one who had her hip replaced, all the friends who faced the loss of those they loved. I have tried to be present in the face of tragedy, but it's not a skill that I feel I'm good at it.

And yes, I know that I've thought of becoming a hospice chaplain, and that the skill of being present in the face of tragedy is very necessary.

Obviously the book is compelling, and yet, it left me wanting more. She talks about losing part of her faith, and she gives the outlines of that part of her journey, but I wanted more. Maybe that will come with her next book--but it's such a long wait between books!

As she moves through her journey, she returns to stories of Jesus as healer, particularly his healing of the blind man on the way to Bethsaida.  Jesus mixes dirt and spit and puts the poultice on the man's eyes.  Gallagher notes the simple materials of healing, and she notes Christ's ability to actually slow down and be with the sick man, to take his hands, to heal.

As she moves through her journey of various diagnoses, Gallagher loses patience with the superficiality of Church:  the emptiness of the Creeds, the vacuousness of the conversations, her inability to pray.

Of course, it is her illness that slows her down enough for her to realize her dissatisfaction.

All is not lost, however.  She returns to the smaller community within her church, the base community she describes so compellingly in Things Seen and Unseen.  Some part of her feels like she's not really going to church.  Some of her readers would argue that she's returned to a more ancient form of church, a more legitimate form of church.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

May Majesty Be Unmuted Today!

I love this blog post by Rachel Barenblat.  She reminds us that in most situations, we can choose to see a land of milk and honey or we can choose to feel dwarfed by the inhabitants.

I've been having parallel thoughts.  I've let the minutiae of house buying swamp my good feelings.  I've gotten hung up on quarter point moves of the interest rate, instead of marvelling at the idea that I'm getting a rate well below 5%.  I'm worried about all the steps happening as quickly as they need to.  I'm fretful about money.

I try to keep my thoughts in perspective by reminding myself that these are good problems to have.  I remember all the people wrestling with issues that are much larger. 

These thoughts remind me of a poem I wrote years ago, which was published in Clackamas Literary Review.  I was teaching Composition down the hallway from an Astronomy class, and the evening happened just as the poem describes:

 Majesty Muted

The poet teaches first year Composition
down the hall from an Astronomy
class. Her students struggle
to turn basic sentences into coherent
paragraphs. Language strips its potential
for majesty as they get back to basics:
subject, verb, direct object.

Over the students' bent heads, the poet hears
whisps of Cosmology from down the hall,
hints of a big bang and dancing around Darwin.
She thinks of that teacher who has seen glimmers
of the mysteries of the universe
and must now use language that lacks
enough words to explain tough concepts to bored students.

The astronomer and the poet, modern mystics, cracked
open by cosmic glories unglimpsed
by most. They return
from the mountaintops
with great news of glad tidings.
They're greeted with the sighs
of those who prefer to have majesty muted.