Monday, September 30, 2013

Monday Musings: Seasonal Shifts

--As the rest of the nation looks up to realize that fall has arrived, we seem to have sunk back into summer.  But the days, such very hot days, are shorter.  Within the month, perhaps we'll enjoy some cooler temperatures.

--The moon, so recently full, is just a sliver outside my window.  Yes, it's early morning, and the moon is just now rising. 

--I am much more conscious of the moon's trajectory here, where we are two miles closer to the horizon.

--I feel a kind of seasonal shift in me.  I'm ready for a different season, but we've slid back into summer down here in South Florida.  Sigh.

--I love this piece by Rachel Barenblat.  She ponders the past weeks of high holy days and other holidays and the upcoming month that will have no holidays, the only month of the Jewish calendar that will have no holidays.

--Over here in Protestant Christianity, we've been in the time after Pentecost for months and months now.  I could use some festivity.  We've still got some weeks before Reformation Sunday. 

--What I really want?  Advent.  In liturgical time, I love Advent.

--In secular time, I love these months that lead up to Halloween, that wind us to Thanksgiving, and then head towards Christmas.  By Advent, I'm dreading the downtime after Christmas.

--I'm missing the changing of the leaves, the chill in the air, the change in the produce section.  I want some woodsmoke in the air.   I want the comfort of a snuggly sweater.

--For pictures of autumnal foliage, South Florida style, see today's blog post on my creativity blog.

--I should be feeling more settled and centered.  We usually travel a lot in this season, and this year, I'm not.  But I still feel unsettled.

--I loved this sermon given by Nadia Bolz-Weber after her whirlwind book tour.  I have already ordered her book, and it's on its way to me. 

--I'm going to use Bolz-Weber's conclusion to conclude this blog post.  These words spoke to me, and I want to remember them.  I've found that I often go back to reread my blogs and find just what I needed, a nugget posted by me, months or years earlier.  It's one way God speaks to us that is so rarely mentioned.

--Bolz-Weber ends her sermon by saying this:

"And all I have to offer you as your preacher tonight are these field notes of grace and some wisdom from 3 different men who spoke truth to me this week:

*Perhaps we should be present to what is real and not just what we are afraid of.

*There is enough grace for today. And that’s what is real.

*We have stepped out of the boat and are seeing a strong wind. Let’s you and me trust Jesus who is already out on the water with us because he reaches out his hand to catch all who think they are drowning when really they are walking on water by the power of God’s spirit. Amen."

Sunday, September 29, 2013

Reflections on a Retreat One Week Later

A week ago, I was still at the women's retreat at Luther Springs.  We gathered to talk about our addiction to hurry. 

Much of the program time was a bit closer to therapy sessions than I would have wanted.  Plus, I've done a lot of it before:  creating a personal timeline to see the permutations of the problem, writing a letter to my younger self, those sorts of things.   As I've said before, I'm in touch with my issues, how I hurry, how I worry, how I let those emotions wreak havoc.  I'd have liked more focus on how to keep that from happening, something a bit deeper than "Just pray more."

I did love the pastor/leader's channeling of God's voice, the Holy Spirit saying "You don't have to fix everything."  I'll try to remember that when I get bogged down in my frustration at not being able to make things right.

I was looking at my notes from the retreat, and I want to post some ideas here.  I was most taken with the pastor/leader's admonition to be on the lookout for those who need us, those "who know not their worth."  She encouraged us to connect with those people.

She also reminded us that we can't afford to go through life in an angry mood.  There are too many people out there who need our stability, and our anger destabilizes us.

Her church begins many a service by asking people where they've seen God this week.  Our closing worship did the same thing by asking people where we've seen God at the retreat.  In some ways, it was intriguing.  In some ways it was predictable.

Our closing worship consisted of 40 minutes of sharing and then the Eucharist.  I missed the other parts of the liturgy.

If I was in charge of the service, I wouldn't have unlimited sharing.  I'd limit it to five or so.  And of course, the danger is that the same five people would monopolize the service week after week.

I realize that I shouldn't see it that way.  But I do.

My artist self wonders if there would be a different way to do that sharing.  A bulletin board, perhaps.  A monthly art project, collaging or weaving maybe.

I also wonder why I'm resistant to 40 minutes of sharing. 

So, I did learn a lot at the retreat, but not what I expected to learn.  As I've said before, the main benefit to me was in spending time with the women of my church and with women from across Florida.  It was good to get away, but a different sort of getting away than most retreats.  I haven't spent the last week yearning to be back in north-central Florida--that landscape doesn't tug at me.

But overall, it was a good experience, as retreats almost always are. 

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Saturday Prayers: Gratitude and Supplication

Creator God, today my heart is full of gratitude, as we have passed a milestone in our housing adventure. I have felt your guidance with every step, although I have not been good at trusting it. I have felt that you held us in your hands, that you would not bring us so far only to abandon us. And today, I offer thanks for your constant presence, even in the face of what must have been irritating anxiety.

How grateful am I? Let me count the ways:

I am so grateful that we have moved to our new house. I love the area. It's much quieter.

I am grateful that we sold our old house and that we did it just about as quickly as it is possible to do so. I am grateful that the money found its way to our savings account.

I am grateful for good friends and family who have been encouraging along the way.

I am grateful that I have a full-time job and part-time possibilities that make all of this possible. I am grateful that my spouse does too.

I'm grateful that my spouse is handy with repairs. I'm grateful for my father-in-law and friends who have volunteered to help.

Today my heart is also full of thoughts of those who are not so fortunate. I pray for the people who will never be able to afford a home of any kind. I pray for those who are stuck in their homes that they can barely afford.

My heart is also full of concern for those who are sick and despairing. I pray for friends who are wrestling with chronic disease. I pray for a friend who had surgery this week to remove her breast cancer. I pray for friends who are despairing at the death and disease of loved ones.

I broaden my prayer of supplication, for who among us is not in the above categories? I pray to be able to remember that I am a member of a band of resurrection people. I pray to be reminded of your commitment, Creator God, to this world that you have made. I know that you will not leave us orphaned, and I pray for the strength to always believe that.

Friday, September 27, 2013

A Novel that Transports Readers to Eastern Monasticism

Last week, I read an amazing book, Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being.  It's a book that has all sorts of elements to recommend it; I wrote a more comprehensive review in this blog post.

Since this is my theology blog, I want to focus on the spiritual elements of this book.  One of the main characters has a grandmother who is a Zen Buddhist nun.  She lives in a remote monastery, and the monastic community is down to two people--three when the granddaughter comes to visit.

The granddaughter is a thoroughly modern teenager who lives in Tokyo.  One summer, her parents decide it would be a good idea for her to spend the season at the monastery.  As we might expect, she's resistant to the idea of going to spend a summer with two elderly nuns.  But she goes, and the experience transforms her life.

I loved this insight into a different monasticism.  Like the Catholic monasticism that I'm more familiar with, the nuns spend much of their day in spiritual practice.  They also have physical work throughout the day, work which the teenager finds grueling at first, but then her body adjusts.  When she returns to the city, she misses the monastery.

As many of us have found with monastic visits, the rhythms of the monastery stay with the teenager and help her cope with the hectic pace of modern life.  And on many levels, the monastery seems much more appealing than the city; the grandmother character has lived to such an old age that she's not sure how old she is.  She tells everyone that she's 104, and she may well be older, since she's been saying she's 104 for years.

I was most struck by the portrait of the grandmother praying for the rest of us.  The teenage narrator even tells her stories of raped girls and all the other horrors that fall on modern lives so that the grandmother can keep the world in prayer.  She has special prayer beads to keep track.

You might think that the grandmother character will be so spiritually evolved when she dies that she won't have to come back to learn any more lessons.  But that will not be the case.

The teenage narrator explains, "One of her vows was to save all beings, which basically means that she agreed not to become enlightened until all the other beings get enlightened first.  It's kind of like letting everybody else into the elevator ahead of you.  When you calculate all the beings on this earth at any time, and then add in the ones that are getting born every second and the ones that have already died--and not just human beings either, but all the animals and other life-forms like amoebas and viruses and maybe even plants that have ever lived or ever will live, as well as all the extinct species--well, you can see that enlightenment will take a very long time" (pp. 28-29).

This book is full of these kinds of intriguing characters with all sorts of insights into minds and worlds which were wonderful to encounter.  It's one of the reasons why I read fiction, but it's rare to find a book as fully realized as this one.  Don't miss it!

Thursday, September 26, 2013

Getting to Know You with Colored Sand

At our retreat last week-end, we had a neat getting-to-know you exercise.  The tables were in a horseshoe shape, and in the middle, an empty glass jar surrounded by dishes of colored sand.

We were told to tell a bit about ourselves and to choose a color of sand that represented what we were feeling or where we were in our lives.  We put the sand in the jar.

It was interesting to hear about people's lives, and my poet/teacher self was interested in what colors they chose.  My artist self was intrigued by the ways that people began to combine colors:  "Since there's no purple sand, I'll mix red and blue."

We had over 30 women, so it took the whole of our opening session on Friday night to do this exercise.  But throughout the week-end, I had a strong sense of these women, which I often don't have in a standard retreat.

We had lots of time of sharing, and one of the problems with sharing times is the long-windedness of some participants.  But on Friday night, each woman took just a tiny amount of speaking time.  If we had done this exercise on Sunday morning, we'd likely still be there days later, listening and listening and listening.

The table stayed as the centerpiece of our horseshoe, and we were encouraged to add sand as we felt inspired to do so.  I loved the way the sand swirled together.  I loved the symbolism of all of our stories becoming one narrative.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The lessons for Sunday, September 29, 2013:

First Reading: Amos 6:1a, 4-7

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15

Psalm: Psalm 146

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16

Second Reading: 1 Timothy 6:6-19

Gospel: Luke 16:19-31

This Sunday, the Gospel returns to familiar themes with the story of Lazarus and the rich man. Lazarus is so poor that he hopes for crumbs from the rich man's table and has to tolerate the dogs licking his sores (or perhaps this is a form of early medicine). Lazarus has nothing, and the rich man has everything. When Lazarus dies, he goes to be with Abraham, where he is rewarded. When the rich man dies, he is tormented by all the hosts of Hades. He pleads for mercy, or just a drop of water, and he's reminded of all the times that he didn't take care of the poor. He asks for a chance to go back to warn his family, and he's told, "If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead."

Maybe by now you're feeling a bit frustrated: week after week of reminders that we shouldn't get too comfortable with our worldly possessions. Maybe you suspect the Council who chose this common lectionary of readings of being just a tad socialist.

Yet those who study (and tabulate!) such things would remind us that economic injustice is one of the most common themes in the Bible. To hear the Christians who are most prominently in the media, you'd think that the Bible concerned itself with homosexuality.

Not true. In his book, God's Politics, Jim Wallis tells of tabulating Bible verses when he was in seminary: "We found several thousand (emphasis his) verses in the Bible on the poor and Gods' response to injustice. We found it to be the second most prominent theme in the Hebrew Scriptures Old Testament--the first was idolatry, and the two often were related. One of every sixteen verses in the New Testament is about the poor or the subject of money (mammon, as the gospels call it). In the first three (Synoptic) gospels it is one out of ten verses, and in the book of Luke, it is one in seven" (page 212).

And how often does the Bible mention homosexuality? That depends on how you translate the Greek and how you interpret words that have meanings that cover a wide range of sexual activity--but at the most, the whole Bible mentions homosexuality about twelve times.

If we take the Bible as the primary text of Christianity, and most of us do, the message is clear. God's place is with the poor and oppressed. The behavior that most offends God is treating people without love and concern for their well being--this interpretation covers a wide range of human activity: using people's bodies sexually with no concern for their humanity, cheating people, leaving all of society's destitute and despicable to fend for themselves, not sharing our wealth, and the list would be huge, if we made an all-encompassing list.

It might leave us in despair, thinking of all the ways we hurt each other, all the ways that we betray God. But again and again, the Bible reminds us that we are redeemable and worthy of salvation. Again and again, we see the Biblical main motif of a God who wants so desperately to see us be our best selves that God goes crashing throughout creation in an effort to remind us of all we can be.

Some prosperity gospel preachers interpret this motif of a God who wants us to be rich. In a way, they're right--God does want us to be rich. But God doesn't care about us being rich in worldly goods. Anyone who has studied history--or just opened their eyes--knows how quickly worldly goods can be taken away. But those of us who have dedicated our lives to forging whole human relationships and helping to usher in the Kingdom now and not later--those of us rich in love are rich indeed.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Retreat Wrap-Up

I spent the week-end at a women's retreat at Luther Springs.  We were supposed to gather to talk about being addicted to hurry.  We got no materials in advance.  I wondered if that was intentional.

Did I enjoy the retreat?  Yes.  Did I discover how to quit being addicted to hurry?  No.

We spent a lot of time analyzing our tendency to rush through our lives, and we did a bit of analyzing why we're so hurried.  I already had a clear sense of my own tendencies, and I have a pretty good sense of why I let myself get rushed.  I had hoped for some coping strategies.

What I found most interesting about the retreat was that the program part was not what I enjoyed most.  I was most happy about the opportunity to spend more time with the women of my church.

Sure, you could say that I could have done that at home.  But it's incredibly hard to find time when we can all carve an open space in our schedules; a retreat is helpful in that area. 

We had a very open schedule, so there was plenty of time to talk to all of the women there, and that was a great aspect of the retreat too.  Plus, we had time to do some activities that I don't often do--and archery, which I've never done, and I think I could enjoy doing regularly.

We spent a lot of time on our physical selves, which I'm not used to.  We did facials and dipped our hands in paraffin.  I spent extra money on a massage which was worth every penny.

At the same time that we did a lot of activities, we also had time for relaxing too.  I got some quilting done.  I wrote a poem and revised a short story.  I was able to sleep more than I usually do.  We had long, lingering conversations. 

The retreat was held at Luther Springs, a 5 hour drive away, and a retreat center I've never seen.  It's a lovely place, but different from what I was expecting.  It was more like a flat South Carolina landscape:  lots of sand and pine trees.  Unlike South Carolina, the main bug was the love bug; they were everywhere.  At least they don't bite or sting.  The water level in the lake is low, so I had no desire to get out in a canoe.

What I'm trying to say is that the surroundings didn't tug at my emotions, the way a mountain retreat does.  I don't find my mind going back there.  I didn't find myself sad at leaving that landscape.

But I did find myself sad at leaving the retreat pace behind.  I'm back at work, where we're making our way through the week that's between the end of Summer quarter and the start of Fall quarter.  It's a bit more low-key, but not as slow-paced as our retreat.  But I'm grateful for the slow re-entry to regular life.

Can I hold onto my retreat mindset when the bustle of the start of the quarter falls on our heads next week? I think I can, I think I can, I think I can . . .  

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Autumn Arrives: On the Cusp of the Equinox

Do you have autumnal weather where you are? Some leaves changing color or other sensory cues to let you know the seasons are shifting?

Down here in South Florida, I often have this experience that reminds me of seasonal shift. I walk into a grocery store, and I'm hit by the smell of cinnamon: the cinnamon brooms have arrived! I walk in, sweaty from the walk to my car, and as I adjust to the chill of the air conditioning, I reflect on how non-autumnal I feel.

If I had more time, I'd put together a fresh photo essay, but that's not the week I'm having this year. Luckily, I have done this kind of photo essay in the past. So, for photos that may put you in an autumn frame of mind, see this post.

It's a good time to offer some thanks for what the summer season has given us and to reflect upon our hopes and yearnings for the next 3 months. I am happy that summer brought me a new house and new experiences that come with living closer to the beach. I am hoping to begin this new season by closing on the sale of our old house and settling more fully into our new house. I am hoping to get back to a writing schedule. I am hoping to be more fully present for people than I have been during the hectic summer I've just experienced.

What are your autumnal yearnings? What do you hope and plan to do?

Friday, September 20, 2013

Off to a Woman's Retreat

Today at noon, I'll go to the church parking lot.  We'll get in a van and we'll head to a woman's retreat at Luther Springs.

I know how stereotypical it sounds.  I can already see how this event would be skewered, if we were characters on The Simpsons.

Happily, we live in the real world.  It's been a hectic week, and a very busy summer, so I'm ready for a change of scenery!  I'm ready for a retreat that allows us to slow down and recharge.  I'm ready to get back to nature, a different kind of nature than the kind I experience down here. 

I'm looking forward to travelling with these women.  They've gone on retreat before and invited me, but it's never been a week-end where I could do it.  And now, I can!

I've worked with these women before on a variety of projects, most notably Vacation Bible School.  I've always enjoyed their company.  I look forward to getting to know them better.

The retreat is being led by a female pastor from Jacksonville.  I wish I could say I'd gotten to know her better when I was at Synod Assembly, but I have not.  I saw a short film clip about what her church is doing, and that's what convinced me that she'd be an interesting person to get to know.  And now, I have a chance!

I've packed my camera and a notebook.  I'm looking forward to having time to capture some moments this way.

And when I return, we'll have moved into a new season; the autumnal equinox is Sunday.  I'm ready for a new season.  It's been a good summer, but a hectic one.  I'm ready for a change.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, September 22, 2013:

First Reading: Amos 8:4-7

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Jeremiah 8:18--9:1

Psalm: Psalm 113

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 79:1-9

Second Reading: 1 Timothy 2:1-7
Gospel: Luke 16:1-13

What a strange Gospel for this week. Those of us who are inclined to read Jesus' parables as telling us something about God are left scratching our heads. Is God the rich man who rewards the dishonest steward? Surely not? Are we the dishonest steward, who collects less of a debt than his master requires? Maybe. Or maybe Jesus is trying to tell us something else.

Jesus offers many parables that tell us about God and the kingdom of God. But Jesus also gives us parables to teach us about the state of the world as it exists in its broken state, a state far from the Kingdom of God, a state that God would like to heal. This parable is likely a parable about the world, and about the dangers of putting too much store in the values of the world.

This parable tells us something about capitalism, about debt, about money, about riches. This parable warns us that if we let ourselves be bought, we'll find ourselves doing unsavory things (redeemable, sure, but unsavory nonetheless). The parable ends with Jesus giving us a strict lesson, just in case it hasn't been clear: "You cannot serve God and money." Hard to wiggle around that one.
Jesus also offers behavior lessons.  We might protest that we understand how to live an ethical life. 

But do we? We tell ourselves that small bad behaviors don't matter. We let ourselves get away with the white lie, the little theft. So we take a ream of paper from work--at least we haven't murdered anyone. So we lie about being sick so that we can go shopping--at least we don't cheat on our taxes.  So our vacation budget is bigger than our budget for charitable contributions--we still give someting to charity, and that's more than most people do.

At least that's how we rationalize it.  We let ourselves, and others, off the hook this way.
But God knows and so do we. More importantly, so do other people. We should remember that other people are always watching--not so that we can avoid punishment, but so we don't miss opportunities to minister and to witness.

Have you ever known a person who's very vocal about being a Christian, but their behavior doesn't match their professed beliefs? As I talk to people, I think that kind of hypocrisy has done more damage to the larger Church than any one big scandal. That kind of hypocrisy makes the unchurched folks resolve never to set foot in a church, no matter how drawn they are to the way of the faithful.

Jesus is clear: ". . . he who is dishonest in a very little is dishonest also in much." Jesus calls us to be on our guard, always, against the ways of the world that often rewards bad behavior. Small bad behaviors lead to larger ones, and before we know it, we've sold our very souls.

Christ commands us not to lose sight of the true riches, the riches that our society doesn't comprehend fully (or at all). We are not our paychecks. There's so much more to us than our job titles. We have been entrusted with so much. We will be judged by how well we show stewardship of those resources.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Wisdom from B.B. Taylor's "The Preaching Life"

I've just finished Barbara Brown Taylor's The Preaching Life.  I picked it up because it was on the library shelf, not because I had a burning desire to read it.  So far, I've never read a book of hers that caused me regret, and this book was no exception. 

It's one of those books that I'd like to mark up.  In the past, I'd have bought the book and underlined it, and put it on the shelf, only to be taken down a time or two in the future.

I'm trying to accumulate less stuff, and so, I'm buying fewer books.  Instead of buying a book and marking it up, let me record some choice quotes here.

"Putting one foot ahead of the other is the best way to survive disillusionment, because the real danger is not the territory itself but getting stuck in it." (p. 9)

"For those willing to keep heaving themselves toward the light, things can change.  What has been lost gradually becomes less important than what is to be found."  (p. 9)

"It is a world that claims to have left us [Christians] behind, along with dragons and maps of a flat earth, but meanwhile the human heart continues to hunt its true home.  Today it is crystals and past-life readings; tomorrow it may be travel to Mars.  Ours is a restless and impatient race, known for abandoning our saviors as quickly as we elect them for not saving us soon or well or often enough." (pp. 11-12)

"If my own experience can be trusted, then God does not call us once but many times.  There are calls to faith and calls to ordination, but in between there are calls to particular communities and calls to particular tasks within them--calls into and out of relationships as well as calls to seek God wherever God may be found.  Sometimes those calls ring clear as bells and sometimes they are barely audible, but in any case we are not meant to hear them all by ourselves.  It was part of God's genius to incorporate us as one body, so that our ears have other ears, other eyes, minds, hearts, and voices to help us interpret what we have heard." (pp. 23-24)

"To glimpse the holiness of ordinary bread or wine or oil or water is to begin to suspect that holiness may be hiding in other things as well.  Holiness may be lurking inside a green leaf, a clay cup, a clean sheet, a freshly sawn board; it may be just below the surface of a key, a clock, a shiny stone.  To draw a line around the seven sacraments for which the church has rites is to underestimate the grace of God and the holiness of the creation.  According to the catechism, 'God does not limit himself to these rites; they are patterns of countless ways by which God uses material things to reach out to us.'" (pp. 32-33)

"The search for sacraments becomes a search for our connections to God and to one another, and there is no end to them." (p. 36)

"If the church is where we learn who and whose we are, the world is where we are called to put that knowledge to use.

Answering that call requires no particular virtues.  Those who have been marked as Christ's own forever have everything they need, but a good imagination helps.  There is even a chance that the Christian vocation is above all a vocation to imagine--to see what God sees when God looks at the world, and to believe that God's dreams can come true."  (p. 37)

"By following the lectionary, we submit ourselves to one of the most ancient disciplines of the church.  Instead of picking and choosing our own ways through the Bible, we consent to take a guided walk.  With regular stops in the Old and New Testaments, it is a path that expands our horizons.  Frequently it leads us into territory we would never thought to have encountered or would have preferred to avoid, but that is the beauty of the walk." (p. 69)

She says this about the story of the rich young man who cannot give away everything he owns (Mark 10:  22-23): "It seems to me that Christians mangle this story in at least two ways.  First, by acting as if it were not about money, and second, by acting as if it were only about money."  (p. 124)

"Charity is no substitute for kinships.  We are not called to be philanthropists or social workers, but brothers and sisters.  We are called into relationship, even when that relationship is unlikely, momentary, or sad." (p. 138)

"We cling to the illusion that some of us are blessed and some of us are not, and that it is our job as those who are blessed to rescue those who are not.  . . . We succum to the illusion that they can all be saved if only we will work enough hours, find enough money, get enough publicity." (p. 160)

"We do not have to wear ourselves out protecting ourselves from the truth--that none of us is home yet, that home is hard to find, that our longing for home is deep and abiding and often very, very painful.  We do not have to use up all our energy running from that fact, or running from those who remind us of it."  (pp. 160-161) 

Sunday, September 15, 2013

The Public Library as Spiritual Formation Device

Last week, I made a trip to the public library downtown, since they had a copy of Lionel Shriver's latest novel, and I wanted something good to read.  I knew I'd be headed down there, so I thought I'd hit their theology section while I was there.  To make it easier, I looked up some names in advance.

The downtown Ft. Lauderdale branch has an AMAZING theology section.  Unfortunately, they don't always have the latest books by my favorite authors.  But it's good to catch up on some oldies that I've missed.

I wanted Paula Huston's latest, which they didn't have.  But they did have an earlier book, Forgiveness:  Following Jesus into Radical Loving.  Likewise, I'd have liked one of Scot McKnight's later works.  Instead, I got Praying with the Church:  Following Jesus Daily, Hourly, Today.  I would have liked anything by Barbara Brown Taylor.  My only option was The Preaching Life.  But I haven't read it, and it's fairly timeless, so it's a treat.

While there, I saw At the Corner of East and Now:  A Modern Life in Ancient Christian Orthodoxy, by Frederica Mathewes-Green.  I snatched it off the shelf, as if hordes of spiritual seekers were in the next row.

But of course, they weren't.  I was all alone in the Christian books section.  And again, what a marvelous section:  lots of church history, lots of theology that would be at home in a seminary library, lots of lighter weight fare too.

I think we often forget what a great resource our public libraries can be, even in our age of downsizing.  These collections were often built in a different time (hence the lack of very recent material), and much of it holds up very well.

Many of us go to churches that don't have great libraries, and we might feel like we have to buy these resources.  But before you do, check out your public library!

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Reading to First Graders as a Social Justice Movement

Yesterday I went to the United Way for literacy training. Well, that's not exactly true. I'm going to be a ReadingPal, which means I'll go to an elementary school once a week and read to one child for the rest of the school year. We'll be given the books (thanks Scholastic!) and the order in which to read them, and we'll spend two weeks on each book.

Why, on top of my already busy schedule, am I doing this? Through my social justice work with my church, I've come to know about the roughly 70% of third graders who aren't reading at grade level. It's a predictor of all sorts of grim outcomes.  For more details, see this earlier blog post.

But how to fix it? We've gone to the school board to request different reading programs, different pedagogies. As I've looked at the huge group of church people who gather once a year for a Nehemiah action, I've thought, what would happen if we all just went to elementary schools and read to children?

So, when our school president passed on information from the United Way, I decided I couldn't pass up this opportunity. It seemed easy enough.

And then I started having second thoughts. We'd need to have fingerprinting done. It was beginning to seem complicated. I almost cancelled my plans.

Luckily, I was going with a friend, and when she wanted to change her mind, I talked her out of it; she did the same for me.

If I ever write a book about the value of spiritual friendships, I'll include this example.

But I digress.  Back to the question of why am I doing this?  You might argue that if I'm changing one child's life, one year at a time, it will take a long time to save the world.

Let me return to the words of John the Baptist:  I am not the Messiah.  It is not my job to save the world. 

But it is my job to change the world.  Why not choose something that will usher in bigger changes, something more sweeping?  I don't have a good answer for that.  I just feel called to read to children, and I think there's value to an action that might change the course of a child's life.

For the past year, my suburban church has not been going to the inner city church to serve dinner--that program has been discontinued.  But I find that I really miss it.

I'll be honest:  I miss the feeling that I'm doing something, no matter how small, to make the world a better place.  I want to do more than send money to good causes.  I want to interact with people who need some human kindness. 

It's deeper than that.  I know that much of the Bible tells us that God hangs out with the poor and the dispossessed.  We're called to do that too.

An inability to read at grade level makes one a member of the permanently dispossessed.  If I can change that, even if it's on a small level, it's worth my time.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Church as Artist Studio

Earlier this week, while talking to a group of friends, the one who's working on an MFA in Visual Arts remarked that her friend in the program was having great difficulty finding an affordable place to have her show.  One of the final requirements for their MFA program is to find the space and arrange for the show.  She's not finding many venues that are affordable and have a chunk of time available for a show.

In this time of empty spaces, why would anyone have trouble finding space for a show?  I immediately thought of churches.

Now I understand that using a non-traditional source, like a church, would have a whole different set of problems, like security.  But surely most churches could devise something.  The churches of my childhood often had a classroom or two that was underutilized.  There's the sanctuary, which could lend itself nicely to certain kinds of shows.  Some sanctuaries already have hooks and hangers in the wall for seasonal decorating.  Why not hang art in the off season?

Artists might say, "But I don't create sacred art."  Good news!  It doesn't have to be sacred to fit into a sanctuary environment.

Now I do know some artists who create works that wouldn't be welcome in that kind of space.  But I know far more artists who do abstract creating who could fit right in.

Maybe the problem is a different one.  Do artists get insulted when I say that their art would be welcome in a sanctuary?  Do they interpret that comment as me saying that their art isn't edgy enough?

In a sanctuary, the major problems with security are solved, as most modern sanctuaries are locked when not in use.  There's still the issue of people wanting to touch the art, but that might be the case in all but the most secure spaces.  I've been in many a gallery where I could touch anything I wanted, since the gallery workers were often otherwise engaged.

I think of a quilt show tradition that one of my former churches launched.  We draped quilts over the pews.  It was amazing, a wonderful transformation of the space that had been dominated by wood and stone.  We let people touch the quilts.  One year, I organized an afternoon poetry reading to go along with the quilt show.

Even if the sanctuary won't work, as I said before, there are other options:  classrooms, offices, a fellowship hall, long stretches of walls.  Most churches would be grateful for the extra traffic that an interesting art show could create. 

I know that many churches have transformed their buildings into early childhood ed spaces.  But even that wouldn't have to be insurmountable.

And for those churches that have lots of space sitting empty, why not transform those spaces into artist studios?  Artists would probably be happy to make a set donation to have studio space.  Many communities have a shortage of studio spaces:  why not be the answer to that need?

Our church has done a lot with our space, but the closest we've come to the vision that I have is the drama group for special needs kids that meets in our fellowship hall.  Our fellowship hall has a raised stage, so it's perfect for them.

The rest of our space isn't great for studio space, but it's the only church I've been in that isn't.  We don't have the warren of classrooms that most churches have in their education wings. 

I can hear howls of protests from certain corners:  "We need that space for Sunday School!"

Well, maybe the studios can be used on Sunday mornings.  Maybe the Sunday school classes can meet elsewhere.   Maybe sacrificing artist space for Sunday school isn't the best use of our resources.  Maybe Sunday school would be more effective if Sunday school was more like an artist studio and less like elementary school.

Maybe all sorts of church activities would be more effective if we used the artist studio as a model.  How could we transform worship so that it's more like a place where artists come to create and less like a space where sleepy parishioners come to observe?

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, September 15, 2013:

First Reading: Exodus 32:7-14

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28

Psalm: Psalm 51:1-11 (Psalm 51:1-10 NRSV)

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 14

Second Reading: 1 Timothy 1:12-17

Gospel: Luke 15:1-10

This week, we have parables of lost creatures and lost things. When we read these parables, which character calls more clearly to you? Are you the shepherd or the sheep? Are you the woman sweeping or the coin?

I never really thought about the story from the perspective of the coin, until a few years ago. Pastor Mary Canniff-Kuhn was leading a Bible study on parables, and she said, “What about that lost coin? What’s it doing? Nothing. It’s just sitting there.”

These parables reassure us that we don’t have to do anything to deserve being found. We don’t have to redeem ourselves. God is the shepherd who will come looking for one lost sheep, even if that sheep is the dumbest, most unworthy sheep in the history of animal husbandry. God will light the lamps and sweep under the cupboards until the coin is found.

As Christians, we have a creator who goes to great lengths to find us, to be with us, to enter into a relationship with us. If you look at both the Old and New Testament, you see God trying a variety of techniques: crafting a beautiful creation, resorting to rage when that creation doesn’t behave, wiping out populations, rescuing populations. The New Testament shows a continuation of this story, with God taking the most extreme step of becoming human.

What does it mean for our lives if we really believe that God will go to all this effort for us? Look at the story again. The shepherd isn’t rescuing a whole flock of sheep. The shepherd goes to that effort for just one sheep. What does it mean for us, if we believe that God is like that shepherd?

Many of us might not be quite comfortable with that idea. We like the idea of a distant god, maybe one who made the whole creation and then went away to leave us to our own devices. Do we really want a God who doesn’t allow us to wallow in our lostness? Do we really want a God who takes such efforts to find us when we go astray?

Most of us do yearn for someone to pay attention to us in just this way. We often look for that kind of attention in our families, but I know I’m not the only way who has returned home after a long day in the office, only to find our families so engaged in other activities that they don’t even notice our return. Maybe you’ve yearned for a dog who would be happy to see you, and each day would announce its doggy joy in your return to the hearth.

God’s slobbery kisses may not be as noticeable at first, but God is the one who marks our comings and goings with as much steadfastness as a good dog. God is that good dog of popular culture who will know that something’s wrong before anyone else does. God will go to great lengths to find us, to bring us back to the flock, back to the coin purse. We worship a God who will not rest until we’re all present and accounted for. That’s Good News indeed.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Monasticism and the Intensity of Experience

Wendy, who keeps the delightful Bookgirl blog, wrote the following comment on an earlier post.  It seemed important enough to reprint it here and to ponder a bit:

"When thinking about making church more like VBS or camp--something I, too, think about--I wonder how much of the VBS/Camp experience is about the 5-days-in-a-row aspect? We once did VBS once a week for 5 weeks and it did not seem nearly as powerful. I wonder if there is any evidence (anecdotal or otherwise) that looks at this?"

I wish I could say that I've investigated thoroughly, but I haven't.  Still, it's an interesting idea.

I had a discussion with a college friend a few months ago, a discussion where we pondered whether or not your typical suburban church could replicate what we experienced in our old Lutheran Student Movement days back in the 1980's.  He says it can't be done.  I want so badly to prove him wrong.

I've wondered if close proximity helps to make a group more solid.  Wendy suggests that we could replicate that feeling of proximity by meeting more often.  Of course, I know that people might balk--we'll do any number of extra meetings if there's an end in sight.

And then the larger issue:  how could we make church the kind of event that's so wonderful that we'd come to church regardless of whether or not we met once a week or every day?

Again, I don't have the answers, and I suspect they'd be different, depending on whom we asked.  For me, I'd like more social justice projects.  I'd like more exploration of creativity.  I'm not as interested in the typical Sunday morning service multiple times through the week, which may say something about the typical morning service.  There are parts that I love, of course. 

I find myself thinking about Mepkin Abbey too, since I had to go to their website to alter reservations.  I love the idea of living in a faith community, which would make it so much easier to meet daily or several times a week.  I love the idea of work and worship being part of the same space. 

Monasticim's largest appeal to me is the idea that one would be living a fully integrated life, with all actions leading to the same end point.  I have this idealized vision that monks don't get pulled away by worldly concerns, unlike me, who often finds that the demands of work compete with the needs of family/friends, which aren't always in sync with the needs of my various faith communities.

But I suspect that we're all wrestling with a variation of that issue.  I suspect that if I sat down with a monk, the monk would say, "Hey, I'm often thinking about what to cook for the community for lunch or I'm worried about the fungus that seems to be taking over our mushrooms or I'm wondering how we'll care for our elderly members with so few new men coming on board."  

Monday, September 9, 2013

God's Work, Our Hands

Yesterday, at church we had several events to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the creation of the ELCA, which is now the largest group of Lutherans in North America (and the world?). Yes, some see us as the liberal branch, while others complain that we're not liberal enough. We've been ordaining women since the 1970's, but there are still barriers. We're only recently coming to compromise about sexuality, a compromise which many people on all sides see as betrayal.

But yesterday reminded me of why I love this church. I started off by listening to an amazing interview with Nadia Bolz-Weber (I waxed euphoric about it in yesterday's blog post).  My church has ordained this woman!  In other denominations, she might well be shunned and outcast.  In mine, she's put in charge.  May she be a bishop some day, if that be God's will and good for us all!

And then I went to 2 services, and again, I'm amazed by how elastic the Lutheran tradition is, how much room for experimentation.  I'm at a church with such diversity, both of age, color, country of origin, class, gender, you name it.

After our worship, we did some service projects to honor the 25th anniversary.  We sorted and put away the food pantry items.  We boxed cookies and encouraging notes which will be shipped to our college students (we have close to 30 in our congregation).  And we worked on a quilt (that's me in the middle, and my spouse who's not afraid to be in touch with his inner quilter on my right).

The other woman in the picture had pieced the front, and we put it together with batting and a sheet for the back.  She stitched the edges by machine, and then we knotted it.  We put one together in less than 2 hours.  And even better, we've decided that we'd like to do this again.  We'll be making more.    These quilts will eventually go to Lutheran World Relief and then around the world.  They'll be used as quilts and floor mats and doors and barriers to keep out the weather.  It's such a simple object, a quilt.  May it be an instrument of grace and good fortune.

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The Amazing Nadia Bolz-Weber

I'm listening to Krista Tippett interview one of my favorite famous Lutherans (famous Lutherans--an oxymoron?), Nadia Bolz-Weber.  What a fabulous pair of minds!  I'm jealous in all sorts of ways.

It's important to remember that these are normal humans.  If I attended Nadia Bolz-Weber's church, there would probably be elements that would irk me.  I have that kind of brain, always looking for improvement.  But everything I hear her say leads me to think that she's really solved a lot of issues that bedevil so many churches.  Here's one example:

"And then liturgy means the work of the people, and yet we've relegated almost every part of the liturgy to the priest. It makes no sense. And so people walk in and they get to decide when they walk in if they want to do one of the jobs in the liturgy and they just grab that booklet. And so they can go, "Oh, I'm going to do the greeting' or 'I'm going to do the prayer of the day' or 'I'm going to say the Benediction or the post-Communion prayer or serve Communion.'

Nobody has to deem them worthy of it or good at it, and so the whole liturgy is led by within the community from the people who are there. I say the absolution, two out of the three Sundays I preach and I say most of the Eucharistic prayer, and other than that, nobody hears from me. We're anti-excellence, pro-participation is how we put it. We don't do anything really well, but we do it together."

This interview contains so many things which I'll ponder in the coming weeks.

I love what she says about brokenness:  "Well, I think that we've sort of glamorized certain types of brokenness. You know, there's like the big ones: mental illness, addiction. And in a way, it can be very tempting to allow those people who are so obviously broken to just carry all of the brokenness for us. And I think that's not honest, because I just have never met a human being who has not experienced some kind of suffering, some kind of brokenness. Maybe it has to do with divorce, something that feels so common we're not allowed to, like, really consider it to be brokenness anymore. Or maybe it has to do with body image. Or maybe …

Everybody has something that they — like it might not be a huge addiction, the really kind of big sexy ones, but it might be there's something that we feel powerless over, that we feel like has a hold of us, that we don't feel like we have much choice in, like we've lost the ability to choose whether we're going to do this, or think this, or be in this relationship, and then our life has a certain element of unmanageability because of that. I think that is very, very, very common, even if you don't have one of the big sexy problems that we sort of identify."

And then there's the whole question of God. 

Oh, her vision of the cross!  Finally, an atonement theory which speaks to me:  "But so if you look at Jesus, to me the greatest revelation of who God was was actually at the cross. Because to me that's not God's little boy, like God is some sort of divine child abuser sending his son — and he only had one, you know — like, come on, give me a break, right? You know, God's little boy and he only had one, and as this sort of divine child abuser, or as this cigar-chomping loan shark demanding his pound of flesh, you know, he's sending his little boy to the — what hogwash, right? That actually is God on the cross, that's God saying, I would rather die than be in the sin-accounting business that you've put me in."
She says that most of God is unknowable, which is probably a good thing.

Are we, as humans, more comforted by certainty or mystery?  Before hearing her say that we're more comforted by mystery, I'd have said certainty.  Hmmm.  Now I'm wondering if she may be right.  But what I really think is that mystery and certainty each offer a certain comfort.  I know so many people who have closed themselves to the comfort offered by mystery.

And don't miss the material at the end of the show, the parts about community, the part where she tells her much more conservative parents that she's planning to go into ministry.  Amazing stuff!

Go here to listen and to find other resources, like the transcript, and the longer version of the interview.

Saturday, September 7, 2013

Saturday Gratitudes

 --Nadia Bolz-Weber has written a wonderful letter expressing how wonderful our outgoing bishop, Mark Hansen, has been for the Lutheran church.  Go here to read it.

--She's the guest this week on the NPR show On Being.  If you missed it or if you don't want to wait or if you'd rather read the transcript, go here.

--She's got a book that will be released this coming week.  I will buy it.

--N.T. Wright also has a new book on the Psalms.  Oh, what the heck.  I'll buy it too.

--Yes, I know, I made a resolution that I wouldn't buy new books.  But I have a bit of room on the shelves.  And I already know that I like these writers.

--I'm happy that I can still afford to buy a book here or there.  I keep thinking that at some point, I'll need to adopt an austerity budget, what with our new mortgage and the repairs that a historic house may need.  But I'm not at that point yet.

--Last night I woke up to a strange noise, which I later determined was the sound of the electricity going out.  My first thought was that my historic house had given up on the electrical system.  I wondered where I'd be able to find an electrician on the week-end.

--Then I realized how dark it was.  I looked out the window.  No streetlights.  I realized that it wasn't my problem alone and that the electric company would fix it.  I went back to bed and dozed off.

--There's a metaphor here, or maybe it's a life lesson about my tendency to leap to worst case scenarios which rarely turn out to be the case.

--But I don't let my anxiety get in the way of joy, or at least I try not to.  I will go to the beach with friends.  I will enjoy great books.  I will rejoice in the simple pleasures, like a walk to the beach with my husband to share a pizza and a beer--a great supper!

--My friend who was part of the Rosh Hashanah beach excursion called last night.  Her daughter wants to go to the beach again today, and they invited me.  Fun!

--I wouldn't know this friend, had we not both ended up at the same church.  I'm grateful for my local church.

--I'm also grateful for the larger church.  Tomorrow we celebrate 25 years of the ELCA--another joy.  We'll do some service projects:  God's work, our hands.

--Yes, there's much gratitude to be found on this Saturday in September.

Friday, September 6, 2013

Lutherans Celebrating Rosh Hashanah

I was only vaguely aware of Jewish holidays before I moved to South Florida. In South Carolina, we didn't always get standard holidays, like Memorial Day, off; we certainly didn't get any non-Christian religious holidays.

My first year here, I was happily surprised to find out that we got both Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur as holidays at the community college where I worked. Public schools are closed. My college, alas, doesn't have those days as holidays. But I do have a schedule that can often be flexible.

So on Sunday, when a group of church friends who teach in the public schools talked about how to spend their Rosh Hahanah holiday, the subject of the beach came up. I reminded my friends that we now live half a mile from the beach. We talked about parking at my house, where the parking is free. We decided to check back in with each other at mid-week.

And that's how I came to spend my Rosh Hashanah morning at the beach yesterday. What a treat! One friend has a 4th grade daughter who came too, so we spent lots of time building a sand castle, digging a big hole, looking for shells, and creating towers of sand. We spent less time in the ocean as the surf was rough, and the occasional jellyfish spooked us.

We met a friendly boy who seemed about the age of the 4th grader.  We invited him to come dig with us.  He asked, "Are you Jewish?"

We said no, and he said he is.  We talked about how he'd celebrate this holiday.  One of my friends said, "Aren't you supposed to sit quietly on this holiday?"

He said, "No, that's the next one."

I said, "Yom Kippur, right?"  He nodded.  We moved on to other topics, like the best public library.

I already had Rosh Hashanah on the brain, but not enough so that I made an apple cake or something traditional. I know that people eat sweets on this holiday in the hopes of having an upcoming year that's sweet. Does the same hold true for other kinds of invitations? Should we be doing activities on Rosh Hashanah that we hope to invite into our lives for the rest of the year?

I'm not sure that's a real Jewish tradition, but I like the idea of it. If so, I spent much of yesterday in activities that I hope to see increase in the coming year.

I started even before my friends arrived. I got some writing done. I had some time reading a book. My day was book-ended with quality time with my spouse.

Even work was good. I got some annual reviews completed, and all of my department members are doing good work and doing it well, so that activity isn't onerous. I evaluated some transcripts for transfer credit. I did some problem solving. It was pleasant.

When I got home from work, my spouse was ready for a break, so we put on our walking shoes and headed back to the beach. There's an organic brewery at the beach that we both like, and we discovered that Monday through Friday, the pizza is half price. We put in our order and finished our walk while our pizza was being prepared.

It must have been meet delightful children day--is that part of Rosh Hashanah?  As we walked down the stairs, a 4 year old girl with a head full of long, dark curls followed us.  I didn't see a worried parent anywhere.  I turned to say, "Does your mom and dad know that you're coming down the stairs?"

She smiled and nodded, and then I saw her mom leaning over the rail as the girl giggled and scampered back.  And then, two blocks later, we saw a boy, slightly older, wearing a Superman cape and holding a Spiderman glove.

He held out his hand in a stop posture.  He said, "You're not allowed to laugh at me."

We said, "We would never do that!"

What a magical night.  Our pizza was just coming out of the oven when we returned, and it was surprisingly good.  We shared pizza and beer as we watched the light shift with the setting sun.

Yes, I'd like more of these Rosh Hashanah activities in my coming year. I'd like more time at the beach. I'd like to spend more time with friends. I'd like more quality time with my spouse. I'd like time to watch the sea and the light change the color of the clouds.

It's not the traditional Rosh Hashanah sweetness of apples dipped in honey, but it was plenty sweet for me!

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The Readings for Sunday, September 8, 2013:

First Reading: Deuteronomy 30:15-20

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Jeremiah 18:1-11

Psalm: Psalm 1

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17 (Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 NRSV)

Second Reading: Philemon 1-21

Gospel: Luke 14:25-33

Here we have another tough Gospel, where Jesus seems to knock all our defenses out from under us. With his reference to the person building a tower, he seems to be telling us to think very carefully before we leap onboard his Kingdom train. We may have to give up (or at least transform our relationship to) much that we've held dear.

First, he tells us that we have to hate our family. Notice that I'm not exaggerating--hate is the verb Jesus uses. He doesn't use a verb that would be more palatable, like reject or leave or forsake. No, we have to hate them. Many of us have spent much of our lives struggling against a certain human tendency towards hating others--now we're instructed to hate our family?

It gets worse. In that list of family, Jesus includes our very lives. We have to hate our own lives? What's that all about?

Many scholars would tell us that Jesus is telling us that we can't have the same lives when we're Christians as we did before we came to Christ. Our relationships will have to be transformed. Many of us place our relationships with our family members above all else. Many more of us place our own self-worth above everything else. We've spent the last several weeks listening to Jesus telling us that we can no longer behave that way. We have to transform our world of relationships. For those of us who have been used to hiding away with our families, we are called to treat the whole world as our family, especially the poor and the outcast. For those of us who put no one's needs above our own, we can no longer behave that way. The only way towards the world for which we yearn is to place the needs of others ahead of our own.

Our relationship to our possessions is not exempt from this discussion. Here is Christ again telling us that we have to give up all that we have. For some of us, it might be easy to hate our family and give them up. For some of us who are filled with self-loathing anyway, it might be frighteningly easy to hate ourselves. But to give up our possessions too? How will we ever feel secure? Again and again, Jesus reminds us that we rely too much on the things of this world, the things (and people and our own egos) that pull us away from God.

At this point we might feel despair about our ability to walk this pilgrim path.

But as our spiritual forebears would tell us, if we would listen, this all gets easier the more we practice. If we think of all that we own as being on loan to us, it's easier to pass our stuff along. If we simplify our lives, it's easier not to clutch to our money as much. If we spend our time in prayer and spiritual reading, it's easier to rely on God. If we spend our time practicing inclusivity, it's easier to expand our idea of family. The world is filled with lonely people who would like to be invited to dinner or coffee.
And some day, we might look up and realize that the life we once lived was living death. We might realize that by renouncing that life (or by expanding it to include others), we've gained a life worth living.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Butterfly as Metaphor

I've been thinking about the butterfly as metaphor for a few weeks now.  One of the things I'll miss about our old house is all the butterfly-attracting plants we had put in.  Of course, we'll make similar plantings at our new house, but it will take some time.

Soon after we moved in, I saw a flutter of wings at the new house grounds.  I said, "Come back in a few weeks, little butterfly.  We'll have more plants for you then."

My spouse reminded me that butterflies don't have that kind of lifespan, and I felt sad for a minute or two.  Then I began to ponder.

How did a butterfly get to be such a pervasive symbol of resurrection?

I understand in some ways.  You've got a caterpillar that transforms into a beautiful winged creature:  from grubbiness to glory!  It works in that way.

But it doesn't work in terms of lifespan.  Shouldn't resurrection last an eternity?

I like the deeper implications.  Our resurrection work is never done.  The redemption of creation is underway, but history tells us that it will never be complete.  Even if we believe in the theology that Christ will come a second time, do we believe at that point the redemption of creation will be complete?

Many people would say, "Why, yes.  Isn't that the point?"

But if I look at the Bible as a whole narrative, I see that God is always trying to redeem a creation that seems stubbornly resistant.  Why should we think that there will be an end point where that will change?

I know, I know:  we believe because it's a more attractive ending.  The work of resurrection is so hard in many ways that we want to believe that it will come to an end some day, and we can all relax and bask in the glory of it all.

I'm not sure it will work that way.  I think of all the retired people I know.  They believed that they'd like to have a day free of commitments.  Most of them were looking for another job, whether for pay or just for the joy of volunteering, within a year of retirement.

I suspect that the resurrection life is much the same way.  So maybe a butterfly makes a good symbol after all.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Doing Church Differently: Cowboy Churches and Improv Groups

If you've been reading this blog, you know that I'm interested in groups that are doing church differently, like the emergence of "cowboy churches."  This story on NPR intrigued me.

Of course, this piece doesn't delve deeply into the theology of the groups.  The surface stuff is mildly interesting, but I care less about what people wear to church than what they're taught once they're there.

My church, too, has been experimenting.  Yesterday we returned to one of my favorite approaches, improv and skits as a way to learn the Bible stories.  Yesterday, we dove into the story of Paul and Silas in the jail.

We divided into 3 groups, and each group took a part of the story.  Most of us entered into the process enthusiastically.  Many of us have had a past life as drama club geek.

We even have costume and prop boxes.  With less than 15 minutes to get our assignments and get ready, we put on a pretty good show.

When we do improv, we don't have a traditional sermon.  I'm not sure it's needed, really.  What we should want, as a church group, is to get people involved with the story, both the individual story and the overarching narrative.  Drama and improv do that beautifully.  It's something that Vacation Bible School and church camps have known for some time.

In fact, Vacation Bible School and church camps have been noted as a leading indicator as to whether or not people will stay with church or return to church when they're grown.  With that in mind, perhaps we should focus on making weekly church more like VBS and camp.

Our experimental service often feels like camp, which means that I sometimes feel like I haven't been to church.  But then I go to a more traditional service, and I'm bored--there aren't enough opportunities to get involved.  I get frustrated with the idea of congregation as audience.

I wonder if those cowboy services have the congregations getting involved.  Do they rope sheep to learn about what it means to be a shepherd?  It would be a powerful metaphor.

How can we inject more of these powerful experiences into our churches?