Thursday, October 31, 2013

Halloween's Intersections

--Today is the actual day in 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his theses to the Wittenberg door. For those of you who expected me to write about Reformation Day, you will not be disappointed. You will just need to migrate to this post on the Living Lutheran site.  It begins this way:

"In the weeks leading up to Reformation Day, I often find myself talking about the Protestant Reformation with people who haven’t considered the implications of Martin Luther’s long ago actions. Most people who have been Lutherans for a while can tell you why Luther’s actions were important for their church. But what do we say to non-Lutherans?"

--While you're at that site, you might want to check out this post that I wrote several years ago about how Christians should celebrate Halloween.  Don't be afraid!  It's not the kind of post where I decry the pagan roots of the holiday.  It begins this way:

"This post will offer no condemnation of witches or wizards. I’m an English major, so I’m not here to advocate banning books. I’ve had fun at costume parties, and I have more than one happy childhood memory of trick-or-treating around my neighborhood. Still, I know that the Halloween holiday poses some interesting questions for Christians."

--Some questions for your Reformation Day:  If you were writing a treatise on how you'd improve the Church, what would you say?  Would you have 95 points?  If you could only focus on one point, what would you choose?

--Some questions for your Halloween:  what do our costumes say about us?  What does our spending say about us?  What monsters do you see in popular culture, and what does that say about our society?

--Many scholars have many different explanations for the development of Halloween, but most agree that our modern Halloween traditions have roots in centuries-old traditions that related to All Saints Day and All Souls Day.  Do you feel that this time (Oct. 31-Nov. 2) is one of those thin places, where the veil between our world and other worlds feels breachable?

--It's Halloween morning, as I write.  We could still have a more intentional Halloween.  We could spend a few moments in meditation as we light our Jack-o-Lantern candles.  We could think about the gloom that we want to chase away.  We could think about the light that we want to shine into the world.  As we give out candy, we could say a silent prayer for each recipient:  "May your days be sweet and your life be sweeter."

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, November 3, 2013:

First Reading: Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18

Psalm: Psalm 149

Second Reading: Ephesians 1:11-23

Gospel: Luke 6:20-31

This Sunday we celebrate All Saints Day. It's a strange time of year for us Lutherans. We celebrate Reformation Day, we celebrate Halloween, we celebrate All Saints Day. To celebrate All Saints Day, we have the Gospel reading about the actions of Jesus which most frightened and disgusted some of his contemporaries. Would his actions have left modern people similarly outraged?

Think about his actions and your current life: what would make you feel most threatened? Jesus healed the sick, and most of us would be OK with that, especially if we're the sick people. We tend not to worry too much about technique or qualifications, if we feel better. Someone showed me a cold remedy and said, "I always feel better within a day of taking it. Of course, it's probably just a placebo effect and not real medicine." I said, "Who cares? As long as you're not coughing." What is the difference after all, between a placebo effect and real healing? Most of us just want to feel better.

Do we feel threatened by Jesus forgiving sins? Probably not. We've had two thousand years to get used to the idea, after all. But if one of our contemporaries started traveling around, telling people their sins are forgiven--well, that's a different matter. Even if they make these pronouncements in the name of Jesus, we might feel queasy.

The action of Jesus that really seems to send people of all sorts into orbits of anger is his habit of eating with the outcasts of society. Most of us are prone to that discomfort. If you don't believe me, bring a homeless person to church and coffee afterwards. See what happens. Take a shabbily dressed person to a nice restaurant. See what happens. Suggest that your church operate a soup kitchen where the destitute will eat lunch every day; suggest that lunch be served in the sanctuary. See what happens.

Here's the Good News. Jesus saw the value in all of us. Jesus especially saw the value in the least of us. When you're feeling like a total loser, keep that in mind. If Jesus came to your community, you'd be the first one invited to the table.

That's the good news about All Saints Day and Reformation Day. We tend to forget that all the saints that came before us were flesh and blood humans (including Jesus). We think of people like Martin Luther as perfect people who had no faults who launched a revolution. In fact, you could make the argument that many revolutions are launched precisely because of people's faults: they're bullheaded, so they're not likely to make nice and be quiet and ignore injustice. They're hopelessly naive and idealistic, so they stick to their views of how people of faith should live--and they expect the rest of us to conform to their visions. They refuse to bow to authority because they answer to a higher power--and so, they translate the Bible into native languages, fund colleges, rescue people in danger, insist on soup kitchens, write poems, and build affordable housing.

The world changes (for the better and the worse) because of the visions of perfectly ordinary people--and because their faith moves them into actions that support that vision. If we're lucky, those people are working towards the same vision of the inclusive Kingdom that Jesus came to show us.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Does God's Call Come from Fabric?

Last week I wrote this post about vestments.  Wendy wrote an insightful comment that ended this way:  "Is the longing to wear the gown, the stole, to consecrate the bread and "wine" part of a call or part of the same absurd wish that we still wore academic gowns to teach so I could wear mine every day? Some days I'm not sure."

Her comment has left me thinking for days.  I've been thinking about the issue of "the call" and how it might be different from how I first understood it.

When I was in college, a Lutheran liberal arts school in South Carolina, I met many students who planned to go to seminary right after they got their B.A. degrees.  They could tell you exactly when God called them to the ministry.  If there had ever been any doubt, they weren't admitting it.

And my little Lutheran school was the perfect setting for these folks.  There was no talk that people who heard God talking to them might need some mental health assessment.  No, many of us fully believed in a God who still communicated with humans. 

Of course, it might not have been something as obvious as a burning bush or angels appearing.  It might have been a strong feeling that God wants us to do something.  And in our mass ignorance, we often said that if we had doubts, then maybe God wasn't really offering "the call."

Now, of course, I would be a bit dubious about a seminary candidate who didn't have doubts.  I would be worried about that candidate's ego getting in the way of God.

Now I wonder about the way God goes about calling us.  I think about my younger self, when I was in my early 30's, not going to church, not believing I'd ever go back to church, yet feeling unable to leave the section of the Montreat store where the liturgical vestments hung.  At that point, I wasn't doing much with fabric, so it wasn't my inner fabric artist reaching out for those vestments.  Could God talk to me through the hands and art of a 3rd world artist?

I think of the music of my youth, like U2 and the Alarm, music that felt profound and theologically rooted with a vision of social justice.  I thought it was Bono singing to me, but maybe it was God.

I think of people who have known me for a long time, people who say things like, "You've talked about being a spiritual director for a long time.  When are you going to pursue that more vigorously?"  I've assumed it was the voice of a friend.  What if it's God?

I also wonder about the different ways we hear "the call" through our lifespan.  Do middle-aged people hear God's call differently from adolescents?  Do men and women hear God's voice differently?  And since I'm in education, I can't help thinking about the different ways we learn and how God might use those learning styles.  Some of us probably hear God's voice through the books we read.  Others might hear God's voice during a long run.  Still others of us have vivid dreams we can't shake.

I have friends who are much more scientific and rational, friends who would roll their eyes at any of these thoughts.  And they raise good points:  how can we be sure we're hearing God's call and not our own desires?

Or are our deep-seated desires the same desires that God would have for us?  

Monday, October 28, 2013

Walking the Non-Pumpkin Labyrinth

Yesterday I wrote this post about walking a pumpkin "labyrinth."  After I walked in the pumpkin patch, I decided to visit the standard labyrinth in the back of our church.

I should perhaps say the former labyrinth. About 9 months ago, we made the decision to leave the labyrinth alone, to see what happens.  Having it there makes it difficult for the people who need to mow the huge swath of our back property.  We decided to see what happened as the summer progressed.

When we created the labyrinth, we used old barrel roof tiles to mark out the pathways.  Then they became a target for vandals, so we removed them and laid down mulch.  We haven't put down fresh mulch since Easter of 2012, but the ghost of the labyrinth remains.

It's only the ghost.  Grass has overtaken parts of the labyrinth.  I used to walk it frequently, so I wondered if I'd remember what to do.  I sort of did, but I ended up just wandering around in circles, but not in a good way.  I kept thinking, now this loop, where did it end up?

I was in the middle of a big field, with mild air and huge white clouds above me in a blue, morning sky, so it wasn't unpleasant.  But our labyrinth is vanishing.  I feel somewhat sad about that, but not sad enough to change it.

My pastor and I talk occasionally about restoring it.  I imagine that at some point we will.  I really like the idea of being a church with a labyrinth, even though only a few church members used it.  I know that some community members walked it.  I imagine that some labyrinth seekers found their way to us.

I thought about my time in the pumpkin patch, about using pumpkins to mark the labyrinth pathways.  I thought about seasonal labyrinths.  I wish we could do something more sacred along with the pumpkin patch:  buy your pumpkins here, experience the labyrinth over there.  I imagine most people would buy their pumpkins and ignore the labyrinth.  But it's an idea I wanted to record.

As I was writing about labyrinths and pumpkin patches yesterday, I was listening to this episode of On Being.  The show talked about healing spaces, and there was one part where they discussed labyrinths. Here's a quote about the quiet joy of walking a labyrinth:

"I have to say, I walked a labyrinth just recently at the new year. I haven't done that much of it, but also what's different from what you described about the mazes or being in a hospital is somehow you know exactly where you're going to step next and you're not worried about that, but you stop being so oriented towards getting to the end, which is an unusual experience in my life where I'm always ticking off my next thing on my to-do box.  . . .   You actually feel like slowing down. I'm just thinking about this myself too, but there's something about the experience that makes you want to draw it out and slow down, and that in itself is kind of an unusual instinct."

And from the Buddhist tradition:  "Another similar sort of experience I've had is with a Buddhist prayer wheel or drum, I guess it is, that was put into a lovely meditation garden in Sun Valley — near Sun Valley, Idaho. It was done when the Dalai Lama visited there, and it was a garden especially dedicated to him. When you push this prayer wheel around, it's actually quite heavy and it forces you to slow down. In order to just turn it around and keep the right pace so you're not falling off the platform, it really does force you to slow down and look around you and just be quiet and meditate."

I wish I worked in a place that had a labyrinth.  It would be nice to take breaks from the computer screen by going out to walk in concentric circles in a predetermined path.

May we all have the kind of work week that brings us times of slowing down and sensing the greater wonder.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Walking the Pumpkin Labyrinth

Yesterday I got to my church early to help set up for the Fall Festival we were having.  I wasn't really needed, so I walked over to our pumpkin patch. 

We've sold a lot of pumpkins since we unloaded the truck 9 days ago!  There were pathways through the pumpkin piles, so I walked slowly, dare I say, meditatively.

I thought about how similar it was to walking a labyrinth--and how different.  The main difference, of course, is that a labyrinth goes in a set pattern so that there's one way in to the center, no matter how much the walker winds around the center.  The pumpkin patch didn't have that quality.

It was an interesting difference, to stand and see all the pathways open to me.  In many ways, that felt more like real life.  Each path seemed equally appealing--again, like real life.

I have always envied people who have one pressing path, the way they know they are supposed to go.  I admire people who don't let themselves get distracted by all the other possibilities.  I do wonder if they get to a point in life where they feel some sorrow about all the experiences that their singlemindedness denied them.

As I walked the pumpkin "labyrinth," every so often I caught a whiff of the pumpkins themselves.  You may not think that pumpkins have a smell, but after spending 3 hours carrying them during the offload from the truck, I'm here to report that they do.  I found that organic smell to be wonderful.

There were also places where I could tell that a pumpkin had met its end.  Here and there were piles of seeds and pumpkin muck.  And some of the pumpkins are not far from descending into decay and rot.  I haven't walked a labyrinth that has such explicit reminders of mortality, but it seemed appropriate.

As I walked amidst the pumpkins, I thought about the wonderful diversity in the pumpkin world, and the wonderful diversity in other populations.  I thought about how a pumpkin looks like a head. 

I thought about the role of pumpkins in our culture, how strange our ancestors would find it that we take a gourd that takes so long to grow and carve faces into it.  They'd probably see it as a terrible waste of a nutritious food. 

I thought about the wonderful holiday special, "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown."  I thought about the sincere pumpkin patch we've created on the front lawn of the church.

Our front lawn is on a very busy corner, 72nd Avenue and Pines Blvd., with the south campus of Broward College across the street.  One night, a drunk driver plowed into our pumpkin patch.  Thankfully, it was very late and no one was shopping for pumpkins.  Some of us still have nightmares about how it could have been much more terrible.

As I walked, the sun was beginning to get high enough that we could all see it.  Soon the air would turn hot again, but I still had a few minutes to enjoy the slightly cooler air.  Part of me wanted to sit on a pumpkin and ponder, but I liked the act of walking to each pumpkin pile and paying a mental tribute.  I liked the serenity that came to my brain from walking slowly and with purpose through the pumpkins.

Soon it was time to go to spin class and to use physicality in a different way.  Both experiences left me with a sense of calm.  But the pumpkin patch left me with a sense of awe.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Vestments and Art

--Here's a strange observation:  one of the things I liked best about Thursday's Reformation service is the fact that several pastors participated and they had none-matching stoles.  I loved seeing the variety of approaches to the stole.  The color is the same, but so much can be done in that color.

--The first time I was at Mepkin Abbey I noticed all the vestments in such an interesting variety.  Not every monk wore stoles and chasubles.  At first I wondered why, and then I realized that not every monk is ordained.

--At Mepkin Abbey, unlike all the churches I've been in, there was no attempt to match the vestments to the paraments.  The robes that the monks put on over their monk robes were all different, although they were white.  I've enjoyed going back to Mepkin in different liturgical seasons to see the different stoles.

--I've noticed the same thing about Synod Assembly.  I love seeing the stoles.  Synod Assembly has an added benefit of having ordained women, some of whom have very different stoles from the men.

--And then there are the Associates in Ministry, who get to wear a stole, but as I understand it, their stole crosses the chest, as opposed to hanging down.

--If I was a grad student or a traditional academic, I'd love to do some research into the kinds of stoles worn by men and compare them to those that women choose.

--Or do they choose them at all?  Back when I knew people graduating from seminary, they'd often get a stole or two for a graduation present.

--I have a friend who had a friend who said that Episcopalians have the best vestments.

--Of course, he wouldn't have used the word "vestments."  He was  a low-church guy before he became an agnostic.  He called Episcopalians "God's frozen chosen."

--Once I was at the gift shop at Montreat Conference Center--what a wealth of possibilities!  It's worth the trip for the music (both books of music you can play on an instrument and CDs) and books.  We wandered to the Ten Thousand Villages shop, where I couldn't stay away from the stoles very long.  They had been woven and stitched by 3rd world folk artists.

--I asked, "Is it wrong to want to be ordained so that I could wear such beautiful vestments?"  At the time I wasn't even going to church and didn't expect to become a regular church goer, so yes, ordination was unlikely.

--Now I ask, "Is it wrong to go to seminary just so I can consecrate the bread and wine?"

--My mom says, "It's not wrong, but it's a lot of money just to be able to consecrate the bread and wine."  She's served her former synod by being on a variety of candidacy committees, so she understands the amount of money spent by seminarians.  She understands the debt load.

--You might ask, "If you like vestments so much, why don't you make them?"  I'm not that good a seamstress.

--But then I think about the quilts I've made.  I'm actually not that bad a seamstress, if I can make a project that doesn't require fitting difficult seams together or piecing tiny patterns.

--I like the idea of making a stole because it would let me have fun with fabric without committing to a quilt.  I could have fun with decorations.  I could do all kinds of artistic things because stoles are going to be worn once or twice a week and rarely laundered.

--And a chasuble would be an even broader palette.  As would paraments!

--One cannot make a living by handcrafting vestments and paraments.  At least, I can't.  Maybe if I had third world expenses or lived without first world luxuries, like abundant electricity.

--I like the idea of supporting other artisans who are trying to make a living by making vestments and paraments.  I'll think more about this.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Reformation Thursday

Last night I went to spin class and took a shower at the gym so that I could make it to the county-wide Reformation service.  As I finished up at the sink, another woman in my spin class came into the locker room, and we chatted.

I told her where I was going, even though I can't imagine that she fully understands.  I could almost see her confusion; I imagined her saying, "Of all the things you could do on a Thursday night, you're doing that?"

We talked about the appeal of Catholicism and the appeal of a mass that fully engages all the senses.  She talked about her frustration with the churches she's been to, with the rock bands that sing songs no one knows.  I talked about my frustration with the skill of the musicians, the inadequacy of the music as rock.

Last night's band didn't leave me disappointed.  They had a keyboard, a bassist, a guitar, and a drum kit.  Unfortunately, the instruments often overpowered the choir.  I've been to very few churches that get that balance right.  Amplified instruments with a non-amplified choir--it's hard to do.

Overall, I liked the service, although it was fairly small--not the high mass experience I'd have liked.  But it was cozy and nice for a Thursday night.  The bishop talked about looking for where God is at work in the world, and he brought it back to our synodical assembly theme of making all things new.  Where is God making things new?

I liked the chance to sing with a group.  I'm struck again by Marty Haugen's songwriting skills.  It was worth going just for the chance to sing "Gather Us In."  His language always blows me away.

I thought that Communion was a bit rushed, especially since we were such a small group.  We could have gone forward to kneel.  We could have had the bishop lay hands on us all and bless us.  Perhaps they expected a larger group.  Perhaps I'm the only one who would like the meal part of worship to be more leisurely.

I headed out humming the liturgy in the parking lot.  And not for the first time did I stop to think about what a strange life I'm living:  spin class followed by a Reformation service. 

Thursday, October 24, 2013

High Mass to Celebrate the Reformation

I have the Protestant Reformation on the brain--yes, that Reformation that started with Martin Luther nailing his theses on the Wittenberg door. I'm a Lutheran, after all, and Reformation Sunday is this Sunday. It's not a universally beloved high holiday. I remember meeting friends at a monastery one week-end and commenting about how strange it was to be spending Reformation Sunday with Catholics. My friend, a fellow Lutheran, said she hated Reformation Day and that she much preferred to be spending it with monks chanting the Psalms than with Lutherans singing robust, German hymns like "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God."

Yesterday a friend asked me if I'd be at spin class on Thursday.  I said, "Yes, but I'll be leaving quickly to get to a Reformation service."   She looked at me blankly.  I said, "Reformation Day celebrates Luther nailing his theses on the Wittenberg door which started the events that led to the break up of the Catholic church.  You didn't celebrate Reformation Day in your Catholic girlhood?"   And then we talked a bit about high holy days and festival services and guilt about going to church and not going to church.  Readers of this blog might be understandably confused.  They might say, "Didn't you recently write a blog post about choosing spin class over a county-wide Reformation service?"   Yes, I did.  But then I started thinking about how I wanted to go to the service.  I like our new Bishop.  I want to hear him preach.  I thought about the timing.  Spin class is over at 6:30, and the church where the service is being held is not that far away.  I could leave spin class a bit early, take a quick shower, and make it to church.    I plan to do just that.   I feel a bit of guilt because I plan to get my Reformation high that way.  I want Reformation Sunday to be a festival kind of feel.  I want extra glitz:  banners and choirs and brass and incense and streamers and lots of candles.  Yes, I realize the irony in saying that I want a high mass kind of thing.   But I do.  And I'm hopeful that I'll be more likely to get that in a service where the Bishop will preside.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Reformation Sunday, October 26, 2013:


First Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm: Psalm 46
Second Reading: Romans 3:19-28
Gospel: John 8:31-36

I find it hard to believe that we are back to Reformation Sunday. Perhaps it's because of the summer-like weather we've had down here in South Florida; where is the cool weather that will cultivate the mood to contemplate the Reformation, Halloween, All Saints', All Souls'--those holidays that come as October turns into November.

Perhaps you feel like we've been living Reformation for the past few years as the Lutheran church has wrestled with the fallout from the various sexuality decisions of the Churchwide Assembly in 2009. Perhaps you are not happy with the changes that have been wrought. Or perhaps you are unhappy with the more recent election of a female bishop to head the ELCA—or maybe you’re unhappy because there are so few synodical bishops. Maybe you find yourself feeling very sympathetic to the Catholic church of Luther's day, the Church that found itself torn asunder by many movements of reform.

Regardless of the side on which we sit with these recent struggles, we might find ourselves feeling a bit fearful. We might worry about schism. We probably worry that there won't be a place for us in the church that emerges from all of this.

We should take heart that the Church has always been in the process of Reformation. There are great Reformations, like the one we'll celebrate this Sunday, or the Pentecostal revolution that's only 100 years old, but has transformed the developing world in ways that Capitalism never could. There are smaller ones throughout the ages as well. Movements which seemed earth-shattering at the time (monastic movements of all kinds, liberation theology, ordination of women, lay leadership) may in time come to be seen as something that enriches the larger church. Even gross theological missteps, like the Inquisition, can be survived. The Church learns from past mistakes as it moves forward.

Times of Reformation can enrich us all. Even those of us who reject reform can find our spiritual lives enriched as we take stock and measure what's important to us, what compromises we can make and what we can't. It's good to have these times where we return to the Scriptures as we try to hear what God calls us to do. It may be painful, but any of these processes may lead us to soil where we can bloom more fruitfully.

We may think of that metaphor and feel despair, as if we will never be truly rooted, flowering plants. But rootlessness can be its own spiritual gift. The spiritual wanderers have often been those who most revitalized the Church, or on a smaller level, their spiritual communities. The spiritual wanderers are often the ones who keep all of us true to God's purpose.

If you have been feeling despair, take heart. Jesus promises that we will know the truth, and the truth will set us free. You might not be feeling like you know what the truth is at this current point; you may feel tossed around by the tempests of our current times. But Jesus promises that we will know the truth. We will be set free. We don't have a specific date at which we'll know the truth. But we will.

Rest in God's promise that we are all redeemable; indeed, we are redeemed. Rest in the historic knowledge that the Church has survived times of greater turbulence than our own. Rest in Luther's idea that we are saved by grace alone. Rest.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Seasonal Shifts with Prayer

It's another day of summer-like heat:  highs in the 90's.  Yesterday I cleaned up the 2 small pumpkins that had already started to rot on my porch, just 5 days after I put them there.  I could use a change in the weather.

I could use a change in my internal weather too.  It's a day of meetings and conference calls at work, ending in a Council meeting at church.  I find myself full of dread, and for no good reason.  I like the people who will be at the meetings.  But I no longer feel like meetings are the best use of time.

I remind myself that we don't have to measure everything in terms of its efficiency.  Some times it's good to meet, to be able to see faces while we exchange ideas, even if they're ideas that we've already discussed before.  I remind myself that it's good to have multiple minds together working on projects.

I just wish all my meetings didn't fall on the same day.  I wish that last week hadn't been a week of such dreadful meetings, which leaves me feeling more apprehensive than I would otherwise feel.

So, I shall pray for patience and for good spirits.  And I wrote a prayer to begin our council meeting.  I'll probably pray something similar at the beginning of all of my meetings, although I'll be doing it silently, by myself.

On the off chance that you could use a prayer today, here's what I wrote:

Creator God, as we enter this time of reformers and saints, show us the paths forward, so that we, too, can lead your faithful people.  Give us guidance as we think about what needs to happen at Trinity Lutheran Church.  Remind us of the resources that require us to be good stewards.  Help us to let go of what serves us no longer.  Help us to discern the difference between our will and your will.  Align us.  Amen.

Monday, October 21, 2013

"How the Light Gets In": How Writing Can Be a Spiritual Practice

I recently read Pat Schneider’s How the Light Gets In: Writing as Spiritual Practice (Oxford University Press, 2013). It’s a wonderful book, full of hope and inspiration that comes from Schneider’s long life of writing and teaching.  I've written about it as a book that's a great resource for writers (see this blog post).  But it's also a great book for people looking for information about deepening their spiritual lives.
She talks about the different ways that writing helps us get to the truths of our lives, with chapters titled to let us know what she’ll be exploring, with labels like “Forgiving,” “The Body,” “Doing Good,” and “Death. Each chapter is full of experiences from Schneider’s own life and those of her family, friends, and students; each chapter ends with a poem by a famous poet.

The book concerns itself with how to live a good life, and with how various writing practices might help us live better lives. Schneider has been a part of many different kinds of Christian communities, as well as some communities that are spiritual, yet not distinctly Christian.  I envision her work having appeal to people from a wide variety of faiths and spiritual practices.
I found myself scanning some of the autobiographical material. Much of it plumbs painful depths, painful to Schneider, and I just didn’t want to dwell there. In my younger years, I’d have devoured it. But I was able to scan those parts and not lose the thread of the book.  I imagine that some readers will find the painful parts of this book a comfort, as it can give the knowledge that we're not alone out there.
I enjoyed seeing Schneider’s writing process and writing life. We get poems-in-progress, journal entries, all sorts of writing. I enjoyed reading about her publication progress. I also enjoyed reading about her spiritual journeys, especially about the retreats she’s led.  She does a great job of showing how she tries to balance all of these components.
It’s the kind of book that you could read straight through, or just dip in and out as the chapters call out to you. It’s the kind of book that gives comfort and succor. It does what too few books on writing do: it shows writing as part of an integrated life, a life that isn’t afraid of spiritual elements or family duties and joys.

And the book does what too few spiritual books do:  it shows that we don't live in perfect, spiritual bubbles, with everything working to point us to God.  Plus, Schneider is painfully honest about how those kind of religious communities, the encapsulating kind, can be suffocating.  I liked seeing Schneider's struggles with her faith communities.  I also liked seeing that she had to spend a great deal of time to get to the integrated place where she seems to dwell today.  It comforts me to know that I'm not doing anything wrong, that the fact that I have to work hard to achieve a slippy balance doesn't necessarily mean that I'm incompetent.

In short, this is a book that’s worth your time.  Even if you know that writing will never be your spiritual discipline, it's a book with much to offer.

Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

“The word ‘prayer; evokes strong feelings for many people, depending on past experience—positive for some of us, negative for others. Any other word that I might choose—‘contemplation,’ ‘meditation’—would come with its own set of varying reactions, and so I choose the word that I have used since childhood: prayer. Prayer is, for me, an intentional openness to the presence of mystery in my life. Sometimes it is labor, sometimes ecstatic surprise. Sometimes both.” (p. 10)

“For both the writer and the spiritual pilgrim, an ‘answer’ is not always the greatest gift. Rather, coming to deeper and deeper understanding of the question itself can give us a place to stand in the presence of mystery, in the cloud of unknowing. Answers build walls that sometimes seem protective, bu they may shut out the light.” (p. 64)

“Each of us has a private inner life, and in that life there are secrets that drive us to bbe who we are. Writing is not the only way for a pilgrim to identify, name, and find his or her way through the dark night of the soul. But writing, I suggest, is where we humans most make our own minds visible to ourselves and to others. There, on the faint lines of our pages, we can take down our masks. Ironically, even when we think we are building masks, creating entirely fictional characters, our very mask-making reveals us. In writing, we see, sometimes with fear and trembling, who we have been, who we really are, and we glimpse now and then who we might become.” (p. 99)

“Sometimes tradition holds us when we cannot hold ourselves.” (p. 101)

“Writing as a spiritual practice sometimes necessitates going where the door is locked and the key has been misplaced. A lot of things may need to be turned over, looked under, opened up, to find the key that will open the door. It is clear to me that I can’t write about forgiving only from the perspective of the one who needs to forgive.” (p. 150)

“If you write the truth, you will change the world. If you write privately, you change your own inner world, and that changes the outer world. If you write publicly, you give voice to what is, and that assists what is becoming. If you help someone else to write the truth, you may not live long enough to know it, but you will have changed the world.” (p. 178-179)
“Elizabeth O’Connor has written that we are not called to our own soul work by ‘ought’ or should.’ Rather, we are called by joy. She says that if we are working out of ought or should, we are not only in the wrong place ourselves; we are blocking someone else whose joy it might be to be where we are.” (p. 264)

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Churches and Other Cohesive Groups

I will not be making it to church this morning.  I'm moving slowly after several late nights, one after another (socializing with old friends, picking my spouse up at the airport after he arrived on one of the last flights in).  I knew that getting to the 9:45 service would be almost impossible; our 11:00 service is a breast cancer awareness service, and I'm happy to miss that.

I sense the irony of deciding to miss church while listening to this week's broadcast of On Being.  David Sloan Wilson, a biologist, is thinking about evolution in different ways, and he offered this nugget: 

"I think the most important thing to say about approaching religion from an evolutionary perspective is that you can take the entire tool kit that is used in biology and apply it almost without change to the study of religion. I think that there's a growing consensus among my colleagues that, for the most part, most enduring religions are impressively good at creating communities of people that function well as groups. That's why it's possible for an atheist such as myself to be, in a sense, awestruck and inspired by religion because it is so good at forming groups of people into cooperative units.
I want to know how it works even though I'm an atheist because I would like other meaning systems to work that well, secular meaning systems to work that well. I have a commitment to be a scientist, so therefore I subscribe to methodological naturalism, but I admire religions for the positive that they do. And, of course, it's part of the whole theory that I'm also aware that there's a dark side to religion. In fact, several dark sides, as there is with all functional groups."

It's an interesting show; go here to listen, to read the transcript, and/or to find other resources.
I feel slightly guilty, but more tired than anything else.  I want to see my church friends, but I'm tired.    I'll be back at church next Sunday--it's Reformation Sunday after all.   Will I be attending the various services in the area that will be offered because the Bishop is in town?  I'm unsure, but I doubt that I will.   On Thursday, the night of the first service, I expect that I will choose to go to spin class rather than go to worship.  It's a different community, but the same components that make religious groups successful can also make exercise classes cohesive.  But I do feel strange about preferring to go to my spin community rather than my Lutheran community.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Being Blessed by Colleagues at Work

I work with a variety of colleagues, many of whom are friends.  They bless me in many ways.  But it wasn't until the other day that one gave me a literal blessing, that is, one that I could hear.  I don't want to discount the possibility that my friends and colleagues may bless me every morning in their prayers/meditations/hoping for the best.

It has been a work week where more lay-offs were announced, which makes us all feel queasy.  It was a week of ugly talk, nasty accusations, dark speculations, and unpleasant meetings. 

In the midst of the Tuesday announcements of lay-offs at work, I got a phone call.  My evangelical friend and colleague said, "Are you safe?"

She took my breath away.  Just a few hours earlier, I had gotten a summons to a Wednesday meeting at 12:30.  And here she was, saying, "Are you safe?"

I said, "I honestly don't know."  I told her of the summons.  I said, "I don't think I'm about to be fired, but there's another drama going on that I can't talk about on the phone."

She didn't miss a beat.  She said, "Well, we'd better bless you then."  And she proceeded to do just that, to say a combination of a blessing and a prayer for protection.  I could almost feel her hands on my head as she spoke.

By now you may be wondering where I work.  You may be saying, "I thought you worked at a for-profit school, not an evangelical college."

I do indeed work at a for-profit school, and as near as I can tell, there aren't many Christians there, at least not the ones who have active spiritual practices in the Christian tradition.  My Hindu friend and colleague is more active in her temple than most of my Christian friends I've met at school.  My evangelical friend and colleague is the only one who matches her activities.

We used to have more evangelical colleagues, but they've retired or moved on.  The one who remains is the one who blessed me.  

In some ways, it felt just as ecumenical an experience as the various experiences I've had with my Hindu friend, like going to her house blessing, which I described in this blog post.  I'm a mainstream Lutheran; we are a people who believe in corporate prayer.  If we pray for others, we do it in the privacy of our own homes and usually silently.

I've evolved a bit.  Now, sometimes, I can bring myself to ask people if I can add them to my prayer list.  In the interest of full honesty, I only ask people whom I think will be receptive.  If people are going through a tough time and they're not open to the idea of prayer, I don't want to make their rough time worse by introducing an unwelcome spiritual element. I do pray for whomever I want--I don't think I need permission.  But I don't feel that I have to let everyone know I'm praying, only if I think it will help them.

My evangelical friend/work colleague comes from a different tradition, a much more prophetic tradition.  I find it fascinating, but I understand why she makes some people uncomfortable.  But on Tuesday afternoon, I was profoundly grateful for her blessing.

I thought about the phone, about how often it keeps us apart, but how it can bring us together.  Sure, it might be better if we had been in the same room, if there could have been a laying on of hands.  But I'm glad that she didn't let the distance stop her.

When I went to the Wednesday meeting, I had her blessing in my ears.  I had Psalm 23 as an undergirding.  I thought about the ways that the Psalms offer succor and strength and language for the times when we need to be brave, for the times when we need to lament, for the times when all those needs coincide.

I went to the meeting, and in the end, it was uncomfortable, but it was OK.  It was not the end of a week of unpleasant meetings, but that was OK.  I had the Psalms to counteract the ugly words, dispiriting news and clenched spirits that such a work week engenders.  I had the important reminder that I have supportive colleagues and friends who bless me in so many ways.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Spiritual Lessons at the Airport

Once, I was a frequent flyer.  Every 4-8 weeks, I got on a Delta flight to see my grandmother.  Several times a year I flew up to the DC area to see my mom and dad.  Now I only fly a few times a year, if that much.

Now I drive by the airport more than I fly out of the airport.  This morning, as I dropped off a passenger, I thought about a poem that I wrote back when I was a frequent flyer.  It's a poem about yearning to be where we are not.

I'm working on being happy about blooming where I'm planted.  I'm working on gratitude.  This poem makes me smile with recognition.  I do wonder about the title . . .

Zen Lessons at the Airport

The tarmac longs to lift itself skyward,
to fling itself free of the earth’s clinging
embrace, to shake off the cloak of asphalt
depression, to float in the fantastic
realms that stretch above.

The planes tell tales of improbable
kingdoms, castles of clouds and endless
vistas. The planes delight
in tormenting the tarmac with visions
of lands it can never visit.
The planes torture the tarmac, jealous
of its stability. They tire
of fleeing across continents, always rushing
to stay ahead of the harsh
taskmaster of the schedule. Breathless,
the planes race
from day to day, never having a chance
to enjoy the views, never knowing
for sure where they’ll be on any given day.
The tarmac stays anchored and mopes,
frustrated by the familiar scenery.
The planes see the world, but yearn
for a friendly face and a rooted
future. The flowers bloom their riotous
profusion of flowers, even though the planes
overlook them and the tarmac wishes
for different colored blooms.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

The Sacrament of the Pumpkin Offload

Forgive me in advance.  I was taught about the seriousness of sacraments, an "outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible Grace" as the Anglican Book of Common Prayer describes a sacrament.  I was taught that Lutherans have 2, baptism and communion.   In Confirmation classes, we talked about the need for something from the physical world (bread, water, wine).  We didn't talk about all the ways we could approach the physical world with a more sacramental attitude, seeing evidence of God's grace everywhere.  Perhaps that was too ancient Celtic Christian an idea for my Confirmation teachers.

Last night's pumpkin experience made me think of that sacramental idea again, in new and vegetative ways.

Yesterday evening, at 5:30, I headed over to my church to help with the pumpkin offload.  Every year in October, my church sells pumpkins, lots of pumpkins.  And before we can do that, we need to get them off the truck, an 18 wheeler.  That takes lots of people.  In the past, I've been out of town when the truck arrives.

This year, we're not travelling as much this fall.  So I volunteered to help.  I wasn't sure what to expect.

Early on, the pace was slow.  But then we realized we'd be losing daylight, and so more of us scrambled into the trailer to help.  Three hours later, we were still there, carrying the last pumpkins to the front of the trailer.  A group was on the ground, carrying pumpkins into the patch we'd created out of the front lawn of the church.

As I worked, I thought about the benefits of this pumpkin patch to the church.  We provide a community service, of sorts, although that wouldn't be enough reason to do it.  After all, plenty of other markets sell pumpkins. 

The sight of a pumpkin patch in front of a church does provide some visibility in the time of year when most motorists aren't noticing us.  We have lots of people stopping by who would ordinarily never give us a second thought.  We have brochures that tell people about our church.  But I doubt that pumpkin purchasers ever come back for worship.

We do it primarily for the money, of course.  In past years, the pumpkin patch money has funded various Christian Ed projects.  This year, we'll add that money to what it will take to fix the roof.

But it's also useful for the ways it brings us together as a congregation.  Once we offload the pumpkins, we're not done.  We still need to sell them.  And that takes lots of volunteer help.

I had never thought of the educational opportunities that a pumpkin offload provides.  One of the children asked, "Why are they so dirty?"

I said, "Because last week, they were growing in a field."

I could see the child looking at me.  I could tell that he thought I might be joking; after all, he's never seen pumpkins growing in a field.  He may never have seen anything growing in a field.  We are in an urban area, after all.  I wondered if I should do more to explain.  But there were more pumpkins coming, and we continued our work of arranging them.

As I carried pumpkin after pumpkin, I thought about the miracle of a seed that turns into a huge pumpkin.  I thought about this Wendell Berry quote:  "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" (from his essay, "Christianity and the Survival of Creation," which appears in his wonderful book Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community).

I thought about all the ways I was surrounded by evidence of God's grace:  an abundance of pumpkins, a great group of fellow workers, the beautiful sunset, the almost full moon, the exuberant children, blessing after blessing.  I felt gratitude for my healthy body that could carry all those pumpkins.  I said a prayer for those who had grown and harvested the pumpkins in a distant field in New Mexico.  I went home to wash the pumpkin gunk and soil off of me, and I felt additional gratitude for warm water and a cold swimming pool in which to soak my sore feet.  I felt more appreciation than usual for my soft bed and clean sheets.

And then I had a dream.  I dreamed I was back on that pumpkin truck, and that a woman wanted to be baptized.  She said, "You can do that, right?"
I knew that all we would need would be water and the words.  In my dream, a group of us tried to locate some water.  I wasn't sure I remembered the words, so I looked for a hymnal.  As the dream ended, we headed towards the woman with a bottle of water and the words, but I woke up before we baptized.  Would I have changed the words to be more inclusive, or would I have stuck with the more traditional "I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost"?

And so I woke up this morning, with very sore arms and a soul singing with gratitude.  I woke up thinking about pumpkins and sacraments.  I said hello to the pumpkins I brought home, pumpkins which won't be here very long.

We will none of us be here very long.  I want to adopt a more sacramental approach to life.  I want to see evidence of God's grace all around me, in the lowliest gourd, in the greatest pumpkin, in every human who crosses my path.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, October 20, 2013:

First Reading: Genesis 32:22-31

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Jeremiah 31:27-34

Psalm: Psalm 121

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 119:97-104

Second Reading: 2 Timothy 3:14--4:5

Gospel: Luke 18:1-8

For many years, this Gospel lesson troubled me. I tend to approach Jesus' parables as teaching us something about the nature of God, so I always look for the character that is supposed to resemble God. In this parable, of course, I immediately assume that the Judge is the God stand-in. But what does that say about the nature of God? Do we really worship a God that is so distracted that he'll only respond if we beat the door down several times?
What does it say about us that we are so quick to see God as the male, corrupt judge?

Maybe God in this story is the widow. How would this change our view of God, our view of religion, if we saw God as the more helpless characters in Scripture, as opposed to an authority figure?
It's a scarier view of God, to be sure. Most of us, if we're honest, would say that we prefer God the smiter to God the helpless widow. Even viewing God as a parent allows us to abdicate some responsibility. We’re 3 year olds, after all, praying to our parent God; we’re allowed to have temper tantrums and to refuse to do the right thing.
This parable teaches us that we're to cry out for justice day and night. If you're having trouble praying, turn your attention towards the people who are suffering in this world. Pray for whichever population is being slaughtered today. Pray for the survivers of genocide Pray for the people, whomever they might be this week, who are suffering from a natural disaster. Pray for all who need to have continuing courage to resist dictatorship. Pray for the underclass that rots in jails in our own country. Pray for the poor, beleaguered planet as it swelters beneath a merciless sun.
If the stones can cry out for justice (a line from a different Gospel), so can you. And you can take comfort from the fact that God cries out for justice right along beside you.
Remember, the parable promises a positive outcome. Go back to the first verse: "And he told them a parable, to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart." That's the lesson of the parable. Always pray. Don’t lose heart.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Inviting Autumn Home

--It's that time of year when the weather doesn't match the calendar, or doesn't match it in ways that I expect.  Halloween and autumn decorations appear, yet the daytime highs are still in the 90's.  If it wasn't for the decorations and the shortening of the days, I'd barely notice the passing of the seasons.

--In some ways, I feel sad about this.  I want autumn days with a hint of woodsmoke in the air.  I want the leaves to change.  I want to unpack sweaters.  I want something that summons my attention back.

--Of course, I've rarely lived in that climate--but I've always yearned for it.

--I think of my grandmother and her sadness as summer passed into autumn and then into winter.  She hated shorter evenings.  She was one of those women who, while she lived alone in her house, didn't leave the house once darkness fell.  Late October meant the end to evening walks through the neighborhood.

--Yesterday I bought a huge bunch of sturdy autumn flowers in a beautiful bouquet.  It's a cheap way to bring Autumn indoors.  It's a great way to remember to say, "Great show God."

--I've been doing other autumnal things too:  decorating a bit and making treats like gingerbread.  If all goes well, tomorrow I'll help my church offload pumpkins.  I'll buy a few and invite autumn home that way.

--I've also been planting flowers outside.  I planted flowers in the window box that's part of my new house:

And Sunday I bought some orange-yellow marigolds.  I planted them in pots I have on hand and put them in the arches of my porch.  Hopefully, they will soon be joined by some pumpkins.

--I will hold out hope that the pumpkins won't rot too quickly in this tropical heat.  I remember doing some errands with my sister when she lived in Alexandria, Virginia.  I loved the colonial porches that had pumpkins on the steps.  I fear I will not be so lucky.  But I'm hoping for a week or two of pumpkins.


Monday, October 14, 2013

Spiritual Questions on Columbus Day

Today we celebrate the federal holiday of Columbus Day, although October 12 was the actual day of the first sighting of land after almost 2 months at sea. I’m always amazed at what those early explorers accomplished. At Charlestowne Landing (near Charleston, SC), I saw a boat that was a replica of the boat that some of the first English settlers used to get here. It was teeny-tiny. I can't imagine sailing up the coast to the next harbor in it, much less across the Atlantic. Maybe it would have been easier, back before everyone knew how big the Atlantic was.

In our spiritual lives, we may be feeling a bit like Columbus. Let’s ask some questions prompted by Columbus Day, questions that may lead us to some meaningful meditations.

Below, when I talk about our spiritual lives, I’m talking about our individual lives and expressions of spirituality, as well as our corporate spiritual lives, the lives we live in the company of fellow believers.

--In our spiritual lives, are we the explorer or are we the native populations of new continents? Or are we members of the Old World? In other words, are we always striking out for new lands? Or are we waiting to be discovered? Are we so tied to our traditions that we can’t even imagine how our lives could be different?

--As spiritual people, how long are we willing to be at sea? I’m part of a church tradition, mainstream Protestantism, that looks back longingly to the 1950’s, when it seemed that everybody made time for church. Many of us hope that we will soon return to a time when church returns to its central location. But we may have only started our time at sea, on a voyage of discovery. Can we trust God? Can we continue to hold onto our faith when we're in the middle of a vast ocean, with nothing but our instruments and the stars to guide us, with no sense of how far away the land for which we're searching might be?

--We may be certain we’re on a quest to find one kind of wealth. In the process, we may discover something completely different, something far more valuable? Will we recognize the value of what we find?

--The explorations in North and South America changed our cooking forever. Imagine a culinary life without corn, sweet peppers, tomatoes. Imagine life without chocolate. What ways can our spirituality enrich our cultures?

--Of course, if I was looking through the Native American lens, I might say, "Imagine life without smallpox." What are the possible negative impacts implicit in the collision between secular culture and sacred culture? Can we mitigate those? Should we mitigate those?

--These explorations wouldn’t have been possible without the patronage of the wealthiest of society members. In our current world, many of us are some of the wealthiest people on the planet. North Americans may not feel like it, but we’re the Isabella and Ferdinand of our time. What projects should we be funding? What spiritual projects will make the kind of lasting legacy of funding the voyage of Columbus?

Sunday, October 13, 2013

What's a Church Service For?

Yesterday afternoon, my spouse and I sat by the pool, reading our books.  Eventually, the shadows closed in, and we lost our reading light.  So, we put our books down and talked. 

Our conversation turned, as it often does, to church.  We talked about worship services.  We talked about what they're for.  We come from different angles.

My spouse comes back to the Pentecost message:  go out and make believers of all nations.  I go to church so that I may be equipped to survive in a hostile world of secular empire, so that I can be reminded of who I am and whose I am.

In many ways, we're both right.

Today, on the NPR show On Being, Krista Tippett interviewed Alain de Botton, who has created a gathering space for atheists.  He's refreshing:  an atheist who can see the important aspects of church and religion.  He's got a lot to say about worship service, even for atheists.

Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"In the same way that Christianity colonized the pagan world absorbing its best elements, so I'm arguing that non-believers today can do a little bit of this with religion just as religion did it with them, because, you know, a lot of what we find in Christianity comes, of course, from Greek philosophy. Even the concept of monasticism was taken from the Epicurean philosophical communities that existed in the Mediterranean world. So an awful lot that seems to us intrinsically religious is not; it's part of the treasury of mankind. These religions at their highest points, at their most complex and subtle moments, are far too interesting to be abandoned merely to those who believe in them."

"Anyway, what religions do which is rather interesting is they recognize that we need to have constant public reminders of all this stuff about being good and kind that all of us probably sign up to in theory, but forget about in practice. This is a real contrast to the secular world, which basically says public space must be neutral and there must be no messages reaching people because that might be an infringement of freedom, to which I say, OK, that's all very well, but the point is, firstly, public space is not neutral because it's dominated … most of which are commercial messages. So, you know, we don't live in the kind of completely neutral public space that's often fantasized about by secular defenders of a kind of neutral liberalism. We are actually assaulted by commercial messages. So religions want to assault us with other messages, messages to be kind and to be good and to forgive and all these things, and they know that having a feeling of being observed, having a public space that is colored by moral atmosphere, all of this can help. I don't know. This intrigues and attracts me."

"Yes. I mean, taking those two, the Day of Atonement, a fascinating moment in the calendar in Judaism where people essentially say sorry to each other and they say sorry against the backdrop of a God who doesn't make mistakes, but humans who do. You are given license, encouragement, structure to do something which would be mightily hard if you were left to do it on your own like, as I say, saying sorry. It's much easier to say sorry if everybody is doing it on a particular day because then there's a sort of cycle of mutual apology and forgiveness which makes the whole thing much more normal. We're very suspicious of ritual in the non-believing world. You know, we think that there shouldn't really be rituals, that the private life should have its own rhythms and that no one should come in from the outside and say, you know, today we're going to say sorry and next week we're going to worship spring and the day after we're going to think about the qualities of humility in a saint or something. The idea is you should do all this on your own in private. I'm coming around to the view that that's nice in theory, but the problem is we'll never get 'round to it."

"That's why, you know, the average cathedral works really well even if you don't believe in any of the liturgy because what's happening in that space is that your eyes rise up to the ceiling and you think, oh, I'm a tiny thing in this vast, rather beautiful, rather fascinating, mysterious universe. And suddenly, you know, the argument you were having with X or Y seems no longer so significant."

Go here to hear the show, read the transcript, and to enjoy a wide range of resources.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Breaking Bread, Making Worship Plans

Last night, I went over to the parsonage for dinner and a planning meeting for our Worship Together service (that's our service that blends a Christian Ed component from Faith Inkubators, along with various arts projects, a Faith Five time of sharing, a song that we both sing and sign, and Communion).  What a treat!

It feels like a long time since I've sat down to share a home-cooked meal with people.  It hasn't been, of course, but instead of being a nightly event, it's reduced, depending on various schedules.

Last night's meal was wonderful.  Our pastor made a lasagne and homemade baguettes--perfect with the wine we opened.  We had a big salad and chunks of pineapple.  And for dessert, gingerbread!  I ate and ate and ate.

Even more wonderful was the conversation.  We talked about what's going well with the service.  We agreed that we love how involved the children are in the service; each week, it's children who serve communion.  And they take it very seriously.  Last week, I reflected on the young man who several years ago, you might not have trusted him with the bread and the wine, because he was that hyperactive.  But he volunteered to give out the wine, and he did a great job.  I like to think it's because at our church, we've given him jobs to do, like helping with VBS, and we've hoped for the best and coped with what comes our way.  And now, he seems to be maturing into someone with a chance.  That feels good.

We also agreed that we love how deeply we get to know each other.  We share our weekly highs and lows, which is a much more in-depth sharing than what happens at our passing of the peace.  Through the week, as I pray, I have specific needs of my church family in mind.

Our pastor noted that this service isn't for everyone.  It's participatory and deeply relational, and it makes a lot of people uncomfortable.  Part of me wants to insist that church should be this way, that it shouldn't be a matter of sitting and listening and essentially being an audience member.  I also know that if we force the issue, people will stop coming.  It's a rule that's wise to learn early:  meet people where they are.

We made plans for what we'll do when our pastor takes his sabbatical in January and February.  We've taken turns organizing and leading the service, so we're not unused to this idea.  I volunteered for the last two weeks of January, when we'll do the second Genesis story.

And then, it was time to leave each other.  Not for the first time did I wonder what it would be like if we lived closer to each other.  Could we organize our lives around a communal meal that happened more often?

But of course, that's not our lives, and so we got into our separate cars and headed back to our individual houses.  I slept the satisfied slumber of one who has truly communed with others. 

Friday, October 11, 2013

Buying Abandoned Church Buildings

Every day on my way to work, I drive past a church building that's for sale.  In many ways, it's an ideal location:  in Dania Beach, on Highway 1, between Ft. Lauderdale and Hollywood, just a few miles from the airport.  It's an ideal location for a church, or for a church building that's reborn as something else.

Some might look at the building and think about opening a restaurant.  Or maybe that's just what I think of because the first transformation of a church building that I'd ever seen was in downtown Charleston, SC, an Episcopal church that had been changed into a Mexican restaurant.

Some might think of the preschool possibilities.  After all, many a church has already transformed itself to adapt to the preschool it feels it needs to run/host.

I return to my thoughts of a few weeks ago.  I think of artist studios and an exhibition space.  I imagine running day or half day retreats.  I envision a space that explores the intersections of spirituality and creativity.  And we could do all sorts of creative work.  There's room for gardens and fountains.  I imagine there would be at least one kitchen.

I have a colleague who suggests that I stop one day and pray.  She says that God has already consecrated that space, and that when I assume that my dreams are not feasible, I'm selling God short.

She is right, of course.  And yet, I still can't quite articulate that dream, on a day-to-day level.  I can't quite visualize how we'd pay the bills.

And while I love the idea of the church as arts space, I'm not sure that I want to be the one to transform it.  I want it to exist, but I'm not sure that I want to be the one that does that administrative work to keep it running.

I do love the Dania Beach area.  I know it's been trying to recreate itself as an arts district.  Once it was a thriving antiques district, so past experience would tell us that the location is viable.

I also wonder about a social justice piece.  Could a church-turned-arts-center be helpful in terms of after-school activities?  There are pockets of deep poverty that surround that building--how could the arts center church help that situation?

My husband dreams of an empire of rental houses that could be made into safe, snug, affordable places for people to live.  I dream of old churches made into artistic spaces.  Of what does God dream?

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Grace Notes in Concrete

Yesterday morning, I had some time to work on my memoir project.  I took several blog posts about Valentine's Day and tried to weave them into one coherent essay.

In the middle of the morning, my words were put to a real-life test.  My spouse has been working on home repairs, and he's at his most unpleasant when repairs aren't going well.

Yesterday, repairs weren't going well.  When I asked if I could help, he snarled, "There's a whole clipboard of projects, all of which need doing."  And he stomped off, slamming the door on the way.

I was tempted to go to work early, to let him stew.  But I know that part of his persona comes out of his feeling of frustration and being overwhelmed at the extent of the project.  And I had my own words in my head:

"I think Martin Luther went too far in deciding that marriage wouldn't be a sacrament in the Lutheran church. Nothing has ever helped me understand the nature of God's love better than my marriage, except, perhaps, the love of my parents for me. Nothing else, except, perhaps Communion, is so much an 'outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible Grace' (as the Anglican Book of Common Prayer describes a sacrament).

I am always amazed and grateful when my husband forgives me for the boneheaded things I do. I'm even more amazed that he's often forgiving me for making the same mistakes again and again.

These are not major mistakes. I don't go out and cheat on him, for example. But I'm often irritated and grumpy, and I lash out, and I realize I've been a jerk, so I apologize and ask for forgiveness. And he kisses me and says, "Don't worry about it." And again and again, I feel blessed with a kind of marital grace.

And of course, I do the same for him. And in this daily practice of love and forgiveness, I come to understand God's love for me--and I am able to carry a similar love out into the world."

And so, I went to help. I am not the best at home repairs, but the work I did was not work that he had to do.  And there is value to companionship, to not feeling alone in the world.  We worked until lunch and enjoyed a picnic by the pool.  And then I went to work.

When I returned home, my husband had written a love note of sorts in the concrete that he had poured:  "Kristin rocks."  I love the permanence of it.  I love knowing that it would probably not exist, had I not had my words in my head, which convinced me to forgive my husband's bad mood, even before he asked for it.

I love this idea of grace.  It's hard for me to imagine being part of a religious community that's not firmly rooted in the idea of grace.  It's one of my favorite aspects of being a Lutheran.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, October 13, 2013:

First Reading: 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

Psalm: Psalm 111

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 66:1-11 (Psalm 66:1-12 NRSV)

Second Reading: 2 Timothy 2:8-15

Gospel: Luke 17:11-19

We've spent a lot of time lately wrestling with texts which offer us guidelines for discipleship which may seem close to impossible for modern people to follow: give away our wealth? Surely Jesus didn't mean that.
This Sunday's Gospel gives us a task which should be easier. We need to practice gratitude. It seems like it should be such an easy thing, but some people find it easier to give away their money than to be grateful. We focus on the prayers that we perceive of as unanswered. We find ourselves obsessing over people who seem to receive better blessings than we do. We nurse our disappointments, our hurt, our anger. We are in spiritually dangerous territory when we do this.

If you can pray no other prayer, get into the habit of saying thank you. If you think you have nothing over which you'd like to offer thanks, think again. Do your body parts work as well as can be expected? Even if you're not in the best health, you can probably focus on something that's a blessing. Once I saw Arthur Ashe on the Phil Donahue show, where he had appeared to talk about his recent diagnosis: he had AIDS. But he seemed so cheerful, and when asked about that, he said that he focused on what his body could do. He grinned and said, "I've never had a cavity." If only more of us could follow his large-spirited lead.

When you think about what's lacking in your life, you might focus on your lack of funds. But compared to the rest of the world, you've extremely wealthy. Want to know just how wealthy? Even if you're in the lower tiers of poverty in the US, you're still fairly well off compared to the rest of the world. You're still likely to have safe water and electricity and some sort of roof over your head--even a TV!

My friend Sue used to do a type of gratitude exercise with her children. When they saw a magnificent sunset or a field of flowers or a tree ablaze in autumnal leaves, they’d yell, “Great show God!” It could be a bit startling if you were the one driving the car and not expecting this outburst. Yet the spirit was infectious. Even today, when I see something beautiful in nature, I murmer, “Great show, God.”

The beautiful thing about cultivating a garden of gratitude is that it opens our hearts in a unique way. Being grateful can lead to those other spiritual disciplines that seem so hard taken out of context. We’re saying “Thank you” more often, which puts us in a space where prayer comes more naturally. We are aware of all the blessings that we have and we’re more inclined to share. Our hearts and our brains and our hands move in unison to work with God to create the kind of reality that God wants for each of us to experience.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Stole as Name Tag

When we moved, I found this stole in our hope chest, amongst all the quilts.  It's actually one made by my spouse.  We made these stoles at a Create in Me retreat.   

I share it with you here because it's an interesting alternative to the traditional nametag.

A stole gives you lots of room to write information, whether it be your name, a quote that means something to you, information about your interests.

Here (above and below): a longer view of each side.

It's an easy project.  We made ours out of cheap muslin.  You can write on it with any kind of marker, since it's not going into the laundry.

A close up (below and above):

Above, you can see that you can use stamps and ink too.

To get people started, have them write their name down the edge of one side of the stole and a personality trait or interest that starts with each letter of the name.  If they aren't inspired to do more, that activity will be enough.  I'm willing to bet that most people will want to do more to fill up the space on the stole.

In the best case scenario, writing on stoles will be a great getting to know you exercise.  People will have something to do as they wait for the retreat or meeting to start, and they'll have something to discuss with each other.

And then, when everyone is done, they'll have a great way to remember who they have met, as they see the stoles around everyone's necks.

Monday, October 7, 2013

The Indigo Girls Interviewed

Yesterday I listened to the NPR show, On Being.  What a great show!  The guests were the Indigo Girls, and they talked about the intersections of music, gender, creativity, sexual orientation, and spirituality.  Go here to listen, to read the transcripts, or to find other resources.

Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

Emily Saliers on religion:  "I think that, um, I have such a deep connection to the music that I grew up with in church, the hymns, the sound of the organ, and also, like, because we weren't raised in really, like, um, any kind of church that made us feel bad. It was kind of thoughtful, like, the sermon was related to the readings and it was all — and there was a season that was based on the Jewish calendar that was recognized as based on the Jewish calendar, um, which I always appreciated.

And so I like — and with my dad and the people that I grew up with, the theologians, they thoughtfully organized liturgy. Like they put thought into constructing it so that people might get the most out of it. So I appreciate that like writing a good paper or something, I guess. If you construct it with care, it's bound to be more effective to the reader or the receiver. So I grew up with that.

I like that part of thought and organization and structure in religion, but for me, you know, I have to say that no matter what it's called and I'll call it God, but to me, it's a great benevolent spirit that's much wiser than any of us, my belief, that is involved in the formation of things, the change of things, the evolution of things.

Is my whole — my life is in that spirit's hands. That's what I believe. So it's not — it ain't me running things, but that's when language and imagery gets in the way. I don't believe in a puppet god or puppet master god or any of that stuff. So I can't even describe it. It's loving, it's powerful, it's wise, it's kind. It's not a mother or a father. It's just this thing that I trust, because this thing has shown me time and time again its wisdom. I have my feeble human perception of what wisdom is, but I'm gonna go with that."

Amy Ray on gender in religion and rock music:  "But, um, I think, I think as queer people, we also have this like built-in translator sometimes. And I can sit and listen to most sermons, not all of them, but a lot of them, and inside I'm changing the language in my head as I'm going. I don't even notice it. And I'm getting something out of it and I'm not sitting there going, ‘It's a patriarchy, I hate it, I hate it, I hate it,’ you know, because I'm just so used to, from such a small age, having to do that to feel OK about myself, to be honest with you.

And the same goes for music. You know, we grew up with rock and roll being a white guy's thing and sex, drugs and rock and roll and it was really romantic and we had to change all the lyrics in our heads and the imagery and believe that it was OK to be a woman and play music. You know, I never — like, when I — when I'm in a graceful moment, I don't even think about it."

Emily Saliers on lesbian marriage:  "We're getting married. My partner's Canadian. We're getting married by a Justice of the Peace because we're afraid they're gonna repeal the laws before we get a chance to like — so we're gonna hurry up and get married and then we're gonna have a ceremony. So like queer people they have to — you can't do it the way you dream about it really, you know. We had the kid first and then it doesn't matter, I mean, how straight people do it. It's fine, but we haven't had the same privileges of, you know, chronology."

Emily Saliers on the physicality of music:  "One is that music is, um, it's physical, it's got, you know, your heartbeat, it's got rhythms, it's got space, it's a physiological reality along with a mystical reality. So it's metaphysical. There's not many things in life you can point to and go that's metaphysical, but music is and it's just like Amy was talking about protest songs and how, you know, there have been protest songs that have bolstered the spirits, galvanized people in the midst of a very painful, but positive movement, social change movement. And so, it's such a powerful, powerful tool. So for me, it's been almost everything in the way I've been shaped."

Sunday, October 6, 2013

Great Show, God!

Yesterday was full of delights, some of them possible because we've moved to our new house.

I woke up early, got some writing done, and thought, hey, I could walk to the beach and get there just in time for sunrise. And this time, I could take the camera.

I got to the beach about 10 minutes before sunrise.  I love watching the light change as the sun approaches the horizon.  I love the interaction of light and clouds.

And of course, I love the light breaking through.

Lately, nature has been speaking to me about the existence of God.  I'm struck by the blue of the skies.  I'm struck by the natural beauty that reaches out, even when I spend the majority of my days in and around human-made structures.

I want to be struck in this way.  I want to remember to say "Great show, God!"*  I'm a creative person, and I know how wonderful it is when someone tells me that my creation connected with them.

*I'm indebted to the (now-grown) children of my friend and mentor from my undergraduate years, the first person who paid me for my writing when she hired me to write PR pieces.  She told me about the habit that she and her children had of shouting "Great show, God!"  They'd shout this out when they saw a great sunset or some other part of nature that inspired awe.  Sometimes, riders in the minivan would be startled by the children's shout.  I was charmed. 

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Funerals at Former Churches

I spent the last part of the week hearing about the decline and death of a member at the church to which I belonged before I changed to my current church,  I was not particularly close to the member, but she did remind me of my grandmother, with her intense Carolina accent, her clothes, the food she brought to pot luck dinners.

The funeral is next week, and there's been some Facebook chat about who will make her banana pudding.  I don't like banana pudding, but I still feel some pangs.

Someone should write a book about the etiquette involved in changing churches.  Someone should write that book, but it won't be me.  But if a book existed, I'd want there to be a chapter on deciding whether or not to go to funerals.  If I'm not currently part of the church community, but I was, should I go?  If I feel a bit of sadness at the loss of a member who was an essential part of a Sunday School class I taught long ago, should I go?  Would I be welcome or is it better not to risk upsetting people who still don't understand why I switched churches?

And yes, I do understand that it's not about me at all, that most people will not even have any of these thoughts flit across their minds.

Truth be told, I have trouble knowing when to attend funerals, whether it's at current churches or former churches.  I'm lucky in that the only people I've lost so far have been older family members.  My friends at churches past and present are still living.

Sometimes I feel I should go to the funerals of older church members as a matter of respect.  Other times, I suspect it doesn't really matter to the family.  Often the family members aren't even there:  the church service is for the church and community members who knew the member while the church member lived down here, far away from family.

I've written before about funerals and their effect on me, most recently in this post.  I like the recalibrating effect of funerals with their reminder that we're not here very long.  But I will probably not go to the funeral at my former church.

What I'd really like is not a funeral, per se, but more ways to connect, and reconnect, to other area Lutherans.  We've done a bit with joint projects; my favorite was a music event for youth held at my former church (see this post for more).

What I'd really like is a way to live in closer community with fellow believers.  I'd like to have regular meals together, not just receptions when one of us dies or monthly pot luck dinners:  those events often feel more hectic to me, with less opportunity for deep conversation, or conversation of any kind.

Closer community--that's a subject worth writing a book about.