Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Feast Day of St. Andrew

On November 30, we celebrate the life of St. Andrew. Unlike his more famous and flamboyant brother, Simon Peter, Andrew often fades into the background.
It’s important to remember that we wouldn’t even know about Simon Peter if not for Andrew. Andrew followed John the Baptist, and John the Baptist introduced Jesus as the true Messiah. Andrew believed, and Andrew brought his brother to see what he had seen. Andrew is remembered as the first disciple.

Tradition has it that the brothers didn’t give up their family fishing business at first, but eventually, Christ requested full commitment. I’ve always wondered about the family relationships that simmer in the background of the Gospels.

I remember one Gospel reading that mentioned Jesus healing the mother-in-law of Simon Peter. I thought, mother-in-law? That means there must have been a wife. What did the mothers and wives and mother-in-laws think of the men abandoning their fishing business to follow Jesus?

I also think about the sibling relationships here. What does Andrew think about Simon Peter, who quickly moves into the spotlight? Is Andrew content to stay in the background?

We know from the passage in Matthew that begins with Matthew 20:20, that there is competition to be Christ’s favorite. We see the mother of James and John who argues for her sons’ importance. We see the other disciples who become angry at the actions of this mother. I extrapolate to imagine that there’s much jockeying for position amongst the disciples.

Christ never loses an opportunity to remind us that he’s come to give us a different model of success. Again and again, he dismisses the importance that the world attaches to riches, to status, to a good reputation. Again and again, Jesus instructs us that the last will be first. Jesus tells us that the way to gain prestige with God is to serve.

We see stories that show that Andrew is the kind of disciple who is working for the glory of Christ, not for other reasons. In John’s Gospel, Andrew is the one who tells Jesus about the boy with five barley loaves and two fish, and thus helps make possible the miraculous feeding.

Andrew was the kind of disciple we could use more of in this world. Andrew so believes in the Good News that he brings his family members to Christ, and he continued in this path, bringing the Gospel to people far and wide. We see him beginning this mission in John’s Gospel, where he tells Christ of the Greeks that want to see him.

Andrew gets credit for bringing Christianity into parts of eastern Europe and western Asia: Kiev, Ukraine, Romania, Russia. He’s the first bishop of the Church of Byzantium and patron saint of all sorts of places, from Scotland to Cyprus to Russia.

On this day when we celebrate the life of the first disciple, let us consider our own discipleship. Are we focused on the right tasks or are we hoping that our Christian faith brings us non-Christian glory? How can we help usher in the miracles that come with the presence of Christ? Who needs to hear the Good News as only we can tell it?

Friday, November 29, 2013

Remembering Christmas on the Biggest Shopping Day of the Year

On this day when many of us will head out to shop, shop, shop, let's take a minute to remember why we're celebrating Christmas, if we're Christians.

It's not about the gifts under the tree, it's about the baby in the manger.

And let's remember the true meaning of that baby in the manger, if we're Christians.  If we stay stuck in the story with the cute baby in the manger, we've lost the important point of the story.

And if we leave Christ on the cross, we've lost the even larger story.

And the empty tomb is not even the end of the story.  We have a mission--and it's not to get the best bargains.  Could we transform our shopping day so that we're doing something to heal the world?  It could be something as simple as adding socks for the homeless to our shopping list.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and So Many Reasons for Gratitude

Today we see something we're not likely to see for another 80,000 years:  the intersection of Thanksgiving and Hanukkah.  Several times a century, they're likely to be in the same week, but almost never on the same day.

How should we celebrate?  We could rethink our holiday foods, as this piece on NPR suggests.  Those of us who are non-Jews could scoff and say, "Who cares?  It's not our holiday."

But many Christians have a more ecumenical mindset, and it's an interesting time to think about the holiday of Hanukkah and what it might teach us.  You may or may not remember that this Jewish holiday celebrates the cleansing and dedication of the Temple during the time of the Maccabees; they had enough oil to burn for 1 day, but it burned for 8.

As with many ancient holidays, we could spend lots of time talking about what really happened and what it signified.  I will leave that to others.

In many ways, this holiday has more in common with Thanksgiving than with Christmas, the holiday that most Christians link it to.  Thanksgiving is also a holiday of abundance.  Those of us who are spiritual/religious often see the holiday as a time to give thanks to a God who gives us more than we need.  Those of us who aren't too far removed from our agricultural roots can probably remember stories of times when the food stretched further than it should have, when there was enough for everyone and leftovers for later.

We can also celebrate the Thanksgiving/Hanukkah nexus by thinking about religious freedom.  It's good to remember that those Pilgrims left England in search of a place where they could worship as they liked.  And yes, I will admit that those early colonists who were so eager for religious freedom were quick to deny it to others.  But still, it doesn't hurt to celebrate the ideal.

We live in a nation where we can celebrate Diwali and then it's on to Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas.  If we're Muslim, we're free to observe Ramadan.  If we're of a religious faith that's less common, we're likely to find acceptance of a sort.

Sure, there might be a crazed gunman here and there to make us debate how much religious liberty we really have.  It's always been this way in this nation, at least since the European colonists arrived.  I imagine that the Native Americans had similar conversations about liberty and how much freedom a society could tolerate.  It's a question that most societies have wrestled with.

On Thanksgiving, let us celebrate our abundance.  Let us remember those who don't experience this abundance and let us share.  Let us continue to work to create a society where we have religious freedom and tolerance in ever greater abundance.  Let us pause to remember the good work that has been done and to fortify ourselves for the work yet to do.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 1, 2013:

First Reading: Isaiah 2:1-5

Psalm: Psalm 122

Second Reading: Romans 13:11-14

Gospel: Matthew 24:36-44

This Sunday’s Gospel plunges us right into apocalyptic Advent. Maybe you don’t think of Advent as an apocalyptic time. Maybe you’re one of the church members who says, “Why can’t we sing Christmas carols?”

Advent is a time of getting ready, not only for Christmas, but also for all of what is to come. Many people have interpreted these passages in today’s Gospel reading quite literally, as a prediction of what will happen at the time of the final Judgment. You’ve probably seen the bumper sticker that proclaims “In case of Rapture, this car will be driverless.”

Most scholars agree that those ideas of a Judgment Day are fairly recent in Christian thought and interpretation, fostered in the heat of 19th century Revival meetings. If Christ isn’t talking about the Rapture, then what do those passages mean?

This year, the first Sunday of Advent is also World Aids Day. As I read those Gospel passages in the context of AIDS, I’m remembering how terrifying that disease was in the 1980’s. As it quickly became clear that this disease was not just a gay, male disease, it did seem that one day we might be dancing, and 6 months later, we might have lost half our friends.

People with access to protease inhibitors can now see this disease as a chronic disease that can be managed, but in much of the world, the words of Jesus describe the experience of people. Two people are working or walking one day, but quickly one of them is gone.

And even those of us in the first world will face that loss. We can’t travel with our companions forever. Our pets leave us first, and all too soon, friends and family members die.

We don’t want to let mortality intrude, especially not into a festive time. But it’s important to remember that none of us will be here very long.

So, that leads us to the question: if we’re not here very long, how should we live our lives?

Over and over again, Advent reminds us to keep our focus on God. Our culture wants our focus on holiday festivity so that we’ll spend, spend, spend. Advent reminds us to slow down and to listen for God. Advent reminds us that we don’t know the day and the hour, but God is coming.

Advent also reminds us that God is already here. The redemption of the world has begun. Even in the devastation of human tragedy, like a worldwide pandemic with treatment but no cure, God is present.

We won’t realize the presence of God if we’re not alert. The Gospel lesson implores us, as so many Bible passages do: “Stay awake! Stay alert!”

And the Gospel reminds us that God won’t be coming in the form we expect. Throughout the Bible, God shows up in the most unlikely places wearing the most unlikely forms.

Where will you see God this Advent season and beyond?

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Prepping for Advent

Last year, a variation of this piece ran on the Friday after Thanksgiving.  Since that day is a huge shopping day, I've decided that it makes more sense to post it here, before we get lost in our Thanksgiving cooking and eating and football watching and clean up.

Many of us arrive at Christmas in a state of sheer exhaustion. Many of us arrive at Christmas having succumbed to colds, flu, or worse. Many of us leave the Christmas season several pounds heavier with heavier credit card debt to make matters worse. But a bit of planning before we leave the Thanksgiving season can help us avoid Christmas depletion.

Here are some things to think about as we leave Thanksgiving and launch ourselves towards Christmas. You’ll likely be more successful if you include the rest of your family in these conversations.

--Choose the spiritual traditions you’ll incorporate this year. Will you have an Advent wreath? Will you meditate? Will you help with the Christmas pageant? Will you participate in special musical events? Will you attend church each Sunday in Advent? Will you go to extra services? Be realistic. Maybe you can’t find time to light the Advent wreath every night and have family devotions. But maybe your family will find it more meaningful to light the Advent wreath once a week and have devotional time.

--Think about your family’s traditions. Which are most important? Which can you jettison? You might have a discussion and find yourself amazed to discover that no one really likes going to see The Nutcracker, but nobody has wanted to say anything because they assumed that everyone else really loved that tradition. Keep the traditions that add meaning and richness to the season, but don’t be afraid to let some of them go.

--Think of ways to simplify and streamline. Do you really need to bake every kind of cookie that you remember from past holidays? Maybe you and your friends could have a cookie swap. Or get together to bake cookies together. Have a wonderful afternoon of cookie dough and wine and leave with enough cookies to get you through the holiday. Consider ways to make the holiday meals easier on everyone. Maybe this is the year to change the holiday card tradition to an easier e-mail greeting. Ask yourself which church events mean something to you and which you're attending because you always have.

--Don’t forget that Advent is a great time to work for social justice. The words of the prophets ring in our ears, and we can find many opportunities to actually do something. Some of my favorite holiday memories involve helping others. My Girl Scout troop used to go caroling at nursing homes. The church of my adolescence assembled gift baskets for homeless women. The words of Isaiah are knitted into every fiber of my being: "learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow" (Isaiah 1: 17). My parents, along with social institutions like church, Scouts, and school, modeled the good behavior of working for social justice. It's stuck with me. Advent is a great time to train the next generation in the habits of social justice and charitable work. And it’s also a great time to give back to our communities.

--Before the Christmas season descends on our heads, let’s make several budgets. Let’s start with a time budget. It’s easy during the Christmas season to accept too many invitations and thus find ourselves overextended and irritable. Maybe we want to declare that we won’t go out on school nights. Maybe we want to only accept one social engagement per week-end. Maybe we only want to attend the events that are essential to our family’s traditions. There are no right or wrong decisions, but if we don’t think about these issues before the season starts, we’re likely to find ourselves spending more time than we want to give.

--The same is true of monetary budgets. Before you start shopping, make a budget and stick to it. And before you work on the budget, talk to your family members about your gift giving traditions. Maybe instead of giving gifts to each other, you’ll agree to give that money to a worthy organization. Maybe the grown ups would like to draw names and only have one gift to give. Maybe you’ll decide to order gifts that support artisans or small business owners. Maybe you want this year to be the one where all the gifts are made by hand.

You may do this work and planning and realize that you do want to stand in the dark for a chance to get a really good deal on items that are part of your budget. You may do this work and realize that there’s no need to go to a mall between now and January.

Hopefully, you’ll spend a bit of time deciding what kind of Advent season you want to have, and you’ll choose a few concrete actions that you can take to make your Advent meaningful.

Monday, November 25, 2013

A Month from Christmas, Days from Thanksgiving and Hanukkah

A month from now we will have arrived at Christmas morning.  Dizzying.  Tomorrow, I'll run a post that I wrote last year for the Living Lutheran site about Black Friday--it's a few days before that event, but it's good to think about these issues before it all descends on our head.

Today we see the juxtaposition of Hanukkah and Thanksgiving, a lining up of holidays that we're not likely to see again for 80,000 years.  I'll write a bit more about that later, but if you want some light-hearted thoughts, see this NPR piece.  It includes some strange-sounding recipes.

If you want a delicious, cheap recipe for tomato sauce, a dinner you can likely make out of items that you have in your pantry (or could easily keep in your pantry), see this blog post on my creativity site.  As the holiday season heats up, it's good to have an easy recipe that only needs 45 minutes to simmer the 4 ingredients:  an onion, a 28 oz. can of tomatoes, 5 T. of butter, and some salt.  Add a pound of pasta, and dinner's ready.

Maybe we need a different sort of nourishment today.  It's a good day for a poem, before we launch into our Thanksgiving hooplah.

Perhaps I should post a more spiritual poem. This blog is my theology blog after all. I should write a poem about gratitude and God and great feasts.

But Thanksgiving suggests a different kind of spiritual heritage to me. For many years, we went back to my grandfather's homeplace, where his relatives were still farming on a small scale. We ate a turkey that had been scratching in the yard very recently. We ate vegetables grown in the fields outside the door. We talked about our ancestors.

I learned about my great grandmother who was picking beans when she had a heart attack. She made the men wait to take her to the hospital until she could change into clean underwear.

Of course, I learned more than just funny stories. I learned about how people survived hard times and how they celebrated bounty. I learned about a quiet spirituality (of a Lutheran variety) that formed the backbone of my family. I learned about tables that were full of enough food to share with the family members who didn't have as much to contribute--for many starving student years, my husband and I would go to the feast with a meager loaf of pumpkin bread, and we'd leave with enough food for a week--and a Christmas tree cut from the fields!

So, here's a poem that celebrates that heritage. It was first published a few years ago in Big Muddy.

Thanks Giving

Finally, I am with my own kinsfolk.
I do not feel a freak of nature anymore.
Here beneath this hook
where my great grandfather butchered hogs and deer,
I stare into faces familiar to me.
My future face.

I have the strong, solid body
which doesn’t belong to this age
of computers and office politics.
I was meant to be up at half a crack of dawn,
fixing a huge breakfast
before I plowed a field and put an addition on the house.
All in a day’s work.
The strength of my people lies
buried in my bones and brain,
a genetic code impossible
to diet or exercise away.
My hips would balance a baby
while I shaped bread dough and slaughtered chickens,
if only I would comply.

But I’ll submit to my genetic destiny on some level.
I will always awaken before sunrise,
always keep an eye to the sky,
track the weather like a second religion.
I’ll cook enough food for a small third world country
and share my good fortune with others.
I’ll tell the family stories
about strong women
with indomitable wills.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Nominations for Church Council

Later today, I'll head over to church for a Nominating Committee Meeting.  How does your church handle nominations for Church Council?

I've never been part of a church that handles nominations the way my current church does.  My current church council selects a nominating committee.  The committee meets separately and very privately.  I'm not always part of the committee, but I have been, and here's what happens.

We open in prayer and then silence.  We have paper.  We write down names that bubble up.  After a certain amount of time, we compare notes.  We develop a slate of nominations to take back to Council.  From that slate, Council prays for wisdom about who would  be best.  Then Council develops a slate to take to the church meeting in January.

At the church meeting, nominations can come from the floor, but they rarely do.  Usually, the Church acclaims the slate of names.

This process is much less divisive than the ones I've heard about in many churches.  Many churches have regular elections, where people run for office--sometimes complete with campaign themes.  As you can imagine, it can get ugly.

In most churches where I've been a member, they've been small churches where it's hard to find anyone willing to serve.  The process we've adopted doesn't rely on volunteers.  We go to them to say, "Your name came to our minds when we prayed and asked the Holy Spirit for the best candidates for Council."

People can still refuse, of course.  Holy Spirit promptings or no, some people are already overwhelmed without adding another commitment to their lives.  But it feels different than the crass campaigning that's a danger of doing Council elections differently.

You might scoff at the idea that the Holy Spirit gets involved with us this way.  At first, I had doubts too.  But having gone through the process, it does feel more mystical than other ways of electing Council members.  It does feel like God will be present in the process if we ask.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Hospice Chaplain Thoughts and the Underlying Yearnings

Almost every day, I go to Broward General Hospital.  I am a member of a gym there, on the 8th floor.  I see a lot of hospital life on my way to the gym.  I've often wondered what it would be like to be a hospice chaplain.

Most of my friends think I'm crazy.  They ask why I would want to be part of the saddest time of people's lives.

I always say that I want to be present for people as they go through significant life transitions.  I want to pray with them.  I want to help keep the focus on the important things.

Earlier this week, as my mind wandered through these familiar tracks, I thought that hospice chaplain or not, I'd like to be more fully present for the people in my life. 

That led me to think, do I really want to be a hospice chaplain?  Or is that yearning just a surface symptom of a deeper longing?

I feel like I have a full, rich life.  Some weeks, I even feel it's balanced:  I give equal time to my writing, my friends, my spouse, and my work.  Some weeks, I feel quite out of balance.

But even the weeks when I'm feeling balanced, I'm feeling rushed and hurried.  I'm thinking ahead to the next thing I have to do.  I'm making lists in my head.  I'm realizing I forgot something and trying to think about what it was and whether or not it's important.

In short, even when I'm balanced, I'm not fully present.  Can I say I'm balanced, if I'm not present?

How can I be more present?

An obvious answer would be that I need to get rid of some of my activities.  But which ones?  Some don't bring me joy--like Church Council--but I realize they're important and few people are willing to do it.  I have to work, so a substantial chunk of time vanishes that way.  And my friends and I already have trouble finding time to get together, so I don't want to decide not to meet with them. 

Some people might say I exercise too much--at least once a day I'm at the gym, on most days; some days I go back for an additional class.  But I know what happens when I don't exercise.  I know how important exercise is.

So, if I can't/won't ditch activities, how can I be more present?

I need to work harder at not letting my monkey mind wander away.  I need to be more conscious of when I'm thinking about something else as I'm in the middle of another activity.  I need to bring my mind back.

I need to be gentle with myself in this process.  I need to train my brain.

I'm tired just thinking about it.  And soon, the holiday season begins in earnest, and there will be more distractions.

Could I find spiritual activities to keep my mind focused?  Could this be the year that we actually use our Advent wreath all the way to Christmas?  Could I carry those activities--or something similar--into the new year?

I suspect this project, the being-fully-present project, will be a life-long discipline, or perhaps more accurately, a life-long disciplining process.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, November 24, 2013:

Psalm: Psalm 46

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Luke 1:68-79

Second Reading: Colossians 1:11-20

Gospel: Luke 23:33-43

This Sunday, we celebrate Christ the King Sunday, which is the last day of our liturgical calendar. The readings are familiar: we're back in the land of Good Friday, with our king crucified on a cross. Perhaps not the image we'd expect for Christ the King Sunday, but those of us who have been reading through this cycle, either for the first time or for the umpteenth time, will be familiar with these strange twists of imagery, with the upheaval of all our expectations.

I have always loved the cyclical nature of the lectionary, with its readings that loop around and remind us that all of life is cyclical. When I'm having a bad day (or week or month), it's important to remember that everything can change. When I'm having a good day (or week or month), it's important to express profound gratitude and to try not to dread the next downturn too much. With every downturn comes an upturn. The life of Christ shows us this.

Christ's life shows us that being king requires something different for a believer. It's not the worldly experience of kings, who are venerated and obeyed. Being a Christian king requires humbling ourselves and thinking of others before we think of ourselves. But our rewards are great. When we emulate Christ's behavior, we help create wonderfully vibrant communities here on earth, and whatever we might experience in the afterlife will just be icing on the cake. We've already had a taste of heaven right here on earth.

Maybe we feel grumpy as the holiday season approaches. Maybe we've had a season of sorrow, and we can't quite manage to feel festive. Maybe we're tired of humbling ourselves and we'd like someone to humble themselves for us.

Well, here's some good news. Someone already has. Maybe in this season of thankfulness, we can concentrate on our good fortune, even if we don't feel it. We're alive to see the sunrise and the sunset, some of the best shows on earth, and they're free! Even if we don't have as much money as we'd like, there's always someone who is in worse shape. If we are having trouble keeping everything in perspective, maybe it's time to volunteer at a food bank or an animal shelter--or if we're not into organizational activities, we could do our part to pick up litter. We could smile at the janitorial staff. We could thank them for cleaning the communal bathrooms in the places where we shop and work and play.

If we start working on our spirit of gratitude, the gift of generosity often follows. If we pray for those who need our prayers, our hearts start to open. If we work on forgiveness, our spirit soars. And soon we realize what it means to celebrate Christ the King Sunday.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Planting Our Losses as Prayer

A week ago, I'd have been preparing to help with the WELCA Bible study.  The group was studying the story of the widow visited by Elijah, who shared her last bit of food with Elijah and found that the grain didn't run out.  She makes a cake for Elijah and survives to see more bread.

Of course, she survives just to have her son die.  But Elijah brings him back to life.

The woman leading the Bible story sees it as a tale of hope, making a way out of no way.  I saw it as loss after loss--but the good news was that God can transform those losses.  I was trying to come up with an artsy/craftsy project.

I thought about baking bread, but we didn't really have that kind of time.  I thought about having us write things on paper and set them on fire, but that seemed dangerous.

In the end, I decided that we would write our losses on paper slips and bury them in a huge pot of soil that I'd bring.  Maybe we wouldn't write our losses, but instead we'd write about situations that we want God to transform.  Maybe we wouldn't write, but would instead draw.  Maybe it would be something completely abstract, so that it could stay a secret.  We'd talk about the pot as representing the grave, and how redemption can often come, even when it looks like death.

I expected some resistance, but I didn't expect resistance to the act of putting something, even a secret something, on paper.  One woman proclaimed again and again, "That's between me and God."  I didn't push.

The woman whom I thought would most hate the exercise loved it.  She wrote slip after slip and took great delight in pushing them into the soil.  No matter how long I teach, I will never be able to predict with complete accuracy how things will go.

The woman who refused to commit to paper also did not like the pot of soil.  "Why can't we just pray?"

I tried to explain that what we were doing was a form of prayer.  I tried to explain how prayer that engages the body more thoroughly (writing/drawing and then the burying) might work better for some people.  I did not convince her.

At least we weren't trying yoga or dance or some other full body prayer kind of thing.

It's been a week, and I still can't decide if I think it went well or not.  And honestly, it's probably not important.  I enjoyed it, and at least one other woman did.  It stretched me to think differently, and it stretched others.  And even if it wasn't enjoyable for all, it only lasted for 10 minutes, so it's not a huge deal.

And who knows what seeds have been planted?

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Sunday Morning Radio; Home Repair Projects

I've begun turning on my radio a bit earlier on Sunday morning.  I've discovered that our local NPR, overnight program, Sounds of the Caribbean, plays religious music.  Think of your favorite hymns, set to a reggae beat.  There are also some of the more famous religious songs that come to us directly from the islands, like "By the Waters of Babylon."  It's a great way to start a Sunday.

Those of you who know this blog know that I listen to Krista Tippett's show On Being, which airs on my NPR station at 7 a.m.  That, too, is a great way to start a Sunday.

In between, in the last 6 months my NPR station has been airing On the Money, a personal finance show.  I find it moderately interesting, moderately anxiety producing.  It's interesting to have that show sandwiched in between the two other shows which are much more directly spiritual.

I wonder if you could have a show that talks about money in a more spiritual way.  Would there be a wider variety of types of stewardship discussed?  I'm sure that charitable giving would be presented in a different way.  What about housing?

We've been finishing up home repair projects:  the dreaded plumbing project!  It could have been worse; at least we haven't been installing an on-demand hot water heater.  But even a new kitchen sink can have it's frustrations.

My spouse says he relies on the grace of God for plumbing repair success.

Does God care about our home repairs?  I spent much of yesterday praying for plumbing success.  I felt guilty for not spending as much time in prayer for the victims of the super typhoon in the Phillipines.

But if God really does want a personal, daily relationship with us, if God desires that kind of intimacy, then we must believe that God will be with us in the depths of our despair.  Many have written about the despair that comes with illness and death.  But there's lots of despair in home repair, in chores, in all sorts of daily grinds.

And our scripture tells us that God is there.  The Psalms are more majestic in their depiction of despair, that weeping by the waters of Babylon where we can't sing the songs of God in a foreign land.  But an afternoon of plumbing work also leaves me mute with despair.

And God is there, present in our suffering.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

The Feast Day of Saint Gertrude the Great

Today is the feast day of Saint Gertrude the Great; we call her the Great to differentiate her from another Gertrude, Gertrude of Hackeborn.  The medieval time period was a time of many Gertrudes.

The Gertrude whom we celebrate today was born on the feast of the Epiphany, January 6, 1256.  I celebrate her for the same reason that I celebrate Julian of Norwich and Hildegard of Bingen.  She's one of our earliest female writers in the Western tradition.  Unfortunately, we don't have much of her writing left.

Like those other female writers, Gertrude was able to write because she was part of a cloistered community, which meant she had the education to write, the time to write, and the support of her writing as a vocation.  There are many reasons why I'm grateful for the monastic tradition and the support of women's writing early on is a major one.

We know that she began writing for the benefit of her sisters in the Abbey.  I like to think of her as a blogger of her time.  She wrote for a small audience, but it was important to her, and she kept doing it.

Because she was present for her writing practice, she was graced with a series of visions.  We remember her for being part of an early group of mystics who focused on the sacred heart of Jesus.  I must confess that the sacred heart mysticism is not my favorite branch, but I do understand its appeal and importance.

Some scholars call her one of the most important 13th century mystics.  And some note that her spiritual exercises are still very accessible.  What she wrote for the small audience of her sisters can still be influential today.

She's associated with souls in Purgatory, but my prayer will think about a different kind of Purgatory.

Here's a prayer I wrote for today:

Creator God, today we celebrate the life of Saint Gertrude the Great.  Kindle our creative fires so that we may know that our work is important, even if we feel we're stuck in a creative purgatory.  Let us sense your beating heart that is so full of love for everything in your creation.  Help us to feel that same passion.  Grace us with the mystical visions that we need to make sense of the world.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Prayer Journals of Flannery O'Connor

I've been listening to a great episode of NPR's On Point, an episode where several scholars talk with the host about the just published prayer journal of Flannery O'Connor.

Let me be the first to admit that I am not an unbiased listener.  If I had to make a list of the most important U.S. writers, male or female, Flannery O'Connor would be in the top 5.  She would be #1 on my list of the best short story writers.  The theology in her short stories takes my breath away.  Oh, what am I saying?  Every aspect of O'Connor's short stories takes my breath away.

And now, a prayer journal.  It's from her much younger years.  I'd love to have her journals of her later years, but she stopped keeping a journal when she started publishing.

Her prayers will not be unfamiliar to many of us:  she prays/pleads for greatness as a writer.  But one of the guests seems to say that she also writes about the process of prayer.  For example, when she is thinking about pigeon eggs and floor wax, a prayer will come to her.  Ah, prayer in the midst of the dailyness.

There are also prayers when she feels far away from God, where she "proves herself a glutton for Scotch oatmeal cookies and erotic thought" (the quote is from the prayer journal).  Who cannot relate? 

There's much discussion of how to be a good Christian and how to be a good artist.  In the prayer journals, apparently, O'Connor was conflicted.  Her friend and editor of the journals notes that she resolves this issue when someone tells her that she can be the best Catholic she can be by being the best artist she can be. 

A caller to the show wondered why artists worry so much about their artistic calling offending God.  You don't see this kind of wrestling in the journals of chemists or engineers, he pointed out.

I suppose that most of us don't run the risk of offending God by the work we do.  Perhaps we see the same kind of wrestling in the journals of the men who made the first atom bomb.  It's been decades since I read the journals and letters of those scientists, but I do seem to remember the presence of some spiritual distress.

I see the same kind of distress in the lives of some of my writer friends.  I have a Hindu friend who has just received a contract; she will write short stories that bring the lives of gods to fleshly life.  She feels struck by fear.  It's less a fear about offending the gods than offending readers.

Some of my other writer friends don't understand, but I do.  I've felt the same kind of fear with my poems that imagine Jesus living amongst us in our modern lives.  What would my grandmother say about my poem where I invite Jesus over to dinner, after seeing him at the bowling alley?

My grandmother loved the poem, and it's been one of the most popular ones I've written.  I've had strangers write to thank me for showing them a picture of Jesus that makes him seem accessible.  That makes me happy.

I love this idea, that we best glorify God by being the most authentic version of ourselves.  I'm looking forward to reading Flannery O'Connor's prayer journal.  And for those of you who haven't read my poem, here it is again for your reading pleasure, my poem "Heaven on Earth." It first appeared in Coal City Review, and I included it in my first chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard.

Heaven on Earth

I saw Jesus at the bowling alley,
slinging nothing but gutter balls.
He said, “You’ve gotta love a hobby
that allows ugly shoes.”
He lit a cigarette and bought me a beer.
So I invited him to dinner.

I knew the Lord couldn’t see my house
in its current condition, so I gave it an out
of season spring cleaning. What to serve
for dinner? Fish—the logical
choice, but after 2000 years, he must grow weary
of everyone’s favorite seafood dishes.
I thought of my Granny’s ham with Coca Cola
glaze, but you can’t serve that to a Jewish
boy. Likewise pizza—all my favorite
toppings involve pork.

In the end, I made us an all-dessert buffet.
We played Scrabble and Uno and Yahtzee
and listened to Bill Monroe.
Jesus has a healthy appetite for sweets,
I’m happy to report. He told strange
stories which I’ve puzzled over for days now.

We’ve got an appointment for golf on Wednesday.
Ordinarily I don’t play, and certainly not in this humidity.
But the Lord says he knows a grand miniature
golf course with fiberglass mermaids and working windmills
and the best homemade ice cream you ever tasted.
Sounds like Heaven to me.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Religious Intersections, Orthodox and Otherwise

The other day I met with a book rep who asked me what I'm reading.  I said, "A book on Eastern Orthodoxy."  She looked puzzled, and I hastened to add, "It's a really good book about what it means to be Orthodox in modern life."

I've been reading At the Corner of East and Now by Frederica Mathewes-Green.  I've read other works of hers, so I knew I was in for a treat.  What I love about this book is that it's more like a book of essays than a sustained narrative.  The book is structured so that every other chapter takes us back to an aspect of the worship service.  Then, in the alternating chapters, we're exploring a different aspect of religious life, which may or may not be Orthodox:  iconography or a music festival or a thrift store.  It's a fascinating way of structuring the book.

I was fascinated by the explorations of iconography woven through the book.  In one chapter, we visit a woman who creates icons.  In another chapter, Mathewes-Green reminds us that "We are the original icons, since God was the first iconographer, making us in his image" (p. 178).  But even if you're not at all interested in icons, there's plenty here for you.

The book gives a bit of history about the migration of Orthodox to the U.S., and about the issues that arise when non-Orthodox want to convert.  She gives us a wide window into what the worship service looks like, as well as the time around the worship service:  the fasting before, the shared meal afterwards.  I was fascinated by their relaxed approach to the exact--or not exact--start of the worship service.

Mathewes-Green was on the road to ordination--how did she end up in a faith tradition that doesn't allow women to be priests?  She explains in chapter 13, and along the way, she explores the relief she feels in not being in charge.  She imagines how different modern life would be if we took seriously our charge to compete to be the most lowly. 

I've read enough of her work to know that Eastern Orthodoxy is not my call, although I do understand it's deep appeal to people.  I'd like my Lutheran church to do more with art and incense.  There are days when I think that my individual church could do a better job of being more strict about theology.  We've got a fair amount of people who come from widely divergent faith traditions, and it begins to feel a bit untidy to me.  I know of several church members who believe in literal demons, and I know of at least one woman who feels she can speak in tongues, although she does it quietly.  We have a disconcerting number of members who believe that if we just pray hard enough and frequent enough, that God will do what we want God to do.

Yes, I understand the appeal of a more rigid Orthodoxy, and I know that Eastern Orthodoxy can feel more joyous than Roman Catholic (Western) Orthodoxy.  Yet I will stay here, at a different intersection, but on the same road.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, November 17, 2013:

First Reading: Malachi 4:1-2a

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Isaiah 65:17-25

Psalm: Psalm 98

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Isaiah 12 (Isaiah 12:2-6 NRSV)

Second Reading: 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

Gospel: Luke 21:5-19

This week's Gospel finds us back in the landscape of apocalypse, a landscape where we find ourselves periodically in our Bible readings.

In a way, these readings offer a kind of comfort. To be sure, it's a hard consolation, since these readings promise us that hard times are ahead. But surely we knew that, at least those of us who are the least bit observant understand that hard times will always come on the heels of good times. You can be living in one of the most stable nations in the Pacific Rim, only to find yourself facing the worst storm on record. In this age of extreme weather events, it’s hard not to wonder when we will be next.

We read the words of Jesus, the words that warn we'll be hauled in front of harsh governments, and this indignity we'll suffer once we've lived through famine and pestilence and any other portent of doom. Our families will abandon us, and our friends will desert us. Many of us reading these words this Sunday may not perceive the threat. We're convinced we're safe, that we live under a Constitution that will protect us. But those of us who study the cycles of history know that we're very lucky and that we can't necessarily count on that. Millions of humans thought they were safe, only to find out that in short order, the hooligans were at the gate.

But Jesus offers us encouragement: "This will be a time for you to bear testimony. Settle it therefore in your minds, not to meditate beforehand how to answer; for I will give you a mouth and wisdom, which none of your adversaries will be able to withstand or contradict" (verses 13-15). Yes, we might lose our lives. But we will gain so much more.

In this time of gloomy news, it's important to take some deep breaths and remind ourselves of what's important. Our friends and families won't always be with us. We can appreciate them while they are. We may be facing trouble at work, but at least we're employed. Even if we're not employed, if we live in the U.S., we have a lot of advantages that we wouldn't have if we lived in, say South Africa or Russia.

A few years ago, my friend John told me about talking to an older black man who came into the state park where John was working. John asked how his Christmas had been. The man said, "Well, we had enough food and no one took sick. So, it was good." Now there's some life wisdom, especially as we turn our thoughts towards the upcoming holidays.

I've always loved Thanksgiving, for many reasons. There's not the pressure of gift giving. The holiday meal is hard to mess up, unless you forget to thaw the turkey. The holiday is rooted, at least in popular imagination, in the idea of colonists saved from the brink of destruction by natives who show them how to live in a new community. The cynical amongst us can deliver powerful counterarguments to my optimism, but for the rest of the month, we can tune them out.

As we get ready for this season, let us remember to be grateful. Let us remember to say thank you, especially to people who might not hear it very often. Let the prophecy of apocalypse from the gospel remind us of our ease of life now and remind us of those who are not so fortunate. Let us keep perspective and remember that we're called to a higher purpose.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Praise and Prayers on Veteran's Day

Today is Veteran's Day.  How many veterans do you know?

I do wonder about the future of Veteran's Day as fewer and fewer people know any veterans. Or maybe as we wind down two wars which have lasted more than a decade, we're all about to meet more veterans. I think of college students. When I first started working at my current school, we had one or two veterans attending. I suspect the reasons are many, but the main one was that most people eligible for VA benefits had already finished their schooling, while younger military folks were off fighting. Now, as more soldiers come home, we're seeing those numbers increase.

I have some older, Baby Boomer friends who are anti-military in ways that make me think they've never met many military folks. I understand their Vietnam War era issues, but their world view seems a bit narrow to me.

Of course, my world view is shaped by my experience as the daughter of an Air Force officer. My dad had finished his active duty by my early childhood years, but he continued to serve in the Reserves until he retired.

In some ways, we were lucky, since he wasn't wounded in the many ways that others who served in the Vietnam War would be. He joined the Air Force because he knew his draft number was coming up, and he didn't want to be drafted into the Army. I remember the shock I felt when he told me that fact. I always thought he had joined because of his patriotic feelings. And he joined fairly early in the effort, 1962 or so. I hadn't thought that the draft had been in force back then, but it was.

So, he joined the Air Force and trained to become a navigator. Along the way, he met and married my mom. They were stationed in France, the last troops to be in France before Charles de Gaulle kicked them all out. Because they were in France, they could travel all across Europe. They had a view of the world that they shared with me and my sister.

Did he really change the world by serving in France and flying missions to Asia? How can we know for sure? Perhaps the Soviets didn't invade West Germany because they knew of nearby troops. It's hard to argue that his missions to Asia brought an earlier end to the Vietnam War, since it would continue for a lot longer.

I think of one of my best high school friends who joined the Army when she needed to pay for school.  She was stationed in Germany during the last days of the Cold War.  Did she keep the world safe for democracy?  I'm biased, but I believe she did.  I'm mindful of how many veterans I know who did what they pledged to do and then returned to regular life.  I wonder how often they wonder if they made a difference.

We often do not know the impact of our work. We must do the work that is required of us, even if we're unsure of its import.  I know many military folks who believe that they have preserved peace.  I know that their belief is true in many aspects.

I'm also painfully aware of how often peace is won at the hard cost of human life.  I'm aware of the difficult acts that must be done so that those of us across oceans can sleep peacefully at night.  I'm aware of how many veterans will never sleep peacefully through the night again.

Many active duty military people and veterans have done that work that so few of us are willing to do. So few of us are aware of what they do, and today is a good day to stop and to feel some appreciation--as well as the hope that some day wars will cease and this kind of service won't be necessary.

Here's a prayer I wrote for Veteran's Day:

God of Peace, on this Veteran's Day, we beseech you to renew in us the determination to be peacemakers. On this day, we pray for all who are damaged by wars big and small. We offer a prayer of thanks for our veterans, and we offer a prayer of vision that military people across the world will find themselves with no warmaking jobs to do. We offer our hopeful prayers that you would plant in our leaders the seeds that will sprout into saplings of peace.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Back to Sunday Morning Worship

This morning, I was trying to remember when I'd last been to church.  It's been almost a month, or maybe slightly over a month, since I've been to Sunday morning worship.

It hasn't been that long since I've actually been to church.  I was there for the pumpkin offload, for the Saturday morning set up for the community yard sale/harvest festival, and for a Council meeting.

It hasn't been that long since I've been to worship.  I went to a late October Thursday night Reformation service, the county-wide celebration with the Bishop.

It hasn't been that long since I've engaged in church activities that have taken time.  I've been working on securing a loan for the church so we can fix the roof.  If you've tried to get any kind of mortgage-like loan lately, you know it requires lots of paperwork.

Still, I need to get back to worshipping.  I need Communion.  I need to remember the reasons why we're a community.

I've been feeling a bit snarly lately, another sure sign I need to get to church.  We've been in a time period of deadlines; my spouse and I have been getting our small cottage at the back of our new property ready for our friend who needs a new place to rent by Nov. 15.  That deadline makes me feel irritable about the other deadlines in my life.  And church brings with it all sorts of deadlines, especially when one is on Council.

Today we have the congregational meeting where we talk about the changes to the church Constitution that  Church Council is recommending.  I'm hoping it will be a quick time of discussion.  I have already spent more time of my life than I want to spend in discussing arcane changes to this document that doesn't feel terribly relevant.  That makes me feel snarly.

And then we discuss the additional money that we want the congregation to approve adding to the loan we're seeking.  We've already gotten their approval for a loan to fix the roof.  Now we need to fix/replace the AC.

Again, I feel snarly.  I'm tired of thinking about building issues.  I'm facing construction decisions at home, with cottage repairs and updates, and construction decisions at church, and lots of construction happening at work, which means upheaval will be coming.

Yes, I need to get to worship.  I need to remember why we do these things.  I need to remember to say thank you to God, who has given us all so many blessings.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Restoring All Sorts of Seams

It's been awhile since I posted a poem here.  The last several weeks and months have left me wishing for less ripping apart of the social fabric and more restoring it.  I've also been missing my quilting projects.  Yesterday I went to a cloth shop to get fabric for curtains, and I so enjoyed wandering amongst the bolts of fabrics, enjoying the colors and textures (for more on yesterday's creative activities, see this blog post).   Those yearnings have made me think of a poem I wrote some years ago.

For more on how I came to compose this poem, see this post on my creativity blog.  It was inspired by a variety of blog posts, some with photos, that I came across in a short period of time.  And astute readers will note my never-very-far-away yearnings for monastery grounds.

It was published in the journal Adanna.  I hope it enriches your Saturday. 

Restoring the Seams

She used to count every rib,
a loom around her heart,
like the Appalachian tool
that spools honey into her tea.

But years of good food and wine
now hide her ribcage.
She lets the seams
out of the side of her favorite
dress, a dress bought long ago,
a dress stitched by a distant
woman in Afghanistan in a different decade.
She thinks of that country
come undone, torn and shredded.
She slides the seam ripper
under threads made softer
by the humidity of many Southern summers.

She thinks of distant graveyards,
young men buried in alien
landscapes. She thinks of English ivy,
that invasive immigrant, clinging
to the marble markers,
obscuring the names beneath.

Hours later, half blind from restoring
seams, she walks the woods
of a neighboring monastery.

The monks have reclaimed
an old slave cemetery, but a toppled
angel lies face down in the rich dirt.
She sets the angel upright
and brushes soil off her half-eroded features.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Singing in the Psalms as Resistance Tool and Scaffolding

I have written before about singing in the stairwells.  This post talks about the acoustics in my work stairwell and about the way my body opens up.  I wrote "When I need an uplift, I go to the stairwells and sing a note or a phrase, often from Compline or the line I learned at Mepkin Abbey: 'Oh, God, come to my assistance. Oh Lord, make haste to help me.'"

Those words came back to me a few weeks ago as I made my way to a meeting that promised to be particularly ugly.  I took a minute in the stairwell to sing that ancient Psalm.  Usually when I sing and ask God to come to my assistance, I'm not facing a particular threat.  That day a few weeks ago, I wanted protection.

I don't know if it was the singing or the specific words that made me feel instantly calm.  I sang those lines and stood up straighter.  I sang those lines and felt a certain assurance.

I'll be the first to admit that an ugly meeting at work is not as bad as situations that many believers have faced through the ages.  I knew that I'd be safe to a certain extent.  No one would throw me in a prison cell.  No hands would be laid on me.  I was fairly sure that I'd still be employed after the meeting.

Through the years, I've now been to many an ugly or painful meeting.  Often, I don't know in advance that the meeting will take that turn.  Perhaps I should prepare for every meeting as if it's going to be ugly.  I say this because going into the meeting that was sure to be ugly was such a different experience.  The words from various Psalms swirled in my head.  No matter what was said, the Psalms assured me that I need fear no evil.  The Psalms reminded me that I'm protected by a greater power who will not allow my soles to slip.  The Psalms reminded me of my worth, no matter what was being said in the meeting.

I was able to stay calm.  I didn't slide into self-defensiveness.  I explained my actions and the thought process behind them.  We talked in a general way about the issue of late work and excused and unexcused absences, and then we talked about possible approaches.  We talked about processes that used to be in place and the changes that would soon come barreling towards us.

The words of the Psalmist kept me steadied.  Beneath the backdrop of threatening possibilities, the Psalmist reminded me that no matter how deep and dark the valley and the swirling shadows, I didn't need to be overcome with fear.

I've noticed a similar steadying process during times when I can pray the liturgy of the hours throughout the day.  I used the fine work by Phyllis Tickle, The Divine Hours, and most of that liturgy is taken directly from the Psalms.  When I pray from that book periodically throughout the day, those words drive deep into my brain, and they resurface at odd and interesting times.  I like the way they scaffold my days.

Alas, I don't often pause to pray throughout my day.  I start the day with the morning prayers, but I don't usually return to the rest of the prayers.

It is time to return to that practice of praying the Psalms throughout the day.  I want those words always in the background, not just during times of trouble.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Turn the Knob the Other Way in Your Spiritual Life

Over at my creativity blog, I wrote this post about my week's great joy:  discovering hot water in our small cottage behind our small house.  It's a problem we'd been trying to solve for months.

We knew the cottage had hot water at some point, because there's a shower, and who puts in a cold-water only shower? But back in July, the hot water delivery system didn't seem to be functioning.

We've been on the lookout for where a hot water heater might have once been in the cottage, without luck. We tried to figure out the piping. It seemed that hot water had once gone to the cottage from the main house. But the shower had nothing but cold water when my spouse let it run. We asked other neighborhood people about their cottages.

We'd been making plans to get an on-demand hot water system, which was making my heart sink for all sorts of reasons (expense, fear of plumbing repairs, those things).  But on Tuesday, I discovered that the hot water does work in the cottage.

How did I do this?  I turned the knob the other way.  We're so conditioned to turning the knob to the left when we want hot water that we hadn't tried turning it to the right.  I got so stymied and so desperate to solve the riddle that I tried it one more time, turning to the solution that should have been obvious right from the beginning.

That experience has made me think about the larger lessons.  How often do we make our problems bigger by not trying a simple fix?  How do our patterns and habits preclude trying the simple solution?  How do we make our problems harder than they have to be?

I think about this in our spiritual lives.  Maybe we feel awkward when we pray--does it occur to us to use a prayer book with the prayers already written?  Maybe we want to do more volunteer work, but we feel we don't have a chunk of time.  We could volunteer for smaller units of time.

I think this about our churches.  Many of us are doing the obvious things to help with finances:  we look for other groups to use our building, for example.  But many of us could do more.  The example of a community garden is one example.  My church sits across the street from a community college.  We could put in more parking and rent those spaces to the college--or just rent the parking lot as is.  As far as I know, we've never reached out that way.

Turn the knob the other way.  Maybe we'd like to go on a retreat, but we assume we can't afford it.  Many camps have scholarship programs.  Or we could do a solitary retreat at a monastery, which usually will accept what the retreatent can afford as a donation.

Turn the knob the other way.  Maybe our spiritual needs mean we should reach out to different resources.   There's no rule that says we can't have 2 church homes.  Maybe we need to sing with the community chorale in addition to a church choir.  Maybe it's time to learn an instrument.  Maybe it's time to explore a non-musical art form.

Turn the knob the other way:  what could we be doing differently, if we could just get out of the yoke of how we've always done it?

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, November 10, 2013:

First Reading: Job 19:23-27a

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Haggai 1:15b--2:9

Psalm: Psalm 17:1-9

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 145:1-5, 18-22

Psalm (Alt.): Psalm 98 (semi-continuous) (Psalm 98 (Semi-continuous) NRSV)

Second Reading: 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17

Gospel: Luke 20:27-38

This week's Gospel reading finds Jesus in a familiar situation: a group of religious leaders approach Jesus with a tricky legal question about a woman who marries seven times with no children. When she dies, who will be her husband in heaven?

It's amazing to look back over our lives and realize how many times we engage in these kind of useless legalistic arguments. Sure, they're fun at first, especially when we're children (if you had to be blind or deaf, which would you choose?) or when we're in college ("Would you rather be a free man in Sparta or a slave in Athens? Discuss"). But as we get older, I suspect that most of us find these lines of discussion increasingly tiring and tiresome.

For one thing, we already know what most people would say. Why continue to argue? I’ve noticed lately that political discussions usually turn into arguments, even when all the people in the room feel the same way. We’re actually arguing with people who aren’t really there. We already know what we think. We’re just arguing for the adrenaline surge, the joy of the jolt of self-righteous anger that arguing gives us. Yawn.

Likewise, those religious leaders don’t really care what Jesus thinks. They aren’t confused themselves. They know what the right answer should be. They want to see if Jesus will give it.

Jesus gives his questioners a giant yawn too, and he reminds us that we are chosen for better things than this. Perhaps his remarks seem anti-marriage to you, and it's important to remember that you have to edit Jesus fiercely before you get the Family Values Jesus that some people promote. Many of Jesus’ teachings warn about the pull of the worldly life, and families are a big pull.

Jesus comes to move our conversations into realms that are truly important. Who cares about marriage and all its social niceties, when our very souls are at stake? Again and again, Jesus reminds us that important work remains left to do, and we are called upon to do it. Along the way, we should avoid those activities that sap our energies and move us away from our true purpose. Those activities may involve our families.

Does that mean we shouldn't get married? Not necessarily. But even our family duties don’t excuse us from keeping our focus on more important issues. We’re not to worry about who our families will be when we’re in Heaven. We’re called to worry about families that are alive right now.

Again and again, Jesus tries to show us what is most important. We are called to love each other. Most of us aren't very loving when we're arguing. Move your energies to something more productive. It was true when Jesus walked the earth, and it’s just as true today.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Missing Mepkin

This time of year is when I'd often take a trip to Mepkin Abbey.  I first went in 2004, a week-end that contained both Halloween, which came on a Sunday, which was Reformation Sunday that year and All Saints Day on that Monday that we left.  I so fell in love that we committed to coming back the following year.

The next year was 2005, and our airport was shut down because of hurricane Wilma, which meant I couldn't join my friends at the abbey.  I didn't get back to Mepkin until 2006, and again, I loved it.  In 2007, we planned to go MLK week-end, but then we couldn't.  I went back in 2009, 2010, and 2011.  So, I've been away from Mepkin more than I've actually made the pilgrimage in the autumn.

Still there's something about the shift from summer to fall that makes me yearn for Mepkin Abbey.  This year, for a variety of reasons, I'll meet my friends there in late January.  Last year, we met there the first week-end of February, and that worked well.  If we spend the next day making our pilgrimage in the winter, will my yearnings shift?

Or is it something about the change of light that signals a change of scenery?  Some days I miss Mepkin; other days I miss the mountains, especially as people post their pictures of trips to wineries and blazing foliage.  Some autumnal days find me missing my undergraduate and grad school days--the campus coming back to life, the start of classes, the blazing heat that in a few weeks would turn to a hint of crispness as the first cold fronts blew through.

But what I'm missing most is a recalibration that comes from a spiritual trip.  I remember walking barefoot in the labyrinth on a beautiful November morning (see this blog post).  Before I was a blogger and a photographer, I spent a lot of time noticing how the sanctuary changed.  I still haven't figured out the changing of the floral elements.  I delighted in the huge urn that contained the kind of fake autumn leaves you'd pick up at a craft store, but I've also loved the flowers that clearly came from the gardens.  I've learned a lot from how the monks use art to help celebrate their feast days.

I've also loved how different rhythms, more sacred ones, get into my head, and how it only takes about 36 hours.  How I wish I could duplicate that at home.  I read my prayer book alone, but it's not the same as chanting the Psalms.  And yes, I could try chanting on my own.  So far, I haven't.

Anyone who has read this blog much at all realizes how much these trips have changed me in ways both profound and minute.  I've been reminded of how satisfying a simple meal of a soup and sandwich can be.  I've discovered that even monks feel rushed--we're all in this human condition together.  I've had great writing come together at Mepkin.  I always leave with more ideas than I can use.  I've felt the presence of God--and because I took the time to drop out of my regular life.  That experience helps me feel the presence of God back home too.

Do I need to leave to accomplish those things?  This autumn has been an experiment.  I haven't travelled with my husband on his trips to board meetings, which usually has meant at least one trip to Lutheridge.  I didn't make it to the retreat to plan the Create in Me retreat.  My Mepkin trip will be postponed until early February.

And yes, I feel a bit depleted.  I'm often feeling depleted in a different way once I've done all that travelling.  But I'm not feeling spiritually drained the way that I do right now.  Part of that depletion has to do with working on church building issues.  Part of that has to do with ugliness at work.  Part of my depletion is just the tiredness that comes after the euphoria of moving to a new house and selling the old one--nice problems to have, but wearying just the same.

I'm looking forward to Thanksgiving, where I will get back to Lutheridge and have some family time.  I'm looking forward to Advent, a liturgical time which recharges me.  I'm ready to regroup.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Living Lanterns on The Feast of All Souls

Today is the Feast of All Souls. You might be confused--didn't we just celebrate this holiday yesterday?

No, that was All Saints. All Saints was originally designed to honor the saints, those who had been beatified. Official saints, canonized by the Pope.

All Souls Day, celebrated the day after All Saints, was designed to honor everyone else who had died.

In some traditions, All Saints Day honors all the Christian dead, and All Souls Day honors those who have died in the past year.  In the medieval Catholic theology, those souls would still be in Purgatory, and special prayers would be offered for them on the Feast of All Souls.

Those of you with excellent memories of your English major days may remember that Sir Gawain left for his adventure with the Green Knight on All Souls Day. Medieval audiences would have read a lot into that date of departure.  They would be expecting that next year, Gawain would be one of the souls prayed for on this feast day.

All Souls would develop into the kind of day that drove Martin Luther crazy. On All Souls Day, people would be encouraged to spend money so that their loved ones would get out of purgatory sooner. According to medieval theology, a soul wasn't ready to go to Heaven right away.

In most Protestant churches, All Saints and All Souls have merged into one, and that makes sense to me. Still, my inner English major will always have a sense of these alternative liturgical calendars. I like having more to celebrate, more ways to remind myself that there's more to life than what occupies most of my time (work--both on the job and at my house). I like having holidays that remind me that we're only here for too brief a time. It helps me to treasure the fleeting moments that I have.

Yesterday I came across a reference piece that talked about the triduum of Halloween, All Saints and All Souls.  Triduum means "three days," but I've only ever heard of it used as the time period between Good Friday and Easter.

In many Latin cultures, the Day of the Dead celebrations continue today.  It's not too late for us.  We could prepare a picnic and head out to the graveyard.

Maybe you're like me, and you have no graveyards; your dead loved ones are buried far away.  We could still have those conversations, albeit one-sided, that we miss having with our loved ones.  We could remember the stories our grandparents and older relatives told us.  We could still have a picnic.  We could invite our friends who have become our families.  

We could create altars, the way that many cultures do around this time.  We could put the sepia-toned pictures of our loved ones on the altar.  We could put shells on the altar to remind us of the beach trips with our families.  We could add other reminders of our ancestors.  We could put a pine cone there to remind us of our time in summer camp.   We could add other reminders of our spiritual formation.

Soon we will be skating down the corridor which takes us to Thanksgiving and Christmas.  It's a time of breathless pace for many of us.  Let us take another day to remember the souls of those gone before us.  Let us think of our own mortal souls which will not be on this earth for a very long time.  Let us resolve to strengthen our spiritual lives, so that we serve as living lanterns for those coming after us.

Here's a prayer I wrote for today:

Comforter God, you know that we miss our recently dead. We do take comfort from your promise that death will not have the final word, but there are stages of our grief where it is difficult to believe. Please forgive us our unbelief and doubt. Please keep reminding us of your love and care. Please strengthen us to be able to provide the same quality of love and care to those around us who are grieving loss. Please keep our creative imaginations focused on the redemption of Creation, where you have promised we will not have any reason to cry anymore.

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Feast of All Saints

Today is the Feast of All Saints. Traditionally, this day celebrates the saints who have gone on before us. Traditionalists would only celebrate the lives of the truly beatified and the lives of those martyred for the faith.  Many modern churches have expanded this feast day to become a day when we remember our dead.

Could we approach this day differently?  Could we use this day to remind us of the saints we are called to become?

Certainly we can begin with the lives of our lost loved ones.  What aspects should we invite into our lives?  From my mother-in-law, Carolyn Abbott, I would like to replicate her fierce love of and loyalty to her family members.  My grandfather Roof never gave away money to individual beggars, but he'd invite tramps to sit at the picnic table while he cooked them a fried egg sandwich; I'd like to emulate that hospitality.  My grandmother Roof began every day in devotional time; I'd be a more well-adjusted human if I followed her example.  My grandfather Berkey knew how to put everyone at ease with his charming graciousness; that kind of hospitality, too, I'd like to see more of in my actions.  My grandmother Berkey was always willing to put on a puppet show or a play; I'd like to meet people where they're living, the way that she did.
Here are some other ways to celebrate the Feast of All Saints:

--Start with the lectionary readings for today:

Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18

Psalm 149 (1)

Ephesians 1:11-23

Luke 6:20-31

--You could then light a candle as you remember the faithful in your life who have nourished you. You could expand your thoughts to those who you didn't know who nonetheless have bolstered your faith.

--Write your living older family members a note or a card. Some day, you'll remember them on this feast day. Write them a note of appreciation now, while they are alive to appreciate your gratitude.

--Say a prayer of thanks for the saints who have gone before.

--Be inspired by the variety of ways that Latino cultures celebrate the Day of the Dead. This year I'm inspired by the altars that people create. Create an altar of your own. It could be an installation type project or it could be part of a bookshelf. Gather objects that mean something to you. Decorate the space with fabric or tissue paper or festive ribbons.  Let your altar remind you of the saint you hope to become.

----Make a picnic and take it to a graveyard, another inspiration from Day of the Dead activities. Look at the tombstones. Make up stories about the dead.

--Or don't make up stories. Today is a good day to remember your family and start writing them down. You won't remember them forever. And there will be younger generations who will be starving for those stories. If you write them in a blog, hopefully, they'll be there forever.

--Rosemary is a symbol of remembrance, so today is a great day to make something with the herb. How about a chicken, roasted with rosemary, lemon, and garlic? Vegetarians can make a tasty bean soup with the same trio of rosemary, lemon, and garlic--add several cans of beans (whirled up in the blender, if you prefer a thicker soup) to your pot of rosemary, lemon, and garlic, and you've got an easy delicious soup. Throw in some steamed carrot pieces for an even more nutritious soup.

--Plant some flowers. In many parts of the United States, now would be a great time to plant bulbs. Then in the spring, you'll have an additional treat.

Here's a prayer I wrote for today:

Comforter God, we give thanks for all the saints who have gone before us. Give us the wisdom, courage, and faith to follow in their footsteps. And when the time comes that our earthly light will be extinguished, allow us to rest easy in the sure knowledge that we will be welcomed into the company of all the saints.