Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Believers: Lone Violin or Part of the Symphony?

I am routinely asked a variation of this question:  "Do I have to go to church to be a Christian/good person?  Can't I do it on my own?"

I have always answered, "Yes, but . . ."

but it's easier to have company for the journey.

but it's easier to have people who remind you of who you are and who claims you.

but it's easier to stay on the path, which can be a hard path, if you have fellow travellers.

but you can do more in a group than you can do on your own.

I was reminded of these interchanges on Saturday as I watched the Broward Symphony Orchestra.  I thought of how my husband sounds as he practices his violin in solitude.  He sounds perfectly acceptable, hitting every note, making his way through the music.

But how much more glorious his violin would sound if he played with others.  Each violin has a slightly different sound--and played all together, there's a depth and a richness that my husband simply cannot duplicate on his own.

And to extend the metaphor, it's not just one church family that supports us as we move through our journey.  No, it's churches everywhere and the people who have gone before us and in some ways, those who will come. 

Violins sound great playing as a group, but they sound even better as part of a string quartet.  And a string quartet sounds great when more strings join them.

And it's not just Christians, but people of every religion and faith.  The strings sound great by themselves, but I loved the note of mystery introduced by the horns and the woodwinds.  Ecumenism in music!

When I used to whine to my mother and wonder why we had to go to church, she used a metaphor that she used as a counselor at Lutheridge.  She asked me to imagine a camp fire.  She asked, "What happens to a coal when you pull it out of the fire?"  Of course, it goes out.

And that might happen to us, but the whole fire will go out eventually--unless, of course, we add more wood. 

In some ways, I'm comparing very different sorts of metaphors.  They do answer the same question.  But I'm glad to have a different metaphor to explain why I think it's important to have a faith community of some sort to help us on our way.

Monday, April 29, 2013

Poetry for Ordinary Time

Yesterday, I heard a great episode of the radio program On Being.  It featured the poet Marie Howe. What a treat! This link takes you to my favorite poem of the hour, in which Mary Magdalene speaks and tells us about her demons. Those demons will be familiar to modern readers too. Be sure to click on the player and have Howe read it to you.

The whole interview is fascinating. Here are some bits to whet your appetite:

She talks about loving science fiction: "I adored it. And about the robots were going to take over and the machines were going to take over. And just last week it occurred to me. Well they have. It's just different from what we expected. You know, uh, Joseph Brodsky — it's just different. And one of my teachers at Columbia was Joseph Brodsky, who's a Russian poet, wonderful, amazing poet, who was exiled from the Soviet Union for On Being a poet. And he said look, he said, you Americans, you are so na├»ve. You think evil is going to come into your houses wearing big black boots. It doesn't come like that. Look at the language. It begins in the language. And I was thinking the machines — what do you look at more? What face do you look into more than any other face in your life — the face of my iPhone."

"Well, that poem ["Letter to my sister"] was written to a sister who, uh, you know. in a big house different people experienced different things. And depending on where you are and the age, you know — and one of the things that I grew up understanding was that multiplicity of viewpoints and truths. But that particular poem was to my sister, a sister who I love very much, who was experiencing trauma and trying to speak to how, in our case I think, alcoholism shatters a unity. It can fragment a community so that you are now in separate shards. And as much as you want to be all in the same room, the nature of that illness fragments any unifying understanding, or even experience. So I think that's what those lines were trying to say. One sister is trying to speak to another from that fragmentation, you know, shard to shard."

She talks about a multi-week exercise she has her writing students do: I ask my students every week to write 10 observations of the actual world. It's very hard for them. . . . Just tell me what you saw this morning like in two lines. You know I saw a water glass on a brown tablecloth. Uh, and the light came through it in three places. No metaphor. And to resist metaphor is very difficult because you have to actually endure the thing itself, which hurts us for some reason. . . . just noticing what's around them, which is — we don't do. And not, and again, not to compare it to anything, they're not allowed. And that's very hard for them. And then on the sixth, fifth or sixth week, I say OK, use metaphors. And they don't want to. They don't know how. Why would I? Why would I compare that to anything when it's itself? . . . so then you think why the necessity of a metaphor? Why, why do you have to use a metaphor now, you know? Not just to do it to avoid it, but to do it to avoid it, but to do it to make it more there, you know. And it's very interesting."

This link takes you to the main page where you can hear the radio broadcast, watch the interview or read the transcript--and there are lots of extras.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

Thinking about Worship at a Symphony Concert

Last night, we went to hear the Broward Symphony Orchestra--what a great concert!  As I sat there, I thought about the lessons we church folks can learn from an orchestra concert.

I was impressed that the conductor gave us some background information about the music before the first half of the concert.  It helped me enjoy the music more.  In fact, I'd have loved to have know more in terms of music theory--what was Wagner hoping to evoke in me as a listener with the choices that he made?

I thought about all the new people who wander through the doors of our churches.  Are we good at helping them navigate?  And then, once they've been navigating for a service, or two or three, are we good at giving them background and helping them understand why we do the things we do?  It's so easy for people to lose their way and to come under the influence of strange religious figures on the airwaves.

We want a God we can control, but that's not how it works.  As I thought about the soaring music and the way I was affected, I tried to make a metaphor for God and the universe and the ways I sometimes sense it all working in harmony, but more often I feel like there's more going on than I can grasp, and I wish I had taken more music classes.

When we reassembled ourselves after Intermission, we got less of an introduction, and I missed it.  My spouse pointed out that we'd gotten the introduction because the concert began with the conductor alone, playing a beautiful piece by Liszt.  After she played, the piano had to be moved, and the orchestra had to get in place. 

But after Intermission, she didn't have time to fill, so she said, "Of course, we all know what this symphony is about."

I thought, no, I'd be willing to bet there are only 10 people in the audience who know.  But away we went.  It was thrilling.

But as the concert went on, I found it harder to stay focused, to pay attention. I wonder how many people have a similar experience in our worship services.  Those of us who plan worship services probably think they're quite participatory, but often, they're not.  The congregation sits passively, taking it all in--and by the end, we're detached.

As the concert progressed, I longed to touch the instruments.  I wanted to be part of the experience, not an observer.

As a congregation, how can we let more people touch the instruments?  I've been in some churches where the congregation doesn't even sing anymore.  How did we let that happen?

As an audience member, I'd make more effort to get to concerts if I got to participate somehow, even if it was just in being told what to expect as the music progressed.  We might be surprised if included more people every Sunday.  People might come back, if only to see what would happen with each new Sunday.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Where I'll Be a Week from Now: Synod Assembly!

A week from today, I'll be at Synod Assembly.  We'll meet on Thursday and begin the process of selecting a bishop.  I wonder where we'll be in the process by this time next week.

I'm hoping that I'll leave inspired by how we've been open to the Holy Spirit.  I'm hoping that I'll have insight into how the discernment process can work.

Of course, I'm worried that I'll see the ugly side of people, which is always discouraging, but never more so than when Christians, who are commanded to love each other, act in icky ways.

By this time next week, we'll have whittled down a list of possibilities.  What will the candidates look like?

If you look at the pastors who attend Synod Assembly, you'd assume that chances are good we'll be in the process of deciding between older, white men.  But maybe the Holy Spirit will surprise us.

I've written before that I'd like to see a woman leading the Florida-Bahamas Synod.  But more than gender, I'd like to see someone who's creative and capable of leading us in new directions.  I'm not exactly sure what that would look like--will I recognize that person if I see him or her a week from today?

I'm also looking forward to the chance to see people from across the state.  By now, I've been attending long enough that some of the faces are familiar.  Plus, I'm riding up with a church member who feels like a kindred spirit; he's the one who took a side trip to Merton's abbey, since he was nearby for a family wedding.

I'm also hoping that there's a meet-up time for people who are discerning a call.  I'm discerning something, but I'm not sure it's a call to traditional ministry.

Of course, I'll be taking notes and writing blog posts about the whole event.  I like the idea of a blog as a historical record, one that might be easier for future scholars to find and use than traditional private journals have been.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

On Not Loving the Narrative Lectionary

Careful readers of this blog may have realized that last week, I didn't write a post for the Narrative Lectionary reading.  I think I'm done with that.  The main reason:  the cycle ends in a few weeks anyway, and my pastor has chosen different readings for the coming weeks.  I had mainly been writing the posts to have a post for our church's blog.  If we're not using those readings anymore, well, a major motivation is gone.

Of course, if I was finding it rewarding, I'd still be doing it.  But I haven't found it as rewarding as I thought.

I expected to find more of a narrative as I worked my way through the readings since September.  I know that the creators of the Narrative Lectionary had a vision of a selection of readings that gave a sense of the overall plot of God's ways of working in the world.  As a person with a Ph.D. in English, I expected the narrative readings to be bound together more thoroughly, to echo each other.  So far, I haven't found as much of that as I thought I would.

To be frank, the readings in the Narrative Lectionary feel as random as the ones in the Revised Common Lectionary.  As a reader, I'm still the one struggling to make the connections.  I'm trained in literary theory, so it's easier for me.  But the readings from the Old Testament prophets don't seem to have connections to the earlier stories chosen from the Old Testament, and the links to the New Testament stories of Jesus don't seem to be there either.

My inner good student doesn't want me to admit these things.  She worries that I'm overlooking something big and obvious.  She has anxiety that my Ph.D. will be revoked.  She imagines that I will never be accepted to a seminary, if I keep admitting these things in public spaces like a blog.  She says, "Trained theologians created this Lectionary.  Who the heck are you to question it?"

I am old-fashioned.  I want to have all the readings (Old Testament, Psalm, New Testament epistle, and Gospel) in one day that connect and link in interesting ways.  If I miss a Sunday, I have a chance to pick up the threads the following Sunday with another set of connected readings.  Maybe my brain or the pastor's brain connects all the readings for the day and keeps up with the threads across time.  Maybe I end up with a sense of the narrative.  Or maybe I just get set after set of matched readings.  Either way, it works.

With the Narrative Lectionary, I just didn't feel that sense of satisfaction each week.  Some readings left me shaking my head and saying, "What am I supposed to do with this?"  And there weren't additional readings leaping into the fray each week.

I remember my childhood and adolescent years in church, and how at least one reading always seemed to speak to me.  Even when the dense prose of Paul made me shake my head or the Old Testament story pointed to an unnecessarily harsh God, there was the Gospel.  If the Gospel was strange, there was usually solace in a Psalm or a letter written by those early Church evangelists.

Even as I celebrate new ways of doing church, the abundance of Bible readings is an old way that I miss.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, April 28, 2013:

First Reading: Acts 11:1-18

Psalm: Psalm 148

Second Reading: Revelation 21:1-6

Gospel: John 13:31-35

When I was a child, I wished that my family was part of a more rigorous religion. I wanted to go to Confession every week. I wanted to do more penance than just saying I was sorry. I thought it would be neat to be a kosher Jew, with lots of laws to keep. The Lutheran concept of grace didn't thrill me very much. It just seemed so easy.

In today's Gospel, we get our marching orders: "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." (verses 34-35). When I was a child, I would have rolled my eyes and asked for a harder assignment.

Now that I am older, I think that loving each other is plenty hard enough. As a grown up, I think that following dietary laws would be an easier command. I think of all the other things Jesus could have required of us, and some part of me wishes for one of those.

Why is it so hard to love each other? Why are we so unlike Thomas, so unable to thrust our hands into each other's wounds? We don't want to get involved. We don't know what to say. We don't know how to act. So, we take the easier route and lose ourselves in our busy routines. We get so frantic with our schedules that we don't have time for ourselves, much less each other, much less God.

But Jesus tells us firmly that we are to love each other. He doesn't tell us how, but he shows us. This Gospel lesson comes after the washing of the disciples' feet and a leisurely dinner.

If we don't know how to love each other, we might start by sharing meals together. We have to eat, no matter how fast-paced our lives. Why not take some time to slow down as we nourish ourselves? Why not take some time to nourish ourselves in other ways? By sharing meals, we open up the door to love.

We might engage in other behaviors that open our hearts to love. We might try not saying negative things about each other. It's so easy to gossip. It's so easy to make ourselves feel good by pointing out the faults of others. But why do that? Why not focus on the good of our fellow travelers with us on our journeys?

Refusing to bash others verbally could be our modern equivalent of foot washing. We could show our care not by lavishing attention on physical bodies, but by lavishing our attention on the good qualities of others.

We live in a culture that prefers to argue, to fight, to tear down. Focusing on the good qualities of others seems as intimate in our current climate as foot washing must have seemed in the time of Jesus.

Of course, to focus on those good qualities, we have to get to know each other well enough to know what those good qualities are. Back to the dinner table!

I've only focused on two ways of loving each other; the ways to love are infinite. Choose the one that calls to you and decide that this will be your ministry. Know that you will have to gently refocus your efforts time and time again, as you move along. Fortify your efforts by asking God to help you, so that you can glorify God, so that everyone will know the God you serve by the efforts you make to serve others.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Retreats of Various Sorts

Time grows short.  I have a few hours of work, and then it's back to the house for the treat of a 24 hour visit from in-laws who are visiting various family members in Florida. We're the furthest away, so I'm honored that they're making the effort.

Their visit will be a kind of retreat, but the kind that's all too familiar lately--too short, over too fast.

But a short retreat is better than no retreat.

Speaking of retreats, I have this blog post up over at the Living Lutheran site about why we should take retreats and what to consider when choosing a retreat.

Here's a taste:  "A good spiritual retreat has some of the same features as a vacation: to get away, to leave work behind, to refresh our outlooks. But a good spiritual retreat will also give us tools to use as we return to our hectic lives."

Go here to read the whole thing.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Poems for Earth Day

Earth Day seems like a good day for thinking about gardens and all the ways that they teach us not only about ourselves, but also about past generations.  I wrote about that idea more extensively a few years ago in this post, which has a poem as well as a meditation on what gardening across generations teaches us.

It's also a good day to think more globally, as we continue to race towards a warmer future.  If you're in the mood for that kind of poem, I have one that I'll paste below.  It appears for the first time here:

The Citrus Trees Consider Climate Change

They contemplate concrete
as they smell the smoke at night,
their cousins felled in more fertile
fields, lands deemed ripe
for profitable plucking by developers.

The citrus trees consider climate
change as they produce their golden
globes of fruit. They know
that if the developers don’t chop
them down, global
warming will fell them fast.

The citrus trees, like other victims
of a century of suffering,
realize too late that they should have moved.
But we are all rooted
by a network of connections that keep
us trapped, planted in place.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Blessed to Be Blessings

A week ago, we spent a Sunday with Rich Melheim, where we learned all sorts of techniques for enriching our relationships.  Our church has been using Faith 5 techniques*, so they weren't new to me.  I did think about how much I've come to cherish the practice of blessing each other.

When we leave each other for the day, my spouse has been blessing me this week.  With his finger, he draws a cross on my forehead and says, "Remember that you are blessed to be a blessing."  It is good to remember that fact as I go to work, a place that doesn't always bless me.

I bless him in return.

Yesterday, we had our Church Council budget retreat.  I decided to start with the Faith 5.  I firmly believe that our meeting went smoothly because the exercise helped remind us that we're all humans, doing our best.  I think that blessing each other put us in a good frame of mind.  I believe that we were more open to the movements of the Holy Spirit by opening ourselves up this way.

One of the most profound parts of the Create in Me retreat happened for me this year at the end of our second day of Bible study.  We teamed up with a partner, put our hands on the partner's head, and repeated the words that end the sacrament of Baptism:

"Sustain ______ with the gift of your Holy Spirit:  the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord, the spirit of joy in your presence, both now and forever."

Then we marked the sign of the cross on foreheads, saying these words:  "______, child of God, you have been sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked with the cross of Christ forever."

My partner and I, both moved to tears, then hugged.

I haven't really done much with blessing in these ways before these past 9 months.  It's been much more wondrous than I ever predicted it could be. 

And like the best spiritual practices, it's so simple and easy to do.

*Share highs and lows, read the Bible, connect the Bible to highs and lows, pray, bless

Friday, April 19, 2013

Arts Meditation with Clay

Two weeks ago at our Create in Me retreat, we'd have been getting ready for our Friday night experience. On Thursday, we'd have done our arts meditation and the clay would be drying. By Friday night, we could carry our creations in a candlelit procession down the mountain.

What did we make? Pinch pot candle holders.

On our car trip to North Carolina, the passenger made the meditation kits (directions are below, if you want to make them for a larger group).

I loved dividing the 5 pounds of clay into smaller lumps. I found it oddly soothing. I tried making a pinch pot or two. They looked misshapen.

It was quite a contrast to our arts meditation that ended our first night session. We took the clay in our hands and closed our eyes. Our leader led us through the clay shaping process, while reminding us of how we're being shaped like clay. In so many ways are we being shaped like clay: in our relationships, with our art, at work, by way of our various disciplines (spiritual, physical, educational).

Here's the big surprise for me: the pot I shaped with my eyes closed was much more shapely and pleasing to the eye than the ones I made with my eyes open.

That result wasn't a surprise to my friend who makes her living as a potter. She said that vision often gets in the way. When we close our eyes, we can work with the clay that we have, not the clay that we think we should have. Our hands are better guides to what pleases in terms of shape, smoothness, balance, and all the rest.

Seems like a metaphor for much of life to me!

We had a toothpick in the kit, and we used it to put a word on the pot that seemed important.  It could be a word that we wanted to meditate upon or a word that we wanted light shed upon.

The pastor who led us in this exercise said she has campers write their names on the pot while she talks about how God knows their names.  If you didn't want to involve candles, it's still a powerful way of thinking about God as potter, humans as clay.

And the exercise seems like it would be a good one for classes of all kinds:  Sunday School, Vacation Bible School, arts and spirituality classes.

When I was the Vacation Bible School Arts and Crafts Leader last summer, I found that kids of all ages loved working with clay.  After our Create in Me retreat, I can report that grown ups love working with clay too.
Directions for assembling meditation kits:

What You Need:

Sandwich bags that zip
Crayola Air Dry Clay (5 pounds = 30-40 kits)
Thick wet wipes (not the pop-up kind)
tea light candles

The meditation kit consists of a sandwich size baggie with a small ball of
clay on one side of the baggie and two wet wipes, a tea-light candle and a
toothpick on the other side - with the baggie twisted or taped/tied in between -
so that the wipes stay clean & wet (otherwise the clay will soak up their
moisture). I put the wet wipes in one zip-lock baggie and added it to another baggie
that contained everything else.

It does not need to be a lot of clay. The ball should be about the size that
would fit into the opening made if you touch your thumb to your index finger. At
least for me, that much clay easily makes a nice pinch pot that fits a tea light
candle inside with not a lot of extra clay to worry what to do with... The wet
wipes have to be the thick kind - not the "pop up" kind. They dry out too fast.

Now for the complication: the kits probably can't be made more than a week
ahead or they'll dry out - and even then you'd need to squeeze out as much air
as possible to keep the clay soft and the wipes wet. To be on the safe side, you could
put the meditation kits in another plastic bag or container.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Signs of Jesus

On Sunday, at our Worship Together service*, we were still immersed in the Emmaus story.  We talked about Jesus being beside us and not realizing it.  We sang and signed the song that featured the invitation from the Emmaus walkers "Stay with us.  For the day is nearly done."  We did our Faith 5:  shared highs and lows, read the Bible, talked about how our highs and lows connected to the Bible reading, prayed for each other, and blessed each other.

And then, we got our Art Assignment.  We were to walk around the church, inside and out, and talk about what reminds us of the presence of Jesus.  If we had cameras, we were to take pictures.  One of the pre-teens at my table asked if she could use my camera.  I said sure, so the photo below is hers. 

Off we went to see where we were reminded of Christ.

There's the obvious, of course.  We're in a church designed to remind us of Jesus:  crosses, the Communion elements, candles, other symbols.

And outside we have a butterfly garden, so we've got both natural and human-added elements to the garden. 

I loved how people thought beyond the obvious.  One child said, "The bricks remind me of Jesus because they're heavy, like the cross that Jesus carried."

The pre-teen with my camera said, "The spiderweb reminds me of Jesus because it's sticky, and Jesus sticks with you."

I love that most people have cameras with them now, in the form of cell phones.  Once, this assignment would have required a lot of disposable cameras.  Now, it's easy.

But even if we didn't have cameras, it would have been a good exercise.  It's one I'd like to carry into my everyday life.  It's far too easy to get bogged down in the drudgery that daily life can be.  Events of this week remind us that we have too little time on this earth to take any day for granted.

Below:  my favorite image taken with my camera:

*Our Worship Together service is a family service designed to combine faith formation (the kind we used to rely on Sunday School to do), worship, and creative approaches to being a Christian.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, April 21, 2013:

First Reading: Acts 9:36-43

Psalm: Psalm 23

Second Reading: Revelation 7:9-17

Gospel: John 10:22-30

This week has been the kind of week where many of us might yearn for a shepherd. We’ve seen a bombing at the Boston Marathon and heard horrific tales. We may feel so stunned by the horror of it all that we feel ourselves wandering around at a loss for what to do, just like a sheep that is lost from the flock. It’s a week where we have many grim anniversaries: Waco, Oklahoma City, Columbine, and Virginia Tech. We may wonder when the violence will cease. We may grow weary of the bleating of bad news.

Our brains might return to T.S. Eliot who warned us that April is the cruelest month. Or maybe we should let our brains return to the modern Civil Rights movement, and take comfort from some of that powerful writing.

We have just passed the 50th anniversary of “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” Dr. Martin Luther King was infuriated by white, Southern clergy who advised King to proceed more slowly. But King knew how important his cause was. He said, “"I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."

It’s important to remember that King had been working on this cause of basic human justice for years and years before writing this letter. It’s important to realize that he’d work many more years before he was martyred.

We are not in the Promised Land that King described for us. Maybe that Promised Land can’t exist until the final redemption of creation is complete. Although we live in an Easter landscape, we know that there are seasons when it seems that death will defeat us all and not just temporarily.

We, too, can be sheep who cannot hear the voice of the shepherd. But Christ still calls to us. Christ still insists on a vision of the poor being taken care of, the captives set free, the hungry fed. Christ insists on a world where we all have enough and we can live free from fear.

Unfortunately, we know that people can succumb to darkness and homicidal impulses. We must find a way to live with that knowledge.

In a week where so many of us feel helpless, it’s good to remember to pray. In the summer of 1986, I went to a multi-faith prayer service that marked the anniversary of the Soweto uprising. I was impressed by the dedication, but skeptical of the possibility that any of it would matter. I couldn’t even imagine what peace and justice would look like for South Africa. But I participated because people had invited me, and it seemed rude to sit sullenly.

Just a few years later, Nelson Mandela walked out of prison, and just a few years after that, he was elected president of South Africa. I will never dismiss the power of prayer again.

I can’t find the terrorists responsible for that bomb. But I can pray for justice. I can’t patch up the runners and the observers who were injured. But I can pray for healing.

We may not see the fruits of our labor right away. King’s letter only gained its power through the months as it was published in a variety of places. And it still took time to get the Civil Rights Act passed, and even more time before attitudes changed.

We can be the shepherd, helping to protect the flock. And on days when we lose courage, we can take comfort from knowing that we’re watched over by the most powerful shepherd who has a vision for creation that won’t let death have the final answer.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Bombs: Boston and Birmingham

I have spent many formative years running road races. I've run neighborhood 3 mile events and more 10Ks than I can count. I've done the Army 10 miler once, and the Kiawah Island half-marathon once. I've been at numerous finish lines cheering for loved ones and everyone running around them. My dad just finished 2nd in his age division (70-75) in the Cherry Blossom 10 miler on April 7.

When I first started running, back in 1980, I didn't know many marathoners, and the ones I knew were male and young and just out of college where they'd run track and field. When I first started running, women didn't run the marathon in the Olympics--that event was first added for the 1984 Games. The world has changed--in some ways for the better, and in some ways for the worse. In all my running years, I worried more about my body failing or being attacked as I logged my miles in the early morning. Now, we may have had a new worry added.

Yesterday, when I heard about bombs at the Boston Marathon, my first thought was, is it that time of year already? Once upon a time, the calendar of road races and track and field ran alongside the regular calendar in my head, a different liturgical pattern. And then I felt sick and sad.

Those of us who have spent time around road races know that they're vulnerable events: runners move through city streets cheered on by people who really can't be screened. It's not like going to watch a baseball game.

I hope we don't decide to cancel a lot of events. I hope we decide that some things are worth the risk. Marathons teach us to be brave and to attempt things we never thought we could do. We can't turn into scared mice who refuse to leave the house.

Today may be a day when many of us struggle to feel hopeful. It's a week of grim anniversaries: the Virginia Tech shootings, the Oklahoma City bombing, the Columbine shootings.

Let me remind us all of a more positive anniversary. On this day, in 1963, Martin Luther King wrote his influential "Letter from a Birmingham Jail." Go here to read it and be impressed. Here's a taste: "I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly."

This letter didn't change the world immediately. In fact, it took months before a critical mass of people became aware of it. But it is one of the documents of the Civil Rights movement and of U.S. history that changed the trajectory.

We live in a more just world because of that letter. It was a bomb of a different sort.

We all have choices to make each and every day. Some actions will move the world towards peace, towards justice, towards love. Others will move the world towards terror, towards fear, towards hate.

Like marathoners, like Civil Rights workers, we are in training for a much larger event, maybe larger than we realize right now. In days like these, it's important to continue to commit ourselves to love, courage, and peace.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The Family: Your Multi-Billion Dollar Investment

Yesterday, after writing this post about technology and faith formation, I headed off to church.  Rich Melheim was in town, and we did a variety of events.  He attended all 3 services and presided at our traditional services.  What a contrast between the traditional services and our Worship Together service, a service where we've tried to put his suggestions into practice--we've had lots of success with that one, and the energy is so different.

Melheim then did an afternoon training event to talk about his Faith 5 practices (talk about highs and lows, read the Scripture, tie it to highs and lows, pray, and bless) and an evening event which was equal parts stand-up, singing, and presentation of important neurology, sociology, and psychology--and not one, but 2 pillow fights!

Yesterday's post talked about some of these ideas.  Here are some other nuggets.

--Ten years from now, technology will be giving us 3D holograms--we'll spend our online lives in 3D--what does it mean for work?  Think about the implications for porn and for relationships that exist in a world where you can create your own sexual beings online and make them do whatever you want.

--For most of human history, when it got dark, we went to sleep.  It was too expensive to burn a candle, and anyway, most people didn't have books to read (also too expensive) or other reasons to stay awake.

--In teen life, whoever's the least healthy person determines how much sleep everyone gets.

--Your brain creates the most new neurons during hours 6 and 8 of sleep. 

--Your new neurons need something to do, or they die.  Give them a new language to learn, or music to enjoy.  Don't do the same thing the same way every day.

--Baby girls have 11% more of their brain dedicated to language than boys.  Boys have 11% more of their brains devoted to action than girls.  For boys, learning needs to be turned into action or it will be turned into aggression.

--Teens get a license to drive, but their pre-frontal cortex won't be fully formed until their car insurance rates go down (ages 25-27).  Kids need parents to be their pre-frontal cortex and to help them make good decisions.

--If you have a teen who won't talk about the day's highs and lows with you, take away the cell phone.  Say, "I'm paying for this communication device, and you won't communicate with me?  No more cell phone."

--He asked, "Which would you rather have, Bill Gates' fortune or your family?"  Most of us say our families--which means we should be treating our families as if they're a multi-billion dollar investment.  Surely we can take 10-20 minutes a day for that investment.

--Churches are trying to form small groups, but they tend to forget about their original small groups:  the family.

--Remember that you're not in charge of answering prayer.  Your job is to pray.

--Again and again throughout the day, Melheim stressed the love and care and blessing that should be part of families.  He reminded us that we won't be here forever, and even the longest life is just a tiny drop in the march of history.  He implored us to tell our loved ones that we love them--and to tell them each and every day.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Interactive Technology and Faith Formation

Last night, I went to a fascinating dinner where Rich Melheim was the guest of honor. I expect to write a post or two about him in the coming weeks; today, we spend the whole day with him, so I expect to have more to say.

Over dinner last night, we talked about technology, time, sleep, and how to be effective families, whether we have children or not. Melheim has done a lot of studying of neurology. Some of what he brought up was familiar to me, like the importance of exercise to creativity and problem solving. Some of it was not. Did you know that your brain produces the most neurons between hours 6 and 8 of sleep? Me neither.

So, what does it mean if we only get 5 hours of sleep a night? We should probably get more.

I was lucky in that I was part of a small group.  In some ways, it was strange, because I was the only one there without children.  But I'm not uninterested in children.  So, the things we talked about when we talked about how to create meaningful, daily family rituals weren't boring to me.

In fact, I would argue that even those of us who don't have children need to have the same kinds of rituals.  We need to talk about our highs and lows.  We need to root ourselves in some Bible reading.  We need to pray together.

I'm also interested in what research about children tells us about how we should be thinking about church and Christian education--and other kinds of education.

Melheim has two children, now grown, and he talked about the differences in their approach to technology; he suggests they're indicative of a larger trend, and I suspect he's right.  He said that somewhere along 2005, we passed a point where the majority of teens spend more time on the Internet than watching TV.

He says his older child still watches TV, while his younger one sees it as a useless waste of time.  What does this mean for worship planning?

Most of traditional worship is not very interactive.  You may think that liturgy is interactive because there are congregational responses, but that's not what people who are used to controlling technology think of, when they want interactive kinds of experiences.

Melheim, an ELCA pastor and founder of Faith Inkubators, encourages churches to continue to have a traditional liturgy if there's enough congregational interest.  But we shouldn't kid ourselves.  We're not reaching the younger generations that way.  We're not preparing future generations of Christians.  We're not doing faith formation in the way that we need to do it.

What does he recommend?  For one thing, we need to get more of the body involved than just the mouth that says the responses that it says week after week.  We need to teach new information.  We need to get physically active, whether it's learning the sign language of key verses, learning the material in different languages, creating a drama, doing some other creative piece, creating some worship movement to go along with the liturgy.  We're only constrained by our own imaginations.

And here's the problem:  most of us haven't had our imaginations nourished.  We're stunted, and so it's hard to imagine ways of doing church differently.  Or worse, we assume that we must do it the way we've always done it--and then we wonder why the younger generations have disappeared.

I'm lucky to be part of a church that's experimenting.  If you're reading this blog, you're seeing some chronicles of our efforts, and some news of what other churches are trying.

So, today will be an interesting day. We spend the day with Rich Melheim. He's preaching at 3 services at church and then leading an afternoon workshop and then there's an evening comedy kind of event. I'm not sure what to expect, but I do expect to return home with much to write about in the coming days.

If you're in South Florida, come on over to Trinity Lutheran, at the corner of Pines Blvd. and 72nd Avenue in Pembroke Pines.  The afternoon event starts at 1, and the evening event at 6:30.  It's free and sure to be fascinating--what do you have to lose?

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Narrative Lectionary

The Narrative Lectionary Reading for Sunday, April 14, 2013:

Acts 6:1-7:2a, 44-60

It probably says something about the tough week I've had that my first response to the readings for this week is to see the negative.  I've had a week of lots of meetings at work, some of them full of discord and discomfort. 

I look at the first part of the reading for this week, and I despair.  Even in the earliest incarnations of the Church, the days when I would expect people to be least likely to forget the mission given them by Christ, we see this infighting:  "I shouldn't have to do this work.  I shouldn't have to mingle with those people."

Those of us who have had to work with humans in groups, whether at church or at the office, will not be surprised.  It's such a small task, it seems to me, the serving of tables.  In the time they spend discussing it, the task could be done, if they'd all just pitch in.  But no, we see this quibbling.

It's good to remember that good can come from disagreement.  We see a decision reached and more disciples made because of it.  There's a foreshadowing of monasticism here:  it's decided that it is important to set aside some people who will pray for the rest.

It reminds me of one of my favorite Kathleen Norris quotes:  "Deep down, people seem glad to know that monks are praying, that poets are writing poems. This is what others want and expect of us, because if we do our job right, we will express things that others may feel or know, but can't or won't say" (The Cloister Walk, page 145).

And yet, even this early agreement leads to more discord.  One of the evangelists, Stephen, does his job too successfully, and he becomes the first Christian martyr.  Sigh.

Stephen's speech also strikes a chord in me.  It's not just been a week of discordant moments at work, but also bad news at church:  a roofing job that was supposed to cost $4000 and taken a few days to complete has now mushroomed into something much bigger.

And so I nod, when Stephen says, "Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made with hands" (Acts 7:48a).  I have a vision of Jesus looking at our rotting roof boards and reminding me, "I didn't come to earth so that you would have a building to shepherd for future generations.  I sent people out into the world two by two."

I try to look at the building as a marvelous community resource.  I try to remember the other groups that meet in our church.  I try not to think about how many hungry people we could feed with the amount it will ultimately take to repair the roof. 

I'll try to keep remembering how many groups of humans will be nourished in other ways by having a meeting space.  As president of the Church Council, I'll try to keep us focused on the task.  I'll pray that we not divide into discordant factions.  I will trust in a God that has resources greater than ours, a God that shares, a God of abundance.

Friday, April 12, 2013

A New Kind of Prayer Flag and Exploration of Spiritual Journaling

A week ago, I'd have been preparing to lead a workshop on spiritual journaling.  We talked about all sorts of approaches, including keeping a prayer journal.

One of the participants told us about her creation, a variation of Tibetan prayer flags. She writes prayers on tulle fabric. She ties them to a pieces of lattice in her garden, and she takes great joy in seeing them flutter in the breeze. The fluttering reminds her to pray.

I love this idea.  I love the idea of being reminded to pray.  I love what I understand to be the purpose of prayer flags:  that we release the prayers to go to the Creator who can handle it from there.  I love the visual reminder to let go of some of these issues once I've prayed about them.

I've wondered about this practice and how we might use it for non-prayer purposes. We could write our wishes for our creative work on tulle or write our problems for which we need solutions. We could write our dreams and visions, our hopes for what we'd like to see in our lives.

If we write them out, we may find ourselves able to release the anxiety that often comes from our unacknowledged needs or our inability to find solutions. If we tie the tulle in places where we'll see them, we can be reminded of both our goals and our wildest dreams. We may be more likely to stay focused with this kind of reminder.

We did a similar kind of project a few years ago, as a big group at the Create in Me retreat, when we wrote prayers onto strips of fabric which we braided together.  Then we attached the braided strips together.  And then a group of us took them to the chapel where we laid them out in labyrinth form.

Here are the blog posts that I wrote about the process, one with pictures and one without.

I find much of my spiritual disciplines coming back to fabric.  Even the ones that I think are word-based, like the spiritual journal, have some interesting possibilities in fabric.  I wonder how many other spiritual disciplines that I think involve other mediums could migrate to fabric.

Now that might make an interesting approach to a book!  I'll keep thinking about this.  Hmmm.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Travels of a Turkish Prayer Rug

Once I had a friend who went to Turkey to teach English at a university.  Once, I knew lots of people who were creating all kinds of lives not constrained by mortgages and middle-class expectations.  Of course, back then, we all wanted houses and good jobs and security.

Now we see the shaky side of those dreams.  But that's not what I want to write about today.  Today I want to think about the travels of my Turkish prayer rug.

My friend who went to Turkey brought me back the prayer rug.  At the time, I found it curious and pondered why of all the things he could bring me from Turkey, he chose a rug used for Muslim prayer. 

I haven't ever known exactly what to do with it.  Obviously, I couldn't use it as a place to wipe my feet, and it isn't big enough to use as a carpet, even if that didn't feel disrespectful too.  There have been years when I didn't want it, but it seemed disrespectful to throw it away. 

When I got the rug, I wasn't praying much.  Through the years, I've added prayer to my daily spiritual discipline, but I don't kneel.  Even if I did, would it be O.K. to use a Muslim rug?  I'm a big believer in ecumenical connections, but would Muslims be offended?

So, it's stayed in closets, in South Carolina and South Florida.  And then, we planned the worship service for Create in Me.

I doubt that my Turkish prayer rug imagined it would end up here:

For our Friday night worship service at Create in Me, we transformed the chapel that's at the top of the mountain at camp.  We moved the seating to the back of the chapel and arranged it so that two sides faced each other.

At the front of the chapel, we had several worship stations, which I'll write more about tomorrow.  In the middle, between the seating and the stations, was a table, set up as an altar, with the communion elements on it.

My Turkish prayer rug was part of a station where people removed their shoes and knelt to pray, as you can see in the picture.  The chapel floor is hard stone, and the prayer rug was a nice effect.

I took great joy in the ecumenical nature of having a Muslim prayer rug as part of our service.  I prayed for love and understanding between all religions, and that that love and understanding would spread to all, regardless of belief or lack of it.

Let me hasten to add that I did wrestle with the question of whether or not it's appropriate to have a Muslim prayer rug in this context.  I consulted several people with advanced degrees in Christian theology.  We agreed that it would be O.K.

If we were having an Interfaith event, I'd have also consulted Muslim experts.  Since we weren't, and since I don't know any Muslim experts, I decided not to seek out that advice.

I also decided not to turn the Turkish prayer rug into a Big Deal.  Most of the worshippers probably didn't realize that they prayed on top of a Muslim artifact.  Most of the people at that retreat probably wouldn't care.  They had more problems with the issue of shoe removal than ecumenism.

It also occurred to me to wonder if my friend really brought me an authentic rug or if he just told me he did, knowing that I'd have no way of checking.

In the end, I'm glad that I volunteered the use of the prayer rug.  I thought it added a lovely touch to the prayer station at the front of the chapel--not just lovely, but meaningful on various levels.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, April 14, 2013:

First Reading: Acts 9:1-6 [7-20]

Psalm: Psalm 30

Second Reading: Revelation 5:11-14

Gospel: John 21:1-19

Here we have another mystical encounter with the risen Christ. Notice that it's mystical and yet grounded in earthiness. Jesus makes a barbecue breakfast, and Simon Peter gets wet. It's mystical, yet rooted in second chances. It's mystical and yet a bit whimsical too. The men have fished all night and caught nothing. What does Jesus cook for breakfast? Fish.

This Gospel reading also has a lovely symmetry. It ends the ministry of Jesus in the way that it began, on the shore, with Jesus calling his disciples to mission. This Gospel story gives Peter a chance to redeem himself. He declares his love for Jesus three times, just the way he had previously denied Jesus three times.

The Gospel reading for Sunday reminds us of some of the essential messages Jesus gave us. We are to let down our nets, again and again, even when we have fished all night and caught nothing. Our rational brains would protest, "What's the point? We know there are no fish!" But Christ tells us to try again.

Even when we can't see the results, even when our nets are empty, there might be activity going on beneath the surfaces, in the deep depths of creation, where our senses can't perceive any action. We might need to repeat our actions, despite our being sure that it will be useless. We aren't allowed to give up. We aren't allowed to say, "Well, I tried. Nothing going on here. I'm going to return to the solitude of my room and not engage in the world anymore." No, we cast our nets again and again.

What do those nets represent? What do the fish represent? The answers will be different for each of us. For some of us, casting our nets might be our efforts at community building or justice work. For some of us, casting our nets might be our efforts to reach the unchurched. For some of us, we cast our nets into the depths of a creative process. We cast again and again, because we can't be sure of what we'll catch. Some days and years, we'll drag empty nets back to the shore. Some days and years, we'll catch more fish than we can handle.

The Gospel also reminds us that we're redeemable. I love the story of Jesus and Peter. Peter would have reason to expect that Jesus would be mad at him. But Jesus doesn't reject him. Jesus gives him an opportunity to affirm what he had denied in the past.

Jesus also gives Peter a mission, and this mission is our mission: "Feed my sheep." There are plenty of sheep that need feeding and tending. We have our work cut out for us.

But this Gospel also shows us the way that it can all be done: we must work together, and we must take time to nourish ourselves. The men work together all night, and in the end, Jesus makes them a meal. Think about how much of Jesus' mission involved a meal. Jesus didn't just tend to the souls of those around him. He fed them, with real food. In doing so, he fed their souls and renewed his own ability to keep healing the world.

We must do the same. We must heal the world. And in doing so, we must continue to practice self-care. A burnt out husk of a person can't prepare a barbecue breakfast.

Now, as we walk through Eastertide, think about the redemption of the world and the good news of Jesus, that the redemption of creation is breaking through right here, right now. We see a God who wants to be with us, who cooks us breakfast, and who forgives us, no matter how many times we just don’t understand the mission.

That God still walks beside us, forgiving us, encouraging us—and commanding us to keep casting down the nets.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Ten Years of the Create in Me Retreat

We are back from Create in Me, the creativity and spirituality retreat that we go to every year. It's not too early to plan for next year--join a great group the week-end after Easter to explore the intersections of creativity and spirituality.

Ten years ago, I went to a Wild Women retreat with my mom and sister. I found myself wanting to talk about work-life balance in terms of creative work, and found no one who was wrestling with that issue. At the end of the retreat, Pastor Mary Canniff-Kuhn mentioned the Create in Me retreat. I remember thinking, that's the one I should have gone to! And then, I realized I still could, and I did--one of the better decisions I've made.

That first year I went all by myself.  I was a little nervous, but I told myself, "Worst case scenario, I'll have extra time in the mountains.  I'll rock on a porch and read if no one is friendly."  But that year, dinner on the first day was included, and I sat at a table with two women who looked friendly.  Happily they were, and we travelled together through the retreat.  Everyone was fairly new to the retreat, since it was a newer retreat, only in its second or third year.  Everyone was friendly.  I left knowing that I would return.

This retreat has nourished me in all sorts of ways.  Obviously, it has nourished me as both an artist and a Christian.  I have lots of friends who are artists and lots of friends who are Christians, but not many who live in both camps.  It's wonderful to be in a community where I can be out of the closet about my art and my faith.

As an artist, I've discovered many new art forms.  Even if I don't come home and use them routinely, it's great to experiment and play.  My house is now full of interesting things I've made, like the wind chimes on the porch, made at one retreat, and a variety of mosaics, a technique we learned to do a different year.

It's also been great to work in art forms that have always attracted me, and to see what it's really like.  I always thought I would like to have a loom of my own, until I worked on one.  I quickly realized it wouldn't be interesting enough to justify the space it would take up.  I worked on a pottery wheel and again, quickly realized that although I loved doing it, I wouldn't really be able to teach myself; it's a steep learning curve.  And thus, it wouldn't be worth the money and the mess.

In later years, I've been more interested in exploring the intersections between worship and art than I was in earlier years.  As a group, we've always done worship services that have a lot in common with performance art, and in later years, we've done more extreme versions of that.  I probably never would have experienced worship as experiential stations without this group--or it would have taken many years.

I've come home feeling both exhausted and renewed.  I find myself yearning for a job where I can plan and present retreats on a regular basis.  Or better yet, a job where I explore and use a variety of liturgical arts--and perhaps train others?

But in the meantime, there's my memoir I'm working on.  I am more convinced than ever that the subject matter is important:  how do we live an authentic life, especially when we're at workplaces that may not always support our authentic expressions?  I come home vowing to have the next draft finished by Labor Day.  And then, perhaps by Christmas, a polished draft!

Monday, April 8, 2013

A Poet Considers Seminary (yes, again)

So, if you're a reader who grows weary of my pondering the future and contemplating new paths, you might want to skip this post. Of course, if you're that kind of reader, you probably moved on years ago.

On Tuesday morning of Holy Week, I woke up thinking about seminary again. My earliest thoughts of the day told me to check out Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary. I dismissed those thoughts. That seminary has never been on my radar screen, after all.

I have family connections to Southern (in Columbia, SC) and Trinity (in Ohio). My mom had a great experience when she taught at Gettysburg for a semester back in 2005. I feel intellectual connections to Yale and Emory (in Atlanta, GA); for a few years, the authors of the books of theology I loved the most came from those two institutions. But Pacific? It's never crossed my mind.

But all morning on Tuesday of Holy Week, that name kept floating across my brain. So, finally, Tuesday afternoon I went to the website. The home page mentions that they're introducing the Flexible Life M.Div option: the first year can be done online.

For years, I've thought about seminary programs and what they can learn from MFA low-residency programs. What Pacific seems to be offering is not exactly like those programs, but there's a flexibility I haven't seen before in many other seminary programs.

The website says that the first year can be stretched out over several years, which would help me immensely. I could keep working, while I have this job. In my darker days, I think it's the last full-time job I'll ever have, and I should keep it as long as I have. In my darker days, I think that I'll only have it for another few years, until my job can be automated or consolidated or outsourced or downsized.

But I digress.

The website mentions other new developments which make it easier for seminarians who have other responsibilities. Traditionally, one would go to seminary for 2 years, leave for an internship year, and then return to seminary for the last year. If one's candidacy committee and Synod allow it, Pacific will allow seminarians to do the internship year for the last year, to cut down on moving costs. Hurrah!

Of course, I would like to be awarded life credit in lieu of the internship year. I've been Church Council president and served on Council in other capacities too. I've been a retreat coordinator at Lutheridge. I've written for both The Lutheran and the Living Lutheran website.

I know how that sounds when sitting on the other side of the desk. I've listened to many students explaining to me why they shouldn't have to take this class or that class. I understand what the academic study will give them that their real life experience wouldn't. Maybe the same is true of the internship year.

I was also excited by the modernized language options. I will confess that the Greek required by most seminary programs has been daunting. Sure, I'd love to learn Greek. But is that really the best use of a seminarian's time?

Pacific offers a different option, one that has a two-pronged focus (I'll cut and paste from the website):

(1) Spanish for Worship

•PLTS will offer a full year of Spanish geared toward the practice of ministry, especially worship leadership.

•This course responds to the ELCA’s call for mission in the multilingual and multicultural context of the U.S.


Biblical Languages Tools

•Students who choose Spanish are required to take this course during January intersession of their first year.

•This course focuses on both Biblical Hebrew and Greek.

•Students are introduced to both traditional and electronic resources.

•The goal of this course is to encourage students to engage in a lifetime of biblical language study for preaching and teaching in the parish.


Back to me: that approach to languages certainly seems more practical and useful.

Now, there are drawbacks to Pacific. I could only put off the necessity of moving to the California coast for so long. Eventually, I'd need to go west for on-ground classes.

If I had only myself to think about, that need to move west would not be a dealbreaker. I'd love a new area to explore, and going to school is a great way to do it.

But I don't have just me to think about.

Still, with the flexible first year option, I could begin. If I discovered that seminary really wasn't what I wanted, I wouldn't have burned so many bridges to get there.

As I look at the application process, it may be too late for Fall 2013. I need letters of recommendation. I need a candidacy committee.  And I talked to a dean, who said I would only have 7 years to complete the program.  That means I need to be careful about when I start the clock ticking.

But I could start in the Spring.  Maybe by then, I could even have a Candidacy Committee.  I have no idea how that works.  It's one of the things I planned to get a handle on when I went to Synod Assembly in May.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Season of Alleluias--and Assessment

A week ago, it would have been Easter.  As I sat in church, at the second service, a poem idea bubbled up.

I thought of angel committees who are putting together an assessment document for God, who simply wants to hear the alleluias, without having to quantify their effectiveness.

Clearly, I may have been in the world of higher ed administration a touch too long.

Yet when I told one of my poet friends of this inspiration, she responded, "No no! Convince the Almighty about the value of clean columns and rows with detailed rubrics! After all, the Universe MUST NEEDS make quantitative sense! How else can we tell of its effectiveness?"

How sweet of my friend to give me words that the angel committee will use!

I think of God, lonely for the days when one could hear the alleluias so clearly, as they echoed across the universe.  I think of God, surrounded by chatter and charts and numbers and rubrics for assessing the effectiveness of the alleluias and a matrix for assessing the accuracy of the rubrics.

It's the second Sunday in what should be the season of alleluias--don't let God down!

Friday, April 5, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Narrative Lectionary

The readings for Sunday, April 7, 2013:

Luke 24:13-35

optional reading:  Psalm 30 or 30:11

Today we read of the sojourners on their way to Emmaus. This story gives us an important window into the lives we are to have as Christians, particularly when it comes to the sharing of a meal, and our basic obligations when it comes to hospitality.

That hospitality is the often overlooked side of the Emmaus story. The travelers have walked seven miles together.  For those of you who are wondering, that might take the modern walker, walking at a fast clip, a bit over two hours; in Biblical times, with unpaved roads with poorly shod feet, I'm estimating it would take half a day.

When they get back to their house, they don't say to Jesus, "Well, good luck on your journey."

No--they invite him inside. What remarkable hospitality. They share what they have. They don't say, "Well, I can't let you see my house in its current state--let's go out to dinner." No, they notice that the day is nearly done, and they invite a stranger in to stay the night.

Those of you who have read your Bible will recognize a motif. God often appears as a stranger, and good things come to those who invite a stranger in. For those of you who protest that modern life is so much more dangerous than in Biblical times, and so it was safer for people like Abraham and the Emmaus couple to invite the stranger to stay, I'd have to disagree.

We are called to model the same behavior.  Jesus calls us to a Eucharistic life, which requires a major readjustment of our mindset around the issues of food, drink, time, and hospitality.

One thing we can do in our individual lives is to adopt a Eucharistic mindset. Never has this been more vital. Most people have ceased cooking for themselves, and many Americans are eating at least one meal a day while they drive.

Rebel against this trait. Look for ways to make meals special. Cook for yourself, even if it's something special. Invite your friends and loved ones to dinner. Occasionally, invite a stranger.

But it's about more than dinner, more than hospitality, of course.  Without that hospitality, those strangers never would have known their fellow traveler. It is through the meal that the Emmaus Road sojourners realize who has been walking beside them.

What miracles might come into our lives when we open them to the ancient practice of hospitality?

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The lessons for Sunday, April 7, 2013:

Acts 4:32-35

Psalm 133

How good and pleasant it is to live together in unity. (Ps. 133:1)

1 John 1:1—2:2

John 20:19-31

I love the post-Easter encounters with Jesus. It's as if the Gospel writers knew that we'd need to be reminded of the amazing thing that has happened. It's no wonder that Thomas said he wouldn't believe until he'd touched the wounds.

Jesus was dead. He wasn't just passed out or in a deep sleep or let off the cross early. He died and rose again.

Notice that here, as elsewhere, Jesus knows what humans need and meets them on that level. He doesn't get huffy. He doesn't say, "Well, if Thomas isn't glad to see me back from the dead, then I'm not going to talk to him. I'll just hang out with people who believe." No, he lets Thomas put his hands inside of his side wound, if that's what it takes.

He forgives the doubt. He forgives the disciples who ran away. He doesn't show up to berate the disciples for hiding in a dark room when they've got work to do. He forgives all the human ways we can't rise to the vision that God has for our behavior, for our blessed lives.

Notice in these post Easter lessons how Jesus roots his actions in the physicality of life. He cooks people breakfast when they've been off fishing. He breaks bread and blesses wine. He presents his very wounded body. For those of us modern Gnostics who want to deny that Jesus was as human as the rest of us, these lessons seem specially placed to help us work against that belief. Jesus was NOT just a mystical creature with a human form that he could put on and take off, like a special set of clothes.

Perhaps that should be a lesson to the rest of us as well. When we feel despairing, we should look for ways to root ourselves in our physical lives; maybe we should try baking bread or cooking a meal. Maybe when we're almost sick with missing the ones that live far away, maybe instead of moping, we should write a letter to our loved ones, telling them how much we love them. Maybe we should plant some herbs or flowers, get our hands in the dirt, remember our roots in the world that deserves our love and attention.

Perhaps this approach would make a good way to minister to others. Instead of some sort of theoretical approach to evangelism, we should look minister to our neighbors’ physical needs; then we can think about their spiritual lives. We should ask people to dinner instead of asking, “If you died tonight, would you go to Heaven?” We should describe the great potluck dinner that awaits them at church, instead of the Heavenly feast that we have to wait so long to experience.

God came to this world to become physically involved--we are called to do the same.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Anointed with Oil, Equipped to Serve

My church has a tradition of foot washing as part of the Maundy Thursday service.  We've always offered hand washing as an alternate, and of course, a congregation member doesn't have to do either one.

This year, we did something different.  We moved the washing part of the service to the end, as people processed out.  We ditched the foot washing.  We had a team of people.  The first one washed  the hands of each person passing through, the second one dried, and the pastor anointed each hand by marking a cross with oil.

I found it a profoundly moving way to end the service.  The Lutheran tradition sees Maundy Thursday as more than just a memory of the Last Supper.  In fact, the word "Maundy" comes from the Latin word "maundatum" which means commandment.  The Maundy Thursday service should be a reminder of the new commandment, which is to love each other.

But we don't just sit around the dinner table oozing love for each other, although perhaps many of us need to return to the dinner table as evidence of love and caring.  The foot washing part of the passage launches into Christ's mandate that we love each other and that we show that love by serving each other--as opposed to, say, buying each other diamonds.

The anointing of hands reminded us that we go out into the world to do God's work with our hands.  I found it a powerful way to end the service.

It made me want to find ways to incorporate it into other services.  What would a healing service look like if we ended it by anointing hands on the way out of the church?  When we bless the backpacks of students in the fall and the Sunday before, when we bless teachers and administrators, would it be more powerful if we also anointed hands?

From what I can tell, Lutherans are only just now beginning to rediscover this ancient spiritual practice of anointing with oil.  It will be interesting to see where it leads.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Good Friday, Tenebrae and Other Possibilities

At our church, we had some interesting experiments with Holy Week services.  Today, I'll write about Good Friday; tomorrow I'll write about what we did in the place of foot washing on Maundy Thursday.

On Good Friday, at noon, we did our traditional service of Tenebrae.  Our sanctuary doesn't have any clear glass windows, and our stained glass is really more like colored chunks in stucco.  So, the sanctuary is fairly gloomy in broad daylight.  It's not like the Tenebrae service of my childhood, with the sanctuary growing dark and then plunged into blackness and then the slamming of the Bible.  But it was traditional.

At the evening service, we had a meditation on the 7 last words of Jesus.  Our pastor asked for volunteers, and the meditations were primarily of the personal kind.  I found it more moving than I expected.  I was worried that it would all veer into the land of the maudlin or the much-too-personal. 

You may say, "Aren't you Lutherans?  And you worried about everyone getting inappropriately personal?"  Yes, because like most churches, we come from a variety of traditions.

But I needn't have feared.  And between each meditation, we had a hymn sung by the congregation or a piece sung by the choir.

There wasn't as much participation as I'd have liked, but our Tenebrae service didn't have as much participation as I'd like. 

On the other hand, Good Friday presents an appropriate time to be more meditative, to sit and contemplate the meaning of it all.

When I think about next year, however, I want to record a different possibility--not one that would take the place of a service, but an additional way to encounter the text.

We've done a walking of the labyrinth combined with the stations of the cross which has worked well--except for the past two years when we got torrential rain.  I'd like to encourage people to walk the labyrinth.  But I'd also like to have an indoor meditation site.

Actually, I have a vision of 7 stations, one for each of the last words of Jesus.  I'd like a variety of options at each table.  I'd like to encourage people to meditate on the words by working in charcoal or paint or pastel.  I'd like to have a writing option at each table.  And perhaps we could do other things, like have small cups of vinegar at the "I thirst" table.

I like doing this with the 7 last words, rather than the stations of the cross.  For one thing, it would require less set up and take down.  I have more ideas for the last words than for the stations of the cross.  Plus, many of the stations seem similar.  The last words are quite different, one from another.

We could have the opportunity set up in the Fellowship Hall.  We could have it set up all afternoon into the time after the night service.

Could we leave the fellowship hall unlocked and unmonitored?  We've had some trouble getting people to staff the labyrinth when we had that activity.  Most people don't have the day off anymore.

And then there's the other issue:  would there be enough interest?  Many of us already have lots of Holy Week activities.  Would we want one more obligation?

Maybe it's time to think about other times of the year.  Maybe we shouldn't save these kind of meditative experiences for just once a year.  Maybe it would enrich us to revisit Good Friday several times throughout the year.  Maybe it would help us remember the improbable miracle of resurrection that we celebrate each Sunday.  Maybe our joy would be revitalized by returning to Calvary more frequently than many traditions do.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Participation and Passivity: A Tale of Two Easter Services

Yesterday, we went to two Easter services.  If my spouse hadn't been singing in the Easter cantata at 11, we'd have only gone to the family service at 9:30.  It turned out to be the most meaningful.

We usually have the family-friendly service in the fellowship hall, so it was strange to report to the sanctuary.  But we needed the space--what a wonderful problem.

We began by singing "Christ is Risen!  Alleluia!"  Each time we sang the word "Alleluia!" we stood up.  It was a good way to begin what would be a highly participatory service.

The bulk of the service told the Good Friday to Easter story using puppets, narrators, and members of the congregation pulled up front to participate.  We had lots of new people, people who hadn't been to our services for Holy Week, people who probably hadn't attended Holy Week services elsewhere.  It was good to remind them of the whole story. 

I found it profoundly moving at the end, watching one of our congregation members play one of the weeping women and her moment of fear, confusion, and joy at realizing that Jesus wasn't dead.

The whole service was such a contrast to our 11 a.m. service.  In that service, much of the time was taken up with the Easter cantata.  I'm friends with some of the choir members, so I understand how much it meant to them to participate. 

But it leads to a very passive congregation, as we sat there, listening and listening and listening.  That's become one of my chief complaints about the traditional way of doing church:  the congregation mostly listens and listens and listens.

Our family-friendly service works around that in many ways:  we learn to sign key Bible texts, we sing the text, we have puppet shows and skits which require audience participation, we do small group work, and we often have an art project. 

I've come to prefer that level of participation.  I love that the children aren't frequently hushed.  I love that the children often serve the communion, although they didn't yesterday.  I love that we get involved with the text on a variety of ways.  I love that we can't just sit there, dozing off or daydreaming.

I'm lucky to have that option.  I know that many churches don't.  I wonder how we could bring that change to more churches.  I'm most interested in infusing services with creativity.  More on that tomorrow.