Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, January 4, 2015:

First Reading: Jeremiah 31:7-14

First Reading (Alt.): Sirach 24:1-12

Psalm: Psalm 147:13-21 (Psalm 147:12-20 NRSV)

Psalm (Alt.): Wisdom of Solomon 10:15-21

Second Reading: Ephesians 1:3-14

Gospel: John 1:[1-9] 10-18

When I was younger, the Gospel of John confounded me. What kind of nativity story did John give us? Does he not know the power of narrative, the importance of a hook in the beginning?

Look at verse 14, which may be familiar: "And the word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father." As a child, I'd have screamed, "What does that mean? How does word become flesh?"

And then I became a writer, and I learned how the word becomes flesh. I invented characters who took on lives of their own, who woke me up early in the morning because I wanted to see what happened to them. Yes, I know, I was the God of their universe. But as anyone who has had children will know, you make these creations, and they have their own opinions, and they live their lives in ways you couldn't have known they would.

But lately, I've begun to see this first chapter of John in a less-writerly way. Words become flesh every day. We begin to shape our reality by talking about it. We shape our relationships through our words which then might lead to deeds, which is another way of talking about flesh.

Think about your primary relationships. Perhaps this coming year could be the year when we all treat the primary people in our lives with extra care and kindness. If we treat people with patience and care, if we say please and thank you more, we will shape the flesh of our relationships into something different. Alternately, if we're rude and nasty to people, they will respond with rudeness and cruelty--we've shaped the flesh of the world into a place where we don't want to live.

Our words become flesh in other ways, of course. It's not enough to profess we're Christians. Our words should shape our actions. The world is watching, and the world is tired of people who say one thing and act another way.

How can we enflesh our Christian beliefs incarnate in our own lives? That's the question with which we wrestle year after year. It's easy to say we believe things, but it's much harder to make our actions match our words, to live an authentic life.

The good news: it gets easier. You must practice. Our spiritual ancestors would tell us that daily and weekly practices help to align our words to our actions.

I have an atheist friend who says she envies me my ability to believe. I tell her that there's not a class of people who just have faith. We come to it by our actions. We pray, we pay attention, we meet in church, we study, we read the Bible, we help the poor and outcast, we pray some more--and years later, we realize that we are living a life consistent with our values.

It's time to think about the New Year, and some of us will make resolutions. What can you do to make your words and beliefs take flesh?

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

When Dreams of Angels Are Muddled

I've had angels on the brain--it is Christmas, after all.  Week after week, we have heard texts of angels appearing:  first to Mary, then to Elizabeth and Zachariah, then to Joseph, then to the shepherds.  These are not angels which can be domesticated.

One of my favorite photos that I took at the Mepkin Abbey gift shop is this basket of angels.  Was I looking for angels that I can control?

Last night, I had the kind of dream that makes me wonder if God is speaking to me.  I dreamed that I was in a car with some church officials.  One of them asked, "Have you made any decisions yet?"  "About what?" I stammered. 

"You were thinking about seminary."

Oh yeah, that.  I almost forgot.  The rest of the dream had me wandering around a church camp that looked like the luggage of the campers had exploded:  clothes lined every path.  I walked into a chapel where a men's choir was playing a piece written by my husband, a piece for strings, including a dulcimer.  Everywhere I saw evidence that people I've known spiritually were close, even if I wasn't sure exactly where they were:  for example, I saw food tagged in a refrigerator with names of people I've known from the Create in Me retreat and earlier college days.

Ordinarily, I'd wake up from such a dream and say, 'What interesting ways my subconscious keeps itself amused when I'm asleep!"  But having spent part of yesterday writing about angels and the ways that it must be tough for angels to get the attention of 21st century moderns (see this blog post), I'm perhaps more alert for the messages of angels than usual.

When I think about the angel messages of Christmas, I think about the clarity of the message.  Or is that just how it has been told to us through the ages?

Did Joseph wake up and find himself teasing out the meaning of the strange dreams for days afterwards?  Did some of the shepherds stay behind because even though they'd see angel choirs singing, they didn't necessarily agree that it meant that a journey was in order?

My thoughts turn to the angels themselves.  I also think of all the literature where angels do not look at all like the humans expect them to look, and thus, the message is compromised.  Or, as in "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings," is there even a message?

And then I wonder if these angel stories set us up for disappointment.  We imagine that it was easy for Joseph and Mary and the magi and all those people who get such direct instructions.  We yearn for such a message for ourselves.

But history shows us that even when humans get such messages, it's rare that we follow.  We spend a lot of time watching for messages, even when we have plenty of directives all around us.  We spend much less time figuring out how to respond to God, when God calls.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Poetry Monday: The Voices of Angels, "Rendered Mute"

We've spent much of the Christmas season hearing the voices of angels, notably the angel Gabriel.  We've read the texts as part of Advent meditations.  We've had our church choirs sing in a variety of voices to mimic the angel choirs that appeared to shepherds.  We've had people take on the voice of Gabriel and other angels as we've watched Christmas pageants and heard the Christmas Eve readings and other church services, like Lessons and Carols, where the angels speak.

For me, the presentation of the angel that affected me most happened on Christmas Eve.  Our 7:30 p.m. service had children reading most of the parts of the story.  When the angel Gabriel appeared to Joseph, a very young reader took the microphone.  She was new to reading, and I suspect even newer to reading out loud.

She read slowly and deliberately, giving every word an equal weight.  Each word took on an eerie importance.  With this very different reading style, the angel Gabriel got my attention again.

That moment made me think, as I often do, about angels appearing in modern life.  What would it take to get our attention?  Would we even notice if angels appeared?

I've written about this topic in a poem, which I've posted here before, but in this Christmas season it makes sense to post it again. 

It was first published in the online journal Referential.

Rendered Mute

His angels return, abject in failure.
Lately, an angel makes an appearance,
and the human makes an appointment
with the doctor. Anti-psychotic
medications render his angels mute.

He used to be able to appear in visions,
back in the days when humans remembered
their dreams and dissected them over breakfast.
But his humans, ever more efficient, have banished
sleep from their daily to-do lists. They drop
into dreamless heaps and sleepwalk through the day.

Even the night skies defeat
his purposes. His industrious
humans, so smart, have lit
the planet with electricity and cloaked
the skies with smog. No one can see
the celestial signs he sends.

He even tries the personal touch, the old tried and true,
but decides to leave the shrubbery
alone after that woman yelled
at him. “I just planted that bush.
I don’t think Home Depot will take it back
in this condition. Have you priced plants lately?”

He considers withdrawal, the passive-
aggressive game of pretending not to care,
pretending there’s no pain.

He decides to mute his majesty.
From now on, he will not be the first
to speak. Instead, he decides to create spectacular
sunsets, and new colors, and a new species here or there.
He attends to the routine miracles: tumors that shrink,
lucidity repaired, relationships resurrected.
He sketches recipes for miracle drugs
in the laboratory dust of the pharmaceutical companies
and moves the iron clad hearts
of dictators who free the jailed opposition leaders.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Remembering All the Innocents Slaughtered

Today we remember the slaughter of the innocent boys of Bethlehem, killed by Herod as he tries to get rid of any possible competition, even if that competition is newly born and not likely to challenge him for decades.

Will your church be taking part in this somber feast day?  I doubt it.  Your church may be like mine, where we are reprising parts of the Christmas Eve service, so that all the hard work of the choir gets new appreciation.  After all, most of our members came to the 7:30 service, not the 11:00 service where the choir sang.  They should get the chance to hear the Cantata, to sing the songs, to stay in the land of Christmas just a little bit longer.

Part of me understands.  There will be time enough for the darkness later.  Let us linger in the land of light just a bit longer.

Part of me rebels.  Our Gospel writers and early Church leaders put this feast day here for a reason.  I think one of the problems of modern Christianity is that we focus too much on the light, and we neglect to fight the darkness as much as we need to do.

Let us take a minute to think about the modern Herods in our world.  We see no shortage of evil dictators who slaughter whole swaths of the population for a variety of reasons.

Let us take a minute to think about the Holy Family, transformed into refugees, fleeing for their lives with just the clothes on their backs.  Here in our modern world, we see no shortage of people transformed from regular citizens to refugees in just a matter of hours.

Maybe we don't want to think on a huge, global scale.  The human brain was not meant for such horror.  Some of us become immobilized.  But we could help refugees on a smaller scale.

There's always money that we could donate, but maybe we want a more hands-on project.  I stumbled across this blog post about a mom who homeschools and the Christmas project of making Christmas bags for foster children, many of whom leave abusive homes with just the clothes on their backs.

It's also a good day to consider the ways we are Herod.  How do we lash out to protect ourselves?  We may not literally slaughter a whole town of babies, but most of us could do better at nourishing the next generations:  the kids in our churches, the students in our schools, the younger folks in the work force.

Today on this feast day where we remember the slaughter of the Holy Innocents, let us recommit ourselves to love.   We can resolve to let love rule our actions, not fear. We can also resolve to help those who are harmed by the Herods of our world.

The older I get, the more I appreciate the actions of the early church.  These days that honor martyrs coming so close to Christmas--it makes more sense now.  But I also pray for the time that we will not have to remember the horrors that humanity can inflict.  I hold fast to that Christmas vision of light shining in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.

Saturday, December 27, 2014

The Feast Day of Saint John

Today, we celebrate the life of the only one of the original 12 disciples die of natural causes in old age. Tradition tells us that John was first a disciple of John the Baptist, and then a disciple of Christ, the one who came to be known as the beloved disciple, the one tasked with looking after Mary, the mother of Jesus.

There is much debate over how much of the Bible was actually written by this disciple. If we had lived 80 years ago, we'd have firmly believed that the disciple wrote the Gospel of John, the letters of John, and the book of Revelation. Twentieth century scholars came to dispute this belief, and if you do scholarly comparison, you would have to conclude that the same author could not have written all of those books.

Regardless, most of us remember St. John as the disciple who spent a long life writing and preaching. He's the patron saint of authors, theologians, publishers, and editors. He's also the patron saint of painters.

Today, as many of us may be facing a bit of depression or cabin fever, perhaps we can celebrate the feast of St. John with a creative act. Write a poem about what it means to be the beloved disciple. Write a letter to your descendents to tell them what your faith has meant to you. Paint a picture--even if you can't do realistic art, you could have fun with colors as you depict the joy that Jesus brings to you.

Here's a prayer for the day, from Phyllis Tickle's The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime: "Shed upon your Church, O Lord, the brightness of your light, that we, being illumined by the teaching of your apostle and evangelist John, may walk in the light of your truth, that at length we may attain to the fullness of eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen."

Friday, December 26, 2014

Don't Leave Jesus in the Manger

On Christmas Eve, I noticed this juxtaposition, cradle and crucifix:

I thought of a Christmastide sermon preached by my pastor in a past year.  He reminded us that if we leave the baby Jesus in the manger that we've missed the important point.

I have added to that thought as we moved through the liturgical year.  If we leave the savior on the cross, we've missed the point too.

But then I take it one step further:  if we focus on the empty tomb, we continue to miss the point.  And if we focus on Heaven, we miss the point.

I've had more than one friend snort when I say that.  "If it's not about Heaven, then what is the point of religious faith?" one friend asked in a mix of disgust and disbelief.

I would argue that it's about our life right here and now.  Christmas reminds us that God breaks through into our regular lives in amazing ways.

God wants to walk beside us not so that we'll get a ticket to Heaven.  God wants to walk with us so that we can be part of the redemption of creation.

Artists everywhere know that when we create together, we're likely to go in directions we wouldn't have anticipated. 

God knows it too.

Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Darkness Has Not Overcome the Light

Each year at the Christmas Eve services, I am alert for which parts of the story and the service speak most to me.  After all, the basics of the story and the service don't really change much from year to year.

Some years I'm humbled by the idea that God would come to earth to be held in human hands.  God as baby born to some of the most vulnerable youngsters in the empire--what a radical concept.

Some years the weariness speaks to me.  Other years it's the shepherds who have their regular lives disrupted by angel choirs--how do you go back to the flocks after that?

Last night, the verse from John about the light not being overcome by the darkness moved me to tears--and I heard it numerous times, since I went to all three Christmas Eve services.

At the last service, I stood at the front, reading the last part of the liturgy, looking out at the candlelit faces.  I thought about the time I stood at the front looking at ash-smudged foreheads and how different it was to stand at the front at the end of a Christmas Eve service.  The lights were low, but I could distinguish faces.  The candles cast such a warm light.

I thought about the light that illuminates much of our lives now:  the fluorescent lights from our energy efficient bulbs, the blue hues reflecting from our various screens.  But to see the faces lit by candles--what a treat!

This year has felt particularly dark, although this article explains why so many of us are actually much safer in 2014 than we have been throughout much of human history.  In this year of many cancers, none of them mine, and other diseases that seem so resistant to cures that plague my friends, I needed that reminder that even in the darkest times, the light stubbornly breaks through.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 28, 2014:

First Reading: Isaiah 61:10--62:3

Psalm: Psalm 148

Second Reading: Galatians 4:4-7

Gospel: Luke 2:22-40

This Sunday, after the whirlwind excitement of Christmas Eve, we return to the Temple, where Simeon and Anna have been patiently waiting for God to fulfill God's promise. And in our scary times, that message is a wonderful reminder: God fulfills the promises that God makes.

Of course, it may not happen in the time period that we would like to demand. So what do we do in the meantime? We wait. Maybe we wait patiently, like Simeon. Or maybe we become impatient, like the Psalmist. But we wait. What else can we do? Scripture and Literature across many different cultures warn us of what happens if we decide that we're as powerful as God and can proceed on our own--nothing good can come of that.

What do we do while we're waiting? We can take Simeon and Anna as our models. We can surround ourselves with people who believe in God's promise. Hopefully, we find those kind of people in our Christian communities. Hopefully, we've spent our lives finding people who live in hope, even when surrounded by evidence that would make more rational people doubt.

Of course, we don't have to just wait passively. The Advent lessons have reminded us of the importance of staying alert and watchful. The Scriptures tell us that God will appear in many guises, none of them what we expect.

We can also take our cues from Mary and Joseph, from Elizabeth and John the Baptist, from any number of spiritual predecessors. We can decide to take our part in the redemption of God's creation. Every day gives us the opportunity to practice resurrection, as Wendell Berry phrased it. We can choose to move towards light and leave the darkness to mind its own business. We are called to be the light of the world, the yeast in the bread dough, the salt of the earth. We can't do that if we're pessimistic.

I would encourage us not to leave Christmas behind too quickly. Many of us have had busy Decembers. We can leave our Christmas trees up for a few more days (twelve, even, until Jan. 6, Epiphany) to enjoy the vision we haven't had a chance to take in during our busy Advent. We can eat one last Christmas cookie, while we reflect on the past year, and plan for the year to come. We can pray for the patience of Simeon, for the wisdom of Anna, for the courage of Mary and Elizabeth and Joseph, who said yes to God's plan. We can pray that we have the boldness of John the Baptist, who declared the Good News.

We can pray for the strength to evolve into people of hope, people who watch and wait, confident in the knowledge that God fulfills all promises.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Martyrs and Christmas

My most recent post is up at the Living Lutheran site.  It considers the placement of the commemoration of various martyrs so close to Christmas.

Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"I have Facebook friends who angrily talk about how much they loathe religion with its manmade deities manufactured to bring us false comfort – and I wonder what kind of religious tradition they’re invoking. Many a Christian feast day reminds us that we may pay an ultimate price for our beliefs."

"This Christmas-card picture [of Jesus in the manger] ignores the other facts: the lack of adequate shelter, the stink of the animals, the woman forced to give birth in unsanitary conditions, the brutal government that will soon force the family into refugee status."

"We are not so very far away from ancient Rome. In many ways, our societies have scarcely evolved at all."

Go here to read the whole thing.

Monday, December 22, 2014

Poetry Monday: "Homemade Eggnog"

Long ago, when I was in undergraduate school, I spent a lot of time yearning for a kitchen.  I missed baking bread.  When the holidays approached, I missed baking cookies.

Luckily, I had a friend, an older guy, who had had his college career interrupted by the war in Vietnam.  He returned to school to finish up, and our paths crossed in 1984.

He had a small house that he inherited when his mother died.  So a group of us would go over periodically.  We'd play Trivial Pursuit and watch old movies on TV.  At Christmas, he offered his kitchen.  We made cookies and homemade eggnog.  We helped decorate his tree.

I've lost touch with him.  I've lost touch with so many people.

I try to remember that I've stayed in touch or recovered connections with lots of people too.  And there are new people to walk beside.  Tomorrow, I'll have a group of friends from church over in the middle of the day.  And in the evening, I'll go out to look at lights with another friend.

Thirty years from now, will I be missing those people too?  Or will we still be getting together on Dec. 23, a tradition started long ago?

Twelve or thirteen years ago, I was thinking about lost friends and homemade eggnog, and I wrote the poem below. 

Now I'm tempted to write a different version.  When I wrote the poem below, I had yet to rediscover so many friends through Facebook.  The ways we might have betrayed each other seem much less dramatic than the ways we are betrayed now.  I might write a poem about how we should cherish the homemade eggnog while we still can, since we're not sure of when our last Christmas might be.

Or maybe I grow tired of these melodramatic endings.  Maybe I could just write a simple poem that proclaims the joys of butterfat.

But I won't revise right now.  Below is the poem as I wrote it, years before Facebook, years before anyone had cancer.

Homemade Eggnog

Back before we knew the fat grams of every food,
back before we worried about salmonella and other exotic
sounding creatures lurking in food, waiting to poison
us, back when eggs were the perfect food, not
cholesterol time bombs. Back in those innocent
days, we make homemade eggnog.

We do not cook the eggs. We separate
yolk from white, just as we are apart
from our families. We beat sugar into yolks
the color of sunshine, some sweetness
into the darkness of solstice days.

We whip air into the whites, we beat
them into a frenzy, the way that exams have stirred
us up, the way that school plots of our own devising
pump us full of the air of our own self-importance.

I pour cream into the mixture, cream clotted
with the richness of butterfat. In later years, I will create
cooked eggnog with skim milk, a pitiful
affair, thin and runny, not worth remembering.

We blend the fluffed whites into the sugary concoction.
Carefully, we fold until the separate ingredients
cannot be teased apart again. We dip out cups
for everyone and toast our eternal friendship.
I feel nourishment seep into every cell
as I fix the faces of my friends into my brain.

I cannot imagine a time when I will forsake
eggnog as too fatty, when I will be too busy
to create from scratch. I cannot dream
that I will lose touch with these friends, cannot fathom
the many ways in which we will betray each other.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Seeing the Christmas Narrative with Fresh Eyes

On Thursday morning, my spouse told me that he dreamed that I was pregnant.  I said, "That would be a Christmas miracle indeed."  I'm 49.5 years old, after all. 

My spouse did an imitation of Abraham/Zachariah, those men in the Bible with wives who conceive long after the time it's possible:  "What do you mean?  My wife is old . . ."  (imagine this said in a Yiddish accent).

I had spent the morning writing about Joseph and the Virgin Mary, so I was startled when he channeled Zachariah, not Joseph.  A bit sobered, I said, "So, we're different characters in the Advent story now?  Are we that old?"  Yes.  Yes we are.
I've spent the days since thinking about this incident and wondering how often we return to a Bible story to find that different characters resonate.

The Advent/Christmas narrative is probably the most resistant of our texts to an approach with fresh eyes.  Even if we haven't spent every Christmas Eve at church, it's a story that's know by almost everyone in our culture, except for the newest arrivals from non-Christian countries.  Those of us who grew up in churches likely spent many an Advent participating in the story in the form of Christmas pageants.

I've been Mary and I've been in the angel choir, but I've never played the part of Elizabeth--it's not a role that's woven into most Christmas pageants.

It's interesting to reflect that I am now of the age where I would doubt not only the late-in-life pregnancy narrative, but I also find myself having a harder time believing in the basic miracle of the body.  Once it seemed that the body could recover from almost any injury.  In these past few years, recovery can seem miraculous indeed.

This year, I will hold fast to the story of Elizabeth having a child, even though she's long past child-bearing years.  I have friends who could use that kind of miracle--not a late-in-fertility baby, but a renewal of the all-too-human flesh.  I will light my Advent candles and remember that with God, all can be possible.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Zen/Lutheran Kristin Tries to Stay in the Christmas/Advent Moment

I find myself fighting back the blues this time of year.  It should be the happiest time of the year, as the Christmas season is my favorite time.  I should be honest--it's the time leading up to Christmas that I like best.  But already, I'm thinking of all I will be missing in January.  And I'm haunted by Christmases Yet to Come, when loved ones won't be here.

I summon my best Zen Kristin, trying to live in the present moment and not get swamped by the past or sunk by the future.  I am not talented at being Zen Kristin.

This year, when I feel pangs ("Oh no, by this time two weeks from now, all the Christmas lights will be gone!"), I use those feelings as a reminder to appreciate Christmas elements now, while they're here.

So, I've been making a concentrated effort to go out on a walk every night.  We choose a different street and go out to enjoy the lights. 

Instead of trying to bake every Christmas treat I've ever loved, I've relished the Christmas cookies I made for the cookie exchange and the bet I lost.  Will I make more before the season is over?  Maybe.  But if I don't, that's OK.  I can always make them in March, for an out-of-season treat.

I've accepted that I won't play every Christmas CD that we own.  That's OK.  It will be a future Christmas season before we know it, and I'll play them then.  I've been trying to remember to play them when we're home.

We don't really have space for a big tree, so this year, I bought several smaller trees.  Wherever I turn, a tree twinkles at me.  The lights are what I like best.

However, last year I really missed seeing our collection of ornaments.  So this year, they're displayed in a different way.  I have a big bowl of glass ornaments.  I have some ornaments that my grandmother made out of yarn and plastic canvas--I put them on the ledge of the non-functioning aquarium that's built into a wall.  For a time, I tried to buy a Christmas ornament during every trip.  Now I've hung them over knobs and put them on shelves.  Every time I turn around, I see evidence of a good life, both mine and others.

When it's time to put these things away, I'll miss them--but part of what makes them so special is that they're not on display year round. 

And because I'm a Lutheran, I try to stay cognizant of the fact that we're actually in the season of Advent, while I'm enjoying the Christmas elements.  And so, we light the Advent wreath and keep it on display in the center of the dining room table to remind us that we're in the season of Advent.  I read the Advent texts, which keeps me centered.  I light the candles to watch for the Messiah--or in my case, I plug in the lights for the little Christmas trees that I have while singing an Advent song.

In a few days, it will be time to shift into high gear in terms of Christmas season.  And when it's over, I'll try to come down gently.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

One Week Until Christmas, Thinking About Joseph

 I have done some thinking of Joseph, as many of us do, in the Advent season.  He thinks of quietly unweaving himself from Mary, who is pregnant.  This behavior is our first indication of his character.  Under ancient law, he could have had Mary stoned to death, but he takes a gentler path.

And then, he follows the instructions of the angel who tells him of God's plan.  He could have turned away.  He could have said, "I did not sign up for this!"  He could have said, "No thanks.  I want a normal wife and a regular life."

Instead, he turned towards Mary and accepted God's vision.  He's there when the family needs to flee to Egypt.  He's there when the older Jesus is lost and found in the temple.  We assume that he has died by the time Christ is crucified, since he's not at the cross.

When I was a teenager, our discussions of Joseph, if they happened at all, revolved around how it must have felt to have raised a child that wasn't his.  As I look back, I think about how many of the fathers around us were doing just that, as it was the 1970's and early 80's, that time when so many families split apart and reconfigured into different families.  But none of us grew up saying, "I hope I'm a really good stepparent some day."

Many of us grow up internalizing the message that if we're not changing the world in some sort of spectacular way, we're failures.  Those of us who are Christians may have those early disciples as our role models, those hard-core believers who brought the Good News to the ancient world by going out in pairs. 

But Joseph shows us a different reality.  It's quite enough to be a good parent.  It's quite enough to have an ordinary job.  It's quite enough to show up, day after day, dealing with both the crises and the opportunities.

Joseph reminds us that even the ones born into the spotlight need people in the background who are tending to the details.  When we think about those early disciples and apostles, we often forget that they stayed in people's houses, people who fed them and arranged speaking opportunities for them, people who gave them encouragement when their task seemed too huge, people who gave money.

I imagine Joseph doing much the same thing, as he helped Jesus become a man.  I imagine the life lessons that Joseph administered as he gave Jesus carpentry lessons.  I imagine that he helped Jesus understand human nature, in all the ways that parents have helped their offspring understand human nature throughout history.

Let us not be so quick to discount this kind of work.  Let us praise the support teams that make the way possible for the people who will change the world.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The Readings for Sunday, December 21, 2014:

First Reading: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16

Psalm: Luke 1:47-55 (Luke 1:46b-55 NRSV)

Psalm (Alt.): Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26

Second Reading: Romans 16:25-27

Gospel: Luke 1:26-38

Today we get to one of the more familiar Advent stories, one of the ones we expect to be hearing. We may say, “Thank goodness! I’m tired of John the Baptist. I can relate to Mary.”

Can we relate to Mary? Two thousand years of Church tradition tend to paint her in terms that serve whatever purpose society needed at the time. So in some decades we see Mary a perfect woman, sinless and blameless, the kind of woman who transcends humanity and gives birth to the Lord. Some decades write Mary out of the picture once the work in the stable is done, while other decades depict her as an interfering mother—the first helicopter parent!

We’ve heard the story of Mary so many times that we forget how remarkable it really is. We forget how bizarre the story told by the angel Gabriel must seem. A young girl growing God in her womb? A post-menopausal woman conceiving? It’s all too much to fathom.

I always wonder if there were women who sent Gabriel away: "I'm going to be the mother of who? It will happen how? Go away. I don't have time for this nonsense. If God wants to perform a miracle, let God teach my children not to track so much dirt into this house."

We won't ever hear about those women, because they decided that they didn't want to be part of God's glorious vision.

It’s important, too, to notice that God’s glorious vision doesn’t always match the way we would expect God to act. We see a history of God choosing the lowly, the meek, the outcast. Moses the stutterer, David the cheater, Peter the doubter. What business school would endorse this approach to brand building?

But our Scriptures remind us again and again that God works in mystical ways that our rational brains can’t always comprehend. If God can accomplish great things by means of a young woman, a barren woman, a variety of wandering preachers and prophets, tax collectors and fisherman, just think what God might accomplish with all of our gifts and resources.

Of course, first we have to hear that message, that invitation from God. It’s hard for this message to make its way through all the fear-based messages beamed to us from our culture. The angel tells Mary not to be afraid, and that is a message we need to hear. Don't dance with your dread. Don't keep company with your fears, your worst case scenarios. Dream big. Think of the world God promises (read further in Luke): God will fill the hungry with good things. The one who is mighty does great things for the lowly.

 We have much to fear, but we’re not that different from past cultures. The ancient prophets move me to tears with the promise of the building up of the ancient ruins, the raising up the former devastations, the repair the ruined cities (last week’s Isaiah reading) and the establishment of a throne established forever for a God who wants to dwell with us (this week’s reading from 2 Samuel).

Our culture gives us stories of terrorists and falling currencies and agents of the government who torture in all sorts of ways. Our Scriptures tell us of a God that breaks into our normal lives to remind us that God is redeeming creation even if we aren’t aware of that process. Our prophets remind us that ruin doesn’t have to last forever. Gabriel gives the promise that nothing is impossible with God.

Now, that is Good News indeed.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Main Dish Recipe for Busy December Days

Perhaps you are like me, a tad exhausted from all the grading you've been doing at the same time you've been fighting off a cold at the same time you've had an uptick in delightful activities.

Perhaps you have an event to attend, a potluck, and you know that everyone will be bringing cookies and someone should bring something with nutritive value.  Maybe your household needs something for dinner with nutritive value, something that will provide sturdy leftovers to take with you for lunch the next day.

But maybe you don't feel like cooking--yet you also don't feel like having one more restaurant meal or one more assemblage of take out food or one more chicken from the deli.  You need a recipe that doesn't involve much more effort than opening jars and packages and dumping them together.

I have just the recipe.  I first discovered it in Mollie Katzen's Still Life with Menu Cookbook, which my mom and dad gave me for Christmas in 1988 or 1989.  It's infinitely adaptable:   if you have a different size jar, that will work; if you don't have an ingredient, no problem; if you only have 12 oz. of pasta or if you don't have time to marinate, that's cool.

Pasta with Marinated Vegetables

Feel free to adapt the following list to your own tastes and what you can find/afford.  Combine the following in a bowl and marinate several hours or overnight or not at all:

1-2 jars or cans of artichoke hearts
1 pound of sliced mushrooms
1-2 packages of cherry or grape tomatoes, sliced if large
1-2 jars of roasted red peppers (or roast your own, if you have time)
1 C. (or more or less) sliced black olives (any type works, from gourmet to regular)
1 tsp. (or more or less) of the following:  oregano, basil,
several cloves minced garlic or a sprinkle of garlic powder/salt
1/3 C. olive oil
2-4 T. balsamic or red wine vinegar

When you're ready to assemble, boil a pound of pasta, something smallish, like shells or penne.  Drain when done and mix with the veggies.  You can top with grated parmesan cheese if you wish and if you're serving hot.

Tastes great at room temperature and straight out of the refrigerator.  In terms of food safety, it's perfectly safe to leave it on a buffet table for hours at a time or to take it for lunch and to leave it at room temperature for the day.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Prayers for the Broken

On Friday night, on the way back from the Broward Chorale concert, my spouse rolled down his window to talk to one of the homeless men with a cardboard sign asking for money at an intersection.  He said, "I don't have any cash.  But if you tell me your name, I'll pray for you."

The homeless man said, "Really?  You would do that?"

My spouse said yes, the man gave his name, and then the light changed.  We've prayed for that man, and the woman and her kids about to lose their house that my spouse met at a different intersection, all week-end.

I wish I could do more to change the social structures that lead to homelessness, more than just supporting Habitat for Humanity. I wish I could magically provide more mental health counseling and job training and cheaper housing--where did I put that magic wand?

Of course, I don't have a magic wand.  And prayer is not a magic wand, not in the way I'd like it to be:  wave it and problems disappear.

So, I make contributions to Habitat and donations of other things and I pray and I watch and I make eye contact and I give granola bars to the people on the street corners. And I pray some more.

Our Advent messages remind us to stay alert.  The texts from Isaiah give us the prophet's vision of a world where the brokenhearted will be healed, where the crooked pathways will be made straight.  It's a prophecy that seems especially visionary in the dark days of December.

Saturday, December 13, 2014

The Lights of Santa Lucia

December 13 is the day that Scandinavian countries celebrate Santa Lucia day, or St. Lucy's day. There will be special breads and hot coffee and perhaps a candle wreath, for the head or for the table.

 The feast day of Santa Lucia is one that’s becoming more widely celebrated. Is it because more Midwestern Scandinavian descendents are moving to other climates? Are we seeing a move towards celebrating saints in Protestant churches? Or is it simply a neat holiday which gives us a chance to do something different with our Sunday School programming and Christmas pageant impulses?

I first heard about St. Lucia Day at our Lutheran church in Charlottesville, Virginia. As the tallest blonde girl, I was selected to lead the St. Lucia day procession when I was in my early teen years. The grown ups placed a wreath with candles on my head and lit the candles. The younger children carried their candles. I walked up the church aisle and held my head very still.

I still remember the exhilarating feeling of having burning candles near my hair. I remember hot wax dripping onto my shoulders--I was wearing clothes and a white robe over them, so it didn't hurt.

It felt both pagan and sacred, that darkened church, our glowing candles. I remember nothing about the service that followed.

A year or two later, Bon Appetit ran a cover story on holiday breads, and Santa Lucia bread was the first one that I tried. What a treat. For years, I told myself that baking holiday breads was a healthy alternative to baking Christmas cookies--but then I took a long, hard look at the butterfat content of each, and decided that I was likely wrong. I also decided that I didn’t care.

 I still bake that bread every year, and if you’d like to try, this blog post will guide you through it. If you’re the type who needs pictures, it’s got a link to a blog post with pictures.

As a feminist scholar and theologian, I’ve grown a bit uncomfortable with virgin saints, like Santa Lucia. Most sources say we don’t know much about her, which means that all sorts of traditions have come to be associated with her. Did she really gouge out her eyes because a suitor commented on their beauty? Did she die because she had promised her virginity to Christ? Was she killed because the evil emperor had ordered her to be taken to a brothel because she was giving away the family wealth? We don’t really know.

 The lives of these virgin saints show us how difficult life is in a patriarchal regime. It’s worth remembering that many women in many countries don’t have any more control over their bodies or their destinies than these long-ago virgin saints did. In this time of Advent waiting, we can remember that God chose to come to a virgin mother who lived in a culture that wasn’t much different than Santa Lucia’s culture.

 Or we can simply enjoy a festival that celebrates light in a time of shadows.

I love our various festivals to get us through the dark of winter. When I lived in colder, darker places, I wished that the early church fathers had put Christmas further into winter, when I needed a break. Christmas in February makes more sense to me, even though I understand how Christmas ended up near the Winter Solstice.

So, happy Santa Lucia day! Have some special bread, drink a bracing hot beverage, and light the candles against the darkness.

Friday, December 12, 2014

The Angel Gabriel in Miami

Last night at a gallery show (see this post for details about the show), a colleague friend asked me about the writing that I was doing.  I told her about the short story I wrote and the poem I was working on.  I said, "The angel Gabriel goes to Miami . . ."

Her eyes lit up, and we had a great conversation about where we expect to find God and where the Bible tells us we'll find God.  She has a more traditional approach to the idea of sin than I do, and we talked about Miami as a place of sin.

My poem has Gabriel skeptical about finding a virgin in Miami.  I had been thinking about Mary as the mother of Jesus, and how God finds a mother in the most unlikely place:  not the power centers of the time, but a rural outpost of the empire.  What would be an unlikely place to find a means of grace in our modern culture?  A strip club?  A group of drug runners?

But maybe those are too traditional.  Maybe the angel Gabriel would find Mary in a real estate developer's office.  Maybe at the school board.  I'll keep playing with this idea.

When it's been awhile since I've written a poem, or when I feel like I have no ideas, I return to the stories of the Bible or mythology or literature.  I update them or take the characters and insert them elsewhere.

Here's an example, which was published in Chiron Review. Those of you who have been following my poems will see a familiar theme--the answer to that old Sunday School question of how the world would react if Jesus returned again and what would Jesus do and how would we recognize him?

Here's the poem:

New Kid

If Jesus came to your high school,
he'd be that boy with the untuned guitar,
which most days was missing a string.
Could he not afford a packet of guitar strings?
Did he not know how to tune the thing?
Hadn't he heard of an electronic tuner?
Jesus would smile that half smile and keep playing,
but offer no answers.

If Jesus came to your high school,
he'd hang out with the strange and demented.
He'd sneak smokes with the drug addled.
He'd join Chorus, where the otherworldly
quality of his voice wouldn’t quite blend.
He'd play flute in Band.
He'd spend his lunch hour in the library, reading and reshelving.

You would hear his songs echoing
in your head, down the hallways, across the years.
They'd shimmer at you and just when you thought you grasped
their meaning, your analytical processes would collapse.
Instead, you write strange poems
to delight your children who draw mystical
pictures to illustrate your poems inspired
by Jesus, who sang the songs of angels,
that year he came to your high school.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Lights Shining in the Darkness

Long ago, I worked at a community college in South Carolina.  A group of us was hired across the same time period, and as the new kids, we spent a lot of time together.  Later, when our office space was being remodeled, we had to relocate, and I shared space with two of them; we speculated that since we had louder voices, we got the office space in the library that was further away from the books and the students.  The remodel took longer than expected, so we were office mates for more than half a year.

 Tuesday I found out that the husband of one of them died suddenly over Thanksgiving.  He wasn't sick; I'm still not sure exactly what happened.

I didn't know him well, but I'm still feeling shock and sadness.  He was 62.  I have many friends and colleagues who are in that age range.  At age 49, I am not too far away from that age myself.  These days, 62 seems a rather young age to die.

My best friend from high school who was diagnosed with esophageal cancer in March had been doing better.  But over Thanksgiving, she found out that she had brain tumors.

I responded to the news of my friend's husband's death by coming home and making Christmas cookies.  I was planning to do this anyway.  I made a bet with a colleague back in the waning days of summer, and I lost the bet.

It's a bet I was happy to lose.  I was expecting that more full-time faculty would be made part-time by Christmas.  I was expecting more classes to migrate online with no onground component.  So far, however, we're all safe.  Safe-ish.

My spouse ate one of the broken cookies and pointed out that it's not Christmas yet.  Still, I'll be happy to give my colleague cookies this week.  It needs to be this week because we're scheduling the cookie delivery for ultimate enjoyment, in between his bouts of chemo and his scheduled surgery.


In these days, when the darkness seems to be closing in from all sides, I try to hold fast to the Advent texts of light shining in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.  This week, the Advent texts return us to the story of John the Baptist, the one famous for standing up to the forces of empire and lost his head for it.  He also announced the coming of Christ.

And he cautioned everyone who came to him by saying "I am not the Messiah."  And yet, his actions show that just because we cannot save everyone (anyone?), we still have work to do.

So we make the Christmas cookies.  We comfort those who mourn.  We send cards to those who struggle.  We look out for those alone in an alien land.  We beat back the darkness in any way we can.

This morning, I plugged in all the Christmas lights.  I have hopes that people on their morning commute to work will see my trees in the window and smile.  I watch the lights and remember the Advent promise that the darkness will not overcome the light.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 14, 2014:

First Reading: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Psalm: Psalm 126

Psalm (Alt.): Luke 1:47-55 (Luke 1:46b-55 NRSV)

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Gospel: John 1:6-8, 19-28

Today's Gospel returns us to John the Baptist. John proves to be such a compelling figure that the religious people in charge try to determine who he is. This interchange between John and the priests and Levites fascinates me. I love that John knows who he is, but he's not interested in explaining himself to institutional figures. Still he'll answer their questions.

One answer in particular keeps banging around my brain: "I am not the Christ" (verse 20). Some interpretations have him say, "I am not the Messiah." He's also not Elijah, not the prophet. When asked to explain himself more fully, he refers to Isaiah: "I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord,' . . ." (verse23).

The first lesson from Isaiah seems more appropriate as a mission for the modern Christian, with its language of binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming liberty to the captives, and comforting those who mourn. We are to be a garland, instead of ashes, to be the oil of gladness.

And yet, some days I feel it might be easier to be one of those old-fashioned Christians, who have the mission of telling everyone that Jesus loves them. And of course, the next question from many people would be, "Yeah? How does that change anything?"

And during times when I feel despair, either because of the brokenness that I witness all around me or the larger evils that I see in society, I see their point.  It's easy to get bogged down in that despair.

The message of today's Gospel is that we must be careful to remember that we are not the Christ. There are days when I shake my head and think, "I've been working on hunger issues most of my whole life: writing letters to legislators, giving away money, working in food banks. Why isn't this issue solved yet? How long will it take?"

I must practice saying, "I am not the Messiah." That doesn't mean I'm off the hook in terms of my behavior. I can't say, "I am not the Messiah," and stay home and watch reruns of The Simpsons and do nothing about injustice in the world.

But I am not the Messiah. We struggle against a huge domination system, as Walter Wink termed it. The lives of John the Baptist and Jesus serve as cautionary tales to me, when I get too impatient with how long it takes for the arc of history to bend towards justice (Martin Luther King's wording). They struggled against injustice and died in the maw of the system they worked to dismantle.

This week I shall practice a John the Baptist approach. I will recognize the importance of making the pathways straight, while continuing to insist, "I am not the Christ."

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Advent: Two Weeks Out from Christmas

We see this scene from far away.  But each day brings it closer.

This manger is empty.

But it won't be empty much longer.

Is the story new for you this year?   

How can we put ourselves into the creche scene?

How can we be more present in this Advent time?

Monday, December 8, 2014

Christmas Cards for Foreigners in the Land of Egypt

When I was younger, a Lutheran going to church in the 70's and 80's, we did all sorts of social justice and charity projects throughout the year:  collecting food, going on walks to raise money, donating our old clothes, singing at nursing homes.  I remember December as a time when we really ramped up our efforts.  Even when I came home as a college student, there was a project or two that needed help; the one I remember most is creating gift baskets for women in battered women's shelter, and I remember being amazed that such a place existed.

Yesterday at my church, we wrote cards for women and children held at detention centers.  You might argue that we shouldn't do that; you might argue that they are in the country illegally.

I would counter that the Bible is full of stories of people fleeing and having to go to countries illegally.  In fact, one of the Gospels recounts the family of the baby Jesus having to flee to Egypt to avoid Herod's wrath.  I doubt that Joseph took the time to fill out a visa application.

We wrote cards in the hopes that those cards will bring a bit of Christmas cheer.  We wrote the messages in Spanish.  I found myself wishing we could do more, but hopefully, it will be a bit of light in the darkness.

If you want to participate it's not too late--but you will need to mail the cards by Tuesday, Dec. 9.  You can send the cards to:

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service
Access to Justice
700 Light Street
Baltimore, MD 21230

If you need a greeting, here's my favorite:

Deseandole un ano lleno de paz, salud, y amor.  It means "Wishing you a year filled with peace, health, and love."

We had a number of children participating.  It gave us a chance to talk about the issue.  I wonder what they will remember when they are older and taking part in social justice projects of the future.

The Bible reminds us again and again that showing love to the stranger is essential; we do it because we might host the Divine, and we do it because we were strangers once too.  It was good to do it yesterday.

"And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt."  Deuteronomy 10:19

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Isaiah 40: 1-11, Written for the Modern Day

I have found much of the coverage of recent events to drive me to despair, and I find it's often everyone's enraged speech and action that makes me feel most hopeless.  I like nuanced conversation and analysis as much as the next person, but we're not getting much of that in the worlds of popular culture. 

However, I found the following on a pastor friend's Facebook page.  It made me think of all the possibilities, of rewriting prophecy for the modern day.  So much oppression surrounds us.  I read the following and thought of victims of trafficking, victims of sexual abuse, victims of domestic violence . . . sadly, the list could go on and on.

But for today, I'll simply re-post this:

A re-reading of Isaiah 40:1-11 for this Sunday:

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Ferguson, to Brooklyn, to Staten Island, and cry to them that they have not been forgotten, they are loved deeply and from the Lord’s hand hope shall be given.
A megaphone cries out: “In the streets prepare the way of justice, make straight in city parks a highway for our God. Every empty lot shall be a home, and every Trump tower shall be rent controlled apartments; unfair minimum wages shall be living wages, and riot gear will collect dust. Then the presence of God shall be unveiled and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of God has spoken.”

A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry out? Is it for the unjust deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Akai Gurley or Tamir Rice? Or the giant gap in economic inequality? Or that America’s democracy is owned by the Koch brothers and other corporate elites?” All people are fragile; their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades; WE CAN”T BREATHE…but the breathe of God infuses hope and rises in communities where truth cannot be suffocated. For the end of police brutality is at hand.

Get us up to the main streets, O Ferguson, bearers of another world; Shout with strength, O New York City, heralds of justice, shout louder, do not fear; say to the police departments across America, “BLACK LIVES MATTER! BLACK LIVES MATTER!” See, the God of justice comes with might, and her hands serve the lowly; her comforting presence ushers in change. She will bring water for those too tired to shout anymore; she will rub the feet of those too tired to march anymore, and she will carry all in her bosom, and gently lead us to a new heaven and new earth, one without murders by choking or trigger happy cops.

The Wisdom of God for the people of God.
(thanks to Tim Wotring for writing) Thanks to Heidi Neumark for posting on the ELCA Clergy page.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Invitation to Church

Yesterday I wrote this post about our spontaneous invitation of our down-the-street neighbors to dinner.  As we ate, our neighbor said, "I want to go to church with you."

In a way, it felt like she said it out of the clear blue sky.  In a way, it wasn't strange.  Our neighbors are expecting a baby in about 6 months, so their search for a church has a different kind of urgency.  He was raised "Catholic-lite" (his words), and she comes out of a variety of Protestant traditions:  mix a bit of Methodist, a bit of Southern Baptist, a non-denominational church camp here and there.  In many ways, our Lutheran church might be a good fit.

Later my spouse and I talked about the interchange.  We so rarely meet anyone who wants to go to church.  Even at Christmas, when people talk about yearning for midnight mass, when I invite them to go to church, so far, no one has said yes.  And along comes our neighbor who wants a regular Sunday morning experience enough to ask us about it.

Most of the people we know are tolerant of our church commitment, but I get a sense that they see it as a quaint holdover from an earlier time.  We're not doing anything exotic, like our Hindu friend.  We're not meditating.  Our church may host an exercise class here or there, but in fact, it is a quaint holdover from an earlier time:  we hold food drives and rummage sales and AA groups use our building and we gather every Sunday to get nourishment and strength for the week ahead.

So, in several ways, it makes sense that our neighbor would be interested.  In a way, it's nothing threatening, our church.

In so many more ways, it could threaten everything.  It's the kind of church where if we go regularly, we are called to be something/someone different than what our society tells us we should be.  And those transformations can/should be threatening to the dominant order.

Friday, December 5, 2014

The Lessons of a Simple Supper

I got home last night to the intoxicating smell of chicken and pastry: my spouse had made an interesting mix of chicken pot pie and soup--by which I mean that the sauce was a bit watery and the crust of bread crumbs was savory but not crisp.

He mentioned that he'd seen our down the street neighbor shopping in the grocery store. He wanted to invite them to dinner, but he wanted me to taste his experiment first. I declared it good, and he picked up the phone. Fifteen minutes later, we were dishing up bowls for us all.

They've been enduring a house renovation for several months. Until recently, they could grill, but now their back yard has had to be dug up to get to the plumbing. They were grateful for a hot meal and ice cubes for tea. I was pleased that I could be spontaneous in this simple act of hospitality and grateful that my spouse had done the cooking.

A few months ago, in this post, I wrote about the concept of "scruffy hospitality": "It put me in mind of this blog post on scruffy hospitality, which encourages us not only to come as we are, but to host as we are. The writer, an Anglican priest, shares his sermon, which has this nugget of wisdom: 'Scruffy hospitality means you’re not waiting for everything in your house to be in order before you host and serve friends in your home. Scruffy hospitality means you hunger more for good conversation and serving a simple meal of what you have, not what you don’t have. Scruffy hospitality means you’re more interested in quality conversation than the impression your home or lawn makes. If we only share meals with friends when we’re excellent, we aren’t truly sharing life together.'"

I wish we had had another pan of pot pie soup, since we gobbled up the first pan. But we had enough for everyone to have a hefty serving plus a bit more. Had I had more lead time, we'd have had a better dessert than the animal crackers that I served.

But the simple meal that we had was good enough--especially since our neighbors were going to eat a frozen pizza that they could heat in the toaster oven. And it was good to share what we had and enjoy good conversation.

I worried briefly about the cleanliness issue. I had vacuumed the night before, and the toilets are clean. But it's been awhile since I dusted, and the bathroom sink did have a smudge of toothpaste, which I only noticed after they left.

My spouse laughed when I pointed it out. He reminded me that our neighbors have been living in a construction zone, so they probably didn't notice our dust.

I want to be the person who invites people to come see how I really live. I must confess to wishing that I really lived a more organized, dust-free life. But I already have so little time to do what's important to me. I will leave the dust be--and try to remember to invite people to dinner more often.

And more important, I will try to remember that dinner doesn't have to be a high-maintenance drama. We can share what we have, and it will be more than enough.

We can share what we have, and it will be more than enough--it's one of the messages of most religious traditions.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Contemplative Advent

My blog post on slowing down for Advent is up at the Living Lutheran site.  Go here to read it.

Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"We give up things for Lent. Maybe that should be an Advent practice too."

"We need to build some times of stillness into our days, and Advent is a great time to start. If we just turn off the volume of our computers, we won't get pings whenever anyone sends us an e-mail; I know I'm not the only one who feels that I must drop everything and check my e-mail when I hear that ping. Maybe instead of having news on as our background noise, we could have some soothing or inspiring music. The world can spare us for the amount of time it takes to pray. We could find a yoga class – surely we can find an hour or two in our weeks for some kind of physical discipline that helps our minds calm down. We can look at our free time and make fierce decisions. We can vow to go to just one party per weekend."

"Before we get deep into December, we should contemplate which of our traditions bring richness to our lives and which ones we do out of hollow duty."

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 7, 2014:

First Reading: Isaiah 40:1-11

Psalm: Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

Second Reading: 2 Peter 3:8-15a

Gospel: Mark 1:1-8

Today's Gospel takes us to John, a fascinating character. In today's reading, we see him, clothed in his strange costume, eating locusts and wild honey. Other Gospels present him as the cousin of Christ. Who is this guy?

I find him fascinating for many reasons. Maybe I'm always intrigued by a prophet. This year, I'm thinking about John's place in the drama of Christ's life, and how he seems completely comfortable with his place.

In earlier years, I've wondered if it would be hard to be John, with his more famous cousin Jesus overshadowing him. This year, I notice that he has the perfect opportunity to upstage Jesus--people of the time period were desperate for a Messiah, and there were plenty of predators wandering around, trying to convince people that they were the Messiah. John had more legitimacy and a wider following than most of the other people with their wild claims.

But John knows who he is. And he fills out his full potential by preparing the way for Jesus. Not only does John know who he is, he knows who Jesus is. John knows for whom he waits and watches.

We might be wise to see John as a cautionary tale too. John is one of the earliest to know the true mission of Jesus (in some Gospel versions, perhaps he realizes the mission of Jesus before Jesus fully does). Notice that John's life is turned upside down.

Many people are shocked to discover that being a Christian doesn't protect them from hard times. Being a Christian doesn't mean that we won't suffer sickness, that we won't lose our jobs, that we won't lose almost everything we love. To be human means that we will suffer loss--and thinking people know in advance that we will suffer loss, which means that we suffer more than once.

But we have a God who has experienced the very same thing. Think of the life of Jesus, who had no place to lay his head and died by crucifixion.

The good news is that we have a God who fully understands all the ways in which we suffer--and wants to be with us anyway. We have a God who fully understands all the ways in which we will fail--and loves us fully anyway.

John reminds us of our Advent goal, which is to keep watch, to stay alert. Of course, our Advent goal should spill over into the rest of our life. It's easy to keep watch in December, when the rest of the world counts down to Christmas. It's harder to remember to watch for God in the middle of summer. That's why we need to develop daily spiritual practices that will keep us watchful.

John also reminds us that we are not the Messiah. It’s Christ’s role to save people. It’s tempting to think that we can save ourselves and each other. But we can’t. It’s comforting to say, “I am not the Messiah,” as John the Baptist does, in John 1:20. In our daily lives, we’re confronted with scores of problems that we can’t solve, from various national debt crises to meetings about missed numbers and opportunities to friends and family who make disastrous choices. We can only do so much. We are not the Christ for whom the world waits.

That phrase can keep us humble too. Many a powerful figure has been disgraced by forgetting that someone else is the Messiah.

These days, perhaps we have the opposite problem. Far from feeling powerful, we may feel oppressed by forces outside our control. But our scripture readings offer comfort. We have a larger salvation, even when our daily lives feel like a persecution. Christ came to claim us, the Holy Spirit stays with us, and the day will come when we will be reunited with the Divine. Watch and wait and work for "a new earth, where righteousness is at home" (2 Peter 3: 13).

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Emulating Mary

This morning, I have Mary on the brain.  I'm thinking about Mary in her later stages of pregnancy.  I'm thinking of my friends in their later stages of pregnancy, as they get the nursery prepared and enjoy the last meals out that they will have for many years without having to think about childcare or bringing children with them.

I am also thinking about my high school friend who has esophageal cancer.  Earlier this year, it seemed that she might be one of the ones who survived.  She got to abandon the chemo drug that made her feel so dreadful.  There was a vacation to the beach. 

Now she is back in the hospital to undergo radiation again.  I've heard from a mutual friend that she's got cancerous tumors in the brain.  The radiation will only buy her some time.

I think of her in the hospital.  I think of her spouse who keeps vigil.  I think of them as existing in this sort of liminal time, a time when something new will be born. That something new is so different from a baby.  I have never experienced either, not exactly, and yet I imagine that both times are full of terror along with joy.

I was very grateful for this post by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, a post which talks openly about how to pray when we face the incurable.  The post wrestles with this question:  "What does it mean to cultivate hope when the doctors say 'there's nothing more we can do'?"

I know that people will tell me that my friend is going to a better place.  I can already hear all sorts of platitudes which will not comfort me when I grieve.  The promise of future comfort is a cold comfort today.

As I wrote yesterday, there are many aspects of this life and this creation that I do not understand.  Does God love the cancer cell just as steadfastly as God loves the healthy cell?  A cancer cell seems like a design flaw to me--and yet, of course, I am not God.  I do not have that long view.

My spouse who has a graduate degree in Philosophy reminds me that we're all living with this death sentence.  Again, it seems like a design flaw.

I will return to the wisdom of Mary, who said yes to a plan she couldn't fully understand.  I will try to emulate her strength and courage.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Meditation for World AIDS Day

Today is World AIDS Day.  In some ways, we've made enormous progress.  Not too long ago, I saw a documentary, and it took me back to the early days of the disease, when healthy men turned into skeletons and died within 6 months.

And now, it seems to be manageable.  I say "seems" because we assume that protease inhibitors tame the disease and can be taken for a whole lifetime.  That may be true.  We also forget that diseases mutate and develop resistance to the drugs that we create.  Protease inhibitors that work today may not work in 10 years.

This is a disease that should be easy to avoid, and yet we're not making much progress in dropping the rate of new cases.  AIDS is a bloodborne disease, not airborne.  It's easy to avoid the disease vector that transmits AIDS, and even if we're exposed, it's not as easily transmissible as the news media would have us believe.  And yet, we continue to see risky behavior, and thus, new cases.  I don't know what we could do to make people more aware.

We've had other diseases on the brain in this year of Ebola.  For me, I will remember 2014 as the year of many cancers.  None of them have been mine, but it's been agony watching friends and acquaintances struggle with this disease. I don't usually spend much time thinking of cancer, but this past year, a colleague has died of pancreatic cancer, a friend died because of a cancerous brain tumor that returned, a colleague has battled colon cancer that travelled to his liver, and my friend from high school has battled cancer of the esophagus.  The thought of cancer is never far from my consciousness.

These are cancers that are statistically unlikely in the people they've afflicted, and yet, here they are.  As with the early days of the AIDS scourge, when so many came down with Kaposi's Sarcoma that didn't usually afflict that population group, I wonder if these strange cancers in younger bodies are harbingers of some new doom.

I will confess to theological thoughts that seem almost heretical in this past year of many cancers.  I have found myself wondering about where cancer fits into God's plan.  I don't believe that our lives are set on a predetermined path, but I do believe that God has created everything with meticulous attention to detail.  How do I square that belief with a cancer cell?  The cancer cell undoes such a beautiful creation, the human body.  It looks like a design flaw to me. 

But here's the heretical thought:  maybe it looks like a design flaw, but it's not.  Maybe I think of it as a design flaw because I am human-centered.  Do we believe in a God who loves every element of creation equally?  I say that I do, but my belief falters in the face of cancer cells.

I think of those Bible verses that has God caring for a sparrow and knowing every hair on the human head.  Does God care equally for the cancer cell?  Does God love the AIDS virus, the Ebola virus?

If I was a good theologian, I'd have an answer.  I don't.  I don't even have a Bible reference that helps me make sense of my quandary.
My creative practices help me with my theological quandary about God and cancer cells.  My creative processes have helped me to be comfortable with long periods of not knowing a clear direction.  I begin to write a novel, for example, in a place of uncertainty.  Do I have characters who are worthy of a book?  What will happen to them?  What's the purpose of this novel?  I don't have to know for sure, but I have to keep going.

I don't know for sure how cancer fits into the plan for creation.  Is it evidence of a fallen aspect of creation?  Or perhaps the cancer cell fits a larger purpose that I can't even conceive of--because, after all, I'm not God.
But I have trust in the Easter message that death does not have the final answer.  I have trust in a Creator and a creation that commits to resurrection on a daily basis.  I, too, am a creator, and that practice also helps me have faith.  With that faith, I can continue.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

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?

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Christmas Season Begins

Here we are, Thanksgiving behind us, Black Friday shopping done--but is the Christmas shopping ever done?  Today, before/as we launch ourselves fully into the holiday season, 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.

But if we stay stuck in the story with the cute baby in the manger, we've lost the important point of the story.

Let's remember the true meaning of that baby in the manger, if we're Christians.

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 holiday season 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 or adding compost to our gardens.

Or maybe it will be something that transforms the world!


Friday, November 28, 2014

Budgeting for Black Friday and Beyond

The weeks before Christmas pose challenges to most of us, no matter what beliefs we hold. Even the most balanced of us can lose our way during this time of frantic busyness and hectic schedules and our culture beaming messages at us that we must spend more. How can we as Christians best use our gift giving dollars?

Our first impulse might be to give our gift giving dollars to various charitable organizations. I’m fortunate enough to be able to buy all the material stuff I need. I am haunted by all the charities that are underfunded. I am haunted by the gaping needs in the world. I would prefer that people give money to the needy than to buy more stuff for me. Chances are good that lots of people on your gift list feel the same way. Then the hard part comes in choosing the charity.

Philosophers like Peter Singer would encourage us to send our charitable dollars to charities who serve the developing world, where our dollars go further. Organizations like Lutheran World Relief have long histories of delivering our donations efficiently to areas of the globe with great need. But we know that there’s plenty of need here in our home countries.

Some people who give money to charities in lieu of gifts have fun matching the charity to the personality of the gift recipient. Some families choose one charity and give all their gift budgets to the one charity. Some families support local churches.

But what about the people on our list who aren’t as charitably minded?

Maybe instead of a gift, we could give an experience. Why not give your loved ones a retreat at a church camp? Many church camps have shorter week-end retreats that are affordably priced. Why not give theatre tickets?

We could give the gift of time together. You could take your gift recipients out for dinner. Make a date for a museum or a movie.—in February, when life calms down, and we need a treat to make it through the rest of winter.

We could give magazine subscriptions, the gift that gives throughout the year. A book of devotions could do the same thing, while nourishing our gift recipients on a daily basis.

This year, we might want to give gifts that help support local businesses so that they survive. We could give any number of gift cards to local businesses: car mechanics, gym memberships, hair stylists, boutiques, bookstores, restaurants, move theatres. We could broaden our approach and choose gift cards that support our Christian vision. Instead of an Amazon gift card, we could support Augsburg Fortress. We could buy fair trade products from organizations that support people in developing nations.

But what about the people on our list who don’t want a gift card? What about the people who want an object specially chosen for them?

One year, my family had a lot of fun by giving handmade gifts. But most of us don’t have time between now and Christmas to give handmade gifts.

Luckily, other people have been preparing. Why not support a church craft fair? There we’ll find beautiful objects to suit all sorts of budgets—and we’ll support church ministries. We could support local artists. Even if you think you can’t afford art, you will likely find something in your budget, like a set of note cards or a beautiful pottery mug. We could buy our gifts from SERVV or other groups who support artisans in the developing world. We could buy books from local authors.

However we choose to approach our gift giving, we should create a budget before we begin shopping. It’s easy to get caught up in the good feelings that spending money can produce for many of us. It’s easy to whip out our credit cards and worry about how we’ll pay for it later. Unfortunately, when we do that, many of us will still be paying for those Christmas presents next summer. And when we do that, we don’t have that money available for other worthy causes.

And there are so many other worthy causes.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Gratitude Haiku for Thanksgiving

What are your gratitude customs for Thanksgiving? Surely you have some. The holiday, after all, is not supposed to be about a big meal or getting ready for Black Friday shopping.

I'm proposing something different for your family to try this Thanksgiving: the gratitude haiku!

Why gratitude haiku, you ask?

First of all, a disclaimer. I'm using the word "haiku" very loosely. I understand that there's much more to haiku than the syllables per line (5-7-5).

The practice of gratitude journaling is one I've comd back to periodically. You've probably done it too: at the end of the day, write down 5 things that fill you with gratitude. No doubt that it's a powerful practice. But I wanted to be honest. When I've kept this discipline for any length of time, my gratitude lists begin to seem quite similar. As always, cultivating a quality of mindfulness does not come naturally to me.

Once, I changed up my gratitude journaling practice. Quite by accident--as I recall, it was in a desperate attempt to stick to a poem-a-day ritual one April--I wrote a gratitude haiku. And then I wrote another. And I kept doing it for several weeks. The practice short-circuited my tendency to keep the same list. I found myself paying attention and trying on subjects for haiku possibilities. I found myself more lighthearted than I sometimes am when I'm keeping a gratitude journal--it's fun to write haikus.

So, I offer this to you as a complement to your other Thanksgiving traditions. It involves no time in the kitchen, no exotic ingredients, and easy clean up--what could be better?

I'll start:

Thanksgiving 2014

Travels behind us,
We gather for food and fun,
Deeper nourishment.