Friday, January 31, 2014

Off to Mepkin Abbey

I've left some posts which will appear while I'm gone.  I'm off on my annual trip to Mepkin Abbey.  Longtime readers of this blog will say, "Didn't that annual trip take place in Nov. in the past?"

Yes it did, but last year we went in early February, and it worked out well, so this year we will go again in February, after our November 2013 date didn't work out.

There's a  new retreat center, so we won't be staying here:

What will we do?  We'll take long walks that lead us to the banks of the river.

Or maybe our walks will take us through cotton fields to the old slave cemetery.

We'll worship with the monks.

We'll eat delicious vegetarian meals.

We'll worship some more.

And we'll get writing done.  One year, I assembled the manuscript that would become my chapbook I Stand Here Shredding Documents.  I can't wait to see what comes this year!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, February 2, 2014:

First Reading: Micah 6:1-8

Psalm: Psalm 15

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:18-31

Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12

Here we are again, at one of the touchstones of our faith, the Sermon on the Mount (alternately called The Beatitudes). Those of us who have been going to church for many years have likely heard it so often that we zone out at the reading of it. We might say to ourselves, "Yeah, yeah, blessed, blessed, got it."

Now is a good time to revisit this text. Now is a good time to use that old technique from the ancient practice of lectio divina: sit with this text for some time and take note of what jumps out at you. That might be God talking to you through the text.

You could also use a similar technique from literary analysis. In my literature classes, I often ask, "Which character speaks to you?" Here I would ask, which verse speaks to you?

Are you that person who mourns? Are you hungering for righteousness? Are you making peace?

Maybe you have a darker glimmer: maybe you're not the person who is working for peace (perhaps in the politics of your office or your family). Maybe you're the one standing in the way of peace. Maybe the text is calling you to revolution, that turning around, in the way that St. Paul turned around.  In church calendar time, we've just celebrated the conversion of Paul on Jan. 25. It's a valuable time to remember that God has a use for us, no matter how ferociously we've been undermining the vision that God has for humanity and creation. 

The actual date of today, February 2, is Candlemas, the day we celebrate the presentation of Jesus at the Temple.  Simeon holds the light of the world, Jesus, in his hands.  We, too, bear the light of the world within us.  Like Jesus, we are called to be the light of the world.  Some churches, monasteries, and abbeys will bless the year's supply of candles today. 

It's a good day to light a candle and to think about this issue of light and how we can be that light, especially if we feel our wicks are cut short or are damp or are unworthy in so many ways.  Return to the Gospel; it tells us how to live.

The text reminds us of how to treat ourselves and others: with mercy, with compassion, with comfort. The text reminds us that just because we follow Jesus, our path will not be easy. On the contrary, we will likely face persecution. But Jesus doesn't let us off the hook. This text tells us how we are to act and what we are to value.

Again and again, Jesus reminds us that God's way is not the world's way. Read this text one night as you watch T.V. and marvel at the difference in values. The world worships wealth and power. The world worships beauty and power. The world worships those who boss the rest of us around. The world worships those who ship our jobs away, those who buy low and sell high, those who ignore the rules and succeed.

Our Gospel this week reminds us of God's rules, the way that we succeed in God's eyes. Our Gospel this week gives us God's promise that we will be comforted, that even though we may be meek in the eyes of the world, we will be filled with good things.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

So Long, Pete Seeger, It's Been Good to Know Ya

If I was the one in charge of canonization, Pete Seeger would be on my short list.  Perhaps he's not who you think of when you think of modern saints.  My list would also include those people, people like Archbishops Tutu and Romero.

Pete Seeger wrote and/or arranged and made popular many of the songs that are important to so many of us today, songs like "If I Had a Hammer" and "We Shall Overcome."  I'd canonize him just for that, even if he'd done nothing else.

He also helped preserve the legacy of artists like Leadbelly and Woody Guthrie.  He worked with both of those important figures, and long after their deaths, he told their stories.  I loved this quote in a story about him in The Washington Post:  "Years later, he said that one of his primary career achievements had been 'to let a future generation know that such people as Woody and Lead Belly once lived.'”

But more important, he taught so many of us that we, too, can sing.  We may not have what it takes to make a living singing, but we can sing.  And often, his concerts turned into giant sing-alongs, especially as he got older and his voice lost range.  Far from being a detriment, he reminded us of the joy of singing in groups.

His social justice work is also important to me.  This NPR story, a great retrospective, reminds us that he was a disillusioned sociology major as he left college with his degree unfinished: "The sociology professor said, 'Don't think that you can change the world. The only thing you can do is study it,' Seeger said in October 2011."  Seeger proved that statement false.  He did study the world, and along the way, he changed the world in profound ways.

He lent his voice to so many causes, so many outcast and oppressed groups, in addition to various environmental causes.  But more than that, he reminded us of our common humanity as he sang those songs.  Even as he was protesting, his activist work pulled us together, rather than ripping us apart.

Think about it:  how often can you say that about activists and social justice folks?  Not often.  The older I get, the more valuable that quality is to me.  If I wanted to put it in Biblical terms, I'd say that Pete Seeger was an expert at the ministry of reconciliation.  So few people are.

Here are some great Seeger quotes.  How grateful I am that we had him with us for so long!

"'Be wary of great leaders,' he told The Associated Press two days after a 2011 Manhattan Occupy march. 'Hope that there are many, many small leaders.'"

“'I call them all love songs,' Mr. Seeger once said of his music. 'They tell of love of man and woman, and parents and children, love of country, freedom, beauty, mankind, the world, love of searching for truth and other unknowns. But, of course, love alone is not enough.'”

"'Can't prove a damn thing, but I look upon myself as old grandpa,' Seeger told the AP in 2008 when asked to reflect on his legacy. 'There's not dozens of people now doing what I try to do, not hundreds, but literally thousands. ... The idea of using music to try to get the world together is now all over the place.'"

Monday, January 27, 2014

Transforming Brokenness into Beauty: the Second Genesis Story

For our Worship Together service, we usually have an art project for the second week that we spend with a unit.  From the moment I got my assignment, the second creation story, the one with Adam and Eve, I knew what I would do.

When we studied this text at Create in Me a few years ago, my spouse created an empty cross out of plexiglass and wood. 

We brought broken things to drop in there.  A potter friend who lives nearby had plenty of broken materials to supply.  We could also write examples of brokenness on the broken objects.

In the end, we had a thing of beauty made out of all sorts of brokenness.  I tried to believe that was the take-away message from the Adam and Eve story.  I tried to ignore centuries of female oppression based on that text.

For yesterday's art project, I wanted something simpler.  So, I took a piece of posterboard and drew a cross on it.  I tore up lots of pieces of paper in different colors.  I had people write examples of brokenness that they'd like God to turn into beauty and glue it to the cross.

I told people that if they didn't want to share their brokenness, they could glue the writing side of the paper to the cross or write in code or draw a picture.  I reminded us that these didn't have to be examples from our personal life.  There's plenty of brokenness in the larger world:  Syria, for example.

What I love about this group is that they enter into everything with enthusiasm--or at least openness--so I don't have to be too worried. 

I forgot my camera yesterday, so I can't show you what we created.  But we filled up the whole cross, and indeed, it was beautiful, in a mosaic way.  And I do like the basic message.  Indeed I do.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Almost Missed Opportunities: the Prayer Edition

I have been asked to write prayers for Bread for the Day again this year.  I got the e-mail on Friday.  Since that project has become one of my favorite kinds of writing, I said yes immediately. 

It made me think about how I almost missed this opportunity.

It was a chilly morning on a Saturday in February of 2011.  My spouse had an appointment at a church south of Miami with a Lutheridge staff person who was going to be in the area.  I had thought I would go to spin class and leave my spouse to make his own way down there, but at the last minute, I changed my mind.  We decided to have an adventure together.

Before we went, I checked my e-mail, and I noticed one from an editor for a devotional book.  Would I like to write prayers?  But it seemed the deadline had passed to say yes; I should have responded a few days earlier.  I shut down the computer and tried to console myself by thinking about the small sum of money that had been offered.  Small consolation, as I rarely get offered any money for my writing at all.  I sat in the car and watched the landscape zoom by and tried not to berate myself.

We drove through the foggy damp which sometimes turned to rain and drizzle.  We got to the church a bit early, and no one was there.  Stranger yet, the person who was cleaning up the grounds didn't know of any gathering that was planned, the one the Lutheridge staffer was coming to be part of.

Still, we waited.  When the Lutheridge staffer arrived, the groundskeeper unlocked the building.  How good to get out of the damp!

We had thought the Lutheridge staffer would want to talk to us about planned giving, but she had an even more interesting proposal.  Would he be willing to serve on the Board?  If so, more information would be forthcoming from the Board.  He said yes, he'd be interested.

We left so that the Lutheridge staffer could set up for her presentation to the group, the group that had forgotten that they invited her.  If we had known, we might have kept her company. 

It was such a quick meeting, such a long car trip for a 10 minute meeting.  So although it was chilly and damp, we decided to explore the botanical garden that we'd seen on our way in.  We walked along the pathways and enjoyed the trees and flowers.  I kept thinking about that e-mail and my missed opportunity to write prayers.  A part of my brain wondered if it really was too late.

On our way home, we stopped at an Irish pub to warm up.  I had the best French onion soup.  We watched the drizzle turned to soaking rain while we enjoyed being inside.  It was a perfect morning and afternoon.

Later that evening, I decided to write to the devotion book editor on the off chance he still needed someone.  He might say no based on the fact that I missed the deadline and thus, seemed unreliable.  But he might still need writers and be relieved to hear from me.

So, I wrote an e-mail, explaining that I'd been offline while at the AWP conference and would he still be in need of writers?  He wrote back immediately sounding thrilled that I could do it.  And the project became one of my favorites of that year, and the years since.

I am so glad that I took the chance and responded, even though I'd missed the deadline.  I'm so glad that the editor said yes.  I'm so glad I've had the chance to write prayers, year after year.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

The Role of Empire in our Religious Narratives

Last week, I stumbled across this post by Debra Dean Murphy, which moved me, even though we're weeks away from the Christmas season.  It looks at the Christmas story as told by both Luke and John:  "Chapter 2 of Luke's gospel can easily be reduced to Christmas pageant nostalgia; John’s prologue can leave us bewildered by a form and formality hard to warm to. But together, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the full picture of salvation history comes into view: the familial and the philosophical; the provincial and the universal, the personal and the cosmic. And we find our place in a story that at once traverses the dusty roads of Nazareth and the farthest galaxies of the heavens."

Murphy looks at the earlier part of Luke and reminds us that it's not a pretty tale:   "The Christmas pageant version of verses 8 through 14, for instance, has long colonized our imagination, with toddlers in bathrobes and bed sheets, coat-hanger halos on their wee heads. But as Dorothee Soelle once observed, 'the boot of the empire crushes everything in its way in the narrative from Bethlehem to Golgotha.'”

I am captured by that quote within the quote:  "'the boot of the empire crushes everything in its way in the narrative from Bethlehem to Golgotha."  It's a very different picture that emerges when we look at the ministry of Jesus against the backdrop of the brutal Roman empire.

I've been reading Reza Aslan's Zealot:  The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth.  I read it during Advent, that time when we prepare for the baby in the manger.  Reza Aslan would not be interested in the baby in the manger.  He talks about Jesus as a Jew, Jesus as a radical.  How do we know he was a radical?  Because of the way he was executed.  If you've read widely, especially in the realm of historical Jesus scholarship, these ideas won't shock you, as they did not shock me.  Still, it was interesting to read this book in Advent, to think about the messiah the first century Jews wanted, the messiah who came.

It's interesting to read these reference to empire and to think about the fact I am no 21st century peasant.  In the modern empire, I am not the richest of the residents, but I am certainly comfortable.  I rarely feel the crushing boot of empire personally.

There are theologians that would argue that we do feel the boot in other ways.  I feel distress about the fact that we don't educate our children well, for example, even though I have not suffered.  I feel distress about the lack of resources for the poor.  But the followers of Jesus experienced a repressive regime in ways I hope I never experience.

What does the Gospel of liberating the captives say to comfortable people like me?  Or to comfortable people who are not willing to even consider such issues?

Friday, January 24, 2014

Aging Church

Our pastor is on sabbatical, and thus, we have invited several guest pastors to preach while he's gone.

Hard to believe his sabbatical is half over.  But that's not what I want to write about.

I anticipated that it would be interesting to have different pastors, and it has been, both in ways you'd expect (a different preaching style) and in ways I didn't.

Our guest pastor last week told us that she's the interim pastor for a congregation in the middle of the state where my spouse and I did some freelance budget work almost a decade ago.  So I'm familiar, sort of, with the area.  It's a beautiful little town by a lake.  I remember wanting to move there as we drove around.  We commented on the lack of traffic, the affordable housing, the picturesque quality of the downtown.

I remember the Lutheran church as being similarly picturesque, situated on a huge plot of land with pine trees shading the back part of the property.  It looked like a thriving church.

Oh, how appearances can deceive.  It is not a thriving church.  They can only afford to pay for an interim pastor for two Sundays a month.  They haven't started the process to find a permanent pastor.

I mentioned our past wanderings and the appeal of the Lutheran church to the pastor.  I said, "We thought that if we moved to that town, we'd have a church."

The pastor said, "You'd have been the youngest ones there."

Well, that wouldn't be unfamiliar.  And we're in our late 40's, not exactly young.

I suspect that many Lutheran churches face a similar fate:  aging congregations, lack of ability to afford a permanent pastor, buildings that are bigger than the congregation needs, aging buildings that need attention.

I think of past generations, like my grandparents or great grandparents.  What would they make of this situation?  How sad would they be?

Of course, it doesn't do much good to keep doing the analysis of how we came to be in this situation of shrinking congregations and aging buildings and members.  Lots of people have written eloquent elegies, but here's the short list:  more multiculturalism, less peer pressure to go to church, more work hours, lots of other diversions, more education which leads to questioning which the Church hasn't been good at answering.

The question, really, is where will we go from here?  Where do we see the Holy Spirit at work?

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Saint Paul and the Rest of Us

For today's post, I'll direct you to my post at the Living Lutheran site which gets us ready for the Confession of Saint Paul, which we celebrate on January 25.

Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"But my life right now doesn't lend itself to learning Greek. I'll rest secure in the knowledge that the Paul that my 19-year-old self hated is not the real Paul. The real Paul is quite amazing. To think about what he accomplished just makes me tired and makes me feel a bit inadequate, truth to tell."

"Some criticize Paul's letters for their inconsistencies. I would remind us that Paul was writing to real congregations who were facing real problems. I imagine that he would be aghast at the idea that anyone centuries later would use them as a behavior manual to teach right behavior. It would be as if someone collected an assortment of your emails and centuries later used them as directions for ordering a Christian life and a Christian church. You would likely wish for the chance to revise them and restructure them."

"Do we need to be struck blind so that we can see again?"

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, January 26, 2014:

First Reading: Isaiah 9:1-4

Psalm: Psalm 27:1, 5-13 (Psalm 27:1, 4-9 NRSV)

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:10-18

Gospel: Matthew 4:12-23

Here we are this week, still in the early days of Jesus' ministry. We see him call the disciples with that famous offer to make them fishers of people. He goes out to preach and teach.

But notice that early on, he's also ministering to the physical needs of people. He's not here to talk to them about their spiritual ailments. He tells them that the kingdom of heaven has come near, but he doesn't go around haranguing people about their selfish natures and the need to pray more.

Notice that his fame spreads, and it's probably not because of his brilliant teaching or a glimpse of heaven on earth. People will come from far and near if one of their physical ailments can be lessened.

Jesus also addresses, at least indirectly, their emotional ailments. As he heals and teaches, he's creating a community. It's exhausting work. But again, he knows that people aren't going to overthrow their established way of doing things unless they get something substantial in return.

Notice that Jesus doesn't talk in terms of eternal salvation, at least not in this part of the Gospel. He doesn't promise a place in Heaven if people will just endure their ailments during this life. He doesn't tell people that they'll be popular in Heaven to make up for being outcast on earth.

No. He creates a community and includes all of these people.

His ministry addressed the very real, the very physical, the very present needs of the people around him. It's an example we should keep in mind, as we order our own lives, and as we think about the future of our individual church and the larger Church.

As we think about outreach, we should keep the example of Jesus in our mind. We should ask ourselves what our lives show others about Christian life. As we think about our individual lives and about what God has called us to do, we should keep God's example in mind. What is our larger purpose? How can we effectively minister to a broken and hurting world?

Many of us aren't comfortable talking about our faith, and perhaps that's for the best. Nothing turns of an unbeliever more than someone who inserts faith into the conversation too early ("Hi, I'm Cindy, and I'm saved. If you died tonight, could you be sure you'd be going to Heaven?"). Instead, we can help out our coworkers who need it. We can invite lonely people over for dinner. We can be the person who always has a smile ready. We can be the person who's willing to listen. We can be the light of the world that God needs us to be.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Revisiting Genesis Creation Stories

This month in our intergenerational, interactive service, we're looking at the Genesis creation stories.  Yes, I said stories. I think it's important to talk about the fact that there are 2 stories that explain how we all came to be here.  It's important to talk about how the later story, the Adam and Eve story, has been used to oppress us all.  I'm not dwelling on that aspect, but I'm mentioning it.

Yes, I'm the one in charge of the Adam and Eve story--and thus, my first session was more me talking and leading a class than some of the activities that we usually do, like Reader's Theatre or puppets. 

In some ways, it was more interactive.  After all, when we have a puppet show, it's only a few people participating and the rest of us watching.

As we talked, I thought about how lucky I am to be part of this group.  We can do textual analysis.  We are not bound by a religious tradition that tells us of the inerrancy of the Bible.  We do not see the Genesis creation stories as telling us what factually happened.  I'm not sure we'd even tell you that they're true, in the way that we see the Gospels as true, even if not historical.

This Sunday we will be more interactive.  We are doing a variation of the arts project that we did in Create in Me years ago:  the broken but beautiful cross.  We brought our broken objects and dumped them into an empty plexiglass and wood cross:

And in the end, we had a beautiful work of art:

This Sunday, at our church, instead of creating a frame into which we'll dump our broken objects, we'll have a cross drawn on posterboard.  We'll take colored pieces of paper and write down the ugliness that we'd like God to transform.  We'll paste those pieces of paper to the cross to make a mosaic of sorts.

I shall post pictures!

Monday, January 20, 2014

Let Peace Begin With Us

A few years ago, I read an article in The Washington Post about a film that explores the Freedom Riders in the U.S. South.  I was struck by this quote from Rev. James M. Lawson Jr.:  "Nobody else will ever be a Martin Luther King. What Freedom Riders said is that you don't have to be."

I thought of what those Freedom Riders endured, and I thought, I don’t even have what it takes to be one of those folks, much less someone huge, like Martin Luther King or Mother Theresa.

But I take comfort in knowing that even if I can’t upend my life, there are ways that peace can begin with me.  I can take less extreme steps.  I can make a New Year’s resolution to do more than I’ve been doing.

In the spirit of New Year’s goals, here are five exercises to get our flabby peacemaking muscles back into shape:

--Be kind to the people around us, the inhabitants of our daily lives.  Peace begins at home, after all.  We can’t expect to change the world for the better if we can’t even treat our coworkers, our friends, and family decently.

Imagine what would happen if we treated everyone with the same kind of care and compassion that we would offer to a friend or colleague who was undergoing a great crisis.  The world would be a much more humane place.

--We can give away more of our money.  The ethicist Peter Singer reminds us of how far our money will go, especially if we give to the developing world.  So this year, instead of buying more consumables from big corporations, why not give the money to a worthy organization like Lutheran World Relief.  Just 1% of our income would make a huge difference to people in the developing world—and we likely won’t even miss it.

--Keep in touch with our legislators.  Some days, it makes a difference.  There are plenty of social justice groups who will alert us when important legislation is up for a vote, and we can call or e-mail.  It takes very little time or money, and it keeps us connected to the larger world, and the issues that matter.

--Dream.  What would a more just world look like?  We sometimes forget to devote ourselves to dreaming impossible dreams, especially as we grow older.

I've always told my students that they should plan what they would do in leadership positions, because they may very well find themselves there some day, and it might be sooner than they think. I tell them about Nelson Mandela, and that the reason that he was prepared to be president of South Africa was that he spent all that time in jail (more years than most of my students have been alive) planning for what he would do if he took over the country. He didn't nurse anger or bitterness. No, he planned, along with his compatriots, who were imprisoned too.

The world of peacemakers has always begun with individuals who say, “Why is the world this way?  Here’s how it would be better!”

They’re often dismissed as silly dreamers, but later, the rest of us get to enjoy the fruits of their imagination:  a nation where African-Americans don’t sit at the back of the bus, a world where a dissident writer can be elected as President of Czechoslovakia, a planet where the arc of history continues to bend towards justice (to borrow the wonderful words of Dr. Martin Luther King).

--We sometimes forget the most important thing we can do.  Throughout human history, humans have prayed for social justice, even when they couldn’t imagine how it would be delivered.  We can join that elegant tradition.

Walter Wink reminds us that even if we believe in free will, this belief doesn't mean that God can't act in the world. But God won't act if we don't ask or demand it: "This is a God who works with us and for us, to make and keep human life humane. And what God does depends on the intercessions of those who care enough to try to shape a future more humane than the present" (Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, page 301).

Five simple exercises—but how they can change a trajectory, both our own personal trajectories and the trajectory of society. 





Sunday, January 19, 2014

How to Explain our Cross-Gen Service?

My brother-in-law is staying with us for a few weeks, while he gets resettled into his new job in Homestead, which is an hour's drive south of us.  Today he said, "So, are you like the assisting minister this morning?"

I tried to describe our 9:45 service, which I'm actually in charge of, until we get to Communion, when our minister who is filling in for our pastor who is on sabbatical takes over.

I said, "It's like a combination of Sunday School and a worship service, but it's a lot more interactive.  We sign the song, for example."  And I continued to struggle to describe it.

How can I be so not good at this?  In a way, it's because we're doing something so different, something that most people haven't ever experienced.  In part, it's because we're using successful bits from other types of services while ditching stuff that seems less essential.  So, no creeds, but we do pray.  Untraditional music, and only one song a week, which we also sing using American Sign Language.  Wait, we do also sing the Lord's Prayer.

And I didn't even try to explain the Faith 5.  For many of us raised in a traditional church, the Faith 5 process would be incomprehensible--and how does it fit into a worship service?

I saw a Facebook post that referred to the Faith 5 as a liturgy.  The Liturgy of the Faith 5--I like that phrasing, but it still doesn't explain it.

Maybe others are better at explaining this service than I am.  But I am a wordsmith!  How can I be such a failure at this basic task?

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Prayer: Partnership with the Divine

This past week has been the Jewish festival of Tu B’Shvat.  I'm not sure I ever knew about this festival before reading the blog of Rachel Barenblat.  Think of it as a Jewish Earth Day of sorts.  And now, Rachel has written a great piece at Zeek, where she considers a day that honors the trees in this era of climate change.

I bring it to your attention partly because of my commitment to ecumenism, but more importantly because of the insight that she has about prayer:  "Jewish tradition forbids asking God for the impossible. For this reason, we don’t pray for rain during the dry season; the laws of nature are what they are, and our prayers can’t change that, so our liturgy guides us to pray then for dew instead. We can’t 'wish away' climate change. That isn’t how prayer works."

I wish more Christians had this view of prayer.  I see far too many people viewing prayer as a version of Santa Claus for grown ups:  I will pray fervently, and the cancer will go away.  I will pray enough, and a job will come, and it will be a good job that pays lots of money, and I will finally be happy. 

One might wonder why we pray at all, if we don't believe that God will answer our prayers for the impossible.  Or some might say that my imagination is more limited than God's.  I should pray for what I want/need, and let God figure out the delivery mechanism.  It's still a little too close to God-as-Santa for me.

Why pray?  Different theologians have different answers.  One of my favorite theologians, Marcus Borg, admits that he's not sure of how prayer works, or if it works, but he does it the way that he practices other good manners.  And he does it because he's willing to admit that he doesn't know everything:  "I myself have no clue what the explanatory mechanism is, and I am content not to. And this leads to my final reason for continuing to do prayers of petition and intercession. To refuse to do them because I can't imagine how prayer works would be an act of intellectual pride: if I can't imagine how something words, then it can't work. To think thus involves more than a bit of hubris" (The Heart of Christianity: Discovering a Life of Faith, page 197).

I like the views of my all-time favorite theologian, Walter Wink, who reminds us again and again that God will not intervene in this universe that gives us free will unless we ask God to intervene: "This is a God who works with us and for us, to make and keep human life humane. And what God does depends on the intercessions of those who care enough to try to shape a future more humane than the present" (Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, page 301).
Rachel Barenblatt's article shows me a similar strain of thought in Judaism:  "The kabbalistic tradition teaches that God withdrew God’s-self in order to make space for us and for our free will. Free will means that we can choose to harm, or we can choose to bring healing. And when we act here 'below,' our actions are mirrored 'on high.' When we act to bring healing to our world, we arouse the flow of healing within transcendent divinity too. This is one of the deep kabbalistic messages of the Tu B’Shvat seder."

I've always believed that my actions can change me.  I have an atheist friend who says she envies me my belief. I argue that my beliefs come because of my practice, and that she could enter into spiritual practices, and she would be a different person in a year. She proclaims not to believe me, but she also refuses to try my experiment. Marcus Borg, in The Heart of Christianity, says "We become what we do" (192).

But Barenblatt's idea says that my actions not only change me, but they change the planet, which I desperately want to believe.  And yet, my actions seem so piddly.  Can my recycling really help heal the deep poisoning that we've been seeing?  I'll plant a tree, as there is room in my yard, but I know that the planet needs so many forests of trees, and I am one small person.

Barenblatt's idea gives me hope.  God wants our buy-in, our participation, and then God will meet us more than halfway.  God has many more resources than I do.  I'm willing to partner with the Divine.  I like the idea that my actions not only change me and the planet, but they also change God.  Suddenly, every action has a weight that I don't always see.

And maybe that's my problem with the prayer that I watch so many practice.  For example, we smoke and then pray for the lung cancer to be healed.  It's rare that the body works that way.

And yet, if someone I loved had lung cancer, I'd pray those prayers anyway.  Much as I'm committed to a universe based on the principles of free will, I want to allow room for miracles.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Poetry Friday: Astronomy, Geology, and God

The moon this week, along with some cold-for-South-Florida mornings, has taken me back to a poem inspiration.

It was in the early years of this century, 2002 or so, and I went out for an early morning run.  The sun wasn't up, but the moon was gorgeous.  I started thinking about how we think that humans are the center of the universe, but as of now, there seem to be more moon-like parts of creation than human-like parts.

And if that's true, what does that say about the creator?

And thus, this poem was born.  It is in my first chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard.

Geology, the True Life Science

Our planet—warm, gooey corner
of a cold, lifeless cosmos,
a primordial ooze which forms
the perfect building blocks for life,
a miraculous exception to the universal
rule.  The official astronomer’s story.

But perhaps God prefers rocks and minerals.
Why else create such a diverse abundance?
Maybe animals and humans are the experiment
gone horribly wrong, an accident of pumping liquids
surrounded by decaying flesh.

Bones calcify, kidneys form stones, arteries harden
with plaque—instead of medical disaster,
perhaps our bodies move towards their ultimate evolutionary
destiny, seeking God’s pleasure.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Thursday Gratitude: A Healthy Year after Back Surgery

A year ago today, my spouse had his successful back surgery.  I went back to see what I had written about it at the time; if you're similarly interested, this blog post is best for a general look at our experience.  This blog post comes at the subject from a spiritual angle.

I see this successful surgery as the start of a year of blessings for us.  We've had some stresses, sure, but nothing like 2012.  The year 2012 was full of full-out difficulty:  chronic disabling pain for my spouse, several rounds of lay-offs at work which included my job loss which resulted in me applying for the same job in the reorganized structure, all sorts of difficult stuff.

I am so grateful that 2013 was not that kind of year.

If we could have only had one of those blessings to happen during 2013, I'd have chosen my spouse's successful back surgery.  It has been so wonderful to see him restored to health.

But my joy is tempered by the realization that so many people aren't that lucky.  It's been a sobering experience to think about what we would have done, had we not had health insurance--drink more?  When I looked at receipts as I did our 2012 taxes, I was amazed at how much we spent on non-surgical pain relief, including bottles of aspirin and Aleve, bottles of alcohol, chiropractors and massage therapists.  What if we couldn't have afforded that?

I can't imagine how people with chronic pain cope with their lives.  Often they don't cope well.  I suspect that at the root of many people's difficult behavior is a pain issue.  Now, as I deal with difficult people, I try to remember that they might be the victim of forces I can scarcely understand.  I try to be gentle.

We were lucky; the surgery worked.  I am also sobered by the knowledge that we won't always have that good fortune.  We will all of us face decline and death, no matter how much we'd prefer not to.

Thinking back on my spouse's surgery reminds me of the many kindnesses I witnessed during his surgery and recovery.  We may think we can't do anything in the face of suffering, but our experience reminds me that even a smile can provide great comfort.

We can pray for those in our midst who are suffering pain or illness.  We can make a casserole.  If we've got a colleague who's in the grip of illness, whether it be theirs or a loved one's, we can help them get their work done so that they can attend to multiple priorities. 

I think of all the Gospel stories where Jesus attends to the sick.  It's this aspect of his personality that helped spread his message and boosted his appeal.  What might that tell us for our modern missions?

We live in a world that's full of pathogens of all sorts, a world that's desperate for healing.  How can we be part of that process?

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, January 19, 2014:

First Reading: Isaiah 49:1-7

Psalm: Psalm 40:1-12 (Psalm 40:1-11 NRSV)

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:1-9

Gospel: John 1:29-42

Today's Gospel continues the story of Jesus' baptism, and it has lessons for each of us. Notice that Jesus doesn't get baptized and go home to sit on the sofa. He doesn't say, "Well, I'm glad I got that spiritual landmark over with. Now I don't have to do anything else until I die and get to go to Heaven."

No. Jesus goes out and tackles his mission. What is his mission? The same as ours: to proclaim that the Kingdom of God is revealing itself right here, right now, that God is breaking through our mundane daily life to transform us into better people in a better world.

But notice that Jesus doesn't go around yakking about this all the time. He's not the type of guy that drives most of us crazy, all talk and no follow through. When people ask about his mission, he says, "Come and see."

And what will people see? They will see a man healing the sick, comforting the poor in spirit, feeding the poor in wealth, eating with the outcast, and supporting the lowest people in society's social stratum:  women, children, demon possessed, tax collectors, the diseased, and the like. They will see a man who sacrifices his social life and prospects for a long life so that other lives will have improvement. They will see a man of constant movement.

What do people see when they look at your life? I've said it before, but it bears repeating: people pay attention to your actions. If your actions don't match your words, people don't accept your words. But it's worse: people see you as a hypocrite, one of those Christian types they hate so much. But wait, it's even worse: if your actions habitually don't match your words, people begin to assume that ALL Christians are hypocrites.

I know it's tough some days. We're impatient. We wonder why these out-of-towners can't turn when they get a green arrow, and we lean on our horns. In these days of when it feels like so many aspects of our lives are threatened, it's harder to part with our money. We want to conserve and hoard. We don't want to comfort a sick coworker because she reminds us that human flesh is so frail and grasslike. We would rather retreat to our houses and watch reality TV shows than deal with reality itself.

What's a beleaguered Christian to do? Pray for help, of course. Each morning, when you wake up and wash your body, remind yourself that you are marked with the cross of Christ forever. Then ask God to help you be the light of the world today. Remember that the world watches you, waiting for your light. Remember that when your light shines, other people feel better about being people of the sun. Forgive yourself for days when you're a dimly burning wick (to use the words of Isaiah's, in last week's readings) and remember that God does not extinguish a dimly burning wick.

And remember, that we are called to do tough work. Remember to follow the example of your Savior. Surround yourself with like-minded people who will help you on the journey. With these people, take frequent food breaks:  eat fresh-baked bread and drink wine! Every so often, retreat from the world's demands so that you can pray and recharge. And remember that Martin Luther said that faith should move your feet. We are called to be Movement People. And even the smallest movements can lead to great changes down the road.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

Of Grace and Ribbons

I have spent the morning enchanted by an arts project at Grace Cathedral--ah, Grace Cathedral.  If I ever relocate to the Pacific Coast, San Francisco would appeal for so many reasons, not the least of which would be Grace Cathedral.  I go to their website, and I am laid low by envy, envy and the desire for Evensong and labyrinths and Gregorian chant and medieval looking stone surroundings.

But I digress.  Back to the art project, which I first read about in this article.  The artist hung ribbons of many colors in the sanctuary.  It took me some sleuthing to discover that there's a video component; at first I thought that the colors came solely from the light coming in the stained glass windows and the ribbons. 

The Grace Cathedral website describes the project thusly:  "As a part of 100 Years of Music at Grace Cathedral, visual artist Anne Patterson created Graced With Light, a stunning, music-inspired installation that incorporates Grace Cathedral’s vaulted ceiling arches and video projection. Ms. Patterson envisioned a series of light pathways, connecting heaven and earth, manifest as ribbons. The ribbons carry our prayers, dreams and wishes skyward, and, in turn, grace streams down the ribbons to us. " 

I can't imagine constructing such a thing.  I've thought of something similar for Pentecost, but been stymied by the logistics, logistics which would be even tougher in the Grace Cathedral space.   How does one get a tall enough ladder?  How does one get the ladder in between the pews?

Come to find out, it took 20 miles of ribbon and 8 days to assemble.  And this article says, "It took the artist months to prepare, which she did in her art studio in Manhattan by constructing a 3/16-inch scale model of it with embroidery floss. Then, on site, it took Patterson and the Grace Cathedral community eight days to hand-assemble the project."  Embroidery floss!

I love the abstract nature of the art.  It seems like the kind of piece that even an atheist could live with, if not love.

I wonder what it's like to worship in that space with all the ribbons.  And there are yoga classes in the space; I would love that. 

This project has started me thinking about the cold, clinical nature of so many of the spaces I'm in each and every day:  the gym, the spaces outside my office, the classroom, my church.  How I would love to have spaces that inspire mysticism and/or wonder.  I'd settle for spaces of beauty.

Perhaps I love holidays like Christmas so much because so many of our spaces become transformed, and we feel like we have permission to make these transformations.  How can we get more of that?   I'm especially interested in thinking about our worship spaces in the time after Easter.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

A Brief Photo Meditation on the Sacrament Rooted in Place

Two weeks ago, we'd have been looking at this landscape as we drove from Key West back to the tip of the Florida peninsula:

A year and two weeks ago, we'd have been in a very different landscape, the desert southwest:

How does landscape change our theology?  I think of how the desert has shaped Christianity:

What would the Psalmist praise if the view had been different?

How would our sacraments be different had our first Christians been surrounded by a different sea?

Or maybe the sacraments would be the same.  Maybe the emphasis on water (Baptism) and bread and wine (the Eucharist) speaks to a more essential something out of our shared humanity.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Poetry Friday: Sap Rising or Not

Rachel Barenblat has written a lovely post about staring at the stars with her child and thinking about the passage of the seasons and the larger cycle of time.  She lives in maple syrup country and thinks about sap rising.  She sees a religious connection to her Jewish faith, Tu BiShvat, "The New Year of the Trees. The birthday of the trees. The day when we count trees as a year older than they used to be, even though we no longer tithe their fruits. The day when we believe the sap starts to rise to feed the fertile season to come. Even here, where the ground is rock-solid, impregnated with ice."

She makes a connection to the human life cycle: "We are the trees, growing older year by year. We give ourselves over to trusting that in the fullness of time, our labors will bear fruit. That we will bring forth nourishment for ourselves and those around us. That this world of winter will end, and be replaced by spring's warm breezes -- and summer's clear sunshine -- and autumn's blaze of red and gold -- again and again, and again."

I have been feeling a bit low spiritually lately, like my sap has drained right out of my cells and evaporated into thin air, like the well of sap (or whatever generates human sap) has vanished.  I loved reading her post and remembering the promise of new life that we find across religious faiths.

It put me in mind of a poem of mine, which I'll post below.  It's a good poem for days when I'm feeling arid.

Desert Dreams

We face midlife with Prufrock.
Midlife, that endless wait for Godot,
who might show up early or not at all.
Existentialism succors only the young.
And so, we, too, come to realize
what Eliot knew.  At the last,
liturgy offers a consolation,
Compline a kind of comfort,
with its contrast to the sudden violence
of sunset.  We remember the verses learned
by rote, repeat them to calm
our quaking, media-addled nerves.

Prophetic whispers surface from the sediment
of our days, a muddy
bit from Isaiah or the Psalms,
instructing us to comfort, comfort ye my people.
A voice crying in the wilderness
of our arid hearts, our desert dreams.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Building Campaigns and Leadership

Our church is about to move into high gear as we get our building back into shape.  We've had flurries of e-mails; I'm already exhausted by it all.  I know that we are lucky--we were able to get a loan so that we can pay for it all.  But the process of getting that loan has left me wrung out too.

In the midst of it all, it was great to read this post about the church as warming center where people can be housed during cold snaps.  This sentence leapt out at me:   "This, my friends, is why churches have buildings.  They are tools for ministry."

Yes they are--good to be reminded.

I have been serving in church leadership for half a decade now in this particular church.  We will soon have church council elections.  I will continue on church council since my term is not up yet.  But the thought has nudged me several times in the last week:  perhaps it is time for me to become a Council member who is not in leadership.  By stepping aside, maybe I will enable someone with the skills necessary for this time to step forward.

I was glad to read this post about making a deal with the new year.  It was good to be reminded that some of my failures as a leader are not my fault.  As the years go by, perhaps they won't even look like failures.

I have served in leadership positions in many areas of life, and nothing has ever made me feel more inept than serving in church leadership.  It continues to amaze me how long it takes to get a project completed.  It staggers my imagination to remember how much ugliness one can encounter as one tries to get the most basic tasks accomplished.

Perhaps the Holy Spirit is trying to tell me something.  Or maybe it's a different spirit, speaking in evil hisses through my tiredness, painting my bleak mood into something more diabolical.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, January 12, 2014:

First Reading: Isaiah 42:1-9

Psalm: Psalm 29

Second Reading: Acts 10:34-43

Gospel: Matthew 3:13-17

This week's Gospel finds Jesus at the beginning of his ministry, a ministry that shows what a difference to world history a year of two can make. Notice that Jesus begins with baptism. Much critical ink, and literal blood, has been spilled in the centuries since the baptism of Christ, as people try to determine how important baptism should be to us as Christians. But let's put those issues aside and focus on the words of God: "This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased."

We tend to see Jesus as special. We can't imagine God saying the same thing about us. But in fact, from everything we can tell, God does feel that way about us. God takes on human form in its most vulnerable, as a little baby.  How much more of a demonstration of love do we need?

For those of us who are big believers in affirmations, we should print out those words and paste them on our bathroom mirrors. What does it mean, if we believe God is well pleased with us?

Many of us dwell in the land of self-loathing this time of year. Maybe we've spent too much money on our Christmas festivities. Maybe we've eaten too much in that time between Thanksgiving and New Year's. Maybe we've already broken our New Year's resolutions. We look in our mirrors and see multiple reasons to hate ourselves.

We look in the mirror and see ourselves as we imagine that the world sees us. The world looks at us and feeds us criticism: too fat, too plain, too wrinkled, too odd, too tall, too short. A diet of that commentary quickly leaves us malnourished. The world looks at us and judges us in terms of all the things we haven't accomplished yet: no child or children who don't measure up, lack of business success, a house that's too small or in the wrong neighborhood, no publication credits, no worthy creative products, the wrong kind of degree or no degree at all. Seeing ourselves through the eyes of the world means we compare ourselves to others and hold ourselves to impossible standards.

No one wins this game.

Try a different practice for a week or two or 52. Look in the mirror and see yourself not as the world sees you. Look in the mirror and know that God loves you. God chose you. God delights in you.

Our spiritual forebears might have worried that this kind of practice would lead to too much pride. But frankly, our culture has changed. In a world where more people are seeking help for the diseases of depression and anxiety disorders than ever before in human history, and many of the rest of us are trying to self-medicate, perhaps we shouldn't worry too much about big-headedness.

God chose you. God delights in you. God loves you.

You may find this hard to believe. You may be able to believe that God loves people like Mother Theresa or Archbishop Tutu, or any number of people more worthy than you. The good news is that God loves you the same way. God sees you in the same way.

No matter how much you improve yourself, God will still love you. No matter how many times you lose sight of your goals and move further away from the best self that you could be, God will still love you. Of course God sees your full potential and probably hopes that you'll move in that direction. But even if you don't, God will love you anyway. No matter how miserably you've failed, God will always welcome you.

We've lived in the land of self-loathing long enough. Why cripple ourselves with this kind of thinking? There's work to be done, and the world cannot afford for you to waste time feeling bad for all the ways you've failed. Every day, remember your baptism (perhaps as you bathe, as Martin Luther recommended) and the larger meaning of your baptism.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Traveling to Find the Goddess Within and Without

I spent the last few days reading Traveling with Pomegranates by Sue Monk Kidd and Ann Kidd Taylor.  It's an interesting joint memoir by a mother and a daughter, each one writing alternate chapters, and it chronicles a time when both of them are at loose ends in terms of what to do next with their lives.

Now you likely know Sue Monk Kidd as the woman who wrote The Secret Life of Bees, but at the time covered by this memoir she has yet to write the book.  She has a desire to be a novelist, but she's doubtful that she can pull it off. She's gone to a writer's conference where she had a famous author dismiss her idea and an agent ask for the manuscript when she writes it.  In addition, she's just turned 50 and works to accept that she will not live forever.

Her daughter has just finished undergraduate school.  She has a vision of grad school that's been dashed because she didn't get into the program.  She can't decide what to do.

The narrative arc is familiar to many of us who are familiar with life cycles.  But this book also shows how the arc is a spiritual one, not just a psychological one.  The women travel to sacred sites in Greece and France, and they encounter powerful examples of goddesses and Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Both women use these images from myth and Christianity to help them find their way.  It's a compelling look at how we might do the same.

I come out of a religious tradition that during my lifetime has been supportive of women.  I can imagine what a liberating experience this book might be if one came out of a more repressive tradition.  Or perhaps it would be terrifying.

I also come out of an academic tradition (Ph.D. in British Literature) that has explored these ancient symbols in all sorts of ways, so their explorations didn't seem radical to me.  For people who don't know this history, I can imagine that the book would be a revelation.

It's a great book for an uplifting read.  It's not unrealistic:  we watch these characters wrestle with these issues across many pages and months.  But it has a message that we need to hear:  we deserve to feel love, we deserve to feel good about ourselves, and it's not too late to become the person the world (and God) needs us to be.

For those of us in liturgical traditions, it's a great book to read in conjunction with the baptism of Christ.  We will be hearing that God is pleased--even before Jesus has done a thing.  In our hyperactive, must-do-more world, it's a message we could stand to hear regularly.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Meditation with Photos for the Feast Day of the Epiphany

We do not always know from what direction our wisdom may come.

Wisdom may travel by camel or across the digital divide.  Wisdom knows the importance of the baby:

Wise people of all sorts may be led by a star or by angel visions or by that steady voice that tells them to look where they haven't found success before.

They will meet many along the way:  despots and the desperate and those who invite them to stay for supper.

Wisdom may come at night, in our dreams, or in broad daylight.  Our task is to be alert.

If God spoke to you now, could you hear?  Or do you keep your distraction level high so that you will not have to hear?

The arrival of wise sages doesn't always mean rich gifts and acclaim.  Sometimes, it means a hasty flight to an alien land.

The word Epiphany also means an insight, often a piercing insight, a life-changing insight.  What epiphanies do we need for 2014?

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Epiphany Approaches

The actual feast day of the Epiphany arrives on Monday; some churches will celebrate tomorrow.  Let us take this week-end before Epiphany to hold on to the Christmas magic as we transition back to regular life.

The Feast Day of the Epiphany celebrates the ways in which the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus is revealed early in the Christ story.  More specifically, the Feast of the Epiphany celebrates the arrival of the wise men from the East to see and bring gifts to the baby Jesus.  Often, the Epiphany season also includes the baptism of Jesus, which in some Gospels, can include a descending dove and God telling us that Jesus is God's son, with whom God is well pleased.

Note that God is well pleased even before Jesus has done a thing.  For those of us who suffer self-loathing because we feel we're not doing enough and we're not living up to our full potential, perhaps we could take this lesson and back off a little.

Or maybe we want to take a completely different approach.  Perhaps on this week-end Feast Day of the Epiphany, we could move towards having an epiphany of our own about our lives.

The word epiphany in literary circles has come to mean a sudden insight (that's the most simplistic definition).  Here's the epiphany I'm hoping for today/this year:  what am I put on this earth to do?  What creative work is most important?  If I didn't have all the time in the world--and we don't--what would I focus upon?

We hear a lot of talk in the world about writer's block, but that is not the reality for the creative folks I know.  Most folks I know have far too many interests to be blocked.  For most people I know, the difficulty comes with having too little time and floundering in terms of not being able to decide what work is most important.  Let this be the year that we determine early what our essential work is, and let this be the year that we commit to that work and bring it to fullness.

But maybe you'd like a more light-hearted approach to the Feast Day of the Epiphany.  The Christmas to Epiphany season is a festival of light.  How can we get more light into our lives?

If you're a scented candle person, Yankee Candle is having a great sale right now, and it's not just their Christmas scents (at least not on their website).  There are candles that are half price and 75% off.  Often the website has great deals on shipping, which is good, because those candles are heavy.

 Or maybe you need a better desk lamp or better reading light.

Or maybe you need metaphorical light.  What books have brought you joy and inspiration?  Resolve to read them more often, even daily or weekly.  Invite more light of every kind into your life!  Watch your favorite movies.  Seek out the T.V. shows that make you glad to be alive--and avoid the ones that make you anxious (like the local news, for example) or unworthy.  Listen to music that inspires you.

The Feast Day of the Epiphany can also be about gifts, and if you have any extra money, now can be a great time to buy yourself a gift when much of it is on sale.  Buy yourself some new undergarments!  That sweater you've had your eye on is likely on sale, and many of us still have a few months of cooler weather left.  Buy a calendar that makes you happy--it's probably on sale right now.  Stock up on your favorite, seasonal coffees and teas.  Buy Christmas cards and decorations for next year.

And don't forget the gift of time.  Many social justice/service agencies would be happy to see some extra hands right now.  If you don't have time to give, send some money.

Or maybe this is all too airy for you.  Maybe you need to plant some seeds that will bring epiphanies of their own in the coming months.  Maybe you need to cook.

Why not bake some 3 Kings Bread?  Here's a blog post that gives the recipe along with photos.  And for those of you who say "Bread?  I can't possibly bake bread!", I say, "Yes, you can."  This recipe is for a yeasted bread, but it requires no kneading.  And while you could include candied fruit, you don't have to.  For those of you still adhering to your New Year's resolutions to eat better, this recipe can work for you too:  it's somewhat sweet, but also fairly healthy.

For those of us who still have yet to put away our Christmas decorations, this week-end should probably be the time.  Many of us have been on vacation, and this week many of us return to work for the first time.  On this week-end before the Feast Day of the Epiphany, many of us will need to put our lives back into a certain order to get ready for tomorrow.

But before we let go of Christmas entirely, let's take a bit more time to savor the season.  Have one last cookie or cup of Christmas tea.  Think about how you will continue to infuse sweetness into your post-holiday life.  Think about the twinkly lights and the star that is so central to the Christian Christmas story.  How can you get more light into your life?  What star waits for you to notice and to follow its guidance?  What gifts do you need?  What gifts does the world need from you?

Friday, January 3, 2014

"Stitches": A Comfort for the New Year

In my younger years, I would not have bought Anne Lamott's Stitches:  A Handbook of Meaning, Hope, and Repair.  I love Anne Lamott, but I would have not spent money on a hardcover that's only 96 pages.

But I was creating an Amazon order, and the book was cheap, so I decided to take a chance.  I'm glad I did.

It's a book that's full of nuggets of comfort and happiness.  It's not the kind of book that offers deep theology that changes the way I think about God.  But I don't need for every book to be that way.

As its title suggests, the book explores how we can best support each other and how our care of each other might point us towards God.  Along the way, we get some interesting images, like this one:  "Embedded in quilts and jazz are clues to escape and strength, sanctuary and warmth.  The world is always going to be dangerous, and people get badly banged up, but how can there be more meaning that helping one another stand up in a wind and stay warm" (72).

I love her stories of people coping and making a way out of no way.  I found them very inspiring.  Likewise, I've always liked her view of God:  "I mean 'God' ash shorthand for the Good, for the animating energy of love; for Life, for the light that radiates from within people and from above; in the energies of nature, even in our rough, messy selves" (p. 8).

I know that some folks will see the influence of other religions (Buddhism?) in her definition.  Some will see it as too pantheistic.  But I like it.

She reminds us of the value of small actions:  "Every time we choose the good action or response, the decent, the valuable, it builds, incrementally, to renewal, resurrection, the place of newness, freedom, justice.  The equation is:  life, death, resurrection, hope.  The horror is real, and so you make casseroles for your neighbor, organize an overseas clothing drive, and do your laundry.  You can also offer to do other people's laundry, if they have recently had any random babies or surgeries" (p. 13).

She says we live "stitch by stitch" (p. 13) and the passage above reminds us that not every stitch needs to be huge.  Casseroles and laundry can be as important as clothing drives.

Her reminder that we need to be kind to each other, to everyone we meet, even to those in distant lands we do not know--that seems a message that we need now, more than ever.  It's timeless, yes, but she says it in ways that don't seem so worn out.

Or maybe I'm partial to her metaphors of sewing and patching. 

In my younger years, the shortness of the book would have irritated me.  But now, I find myself searching out books that won't be such a time commitment.  I dipped in and out of this book over several weeks, and that was fine.  I like a book that is gentle in its expectations.

So, if you need a New Years reading, try this book.  I suspect you'll like it more than you think you might.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Poem for Our Return to Regular Life

Today many of us return to our regular lives.  Maybe we're grateful:  maybe we crave the structure of our regular schedules.  Maybe regular life makes it possible for us to keep to an exercise schedule and to eat sensibly.

Or maybe we're returning to a hectic life, full of difficult commutes and hundreds of e-mails every day.

Maybe both things are true.

So, before we get too immersed in regular life, pulled away from the mysticism and the beauty of Advent and Christmas, let's take some time to remember ways that we can be more attentive and present to our lives. 

Let's return to the lessons of the monks.

Here is my poem, "Horarium."  I found it strangely comforting to revisit it.  It seems appropriate for our return to regular life.  It first appeared in Poetry East about a year ago.


The monks get their morning
news from the Psalms.  We brew
coffee and scan the TV stations
for news we can use:
diet tips, a weather report,
the quickest way around the traffic jams.

We sit in our coffin
like cars and watch the sun rise
across sluggish traffic.  The monks chant
to each other across the chancel
as the morning light shifts
across the sanctuary.

Chained to our computers,
we undo the work of past days
and create documents to be dismantled
tomorrow.  The monks tend
the chickens and mulch
the seedlings.  We shred
documents while the monks
welcome visitors to a meal.

At night, we click through cable
channels, our glazed eyes focusing on nothing.
The monks light candles
in a darkened chapel and wait
for the final blessing
of the day, a splash
of holy water and a benediction.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, January 5, 2014:

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?