Friday, February 28, 2014

Prayer and Its Many Purposes

I have been asked to write prayers for the daily devotion book, Bread for the Day, again this year.  In fact, the due date is today, so this week, I've returned to the project multiple times. 

Before yesterday's difficult meeting, I did one last revision.  In many ways, it's the perfect way to prepare for a difficult meeting:  work on a different project that reminds me that there are other items that are important to me. 

As I sat in the difficult meeting, I not only prayed about the topics at hand (declining enrollment and all the issues that ensue), but I also prayed for those present.  At times we seemed so angry.  At times I expected people to pound on the table.  I wanted to curl up in a ball beneath the table.

I prayed.  I prayed for the owners of those angry voices.  And some part of brain protested over all this fuss over something so ephemeral.

I thought of a colleague who has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.  She doesn't have much longer to live.  She would not be sitting in a meeting about the stuff that doesn't really matter.

I have Ash Wednesday on the brain.  We are dust, returning to dust far more quickly than most of us realize.  We are wasting precious, precious time.

This morning I returned to the prayer project to type in the final version of the prayers.  I discovered that I had written a few extras.  And so, I'm happy to post an extra prayer here.  Maybe you have a day of many meetings.  Maybe you have a day of difficult diagnoses.  May this prayer meet your needs.

Consoling God, we are quivering creatures filled with doubt and wounded by many pains.  We want to believe in your Easter promises, but in our worldly tombs, we quickly forget.  Strip every doubt from us.  Roll the stone away.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Thursday Gratitude: In Praise of Sisters

My sister's birthday is today.  I'm an English major, so I'm always thinking of favorite quotes to celebrate various days.  Here's one of my favorite quotes about sisters:
“For there is no friend like a sister
In calm or stormy weather;
To cheer one on the tedious way,
To fetch one if one goes astray,
To lift one if one totters down,
To strengthen whilst one stands.”
from Christina Rossetti's wonderful poem, "Goblin Market"
I didn't always feel this way about my sister.  When she was born, I had chicken pox, so not only could I not go stay with the family of my friend (her brother hadn't had chicken pox and back then, there was no vaccine), I couldn't go home right away either.  I was 4 months away from turning 5, so I sort of understood, although I couldn't have fully understood the complexities of immune systems.  After all, I hadn't asked for chicken pox.

Here's a picture of us, with my cousins and my grandmother, at my grandparents' house in South  Carolina.  With those 70's hair cuts and clothes, you might not be able to tell who is who.  I'm the one hamming it up in the back.  My sister is the one on my grandma's lap.

Later, during our teen years, we had the typical, albeit minor, fights.  I wanted all my cosmetics on the counter, while she preferred clean countertops.  We didn't approve of the way we each dressed.  I'm glad we moved beyond those disagreement years fairly quickly.

We were close through her college years.  She went to the University of South Carolina as an     undergrad, while I was there as a grad student.  Those were great years; we saw each other frequently, but had our own social circles.  We even went backpacking once.  I have not yet uploaded any of those photos to the computer, so I'll go with this one, where we're in a tent that we've set up in the living room--no, not for us, but for my nephew:

We've remained fast friends through the years.  She's the one I can always call, the one who knows everything about me and loves me anyway. 

I've said it before, but it bears repeating.  This kind of love is sacramental; it is an earthly sign that points us to God's grace. It helps us understand how fiercely God loves us.

Here we are on her sailboat last summer:
Here's my favorite Barbara Kingsolver quote about sisters:
"We had exactly one sister apiece.  We grew up knowing the simple arithmetic of scarcity:  A sister is more precious than an eye"  (p. 46 of Animal Dreams).
Maybe I should reread that book.  Of course, that book holds my every terror:  a father descending into Alzheimer's, people fleeing evil dictators, corporations with no regard for human life, the heartrending loss of a sister.  But it offers hope too.
I love a work of art that offers hope.  I love that Kingsolver's works show how we can be family, even if we're not related.
My wish for us all:  that we have the fierce love of sisters (regardless of blood relation or gender) in our lives.
And my wish for my sister:  the happiest of birthdays, now and through the years, so that we can grow old together.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, March 2, 2014:

First Reading: Exodus 24:12-18

Psalm: Psalm 2

Psalm (Alt.): Psalm 99

Second Reading: 2 Peter 1:16-21

Gospel: Matthew 17:1-9

Here we are at Transfiguration Sunday again. We celebrate this festival on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, although the earlier festival day was August 6.

It's such a familiar story that we may feel that we can get nothing new from it.  But it's a story that bears repeating. 

When I read the Gospel again, I'm not surprised by Peter's offer to build booths and celebrate the Transfiguration in a commercial way.  Christ's command to tell no one makes me pause.  Why can't we share this amazing moment?

Christ says this often. Go and tell no one--that seems to be a constant command. And it seems antithetical to the task of the Church.

In just a few months, we'll get a very different  Pentecost message. Aren't we supposed to go and witness? Spread the good news? If Jesus is our role model, what do we make of his command to stay silent?

In some ways, perhaps Jesus knew the times he lived in. He knew that early fame would undo his purpose. He knew that people would focus on the physical plane--"This man can heal my blindness"--but not the spiritual plane, the one where we need healing the most.

He also knew that people who see visions, who catch a glimpse of something otherworldly, are often shunned by the community. What would have happened if James and John and Peter came down from the mountain and proclaimed what they had seen? How would the community have responded?

Jesus knew that he couldn't appear too threatening to the status quo too early. In the verses that follow, the ones not included in this Gospel, Jesus makes clear that persecution follows those who see visions. And that persecution still persists today. Our culture tolerates those of us who pray. It's less tolerant of those of us who claim that God replies to our prayers.

The life of the believer is tough, and one measure of its difficulty is knowing when to speak, and knowing when to hold our tongues. Sometimes we should keep our counsel. Sometimes we should testify verbally. Always we should let our lives be our testimony.

Christ also might have been wary of the human tendency to rush towards transfiguration.  We yearn to be different, but so often, we shun the hard work involved.  We might embrace transformation before we stop to consider the cost.

Like Peter, we might want to turn Christ into Carnival: build booths, charge admission, harness holiness. Jesus reminds us again and again that the true work comes not from telling people what we’ve seen, but by letting what we’ve seen change the way that we live. Our true calling is not to be carnival barker, but to get on with the work of repair and building of the communities in which we find ourselves.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Week Away from Ash Wednesday

A thought, as we prepare for Ash Wednesday, which is only one week and one day away.

We are dust:

To dust we shall return, and sooner than we think.

Do your most important work now.  Today.  We don't have time to waste on worrying about the insubstantial bits.  Give birth to the substantial and do it today.

The world needs you to flower.  All too soon, we'll be returning to dust.

Monday, February 24, 2014

The Feast Day of Saint Matthias

Today is the traditional feast day of St. Matthias. In the 1960's, the Roman Catholic church moved his feast day to May 14, so that we're celebrating his life in a month that makes more chronological sense--Matthias was the apostle chosen to replace Judas Iscariot, who committed suicide after he realized what his betrayal had wrought, so it makes sense to celebrate his life after Easter. Of course, traditionalists will celebrate today. And Eastern Orthodox believers will observe his feast day on August 9.

I've recently become a bit fascinated with this saint. I've done a smidge of research, and I can't tell what, exactly, he's the patron saint of.

If I was in charge, I'd make him the patron saint of people who must wait for recognition. Would I make him the patron saint of people who must wait for recognition in the workplace only, or in any situation? Is that process of waiting so different?

I have this on the brain because I work in a place where our local job ladder is very short. We have lots of folks who have been working for the organization for ten years or more--when there's a job opening, we can't promote them all. And once a person has been promoted, it might be years--decades even--before there's an opening above.

I imagine that the circle of Jesus was similar. There's the inner circle, the twelve, chosen early. Then there's a massive outer circle. Who would have dreamed of the incidents that led to a job opening in the inner circle?

Of course, as a woman, I will always wonder at what Gospel revisions went on in the early church. Was the inner circle really that tight? Was it really only twelve? Was it really only men? We know that Jesus had a sympathy towards women that was uncommon for his time period. Would he really have excluded them from the inner circle?

Then I think of the logistics of being one of the twelve--all that travel, all those difficult circumstances. Maybe it was kinder of Jesus not to call women to be part of the inner circle. If you go back to the sayings of Jesus, it's clear that he doesn't see hierarchy in the same way that humans do--he clearly mocked the idea that some disciples are more chosen than other.

So, would Matthias have even seen his appointment as a promotion? Maybe it's just our later proclivity to make lists that sees this development as a promotion. Of course, there is that passage in Acts that seems to show that the disciples shared our proclivities toward hierarchy and list making.

I think of Matthias, patiently waiting, following Christ, never knowing the outcome. In that way, he's the patron saint of us all. We follow Christ, not knowing whether we'll be chosen for some superhuman greatness, or whether we'll be called to stay put, quietly ministering the people around us. Some of us believe that God has a plan for us, while others believe that God will use us where we are, like a master weaver. Some of us believe that the universe is essentially chaotic, but we are not excused from God's mission of Kingdom building. Some of us know that we cannot possibly comprehend any of this, and we know that we are lucky that God does not depend on our puny imaginations.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Sabbath Practices to Restore the Cosmos

While reading some insightful blog posts, I came across Rabbi Rachel Barenblat's wonderful post on why/how our Sabbath practices restore order and wholeness to the world.  She goes even further to suggest that our Sabbath practices actually heal the world.

She explains, "What does it mean to say that 'Shabbat is a transformation inside of God in which we are actors'? Perhaps this: God experiences brokenness and separation, because we, God's creation, experience brokenness and separation. But on Shabbat, we create wholeness in ourselves -- and in so doing, we create wholeness inside God. Another way to frame it is through kabbalistic language: when we observe Shabbat, we enable God's transcendence (distant, far-off, high-up, infinite, inconceivable) and God's immanence (embodied, here with us, as near as the beating of our own hearts, relational, accessible) to unite."

She then talks about some of the practices that can help us create wholeness and she gives an interesting overview of our various levels of the soul.

She concludes this way:

"But I understand that piece of Talmudic wisdom in this way:  if we truly experience the day of Shabbat, we can experience a taste of the messianic era.

Of course, in order for that to happen, we have to make the time to enter into Shabbat. To stop doing and simply be.

We have to be willing to let Shabbat change us.

We have to be paying attention.

Shabbat, and that extra soul, arrive whether or not we notice. But if we can be mindful tonight as sundown falls -- how might the windows of our hearts be opened? With the eyes of that new soul, what might we see?"

I am not Jewish, so I come at these ideas from a different angle.  Her post makes me wonder if we could strive for this level of Sabbath awareness on more than just the day we've chosen to make our Sabbath.

It also makes me wonder about the role of the worship service in her ideas, especially for those of us who have leadership roles in the worship service.  It's hard to follow her advice to "stop doing and simply be" when we have to get to church early, attend to set up, and do the things that must be done during the service.  I often find that Sunday mornings can feel more busy and rushed than any work day.  It's not uncommon for me to come home from church drained and too exhausted to do anything but collapse in a heap.

It's hard to imagine that I'm restoring order to the cosmos in that way.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Leaving Church Council Leadership

I have been President or Vice President of our church council since 2009.  At my old church, I was also church council president for several years before that.

On Tuesday, I presided over my last meeting as president.  I announced my intention not to seek office, and we had elections.  I'll still serve on council, but it's time to step aside from leadership.  It's time for several reasons.

We've had some grueling years where we've wrestled with a variety of financial issues, from a huge tax bill to building issues that needed serious money.  You may be saying, "I didn't think that churches paid taxes."  But we have workers, which means that some money needs to go to the IRS.  We had several years of incorrect calculations which led to quite a mess.

Happily, those issues are either behind us or on track.  But it's left me very tired and drained.

Luckily, there are others who are not so tired and drained.  Luckily, we have several people on council with leadership skills.

Even if we didn't have strong leadership, I'd still be stepping aside. I firmly believe that leaders should step aside on a regular basis to provide space for others to develop their skills.  If there's always a leader in place who will do things, very few people will fight for their opportunity to lead.  If leaders step aside, it gives an opportunity for others.

It's good for succession planning too.  It's dangerous to rely on the same person for too long.  It's better to have a team.  One person can be hit by a bus or stricken with a crisis of any sort.  A team needs to be there to step into the gap.

Unfortunately, with all our churches being so small, at least in this part of the nation, we don't have a huge pool, which means that the same people are often doing it all, in terms of leadership--which leads to burnout.

I worry about the same issues with paid leadership and staff.  We don't have the kind of church of yesteryear, with several assistant pastors and 2 musicians and a youth director and a secretary or two.  In our church, the pastor does the bulk of the work.  I suspect the same is true of many churches.

Our pastor will be returning from sabbatical soon.  At least we can give him some sabbatical time, even if we can't afford a huge staff.

Maybe it's good that we can't afford a huge staff.  It allows space for more laypeople to do more.

Except that they often don't.  There are still strong cultural beliefs about what the pastor should do and what the laypeople should do--those beliefs are hard to overcome.

I could digress into a long exploration of pastoral authority and the professionalization of the pastor as a career choice.  But this post has gone on long enough, and it's time to touch base with the new president of our church council.  We've got transitioning to do!

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Meeting as Labyrinth, Meeting as Maze

Today we have another day of many meetings.  I've been thinking about the metaphor of a maze or the labyrinth:  which is a better metaphor for this kind of day?

These meetings do feel like there's one way in and one way out.  Will we find solutions along the way?

I confess to being afraid of the solutions we may find.  I need to fix my eyes on a different sign.

And I need to remember the symbols and significance of the broken-to-beautiful cross that we made for the Lutheridge Labyrinth:

At least we walk together.

And we're promised that God works with us.  Here's a prayer that I wrote back in September 2010.  It's worth posting again.

God Who Walks With Us,

On this day when we meet to discuss how the numbers have disappointed those in high positions, help me to remember my purpose on the planet. On this day when we meet to discuss our growth goals, help me to remember our Creator and the meaning of growth. On this day, when we're likely to hear blustering fear about the future of budgets, help me to remember where my riches lie.

Let me be the salt, the yeast, the light. If I must stand in the breach, let me not be torn to shreds, let me not drown.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, February 23, 2014:

First Reading: Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

Psalm: Psalm 119:33-40

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

Gospel: Matthew 5:38-48

Turn the other cheek. Give up your coat and your shirt. Walk the second mile. This Sunday we get to texts which have been so misunderstood through the centuries that it’s hard to remember what Jesus was really saying. Jesus was NOT saying to let your abuser batter you day in and day out. Jesus was not instructing us to let evil steamroll right over us. Jesus was not even calling us to pacifism, a stoic acceptance of brutality that will buy us a better condo in Heaven for enduring hell on earth.

No, these are resistance texts. Yes, resistance texts.

These are texts that show us how to resist evil in such a way that evil elements will not turn around and destroy us. Likewise, these are texts that show us how to resist evil in such a way that we don’t become the evil that we are resisting.

It’s important to remember that the culture of Jesus was a vastly different culture. It was a culture based on honor. It was a culture based on social hierarchy. It was also a culture ruled by Romans who were not going to tolerate social unrest, Romans who would not hesitate to slaughter dissenters.

Jesus shows us how to live in this world, how to resist evil without being destroyed by evil. If you want to read the best text on this idea, I recommend Walter Wink’s Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. It is one of the best books of theology I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a lot of theology.

Let’s focus on the turning of the other cheek, since this passage is so well known. Notice that Jesus gives specific cheeks in specific order. That’s a detail lost on us, but it wouldn’t have been lost on the people who heard Jesus’ instructions. Walter Wink explains:

“Imagine if I were your assailant and I were to strike a blow with my right fist at your face, which cheek would it land on? It would be the left. It is the wrong cheek in terms of the text we are looking at. Jesus says, 'If anyone strikes you on the right cheek...' I could hit you on the right cheek if I used a left hook, but that would be impossible in Semitic society because the left hand was used only for unclean tasks. You couldn't even gesture with your left hand in public. The only way I could hit you on the right cheek would be with the back of the hand.

Now the back of the hand is not a blow intended to injure. It is a symbolic blow. It is intended to put you back where you belong. It is always from a position of power or superiority. The back of the hand was given by a master to a slave or by a husband to a wife or by a parent to a child or a Roman to a Jew in that period. What Jesus is saying is in effect, 'When someone tries to humiliate you and put you down, back into your social location which is inferior to that person, and turn your other cheek.'

Now in the process of turning in that direction, if you turned your head to the right, I could no longer backhand you. Your nose is now in the way. Furthermore, you can't backhand someone twice. It's like telling a joke a second time. If it doesn't work the first time, it has failed. By turning the other cheek, you are defiantly saying to the master, 'I refuse to be humiliated by you any longer. I am a human being just like you. I am a child of God. You can't put me down even if you have me killed.' This is clearly no way to avoid trouble. The master might have you flogged within an inch of your life, but he will never be able to assert that you have no dignity.”

Wink explains the other elements of the Gospel resistance readings here. It’s a great way to introduce yourself to his work, especially for those of us who aren’t up to reading his multi-volume works on resisting the various powers at work in this world.

For those of you who would sneer at the idea of resistance working in our evil, evil world, I would say that nonviolent resistance can bring mighty social change.

Walter Wink, writing in 1993, notes, “In 1989 alone, there were thirteen nations that underwent non-violent revolutions. All of them successful except one, China. That year 1.7 billion people were engaged in national non-violent revolutions. That is a third of humanity. If you throw in all of the other non-violent revolutions in all the other nations in this century [the 20th], you get the astonishing figure of 3.34 billion people involved in non-violent revolutions. That is two-thirds of the human race. No one can ever again say that non-violence doesn't work. It has been working like crazy. It is time the Christian churches got involved in this revolution because what is happening in the world is that the world itself is discovering the truth of Jesus' teaching, and here we come in the church, bringing up the rear.”  And of course, more lately we can point to a variety of revolutions, in the former Soviet Union and the Middle East, some of which have fairly peacefully gotten rid of dictators who had been in power for decades.

Maybe we are not up for the task of resistance, which can be scary and can lead us to unexpected places. At the very least, we can pray. We can pray for those people who are doing the heavy lifting of resistance. We can pray for those who are transforming their societies for good, whether they live in our country or on the other side of the planet. We can pray for the softening of the hearts of the hard ones. We can pray that we have the wisdom to recognize evil when we see it. We can pray that we have the courage to resist evil in whatever forms it comes to us.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Multiple Worship Locations

Jan Edmiston has written a pair of fascinating posts, which work well as separate pieces, but even better together.

A few days ago, I read this post, which talks about being one person with many different spiritual communities.  I have long felt that way.  I usually have a local spiritual community, along with distant sites where I go regularly, like Mepkin Abbey and Lutheridge.

But could one have different spiritual communities in the same town?  I haven't experimented with that as much because most weeks, it's all I can do to maintain ties to my local church, much less add some more to my schedule.

There have been times, however, when I've yearned for something different and more contemplative.  My local church has periodic contemplative offerings, but what if I actually could be a Quaker/Lutheran?  What if I could find a nearby community that chanted the Liturgy of the Hours, and I could join them occasionally on week days?  What if I worshiped someplace else, but returned to my home church to help with the spiritual formation of children?  Edmiston's post made me think about the possibilities. 

I'd love to find someplace close to work, where I could slip away for week day refreshment.  Even a noon concert would be great.  I've moved away from thinking that I need a liturgy-readings-sermon-Eucharist kind of experience for it to count as authentic worship.  A beautiful concert that turned my attention to God would help me greatly.

And no, a prayer group at work is not what I want.

As I read Edmiston's post, I thought about how many different churches see themselves as in a competition for members, and thus, if someone like me wanted to worship multiple places, that might be seen as betrayal.  Edmiston has written about those issues with this post.  She ends with this provocative question:  "One culture shift we need to make is becoming less prideful  (“Our church is Big Deal Church on the Hill“) and more Kingdom-focused (“Who cares through which portal someone enters just as long as transformation happens?“)."

Along the way, she shares a vision of what can happen if several churches join together.  It's powerful.

Of course, it's hard to know just how to do that.  My suburban church had a partnership for several years with an urban church who provided Wed. night dinners.  Unfortunately, that program was ultimately disbanded by the urban church, and we haven't done anything else with them.

And her post doesn't address what happens if no church is the Big Deal Church on the Hill, but if we're all struggling just to pay the bills and keep the building from falling into utter disrepair, and thus, can't do the visioning necessary to move in the direction that she proposes.

Sigh.  Yes, I write this on the morning of our Church Council meeting, where we will likely be less Kingdom focused and more building/finance focused.  Double sigh.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Poetry Monday: Practices for Stretching and Compressing Time

After a quiet, low-key week-end at home, it's time to return to the office.  Interesting how I've had different experiences of time this month:  the time at the monastery, the time in the office, the time of a sick week-end (spouse not me) inside.

It takes me back to this poem that I wrote years ago, as I thought about the issue of time, how it stretches, how it contracts, how we can use various practices to change our perceptions about time.

Careful readers may say, "Hey!  This poem reminds me of one you posted in early January."

Indeed, it is like "Horarium," which you can read here.  But it's also different. 

Liturgy of the Hours

The monks rise while the rest of the world sleeps.
In the darkness, they pray.

The single mother stares at the clock and calculates
costs.  The newspaper carriers start
their rounds.  Truckers cross
state lines, and a woman writes poetry by candlelight.

The farmer feeds the animals as sunrise
stains the horizon.  Early morning exercisers lace
their shoes and retrace their steps.  Parents prepare
breakfast, and the monks pray again.

Students rush from class to class.
The housekeeper starts another load of wash.
Frazzled workers everywhere break
for coffee while the monks celebrate the Eucharist.

At noon the world eats lunch.
The monks pray, and then they eat, and then they pray again.

No one leaves work early these days.
As the dark grows close, everyone sits alone
in their cars watching the pavement
and concrete barriers.  The monks pray.

The world watches bad television chosen from a host
of options—hundreds of stations beamed
from satellites, and not one satisfies.
Children chat on phones and stare
at screens.  Adults wonder
how they got so far behind.  The pets settle
into their sleeping spaces.

The monks gather again in darkness pierced
with candle light.  Watched by statues
of Mary and the Crucified Christ, they chant Compline.
The Abbot sprinkles each man with holy water
and sends them to sleep in their cells. 

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Skipping Church

I will not be going to church this morning.  Of course, for months I've thought I wouldn't be going to church on the Sunday of Presidents Day week-end.  I thought that my sister and nephew would be here from Thursday night to Monday morning.

But on Thursday, my sister called to say that they had snow above the tires of the cars (they live in Maryland), with another foot expected.  And so, she rescheduled for late March.

We've all been disappointed, but I've been less disappointed than I expected to be.  My spouse is sick with something that resembles flu.  We never get flu down here, at least not in our house.  But Friday night, he felt so hot that I dug out a thermometer, just to make sure he wasn't at risk.

We only have a thermometer because a decade ago, my spouse had reconstructive surgery on a finger that had had an ugly encounter with a table saw.  The doctor told us we needed to monitor his temperature, which would serve as an early warning if infection set in.  Happily, he never had a fever, and the thermometer has been gathering dust--until Friday night.

Sure enough, my spouse has a fever in the 102 range.  I tried to remember what I know about fevers and at what point they're dangerous.  I remember nothing.  But if his fever starts to spike, we'll have him soak in our backyard pool, which is quite chilly these days.  It won't be pleasant, but it will likely do the trick. 

In the meantime, he's taking fluids and aspirin.  And I'm having a pleasant week-end, nesting at home.  I've roasted chicken and made chicken and dumplings.  I've done laundry.  I've worked on writing projects and my online classes.

I won't go to church this morning.  I had told people I wouldn't be coming because my sister and nephew would be here.  And now, even though they're not, I don't want to expose people to whatever my spouse has.  Is he contagious?  Am I a carrier?  I don't know.

It's also a bit of either laziness or avoidance.  I like the idea of staying quiet at home, working on projects, keeping an eye on my spouse's fever.  Going to church requires getting ready and a drive that seems longer than it should.  At least the service I attend most regularly has to stick to a schedule:  done by 10:45 or 10:50 so that people can get to the late service if they have duties there.  When I go to the later service, often in addition to the 9:45 service, it really eats up a huge chunk of the day.

Once, the Sunday morning effort seemed more worthwhile.  Now, I feel more weary and more willing to consider skipping church.

I wonder if something in me is shifting.  Or has something shifted at my church?  Or does it have to do with the difficult financial stuff that our church Council had to deal with as the year ended?  Is it just cyclical?  I'm not sure yet. 

I'm trying to just sit quietly with these feelings.  I'm trying to remember that a feeling/emotion does not necessarily require action.  I'm trying to remain open to wherever the Spirit may be leading me, even though I don't like this feeling of not being sure of anything anymore.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Confirmation Questions

Bookgirl asks an interesting question in this post:  "If you were asking confirmation students (grades 8-12, boys and girls) to think/write about their lives without being overtly spiritual about it at first go, what would you ask? How would you write the prompt?"

She takes a stab at her own question: 

"I’m thinking maybe break your life into 3? 4? 7? (they seem young for a whole 7) segments, title each segment, and then write a few sentences about one significant event in that segment…

There could also be a list of prompts from which to choose: favorite teacher/coach/friend and why; a time you won something; a time you lost something; a pet and what you learned; a church activity that was memorable; etc."

I couldn't resist answering too.  Here's what I wrote (I moved one paragraph because it works better earlier):

I like the idea of breaking it into threes–connection to the Trinity and all that. I like the idea of asking them when/where they were most aware of God and also who/what was important to them. Maybe the when/where they were most aware of God piece could come later. I’m assuming you’ve got some time with these kids.

If you’ve got magazines that you don’t mind people ripping up, I think some sort of collaging technique could work well. That way people who can’t draw can work with images, and those who don’t like to write have a way to express themselves. And collaging can lead to interesting surprises from our subconscious.

I also love having people interview their family members and/or other older church folks with similar questions. I want people to get in the habit of asking our elders for their stories while we still have those older people with them.

We had children interview adult church members during coffee hour once and it worked really well. There were some cranky people who didn’t want to go along with us, but most people understood what we were trying to do.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Thoughts about Love and Marriage on the Feast Day of Saint Valentine

Instead of a formal essay, I thought I'd just collect some thoughts on love and marriage for this feast day which has evolved into a celebration of human connection.

--The feast day of Saint Valentine is one of those strange feast days, a feast day that's more popular in the general culture than it is in the church culture that pays attention to saints and their days. 

--To me, this feast day is essentially a manufactured holiday, yet another one, designed to make us feel like we must spend gobs and gobs of money to demonstrate our love.

--Every day, ideally, should be Valentine's Day, a day in which we try to remind our loved ones how much we care--and not by buying flowers, dinners out, candy, and jewelry.  We show that we love by our actions:  our care, our putting our own needs in the backseat, our concern, our gentle touch, our loving remarks.

--It's hard to be a Christian today, and to avoid the question of whether or not homosexuals should be able to marry. My favorite conservative columnist, David Brooks, said it better than I can.  In a New York Times column in 2003, he says, "We shouldn't just allow gay marriage. We should insist on gay marriage. We should regard it as scandalous that two people could claim to love each other and not want to sanctify their love with marriage and fidelity."

--Does your church tradition see marriage as a sacrament?  You might be saying, "Sacrament?  My church uses no such language.  What is a sacrament anyway?"  A sacrament is an "outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible Grace" (as the Anglican Book of Common Prayer describes a sacrament).

--I think Martin Luther went too far in deciding that marriage wouldn't be a sacrament in the Lutheran church. Nothing has ever helped me understand the nature of God's love better than my marriage, except, perhaps, the love of my parents for me.

--I've often thought that marriage at its best is sacramental:  it demonstrates to me in a way that few other things can how deeply God loves me.  If my spouse's love for me is but a pale shadow of the way God loves me, then I am rich in love indeed.

So, as we begin the mad rush to Valentine's Day, let us take a moment to remember the gift of being able to love each other.  Let us remember God, who first loved us, and who will love us long after all other love falls away.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Monastic Song and Sacred Music of All Sorts

Driving to work on Tuesday, I heard this wonderful interview with the Abbess of the group of nuns who have released an album of music for Lent.  They're the same group who released a CD of Advent music, and that CD bumped the Fifty Shades of Grey CD off the #1 place on the charts (go here for more on that story).

I'm thinking about getting both CDs.  I may need them in my new office.  I felt immediately calm when I heard the clips.  I thought about turning my office into a bit of a sanctuary with this music.

I also loved the approach that the Abbess takes to it all.  They're using the profits from the CD to pay their debts.  Very few of the sisters even know how popular the CDs are, and if they did, the Abbess says that they wouldn't care.  It doesn't change their purpose.

I was also impressed by how beautifully the nuns sang.  They're not professional singers and not classically trained in the way we think about it.  But they do sing together multiple times a day.  That amount of practice shows in their singing.

Or maybe it's that they're singing together.  I came across this wonderful blog post after Pete Seeger died.  Linda Holmes offers this intriguing theory: "Pete Seeger understood something fundamental about humans and music, which is that many people can't sing on key, but all crowds can. Even without rehearsal, public choirs can be stunning to listen to and thrilling to be part of. And he believed that everyone should do it, that people should retain the ability to get in a room and sing, because it was good for you, and because it taught people to pitch in and be brave."

I have noticed something similar.  In a group, a person slightly off key won't be heard--or it will sound intentional and interesting.  When we're singing together, we all improve.  That's been my experience, whether I'm singing in church, singing at folk music events, or singing in other settings.

Could it be true if I sang along with a CD?  Or is it something about the voices swirling around me?

I am interested in the idea of music that creates sacred space.  Let me record that idea before I forget.  Can music provide a portable sacred space?

Today I will wish that I had some sacred space to take along with me.  It's moving day, and then there's a meeting about class cancellations that's bound to be contentious, and then if I'm done with that meeting in time, it's the English Composition Class Redesign web-based meeting, and then I'll go to spin class, and then I'll collapse in a heap.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, February 16, 2014:

First Reading: Deuteronomy 30:15-20

First Reading (Alt.): Sirach 15:15-20

Psalm: Psalm 119:1-8

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 3:1-9

Gospel: Matthew 5:21-37

Last week's Gospel looks easy in the light of this week's Gospel. Light of the world, salt of the earth: check. We know how to do that: feed the poor, be kind to everyone we meet, clothe the ragged, make sure that the oppressed are taken care of. Not easy, to be sure, but easy compared to this week's Gospel.

This week, Jesus tells us that our inner landscape must match our outer actions. Righteous actions aren't good enough. We must work for purity of heart and brain too.

Everyone I know seems to be wrestling with the same question: how can we live a life of integrity, a life that's in synch with our values? The Gospel gives us some fairly serious instruction along these same lines, as Jesus directs us to be sure that our insides and our outsides match. Apparently our current struggles with living a life that's in balance are not new to our time.

We all know what happens if our lives get out of synch. We become hypocrites, and most of us would say we don't want that.

I could make the argument that the hypocrisy of Christians do more to hurt our Gospel mission than anything else. If you know any non-believers and you ask them why they don't believe, they won't often bring up the fact that belief in God requires a faith beyond their senses, a faith beyond what is scientifically proveable. No, most non-believers will bring up the hypocrisy of Christians, from the smaller hypocrisies, like the Christian who pretends to be a friend to your face but spreads ugly rumors about you, to the huge hypocrisies, like all the sexual predators employed by the Church through the ages. How can they believe in the God of those types of people?

And if you ask the non-churched why they don't go to church, they will almost always bring up hypocrisy. Many outsiders look at churches and wonder why they don't do more with the resources that they have.  Most people know the Gospel message about caring for the poor and dispossessed.  Outsiders wonder why we aren't doing more.

Of course, the secret that I only share with a few people is that quite a few Christians wrestle with these questions too.  In any community, I'd guess that most churches are struggling with basic questions, like how to take care of the building and make the payroll.  I'd guess that most churches in most communities, despite outward appearances, don't have the resources that the unchurched assume that they do.  If we're being very honest, perhaps many members of those churches think the very same thing.

Jesus wants us to be more than surface Christians. It's easy to go to church service each week, to sing the hymns, to hug each other. It's harder to live our Christian values the rest of the week. Go back and reread all of what Jesus tells us to do, both in this Gospel and throughout the Gospel texts. Can we really live like that? We're called to forgive each other more times than we think we can. We're called to make peace with our neighbors before we head to church. We're called to give away our money to those who have less than we do. The world watches to see how we live our lives.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Slavery, Mepkin Abbey, and the Rest of Us

On Sunday, I saw Twelve Years a Slave.  What a powerful movie!  I wrote more about the movie in this blog post.

As I watched the movie, I was left breathless at the beauty of the land.  I was also in awe of the labor that it took to transform that land into plantations.  It's the U.S. South, shown in all its swampy, draped-in-Spanish-moss beauty.

The riverside landscape reminded me of Mepkin Abbey, which isn't surprising. Mepkin Abbey was once a slave plantation.  I knew that from the first time we got there.  The plantation eventually became part of the property of the Luce family, who donated part of it to Gethsemeni Abbey, which sent monks to form Mepkin Abbey.

There's a monument to those who lived and worked the land:

This monument is connected to the bell tower, which chimes on a regular basis.  I try to use the chiming of the bells to remind me of those who made it possible for me to be restored by the Abbey.

I've spent much of my life in the U.S. South.  I don't know what it's like for other regions in our country, but for my life, it has been impossible to escape the knowledge that slave labor built the foundation for our current fortunes.

I've lived in some of the poorest states in the nation.  I was shocked and startled the first time I realized that a lot of these states were the richest in the nation before the Civil War.  Maybe people in the Dakotas have similar epiphanies, but about Native Americans.

I haven't seen that many people in the U.S. South who are in denial about slavery and the past.  We may all be in denial about how slavery has left scars on all of us.

I left the movie and drove past billboard after billboard exclaiming the talents of Miami area lawyers and plastic surgeons.  It was surreal.  I drove past shopping centers that had been hastily slapped together at some point in the last 10 years.  I had spent 2 hours watching characters carving out the wilderness, and here it's bulldozed immediately.

At least the monks take their stewardship of the land as a serious mandate.  I think of monastics as having an appreciation of those who have come before, whether they've been slaves or saints.

And sadly, many are still profiting from current slave labor--literal slave labor, not just the pittance we pay our fast food workers or college adjunct instructors.

Let me take a minute to appreciate all that I have, and to say thank you to those who made it possible.  Let me always be aware of the ways that my successes don't always have much to do with me and my talents.  Let me extend a hand to those who could use the help.  Let me strive to move the world to one where slavery isn't possible, where all are paid fairly for the work we do.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Presenting the Elements at Mepkin Abbey

A week ago, my 2 friends and I would have been presenting the Eucharist elements at the mass at Mepkin Abbey.

We've done it before, and as before, I felt honored to be chosen.  But before, the communion dishes were earthy, pottery types of creations.  On Sunday, because it was the Feast of the Presentation of Our Lord, the dishes were gold and crystal.

I felt oddly worried about handling such beautiful things.  But it went fine, as it always does.

I am always amazed at how easily the monks integrate the visitors into the services.  They ask people to read and to be part of the Eucharist.  They pay attention to who looks like they don't know how to follow along--there are a lot of handouts and books.

Maybe it's easier for them.  After all, it's very clear who's a member of the community and who's a visitor.  And it's a small group, both of monks and visitors.

Still, I think about my experience being a visitor in a church, and I think about how often I've been left all alone.  I think of the time that I wore a visitor sticker and even then, no one spoke to me.

Of course, the monks have taken a vow of hospitality.  Maybe more churches should take a similar vow.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Lectio Divina with Monks

A week ago, I'd have been at Mepkin Abbey.  A group of college students was making a retreat there, and the monk in charge of spiritual direction invited all retreatents to join them as they explored the ancient practice of lectio divina.

At 9:00 a.m., we explored lectio divina as an individual practice.  The monk read a passage from Sunday's lectionary selection, Malachi 3:  1-4.  We were instructed to listen for a word or a phrase that seemed significant.  Then we sat in silence.  We went through the sequence several times again, with different meditative prompts, like how God calls us to act in the world and/or to live out the word.

At 4:00 p.m., we returned to see how we might practice lectio divina as a group.  We worked with the Gospel text for Sunday, Luke 2:  22-40.  The first reading had us listening for the word or phrase that spoke to us.  After the second reading, we went around the group and said the word or phrase--and then we had another reading of the text.  We had different readers each time.  After the 3rd reading, we went around the group and if we felt like it, we said a sentence or two about the word or phrase.  Then, we had another reading.  After that reading, we went around the group, and if we wanted to, we said what we felt called to do in response to the word or phrase.  We were especially encouraged to think about what we'd do in the coming week. 

At no point in the process were we allowed to talk about what anyone else said.  I found that hard, but also incredibly powerful.  The monk explained that this practice let us experience listening and being heard as a gift.

We were not allowed to talk about what anyone else said, but at the end, we did pray, and we were encouraged to pray for the person on our right.  From the beginning, we knew that we would be doing that, and that knowledge made me pay attention in a way I might not have otherwise.

I happened to be sitting to the right of the monk leading the session.  I had talked about listening, after I fastened my attention on the phrase "the consolation of Israel."  The monk prayed that God would bless my ears and said, "Let her listen to show others their gifts."

It was wonderful in terms of meditation and lectio divina, but it was also wonderful as a group exercise.  At the end, I felt like I had come to know the others in a way that I wouldn't have otherwise.  It was also good because the process allowed no one person to monopolize the process.  I have found that in many groups, there's a tendency for one or two people to run away with the process.  Not here.

I have never experienced anything quite like it.  I'm grateful that I had the opportunity to do so--one more way that Mepkin Abbey has enriched me.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Chanting Psalms in the Stairwells

Many of the worship services at Mepkin Abbey begin with this chant:

"Oh, God, come to my assistance,
Lord make haste to help me."

As we sang it together, I thought about how often I turn to this bit of the Psalms (Psalm 70?), and often in its sung, liturgical form.

One time I had to go to a meeting that I knew would be very difficult and quite possibly ugly.  I had prayed my personal prayers.  But I still felt uneasy.

In the stairwell, I took a minute to center myself.  That bit of the Psalms floated up out of my consciousness, and I sang it.  I immediately felt calm.  I felt that otherworldly assurance that, in the words of Julian of Norwich, "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."

That sense of calm carried me through the meeting, which was difficult, but not ugly.

I love the acoustics in the stairwell in my work.  Almost anything I sing seems to be transformed into pure sound that ascends straight to Heaven, even though I really know it's only transcending 4 floors.  I love how the sound bounces off of the concrete walls.  I love how my voice sounds and how I feel every cavity in my body opening.

I think of that stairwell as a hidden sanctuary.  It's ugly, in the way that stairwells often are, with gray and often sticky floors and white walls which are sometimes marked with graffiti.  I feel fairly safe there, since you can't enter on the ground floor.  Besides, I'm often the only one using it.

It's a strange sort of sacred space.  Do I make it more sacred every time I sing?  Did I begin to sanctify it when I sang the Psalms?  Or was it sacred before I got there?

I do sometimes wonder if anyone ever hears me chanting Psalms in the stairwells.  Would they be able to hear my words?  What would they think?

They'd probably smile, the way that I do on the rare occasions that I hear someone else on a different floor singing.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Vows: Monastic and Otherwise

I first went to Mepkin Abbey in October of 2004, and I've tried to return once a year.  I'd like to go more often, of course, but I feel lucky that I can usually return regularly.

When I first went, I assumed that most of the monks had taken their vow of stability, and that I'd continue to see them.  Through the years, I've watched newer monks and their different robes/habits which tell how long they've been part of the community and how close they are to making their vows.  I've assumed that once a monk takes the final vows, that he'd be there forever.

In a way I've envied that decision.  I've assumed that a monk who has taken final vows feels that certain decisions are settled forever:  where to live/retire, what to do with one's time, what kind of food to eat, on and on I could go.

Of course, it's not a prison.  People are free to leave, and through the years, some have.  I won't comment on specific monks, since I don't really know them, and even if I did, I'd want to protect their privacy.  Still, I've continued to be surprised when younger monks leave.

I've been surprised because of my assumptions that they'd settled those questions. I've been surprised because of my own yearnings that won't be fulfilled at Mepkin.  No matter how much I love the place and feel pulled to it, I cannot take those monastic vows for all sorts of reasons (I'm a woman, I'm married, I have a mortgage, I'm Lutheran).

In short, I've taken different vows, but feel pulled to Mepkin Abbey.  These monks can have what I can't have.  And then, I'm surprised to find out that maybe they've wanted what they assume we have on the outside:  a job in an office, the decision about what to eat day after day, relationships of all sorts. 

It seems very human to me.  I've been having conversations with people who assume life would be better under different circumstances:  to live alone, to have a spouse, to live somewhere else, to have a different job . . . on and on I could go.

The woman yearning for a husband forgets that the husband might have a high-pressure job that keeps him away 60-80 hours a week, and so he couldn't help her hang her art show.  Those of us wishing for more alone time forget how lonely that time could be if our wish was fully granted.  We move to different houses and neighborhoods, only to be surprised when the new house has problems too.  We forget that every job comes with its headaches.

I wonder about those monks who have left, our brothers who are away, as the monastic prayer would put it.  Are they happy?  Do they still feel the tug of monastic time, the Litany of the Hours?  Do they wake up in the middle of the night worrying that they've made a dreadful mistake?

The vow of stability, the vow of committing to a place, is the one I struggle with most, at least in this current phase of my life.  I don't spend any time wrestling with the idea of committing to one person.  But committing to a place?  That's harder for me.  I'm always wondering if life would be better in Seattle or some other place that seems to fit me better.  I'm always wondering if I could find a better job if I was free to go anywhere.  I'm always wondering if I'd be happier if I had a big plot of land in a rural place.

I do understand that many people would not understand these wanderings of my brain and heart.  I have a decent job with a boss who doesn't abuse me, a job which pays me well and gives me some autonomy.  So many people, especially women, don't have that.  I live in a historic house with a pool, and I can walk to the beach.  I'm fortunate--I remind myself that I'm fortunate, even as I'm dealing with mold that has made some inroads into my house during our recent humid period when my spouse turned the AC off for days.

I have made a vow, and I solidified that vow when we bought this house.  I thought the questions were settled.  But now I'm thinking that I'll always wonder about how life would be elsewhere.

At these times, I return to the wisdom of Lonesome Dove.  I think of Lori, the prostitute who desperately wanted to get to San Francisco, and Gus, the old cowboy who knows that she'll still be dealing with problems there.  A place doesn't magically settle everything.  Life's problems and joys follow us, no matter where we are.

Still, I'd like more insight into the monks who leave.  I'd like a book that interviews them.  I know that I idealize the monastic life.  It would be good to have a more realistic picture.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, February 9, 2014:

First Reading: Isaiah 58:1-9a [9b-12]

Psalm: Psalm 112:1-9 [10]

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 2:1-12 [13-16]

Gospel: Matthew 5:13-20

With the Gospel for this Sunday, we get our mission statement from Jesus. We are to be the salt of the earth, the light of the world. It’s an interesting time of the year to contemplate light. If we're perceptive, we can see that we're getting a bit more light each day.  The sun is already further away from the horizon, arcing higher as it makes its passage through the sky each day.  But for many of us, we're not getting enough light; we're ready for summer and the 12 hours of light that grace that season.

Maybe you read the Gospel for Sunday, and you despair.  Maybe you've felt much more like a flickering candle lately. Maybe you yearn for verses about dimly burning wicks and the assurance that God will not extinguish you for your lackluster burning.

Jesus tells us that we are to let our light shine, but he doesn't tell us how hard it will be some days. As a child, I always thought that once the light was lit, the hard part was over. I would just shine and shine and not hide my light under a bushel and not let Satan pfff it out (as that old song goes).

I did not anticipate the days and months I would feel like I had no light at all, no wick to light, no oil left in the lamp.  I did not anticipate the days that I would wish I had a flicker, a guttering flame.

How do we keep our light from going out? I suspect it's in the various disciplines that we adopt to strengthen our spiritual lives: praying, reading the Bible, reading other spiritual literature, fasting, tithing, charitable giving, working for social justice, practicing gratitude, noticing the wonders of the world.

It's important to realize that we can't keep our lights lit if we see this activity as a once-a-week duty. I suspect that even a once-a-day duty isn't enough. We need to develop disciplines that reorient us throughout the day. We need to build in breaks throughout the day to attend to our wicks and lights.

Maybe we could tie these spiritual disciplines to other breaks we must take during our days.  You've probably done this practice at one point in your life:  we could say a prayer of gratitude before we eat.  We could listen to spiritually uplifting books or music during our commutes or workouts.  Many charitable activities force us to keep to a schedule.

It’s important to remember that we are often the only light of Jesus that many people will see throughout the week. How would our attitude and behavior change if we saw our lives through this prism? We are the instruments and tools that God uses to deliver God’s light into the world. How can we make ourselves better at the task?

Some of us think that we need to lead people to Jesus by talking to them about our faith. But our lives and our actions have already done all the talking before we ever open our mouths. Keep that in mind as you interact with people. Let your life do the shining. Be the salt that adds savor to everyone’s surroundings. Glorify God in this way.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Mepkin Overview: the Spiritual View

I am back from Mepkin Abbey, pleasantly tired, a bit anxious about jumping back into regular life.  So, let me record some brief observations, and in later posts, I'll dive in more deeply to some of these ideas.  For a more secular overview, see this post on my creativity blog.

--I have assumed that there's a kind of timelessness at Mepkin, that I'd be returning to an essentially unchanged place year after year.  This year showed the fallacy of that thought.  There's a new--and gorgeous--retreat center.  Some of the monks are no longer at the Abbey, and it's not just because older ones have died.  Even the food was somewhat different; on Sunday, we had French fries as the main course, along with a cherry tomato/cucumber salad and a tangerine/beet salad.

--A group of College of Charleston students had their retreat while we were there, and regular retreatents were invited to participate in 2 sessions of lectio divina.  I did, and it was fascinating.

--I took along a load of books, but I could have left them at home.  The new retreat center includes a beautiful community center, with an excellent library.  I read Flannery O'Connor's Prayer Journal:  mildly fascinating, but I'm glad I didn't spend money on it.  Paula Huston's latest book, A Season of Mystery--again, wonderful writing, especially as she considers aging, but I didn't feel sad that it wouldn't be part of my library.  Adam Thomas' Digital Disciple was interesting, but not much here I hadn't already contemplated.   I imagine it would be very useful for individuals and congregations just beginning to wrestle with these issues.  The first chapter of Fred Bahnson's Soil and Sacrament was so good that I bought a copy at the gift shop--along with a discounted fruitcake.

--I didn't find the music and words of the liturgy weaving its way into my brain the way they have in the past.  I heard "Total Eclipse of the Heart" on my trip up, and I woke up in the middle of the night with those lyrics in my head.  I'm disturbed that the Psalms couldn't dislodge that old pop song.

--However, I did get a lot of writing tasks done.  I had put off reorganizing a book-length poetry manuscript, but this week-end, what needed to be done seemed perfectly clear to me.  Is it because I had a rhythm of returning to worship throughout the day?

--I've found the worship and the Bible readings more meaningful in past years.  Is it because this year was our second Candlemas in a row with the monks?  Is something going on with me?

--As always, I wish I lived closer so that I could return more often, to see how each season brings changes.

--One of my friends asked, "Who takes care of you?  We all count on you for your energy--who takes care of you?"  This retreat is essential self-care for me.

--I do worry, though, over the same question with the monks.  Who takes care of them?  I know that they take care of each other, and that there are people from the outside who help in many ways.  But I also know how lonely it feels, as there are fewer and fewer people around to do more and more work.  I may be projecting, of course, transposing the way I feel in my local church onto the monks.  But I did feel like I noticed a bit of tiredness that hasn't been there before.  Again, I may be projecting.

--One of my friends asked a thorny question that I felt ill-equipped to answer.  She's wrestling with the question of being of service, of Christians being called to serve the most lowly.  Both of my friends have family caretaking duties that can be quite onerous.  Does Christ call us to this?  Is the need for such caretaking a result of a broken world?  If God can fix these things, then what is taking so long?

--I don't have satisfying answers.  I've come to realize that I don't believe in an all-powerful God, but I know that many people might ask, "Why worship such a God?  What is the point?"  I understand that response.  I don't have an answer that will satisfy those questioners.  Some days, I don't even have an answer that satisfies me.

--I am realizing that I've been feeling a bit of spiritual dryness--not full drought, but a weariness, a parched state.  It's been a long autumn at church, as we wrestled with financial issues.  I'm still feeling a bit of sadness about it all.  I am tired of thinking about issues that concern construction. 

--It was good to get away.  I don't feel completely replenished, but I do feel a bit of renewal, some early spring shoots in my parched landscape.

Monday, February 3, 2014

The Religious Writer in the Twenty-first Century

There's an interesting conversation going on over at Paul Elie's blog, about a what it means to be a religious author, writing in this century.  Dana Gioia has also been writing about what it means to be a Catholic writer in America; see this essay for more of his thoughts.  I've been spending time with Elie's ideas for several weeks now.

In some ways, Elie began this thinking with his book The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage.  And certainly, he'd been thinking about these issues long before writing that book.  You don't wake up one morning and just start writing that kind of book.  Well, maybe you do, but you certainly don't finish writing it without a lot of thinking.

Elie has been engaging in cultural criticism, most notably lately with his essay "Has Fiction Lost Its Faith?" in The New York Times.  He concludes that article this way:  "All the while, you hope to find the writer who can dramatize belief the way it feels in your experience, at once a fact on the ground and a sponsor of the uncanny, an account of our predicament that still and all has the old power to persuade. You look for a story or a novel where the writer puts it all to­gether. That would be enough. That would be something. That would be unbelievable."

In this blog post, he talks about the role of criticism and gives us an interesting insight into writerly process:  "Likewise these essays about the absences we writers feel.  If you are a writer, especially a writer 'with Christian preoccupations,' as O’Connor put it, you know that you can’t write for all time; you have to begin with the time you live in.  Say you feel an absence of work of a certain kind and quality.  You consider this feeling, reflect on it.  You watch and wait (ten years, in my own case, since the publication of The Life You Save May Be Your Own).  Then you decide to act.  You try to find words for the absence you feel.  You present examples drawn from the work that does exist, and compare them to one another, making distinctions and drawing out shades of meaning.  You allow for exceptions to the general point you are making.  You look outside the usual categories  (outside fiction, say, to nonfiction, or to work from abroad).   You invite conversation and correction (as I am doing here).  And yet you trust the sense of absence you feel, and in stating it and restating it you envision and evoke in words the kind of work you have in mind – both for yourself as a writer and for other writers in the near future, beginning with those who might read the essay you are writing."

The article has fostered all sorts of replies, which Elie chronicles periodically in his blog, but I won't post/link them all here.  Let me leap to my own dreaming.  Could we write the fiction of Christian faith that Elie sees as missing?

I know that you could disagree that the type of fiction is indeed missing from our culture.  In the NY Times article, Elie spends some time thinking about authors that he feels have tried and failed.  Subsequent writers have offered their own possibilities, but I'm not convinced.  I think that Elie is onto something with his hypothesis that Christian faith as a living, breathing, important part of a person's psyche is missing in our fiction.

Which of course leads me to the question:  could I do it?

I've spent a lot of time writing novels about creative folks, grad school folks, but not much time writing about regular people wrestling with religious questions.  I've created characters out of people I've known in school.  What about the people I know now?  Could they be characters?

I worry it would seem contrived, even though it would be based in real life:  an atheist, a Hindu, a Lutheran, and a Wiccan . . . it sounds like the beginning of a bad joke.

But the idea is there, percolating in my brain. If we were characters, and the plot was about finding our way while staying true to our spiritual beliefs, what would that book look like?

As I spent yesterday thinking about Elie's blog post and the article in The New York Times, I was also finishing a short story for my writer's lunch with my Hindu friend today.  It occurs to me that some of the stories, if not most of the stories, in my linked short story collection might be doing what Elie yearns to see.  They are not based on my current set of friends.  They may have once been based on people I once knew, but they've become distinctly different now.

My current story deals with how a man at midlife wanders sideways into seminary.  So, of course, I worry that it's too obvious an answer to the lack that Elie sees. 

This morning I was working on the ending of the story, which I often am the morning of my writer's lunch date.  I wrote these sentences: 

"I thought of our Bible stories of burning bushes and angel choirs.  What would our churches be like if our stories of God’s call involved cross-dressing, gender transgressive gypsies?  My students believe that if they don’t heed God’s call, they’ll end up in the belly of a whale.  For most of them, it’s a metaphor."

The end of the story may be too much telling, not enough showing.  I can fix that later.

Back to the larger issue, the one that Elie ponders.  I worry that I'm not understanding the question, the lack that Elie sees.  I would love to send him the story to see what he says.  I worry that he'd write back and tell me that my story is a blunt instrument and certainly nowhere close to art.

I'm no Flannery O'Connor, but oh, how I yearn to be! In this time after my writer's retreat at Mepkin Abbey, maybe I can figure out how to be a Flannery O'Connor for this century.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Candlemas: Let There Be Light!

We celebrate Candlemas in all sorts of ways.  Many of us don't even realize that we're celebrating Candlemas when we look to that groundhog to tell us our weather fate for the next 6 weeks.

OK, that last sentence was a stretch.  I can't really claim that I can trace Groundhog Day all the way back to ancient Christian rites that surround Candlemas.  But it does seem that this time of year leaves us yearning for light.

Candlemas celebrates the presentation of Jesus at the temple.  It's the last feast holiday that references Christmas.  We could see it as the final festival of Christmas, even though most of us have had the decorations packed away since even before Epiphany.

Simeon holds the baby Jesus.  Imagine it:  to hold the light of the world in your hands.  In so many ways we still do.  We carry the light of the world inside us.  How can your body deliver light to the world?

Some churches and monasteries will bless the year's supply of candles.  I love this tradition, although it's never been mine.  Today would be a good day to light a candle and to think about our own lights.  Are we dimly burning wicks?  Take heart--the Bible promises that we can still be useful?  Does our light burn pure and true?  Take care to protect that flame. 

What makes us flicker?

Before we had Candlemas, we had pagan festivals of Imbolc and Oimelc.   These festivals celebrate the stirring of seeds, the shifting of seasons, the time when we begin the tilt to Spring.

The holidays of early February (Groundhog Day, Candlemas, St. Brigid's Day, Imbolc and Oimelc ) remind us that the light hasn't really left us.  Spring will be here soon.

Saturday, February 1, 2014

The Feast Day of Saint Brigid

On February 1, we celebrate the life of Saint Brigid, one of the patron saints of Ireland.  She is one of the early Christians who stood at the intersection of Christianity, Druidism, and the other pagan religions of Ireland.  She is also one of those extraordinary women who did amazing things, despite the patriarchal culture in which she lived.

Like so many of our early Christian church mothers, she felt called by God from a very early age.  She resisted attempts to get her married:  one account has her scooping out her diseased eye in protest of an impending marriage--and later, healing her dangling eyeball by putting it back in her head. 

When we go back to read about the lives of women in medieval times, it's amazing that more women didn't fight harder to go join the cloistered life.  Perhaps Brigid’s story explains why:  it took a lot of resistance to be allowed to escape the marriage that the family felt was best.

Brigid is famous for her generosity, especially to the poor.  She showed this compassion early on, giving away all of her mother's butter to a poor person--and then, by her prayers, the butter was restored.  Throughout her life, she continued to show this kind of compassion and generosity.  She’s also linked to butter throughout her life and miracles:  a later story has a poor beggar woman coming to St. Brigid to ask for food.  Brigid tells the beggar that she only has a bit of butter, and the beggar says that will be enough.  When Brigid goes to get the butter, she finds the butter has multiplied into 3 dishes.

Many of the stories of Brigid revolve around her providing sustenance, not only for beggars but for all of the countryside.  She’s associated with lakes of milk and abundant baskets of butter.  Like Christ, she transformed water into nourishment; she’s legendary for transforming water into milk and water into beer.

St. Brigid founded some of the first Christian monasteries in Ireland, most famously the legendary one in Kildare.  She also founded a school of art that focuses on metal working and illumination.  The illustrated manuscript, the Book of Kildare, was created under her auspices.  Unfortunately, it's been lost since the Reformation, so we know it by its reputation only.

As a 21st century woman, I'm amazed at what she was able to accomplish, during times that are much more difficult than mine.  Founding numerous religious orders, motivating artists, compassion to the poor, devotion to God--she seemed to have had no trouble leading an authentic, integrated life.  Why does it seem so hard to me?

Of course, I know Brigid across a space of centuries, through the gauze of hagiography and legend.  If Brigid could speak, what would she say?   Would she tell us of the sleepless nights where she wondered how she was going to find enough food, enough contributions, to keep her religious orders afloat?  Would she bemoan all her administrative duties, which sucked away so much energy, when all she really wanted to do was to illuminate manuscripts?

What do our lives say about our beliefs?  Are we leading authentic, integrated lives?  Are we building concrete institutions that will outlast us?  Are we helping to create an abundance that mirrors God’s?  How do we want to be remembered?

If centuries from now, a middle-aged woman read about your life as you're living it, would she be inspired?