Thursday, March 27, 2014

Poetry Thursday: Easter Ashes

I have been feeling stuck at Ash Wednesday.  It's been a season of bad news:  cancer come too early, colleagues moving on, sadness coming in waves through the day.

What if I get to Easter and I'm still stuck in my Ash Wednesday sadness?

It won't be the first time:  2005 was one of the more brutal years of my life, and by the following year, I was still not quite done grieving.  I wrote the following poem, which has been providing me some comfort this year, with its reminder of the cyclical nature of grief and joy.

Easter Ashes

Ice caps melt, and polar bears drown.
Alaskan buildings shift on newly soggy ground.
Permafrost turns out not to be so permanent.
We change the climate in ways untried in human history.

Rivers choke with bodies.
People vanish into the hopeless smoke
of failed foreign policies.
It’s never been easier in human history
than it is right now to own a slave.

 Madmen plot ways to own
the power of the mushroom cloud.
To maintain and monitor our stockpile of nuclear
arms takes millions of dollars more
than it took to create them.

How do we celebrate Easter with the taste
of ashes still on our tongues?

So many go to a place where we cannot follow,
bread unbaked, wine souring into vinegar.
But occasionally, the comatose return
to stay with us for one brief respite on the Hospice ward,
snapping fingers to Gospel songs,
accepting a lollipop to lick.

How can we not celebrate Easter with the taste
of ashes still on our tongues?

Newly enfranchised people in South Africa wait in line
for days to vote; the Soviet Union slips
Eastern Europe free of its shackles, and poets
take charge of the government.  Women who survived
the torture of a brutal Latin regime claim
the Presidential Palace.

In industrialized nations, AIDS becomes a chronic condition.
A super nutritious nut paste saves a generation.
Human rights abuses come to light in a distant dungeon,
and we maintain our capacity to be shocked and outraged.

A woman with a scarred history conceives a child
in a womb not thought capable
of creating anything but cysts and fibroids.
Although the placenta rips, the child
continues to grow and flourish.

How can we keep from celebrating Easter, even with the taste
of ashes still on our tongues?


Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, March 30, 2014:

First Reading: 1 Samuel 16:1-13

Psalm: Psalm 23

Second Reading: Ephesians 5:8-14

Gospel: John 9:1-41

Occasionally, a student will ask me how I know that a symbol is really a symbol, and not just me overreacting to something in the text. I always reply that we know we're looking at a symbol when the author comes back to it again and again. Then an image is meant to take on more weight.

Today's Gospel would be a good illustration of this point. Again and again, we see blind people in this text, from the physically blind to the metaphorically blind. Again and again, the text returns to blindness. Clearly, we're meant to explore issues of our own blindness. It's not bad to do a spiritual inventory periodically. Where do we see evidence of God in our lives? Where are we blind to God's presence?

As I read the text for this week, I found myself getting to this point from a different angle. Look at how Jesus cures this blind man. He mixes dirt and spit (dirt and spit!) onto the man's eyes and instructs him to bathe. I'm not the first to be struck by the earthiness of this cure: the use of different elements (dirt, saliva, and water), the rootedness of the cure in the physical (Jesus doesn't cast a spell, for example, or call on angels), and the simplicity of it all.

It might make us think back to the Genesis story, of God forming the first humans out of dirt (Adam) and an extra rib (Eve). It might make us think of all the ways that God uses basic, earthbound elements in both creation and salvation.

Think of our sacraments, for example. There's baptism, the word bound with water. And the water doesn't come to us from some special source--it's not like we special-order it from the Holy Land. Well, perhaps some churches do, but that's a foolish use of money, if you ask me. It's not like those waters have special powers. The power comes from the word--and perhaps more importantly, from the words that the congregation offers. When we baptize someone, the whole congregation takes a vow to support that person--when you wonder why baptism is such a public event, and why some people are adamant that it not be separated from the service and the congregation, that's why. It's not a photo op. It's a sacrament.

Think about Holy Communion. I've been to many Holy Communions now. Some churches use wafers specially ordered from religious communities, but you don't have to do that. I've had Communion with pita bread, with challah, and once, with a pizza crust. I've had good wine, bad wine, and grape juice. Again, what's important is the symbol of the elements, mixed with the words. It's not just about memory--it's how God becomes present to us, through a mystery that we don't fully understand.

Sometimes, I think that Luther may have gone too far in a direction opposite of the Catholic church. I have Sacrament Envy. The longer that I am married, the more convinced I am that marriage is a sacrament. Through the love I experience from my husband, who loves me even though I am imperfect and often incapable of lasting reform--and forgives me, over and over, through these experiences, I get a glimpse of God's love. Of course, I could say the same thing about family members or close friends.

As we work our way through the Scriptures, think about how often God takes simple things and turns them into routes that can lead to salvation. The most stunning example, of course, is the story of the Incarnation. During weeks where I'm impatient with my own failing flesh, I'm even more astounded than usual that the Divine would take on this project.

And we, of course, can work similar magic. Open up your dinner table, and observe grace in action. Forgive freely, and watch redemption work. Pray for those who would do you wrong, and notice what happens. Get your fingers in the dirt and watch the flowers bloom later. Take some simple elements and envision them as sacramental, a symbolic route to God.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Feast of the Annunciation

Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, the feast day which celebrates the appearance of the angel Gabriel, who tells Mary of her opportunity to be part of God's mission of redemption. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary and says, in the older wording that I still like best, "Hail, oh blessed one! The Lord is with you!" Mary asks some questions, and Gabriel says, "For nothing will be impossible with God" (Luke 1: 37). And Mary says, ". . . let it be with me according to your word" (Luke 1: 38).

That means only 9 months until Christmas. If I wrote a different kind of blog, I'd fill the rest of this post with witty ways to make your shopping easier. I personally think that we should take the money that we spend on buying gifts for adults and give it to social service agencies with a track record of doing good things in the developing world. I think that first world adults have way too much stuff, so why give gifts--I'm Scroogy that way.

I find Mary an interesting model for modern spirituality.  Notice what is required of Mary. She must wait.

Mary is not required to enter into a spiritual boot camp to get herself ready for this great honor. No, she must be present to God and be willing to have a daily relationship, an intimacy that most of us would never make time for. She doesn't have to travel or make a pilgrimage to a different land. She doesn't have to go to school to work on a Ph.D. She isn't even required to go to the Temple any extra amount. She must simply slow down and be present. And of course, she must be willing to be pregnant, which requires more of her than most of us will offer up to God. And there's the later part of the story, where she must watch her son die an agonizing death.

But before she is called upon to these greater tasks, first she must slow down enough to hear God. I've often thought that if the angel Gabriel came looking for any one of us, we'd be difficult to find. Gabriel would need to make an appointment months in advance!

We might think about how we can listen for God's call. Most of us live noisy lives: we're always on our cell phones, we've often got several televisions blaring in the house at once, we're surrounded by traffic (and their loud stereos), we've got people who want to talk, talk, talk. Maybe today would be a good day to take a vow of silence, inasmuch as we can, to listen for God.

If we can't take a vow of silence, we could look for ways to have some silence in our days.  We could start with five minutes and build up from there.

Maybe we can't be silent, but there are other ways to tune in to God. Maybe we want to keep a dream journal to see if God tries to break through to us in that way. Maybe we want to keep a prayer journal, so that we have a record of our prayer life--and maybe we want to revisit that journal periodically to see how God answers our prayers.

Let us celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation by thinking about our own lives. What does God call us to do?  How will we answer that call?

Monday, March 24, 2014

Waiting for Our Attention

As I walked around Mepkin Abbey, I was struck by how many items were hidden in plain view.  Like this chair, just sitting in the middle of high grass:

Or this cottage,

which is really a pottery studio, I realized, as I got close enough to see the wheel on the porch.

I looked through the window and saw all sorts of pottery creations.

What is hiding in plain sight, just waiting for our discovery?  What chairs wait in the high grasses of our minds.  What pottery creations (a symbol for other creations) lie just beyond the window sill, just waiting for us to push the window just a bit to see that they're there?

And once we see that they're there, can we clear some time out of our schedule to bring them out of hiding? 

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Inspiring Thoughts from Brian McLaren

The wonderful NPR show On Being featured Brian McLaren recently.  I've read his books and enjoyed them thoroughly.  He's also a wonderful speaker.  I couldn't resist capturing some quotes here.  You can read the transcript, listen to the show, and enjoy other resources here.

"So I had this knowledge of the Bible, but when I was in college and graduate school studying literature, especially when I encountered the amazing work of Walker Percy, I realized that, if I were to read the Bible literarily as opposed to literally, it would be a completely different experience."

"Well, when you think about it like this, I mean, this comparison probably is never made before and maybe never should again. But, you know, when you think of the '60s and '70s and all the hippies who want to get back to nature, I mean, in a way the monastics were saying let's get out of this whole civilization that's built around weapons and raising children to be — raising boys to be soldiers and this whole militarized fusion of Christianity. The only way we can rediscover our faith is to get back out in the country, get away from the cities.

Now, look, I don't think that's the whole solution, but I think it's a very valid response when you are saying if we're going to save our faith, we have to find a way to extract it. And I'll tell you, that still keeps me up at night, because I think we're very early in this rethinking process and we have a lot of deep questions that still have to be asked about how we practice a faith that is not just either a nice diversion while the empire rages on or is actually a chaplaincy to the continuation of this juggernaut that is affecting people and is affecting the environment and is affecting the future."

"One of my mentors said to me, 'What you focus on determines what you miss.' And I was taught to read every verse in the Bible to find out who's going to heaven and who's going to hell. But when you start noticing other things, you start looking for other things, the Bible becomes a different book. And I think Jesus becomes a very different person and the Christian faith can become a very different faith."

"There is something about faith when it's translated into caring for the earth and caring for your neighbor and caring for the poor and caring for the stranger and the immigrant and the other. Don't you all agree? I mean, that is a spirituality that cannot be matched anywhere else."

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, March 23, 2014:

First Reading: Exodus 17:1-7

Psalm: Psalm 95

Second Reading: Romans 5:1-11

Gospel: John 4:5-42

If you didn't read much of the Bible, you might assume that Samaritans are good people; after all, wasn't the only person who stopped to help the traveler who was assaulted and left for dead, wasn't that person a Samaritan?

Yes, and that's part of the point of the story that many of us miss. Church officials didn't stop to help. The only person who did stop to help was one of the lowest people in the social stratosphere.

Actually, today's Gospel introduces us to one lower, a Samaritan woman. We know that she has low status because she's a Samaritan and because she's coming to the well later in the day. It would have been the custom to come early in the morning to socialize, and the fact that she doesn't come then speaks volumes. She's a woman in a patriarchal society and part of a group (Samaritans) who have almost no social status. It would only be worse if she was a prostitute or a slave.

Yet, Jesus has a long conversation with her, the longest that he has with anyone recorded in the New Testament. Here, again this week, Jesus is in Mystic mode. She asks questions, and he gives her complex answers.

But unlike Nicodemus, she grasps his meaning immediately. And she believes. She goes back to her city and spreads the good news. And her fellow citizens believe her and follow her back to follow Jesus. Notice how she has gone from isolation to community.

Jesus preaches to them and seems to include them, complete outsiders, in his vision of the Kingdom. Hence the good news: Jesus came for us all.

Years ago, I listened to NPR commemorate the 40th anniversary of Mr. Rodgers and the neighborhood that he created for so many children on PBS television. They played a clip of him speaking to the grown ups who had grown up watching him. He reminded us of what he had told us when we were children: "I like you just the way you are."

I felt yearning well up from a deep, inside place. How seldom we hear that, either as children or as grown ups! How often are we exhorted to improve ourselves this way or that way. How relentlessly we quest for perfection.

In this Gospel, we hear a similar voice to Mr. Rodgers, the voice of Christ who will spend time with people who are completely outcast. We are never too lost for God. We don't have to improve ourselves to win salvation. God doesn't tell us that we'll win love if we just lose ten pounds or pray more often or work one more night in the soup kitchen or give away fifty more dollars a week to worthy charities.

Jesus doesn't send the Samaritan woman back to town until he's made a connection with her. He doesn't say, "Hey, if you're at a well at noon, you must be a real slut, if the women won't even let you come to the well with them in the morning. Mend your slutty ways, and maybe I'll let you be part of my vision for the Kingdom."

No, he spends time with her and that's how he wins her over. He knows that humans can't change themselves in the hopes of some kind of redemption; we can’t even lose 10 pounds in time for our class reunion, much less make the substantial changes that will take us into a healthier older age.

However, Jesus knows the path to true change; he knows that humans are more likely to change if they feel like God loves them and wants to be with them just the way they are. Jesus comes to say, “You’ve lived in the land of self-loathing long enough. Sit with me and talk about what matters.”

That treatment might be enough to motivate us to behave like we are the light of the world.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

The Feast Day of Saint Joseph

Today is the feast day of Saint Joseph--yes, that Joseph, the husband of Mary, the earthly father of Jesus.

I've got a post up at the Living Lutheran site; you can go here to read it.  Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"Some of us today will spend the day celebrating fathers, which is a great way to celebrate the feast day of St. Joseph. We might also celebrate stepfathers and all the other family members who step in to help with the raising of children."

"Let us today praise the people in the background, the people who step back to allow others to shine. Let us praise the people who do the drudgery work that makes it possible for others to succeed."

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

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Gates of Mepkin Abbey

As I've walked the grounds of Mepkin Abbey, I've often taken pictures of a variety of gates.

Gate at the African-American cemetery

I like the gate as a metaphor.  What lies beyond the gate? 

gate at the cemetery of Mepkin Plantation family members

An open gate can be seen as an invitation.  But also, an open gate can be scary.  What if we go through the gate, and it swings shut?  What if we can't leave again?

What creative gates are waiting for us to push them open?  What spiritual gates beckon us?  Are they open or closed?

Gate at Mepkin Gardens

Are there small practices we can adopt to help us approach the gates?  Perhaps keeping a journal and then move to writing that novel. A practice of taking photographs can also serve as a journal.  Maybe we could try prayer once a day, and then progress to periodic prayer throughout the day.  We could skip one meal, instead of fasting for a whole day.  Small gates swing open to larger gates.

Monday, March 17, 2014

The Feast Day of Saint Patrick

Today is the feast day of St. Patrick, perhaps one of the most famous saints.  Many people will celebrate this day by drinking green beer, watching a parade, drinking more green beer, baking soda bread, drinking more green beer, eating corned beef and cabbage, drinking more green beer, and drinking more green beer.

But what can we learn from those early Irish saints like Saint Patrick?  How can they inform our spiritual lives?

If you looked at the early life of St. Patrick, you would not think that he was on a path to be a great leader of the early church. He was born into a noble family, kidnapped, and sold into slavery — an experience which would later make him successful in God’s mission in ways he never could have anticipated. Because of his time as a slave, he could understand the language when he returned to bring Christianity to Ireland.

Later scholars have suggested that Patrick and his compatriots were sent to minister to the Christians who were already there, not to conquer the natives. Other scholars have speculated that one of the reasons that Christianity was so successful in Ireland was because Patrick took the parts of pagan religions that appealed most to its followers and showed how those elements were also present in Christianity--or perhaps incorporated them into Christianity as practiced in Ireland.

All scholars seem to agree: Patrick was essential in establishing Christianity in Ireland. And he wouldn't have been so effective, had he not spent time there as a slave, which meant he learned the language and the customs of the country.

So, when we despair over our bad fortune, perhaps we can remember St. Patrick, born into a noble family, sold into slavery--an experience which would later make him successful in God's mission in ways he never could have anticipated.

In many ways, modern people are living in as distant an outpost of empire as those ancient Celtic monks. Many of us are far from the corridors of power, whether they be in the U.S., in China, or in India. Most Christians reading this post are far from the places where Christianity flourishes today, in parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

But instead of despairing and longing for the mythical glory days of past times when the Church was more influential in the U.S., perhaps we should think of ourselves as Celtic monks, trying to till a very rocky, thorny soil. We should take comfort and encouragement from how much God can accomplish, even in the most unlikely circumstances. There’s plenty of transformative work for us to do today.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Contemplative Worship and Our Church's Approach

Our pastor is trying something new for Lent:  a contemplative service at 5:05 on Saturday nights.  Last night that option worked wonderfully with my schedule.

I have often complained about the noisiness of the modern service.  By noisiness, I chiefly mean that I find many services overamplified--and I'm partially deaf, so if it's hard on me, it must be hard on people with full hearing.

I find modern life to be conducted in a busy-busy-rush-rush pace, and often church services are no different.  We race from this part to that part of the worship service and scarcely stop to think about what it all means.  Our approach to the contemplative service combats that by having lectio divina instead of a sermon.

We gathered in the choir area, which makes a surprisingly good worship space for a small group.  We sang the liturgy for evening prayer from the worship resource Evangelical Lutheran Worship.  We did our lectio divina, and the discussion that followed was helpful.  I'm not always happy about the presence of sharing time, but it worked well.  We had communion.

I drove home feeling soothed and content--such a difference!  I often leave regular worship feeling jangled and desperate for a nap.  Why do I go to those services?

Often it can't be helped.  But I'm lucky to be at a church that offers alternatives.  Our Worship Together service does not leave me jangled.  Last night's service actually helped drive away the jangledness of the week.  These are the worship services I need.

I know that worship isn't about me.  I know that worship in its strictest sense should be about God.

But there are so many approaches to worship.  I believe that God would not want me to be so unnerved, week after week, by worship.  Luckily, I've found some options that I believe can be pleasing to both me and God.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Ash Wednesday and the Counting of the Money

After Ash Wednesday, we stayed to help count the money--that's my spouse in the purple shirt.

Not only did we have ash crosses on our heads, but we were dressed in the appropriate colors:  purple and black.  But I couldn't get far enough back to really capture us all.

Still, I thought a photo of humans with ash crosses on their foreheads, counting money, said something about our human condition, about our ashy condition.  We know that we will return to dust, but we don't know exactly when.  So we must do our earthly tasks, the counting of the money and the paying of the bills.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Poetry Thursday: Ides of March, Ides of April

We approach the Ides of March.  It's a windy, windy day here, which makes me think of various weather systems that may be clashing across the country. 

Later today I go to a reception for an artist's show.  It will likely be her last show, as she has pancreatic cancer.  Earlier today, a smaller group of friends will celebrate my Hindu friend's 50th birthday.  In the background of my brain, the constant backbeat of knowledge that one of my oldest friends has stage IV esophageal cancer.

My brain threatens to settle into an Ash Wednesday funk--I worry it will extend beyond Lent.

My brain flows have made me think of an earlier poem I wrote.  I don't have as much time to write an essay today, so here's a poem for our Thursday.  Does it capture a Lenten mood?  Or is it better for the Easter season?

The Ides of April

Mid April, when bills come due and debts
must be paid.  Both winter and summer battle
for dominance and rip the landscape
with tornadoes and late spring snows.

Good battles evil, captives set free
by way of forced and bloody frenzies.  Refugees
driven from their homes trudge down dusty
roads towards a desert destiny of freedom.

A gospel of radical love battles entrenched
orthodoxy.  We must sacrifice our lust
for structure and rules, our yearning
for punishment.  We must arc our minds
towards grace and unconquered redemption.

We must be as flowers who battle
against the frozen ground, who thrust
themselves towards a distant sun
in the hope of a future warmth,
a profuse explosion of fiery blooms.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, March 16, 2014:

First Reading: Genesis 12:1-4a

Psalm: Psalm 121

Second Reading: Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

Gospel: John 3:1-17

It's always interesting to come across a familiar verse in context. John 3:16 is one of those verses that many people can quote. And yet, we're at the end of centuries of disagreement about what it means. Does it mean that Jesus had to be crucified as a sacrifice for our sins, as many Christians will tell you? Does it mean that Jesus came to show us a different way of life, thus saving us, as many people uncomfortable with a sacrificial Jesus would have us believe? Does it mean that Jesus is the only way to the Divine? What about people who will never hear about Jesus? Will they go to Hell when they die?

John is the most mystical of the Gospels, and not surprisingly, Jesus acts as a mystic in this episode with Nicodemus. He's studying the Torah at night; first century Jews would recognize night as the time for serious study of the Torah. He asks Jesus serious questions, as a scholar would, and Jesus seems to give him nonsense answers about being born again.

Read what Jesus says again, and imagine how frustrating it must have been for Nicodemus. It's frustrating for me, and I come from a tradition with centuries of explanation. Jesus seems to be offering mystical babble here.  I'm with Nicodemus:  how is this possible?

These are the passages that I hate discussing with the confused and the non-believers. I'm a poet and an English major, so I don't have as much trouble getting my head around sacraments as more literal-minded folks do--but explaining it? That's a different matter.

Maybe we don't have to explain. I take part in all sorts of mysteries that I can't explain. I don't understand internal combustion engines, but I drive my car anyway, and I have faith that it will work. I can't explain how electricity is generated or how it powers all the things that make my life easy, but that doesn't stop me from turning on the lights when it's dark.

Advent and Lent are two times of the liturgical year when I am most conscious that I'm participating in a mystery--and therefore, I can't explain everything, especially not to the satisfaction of non-believers. I can't even explain it to me. As Jesus says, "The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit."

I have faith in being born again, although I might define that differently than my fundamentalist friends. Each day presents a new opportunity, a new birth, a new chance to re-align myself towards God.   Indeed, each hour gives me that chance.  Each day, God wants to come be with me, and each day, I get to decide whether or not that will happen. Even if I go through a period of not living as mindfully as I'd like, I can start again, whenever I choose. And these liturgical seasons of Advent and Lent remind us of the need to turn and return to God.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Interim Words of Death

I am a Christian.  I do not believe that death has the final hold on us.  I don't believe that death is the final answer or that death has the last word.

But lately I've been in an Ash Wednesday frame of mind.   I'd have been in an Ash Wednesday space even if we weren't at that part of the liturgical year.  I've had news of the death of my favorite undergraduate English professor, a colleague with pancreatic cancer, my best friend from high school with esophageal cancer, and my Hindu writer friend who is in the last stage of kidney failure.

I am feeling frail and mortal and afraid.  I am afraid to admit my fear, for fear that I will seem a bad Christian.

I remind myself that even Jesus was afraid.  It's OK to be afraid.

After all, I'm not afraid of death.  If I fell over dead in a field while I was out on a run, that would be OK with me.  I've lived a good life, and while I still want to do some things, I'm pleased with my life so far.

No, I'm afraid of the pain that so often comes with death.  I'm afraid of hospitals and doctors.  I'm afraid of causing pain to those who love me and have to watch those degradations that happen to my body should I die trapped in the medical-industrial complex.

I am not afraid of death, but I've been assuming we'd die when we're old and in a declining state.  I've been thinking death would be a relief.

But lately, I've been seeing death as a robber and a thief.

Death may not have the final word, but death certainly gets to have a lot of words in the interim.  Our task is to silence that blabber as much as we can.  Our task is to keep our eyes and ears on the alternate reality that the voices of death try to cover.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Hidden Messages

As I walked around Mepkin Abbey during my last trip, I discovered some messages in not-so-obvious places.  Below, a painted rock, placed at the bottom of an iron support beam:

Here's another one:

It was a delight to discover them, like finding a sort-of secret message, something hidden, yet not hidden.  If I hadn't looked down, I wouldn't have seen them.  Yet once I did see them, they seemed obviously placed, one at the bottom of each column in the new retreat center.

It makes me think about how we move in the world.  How can our lives operate as a kind of secret, yet not completely disguised, sign that points others towards the love of God? 

In some ways, I'm asking how our lives can be a living sacrament.  Maybe thinking of our lives as sacrament feels a bit too close to sacrilege.  How could we possibly be similar to water, bread, and wine?

Can we be a kind of chair, partially hidden, a place where people can rest and catch their breaths?

Why hide in the tall grass of life?  So that we, too, have a chance to rest and catch our breath.

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Literature to Enrich Your Lent

I am loving this book, A God in the House:  Poets Talk about Faith.  I suppose I am the perfect reader for the book, with my interests in poetry and theology always competing for primacy. 

But even non-perfect readers will find that the book is really well done, with poets talking honestly, near as I can tell, about the ways that their faith has both sustained and disappointed them, as well as talking about how it has changed through the years.

It's one of those books that I ordered and promptly forgot about as I devoured the other books that came with the order--and then the Christmas season was fully upon us.  The other night, I needed something to soothe me into sleep, and I remembered it, and I could remember where I'd put it.  It was so good that I wanted to stay up reading, yet it did the trick of quieting my anxious mind.

I've only read two or three of the essays, but I've dipped in and out of the rest of the collection enough to know that I'll find the rest of the essays deeply interesting.
So, if you're looking for a book to enrich your Lent, a book that may take you off the beaten path of Lent, I encourage you to try this one, and to explore some of the poetry of these poets too.  And let me record a writing idea that I ma pursue later:  it would be cool to create collections of poetry to enrich liturgical seasons.  We've got plenty of devotional books of other kinds, but not as much literary work as I'd like to see.

I spent Wednesday afternoon reading T. S. Eliot's "Ash Wednesday," a poem I don't remember reading before.  It was a wonderfully enriching experience.  I had no commentary, nothing to tell me what I should believe about the poem.  I got to let the images wash over me.  I had no theologian telling me how I should use those images to transform my spiritual development.  I had no visual image beyond those that my brain created.  It was wonderful.

I'd like more of that in my life.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Saturday Snippets: Thinking about the Disciplines of Lent

--I continue to think about Lenten disciplines, what we're adding and what we're giving up.  My Lenten discipline:  to pray for those at work who are angry.

--I didn't realize how many people are angry at work until I began praying for them.

--I know that some people are giving up Facebook for Lent; I know others who go on Facebook fasts.  I love this blog post that explains why we shouldn't give up Facebook for Lent.

--I love this quote, which originally comes from Meredith Gould's Social Media Gospel:

Christ has no online presence but yours, No blog, no Facebook page but yours, Yours are the tweets through which love touches this world, Yours are the posts through which the Gospel is shared, Yours are the updates through which hope is revealed. Christ has no online presence but yours, No blog, no Facebook page but yours.
 --Other fasts might revolve around food.  This post has interesting reflections about changing our mindset about food, rather than simply giving it up:  "A kosher Lent–a fit or proper Lent–might mean giving up the practices of individualizing–in mostly negative ways–our relationship to food: Shared abundance–not private obsession in the form of, say, counting fat grams or giving up chocolate–might be the better Lenten discipline."

--Of course, if you want a more rigorous Lenten discipline with food, it's out there.  This post describes being a more mindful shopper and mentions the Whole 30 eating plan.  In short: 

The Whole30 rules:
  • No sugar, no artificial sweeteners, no honey, maple syrup, agave nectar
  • No alcohol
  • No grains — no wheat, corn, oats, rye, rice, quinoa
  • No legumes — no beans, peanuts, soy
  • No dairy
  • No white potatoes
  • No MSG, sulfites, carrageenan
  • No “paleo-fying” baked goods and treats

--Heavens to murgatroid!  I feel cleansed just reading the list. 

--But I will not be doing that, at least not this month.  One of my grad school friends is staying with us for the week-end.  We've already walked to the beach to enjoy beer at the organic brewery and the pizza that's half price Monday-Friday.  What other treats are in store?

Friday, March 7, 2014

Awareness of Ashiness

I have written before about being an ash smudger on Ash Wednesday; for example, see this post, where I said, "I smudged each forehead at the back of the church, and when we were done, I walked to the altar with my little pot of ashes.  I turned to go back to my seat and felt breathless at the sight of the whole sanctuary full of smudged foreheads."

On Wednesday, I was an ash smudger again.  I was at the front of the church where people came up and knelt at the rail or stood.  I smudged each forehead and felt this overwhelming tenderness.

This year felt different from past years.  There have been years where I've felt surrounded by wreckage.  This is not one of those years.  But I am in an Ash Wednesday frame of mind, which I wrote about in this blog post:  "I am wrestling with profound sadness this year, a sadness which is both part of the human condition (everything we love will be lost!) and unique to me (colleagues gone, teachers gone, houses and offices gone, writing projects slipped away, lonely, lost, lonely, lonely, lonely)."

A few weeks ago, I heard about a former colleague who has pancreatic cancer and isn't likely to be with us next year.  Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, I got the news that my favorite undergraduate English professor died. 

As parishioners came forward, I realized how many of us are in tenuous situations:  OK for now, but fearful of the cancer that may come back, the depression that may roar up, family members causing heartache, on and on I could go.

I realize that in many ways, my realization is part of the whole purpose of Ash Wednesday, to remind us that life is short and uncertain.  Some years, that realization is more sobering than others.  This year I felt shaken to my shoes.

Now to use that Ash Wednesday insight to move me to more gratitude.  Now to use that awareness of our impending ashiness to prompt me to work on projects.  Let me remember to tell everyone how much I love them, while they are still here to hear those words.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, March 9, 2014:

First Reading: Genesis 2:15-17; 3:1-7

Psalm: Psalm 32

Second Reading: Romans 5:12-19

Gospel: Matthew 4:1-11

This week's Gospel tells us the story of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. Notice that Jesus is human in his temptations: he is tempted by the ideas of fame, power, and immortality.  Henri Nouwen says, "There [in the desert] he was tempted with the three compulsions of the world:  to be relevant ('turn stones into loaves'), to be spectacular ('throw yourself down'), and to be powerful ('I will give you all these kingdoms')" (Show Me the Way, p. 82, excerpted from Way of the Heart).

In her book, Things Seen and Unseen, Nora Gallagher points out that Jesus will indeed accomplish these things that Satan asks him to do. Jesus will reverse these days in the desert: he will multiply bread, he will hurl himself from the cliff of his crucifixion and be caught by angels, he will be worshipped, but by humbling himself in service (page 85).

Of course, we, too are tempted. We are tempted as a church. We want to be powerful. Many of us look back to a time when the church in America was a social force, when everyone went, and not just once a week. We want to be important. We want to be the megachurch, not the small church.

Just as Jesus went to the desert as a spiritual quest, the church, too, needs a time of discernment to discover the kind of church we want to become. And we, as individual humans, need to spend some time in the wilderness as we wrestle temptations and discern our the true purpose of our lives.

Gallagher says that we face the same kinds of temptations that Jesus did: “Magical powers, helplessness, rescue, fame and power—they beckon me every day of my life. Just around the corner lies happiness; a new lover will provide lasting bliss; if I had what she has then I would be . . . They are the fantasies, the illusions, that suck out my vitality, that keep me from discovering my own rich reality. To come to terms with illusion is one of the great jobs of our lives: to discern what is fantasy and what is reality, what is dead and what is alive, what is narcotic and what is food” (page 84).

We may want to tell ourselves that Jesus could resist temptations because of his Divine side. But I would posit that Jesus' special powers of resistance were less about his supernatural side, and more about his spiritual discipline. He's in the wilderness, making a retreat to pray, when he’s tempted. He resists. Throughout the life of Jesus, we see him hard at work honing his powers through his spiritual practices.

Here's the good news. These practices are available to you, as well. Great disciples are not born, they are created. How? We turn ourselves into great disciples the same way that a doughy person transforms himself or herself into a great athlete, the same way that a creative person becomes a great artist. We show up, day after day, logging the training miles, working on our art.

In his book Living the Resurrection, Eugene H. Peterson lists the ways we form disciples:  celebrating the Eucharist, "visiting the prisoners, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, healing the sick, working for justice, loving our enemies, raising our children, doing our everyday work to the glory of God" (p. 56).  He points out the ordinariness of these activities:  "It doesn't take a great deal of training or talent to do any of it" (56). 

Soon enough, we wake up to find out that we've transformed ourselves into different people.  And perhaps, along the way, we've helped to transform our communities into something that God intended for creation.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

To Dust We Shall Return

When I was a child, I hated Ash Wednesday.  To me, the message of Ash Wednesday was that we weren’t good enough, we would never be good enough, and all too soon, we would die.

Did the Lutheran pastors of my childhood really preach that message?  Probably not.  But that was the message, I heard.  As I think about it, having a pastor smudge ash on a forehead and solemnly say, “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return” probably does seem excessively gloomy to an elementary school child.

As a grown-up, however, the message of Ash Wednesday seems increasingly relevant.  I remember one Ash Wednesday driving to services with my car windows rolled down.  As I drove past the latest development site, I smelled the burning of trees being cleared away to make room for a paved over shopping center/condo complex.  I heard the Ash Wednesday message in a different way that night.

The most poignant Ash Wednesday for me was the one where my mother-in-law lay unconscious in the ICU ward of the hospital.  I went to visit her before the service, and I saw the black cross of ash on her forehead.  I wondered if our pastor had already been by.

But then, I realized that all the patients in the ICU lay there with a black smudge on their foreheads.  I asked the nurse about it.  She told me that a priest had come through to bless everyone.  I wanted to ask her all sorts of theological questions about the implications of letting a priest smudge everyone without knowing their religious backgrounds, but I knew that she had patients to monitor, so I let it go.

My younger self would have been outraged, but my older self continues to ponder the implications of smudging crosses of ash on the foreheads of unconscious ICU patients.  The ICU is the place where I find my belief in resurrection most challenged; it seems that viruses and bacteria will inherit the kingdom of God long after they’ve killed us all off.

But after all, isn’t the ICU experience an essential element of the Ash Wednesday message?  We are here for such a short time. We try so hard to preserve what we have, thus ensuring that we will have to watch what we love flake away from us. We are dust, and we will return to dust sooner than we care to think about. As an adult, Ash Wednesday has become one of my favorite services. I need to be reminded of the importance of prioritizing, and that God's priorities may not match those that the world would tell me is important.

Ash Wednesday also reminds us that we are resurrection people.  We know that God is working to redeem creation in ways that we can't always see and don't often understand. We rinse the ashes out of our mouths with the Eucharist bread and wine. 


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Possibilities for Lent: a Photo Essay

Today we prepare for Lent, as Mardi Gras and Shrove Tuesday offer us a last chance to use up all the luxuries we will forsake for the next 40 days, plus Sundays, plus Holy Week.

Will we go to a Shrove Tuesday pancake supper?  Will we bake a festive bread?

Most of us will not have time for bread baking or pancakes.  Hopefully we can carve a bit of time to think about our Lenten disciplines. 

Perhaps we will try to harness time by a practice of prayer.

Maybe we will simply meditate.  Maybe we will reflect on the way that light shifts through the window as the sun moves across the sky.

Maybe we will walk a labyrinth.

Hopefully we will return to our desks, to write a bit more often.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Is Weariness a Lenten Discipline?

Christians around the world are gearing up for Lent.  Some of us will give something up.  Some of us will add something.  We will probably hear a lot about our Lenten disciplines in the coming days.

It feels like we just travelled through Lent a month or two again.  I can't believe it's time for Lent again.

In past years, I've made all sorts of Lenten resolutions.  If you want to know more about the possibilities, click on the "Launch Into Lent" label in the column on the right of the screen.  If you're casting about for ideas, you'll find plenty of them.

This year, I'm going to take a low-key approach.  I'll return to Henri Nouwen's Show Me the Way.  It's got two readings and a prayer for each day of Lent.  The readings are taken from his other works, but they stand alone just fine.

I'll go to our church's contemplative service, but I won't be there every week.  Some weeks, I won't even go to church, because we have a lot of guests coming through during Lent.  They are not church going guests, and it feels inhospitable to say, "Make yourself at home; we're going to church."

I hope to do an art project that's not writing here or there.  I'll keep up with my various writing projects, but that's hardly a Lenten discipline; it's just something I do.

This year, I just feel weary.  Can weariness be a Lenten discipline?

Perhaps it can lead to my Lenten discipline.  Perhaps I should make a concentrated effort to pray about my weariness.  I can pray for those who are making me weary.  I can talk to God about the situations that make me so tired I can barely pull myself together to leave the house.  I can talk to God about my tiredness that comes from being in the house.

It's certainly not a splashy Lenten discipline.  It's quiet and contemplative.  It just may work.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

A Poem for Transfiguration Sunday

Transfiguration Sunday puts me in mind of many things, the ways we long to be transfigured, the ways that life can transfigure us.  As I've gotten older, I've realized how many ways life is fragile, and that realization itself has transformed me.  I'm not going to get seethingly angry, especially about things that are out of my control.  Life is very, very short, and we are not here very long.

Those of you who read my poems, my blog posts, any of my writing at all--you recognize this theme. 

It's also interesting to me the many ways that we move through the liturgical year and the resonances that my haunt us.  This year I have a colleague who has been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and a friend who struggles with the last stage of kidney failure.  It's also the time of year that is the anniversary of a different friend's mother's death after an agonizing struggle with breast cancer that moved to the brain.

Was I thinking of that friend and her mother when I wrote the poem below?  Probably.

This poem was published in The Healing Muse. It's part of my series of poems where I imagine Jesus moving through our modern lives (going to spin class, playing putt putt or softball, helping with hurricane clean up).

Transfiguration Sunday on the Cancer Ward

He waits with them because who knows
better how disconcerting
it is to discern one’s disjointed bones
dissolving into water. He remembers
how it feels to be forsaken.
He remembers feeling life flow out of him,
only a husk of his former humanity remaining.

Here, he can’t do much.
In a world of free will, cancer cells can multiply,
bright sons of the morning who would rather reign
in hell than serve in heaven.
Here on the cancer ward, he can’t do
much, but he does what he can.

He brings ice chips and water to those annoyed
by their drought desert mouths.
He offers consolation to the woman who complains
that she can see all her bones through her translucent skin.
He offers tales of transfiguration,
and holds out the hope of resurrection.
He reminisces with those who are too far
gone to remain on the earthly plane much longer.
They trade tales of what they’ll miss most:
crisp sheets on a fresh-made bed,
long lingering meals,
birdsong in the morning,
the change in light that signals a new season,
homemade bread,
the soft rains and gentle sunsets,
a perfect bottle of wine.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Another Way to Serve the Prayer Shawl Group

I have a friend who knits and crochets--she has other friends who knit and crochet.  A few months ago, she talked about all the odds and ends of yarn that she has.  She wondered what to do with them.  I offered to take them to my church's prayer shawl group.

I was expecting a grocery bag full.  But the bag that she gave me takes up half of my car's back seat.  The prayer shawl group is in for a treat.

It's not the textured yarns that I favor.  Of course, I have trouble doing much work with those nubbly yarns with their multiple fibers per strand.

It's a collection of yarns of one color, but what a collection of colors!  There are leftovers from baby blankets and sweaters.  There's a variety of greens from a forest landscape that my friend knitted.  All sorts of treasures.

When she said she had leftovers, I was expecting a small ball here and a tiny scrap there.  But many of the yarns she gave me have most of the skein left.

I'm glad to be able to save these yarns and to give them a new purpose.  I don't have time to make the prayer shawls myself these days.  But I'm happy to be a resource in other ways.