Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, May 4, 2014:

First Reading: Acts 2:14a, 36-41

Psalm: Psalm 116:1-3, 10-17 (Psalm 116:1-4, 12-19 NRSV)

Second Reading: 1 Peter 1:17-23

Gospel: Luke 24:13-35

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

That hospitality is the often overlooked side of the Emmaus story. The travelers have walked seven miles together.  For those of you who are wondering, that might take the modern walker, walking at a fast clip, a bit over two hours; in Biblical times, with unpaved roads with poorly shod feet, I'm estimating it would take half a day. When they get back to their house, they don't say to Jesus, "Well, good luck on your journey."

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

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

Without that hospitality, those strangers never would have known their fellow traveler. We are called to model the same behavior.

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

Rebel against this trait. Look for ways to make meals special. Cook for yourself. Invite your friends and loved ones to dinner. Occasionally, invite a stranger. Each week, go to a different bakery and buy yourself some wonderful bread. Open a bottle of wine and savor a glass.

Bread and wine are relatively cheap and available. When I was a teenager living in Knoxville, Tennessee, my father went to D.C. on business, and brought back sourdough bread. I thought I had never tasted anything so wonderful, and marveled at a city where you could just buy such a creation from a bakery.

Well now, most of us do. Even in small towns, it's possible to get good bread. And it's easy to make it for yourself, if you want to restore even more sanity to your schedule. And while you make that bread, you can marvel at the miracle of yeast, and think again about Jesus' call for us to be the leaven (the yeast) in the loaf.

Jesus calls us to a Eucharistic life, which requires a major readjustment of our mindset around the issues of food, drink, time, and hospitality. Consider the Capitalist/Consumerist model that our culture offers us, and the invitation from Jesus looks even more attractive.

So, before the day gets later, go and buy some bread. Think about the many ways that bread (and other grains) sustain most of us throughout the world. Drink some wine and think about the miracle of fermentation; ponder the reality that in many parts of the world, people drink fermented beverages because the water supply is tainted, but fermentation provides some protection.

You are the leaven in the loaf, the yeast that turns grape juice into the miracle of wine--how can you make that manifest in the world today?

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Retreat Highlights in a Spiritual Hue

A week ago, I was getting ready to head off to my retreat:  the Create in Me retreat that I've attended each year since 2002 (gulp!  is it really 2014 already?  And almost May?  double gulp!).  Every year, I return refreshed and renewed.  This year is no different.
Let me record some of the spiritual highlights of the past week.  For a general overview, see this blog post on my creativity blog.

--I saw friends along the way, friends who ministered to me in ways they may not have even realized.  For one thing, they took time out of their busy lives to see me.  For another, we had time to listen and connect.  One of my friends said, "It's been a tough year for you.  I'm surprised you're upright."  That care and concern--and just the acknowledgement of my sorrows--it's amazing what a difference that can make.

--We had great worship, as we always do.  I feel lucky to be part of a church where I can bring some of these ideas back.

--We had amazing Bible study led by a seminary professor.  The study was less Bible and more theological musing about recent findings about the universe and what those astronomy lessons mean for our theological thoughts on creation and redemption.  I will be writing more about this later, but for here, let me just say how progressive it was, how intellectual, what a great demonstration of how faith and intellect can inform each other and enrich each other.

--The professor who led our Bible study is an amateur astronomer who takes pictures of galaxies and all sorts of stellar beauty.  The Bible study had such wonderful slides.

--He also brought his telescope, and we were able to see the vastness of the universe for ourselves.  By day, we were surrounded by all sorts of beautiful nature, including glorious dogwoods.  How wonderful to be reminded of the Creator at every turn.

----I did stretching every morning, a modified yoga class--wonderful.  Again, it was good to be reminded of this gift of a body that's in relatively good health.  I thought about the first time I did a stretching class at the retreat and how that experience led me to the Wellness Center where I'm still a member.  I thought about how much more limber I've become.  I took comfort from remembering that small movements can lead to big changes.

--Likewise, it was good to remember that there are so many ways to create, many of which take just a smidge of time.  It was good to play with cloth and then to give that cloth away.  It was good to make things.  It was good to enjoy the sight of so many of us making things.

--Since we're so many of us Lutherans and many of us went to camp for many years, we were inclined to sing at the least prompting.  And then, people would harmonize--what a treat!

--We had parents bring their children this year, so we had several children at the retreat, which was fun too.

--It was good to be with like-minded people along the way, people who don't need extensive explanations for why we're doing what we do.  I often forget how tiring it is to be with people who only get part of the picture.

--And it's good to remember that I often feel alone and lonely and like no one understands--but that's often a false emotion.  My brain, especially its emotional core, is not always my friend.

--Again and again, we came back to the basic Easter message of hope and resurrection and the firm belief that death will not have the final word.  In this Lent (year?) of many cancers, it's a message I needed to have repeated.

--Now, as I head back to "normal" life, it's good to have had some perspective restored.  I so often get bogged down in negativity about stuff that won't really matter the following week.  I think it's time to return to the spiritual practice of keeping a gratitude journal.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Down from the Mountain

Today I return down from the mountain, away from my time of retreat.  Hopefully, I'll be feeling renewed and refreshed. 

I was feeling really beat up, for all sorts of reasons, before I left.  This Create in Me retreat at Lutheridge could not have come at a better time.

I expect to post more about the retreat as the week continues.  But for now, here's some inspiration to begin our work week:

“Laundry, liturgy and women's work all serve to ground us in the world, and they need not grind us down. Our daily tasks, whether we perceive them as drudgery or essential, life-supporting work, do not define who we are as women or as human beings.”

― Kathleen Norris, The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy and "Women's Work"

“Prayer is not asking for what you think you want, but asking to be changed in ways you can't imagine.”

― Kathleen Norris

“If grace is so wonderful, why do we have such difficulty recognizing and accepting it? Maybe it's because grace is not gentle or made-to-order. It often comes disguised as loss, or failure, or unwelcome change.”

― Kathleen Norris

Friday, April 25, 2014

Poetry Friday: Muscle Memory and Brain Power

Years ago, I was pleased to have a poem appear in Aethlon: The Journal of Sport Literature. And more recently, the poem was chosen to be part of the anthology that the editors put together periodically; I got my contributor's copy last week.

It's interesting to revisit it. I don't usually write in form, but for this poem, I experimented with the villanelle. I'm calling it a success.

And in terms of content, it's a poem I still like, even though I wrote it years ago.  I think it has something to say about spiritual growth too, althought it's not using overt language to do it.
So, for your reading pleasure, here's the poem:

One Fast, One Slow

The muscles remember what the mind forgets.
The brain replays every decision, each move.
The muscles waste no time on useless regrets.

They keep an even speed, moving in the groove.
They do not lose a beat, always keeping the pace.
The muscles know only one way towards what they have to prove.

With the mind mired in time, the muscles move through space.
The body leaves the mind alone to second guessing.
The mind, unlike the body, knows there’s more than just one race.

The mind spends time wondering what is missing,
That abandoned job, the trip we never took,
The other people we could have been kissing.

The mind knows any decision is worth a second look,
Even choices made years ago.
The brain decides there’s no such thing as a closed book.

The muscles focus on their task, to strengthen and to grow,
The mind might say it does the same,
Two processes, one fast, one slow.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

What Happens at a Creativity Retreat?

You may wonder what happens at a creativity retreat. I thought I'd re-run this photo essay from 2010.  If this post whets your appetite, it's not too late; the retreat begins this evening at Lutheridge in Arden, NC.

As you might expect, we do a variety of arts and crafts (if you're the type of person who draws a distinction). Here are some batik pieces drying on a line. I like the prayer flag image that we've unconsciously evoked.

We did a variety of interesting worship services. Where else can you worship God with a parachute?

Wind chime creating was one of the most popular activities.

I particularly liked the chair weaving. What do you do when the bottom falls out? Make a new chair and one that's more beautiful.

We did a variety of playful activities. Unfortunately, I didn't have the camera with me when we did tethered balloon rides. But here's some hula hoop play.

We had a talent show at the end. Here are people contra dancing to our impromptu bluegrass band.

We did a balloon meditation (go here to read about how we did it on a smaller scale at a planning meeting).

At the end, we did a Communion sending service at the braided labyrinth. I like that I've captured the stained glass window on the far wall, and the pottery and wood baptismal font in the front.

Plan now for next year! The retreat will be the week-end after Easter--you should come.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The lessons for Sunday, April 27, 2014:

Acts 4:32-35

Psalm 133

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

1 John 1:1—2:2

John 20:19-31

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Our Work; Small Audience

I think we often want our art, our worship services, our work that we do for pay, to reach large audiences.

But what if we're more effective when our efforts only reach one or two?

How would our work change if we thought of it as being a deep conversation between two friends who sit in a garden?

Could that level of intimacy transform the work?

(I took these pictures at the Mepkin Abbey gardens that are near the gift shop; I took them when I was there in November 2009)

Monday, April 21, 2014

An Easter Baptism and Other Ways to Celebrate

Yesterday at our family service, we had a baptism.  If we had a video of the baptism, you'd wonder if we had staged it.  But we didn't.

The pastor said the first part of the baptism liturgy, about God making us God's own.  The pastor paused for a breath.  The baby clapped.

As the parents made their promises, the baby reached for the baptismal font.  When I handed the child's father the lit baptismal candle, the baby reached for it.

It made us all smile and laugh.  It was a great way to celebrate Easter.

We had a potluck breakfast.  In the past, we've had a cooked breakfast, but this year, the primary cooks are elsewhere.  Understandably, no one volunteered to cook in their absence.

I suggested the potluck approach, and it worked well.  We had some bread that was hearty, along with a variety of sweets.  We had yogurt parfaits and fruit, for healthy choices.  We even had some dyed eggs. 

People seemed relaxed, and the clean up was much more minimal than with the more formal breakfast.  It could be a rolling breakfast, which works well for the Easter Sunday we have, with the first service at 6:45 a.m. and the last one not over until after 1.  Food was always available, as was a less high energy space.

With the late service, we had lots of small children noise:  lots of laughing, the occasional crying, random whoops.  I liked it.  I like being part of a church that can incorporate those unexpected additions.  I don't want parents to feel like they have to shush their children or hustle them out of the church.

All in all, it felt like a good day--as Easter should be.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Saying Something New About Easter

I'm one of those cradle Christians; I've been going to church much of my whole life, and even when I wasn't attending faithfully, I'd still be in church for the high holy days, since I was usually visiting family members who went to church and wanted us all to go.  I've been hearing variations of the Easter story on both a weekly basis and a high holy day basis for 48 years now.

I'm always interested in how we make the story new.  Here are some snippets I've found this week.

From this post:

"As for myself, I cannot escape these lines lately:

I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
Not enough to explode my soul or disturb my sleep,

but just enough to equal a cup of warm milk
or a snooze in the sunshine.

I don’t want enough of God to make me love a black man
or pick beets with a migrant.

I want ecstasy, not transformation.

I want warmth of the womb, not a new birth.

I want a pound of the Eternal in a paper sack.

I would like to buy $3 worth of God, please.
Wilbur Rees
"I think it is asking for $3 worth of God to view Easter as assurance of heavenly retirement. Resurrection means more, is more, does more. What does the priceless nature of Forgiveness standing near us, still dusty from the grave, calling us by name- what does that mean for us today? For how we treat others? For how we act in the world? For what we think of our own worth?"

From this post:

“Christ is not alive now because he rose from the dead two thousand years ago,“ writes poet Christian Wiman. “He rose from the dead two thousand years ago because he is alive right now.”

"This past weekend a friend related that, in a recent speech, the writer Anne Lamott offered this to-the-point, memorable one-liner: 'It’s not take and figure it out, it’s take and eat.' Similarly, the Church uses the phrase 'Easter Proclamation,' not 'Easter Explanation.'”

"[Richard] Lischer says that 'the purpose of the Gospels was never to provide an exhaustive history but to make Polaroids of Jesus the church could hold up in a hospital, prison, ghetto, or cemetery, so that we would know him when we meet him.'”

“In the last analysis, you cannot pontificate but only point. A Christian [and a preacher?] is one who points at Christ and says, ‘I can’t prove a thing, but there’s something about his eyes and his voice. There’s something about the way he carries his head, his hands. The way he carries his cross. The way he carries me.’” Frederick Buechner

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Lent of Many Cancers

Our Good Friday service includes a series of meditations on the 7 last words of Christ.  Our pastor asks for volunteers from the creative writers and thinkers at our church.  I volunteered for "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

At the time, I thought I'd talk about the times that we feel abandoned, that if even people like Jesus and Mother Theresa felt abandoned, that we shouldn't let those feelings of abandonment unsettle us too much.

Then I experienced the Lent of many cancers--none of them mine, let me hasten to add.  But all of them afflicting people who are my age or slightly older.  I know that at age 48 I'm officially at midlife, perhaps slightly beyond the middle of midlife.  But still, it's disconcerting when so many people in such a short period of time come back from a check up with a cancer diagnosis.

I'm sure that God hasn't felt abandoned by me during these past 6 weeks.  I've prayed more than I've ever prayed before.

Have I felt abandoned?  No.  But I have felt baffled.  Who creates such a system, where cells can go haywire in such a way?

I've written before about a universe rooted in free will and how it means we will face mistakes, since we're not marionettes.  I've read the theories about evolution and how some dead ends, like cancer cells, lead to other types of evolution too.  But still, I'm unconvinced that God has done the best job possible with creation.

I recognize the hubris in saying this kind of statement.  The world is full of much that I don't understand or fully appreciate.

The Good Friday narrative that leads to our Easter joy makes no sense to me either.  The Bible is full of these kinds of narratives where good is fashioned out of ashes.  I do have faith in the Easter message, that death does not have the final answer.

So, I will celebrate Easter tomorrow, even as I still feel marked by the ashes of Ash Wednesday.  I will move through the coming weeks trusting that God has a bigger vision than I can understand.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Ancient-Future Maundy Thursday

Our church has often done non-traditional services on Maundy Thursday.  Some years we've had a group of teens who take over; some years we've done something in a multimedia vein.

Last night, we went straight back to the roots of the Church.  We gathered for an evening meal.  We sat around one long table, to which we added two tables as more people showed up:  a cross shape!

When we began, I felt a bit fretful.  We had one pot of soup, a bag or two of dinner rolls, and two bowls of salad.  And people kept coming and coming.

It was supposed to be a potluck, but I'm guessing that many people shared my reasoning:  most people cook for 12, so if I don't bring anything, it won't matter.

Happily, a few people came late, and they came with more soup and salad.  As always, we had leftovers. 

My pastor and I had set up a simple art project.  We had 7 canvases and markers on several tables.  I asked people to write or draw the names of people, places, and things that they loved and will miss when they're no longer on Earth.  At first people seemed hesitant, but then, many of them got into the spirit of it.

We gathered around the table and ate our supper.  As supper drew to a close we did the Faith 5:  we heard the Maundy Thursday text, we talked about our highs and lows, we looked for ways the Bible reading tied into our highs and lows, we prayed, and then we blessed each other.

I rearranged the canvases into the shape of a cross, and the plan had been to paint a heart over the top of people's writing.  I had in mind an outline of a heart.  But I didn't count on the two elementary-aged girls who wanted to help.  I gave them the paint and the brushes and let them take over after I drew the outline of a heart.

They painted exuberantly.  Even as we dimmed the lights to have the Communion part of the evening, they kept painting.  I decided to let them, since their moms seemed OK with it.

Our pastor had made individual breads so that we could do intinction.  Each person communed the person beside them.  And then our pastor blessed us, and we were done.

The painters were done too.  Our pastor said, "It's what the Holy Spirit would look like if the Holy Spirit was made of red paint."  I felt a bit distressed by the tornado shape of the heart, but that metaphor for the Holy Spirit works too.

Everyone pitched in to clean up and to put the room back into its Fellowship Hall set up.  People seemed reluctant to leave.  It was a wonderful night, that ancient maundatum ("love each other") put into flesh.

I'd like to find a way to do it more often . . .

Thursday, April 17, 2014

A Poem for Your Maundy Thursday

Today is Maundy Thursday.  Will your church wash feet today/tonight?  Strip the altar?  Have a Seder meal?

Will your church have a service at all?  How many people will come?

I have always loved these special services, this time out of time.  One of my favorite Maundy Thursday memories happened at a different church.  Since I had to teach at night, I organized a midday happening that involved lunch.  I had thought about a Seder meal, but that became too complicated.  I made a huge pot of lentils and served it with feta cheese, pita breads, and olives, foods that Jesus and his followers would have eaten every day.

A preschool had taken up every scrap of space in the classroom/kitchen/fellowship hall of the church, so we assembled in the back of the sanctuary.  We ate and read the Maundy Thursday texts and everyone exclaimed about how much they loved the lunch.

A different year, I was stuck in the airport as I travelled back from visiting my grandmother. As I observed the airport and thought about the ancient holiday and my home church, a poem practically wrote itself.

 So, for a different spin on Maundy Thursday, here's the poem.  It was published in Florida English.

Maundy Thursday at Hartsfield

 We long for Celestial food, or at least to leave our earthbound
selves behind, but it is not to be. The airport shuts
down as late thunderstorms sweep across the south.
I resign myself to spending Maundy Thursday in the airport.

One of a minority who even knows the meaning of Maundy,
I roam restlessly. I cannot even approximate
a Last Supper—the only food to be had is fast
and disgusting. I think of that distant
Passover, the Last Supper that transformed
us into a Eucharistic people.

A distant outpost of a vast empire, teeming
with a variety of humans, all hurrying
and keeping our heads down: Jerusalem or the modern
airport? I watch my fellow humans, notice
the hunger in their faces, their haunted feet,
so in need of love and water.

I watch Spring Breakers and athletes and moms
and gnarled elders and unattached children, all racing
through their earthly days, hurtling through time,
crossing continents, without any rituals to ground
them. I think of Christ’s radical
agenda: homelessness, care, and listening,
ignoring rules that made no sense,
making scarce resources stretch,
food eaten on the run, a community hunted
by their own and by the alien government.
I miss my own church, by now gathered in a dark
sanctuary, participating in ancient rituals
we don’t fully understand, looking for that thin
place between the sacred and the every day.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, April 20, 2014:

First Reading: Acts 10:34-43

First Reading (Alt.): Jeremiah 31:1-6

Psalm: Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24

Second Reading: Colossians 3:1-4

Second Reading (Alt.): Acts 10:34-43

Gospel: Matthew 28:1-10

Gospel (Alt.): John 20:1-18

Finally we move through Holy Week to Easter Sunday. At last, our Lenten pilgrimage draws to a close.

But perhaps you still linger back at Ash Wednesday. Perhaps you find the Good Friday texts more evocative than the Easter texts. It's interesting how our emotional lives aren't always in sync with the liturgical seasons or the Lectionary.

This year might be particularly tough with so many of us still out of work, or underemployed.  Maybe you still have your job and you're desperately afraid of losing it.  Maybe you find yourself thinking about how nice it would be to be RIFed. This year might be the year that someone we love faces a tough medical diagnosis or recovery. Maybe you've suffered some catastrophic loss that has stunned you to your core.  The world offers so many impediments to our joy.

The stories we hear during Holy Week remind us of how to move from lives that have been reduced to ash back to lives full of resurrection. This year, the Maundy Thursday story speaks to me, perhaps because I've been reading theology that talks about the practices of Christianity.

 In An Altar in the World: A Geography of Faith, Barbara Brown Taylor observes, as many theologians have, that the teachings of Jesus revolve around the things we do, not the things we believe. The Apostle's Creed and the Nicene Creed came much later in Christianity. Long before we had creeds, we had Jesus saying, "Do this. Now do this. Now do this." We are to feed the hungry, care for the sick, protect the widows and orphans. Taylor comments on the Last Supper: "With all the conceptual truths in the universe at his disposal, he did not give something to think about together when he was gone. Instead, he gave them concrete things to do--specific ways of being together in their bodies--that would go on teaching them what they needed to know when he was no longer around to teach them himself" (43). We have "embodied sacraments of bread, wine, water, and feet" (44).

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

We are called to break bread together, to drink wine together. We are called to invite the outcast to supper with us. We are called to care for each other's bodies--not to sexualize them or mock them or brutalize them, but to wash them tenderly. Thus fortified, we are called to announce that the Kingdom of God is breaking out among us in the world in which we live, and we are called to demand justice for the oppressed.

Of course, Holy Week reminds us of the risk. Jesus was crucified--that was a capital punishment reserved for those who were considered a threat to the state, people who would foment rebellion, for example. The world does not often respond kindly to the call for social justice.

But Easter promises us that our efforts will not be in vain. N. T. Wright's book, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, is a great Easter text (I've underlined something on almost every page), and Wright says forcefully, " . . . what you do in the Lord is not in vain. You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that's about to roll over a cliff" (208). We may not understand how God will transform the world. We may not be able to believe that bleakness will be defeated. But Easter shows us God's promise that death is not the final answer.

Spring reminds us that nature commits to resurrection. Easter reminds us of God's promise of resurrection. Now is the time for us to rekindle our resurrection selves.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Palm and the Passion

Palm Sunday took me to this picture that I took at Mepkin Abbey:

It made me think about how the palms can obscure Jesus and his mission:

And of course, from there I wondered about our own lives.  What keeps us from realizing our lives' true purposes?  Is it temporary, like palm branches?  Or something more difficult, like a slab of marble?

Maybe we just need to turn around, to get a different perspective, to get a peek behind the palms.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Palm Sunday, Passover, and Lunar Eclipses

Some random thoughts as we leave Palm Sunday and head towards Passover and Holy Week.  All this, and a lunar eclipse!

--Yesterday our church did Walter Wangerin's The Cry of the Whole Congregation.  I thought about how much more I like it than any other approach to Palm/Passion Sunday that I've seen.  I thought about how many churches I've been to in my life for Palm Sunday.  I tried not to realize how old I am.

--I confess that I prefer the very old-fashioned way of expecting Palm Sunday to be Palm Sunday, and if people can't make it back for Maundy Thursday or Good Friday, oh well.

--But at least the Wangerin work is more participatory.  I really hate hearing one person read a lengthy Gospel.

--Passover starts tonight.  I think of the Seder meals of my past, of the ways that Christians have tried to understand the Jewishness of Jesus and the shared roots of Christianity and Judaism.

--I know that some people think that Christians celebrating a Seder is insulting to us all.  I disagree.  Well, I disagree if that Seder put on by Christians is done in a spirit of ecumenism.  And I've been invited to a Seder or two and been happy to be part of the Jewish family for the night.

--For wonderful insight into the Exodus story, see this episode of the NPR show On Being.  For a great resource that's very ecumenical yet rooted in Judaism, I highly recommend Marge Piercy's Pesach for the Rest of Us.  Lots of insight into the traditions and lots of recipes:  I think I'll bring it with me to work today.

--There's a lunar eclipse in the overnight hours.  I'll likely be up anyway between 3 and 5 a.m. in the Eastern time zone, so I'll keep an eye on it.  I'm always amazed at how much time a lunar eclipse takes.

--And it's tax day tomorrow.  I got my taxes submitted last week-end, so it's not a big day for me.  But the poet part of me wants to create a poem that weaves all of these things together.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

On the Margins

A week ago, I had a strange experience, one I've continued to think about.  I had people over for a backyard cook-out.  One of them had to leave earlier than the rest, so I walked her out front to her car.

A man was staggering down the sidewalk.  My friend and I paused.  I asked, "Are you O.K.?"

From a distance, I had thought he was an elderly man, especially given the stoop and the shuffle.  Up close, I realized he was younger with muscles and tattoos. 

He said, "I really need a ride to the shelter.  I need some water."

I said, "Let me get my friend settled, and I'll get you some water."

I walked my friend to the car and made sure she was good to go.  I went back inside, poked my head out the back, and said to my spouse, "Could you come out front to help me?"  I gave what I hoped was a piercing look.  I grabbed two bottles of water and the cordless phone, and I went back to the front.

I gave the guy the waters, and I said, "Can I call someone for you?"  He gave me the phone number of the shelter.  My spouse came outside and chatted with the guy.

I called the shelter, gave them the details, and they said, "Someone will call you back."  I thought, how strange.  Not:  we'll send someone over to pick up this resident.

We told the guy that someone was coming, and that he was welcome to sit under the shade of our tree.  I asked if he needed food.  He said, "I just ate.  I need a ride."

I said, "Your ride is coming.  I have to get back inside."

I told my friends what had happened, and we discussed what I had done and what I should have done.  One friend commended me for giving him water; she said, "You did all you could do."

Well, no, not really.  I could have given him a ride.  Would I have given him a ride if he was female, and thus, less threatening?  Would I have given him a ride if I still had an old car so that I didn't mind the presence/smell of a homeless guy?

I was into a downward spiral of middle-class guilt when the phone call came.  It was a life skills coach who had been working with the guy.  He said, "We need you NOT to give this guy a ride.  This is his M.O.  He expects everyone to drop what they're doing to tend to his needs, and he needs to learn to plan ahead."

We had a brief talk wherein I learned that the guy has some violent tendencies, especially when people don't help him.  I asked what I should do, and the man on the phone advised me to let him sit until he wandered away.  I felt strange about that, but I did, even though the man at one point stretched out on the sidewalk, and I wondered if I should call an ambulance.

But then, he got up and walked away.

I thought about Jesus and wondered, as I often do, what Jesus would have advised me to do.  I could have invited the man to my backyard cook-out.  I could have given him a ride.  I could have done what I did, so that hopefully he'll learn better life skills.

As in Christ's time, we live in a place and time where there aren't many resources.  There's not a neighborhood detox center where the man can go to pull himself together.  We have no affordable housing in South Florida.  There are very few employers who would be willing to tolerate all the difficult behaviors while offering a shot at redemption.

I gave the man a rest under a tree and some water.  It's much more than some would do, but so little, considering all the needs that the man has.  And this man has some social service workers who are trying to help him, but despite these efforts, he's still in need of all sorts of care.

A week later, I'm still thinking about all of these issues.  I'm no closer to any answers.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

BOLD Justice Update

I just found out that the Broward County Commission passed the ordinance that our multi-church justice group wanted them to pass.  The ordinance will require companies of a certain size to hire local workers, instead of coming here to do work and bringing their own workforce with them.

It certainly won't solve everything, but perhaps several hundred out-of-work people will get jobs.  Perhaps more.

I've downscaled my social justice expectations and requirements.  Once I wanted to be assured of grand, sweeping changes before I got involved.  I was brought up just after the gains of the Civil Rights Movement, after all.  I wanted us all to be Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King.

It wasn't until much later that I realized that those sweeping changes were started with small, halting steps.  I suspect that most changes that lead the world to a more socially just place begin with tiny steps stepped by people who aren't entirely sure what they're doing or where they're going.

It's the same way with my Reading Pal.  Last year at our BOLD Justice event where we lobbied for a change in 3rd grade reading programs, one public school administration person said, "If you really want to make a difference, why don't each of you come to our schools to read to at-risk children?"

My spouse and I talked about that on the way home.  With 1,000 - 2,000 people coming to our yearly rally, that would be a lot of volunteers.

And I remembered that conversation when I heard about the Reading Pals program; I signed up.

Have I made a difference?  It's hard to say.  I want to believe that I have, but maybe those children would have improved without us.

Honestly, it doesn't matter.  I've said it before, and I'll say it again:  we're like the medieval people who built cathedrals.  We do our part, knowing that it won't be completed in our lifetime.

It's an old theological thought, found across religious traditions.  We don't have to complete the work, but we do have to do the work.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Elementary Lessons in Gratitude

Here's how we know that I'm a new volunteer at the elementary school where I'm a Reading Pal.  Yesterday I got a phone call to invite me to a volunteer appreciation breakfast next week--and I was thrilled.

I do feel undeserving of a breakfast.  I show up once a week, and I try to help one, single first grader to improve his reading skills.  How do we do this?

We have a book, a different one each week, and I encourage him to read to me.  I sing his praises while he's reading.  When he gets tired of being the one doing the reading, I read to him.  And then we color while we discuss words and the book we've been reading.

The coloring is not part of the official program.  I've brought in blank paper, so hopefully, I'm encouraging creativity.  I do fear that my Reading Pal sees the coloring as a reward for the work he doesn't enjoy much, the reading. 

He has improved.  Will he continue to improve when we're no longer reading together?  I have no idea.

I'm hoping that our time together gives him pleasant memories of reading, and that he'll not be as opposed to reading as he would have been if he hadn't been part of the program.  But I really have no idea if it will work that way.

As I said, I come in one day a week for just one hour.  There are plenty of volunteers who do far more than I do.  They deserve a breakfast.

Still, I'll go, even though I don't do as much as I wish that I could.

I'm sure that my sense of happiness yesterday also came from being amazed that the school is saying thank you.  My regular work life doesn't have much in the way of please and thank you these days.  My grown up school seems to have forgotten the basic lessons that so many of us learned long ago in our elementary school days.

I try to remember to thank my faculty for the great work that they're doing.  I hope they don't feel that I never say please or thank you.  Every week I resolve to say those words more.

Happily, my volunteer site hasn't forgotten those basic lessons of please and thank you.  And so I will go and be appreciated.

I think of this issue of saying please and thank you when it comes to church too.  Do we say please and thank you enough as a church?

And there's the issue of volunteers.  So many churches run their essential services with a system of volunteers--and it's often a very small band of volunteers.  How can we show them more appreciation?  How can we keep them from burning out?

Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Creche and the Creative Process

When I went to the Creche festival at Mepkin Abbey for the first time, I was struck by how many of the creches were made from materials that weren't traditional:  leaves, for example.  Alas, I didn't have a camera with me when I went, but the experience has inspired me to this day.

What materials from every day life can we use in our art?  I have a vision of a crèche made of thread spools and buttons.

With something as traditional as a crèche, can we use the scene in startling ways, so that we see the scene anew? 

Is that important?

The above crèche is in the Mepkin Abbey gardens near the gift shop.  The other crèche scenes were actual items for sale in the gift shop when I was there in February of 2013.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, April 13, 2014:

First Reading: Isaiah 50:4-9a

Psalm: Psalm 31:9-16

Second Reading: Philippians 2:5-11

Gospel: Matthew 26:14--27:66

Gospel (Alt.): Matthew 27:11-54

The verses above don't include the readings that are often read at the beginning of the service, the Palm Sunday story. Those of you who have been going to church for awhile may have noticed that Palm Sunday sometimes stretches for a longer time than Easter Sunday. There's so much we cover these days. We start with the Palm Sunday story--some churches actually have their congregants start out seated, then they rise and march around the church, either inside or outside, and then they sit down again. And then, when they get to the readings, they hear the whole story of the Passion. We get Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday all in one Sunday.

Some years this approach irritates me.  I want to dwell in the jubilation of Palm Sunday without launching immediately into the Passion narrative, the pain and crucifixion.  The world will destroy us all too soon.  Can't we stay with the triumphant procession just a wee bit longer?

But so far, I've had an Ash Wednesday kind of year.  Each week brings reminders of that Ash Wednesday message that we are dust and to dust we shall return--and very quickly, much too quickly.

A Sunday which contains both the Palm Sunday narrative and the Passion narrative seems honest to me this year.  The crowd who loves you one Sunday will have turned against you by the following Thursday.  The crowd who acclaims you one month will be denying you and demanding your death the following month.  And even if we can avoid this kind of public humiliations, there are all the betrayals by our friends, loved ones, and by our very bodies.

What do we do with this knowledge?

The corridor between Palm Sunday and Easter instructs us in what to do.  We can watch out for each other.  We can find like-minded humans and stay together in solidarity.  We can make meals and take time to eat together. 

We can go even deeper into our care for each other, and on Maundy Thursday, we get a glimpse of that kind of care.  Some churches will read the Maundy Thursday text of the woman anointing Christ's feet with oil.  Some churches will read the Maundy Thursday text that shows Jesus washing the feet of the disciples.

Good Friday reminds us that we can do all these things, and still we may have to stand by helplessly as those whom we love are ravaged.  Or we may find that we are ravaged.

Happily, we have Easter to remind us that we are not struggling in vain.  Easter shows us that God can take the most dire ugliness and transform it into redemption.

Perhaps this is one of those Lenten seasons where you find yourself surrounded by all sorts of ugliness:  lay offs at work, cancers of all kinds, death of dear ones, the list could go on and on.  The Palm Sunday/Passion Week trajectory reminds us that we worship a God who has experienced this truth of the human condition first hand.

But we also worship a God who has been working through time and outside of time to transform this human condition.  We don't always see it, but Easter assures us that the process is in place and that resurrection will break through, even in the most unlikely circumstances.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Giving Up Church Services for Lent

Since Ash Wednesday, I've been to exactly one worship service at church.  My spouse joked, "You've given up church for Lent."

It's been a very strange Lent, one I couldn't have anticipated.  My mood has been appropriate to the season, this long wandering in the desert.

One reason I haven't been to church is that I spent one week-end taking a quick, unexpected trip to my best friend and former housemate who just found out that she has esophageal cancer.  I offered to fly up, just for a short time, even just for the afternoon.  She suggested I come up before her chemo started, which was March 24.  I was on my way the following Saturday.

One week-end my sister and nephew were visiting.  And this week-end, although I intended to go to contemplative service on Saturday, I was still deep into my nap when it would have been time to get ready to go.

I haven't left all spiritual practices behind.  I've prayed more this Lenten season than I ever have before.  I know so many people who need prayers.  Some days, it seems I have prayed without ceasing.  I've done some social justice actions.

I went to a concert Saturday which felt like a worship service.  We heard pieces from Mozart's Requiem Mass in D Minor along with some spirituals.  We ended with the reminder that God walks with us.  I felt cleansed when I left the concert hall, the way I sometimes do when I leave a worship service.  But I did wish we could have had a Eucharist of some kind.

That's the part of worship that's hard to duplicate, isn't it?  We can live a sacramental life, noticing the evidence of God's grace in our physical surroundings, but God does call us to live in community.

My truancy from worship will soon be corrected.  There's the Palm Sunday to Easter corridor, with all of its services, which I will attend.  I will then go to Create in Me, where I will be part of several services in one long week-end.  April will be different.

Saturday, April 5, 2014


In this ongoing Ash Wednesday season, I got sad, but not really unexpected, news yesterday.  My colleague who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer 2 months ago died yesterday.

I wrote a tribute to her in this post on my creativity blog.  I am trying to be thankful for her life.  I am trying NOT to let sadness swamp me.

I had been deliberating about which church service to attend this week-end.  I think I'll go to the contemplative service tonight at 5:05; then I'll go to hear my spouse sing with the Broward Chorale.  They're performing parts of a Requiem Mass, Mozart's I think.  It feels very appropriate.

We won't always have a contemplative service, since we're only doing it for Lent.  I'm glad to have that option today.  While I'll miss my church friends who go to the other services, I don't know that I can discuss my highs and lows with the Worship Together service.  I need a very quiet service, unlike the later service tomorrow.  I thought about going to the 8:30 service, but I yearn for the Compline aspects of the contemplative service.  I want that promise of protection against all the darknesses that gather and threaten.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Nehemiah Action #7

Our church is a member of BOLD Justice, which stands for Broward Organized Leaders Doing Justice; it's a group primarily composed of churches.  Once we had some synagogues too, but they weren't part of this year's action.

Each year, the group has listening sessions with the smaller groups of members and chooses 2-3 justice based issues to work on.  One year it was dental care for the uninsured/poor, for example, and affordable housing is an issue which seems intractable, and thus, we return to it again and again.

This year we addressed the issue of youth crime of the non-serious sort and giving priority to members of the country in hiring for companies of a certain size which do business in our county.  We wanted children who commit non-serious crime (petty theft, for example) to have a chance at a punishment that wouldn't leave them with a criminal record.  I suspect that's already happening, but it's good for officials to know that we're paying attention to the statistics.  We've been working on the jobs issue for several years now, and we're close to having an ordinance passed by our county commissioners.

In some ways, these steps can seem so very small.  We might wonder why we bother.  But if we change the world for the better, even on a scale of just for a hundred people or so, well, that's something.

Last night we met at a Catholic church that was the site of the first Nehemiah action I attended.  Some years we've met in a civic space, but I prefer a church--but there are very few churches in the county which can hold us all.  It was wonderful last night singing "This Little Light of Mine" in  a huge group. I don't get a chance to sing with 1800 people very often.

The Nehemiah action is the culmination of a year of work.  We bring members together with county officials.  Some of those members are people like me, people who show up for the action and not much else.  I'm grateful for the members who do the heavier work, the listening groups, the research groups, the groups that do the initial reaching out to officials.

It's been a grim time period of my life, grim in so many ways, with friends who are having health crises and unexpected deaths and bad news at work.  I like having this kind of experience, something that reminds me of the power of a group gathered together to affect change.  I needed that experience last night.

And hopefully, we're making our county a better place.  We're speaking up for those who have no voices.  We're praying and singing together.  We're articulating a resurrection vision. 

I have to believe that our Nehemiah actions make a difference.  I have to believe that God looks upon us and smiles.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

The Same Labyrinth Twice?

Sometimes we might feel like we're walking in a maze--we may worry that we'll be lost in the thickets and brambles forever.

But we must have faith that we're not in a maze but a labyrinth.  The way may not always be clear, but if we put one foot in front of the other, step by step, we'll make our way.

And then, we'll reach the middle.  We can rest.  We can say a prayer of thanks.


And then it's time to make our way out again.  The path may seem familiar.  Indeed, it is. 

The old saying has it that we can never step in the same river twice.  Can we walk through the same labyrinth twice?

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, April 6, 2014
First Reading: Ezekiel 37:1-14
Psalm: Psalm 130
Second Reading: Romans 8:6-11
Gospel: John 11:1-45

What a strange picture of Jesus in this Gospel.  Remember the Jesus of several miracles ago?  The one who instructed people to go and tell no one?

Here we see a Jesus who seems overly aware of the impact of his actions.  It's as if we're seeing a man who is aware of his legacy and how he'll be seen--a man who is trying to control the story.  And of course, we see foreshadowing in this story, foreshadowing of the death and resurrection of Christ, which we'll be celebrating in two weeks.

Notice that Jesus waits until Lazarus is good and dead before he appears to comfort the sisters and perform a miracle.  It's as if he wants no dispute about the miracle.  Unlike the past few miracles when Jesus raised people who had only been dead for a few hours, here he waits 4 days.  There's no doubt about what he's done once he's raised Lazarus from the dead.  We can't easily imagine that Lazarus has been faking his death for 4 days.  Even if Lazarus wanted to help Jesus fake a miracle and put on a good show, it's hard to imagine that he'd willingly submit to being sealed in a tomb for 4 days.

As we watch the world around us gear up for Easter, we'll see a certain number of Jesus detractors.  We'll see people who want to explain away the resurrection.  The liturgical calendar gives us this story of Lazarus to return us to one of the main themes of our religion--we believe in (and are called to practice) resurrection.

And why is the idea of resurrection so hard in our fallen world?  Do we not know enough people who have turned their lives around?  Think of all the people who have risen again out of the ashes of drug addiction, madness, or domestic turmoil.  Why are we so hesitant to believe in miracles?

Although writing about a different miracle, Wendell Berry has said expressed my idea more eloquently than I can today.  In his essay, "Christianity and the Survival of Creation," he says, "Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine--which was, after all, a very small miracle.  We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes" (this wonderful essay appears in his wonderful book Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community).

The world has far too many cynics.  Christians are called to be different.  Choose your favorite metaphor:  we're to be leaven in the loaf, the light of the world, the city on a hill, the salt (or other seasoning) that provides flavor, the seed that pushes against the dirt.  Each day, practice hope.  Each day, practice resurrection.