Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Feast of the Visitation

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Visitation, the day when Mary goes to her cousin Elizabeth. Both are miraculously pregnant, Mary with Jesus, Elizabeth with John the Baptist. As they approach each other, they recognize each other, as mothers, as miracles--even the babies in their wombs understand what's happening.

I'm a good Lutheran girl, so growing up, we never celebrated these feast days. As I've gotten older and explored monasticism, and to be honest, as I've blogged more and needed more to write about, I've been doing all sorts of research into feast days.

Some feast days leave me shaking my head and wondering what modern folks are to do with them. Some feast days, like today's, make me wish I'd known about them earlier. I think about my younger self who was enraged that so much femaleness seemed to be erased from Christianity. What would my raging feminist self have done with this festival?

I'm not sure she'd have been appeased. I was also in the process of trying to assert that biology isn't destiny, while also acknowledging that I was one of the first generations to be able to assert that idea.

My middle-aged self is willing to admit that biology is often destiny, although not in the womb-centric way that the phrase is often bandied about. I'm seeing too many people at the mercy of bodies that they have increasingly less control over.

I love this story of new life being held in unlikely wombs.  I love this message that biology is not destiny, that our bodies can do all sorts of wondrous things, like heal, generate new life,

There are other aspects of this story that aren't immediately apparent.  I love the intergenerational care that's present in this story.  I am fondly remembering female members of my own extended family and offering thanks for their support. I remember the family stories they told and the ways they included me in family gatherings. I remember the rides to the airport, and memorably, one time that my cousin Barbara (my mom's first cousin) came to Augusta, 60 miles away, at night, to help me out of a jam caused by the breakdown of a car. I remember that she treated it as a grand adventure. No castigating, no lecturing.

This year, I'm thinking about the elements of discernment, call, and retreat.  God calls both Mary and Elizabeth, and both say yes to a radical change of direction to what they might have planned.  And it's a change that will have an impact on the rest of their lives, not just a year or two.  I love the idea of taking some time away to support each other and to prepare.

On this feast day of the Visitation, let's take a few minutes to listen for God's call.  What new life waits to be born?  What new project of God's can only proceed if we say yes?  And how can we nourish ourselves so that we're ready?

If you need ideas for how to celebrate, how to make this feast day feel more festive, see this post on my creativity blog.

Here are the readings for today:

First Reading: 1 Samuel 2:1-10

Psalm: Psalm 113

Second Reading: Romans 12:9-16b

Gospel: Luke 1:39-57

Here's a prayer that I wrote for today:

Creator God, today we offer thanks for Elizabeth and Mary, women who were willing to follow your invitation into adventures that must have seemed impossible.  Open our hearts so that we hear the invitations you offer to us.  Give us the courage to say yes to you.  Plant in us the gifts that the world needs.

Friday, May 30, 2014

Rooted to the Earth, Clothed With Power

The Feast Day of the Ascension makes me think about how often we might feel made of marble, our feet firmly planted on the ground.

Detail from Mepkin Statue

We want to ascend, but so much keeps us here, our earthly worries so heavy.

Mepkin Statue

We are like this building, held to the earth by many weeds:

Mepkin Outbuilding

I was struck by this Ascension reading:  the latter part of Luke 24:9: "so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high."
Full Moon at Mepkin

How would we behave, as artists, as Christians, as citizens, if we took this Bible passage to heart?  We are clothed with power from on high--but so often we forget to claim that power.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Feast Day of the Ascension

Today is the Feast Day of the Ascension,  40 days after Easter, 10 days before Pentecost.  This feast day commemorates Jesus being taken up into Heaven.

Imagine it from the eyes of those who have followed Christ from traipsing around Galilee, Crucifixion, and then Resurrection.  You have just gotten your beloved Messiah returned to you, and then, poof, he's gone again.  What a whipsawed feeling they must have had.

How do we celebrate this day, so many thousands of years later?  Many churches have chosen to simply ignore it.  We march on to Pentecost.

But let us take a minute to acknowledge the wonder of the Ascension.  It's a fate reserved for very few in the Bible.  And let us take a minute to think about Jesus, who has already suffered death, the fate which an ascension spared for the few others who experienced it.

Just like the first followers, just like Jesus, we don't get to stand around waiting for our chance to go to Heaven.  There's work to be done on Earth.  The coming Sundays of the Pentecost season remind us that we’re not put on Earth to wait to die. We are here to help God in the ultimate redemption of creation. Jesus began that work of that redemption. We are here to further it along, at least as much as we can during our very short time here.

And how do we do that? The possible answers to that question are as varied as humanity. Some of us will pray without ceasing. Some of us will fight for social justice. Some of us will create works that point others to God. Some of us will visit the lonely and the sick. Some of us will give away our money so that others have the resources to do the creation redeeming work that needs to be done.

Whatever we choose, it’s important that we get to work. We don’t want to get to the end of our time here, only to be asked, “Why did you stand there gaping, when there was so much work to do?”

For those of us who feel like we can't do much, consider this language from today's Gospel,  the latter part of Luke 24:9: "so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high."

I love that language:  clothed with power from on high--how would we behave if we truly believed we had been clothed with power from on high?

Pentecost will be here soon, the holiday that commemorates the first clothing with fire.  But we've all been clothed in that way.  We have all been clothed with power.  Believe in that force--and then get to work in the claiming of creation.

Prayer for the Feast of the Ascension:

Ascending God, you understand our desire to escape our earthly bonds, to hover above it all, to head to Heaven now instead of later.  Remind us of our earthly purpose.  Reassure us that we have gifts and talents that are equal to the tasks that you need us to do.  Help us close our gaping mouths and get to work.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The lessons for Sunday, June 1, 2014:

First Reading: Acts 1:6-14

Psalm: Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36 (Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35 NRSV)

Second Reading: 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11

Gospel: John 17:1-11

In today's Gospel, we see Jesus at the end of his mission. We see Jesus praying, telling God all the things he (Jesus) has done. We also see Jesus handing over his ministry to his disciples.

What a strange thought, that these humans are ready for such a large mission. And yet, even my devout atheist friends have to admit the success of these early followers. And those of us several thousand years out might be wondering what Jesus did to foster this success. After all, if you set out to choose a group of people to bring the Good News to the far corners of the planet, you would likely pass those early disciples right on by.

That's the wonderful news that winds its way through the Bible. God can use all sorts of misfits and scraps of humanity to accomplish wonderful things. In her wonderful book, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, Anne Lamott says, "You've got to love this in a God--consistently assembling the motleyest people to bring, into the lonely and frightening world, a commitment to caring and community."

Notice that all of Jesus' followers were given responsibilities. They didn't just show up at church and wait to be entertained. They didn't march off in a huff when Jesus didn't do things the way the last savior did. I'm sure that Jesus lost some people along the way--after all, he made some stringent demands. But he also gave people ownership and expectations.

Jesus taught his followers to live in the moment, to not worry so much about 5 year projections or the future of the faith. He taught people to focus on the needs of the community and not on power structures that they hoped to maintain.

Jesus commanded his followers to be dependent on each other and to trust that God would provide for them. Think about one of the Gospel's versions of the last supper. Jesus sends them into town to procure things and when they're asked what they're doing, they're to say that the Lord has need of these things. And it works! When they're sent out, they're sent out two by two, with only what they can carry (and it's a light load). This ensures that they'll make connections in the new community, not just trust in each other and the people that they already know.

I'll admit that it's simplistic to look at Jesus' ministry in this way. We can't just set out into the world in pairs (we can't, can we?). We can't decide to start over in thinking about the way we do ministry.

But maybe we can refocus a bit. The church does best when it focuses on the needs of the community and looks to fulfill those needs. Many of us might think in terms of a soup kitchen or a day care, but there are other needs too. Maybe our frazzled community needs a contemplative service, where people can come into a candlelit sanctuary and sit and hear the lessons, without a sermon and communion and all the other stuff we cram into a service. Maybe people need a noon concert series. Maybe people need to come to paint and to listen to the voice of God in the paint. Maybe people need a book group to keep their minds from turning to mush.

If you don't know where to begin (the needs of our communities can seem overwhelming), start by emulating Jesus as we see him in this lesson. We can start by praying for each other. We can pray for all our colleagues, not just the ones that are out sick. We can pray for all our church members, not just the ones who don't come to church anymore. We can pray for our leaders: our pastor, our President, our boss, Congress, the mayors and city managers. We can pray for our friends and family. Jesus told us to pray without ceasing, and once we begin praying for others, we may feel like we don't have enough time in the day to complete all of the prayers that need to be said.

So, start with some simple approaches. Say a prayer of thanks before you eat, and as you say grace, remember those who are hungry. Pray for the end of hunger in our world. Say a prayer of thanks at the end of the day and the beginning of the day, and thank God for the people in your life who mean so much to you. When your boss yells at you, when your clients are frustrated, when your students curse, pray for them.

Be the mirror that reflects God's light into a world that needs it so desperately.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Holidays Ahead!

We are soon to leave the time after Easter--are you ready for Pentecost?

At our non-traditional service, I volunteered to lead the two services, the week before Pentecost, and Pentecost.  For our art project, we'll be making wind chimes.  I want the chiming bits to have relevance to our spiritual lives; I'm thinking nails, shells, hinges, and any other symbols that I can think of that would make a lovely sound.  I have cloth in Pentecost colors that I'll cut into strips.  More on this project in the coming weeks.

But before we get to Pentecost, we have the feast of the Ascension on Thursday.  It's a festival that's almost completely overlooked in my modern Lutheran church.  I loved it as a child. 

And then on May 31, we do a bit of time travel:  it's the feast day that celebrates Mary's visit to Elizabeth when both are pregnant.

I also have a blog post about John the Baptist due to Living Lutheran.  I wrote about him last year, so I need something new to say--stay tuned!

If you haven't yet started thinking about how to make Pentecost special, it's not too late.  Streamer sticks are easy and folks of all ages can be provided to march around the sanctuary waving them as the congregation sings a Pentecost hymn; see this blog post for more details.  And if that's too much, then consider simple pots of red plants, which should be cheap and provides a festive air to a sanctuary.

If you need a Pentecost art project for a group, here's another simple idea that I created last year.  It helped fuel a conversation about spiritual gifts.

And if you want additional creative ideas, this blog post has them.  Some are somewhat complicated, like making mosaics on glass blocks.  But gluing scraps of tissue paper on banners is easy and fun and leads to a cool effect--plus it doesn't require talent or skill or special tools.

Happy planning!

Monday, May 26, 2014

Prayers for Memorial Day

For some people, Memorial Day is a day to open up the beach house.  But for most of us, we're lucky if we can afford a whole week away at a place that overlooks the water.  We can celebrate Memorial Day by saying a prayer of thanks for the sacrifices that keep our houses safe and free us to go on vacation. 

We can pray for an end to those too impoverished to afford shelter, and we can pray for our homeless veterans.

I suspect many of us will celebrate today with a cook out or a picnic.  And many more of us will have to work.  Let us say a prayer of thanks for those who report to work in various service and safety duties, like hospital workers and police and firefighters.

Today, I'd like to be at a national monument, listening to one of the service bands perform.  Below is a picture taken with a much older digital camera, from the early days of digital cameras.  It's the Air Force Memorial on the grounds of the Pentagon, where one June night we heard a wonderful concert with a variety of Air Force bands.


Or maybe I'd rather be in a contemplative spot, saying a thank you.

Part of me will always be a D.C. area girl. It's hard to move around that area without being aware of the sacrifice that past citizens have given so that I can enjoy my good and happy life. Most people are familiar with the Vietnam Memorial or Arlington National Cemetery, but there are so many other places: memorial sites, statues, plaques.  Below is a memorial site in Tallapoosa Georgia; part of the site lists every member of the county killed in every war/police action of the nation's history.  It's sobering, as a listing of names so often is.

For those of us who cannot get away, perhaps we could keep our Memorial Day by reading poetry.   Here's a link to one of my favorites, "Facing It," by Yusef Komunyakaa.  There are plenty of more traditional poems and images out there.

For those of us going to Memorial Day sales, we could also make a donation to a Veteran's group or send a care package to a soldier.

For those of us doing gardening, we could make a mental trip to a veteran's cemetery and leave some imaginary flowers there.

We could say a prayer or send a wish for a future time where the world will be at peace, and we will not have to bury our fallen soldiers.

If you need words, here's a prayer:
God of Comfort, on this Memorial Day, we pray for those who have sacrificed their lives for the sake of freedom.  God of peace, please renew in us the determination to be peacemakers.  We pray for leaders across the world, that they may find ways to avoid the wars that take the lives of so many.   God of resurrection, give us the vision of a world where we can be our best selves, where no warmaking takes so much of our energy and other resources.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Wedding Service as Worship

I will not be going to church this morning.  However, I spent much of yesterday afternoon at church at a wedding.

Now, not all wedding services work as worship.  But many do, and yesterday was one of those times.

It had all the elements of worship:  3 Bible readings, a bit of liturgy, prayers, song, a homily, and Communion.  The homily reminded us of Christ's love and how the couple marrying at midlife embodied Christ's love  in ways that so many of us can't or won't.  I loved having Communion at a wedding; it made perfect, sacramental sense.

Likewise, last Saturday, we went to my nephew's First Communion mass.  It wasn't a typical worship service, but it worked beautifully as our weekly worship.  We decided not to take Communion, since we were in a Catholic church, but the whole experience felt worshipful anyway.

If I had children, I might return to church today.  I might use it as a teaching moment about the different kinds of worship that we do at church.

But I do not have children.  I do have an online class who handed in rough drafts yesterday and has final drafts due Tuesday.  I need to provide feedback, and I won't have time this afternoon when we'll be with friends.  My week-end, which once stretched out in a timeless vista, now feels a bit filled.

Plus, I have church Council duties on Tuesday night.  There's only so many times I want to be driving back and forth to Church.

All of these explanations feel like rationalizations to me.  I once wished I had a church right down the street where I could take Communion daily.  I still do.  But I'd like it to be a quieter service:  a meditative 15 minutes that included soothing music, a reading, and the Eucharist--and then I could be on my way, back to my house that would be just a few blocks away.

The last two week-ends have not been that kind of worship service--they've been high holy days types of worship.  There's a place for those too.

This morning, I'll worship in a different way.  I've already noticed the pale sliver of moon in the east as the sunrise began to stain the world with color.  I've said a prayer of thanks.  I'm listening to the On Being show, which will be my homily.  I'll eat with friends, and that will serve as Eucharist.  And next Sunday, I'll return to regular Sunday service at my suburban church.

Friday, May 23, 2014

Prayer and Daily Intimacy

A year ago, we took a major step in our path to buy a new home.  A year ago, we kept our appointment to see the inside of a house that looked good from the outside.  I wrote more about this day a year ago in this blog post.

During every step of the buying a new house process, we prayed.  I prayed intensely--and I felt guided through every step.

I know that skeptics will be able to explain away this feeling of presence.  They will say that I felt guided because my prayers made me more observant and more intentional.  They may be correct.  Perhaps that is how prayer works.

Why can't I keep up this level of prayer with every set of decisions?  Why do I feel it must be a big decision, like a home purchase, that warrants my asking God for help?

I do believe in a God that yearns for a daily intimacy with all of us.  I've been taught that a level of daily intimacy requires lots of communication.  I confess that I can find all of that communication exhausting.

I confess that the fear of potential exhaustion sometimes keeps me silent.

So today, let me say a prayer of thanks for guidance past.  Let me say a prayer of apology for all the times I've gone silent.  Let me say a prayer of intention and hope to do better in the future.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Transformation: Light and Glass

Today I'm thinking about light and how we receive it.  I'm thinking about stained glass windows and other kinds of sun catchers.

Colored glass fascinates me; it transforms the light into something less harsh, yet perhaps more brilliant.

Colored glass lets the light through while transforming it into something else.  We might say that Christ did this too:  his life let God's light shine, while at the same time transforming it into something that could be understood.  How can our lives do the same?

How can our art do the same?

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, May 25, 2014:

First Reading: Acts 17:22-31

Psalm: Psalm 66:7-18 (Psalm 66:8-20 NRSV)

Second Reading: 1 Peter 3:13-22

Gospel: John 14:15-21

In today's Gospel, we get a hint of Pentecost. Jesus tells his followers that he will never leave them orphaned or desolate, to use words from several different translations.

Every year as Ascension Day approaches, I think of those poor disciples. They have such a short time with their resurrected Lord, before he goes away again. How on earth do they cope with this?

I also see this situation as a metaphor for our own modern one. You may be feeling a bit whipsawed by grief and loss yourself. You may recover from one crisis, only to find yourself staring down the maw of the next. As I've gotten older, I've noticed that these crises seem to be increasing in frequency and severity. I look back to the dramas of my high school and college years, and I understand why so many elders chuckle dismissively at the troubles of youth. We forget, however, that trouble feels like crisis, no matter what our age.

But Jesus offers this comfort: we will never be alone.

Notice what Jesus does NOT offer: our God is not Santa Claus. Our God is not a fix everything quickly God (at least not all the time).

I have some acquaintances who claim to have lost their faith on September 11, 2001. They had been faithful in their church attendance, but once that disaster happened, they declared they couldn't believe in a God that would let such terrible things happen. No talk of free will would deter them in their determination to let go of their faith.

Earlier generations had a similar difficulty with Auschwitz (perhaps you do too). How can God let such awful things happen?

Well, that's the disadvantage of gifting humans with free will. We will sometimes get things spectacularly wrong. I think of it as being a parent of an adolescent. We want the best for our teenagers. We know the dangers are acute; so many mistakes that are made at this age are mistakes for life and can't be easily undone. So many choices made at this age will impact the rest of adulthood.

Yet as parents, we can't prevent every tragedy. All we can do is to be there for our children when they go off the rails.

Likewise as friends, as spouses and significant others, as children: we can't keep our loved ones safe. We can try to help them avoid the pitfalls that we see, but even that won't always be successful. We can only be with those we love as they suffer, in the hopes that our presence will alleviate some of the pain.

Evil has real power in the world, and we forget that at our peril. As Christians, we are called to take a longer view, and we are called to believe that God will eventually emerge victorious--but that doesn't mean that this victory will happen in our lifetimes. We are part of a larger story, and we all have our part to play. But we must be aware that we might be like Moses or the early apostles: we may not see the fruits of our labors; we may not get to the promised land (at least not in this life). The Good News that Jesus delivers should give us comfort: all of creation will be redeemed eventually, and that redemption has begun.

Return to that promise of Jesus: we are not orphaned. We are not abandoned. Even in our darkest days, when we feel at our most unlovable, God sees our value. God remembers our better selves. God knows what we could accomplish. If God can use deeply flawed people like Saul who becomes Paul, God will also weave us into the great fabric of Kingdom life.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

First Impressions of a First Communion

I have now been to my first Catholic first communion service, and I'm here to say, based on this one service, I'm impressed and wishing more churches would follow the example set by my nephew's church.

What impressed me?  Let me count the ways:

--So many family members and friends attended.  It was clear that the support for the children and their religious instruction extended across generations.

--The service itself, a full Mass, was beautiful.  It was also a teaching moment, as the children brought various elements forward:  not only the bread and wine, but also flowers, candles, and an amazing altar cloth that the children had made.  As they brought the items forward, a lector explained why we needed them.

--The teaching moments had been going on for some time previous, and not just in the CCD classes.  The children had had to attend a retreat last month, and there had been additional classes and rehearsals.  I thought of how many Protestant churches have abandoned all sorts of educational opportunities in the face of parental protests about team sports practices and tournaments and all the other commitments that parents choose over church.  Those parents' arguments would not have held weight in my nephew's church.

--The children had dressed up in a variety of ways.  Many of the girls had headpieces that resembled wedding veils.  One boy was in a white tux with tails.

--The priest directed his homily to the children.  But he had plenty to teach the rest of us too, about the value of a sacrament.

--The children had their first communion which went without a glitch, and then the rest of the congregation communed at stations throughout the church.  The process was smooth and flawless.  It's clear that this church routinely communes huge numbers of people.

--The children finished the service by giving us all a song, complete with hand motions.  It was both a lesson about passing on God's peace and a benediction.

I expected to be moved in all sorts of ways, and I was.  Even though I was expecting it, the depth of my emotions surprised me.  I came away feeling uplifted and nourished.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Eastertide Message of Mount St. Helens

I have Mount Saint Helens on the brain--on this day in 1980, the volcanic mountain exploded. Those of us who live far away from volcanoes forget about how destructive they can be. The Mount Saint Helens eruption was a doozy.

I've been thinking about the geologist David Johnston who was on duty in a watchtower during the explosion. He died. There were photographers who died. I think of people who decided to go camping that week-end who happened to be in the wrong spot at the wrong time. As I understand the history, the mountain exploded sideways, which no one expected, and so some people were in places that weren't expected to be affected by the volcano.

More people could have died, thousands more, if the authorities had ignored the scientists and had bowed to pressure to reopen the areas they closed during the months when they knew the volcano was about to erupt.

In 2000, I listened to a variety of retrospectives on NPR. I remembered the explosion, but I was in high school and involved in dramas of my own. I didn't realize how bad it was until hearing the twenty year retrospective.

I took great hope from the descriptions of the moonscape-like atmospheres that were left after the explosion and the growth that occurred in the following years. Maybe our oceans will be similarly renewed.  History shows us that dead zones of all sorts can enjoy resurrection.

It's a different kind of Easter message, but an Easter message nonetheless.  It's important to remember that the Earth commits to resurrection, to use lines from a different poem of mine.  I like to use those markers of resurrection to reorient me to the central message of the Gospel:  all is not lost; redemption is underway; the Kingdom of God is breaking through your every day "reality" right now.

When I listened to the retrospective ten years ago, I was inspired by the metaphorical possibilities, and I wrote this poem, which appeared in A Summer's Reading:

Thirteen Miles

My declining health, your job loss—our comfortable
life explodes. That clean mountainside crumbles.
Stress builds, and the volcano explodes.
We can see the coming cataclysm,
the moment for which we have prepared,
the disaster we thought we could avoid.
We saved money and thought we were safe,
like those folks who lived thirteen
miles away from Mount Saint Helen’s
but the mountain swallowed them whole.

The day after the volcanic explosion,
we emerge into sunshine, amazed
that the sun rose as if it was any normal
morning. The world, covered in ash, loses
its color. Tragedy paints
our world black and white. We can’t imagine
how life can continue.

And yet, life struggles on, swims towards continuity.
We have ecosystems protected deep inside ourselves,
whole worlds that we didn’t even know existed. We discover
them now that our misfortunes have blasted
away the undergrowth that took eons to grow.
In twenty years, we won’t recognize
our various, volcanic landscapes.

Friday, May 16, 2014

On My Nephew's First Communion

This week-end, we'll celebrate 2 events in the life of my nephew.  He will take his First Communion (he's Catholic) on Saturday, and on Sunday, he turns 8.

It hardly seems possible that he can already be 8 years old.  Yet it seems that it's the perfect time for First Communion.  He's still got that sense of the mystical that many children have, and so few adults have sustained.  He can believe in many improbable possibilities.

Does an 8 year old understand the nature of the sacrament?  I suspect that many children understand the sacramental nature of the world, which I define as being able to discern the presence of God in ordinary objects and events and seeing the promise of grace in that presence.  I have met too few Christians who experience that sacramental presence, even if the Church allows them to take Communion.

My nephew has had 2 years of instruction.  I don't know of many Lutheran churches which demand that kind of rigor before children take Communion.  At my current church, we put bread in the hands of anyone who comes forward with hands stretched forward.  Once I would have disapproved.  But now, I'm comfortable with that, even if it means that very small children take part.

It's the very small children who teach us.  So many of them come forward with awe in their eyes.  They chew carefully.  They sip the grape juice that we provide for those who need to avoid the alcohol in wine.  They often proclaim their thanks and joy.

I am my nephew's Christian Monitor; since I'm not Catholic, I don't get to be called a Godmother.  I was there at his baptism.   I have always known that I would do my dead level best to be there at all the future religious events that are important.  And as the Christian Monitor, I also try to share some of the less high festival events that are important too.  And I try to have those conversations through the years that are so important.

Will it be enough?  Who can tell?  We do all we can to give the young people in our lives the tools we think they'll need in the future.  We hope for the best.  We pray.

And that's what we'll be doing this week-end.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Creche and the Divine Spark

During the last few trips I've taken to Mepkin Abbey, I've noticed more crèches.  Is it because I've traveled during the very end of the Christmas season (Feb. 2, Candlemas, the end of 40 days of Christmas season)?

Or have the creators of the gardens by the gift shop simply enjoyed planting these crèche scenes in nature?

A crèche scene makes me think of so many things:  the joy of a birth, the difficulty of travel, God's glory breaking through in the world in ways that most people didn't notice.

In our creative lives, what is in us, waiting to be brought forth?  What is waiting to be born?

How can we nourish that divine spark that is within each of us?

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, May 18, 2014:

First Reading: Acts 7:55-60

Psalm: Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16

Second Reading: 1 Peter 2:2-10

Gospel: John 14:1-14

 The first verse of this Gospel speaks to me this week, this season: "Let not your hearts be troubled." How often is my heart troubled!

I've often thought that my deepest spiritual failing comes in my tendency to fret and to worry and to give in to full-out panic--I go through this cycle weekly, if not daily. I've managed to tame many of my other spiritual shortcomings. Why is it so hard for me to let not my heart be troubled?

I’ve spent a lot of the week thinking about the Freedom Riders, who went with untroubled hearts into the heart of oppression. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what they accomplished with their enthusiasm and by their naive belief in the goodness of humanity, their belief that they would be allowed to eat lunch together in segregated spaces, that they would be allowed to ride on a bus together.

In many ways, they were like the earliest Christians, who shared meals together and studied together and plotted ways to bring an end to injustice. Today’s reading from Acts and the violence suffered by the Freedom Riders reminds us that the price may be great. Perhaps we worry that we are not up to the task.

 This passage also has Jesus tell us about the house with many rooms, a passage often interpreted as being about Heaven, but looked at contextually, Jesus could also be talking about our ministries on Earth. Perhaps he tells us that the Christian life has room for all of us, even if we can’t be Freedom Riders or the first martyr Stephen. Think about your particular gifts--how can you make Christ visible in the world?

When I was younger, I thought we needed to change the world for the better on a grand, global scale. Thus I set myself up for failure when I couldn't eradicate world hunger in the course of my lifetime. Now I know that the things we do for each other to help each other are just as important: staying late to help a student, listening to a friend (not solving problems, just listening), helping someone move, writing a quick e-mail to let someone know we're thinking of them:  the list of what we could do to live with more compassion is infinite.

We never know what we may unleash. When the Freedom Riders boarded the bus, they had no idea of the social changes that they were about to unfurl. They assumed they’d be taking a two week bus trip to New Orleans. When we behave as the light of the world, similarly, we may help usher in God’s larger plan for the redemption of creation.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Walking in the Dark

We have had to wait a long time for a new book by Barbara Brown Taylor, and I'm happy to say, her new book is worth the wait.  Learning to Walk in the Dark explores the ways that Christianity, and much of modern life, has prioritized the light and demonized the dark.  In this book, Brown explores the dark.

Brown refers to the literature that through the years has told us that the light is better, but this book is not a work of literary scholarship.  Brown looks at her own life history, as well as the history of the universe.   I loved the parts of the book where she explains astronomy and the passage of light through space and time.  She utilizes other sciences to explain how our bodies respond to light, but her work is not focused exclusively on humans.  There's a poignant story about a stranded sea turtle, for example.

She also seeks out experiences that will plunge her into darkness.  I found her exploration of a cave to be quite evocative.  On this trip, she finds a wonderful stone, a stone that looks ordinary in broad daylight, but quite magical in the darkness of the cave.

From this experience comes one of the central lessons of the book:  "While I am looking for something large, bright, and unmistakably holy, God slips something small, dark, and apparently negligible in my pocket.  How many other treasures have I walked right by because they did not meet my standards?  At least one of the day's lessons is about learning to let go of my bright ideas about God so that my eyes are open to the God who is" (p. 131).

Many of her experiences lead her away from organized religion, and if you've read her other works, this direction will not come as a surprise.  She says, "I do not believe I am describing a loss of faith in God here.  Instead, I believe I am describing a loss of faith in the system that promised to help me grasp God not only by setting my feet on the right track but also by giving me the right language, concepts, and tolls to get a hook in the Real Thing when I found it" (p. 140). 

I like her commentary on this loss:  "There is no permanently safe place to settle.  I will always be at sea, steering by the stars.  Yet as dark as this sounds it provides great relief, because it now sounds truer than anything that came before" (p. 140).  Like her, I find this vision oddly comforting.

She has already described a sort of sunshine Christianity that so often fails believers when the truly devastating life events fall on our heads.  She gives an alternate view early in the book:  "Meanwhile, here is some good news you can use:  even when light fades and darkness falls--as it does every single day, in every single life--God does not turn the world over to some other deity.  Even when you cannot see where you are going and no one answers when you call, this is not sufficient proof that you are alone.  There is a divine presences that transcends all your ideas about it, along with all your language for calling it to your aid . . . " (pp. 15-16).

My thoughts have returned to this book many times as I was reading it and since I finished.  It's a wonderful book, in that you can dip in and out of it without losing the thread, and I suspect it will reward those of us who return to it through the years.  We're not in a dark time of the year, but go ahead and add this one to your summer reading list. 

Monday, May 12, 2014

Monday Poem: "Insomnia"

A few weeks ago, I got my contributor copy of Slant.  It's a great journal, thick with all sorts of literature.  I'm always pleased when they accept a poem of mine.

It's been awhile since I posted a poem here, so for your Monday pleasure, let me post the poem that was published in Slant.


No one sleeps at our house.
In the attic, the monks keep
their vigil; Psalms chanted
undergird the night.

The younger brother catalogs
the fish tanks and the ant farm.
The older brother conducts
experiments and charts the sky’s
passage through the hours.

The poet lights a single candle
and composes sonnets until dawn.
We can hear her counting
iambic pentameter as she paces.

One grandmother arranges flowers
and then resorts them.
One grandmother continues
her life’s project:  to attempt
every pie recipe that ever existed.

The choir performs concerts
complete with a string quartet.
We think the grass grows faster
with a musical accompaniment.

All the mothers and fathers are invited
to dance in the basement ballroom.
The bright chandeliers trick
the senses into believing time’s illusion.

And I pull the comforter close. 
I read stories from my youth:
of spunky girl detectives
with absent parents
or families on prairies
who build houses of sod
in just three days.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

God as Mother

Most days, I'd like the Church to avoid referring to God as Mother or Father.  It's problematic in all sorts of ways.  What does that imagery say to those who can't relate?  What about those who had problematic parents?  What if we are the problematic parents and thus understand far too deeply the problems with this metaphor?

I'm also uncomfortable with the ways that the Church will celebrate motherhood, on this, Mother's Day.  Many people have been writing about this issue all week.  I will leave it alone.

I have noticed that the Church tends to emphasize the Virgin Mary, and often emphasizes the passive nature of her story:  Mary meekly accepting Gabriel's offer, Mary weeping at the foot of the cross.

Let us not forget that mothers can be fierce.  Let us not forget the force of that fierceness.  I think of mothers who danced in Argentina as they demanded to know what the dictator Pinochet had done with their children.  I think of the parents in Nigeria demanding to know what has happened to their girls.

The passages of God as fierce mother, or any kind of mother, aren't often proclaimed from our pulpits, so you may be having trouble remembering any of them.  Me too.  And so I did a quick search and found this blog post, which gives this list:

Hosea 11:3-4 God described as a mother

I myself taught Israel how to walk, leading him along by the hand. But he doesn’t know or even care that it was I who took care of him. I led Israel along with my ropes of kindness and love. I lifted the yoke from his neck, and I myself stooped to feed him.
Hosea 13:8 God described as a mother bear

Like a bear whose cubs have been taken away, I will tear out your heart. I will devour you like a hungry lioness and mangle you like a wild animal.
Deuteronomy 32:11-12  
God described as a mother eagle

Like an eagle that rouses her chicks and hovers over her young, so he spread his wings to take them up and carried them safely on his pinions.
Deuteronomy 32:18  
God who gives birth

You neglected the Rock who had fathered you; you forgot the God who had given you birth.
Isaiah 66:13  
God as a comforting mother

I will comfort you there in Jerusalem as a mother comforts her child.”
Isaiah 49:15  
God compared to a nursing mother

Never! Can a mother forget her nursing child? Can she feel no love for the child she has borne? But even if that were possible, I would not forget you!
Isaiah 42:14  
God as a woman in labor

He will say, “I have long been silent; yes, I have restrained myself. But now, like a woman in labor, I will cry and groan and pant.
Psalm 131:2  
God as a Mother

Instead, I have calmed and quieted myself, like a weaned child who no longer cries for its mother’s milk. Yes, like a weaned child is my soul within me.

How would our theology be different if our denominations stressed this view of God?  How would our Church be different?

Friday, May 9, 2014

Longing for Silence

Yesterday I wrote about Julian of Norwich (see this post and this post).  It's been an unusually noisy week, both at work and in my neighborhood--and in my head.

I find myself yearning for the calm that comes in the best sacred spaces.  I find myself longing for a cathedral cell.  I want to believe I'd be more creative if I could just find quiet.  I'd certainly be less irritable.

So, let me see if I can manufacture a virtual experience of the calm that comes with sacred space.

Each of these pictures shows the worship space at Mepkin Abbey in a different year.

I thought it would be interesting to see the flower/plant arrangements from different times.  Maybe in my regular life, which doesn't include multiple daily trips to a sacred space, I could find some quiet relief in nature.  Or, if not in nature, then in flowers that I bring inside.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Feast Day of Julian of Norwich

Today is the feast day of Julian of Norwich, a 14th century mystic who kept herself in almost total isolation in a small room attached to a cathedral.  I've written about her before, and today, my post about her is up at the Living Lutheran site.  Go here to read it.

Here are some quotes to whet your appetite.

"Now I find the idea attractive: a small room in complete stillness with meals slid through a slot in the door, very little in the way of human interaction. My yearning probably speaks to the nature of life in my own cell in the modern workplace."

"That's the frustration for people like me: We cannot know which work is going to be most important. That email that seems unimportant today will likely be unimportant hundreds of years from now, but who knows? Being kind to one's coworkers who cluck and fuss and flutter about matters that seem so terribly unimportant is no small accomplishment either."

"I don’t have cathedral bells nearby, but I could use the tools of the modern office to remind me to pray. I could use my calendar dings to remind me. I could even insert reminders into my electronic calendars to call me back to prayer and my better self."

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, May 11, 2014:

First Reading: Acts 2:42-47

Psalm: Psalm 23

Second Reading: 1 Peter 2:19-25

Gospel: John 10:1-10

In this week's Gospel, Christ warns of thieves and robbers.   Who are modern day thieves and robbers? Who are the ones who would lead us astray?

Well, there are lots of contenders, aren't there? But the ones I'm finding most insidious these days are all the electronic activities which steal so much of our time away from us.

You don’t believe me? Try an Internet fast and see what happens. Could you go for a day without logging on? Could you go for a week?  Venture out into the world without your cell phone and see how anxious you feel.

We might tell ourselves that we use our online time to stay connected to family and friends, and I will admit that it’s easier to stay in touch with some people via Facebook than it was with e-mail or old-fashioned paper letters. But most of us don’t post very deep thoughts on our Facebook accounts. A brief status update is better than nothing. But often, I find myself wondering how my friends are REALLY doing.

But do I take the time to write a Facebook message to ask? No. I’m too busy racing off to the next Internet diversion.

You might protest that the Internet has allowed you to meet new people. I’ve been part of poetry communities that wouldn’t have been possible without this easy way to connect. But can those kind of Internet friendships give us what we yearn for?

We might tell ourselves that the Internet allows us to stay current with what’s happening in the world, and in some ways, it’s a wonderful thing. I can read newspapers from all over the world, often for the price of my Internet connection. Not only that, I can read the opinions of others about those articles. In some forums, I can trade ideas with people. But all of that staying current comes with a price: it takes time away from other activities. Some of those displaced activities might be trading ideas with real people at a real supper table.

We often think we don't have time to have a real discussion over a real meal because we're all very busy these days. But what is really sucking away our time? For some of us, it is, indeed, our jobs. For many of us, it’s our Internet lives: we’ve got a lot of stuff to read, videos to watch, plus games to play, and virtual farms to keep up, plus status updates, and all the information we can Google now, and so we do (whereas before, if it required a trip to the library, many of us would have stayed ignorant). And if you’re like me, once you’ve spent so much of your day staring at screens, you may find it hard to reconnect to humans at the end of the day. You may feel your brain gone fuzzy. You may find yourself irritable at these humans who demand that you respond. You may withdraw before you ever have/take/make time to reconnect.

The Internet also takes time away from our relationship with God. I’ve found useful websites that allow me to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, but for the most part, I’m not noodling around the Internet looking for ways to enhance my relationship with God—or with anyone else, for that matter. I suspect that if I’m brutally honest, even my relationship with myself suffers when I spend too much time on the Internet.

Now the Internet is not the only tool and resource that allows us to sidestep the hard work of relationship. Some of us narcotize ourselves with television or with spending more hours at work than the work requires or with the relentless pace of the activities that our children do (and need us to drive them to) or any of the other countless activities that humans use in ways that aren’t healthy.

These activities can not only keep us from relationship with humans but can deafen our ears to the voice of that shepherd that goes out looking for us. Our Bible tells us over and over that God yearns to be in relationship with us. But if we’re too busy for our families and friends, we’re likely not making time for God either.

So, try an Internet sabbath, even if it’s just for a few hours a week. Try doing it every week. Invite real people over for dinner or go serve a meal to the less fortunate. Read a book. Play an old-fashioned board game, not the electronic version--and play with people who are in the same room with you.

As you disconnect from your electronics, listen for the voice of God who calls to you across space and time.


Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Morning Movement in the Water

One of the things that I REALLY enjoyed while at the Create in Me retreat was the 30 minute Morning Movement session we did before the day got started.  We gathered at 7:30 and did a variety of stretches together.  It was very gentle and left me feeling oddly energized.  I say oddly, because I tend to think that I need to do vigorous activities to feel energized.

This morning I felt sore and worn out from last night's work out.  I yearned for a Morning Movement session.  I noticed the light starting to change.  I thought about the pool in my backyard.  Aha!

I changed into my swimsuit (or bathing costume, as my English friend calls it) and got into the pool.  It wasn't as cold as I expected.  I did laps with my head above the water.  I thought I'd do it for 10 minutes or 20, if I felt good.  As I paddled, I decided to go for 30 minutes, and I did.  Hurrah!

I tried to turn the experience into a more spiritual one.  I gave thanks for the water and for my body which can still move through the water.  I gave thanks for my parents who taught me to swim.  I fished some palm flowers out of the water and gave thanks for the plants.  I watched a squirrel scamper down the fence line and lizards scatter out of the squirrel's way--and I gave thanks for all the animals.

Several times I paused to float on my back and let the water hold me up.  I thought about the ways that God holds us up, ways that won't always seem obvious.

I made the sign of the cross on my forehead as I remembered Martin Luther's advice that we remember our baptism daily as we do our morning washing.  I thought about all the ways that we get  a fresh start, day after day after day.

As the sun started to dapple the water, I thought about the sun salutations in yoga.  I much prefer greeting the sun with a morning dip in the pool--my head can stay above my heart, so it's less dizzying.  Sun salutations can strain my joints; I didn't have that problem in the pool.

I hope I can do this more often:  begin and/or end the work day in the pool, giving thanks for creation, remembering my baptism.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Post-Church Creativity Hour

Yesterday, I went to the Worship Together service and then I stayed to do this:

That's me there in black, kneeling on the left.  I'm painting yellow flowers and adding highlights to the other colors of flowers.  I had already dabbed paint on the trees to make leaves.  And before that, I cut the tree trunks out of that dark paper.

We had an elementary school aged helper which made it even more fun.  We had some other adults making suggestions and adding highlights.  We'd all been to church together--but what a better post-church experience than the typical coffee hour.

It was good to create together.  It was good to help get the mural ready for the Mother-Daughter banquet--and then, we get to keep it up so that we can use it for Vacation Bible School.  It's supposed to represent the New Jerusalem, for the Mother-Daughter banquet--and then for VBS, we're doing something around weird animals.  Neat that it works for both.

I love these periods of joint creativity at church.  My ideal church would do this every week.  I know that I'm lucky to get to do it on a regular basis.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Entropy and Expansion

A week ago, we'd have been getting to the difficult part of our Bible study. 

The first day was easy:  exploring the glories of creation revealed in the vastness of the cosmos.  We saw amazing photographs taken by our Bible study leader who is both an amateur astronomer and a seminary professor.  We learned fun facts, like there are more stars in the universe than there are individual grains of sand on every beach at every ocean on Earth.

We were inspired by the knowledge that our atoms are made of recycled stars.  The universe is inside each of us, and we carry with us the history of the stars and the universe.

We learned interesting analogies:  if the history of the universe is a book where every page represents 10 million years, then at this point, we've got 3 volumes of 450 pages each; the first multicell animals on Earth show up on page 100 of volume 3, while humans come along on the last line of the last page.

So, what do we do with the recently acquired knowledge that the universe is expanding?

Like me, you might wonder why this is a big deal.  You might even think that expansion is a good thing.

However, unstopped expansion is a disaster when it comes to the universe.  Science tells us that the universe will expand and expand and expand and eventually, through this process of expansion, which involves stars using up all available hydrogen, the universe becomes a cold, dark nothingness.

At least, that's what the old science would teach us.  We talked a bit about the new science of quantum physics.  We talked about science and resurrection.  Old science tells us that dead bodies can't come back to life.  New science tells us that everything we thought we knew might not be true:  particles can be in more than one place at a time, for example.  The old physics model would have insisted that statement could not be possible.

Both new physics and the Church insist that entropy doesn't win.  We don't necessarily have the knowledge and the language yet to explain it in a way that rational brains would accept, but that's what we insist.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

May Day Celebrations

Today is May Day.  In many countries, it's also a day to work towards increased rights for workers.

How will you celebrate this May Day?  With flowers, perhaps?

Mepkin Abbey azaleas near the gift shop, November 2009

Or will you remember the dispossessed? 

Will you work for the rights of refugees?  Above you see a sculpture carved out of a giant tree that fell on the Mepkin Abbey grounds.  I see it as the flight to Egypt, a poignant reminder of Jesus' outsider status.  So many workers today are refugees and other sorts of dispossessed populations.  It's a good day to remember God's mandate that we care for them.

It's also a good day to celebrate all of the work we do, the work for pay, the work that feeds our creative spirits, the volunteer work that bolsters the spirits of so many.  How can we honor the work that nourishes?  How can we devote more time to that kind of work?

For more ideas on how to celebrate May Day, see this post on my creativity blog.