Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Little Prince as Christ Figure

Today is the birthday of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, most famous to most of us for his work The Little Prince. Would we call him one of the first generation of airline pilots?  Yes, I think I would.  He loved extreme places:  the airplane, the skies where the airplane took him, the desert.

But it's with The Little Prince that he's left a mark on the world.  Ah, the classic tale of a traveler longing to return to his home planet!  And it's hard for this good English major and amateur theologian to resist the temptation to see all the Christ allegories.  The Little Prince teaches the stranded pilot how to love and then must leave--yes, it's the Christ story.

 I first read The Little Prince the summer after third grade.  It was the first time I was away from my parents, at Lutheridge.  I'd been to that camp before, but always with my parents.  I didn't really like the camp experience that year.  I remember feeling sad and lonely and not like the other girls--a feeling not unfamiliar to me some days, even now, and I suspect most creative types continue to feel this way throughout life.

My mom had slipped this slim novel into my suitcase as a surprise for me to find.  I loved the book, and I still feel fondness for it because it got me through a rough patch--again, a familiar feeling.

Later, I would read it in French class, both in high school and in college.  If third graders can read it in English, then it's easy enough for first or second year French students!

I seem to recall a film version, with Gene Wilder as the fox.

Ah, that fox that wanted to be tamed, that fox who showed us that the problem with loving is that we are likely to lose the ones we love--except that we've never really lost them, as long as we have our memories.

Here's a nugget of wisdom from the fox:  "It is only with the heart that one can see rightly;  what is essential is invisible to the eye" (p. 87).

May you only tame the things/people/characters/symbols for whom you want to be responsible! And may the glory of God's creation inspire a love in you that makes you want to be ever more responsible.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Happy Birthday, John Wesley!

Today is the birthday of John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church.  That word "Methodist" was used as an unflattering way of describing the religious study group of Wesley's college years:  they were methodical and rigorous in their Biblical study.

Wesley will probably never be made a saint, and thus we won't really celebrate his feast day--indeed, he'd probably resist the idea.  But I can't think of many other 18th century people who transformed the faith in the way that he did.

The Writer's Almanac entry for today notes that Wesley felt he wasn't reaching enough people from the pulpit--I suspect many of today's ministers and pastors can relate.  But he didn't sit around and mope and rail against declining enrollments.  No, he went out and saddled his horse and went to people where they lived.  Historians say that he traveled roughly 250,000 miles during his lifetime.  On a horse.

Yes, I'm feeling inadequate, all of a sudden.  What have I done to bring the Good News to my fellow citizens?  Nothing even close to what Wesley did.

He was also a social justice crusader, an ardent abolitionist.  He helped to lay the foundation for the movement that would change the world.

Yes, I know that in our current day we still have slavery.  Some historians would tell us that it's never been easier to own a slave than it is today, in fact.  But in our current world, in the industrialized part of it at least, we seem to have reached an understanding that slavery is morally wrong.  We're still arguing about the meaning of a living wage, but we don't keep people in bondage the way that 18th century people did.  You can argue that we keep people in a bondage of a different sort, but it's not the kind of brutal total bondage we would have found in the 18th and 19th centuries.  And for this change, I thank John Wesley and other folks, like Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Much of Wesley's theology came back to the idea of love, the complete love that we strive to offer the world.  The Writer's Almanac site offers this jewel, with this introduction:  "Though there's no evidence that he actually wrote it himself, 'John Wesley's Rule' does a fair job of summing up his life:

Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as you ever can. "

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Create in Me: Where I'd Have Been Two Months Ago

Hard to believe it's been two months since the Create in Me retreat--and I never really posted pictures.  Let me go back to what we'd have been doing.

I had a successful experience throwing a pot on the wheel.  I still can't tell when the clay is balanced, but I've never gotten this far with it.

I also created a finger labyrinth.  Very cool.  I do find it calming to trace it:

I led a drop-in workshop on hand piecing and quilting.  Lots of people who had never sewed a stitch before dropped by--and they were largely successful!

We had several cool worship experiences.  I love the idea of adding elements to the baptismal font, like these rocks that glow and reminded us of our Bible study that combined theology and astronomy:

But nothing quite matches the service in the labyrinth. 


It's a sending service, where we remember that no matter how alone we feel, there are others in the circle with us.  We are not alone.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The Readings for Sunday, June 29, 2014:

First Reading: Jeremiah 28:5-9

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Genesis 22:1-14

Psalm: Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 13

Second Reading: Romans 6:12-23

Gospel: Matthew 10:40-42

This week's Gospel reading has the flavor of the theme that Jesus develops more thoroughly in the 25th chapter of Matthew--that reading where Jesus reminds us that as we treat the least of our fellow humans, that is how we treat Jesus. This tiny Gospel reading reminds us of some of the themes Jesus returns to again and again: stay alert and watchful. Treat everyone as if they're God in disguise.  Keep our Christian priorities always in the front of our vision, so that we know what's important.

If I wrote a modern paraphrase, I might say something like this: Why do you swoon over supermodels and superathletes? What good do they bring into the troubled world? Why are you not searching out the words of the wise ones among you? Why do you neglect your duties to the next generation?

When I was younger and not surrounded by multiple types of media, it seemed easier to ignore the siren calls of the larger world. I remember a world before cable TV: we had four channels, and when we lived in Montgomery, Alabama, we could sometimes see a snowy version of one of Ted Turner's superchannels out of Atlanta. Little did we know that we were seeing what would become one of the cornerstones of the cable world. Even in the early days of cable, one's viewing options only expanded to 10-40 channels, and then, as now, half of those were just dreadful creations formed to take advantage of cheap airwaves.

At graduation a few years ago, I listened in shock as our graduation speaker told the graduates that there was no Internet 15 years ago. Of course there was. But there wasn't a widespread World Wide Web, so the medium was text based and not as user friendly. Unless we were at a university dedicated to the technology, it was slow and clunky. Therefore, we weren't as prone to let it suck away our lives.

Now we're surrounded by electronic information, media, and gadgets. Of course, in some ways, it's invaluable. It's much easier to research any subject from the comfort of my computer--unlike the old days, when I'd have to go to a library. It's easier to keep in touch and communicate, at least for those of us plugged in. I've often wondered if Christian communities online can be as valuable--even more valuable--in terms of keeping each other centered, grounded and on track. Are we headed towards virtual communion? Is that possible? What would it look like?

But of course, I wouldn't be the first to point out all the ways the technology can lead us astray. We spend our days dealing with e-mail instead of doing real work. In our quest to be connected, we often let our connections in the real, human world slide.

The Gospel for today reminds us that there are rewards for righteous living. Traditionally, Christian communities (at least in the last 300 years) have translated those rewards as coming in the afterlife. But we shouldn't overlook that righteous, connected living has rewards for us in our lives right here and now. We will be able to recognize the prophets and disciples that Jesus promises to send. We will be able to discern the presence of the Holy Spirit. We will not neglect our duties to the young and disadvantaged. We will drink from the streams of living water and be able to know what nourishes us and what saps our strength.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Feast Day of John the Baptist

Today is the feast day of John the Baptist.  Ah, one of my favorite prophets.  I particularly like his stubborn insistence embodied in these words:  "I am not the Messiah."

I've written many meditations on this prophet.  My most recent meditation is a blog post at the Living Lutheran site.

It's interesting being a long-term blogger for the site.  I wrote about John the Baptist last year too.  I needed something new to say.  I decided to focus on the prophetic aspect of John the Baptist and its message for us here in our modern world.

It's interesting to think of the world of Jesus and John the Baptist and to think about our own world.  Jesus and John the Baptist lived in a time of vast empire, as do we (is the U.S. the empire?  global corporations?  or is it all a web of empire woven of inseparable strands?).  It's interesting to read the Gospels in full knowledge of the catastrophe that will soon fall on the heads of the Jews.  It makes me think of our own time and the climate catastrophes that are bearing down upon us, in addition to various political catastrophes that visit us.

Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"A hundred years from now, which of our prophetic actions will gain the approval of future generations? Which silences will condemn us to their contempt?"

"But just because I’m not the Messiah doesn’t mean that I have a free pass. God does not look favorably at those of us who just sit on the sofa and let others cry out for justice."

Monday, June 23, 2014

Summer Plans

Summer is upon us!  Is it a time for renewed work or should we take a well-deserved break?  It's both a good time to go to the library more often and to leave it:

We could use the time to plant the creative seeds that could burst into bloom in a later season.

We could exercise more, now that we have more light.

Or we could relax by the side of a lazy river.

 How shall we spend this summer? Where are we most likely to meet God?

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Grieving Together

We had planned to gather with friends before we knew that we would need to do some grieving together.  I am so grateful for the fact that we could be together.

On Friday, we got the news that our former department chair had died; for my tribute to her, please head over to this blog post.  But Friday was already a full day, what with a quick trip to Orlando for a Board meeting and then back the same day for VBS.

By yesterday the news was sinking in, and my usual cheery, optimistic self was starting to droop.  I felt like railing against God:  "Carpe diem, carpe diem--right, got it.  I may not have as much time left as I thought.  Message received loud and clear.  Now quit smiting the people I love!"

I've read the book of Job.  I realize the ridiculous nature of my response.  But in the interest of honesty, I admit to this feeling.

We got together with friends that afternoon.  We talked about the fact that our former department chair had hired us all.  We would likely never have met, if not for her. 

We talked about her marvelous laugh.  We talked about the quilting that we had done.  We talked about the miraculous way that she had wanted to move to Virginia, and she had made it happen.

It was good to be with people who had known her and remembered.  I anticipate a few more gatherings like that.

As the day ended, the talk turned to how quickly life zooms by.  One of my friends said, "I just didn't think it would go this fast.  You work and work to get to certain points and then, boom, it's over."

My friends are atheists, so we didn't talk about what happens next.  Is it over?

I am trying to take the larger reminder.  My former department chair was only 12 years older than I am.  I like to think that I have decades to do the things I want to do, but I may not.  It could all come crashing to a halt much sooner than I'm anticipating.

Time to prioritize.  Life is too short for much of the angst that I let swamp me occasionally.  Life is too short to keep procrastinating on some of my writing projects--back to the memoir!  Life is short--I must make time for quality interactions with humans each and every day. 

Saturday, June 21, 2014

VBS Arts and Crafts: The First Look Back

This morning, I'm a bit exhausted.  But it's a good exhaustion.  While the week of VBS is fresh in my mind, let me look back to remember what we did in the Arts and Crafts room:

Monday:  we made creatures out of Styrofoam cups, paper tubes, pipe cleaners, and decorations.

Tuesday:  we made masks, puppets, and then went back to making creatures.

Wednesday:  we decorated T-shirts with fabric markers.

Thursday:  we had kits to make a wall decoration with foam hands with Bible verses.  This didn't take long enough, so it was back to making creatures.

Friday:  I gave every child a bag that had Legos, some jewel embellishments, a feather, pom poms, googly eyes, and 2 pipe cleaners.  I thought they'd make creatures, but most of them built structures.  Many of them went into a Zen-like trance as they stacked one Lego on top of another and ignored the rest of the bag.  It was Friday, so I was grateful for the calm inspired by the Zen-like trance.

As always, I look back and wonder if we really accomplished anything at all.  Most nights, I was fairly sure the kids had fun, and we had a creative time together.  I was happy that they wanted to take a variety of every day items (cups, plates, bags) and make something new.  I was happy that everyone seemed accepting of all the art.

So what is making me feel a bit mopey this morning?  Part of it is simple exhaustion.  Part of it is feeling that the kids would have enjoyed working with Legos night after night.  One of the adult helpers said, "Well, it's what they know and what they're used to.  You give them Legos, and they know what to do."

I'm both glad that I left them until the end, so I didn't have to listen to everyone beg to play with Legos night after night, and they could have the chance to play with something new.  But I'm sad that my last memory is one of Legos.  I'm also sad that Thursday and Friday saw fierce storms swirl in, so our attendance was lower.

I'll get over that sadness, of course.  In fact, I'm mostly over it now.  It was a great week, full of creative play.  I'm hopeful that the children will carry that spirit with them.

It's the larger question I have as an artist, an administrator, a church person:  how do we encourage that spirit?  How do we revive it?  How do we keep it from being crushed?

Friday, June 20, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, June 22, 2014:

Genesis 21:8-21
Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17           
Romans 6:1b-11
Matthew 10:24-39
I wonder what the Family Values crowd makes of this Jesus, who in this week's Gospel warns us that he'll be turning family members against each other.  This is not the meek, do-goody Jesus who reads us a nice bedtime story and tucks us into bed.
No, this is one of the texts where Jesus warns us what we'll be sacrificing when we follow him.  Or seen alternately, this is one of those texts where Jesus reminds us that God wants to be the central focus of our lives.  Teaching after teaching, Jesus shows that God knows what competes.  In this text, it's our family that competes with God for central focus.  In other texts, it's money. 
As we look at the teachings of Christ, a central theme emerges.  Fear is at the root of all that keeps us from God.
Again and again, Jesus yokes his teachings of what will be required with the admonition to have no fear.  Here, Jesus tells us that God knows about the least little sparrow--and we're worth more than sparrows.  The wisdom of the Holy Spirit invites us to new life, not to paralyzing fear.  Jesus tells us that even sparrows are nurtured in God's economy.  Our religious texts remind us over and over again to be careful of where we store our treasures.
I love this vision of God who knows me from the individual hairs of my head to the rough soles of my feet.  I like this vision of God who helps me travel through the dangerous parts of the world.  I want to believe that I am worth more than sparrows, and I want to believe that in God's economy, sparrows are worth more than two pennies.
But again, Jesus warns us that we can't stop with that vision.  This is a God who keeps watch so that we can do the transformational work that must be done.  It is work that is likely to take us to threatening places where we may have to oppose the dominant power structure.  We may find ourselves crucified, in every sense of that word.
As I write this meditation, I'm thinking back to the events of Freedom Summer, that crucible moment in history which changed the progress of the Civil Rights workers forever.  I'm thinking of the youthful exuberance of those college students who headed south to register voters and to teach kids to read.
I'm thinking of how so many of them paid for those acts with bruises and broken bones.  I'm thinking of the ones who died terrible deaths.  I'm saying a prayer of thanks for the transformations that they brought.
Again and again, Jesus asks if we're willing to pay the price.  Again and again, Jesus offers the promise that we find at the end of this Sunday's Gospel:  if we quit our obsessive clinging to those elements that we think give us life, we may indeed find true life.  
We will find God. 

Thursday, June 19, 2014

VBS: Half Way Point

I am feeling exhausted for a variety of reasons.  I've written about my cold in this blog post.  It's still with me, although I can feel it retreating.  Today my nose is mostly clear, but my throat is fiercely sore.

Of course, it might have been sore regardless.  It's been a week of Vacation Bible School, which means I've been using my voice more than usual, at higher volume than normal.

I am the Arts and Crafts director (which really means sole teacher) at Vacation Bible School, which also accounts for my weariness.  Each day this week, I've put in a regular day at work, then gone racing home where I changed clothes and then raced to church.

I have 4 batches of students.  Each batch contains 5-10 students.  It should be manageable, right?  We also have at least half as many adults, although sometimes the ratio is closer to one to one.  Again, why isn't this a manageable set up?

I've been feeling like we're just on this side of chaos.  But maybe I'm being too hard on myself.  The kids go home with creations, after all.  So what if the room looks like a rushing wind whirled through?  At the end of the night, all limbs are intact, and no one is bleeding.  You might say that my job has been done successfully.

Are they learning anything substantial?  I remain unsure.  We've had fun with pipe cleaners and Styrofoam cups and plates.  We've used fabric markers on T-shirts.  We once did more with T-shirt adornment, but we don't really have the space for T-shirts to dry--so no cool inking or glitter paint or bubbly attachments.

I think about class sizes and public schools.  School teachers have much larger class sizes.  How do they do this all day?  I go home with an aching head, and I'm only with children from 5:30-9:15, and only intensely for about 2 of those hours.  Some nights, I'm falling asleep as I'm taking my shoes off.

I think about my own school days.  My favorite arts teachers had a hands-off approach.  As I look back, I think they were probably working on their own work or battling addictions.  But I loved having free reign with the art supplies, day after day of playing with different mediums.

Would I rather have had a teacher who taught me more about perspective and how to draw a human figure in a realistic way?  Yes, some days I do.  But I more appreciate the sense of adventure that the hands-off approach gave me.  Unlike my experiences with singing, no one told me that I couldn't draw, and so, I never quit trying.

In 7th grade, I drew horse after sad horse.  I had a friend, Joy, who could draw perfect horses.  I wanted to be able to do that.

I still want to be able to do that.

Today I go to Portfolio Review and later Graduation.  That's my day job--well, my day and evening job.  Then I go to church, where hopefully I will discover that my teen helpers have risen to the challenge and led the children through tonight's project.  It's a kit, so less is required of us all.  I worry about that a bit too.  What if the project takes all of 3 minutes?  It needs to take 20-25.

Luckily there are still other art supplies left.  The kids can color or create interesting shapes out of paper tubes, plates, cups, and pipe cleaners.

I'm intrigued by how many of them like to cut paper.  Are they creating some sort of sculpture that only they can see?  Or is it the calming, Zen-like practice of repeating a motion that attracts them?  I don't know.

It will be an interesting day.  I'll begin with professional artists who are just starting off in a grown-up career.  I'll end with elementary school kids, along with some pre-schoolers.  All day, I'll celebrate the joys of art and creativity. 

There are worse ways to wear myself out.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

VBS as Neighborhood Outreach

This year, for our Vacation Bible School, we have 3-5 children who routinely come to our church.  We have roughly 50 children coming each night.  What does it mean that only 10% of our VBS attendees come out of our church?

It means that they come from the surrounding neighborhood.  It means that they drove by and saw the sign.

It means that the most effective form of neighborhood outreach, for our church is VBS.

And then comes the next logical question:  if these children love VBS so much, why don't they ever come back for church?  We see the same children in VBS year after year, so the question feels even more relevant.

Is it because church is on a Sunday morning and VBS is on weeknights?  Is it because parents can drop off their kids?  Is it because parents can commit to 5 nights during a slow week in the summer, but during the school year, it's a different story?  Is it because we serve dinner?

Is it because we call one school and one church?  We've gone the extra steps of making one of our Sunday morning services much more like VBS, and this year, we'll make sure that parents know.  Of course, we've done that for the past 2 years, and still we only see their children for VBS.

These questions are some of the same ones that we ask at camp--why is there a commitment to camp that we don't see to church?  How are they feeding different needs?  Does the commitment point to a need to change the weekly approach?  Or is it because camp and VBS only come once a year and so, they feel special?  Is it because they come once a year that the family is willing to make the effort and sacrifice the time and in some cases, money?

In an ideal world, I'd end this blog post with a big reveal of the answers to these questions. But I have no answers--just a determination to keep asking these questions.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Report from Day 1 of Vacation Bible School

I am spending every evening this week at my church.  I'm the Arts and Crafts Director at our Vacation Bible School.

Last night was our first night, and it went well.  The theme of our VBS is "Weird Animals," and last night we made animals out of paper tubes and Styrofoam cups that I rescued from a café that was going to throw them away.  We had a variety of pipe cleaners and crayons and colored paper.  I was happily surprised with the variety of animals we made.

At first I thought I had made a terrible mistake.  The first group of kids did not dive right in, the way the later groups did.

Some of the children looked a bit baffled.  One said, "I don't know what to make."  I said, "You can make anything you want."  He watched the others for a minute or two, and then he got to work.

In a later group, one child said, "I need a sword."  I said, "Well, you'll have to make one then."

One child decided to work in 2 dimensions.  She drew a picture.  That was fine with me.

Most of the animals would be earthbound, if they existed in real life: we had very few animals with wings or fins.  That's fine.

Every year, I resolve to do more to tie the art in with the lessons.  Last night was no different from any other year.  It was all I could do to keep everyone relatively on task, all I could do to keep utter chaos at bay.  There was no talk of God or how God loves all of us weird animals or anything else.

Maybe I'll do better tonight.  We're making puppets out of paper bags and masks out of paper plates.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Vacation Bible School: Day 1

Tonight my church begins 5 days of Vacation Bible School.  Unlike the VBS of my childhood, we eat dinner at 6 and begin the activities at 6:30.  We stay until just before 9.  Well, the activities last that long; of course we stay until the last parent arrives to pick up their children. 

And then, unlike the public school teachers who make up the bulk of our staff, I get up in the morning and go to work.  I couldn't sustain the pace for very long, but it's worth doing for a week.

Who will come?  It's different each year.  Last year, we had about 70% of our children from outside of the church.  There was one memorable girl who loved VBS so much that her family went from church to church to church, picking up different VBS experiences along the way.

Our Worship Together service, the 9:45 service, owes much to VBS and the fact that kids love it so much.  We have skits, we sing songs, and we do arts and crafts.

I'm impressed with how much money our children raise year after year.  I hope that the children retain the importance of giving resources back.  I know a lot of adults who could use a refresher course.

When I tell people that I'm the VBS Arts and Crafts director, many of those adults look at me in confusion.  "But you don't have kids?"

Yes, but I do believe that we're all responsible for the next generation.  And VBS at my church needs us all.  Everyone who is available and mobile gets pressed into service. 

It's a huge undertaking, but it's worthwhile.  In fact, I imagine that VBS, much like church camps, is one of the more important outreach and spiritual formation activities that we do.

More details to come!

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Holy Trinity Sunday, with Pictures

Today, while much of the U.S. celebrates Father's Day, the Church celebrates Holy Trinity Sunday:

I know that many Christians think of the Trinity as the central mystery of our faith, but it's never seemed as difficult to me as other aspects of theology.  Perhaps the words of Walt Whitman make sense to invoke here, that line about containing multitudes.


Some of us might think about changing the traditional language of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  What words would make more sense?  I prefer Creator, Son, and Holy Spirit.  There are so many elements that we could stress.

We might spend some time thinking about which aspect of the Trinity speaks to us most.  We could spend time charting our answer to that question across our life's trajectory.

I like what Pastor Duncan says in this blog post:  "It is so easy for us to fall into a focus on one person of the Trinity over the others.  Some Christians relate to Father, some focus on Jesus, some on the Spirit.  But to do this is like getting a bike for Christmas and instead of putting it together so you can ride it, you pull out the seat or the frame or the wheels and play with that part and ignore the rest of the bike.  You aren’t going very far on that bike if you do that.  Similarly, we limit our own experience of God when we focus on one person of the Trinity and exclude the others.  This is one reason we regularly remember our Baptism and Luther encourages us to make the sign of the cross – this keeps us grounded in the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Spirit."

Triune God in 2 plants and wind chime

Friday, June 13, 2014

Full Moons and Lighted Windows

Last night, we had a lovely dinner on our front porch.  We've been working to convert the front porch into a delightful alternative living space:

Later I returned to the front porch thinking I would simply blow out the citronella candle.  But then I was captivated by the sight of the full moon and the palm trees.

I stayed outside for awhile, snapping pictures and watching how the clouds moved across the moon.  I experimented with different camera settings.  The shot below is blurry because I used the night setting.  But I still find it compelling:

I thought about this marvelous creation, about a moon that revolves around us, regardless of what's happening on the planet.  I thought about the creator who made it all.  I thought about the larger cosmos and how it points to God.

I thought about how I love the look of lighted windows at night. 

When I was younger, it made me feel shut out.  At midlife, it makes me feel tender towards humanity--just as the full moon makes me feel that way about the larger creation and God.

I believe that God feels the same tenderness towards humanity--and all of creation.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Power of Pentecost

Before we leave the day of Pentecost, let us take another morning to consider the wonder of that day:

A cross transformed into tongues of flame; a people set on a path that would take far from home:

bare feet in the Mepkin Abbey labyrinth

Let us remember the voice of God, which sometimes comes to us as a rushing wind, but sometimes comes as a very small breath of a chime:

Let us remember the power of a small group, the yeastiness of a passionate people:

God adds some water and sugar to the yeast, and the dough of our lives can be transformed into bread:

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, June 15, 2014:

First Reading: Genesis 1:1--2:4a

Psalm: Psalm 8

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 13:11-13

Gospel: Matthew 28:16-20

This Sunday is Holy Trinity Sunday, one of those festival Sundays that seem a bit baffling, at first (like Christ the King Sunday, which comes at the end of the liturgical year). We understand the significance of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. But what exactly do we celebrate on Holy Trinity Sunday?

At first reading, the Gospel doesn't seem to help. And Jesus certainly didn't spend any time indoctrinating his disciples on these matters which would later split the church. He alludes to the Triune God: we see him pray to God and he tells the disciples that he will send a Comforter. But he spends far more time instructing the disciples on how they should treat the poor and destitute, about their relationship to the larger culture, about their role in creating the Kingdom in the here and now.

You get a much better understanding of the Trinity by reading all the lessons together (thanks to my campus pastor from days of old, Jan Setzler, who pointed this out in his church's newsletter almost a decade ago). These aren't unfamiliar aspects: God as creator of the world, God as lover of humans, Christ who came to create community, the Holy Spirit who moves and breathes within us and enables us to create community.

Notice that we have a God who lives in community, both with the various aspects of God (Creator, Savior, Spirit) and with us. It's an image that baffles our rational minds. It's akin to contemplating the infinity of space. Our brains aren't large enough or we don't know how to use them in that way.

My atheist and agnostic friends will sometimes pull up these issues of a triune God when they ask me to defend the faith. I tell them that I can't do it and that I'm content to be living as part of this great mystery. Baffled, they look at me. They say, "You're an educated woman. Certainly you can't accept something you can't explain!!!"

Well, frankly, there are many things I can't explain: electricity, computers, internal combustion engines, arcane French literary theory. Does that mean that I'm going to live in the dark or not use my car? Of course not.

The message that Jesus brings us is refreshingly simple, in that it's easy to understand: "Go and make disciples."

Obviously, it's not that simple, and here, too, interpretations of this text have split the church. Does our commitment stop once we've baptized people? What does it mean to make disciples? There's an infinite supply of answers.

The God that we see in our Scriptures is a God of action. We see God creating in any number of arenas. We are called to do the same. This is not a God who saves us so that we can flip through TV channels. Our God is a God who became incarnate to show us how to be people of action: Go. Make disciples. Teach. Baptize. Keep the commandments. We do this by loving each other and God. We love not just by experiencing an emotion. Love moves us to action.

Our job is not done once we’ve baptized. Our job is not done with the Rite of Confirmation. Jesus, as always, points the way. Why not share a meal together? Why not do some work (fishing perhaps? Building housing for the poor? Weeding the gardens?) together? Why not read the same book?  Why not pray together? Why not create a beautiful work of art together?

Our Triune God calls us to go and make disciples, but two thousand years of Church history shows us a delightful diversity of ways to do that. Theologian Frederick Buechner reminds us in his book Wishful Thinking: "The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet." Jesus promises to meet us there.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Pictures from a Pentecost Wind Chime Project

We began with sticks from a gumbo limbo tree branch that we cut down:

And we added all sorts of junk that we hoped would make pleasing music:

We had fishing line and cloth in Pentecost colors:

People put wind chimes together in ways that pleased them:

When the wind blows, people will be reminded of the power of the Holy Spirit that came on Pentecost:

And when people look at the objects (keys, nails, hinges, washers, computer parts), they can think metaphorically about how God is like that object:

Monday, June 9, 2014

First Report on 2014 Pentecost Art Project

I'm happy to report that my wind chime art project at our interactive service went well.  I had spent lots of time thinking about what I wanted to do:  streamer sticks?  a banner?  I finally decided on wind chimes as something we hadn't done before.

On Saturday, I was beginning to think I'd miscalculated.  My spouse decided that of all the trees in the yard, only the gumbo limbo wood would do for the sticks at the top.  I had thought about ribbons or strips of cloth in flame colors, but he wanted to experiment with fishing line--fishing line does make a chime that moves more.  I had bought some hardware, nails and washers, but my spouse cleaned out his tool boxes.

Our quest for gumbo limbo wood led us to saw down a long branch that stretched across our neighbor's roof.  We'd needed to cut it down for a long time.  And then there was the question of how many people would be there.  How many sticks would we need?

In the end, we had plenty of supplies and people seemed to really enjoy the process.  One family, a mom and 2 smaller children, made it a family project.  Some worked alone.  Here and there, we helped each other.  We ended up with a wide variety of wind chimes.  I know at least one tired child came to the service even though she was given the option of staying home because she was so looking forward to the project.

So, when we're wondering how to get kids to want to come to church, maybe it's the art projects!  Of course, I am biased.

I'll post pictures soon. 

Will people hang their wind chimes in their yards and think of the Holy Spirit every time they hear them?  I hope so.  But even if they don't, we had a wonderful time creating them and talking about all the ways that God is like the various parts we used.  I'm calling the project a success, even though it would have been nice to have more time--but it would always be nice to have more time.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

The Power of Pentecost

The third great church holiday is upon us, although many of us don't think about Pentecost that way.  We don't give Pentecost gifts.  We don't go out to buy our special, new Pentecost outfits--although we may pull out our red clothes.  We don't have food that we only eat on Pentecost.

Perhaps, though, we'll have a birthday cake for the church at coffee hour.  Perhaps there will be confirmands.  Maybe we've decorated the church in special ways.  Will there be streamer sticks or fans or something else to remind us of the great rush of wind?

Lately, I've wondered if we're taking some of the power out of Pentecost.  Are we cheapening the festival by these efforts?

I worry that we get lost in our decorating and art projects, as fun as they are.  I worry that we forget about the message of Pentecost.  It's not about transforming the surfaces of our worship spaces, much as they might need that.  It's about getting us out of our worship spaces to go out to transform the world.  No wonder we throw ourselves into our decorating projects.  The true mission of Pentecost makes us too uncomfortable to bear.

Pentecost is the holiday designed for discomfort, a celebration that should stir us to get up off the couch to go out and do great things. We learn about Pentecost in the book of Acts, after all, not the book of Sleeping Late. Perhaps that’s why so many of us approach Pentecost with a bit of apprehension. Throughout church history, we’ve seen what the presence of the Holy Spirit can do, even in the most improbable settings.

If we let the Holy Spirit loose in our home churches, what might happen? If we trusted in the transforming power of God, what changes might we see, both in our individual lives and in the lives of our church bodies? How might our local society and the larger world be different? The answers to those questions might scare us.
Maybe the answers don't scare us, so much as the thought of the effort involved makes us tired before we've even started.  But Pentecost assures us that it's OK.  God comes to us where we are.  We don't already need to be perfect believers.  In fact, the Bible is full of the wonders that God creates with the most imperfect people.  You likely wouldn't choose the 12 disciples if you were choosing a team to transform your church or business.  But Jesus showed us what was possible from a ragtag group of unlikely leaders.

Pentecost reassures us with the mystical promise of the Spirit. We do not have to know what we are doing; we just need to be open to the movement of the Spirit. Pentecost promises daring visions; we don’t have to know how we’re going to accomplish them. God will take care of that.

God became incarnate to prepare humans to carry on the work of Kingdom creation. And Pentecost reminds us of our job description, to let the Holy Spirit blow into our hollowed out spaces and to fill us with the fire to dream and the resources to bring our visions to life.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Pentecost Eve

On June 5, I returned home; I was listening to the reflections of D-day veterans as I drove.  I got to eat a lovely meal on my front porch.  I thought of those soldiers 70 years ago who would have been eating dinner and wondering if it would be their last supper.  When we said grace, I added a prayer of thanks for those soldiers who won that battle, that battle that some historians consider the most important of World War II, perhaps the 20th century, perhaps of the Western World.

Of course, at the time, most of the soldiers likely saw it as one more battle to slog through.  They didn't understand they stood at a turning point.  We often don't know we're at a hinge time until much, much later.

On the eve of Pentecost, those believers didn't know what was about to happen.  I imagine that they felt at loose ends.  Christ was with them, then crucified, then with them again, then gone.  What now?

Pentecost would answer that question.  But it's good to remember that not every day is Pentecost, not every season has that kind of transformation at its center.

Maybe we have been feeling that we're in a post-Ascension, pre-Pentecost time.  Maybe one mission has come to an end, and we're not sure what to do next.  Maybe we're still recovering from a time of grief and loss.  Maybe our favorite leader has left.  Maybe we're casting about for a project that could set our hearts on fire.

Pentecost promises us that we won't be adrift forever.  At some point we'll hear the rushing wind and feel the flame, and we'll be able to do more than we ever dreamed possible.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Pentecost: Flames to Ashes to Blooms

The feast of Pentecost looms large this week.  What would descending tongues of flame look like in our modern time?

Would it look like light?  Or perhaps the opening of flower clusters?

If you looked up to see a descending flame, might it look like the underside of this wind chime?  I see metal and blazing light--would a descending flame remind us of trumpets?

We fear the flame because we worry we'll be burned to ash.

But out of ashes, new bulbs can bloom.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Thomas Merton, Adjunct Professor

I was struck by this post on Paul Elie's blog that noted that Thomas Merton was an adjunct instructor at Columbia University’s Extension division.  As such, he could have taught J.D. Salinger.

Elie goes on to trace the many footsteps that have followed in that path, paths that might have crossed in that classroom building:  "And it’s striking that, while we [Elie and Salinger biographer Thomas Beller] were there, Eudora Welty – who had traveled to New York from Jackson for the memorial service for Walker Percy – paid a visit to the Graduate Writing Division and recounted that she had been a student in the same building, pursuing a degree in business in 1930 and 1931."

I briefly thought about which paths might have crossed mine--Gail Godwin coming to my little liberal arts college campus for a visit, James Dickey playing guitar at grad student gatherings at the University of South Carolina.  But then my brain went back to the earlier part of the blog post.

Thomas Merton was an adjunct instructor?

Of course, it was early in his life.  I can't imagine that Merton the mystic or Merton the monk was fully present in that room.  But what if he was?

Did his later students realize they'd been taught by Merton the mystic monk?  Did they go back to their freshman year notebooks and look for stray bits of wisdom?

He didn't go on to become a famous educator, so maybe he wasn't the kind of college professor who would inspire frantic note taking. It was early in his life--maybe he didn't have the choice insight that he would display later.

Maybe Merton was boring.  Maybe he stumbled through lectures.  I'm imagining that he taught literature classes, since it was the 1930's, and we didn't have the same kinds of Composition classes that we have now.  What poems would he have taught?  I'm thinking about his comments on essays.

Maybe he was like the musician Sting, who also taught school before he became famous for something else.  I remember reading the liner notes to Bring on the Night; in the note for "I Burn for You," Sting remembers setting his students to their writing tasks while he worked on songs for the gigs in his early band years.  He said that the students passed their A levels, he got his songs written, and everyone was happy.

There, too, I wondered if his students ever made the connection between the later Sting and their early English teacher.  I was early in my English teaching career and fascinated by this approach.  I, too, tried to use every scrap of spare time for my own projects.

I like these pictures of the early years of people famous for their use of language.  I need that reminder that we're all human.  Merton was not born a mystic.  He became one over the course of many decades.  Along the way, he had the same sorts of experiences as many of us will have.

It gives me hope that we're all on a path that will only make sense later, perhaps only after we're dead and biographers begin to tell the tale.  It gives me hope that nothing will be for naught, nothing will be wasted.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, June 8, 2014:

First Reading: Acts 2:1-21

First Reading (Alt.): Numbers 11:24-30

Psalm: Psalm 104:25-35, 37 (Psalm 104:24-34, 35b NRSV)

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13

Second Reading (Alt.): Acts 2:1-21

Gospel: John 20:19-23

Gospel (Alt.): John 7:37-39

Ah, Pentecost, day of fire and wind and foreign languages.

Contemplate how much of Scripture circles around the breath of God. Reread Genesis--creation comes into being because God breathes it into life. Something similar happens in the Gospel of John. Jesus breathes on his disciples and transforms them. Likewise in Acts--that great rushing wind. For those of you in love with words and older translations, we often find the same word in these passages: Pneuma (yes, that root that creates our modern word of pneumonia).

The twenty-first century church, at least some branches of it, is in serious need of the breath of God. Perhaps you are too.

I often think of those first followers, who went out with the breath of God in them, and transformed the world. In the history of social movements, few have been as broadly successful as Christianity.  My atheist friends would chime in that few have been as destructive--we both may be right. What an unlikely story: a small band of weirdly talented or distinctly ungifted men and women head out in pairs, carrying very little with them, and they survive enormous obstacles. In the process, they change the culture--and often, then, they move on. Think of the distances that they travelled--often on foot. Think of how hostile the culture was. You wouldn't be able to suspend your disbelief if you read it in a book.

The breath of God should transform us in the same way. Jesus transfers his powers to his disciples; we're given the power to do what he does. Now, if only we could believe it.

Maybe the key is to act as if you do believe it. You can do remarkable things, even if you don't feel like you can.

We start on a small scale. We go to church. Maybe we remember the weekly lessons on Monday. As years go by, we're better at being Christians throughout the week. We bolster our efforts with spiritual reading and prayer. As we find ourselves transformed, we transform those around us. Many of us stop at this stage or we run out of time--but some of us will go on to transform society: maybe we'll start a food pantry or create legislation that takes care of foster children. Maybe we'll challenge our home countries to look out for the civil rights of all. Maybe we'll issue the same challenge to other cultures. Hopefully, whether it be on a small scale or an international scale, no Christian can be immune to the call to care for the dispossessed, whether on a small, interpersonal scale, or a large, international scale.

It's also important to talk about the cyclical nature of the spiritual life and work. Even Jesus needed to retreat to solitude at times. Even Jesus had to practice self-care. If you feel that you've had the very marrow sucked out of your bones as you've cared for the world, maybe it's time to retreat. Even if you can't physically leave, you can let the machine pick up the phone and turn off the electronics. If you can't do much else, claim some time for the occasional nap. No one can go at an insane pace for very long and stay sane.

Pentecost is an overlooked church holiday. No church holiday gets as much time as Christmas, not even Easter. But Pentecost is such an important reminder of why Christmas happened. God became incarnate to prepare humans to carry on the work of Kingdom creation. And Pentecost reminds us of our job description.

So, receive the breath of God. For a powerful meditative exercise, you might imagine that as you inhale, God breathes into you. Breathe deeply.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Paper Flames for Pentecost

If you're looking for a great Pentecost arts project, or a great conversation/conference/retreat starter, let me recommend a project that we did last year. 

I wanted to do something with flames, and I didn't have the kind of time that some of my friends have had, the time to make fun headpieces out of cloth.  I cut out a lot of flame shapes out of paper.

But what to do with them?  I thought about having people write spiritual gifts that they hoped God would give them on each flame--but I didn't want to reinforce that God-as-Santa-Clause idea that lots of people have.  My pastor suggested that we have group members write spiritual gifts that they see in each other on each flame.
We glued the flames on heads I had drawn on posterboard.  I think it might be a special blessing to take the flames with us--if I do the project again, I'll include that element.

But if I should do that, I'll also stress that our spiritual gifts are not about us.  They're not meant to be private, kept in our pockets, hidden away.  God gives us our gifts to enrich the community.

The project that we did was a great way of exploring how others see our spiritual gifts.  If I worked with a group who didn't know each other well, I think it could also work to have people write the gifts that they think they have, the gifts they want to strengthen, as opposed to the gifts that they wish they could have.

And I'd want to remember that a wide variety of gifts can work as spiritual gifts.  We think of being able to heal with the laying on of hands--but having a gift for listening without advising can be a healing gift too.

Pentecost approaches:  are you ready for that great rushing wind and the flames of power?  Are you ready to receive your spiritual gifts?

This blog post has pictures as I walked people through what we did last Pentecost Sunday morning

Monday, June 2, 2014

Yeast and Pentecost

I am leading our Worship Together service for the two weeks of Pentecost (yesterday and Pentecost).  Worship Together is designed to be a more interactive service, a service which often includes skits, art projects, signing, and other types of activities to teach the faith.

For our art project, we'll be making wind chimes with elements to remind us of the triune God.  I'll post more on this project next week.  Yesterday, we talked about some of the elements:  washers, nails, clips.  I also added other elements:  sunglasses, a camera, a pen.  We talked about these elements as metaphor:  how do these elements remind us of God?

We had a great conversation, and then I brought out the yeast and the bowl of sugared water.  I poured the yeast in my hand, and we talked about how yeast is like a community of believers.  Then I put it in the bowl, and we left it alone for the rest of the service.

Unfortunately, I had too much water and not enough sugar.  But we were able to add more sugar and warm water and by the end of the service:  voila!  We had foaming.

Next week, I'll do the presentation again, as we remember the Pentecost story.  We'll talk about how a small community of believers can transform the world, just like yeast transforms water and flour into an amazing loaf of bread.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Poetry Sunday: Hurricane Season 2014

June 1:  the start of hurricane season 2014.  My cousin-in-law's husband says that if the upper level winds stay the way they are, we won't see many storms.  I'm saying a prayer of thanks for upper level fierce upper level winds which shear storms apart.  Long may they continue to blow!

The start of hurricane season always takes me back to storms I have known.  The most serious storm that I've experienced was Hurricane Wilma back in 2005.  Our church was much more damaged than my house. Winds peeled back the flat roof over the educational wing. The sanctuary was also damaged--lots of water intrusion. Happily, the carpet was old, faded, and ugly. No one cared that we had to get rid of it.

No one cared, but few people showed up to help with the hard work of hauling it out of the building. To be fair, we were an older congregation--there were only about 10 of us capable of doing that work. And it took a long time for the streets to be passable. My spouse and I didn't live far away, so we could show up to work.

I remember the day that the Bishop appeared. I had been hauling wet carpet to the curb after ripping it out of the sanctuary. I was wet and dirty, with bloody hands, when two men came into the sanctuary. They must have been dressed in casual clothes, because I asked, "Are you the carpet guys?"

The assistant puffed up a little and said, "This is the bishop."

Oops. Like I said, I'm fairly sure they were dressed in casual clothes. If the bishop had come wearing his purple shirt and his impressive cross, I'd have known he wasn't the carpet guy.

Somewhere there's a picture of me, dirty and wet, shaking hands with the Bishop.

The Bishop looked at our damage, took notes, and left us with a case of bottled water and some tarps.

At the time, I remember wishing for a bit more help with the physical labor, as I went back to ripping up carpet and hauling it to the curb.

But later, I got a great poem out of it. And now, that poem has been published by North American Review, so I'm happy to post it below.

It's part of a series of poems that imagines what would happen if Jesus came back in our current world and moved amongst us today. Long ago, a Sunday School teacher asked us what we thought would happen if Jesus came back today (today being 1975). Little did she know that I'd still be playing with that question decades later:

Strange Communions

Jesus showed up at our church to help
with hurricane clean up.
“The Bishop was so busy,” he explained.
“But I had some time on my hands,
so I loaded the truck with tarps and water,
and came on down. What can I do?”

“Our roof needs a miracle,” I said.
“Do you know a good roofer?”

“I used to be a carpenter.
Of course, that’s getting to be a long time ago.
Let me see what I can do.”

I set to work ripping up the soaked
carpet in the sanctuary.
As I added a piece of dripping padding
to the pile, I noticed Christ across the street,
at the house with the fallen
tree that took out both cars and the porch.
He walked right up to the door to see
how the household was doing. I dragged
sopping carpet, trip after trip, while Jesus sat
on the porch and listened to the old woman’s sad
saga. The rough edges made my hands bleed.

Good smells made me wander down the dark
church hall to our scarcely used
kitchen, where I found Christ cooking.
“I found these odds and ends and decided
to make some lunch. Luckily, you’ve got a gas stove.”
I shrugged. “Why not? Otherwise, it’s just going to rot.”
How he made the delicious fish stew and homemade
bread out of the scraps he found
in our kitchen, I couldn’t explain.
We went out together to invite
the neighborhood in for a hot
meal, even though they weren’t church members.
We all spoke different languages,
but a hot lunch served by candlelight translates
across cultures.

I dragged drywall, black with mold, to our dumpster,
and noticed Christ walking by the cars in line
for the gas station on the corner.
When I got closer, I noticed he handed
out fresh-baked cookies and bottled water.
“Have some sweetness.
Life is hard when you can’t get necessities.”
Some drivers stared at him, like he was one of those predatory
scammers they’d been warned against.
“What’s the catch?” they growled.
“No catch,” he said with that convincing smile.
“Just a gift of grace, freely given. You’re free
to accept or refuse.” A strange communion.

Jesus left while there was still
much work to do: new carpet to be installed,
drywall to be hung, fencing to be constructed
around church grounds. I watch him drive
his empty truck, followed
by some of the neighbors, away from the church.

The next time it rained, I noticed
that the long, leaking roof had healed.