Thursday, July 31, 2014

Make Church More Like Camp!

The Living Lutheran site has just posted my latest blog post, "Make Church More Like Camp."  Go here to read it.

Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"As July turns to August, church camps across the nation are closing the books on another summer. I imagine equipment being cleaned and stored for the winter. I think of arts-and-crafts directors cataloging materials. I imagine the loneliness of the chapels and the more rustic worship sites as they sit and wait for the coming year."

"Many of us don't talk about making our weekly church experiences more like those that capture the hearts of children. Why are we so resistant to that? Why do we assume that camp is special and a place apart and that we cannot duplicate any of that?"

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for August 3, 2014:

Isaiah 55:1-5
Psalm 145:8-9, 15-22 (Psalm 145: 8-9, 14-21 NRSV)
You open wide your hand and satisfy the needs of every living creature. (Ps. 145:17)
Romans 9:1-5
Matthew 14:13-21

The story in the Gospel lesson is familiar; indeed, a version appears in each Gospel, which may mean it’s more likely to be a factual reporting, or it may mean that each Gospel writer realized the significance and implications of the story and couldn’t bear to leave it out. Jesus preaches to the multitudes, who grow hungry. Jesus commands the disciples to feed them, and they protest that they only have five loaves and two fish. But miraculously, not only are the thousands of people fed, but the disciples gather basket after basket of leftovers.

Christian approaches to this story are varied, from share your resources to rely on Christ for what you need. But today, I'm interested in the human response to the miraculous.

Look at the behavior of the disciples. Jesus commands them to feed everyone, and they protest that they can’t, that they don’t have enough food. They’ve followed Jesus for some time and they’ve seen him perform many miracles, including making dead people come back to life. But their first response is that they can’t possibly do what Jesus expects.

 This story tells us an important lesson about the human resistance to the miraculous. We limit God, and our fellow humans, by our inability to dream big visions. We assume that we’ll always have hungry people, oppressed nations, and what can we do?  We only have so much and it will only stretch so far. But we forget how much is possible—how much we have already seen with our own eyes.

For example, imagine we could time travel back to the year 1985, not so very long ago. Imagine that we told the people of that time that in a few short years, the Berlin Wall would come down. Not only that, but Nelson Mandela would be released from prison and free elections would follow five years later. Not only that, the Soviet Union would soon be no more.

The people we encountered would not believe us. The people of 1985 would have been convinced that Nelson Mandela would die in his South African prison and that his nation would disintegrate into civil war. The people of 1985 would have been convinced that the Soviet Union would always be a part of the geopolitical landscape, and that there would always be a literal wall that separated east from west.

To talk about how these miracles happened would take a much larger space than I have here, but it’s important to remember that one reason is that ordinary people dreamed of something different. For example, in numerous interviews that I’ve heard, Desmond Tutu, gives credit for the fall of apartheid to the governments, institutions, and individuals who fought for divestment from a corrupt regime. And even when the call for divestment was not successful, those calls started an important conversation.

Desmond Tutu also always gives credit to the believers throughout the world who prayed for a peaceful way out of an insolvable situation. Even if you didn’t own a solid gold, South African Kruggerand, you could participate in the process of mercy and justice.

And don’t let my emphasis on political miracles keep us from remembering the other miracles that surround us: health restored, relationships repaired, the student who suddenly understands an impossible subject, the hungry fed, the homeless who come in from the inhospitable climate.

I know that for every miracle, someone has suffered the pain of loss:the cancer that didn’t go into remission, the job loss that leads to other losses or a weather catastrophe from which we cannot recover.  For every South Africa, there are a dozen Darfurs.

But we are called to keep our eyes towards a different reality. The Kingdom of Heaven is not just after death, Jesus declares. It is among us, here and now. And we can be a part of that glorious creation.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Modern Anxiety and the Feast Day of St. Martha

On July 29, we observe the feast day of St. Martha, a feast day that celebrates those who serve in our economy. Martha is often used as a cautionary tale to criticize women who are like Martha.  Martha, you may remember, is so focused on house chores that she doesn’t have time to listen to Jesus, as her sister Mary does. But there’s much more to Martha.

We also meet Martha when her brother Lazarus has died, and Christ arrives too late, from her perspective. She and Mary would have preferred that Christ come earlier so that their brother hadn’t died.

Jesus instructs them to roll away the stone from the tomb, and Martha protests. She’s worried about the smell. She still doesn’t understand what’s about to happen.

How many of us are like Martha? We want to micromanage the miracles that we ask God to give us. We worry about the details. We’re fusspots who want God not to disrupt the social structures in which we live:   keep the ones we love from dying, not raise them from the dead, which will disrupt the social order in all sorts of ways, not the least of which is the smell of decay.

We see Martha behaving similarly in the more familiar story, where Jesus comes over for dinner, and Martha allows the household chores to consume her attention. She’s finally so exasperated that she demands that Jesus insist that Mary help her.  It’s begun to interest me that she doesn’t ask Jesus to help her, but that’s a meditation for another day.

Jesus tells Martha that she’s worried about many things, and in his admonishment, I hear a lesson for us today. Jesus implies that all of the issues that cause her anxiety aren’t really important. It’s a story many of us, with our increasingly hectic lives, need to hear again — maybe every day.

We need to be reminded to stay alert. Busyness is the drug that many of us use to dull our senses. For some of us, charging through our to-do lists is a way of quelling the anxiety. But in our busyness, we forget what’s really important. We forget to focus on Christ and living the way he commanded us.

Some scholars see the Mary and Martha story as an example of how to live the Christian life and the difficulty of navigating the two ends of the spectrum of possibilities. Do we engage in service or do we adopt a more contemplative stance?

Other scholars take a different approach. Worldly concerns and societal norms consume Martha, while her sister Mary is able to focus on the essential.

Some years, I see the Mary and Martha story as one that tells me to forgo the earthly chores to focus on God. All of our busyness takes our focus away from God. God will not appear with white gloves to assess our spiritual progress by way of household upkeep. The assessment of our spiritual progress will focus on much more serious issues than those.

You may think that Jesus said, “Cleanliness is next to godliness.” Jesus did not.

This year, I broaden the lesson to include anything that keeps me anxious. I hear the words of Jesus directed to me. His voice soothes me when he says, “You are anxious and troubled about many things.”

I think about Martha, and I wonder if Jesus was able to quiet her anxieties permanently. I suspect not. This lesson about priorities and our inability to control the world takes a long time to learn. We see in two separate encounters that Martha doesn’t learn right away. But Jesus doesn’t reject Martha for her inability to change. He uses her actions and words to lead to a teaching moment.

I love that Martha has a sharp tongue, and Jesus doesn’t cast her away. I love that we can come to Jesus with our sorrows and our irritations, and Jesus will still stay at the table to eat with us. I love that Martha tries to make Jesus behave in the way that she thinks he should. He refuses, but he doesn’t reject her for her attempts. He understands her all-too-human response to him, and he continues to try to shape her to be the better human that he knows she can be.

Again and again, Jesus reminds the people around him that there is a better way, a way that rises above the cares and anxieties of this world. Again and again, Jesus reminds us all that the Divine lives in communion with us, but if we’re not alert, we’ll miss it completely. Jesus reminds us of what our priorities should be and calls us to shift our attention.


Monday, July 28, 2014

Social Justice Coffee Break

I've been part of Bread for the World since the 80's.  I like their vision of social justice and the way the group operates.  I like their ecumenical, non-partisan focus on making sure the world gets fed.

A side note:  it's interesting to ponder that during my lifetime thus far, we could actually feed the world; the problem is food distribution, not food production.  And during my lifetime, that could change as climate change wreaks havoc with our planet.

Two weeks ago, I got an e-mail from the southeast coordinator of donor relations for Bread for the World.  He was going to be in town and wondered if we could meet.

I thought about my schedule.  It was one of the busiest weeks, with lots of faculty observations and faculty files needing to be completed by the end of the week.  I just wasn't sure that I could find even the tiniest hole.  My schedule before the busy week was so busy that I didn't even respond to his e-mail.

A week ago, I got home to find a phone message from Bread for the World.  It was only Monday, and already my week felt overwhelming.

But as I slept, I dreamed about my calendar and phone messages and making some time.  I woke up, wondering why my subconscious didn't come up with more inventive dreams, something that involved flying or being able to swim underwater with gills.  But I went back to the e-mail and realized that the Bread for the World coordinator would be in town through Friday.  I did have a window on Friday morning.  My window matched his window.

We met at a Panera.  We had coffee and talked about the work the group has done and about the political situation both in South Florida and across the nation.  We talked about the group's vision for the future, which still revolves around eliminating hunger across the globe.

I had thought about avoiding a face-to-face meeting because I was afraid I'd be asked for money, and I don't have much extra to give.  But the issue of money never came up.

We did talk about time and organizing alongside others.  We talked about my writing and how I might help.  Yes, these things I can do.  I did caution, "I will not be one of those people at a political rally yelling in the back of the room.  But I am willing to ask questions at a microphone."

I got back to my office to find an urgent e-mail from the organization asking me to call my representative, which I did.  I'm lucky, in that she often votes the way I'd like her to, but it never hurts for our senators and representatives to hear from us. 

Our coffee meet-up was only an hour, but it might have been the best hour of my week.  It was great to be reminded of what a group of concerned citizens can do.  

It's also good to be reminded of what the Holy Spirit can do.  I think back to my night of restless dreaming.  I think of how God has often spoken through our dreams.  Was God speaking to me that night?

I think so.  I woke up feeling pushed towards that meeting.  Doubters will say it was just my restless subconscious thinking or some strange sense of guilt.  But I'm calling it the Holy Spirit.

The Bible is full of stories of people who said yes to God, along with a few people who said no.  I'm glad to be reminded of the importance of staying receptive to God's vision.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Quilting and the Next Generation

A week ago, I took my quilting project to church.   Unlike at my house, our church has long tables, where I could do the final cutting and pinning without getting down on the floor.

After the intergenerational service, I stretched it out on one of the tables to be able to cut and pin without having to be on my hands and knees.  Several girls came over and offered to help.  They asked me questions about quilting, and I gave a quick overview.

I offered to teach them more at a later point.  One girl said, "I've got nothing planned for today."  But alas, I didn't anticipate their interest, and so I had no supplies.

Still, I let them pluck pins out of a box and help pin the fabric.  I told them about how I had assembled the quilt, the top and the putting together of the 3 layers.

I also talked about why I was making it; it's a prayer quilt, like a prayer shawl, but made of different materials. We talked about the prayer shawl ministry and why quilts and blankets are such a comfort.  We talked about our favorite quilts and blankets.

Our time was short, so I couldn't give  a quick history lesson.

How I love quilting, one of the art forms that truly began in the U.S.  I love an art form born out of adversity, like the lack of cloth, that shows such cleverness and thrift.  I admire all the ways that humans have reinvented the form.

Maybe I'll make a quilt kit for the girls who helped me on Sunday.  They wanted to make quilts for their dolls.  I was so thrilled that children still played with dolls--and that they want to make things for them!  I left feeling happy in so many ways.

We'll be quilting again at my church.  We've got a day of service projects planned on September 7, and we'll be making at least one quilt for Lutheran World Relief.  Maybe we'll gather once a quarter to work on quilts.  Or maybe we'll just do it once and see what happens.  We're already all so busy.  But if people want to learn to quilt, it's hard for me to say resist.

Friday, July 25, 2014

The Spirituality of Space

I had heard a lot about the movie Gravity.  I knew it was probably best seen on the big screen, but it slipped away from the movie theatres before I had a chance to go.

I heard many people talk about the beauty of the movie, and a subset talked about how spiritual it was.  So, the other night, after a long day wrestling with forms and faculty files, I settled in to quilt and watch.

I must confess, I switched between it and reruns of Modern Family.  I fast-forwarded through some of the parts of floating through space.  There seemed to be huge swaths of floating through space.

On a big screen, perhaps this would have been spiritual--or at least beautiful.  On a small screen, I found it boring.

So, if I looked for the spirituality in the movie, what would I say?  There's the issue of when we give up on life and when we don't.  But I didn't see the movie approach this question from a spiritual angle, more from a survivor who needs to dredge up her last reserves and carry on.

There's the issue of the fragility of life.  I found this article on the NPR site which addressed that angle:  "Also, as we see in the movie, to leave the protective blanket of our atmosphere is extremely risky. Life out there is impossible, as the movie's opening lines make clear."

The movie doesn't go in this direction, but it made me think about the creator of this universe.  What does it say that so much of the universe, at least as we know it now, is hostile to life as we understand it?  I've wrestled with this issue before; see this blog post for more thoughts and a poem of mine, "Geology, The True Life Science."

One of the creation stories in Genesis leads many to think of humans as the ultimate creation, the one that God intended.  Some go further and say that this creation story leaves humans in charge for all time.

The movie shows the folly of those beliefs.  We are only in charge as long as we've got our protective atmosphere--and often, not even then.

And thinking we're in charge is the ultimate folly.  We are not, not even remotely.  The movie shows the folly of this thinking again and again and again.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Doe Spiritual but Not Religious Mean Solitary?

We've been hearing a lot lately about people who describe themselves as spiritual but not religious.  Whenever I hear that, I think of Marcus Borg's The Heart of Christianity.  In it, he develops an idea that he credits Huston Smith for initiating:  ". . . religion is to spirituality as institutions of learning are to education" (p. 219).  You could do it all yourself in the arena of religion/spirituality or learning/education.  You could read books and pray and teach yourself all kinds of things.  But why deny yourself the resources and community of the institution?

We tend to think that spiritual but not religious types are operating all on their own, doing their own thing, finding God in the sunsets and beach walks and forests of the world.  But a recent book review in The New York Times suggests it may not be true.

It's actually a review of 3 books, but the last one by Courtney Bender, The New Metaphysicals: Spirituality and the American Religious Imagination, addresses the issue of the solitary spiritual person.  They're often not working in isolation the way that popular culture would have us all believe:  "They 'participated in everything from mystical discussion groups to drumming circles to yoga classes,' Dr. Bender said in an interview. And her finding that spirituality 'is not sui generis,' but rather learned in communities that persist over time, actually runs contrary to spiritual people’s conceptions of themselves, she said. 'There is something in the theology of spiritual groups that actually refocuses their practitioners from thinking about how they fit into a long continuous spirituality.'”

She then goes on to explore these communities, from alternative medicine to the arts.  Hurrah!  The arts are included.

I, of course, began to wonder if some of the arts, the more communal arts, lead to a more spiritual connection than others.  That may be a subject for another book.  I suspect it won't be the focus of Bender's book.  But I plan to read this book anyway.

And I plan to bookmark this idea about the arts, communal practice, and spiritual development.  You might say this book has already been written, but I am not so sure.  I do have sociologist Robert Wuthnow's Creative Spirituality:  The Way of the Artist--I read it years ago, and it didn't answer the questions I had then.

Will it now?  Originally, I read it looking for insights about arts programs in churches, which I didn't find.  As I scanned it again just now, it seems that he's looking at artists who are not working in community, at least not ostensibly.  I, of course, would argue that almost all of us are working in community.  But a dance troupe does have more of a communal sense than the solitary writer or musician.

And then there is my larger question:  can an artistic community bring a spiritual artist back to a more institutional religion?

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 27, 2014:

First Reading: 1 Kings 3:5-12

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Genesis 29:15-28

Psalm: Psalm 119:129-136

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 105:1-11, 45b

Psalm (Alt.): Psalm 128 (Psalm 128 (Semi-continuous) NRSV)

Second Reading: Romans 8:26-39

Gospel: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Today we have a series of interesting parables which Jesus uses to explain the Kingdom of Heaven. I don't think that Jesus is explaining the afterlife, the way that many of us might assume when we hear the word "Heaven." Instead, Matthew uses that word as shorthand for a concept that's closer to "life as God intended." Of course, I'm grossly simplifying, but instead of doing an in-depth exploration of the word "Heaven," let's look at the images Jesus uses.

Note the smallness, the almost invisibility, of the first two images (verses 31-33): mustard seeds and yeast. There are two elements which are interesting. One is that these small grains left alone will transform themselves into something bigger--and in the case of yeast, will transform the surrounding elements too. Leave flour alone, and it won't change much in terms of volume. Even if it gets buggy, the bag won't explode. But add yeast and water and a bit of sweetness and leave the bowl in a warm place for a few hours--when you return to the bowl, the dough might be overflowing. Likewise with a seed. Plant it in the earth, add some water, and leave it alone--if you're lucky, you get a shrub or a tree. If we go out looking for the kingdom to be a big, glorious thing, we might miss the Kingdom.

Many people simply don't register the presence of God because they're looking for the wrong thing. They're looking for something huge and powerful. For example, think about the Jews of Jesus' time. They didn't want spiritual salvation. When they talked about a savior, they wanted someone who would kick the Romans out of their homeland. They missed the miracle of Jesus because they looked for the wrong sign.

The next set of metaphors (verses 44-46) talks about the preciousness of the Kingdom and also a bit about the effort required to find it. The treasure/pearl doesn't just fall into the men's laps--they're out looking.

We live in a culture that doesn't want to put in a lot of work. If you don't believe me, watch the claims that advertisers make: I can lose weight by eating a cookie, I can make by working just 15 minutes a day, I can get a college degree without leaving my house. I love talking to my colleagues and collecting their strange student stories. One of my colleagues had a student stomp out in a huff when she realized she'd have to write essays. Keep in mind, my colleague teaches an English Composition class. Did the student think they'd be creating macaroni collages?

And then I start to wonder why this student imagines that she can go to college and not have to work. Where does she get that message? Of course, the culture in which she lives beams that to her all the time.

Likewise, Kingdom living requires some effort on our part. God wants to meet us, but we have to go forward towards God. We have to look for the right signs, and we have to make some effort. That effort might be regular prayer, spiritual reading, going to church, turning ourselves into caring people, giving more of our money away.

But the end of this week's Gospel assures us that the effort will pay off. We don't want to be in the furnace where men weep and gnash their teeth. For those of you who read the end of the Gospel as a metaphor of Hell after death, you might be right. But I would argue that life is terribly hellish right here and now for people who aren't doing transformational work.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Creativity: Using What's On Hand

A few years ago, at Mepkin Abbey, we noticed that one of the huge, majestic trees had toppled over.  But we were more awed by what the monks had decided to do with that tree:

The other chunk of tree was later carved into a crucifixion scene:

The monks could have paid a lot of money to an arborist team to have that tree removed.  But instead, they saw the creative possibilities.

It makes me wonder about the materials I have on hand.  I often go out to buy materials for a project.  What if I worked from a different perspective?  What if I thought about what I already have in my house and went from there?

This monastic approach of using what's on hand branches out into all areas of the monk's lives, from what I can see.  I've been there for meals with pairings that I thought very odd:  a spinach-tomato frittata paired with a cottage cheese and pineapple side dish.  I wondered if the monks were simply trying to use up the food on hand that was about to go bad.   How many of us might have run out to the grocery store to pick up some ingredients that we thought would be more appropriate for a side dish, like a salad or broccoli?

Well, if I used what I had on hand and started from there, I'd have time to do a lot more creating, time I would have spent running errands and waiting to have money to buy supplies and waiting to have time to get to the store. 

Let me take a lesson from the monks.  Let me begin with what's on hand.  Let me start now.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Quilting a Meeting

Yesterday, I took my time-sensitive quilting project to our church council meeting.   I've been on the lookout for chunks of time to work on it, and yesterday's meeting seemed perfect, with its start time moved from 10 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.  I don't usually take copious notes so I thought I'd try quilting during our meeting time.

I've noticed that many of our members keep looking at their cell phones, so I didn't feel I'd be disrespectful by quilting.  In fact, I think I think checking one's cell phone is more distracting mentally than quilting.  One of our members has worked on knitting a prayer shawl, so there's been a precedent.

During my time at the Create in Me retreat, I crocheted a prayer shawl.  I worried that I might not pay attention if I was crocheting, but I found that just the opposite was true.  Having my hands busy quieted my mind.  And when I look at my notebook from that retreat, I find that I took notes too.

Yesterday, I found that the quilting calmed my mind in a similar way.  And when our meeting time went longer than scheduled, I didn't mind.  I made more progress, and that was good.

I wish I could take my quilting and crocheting projects with me everywhere, especially to meetings at work.  Alas, taking my projects to work is probably unwise--but perhaps I'll start thinking about meetings of other types as opportunities to get some quilting done.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Seneca Falls and the March To Inclusion

Today in 1848, the first U.S. women's rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York. Among the demands made by the women assembled was the right to vote.

I could make the argument that it's historical events like this one that set us on the road towards expanded pulpits, although it would be many more years after women started exercising their right to vote (in 1920) before we'd see women in Protestant pulpits. The major exception to that sentence would be the Pentecostal churches. The Pentecostal branch of Protestantism was more open to women preachers early on, since the movement was founded by women.

Of course, I must admit that we're still far away, very far away, from full parity. We still see very few female senior pastors compared to males. We still see very few female bishops, when we compare those numbers to the bishoprics held by males. But we've made amazing progress in the 162 years since the Seneca Falls Convention.

What I find most exciting about the various human rights movements of the past few centuries is how the idea of rights for one group expands to affect other disenfranchised groups. I'm a Lutheran, and as a denomination, we're still wrestling with the idea of homosexual people serving as pastors. The ELCA allows homosexual people in lifelong committed relationships to serve as pastors, but also allows churches to decide not to invite homosexual pastors to serve them.

And of course, there are still plenty of mainstream Protestants who aren't comfortable with women serving. The work is not done.

And I'm not even taking on the Catholic church.

But today, let us celebrate Seneca Falls. Let us celebrate those few brave women who dared to dream of a more inclusive world. Let us offer prayers of gratitude for those women and for human rights workers everywhere. Jesus constantly reminded us that we're to look out for the poor and the oppressed. Those who work for human rights show us ways that we might fulfill Christ's mission.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Sidewalk Chalk Evangelism

On a discussion on Facebook the other day, a woman wrote: 

"I am using Brian McLaren's book: We Make the Road by Walking, for small groups starting September. We are using the walking/pathway/journey of faith image for next year, beginning in the fall. Looking for creative ways to be church with this focus. Weekly meeting in small groups will happen in homes, a Panera Bread and the church. Looking for new ideas for weekly book study gatherings and to make real the journey of faith image.

 My church is a smaller congregation in an affluent neighborhood. It is a higher educated group and many live very focused, purpose filled lives. Feeling desperate for new ideas.

 Need some inspiration from the creative clergy women community!"

I thought of labyrinths and of walking through the neighborhood in prayer.  But I also thought of this picture from Lutheridge, taken by Mary Canniff-Kuhn:

Thus, inspired by the above picture, I wrote this idea, which I want to capture here as well:

"I am impressed with things that my poet/teacher friends do with poems and big hunks of sidewalk chalk. You can make trails this way too. My friends would put poems on sidewalks. I bet you could do something similar with faith images, verses, inspirational words and phrases, prayers that are chalked onto the pavement. Or if not sidewalks, perhaps the church parking lot, driveways, and whatever Panera allows."

I love the idea of leaving wonderful, affirming messages on sidewalks and pavements across the nation.  What a powerful evangelism that would be.

I use the word evangelism guardedly.  I don't have a vision of the kind of evangelism designed to get people to come to our churches.  But I do have a vision of spreading the gospel good news this way:  angel messages for a different age.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Fasting for Peace

Driving to work yesterday, I heard this story on NPR about Jews and Muslims breaking their fast together as they prayed for peace in the West Bank; they were part of a worldwide effort as a Jewish fasting holiday that commemorates the destruction of the Temple in and the Muslim fast of Ramadan happened in the same month.  I felt a pang of regret that I had not fasted.

I had heard about the fast in the hours leading up to it.  Rabbi Rachel Barenblat had mentioned it in her writing, and I briefly thought about attempting it myself.  I didn't do it for many reasons:  fear, laziness, not enough time to build up my resolve.

People might question why fast anyway?  What good would it do?  One of the commenters in the NPR piece explains, "Fasting is used by Judaism to beseech God, to say, look, we're withholding pleasure from ourselves. And we're withholding food and drink, because we really want you to recognize that there's something going on that needs attention." 

In this post, Rachel Barenblat says, "What does abstaining from food and drink for a day actually accomplish? I know that it won't change the external realities on the ground. But communal fasting is a very old Jewish way of connecting with others in grief and in hope. I hope that the fast will make an impact on we who are participating in it, and will inspire us to take action to bring peace and healing. And perhaps the fast will bring some hope to those who hear or read about it, and will inspire them to take action, too." 

She quotes Rabbi Jill Jacobs:  "As Jews, we know that fasting is one of our tradition's main expressions of a public crisis. While most of us don't believe that God will literally heed our fast and come to intervene, we nevertheless yearn for a way to express our sorrow and to stand in solidarity with our brothers and sisters. Publicly embracing an interfaith  spiritual action is a small step, but it is better than privately wringing our hands and beating our breasts."

I used to be a skeptic.  I would be one of those people sneering:  "Why pray?  Why fast? Go out and work with the poor.  They need action, not symbolic gestures."

But through the years, I've seen social injustice so huge that a simple action of mine won't provide the fix.  I'm thinking of apartheid in South Africa, which haunted me in so many ways in the 1980's.  I participated in many interfaith events which primarily consisted of prayer, song, and letter writing.

Once I would have thought of prayer, song, letter writing, and fasting as symbolic actions.  Now, I no longer do.

Do I think that God responds because of our actions?  Yes--and I think that others respond too.  Enough actions, symbolic and otherwise, and the world shifts.

Did my prayers create the end of apartheid?  Would it have happened anyway?  Perhaps the divestment campaigns of the 1980's did more to hasten the change?  I do not know.  Part of me says that it wouldn't have happened without the spiritual component.  Part of me would talk about geopolitical events and keep the spirituality out of it.

I am nourished by those memories of spiritual solidarity from earlier times in my life.  That's why I wish I had fasted on Tuesday.

Unfortunately, I'm sure there will be plenty of opportunities for shared spiritual actions in the future, even if peace blooms in the West Bank.  I'm hopeful that the next time I'll be quicker to say yes.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The lessons for Sunday, July 20, 2014:

First Reading: Isaiah 44:6-8

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Genesis 28:10-19a

First Reading (Alt.): Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19

Psalm: Psalm 86:11-17

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 139: 1-11, 22-23 (Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24 NRSV)

Second Reading: Romans 8:12-25

Gospel: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Again this week we have agricultural metaphors--what an intriguing scenario, to have an enemy that sneaks into your fields to sow weeds, instead of just destroying the field outright. And what an interesting response of the owner: to let the wheat and the weeds grow, to separate the useful from the useless later, once the growing is done and the reaping finished.

The traditional response to this Gospel sees this story as a metaphor about Judgement Day. My problem with that metaphor is that weeds don't turn into wheat, and I don't like the implications of that. The parable comes much too close to advocating predestination for my Lutheran sensibilities to be happy with this interpretation.

Luckily, humans aren't solely weeds or wheat. I know that there are some weeks where I'm more of a weed than anything that is of agricultural use. And I'm the pesky kind of weed; I'm not the kind of weed that grows quietly alone; I impede the spiritual progress of others, strangling and choking and making life miserable. I console myself by telling myself that we all have those days or weeks or seasons where our weedy natures take over.

But I can’t take too much consolation. These summer Gospel readings remind us that we don’t get to sleep in the soil forever. We don't get to loll around in our wheatfield, hoping that we're one of the chosen ones and not one of the weeds. At some point, the wheat will be separated from the weeds.

Let us return to the idea of sowing and seeds, a useful metaphor in so many ways. How can we sow seeds now that will blossom into good gardens later? There are as many ways to do this as there are vegetables in the garden right now in many parts of the country.

Maybe we could pray more. Maybe we could resolve to be cheerful, no matter what the day brings. Maybe we could give one or two percent more of our income away. Maybe we could remember to say “please” and “thank you.”

Our basic task is to reflect God's light into a world that dims each day. How can you best do that?

If you feel disheartened, like your weedy self is too firmly rooted, remember those who have gone before you. One of Christianity's most successful evangelists, Paul, was killing Christians before he converted. If God found a use for Paul, God can use your seedling talents too.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Protection and Safety

I was looking through photos from our sailing trip, and I came across one of a child wearing swim gear.  Those of us who are older may envision a swimsuit, maybe some sunscreen.

Oh no.  Children swim almost fully clothed these days.  There's a long-sleeved swim shirt to go with swim shorts.  On our recent trip, I saw swimming children with headgear.  The hat fully covered the head and forehead, with a bill, and flaps that covered the neck.  The children's exposed skin was slathered with sunscreen.

I've already had 3 skin cancers removed, so I do understand the dangers of the sun and how those dangers accumulate across a lifetime of exposure.  But I also wonder if we get so focused on some dangers that we forget to think about others.

Later on our trip, I saw those same children scampering on the side of a sailboat--no life jacket or personal flotation device.  I asked the father if the children could swim--no.

Earlier in the day, the parents had been more cautious.  But as they grew comfortable on the boat, they let the children remove the PFD as long as they kept their feet on the cockpit.  And then, it was only a matter of time before they relaxed that rule.

Which poses more danger to a child, sunlight or drowning?

But I am not a parent, and I'm not as interested in these issues as I might appear.  I'm really looking at the metaphor.

In our own spiritual lives, where do we need more protection?  Are we so focused on protecting ourselves in one way that we fail to see other dangers?  What are the best practices that we should be adopting?  Where have we gone slightly overboard?

Monday, July 14, 2014

Bastille Day, Woody Guthrie, and Liberation Songs

Today is my birthday. It's also Bastille Day, the French equivalent (sort of ) of our Independence Day. I see this historical event as one of many that launched us on the road to equality. It's an uneven success to be sure. More of us in the first world enjoy liberty than those in developing nation. But that thirst for freedom and equality found some expression in the French Revolution, and I could argue that much liberation theology has some rootedness in that soil (yes, it would be a problematic argument, I know).

It's also Woody Guthrie's birthday.

I share my birthday with many famous people (Irving Stone, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Gerald Ford), but I've always been happiest to share my birthday with Woody Guthrie. I see Woody Guthrie as one of the unsong (ha ha) liberation theologians.

I've always asked my students if they're familiar with his music, and they always say they're not. Then I sing a bit of "This Land Is Your Land," and they realize that they do know his work.

Unfortunately, the most radical verses of that song are often not sung:

"In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I'd seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?

As I went walking, I saw a sign there,
And on the sign there, It said "no trespassing." [In another version, the sign reads "Private Property"]
But on the other side, it didn't say nothing!
That side was made for you and me. "

Throughout his life, Woody Guthrie showed a compassion for the poor and the dispossessed that we see so rarely from famous/talented/artistic people. He also showed an amazing capacity for nurturing the talents of the next generation (most notably, Bob Dylan and later, Bruce Springsteen and U2). We could argue about his Huntington's disease: what was responsible for what? We could talk about his womanizing and his abandonment of his children, and I'm not arguing that he gets a free pass on that behavior because of his disease or because of his artistic talent.

I am saying that his lifelong radicalism impresses me. His lifelong commitment to his art impresses me. His struggle to be a better family man, requiring a fresh start again and again, impresses me. His ability to create art in spite of his lack of formal training and education, impresses me.

He has written songs that school children sing, songs that rock and roll folks sing, songs that invade my sleep and sweeten my dreams.

If I was the person in charge of modern feast days, I'd canonize Woody Guthrie.  His songs point the way to living a more solidly ethical life.  His life does not, except by example of some things not to do.  And yet, at the end, despite his wanderings, the love of his life, Marjorie, continued to care about him.

It's easier to love someone like Woody Guthrie who has a brain disease that makes him behave badly.  It would be much harder if he was a jerk just because he was a jerk.

You might ask me why he deserves a feast day.  I would point out his prolific output, his variety of types of songs, his embrace of dispossessed people of all sorts, his embrace of freedom.  I would argue that his music can lead us to the social justice actions that God commands.  I could make a case that his music leads us to God, both the songs he wrote, and the songs inspired by his life and work.

What better person to make a saint?  I'm not exactly serious, because I know most people could make a fairly lengthy list of people who deserve sainthood more.

But for today, let's celebrate a musical legend.  Let's celebrate the man who gave us the line "This land was made for you and me."  Let's sing!

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Thinking More About the Hobby Lobby Case

I don't fit neatly into any of the categories of Hobby Lobby commentators.  I was once fiercely pro-choice.  I thought that a pregnant woman should have access to an abortion at any moment in the pregnancy that she wanted to have it.

Then my sister became pregnant, and I learned how far medical technology had come, and I became queasy about all abortions.  It was harder to argue that an embryo or fetus was just a collection of cells.

In the same year, my mother-in-law was dying, and I became queasier about end-of-life issues.  I think we give up on life too quickly, and yet, I also can see the wisdom of those who talk about quality of life.

I have not resolved any of these issues.

I am also not as anti-corporate as many of my friends.  I am not as quick to believe that bosses are evil.  I understand the agony of living one's values, especially when those values are minority views in society.

If I decided to create a company, employ people, and earn money that way, I'd want to be able to structure my company to align with my values.  My values are informed by my liberal Christian views and my liberal arts education.  I don't expect that I'd run up against government policies, but what would happen if I did?  And what if by that point, my company had become quite large and prosperous?

I find it interesting that the Hobby Lobby policy isn't banning all birth control.  A woman could be on a pill that prevents fertilization, but not a pill that destroys a fertilized egg.  I  understand the difference, and the policy doesn't seem as onerous to me as it does to many of my feminist friends.

I also agree with Justice Ginsberg, who worries where this decision will lead.  It's a thorny issue, this one of religious liberty.  I predict we will wrestle with these issues for decades.  We already have been.

What does it say that we may settle our minds around gay marriage more quickly than around women's fertility? 

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Distilled Theology on Stones

Several years ago, I saw this basket of meditation stones in the gift shop of Mepkin Abbey.

I'm sure they inspired me to create something similar:

I was making a quiet meditation space for our church.  Many of the elements of that space no longer exist, but we've kept the rocks on the card table.

Each week, the rocks are laid out in a different configuration.  I like to think that someone leaves inspired by their time with these words on stones.

And even if it's bored children looking for diversion during church services, that's fine too.  Who knows where this play with distilled theology on stones will lead?

(in the interest of honesty, I will say that the arrangements of these stones was done by me)

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 13, 2014:

First Reading: Isaiah 55:10-13

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Genesis 25:19-34

Psalm: Psalm 65:[1-8] 9-14 (Psalm 65:[1-8] 9-13 NRSV)

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 119:105-112

Second Reading: Romans 8:1-11

Gospel: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

This Gospel returns us to one of my favorite metaphors: the seed. When I first read this Gospel lesson as a child, I read it as an indictment of the seeds. Clearly some were just bad or worthless. Now, as an adult, I see this Gospel as being primarily about the ground. We've all got lots of potential, but some of us just aren't in the right kind of ground to flourish.

Unlike seeds, we can move. I'm not necessarily talking about a literal move, although the idea of moving to be near a great religious community doesn't strike me as absurd, the way it once did. Many of us move for much more stupid reasons.

Unfortunately, given the state of housing and job markets, many of us are as rooted as plants need to be. However, there are still many things we can do to enrich the soil in which we find ourselves.

The first thing we should all do is take a long, hard look at the people with whom we spend time. Are these people who are bringing out our best traits? Or do we have negative friends, people who encourage us to gossip, to tear others down, to be angry or sour? Perhaps it's time to expand our network of friends.

Think about your daily schedule. What activities leave you feeling icky? For example, many of us start our days by watching the local news. What would happen if you turned off the news and read a chapter of the Bible? You'd probably leave the house feeling calmer. I know that you'll tell me you only watch the news to get the weather and the traffic. Well, there are better ways to get that information. The local news carries such horrific stories and our bodies can't handle that stress.

Likewise, what do you listen to in the car? Does it soothe you or drive your heart rate through the ceiling? Invest in something that calms you (a CD, a podcast, a tape). Get something that reminds you of who you're supposed to be. I've noticed that when I'm listening to Godspell, I'm less likely to curse my fellow drivers, and the lyrics stay with me through the day.

Think about your charitable activities. Just as we tithe money, we should tithe time. You'll feel better if you can do more for others. Even if you don't like the populations we usually think of when we think of charity, you can find someone who needs you. Read books to elementary school kids. Or, if you don't want to deal with humans, go to a food bank and sort food. Or call charitable agencies and offer to do free data inputting.

And don't forget that humans have a need for retreat. Build mini-retreats into your day:  find some green space and go there to pray; read something inspiring, if you can't leave your desk; find web sites with inspiring material and visit; close the door to your families, don't answer the phone, and practice deep breathing. And think about a longer retreat. Summer camp isn't just for kids any more. And if you can't go during summer, many church camps have year-round programming, often at very affordable prices. Or go to a monastery, many of which often will just ask for an offering.

And know that there are times in your life where your heart won't be fertile soil. But if gardening teaches us anything, it's that soil can be redeemed--and if you want to keep on with this metaphor: what redeems soil? Poop! Lots and lots of poop! So give thanks for all the poop that falls into your life and pray that it transforms the soil of your heart. The redemption process goes faster if you participate. And teeny changes can lead to incredible rewards. Here, in the sweltering days of summer, think about one change you can make and commit to a weekly practice until the weather cools off.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Spiritual Elders

Yesterday I read this wonderful tribute to a rabbi who died recently.  But not just any rabbi--he was the kind of theologian who not only wrote about spirituality but lived it and moved the spiritual conversation forward exponentially.  Rabbi Reb Zalman was the rabbi who led Rabbi Rachel Barenblat back to Judaism and inspired her to become a rabbi.

Many parts of this tribute spoke to me, but I love this image of how all religious faiths are equally important:  "He taught that every religion is an organ in the body of humanity -- that we need each one to be what it most uniquely is (after all, if the heart tried to do the liver's work, we'd be in trouble) and we also need each one to be in conversation and connection with the others (if the heart stopped speaking to the lungs, that wouldn't be so good either.)"

And I also loved that Zalman understood the importance of preparing the next generation to take his place:  "He used to do an actual exercise where everyone would sit at the table, with him in the rebbe's chair at the head, and he would offer a teaching -- and then instruct everyone to rise and shift over one chair, and whoever had moved into the rebbe's chair would have the opportunity to be in that role for a little while. (In retrospect I see in that teaching yet another gentle way of reminding us that his deployment wouldn't be forever.)"

Rachel's post also made me think about how I'd like to be remembered.  It's hard for me to imagine that I could move spiritual conversations forward in the way that Zalman did.  But then again, do we always know that we're moving the spiritual conversation forward?  We move through our days, living our faith the best way we can, trying new ways when the old ways don't work.  When enough of us do that, we see changes.

The other day I was thinking of a conversation I had in 1988, when a Lutheran minister had been forced to leave the denomination because he was gay and not willing to be closeted.  I had an outraged friend who wasn't Lutheran.  In a way, I shared her outrage.  But in a different way, I wondered what the minister had expected would happen--after all, the Lutheran doctrines were very clear.

Well, now those doctrines have changed.  They've changed because of countless conversations and instances of outrage and people refusing to live in a way that doesn't feel authentic.  We don't all agree--not by any stretch of the imagination.  Some of us are still arguing about ordination of women.

The gender of God is another area of great change during my short lifetime.  In my childhood, God was always male, always removed, always stern.  But several generations of theologians, feminist and otherwise, have changed that view.

I know that plenty of people will argue that these developments have injured the faith, perhaps fatally.  I disagree.   And some people would be willing to fight and fight and fight to win this argument, even if that fighting is what delivers the death blow.

Great spiritual leaders like Reb Zalman know the futility of that approach.  He was always looking for ways to build bridges.  We should be too.

Here I will let Rachel give the final word, the benediction:   The question isn't who's going to "win" -- it's how can we all bring our energy, our spiritual technologies, our hearts and souls, together in order to effectively transform the broken world? 'The only way to get it together,' he used to say, 'is together.'"

Monday, July 7, 2014

Return to Regular Life

I have been away on a short sailing trip, complete with our first night trip.  What fun!

Of course, flying is the least fun part of the trip, but it could have been worse.  Still, I didn't get to bed until after 1 a.m., so the details of my short summer vacation trip will have to wait.  Now it's time to get to work.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

More Thoughts about Freedom


For many of us, Independence Day is a day of cook-outs and fireworks.  If we don't live in a place that has preserved colonial history, or if we live further west, Independence Day may seem a distant holiday.  But this holiday week-end gives us a good reason to remember the high stakes that those signers of the Declaration of Independence faced.  It's good to remember how much they valued the idea of freedom, even if they didn't extend those freedoms to all.

It's a good day to think about what liberties we hold most valuable.  Those signers pledged their lives, their fortune, and their sacred honor--what would you pledge?

You might think that the freedom to practice my spiritual faith is most important to me, and I do value that.  But having access to information might be even more important to me.  If I had to choose my favorite right from the Bill of Rights, it might be freedom of the Press.

I like the ability to read just about anything that comes my way.  But maybe the ability to create is even more precious to me.  Unlike Chinese artists, I don't have to worry about being arrested and sent to jail.

I like the freedom of movement we have in this country--granted that's not a freedom that we find enshrined in our founding documents.  But the other freedoms lead to that freedom of movement--both physical movement and the movement of our minds.

I like being able to follow the path, wherever it leads. 

I want to leave some light as I go along to lead a way to others.

Friday, July 4, 2014

To Whom Do We Pledge Allegiance?

My post on Independence Day is up at the Living Lutheran site.  Go here to read it.

Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"It’s also a perfect time to think about our own priorities. The founders of the United States pledged their lives, their fortune, and their sacred honor – what would we pledge? What movement would demand this of us?

And now, for perhaps the most difficult question: Would we make that sacrifice for God?  On this day where so many of us are pledging allegiances, to whom do we pledge our allegiance? Do our actions match our words?"

"Independence Day also gives us a great opportunity to think about our own individual chains. What’s keeping us from freedom? If we named our deepest oppressions, what would make the top five on the list?"

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Marcus Borg on the Divinity of Jesus

Once, long ago, I taught an adult Sunday School class.  As a college teacher, I've always tossed provocative questions out to the class, and I didn't approach the Sunday School class any differently.  One morning I asked how our beliefs and actions would change if archaeologists found the bones of Jesus. 

One of my students got a bit upset at the thought.  He declared he'd never come to church again if presented with proof that bodily resurrection didn't happen.  On the other hand, I said that it was the teachings of Jesus that were important to me, and the resurrection or lack of it wouldn't affect my use of those teachings to structure my life.

I thought of that Sunday School class yesterday when I read this post by Marcus Borg.  He says he doesn't believe in the divinity of Jesus:  "Was Jesus God? No. Not even the New Testament says that. It speaks of him as the Word of God, the Son of God, the Messiah, and so forth, but never simply identifies him with or equates him with God. As John’s gospel puts it, he is the Word become flesh – that is, he reveals what can be seen of God in a finite human life. To say, 'I believe Jesus was God' (as some Christians do, or think they are supposed to) goes beyond what the New Testament affirms and is thus more than biblical. He is the Word incarnate – not the disembodied Word."

Borg goes on to talk about Jesus as showing what humans could be truly capable of--that's why it's important to him not to think of Jesus as having a "divine supercharger."

I agree with part of Borg's argument.  I first encountered this idea in Madeleine L'Engle's book,  Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art: “God is always calling on us to do the impossible. It helps me to remember that anything Jesus did during his life here on earth is something we should be able to do, too” (page 19).

All yesterday, my brain returned to Borg's idea that Jesus may not have been God, the way we've come to think of him in the centuries that followed his life.  Could I reject the divinity of Jesus?

I know that as I look at parts of the Gospels, it seems that Jesus himself isn't sure of his mission.  The Jesus that we meet in Mark, the Gospel written first, is very different from the Jesus we meet in the Gospel of John.

But to think of Jesus as not-the-Trinity?  Hmmm.

I've reconsidered many parts of the Christian creeds and ditched some of them.  But to abandon the divinity of Jesus?  I'm not ready to do that.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 5, 2014:

First Reading: Zechariah 9:9-12

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

Psalm: Psalm 145:8-15 (Psalm 145:8-14 NRSV)

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 45:11-18 (Psalm 45:10-17 NRSV)

Psalm (Alt.): Song of Solomon 2:8-13 (Semi-continuous)

Second Reading: Romans 7:15-25a

Gospel: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

In this week's Gospel, we see the mystical Jesus, the one of bizarre stories and metaphors that confuse. The first part of this week's Gospel has those strange comparisons calling us children in the marketplace, and then Jesus reminds us that he and John are the latest in a long line of people sent by God to get our attention. And then the Gospel ends with that strange bit about easy yokes and light burdens, when the very definition of yoke and burden encompass experiences that aren't easy and light.

Maybe in these days of rising prices, you're feeling the more traditional definition of yoke and burden, a strangling and a crushing sensation. Maybe you're weary of the world's problems and the inability of governments to even attempt to solve them. Maybe you wish for a savior to show up in our troubled times. But then you'd have to wonder if we'd even notice, in our world of noise and distraction.

Sometimes, when I feel most bleak, I like to return to the words of the Old Testament prophets. It's good to remember that no matter how terrible our historic age seems, it's not really a new situation. This week's reading from Zechariah commands us: "Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope."

That command is our burden and our yoke. We must be prisoners of hope. We are called to commit to resurrection. That doesn't stop with our belief in a resurrected Lord. That's just one sign, among a galaxy of signs, of a God who creates and recreates the cosmos daily.

In our deepest despair, we must remember that we're Resurrection People. To me, that's one of the beliefs that separates Christianity from the other major religions. We don't believe in a fixed universe. We don't believe that we're doomed. We don't believe that we have to accept our lot with stoic resignation and wait for a better life--in a future lifetime, in Heaven, but not right now.

No, our burden and our yoke is that God calls us into partnership in this remodeling of the world into one that is more in line with God's vision and plan. Could God just step in and order it to be so? Perhaps. But God didn't create that kind of universe. For whatever reason, God found it much more interesting to design a world in which we have free will. We can put our necks into the yoke that God offers us and discover that what appears to be a burden is, in fact, a blessing that transforms us as we transform the world.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Abandoned Buildings and Artists' Studios of Our Spiritual Lives

Sometimes, from a distance, we don't understand what our eyes see.  The picture below:  you'd assume an abandoned shack, an old house rotting into the ground:

Sometimes, our memories of the past hinder us.  Here's what that building looked like a few years ago.

As I walked closer, I wondered if my original assessment had been wrong.  Was that a pottery wheel on the front porch?


Indeed it was.  I looked through some windows and realized that the abandoned building was actually being put to good use as a pottery studio complete with a kiln.

Spiritually, what's looking like an abandoned building in your life?  How can we turn our abandoned buildings of our lives into creativity studios?