Saturday, August 30, 2014

Transforming Sunday School and the Worship Service

My church, Trinity Lutheran Church in Pembroke Pines, Florida, is featured in this month's The LutheranThe issue's cover story is about transforming Sunday School, and our Worship Together service is one of the features of the article.

The article discusses the successes in transforming Sunday School, and I understand that focus.  I do want to stress that we didn't find the formula that's working now right away.

Our 9:45 service blends elements from Sunday School and a traditional worship service.  We have a liturgy that we follow most weeks.  Instead of a sermon, we have a puppet show or a reader's theatre or some sort of interactive approach--although occasionally we don't.  We break into small groups where we model a Faith 5 approach to faith development that families can practice in their homes.  Every other week, we have an arts/craft project of some kind.  We've just celebrated the second year of this approach.

Our church had been experimenting with re-making Sunday School for almost a decade before we came up with this approach.  Before I was a member, I was fascinated with the church's experiment with intergenerational Sunday School.  For a season after I became a member, we had fun with skits and improv in Sunday School.

But we found that there was an initial burst of enthusiasm, only to find that a few months later, we were down to one child or two.  We also found that those approaches took a lot of work in writing, preparing, and coordinating with all the volunteers.  It wasn't until we combined elements of Sunday School with elements of the worship service (like Communion, which we do every Sunday) that we found success.

We currently use resources from Faith Inkubators, which makes it much easier.  We have a team of lay leaders who take turns in developing the arts and crafts project and leading the service.  There's less risk of burn out when we share responsibility.

Our worship service is much more laid back, while at the same time being participatory.  The service has more in common with church camp services or Vacation Bible School than with the traditional service.  I confess to missing some of the high church style of traditional worship:  paraments that change, the hymns that remind me of my grandparents, the chanting of the Psalms.  But I love, love, love the sense of really knowing my fellow worshippers that our 9:45 service fosters.

And because we're a small worship group, we're very welcoming to visitors.  I worried it might be overwhelming, but people seem to jump right in.  We do make a point of telling visitors that they have more traditional options with our early service and our 11:00 a.m. service.  But often visitors come back to our service.

It wouldn't work for everyone in every setting.  And church history tells us that our approach won't always work for our church.  But I'm happy that it's working now.

Friday, August 29, 2014

My Church Is Featured in "The Lutheran"!

My church, Trinity Lutheran Church in Pembroke Pines, Florida, is featured in this month's The LutheranThe issue's cover story is about transforming Sunday School, and our Worship Together service is one of the features of the article.

Tomorrow's post will give more information about our approach, including some of the things we tried before we came up with the strategy that's working now.  I think it's important to stress that the failed attempts taught us a lot as we moved towards the intergenerational, participatory approach that we have now.

Here are some quotes from the article to whet your appetite:

“'The success of Sunday school happened at a time when people were satisfied relegating religious things off to experts — pastors or Sunday school teachers,' he said. 'The expert model doesn’t satisfy people the way it used to. Fortunately for us Lutherans we have this concept called the priesthood of all believers. We can help people identify their spiritual gifts and help them participate in ways they couldn’t before because [the experts] took over those responsibilities.'”

“'Instead of faith being just another something we do for an hour every week, it becomes a shared experience,' Kippen said. “'Parents come to see the church as their partner in raising faithful kids, and kids learn that church is not just what we do, but who we are.'"

"Despite the challenges, Shallue remains optimistic: 'I am not dispirited about the statistics at all. We have great opportunities to start thinking about new ways to do faith formation, rather than trying to do the same old [programs] harder and better.'”

And a quote from my pastor:  "'It’s a relational experience, unlike traditional worship, which can be passive and unengaging,' Spencer said."

The whole article is online, and well worth your time.  Go here to read it.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Baskets of a Life

You want to believe that every human has a basket of angels to watch over us.

Perhaps you feel that your life's basket holds only sand, good for nourishing nothing.  Or perhaps your basket contains the ashes of all the happiness of your past.

This basket reminds us of God's promise of hope. 

After all, what is the manger, but a basket that holds a promise in a most unexpected place?

For today, select a word from the basket to remind you of the promise and potential of the years yet to come.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, August 31, 2014:

First Reading: Jeremiah 15:15-21

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Exodus 3:1-15

Psalm: Psalm 26:1-8

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45b

Second Reading: Romans 12:9-21

Gospel: Matthew 16:21-28

This Gospel shows us a picture of Jesus who knows that he's on a path to crucifixion. With clear sight and clear mission, Jesus warns his disciples of what's ahead.

Peter has a typical reaction: "That will never happen." Peter reminds me of the certain type of believers, the ones who deny the ugliness of the world and the difficulties of life. These are the ones who tell us that our problems will vanish if we just pray hard enough.  I'm thinking of an encounter I witnessed lately, when one woman said to another who had just gotten a troubling diagnosis to pay no attention to the earthly doctors because she's got a Heavenly doctor.  Just keep praying, the woman was advised.

My inner cynic raged, but I kept quiet.  I've lately wondered if our modern sin is that so many of us are so quickly moved to rage.  I also think of the larger sin of despair, the disbelief that anything can change.  This Gospel passage has moved many of us to talk about the crosses that we have to bear, and this counsel has discouraged too many from even thinking about the possibility of change.
We'll have all kinds of crosses to bear, Jesus warns us, and we'll lose our lives in all kinds of ways. But we'll get wonderful rewards.

It's important to stress that Jesus isn't just talking about Heaven, or whatever your vision is of what happens when you die. If Jesus spoke directly, Jesus might say, "You're thinking too small. Did I give you an imagination so that you let it wither and waste away? Dream big, dream big."

 In Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, N.T. Wright stresses that Jesus doesn't just announce a Kingdom in some Heaven that's somewhere else. On the contrary--the appearance of Jesus means that God's plan for redeeming creation has begun. And we're called to help. Wright says, ". . . you must follow in the way of the cross, and if you want to benefit from Jesus' saving death, you must become part of his kingdom project." (204-205). He points out, "But God ordered his world in such a way that his own work within [our] world takes place not least through one of his creatures, in particular, namely, the human beings who reflect his image" (207). And for those of us who feel inadequate to the task, Wright (and before him, Jesus) reminds us of all the talents that we have at our disposal: "God gloriously honors all kinds of ways of announcing the good news" (226).

For many of us, the most difficult part of Jesus' mission that he gives us will be the willingness to believe that the arc of history bends towards justice, as Martin Luther King reminded us. The arc of history also bends towards beauty and wisdom and love and mercy. Some of us are so beaten down that we forget. Some of us would have no problem being crucified for our faith, but it's much harder to believe in God's vision of a redeemed world and to work to make that happen. But scripture and thousands of years of theology makes it clear, as Wright says, "We are called to live within the world where these things are possible and to agents of such things insofar as they lie in our calling and sphere" (248).

We'll lose our current lives of bitterness, fear, hopelessness, and rage. But we'll find a better one as we become agents of the Kingdom.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

God as Fabric Artist

It has been awhile since I posted a poem--and I just had 4 poems of mine published at the wonderfully cool, online journal Escape Into Life.  Since it's an online journal, they can do neat things with images, and my poems are paired with wonderful fabric art.  Go here to see the feature.

The poem below is part of that series.  Longtime readers of this blog may remember that I included some of these stanzas in this post about the God of the rough drafts.

Long ago, at a Create in Me retreat, we talked about God the creator and the various Genesis stories and what they mean for our own creative processes.  And this poem emerged shortly thereafter.

When God Switched Fabrics

On the third day, God switched
fabrics. At first, God had followed
respectfully the lessons of the elders:
which fabrics could be used,
which fabrics couldn’t go together,
which decorative objects were suitable.
God stuck to the established patterns:
Flying Geese, Star of Bethlehem, and Log Cabin.

But on the third day, God declared,
“Enough.” God created the universe
with leftover scraps of velvet,
silk, leather, and denim. God stitched
it all tightly together with ribbon and lace.

When God created foliage,
God decided to design new patterns.
Even the elders exclaimed over God’s
grand visions.

When God began the creation of the animals,
God discovered the dimensions offered
by fabric dyes. God played with pigments
and new patterns appeared.

By the time God created humans,
God claimed the title of fabric artist.
God didn’t waste time
in the age-old debate of craft versus art.
God blazed new trails mixing fabric,
paint, clay, and metals to create
new forms yet again.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Cultivating Peace through Prayer

So here we are in the pre-dawn darkness of a Monday.  In cloistered communities, the monastics have already sung at least one service. 

I have friends who scoff at the practice of prayer.  They say what I would have said when I was 19:  "Why don't they get out there and do some real good in the world?  Feed the poor or something useful?"

I've argued the point, but often felt ineffective.  This past week, I was delighted to read this post by rabbi Rachel Barenblat which made the case more skillfully than I've ever been able to do it.

I especially loved this piece of Buddhist theology:  "Lately I've been working on finding the right balance between paying attention to the world and its many injustices, and cultivating an internal sense of peacefulness and compassion. Against this backdrop, a friend recently shared with me a teaching from her Buddhist practice. According to this way of thinking, if one increases one's own suffering, one adds to the suffering of the universe; if one increases one's own peacefulness, one adds to the peacefulness of the universe."

 I love the idea that by cultivating a sense of peace in myself that I'm cultivating peace in the larger world. I will remind myself again and again that a stressed/angry response is not only unravelling myself, but a larger unweaving of the world.

Rachel ends the post with this Jewish approach to the issue of cultivating peace:  "In other words: the other mitzvot ask us to make certain choices when opportunity presents itself. But in the case of peace, we have to be proactive. We have to cultivate peace not only where we are, but also in the places where we haven't been yet (or where peace hasn't been yet). We have to cultivate external peace, and internal peacefulness, precisely in the places -- and the hearts and minds and souls -- which aren't yet peaceful. And when we do this work, we can hope that we awaken God on high to do the same."

And she argues persuasively throughout the post that prayer and other contemplative practices can be the most effective tools in waging peace.

I often joke that my prayer list is so long that I need half a day to get through it.  Lately, it's not a joke, and I tell myself that even if I run out of time, the monastics do not. I've found it an enormous comfort to know the monastics are praying. 

I suspect I'm not alone in feeling comfort.  I'm reminded of one of my favorite Kathleen Norris quotes:  "Deep down, people seem glad to know that monks are praying, that poets are writing poems. This is what others want and expect of us, because if we do our job right, we will express things that others may feel or know, but can't or won't say" (The Cloister Walk, page 145).

So on this day when so many people are returning to school, let us hold them in prayer.  In this time when so many conflicts have exploded across the world, let us pray for peace.  In a year when so many people I know have been stricken with dreadful disease or more localized pain, let us pray for healing and wholeness.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

True Hospitality, Scruffy Hospitality

We have a dining room table that comfortably seats 6 when expanded with the extra leaf--although, usually the extra leaf means we've got 8 coming for dinner.  And in our current dining room, we really can't expand the table.  We can't even move the table out from the wall and still have room for everyone to maneuver around it.

That hasn't stopped me from having people over, of course.  But last night looked to be a challenge.  We had 10 adults coming over, plus 3 children and a baby.  Hmm.

I thought about the movie I saw a few weeks ago, the movie that made my friend say, "This movie makes me want to move to the South of France."  I replied, "This movie makes me want to move my dining room table outside." 
I thought about doing that, but we've had brutal heat this week.  And it's been a bad summer in terms of mosquitoes.

So, we moved some living room furniture out of the way, and we moved the dining room table into the living room.  I still had to put out a call for extra chairs, but my guests had some.  I do miss the days of having a house big enough to store folding chairs for just such an occasion.  But we made do.

I don't have a tablecloth big enough to stretch across the dining room table that I rarely expand.  I no longer have a length of cloth that I could use.  But I do have a quilt that was given to me by the women's group at my mom's church when I went to be a retreat leader.  It's a simple quilt, made of squares, machine stitched together, knotted instead of quilted. 

I stretched it across the table.  It had barely enough width, but not quite enough length.  I decided it would do.

As I set the table, I thought, "What would Martha Stewart do?"  Certainly not what I would do.  She would never buy a house that couldn't comfortably accommodate her dining room table.  She probably has a whole house full of tablecloths that fit that table.

But it was a fun evening nonetheless.  I'm glad I didn't let my lack of Martha Stewartness keep me from having people over.

It put me in mind of this blog post on scruffy hospitality, which encourages us not only to come as we are, but to host as we are.  The writer, an Anglican priest, shares his sermon, which has this nugget of wisdom:  "Scruffy hospitality means you’re not waiting for everything in your house to be in order before you host and serve friends in your home. Scruffy hospitality means you hunger more for good conversation and serving a simple meal of what you have, not what you don’t have. Scruffy hospitality means you’re more interested in quality conversation than the impression your home or lawn makes. If we only share meals with friends when we’re excellent, we aren’t truly sharing life together."

I've been making more of an effort to have people over, even if I won't have a chance to deep clean or dust.  My toilet and sink will be clean, but we may eat off paper plates, like we did last night, because we still don't have a working dishwasher.

I know people who never have people over for dinner, and part of me understands.  It might be easier to go out to dinner together.  But that will prevent a lot of us from socializing.

I much prefer to say, "Come on over.  We'll be serving ________.  Feel free to bring a dish, or just bring yourselves."  I don't know about you, but it seems that any gathering of friends these days includes a vegetarian/vegan, a diabetic, and someone who's avoiding gluten.  My theory is that if everyone makes sure to bring something that they can eat, then we'll all be fed.  And if someone comes who hasn't had time to shop, we can feed them too.

Scruffy hospitality!  It probably wouldn't make for a compelling TV show, but it's more of a livable lifestyle than the one that Martha Stewart promotes.

And it's an ancient spiritual discipline. 

What would Jesus do?  He'd invite us all to gather and share.  We need to do it more often.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Effectiveness Measured: Armed or Nonviolent Uprisings

I have been thinking about non-violent resistance and the best paths to social change since I was old enough to know I was interested, which must have been around age 13 or so. On Thursday, I heard a story on NPR that explored why social justice movements succeed or fail.  It was such a compelling story that I read the article.

The 2 researchers looked at more than 300 cases of resistance to explore whether violent or nonviolent instances of resistance are more likely to lead to social change.

The article in Foreign Affairs primarily focuses on the recent uprisings in the Middle East as it ponders whether or not armed or unarmed uprisings are more effective.  The answer?  Unarmed uprisings are more likely to affect social change:  "Civil resistance does not succeed because it melts the hearts of dictators and secret police. It succeeds because it is more likely than armed struggle to attract a larger and more diverse base of participants and impose unsustainable costs on a regime. No single civil resistance campaign is the same, but the ones that work all have three things in common: they enjoy mass participation, they produce regime defections, and they employ flexible tactics."

The article doesn't address the spiritual aspect.  I've wondered if social justice movements that are rooted in a spiritual discipline are more likely to succeed.  The spiritual discipline gives people the courage to keep going long after others have quit--at least, that's my theory that I would seek to prove, if I had more time.  The spiritual discipline reminds people that this life is not all there is, and that protecting one's own life may not be the greater good.

This article in The Nation, a discussion between Jonathan Schell and Taylor Branch, explores the idea of non-violent protest rooted in spirituality.  Jonathan Schell says, "So there really is a counter-story to the dominant narrative of the twentieth century--the shocking and unbelievable expansion of the use of violence. But this sort of subterranean stream of nonviolence was also present. The fall of the British Empire, the fall of the Soviet Empire--these are not the small change of history. These are serious events."

Taylor Branch goes on to talk about the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. South:  "The people suffering segregation in the South had no other weapons. They had no money. They didn't have much education. They were a tiny minority of the population, and only a tiny minority of that minority was involved in a nonviolent revolution. And yet they believed there was much power in it. It came out of the refuge of the church. The mass meetings there substituted for all the institutions that they really didn't have. They didn't have a newspaper. They didn't have a theater. They didn't have any deliberative structure whatsoever. They developed nonviolence at a very special moment in history. "

I suspect more work is out there that explores the idea of successful social justice movements rooted in spirituality.  I'll keep my eyes open.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Crosses: Hiding and in Plain View

When I've been at Mepkin Abbey, I've loved seeing the variety of crosses.  I confess that I love a simple cross best:

Cross in the newest chapel at the retreat center

I'm a Lutheran, so I find the crucifix both startling and a strange comfort. 

Mepkin has a variety of cemeteries, places where you would expect to find a cross.

But what delights me most is the scene where I only see the cross in retrospect.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Day After the Feast Day of Bernard of Clairvaux

Today is the day after the feast day of Bernard of Clairvaux.  My post about him is up at the Living Lutheran site.  Go here to read it.

Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"Those of us interested in monasticism, both new and old, owe a debt to St. Bernard. He was responsible not only for founding his own monastery but for sending monks out to establish monasteries or to rescue already-formed monasteries from heretical directions. We give him credit for the founding of hundreds of monastic communities."

"We could give Bernard of Clairvaux credit for moving the church toward a more personal faith, although I imagine he would be horrified at the manifestations of those ideas of a personal relationship with Jesus that many of us have. He also played a part in elevating the status of Mary within the church."

"The feast day of Bernard of Clairvaux is a good day for some introspection. Are we living an integrated life in the best way that we can?  How are we helping our communities? Is the way that we’re living our lives making the future church stronger or weaker?"

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for August 24, 2014:

First Reading: Isaiah 51:1-6

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Exodus 1:8--2:10

Psalm: Psalm 138

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 124

Second Reading: Romans 12:1-8

Gospel: Matthew 16:13-20

In this Gospel reading, we find Jesus asking some of the basic questions. “Who do men say that I am?” “Who do you say that I am?” It’s a curious exchange that has Peter proclaiming Jesus as Lord, and Jesus instructing him not to tell anybody about himself.

Hmmm. Is this a basic existential moment? Surely, of all the humans who have walked the earth, Jesus would have the least reason for asking these questions—depending, of course, on your view of Jesus. Many of us believe that Jesus understood his purpose from babyhood, or at least during his childhood, when he disappeared only to be found in the Temple, teaching the priests (that story appears in Luke, not in the other Gospels). On the other hand, some scholars speculate that Jesus didn’t understand the full scope of his mission, that Jesus, like many of us, spent his days asking God, “Am I doing what you want me to do?”

We see in this text Peter getting the kind of affirmation that many of us crave. Jesus tells Peter that he will be the cornerstone, the rock.

I think of Peter and imagine that in times of frustration, he must have looked back at this moment with Christ. What a comfort that memory must be.

I spent much of my younger years longing to be sure that I was doing what God put me on earth to do, as if I had only one destiny, and I might be missing it.

My parents, in their wisdom, kept reminding me that God can use me no matter where I am. God is the original collage artist, taking bits and pieces that don’t seem to go together, and creating them into a cohesive whole.

It might be worth thinking in poetic terms about this Gospel. If Peter is the Rock, who are you? Some of us are willow trees that bend with storms but don’t break. Or maybe you’re sand, having been worn down by those storms, but still valuable. Maybe you’re soil made rich by the compost of circumstances. Some of us are grass, that steady groundcover that makes the larger plants possible by holding the soil in place.

I could go on with these metaphors, but you get the idea. The Gospel wants us to wrestle with these questions. Who are you? And who is the triune God in relation to you?

What part does Jesus play in your life? A guy you see once a week in church? A fellow traveler? Comforter? Savior? Someone you don’t know very well because you just don’t have the time? Co-creator of a joy-filled life? Reason for living?

More importantly, can people see who Jesus is to you by the way you live your life? How is your life a testament, like Peter’s? How can your life be more of a testament? What changes can you make today?

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Love in the Time of Ebola

It's interesting to me what issues consume people's time, especially if the issues aren't affecting them directly.  For example, I haven't been following the uprisings in Ferguson with the same interest as many people--at least to judge by news coverage and Facebook updates and blog posts.  I have not been taking sides and choosing between Israel and Gaza.  I have been keeping an anxious eye on Russia and the Ukraine, but not enough to write much.

No, I have been consumed with the Ebola outbreak.  Yesterday I saw an article or two, a mention here or there, about a clinic in Liberia that was mobbed by protestors.  That led to the patients running away, and then the looters took things from the clinic, like infected mattresses.  Yikes.

My inner apocalypse gal always likes a good disease narrative.  My inner apocalypse gal worries about a variety of scenarios.  I know that we're likely to be whacked by a scenario we'd never considered.  When you study how World War I came about, it seems so unlikely.  I imagine our next big disaster will be similar.

I realize that I have an unhealthy fascination with virulent disease.  I like apocalypse scenarios of all kinds, but I'm partial to the disease vector of apocalypse.  I'm fascinated by how our modern artists of all kinds have linked disease and zombies, but disease itself can be plenty scary even if it doesn't transform us into otherworldly creatures.

When I first taught the first half of the British survey class, I did some of my own research into the outbreaks of the plague through the centuries--fascinating!  In such a short time, you could be a survivor of an area that had lost 50% of its residents.  I was captivated by all the changes that took place in the wake of each plague, especially the first outbreak.

My black death research eventually took me to the work of Laurie Garrett.  Her book The Coming Plague had just been published, and it introduced me to Ebola.

 Ebola is even more deadly, with it's 60-90% death rate.  And unlike AIDS, it spreads very easily.  Thankfully, thus far it's not like TB--it's not an airborne disease.

Of course, it's the very deadliness of the disease that often stops the outbreak.  Diseases that are most successful keep their hosts alive long enough to facilitate the spread of the disease.  Early Ebola outbreaks were halted when whole villages died.

This outbreak has a different character.  I find myself thinking about all the health care workers who do not run away.  In their work, I see the face of Jesus.

Of course, that face is obscured, hopefully, by a haz-mat suit.  I cannot imagine working in those conditions, the sub-par facilities, the lack of basics like gloves and disinfectant, the incredible heat, the lack of running water, the lack of electricity--so much aching need.

In the wake of the various clashes in Ferguson, some of us have talked a lot about the privileges our skin color achieves for us.  I don't often see people making the link to Africa and the current Ebola crisis, not in the same breath.  It's as if people are talking about racism in the heartland of America or racism in how we treat disease in the various countries of Africa.  

I, too, am not going to make those links.  But I do find myself looking west to Ferguson and then looking fearfully to the Ebola outbreaks to my east.  I find myself wondering if the time will come when we'll look back to Ferguson and marvel at the population who had the luxury to clash while the efforts to contain Ebola were so paltry and so ineffective.

There are questions of wealth and national sovereignty at stake.  I understand, sort of, why first world nations can't just sweep in and take over.  Even the delivery of basic medical supplies (aspirin, clean water, gloves) is compromised by the history of first world interactions with the continent of Africa.

If I had time and inclination, perhaps I'd write an essay connecting Ferguson and Ebola from this direction:  how does our history hamper our good efforts and intentions?

As always, I sit with my white privilege, my access to good health care, the clean water and flowing electricity that I so often take for granted--and I feel that sickening guilt.

I think of what Jesus said to the rich, young man, the young man who was so close to perfection.  All he had to left to do was to sell everything he owned and give it to the poor.   This post is getting long, so I'll leave us all with a question, a question to which I shall return at some point:

What would Jesus do in the time of Ebola?

Monday, August 18, 2014

Prayers for the First Day of Public School

In Broward county, our public school students begin school today.  I offer the following prayers:

--May the school year be a good one for every student.  May learning be encouraged.  May everyone discover new talents and skills.  At the end of the year, let every student have acquired the needed knowledge to proceed.

--Let every teacher meet each day with a good spirit and a happy heart.  May all of our teachers find fulfillment.

--May the school board find lots of extra money--and may they give the money to teachers and students in ways that enhance education.

--Let us all slow down in school zones.  May the students be kept safe from every danger.

--May we all find our inner and outer student.  We all still have so much to learn.  Let the learning continue for us all.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Backpacks and Cupcakes

Today we will have a Blessing of the Backpacks.  Of course, we're really blessing the students who will be taking their backpacks to school.  Some of them will bring their backpacks.  Some of them will be too shy to come forward.  Some of them have already headed back to college.  We will pray for them all.

At the end of the service we will have cupcakes--we have all been encouraged to bring cupcakes.  I know from his Facebook posts that our pastor is bringing red velvet cupcakes.  Our council president has grown daughters who make cupcakes semi-professionally.  I will bring nothing, since we usually have cupcakes left over.  But I may indulge in a cupcake.

Our public school teachers have already been back in school for a week--I hope it was fruitful for them.  Last week, we prayed for them and blessed them.

I've heard of churches that collect school supplies for the less fortunate and the blessing of the backpacks includes a blessing over those supplies and for those children.  I like that idea too.

When I was a child, we did none of this.  I'm glad we do it now.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Environmental Stewardship on a Smaller Scale

--When people ask me why I don't have pets, I say, "I can't even keep houseplants alive."

--But that's not exactly true.  On Memorial Day, I bought plants that found their way into 4 pots that have spent the summer on my front porch:

--Some of the flower plants in the 2 big pots have died, but overall, those 2 pots have thrived.  I lost a batch of mint, part of the basil, and a batch of dill, but the other herbs (mint, basil, and rosemary) are hanging on.

--However, I must confess that the big pots are not nearly as bushy as they were the first week-end that I brought them home from the Home Depot.

--When I was scrolling through my Feb. entries, looking for posts about my latest revision of my book-length poetry manuscript, I came across this post and the line "be the asteroid":  "I heard a scientist say that an asteroid killed the dinosaurs; this time, we're the asteroid.  What does it mean to be the asteroid?" 

--The planet doesn't need us.  The human species may die off, but other species will survive.  Still, I continue to water the plants on the porch, plants who rely on me for water.

--I've also been thinking about the environment on a bodily scale.  Earlier this year, I had two colleagues and my best friend from high school diagnosed with cancer, 3 different kinds.  I thought about God, who loves all of creation, even the cancer cell.

--I've felt moments of shaken faith many times in my life, but that realization, that God loves all parts of creation equally, from me to the cancer cells that may kill those whom I love, that realization shook me for a few minutes.

--I've been intrigued by disease for many decades.  I'm lucky enough to be able to be fascinated by Ebola from a distance.  For a look at what it means close up, don't miss this postcard in The New Yorker.  It's a description that hearkens back to medieval days and the black death:  "The hospitals of Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, are full of Ebola patients and are turning away new patients, including women in childbirth. American Ebola experts in Monrovia are hearing reports that infected bodies are being left in the streets: the outbreak is beginning to assume a medieval character. People sick with Ebola are leaving Monrovia and going into the countryside to search for village faith healers, or to stay with relatives."

--We can try to comfort ourselves by saying that the seas won't swallow our front porches until we're dead and gone, that our U.S. health care system could handle Ebola when it comes to our shores.  But it doesn't take much to tip the balance away from civilization and back towards a life less attractive.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Modern Ark of the Covenant

Our interactive, intergenerational worship service spends 2 weeks with each module, and the second week is an arts/crafts/creative response of some sort.  I often don't volunteer to lead a module unless I'm sure of the lesson, sure that I can come up with a project for week 2.  But I volunteered for our latest module without knowing anything about it.

We've been working our way through Exodus, and we're up to the Ark of the Covenant.  We've talked about the incident with the golden calf.  We talked about how the Ark is different than the calf.  We talked about the decorations on the outside of the Ark and what went inside.

For our craft project, I brought in shoe boxes and magazines.  We cut out pictures that reminded us of God, pictures that reminded us of God's goodness and love. 

We also used words:

We started gluing them to boxes, but ran out of time.  My vision was to have a beautifully decorated box filled with words and images of what reminds us of God's love.

But the process was fun and interesting, and that's what's important.  It was also interesting to look at magazine to see how much space was devoted to which subjects.  I expected no mention of spirituality, so I was happily surprised to see 10-20% of each commercial magazine that pointed our attention that way.

For more on the possibilities of collage, see this post.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, August 17, 2014:

First Reading: Isaiah 56:1, 6-8

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Genesis 45:1-15

Psalm: Psalm 67

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 133

Second Reading: Romans 11:1-2a, 29-32

Gospel: Matthew 15:[10-20] 21-28

I don't like this picture of Jesus that today's Gospel represents. He treats the Canaanite woman rudely, with a complete lack of compassion. What do we make of this vision of Christ?

Part of the answer may depend on your view of Jesus/God. Do you see God as completely formed? Do you see God as never making mistakes?

If so, perhaps you should re-read your Bible, especially the Old Testament. Throughout the Scriptures, we see God changing course, often influenced by humans. God does not command us to be passive and just accept whatever comes our way--whether it be from God, powers and principalities, other humans, or Satan. That theological idea that we have to just accept our lot in life in the hopes that we'll get our reward in Heaven--it's a major misreading of the Scriptures and of theology.

I like the idea of God who allows us to disagree--and a God that sometimes agrees that we are right in our disagreement. I like the idea of a God that is being shaped and changed by creation, just as we are being shaped and changed by creation--and by God.

I know it's not as comforting as what many of us were taught in Sunday School. I know we'd rather believe in an absolute God, a God who has all the answers. We don't want to believe in a God who gets tired. We don't want to believe in a God who doesn't have absolute control. We want a God who can point and make magical changes, even though everything we've experienced about the world doesn't suggest that God does that act very often, if at all.

In today's Gospel, we see a tired, irritable Jesus. It's a terrifying idea (I'd prefer a divinity of infinite patience), but it's the best support to show that God did indeed become human.

The Canaanite woman is much more Godlike than Jesus in this Gospel. Here's a woman who is desperate to help her child. When Jesus rebukes her, she stands up to him and argues her case. And she persuades him. She demands justice, and because she stands her ground, she wins. Her behavior is much more Christlike than Christ's.

She has much to teach us. We are called to emulate her. When we see injustice, we must cry out to God and demand that creation be put right. Many theologians would tell you that if you want God to be active in this free will world that God has created, that you better start making some demands. God can't be involved unless we demand it (for a further discussion of this concept, see the excellent books of Walter Wink). If God just intervened in the world, that would violate the principle of free will which God instilled in creation. But if we invite God to action, then God has grounds to act.

I would argue that some of the most sweeping social changes of the twentieth century were grounded in this principle of crying out to the wider world and to God to demand that justice be done. Think of Gandhi's India, the repressiveness of the Jim Crow era in the USA, the South African situation decried by Archbishop Tutu, the civil wars in Central America, the Soviet occupied Eastern Europe: these situations horrified the larger world and the movements to rectify them were rooted in the Christian tradition. True, there were often external pressures applied (economic embargoes and the like), but each situation prompted prayer movements throughout the world.

I remember lighting candles on Christmas Eve in support of Polish Solidarity workers and praying for their safety and success. I remember going to an interfaith prayer vigil in downtown D.C. on the 15th anniversary of the Soweto uprising. I learned the songs of the Civil Rights movement as a child. Listening as an adult, I see those songs as cries to God demanding that justice be restored.

Let the Canaanite woman be your guide towards right behavior. Let the actions of Jesus remind you that even if you're snappy and irritable, you can change course and direct yourself towards grace and compassion. Let your faith give you hope for a creation restored to God's original vision of a just and peaceful Kingdom.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Resting in Peace

When I was younger, I loved wandering through cemeteries.  I did the math and figured out how old people were when they died.  I traced family ties and made up stories.  But I didn't want to be buried in one.  I wanted to be returned to the earth.  I had a vision of my ashes spread across a favorite mountainside.

In the past few years, I've explored the cemeteries at Mepkin Abbey.  There's the cemetery of the former plantation owners.

And then, there's the African-American cemetery.

I've wondered who leaves the offerings at the cemetery.  I'm assuming it's not family members.

I now see the benefit of being buried in a graveyard:  that hope that later generations, ones who have no reason to know me, will stop and take a minute to think of me, and perhaps leave a token.  In this way, perhaps I won't be totally forgotten.

Long after paper crumbles into dust and bones have broken down, a headstone remains.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Breaking Bread

Yesterday I had a group of church friends over to my house after church for a back yard cook out and swim.  We were supposed to do it a week ago, but it was stormy, so we postponed.

What a treat!  The kids had fun in the pool, while the grown ups cooked burgers and hot dogs.  We ate, we talked, we relaxed.

We ended up spending much of the week-end together.  Saturday, in the late afternoon, I headed over to the parsonage.  My pastor hosted a gathering of people who take an active part in planning the more participatory worship service.  We all brought food and wine and gathered around the huge dining room table. 

We've been doing this service for 2 years now, so we don't have much to tweak, troubleshoot, or plan.  Our Saturday night turned out to be more of a time of socializing at first and then deeper connecting.

I thought about suggesting that our Sunday morning service go to having a meal together.  But I also know how hard it can be to put together a meal on a festival Sunday, like Easter.  Still, nothing connects people like a meal.

We've had one of the kind of worship/eating experiences that I'd like to have more often.  On Maundy Thursday, we had an experience that was both meal and worship (see this post for more details).

Could our participatory service have a meal as part of it once a quarter?  Could that meal also be a Eucharist?  That will be my goal.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Blessing Teachers and Staff

Many churches now have some sort of back to school ritual; will your church be blessing backpacks?  We will do that next week, the Sunday before classes start.

Today we will bless teachers, administrators, and staff.  From what I can tell, many churches now have a backpack blessing service or part of a service.  Some churches bless backpacks of supplies that they're donating to less fortunate children, while others bless the backpacks of children going back to school.  Some bless the children, not the backpack.

Our church blesses children and backpacks, which I've always thought was great.  We also bless teachers, usually on the Sunday before we bless the children, since teachers return to school first.  Lately, we've been including staff--anyone who works with a school in any capacity is welcome to come to the altar for a blessing.

As an administrator, I go up for the blessing.  At first, back when I was doing more teaching, I hesitated to go up with the other teachers, but my pastor was clear:  all teachers, from pre-K to college.  So, up I went, even though I thought I had the easier job.

Now I'm an administrator, and some weeks I feel I have the easier job.  Other weeks, I feel like teachers have the easier job, college teachers at least.

To an outsider, my job might look easy.  And as my grandmother might have reminded us all, it sure beats digging ditches in the heat.  But these days, as budgets shrink, it's not as easy as it once was.  Struggling to keep enough classes for our teachers is not as joyful as trying to find good adjuncts to teach the extra classes we once had to add because of demand that once we thought would never be filled.

This year, again my work life has changed.  A year ago, I had no idea I was about to start teaching online classes.  But the chance came up, rather suddenly, and I said yes.  I had been thinking that I needed experience teaching online teaching, but I had no idea how that could ever happen, since I had no experience.

But Broward College, a school which functions primarily as a community college, had an explosion in enrollment and needed more faculty.  A friend and a colleague had a teaching opportunity, and they asked her to consider other classes.  I happened to be sitting beside her when the phone call came.  She couldn't do an additional class.  When she hung up, I said, "I'd like to have that kind of opportunity."  She said she'd call BC back if I was serious.  I said yes without even giving myself a chance to consider everything that could go wrong.

She called back, and we got trained, and now we've been teaching online almost a full year.  It's been easier doing it with a colleague who's taking a similar journey.  We've taught each other a lot while we've been teaching the classes.

Online teaching is different from onground teaching--I don't have the kind of feedback that I'm used to having to evaluate my effectiveness as a teacher:  I don't see students responding in real time, and I don't watch them write.  But throughout the past year, I have had students write to me to tell me how much they've loved my class and me as a teacher. 

And as I've come to realize that I'm fairly good as an online teacher:  I respond to e-mails, I grade in a timely manner, I interact in as many ways as I can create.  I'm surprised to find out how many online faculty don't do this.

I'm doing this teaching in addition to continuing in my administrative position.  And later this year, I will go back to being a Reading Pals volunteer; I will help a first grader solidify their literacy skills.

So yes, I will be happy to be blessed today.  Anoint my hands with oil!  My hands metaphorically touch many other lives in a standard work week, both students and faculty and my fellow administrators.

Let me be blessed to be a blessing!

Saturday, August 9, 2014

Heroines: Flawed, Awkward, and Full of Grace

On Facebook Tuesday, news zipped around that the director of Frozen would be making a movie version of A Wrinkle in Time.

I wrote:  "Oh the important casting questions. I hope they don't make the Meg character all glammed up. She needs to be studious and Calvin needs to be athletic, and they can find each other regardless."

Bookgirl then responded:  "I also immediately went to the casting of Meg. It's kind of like Jane Eyre. They never make Jane plain enough. They never make Meg awkward enough. (Might make an interesting blog post; would truly plain or awkward heroines make audiences too uncomfortable in a way that book readers aren't?)"

Bookgirl and I then went on to write further on this subject on our blogs.  In her post that elaborates on our Facebook exchange, Bookgirl sums up my feelings in two sentences:  "Meg is an awkward, difficult teenager whom people love anyway, and I think that’s part of the reason so many of us identify so deeply with her. She was not someone we aspired to be; she was who we actually were."

I wrote further about these topics in this post on my creativity blog. 

Since we've written, I've thought about the spiritual dimensions of the book and how the movie will deal with those.  There's the good vs. evil plot line--that one will be easy for the film to cover.

There are the three mystical creatures who guide the human characters.  What do they represent?  Dead stars?  Guardian angels?  The triune God?  The book is delightfully vague.  I suspect the film won't be.

As I thought about these topics, I've revisited the other posts I've written on A Wrinkle in Time.   Several years ago, I wrote this post about reading the book again as an adult.  Reading it again, this part leapt out at me:  "Meg is perfect, just the way she is.  In fact, all of these characters turn out to be perfect, despite their imperfections.  It's such a great message for a world that tries to get us to conform, to change, to squeeze ourselves into costumes that do not fit.  Meg doesn't have to slim down, to use the right make-up, to get a better hairstyle, to get the guy.  Meg doesn't have to settle down so that she can do well in school and get into a good college.  Her parents continue in their scientific pursuits, even though they aren't successful in traditional ways.  Charles Wallace is allowed to grow up at his own pace.  Calvin finds a family that fits him better, but he doesn't have to reject his birth family."

I was also struck that in this book, Meg's flaws turn out to be the very strengths that she needs to win the day.

We might not think of this quality of the book as particularly religious or Christian, but it is.  For me, the central message of Christianity is that God loves us exactly as we are; after all, God has created us and delights in us.  I know that not everyone gets this message in the Christian churches they attend, and that, in fact, some people get the exact opposite message.  Let me not digress into a discussion of the central heresies of the faith and who gets what wrong.  I will assert until I die that a God who loves us so much that God comes to live among us--that's a God who loves us and delights in us.

The world tells Meg she's imperfect and needs improvement.  But Meg's fierceness and stubbornness are traits which save her and her family.

If the movie gets this part right, it could be a very powerful movie, even if the casting decisions aren't ideal.

Friday, August 8, 2014

Christians Stranded on a Mountain Top

Two days after the Feast of the Transfiguration comes news of Christians and other minorities stranded on a mountain top in northern Iraq.  If they had stayed in their homes, they would have surely been slaughtered by ISIS.  If they leave the mountain to head to safety, again, they are likely to die.  If they stay, they will perhaps die too, of starvation and thirst.

During my youth in the '70's and early '80's, people in my church groups often talked about what we'd do if we were asked to deny our faith.  But we didn't envision a conversion scenario; we were likely thinking about Communists.  We also thought about populations of Jews through the centuries who passed as Christians.  We admired the bravery of those who continued to practice their Jewish faith in secret.

If a militant Muslim group took over my hometown, would I convert or die?  The very question boggles the imagination.

Yet history shows us over and over again the presence of populations who think they're safe until the day when they're not.  Again my thoughts return to Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, a book which shows how quickly a country can be taken over by militants and fundamentalists and how grim life would become for so many.  When Atwood wrote it in the mid-80's, she said that she didn't include any details that weren't actually happening to women somewhere in the world.  I can't imagine that the situation for women has improved worldwide since the time of the book's publication.
I believe that if I renounced my faith, God would forgive me.  But knowing about the lives of women under fundamentalist Islamic regimes, I might rather go ahead and be killed.

However, the human brain is a tricky thing.  I also know that I would want to believe that the situation would change, that the militant Muslim group would not prevail for long.  I would be tempted to hang on, to say that I would convert and then live subversively.

I treasure many freedoms that our country protects for its citizens, and I always have difficulty choosing the one that's most important to me.  I often say freedom of speech.  But the news from northern Iraq shows how vital our freedom of religion is too--and how rare.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for August 10, 2014:

1 Kings 19:9-18
Psalm 85:8-13
I will listen to what the LORD God is saying. (Ps. 85:8)
Romans 10:5-15
Matthew 14:22-33

This week’s Gospel reading reinforces the themes we found in last week’s lesson. The disciples are in the boat and Jesus walks across the water to them. They don’t recognize him; indeed, they’re terrified. When they realize who it is, Peter, always enthusiastic, asks Jesus to bid him to come, which he does. Peter walks across the water with no problem, until he realizes what he’s doing and starts to sink.

Now, most of us probably haven’t had experiences where we’ve suspended the laws of nature, but most of us can probably relate to what Peter experiences. When I first learned to type, I got to the point where I could type at a very fast speed—until I thought about what I was doing. If I just let my fingers go and didn’t look at them, if I did what I knew I could do, I’d be fine. I’ve had similar experiences in learning foreign languages and in learning to play the mandolin; if I play the notes without double checking both my fingers and the chord charts and music books, I find out that I really can play—still more haltingly than I would like, alas.

This story is also about God’s presence and our inability to recognize the Divine all around us, as well as our trouble accepting the miraculous. One of the narrative arcs the Bible is God’s desire to be with God’s creation, to know everybody, to be fully present in our day-to-day lives--to the extent of becoming human. And God has to go to great lengths to get our attention—bushes burst into flame, oppressive governments release the captives, loaves and fishes feed thousands, people rise from the dead, God goes so far as to take on human form—miracle after miracle, and still humans don’t understand and don’t want to accept God’s daily presence.

Even when we do let ourselves glimpse the sacred and divine, even when we experience the miraculous, how quickly we forget and let the mundane swamp us. Psychologists would probably tell us that our approach is a coping mechanism, that if we let ourselves be that open to God, we’d go insane, or at least we’d look insane to our fellow humans. I’m not sure I agree. Maybe we’d be better witnesses, better disciples.

Be on the lookout for God in your daily life. Maybe it will just be a wink from the Creator, like a tree full of butterflies. Maybe you’ll be in the presence of the full-blown miraculous, and all doubts will vanish—the tumor shrinks, the passengers escape the burning plane, the hurricane curves out to sea. Watch for God, listen for God, be alert. God is there, by your side, both during the times of the miraculous as well as the mundane.

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

The Feast Day of the Transfiguration

Today is the Feast Day of the Transfiguration of Jesus, the day that celebrates that mountaintop experience, where Jesus becomes radiant and Moses and Elijah appear; God speaks at the end, giving approval to Jesus. Those of us in Protestant churches are more used to celebrating this day just before Lent begins.  Orthodox traditions celebrate today.

Peter's reaction always interests me. He offers to build booths. They'll charge admission! It'll be great!!

His reaction seems so human to me. Many of us wrestle with this very trait, this need to transfigure every event into a capitalist one. How can we make the most money? Even in the presence of God, Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, Peter can't focus on the holy, because his mind keeps darting towards his need to make money.

Those of us who are attuned to history might also have World War II on the brain today. It's the anniversary of the day that the United States dropped a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima, an act that was blinding and transfiguring in so many ways.

We're also approaching the 40th anniversary of Richard Nixon's impeachment hearings and resignation.  We just passed the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I.  Both of those historic events show people trying to harness power in destructive ways, and both have reverberations into our current day.

As a poet, all of these historic anniversaries have a potent symbolic power. As a Christian, the idea of transfiguration also has power. 

Today is a good day to think about what distractions, atomic, cosmic, or otherwise, take our attention away from God. Today is a good day to think about mountaintop experiences and how we navigate our lives when we're not on the mountaintop.  Today is also a good day to meditate on power and how we seek to harness it and how we use power once we have it.

Today is also a great day to celebrate the transfiguring power of God.  After all, not all uses of power lead to destructive explosions.  Some times, we find redemption.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Rage and Other Responses to Injustice

Yesterday in the late afternoon, a colleague appeared in the doorway of my office declaring how stressed she was because she'd been listening to the news, and she couldn't figure out what was really going on in Gaza and it was driving her crazy.

I suggested she simply turn off the news; after all, even if she knew the news, there's not much she can do.

She shook her head vehemently.  "You just don't understand.  I have friends and family there.  I can't just disconnect."

I suggested that there was still nothing she could do, so why get stressed?  But if she really needed news, why not write to her friends and family?  Why not call or send an e-mail to find out if they're O.K.?

She went on to say something about a speech that an Israeli leader had given at noon and why is there no coverage of it here?

I thought about saying something snarky about all the speeches given and how little time is devoted to any of them; we don't even hear about our own leaders, so why would we hear about other world leaders?  I suggested that she read international papers online if she wanted a larger perspective.  But honestly, I suspect she'll find the same situation there:  so little space for so many world events.

Then the conversation got very strange.  She asked me if I'd read Phillip Roth's The Plot Against America.  I had, long ago.  Like most books I read, the details have not stuck with me.  She talked about the impact that book had made, that she had underlined and made notes on every page, and what if there was nowhere to go, no country that would take them in, what if Israel did not exist?

Did I mention that she's Jewish? 

I pointed out that Israel does exist, and she gave me this cocked eyebrow look that suggests that I'm 8 years old and don't really understand foreign policy.  And then a student showed up who needed help, and the conversation ended.

But I haven't stopped thinking about it.

I've thought about it from the angle of why we pay attention to world crises and let them drive us crazy.  I've thought about it from the angle of why some political situations seem personal and why others don't.  Always the good English major, I've thought about it from the angle of the books that affect us so deeply. 

For me, it might be Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, a book which shows how quickly a country can be taken over by militants and fundamentalists and how grim life would become for so many.  I thought of a friend from college years who told me that I badgered her into reading that book, and it changed her views on abortion.  I have no memory of badgering, but I suspect that she wasn't the only one I badgered.

I read the book again in 2002, when I assigned it for a class.  I remember being amazed at how relevant it seemed.  Of course, it should.  When Atwood wrote it in the mid-80's, she said that she didn't include any details that weren't actually happening to women somewhere in the world.  I can't imagine that the situation for women has improved worldwide since the time of the book's publication.

I thought about current issues of justice and oppression.  Once, I spent a lot of time in outrage.  I was younger then.

I haven't spent the past month thinking about the violence flaring in Gaza, like my colleague has.  But I have spent time thinking about all those children fleeing violence in Central America.  In all the talk about this crisis, there's been surprisingly little discussion of U.S. foreign policy and its impact on the current situation in Central America.  I would call these children refugees.

Once, I would have gotten angry.  I would have indulged in righteous indignation about this Congress which seems so reluctant to take action of any kind.  Don't get me wrong:  I still write letters to those in Congress who represent my district.  I still give money to groups like Lutheran World Relief who help refugees.  I pray.  But I'm not going to indulge in rage.  The human body isn't designed for this stress of constant outrage.

I think of my colleague's religious beliefs.  Would I behave differently if Lutherans were at risk?  I hope not.  I hope that my compassion and my yearning for a better world include everyone, regardless of religious belief.  Would I behave/believe differently if Lutherans had been historically a target of hate groups through the centuries?  I don't know.  I do know that many Lutherans were slaughtered by Nazis, but I also understand that it's not the same.

I've spent an hour thinking about how to conclude this post.  I've spent longer wondering if my lack of rage indicates a withdrawal from the world.  My 19 year old self might say yes.  My current self knows that rage takes energy that might be better directed--at activities that might actually make a difference.

And tamping down our rage might mean we live longer to continue battling for justice in more effective ways.

Monday, August 4, 2014

Missing Margot Adler

A week ago, Margot Adler died.  Those of us who listen to NPR are familiar with her voice.  Those of us who are feminists of a certain age may remember her book Drawing Down the Moon:  Witches, Druids, Goddess Worshippers, and Other Pagans in America Today.  Very open-minded ecumenical theologians may see the importance of this book.

Starhawk was the feminist whose books first introduced me to the Wiccan tradition, but I loved Adler's book too.  I appreciated the scope of Adler's book.  In the end, I decided that the various Pagan traditions wouldn't be my path, but I liked Adler's calm exploration.  Even as I returned to a Christianity that had been birthed in patriarchal traditions, I liked knowing that there had been other traditions.

Although historians cast doubts on the possibility of a matriarchal religion, I liked the feminist approach of making an old religion new.  Many of us in other traditions are invigorating our religions in much the same way.

I remember hearing her voice on NPR decades ago and wondering if it could be the same Margot Adler who wrote the book.  I remember my surprise at finding out that indeed, it was the same woman.  At the time, I thought that NPR was brave for hiring a Wiccan.  But of course, she wasn't only a Wiccan, but a Wiccan with great writing and reporting skills.

I've had a week to think about her death and all the deaths that are coming.  So many theologians who transformed religion and the way we think about religion in the 20th century will soon no longer be with us.

And I think of my own generation, no longer young.  What have we accomplished?

I know that there are many who mourn the changes that came as the twentieth century came to a close.  I know that there are many who would ask, "Why are we mourning this woman who did so much to make paganism seem normal?"

But I like the way that we're in a fluid moment now, where religious traditions are being transformed.  Like so many, I'm not always comfortable with the transformations, and I do worry about parts of the world which embrace religions which are oppressive to women and other minorities.  I worry about parts of the world which are moving or have moved towards religions that would have executed Margot Adler as a witch--and where many women with much less threatening views would also be executed.

But today, let us give thanks for people like Margot Adler, people who have documented the wide variety of ways that people can worship and search for the Divine.  Let us give thanks for all the theologians of her generation who have so transformed the actual practices of our religious lives.  Let us continue to look for ways to transform the old ways so that they become meaningful to modern searchers.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Religion and the Benefits of a Sense of Purpose

Did you hear the NPR story about the benefits of feeling that your life has purpose?  A recent study has proved it.

I can almost hear your eyeballs rolling (yes, I mixed that sensory reference on purpose), those of you who hate NPR.  I can hear people sighing and saying, "Leave it to modern science to 'discover' something we all already knew."

But here's what struck me:  "In fact, people with a sense of purpose had a 15 percent lower risk of death, compared with those who said they were more or less aimless. And it didn't seem to matter when people found their direction. It could be in their 20s, 50s or 70s."

And yes, the study controlled for other factors like age and gender.

The reason why is not clear, and I'm sure we can all think of many possibilities.  Do people who have a sense of purpose actually have less stress or does stress affect them differently?  If we have a sense of purpose, do we make smarter decisions about food and exercise so that we'll have more time to fulfill that purpose?

And you might ask for a definition of purpose.  Here's what the story said, "Of course, purpose means different things to different people. Hill [one of the scientists who conducted the study] says it could be as simple as making sure one's family is happy. It could be bigger, like contributing to social change. It could be more self-focused, like doing well on the job. Or it could be about creativity."

I wondered about the spirituality angle.  Does our religion give us that sense of purpose?

We could argue that point fiercely, and my atheist friends would want to know if a false sense of purpose gives us the same protection.  I'd guess that if the believer doesn't think of the purpose as false, then the protection remains.

I would guess that an essential aspect of religion and spirituality is that sense of purpose.  The definition might change from religion to religion, from denomination to denomination.  Some churches are organized around issues of social justice, some around missionary support, some around the nourishment of individual spirits, some around charity work, some around the beauty of worship, some around preserving the work of ancestors . . . on and on I could go.

It's no surprise to me that having a sense of purpose is important.  The ability to quantify the benefits is intriguing, and I look forward to the follow up studies.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Prayer Shawls, Prayer Quilts

Now that my friend has it, I can talk more about my time-sensitive quilting project.

My friend fell and broke her leg in several places.  She had to have a metal plate put in her leg.  It will be a long recuperation.

Ordinarily, I'd have sent her a prayer shawl.  I know that she's open to that ministry, as she's asked me to send prayer shawls to family members suffering ravaging illnesses.  So my first thought was to send her one too.

But she crochets.  She's already got more afghans than she can use, and unlike me, she can crochet in interesting patterns.  I know she'd appreciate the thought of a prayer shawl, but I wondered about a different approach.

I decided that a quilt could fulfill the same purpose.  And I had some parts of quilt tops already sewn together.  I decided to assemble them into a single quilt top and put it together.  I liked that there were different patterns and different patches, much for her to look at as she recuperates.

And I needed to do it quickly.  I wanted to get it done before her leg healed.  And so, I began sewing like a woman possessed.

And I got it done.  It's not my best, most intricate work.  But it's a thing of beauty, and my friend reports that it's a comfort.  I prayed as I sewed it, and I had people pray over it as I was finishing it.

I know that many churches have a lap quilt ministry.  Does it exist beside the prayer shawl ministry?   Can a quilted prayer shawl work?

I'm happy to report that my prayer quilt creation seems to have fulfilled the purposes of a prayer shawl.  I've prayed, the quilt has been blessed, and my friend has felt comfort and blessings.

Friday, August 1, 2014

Preservation or Process?

Last week, I wrote a post about the Mepkin Abbey sculptures made out of fallen trees.  I've been interested to see how the sculptures are surviving the climate.  We first saw them in 2006, shortly after they'd been carved.  And here are some of my later pictures, from 2013.

I love the honeycombs as earrings!

I don't have a good photo, but some of the faces are disappearing.  Bugs?  Wind and rain erosion?

Can anything be done to preserve these sculptures?  Should anything be done?  Below, you see that parts of the sculpture are disappearing and one can see the landscape behind.

Perhaps it's better to give our art to the world and let it go.  Perhaps it's the process that's important, not the product and its preservation.

What do we have to offer?  How can we let go of our offering?