Friday, October 31, 2014

First Trip to Mepkin Abbey--Ten Years Ago this Week-end

Ten years ago, I'd have been spending this week-end at Mepkin Abbey, the first time I went to Mepkin Abbey.  I had an idea of what to expect, since the friends who went there with me had gone a few months earlier.  I knew that we wouldn't be staying in the Abbey itself, and we might be in a trailer.  We were.  I knew that the meals would be vegetarian and that we'd only have a fixed amount of time to eat the midday meal.  Because I'd read Kathleen Norris, I had a sense of the schedule of worship.

I was not prepared for how that brief visit would transform me.  I went home with Plainsong ringing in my years and yearning to return.  And so I have returned for 10 years now.  I do some of my best writing and revising while I'm there, and some of my best poems have been inspired by my time there.  I have seen how a schedule that returns us to our center can be both calming and invigorating.

Maybe I will write more later on all the ways I've been transformed, but for now, let me remember that first week-end.  For more secular details, go to this blog post.

--I expected to feel a certain holiness in the chapel, which I did.  But I also experienced that return to God throughout the grounds.  I loved how there were statues throughout the grounds, some traditional marble statues, and some carved out of wood.  I felt like I was always happening upon a treat and a reminder to return my attention to God.

--We were there during a liturgical shift, from Ordinary time to All Saints, which was celebrated on the actual day of November 1, the morning we left.  I was surprised by how the chapel seemed to change from service to service.  Different flowers, different candles, different art, different focuses.

--On All Saints, there was a picture lit by candles.  It was "Festival of Lights," by John August Swanson.  I was struck by how the changing art helped me think about the difference in the church calendar--the changing art called my attention back, in the way that banners rarely do.  But would they, if we changed them more often?

--I loved the rhythm of chanting the Psalms, the way that the simple music got into my brain.  For weeks afterward, I'd hear that music running through my brain.

--The words of the Psalms got into my brain as well--much better than what is usually running through my brain.

--Compline service was my favorite.  I loved ending the day with the simple, underlit service, with the Abbot splashing us each with water from the baptismal font.

--I bought a prayer book so that I could try to do what the monks do.  It's not as good, praying the Psalms alone.  But because of the experience of different prayers for different feast days and non-feast days, I eventually decided I wanted more.  That brought me to The Divine Hours, the 3 volume set by Phyllis Tickle.

--I loved the natural flower arrangements, some of them in big stone jars.  And not so natural.  I recognized a garland of colored leaves made out of fake silk that one can get at Michaels.  And yet, it worked.

--We were there during the week-end that the time changed back to Eastern Standard--interesting to see how the light changed during services from Daylight Savings to Eastern Standard. 

--The various changes in the chapel over just a week-end made me wonder what it would be like to be there a whole year to see the changes.  And then I wondered, if a monk spent his whole life there, at some point, would he stop noticing the changes?  And of course, I'm always wondering about the lessons for our church interiors and for our own living spaces.

--Is it Mepkin itself that makes me mindful?  Or just the time away?  How can I bring that Mepkin mind home?  These are the questions that I asked that first year that I continue to ask.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

What We Lost in the Reformation

Many of us have already celebrated Reformation Sunday--but October 31 is that actual day that Martin Luther nailed those theses to the Wittenberg door.  He knew that he would get maximum visibility since everyone would be going to church the following day for the Feast of All Saints.

I've spent years thinking and writing about what was gained with the Reformation (for example, this post), but this morning, a different post of mine is up at the Living Lutheran site.  It explores what we lost in the Reformation.  Go here to read it.

Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"I wonder: If our religious traditions had paid more attention through the centuries to the female saints and to Mary, could we have arrived at a place of more inclusivity sooner?"

"What did we lose by our Protestant rejection of these special feast days? Most obviously, we lost the opportunity to have more opportunities for festivity, both in our daily lives and our Sundays. But at a deeper level, we lost many opportunities for inspiration from those who have gone before us."

"My exploration of the Celtic saints has led me to an appreciation of a sacramental outlook and a wish that our Lutheran understanding of the idea of sacrament was broader. Ancient Celtic Christians believed not only in the incarnate Jesus of the past but in the incarnate sacredness of everyday life: that every task existed to point us to the creator."

In this morning's post on my creativity blog, I've written more about the Living Lutheran site and my 4 years of writing there.  I've written about feeling off track.

And of course, maybe the idea of a track is flawed.  The work will take the time that the work takes.  I'm loving this post by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat, which reminds us that "Whatever gets in the way of the work, is the work."  Her post talks about the work of parenthood and the work of attentive living, but her thoughts also hold true for our creative work and other types of spiritual work.
Here's a quote about yearnings for your Thursday (I will leave the gendered language for God that the author uses):  "I will also never be a Trappist Monk, yet I am able to come to Mepkin on a regular basis and share in this life I find gratifying and rich.  Our deepest desires will be fulfilled, discernment promises, though not always in our time or in ways that we would choose or even imagine.  God hears our prayers, knows our yearning.  He is at work in the world.  We need faith and we need patience, but he will fill the hear that is open to him" (p. 121).

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The All Saints Sunday readings for Sunday, Nov. 2, 2014:

First Reading: Revelation 7:9-17

Psalm: Psalm 34:1-10, 22

Second Reading: 1 John 3:1-3

Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12

This Sunday we celebrate All Saints Day. Most churches focus on loved ones of the congregation who have died; some churches give special emphasis to members who have died since the last All Saints Day. Some churches will be thinking about the larger collection of saints.

The Gospel reading for today at first seems jarringly out of place. Why are we back to the Sermon on the Mount? But after reading it, we see the connections. These are the behaviors of those whom we traditionally consider saints, people like Mother Theresa. They should be the behaviors of those of us still on earth who consider ourselves to be part of that saintly pantheon.

It's even more interesting to read this Gospel in the light of worldly events. These behaviors are not the ones endorsed by most of the world. Spend a night watching television and contemplate what it says about our culture. We don't see many messages that remind us to be meek, to hunger for justice, to work for peace, to be pure in heart. No, we're supposed to dance with stars, or sing for a panel of harsh judges, or watch dramas about ghastly criminals.

The Lectionary Gospel reading uses bridesmaids and lamps to tell us about the kingdom of God. Half of the bridesmaids keep their lamps ready, while half are careless and bring no oil with them. Here we have another story that reminds us to stay alert and prepared and warns us of the consequences if we don’t.

When we read Gospels like these, many of us might think that we do these things as our admission ticket for Heaven. But some of the more interesting books of theology that I've read lately remind us that Christ didn't come to take us to Heaven. In fact, the concept of Heaven with all our loved ones waiting for us there is relatively new to Christian thought. Christ came to announce that God's plan for redeeming the world had begun. That plan involves our pre-death world, which is not just a place where we wait around until it's our turn to go to Heaven. No, this world is the one that God wants to redeem. Christ comes to invite us to be part of the redemptive plan (if you want to read a book-length treatment of this idea, make N.T.Wright's Surprised by Hope your November reading).

Jesus comes to show us what a God-drenched life would look like. I recently rediscovered this quote by Marcus Borg (from a lecture in Miami that he gave almost 10 years ago) in my notebook: "Jesus is the epiphany of God. He shows us what can be seen of God in a human life. There's much of God that can't be shown in a human life, but Jesus shows what can be seen."

Jesus also comes to give us instructions for how we can join together in the redemption of the world. Think of the Sermon on the Mount as a behavior manual. As you move through your days, view your actions and your thoughts through the lens of the Sermon on the Mount. Do your thoughts and actions support this vision of peace, justice, mercy, and comfort? If not, how can you change to be more in alignment with God's vision of redemption?

We could use this All Saints Day as a reminder that we need to jump start our efforts to act as saints in this world. If that behavior means that we also get to be saints in the next world, swell. But the good news of Jesus is that we don't have to wait until we die to experience redemption. We're already saints. We just need to remember to be about the business of sainthood, and to avoid the behaviors that distract us from our mission.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Theology of the Pumpkin Patch

In these waning days of October, as we race headlong towards Halloween, my blog post is up at the Living Lutheran site. 

I wrote about my experience with the pumpkin offload and what that experience shows me about God and God's communities.  Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"And then I thought of all those agricultural metaphors, where Jesus says, 'The kingdom of heaven is like ... .' That parable of the seeds and the different types of ground – do we really understand that parable if we’ve never planted anything?"

"Unloading the pumpkins also reminds me of something else that I cherish about church communities: At their best, there is room for everyone. The littlest ones can carry pumpkins, if they want to help that way. Those of us without the strength to carry pumpkins can help sell them."

"As I cradled those pumpkins, which so resemble human heads, I felt a strange tenderness toward them, the tenderness that I imagine God feels toward us all. In some ways, pumpkins are so sturdy and yet so fragile. All it takes is one slip and the pumpkin is rendered useless, a pulpy mess of slime and gunk. And yet, even from that accident could come new life, if one planted the pumpkin seeds. From that one pumpkin, we could grow a whole new patch, life out of death."

Go here to read the complete article:

Monday, October 27, 2014

Duck Blinds and the Reminder to Stay Alert

At Mepkin Abbey, I noticed this structure in a tree.

The tree looks out over cotton fields that lie between the gift shop and the African-American cemetery.  Some years, there's an old chair up there.

When I first saw it, I thought perhaps it was a dilapidated tree house.  Now I'm thinking it's probably a duck blind or some other hunting structure.

Of course, it's at an Abbey.  I think of Merton and the small hermitage that he built.  I try to imagine the monks climbing the tree to have some alone time.  I don't think I'm looking at a hermitage.

The abbey grounds are full of surprises, bird houses and repurposed shacks.  But you have to be looking and paying attention.  It's one of the lessons of Mepkin Abbey that I try to remember. 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Reformation Sunday 2014

Another Reformation Sunday dawns.  As  Lutheran, this should be one of my High Holy Days, right?  A day of awe, if I can borrow a term from Jewish friends.  But often, the day leaves me feeling discombobulated.

We celebrate our heritage--but we don't often talk about how tradition and our clinging to it can be dangerous.  We are a church that changed that trajectory of the world--but we seems resistant to doing that again.  We claim people like Nadia Bolz-Weber, and she is wonderful, but she's only one person.  To find out how she's wonderful, you can listen to her at this On Being site or go to this blog post which includes quotes from that radio broadcast. 

I'm thinking of this post, where the author talks about "the Nadia problem":  "'The Nadia Problem' is that she is being promoted as an example without churchwide acknowledgement that she is actually an exception, and that the Spirit-led and community-based construction of House for All Sinners and Saints has not even begun to move into the churches now fretting about the loss of their 'All-Star Team.'"  She's responding to this article in The Lutheran, which talks about the coming wave of clergy retirements.

I'm remembering a Reformation Sunday in 2004, which I spent at a Trappist monastery with a Lutheran friend and an Episcopalian friend.  I remarked on how strange it was to spend Reformation Sunday with a much more ancient incarnation of the faith.

My Lutheran friend said that wouldn't miss it.  She said she much preferred the chanting of the Psalms.  She appreciated their fierceness and honesty.  She said that one of her least favorite holidays was Reformation Sunday.  I understand.

I worry that we get too wrapped up in feelings of self-congratulation on this day.  I worry that we don't do as much introspection and accounting on this day.

So, by all means, let us celebrate our heritage.  Let us sing "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God."  Let us read the Bible in our own language, a path begun by Martin Luther.

But let us not lose sight of our reforming heritage.  Let us pray for the strength needed to be the reformers that our time needs.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Pumpkin Evangelism

At work, I'm part of the Employee Engagement Committee--we mainly plan festive events that we hope will keep up morale.  We had been discussing a pumpkin decorating event.  One of our members said he'd been to several key places, like WalMart and Publix and not been able to find pumpkins.

My muscles have only just begun to recover from our great pumpkin offload.  I wondered if I should mention our church's pumpkin patch.  I thought, why not?  I sent the e-mail.

Why is it that I expect negative feedback?  I expected people to write back and say, "Forget it.  We are not supporting a church."  I expected something even more negative.

Happily, that was not the case.  People asked if I would be willing to buy the pumpkins, and I said sure.  I was even given cash, so that I wouldn't have to pay out of my own pocket.  Wow.

People were more worried about my ability to carry the pumpkins than about the possible ethical ramifications of using our school funds to support a church.  Had anyone raised that objection, I'd have pointed out that these funds support Vacation Bible School, which helps to inculcate a love of learning and arts and crafts in 70+ children a year.

But I didn't have to offer my well-reasoned arguments about why we should support a church pumpkin patch.  People were just happy to find a source of pumpkins and a person who would buy them and transport them.

I am part of the ELCA--the E stands for Evangelical, but I'm not evangelical in the most common use of that word.  I don't proselytize.  I am not quick to talk about my spiritual life.  I don't witness, in the flamboyant sense of that word.

However, I think it's important to remember that there are other ways to witness.  I talk about my church when it makes sense in conversations, and I hope that my references to it show it as the community resource that it is.  I talk about our food pantry and our VBS programs and the ways we support home schooling groups and the drama troupe for students with learning disabilities. I hope to counter the mass media images of hysterical people demonstrating against this and that.

I must confess that I'm also happy to be able to support our church.  It's a win-win--but I do realize that I'm biased.

And I'm also glad for this reminder that it's OK to speak in this way:  that I won't always face negative reaction.  On the contrary, I might be a welcome solution to a problem.

Friday, October 24, 2014

What I Listened to on My Autumn Vacation

One of the advantages of travelling by car is the chance to listen to CDs.  For a variety of reasons, I almost never do so at other times.  Sigh.

I took a variety of CDs on our recent trip to the mountains.  It's the older Johnny Cash CD that I can't get out of my mind:  American V:  A Hundred Highways.  It's an amazing CD, with a variety of spiritual songs.

Some of the songs are flat-out spirituals, like the older "God's Gonna Cut You Down."  I loved the last song he ever wrote, "Like the 309." That one is a somber look at aging and death, but it's cut through with humor.  It's built around a reference to a train, and that lonely train song shows up again in his cover of Hank Williams' "On the Evening Train," a melancholy song about a husband putting his wife's coffin on the train, while their child weeps.

I wept at his cover of the old Gordon Lightfoot song, "If You Could Read My Mind."  I knew that this album was the last one that Cash did before he died, and while I can't be sure that he recorded this song after the death of June Carter Cash, it does have the deep longing and loss wrapped through it.

He also covers Bruce Springsteen's "Further On Up the Road."  While it's not overtly a spiritual song, when it's offered in the company of these other songs, sung in the rough voice of an aged Johnny Cash, it's hard NOT to see it as a spiritual look at death.  I like that idea that we'll all meet again, even if we're not sure exactly where or how, whether it's later in life or after death.

I'm late to discovering this CD--it's been out since 2006.  But what an excellent find!  It's an oddly comforting CD, even though hopefully, I'm not at the end of my life.  And while I don't agree with all the theology, like a God that will cut us down, it speaks to a heritage that I'm glad to be able to access.  Plus, it's a great song.

Many of us likely don't place Cash alongside other great spiritual singers.  But listen to this CD, and you might change your mind.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Journals of Plague Years, Past, Present, and Future

One of the anticipated joys of travelling is more time to read.  This year, I took Connie Willis' The Doomsday Book with me.  I read a reference to it in this post.  At the time, I was reading a different book about the medieval plague, Geraldine Brooks' Year of Wonders.  I decided to read Willis next.

But it's a big book, and I've been having trouble making progress.  However, during my time away, I devoured it--amazing what having no computer access can do.

The book revolves around time travel--a researcher is supposed to go back to a time in the medieval period before the plague arrives in England, but something goes wrong, and she arrives just in time for the arrival of the plague.

The book also revolves around the idea of disease.  The researcher is stranded because back in the current time, a strange strain of flu begins to sweep through the city.  At the end of the book, we find out that the lethality rate of the flu was 68%--not quite as bad as the 90% mortality rate of the plague strain that the time travelling researcher experiences, but it's easy to imagine that in more challenging circumstances, with lack of medicines and fluids and soap, the lethality rate would be higher.

It's a book that also has some interesting meditations on religion, especially at the end.  The time traveler talks into her recorder, even though she's unsure that anyone will hear her.  She says, "He [the priest for the village] continues to say matins and vespers and to pray, telling God about Rosemund and who has it now, reporting their symptoms and telling what we're doing for them, as if He could actually hear him.  The way I talk to you.  Is God there, too, I wonder, but shut off from us by something worse than time, unable to get through, unable to find us?" (p. 348). 

Even more daringly, Willis connects the time travel with the Christ story.  There's an interesting meditation in this passage that haunts me:  "God didn't know where His Son was, Dunworthy thought.  He had sent His only begotten Son into the world, and something had gone wrong with the fix, someone had turned off the net, so that He couldn't get to him, and they had arrested him and put a crown of thorns on his head and nailed him to a cross" (p. 366).

Both narratives also deal with the issue of hospitality, of being a stranger in a strange land, of being stranded and how we cope.  It also explores how humans deal with the unexpected and the strange, and why we panic or don't.  It has all sorts of lessons for us as we deal with the Ebola crisis--and a good reminder that flu has been far more lethal throughout history.

Willis' book was published in 1992--why haven't I discovered it before?  I think about 1994 or so, when I started to research the plague and its impact on early British literature.  I read Plagues and Peoples, but no fiction.  I read Laurie Garrett's excellent The Coming Plague, where I first heard about Ebola.  The Doomsday Book deserves a spot beside them.

For those of us interested in medieval religion, this book can give interesting insight.  I find my thoughts drifting back to the depiction of the Christmas Eve mass, which will be a much different service than the ones that many of us will enjoy in just 2 months.

The village priest n the book comes from a much lower caste than the priests that the gentry matriarch wishes she could have.  We see some of those priests come to the village--but they are not of much use during a crisis.  The book gives an interesting counterpoint to the common wisdom that many priests abandoned their parishes during times of plague.

Experts tell us that we are long overdue for a pandemic that will have the scope of the medieval plague or the 1918 flu or the flu in the book.  As religious people, how will we react?  This book gives us some wisdom.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, October 25, 2014:

First Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34

Psalm: Psalm 46

Second Reading: Romans 3:19-28

Gospel: John 8:31-36

Today's Gospel promises that we shall know the truth and the truth shall set us free. For some of us, this comes as welcome news, perhaps even as we feel a bit doubtful. After all, the Gospel doesn't tell us how we'll know the truth: will we just recognize it? Will consensus dictate what the truth is? If a majority of people believe, is that how we'll know we're in the campsite of truth?

The Gospel doesn't tell us those details. The Gospel writer John was more mystical than practical. But it's interesting to think about the issue of truth as we approach Reformation Sunday.

Think about how many of our spiritual ancestors were in a minority, before they were in a majority. If we're looking for majority rule to tell us whether or not we're looking at the truth, we will miss a lot of the truth.

Think of Martin Luther (or rent the film, Luther) and what he was up against. The Catholic church had a stranglehold on the spiritual life of Europe when Luther came along and suggested that they'd gotten off track. He didn't intend to start a new branch of Christianity. But his life shows what might happen when we start pointing out the truth. We might overturn a whole social order and begin several hundred years of new denominations. If I wanted to, I could spread many of the most exciting social movements of the twentieth century (for example, the movement to secure human rights for everyone) to the ideas that Luther put into motion. Or think about the worldwide push towards literacy. Luther might not have envisioned the changes he put into motion when he translated the Bible into common German, but he understood the importance of enlarged access. Where would we be if we still had scriptures in a language that we couldn't understand? Will we know the truth if it's in a language that's foreign to us?

Think of a revolution closer to our own time. One of the biggest spiritual stories of the twentieth century has to be the rise of the Pentecostal movement, which we can trace back to Azusa Street in Los Angeles in the early part of the twentieth century. Even those of us outside of the movement can admire the ways in which Pentecostal ideas have enriched all of us believers (the idea that there are different gifts of the spirit, for example; even if my gift is not speaking in tongues, I might have a different gift to offer, one that is equally valuable; the trick is to know my gift and commit to it). Even those of us who are fearful of the spread of Pentecostal and Evangelical ideas have to admit that our siblings in those churches understand mission in ways that many of the rest of us don't.

Those of us who feel like we're part of a dying tradition would do well to remember that even times of death can lead to times of renewal. We may be planting seeds. Those seeds might grow into plants that we can't even visualize right now.

We're in a time of tremendous renewal, even if we find ourselves part of a mainline tradition that seems determined to ignore these developments. Google the words Emergent Church and see what you find; many Christian groups who wouldn't have even spoken to each other in the 1950's are rethinking ways to do church and working on social justice movements together. Research the New Monasticism to see the ways that people are radically committing to the life of faith.

Consider the Internet, and how the Internet is revolutionizing our faith lives. We can tithe or redistribute our wealth much more easily with the Internet as a tool. We can read or listen to stories of faith to inspire us. We can go to sites to pray the Daily Office.

Will we one day look back and realize that the Internet fueled a Reformation in our own time, just as the printing press helped to speed Martin Luther's Reformation? We can't know. And again, the Gospel should echo in our ears, as we spend more and more time in virtual communities and less time with actual humans: we will know the truth (but one suspects we'll only know the truth if we're on the lookout for it).

And what a promise: the truth shall set us free.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Planning a Retreat I Won't Attend

This past week-end, we took one of our whirlwind trips to North Carolina--for more on the trip itself, see this post on my creativity blog.

We went primarily because my spouse needed to be at Lutheridge for a finance subcommittee (for the larger Novus Way Board of Trustees) meeting.  Fortuitously, the retreat to plan the Create in Me retreat was happening at the same time.

What made it a strange experience is that I won't be at the retreat itself.  My absence is no reflection on the retreat--on the contrary, it sounds like it will be a great retreat.

I was happy to be at this retreat to plan the retreat for a variety of reasons.  It's always a great group of people, even as the individuals come and go and come again.  Seeing us all in a room makes me happy.  Realizing how long I've known them astonishes me.

It also makes me want to dream big.  I joked about wanting Lutheridge to create a retirement community so that we could spend our golden years having a Create in Me retreat year round.  But I wasn't really joking.

On Friday night, we had a great Bible study session;  this year's theme is "Jesus and Justice."  We explored passages from Isaiah and corresponding passages from the New Testament.  Our group was about 1/3 people with seminary training and/or rigorous reading in academic religious materials.  The rest of the group has gotten substantial education through churches and other arenas.  So we had a vigorous discussion.

In fact, we had such a vigorous discussion that we got off schedule--but what a wonderful reason to get off schedule.  We looked at passages about dimly burning wicks and bruised reeds.  We looked at different translations that talked about lifting up the oppressed--in some translations, it was "the poor," instead of the oppressed, and I prefer the older translation.  We talked about pathways being made wide and the crooked ways made straight.  I was transfixed by the passage that talked about binding the broken-hearted.

The poet in me was intrigued by the way the different words can be used:  binding can be a healing bandage or a constricting force, and to level can be good or bad.  Lots of potential.

So, we didn't do the arts meditation on Friday night but on Saturday morning.  We were given a 3 inch pillar candle, a reed, a Sharpie marker, and a roll of masking tape.  We wrapped the candle in masking tape, a surprisingly soothing experience.  We had to somehow incorporate the reed but not break it.

When we were done, we wrote words of injustice on the tape.  Some people wrote general words, like "unloved" and "despair."  Some wrote words like "trafficking" and "racism."  I wrote words like "student loans" and "Holocene extinction."

And then we lit the candles.  Eventually they will burn down and have an interesting effect.  The light shines through the words to remind us that the light is not overcome by the injustice.

We spent the rest of the day talking about the schedule and ways to make it more effective.  We talked about anything special that we need to have because of the theme.  We planned the worship service.

I'll be sad to miss the retreat, but I was glad to be able to help to make it a great retreat for those who will be there.  Before we started doing this approach to retreat planning, I wouldn't have dreamed that a retreat to plan a retreat could be almost as nourishing as the retreat itself.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Alternate Prayer Language

I was corresponding by Facebook message with a grieving friend.  She said she couldn't stop crying.  She said she wasn't good at prayer.

I wrote, "We pray in all sorts of languages--sobs aren't often discussed as prayer, but they are."

I am an English major, an old-fashioned believer in books.  So after some additional interchanges, I wrote, "Anne Lamott wrote a great little book on prayer. She says the most common prayers are 'Help me' and 'Thank You.'  The language of gratitude and the language of sobs--common prayers."

All day long, I thought about the language of prayer, the languages that we might not think of as prayer, but they are.

For example, my pastor, Keith Spencer, takes amazing photos and pairs them with Bible verses.  You can see his wonderful work at this blog site.  His process strikes me as a form of prayer, the kind of prayer that praises God and God's creative power.

What other non-word prayers do we offer?

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Called to Health on the Feast Day of St. Luke

I first wrote this post for the Living Lutheran site.  It's been several years since they ran it, so I'm hoping they won't mind if I feature it here.

On October 18, we celebrate the life of St. Luke, a creator, an evangelist, and a healer. Some churches might have a healing service in honor of Luke’s role as patron saint of doctors and surgeons. But St. Luke was so much more: he’s also the patron saint of artists, students, and butchers. He’s given credit as one of the founders of iconography. And of course, he was a writer--both of one of the Gospels and the book of Acts. As we think about the life of St. Luke, let us use his life as a guide for how we can bring ourselves back to health and wholeness.

The feast day of St. Luke offers us a reason to evaluate our own health—why wait until the more traditional time of the new year? Using St. Luke as our inspiration, let’s think about the ways we can promote health of all kinds.

Do we need to schedule some check-ups? October is perhaps most famous for breast cancer awareness month, but there are other doctors that many of us should see on a regular basis. For example, if you get a lot of sun exposure, or if you live in southern states, you should get a baseline check up from your dermatologist.

Many of us don’t need to visit a doctor to find out what we can do to promote better health for ourselves. We can eat more fruits and vegetables. We can drink less alcohol. We can get more sleep. We can exercise and stretch more.

Maybe we need to look to our mental health. If so, Luke can show us the way again.

Luke is famous as the writer of the Gospel of Luke and Acts, but it’s important to realize that he likely didn’t see himself as writing straight history. He was maintaining a record of amazing events that showed evidence of God’s salvation.

It’s far too easy to ignore evidence of God’s presence in the world. We get bogged down in our own disappointments and our deeper depressions. But we could follow the example of Luke and write down events that we see in our own lives and the life of our churches that remind us of God’s grace. Even if it’s a practice as simple as a gratitude journal where each day we write down several things for which we’re grateful, we can write our way back to right thinking.

As we think about St. Luke, we can also look for ways to deepen our spiritual health. In popular imagination, Luke gets credit for creating the first icon of the Virgin Mary. Maybe it’s time for us to try something new.

We could experiment with the visual arts to see how they could enrich our spiritual health. We might choose something historical and traditional, like iconography. Or we might decide that we want to experiment with something that requires less concentration and training. Maybe we want to create a collage of images that remind us of God’s abundance. Maybe we want to meditate on images, like icons, like photographs, that call us to healthy living.

St. Luke knew that there are many paths to health of all sorts. Now, on his feast day, let us resolve to spend the coming year following his example and restoring our lives to a place of better health.


Friday, October 17, 2014

Support Your Local Church Pumpkin Patch

I am part of a church that offers a pumpkin patch every year.  It's a huge undertaking, from the offloading of the pumpkins to the selling of them.

Our church funds a variety of special projects and ongoing ministries with this pumpkin patch.  When we had a traditional Sunday school, funds went there.  We've used the funds to help repair the roof that covers the part of the building that is more used by community groups than by the church..  We continue to use the funds to pay for Vacation Bible School, an event which is attended by more neighborhood children than church member children.

I love the fact that the pumpkin patch itself is a form of community outreach and a service of sorts.  I love that it funds other community services.

So, this week-end, as you prepare for Halloween, drop by a local church pumpkin patch.  Your dollars will go further than if you bought a pumpkin at a grocery store. 

If you're in South Florida and you want to support my church, it's Trinity Lutheran at the corner of 72nd and Pines Blvd, across the street (but on the same side of the street) from the South campus of Broward College.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Monday Report: Two Great NPR Stories

Monday was a day for interesting programming on NPR, programming which has much to say to religious folks.

There was this brief story on the millennial generation and how they give money to charity.  It may or may not surprise you to realize that this generation is distrustful of all sorts of charitable institutions.  This generation needs to feel invested.  And then, the story analyzes new technological platforms and how charities might utilize Facebook and other platforms which might be less familiar to the rest of us.

The highpoint of Monday was this discussion on Diane Rehm's show about the future of the Catholic church.  She assembled a great panel of guests, people who are quite knowledgeable about the Catholic church, some of whom are practicing Catholics.  It was a great discussion about both the future of the church, about religion, and about Catholicism more particularly.

In a time of such bad news, it was wonderful to have the good news contained in these stories.  In a time of quick clips, it was wonderful to have depth and insight.  In a time where religion and religious values are often ridiculed, it was wonderful to see them taken seriously.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for October 19, 2014:

First Reading: Isaiah 45:1-7

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Exodus 33:12-23

Psalm: Psalm 96:1-9 [10-13]

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 99

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

Gospel: Matthew 22:15-22

This week's Gospel contains a saying of Jesus that is probably familiar: "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's" (Mathhew 22, verse 21). Even people who have never set foot inside a church are probably familiar with this saying, although they may attribute it to somebody else, like Shakespeare or Ronald Reagan.

I love how Jesus realizes that the Pharisees have set a trap for him, and he manages to avoid entanglement. This passage also shows Jesus reacting to the legalistic outlook of the spiritual leaders. He seems to tell us not to be so rigid in our formulas of our finances. We know what we must do. We have bills and obligations (among them, caring for the less fortunate); we cannot escape those worldly cares. But in figuring out our tithes and taxes, we should not lose sight of the larger spiritual picture.

God calls us to more than a rigid formula of living. Instead of dividing up our budget into tight categories, we should always be on the lookout for ways to love each other. Some days/months/years, that love might be manifest in monetary ways. But in a way, just writing a check is much too easy. God calls us to be involved with each other's lives. That doesn't mean we need to hop on a plane to personally respond to every huge disaster. Look around--you'll see plenty of opportunities just outside your door.

My mother has a theory about tithing money. She posits that in our society, giving money isn't the same kind of sacrifice that it would be in earlier times. Most of us have more money than we know what to do with. You might disagree, but if you compare your income to the rest of the world's, you are rich beyond compare. I would argue that we buy so much stuff because we have that much disposable income. Do you really need more than one outfit a day? Is your closet overstuffed, like mine is? There's a disconnect.

My mother says that the more precious commodity in our culture is time, and I think she's right. Most of us can barely find time to phone each other. Have you tried to have anyone over for dinner lately? It seems to take the scheduling skills of those people who used to organize Superpower Summits. My mother's theory is that if Jesus spoke directly today, he'd tell us to sacrifice time, not money.

What if you gave 10% of your time? There's 168 hours in a week. If you gave 17.8 hours to God, how would you need to change your life?

And the reality is, that God wants and needs more from us than a mere 18 hours a week. God wants an ongoing relationship with each and every one of us. And that relationship should transform us to do the tough work of transforming creation, of creating the Kingdom of Heaven right here and now.

In these days of financial insecurity, the message of Jesus seems more prescient than ever. If we save up our treasures on earth, moth or rust or inflation or deflation or bad policies or any other kind of ruin you want to name will leave us bankrupt.

The way we live our lives moves us closer to God or further away. If we devote our lives to God, our whole lives, not just an hour on Sunday, then we'll find a relationship that we can count on in good economic times and bad. And that relationship can help us transform not only ourselves, but our families, our communities, everyone we touch.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Pet Funerals

I confess that I haven't given much thought to theology as it concerns our pets.  I've thought about how much money we spend on our pets and how we often care for our pets in a much better way than we do for ourselves and the humans around us.

Our friend who rents our cottage had a bird who had been with her for 29 years.  Yesterday, the bird died.  Our friend feels deep grief.

I worried that I might insult her, but I sent a Facebook message with the offer to help her bury the bird in our yard.  Far from insulting her, she saw it as a gift.

Come to find out, it costs $200 to cremate a bird--shocking!  It only cost us $325 to cremate my mother-in-law.  Our friend didn't have the money for a cremation, and she wasn't sure what to do.  She was happy to have our yard as an option.

I knew that my spouse would play the violin.  I wondered if I should create some sort of liturgy.  But in the end, we kept it simple.

My spouse had already dug a hole, which was good.  Our friend had wrapped the bird in some fabric from one of her old shirts.  I said a prayer, with references to God paying attention to the fall of the smallest bird and death not being the final answer.

Do I really believe in the resurrection of animals?  Yes, in some ways, I think I do.

Do I believe in a Heaven where our pets wait to be joined with us again?  I am less sure.  In the spirit of full disclosure, let me say that I am less sure of answers to all questions that concern Heaven.  I am fairly sure that Heaven will not be the way that most of us envision it--it's much too saccharine sweet a vision.

Once we prayed, we put the bird in the grave and replaced the dirt.  Our friend had collected a variety of natural objects, which she laid on the grave.  I offered a variety of glass objects that I collected when we were working in mosaic.

Then we sat in the twilight as our friend wept some more.  Finally she was ready to return to her cottage to try to get some sleep.

I am already thinking of some of the ways we could have had a better burial.  I am already thinking about the ways that funerals help us deal with death and the need to come to terms with the fact that a loved one has gone.  And even if the theology is shaky, a pet funeral may be a significant way that we can minister to those who grieve.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Spiritual Questions on Columbus Day

Today we celebrate the federal holiday of Columbus Day, although October 12 was the actual day of the first sighting of land after almost 2 months at sea. I’m always amazed at what those early explorers accomplished. At Charlestowne Landing (near Charleston, SC), I saw a boat that was a replica of the boat that some of the first English settlers used to get here. It was teeny-tiny. I can't imagine sailing up the coast to the next harbor in it, much less across the Atlantic. Maybe it would have been easier, back before everyone knew how big the Atlantic was.

In our spiritual lives, we may be feeling a bit like Columbus. Let’s ask some questions prompted by Columbus Day, questions that may lead us to some meaningful meditations.

Below, when I talk about our spiritual lives, I’m talking about our individual lives and expressions of spirituality, as well as our corporate spiritual lives, the lives we live in the company of fellow believers.

--In our spiritual lives, are we the explorer or are we the native populations of new continents? Or are we members of the Old World? In other words, are we always striking out for new lands? Or are we waiting to be discovered? Are we so tied to our traditions that we can’t even imagine how our lives could be different?

--As spiritual people, how long are we willing to be at sea? I’m part of a church tradition, mainstream Protestantism, that looks back longingly to the 1950’s, when it seemed that everybody made time for church. Many of us hope that we will soon return to a time when church returns to its central location. But we may have only started our time at sea, on a voyage of discovery. Can we trust God? Can we continue to hold onto our faith when we're in the middle of a vast ocean, with nothing but our instruments and the stars to guide us, with no sense of how far away the land for which we're searching might be?

--We may be certain we’re on a quest to find one kind of wealth. In the process, we may discover something completely different, something far more valuable? Will we recognize the value of what we find?

--The explorations in North and South America changed our cooking forever. Imagine a culinary life without corn, sweet peppers, tomatoes. Imagine life without chocolate. What ways can our spirituality enrich our cultures?

--Of course, if I was looking through the Native American lens, I might say, "Imagine life without smallpox." What are the possible negative impacts implicit in the collision between secular culture and sacred culture? Can we mitigate those? Should we mitigate those?

--These explorations wouldn’t have been possible without the patronage of the wealthiest of society members. In our current world, many of us are some of the wealthiest people on the planet. North Americans may not feel like it, but we’re the Isabella and Ferdinand of our time. What projects should we be funding? What spiritual projects will make the kind of lasting legacy of funding the voyage of Columbus?

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Grief and Gratitude on Columbus Day

Although tomorrow is the federal holiday, today is the real anniversary of Christopher Columbus stumbling across the "new world" as he searched for a shorter trade route to Asia. For most cities, gone are the days when we'd mark this holiday with parades and time off. Those of us who grew up in the 70's and later have likely rethought this holiday.

What marked an exciting opportunity for overcrowded Europeans in the time of Columbus began a time of unspeakable slaughter and loss for the inhabitants of the Americas, many of whom have never recovered or who disappeared completely.

As Christians, how do we approach this holiday? We could remember that day in 1492 as the beginning of a time of enormous religious expansion, first for the Catholics and later for Protestants, many of whom needed a place to escape religious persecution. We could feel sorrow at the religious persecution of the Natives and of various other minority groups--or we could celebrate the religious diversity and tolerance that somehow survived our best efforts to kill it.

We could celebrate the ways that various cultures were enriched. Look at the European cuisine before the time of Columbus, and let yourself feel enormous gratitude for the vegetables that came from the Americas. Look at the cultures that existed in the Americas before the Europeans arrived and let yourself marvel at the ways in which technology enables the building of cities.

Or maybe we want to leave humans out of the picture and once again marvel at this amazing planet which is our home, at its diversity of land, water, and weather, at the currents that swirl through the oceans and the air, at the abundance of natural resources just waiting for us to stumble over them on our quest for something different.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Great Show, God: The Autumnal Edition

It has been the kind of week where the wonders of creation make me say again and again, "Great show, God!"* 

First there was the eclipse.  Our eclipse was not the blood moon experience that others had.  I joked that ours was more like the tooth decay moon:  sort of gold and shadowed at the same time.  There was a muckiness to it.  Maybe it was the clouds that moved across the moon during the time of the eclipse.  Maybe our light reflected and refracted differently than in, say, Hawaii.  To be honest, I wasn't sure I really saw it, except for about 2 minutes.

So, why did that make me sing praises to the Creator?  It was the hours leading up to it.  I got up early, and when my backyard neighbor needed coffee, I offered to bring it to her.  When I opened the door, the sight of that moon left me breathless with gratitude for the chance to see it.  It made me happy all day.

Later that day, I was blown away by the moonrise as I did some work at night after getting home. Although I could theoretically do computer work anywhere--I have a laptop, after all--I usually write in the front bedroom, the guest room, the library, the closet where I keep my clothes and boxes full of memorabilia and writing archives and Christmas decorations.  I write on the student desk left behind by my best friend from high school who later became a housemate.  The window above my desk faces east.

At one point last night, I saw a pearly glow from the east.  The irrational brain of mine said, "Did I work through the night?"

And then I realized that I was seeing the early hours of the moonrise.  Too late to get to the beach, where I bet it was spectacular.

It was still spectacular from my window.  The clouds came and went in huge feathers.  I got to the end of my grading.  I went to the front yard to get a better view.  I went back to watch several times.

In between moonrise and moonset, there have been glorious clouds all week:  white and puffy during the day, rosy and violet as the sun sets.

It's also been the week where I bring the first autumnal flowers to the house.  I got a bouquet of cut autumnal flowers in burgundy and butterscotch colors.  I also got 2 pots of mums for the outside.  The mums were striking:  burgundy on the outside of the petal, yellow towards the middle.  They were $8.99 a pot, which is about what I spent on flowers for last year's porch decorating project.  I decided to splurge.

The pots that I got on Memorial Day week-end are flush with flowers too.  I suspect it's their last hurrah as annuals.  But I'll enjoy it now.  I have an arch of summer flowers and one of autumnal blooms.  It makes me happy all out of proportion.

I'm also feeling gratitude for that happiness, in addition to feeling gratitude for all the glories of creation.  Great show, God!

*I'm indebted to the (now-grown) children of my friend and mentor from my undergraduate years, the first person who paid me for my writing when she hired me to write PR pieces.  She told me about the habit that she and her children had of shouting "Great show, God!"  They'd shout this out when they saw a great sunset or some other part of nature that inspired awe.  Sometimes, riders in the minivan would be startled by the children's shout.  I was charmed.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Thursday Words of Wisdom from Brian McLaren

I checked out Brian McLaren's latest, We Make the Road by Walking.  I haven't had time to read it all, but the chapter on anxiety grabbed me.  He talks about all the ways anxiety can be toxic. 

Some of those ways are obvious.  We worry so much about the bad stuff that may happen that we can't enjoy the good stuff. 

He also talks about the ways that anxiety is toxic for societies as we create pecking orders to keep our fears at bay.   And on a geopolitical level, we create enemies--and when we create enemies on this level, can war be far behind?

Of course, we can only really control ourselves.  McLaren offers a mantra for those of us who are rattled by our anxieties:

"My own anxiety is more dangerous than whatever I am anxious about.  My own habit of condemning is more dangerous to me than what I condemn in others.  My misery is unnecessary because I am truly, truly, truly loved."

May we always remember!

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, October 12, 2014:

First Reading: Isaiah 25:1-9

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Exodus 32:1-14

Psalm: Psalm 23

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23

Second Reading: Philippians 4:1-9

Gospel: Matthew 22:1-14

Today's Gospel sounds impossibly harsh. The kingdom of heaven is compared to this story of a king who can't get people to come to the wedding feast? Is God really like the King who murders people who won't come to the party and burns their city? Is God really like the king who punishes a guest who comes in the wrong clothes? And such a punishment!

Some churchgoers, no doubt, will hear a sermon this Sunday that revolves around judgment and punishment. My opinion is that God rarely has to punish us, because our poor choices provide punishment enough.

So, let's look at this parable from a different angle: what's keeping us from accepting the invitation to the wedding feast? If the wedding feast is the kingdom of God, what keeps us away?

Obviously, as we devote more and more of our time to work, we have less time for the things that matter, like family, God, our friends. Many of us don't have time to eat; some of us can’t even slip away to go to the bathroom! Jesus is quite clear on this issue: we must prioritize. What good will it do us to work ourselves this way, to devote ourselves to earthly things, like work and earning money?

Or maybe we reject God's invitation because we feel inadequate. We'll accept at a later time, when we've improved ourselves. But that's the good news of God's grace that we find throughout the Gospels. We don't have to wait. God loves us in all of our imperfections.

Perhaps we should see ourselves in the wedding guest that didn't have the right garment. What clothes do we need to invest in to make ourselves better wedding guests?

Maybe we need to clothe ourselves in the garments of love and acceptance. Think of what attitudes you need to wrap around yourself, and work to shed the ones that do not serve you.

Maybe we need to clothe ourselves in some regular spiritual practices. We have thousands of years of history that suggest some techniques that work: regular prayer, regular spiritual reading, cultivating a spirit of gratitude, taking a day of rest, singing the Psalms to calm our nerves, and the list could fill a book.

Life is short, and Christ returns to this message again and again. We think we will have time to get to the things that will be important. We'll do it later, when the kids are older, or when we don't have to work so long and hard. We'll do it when we retire.  We'll wait until we have more money.  Once we lose that 20-100 pounds, we'll buy the right clothes and go to feasts to celebrate sacred occasions.

But God calls us to focus on the important things now. The apocalyptic tone of the recent readings may seem overly dramatic, but apocalypse dramas remind us that everything that is precious can be gone in an instant--and so the time to focus on what we hold dear is now.

It's a luxury that so many do not have, to appreciate what we have while we still have it, to be able to tell our loved ones that we love them while they're still with us.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Starved for Time

The days grow shorter, and so does my writing time.  I wish I had time to spend here:

Or even a length of time to spend here:

I'd love to have time to garden:

Or even just to water the plants:

Or just to have a cup of tea:

If my grandmother's experience is any indication, at some point, I may have more time than I know how to fill.  But not this month.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Continuing to Think about Saint Francis

Writing time is short this morning--but luckily, my post on Saint Francis is up at the Living Lutheran site.  Go here to read it.

Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"So, on this day when we celebrate the life of St. Francis, let's consider how we treat our pets and how we treat our modern-day lepers. I'm willing to bet that the community in which you live pets are treated much, much better than lepers. Think about how your church would react if someone brought their pet dog or cat to church. Now think about how your church would react if a drunk, smelly, raggedy person walked in."

"Why is it so hard to achieve balance in our societies? Why can't we take care of the destitute in the same way we take care of our pets? Why does self-care often fall to the bottom of our to-do lists? Why do we practice self-care and then not do the larger work of caring for the world?  Why do so many of us care for creation so badly or not at all?"

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Communion Bread Recipes

This morning, I'm taking the communion bread for the 9:45 service.  I had planned to make Milk and Honey Whole Wheat bread, the first homemade bread I ever tasted and the first recipe I ever used.  It's from Recipes for a Small Planet by Ellen Buchman Ewald, that 70's classic of vegetarian cooking--think lots of beans, lots of dry milk, lots of grains.  It's a bread that could truly sustain life for many days, if one needed it to do so. 

But it's a yeasted bread, and I ran out of time.  Happily, the Internet has come to my rescue.  I made the communion bread posted at the Luther Seminary site and pasted below. 

And of course, I had to try some.  So, for my breakfast, I had a small round of bread and 2 hardboiled eggs:  a breakfast full of Christian symbolism!

The bread didn't rise much--perhaps it's not supposed to.  But it tastes delicious, so I will take it for the service.

Luther Seminary Communion Bread

2 c whole wheat flour
1 c white flour
1 & 1/4 tsp baking powder
1 & 1/4 tsp salt
Stir in 4 tsp oil. Set aside.
Mix wet ingredients together until dissolved:
3/4 cup + 2 Tbsp very hot water (minimum of 180 degrees F)
3 Tbsp honey
3 Tbsp molasses
Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and mix well. Dough should be slightly sticky. Do not knead.
Divide into four balls and flatten each into a 1/4 inch thick disk.

With a knife, score the top of each loaf into eight pie-shaped sections, so that the sections can be more easily broken off while serving. Alternatively, you could score a cross onto the loaf.
Lay the loaves on a baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes. Remove from oven and brush the tops of the loaves with oil. Bake an additional 5-8 minutes. Let cool.
Yield: four 8 oz. loaves. Each loaf serves 60-70 people, depending upon the size of the piece given. The loaves freeze well.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Inspirations on the Feast Day of Saint Francis

Today is the Feast Day of St. Francis.  I'm amazed at what Francis managed to accomplish, as I am amazed at what so many of those medieval Christians could accomplish, without the help of computers or motorized vehicles or penicillin.

Let's take a minute and think about what St. Francis did and how that might inspire our own modern lives.

--Francis is most associated with love of animals, which may explain his enduring popularity.  Churches across the world will celebrate his feast day by having services where people are welcome to bring their pets for a blessing. 

Today is a good day to think about the role of pets in our lives and to think about how we feel about less cuddly animals.  Should we welcome pets into our churches on a more regular basis?  After all, many church members may feel closer to their pets than to their family members.  I realize the impossible logistics of opening our buildings to animals, so I'm not seriously suggesting it, except as a way to think about how we feel about pets and how we feel about animals.

--And as we're thinking about animals, we might also think about others whom we don't or can't welcome into our church buildings.  Francis is also known for his work with lepers, the sick who are the lowest on the totem pole.

As I write this, I'm listening to a discussion of Ebola and I'm thinking about Ebola victims as being a modern example of the leper.  How would Francis direct us to treat these patients?  And how should we care for African countries that are overwhelmed by this disease?

--Francis came from a very wealthy family, a family he renounced in solidarity with society's poor and outcast.  He lived amongst the lowest of the low, and ministered to their needs, spending his wealth to help care for them.

Although we may not feel like it, if we're citizens of developed countries, we're in a similar situation to Francis.  We come from a place of great wealth and privilege compared to poorer countries.  How can we use our wealth and privilege to care for those who are outcast?

--Francis worked to help end the Crusades.

It's a good day to think about the social justice movements that need attention in our own day.  It's a good day to think about modern wars and the sweep of destruction.  We might also think about just wars, the kind that many Crusaders would tell you that they were fighting.  What's the best way to rescue populations that are invaded?  Or should we intervene at all?

--Francis has come to be associated with the environmental movement, in part because of his love of animals, in part because he liked to visit ruined parts of society.

Today is a good day to think about our planet, much of which is already ruined.  We might think about the fact that we're living in the Holocene Extinction, one of 5-7 times in our planet's history where we know we're losing species at a far faster, and perhaps catastrophic, rate. 

 --Francis created the first Nativity scene, what we might today call a living Nativity scene, complete with real animals.  His scenes were inspired by paintings of the Nativity scene (think Jesus in a manger, surrounded by those who loved him and some animals).  He wanted visitors to feel the full engagement of all their senses.  We might think of Francis as an early performance artist or maybe someone who created a piece of installation art.

For many of us, the time between now and the new year will be full of opportunities for celebrating holidays.  We can do it the way we always have or we can think about new ways of celebrating.

--Francis created three religious orders, two of which exist today, centuries after he created them.  Several times during his life, Francis had to write a rule book for how the communities would live together.  Those ideals have survived to this day.

For me, this accomplishment is the most impressive.  We live in a world where few of us can stay committed to even the small community which is our family.  The minute we're dissatisfied with any of our communities, our response is often to leave.  How would the world be transformed if we committed ourselves anew to developing and deepening community?

Here's a prayer that I wrote for today:

Creator God, we don't always take good care of your creations. Please give us the generosity of St. Francis as we wrestle with the best way to use our resources. Please open our hearts the way you opened the heart of St. Francis so that we can take care of the members of our society who are at the lowest levels. Please give us the courage to create communities which will allow the light of Christ to shine more brightly.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Granola Bars for Days When You Need Quick Nourishment

It must be the time of year when the pace of living picks up.  I've been seeing many more blogposts and Facebook updates that talk about people feeling weary and yearning for balance.  Many of us are racing hither, thither, and yon.  We may not have time to eat.  We may grab food on the go and wonder why we feel so horrible.

I haven't posted a recipe in awhile, so in the interest of the spiritual practice of self-care, let me do so.  Let me see . . . a recipe that can be mixed up quickly with ingredients that are likely on hand.  A recipe that can be varied, depending on whether or not you need to provide sustenance for vegetarians, vegans, those avoiding gluten, those avoiding dairy. 

Yes, I have just the recipe!  A month ago, I went back to an old recipe.  One of my favorite spin class instructors was driving to North Carolina to start a 3 month time away, and I wanted to create a care package of sorts, something to eat during the trip.  But my spin instructor only eats healthy food, and doesn't eat dairy--so a lot of my cookie recipes wouldn't work.

I thought of the breakfast bar type cookies I used to make, from a recipe I found in Mollie Katzen's Still Life with Menu.  It's infinitely adaptable, very portable, and keeps well.  If you like crisper bars, you spread the batter more thinly across the cookie sheets.  If you want something more like a cookie, you use a thicker spread.

It's one of those recipes that can be made quickly, a bonus for the busy days that leave us longing for something homemade, nourishing, and portable.  And if you're cooking for a crowd, it's easily doubled.  After they've cooled, put them in a plastic bag, and they'll easily keep for a week or two.  Or freeze them for later.

Homemade Granola Bars

2 C. oats
1 1/2 C. whole wheat flour
1/4 C. wheat germ and/or ground flax seeds (or not, if you'd prefer not to)
spices, like cinnamon, to taste--1 tsp. or so
6 T. brown sugar (can be increased, decreased, or left out)
1/2 C. of nuts (can be increased, decreased, or left out--you can also use all sorts of seeds)
1 C. apple juice, orange juice or water
1/2 C. vegetable oil (can be olive oil; can be partially apple sauce)
1 C. raisins or cranberries or other dried fruit, chopped--can be left out
 A handful/sprinkle of coconut--or not

Mix everything together and spread across a greased cookie sheet.  Bake at 375 for half an hour.

Cut into squares while still warm.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Spiritual Practices and Physicality

I know that there are plenty of people who would disagree, but we can learn a lot if we're willing to be ecumenical.

For example, I read this post by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat.  This part jumped out at me:  "One of the refrains of the holiday is 'On Rosh Hashanah it is inscribed, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.' From this we can intuit that while the heart may be solid on Rosh Hashanah (so words can be inscribed on it), it must be soft like wax in order to be sealed on Yom Kippur. So it is incumbent on us to soften our hearts."

But how do we do that?  I liked the physicality of this practice:   "I learned a new interpretation of the practice of beating the breast during the recitation of missteps: rather than castigating ourselves, we're knocking gently on the heart, asking it to open."

I'm not a breast beater, but I couldn't resist knocking on my upper chest.  It felt oddly good.  I wondered what would happen if I knocked gently periodically throughout the day to remind myself to stay open to everyone.  I wrote this comment:  "I have this vision of knocking on my heart during my work day, to remind myself to soften my heart to everyone who is difficult, to remind myself that praying for those people is better than my anger."

Later, after spin class, as I took a shower at the gym, I knocked on my heart and prayed for extra patience for the day ahead.  We're putting all of our syllabi into a new template, and it's a task which befuddles some people.

While I didn't knock on my heart at any other point in the day--I don't want to be seen as too much of a whack-a-do at work--I did find myself with extra portions of patience and tolerance.

Like many modern people, I tend to live too much in my head and too much in front of a screen.  I like these ancient spiritual practices that remind me that I am a physical body too.  I like these practices that work to integrate me.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, October 5, 2014:

First Reading: Isaiah 5:1-7

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

Psalm: Psalm 80:7-14 (Psalm 80:7-15 NRSV)

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 19

Second Reading: Philippians 3:4b-14

Gospel: Matthew 21:33-46

Today's Gospel contains a parable that clearly tells the story of Christ, in the vineyard owner's son, who is killed by the tenants. I suspect that when modern readers, many of whom own property, read this lesson, they identify with the vineyard owner far more than they do with the tenants. But what would happen if we thought about ourselves as the tenants?

Notice how the tenants are so stuck in their self-destructive ways that they can't change. Now, as we settle into the season of autumn, as we race towards the end of the liturgical year, it might be useful to do some self-evaluation. What are our habits that get in the way of us living as the people of God? By now, you might despair to realize that these are the same patterns you've wrestled with before. But take heart. As you continue to attempt to make changes and go astray, each time you try to get back to a more wholesome way of living, it should take less time to make the necessary adjustments.

The Gospels that we've been reading give us reassurance that we can go astray, and God will still welcome us back. Now all this talk of going astray may not be the most useful image for us. Many of us have grown up in churches that berated us with talk of sin and tried to make us change by making us feel ashamed. We live in a toxic culture that tells us that we're not doing enough, not earning enough, not buying the right stuff. Many of us spend our days with voices in our head telling us those same messages. Who wants to come to church to hear the same thing? We've tried, we've failed, we know, we get it.

The danger is that we might quit trying to live the life that God envisions for us. God doesn't want us to live the way we've been living. Many of us might agree--we don't want to be living these lives.

So take a different approach. What would a healthier life look like? What would a God-centered life look like? How would it feel?

We'll probably each have different answers to those questions. For some of us, a God-centered life would mean that we could let go of our anger; we could quit judging everyone and accept them with love. For some of us, a God-centered life would mean we could quit trying to fill the holes in our hearts with other substitutes that don't quite work: food, alcohol, sex, drugs, approval, exercise, work. For some of us, a God-centered life means that we don't order our lives around the quest for money, but instead we work for justice.

But again, as we focus on the end result we'd like to achieve, we must be careful not to get overwhelmed. It's a bit like starting a diet, when you know you have 50 pounds to lose. But if you make changes and stay with them consistently, and you keep orienting your choices towards that thinner person you'd like to be, in a year or two, you'll be amazed at the transformation.

So, start small. Take time to pray. Take time to read things that make you feel hopeful, instead of despairing. Take time to really listen to people, instead of trying to get done with that commitment so that you can rush on to the next one. Breathe deeply. Say thank you.

When you go astray, or when you feel your gifts have been trampled, take heart. Read the lessons again and think about the natural order of horticulture. The land must be cleared occasionally so that new growth can take place. God continues to call to us to work for the vision of the redeemed creation that God gives us.

Remember that God promises that no matter how far away you are from that vision, God will meet you more than half-way. If you're feeling like a rejected stone, remember that God has great plans for you. You can become the cornerstone that supports a building that you weren't even able to envision at an earlier point in your life.