Sunday, November 30, 2014

The Feast Day of St. Andrew

On November 30, we celebrate the life of St. Andrew. Unlike his more famous and flamboyant brother, Simon Peter, Andrew often fades into the background.

It’s important to remember that we wouldn’t even know about Simon Peter if not for Andrew. Andrew followed John the Baptist, and John the Baptist introduced Jesus as the true Messiah. Andrew believed, and Andrew brought his brother to see what he had seen. Andrew is remembered as the first disciple.

Tradition has it that the brothers didn’t give up their family fishing business at first, but eventually, Christ requested full commitment. I’ve always wondered about the family relationships that simmer in the background of the Gospels.

I remember one Gospel reading that mentioned Jesus healing the mother-in-law of Simon Peter. I thought, mother-in-law? That means there must have been a wife. What did the mothers and wives and mother-in-laws think of the men abandoning their fishing business to follow Jesus?

I also think about the sibling relationships here. What does Andrew think about Simon Peter, who quickly moves into the spotlight? Is Andrew content to stay in the background?

We know from the passage in Matthew that begins with Matthew 20:20, that there is competition to be Christ’s favorite. We see the mother of James and John who argues for her sons’ importance. We see the other disciples who become angry at the actions of this mother. I extrapolate to imagine that there’s much jockeying for position amongst the disciples.

Christ never loses an opportunity to remind us that he’s come to give us a different model of success. Again and again, he dismisses the importance that the world attaches to riches, to status, to a good reputation. Again and again, Jesus instructs us that the last will be first. Jesus tells us that the way to gain prestige with God is to serve.

We see stories that show that Andrew is the kind of disciple who is working for the glory of Christ, not for other reasons. In John’s Gospel, Andrew is the one who tells Jesus about the boy with five barley loaves and two fish, and thus helps make possible the miraculous feeding.

Andrew was the kind of disciple we could use more of in this world. Andrew so believes in the Good News that he brings his family members to Christ, and he continued in this path, bringing the Gospel to people far and wide. We see him beginning this mission in John’s Gospel, where he tells Christ of the Greeks that want to see him.

Andrew gets credit for bringing Christianity into parts of eastern Europe and western Asia: Kiev, Ukraine, Romania, Russia. He’s the first bishop of the Church of Byzantium and patron saint of all sorts of places, from Scotland to Cyprus to Russia.

On this day when we celebrate the life of the first disciple, let us consider our own discipleship. Are we focused on the right tasks or are we hoping that our Christian faith brings us non-Christian glory? How can we help usher in the miracles that come with the presence of Christ? Who needs to hear the Good News as only we can tell it?

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Christmas Season Begins

Here we are, Thanksgiving behind us, Black Friday shopping done--but is the Christmas shopping ever done?  Today, before/as we launch ourselves fully into the holiday season, let's take a minute to remember why we're celebrating Christmas, if we're Christians.

It's not about the gifts under the tree, it's about the baby in the manger.

But if we stay stuck in the story with the cute baby in the manger, we've lost the important point of the story.

Let's remember the true meaning of that baby in the manger, if we're Christians.

And if we leave Christ on the cross, we've lost the even larger story.

And the empty tomb is not even the end of the story.  We have a mission--and it's not to get the best bargains.  Could we transform our holiday season so that we're doing something to heal the world?  It could be something as simple as adding socks for the homeless to our shopping list or adding compost to our gardens.

Or maybe it will be something that transforms the world!


Friday, November 28, 2014

Budgeting for Black Friday and Beyond

The weeks before Christmas pose challenges to most of us, no matter what beliefs we hold. Even the most balanced of us can lose our way during this time of frantic busyness and hectic schedules and our culture beaming messages at us that we must spend more. How can we as Christians best use our gift giving dollars?

Our first impulse might be to give our gift giving dollars to various charitable organizations. I’m fortunate enough to be able to buy all the material stuff I need. I am haunted by all the charities that are underfunded. I am haunted by the gaping needs in the world. I would prefer that people give money to the needy than to buy more stuff for me. Chances are good that lots of people on your gift list feel the same way. Then the hard part comes in choosing the charity.

Philosophers like Peter Singer would encourage us to send our charitable dollars to charities who serve the developing world, where our dollars go further. Organizations like Lutheran World Relief have long histories of delivering our donations efficiently to areas of the globe with great need. But we know that there’s plenty of need here in our home countries.

Some people who give money to charities in lieu of gifts have fun matching the charity to the personality of the gift recipient. Some families choose one charity and give all their gift budgets to the one charity. Some families support local churches.

But what about the people on our list who aren’t as charitably minded?

Maybe instead of a gift, we could give an experience. Why not give your loved ones a retreat at a church camp? Many church camps have shorter week-end retreats that are affordably priced. Why not give theatre tickets?

We could give the gift of time together. You could take your gift recipients out for dinner. Make a date for a museum or a movie.—in February, when life calms down, and we need a treat to make it through the rest of winter.

We could give magazine subscriptions, the gift that gives throughout the year. A book of devotions could do the same thing, while nourishing our gift recipients on a daily basis.

This year, we might want to give gifts that help support local businesses so that they survive. We could give any number of gift cards to local businesses: car mechanics, gym memberships, hair stylists, boutiques, bookstores, restaurants, move theatres. We could broaden our approach and choose gift cards that support our Christian vision. Instead of an Amazon gift card, we could support Augsburg Fortress. We could buy fair trade products from organizations that support people in developing nations.

But what about the people on our list who don’t want a gift card? What about the people who want an object specially chosen for them?

One year, my family had a lot of fun by giving handmade gifts. But most of us don’t have time between now and Christmas to give handmade gifts.

Luckily, other people have been preparing. Why not support a church craft fair? There we’ll find beautiful objects to suit all sorts of budgets—and we’ll support church ministries. We could support local artists. Even if you think you can’t afford art, you will likely find something in your budget, like a set of note cards or a beautiful pottery mug. We could buy our gifts from SERVV or other groups who support artisans in the developing world. We could buy books from local authors.

However we choose to approach our gift giving, we should create a budget before we begin shopping. It’s easy to get caught up in the good feelings that spending money can produce for many of us. It’s easy to whip out our credit cards and worry about how we’ll pay for it later. Unfortunately, when we do that, many of us will still be paying for those Christmas presents next summer. And when we do that, we don’t have that money available for other worthy causes.

And there are so many other worthy causes.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Gratitude Haiku for Thanksgiving

What are your gratitude customs for Thanksgiving? Surely you have some. The holiday, after all, is not supposed to be about a big meal or getting ready for Black Friday shopping.

I'm proposing something different for your family to try this Thanksgiving: the gratitude haiku!

Why gratitude haiku, you ask?

First of all, a disclaimer. I'm using the word "haiku" very loosely. I understand that there's much more to haiku than the syllables per line (5-7-5).

The practice of gratitude journaling is one I've comd back to periodically. You've probably done it too: at the end of the day, write down 5 things that fill you with gratitude. No doubt that it's a powerful practice. But I wanted to be honest. When I've kept this discipline for any length of time, my gratitude lists begin to seem quite similar. As always, cultivating a quality of mindfulness does not come naturally to me.

Once, I changed up my gratitude journaling practice. Quite by accident--as I recall, it was in a desperate attempt to stick to a poem-a-day ritual one April--I wrote a gratitude haiku. And then I wrote another. And I kept doing it for several weeks. The practice short-circuited my tendency to keep the same list. I found myself paying attention and trying on subjects for haiku possibilities. I found myself more lighthearted than I sometimes am when I'm keeping a gratitude journal--it's fun to write haikus.

So, I offer this to you as a complement to your other Thanksgiving traditions. It involves no time in the kitchen, no exotic ingredients, and easy clean up--what could be better?

I'll start:

Thanksgiving 2014

Travels behind us,
We gather for food and fun,
Deeper nourishment.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, November 30, 2014:

First Reading: Isaiah 64:1-9

Psalm: Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18 (Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 NRSV)

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:3-9

Gospel: Mark 13:24-37

You may read the Gospel for Sunday and wonder if I've pasted the right lessons into the space above. You may have been prepared for angels appearing to Elizabeth, Mary, and Joseph. You might be like me, a woman who has already been listening to Christmas CDs; you may be hoping for a glimpse of Christmas in Advent.

Instead, again, you get this apocalyptic text from Mark, about tribulation, and a darkened sun and moon and stars falling from the sky. Yikes. Isaiah's not much better; we're not to the comforting texts yet.

But the end of this chunk of Mark is important. It implores us several times to watch. We're not very good at watching. We're not very good at waiting. These statements are true throughout the year, but they're especially true during the liturgical season of Advent. The pace of our socializing goes into full-throttle frenzy, and we give ourselves over to trying to create a perfect holiday. Then we spend the month of January nursing a cold (or succumbing to more serious illness) and the rest of the year paying our credit card bills.

Seen in this light, the Gospel chunk of Mark makes sense. The way we celebrate Advent is indicative of the way we spend the rest of the year, and in this way, the apocalyptic tone makes sense. So many of us are making a ruin of our lives. What can we do so that our lives do not end up in ashes?

The Gospel tells us to keep watch, and we might return to some ancient spiritual disciplines to help us with that. We think of Lent as the time of year for spiritual discipline, but Advent might be an even more important time, since our culture gives us more pressure in the season of Advent than Lent.

Return to the old practices. Light an Advent wreath each evening. Or buy yourself an Advent calendar. Those of us without children often let these traditions slide. Maybe we could take them up again.

We could return to some even more ancient practices.

Add some devotional time to your day. There are many books set up specifically for Advent or you could resolve to read more of the Bible.

You might keep a journal to record your thoughts as you move towards Christmas.  If you don't have time to write much, write a haiku or a sentence to capture your thought for the day.  Or take a picture.  This practice can help you stay alert.

Perhaps you might decide to undertake a fast. Many of us gain 4-10 pounds during an average holiday season. If we choose to abstain from food one day a week, we might avoid that fate--and our hunger pains might lead us to think about the real reason the season exists. Maybe we'll fast from parties. Maybe we'll get together with the adults in our lives and decide to fast from gifts. We could give each other time, instead, an afternoon spent in each other's company. Maybe we'll fast from the news, with its relentless grim information.

Maybe we want to be really brave and consider a larger technology fast. How much time do you spend on the Internet? How much of that time brings you closer to God or your fellow humans? How much of that time transforms you into a more creative person? How much time do you spend tending to your electronic devices? Computers, cell phones, T.V.s and Tivos, and Ipods, and gadgets I don't even know about yet. What would happen if you turned them all off for a day and spent your time observing the non-electronic world?

You might decide to give some of your time and/or money to charity. Or you might resolve to help those charities in January, when the fervor of charitable activities at year's end dies down, and those organizations really need you.

You could decide to pray. Maybe now is the time to add fixed-hour prayer to your life. Even if you don't want to buy an expensive set of breviaries and prayer books, you could go to this site: The prayers change through the day.

Whatever you do, choose a discipline that will help you keep watch. When we train ourselves to be alert, we'll be amazed at how much evidence of Divine Love surrounds us every day.

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

What's the Best Thing that Happened?

Back in the summer, I kept a logbook--see this post for more details about a logbook.  It's much easier in many ways than keeping a journal or writing blog posts.

As I was going back through it, I came across this idea, which seems infinitely adaptable for Thanksgiving conversations.  Maybe we can avoid the family arguments that so many of us dread around the holidays.

I came across this idea when reading Austin Kleon's Steal Like an Artist.  It's a quote from Nicholson Baker*, talking about writing The Anthologist"If you ask yourself, ‘What’s the best thing that happened today?’ it actually forces a certain kind of cheerful retrospection that pulls up from the recent past things to write about that you wouldn’t otherwise think about. If you ask yourself, ‘What happened today?’ it’s very likely that you’re going to remember the worst thing, because you’ve had to deal with it—you’ve had to rush somewhere or somebody said something mean to you—that’s what you’re going to remember. But if you ask what the best thing is, it’s going to be some particular slant of light, or some wonderful expression somebody had, or some particularly delicious salad. I mean, you never know… "

It's a variation on the gratitude exercise, it seems to me:  list 5 things each day for which you are grateful.  Your life/outlook will change.

I wrote this down, thinking I'd use it at work.  Maybe when people come to me to complain, to fret, to blow off steam--maybe I'll start remembering to use this prompt to shift the conversation:  tell me the best thing that's happened to you this week.

And maybe this week, during my Thanksgiving travels, I'll ask this question about the best thing that's happened in the past year.

*I realized I'd never really heard of Nicholson Baker, or at least, I thought I hadn't.  So I did what modern people did:  I Googled.  I came across this fascinating article from a few years ago.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Acting the Parable

Yesterday, after a good morning jog and listening to a fascinating show on Islam on NPR's show On Being (you can listen/read here), we headed off to church.

We had a variety of experiences at church, but I want to focus on the one that's most intriguing.  At our more interactive service, we divided into 2 groups.  One group prepared the story of the rich man and Lazarus with puppets.  The other put on a skit.

It was the exact same story, of course.  We already had the puppets on hand and a box of costumes.  We had 15 minutes to get ready.

Then we presented our dramas.  And I spent the rest of the day thinking about how this is such an effective way to explore the Biblical texts.

Many of us go to churches where worship revolves around a good sermon.  Now I like a good sermon as much as the next person, but there are all sorts of problems with a sermon.  Many of us don't learn well that way--it's why we might not do well with schools set up with this kind of lecture.  And too many sermons I've heard over 48 years have not been worth the time it took to sit still to hear them.  For more on this subject, see this post over at Jan Edmiston's wonderful blog.

What happens when we act out the story, rather than listen to someone explicate it?  I suspect it lives longer within us.  I suspect that we remember it longer.  I suspect that it nudges us at key points in our lives.

I realize that this approach might have some problems too.  Not everyone is up for this kind of interactivity.  Some people might feel paralyzed with fear at the very idea.

I think of my Quaker friends who would prefer to sit quietly with the text.  Full silence has its pull on me too.

I think of my friends who work in other art forms who would tell us that singing a text or painting a text would work in similar ways.  I suspect they are right.  We have whole libraries of hymnals that show that past generations have thought so.  We have gorgeous stained glass windows and paintings that show that in a pre-literate population, we can learn by other ways.

I am glad to go to a Lutheran church where we experiment with all sorts of ways to hear the Good News.  Our late service was full of testimony--several people who gave stewardship sermonettes.  Our early service before the interactive service has no sermon at all.  And our interactive service contains dramas and art projects and all sorts of alternate ways of coming to an understanding of Jesus and his message.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Last Sunday of the Church Year

It doesn't feel like New Year's Eve, does it?  Yet, in some ways, it is. 

Here we are, once again at the end of a liturgical calendar year, the last Sunday of year A.  It is Christ the King Sunday, a holiday that has never been dear to my heart.

This year's Advent readings come from Mark--ah, apocalyptic Mark.  I am oddly ready.  It has been an apocalyptic year, full of people at midlife battling dread diseases and relationships spiraling apart and all sorts of ghastly news events.  The year 2014 has already been Markian.  The Advent readings will be an appropriate way to end the calendar year.

I often think of Nora Gallagher's comment in Things Seen and Unseen; she talks about feeling like she's moving on an alternate calendar to the Day Timer that charts the calendar year.  I can relate.

It's a great time to read a book about the liturgical year. Even if you're already part of a religious community that follows the liturgical calendar and you think you don't have anything new to learn, Joan Chittister's book, The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life, is worth a look. And for those of you who can't comprehend the value of a church calendar that follows a different cycle than the worldly calendar, Chittister will explain, in elegant, beautiful language.
So, start the new year by reading about the old year, the liturgical year. Even if you're anti-Catholic, like some of the reviewers at Amazon, you'll likely find something to enrich your spirit. And even if you disagree with most of it, it's good to read something completely outside your realm of experience (in fact, a brain researcher, Barbara Strauch, says that's how our brains stay young, by wrestling with ideas outside our realm of experience--go here to read the article).

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Redemption of Spectacular Failure

I had thought that I might be heading to a place of sadness.  I read Nikky Finney's excellent response to Daniel Handler's racist joke at the National Book Awards.  She wrote to the National Book  Foundation suggesting that they apologize too; they declined.  She concludes her piece:  "Even if our mouth was not the mouth that said itwe still must have and find the courage to speak out against such moments as these, lest all our windows be broken, lest all our great literary celebrations be reduced to a watermelon patch."

I felt that leaden sorrow--but then I ran across this story of how Handler is making atonement:  he's making a $10,000 donation to We Need Diverse Books--and for 24 hours, he matched donations.  Now that's a classy way of apologizing.

Sure, it would be nice to live in a world where apologies for these kinds of comments aren't necessary because everyone is enlightened and thinks before they speak.  But we don't live in that world yet.

In her speech at the National Book Awards, Ursula K. Le Guin reminds us of why art is important and how artists will be necessary:  "I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality."

She reminds us that the reality we have now may not be the reality that we always have:  "The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words."

What a wonderful reminder of why we need to do what we do as writers and artists!

And because this is my theology blog, I'd also add that spiritual people have that same sort of power.  The world relies on spiritual people to call us all to be our better selves.

And sure, spiritual people can fail at that, as can institutions--and sometimes fairly spectacularly.  I like the example of Daniel Handler, which serves as a great reminder of how even spectacular failure can be redeemed.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Spiritual and Creative Lessons from Bach

Longtime readers of this blog know that I love the show On Being; the host, Krista Tippett covers such a wide range of topics which so often feel so relevant to my current life.

Her latest show on Bach was no exception.  You can explore it here.  I'll capture some of the items which intrigued me.

Are we creating or are we discovering?  Here's an interesting take on that:

"And, Bach wouldn't have ever thought of himself as a maker of music. In fact, when he died, there's an obituary of a guy who really couldn't stand Bach. Bach made quite a few enemies in his life. And he wrote this really trenchant thing that says, in English, that Bach was a music maker. And that was considered the worst insult. And this is like, oh, I'm not a music — he's a music discoverer. So, Bach viewed himself as a discoverer of music, not as a maker."

Why create?  Bach had a view which seems so alien to many of us today:

"It's to the glory of God and nobody else. Because the whole point was that he was out to glorify God by showing — by discovering the relation between nature and God. That was his only goal. And if you don't understand that, you cannot understand why, for example, he had no interest in posterity. A concept we cannot comprehend.  . . . He had no interest, for example, that his cantatas, his passions survived. I mean, just think about it. You've produced this masterpiece, and then you say, oh, it's OK, you can destroy it. That's fine. Because God will know, God will not forget that I did it, and that's good enough for me."

On learning from those who have mastered the art form before you came along:

"By and large, classical music, there's so much respect for the art form that, say, improvisation is not encouraged. But this is crazy. I mean, Beethoven was probably the biggest improviser ever. Bach would improvise for hours at the organ. It's not just that he could, that is the way they did music. It was just to improvise, to change.

They used to take other people's music, and that's how you learned your trade — your craft, is by taking other people's music and rewriting it. Take this Vivaldi concerto and make it better. That was perfectly accepted. That was the way people did things. They didn't worry about intellectual rights..."

On Bach's work ethic:

"And to him, to work very hard was to glorify God. Because to be lazy would be insulting God. So, his work ethic was not just that's the way he was brought up. That's not true. It's because it was part of his belief system."

And yet much of that work was not composing something new: 

"No, no, but most day was spent copying, rehearsing. . . .Practicing. Getting his musicians. The time he had to actually think, well, now, what's the melody like? Was just a few hours to write something of the size of, you know, an entire Beatles’ album. Actually it's more music than that. You know, Christoph Wolff, “Volf” I should say, German pronunciation, says you know, the “St. Matthew Passion” — he probably wrote it in or three weeks, he said, to their professional composer would have to take a three-year leave of absence...   But something of that scale would take three years for a professional composer. He'd do it, you know, two, three weeks."

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Mepkin Thanksgiving

In a week, it will be Thanksgiving.  Hard to believe--where has the year gone?

This morning, I want to focus my gratitude on one area, and see where it leads me.  I want to think about my decade of trips to Mepkin Abbey.  First and foremost, I'm grateful for the spiritual deepening that comes from those times at Mepkin.

I am grateful for how the monks conserve the land.

I am grateful to have time to sit by the banks of the river.

I am grateful for the writing projects which may not have ever developed, had I not had this writing time.

I am grateful for treats of all kinds from the gift shop.

I am grateful for the comfort that comes from knowing that the monks pray for us all, each and every day.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, Nov. 23, 2014:

First Reading: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

Psalm: Psalm 95:1-7a

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 100

Second Reading: Ephesians 1:15-23

Gospel: Matthew 25:31-46

This week, the liturgical year comes to a close with Christ the King Sunday. In some churches, this will be a high festival day that celebrates the power of Christ. But the Gospel reading makes it clear that Kingdom power is not the same as worldly power.

We might expect a Gospel reading that reminds us that Jesus transcended death. We might get a Gospel reading that tries to scare us with a vision of Christ at the next Coming, descending in glory to judge us. Well, in a way, we do.

But the vision we get is not the one that we might expect. We might expect to be judged and found wanting because of what we've been told are sins: our drinking, our gambling, our loose sexuality. We might expect to be judged for all the Sundays we decided we'd prefer sleep to church. We might expect to be judged because we've been lazy, and we didn't go for that promotion at work.

This Gospel reminds us of how God will judge us. Did we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, visit the imprisoned? If so, then we have been attending to our royal tasks.

And why do we do this? The Bible is full of stories of the Divine showing up in circumstances where we wouldn't expect to find God. The Bible tells us that God prefers to hang out with the poor and the marginalized. If we want to find God, we need to go there. We have a history of thousands of years of Christians whose lives support what the Bible tells us--we will find God in the meekest of places. Next week, we celebrate Advent, where we remember one of our central Christian stories: God comes to be with us two thousand years ago, but not in the power center of Rome. No, God comes to us in one of the outposts of Roman civilizations, and God lives with one of the groups of people that the worldly, dominant power structure of the time despised.

This Gospel also reminds us that we are to see God in everyone. It's easy for me to see God in the eyes of my husband as he looks at me lovingly. It's harder for me to see my difficult coworker as Jesus incarnate. In any given day, we are besieged by people who aggravate us, from our family members to our colleagues to strangers who drive the road with us or shop in the same stores or send their children to the same schools. By forcing myself to treat everyone as Jesus-in-Disguise, I will transform myself into the Christian that I want to be.

Jesus was the model, after all. Jesus had dinner with the outcast. Jesus treated everyone with love and respect, even people who were out to sabotage him. I could let myself off the hook by saying, "Well, yeah, he was God incarnate. I could do that too, if I was God incarnate."

No, you can do it, because Jesus did it. Jesus came to show us the full potential of a human life. Jesus came to dwell among us and to show us a better way to live. It's not the way the world tells us to live. The world would scoff at a king who sought out the poor and dispossessed, who sold his possessions so that he would have more money for the poor.

But Christians know that our power lies in our compassion. We don't achieve compassion by sitting in our homes, working on being more compassionate. We become more compassionate in the same way that God did, by getting involved in the world.

And we're not doing this for some after-death reward, although many preachers will use this Gospel to lecture on that. We do this because God has invited us to be part of the redemption of creation--not in some far away time, but in our very own. We don't have to wait for Jesus to come again. When we model Jesus in our everyday behavior, Christ re-enters the world.

We're not here to make money, to have a good retirement, to accumulate stuff. God has a greater purpose for us, one that will leave us infinitely more satisfied.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

When Morning Gilds the Skies

I woke up around 1 a.m. or so unable to fall back asleep--so I got up and worked on some writing projects.  By 5:30, I was ready for some exercise.  My sister and I are going to start a running program, but I wasn't thinking it would be this morning.

But I felt a strange restlessness at the thought of just walking.  So I thought, let me just try running a few blocks--but lo and behold, I found I could keep running for a half hour.

Part of it was that the temperature and humidity had fallen to easier to run through ranges.  But part was the beauty of the pre-dawn sky.  I thought of that hymn "When Morning Gilds the Skies."  Gild was the correct verb for this morning.

I had ecology on the brain as I so often do when moving through the morning.  Plus, I've been reading Bill McKibben's latest book, Oil and Honey.  I have that sense of time warping--the book covers the beginning of the protest against the pipeline back in 2011, and here we are, years later, still waiting to see how it all turns out, with a possible vote in the Senate today.

Regardless of how the vote goes, it's important to remember that the vote has been delayed for years because of the actions of this band of protestors.  And President Obama may prevent the construction of the pipeline, if the Senate and the House give approval--and that would not have been the case without this protest movement.

The movement was helped by the larger institutionalized protest groups--but the bulk of the movement was comprised of ordinary folks.  McKibben, himself, is a fairly ordinary guy:  a teacher and a writer at midlife.  He shows the way that a movement can be built:  he knows these people who know these people and eventually, they get the attention of the White House.

The book also tells the story of one of the more successful beekeepers in the U.S.  It explores the ways that people can combine resources:  McKibben has a bit of money to buy some land, but no time to care for it the way he would like.  The beekeeper has vast knowledge, but no money to buy land.  They combine forces to find that interesting twists and turns happen.

It's a book about the land and all the ways we might save it.  It's a book about ordinary citizens and the power that they have.  It's a good reminder in these political times.

And regardless of how the vote goes, McKibben continuously reminds us (and I'm only halfway through the book) that the environmental struggle is never truly won.  I would say that the flip side is that the battle is never truly lost either.  I've written this before, but it bears repeating:  when I was a child, you couldn't swim in many of the country's rivers--and they sometimes caught fire. Now you can swim in most of them without too much fear. When I was a child, in major metropolitan areas, you could see the air you were breathing. Now, you can't, at least in Europe and the U.S.

It's good to remember that we've thought that the planet was doomed before--and yet, here we still are.  And many a scientist would remind us that even if human life becomes unsustainable on this planet, other life forms will likely thrive in our absence.

On a glorious morning like this one, I was ready to quit worrying altogether.  I thought of the words of John the Baptist:  "I am not the Messiah."  I thought of some children whom I knew decades ago who would see a glorious sunrise and say, "Great show, God!"

Great show, God!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

A Poem for the Feast Day of Gertrude the Great

Today is the feast day of Gertrude the Great.  For more on that feast day and the appeal of medieval monastics, see this post at the Living Lutheran site.

Or maybe you'd like a poem!  I wrote this one years ago, and it has yet to be published.  It occurs to me that I've stopped sending it out, so why not post it here?  I originally titled it "Monk's Habits," but I think I like "Monastic Habits" better.

It's a nice juxtaposition with the feast day.  Enjoy.

Monastic Habits

To put on a robe that would forgive
her for a heavy meal, so unlike
her tailored suits. A robe made of rough
material, no need of special laundering.
Goodbye to astronomical dry cleaning bills.
No worrying about matching accessories.
Always a drab color, day after day.

That robe could buy her anonymity,
invisibility in the world,
no eyes disrobing her, no leers.
That robe declaring her off limits.

And housework, those boring tasks, always renewing
themselves, would confer spiritual
discipline, instead of complaints about her ineptitude.

Even silence, that vow which mystified
her teenage self, more so even than chastity,
now calls to her. She sees herself enshrouded in silence,
no carping, complaining, or criticizing.
She sees herself surrounded by like-minded companions,
rising early in common pursuit, breathing
air perfumed by incense and rising bread dough,
as prayers rise to the heavens.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Looking Ahead to the Feast Day of Gertrude the Great

My essay about Gertrude the Great is up at the Living Lutheran site.  Go here to read it.

She is not one of the better known medieval monastics; Hildegarde of Bingen probably takes that title, especially since she's got a whole Pandora station named after her.

Still, there are aspects of Gertrude the Great's life that speak to me:  plenty of reasons to celebrate her feast day on November 16.

Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"We know that she began writing for the benefit of her sisters in the abbey. I like to think of her as a blogger of her time. She wrote for a small audience, but it was important to her, and she kept doing it."

"Because she was present for her writing practice, she was graced with a series of visions."

"She's associated with souls in purgatory, and I know that most Lutherans haven’t spent much time thinking about purgatory. Yet the older I get, the more the idea of purgatory makes sense to me. Not the after-death purgatory – but the kinds of limbo in which we might find ourselves mired."

"Perhaps our own purgatories have similar gifts to offer, if we can change our perspective."

Thursday, November 13, 2014

A Good Life, A Good Funeral

Last night I went to the funeral of one of our church's long-time members.  She was much, much older, and in failing health, so in some sense, her death wasn't a surprise.

But for me, death is always sort of a surprise.  And I often have the same response: "Does it really all boil down to THIS???!!!"

I know that our lives are just a breath of wind.  We're grass--we're here, and then we're gone.  Some large part of me protests.

That protest makes sense, I think.  It's part of the loving of this exquisite world, God's good creation.  Even if we're convinced we're headed towards something better, why would we want to leave this beautiful place?

One of the functions of a funeral is to remind us all that yes, it really does come down to this, a body left behind, a group gathering to grieve.  It's good to remember that we're here for such a very short time--and so much of what we think is vital and important really is not.

We wept our tears for our loss.  Again, I thought about my feelings that death and disease are a design flaw of creation.

I don't really feel that way, do I?  After all, without death and disease, we'd have a much more crowded planet.  And it's already plenty crowded.

Last night's funeral did more to celebrate a life than to paint a rosy picture of Heaven.  I liked the emphasis on a life well lived, instead of a life yet to come.

I feel somewhat guilty for feeling that way.  I'm a Christian.  Shouldn't I have my sights set on Heaven?

Long time readers of this blog know that I don't focus on Heaven.  I believe that Christ came to call us to Kingdom living right here and now.  The good news is that we don't have to wait for death to call us home.  We can start the transformation now.

Because the church member had lived so long, she didn't have many friends and family outside of the church.  Her daughter reminded us that when her mother was at church, she was truly home.  That note rang true to me.

It was so good to gather as a that community.  I was struck by how many church members I saw last night, members who I usually don't see because we're going to different services.  It was a reunion in all sorts of ways--as we gathered to celebrate the larger reunion.

Our pastor described the deceased as half Ethel Merman, half John the Baptist--if they had both been born in Russia.  It was the perfect description.

He also reminded us of how enthusiastic she had been about church.  She invited everyone to come to her church--and some have become members.

That was not her only contribution, of course.  It was good to be together, to recall all of her wonderful ways that she made our church more like our home.

In short, it was a good funeral.  When church as an institution works well, it's this marking of life's passages that it does particularly well. 

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, November 16, 2014:

First Reading: Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Judges 4:1-7

Psalm: Psalm 90:1-8 [9-11] 12

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 123

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11

Gospel: Matthew 25:14-30

This week's Gospel gives us the parable of the talents. One servant turns his 5 talents into 10, one turns his 2 talents into 4, and the servant who buries his one talent in the yard doesn't create any new capital. It's easy when reading this Gospel to focus on the word "talent." It's natural to think of our own talents, to wonder how we're investing them, and how we're wasting them by burying them in the yard.

The parable makes it clear what will happen to people who bury their talents. Now, I know that many of us are blessed with a multitude of talents. We do have to make judicious choices about which talents are worth cultivating. I hope that we won't be the servant cast into worthless darkness because we pay attention to one set of skills over another.

But let's look at that parable again. Let's look at that word, "talent," again. Read the parable substituting the word gold blocks for talent.

It's worth noting that a quantity of 5 talents, according to my Bible footnote (and my Bible is published by Oxford University Press, so I trust the footnote), is worth 15 years of wages of this laborer. In an article from The Christian Century, James Howell, a Methodist minister, points out that the servant who got just one talent would be receiving more money than most of us get in a lifetime of work: "This amount would stagger any recipient and send him into utterly uncharted territory. A Mediterranean laborer wouldn't have any more of a clue about how to invest five talent than the guy who bags my groceries would about $74 million (even if I and all my friends tried to advise him)."

As I read this week's Gospel again, I forced myself to think about the fact that this parable really is about money. It's not instructing me to return to the piano keyboard at the expense of the computer keyboard. And it's an unusually Capitalist message from Christ. I'm used to the Jesus who tells us to give our money away. I'm not used to the savior who encourages us to make wise investments of our money.

I'm not used to thinking of money management as a talent. But this parable makes clear that it is. Jesus makes clear that money is one of the gifts we're given, and the verses that follow (31-46, ones that aren't part of this week's Gospel) show that Christ is not straying from his essential message. The verses that follow talk about treating the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner as if those people are Christ incarnate. God has a vision for how we'll use that gift of money.

The servant who was cast into out darkness was cast out because the talent went to waste buried in the ground. How would he have been treated if he had given the money away to the poor, the sick, the stranger? I suspect he would NOT have been cast into outer darkness.

Our collapsing Capitalist paradigm often doesn't take community into account. Not making enough money in America, where workers have unreasonable demands like a living wage and safe working conditions? Just move your industry to a country that has less oversight. Sure, you rip apart the social fabric, but at least you're making money.

God calls us to a different vision. Our God is always obsessed with the poor and dispossessed. And we're called to be part of that obsession.

Unfortunately, tough economic times mean that we'll find many opportunities for this aspect of Kingdom Living. With the holidays approaching, we might think about our customs. Maybe, instead of giving people who have lots of stuff even more stuff, we could donate to a charity in their name. In my family, the adults decided that instead of exchanging presents with each other, we would choose a different charity each year and donate to that charity. Maybe, instead of an endless whirl of parties, we might give some time to our local food pantries or soup kitchens. As we buy a book or two for our favorite children, we could buy a book or two for local reading programs or donate to RIF (Reading is Fundamental, the nation's largest child literacy organization).

The ways to help heal the world are endless, and God invites us to join in the creation project. We can donate money, time, skills, prayers, optimism, hope. Doing so is one of our most basic Christian tasks.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Veterans Day Resources

I have a post up at the Living Lutheran site that has some theological meditations on Veterans Day and the military.  Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"Veterans Day is also a good day to offer prayers of thanks for the military people who have been willing to fight. I want desperately to be a pacifist, but I will admit that sometimes tyrants must be dealt with forcefully."

"I'm also painfully aware of how often peace is won at the hard cost of human life. I'm aware of the difficult acts that must be done so that those of us across oceans can sleep peacefully at night.  I'm aware of how many veterans will never sleep peacefully through the night again."

"But for Veterans Day, let's take a minute to appreciate how few of us in most nations in the developed world have had to experience war first-hand. Let us celebrate a world that can move toward peace. Let us pray for a time when war will come no more."

Go here to read the whole post.

If you're in the mood for pictures from Mepkin Abbey and a poem for Armistice Day, go to this blog post on my creativity site.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Other People's Sacred Music

Saturday, in between rain and storms, we went over to Broward College to see the Amernet String Quartet.  It was billed as an evening of Jewish music, which was strange because it started at 4:00 p.m.  I heard an ad for the show which said it would feature a Jewish cantor.  And there was some mention of Kristallnacht.  Clearly it was not going to be your traditional classical music concert with your typical string quartet.

For more about the concert, see this post on my creativity blog.  Here I want to think about what it means to go to a concert of primarily sacred music, sung by a man with both opera and cantor training, in languages that aren't mine from a tradition that isn't mine.

Would I have found the music more moving if the sung parts had been sung in English instead of Hebrew or Yiddish?  Probably.  Luckily we had introductions, so at least I had a sense of what the lyrics said.
But even with the explanation, I wasn't always sure what I heard.  I could grasp the emotional tone.  One Psalm of abandonment I knew from my own tradition, but in a foreign (non Latinate) language, I couldn't be sure I knew the words.

Do I need to know the words?  If I answer yes, does that make me shallow?

I wanted to know the words.

Some of the pieces seemed to be parts of religious liturgies:  a morning prayer, a Kaddish prayer, a hymn of praise (maybe?), a piece of yearning towards God.

Here, too, I wandered if it would have meant more if I understood the liturgies more.  Happily, I know enough about Jewish traditions that I had a way in to the music.

No, the language was the biggest stumbling block.  And, if I'm being honest, I liked the pieces without the cantor better than the ones with him.  He had a nice enough voice--but I wanted to hear the instruments by themselves.

One piece was written by a composer while he was in a concentration camp.  I wondered about that process and whether anyone has done research into the creativity of those under extreme pressure.  Maybe the composing was an escape.  Maybe it was part of his work duties.  Maybe he could see the writing on the wall, and he knew it was the last compositions he would likely write and thus, he wrote his most powerful material--and he did die in the camp.

In all, I was glad that we went.  It was good to stretch myself, both musically and theologically.  It was wonderful to have the cantor suggest we sing along--and the first 10 rows did, indeed, sing back to him.  And since it was us, singing back what he had sung, those of us who don't come from that tradition, we soon joined in too.

And thus an audience becomes a congregation.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Fall of All our Walls

I have the fall of the Berlin Wall on my brain:  25 years ago today the gates were opened and people allowed to go through.  I remember holding my breath, thinking that this would never be allowed to stand.  I had the crushing of the Tiananmen square protest very much in mind.  But this episode had a different ending.

A victory for non-violent resistance.  You could argue that it was just public officials who misspoke and border guards who were afraid to shoot. More in this news story.  I will go to my grave feeling happy about that event, regardless of whether or not it was intentional. 

You could argue, as some have, that this incident led to the ghastly wars and massacres of the 1990's in Bosnia and other parts of the former Yugoslavia, along with other bloody revolts in part of East Europe.  But it's hard to ignore that the opening of the gate and the tearing down of the wall also led to the reunification of Germany, which happened fairly successfully.

Yes, I will remember this date as a victory for non-violence.  It's also a day to celebrate living as if the life we want has already begun to break through into our current lives.

On this day, we can remember that it is possible to make a way out of no way.  If we dwell in chains, we may wonder how--how can we make a way when no way seems possible?

We can take comfort in each other.  If someone else has had success, we can dream of it too.  That success may be the publication of a book with a spine.  It may be increased literacy rates in our lifetimes.  It may be that we move to the city or region where we really want to live.  It may be the overthrow of an oppressive regime.  It may be that we leap to that job that makes our spirits sing. 

Often our dreams are too puny.  We hold back because we're afraid to be disappointed again.  But now is the time for big dreams.  What would you like to see manifest in the world?  What would you work for if you truly believed that anything is possible?

In the meantime, we can take solace from our compatriots.  We can encourage them and hold them up.  Together, we will be stronger when we fight against despair.

At some point, we'll likely see some success.  At that point, I hope that we remember to turn around and stretch out our hands to others who need us.  If we have that kind of power, we can hire the younger artists, even though we may feel threatened by them.  We can work for the freedom of all, even if we worry that we'll lose some of our benefits.  We can continue to cheer when oppressed people overthrow their governments, and we can hope and pray that the results are peaceful.  I continue to be amazed that the Soviet Union just let all of those countries in East Europe go.

That’s the way redemption works—not in the ways we would expect, but in surprising ways that take us where we could not dream of going, and sometimes faster than we would expect. If we could travel back in time to tell the people of 1985 that the Soviet Union would soon crumble and South Africa would be free of white rule, the people of 1985 would think we were insane. If we could travel back to the first century of the Roman empire to tell of what the followers of Jesus would accomplish, those people would laugh at us—if they even knew who Jesus was.

Despots use language to convince the people that they’re living different lives than the reality they actually experience.  Dissidents use a similar tool to dismantle empires. Dreamers use language to call us to our better selves.

When we think about the future of the Church and what we might do to attract the unchurched, I am convinced that it's not about different music in our services or some program that serves the community.  People will come back to churches when churches give them the language of hope again.

It's all there in our Bible, the ultimate resistance text.  Jesus comes to announce the Good News that the Kingdom of God is breaking through, and it's a Kingdom unlike earthly kingdoms.  Over and over again, Jesus tells us that we don't have to wait to enjoy this life in the Kingdom of God.

And seeing what happened at the East German border on this night 25 years ago reminds me of that Gospel message.  Good news indeed.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

When a Church Matriarch Lies Dying

I've read enough to know how damaging church matriarchs can be.  Happily, I don't think we have this problem at my church.  We are lucky in that we have enough flexibility so that those of us who want to experiment with ways of doing church can--and we have a more traditional service for those who want that.  We don't have struggles over Altar Guild--I don't think we have an Altar Guild.

Of course, we don't have people polishing the wood, the metals, doing all those things that humans refuse to relinquish.  Future generations may wonder why we allowed the wood to crack, the metals to tarnish.

One of our church matriarchs now lies in the hospital.  She probably will die there.

In some ways, it will be the mercy that death often is for the very old.  Her beloved husband of many decades died in January.  She's been lonely.  She's had declining health.

Some of our long-time church members have been to the hospital, if Facebook posts are any indication.  I have wondered about the protocol.

In the end, I will not go.  I knew the matriarch, and she was always glowingly complimentary to my husband and me.  But our relationship was one of speaking briefly after church. It doesn't feel appropriate to join the grieving family.

Will I go to the funeral?  I will try.  After all, that's what a church family should do.

But it may not be possible.  And if not, I will take comfort in knowing that others will be there to comfort her family and to celebrate her life.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Updating a Parable for a Stewardship Sunday

Stewardship Text: 
Luke 12:13–31

In this text, we get the story of the man who built bigger structures to hold his grain and goods.  If we rewrote this Gospel to use modern images, what might we use?

Let me try:  Once there was a worker who got to teach extra classes when the local community college had a surge in enrollment.  The worker also got a bonus at work along with a raise, while the cost for health insurance went down.  Thus, at the end of the year, the worker had extra money in the bank, and because of historic stock market gains, the worker's retirement account was higher than ever.  The worker had lived in the same house for twenty years, so the worker had managed to retain some equity in the house.

The worker decided to consolidate all of the extra money into the retirement account with the best return.  The worker went to bed saying, "At this rate, I can retire 7 years early.  Maybe I'll really luck out, and if I'm careful, I could retire in 14 years and get a few more years of retirement in addition to that 7.  I'm very fortunate."

But that very night, the worker died and because the worker had no will, the money was tied up in the courts for 14 years, and eventually, all the profits went to court costs and other mysterious fees.

Here's another way of looking at that parable.  What does our family budget say about who we trust to take care of us?

Another way of asking the same question:  if we really trusted that God would provide everything we needed, how would our behavior change?

In these stewardship days, we may hear that old-fashioned term, tithing.  I wonder if tithing is an outmoded concept--not that it's not important, but it could be expressed in ways that are more meaningful.

Would we give more money if we understood exactly what our money was buying?  If we translated every restaurant meal into a mosquito net, would we give more?

Or, if we understood some of our spending as truly discretionary (nobody needs beer; I could get all my books from the library and do away with my book budget), would we give more to our church?

In Colossians Remixed: Subverting the Empire (a book I highly recommend), Brian J. Walsh and Sylvia C. Keesmaat have this interesting approach to charitable giving: "One guidepost we work with is that if we ever find in a given year that we have invested more in our won future by way of retirement savings than we have given away for someone else's present need, there is something terribly wrong. We tend to think the ratio should be at least two to one: for every dollar we invest in retirement savings, two dollars should be given away to an agency that will serve the poor" (page 189).

While I essentially agree with them, I am not there yet, and may not ever meet them there. But maybe I should begin with a smaller goal:  match my retirement savings with my church/charitable/social justice giving.

 Walsh and Keesmaat remind us, "We can probably tell as much about the real spirituality and the real worldview of a people by looking at the cars they drive, the food they consume, the gadgets that fill their homes and the garbage they throw out as we can by listening to the songs they sing and the prayers they pray" (page 199).

 What does your spending say about you and your values?

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Work Meetings and Table Ministries

Today at work, we will have an Academic Affairs meeting where we will likely discuss the Winter 2015 schedule and the new approach to registration for classes.  Then we will eat lunch at the school's restaurant.

To my knowledge, we have never done this before.  When I first moved into administration, our Chairs meetings often had food supplied by Culinary, but it wasn't a real meal.  Sure, it was charming to eat a gingerbread boy while we talked metrics, but it didn't make the kind of bond that sharing a meal would have.

Today's meal may not bond us together either.  But if we did it often?  I bet we'd be more cohesive and more effective.

My church has learned this lesson.  After our success in planning alternative worship services over dinner, we now also have our church council meetings over dinner.

We're lucky to have a pastor who opens his house to us.  We're lucky that he has a huge dining room table.  People who have served on church councils before and are serving now comment on how much better we're getting along and how functional we are as a group.

Why is this such a surprise?

After all, as a church, we have the example of Jesus and his table ministry.  You may or may not recall that many a story in the 4 Gospels shows Jesus having a meal:  with followers, with huge crowds, in people's homes, in borrowed spaces, in huge outdoor areas.

I am not the first person to see the radical nature of this table ministry.  Radical and radicalizing.  It's hard to continue to think of people as "Other" when we've eaten dinner with them.  When we eat a meal together, we learn a lot about each other--thus, it's harder to demonize each other.  It's easier to work as a group when we've broken bread together.

Jesus knew a lot of things, but his idea of table ministry was one of the super-genius ideas.  If they were giving out MacArthur Fellowships then, would he have been recognized?

Do they teach this idea of the value of sharing a meal together in the nation's business schools?

I'm willing to bet that they don't.  What a shame.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, November 9, 2014:

  • First reading and Psalm
    • Joshua 24:1-3a, 14-25
    • Psalm 78:1-7
  • Alternate First reading and Psalm
    • Wisdom of Solomon 6:12-16 or Amos 5:18-24
    • Wisdom of Solomon 6:17-20 or Psalm 70
  • Second reading
    • 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18
  • Gospel
    • Matthew 25:1-13

  • How mystifying, this parable of the wise bridesmaids with more than enough oil and the foolish, unprepared bridesmaids!  I would have expected Jesus to make a different point, one about those with abundant resources sharing with those who have a lack.

    But once again, Jesus is full of surprises.  It's not a parable about sharing.  And if you reread it again, you may realize, as I did this morning, that it's not a parable about staying awake either--all of the bridesmaids get drowsy and sleep.

    Through his parables and more importantly, through his life, Jesus shows us that we're allowed to have down time.  We're allowed to sleep.  Jesus retreated periodically to recharge, and we should do.

    But those foolish maidens aren't going on a women's retreat at a nearby church camp.  No, they have come to their task unprepared.  It's not like the task was unknown.  I assume that one of the basic job requirements of being a bridesmaid is to have oil for the lamps.

    Or maybe it's not one of the basic tasks.  Note that the bridegroom is delayed.  Maybe the foolish bridesmaids assumed the wedding party would come by the time it was dark.  Maybe there fault lies in not anticipating the unforeseen.

    So, what does this parable tell us for modern life?  For those of us who are waiting and watching, what does it mean?

    I love this quote from this post by Matthew L. Skinner: "Faithful readiness must be active readiness. It means saying that even though the wedding banquet hasn’t yet begun, together we will act as if it has. To live otherwise is to be exposed as unaware, perhaps revealing our estrangement from the bridegroom, from Jesus himself."

    Too many people will read this text and see the wedding party as a metaphor for Heaven.  Perhaps it is, although I imagine Jesus would have had a very different idea of Heaven than that of 21st century folks.  Too many people will focus on the possibility of a second coming in our lifetime, and that's why they keep the lamps ready.

    But God did not create this planet just to wreck it out of displeasure.  Absolutely not.  The Good News that Jesus gives us again and again is that the redemption of creation breaks through into our daily lives.

    If we wait for a distant Heaven, we've missed the point.  The Good News is that we don't have to wait.  It's happening right now, in all sorts of ways.

    But many of us will miss it, because we're not looking or we're not used to seeing God in our daily lives.  Perhaps instead of keeping a gratitude journal or instead of asking how our days have been, perhaps a better question would be, "Where have you seen God today?"

    In this way we'll keep our oil replenished and our lamps ready.  We will know the bridegroom, because we will have gotten in the habit of seeing him.

    Monday, November 3, 2014

    "Further On Up the Road": The Spirituality of Springsteen and Cash

    Paul Elie's blog post about Bruce Springsteen and Flannery O'Connor made me smile.  Of course Bruce Springsteen likes Flannery O'Connor.  Of course.  This article in The New York Times gives additional insight into his reading habits and sheds light on his many songs.

    For example, there's this quote:  " . . . the short stories of Flannery O’Connor landed hard on me. You could feel within them the unknowability of God, the intangible mysteries of life that confounded her characters, and which I find by my side every day. They contained the dark Gothicness of my childhood and yet made me feel fortunate to sit at the center of this swirling black puzzle, stars reeling overhead, the earth barely beneath us."

    A few weeks ago, I wrote this post about what I listened to on my autumn vacation:  Johnny Cash's American V:  A Hundred Highways.   The album has a cover of a Bruce Springsteen song:  "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."
    As I wrote that post, I did some research on the album, and discovered that I own the The Rising, the CD from Bruce Springsteen which has his recording of "Further On Up the Road."  So I've spent the time since we got home discovering that CD.

    Should I say rediscovering?  Probably not.  I bought the CD shortly after it came out and listened straight through.  It was almost too painful to bear.  If I listened to it again, it was only once.  And then I put it away.

    What an amazing CD!  And what an amazing song.  When I hear Johnny Cash sing it, on the last album he would ever record, my brain goes to death and seeing our loved ones further on up that road.  Cash's version is somber and meditative; his voice is both strong and appropriately wavery in places.

    Bruce Springsteen gives a more spirited recording.  When I listen to him sing at a much faster tempo, I think of folks who need to get out of town quickly.  I think of people who live on the margins of the law, of transgressives of all sorts.

    Both CDs are perfect for this autumnal time of year, when shadows grow, before the darkness of winter crashes down upon us.  It's the time of year when we think we might make a mad dash and avoid the snares that are set for us.  It's music for plucky people who might just pull it off.

    And if not, we'll all meet further on up the road.

    Sunday, November 2, 2014

    The Feast of All Saints and All Souls

    Today is the Feast of All Souls, which celebrates the lives of those lost in the last year.  Many churches will celebrate All Saints Sunday.  Some cultures will continue celebrating the Day of the Dead.

    detail from "Finding Frida Kahlo" by Pam Ward-Reagan

    Will we decorate graves?

    Will we find a different way to converse with our ancestors?

    Many churches use All Saints Sunday to celebrate the lives of our dearly departed loved ones. 

    Perhaps we will have a table where people can bring photos of their loved ones.  Maybe there will be candles we can light.  Hopefully we will offer prayers of gratitude.  Maybe there will be other tributes.

    In most Protestant churches, All Saints' and All Souls' have merged into one, and that makes sense to me.

    Still, my inner English major will always have a sense of these alternative liturgical calendars. I like having more to celebrate, more ways to remind myself that there's more to life than what occupies most of my time (work--both on the job and at my house).

    I like having holidays that remind me that we're only here for too brief a time. It helps me to treasure the fleeting moments that I have. It helps me to keep perspective.  All too soon, we too, will pass through these gates.

    Saturday, November 1, 2014

    The Feast of All Saints

    For most of us, the celebration of Hallowtide or Hallowmass ends with Halloween.  Those of us who are more liturgical might recognize that All Saints Sunday comes around every year.  Maybe we look forward to it.  Maybe we shrug and say, "Well, great, a day to miss and appreciate our loved ones."

    I'm happy to appreciate the ones who have gone before, but again, I think we risk insipidness.  Perhaps it's my training as an English major, but I hate that modern traditions minimize the medieval aspects. 

    Medieval people would have seen this three days as one of those "thin places," the time when the separation between worlds was much thinner.  It's a belief rooted in pagan times, about parts of the seasonal year when souls from the other world might slip back.  In a world lit only by fires, one can see where it would be easy to be spooked this way.

    In our fear of any beliefs that don't mirror our own, many churches have banned the Halloween aspect of this three days.  And we've sanitized the other two days.

    In this blog post,  the Rev. Laurie Brock reminds us of the roots of the All Saints feast day:  "Lest we think All Saints is only a lovely, elegant holy day where we pray the litany of saints and sing the song of the saints of God, we are remembering people who were martyred (church lingo for dying an often painful and unpleasant death). Early commemorations of this day involved venerating relics of the dead. So imagine going to church and praying with a mummified foot or remnants of a skull of a saint on the altar. Or going to church and praying the names of ones who had been martyred who were members of your family or close friends. So while it is a day of prayerful hope, sadness and tears weave the hope together."

    And in more ancient times, the Feast of All Souls is the day after the Feast of All Saints.  All Souls is the feast where we remember the ones who have died in the past year.  Even our most liturgical churches have lost the idea that we're observing two very different kinds of celebrations. 

    Don't get me wrong, I'm happy to live in modern times, not medieval ones.  But I do envy other cultures who have much more vibrant grieving customs.  Our culture seems to expect us to grieve for 3-5 days, if we get bereavement leave at all, and then it's back to work.

    I plan to take a page from the Mexican Day of the Dead festivities--but in the spirit of full disclosure, I confess that I might not be doing this if I wasn't in charge of our All Saints interactive service tomorrow.  I shall bake some Pan de Muerta*.  I have made candles scented with rosemary, the herb of remembrance.   We will talk about our loved ones and the Lutheran idea of saints and the larger idea of saints.

    And then we'll do some quilting.  We had such interest in quilting during our recent God's Work, Our Hands day that people requested we do it again soon.  All Saints seems a good day to return to our quilting for Lutheran World Relief.  After all, many of our now-gone relatives quilted. 

    And one way to celebrate All Saints and All Souls is to praise the activities that transform ordinary humans into saints.  Making a quilt for Lutheran World Relief may seem like a trivial response to the gaping needs we see in the world.  But it is a response, and in the larger world, we don't always have much opportunity for this kind of saint-making behavior, responding to the miseries of the world.

    *If you'd like to bake along with me, here's the recipe:

    Pan de Muerto, “Bread of the Dead"

    From Adapted by David Eck

    BREAD: 1/2 cup butter
    1/2 cup milk
    1/2 cup water
    5 1/2 cups flour
    2 packages dry yeast
    1 tsp. salt
    1 T. whole anise seed
    2 T grated orange zest
    1/2 cup sugar
    4 eggs

    In a saucepan over medium flame, heat the butter, milk and water until very warm but not boiling. [100-110 F degrees]

    Meanwhile, measure out 1 1/2 cups flour and set the rest aside. In a large mixing bowl, combine the 1 1/2 cups of flour, yeast, salt, anise seed, orange zest and sugar. Beat the warm liquid until well combined. Add the eggs and beat in another 1 cup of flour. Continue adding more flour until dough is soft but not sticky. Knead on lightly floured board for 10 minutes until smooth and elastic.

    Lightly grease a bowl and place dough in it, cover with plastic wrap and let rise in warm place until doubled in bulk, about 1 1/2 hours. Punch dough down and shape into 4 loaves resembling skulls, skeletons or round loaves with “bones” placed ornamentally around the top if desired. Let these loaves rise for 1 hour.

    Bake in a preheated 350 F degree oven for 20-25 minutes until golden brown. Remove from oven, let cool and paint on glaze.

    Bring 1/2 cup sugar and 1/3 cup orange juice to a boil for 2 minutes, then apply to bread with a pastry brush. If desired, sprinkle on colored or regular sugar while glaze is still damp.

    You can buy anise seed in the bulk spice section of Fresh Market. It’s very reasonably priced there. You can use rapid rise yeast in this recipe which may cut down on the rising time. Keep an eye on it. You can also make this recipe in a mixer with a dough hook.