Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Interactive Worship in the Butterfly Garden

On Sunday, I was in charge of our Worship Together service.  And I felt like I had no ideas.  Every idea I came up with, I had done before.

Our 9:45 service is fairly unique, blending elements from Sunday School and a traditional worship service.  We have a liturgy that we follow most weeks.  Instead of a sermon, we have a puppet show or a reader's theatre or some sort of interactive approach--although occasionally we don't.  We break into small groups where we model a Faith 5 approach to faith development that families can practice in their homes (discuss highs and lows, tie to Bible reading, pray, bless each other).  Every other week, we have an arts/craft project of some kind.  

Lately, after several years of this approach, I feel my creative well running dry.  I was doubly distressed, because it was Palm Sunday.

Our first week with the Palm Sunday text, the week before Palm Sunday, our pastor asked us to think about the best ways to show love to each other.  So, on Palm Sunday, we talked a bit about that.  And I brought up showing appreciation.

Then we moved our worship outside.  Our church has lovely butterfly gardens, so we walked through them together.  We stopped and noticed signs of God's love and resurrection (yes, jumping ahead to Easter). 

And we did our Faith Five as we walked, a sort of stations approach.  At the first stop, we talked about our highs.  And the second stop, we discussed our lows.  At the next stop, we talked about how our highs and lows intersected with the Bible reading that instructed us to love each other.  At our last stop, we prayed and blessed each other.

So, at each stop, we began by noticing God's beauty and generosity, made manifest in the garden.  And then we did the Faith Five portion.

It worked beautifully.  I've noticed that when we sit at a table, under the fluorescent lights, we don't all pay attention.  We have trouble staying focused--or we get too focused on just one step of the Faith Five.  But moving outside, even though the walk was short, brought all our attention to a single focus.

It helped that it was a beautiful morning:  a cold front had come through, so the temperature was perfect with low humidity.  The sun beamed over us all.

When I look back over all the worship experiences I've tried to create, all the spiritual formation I've tried to foster, all the experiential encounters with the Divine, I don't know that I'll see Palm Sunday 2015 as a high point.  But as a woman who was feeling drained and uninspired, I'm happy for how the Holy Spirit used that blank space to create something that felt meaningful.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Children at the Healing Service

Yesterday, in addition to all the Palm Sunday festivities, we did healing.  When it's a day when the service will run long, we often have healing stations where people can stop as they leave Communion.

I was one of the healing ministers yesterday.  I anointed foreheads with oil and said, "Accept this oil as a sign of God's love and grace and healing, through Jesus Christ our Lord."  I looked deep into the eyes of people who looked up at me.

I was surprised by how many parents with children stopped in front of me.  I blessed parents and children.  The children, some of whom had been quite hyper on the way up to Communion, grew quiet and somewhat somber.

At the other healing station, I watched a young girl wrap her arms around the healing minister, and her little sister followed her example.  The healing encounter with the mother turned into a group hug, a different kind of laying on of hands, but theologically in the same neighborhood, I think.

There are days when I'm the healing minister when I can feel a kind of energy coursing through me.  Once, a parishioner asked me, "Did you feel that too?"  I knew exactly what she meant.  I nodded.

Of course, I'm just the vessel.  But I know that many people aren't willing to go even that far.  It can be hard to find healing ministers.  It can be hard to find Communion assistants, so I guess I shouldn't be surprised.

I thought back to an earlier time when we might have thought that children didn't need healing.  But it's hard to believe that these days. 

We can all use a visible sign of God's love and grace and healing.

I thought back, way back, to an Ash Wednesday service I attended at an Episcopal church--it was the only church that was close to my Lutheran theology that had a noon service.  I taught at night and couldn't make it to the evening service.

Apparently an AA group usually met at the church at noon, so they arrived, and some of them stayed for the service.  It was an interesting group that came up for ashes:  little old ladies who didn't want to drive after dark, an assortment of people making time for Ash Wednesday in their workday, some homeless people who wandered through, and some people who wore their brokenness most openly.

Our Sunday healing service isn't quite that interesting.  But I know that we have the same kinds of needs for healing that every assemblage of humans has whenever we gather.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The Hush Before Holy Week Begins

Today, across Christendom, churches will celebrate Palm Sunday; many churches will also celebrate Passion Sunday.  Today, we hurdle into Holy Week--many pastors will be leading as many as 15-20 services between this morning and Easter evening. 

Today, many of us will receive palms.  The leftover palms will be burned and mixed with oil and saved for next year's Ash Wednesday service, where they will be smudged on our foreheads and we will be reminded of our essential dusty nature.

Palm Sunday reminds us that the people who will be our friends today may turn on us tomorrow.  The adoring crowds of today may turn accusatory by the end of the week.  And yet, as we journey through our lives, suffering every sort of betrayal, the Holy Week trajectory reminds us of the joy we will also experience along the way:  good meals with friends, deep conversations, a God who so wants deep connection with us that he will wash our feet.

And the hectic hurry of Holy Week ends in Easter, where we are reminded of the ultimate promise:  no matter how bad it gets, God has a plan.  We may not be able to see it, we may not be able to believe it, but God is hard at the work and play that is the redemption of creation.

Now that's Good News!

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Poetry Saturday: What to Do with the Ashes

It's strange to see Holy Week just on the horizon.  I am still in an Ash Wednesday frame of mind.  I am still wrestling with the idea that we do all we do, only to come to dust.  It does seem to be a bit late for this existential crisis.  Or maybe, here at midlife, it's a crisis come just on schedule.

I read Roz Chast's Can't We Talk about Something More Pleasant?, about the decline and death of her very old parents.  At the end, she talks about deciding what to do with her parents' ashes.  They sit in their separate boxes in her closet.

She thought about dumping them somewhere, but she had problems with all of the possibilities.  I loved this sentence:  "Throwing their ashes off the side of a boat makes as much sense to me as tossing them into a wastebasket at Starbucks" (p. 227).

I've thought about this issue of what to do with ashes since my mother-in-law died.  We talked about tossing them into the ocean, but she never really went to the beach down here.  She had feelings for Indiana, but if we had driven back there, we would have been unfamiliar with her landscape.  In the end, my spouse buried them in the yard of our old house, and the bougainvillea tree that he planted always bloomed extravagantly. 

We decided that she was as fond of our house as any place.  And we liked the idea of her returning to the earth, instead of sitting in the gray cardboard box.

We are both Ash Wednesday and Easter people, always conscious of that Ash Wednesday message that we are dust and to dust we shall return--and yet, we are also resurrection people.

When we were discussing ashes and what to do with them, this poem came to me.  The people in this poem are entirely fictional.

Ash and Salt

For a year after you died,
I reread all those childhood books,
revisit Winnie, Madeline, Charlotte, and Wilbur.

I remember you reading
these books that provided us a private language
of blustery days, bad hats, and great pigs.

I make myself the foods that provided comfort once:
fudge, grilled cheese sandwiches, boiled custard,
pancakes with chocolate chip smiles.

I light the candle I find in a closet
of a house I won’t live in much longer.
The candle consumes itself.

I decide it’s time to let you go,
to set this yapping dog of grief free.
And so, with the full moon above,

 and the sea sucking my ankles,
I try. I hurl clumps
of ashes into the waves.

I trust that they’ll be gone
by morning, that no little children
will make a gruesome discovery at sunrise.

Lacking the proper language, with no sacrament,
I lick my fingers
that taste of ash and salt.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Heading To Holy Week

As we head to Holy Week, how can we hear the familiar stories with fresh ears?  How can we move closer to this story that's so distant from us in time and place?

Do the palms obscure the real Jesus?

What feet are waiting to be washed?

What table waits to be set for a meal made new with meaning?

The soldier looks impassively at the Passion.  How are we colluding with our empire?

So many wounds to bind.

How can we celebrate Easter with the taste of ashes still in our mouths?

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, March 29, 2012:

First Reading: Isaiah 50:4-9a

Psalm: Psalm 31:9-16

Second Reading: Philippians 2:5-11

Gospel: Mark 14:1--15:47

Gospel (Alt.): Mark 15:1-39 [40-47]

Palm Sunday has become a busy Sunday. Somewhere in the past twenty years, we've gone from hearing just the story of Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem to hearing the whole Passion story--on Palm Sunday many Christians leave the church with Jesus dead and buried. It's downright disconcerting to those of us who return to church for the rest of Holy Week--we hear the same stories on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. It makes for a long, Sunday Gospel reading--and reinforces one of the paradoxes of the Passion story: how can people shout acclaim for Jesus in one day, and within the week demand his Crucifixion? Maybe it's good to hear the whole sad story in one long sitting, good to be reminded of the fickleness of the crowd.

It's one of the central questions of Christian life: how can we celebrate Palm Sunday, knowing the goriness of Good Friday to come? How can we celebrate Easter with the taste of ashes still in our mouth?

I find myself still in an Ash Wednesday frame of mind. Perhaps you do too. It's been a tough year for many of us. We’ve suffered job loss or house loss. If we’ve kept our jobs, we’ve said goodbye to colleagues. In any year, some of us lose loved ones in any number of ways. Because we are mammals that think and know, we are always aware that there will be horrors yet to come. We live in a culture that seems to prefer crucifixion to redemption.

Palm Sunday offers us some serious reminders. If we put our faith in the world, we're doomed. If we get our glory from the acclaim of the secular world, we'll find ourselves rejected sooner, rather than later.

Palm Sunday also reminds us of the cyclical nature of the world we live in. The palms we wave this morning traditionally would be burned to make the ashes that will be smudged on our foreheads in 10 months for Ash Wednesday. The baby that brings joy at Christmas will suffer the most horrible death--and then rise from the dead. The sadnesses we suffer will be mitigated by tomorrow's joy. Tomorrow's joy will lead to future sadness. That's the truth of the broken world we live in. Depending on where we are in the cycle, we may find that knowledge either a comfort or fear inducing.

It's at times like these where the scriptures offer comforts that the world cannot. Look at the message from Isaiah: "The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him that is weary. . . . For the Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been confounded; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near" (Isaiah 50, first part of verse 4, verse 7, and first part of verse 8).

God promises resurrection. We don't just hope for resurrection. God promises resurrection.

God calls us to live like the redeemed people that we are. Turn your face to the light. Turn away from the dark. Commit to redemption. Commit to new life. With a peaceful mind, wait for the resurrection that God has promised to you.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

The Feast Day of the Annunciation

Today we celebrate the Annunciation, the feast day that celebrates the encounter between the angel Gabriel and Mary, who would become famous as the mother of Jesus.  He gives her the vision that God has for her; she agrees.

I have a blog post about this feast day up over at the Living Lutheran site.  Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"I find Mary an interesting model for modern spirituality. Notice what is required of Mary. She must wait."

"She must be present to God and be willing to have a daily relationship, an intimacy that most of us would never make time for. She doesn't have to travel or make a pilgrimage to a different land. She doesn't have to go to school to work on a graduate degree in theology. She isn't even required to go to the temple any extra amount. She must simply slow down and be present."

"We might think about how we can listen for God's call. Most of us live noisy lives. We're always on our cell phones and computers. We've often got several televisions blaring in the house at once. We're surrounded by traffic and the loud beats booming from cars. We've got people who want to talk, talk, talk. Maybe today would be a good day to take a vow of silence, inasmuch as we can, to listen for God."

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Saint Romero

Thirty-five years ago today, Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated; no one has ever been brought to trial for this crime.

Until recently, I assumed that we would never see Romero beatified.  But this new Pope has begun to speed up the process.

Saint Romero--how I like the sound of that. 

A few years ago, I created this card to commemorate his life:

I find his life inspiring for all the reasons you might expect:  the standing up to oppression, the speaking truth to power, the martyrdom.

Lately I've been thinking about the fact that he came into greatness late in his life; he was born in 1917, and I don't think he did his best work until the 1970's,, in his late 50's/early 60's.  Looking at the trajectory of his life from the middle years of the century, one would not have predicted that he would speak so eloquently about injustice and the need to fight against it.

In fact, many scholars believe that he was chosen to be Archbishop precisely because he was expected not to make trouble.  All that changed when one of his good friends, an activist Jesuit priest, was assassinated by one of the death squads roaming the country. Romero became increasingly political, increasingly concerned about the poor who were being oppressed by the tiny minority of rich people in the country. He called for reform. He called on the police and the soldiers to stop killing their brethren. And for his vision, he was killed as he consecrated the bread for Mass.

Romero knew that he was in danger from various political forces in the country, but he refused to cower in fear and back down. Likewise, Jesus must have known what wrath he was bringing down upon himself, but he did not back down. Until the end of his life, he called upon us to reform our earthly systems, systems that enrich a few on the backs of the many. Romero and Christ both show us that the forces of empire do not take kindly to being criticized.

In the years since Romero was assassinated, we have seen the kind of economic injustice that infected El Salvador, where a very small proportion of the population controlled much of the money, take over much of the world.  What would Romero call on us to do?  How can we change the very economic structure that oppresses so many?

It's likely not enough for us who have much to give away our wealth, although it's important to share.  But that action won't change the larger system.

I wish I could end with a reassurance that the system will be changed if we just take action--but this time leading us to Holy Week makes me want to go a different direction.

Romero's life story shows that the system will resist change violently.  But the Passion story shows us that even the violence wrought by unjust earthly systems can be changed into a force for redemption and resurrection.  Humans may not be able to force that change--but God can.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Hospitality and the Renewal of Camp

One of the highlights of last week came on Thursday.  A local pastor contacted my spouse as someone who could help him figure out people in Broward county who have a connection to church camps in general and Luther Springs in particular. 

Instead of a meeting over coffee or in someone's office, my spouse suggested that the pastor come over for dinner.  My spouse knows how to do hospitality!  I tried not to worry too much about all the ways our house might not be good enough.  I've written about this idea of scruffy hospitality, most notably in this blog post.  I say, "Come on over!  My kitchen floor isn't clean enough to eat off of, but that's why we have plates."   But secretly, some part of me believes that my floor should be clean enough to eat off of, and that I will be judged harshly when it is not.

My spouse made a wonderful meal on the grill.  We let our guest decide whether to eat in the dining room or on the front porch.  The pastor, who has a degree in urban planning, chose the porch.

Our porch table is big enough for three plates and not much else, so we made our plates inside and took them to the porch.  And then, we had a delightful time.

We talked about camp and Luther Springs, of course.  But we also talked about the issue of the local church.  He's pastor of a church that doesn't have its own building, and given the costs of acquiring a building and land--and then insuring that building--the church likely never will have its own space.  We're part of a church that has a building and 4 acres, most of them sitting vacant.  Occasionally we think of doing something else with the land, but it never works out.  Currently, we have a multitude of other groups and churches also using our building.  Most days, that sharing situation is a gift to us all.

We talked a bit about larger church stuff and theology.  What a treat!  Most of our dinner guests are not inclined to talk about theology.

Will it lead to more involvement in camp?  There's no getting around the fact that it takes 5-6 hours, or longer, for most of us to get to Luther Springs.  If we're in the western part of the panhandle, it's even further.  That makes a week-end trip almost impossible.

I know that most people think that camp means summer camps with kids spending nights away.  But I think camp can be just as vital for grown ups.  We could have lots of renewal in a week-end--however, it might not be as possible when that week-end is book-ended by a car trip of that size.

It was a weeknight, and so we called it a night at 10:00--a late night for me.  But it was worth the slight weariness that I felt on Friday. 

When just talking about camp leads to feelings of renewal, just think about what a time away at camp could do!

Friday, March 20, 2015

Poetry Friday: "Cassandra Considers the Dust"

I'm happy to announce my latest poem publication:  here's a link to the current issue of Southern Women's Review, where my poem "Cassandra Considers the Dust" appears on page 43.  I've loved this poem since I composed it, and I've sent it a variety of places to be considered for publication. 

I've read more than one person who says if your poem gets rejected x amount of times, you should revise it.  But given the vagaries of the publication process, I don't follow that advice. 

This poem was first headed on a different path.  I had been thinking about the kinds of people who keep watch during the night hours:   doctors on duty overnight, monks in the early morning, mothers with sick children, and the monitors in a hospital. 

I had planned to have three speakers in the poem, and I started composing in the voice of the doctor.  I wondered what it would be like to work long hours amongst the sick and dying.  The central image came to me: the doctor as the modern Cassandra, telling her patients the news they don't want.

I thought of the modern climate scientist as Cassandra:  how many Cassandras live in our modern lives!  I almost created a different poem.

On my way out of the door one morning, I noticed a thick coat of dust on a bookshelf.  I thought about dusting, and I thought of the climate maps I had played with:   how little sea level rise it takes to subsume a coastline!

I thought about the fluids flowing through our bodies, the fluids sloshing across the planet.

All these strands eventually came together in the poem that has now been published.  You will see that I abandoned my plan for three speakers; the doctor had enough to say for one poem.

Poets aren't often asked which one of their characters they like best--many of us don't create characters.  I write fiction too, so I consider this question periodically.  As I look back over the characters I've created, I have a fondness for this doctor. 

I have created many characters like her, it occurs to me, and they're often women.  They have lots and lots of duties and responsibilities.  Late at night, they return to a home that's more like a sanctuary than a home.

Home as hospice chaplain--perhaps I shall play with this idea. 

But early this morning, it's time to think about my own day of duties and responsibilities.  I will return to my sanctuary, but I'm luckier than many of my female characters.  I'll return home in the late afternoon, not the late night. 

Thursday, March 19, 2015

The Feast Day of Saint Joseph

Today I've taken the liberty of reposting the essay that I wrote for the Living Lutheran site last year to celebrate the feast day of Saint Joseph:

March 19 is the feast day of St, Joseph, Mary's husband, the earthly father of Jesus. I have done some thinking about Joseph, as many of us do, in the Advent season, when occasionally we get to hear about Joseph. He thinks of quietly unweaving himself from Mary, who is pregnant. This behavior is our first indication of his character. Under ancient law, he could have had Mary stoned to death, but he takes a gentler path.

And then, his life takes an even more surprising turn. He follows the instructions of the angel who tells him of God's plan. He could have turned away. He could have said, "I did not sign up for this!" He could have said, "No, thanks. I want a normal wife and a regular life."

Instead, he turned toward Mary and accepted God's vision. He's there when the family needs to flee to Egypt. He's there when the older Jesus is lost and found in the temple. We assume that he has died by the time Christ is crucified, since he's not at the cross.

Some of us today will spend the day celebrating fathers, which is a great way to celebrate the feast day of St. Joseph. We might also celebrate stepfathers and all the other family members who step in to help with the raising of children.
Lately, I've been thinking about his feast day and what it means for administrators and others who are not the stars but who make it possible for stars to step into the spotlight.
Most students will remember their favorite teachers. They won’t remember the people who scheduled the classes, the ones who ordered the textbooks and supplies, the ones who kept the technology working, the people who kept track of the records, the ones who interfaced with loan officers and others to get the money necessary for school. But those people are important, too.

Let us today praise the people in the background, the people who step back to allow others to shine. Let us praise the people who do the drudgery work that makes it possible for others to succeed.

Many of us grow up internalizing the message that if we're not changing the world in some sort of spectacular way, we're failures. Those of us who are Christians may have those early disciples as our role models, those hard-core believers who brought the good news to the ancient world by going out in pairs.

But Joseph shows us a different reality. It's quite enough to be a good parent. It's quite enough to have an ordinary job. It's quite enough to show up, day after day, dealing with both the crises and the opportunities.

Joseph reminds us that even the ones born into the spotlight need people in the background who are tending to the details. When we think about those early disciples and apostles, we often forget that they stayed in people's houses, people who fed them and arranged speaking opportunities for them, people who gave them encouragement when their task seemed too huge.

I imagine Joseph doing much the same thing as he helped Jesus become a man. I imagine the life lessons that Joseph administered as he gave Jesus carpentry lessons. I imagine that he helped Jesus understand human nature, in all the ways that parents have helped their offspring understand human nature throughout history.

Let us not be so quick to discount this kind of work. Let us praise the support teams who make the way possible for the people who will change the world.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, March 22, 2015:

First Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34

Psalm: Psalm 51:1-13 (Psalm 51:1-12 NRSV)

Psalm (Alt.): Psalm 119:9-16

Second Reading: Hebrews 5:5-10

Gospel: John 12:20-33

Another reading about light and darkness. I love the last verse, the one that mentions becoming children of the light. How much I want to be a child of the light. How hard it is to keep from slipping into dimness.

My standard response to a Gospel reading that reminds us to be light to the world is to give myself more duties and obligations. I'll pray fixed hour prayers throughout the day. I'll tithe 20% instead of 10%. I'll find an hour a day to read the Bible. I'll create spiritual art. I'll go on 4 retreats this year, instead of one or two.

But what if my approach is wrong? What if God would like me to calm down, to be still, to rest and get to know the presence of the divine?

Several years ago, I did a labyrinth walk.  I held a candle in a tall, skinny glass jar, which I thought would protect the flame. I noticed that the faster I walked, the more my flame flickered. When I walked with a slow, deliberative pace, the flame burned brighter. Instantly, I made some connections.

I spend much of my weeks racing from this commitment to that commitment. Few of them are burdensome, yet my pace often leaves me exhausted. Perhaps that's the reason that lately I've been drawn to the contemplative side of religious traditions.

Don't give me more books to read. Give me a Bible passage and let me walk the labyrinth--give my body something to do so that my mind can ruminate. Don't ask me to give more money--but do give me information so that I can be sure that my money is well spent. Don't give me more tasks to do--but do give me more time, so that I can do the tasks I've been called to do with a degree of completion that will please us all.

Our modern lives make it difficult for us to find our way to God. And if we don't find our way to God on a regular basis, it will be hard to be filled with light so that we can radiate God's love to the world.

So, perhaps instead of adding more to our spiritual lives, we should begin to hollow out some spaces. Then we'll have room to invite God in.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Saint Patrick and Modern Exile

Today is the feast day of Saint Patrick.  But as with Mardi Gras and Valentine's Day, the secular aspects of these days almost completely overshadow the religious origins.

All these centuries later, I still find Saint Patrick fascinating.  What surprises me lately is how I find different aspects of his life fascinating at different points of my life.

This year, I find myself thinking about his years as a slave.  Patrick was born to a high ranking Roman family in England, but when he was approximately 16, he was kidnapped and spent 6 or 7 years as a slave in Ireland. While there, he learned the language and the non-Christian customs of the land.

This knowledge would come in handy when he was sent back to Ireland in the 5th century to solidify the Christianity of the country. There are many stories about Patrick's vanquishing force, complete with Druid spells and Christian counterspells. I suspect the real story was perhaps more tame.

Later scholars have suggested that Patrick and his compatriots were sent to minister to the Christians who were already there, not to conquer the natives. Other scholars have speculated that one of the reasons that Christianity was so successful in Ireland was because Patrick took the parts of pagan religions that appealed most to its followers and showed how those elements were also present in Christianity--or perhaps incorporated them into Christianity as practiced in Ireland.

All scholars seem to agree: Patrick was essential in establishing Christianity in Ireland. And he wouldn't have been so effective, had he not spent time there as a slave, which meant he learned the language and the customs of the country.

I have been beating myself up lately over all the ways I haven't achieved what I think I should have achieved by now.  I'm surrounded by people who have book contracts.  I see people younger than I am who have the accolades that the world can heap on the chosen few.  I have been worrying that I am wasting my life.

Those Celtic monks must have surely felt that way too.  Ireland and Scotland must have felt like distant outposts, a tough exile.  And yet, what they had to offer was exactly what was needed to keep the faith going.

The community that they created helped them with their mission.  Lately I've been wondering if my various local communities are fraying a bit.  I'm especially thinking of my creative communities.  I've been thinking back to a time when I had more of a quilting group.  I still do, but we just don't meet as often.  Once we met once a month to quilt, and we created much more fabulous pieces of fiber/fabric art than we would have if we had stayed on our own.  I'm missing that group, and I can't exactly get it back, because our lives have changed so much.

I'm trying not to spend too much time mired in this kind of regret.  That time is gone, and I am trying to wait patiently for what is next.

In the lives of these ancient saints, we don't hear about these down times, which they surely must have had.  They seem to have been ever charging onward.  But there must have been times when they felt used up, unsure of what to do next.

The lives of the Celtic monks remind us that even in a distant exile, wondrous things can happen if we stay open to all of the possibilities.  During our times of exile, it's good to remember that basic truth.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Zacchaeus, Years Later

For a variety of reasons, my church is off-lectionary right now.  We spend 2 weeks with each text, and for the past two weeks, it's been the story of Zacchaeus, the chief tax collector who climbed into a tree to see Jesus.

After his encounter he vows to make a change.  He will repay all that he has stolen--more than that, he'll give all his victims four times the amount.  Readers through the centuries have assumed that he joyfully lived this way the rest of his days.

But did he?  The Bible doesn't say.  We like to assume that Jesus came and changed lives and minds permanently.

My spouse did a lay reflection yesterday where he talked about how hard it is to be a just person in a corrupt system.  And while the pastor was giving his reflection, a poem bubbled forth as I thought about what became of Zacchaeus in later years.

Sadly, I do not see him as permanently changed.  In my poem, he meant to do the things he said he would do.  He meant to change.  But then emergencies happened, and he needed cash infusions, and what's a man to do?

As my spouse said, it's hard to be a just human in a corrupt system.  And it's not like the people of Jesus' time had lots of career choices.

I may play with this idea further.  I enjoyed the process of playing with narrative this way.  I've done this more with fairy tales than any other text.  Why haven't I done more with the colorful characters from the Bible?

Probably because like generations before me, I've seen their stories as complete.  Now I'll revisit them again.

I wonder if I could develop a variety of Lectio Divina to go with this kind of poem creation?  I'll experiment with this idea too.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Stay the Course

Who puts the flowers in these stone arms?

Who built a house for the stray dog?  Who added the welcome mat?

When your soul feels gnarled, like this sculpture,

when your heart feels dry, with only a few whisps of emotions rustling in the branches,

remember what this dog knows:  remember in whose arms we rest:

The important thing is to walk the path, to keep moving,

even when the way seems dark.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Poetry Saturday: "Good News Comes to the Sewers"

After our Worship Together service*, small children wait for a chance to drink the leftover grape juice and to dump the leftover wine into the plants in the butterfly garden.  The wine has been consecrated for the sacrament of communion, and thus, we don't dump it down the drain.

One of the children asked why we didn't, and I found myself hesitating.  She's eight years old and very smart, so we could probably talk about issues of transubstantiation, if I wanted to get deep into theology.  But I didn't.

We talked about waste in our society and how much we throw away.  We talked about how much better it is to dump liquids on our plants than to throw them down the drains.  We talked about how much the plants like the communion wine.

I wish I had said more.  I could have talked about sharing the gifts of Jesus, both with each other and with the plants.  I wish I had reminded the children that not all liquid is safe to put on plants.

I was reminded of a poem I wrote years ago, when I did the clean up tasks after worship and dumped the leftover wine outside.  A parishioner walking past asked me why I did it.

In that situation, too, I hesitated:  go deep theologically or not.  I said, "Consecrated wine should be handled differently."  I was willing to go into the theology of the reason why, but she smiled and moved on.

I thought about consecrated wine going down the drain, and how silly our ministrations must seem to outsiders.  And thus, this poem was born:

Good News Comes to the Sewers

The consecrated wine runs down the drain
and into the local sewer system.
It brings the good news of God’s grace
to the lowliest of fluids flushed
away. It heals the corrosion
in the pipes. In its steady
progress to the ocean, the consecrated
wine tells parables of God’s Kingdom.
The consecrated wine abandons
the form it once held, only to be resurrected
in a sea of salt.

*This service is our interactive, family friendly, much more innovative service.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Silent Meditation in a Group

During my time at Mepkin Abbey this year, I had the chance to try silent meditation in a group.  The thinking was that we might feel surrounded by support in a way that we wouldn't if we meditated silently in solitude.

At 9 a.m., we met in the small chapel that's part of the retreat center.  We could sit in chairs or we could sit on cushions on the benches that back the wall.  Some people took their shoes off and sat cross-legged.  Some of us kept our eyes open, but most of us shut our eyes.  The room was arranged so that we could stare straight ahead and not be staring at a participant.

The plan was to meditate for twenty minutes seated, then go outside to do a walking meditation for twenty minutes, then come back inside to finish with a twenty minute seated meditation.  We would do a session at 9 a.m. and again at 2 p.m.

I expected my monkey mind to go a variety of places.  I expected to have to call my mind back.  I did not expect to fall asleep so quickly and deeply as I did with each seated meditation.

Perhaps I should not have been surprised.  The last time I did meditation, at the end of a yoga class, I fell asleep.  But I was stretched out on the floor.  I thought that if I was sitting up, I'd be able to meditate.

Perhaps it's a sign of how much I was able to empty my mind that I fell asleep.  Perhaps it's a sign of my weariness.

During the last bit of meditation time, I stayed awake longer than other times.  I wanted to hear from God, but God was silent--unless my sleeping was a message.

During our discussion about our experiences, our monk leader seemed to say that the point was to learn to empty our minds, so that we build that skill so that we have it ready for when we need it in our noisy lives.  And I certainly understand that.

I found it far easier to empty my mind while taking a slow walk.  Of course, we can't always do that in our busy lives.

But we can take a bathroom break.  One of my techniques is to combine the bathroom break with a walk to other floors, to use the bathroom break to remind me that I need to leave the computer screen for a few minutes or more.  It's not the tolling of the bell that I'd prefer, but it is a tolling that I can count on.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Usefulness and Worth

Each year, I adopt the same Lenten discipline.  I may or may not adopt an additional discipline, but I always intend to read my way through Henri Nouwen's Show Me the Way:  Readings for Each Day of Earth.  Each year, I am partially or fully successful.

As I read, I underline anything that jumps out at me.  And now, since I've been reading it for over 10 years, as I reread it each year, I'm revisiting spiritual Kristins past.

Some years, I'm clearly wrestling with the question of how to be faithful.  Do I need to give away all my money?  Should I go join a monastic community?

Some years I'm wrestling with my feelings of inadequacy.  Some years I'm resisting the pull of the secular world more successfully than other years.

Here's the quote that I underlined a week ago:  "In solitude, we become aware that our worth is not the same as our usefulness" (p. 53).

I wonder if my future self will remember Lent of 2015 as the year I struggled more than usual with the idea that my daily actions weren't exactly setting the world on fire.  I'm not freeing the oppressed.  I do solve a wide variety of student and faculty problems each day, but in the end, they'd probably solve themselves if I wasn't there to intervene.  The planet will not become a better place because I spent a day at work sorting through the office of a colleague who had been RIFed and left a lot of piles of paper behind.

This phase too shall pass.  But in the meantime, it's good to have the words of Nouwen, that old writer friend, to remind me that God loves me, even if I can't bring peace to regions ripped apart by war.  God loves me and smiles on me as I go about my daily actions of trying to improve life right here in my patch of space.

And God loves me, even if I can't make those improvements.  My worth is not in what I do or accomplish.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, March 15, 2015:

First Reading: Numbers 21:4-9

Psalm: Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

Second Reading: Ephesians 2:1-10

Gospel: John 3:14-21

There are some Bible texts that are so prominent that it's hard to find something new to say about them. This week's Gospel includes one of them, John 3:16: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life."

I spent my childhood and adolescent years in a variety of small, Southern towns, and this text was often used as one to exclude people. Most responses to the text that I've seen zero in on the idea that we must believe in Jesus to have eternal life, and I'm certain that I don't want to wander into that theological muck. I used to be able to spend many hours deliberating whether or not a Hindu could go to Heaven, or an atheist or . . . .

Now I'm much more interested in how we live our lives here--not so that we get into Heaven, but so that we participate in God's visions for us and for the larger world.

Today, let us focus on the text that reminds us that God doesn't enter the world to condemn us--many pop culture preachers forget that. But almost every verse of this week's Gospel reminds us that God comes to us out of love, not judgment. God comes, not to cast us into darkness. Most of us spend many hours dwelling in darkness. God comes to lead us into the light.

Many of us have come from Christian traditions which would find this theology strange. Many of us have been scarred by a theology of a divine judge who finds us wanting. Many of us fear hell.

Think about the lives we're leading--maybe that's the punishment. God has come, not to punish us further, but to save us from our punishment, which is our current lifestyle.

As we move through our days, we could use our own internal judgment to ask ourselves if we're moving towards light or towards darkness. Which activities lead us towards the life we'd like to live? Which ones take us towards darkness?

Each person might answer that question differently. Coffee with friends might be a life-affirming break that helps us survive a tough work day or it might devolve into gossip and pettiness. We might be so available to help others that our family members feel neglected.

That's why it's important to keep asking the question, to keep making sure that our lives are on a trajectory towards light. We are like airplanes, which are notoriously difficult to pilot, given that humans aren't meant to fly. That's why airplanes are equipped with a variety of monitors, so that if one system fails, another can keep the plane from tragedy.

We need a similar set of systems. We need an internal compass, one that steers us towards light. We need to continuously ask questions of our activities, to make sure our compass stays calibrated. We need to surround ourselves with like-minded people who will partner with us, instead of sabotaging us. Inasmuch as we can, we need to align ourselves with institutions that have values of light rather than values of darkness.

If we take a self-inventory and realize that we've gone off track, the Gospel gives us the good news that it's not too late. And little changes can lead to quite a different destination.

Our world is desperately in need of the light that Christians can provide. We live in a world of rampant Capitalism, which is doing a wide range of harm. The world needs our message of something that is more vital, something that is more important than making money and buying more stuff. We can be the lighthouses that lead people to safer shores.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Free Will and Cancer Cells

I was sad to hear of the death of Lisa Bonchek Adams on Saturday.  What's strange about that statement is that I only knew of her existence for a week.

When I was at Mepkin Abbey, talk turned as it often does to the practice of writing.  One of my friends mentioned Adams and her blog.  We talked about how Adams had gone from blogging to only having the energy to tweet.  We talked about the viciousness of cancer, which seems to afflict so many people these days.

After reading Adams' blog, I felt sad at the thought of that voice, that content, reduced to 140 characters.  The blog is a treasure.  Hopefully we'll have it with us for a long time yet.

As I read about her cancer and all the places it had spread, as I read about all the varieties of chemo that had failed, I wasn't really surprised at her death.

Still, there is still this large part of me that hopes for a miracle whenever I hear a grim diagnosis. And then I am so crushed and sad when it doesn't happen.

None of it affects how I feel about God.  I pray for restored health for cancer patients, but I realize that I may be asking for something that God cannot grant.

Unlike many religious people, I don't believe in an all-powerful God.  I don't believe in a God that could swoop in and cure all cancers if only God would do it.  Because if I believed in that God, then what do I do with the fact that God does not swoop in?

I believe that God has set up a free-will universe.  We are free to act, as are all the other elements of the universe.

And yet, I am a Christian, so I do not believe that death has the final word.  I don't understand exactly how this free-will universe will be transformed into the ultimate Kingdom of God, but I believe that the transformation is underway.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Failing at Our Lenten Disciplines

On Friday, a group of us at work talked about how draggy we feel during the first week of Daylight Savings Time.  It's tough to lose that hour.

And here we are, about mid-way through Lent.  As always, I feel a bit draggy, a bit like I'm failing.  As I look at the Lenten season of past years, I realize that I've often felt that way.  Why?

My latest blog post on the Living Lutheran site explores this question.  Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"Do we fail at our Lenten disciplines for the same reasons we fail at our resolution making and keeping each January? Do we try to do too much? Do we set ourselves up for failure?"

"We have lived in the land of self-loathing long enough. Hopefully, we chose our Lenten disciplines because we wanted to become closer to God. We didn't choose them so that we'd have additional reasons to hate ourselves. That's not the emotion that God desires to see."

"It’s good to remember what many a behavioral psychologist could have told us from the start: We learn more from failure than we do from success, and with most change, it takes some failure before we find success."

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Marigolds, Aging, and Community

Yesterday I met a friend to see The Second Amazing Marigold Hotel.  Is that the name of this film?  My confusion over the title aptly demonstrates that I am not a devotee of the first film; in fact, I have yet to see it.

Now I'm not opposed to this movie.  There's no good reason why I haven't seen the first one.  I haven't seen many movies in the past few years, either at the theatre or on DVD/other delivery systems.  The tides will turn again, and at some point, I'll find time to watch movies again.

Luckily I have friends who occasionally insist that we must go see a certain film.  And if I'm free, I go.  Hence, my movie outing yesterday.

I loved this movie, as I knew I would.  I'll save some of my more secular comments for my creativity blog.  Here I'd like to consider community and aging.

Many of the characters in this movie are quite old--the one age mentioned is 79--what a change to see characters who are much older and yet still living vibrant lives.  They work, they have sex, they travel.  We should all be so lucky as to age that well.

One of the reasons why they are living vibrant lives is that they all live together in this hotel.  They have a substitute family.  They look out for each other, from the basic check in the morning to make sure no one has died in the night, to the boosting of each other's spirits, to the encouraging each character to live his or her best life.

I loved the basic message of the film, that it's never too late to reach for what one wants--but one day it will be too late, and we should all take action while we can.

The one place where the film is a bit fanciful is that none of these characters seems to experience much in the way of debilitation.  They are not hampered by mobility issues.  They all have well-functioning brains.  No one has a chronic disease or anything more life-threatening, except, of course, for death, an event that is not too far off.

I want to believe that if one of them suffered one of the many catastrophes of aging, that the others would figure out a way to take care of the one who needed more care.  And since there are so many of them, the caretaking would not be too onerous.

I know so many people who are engaged in onerous caretaking.  I have a few friends who could use some additional people nearby to help occasionally.  And I suspect that we'd all do better if we had wider communities.

I wrote a short story set in the near future.  A character stops at a church camp where his great grandparents had been counselors and realizes that part of the camp has been transformed into retirement living, including care of the aged who need more attention.

I love this idea of moving to Lutheridge in my senior years. I have a vision of a crafts lodge where I'd meet with friends to work on projects.  I have a vision of daily chapel.  I have a vision of long walks around the lake loop while we watch the seasons change.

The Second Amazing Marigold Hotel touches on some of these longings.  But it doesn't go nearly far enough or deeply enough.

Friday, March 6, 2015

It Only Takes a Spark

One of my favorite memories of last week-end when my sister and nephew were here revolves around our outdoor firepit.

Their plane landed at 9:30 p.m. on Thursday, but my nephew was much too excited to go right to bed.  He's 8 years old, after all.  Finally, they had gotten to the warmth of Florida, the promise of time in the swimming pool in February.

We went to the backyard, and my spouse built a fire in the small, metal firepit that we bought a few weeks ago.  My nephew stood on the first step of the very chilly pool and decided to wait until morning to submerge himself.

We sat around the firepit and watched it flame into life.  We couldn't help ourselves; we started to sing:  "It only takes a spark, to get a fire going."  I noticed that we were all singing, even my nephew.  How did we learn this song?

My sister and I learned it at camp over many years and many firepits.  My spouse learned it at church youth groups.  It was a very popular song in the 70's. 

My nephew learned it because my sister used to sing it to him as a lullaby--and thus, the next generation learns this song!  For those of you in youth ministry and church camp work, when you wonder if your work makes a difference, I'm here to tell you that much of it will stick, even if you're not sure that any of it is sinking in.

We could remember most of the verses, but we weren't always sure of which lines went with which verse.  Luckily, we have a copy of that old standby, the fish book, the songbook that doesn't have a name, but has that Christian symbol on the cover.  In the 70's and 80's, that book always seemed to be in youth group rooms and music rooms and many a guitar player had a copy.

I thought of the lyrics of the song, which hold up well in terms of theology.  I thought of all the ways we learn theology, and once again, I'm in awe of the way the song can shape us.  Years after any one of us sang it, we could still remember all the words.  I'm not sure I could say that about a Gospel text that I hadn't read in 40 years.

I read the work of many church thinkers who tie themselves into knots and pretzel shapes about the best way to teach children and to transmit our faith.  While I enjoy these pedagogical debates as much as the next  person, maybe it's time to go back to something more basic. 

Let's start singing again.  That spark will flame up through the years and keep our fires lit.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Seasonal Shifts

When the late winter cold settles in for another stay--or maybe it never left--we wonder if the frozen ponds will ever thaw.

We examine the landscape for signs of a seasonal shift.  Has the red bird always lived here or is it a new part of the neighborhood?  Are we seeing a red bird or just a bit of bark?

We look for new growth, but some days, all we see are the same Christmas crimsons of the berries.

We have to look at the borders to see the new shoots, the promise of new growth.

And one day, when we least expect it, a daffodil announces the dawn of spring.

Redemption is just around the corner. 

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, March 8, 2015:

First Reading: Exodus 20:1-17

Psalm: Psalm 19

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

Gospel: John 2:13-22

Ah, the moneychangers in the temple! Many of us as children (and perhaps as adults) loved this tale. Finally, a non-wimpy Jesus. A Jesus who wasn't afraid to take on the religious establishment. As a sullen teenager, I looked around church and thought, boy, Jesus would have his work cut out for him here.

Don't get the wrong idea--I wasn't going to some church that was transgressing on any large scale, and not on any small scale, that I knew about. I just looked around and saw lots of hypocrisy. Look at all this gold, I would say. We could sell the offering plates and give the money to the poor. Why do we all buy church clothes? We could come in our jeans, and give the money that we would have spent on fancy clothes to the poor. Why don't we invite the poor to our potluck dinners?

In retrospect, I'm surprised my parents still talk to me. What a tiresome child/teen I must have been, so self-righteous, so sure of everyone's faults and shortcomings.

As I've gotten older, I've become interested in this story from the moneychangers point of view. We often assume that the moneychangers were scurrilous men, out to make easy money, and I'm sure that some of them were.

However, I suspect that the majority of them would have told you that they were making salvation possible.

Under the old covenant, people had to go to the temple to make sacrifices to wash their sins away (it's a simplified version of a complicated theology, but let me continue for a few sentences). People who farmed had animals for sacrifice. Those who didn't, or those who came from far away, had to buy their sacrifice on site. And they needed help from the moneychangers and the animal sellers.

These people didn't know that Jesus had come to make a new covenant possible. They got up, went about their personal business, went to work, took care of their families--all the stuff that you and I do. They weren't focused on watching for the presence of God. They didn't know that they had been called to make way for a new Kingdom. They didn't know that the new Kingdom was breaking through, even as they showed up at their day jobs.

We might take a look at our own modern lives and institutions. In what ways do we think we're participating in God's law/kingdom/plan?  Are we doing the best we can? 

We might also take a look at our own modern institutions, especially religious ones. Where are we participating in God's plan? If Jesus showed up, what would he see as problematic? And how would we respond, if he pointed out something that needed some Spring cleaning, and it turned out that it was something we really cherished or thought that we were doing well?

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Wisdom of Children

I was moved by this post on Bookgirl's site.  Her daughter created a beautiful piece of writing that explains why it's important to share resources.

I love these moments when the wisdom of children reminds me of why social justice should be simple.  I had a similar moment yesterday when I was taking my sister and 8 year old nephew to the airport.

My husband was trying to do an impression (of who?  I can't remember) and said, "Or am I channeling Henry Kissinger?" and I said, "Don't channel that evil man."

My nephew said, "Why is Henry Kissinger evil?"

I said, "Well, I probably shouldn't call him evil.  He just had a habit of supporting leaders who slaughtered their own people."  I was thinking primarily of Pinochet, but I didn't want to go into too much detail--I'm not sure I want to be the one who first lets children know of the scope of possible atrocity.

"Why would they slaughter their own people?" my nephew asked.  "They could just run away."

My spouse said, "But then they wouldn't have the money and the power."

My nephew said, "You don't need money and power.  You just need yourself!"

Well said.  I'm not sure how we translate that to global policy issues, but I'm glad that he seems clear about these issues on a personal level:  avoid ramped up conflict by running away if you have to do so, and always remember that you need yourself more than you need money and power.

I could argue that much spiritual wisdom boils down to what my nephew already knows.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Dolphins in the Intracoastal

Yesterday, the weather turned perfect:  bright blue skies and blazing sun.  My sister got increasingly dire winter weather alert warnings on her phone, but they were for Maryland.  We continued to play in the pool, although it's quite chilly.

Later in the afternoon, worn out by all the sun and phone, we took naps.  When we got up, some of us were groggy, some a bit cranky, and one person was ready for a walk.

We had about decided that we wouldn't go, and then we did.  We walked down to the Intracoastal Waterway, where we got to see the bridge go up.  I thought that might be the highlight.

But when we walked down to the marina, we got the real highlight.  We saw the graceful swoop of a dolphin's back.  And then there were more!  We counted about 7.

Some of the boats in the Intracoastal noticed them too, but some just kept zooming by.  The restaurants that line the other bank had some patrons taking pictures, while others seemed uninterested.  Uninterested or unaware?

It would have been easy to miss, after all.  The dolphins' backs were the same color as the water, and if you didn't notice the fin, you might have thought you were seeing a swoosh of water from a passing boat.

I thought of how we almost missed the sight altogether--if we hadn't gone for a walk, we wouldn't have seen the dolphins.  But that's not all.  If we had decided not to walk to the marina, we wouldn't have seen them either.

I thought of all the people who were there too, but oblivious.  And that led me to think about all the other wondrous sightings I might be missing as I hurry through the day.

It was good to have time to take a simple walk.  It was good to be reminded of the wonders of our planet.  I said a prayer of gratitude and a prayer of hope that I'll continue to notice them.