Tuesday, June 30, 2015

VBS Music and Theology

I have had the music of VBS in my head for over a week now.  In some ways, it's not horrible. Many of the lyrics are somewhat Biblical, after all.  We spent the week singing about the might of God, the love of God, the uniqueness of God--all in simple sentences, with an upbeat tempo.

When my brain is full of VBS songs, I wonder what my brain usually contains when it's not these lyrics.  In my younger years, it would have been different songs.  But now I don't listen to music as much as I once did--somewhat strange, since music is so much more accessible now.

People across disciplines have long known that if you want the brain to remember something, one good way is to put it to music.  I remember song lyrics long after other knowledge has seeped from my brain.

On Sunday, as I watched the group of VBS kids sing about God who can do anything, I thought about future years.  Will they wonder why this God who can do anything neglected to do something they deem important?

The theology that we teach in VBS is fairly simple--and I'm not saying that critically.  VBS is designed for children, after all.  And a recent trend in VBS is to have curriculum designed for multi-age groups--which means that the theology is geared towards first or second graders.

But I have noticed that many grown ups have never moved much beyond this elementary school theology.  This fact used to enrage me.  I saw it as a failing of the modern church.

Lately, I've been wondering why I have been so angry.  After all, if people have a theology that brings them comfort, who am I to criticize?

But the thought that pushes at me:  is theology meant to bring comfort?  If we delve into theology to understand God, then a second grader's theology isn't serving grown ups well.  Was Jesus sent into the world to bring comfort?

Yes, in some ways.  But no, in important other ways.  There's the social justice angle, after all.

We focus on social justice in our VBS--or to be more accurate, we have a charity project.  This year we raised money for earthquake victims in Nepal.  In the past, we've worked on clean water and malaria nets.

When it comes to social justice, many grown up Christians still have the theology of children.  We care for those who are down on their luck by giving money.  Most grown ups, regardless of spiritual background, don't spend as much time working on changing the social structures that keep people trapped in poverty.

I know that many adults don't care about theology at all.  They come to church for a variety of reasons.  They have friends in the church.  They like to sing in the choir.  They feel better about themselves after an hour in church.  It's a respite from regular life. 

Is there a way to interest these worshippers in a deeper, more complex theology?

Monday, June 29, 2015

Hybrid Sunday

We usually have the Sunday after VBS as a VBS themed Sunday--the kids sing, there's no sermon, and after the service there's a waterslide (the bounce house kind) and lunch (a way to use up extra kid food from the week).

Earlier this week, the bishop of the ELCA called for this Sunday to be a day of repentance and mourning:  repentance for our culpability with the culture of racism and mourning for the 9 martyred in Charleston.  At first glance, it didn't seem a good fit with VBS Sunday, but our pastor decided to try.

And to make the Sunday even more interesting, a couple wanted to affirm their wedding vows.  They're a couple with a delightful child--the family had once been members of the church and come back every year for VBS, and this year, the father/husband could come too. 

How did these elements work together?  Well, at first we experienced the joy of the VBS songs and Bible readings.  Then we moved to the liturgy of repentance and mourning.  From there, we wished each other peace, took up the offering, and celebrated the Eucharist.  And then, after the joy of the Eucharist, we had a marriage renewal. 

As we went along, our pastor reminded us that this is what life with the Lord looks like.  We will not immediately defeat death, but it can be faced with grace.  In any life, there will be grief, but there will also be joy.  We have assurance that God is with us in both our joy and suffering. 

It was a great service, although I do wonder what our large number of visitors thought of the service.  Maybe they, too, were moved.  Maybe they just wanted to move through it so that they could get to the lunch afterwards.  We tried to explain each part as we went along, so that visitors wouldn't be lost and confused.

With every service, a good worship planner tries to see it through both the eyes of the long-attending member and the visitor.  I think we did a good job.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Bloom Where You Are Planted

Back in the 70's, I remember seeing many a poster and needleworked hanging that proclaimed, "Bloom where you are planted."  If I had to sum up my parents' philosophy of life, that slogan might do it as well as any other.  They are big believers in making a difference where you are and starting right away and doing what you can with what you have--time and time again they told us not to wait for that mythical day when all the circumstances are right. 

That day never comes.

I thought of that slogan today when a Facebook friend posted this:

I've kept my little citrus tree alive for 5 months now, and am noticing something important:

Blooming where we're planted is a lovely notion, but really things bloom when they're watered.

I responded:
I had a similar insight with our tomato plants this year. We planted them in pots, not expecting much, as we'd never had luck before. But they grew and bloomed and we got tomatoes--if we had planted them in bigger pots, we'd have gotten bigger tomatoes. The small ones we had were delicious, but I did have many occasions to wish we had planned and planted a bit better back when we transplanted the seedlings.

I like the original "Bloom Where You Are Planted" for its simplicity.  But it's important to remember that with just a bit of extra attention, we can do more than bloom--we can bloom extravagantly.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

The Innoculating Power of VBS

Years from now, when I think back to this week, I'll remember it as a week of huge changes at work, as we think about the faculty members who will no longer be with us full-time, and a week of Vacation Bible School.  Oh yes, and some important court decisions about fair housing, health care, and there was another . . . what was it?

The event that most of the nation and future historians will remember from this week will be yesterday's ruling on gay marriage.  I listened to this story on NPR yesterday about Evan Wolfson the man who wrote a paper as a law student arguing for the rights of gay people to marry; he wrote it in 1983, and he's spent the time between then and now working on that goal.  I thought about how few of us see our goals and visions so thoroughly accepted.  He will go to his grave knowing he's been a success in what he set out to do.

And then I pulled into the church parking lot and the whirlwind that is VBS started.  Later, as we waited for the kids to finish their rehearsal, we watched photos from the week that we projected onto a screen.  Many of those pictures captured the children in amazing lights, with a variety of expressions--most of them happy ones.

I thought of that Wolfson and his campaign as I looked at those pictures.  I thought of each child and each life and how we cannot know the outcome of our actions.  Some of us will be lucky, like Wolfson, and know for sure.  But most of us won't.

Our VBS has more children from the neighborhood than church children; we see them once a week each summer, and that's it.  I have hopes that we've planted seeds.  Will they flower later?

History tells us that yes, the seeds will bloom, but in ways we can't anticipate.  Have we inoculated these children against the messages of hate, intolerance, greed, and other negativity beamed at them throughout each day? 

How I hope so!

Friday, June 26, 2015

Can VBS Sunday Mesh with a Day of Mourning?

Our bishop of the ELCA sent out materials for worship and has called for this Sunday to be one where we address what happened in Charleston last week, a day of repentance and mourning.

My first thought:  Well we won't be doing that.  We have a special worship designed around Vacation Bible School.

I confess that I didn't read or download the materials.  I moved on to thinking about other things, like how to get my classes staffed for the Summer quarter which starts in 2 weeks.

My pastor, on the other hand, has come up with an approach that can combine the Bishop's materials with our VBS liturgy that's already written.  And it makes sense.  After all, we've spent the week talking about God as a God of comfort and healing and forgiveness and how we should follow God's lead.

I said to my pastor, "If anyone can do it, you can."

He said, "If anyone can do it, the Holy Spirit can."

I looked around our fellowship hall.  I'm guessing that we have one of the most racially diverse VBS groups in the nation.  Most of our Sunday worship services are similarly diverse, although we don't have many people from Asia in our congregation.  In our larger community, we are only just beginning to get Asian immigrants in large numbers, so I don't worry too much about that.

I look forward to seeing how my pastor with the help of the Holy Spirit pulls everything together.  It will be an even more meaningful Sunday than usual.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

The Curative Power of Cutting Paper

Yesterday was a tough day at work for many reasons, mainly those involving the schedule for classes that start in two weeks and faculty who may or may not be with us then and decisions that must be made by others before I can proceed in finalizing the schedule.  These are problems which will be solved in good time, but my strength/weakness is my efficiency, and when I feel I'm not being (or prevented from being) efficient, I get snarly.

I also get snarly when stuck in traffic, so after leaving work later than I like, I was stuck in rush hour traffic as I headed to church for Vacation Bible School.  I got out of my car with a sense of dread because I thought my activities planned for the night would fail.

We had some kits from Oriental Trading Company--a project to assemble with snowflakes and self-stick decorations.  I figured that would take about 5 minutes, so I thought we'd also cut snowflakes out of paper and decorate them.  I worried that this, too, would take 5 minutes and then we'd have time to fill and bored/hyperactive children.

But how wrong I was!  The kids loved the cutting of paper.  Some cut multiple snowflakes--yes, these children had never seen a real snowflake, most of them but that didn't matter.  Some of them realized that their snowflakes could be transformed into masks, so they had fun that way.  Some just cut the paper without discernable purpose.  Some loved gluing glittery shapes (but not glitter!  not the chaos of glitter!) onto their snowflakes/masks/abstract art.

Most were not ready to leave the Arts and Crafts room at the end of the session.  Of all the things I had planned, I thought this one had the most risk of failure.

I have not learned the lessons of my own arts and crafts room, have I?  It's about the process.  Success comes in many colors and shapes and may not look like what we expected.

Let me also note the joys of a well-stocked supply closet.  When someone asked for different paper, I had a supply.  When the first group used up all the paper I thought I would need for a whole night, I had a supply.  When someone asked for a popsicle stick for their mask, I had a box.

And let me salute the woman who organized the mess that was the supply closet several years ago. 

At the end of the night, I felt my good mood restored.  It's not the mood booster that we usually see touted.  After all, it's not easy to monetize this curative:  volunteer to work with children cutting paper and decorating the resulting art.

I am still tired this morning. I am still looking forward to a less hectic schedule when VBS ends.  But I am grateful for this time with this group doing good work.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, June 28, 2015:

First Reading: Lamentations 3:22-33

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27

First Reading (Alt.): Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15; 2:23-24

Psalm: Psalm 30

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 130

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 8:7-15

Gospel: Mark 5:21-43

Notice how rooted in physicality is our Gospel for Sunday. We've got a bleeding woman and a dying girl. At the end of the Gospel, Jesus orders food for the no longer dead girl. The Gospel practically oozes on the page.

Notice too how we've got a variety of people--all they have in common is their fierce belief and their willingness to do whatever it takes for healing. They will ignore all the years of ill health. They will ignore their rational voices that say that one man can't bring health. Even when they're surrounded by naysayers, they believe. They will ignore death, so powerful is their hope.

Notice that in this passage Jesus focuses his attention on some of the most outcast of his society: a little girl and a bleeding woman. If you've studied the Old Testament, you understand how outcast a woman who never stopped bleeding would be. Ancient purity codes were quite strict about body fluids, particularly when they came from women. And a female child would have also been seen as expendable, at least in the larger society. Yet Jesus doesn't withhold his power from them, even if they're not important to the larger society.

This Gospel echoes the story we heard last week. Here is Jesus again, talking to his disciples about their fears. Here is Jesus, doing what should be impossible for humans to do. Last week he's controlling nature. This week, we seem him controlling the human body. We even see him overcome death.

These stories make me think about my own faith, particularly during these hot, hazy days of summer, when it seems impossible to get off the couch. What would inspire me to go to Jesus in a similar way? I try to imagine Jesus saying to me "Daughter, your faith has made you well." I think of all the ways that my faith can--and does--fall short.

But let me not start down the spiral of self-recrimination.  Let me use these ancient people pursuing restored health to inspire me to pursue Jesus with similar determination.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

VBS Day One: Many Hands Make a Quilt Top

This morning, I am exhausted in a way that happily is unusual for me.  I knew I would be.  After a regular work day yesterday, I headed over to my church.  We had to do all the set up for Vacation Bible School before it started at 6.  Our church sanctuary and fellowship hall are in almost constant use all Sunday afternoon and evening:  we've got 5 groups who share our space.

And then we were off and running.  I was on my feet for most of the time between 4:30 and 9:15.  I realize that many workers are on their feet for double that amount of time.  How do they do it?

I am the Arts and Crafts director.  Last night, we were decorating quilt tops for the quilts that we will assemble for Lutheran World Relief.

As we planned for VBS, one woman suggested that we have the children stamp their hands and make hand prints on muslin.  I worried about the clean up.  I decided we'd have children trace their hands.  And instead of muslin, I bought white cloth--it was less expensive.

We thought about having a large square for each child.  But then we'd need to sew them together.  I decided that from a time management angle, it made sense to keep the quilt top as one big piece and have everyone work around a table.

It was a great success.  I had a vision that we'd have hands and other drawings too.  But most of the little artists really liked drawing their hands.

I didn't anticipate that the littlest ones might have problems drawing on cloth.  I didn't expect that we'd have so many little ones.

But after a bit of time to get settled, the littlest ones really enjoyed drawing other things.  One child who took the longest to show interest drew a large circle with an orange marker over and over again.  Eventually the circle flattened to an oval.  I like the way it looks like an eye.

There was a moment last night when I wondered about the recipients of the quilts--what will they make of these decorations?   Will they recognize the work of children or will they wonder about our overall design aesthetic?

But that's really not the point.  They will have a quilt to keep out the cold and damp. 

I also wonder if our VBS children take away anything from our arts and crafts time.  I hope so.  I always think about the ways I could have said more, could have tied the activity to the larger lessons.

But for the most part, I'm simply trying to ward off the chaos that threatens when one assembles a large group of children. 

Tonight, it's on to clay! 

Monday, June 22, 2015

Vacation Bible School: A Prayer for all the Workers

Today we start Vacation Bible School.  Let me change a post that I wrote for my creativity blog to fit this day:

Though we hike through the backcountry, the best guides have showed us how to return.

The best guides show us how to pack all we need on our backs.

The best guides give us maps to the trails.

The best guides know we cannot avoid snakes and thus we need a snake bite kit.

The best guides will keep us warm, even when we're stranded.

The best guides give a whistle on a lanyard of faith that cannot be unbraided.


Let us be this kind of guide to all who come to Vacation Bible School!

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Father's Day and Church

How will your church celebrate Father's Day?  It's a secular holiday, like Mother's Day, but I bet it makes its way into our worship services.

After all, many of our churches use Father language when discussing God.  It might seem natural to celebrate fathers of all sorts.

Those of us who think about such things realize the hazards with that approach.  We haven't all had good fathers, after all.  Many of us haven't had dads at all.  Or maybe we've lost our fathers.

Maybe it's a good day to think about whether or not it's helpful to see God as a parent of either gender.  I've written a piece at the Living Lutheran site that explores these ideas.

Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"I grew up in the 1970s and saw plenty of wrecked families. I've always wondered how people who come out of those families, especially those with absent or abusive fathers, react to the idea of God as a father."

"Many of the fathers I know today are much more involved in the lives of their children than fathers of past generations were. They change diapers; they cook meals; they're part of the car pool; they coach teams. What if we viewed God as someone who packed our lunch for us? What if we saw God as soccer coach or the one who taught us to sail or program computers?"

"Perhaps it’s time to abandon the idea of God as parent. I much prefer the idea of God as partner. We don’t have to be equal partners, although the word does imply a striving toward balance. God can be the senior partner."

Saturday, June 20, 2015

Church as Forgiveness School

I continue to think about the shootings in Charleston and our various responses to it.  As we became aware that the shooter was a member of an ELCA church, the Facebook/Internet conversations took an interesting turn.  What did church/confirmation class fail to teach him?

I have yet to see any meaningful information to let us know that he was actually in church for much of his childhood or adolescent years.  Many names show up on church rolls, but that doesn't mean that people are actually there on a regular basis--or that they're paying attention.

It is an interesting question to think about how many messages blast at us in any given day--what takes hold?  And why one set of messages and not another.

As I listened to a news story of one of the family members of the victims who spoke at the shooter's first hearing in court, I thought again about the message of church and Christianity.  I could hear the ragged pain in the family member's voice as she talked about never being able to see/hold/talk to the victim again.  Several times she said, "But I forgive you." 

Many family members who spoke also gave their forgiveness.  At first I found it remarkable.

But then I reflected on the religious lives of the slain.  Several pastors and church workers were on the list of victims.  Most of the people gathered for that Bible study were living lives of remarkable service, whether in the church or outside.  People who gather at church after dark to pray show a faithfulness and dedication.  I assume that some of those attitudes/disciplines/foundations are shared by their family members.

Those of us who go to church on a regular basis hear frequent messages of the importance of forgiveness.  It shouldn't surprise me that the first response of those grieving family members was both to testify to their loss and to forgive.

If I was a graduate student in a field where I could write such a dissertation, I'd love to explore the intersections of forgiveness and spirituality.  I'd study the various religious non-violence movements of the 20th century.  I'd explore the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that brought South Africa to a new age.  I'd look at ways that we have tried to transform violence into peace.

Of course, such a dissertation couldn't explore all the small ways that we transform violence into peace on a daily basis.  We have a number of ways to make those transformations.  Our churches school us in the ways to do that. 

Friday, June 19, 2015

Reweaving the Social Fabric

I spent much of yesterday continuing to think about the shooting in a church in Charleston.  I am chilled by the fact that the shooter arrived as if he wanted to pray with the group.  He sat with them for an hour and then shot them.

I thought of the times we've had small meetings (by which I mean not worship services) at church in the evenings.  We've kept the doors locked once everyone arrived.  Of course, if the criminal is already inside, that doesn't help.

I thought of all the unstable people who have come to worship (see this post for the most recent experience).  We try to be welcoming.  We try not to think of the possible bad outcomes.

I've watched the outpourings of grief.  I've thought about how violence can unite disparate groups.  We saw that with the earliest Church.  We are seeing it now.

I am not going to get embroiled in conversations about gun control or lack of it.  I went to a variety of schools in a variety of places where most homes had guns.  I remember trucks with occupied gun racks in the parking lot of my high school in Knoxville, Tennessee.  No one shot up the school.

I will not talk at great length about the disappearance of mental health services.  As a nation, we've always had spotty access to good health care, and most of us have not had the kind of care that pays attention to the whole body.

I will spend time thinking about the frayed social fabric and how the Church can be part of the reweaving process.  I will spend time thinking about my local church and my individual life.

As I move through the day, I interact with a wide variety of people--as someone who tends to the more introverted side of the scale, I do often find it draining.

But what if I saw my interactions in the world as part of my ministry.  What if I saw each encounter as a way to recapture the loose threads of society that I can't even see?

I am not na├»ve.  I realize that the prayer group in Charleston likely welcomed the young man that they'd never seen before.  They probably saw themselves as part of the reweaving process.

I am not sure how God will use that incident for good--but I am already seeing the process working, as the nation grieves. 

Resurrection and redemption--it's a funny business, and a process that often includes elements we'd prefer to avoid, like humiliation and death.  Again and again, I remind myself of the Easter message that death does not have the final word.

Again and again:  death does not have the final word.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Shooters in the Sanctuary

At 5 a.m., I am glued to the radio, wishing for more information, feeling that irritation about every story that isn't about the shooting in a Charleston church last night.

I lived in the Charleston area for five years.  My first thought was that no one I know would have been at a prayer meeting that started at 9 p.m. at an A.M.E. church.

But I lived in South Carolina for 9 years before moving to the coast of the state.  My spouse and I started thinking of all the people who might, in fact, have been at a downtown church for a prayer meeting.

I've been seeing Facebook posts that remind me of how interconnected we all are, as humans, and how small a place Churchworld is.  The pastor went to the ELCA seminary in Columbia, South Carolina.  Facebook reminds me of how many pastors I know who also attended that school.

Of course, even if I knew not a soul, even if the shooting took place in a different country, I'd still feel that sense of shock.  A shooting--at a church?

And my cynical self says, "Why not a church?  We have shootings at elementary schools."

We ask, "Is nothing sacred?"

At first, it seems nothing is sacred.  But as the morning progresses, and I see more and more Facebook posts imploring us all to pray for Charleston or posts that express deep sorrow, I have to answer, "Yes.  We still hold much sacred."

I don't find reason for joy when a man walks into a sanctuary and starts shooting.  But I do find comfort that this shooting still makes so many of us respond in shock and horror.  We want to believe that children can be safe at school.  We want to be able to gather after darkness descends and not be gunned down for our efforts.

Nope, that's not the world we live in.  When we gather to pray at my church after dark, we lock the doors.

But I can remember that the world we live in is not God's vision for this world.  We live in a creation that's in progress, not one that's finished.

And the sorrow and lamentation of so many people means that I am not alone in longing for a world that is safer.  We can--and probably will--worry about how to make it safer.  We might even argue that safety is an illusion.

Christ does not promise us a safe life--quite the opposite.  But Easter promises us that death doesn't have the last word.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The Readings for Sunday, June 21, 2015:

First Reading: Job 38:1-11

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 1 Samuel 17:[1a, 4-11, 19-23] 32-49

First Reading (Alt.): 1 Samuel 17:57--18:5, 10-16 (Semi-continuous)

Psalm: Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 9:9-20

Psalm (Alt.): Psalm 133 (Semi-continuous)

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 6:1-13

Gospel: Mark 4:35-41

This Gospel may be one where we feel superior to the disciples.  How could they be so lacking in faith?   But those of us who feel superior may never have been through a storm. We may not have felt that threatened.

Maybe we can relate to those disciples in this week's Gospel. The boat is taking on water. We're sinking. We'll die out here in the middle of this lake. It was bad back there with the crowds, but we don't want to perish this way.

And so, like the disciples, we call out: "Where are you God? Don't you care about us, Jesus?"

Look at the response of Jesus in this passage. Many theologians have noted that he doesn't mock them for their fears. Their fears are real and valid. But he asks them why they're letting their fears get the best of them. It's as if he's saying, "I'm right here. I'm with you. Have you forgotten what is possible when I'm in your boat?"

And then, he calms the storm.

Just because we're believers, that doesn't mean that we will never experience storms. We will, and we will likely be afraid. But Jesus assures us that even though we might feel alone, we are not alone. The storms will come, and storms will go. But God is always there, with us, in our little boats.

But let's not wait until the boats of our lives are swamped by the seas.  Let's reach out to God on the sunny days too.

These Gospel stories show us a God who wants to be part of our daily lives--to go fishing, to take naps, to share meals and stories and travels.  What wonderful news!

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Nuns on the Bus, Nuns on the Radio

It is rare that I feel God speaking to me multiple times during an hour.  To be honest, I don't feel like I have that kind of relationship with God. 

At Synod Assembly a few years ago, a spiritual director asked a group of us to describe our relationship with God.  She gave us a few minutes to write.  I wrote that I feel like God is a friend who keeps inviting me to lunch, and I'm either too busy to say yes or I have to cancel.  With my voice cracking (I volunteered to read my response), I said, "I'm afraid God will quit inviting me to lunch."

Of course, the Good News of the Bible is that God does not stop inviting us to lunch.

Anyway, back to my larger point.  On Sunday morning, I was listening to the NPR show, On Being, as I so often do.  Krista Tippett interviewed Simone Campbell, a fairly famous nun.  The interview happened in an auditorium with an audience who got to ask questions. 

Someone asked her about the future of women in the Catholic church, and she acknowledged that change would not come quickly.  But then she talked about the blessings of NOT being ordained:  "But here's the thing: my role is to be priestly in places where the Gospel wouldn't go otherwise. And if I were ordained as clerical, that all gets circumscribed by church and needs of parishes and administration and all that. Where, the freedom of what I have now is, like, huge. And it's responding — I have a chance to respond to people's hungers — I mean, I hear many confessions. I comfort many people. I have a chance to speak of the Gospel in places that would never happen otherwise. I mean, really, the Democratic National Convention. I mean, that was pretty amazing. So how could I not rejoice in this opportunity?"

She talks about the gifts that God gives us, even before we know we need those gifts.  She talks about the gifts that women religious have to give:  "And when you look at what our nation needs, it doesn’t need more schools or hospitals or all that stuff. What it needs are community, spirituality, someone to listen, and dealing with death and dying. So I think the gifts that we're being given as Women Religious just need to be shared in a whole different way. And it’s that puzzle about where are we being called, where is the next breakthrough moment, what's the next surprise, is being willing to use our gifts for others."

Earlier in the program, she talked about liberation theology and its meaning for first world people.  She talks about the first world sin of needing security--but we know, we must know, that we will never have enough.

About the idea that we can achieve security, she said, "It's an illusion. It's an illusion. And rather, we would be better off if we made peace with insecurity. We’re all vulnerable. It’s all illusion."

Making peace with insecurity--that, too, felt like God saying, "Are you listening?  Tune in.  Would that you had ears to hear."

When asked to name her favorite mystic, Sister Simone said, "Oh, how could it not be Hildegard?"  After the wonderful laugh, she explained, "I mean, she got excommunicated three times and then gets made a saint and the doctor of the church. I mean, really. I mean, really. I mean — and then I wonder did they really read her writings? Well, she wrote all about the feminine of God. It was fabulous."

You can hear the interview or read the transcript here.  It's worth your time.

Monday, June 15, 2015


Perhaps we feel polluted.

Or perhaps we feel like an ancient tree with the ground beneath us hollowed out.

It's time to return to the ancient practices:

A good book might cure our ills.

A pot of tea couldn't hurt.

Maybe some exercise.

But above all, some time to notice the way the light shifts.

We can spare a few moments here and there each day for these recalibrations.

In these ways, we will be restored.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Faith as Small as a Mustard Seed

This week, the lectionary cycles back to mustard seeds, which reminds me of a children's sermon that I preached in 2012.  I had found a jar of mustard seeds, which was so cheap that I should have bought several. 

I came up with the idea of sprouting them much too late--or so I thought.  But I wrapped them in some damp paper towels, which I kept damp.  Much to my surprise, in just 4 days, they looked like this:

It took nothing more:  not special food, not sunlight, no enriched soil.  Just cover and dampness.

I've been thinking about seeds, how tiny they are:

I've been thinking about how quickly seeds sprout with just the slightest encouragement.  We've been having luck with growing plants in pots.  We've had a good crop of tomatoes--although in future years, we should grow them in bigger pots, so that we get bigger tomatoes.  Our rosemary is lovely.  Our basil  . . . well, the basil plants give me a way to transition to my next point.

It's getting hotter, and some of our plants are looking quite wilted.  Our basil has dried to a crisp.  No more basil will be coming from that plant.  I have lovely petunias, but they don't seem to have any desire to grow up and over the edges of the planter boxes.

We might be feeling a bit wilted ourselves.  For myself, it's been a rollercoaster of a week at work.  On Wednesday, we had a special mandatory meeting for full-time faculty announced the following day.  I didn't get much sleep that night.  As I said to a colleague, "I doubt they're bringing us in to give us a bonus check."

The news announced was not as bad as it could be:  voluntary faculty separation packages.  Of course, if not enough people volunteer, the next round will be non-voluntary.  On Thursday night, I didn't get much sleep either.

There will be implications, of course.  I will be left to staff classes, whether or not people leave willingly or not.  I'm still not sleeping well.  I may not have even a mustard seed of faith.

But I have practices, and I can rely on those.  I pray for us all.  I listen to Godspell on my way to work and remind myself that I am the light of the world.  I am there to listen to everyone who needs me to have time for them.  I have tissues, should my skills as hospice chaplain for my organization be required.  I pray some more.

And then, I pray again.  I keep my little seeds of faith damp with my prayers and my tears.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Art with a Message

Earlier today, I was looking through old photos to go with this blog post about a Festival of Fabrics and different ways of looking at fabrics.  I came across this picture:

Do you see the cross in the fabric piece?

look closely and you'll see the outline I drew

I made this for myself after making something similar for a colleague/friend/former boss who was moving away.  She was a Christian who had large pictures of Jesus with a bloody crown of thorns.  For years she'd had the pictures on her office walls.  But when she moved to a state school, she thought she might not be allowed to hang them.

I wanted to give here something to fill the void, something to hang on the walls that only she would know was a symbol of her faith.  A Jesus dripping blood is not subtle.  The piece of fabric art that I created was.

At the time, I thought I might create a cottage industry making such things.  But then, the job I had then morphed into the job I have now, and I don't have time right now to make that dream a reality.

In the job I have now, I am reminded of how important it can be to be surrounded by items that call us to be our best selves.  Many of us spend more time in our offices than we do in our homes.  I still see a need for art that affirms, art that reminds us of who we want to be, to whom we belong.

I like keeping blogs because I can record ideas I've had.  I may not have time to act on them now, but perhaps in the future.  And in the meantime, should someone else feel inspired, please go ahead.  The Holy Spirit speaks to us in a variety of ways!

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Water and the Tea

I'm always interested in how we view God, how we view spirituality, how we view religion.  I'm intrigued by the metaphors that we use.

In a recent episode of On Being, Krista Tippett interview Pico Iyer.  She referred to an earlier interview and said, "I think Paul may have asked you the question that, you know, is always out there: what is the difference between spirituality and religion? And you said — I believe you said this — that spirituality is water, and religion is the tea. I wondered if, what if spirituality is water, and religion is the cup, you know, which carries it forward, although it may be flawed, and we may drop it and break it. I don't know, what do you think about that?"

I loved that idea of spirituality as water and religion as cup that carries the water.

But Pico Iyer had an even more profound metaphor:  "And I should also say when — if I talked about water and tea, I was probably stealing from the Dalai Lama because what he often say that the most important thing without which we can't live is kindness. We need that to survive. And he says kindness is water, religion is like tea.  . . .  It's a great luxury. It increases the savor of life. It's wonderful if you have it. But you can survive without tea, you can’t survive without water."

We are headed into a lectionary time of interesting metaphors, like the mustard seed this Sunday.  What metaphors help us understand our spiritual lives better?

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Holy Burdens

During key points in my life, I am sure that I heard people say, "That's just my cross to bear," but I can't think of any specific instances. 

Lately, I started thinking more about the cross of Christ and what it means when Christ warns us of the crosses that will come when we follow him.

I've also come across more than my share of people who take on the long-tortured face of martyrdom--without realizing that their situation really doesn't warrant the overly dramatic sighs, the long telling of sad tales of woe.

I've begun to be uncomfortable with this language of martyrdom, especially in an age where we are seeing more people truly martyred for their faith, as with the various executions committed by ISIS in the past year.

And yet, it also does seem right and just to acknowledge that each of us will be called to serve in ways that will take us to places we would not willingly choose.  It's not exactly a martyrdom, not really a true cross.

This morning, I came across a phrase in Martha Spong's blog post:  "holy burden."  This phrase seems perfect to me to describe what many of us might have once said was "our cross to bear."

Spong, who is part of a two minister family, used it this way:  "Some days it feels so ordinary to be there in a church-owned house with my wife and our children that the only thing I stress about is whether the puppy will chew on something that belongs to the church rather than to us. Other days, it feels like I finally know what cross I was always intended to bear, a cross engraved with the words 'Queer Christian.' It’s not a death sentence; rather it is a holy burden, and the work of my life, to be queer and faithful."

I think of my own holy burdens:  being the hospice chaplain periodically at work, as we have lots of losses to mourn, of being the one who argues for gentleness in personnel issues, of being the one who diligently works at the various ministries of reconciliation that a modern college requires--these burdens do not leave me martyred, but they do often leave me drained.

Thinking of it as a holy burden might change my mental state.  In some ways, I don't need to change my mental state--I already look at these tasks as my particular ministry.

Jesus never promised us that it would be easy, this business of being the light in the world, the yeast in the bread dough.

But it's so important that we do it.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, June 14, 2015:

First Reading: Ezekiel 17:22-24

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 1 Samuel 15:34--16:13

Psalm: Psalm 92:1-4, 11-14 (Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15 NRSV)

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 20

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:6-10 [11-13] 14-17

Gospel: Mark 4:26-34

Today we return to those parables of potential held in tiny packages. We return to parables that remind us of what can happen when a speck of a seed is buried in the dirt and left alone. We return to parables that remind us that much happens beneath the surfaces and behind the scenes while we sleep peacefully.

We live in a culture that demands instant gratification. Many of us find it hard to read a book. I'm hearing more and more people confess that they can't even read a magazine article--their attention spans are just that fried. We live in a culture where, if it doesn't happen immediately, people don't stick around to see what happens.

When I look at the parables of Jesus, I suspect that he was fighting a similar battle. People probably came up to him and said, "How can God be good if there's so much injustice in the world? Why does God allow that?" People probably say that to you, too.

I often use a parable of my own; in my own short life, I've seen the Kingdom of God break through in glorious and unexpected ways. The other day, I was looking through photo albums. I didn't find the pictures of my Confirmation day that I was looking for, but I did find a picture of an old college friend, back in 1986, who was wearing a shirt that demanded "Free Nelson Mandela."

Of course, we didn't expect that would happen. We expected that Nelson Mandela would die in jail and that the country would erupt in flames and bloodshed at any moment. We attended rallies and prayer vigils, but we didn't really expect peaceful social change.

Nonetheless, a few short years after I took that snapshot of my friend, Nelson Mandela walked out of jail. And a few years after that, he was elected president of South Africa. I continue to shake my head and wonder at my lack of faith. I continue to pray for God's kingdom to break through here on earth, and I'm still often surprised when it does.

In his book, Tell It Slant: A conversation on the language of Jesus in his stories and prayers, Eugene H. Peterson, says, "Still, when it comes to doing something about what is wrong in the world, Jesus is best known for his fondness for the minute, the invisible, the quiet, the slow--yeast, salt, seeds, light" (page 70). Some of my non-faithful friends snort and say, "What's the use?"

Peterson points out that "Waiting provides the time and space for others to get in on salvation. Waiting calls a time-out, puts us on the sidelines for a while so that we don't interfere with essential kingdom-of-God operations that we don't even know are going on. Not-doing involves a means of detaching my ego, my still immature understanding of the way God works comprehensively but without forcing his way, without coercion" (page 95).

These parables remind us that God's way is not the way of the world. But God's way can lead to a world transformed: floured leavened into bread, seeds grown into orchards, a community where everyone has enough and not a single person goes to bed hungry or lonely.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Our Many-Gendered God

The first week of June brought us the Vanity Fair issue with Caitlyn Jenner on the cover, and now we're having much more expansive conversations about issues of gender and bodies and sexuality.

I've returned to my thinking about the gender of God, and I've been wondering how I've been shortsighted.  I spent decades looking for the female face of God in the Bible, and then I spent time moving towards stripping God of gender.

What has been lost with that approach?

I wrote this piece for the Living Lutheran site.  It doesn't fully answer that question.  In fact, to be honest, it only begins to address this question.

Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"But it never occurred to me to read the Bible looking for evidence that God's gender moves across a spectrum too.  I'm surprised to realize that I'm guilty of binary thinking too."

"At a recent Synod Assembly, I received communion from female pastors.  I thought about the first time I received the elements from someone who looked like me, and how deeply moving it was.  I am not the first feminist to make this observation."

"Some have thought that homosexuality is the last frontier, but now we're wrestling with transgender issues.  What will be the next frontier? "

"And how will these frontiers change the way we view God?"

Monday, June 8, 2015

Houses, Hidden and Transformed

Some days, I am a house, hidden by the overgrowth of greenery.

November 2011

Perhaps I am the bike, abandoned by the side of the house.

I look for the door, the way out of stasis, the portal to a new place.

I listen for the wind moving across the water, the wind that can show me a new direction.

I hold fast to the promise that all can be redeemed, an old house transformed into a pottery studio.

The same house, Feb. 2014

I pray to our God of clay and fire.

Let me similarly be transformed.

Let me see the vision that's in the distance, the transformations that have already begun.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Vacation and Our Spiritual Selves

Is it too early to be thinking about summer vacation?  I know that our public schools just finished their last week, but that schools in places that had snow are not done yet.

Still, it's not too early to start to think about how we will handle our spirituality during our summer vacations, should we be lucky enough to be able to take a summer vacation.

Will we seek out the local church wherever we are and go see what we find?

Will we try something radically different?

Will we write our own liturgy?

Will we take a pilgrimage to a spiritual place?

I've written a post that explores all these possible options.  It's up at the Living Lutheran site.  Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"Taking our religion with us on vacation this way can be instructive. For one thing, it gives the grown-ups an opportunity to model good behavior. I took my parents’ declarations of the importance of faith seriously since they went to church every week, even while on vacation."

"Of course, in some ways, taking a vacation from church could be just as profound. Where do we find God when we’re out in the world? Will God have a better opportunity to speak when we’re away from our routines and our regular world?"

"Most of us yearn for vacations that will leave us refreshed and restored, ready to come back to our regular lives with a sense of renewal. As we plan our summer vacations, we should plan to give attention to the spiritual side of ourselves, a side that can be just as desperately in need of the benefits of a vacation as any other aspect of our lives."

Saturday, June 6, 2015

What Can Christians Learn about Failure from Buddhists?

One of our longtime friends said to my spouse that when I took up motorcycle lessons, I'd probably do what I ordinarily do, which is to thoroughly master something, then spend lots of time second guessing myself.

Even before I could muster up any feelings of defensiveness, I thought, huh, what a spot-on analysis of me.

I may not seem like that person because I try to go plowing ahead, even as I'm second guessing myself.  I try not to wallow in the second guessing.  I suspect it's what wakes me up in the middle of the night:  did I handle such and such the right way, have I forgotten a deadline, should I be doing this instead of that?

Occasionally, I think about opportunities that we let pass us by in our past.  I am haunted by my grad school self who believed she could never survive a publish-or-perish academic world.  I want to lecture that girl, to say, "Of course you could do this.  You have interesting ideas, and you come at them from an interesting angle."

When I look back at this time period, I wonder how my future self would lecture my 2015 self.  I suspect she'd say, "Get moving on that memoir."

It's also much too easy to berate myself for all the opportunities lost.  Is that a different personality trait or part of the same one?  And from there, it's a short spiral into feeling like a failure.  But recently, I came across a  great article from Pema Chodron on how to fail.

She says, "This is what we need a lot of help with: this feeling that there is something fundamentally wrong with us, that we are the failure because of the relationship or the job or whatever it is that didn’t work out—botched opportunities, doing something that flops, heartbreak of all kinds."

As you might expect, this Buddhist expert has a different approach to failing:  "It can be hard to tell what’s a failure and what’s just something that is shifting your life in a different direction. In other words, failure can be the portal to creativity, to learning something new, to having a fresh perspective."

She suggests that when we're feeling the sting of failure, that we let our curiosity take over.  What is the situation trying to reveal to us?

That curiosity may keep us from some of the traps which may wait for us when we feel like a failure:  we may fall into addictive behaviors to keep from feeling the negative emotions or anger that we might use rather than feeling the failure.

I will try to remember her conclusion when I'm feeling the sting of failure, of letting myself down, of not being perfect enough:

"And so I can tell you that it is out of this same space that come our best human qualities of bravery, kindness, and the ability to really reach out to and care about each other. It’s where real communication with other people starts to happen, because it's a very unguarded, wide-open space in which you can go beyond the blame and just feel the bleedingness of it, the raw-meat quality of it.

It’s from that space that our best part of ourselves comes out. It’s in that space—when we aren’t masking ourselves or trying to make circumstances go away—that our best qualities begin to shine."

It's an idea that fits neatly with Christianity, a world religion that began in failure by the world's standards:  itinerant preacher, crucified in a distant outpost of a world empire.  In the first century, we only see the seeds of later success, as those first believers face huge odds, even as they bring the Christian message to the heart of that same empire that killed their messiah and will kill many of them.

It's an important lesson to remember these days, when we may feel some connection to those first believers, who must have been filled with doubt but went ahead anyway, as the larger culture either ignored them or persecuted them.

Friday, June 5, 2015

A Poem for a Week of Thinking about the Transgendered

I began the week with poems; let me close the week with a poem.

I've spent the week thinking and writing about gender issues and the ideas that swirl around an Olympic athlete who begins the transition to a different gender.  I've thought about my series of poems about Jesus, the series of poems that imagines what would happen if Jesus came back in our current world and moved amongst us today.

I have been thinking about Jesus moving among the poor and the outcast.  I have often wondered if we recognize the poor and the outcast in our societies.

I've been heartened by the wide responses that I've seen that are accepting of Caitlyn Jenner.  But I also know that her money buys her a lot of protection.  I've been worried about all the transgendered people out there who will never feel that love and acceptance.

I have a vision of Jesus hanging out with those transgendered people.

Years ago, I wrote a poem.  I have thought that it might be a bit too short, a bit too underdeveloped.  But it seems right for this week.

Manicures for the Homeless

The members of the church fund raising
team ask Jesus to help
plan the golf tournament. Jesus thinks
back to all his teaching and wonders
how his parables
led his followers to this exclusive golf
course for the rich.

Jesus prefers to sit with the pre-op
transsexual, to talk about the difficulty
of finding attractive women’s clothes
in larger sizes. Jesus organizes manicures
for the homeless and fashions
shoes out of old tires
for feet which have a far
distance to travel.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

The God of Genesis and Transgender Issues

Yesterday on my creativity blog, I wrote a long piece about Caitlyn Jenner, and the transgender cultural tipping point--but is our society really at a cultural tipping point?  Only time will tell.  I think that the answer is "Yes and no."

In some ways, this magazine cover and the responses to it shows that we're still a long way away from full acceptance of everyone.  If you're famous, if you have money, you will face a much smoother road.  You'll be insulated from many of the literal assaults--but perhaps not from the assaults that come from inside.

I've also been thinking about theology and issues of gender--I've been thinking about theology and issues of gender for decades now.  Does my thinking change as I've learned more about transgender issues?

I'm still deeply uneasy about the patriarchal structure of churches, both individual churches and The Church.  The patriarchal nature--and the privilege structure that comes from a patriarchal hierarchical structure--will make it hard for The Church to be on the cutting edge of these issues.

Our churches mirror our societies.  If we lived in a society that celebrated the wide variety of humans along the gender spectrum (and the sexuality spectrum and the racial spectrum and the religious spectrum, on and on I could go), I'd be less uneasy about the time in history where we find ourselves.

I wonder if future sociologists will shake their heads at how eagerly some of us embraced the knife to make our insides match our outsides. 
And before everyone writes me angry comments about how I just don't understand how it feels to be trapped in the wrong body, I would say that I'm a female in a culture saturated with messages that tell me I'm doing femaleness wrong.  I've been overweight--50 pounds more than I am now, and I'm not skinny now.  I have had a glimpse into how it feels when one's outside doesn't match one's inside.
I want to be able to say, "If you have the money, great, transform yourself."  But I also know that many vultures are out there, feeding on our discontent, making lots of money, selling us solutions that will not work.  The harder work must be done by each and every one of us, and there's really no shortcut towards self-acceptance and fierce self-love and self-protection.

Here's where The Church can be its best self, with its reminder that God's economy is different from the human economy.  We can proclaim the Good News that God loves humanity so much that God goes to ridiculous/breathtaking lengths to be in community with us.

If we really believed in God's love for us, could we be easier in our human skins?  I am not the perfect one to answer this.  I have tried to alter my body in the traditional ways that humans do:  weight loss plans, exercise programs, hair color, a bit of make up, the idea that perhaps a perfect, transforming outfit is out there.  Clearly I do not believe that God loves me just the way I am.

I'm afraid that I worship the god of self-improvement plans.  It's the idol worship that seems to be running amok in our society.

But it's not the Creator proclaimed across religious faiths, across a variety of religious texts--and hopefully not the Creator we proclaim in our sanctuaries.

I go back to that very first creation story in Genesis, the one that's older than Adam and Eve.  I love the vision of that Creator, who proclaims each creation to be good--and at the end, it's all very good.  It gives me a sense of the Creator who is exuberantly in love with creation.

This very first picture of God does not show us a creator who says, "Hmm.  If only you weighed less/more, if only you sang differently, if only I had chosen a different color for you, if only, if only, if only."  The very first picture of God doesn't show us a God who throws away the rough draft in search of perfection. 

The first creation story declares perfection just the way we are.

I'm eager for our societies to match that declaration.  We are not there yet.  Some days, I feel us drawing closer.  Some days I despair about how far away we are from embracing that perfection--not a perfection that comes to me because of my striving, but my inherent perfection, no matter what I do or do not do. 

God has already declared us perfect.  Would that we all had ears to hear that message.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, June 7, 2015:

First Reading: Genesis 3:8-15

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 1 Samuel 8:4-11 [12-15] 16-20; [11:14-15]

Psalm: Psalm 130

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 138

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 4:13--5:1

Gospel: Mark 3:20-35

We are used to the picture of the family of Jesus that we see at Christmas time:  the brave, young Mary, ready for whatever God has in mind for her.  Kind Joseph, who plans to leave pregnant Mary, but is convinced to stay beside her.  The couple fleeing the murderous Herod. 

And then, perhaps, a few weeks later, we might see the young Jesus who stays behind to learn a bit more in the Temple in Jerusalem.  In some lectionary years, we see Mary imploring Jesus to save a wedding where the wine has run out; Jesus says he's not ready, Mary persists, and Jesus puts aside his own plans and transforms water into wine.

Or maybe we're used to the Mary that we see around Easter, particularly the weeping mother at the foot of the cross.

We're likely not familiar with the Mary that we see in today's Gospel, the Mary who hears the rumors of her son's madness and comes to try to get him to change course.

What's going on here?  Is she embarrassed?  Did she not know that being the mother of the Messiah might mean some embarrassment when the neighbors started talking?
When Gabriel appeared to Mary and gave her an outline of the plan that God had for her, she probably didn't envision the Jesus that appeared some thirty years later.  Her whole culture trained her to look for a different Messiah, perhaps a Messiah who cleansed the Jewish homeland.  She probably thought of that cleansing in military terms, the ejection of the Romans, perhaps.

She likely wasn't thinking of a spiritual revolution.

Or perhaps Mary was upset because she saw her son was on a collision course with any number of authorities.  Maybe she wanted him to fly under the radar more.

Even if Mary understood God's plan thoroughly, she still might want to protect her child.  That's what good parents want, to save their children from harm and destruction.  She still might protest the fact that the salvation of the world required the precious life of her beloved child.

For those of us struggling to chart our own course, we might take comfort from today's Gospel.  If even the family of Jesus didn't fully embrace his path, we, too, can expect a bit of resistance.

For those of us struggling to live an integrated life, where our weekday selves don't contradict our Christian values, we can take courage from today's Gospel.  It's not an easy task, this living an authentic life.

Of course, the Gospels don't promise us a happy ending.  Even if we live honestly, we may find ourselves on a collision course with the larger world, with the forces of empire, with the culture that shoots other messages at us and infuses our surroundings with poisonous values.  Even authentic people can end up martyred.

In fact, authentic people are more likely to end up martyred.  But throughout the Gospels, Jesus promises that the life we achieve through our integrity will be worth the price.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Reconciliation Reconsidered

Yesterday, at the end of a very long day, I said, "On Sunday, Pastor talked about Christ coming to reconcile us to God.  Today is one of those days when I remember that reconciliation is hard work--and I'm not doing it on such a large scale."

I don't really want to unpack my pastor's idea this morning--it's a little too close to troubling aspects of atonement theology, with which I don't agree.  I think that Jesus died on the cross not to save us from our sins, but because he was a threat to the established social order, and crucifixion was the punishment for people who posed that threat to Empire.  Enough of that unpacking.

But the idea of reconciliation appeals to me.  I agree with theologians like Marcus Borg who says that Jesus came to show us what is possible for a human life.  And reconciliation is one of our chief tasks.

I like the passage from 2 Corinthians 5:18, where Paul uses the term "ministry of reconciliation."  But I often forget how hard it is.

At work, we've had all sorts of glitchiness with our new attendance policy, but the biggest stumbling blocks have revolved around language.  You'd think, as someone with a Ph.D. in English, I wouldn't be so surprised by this state of affairs, but I am.  I've had teachers who want to argue about what it means to "approve" of a student's appeal and students who want to argue about whether or not they should have to appeal at all--in the word appeal, they hear a guilty verdict.

I doubt that Paul had my work activities in mind when he wrote about a ministry of reconciliation, but in so many ways, that's what I've been doing.  I've been trying to reconcile teachers to errant students, trying to reconcile students to the work that must be done, trying to reconcile the forms to the humans on the ground, trying to reconcile computers to us all.  I know that I risk sounding like I'm mocking Paul's idea, but I'm not.

I'm also struck by how many people, at their cores, do not believe in the possibility of redemption.  I've had more than one person say, "We know how this is going to turn out." 

But no, no we do not.  We know that past behavior is a predictor of future behavior--but it's a predictor, not a life sentence.

Would I be as optimistic about the possibility for human change if I didn't have my Christian beliefs and practices as part of my core, as shaper of my sensibilities?  

It's hard to say--I'd likely have been an optimist regardless.  But it would be harder, without that weekly reminder that redemption is possible, and often in the most unlikely ways. 

Monday, June 1, 2015

Poetry Monday: Poems for the First Day of Hurricane Season

June 1 marks the beginning of hurricane season.  I've spent much of my adult life in places that are periodically affected by hurricanes, and not once, but twice, I've moved to a place scarred by hurricanes a few years before I got there.

It will likely come as no surprise to find out that I find lots of metaphorical possibilities in hurricanes.  Here's one of the earlier ones I wrote, somewhere around 1996 or 1998:

I think it still holds up relatively well:

Weather Wife

The hurricane flirts with us; like a reluctant
suitor, the storm cannot decide whether or not to commit
to us. It won’t even make a definitive date.
We watch it vacillate, wonder
if it might decide to court another.

Why do these storms always arrive at night?
They party with Caribbean island after island,
leaving the coastal wife watching the clock
and waiting for its arrival, keeping the lights
lit and the supper warm.

The storm should sneak in, with a whisper of wind,
A dozen roses of rain, leaving a bit of sleep
to the exhausted wife of a coastline.
Instead, the hurricane roars in, renouncing
all others to embrace us fully.

Like a battering spouse, it smacks
us again and again. Not content to just hit
until we back down, it smashes
us to unconsciousness and rips
our most beloved possessions to shreds.

We clean up the damage while we try to soothe
the little ones. We try to convince
ourselves that it won’t happen again. The weather woos
us with calm surf and skies full of sunshine.
We continue in this marriage. We cannot divorce
ourselves to head to the passionless calm
of a chillier climate.
Later, in the aftermath of Hurricane Wilma, in 2005, one of my favorite poems came to me.  But first, some background.
Our church at the time (we go to a different church now) was much more damaged than my house. Winds peeled back the flat roof over the educational wing. The sanctuary was also damaged--lots of water intrusion. Happily, the carpet was old, faded, and ugly. No one cared that we had to get rid of it.

No one cared, but few people showed up to help with the hard work of hauling it out of the building. To be fair, we were an older congregation--there were only about 10 of us capable of doing that work. And it took a long time for the streets to be passable. My spouse and I didn't live far away, so we could show up to work.

I remember the day that the Bishop appeared. I had been hauling wet carpet to the curb after ripping it out of the sanctuary. I was wet and dirty, with bloody hands, when two men came into the sanctuary. They must have been dressed in casual clothes, because I asked, "Are you the carpet guys?"

The assistant said, "This is the bishop."

Oops. Like I said, I'm fairly sure they were dressed in casual clothes. If the bishop had come wearing his purple shirt and his impressive cross, I'd have known he wasn't the carpet guy.

Somewhere there's a picture of me, dirty and wet, shaking hands with the Bishop.

The Bishop looked at our damage, took notes, and left us with a case of bottled water and some tarps.

At the time, I remember wishing for a bit more help with the physical labor, as I went back to ripping up carpet and hauling it to the curb.

But later, I got a great poem out of it. That poem was published by North American Review.

It's part of a series of poems that imagines what would happen if Jesus came back in our current world and moved amongst us today. Long ago, a Sunday School teacher asked us what we thought would happen if Jesus came back today (today being 1975). Little did she know that I'd still be playing with that question decades later:

Strange Communions

Jesus showed up at our church to help
with hurricane clean up.
“The Bishop was so busy,” he explained.
“But I had some time on my hands,
so I loaded the truck with tarps and water,
and came on down. What can I do?”

“Our roof needs a miracle,” I said.
“Do you know a good roofer?”

“I used to be a carpenter.
Of course, that’s getting to be a long time ago.
Let me see what I can do.”

I set to work ripping up the soaked
carpet in the sanctuary.
As I added a piece of dripping padding
to the pile, I noticed Christ across the street,
at the house with the fallen
tree that took out both cars and the porch.
He walked right up to the door to see
how the household was doing. I dragged
sopping carpet, trip after trip, while Jesus sat
on the porch and listened to the old woman’s sad
saga. The rough edges made my hands bleed.

Good smells made me wander down the dark
church hall to our scarcely used
kitchen, where I found Christ cooking.
“I found these odds and ends and decided
to make some lunch. Luckily, you’ve got a gas stove.”
I shrugged. “Why not? Otherwise, it’s just going to rot.”
How he made the delicious fish stew and homemade
bread out of the scraps he found
in our kitchen, I couldn’t explain.
We went out together to invite
the neighborhood in for a hot
meal, even though they weren’t church members.
We all spoke different languages,
but a hot lunch served by candlelight translates
across cultures.

I dragged drywall, black with mold, to our dumpster,
and noticed Christ walking by the cars in line
for the gas station on the corner.
When I got closer, I noticed he handed
out fresh-baked cookies and bottled water.
“Have some sweetness.
Life is hard when you can’t get necessities.”
Some drivers stared at him, like he was one of those predatory
scammers they’d been warned against.
“What’s the catch?” they growled.
“No catch,” he said with that convincing smile.
“Just a gift of grace, freely given. You’re free
to accept or refuse.” A strange communion.

Jesus left while there was still
much work to do: new carpet to be installed,
drywall to be hung, fencing to be constructed
around church grounds. I watch him drive
his empty truck, followed
by some of the neighbors, away from the church.

The next time it rained, I noticed
that the long, leaking roof had healed.
In South Florida, we haven't really suffered much from hurricanes since 2005, but that doesn't stop my brain from playing with images.  Paper Nautilus published my poem "What They Don't Tell You About Hurricanes," but I'm fairly sure that this title is not my original creation.  I'm almost sure there's an essay with the same title in the wonderful book Writing Creative Nonfiction.  The essay stays with me even now, the writer who bought his dream boat, only to see it destroyed by Hurricane Fran.  I'd look it up, except that I don't own it.

So, here's the poem, all of it true, except for the reference to an industrial wasteland.  I wouldn't have written it at all, except for the strange incident of weeping in the parking garage some 4 or 5 years after Hurricanes Katrina and Wilma.  The industrial wasteland is actually a water treatment plant, but I changed it for some dramatic impact.

 What They Don’t Tell You About Hurricanes

You expected the ache in your lazy
muscles, as you hauled debris
to the curb, day after day.

You expected your insurance
agent to treat
you like a lover spurned.

You expected to curse
your bad luck,
but then feel grateful
when you met someone suffering
an even more devastating loss.

You did not expect
that months, even years afterwards,
you would find yourself inexplicably
weeping in your car, parked
in a garage that overlooks
an industrial wasteland.
What will I write in the future?  I'm hoping to write about the change in the oceans' oscillations, in the surprisingly quiet period that came after the very active two decades from 1995-2005.