Friday, July 31, 2015

Nuggets of Wisdom from Nadia Bolz-Weber

I came across this interview with Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber.  I know that she's not everyone's cup of tea, but her interview had some wonderful nuggets.

Here are some that I want to remember:

"I don’t understand how in mainstream, middle-class America, Christianity became about pretending you had your shit together, and putting on nice clothes for an hour every week, and keeping a smile on your face. It started with rank fishermen, and prostitutes, and tax collectors, and people who were eating with their unwashed hands, and somehow it became that. What the hell happened?"

"But extending influence and power in the corridors of government? I’m just too suspicious of human beings to think that our projects are going to be anything but self-serving. I’m not idealistic about human projects or our ideas, but I really am idealistic about God’s redemptive work in the world. I mean, I’ve just seen it over and over, and I’ve seen it despite myself and my own heart and my own life. That I believe in. We do the best we can as humans with our projects, but if that’s the thing we’re banking on or we have idealism about, we’re always going to be disappointed. Something ugly will always rear its head. The great news is that sometimes God does redemptive things through our projects and our institutions and ourselves despite us. I just kind of always look for that."

"God didn’t come and get me through any other symbol system but this one. This is my truth, and this is where I sort of stake my claim and my life, and whatever God was up to at the cross, it has to be accomplished through means I’ll never understand. How could it be limited to what I understand? That’s so arrogant."

When asked what else people are looking for when they come to her church:  "A place where they don’t have to culturally commute in order to show up. Culture has to do with aesthetics, it has to do with humor, it has to do with pop culture references, it has to do with so many things, and there’s a commute that postmodern people have to make if they’re going to show up to a mainline church because culturally it’s so different, it’s just so different, and you just feel uncomfortable when you’re in a context that so culturally different from what you’re native to. And I don’t know that the church realizes that there’s that crevasse culturally between who they are and who young folks are. It’s massive. So there’s no sort of outreach strategy that’s going to bridge that."

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The lessons for Sunday, August 2, 2015:

First Reading: Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 2 Samuel 11:26--12:13a

Psalm: Psalm 78:23-29

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 51:1-12

Second Reading: Ephesians 4:1-16

Gospel: John 6:24-35

Welcome to bread month! Over the next four weeks, the Gospel lessons will return again and again to this common New Testament symbol. We will be offered many opportunities to think about the meaning of this symbol.

I often tell my literature students that they can tell when something in a story might be a symbol because it shows up again and again, taking on an unusual significance. Our lectionary creators want to make sure we understand the importance of bread in the ministry of Jesus.

You might say that you already know. You take communion every week. You've heard that story of the loaves and fishes multiplying. Maybe you even pay attention to the bread that you buy each week as you choose the most nourishing loaves. Maybe you savor some bread and wine with your cheese on any given week-end, and you contemplate the life-giving properties of your snack. Despite all the recent attacks against carbs, most of us know that some variation of grain has kept most of human civilization alive more reliably than any other foodstuff.

The Gospel this week, however, reminds us that there is much more to life than sustaining our all-too-human bodies. We hunger and thirst and we crave anything which might guarantee that we'll never hunger or thirst again. Jesus reminds us that it's natural for humans to want bread, but he tells us that we sacrifice so much if we stop with physical bread. Jesus reminds us of our larger purpose, which is communion with God.

In verse 27, Jesus says, "Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you." I suspect that many of us are like me, laboring so hard for our daily bread that we don't have much time for spiritual food. When we're feeling overstretched and burdened by our calendars, it's easy to want to sacrifice some of our tasks. We might find ourselves saying, "It's summer. If I don't go to church, people will assume I've gone on vacation. No one will miss me. I can get my grocery shopping done and be that much further ahead." We might say, "I don't have time to pray! I have all this ironing to do!!!" We might grumble, "Who can read the Bible in such a dirty house? I'll just run the vacuum, and then I'll settle down for some Scripture reading."

In the language of economics, we need to pay ourselves first. We can't possibly do the work that God calls us to do if we're starving for spiritual bread.

Somehow, create some connections so that you can develop spiritual habits to go with your other habits. Pray while you're brushing your teeth. Listen to the Bible (via CD, tape, or download) as you drive to work. Have some spiritual sustenance delivered to your e-mail inbox every day. When you call your mom, check in with God when you hang up the phone. When you update your Facebook status, remember that God wants some facetime with you too.  When you eat food, say grace, even if it's a snack and not the meal that you crave.

We are created for so much more than our earthly eyes can see, so much more than our cramped brains can comprehend. Spiritual habits and disciplines start to crack open our vistas so that we can enlarge our possibilities.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Feast Day of Saint Martha

Today we celebrate Saint Martha, one of the few named women in the Gospels, one of the few to make multiple appearances.

My favorite glimpse of her is from the story in Luke, where she hustles and bustles with household chores and grows ever more exasperated with her sister Mary, who isn't helping. 

It's good to remember what Jesus says to her, when she demands that he make Mary help.  Christ says, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her" (Luke 10: 41-42).

I hear those words anew this morning.  I, like Martha, am worried and distracted by many things.  In my younger years, I thought that my worry might spur me to action.  In my later years, I've come to realize that I often worry about items that won't be impacted at all by my fretting. 

We also see Martha at the story of Lazarus, her brother, who has been dead in the grave for several days when Jesus comes.  She is convinced that her brother would still be alive if Jesus had gotten there in time.  And she's worried about the smell when Jesus orders the grave opened.

I recognize this control freak, micromanaging Martha.  I see her every day in my own behavior.

I love that Jesus doesn't get angry, doesn't send her away.  I love that again and again, she doesn't quite realize the huge truth of Jesus, but he's patient.  He doesn't bend himself into pretzel shapes so that she'll be comfortable, but neither does he reject her.

It's interesting to me to see in her behavior and in Peter's that we see that it takes time to grow into our role as disciples.  Neither Peter nor Mary understand Jesus right away, but patient Jesus continues to work to shape them.

I, too, am far from where I want to be as a disciple.  I take courage from these stories that remind me that there is hope for the lagging disciple.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Ministry of De-Escalation

Like much of the nation, I've been pondering the situation of Sandra Bland and what happened in Texas.  The story which started me down this road was the one broadcast by NPR's Morning Edition, where an analyst listens to the recording of what happened at the side of the road where Bland was first pulled over.

The analyst points out several times where different decisions could have been made by both Bland and the state trooper.  But for reasons that may never be fully clear, they both decided to escalate.

In the national conversation that I've seen, we focus on police-community relations, but I'm willing to bet there are many workplace situations where we see similar decisions to escalate.  Even if these incidents don't result in death, they still result in a society where people are distrustful and angry.

I think about my own workplace, where I often see angry, angry students.  I try to calm them down, and I try to ascertain what's brought them to me.  I know it's nothing good--people don't make a special effort to go to a department head to report on the great job that a faculty member is doing.

I try to remember to smile, but in a sympathetic not a condescending way.  I try to listen.  I try to explain what the situation might look like from a faculty point of view, but I try to do this without making students feel that their concerns have been dismissed.

Often, I can't fix the situation.  They come too late with too much work remaining undone.  But I try to keep the situation from escalating.  Students and their parents are all too ready to go to the upper levels of management or to the press or to bring in lawyers.  And even if there's no case, I would prefer we not go down those roads.

I've spent time lately thinking about ministries and how we see our ministry.  I've wondered how our nation might change if we saw our ministry as being one of reconciliation. 

One way to do that might be to seize opportunities to de-escalate situations.  People can't be reconciled when everyone is vibrating with anger.

I can't make everyone's anger vanish, but if I keep my anger and frustration tamped down, I've taken a giant leap towards de-escalation.  If only more people could do so.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Living in Community

In a variety of places, I've done a lot of thinking about what it means to live in community.  It might be easier if we only had to sit two by two, making community in pairs.

 Maybe we could fit three people into our community, side by side, on a bench. 

Some days, I think that three is one too many.

Some days, I want to be in community with only myself.

But we are called to greater community.

And from these connections, a community to the even larger world, a way to minister.

And eventually, we will join the largest community of all. 

Let that be the spur that helps us to connect on this side of the grave.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Dreams and Visions

Rachel Barenblat has an intriguing post on Jewish thoughts about what happens while we sleep:  "The Talmud teaches that sleep is 1/60th of death. When we go to sleep, our tradition teaches, we place our souls in God's keeping -- and when we rise and sing the modah ani, we thank God for restoring them to us and for the gift of another day. Sleep means letting go of whatever we've been carrying all day, and letting go of control. When we sleep we have to trust that our hearts will go on beating and that the world will keep on turning."

I've been haunted by my dreams.  One night I dreamed I was pregnant.  It was June, and I was due in July, but I wasn't very big.  I was thinking of all the things I should be doing to get ready to leave work:  getting the Fall schedule ready, hiring adjuncts, straightening my office.  I was walking to my car across a campus that isn't mine, and I had to pick my way carefully across a construction site.  The school campus was just a wreck.

The night before that dream, I dreamed I was trying to walk safely away from a highway.  I could see the lovely neighborhood with cafes and bookstores where I needed to be, but I was kept from getting there by overpasses and chain link fences and whizzing traffic.

If I was a character in a book dreaming such things, you'd lob criticism at the writer for being so obvious.  I woke up thinking that my subconscious was not being very original.

Am I longing to be pregnant?  No--but I do wish to be incubating something new.  Do I know how to get there?  No.  I have glimmerings, but I can't quite figure out the way from here to there.

And yet, my dreams were hopeful.  In my pregnancy dream, I had just come back from a well-baby pregnancy check up with good news that my yet-to-be-born baby was fine.  In the highway dream, I was able to hop over guard rails to avoid traffic.

Like I said, my dreaming brain may not be very original.  But maybe my dreaming brain worried that if it sent me subtle dreams, I'd miss the meaning.  Maybe my brain decided to be blaringly obvious.

I'm grateful to my dreaming brain.

And the theologian part of me thinks of the God who speaks to humans in dreams and visions.  If my recent dreams have been communications from God, I'm grateful.  They're not quite as obvious as some of the dreams in the holy texts:  no voice saying, "Get up and leave now before the evil dictator arrives."  I'm grateful for that too.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Poetry Saturday: Missing the Demons

I spent some time this week thinking about Mary Magdalene as her feast day came and went.  It's not the first time.  In this post, I come back to these thoughts:  "I think of Mary Magdalene and the ways her life was changed by her discipleship.  I wonder if she ever missed those demons or if she spent every day in deep awareness of how much worse her life could be and had been.  I wonder what happened to her once her brief time with Jesus was over."

I've played with these ideas before.  I've written several versions of a poem that imagines the demons of Mary Magdalene.  Here's the latest one:

The Fifth Demon

You moderns read about my demon
possession, and you think of The Exorcist:
gravel voices out of the mouths of schoolgirls,
mouths that spew gobs of green goo.

I tell you, it wasn’t like that. Each demon
had a unique personality, a tone
that only I could recognize. In the night,
the hiss of their suggestions soothed
me into sleep. By day, their constant
criticisms and complaints proved motivation.

And then I met Jesus. His voice
filled my head and crowded out the demons.
His stories left me slightly dizzy,
like I had spent weeks sleeping
on a sailing ship and returned to land.

I miss the fifth demon most.
I lost them, and then I lost
him, and now I have only the tomb
of my empty mind.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Nuns in the Neighborhood

Last night as I drove home, I noticed a nun walking down my block.  I decided this was the chance I had been waiting for.

I know that we have a large house where nuns live--it's 7 blocks from my house.  Occasionally I see a nun in the bank or the grocery store, but rarely do I see them on my block. 

I've wanted to know more about them, but it seems invasive to just pull in the driveway and knock on the door--although their house looks more like a building at a retreat center than a regular house. 

So, when I saw the nun walking down my street, I waved and walked towards her.  I introduced myself and said I'd been wondering about them.

The nun told me that they're an order of nuns from Nigeria.  I didn't quite catch the name:  Sisters of Mary of  ________.  She told me that they're an order devoted to the idea of giving love to all.  Seems like a sound, though broad, mission statement to me.  She told me I could come to their home anytime, after I said I had wanted to drop in to find out more about them.

They are nuns who wear headdresses, but I didn't ask about that.  They all seem to have the same basic dress, but they wear differing shades of lavender and purple, which I'm guessing signifies the type of vows they have taken.

It was a charming encounter--and to be honest, a bit surreal--a lovely way to end the day.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Feast Days of Mary Magdalene and Martha, the sister of Mary

I have written about Mary Magdalene and Martha, the sister of Mary the less busy sister, before, several times and in several places.  This year, I decided to see if I made any new connections if I looked at them at the same time.

The piece I wrote is up at the Living Lutheran site, and now is a perfect time to read it, in between the feast days that celebrate both women (July 22 for Mary Magdalene and July 29 for Martha the sister of Mary).

Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"Martha, the sister of Mary, is not seen as possessed by demons. But in many ways, her demons seem much more typical of modern life."

"Jesus tells Martha that she’s worried about many things, and in his admonishment, I hear a lesson for us today. Jesus implies that the issues that cause her anxiety aren’t really important. It’s a story many of us, with our increasingly hectic lives, need to hear again – maybe every day."

"It’s in the life of Mary Magdalene that I get a hint of what I need to do to diminish my modern demons of anxiety and busyness and hurry, hurry, hurry. Go back to the Easter morning story in the Gospel of John. It's Mary who stays behind to grieve, while the male disciples are running off to do whatever it is they feel compelled to do. It's because she stays behind to rest and to grieve that she gets to be the first to see the risen Lord."

"Paradoxically, the story of Mary Magdalene reminds us not only to rest but to stay alert. If Mary had used one of our modern ways to dull her grief, like drinking or sleeping or tackling the never-ending list of household chores, she might have missed the risen Jesus. But because she slows down to sit with her grief, to be fully present to her less comfortable emotions, she is also able to be fully present to the Divine who moves through the world."

Read the whole article here.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 26, 2015:

First Reading: 2 Kings 4:42-44

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 2 Samuel 11:1-15

Psalm: Psalm 145:10-19 (Psalm 145:10-18 )

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 14

Second Reading: Ephesians 3:14-21

Gospel: John 6:1-21

It's sobering to realize that even in a land of abundance like ours, hunger is a real problem. Most of us, even if we haven't experienced food scarcity ourselves, are only a generation or two removed from it. 

And even if we haven't experienced food scarcity, we've experienced that scarcity consciousness. Most of us don't operate out of a place of abundance. We have our little piece, and we clench onto it. We're not open to the grace of God's expansive love. Unlike that little boy who shared his lunch, we hold tight to whatever little shares of the good life we've claimed for ourselves.

Or worse, maybe we're like the disciples, who are so focused on the numbers that they aren't very open to the possibilities Jesus offers. I'm often like that. I get so focused on the way that I would solve a problem that I'm not open to other solutions. Worse, I get so focused on the way the world would solve problems that I forget that I'm worshipping a revolutionary God that doesn't need to be tied down by the ways we've always done things, by the accountant's ledger.

We have not one but two miracles.  Jesus makes the food stretch--everyone has enough AND there are leftovers. Like the people who were there, I find myself thinking, "Now there's a God I want to get to know." Then, we have the miracle of Jesus walking on the water.

I was also struck by verse 15: "Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.”  It's another reminder that Jesus isn't interested in this kind of worldly power. Jesus came to model for us the Kingdom of God, starting here, starting now--not some distant time after we're dead, or some distant time when God comes again into the world. Here and now. What would that world look like, if we could fully realize the transformation? Jesus points the way.

So, what does this passage tell us about Kingdom living? It's not about power. We're not preaching, teaching, healing, feeding, and gathering together so that we can consolidate power and win elections and do whatever we want. Again and again, Jesus rejects that model.

The Gospel reminds us of what Jesus can do--but first we must be open. We can't be hamstrung in our imaginations. We have to remember that we've thrown in our lot with a God that wants to transform the world so that everybody has enough and that there's enough for the next day.

The first step towards that reality is to share. When we share, we're less clenched about our possessions, and it's easier for God to do the transforming work for which we all yearn. When we share, we short-circuit our imaginations, which are busy envisioning the worst (we'll be poor, we'll have to eat grass, we'll run out of money before the end of the month, our children will have to wear clothes that we find in the dump--on and on our gerbil minds whirl around).

No, God has promised that we will be provided for. Again and again, God tells us that there will be enough. We can rely on God. We can share our lunches, confident in the knowledge that there will be more, there will be plenty, there will be leftovers. We can share our lunches, knowing that we live in a world of abundance, not scarcity.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Tuesday Yearnings

If time and money had been no object, I'd have spent the last week at the writing conference, Beyond Walls.  But it was a lot of money for me right now.  An even bigger hurdle was the time:  it was the first week of classes, and that's never a good time to be away from my job.  Since I had already been gone for the first week of last quarter, I thought it wasn't a great idea to ask for leave again.

I'm glad that Rachel Barenblat has been posting about some of her experiences being part of the faculty and being part of the community.  I particularly liked this post, with her slides, about being a blogging rabbi.

I've been to a variety of creativity retreats and conferences, but never one that focuses exclusively on writing and spirituality of all sorts.  I must be on the lookout for this kind of conference again in the future.  I should start saving some money now.

I'd also be interested in being not just a participant but also a leader.  I wonder how those leaders are chosen?

And of course, I would love, love, love to spend all of my work days involved in this kind of work, the intersection of writing and spirituality.  How many of these departments exist in academia?  How can I be more connected with them?

So, let me put these yearnings out there.  Let me once again return to this process of discernment and visioning for a different future.  Let me start to change the trajectory of my little coracle of a life.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Midsummer Drought

Perhaps we feel like the pages of our lives are scattered across a narrow bed.

Or worse, the pages have turned to ash.

Maybe we grow tired of chasing after butterflies we can barely see.

Maybe we wonder if we will ever see our efforts bloom.

Let us trust what we know to be true.

Let us believe again.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

My Lutheran Pastor Grandfather's Writing Process

My grandfather was a Lutheran minister, of the LCA variety (one of the branches of Lutheranism that merged into the ELCA).  He went to seminary during the Great Depression.  My grandmother kept the letter that the seminary had sent, the letter that encouraged him to stay on the farm because at least he would have food.

He ignored that advice, went to seminary, and spent the rest of his life as a Lutheran pastor in small towns in the U.S. South.  He saw a lot of changes and stayed faithful, as he understood that word.

Before he went to seminary, he was an English major at the University of South Carolina.  I still have a few of his poems.  I will always wonder if he continued to write, if his poet's brain influenced his preacher's brain.

He died in 1984, when I had just turned 19, so I didn't have a chance to get to know him as an adult.  I will have to be left with a pieces of paper and the memories of others.

Yesterday, my mom and dad who are visiting, gave me an envelope with 2 of his sermons.  My mom says that he always started by taking a sheet of blank paper and folding it in half.  His sermons filled both sides of that paper.  My mom says that sometimes he'd make an outline and preach from the outline.

The pages that I now have were typed, and I thought about how long it's been since I held typed pages in my hands--pages typed on those old typewriters that actually pierced the page at various places--or did my grandfather type more aggressively than most?

I wonder if he wrote a rough draft by hand before typing?

The theology in the pages seems solid.  He's trying to teach his flock how to live a faithful life, but it's not the light, fluffy, God will reward you kind of preaching.  I can imagine listening to his sermons week after week and learning something or taking a nugget with me to sustain me through the week.

I could read these pages and not realize that my grandfather was a poet.  They aren't filled with symbolism or strange comparisons that a metaphysical poet would make.  They were written before some of the important archaeological finds of the 20th century, but even if they had been written in 1970, I imagine that my grandfather would have ignored the historical developments that give us a different look at Jesus.

Once that might have been a drawback for me, but these days, I admire what my grandfather was able to do:  to take some fairly advanced theology and bring it down to matter to the lives that people are actually living.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Sacraments of Sorting

In this post about ways to celebrate the long season of Ordinary Time, I came across this quote: 

"Today, choose one everyday action: a chore that grates at you or a task you’ve been putting off. Tomorrow, try to do it as prayer. Slowly, mindfully, sacrificially.

See what happens when you open yourself to a deeper awareness of God’s presence with you. Right now in the ordinary moments of your life."

If we could be successful in following this suggestion, we might attain a more sacramental frame of mind, by which I mean we might see the presence of the Divine in the everyday, seeing ordinary objects/tasks as pointing us to evidence of God's grace.

I have managed a sacramental frame of mind when I do housekeeping chores, like preparing a meal or washing the dishes.  It's a different sacramental frame of mind from the one I often attain when doing yard work.

But when I read this suggestion, I thought about what I've been putting off.  I thought about my e-mail inbox, which is always overflowing.  My AOL mailbox never shuts me off, so I rarely delete e-mails.  My work e-mail system, on the other hand, only lets me get away with this for so long.

How could I approach the e-mail inbox more reverently?  Where do I see evidence of God's grace?

Likewise, at my school, we have just entered a time period of lots of forms and paperwork.  In advance, I know that we will be completing the same form over and over again.  I will be making lots of copies.  We will copy some of the same information across forms that don't always want to speak to each other.

I would like to approach these tasks with a different prayer.  I usually pray for patience and then at some point, my prayers shift to asking for deliverance.  What if I changed my prayers?  I could say a prayer of gratitude for all these great people in my department, all these accomplishments collected on the forms.

It's an experiment worth trying.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Celebrate Seneca Falls

If you're still in the mood to celebrate liberty during the month of July, you'll have another chance on July 19, the anniversary of the Seneca Falls Convention.  A group of women came together in Seneca Falls, New York to talk about ideas that would have seemed ludicrous to the larger population:  that women should be allowed to vote, that women should work for pay that they could keep (not their husbands), that women should own property.

I've written a piece for the Living Lutheran site which explores the far-reaching implications of this historic meeting.  Go here to read it.

Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"I could make the argument that it's historical events like Seneca Falls that set us on the road toward expanded pulpits, although it would be many more years after women started exercising their right to vote (in 1920) before we'd see women in Protestant pulpits. The major exception would be the Pentecostal churches."

"What I find most exciting about the various human rights movements of the past few centuries is how the idea of rights for one group expands to affect other disenfranchised groups."

"Let us celebrate Seneca Falls. Let us celebrate those few brave women who dared to dream of a more inclusive world. Let us offer prayers of gratitude for those women and for human rights workers everywhere."

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 19, 2015:

First Reading: Jeremiah 23:1-6

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 2 Samuel 7:1-14a

Psalm: Psalm 23

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 89:20-37

Second Reading: Ephesians 2:11-22

Gospel: Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

Whenever I see a chunk of text missing from the lectionary selection, I go back to read the whole thing. I understand that most church services don't lend themselves to such long Gospel readings from the pulpit, but in the privacy of my study, it doesn't take much time.

The missing text is the feeding of the crowd with loaves and fish, a story we'll return to in a few weeks. In the meantime, let's consider the actions of Jesus in this Gospel.

First of all, Jesus retreats. He invites his disciples, home from their evangelical journeys, to come away to a lonely place. Or at least, that's their plan. They end up with a crowd to feed, and Jesus teaches and feeds them.

In the middle of the omitted portion, Jesus once again withdraws to pray. His disciples try to make their way in the boat without him, but a storm overtakes them. Jesus walks to them across the water, calms the disciples, calms the storm, and leaves the disciples freaked out: he multiplies food, he calms the waters--who is this guy???

And then, once again, it's back to the mission: healing and making people well.

This Gospel has lessons for us. One of the most important lessons that it has for busy 21st century people is that even Jesus needs some down time. Jesus routinely goes on retreat. Jesus routinely withdraws to pray.

I hear the howls of protest even now. "Jesus wasn't a parent. He didn't have all these activities that his children had to get to--and who is going to drive them there? Me, that's who. And don't tell me that they don't have to do so many activities, because that just shows that you don't know how tough it is for kids to get into a good school." "Jesus didn't have this jerk of a boss who times his bathroom breaks. It was easy for him to take a time out to pray." "Jesus didn't have a house that was falling apart." On and on we could go, offering excuses for why we allow ourselves to get into a frazzled state.

But the ministry of Jesus has much to teach us, and one of the most important lessons is that we can't take care of others when we're not taking care of ourselves. Jesus prays, Jesus takes retreats, Jesus shares meals with friends--these are the activities that leave him ready to care for the masses.

Our mission is the same as Christ's. Like Jesus, we're surrounded by hordes of hungry people. Broken people need us.  Perhaps, like Christ, you feel pursued by all the people who want so much from you.

Yet we will not be able to complete our mission if we don't practice basic self-care. The message of today's Gospel is that it's O.K. to take time to pray. It's O.K. to retreat. It's O.K. to eat a slow meal with friends.

Not only is it O.K., it's essential.

 Christ, the incarnation of God on earth, needed to take a break. What makes you think that you are any different?

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Allons Enfants: Marchon!

Today we have another chance to celebrate independence, liberty, and equality:  Happy Bastille Day to us all!

I remember very few dates without having to look them up to be sure, but I do know that the storming of the Bastille happened in 1789--and by reversing those last 2 numbers, I can remember that Wordsworth and Coleridge published Lyrical Ballads in 1798.  I can make the case that both events forever shaped the future and for the better.

Here's a Wordsworth quote for your Bastille Day:

"Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!—Oh! times,
In which the meagre, stale, forbidding ways
Of custom, law, and statute, took at once
The attraction of a country in romance!"
If you want to read the whole poem, you can find it here.  Fair warning:  it will have too many exclamation marks for modern tastes.

I had to identify the first two lines and the event to which they referred during the subject area test of the GRE.  The question came early in the exam and gave me confidence.

I woke up this morning thinking about Wordsworth's enthusiasm and how so many people who saw themselves as revolutionaries during the late eighteenth century headed off to France to witness the birth of the new society--or simply, to fight.  I thought about how people wouldn't do that today--and then I thought of all sorts of people who have--most recently, those going off to fight with ISIS.  I think of them as poor deluded souls.  I suspect people said the same about Wordsworth and his compatriots.

I could trace the liberation movements of past decades directly back to the French Revolution.   Some of you will see this as a bad thing.  I do not.  I confess to seeing history through a lens that sees humanity marching towards ever greater liberation--which ultimately sets us free to be the best people we can be and sets the stage for greater possibilities for future generations.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Celebrating Birthdays at Church

Yesterday was the 98th birthday of one of our church members.  Our pastor announced the celebration that would begin after the service by saying, "When each of you celebrates your 98th birthdays, we will have a cake for you too."

Actually, we don't have to wait that long.  At our earlier, more interactive service, we had cake--coffee cake and a French toast (with apples) casserole kind of coffee cake--for those of us with July birthdays.  One of those people is me; my birthday is tomorrow.

I had no sense that anyone was planning anything special.  And it really did feel special.  We ate our breakfast, talked about our highs and lows, and then moved back to the worship area for communion.

We're in the fellowship hall, which makes it easy to move from worship space to art space to eating space in a way that traditional worship spaces don't make easy.  There are days I wish we weren't such a hybrid service.  Yesterday I'd have liked to have lingered over our breakfast and discussed how this kind of meal was more like the original communion service than our modern communion services.

I love that this service makes it easier to  feel close to people, to know their birthdays along with their highs and lows.  I love that the larger church family also often celebrates with cake.

In one of my former churches, we had a birthday dinner in winter or spring; it was often potluck.  We set up a table to represent each month, and we had people sit at their birthday month table--or some years, people sat where they wanted.  We sang "Happy Birthday to You" to the whole congregation at once.  At least this way, we know that no one is left out.

I see lots of gnashing of teeth about the declining membership numbers of mainline Protestant churches.  But we often don't talk about some of the benefits.  One of the best parts of being a smaller church is that we get to know each other in a way that we probably wouldn't if we were a big church that worshipped hundreds of people each week--or we'd have to participate in small groups to achieve the same thing.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Poetry/Photography Sunday: "When God Switched Fabrics"

It has been awhile since I posted an illustrated poem--this one (without my images) was published at the wonderfully cool, online journal Escape Into Life.  Since it's an online journal, they can do neat things with images, and my poems are paired with wonderful fabric art.  Go here to see the feature.
Long ago, at a Create in Me retreat, we talked about God the creator and the various Genesis stories and what they mean for our own creative processes.  And this poem emerged shortly thereafter.

When God Switched Fabrics

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Marriage as Foregiveness School

I've written several times about marriage as a sacrament, which I define as an "outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible Grace" (as the Anglican Book of Common Prayer describes a sacrament).  I've said that I think that Martin Luther should have kept marriage as a sacrament.


Nothing has ever helped me understand the nature of God's love better than my marriage (except, perhaps, the love of my parents for me).  I am always amazed and grateful when my husband forgives me for the boneheaded things I do. I'm even more amazed that he's often forgiving me for making the same mistakes again and again.

These are not major mistakes. I don't go out and cheat on him, for example. But I'm often irritated and grumpy, and I lash out, and I realize I've been a jerk, so I apologize and ask for forgiveness. And he kisses me and says, "Don't worry about it." And again and again, I feel blessed with a kind of marital grace.

And of course, I do the same for him. And in this daily practice of love and forgiveness, I come to understand God's love for me--and I am able to carry a similar love out into the world.

Lately, I've thought about marriage as a sacrament that helps me understand not only how I am forgiven by God, but how I should forgive others.  In that list, I do include God.

I realize how arrogant this sounds:  who am I to forgive God?

And yet, lately I find myself angry with God.  I find myself thinking who sets up a creation that works this way?

And yes, I know that some people won't understand and will gasp at my great hubris.  But I suspect that anyone who has watched a loved one suffer and die from a horrible cancer will understand my anger.

Unlike some of my friends, I haven't found my faith shaken by huge events like the Holocaust or terrorist attacks.  But watching cancers consume bright and talented people who were still young?  It hasn't shaken my faith, but it has made me ask the sorts of questions that I haven't entertained since adolescence.

So here is where I'm grateful for marriage and for larger family life.  I have learned to forgive things I do not fully understand.  I have learned that even great pain can be transformed so that we grow and become better humans than we would have otherwise.  I have learned that my needs are not the only needs.  I have learned to trust that all will be well--eventually.

Friday, July 10, 2015

VBS and Adult Memories

Two weeks ago, we'd have been headed towards our last night of VBS.  In many ways, I'm still exhausted from that week of working long hours at work and then going to work at VBS until after 9.

People ask why I do it, and I trot out the usual reasons:  it's important, it's fun, my church needs all of us to help.  But as I've talked to people through the years, I've been amazed to realize this aspect:  a lot of the grown ups that I know have a VBS connection of some kind, and no one ever has a bad memory of VBS.

That's not true of any other aspect of church that I know.  If I had a dollar for every bad memory that people have told me about worship, I could retire at least one year early.  I've heard youth group horror stories, and even the occasional bad memory of camp.  But not one person has ever told me of a bad memory of VBS--on the contrary, most people have phenomenal memories.

Is it because so many of us are so small when we encounter VBS?  Perhaps.  But I wonder if something else is at work.

It's not the specific approach to VBS; people have such varied memories of how their churches did VBS that it can't be that.  Perhaps it's the glow of memories that are associated with special events in the summer--I wonder if the same would be true of Christmas memories.  Just as I've never heard a bad VBS memory, I rarely hear about horrible Christmas Eve worship.

Maybe it's that all the adults work hard to make sure that VBS is a good experience.  I'm sure that our church is not the only one who has a lot of non-church children come to VBS.  Because it's only one week, we can work very hard to make it a peak experience.

I'm also intrigued by how many people have worked on VBS as adults, and they're not all the people at work whom I already think of as church folks.  One woman told me that when her kids were young, she helped out with VBS.  It was often a community effort.  She described months of making sets and props and costumes and that each church in the community would use them through the summer.  She said she always felt bad for the churches who had VBS late in the summer, as the community resources had gotten a bit tattered by the end.

What a cool idea!  Not for the first time have I thought that we could do more to use VBS--or other events--to help link churches throughout the community. 

I used to think that it made sense for one Lutheran church to do the Confirmation classes, one to do the VBS, and so on.  Most churches don't seem that interested in that idea.  But they might be interested in sharing in some other way.

Maybe as we network with area Lutheran churches to support our camp, Luther Springs, other ways to collaborate will be made clear to us.   

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 12, 2015:

Amos 7:7-15
Psalm 85:8-13
Ephesians 1:3-14
Mark 6:14-29

The Gospel lessons of should dispel any aspirations of glory and fame that we have as Christians. It's an idea that's almost antithetical in our society.

Our society has become one that worships fame and publicity. Now young people don't want to just earn a lot of money--they want to do it in a way that brings them fame. David Brooks has done some fine work recently looking at the youth of decades ago and the youth of today.  Young adults used to go to college to find a meaningful philosophy of life; now that goal is #16 on the list.  When I saw him speak in April, he recounted his experience of going to college campuses and asking audiences if they'd rather have lots of fame or lots of sex; overwhelmingly, the students voted for fame.

The Gospel for this Sunday--and most Sundays--defines success differently than modern people would. John the Baptist, someone who has remained true to his mission, is killed by King Herod. And why? A mix of motives, but the Gospel mentions King Herod wanting to impress a young woman and Herod's unwillingness to hear the truth and to admit the truth.

So, John the Baptist loses his head. Literally. Not a comforting vision for those of us who struggle to live our faith day by day. This reward is what we can expect?

Jesus never promises us an easy time, at least not the kind of easy time the world dangles in front of us when it attempts to seduce us. We see this even in Christian communities. We feel like failures when our churches aren't megachurches, when we're not the Rick Warrens of our communities. We feel like we're not a success when we have to struggle to find the money to pay our church’s bills--or worse, when we have to cut staff and programs.

But if we look at the portrait of the earliest church, we'll see that it wasn't the megachurch model. The early church builds on an idea of cells, tiny little house churches of committed Christians. Some days I shake my head in awe at what a small group of people can accomplish.

And then I laugh at my own lack of memory. My History and Sociology classes years ago taught me the exact same thing: the most fascinating change is often created by small, committed bands of people. And the most successful changes are often made by people who are grounded and rooted in some kind of larger faith vision.

Yet the Gospel for this Sunday reminds us that success may not be at the end of our individual stories. We could commit ourselves to Christ’s mission only to find ourselves wasting away in prison, a victim of a corrupt society.

It’s a risk worth taking. We know how sustaining our faith can be and how important it is to build a faith community. We know how larger faith communities can change the world for the better.

Jesus offers us a chance to be part of the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom where everyone has enough and everyone feels that love. Of course, the catch is that the Kingdom isn't here yet. We have to help build it. We've caught glimpses of it breaking through. It's both now and not yet, this elusive Kingdom. But when we feel/glimpse/experience/live it, we know that it's worth whatever we must endure for the sake of it.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Longing to Go on Pilgrimage

Chaucer said that it was Spring when people long to go on pilgrimage--but I often find myself longing to go on pilgrimage in summer.

I associate long walks on tough trails with summer.  I was rarely an autumn backpacker, and even if I went in the fall, the walk wasn't long.

No, my backpacker memories come from Congaree Girl Scout Camp, where I was one of 3 backpacking counselors.  I'm still amazed at what we accomplished:  we were dropped off at one point, and we would be picked up 4-7 days later, after hiking almost 30 miles during one trip and 15 miles during another. 

Those were the days before cell phones.  If anything happened, we had to figure it out ourselves.  And we did.

You've never experienced a thunderstorm until you've huddled under a tarp with 10 frightened teenagers.  What a night that was.  In the morning, I was ready to go home.  Luckily we had a leader (just 2 years older than me) who declared we would go on.  And in the afternoon, we made camp, spread out our soaked things to dry, and enjoyed the sun sparkling on the water of the river.

Yes, it's that time of year when I think of hiking the Appalachian Trail.  But these days, I might choose something more spiritual, like the Camino de Santiago in Spain.  This post made the important point that even during a spiritual hike, one must deal with all the elements of a long hike:  aches and pains, frustration and boredom, heat.

I found the hiking part of backpacking to be spiritual even when I wasn't doing it for spiritual reasons.  It's wonderful to be far away from civilization and to revel in the diversity of God's creation.  I'm not as good at doing that in my everyday life.

I want to run away for all sorts of reasons these days.  I would do well to remember my Chaucer.  I could tell myself that I was going for lofty spiritual reasons, but it's better to be honest.  It's good to remember that if I did go on pilgrimage, I would meet plenty of people making their travels for all sorts of reasons, few of them lofty.

It's better to stay put and learn one's spiritual lessons while sheltering in place.  At least, for this season in my life, that's what I'm discerning.

Monday, July 6, 2015

Salads Salty and Sweet

It's been awhile since I posted a recipe.

Last month, I went to a restaurant planning to get some happy hour snacks to go with some wine.  I wasn't planning on eating dinner.

My friend and I got ourselves settled at the bar to wait for the others who would join us.  It was fairly early, so there was only one other person at the bar.  She waxed euphoric over the salad.

Yes, the salad.  She had a bottle of wine and some other goodies--but it was the salad that made her so deliriously happy.

So, of course, I had to order it--plus it sounded good:  grilled peaches, prosciutto, goat cheese, on top of salad greens with a honey lemon vinaigrette.  Were there nuts on the salad?

For days, I wanted to go back--but the salad was a special, so I doubted I could get it again.  But how hard could it be to make?  So the other day, I stopped at the grocery store.

I got nectarines, which I like better than peaches.  I added some cherry tomatoes.  I got chopped romaine lettuce, because it was on sale.  I got a log of goat cheese and prosciutto.  You can mix it all in the proportions that you like.

For the vinaigrette, I used 3 lemons, but it was almost too tart.  I used 4 T. of honey.  I mixed in a cup of good olive oil.  It still didn't taste quite right--too tart.  So I added some balsamic vinaigrette and some ginger preserves.  I just kept mixing in small amounts until I got it close.  It still wasn't as good as the restaurant version.

But then I let it sit in the fridge for a week--it got so much better.  I made another version of the salad.  When I didn't have grilled peaches, I made the salad with chickpeas--not quite as good, but more protein to be sure.  I love the mix of salt and sweet.

I think I'll explore the whole summer creating salads that celebrate that mix.

For several weeks, I poured the vinaigrette on non-salads too.  I had a can of chickpeas that marinated in the vinaigrette--delicious mixed with goat cheese.  I also poured it over a leftover pasta with tomatoes and olives pantry kind of meal that I put together when I was out of most fresh foods--much tastier than the original pasta meal with parmesan cheese that I first served.

I liked the vinaigrette so much that I made another jar full.  I used 2 lemons this time.  It was almost not tart enough.

In my younger days, when I had lots of unstructured time and a kitchen (think grad school), I kept a variety of sauces and vinaigrettes on hand.  I had forgotten how transformative they are. 

It's the time of year when it seems almost too hot to eat.  Nothing sounds good.  I'm bored by it all.

But the human body still needs nourishment.  It's good to have something that will help me want to eat nutritious foods.

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Dog Days of a Spiritual Life

It's the time of year again:  hot, endless days of summer.  It seems we will never celebrate Christmas again.

How to maintain our faith in a time of drought?  Perhaps by returning to nature, the river that runs deep:

Perhaps we will find the secret in the cool catacombs of a library:

Maybe by approaching an art form from a different angle:

Let us sit quietly on the porch:

We will cultivate our gardens in the belief that rains will come again:

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Independence Day Prayers

When I'm on Facebook, I'm amazed at the anger and vitriol that some display, the sweeping generalizations that I see and hear.  I want to go into teacher mode.  I want to point out how wonderful it is that so many of us can have such a wide range of opinions, and none of us will be carted off to jail, unless we decide to do something violent on the behalf of those opinions.

So today, let me give thanks for this freedom that we've somehow managed to maintain.  But let me not be blind to the oppression that many still face.

For many of us, Independence Day is a day of cook-outs and fireworks.  If we don't live in a place that has preserved colonial history, or if we live further west, Independence Day may seem a distant holiday.  But this holiday week-end gives us a good reason to remember the high stakes that those signers of the Declaration of Independence faced.  It's good to remember how much they valued the idea of freedom, even if they didn't extend those freedoms to all.

In this time after momentous Supreme Court decisions and actions by evil-minded people, it's good to think of freedoms and what freedoms still need to be won.  I will spend some time thinking about all the female clergy in South Carolina who are getting vicious threats and hate mail.  I will think about people who still don't have basic protections, like the right to work at a job without harassment.  I will think of people still going to bed hungry, still out on the streets.

I will say a prayer for protection and for liberty from tyrannies of all sorts.  Today and every day.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Promoting Camp

At the end of the day yesterday, a group of us from Lutheran churches across the county met at our church, a central location for us all.  We were there to hear about promoting the campaign for Luther Springs, our Lutheran camp in Florida.  The man there to train us to go out to talk to church councils was once my college Theology professor and campus pastor.

We talked about what outdoor ministry had meant to each of us.  It was interesting to note how many of us talked about the deep importance of camp to our grown-up lives, not our camp experiences as children.

Our Florida camp, Luther Springs, has gone from being on the brink of bankruptcy to being more successful than the space developed can handle.  Luckily, there's room for development.

How did this happen?  Ten years ago, most Lutherans in Florida had never heard of Luther Springs.

Part of it was their partnership with the group that manages the North Carolina camps, Lutheridge and Lutherock.

And when that group started helping, the camp started offering more programs for adults.  Once better housing was built for larger groups, the popularity took off.

I thought of the one day retreat that my mom and I have created for her church women's group.  Could one day retreats held at churches help support camp?  We've said it at my mom's group's retreat:  "If you liked one day of this, just imagine a whole week-end or week."  Last night I thought of offering 1 day versions of the more popular retreats:  a 1 day women's retreat, a 1 day creativity retreat, and so on.

Of course, the kind of support that Luther Springs needs right now is money to build more lodging, to build a better kitchen (I've had home kitchens bigger than the Luther Springs kitchen), and to build a bigger meeting space/chapel.  The materials we looked at last night made it clear how little it would take from each Lutheran church member to get the camp to where it needs to be:  just under $34 a person a year for the next 3 years.

History is full of examples of what can happen when a large group of people works together.  Hopefully this campaign for Luther Springs will be another example.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Poetry Thursday: Creativity Lessons from Toddlers

I've been thinking about the lessons that Vacation Bible School teaches the grown ups about creativity.  The children entered into every arts and crafts activity with openness.  Even when they weren't enthusiastic--and most were--they still gave every experience a try.

Perhaps it was the activities I chose, but no one said, "I can't do this."  Only once did someone destroy a creation, and it was an older child.  The younger children gave no judgment.  It was very refreshing.

 I just finished reading Kate Atkinson's A God in Ruins--a novel which also makes me think about creativity.  It's a book that works beautifully as a novel.  But at the end, a reader can't help but realize that it's also a book about narrative and story telling.

All of these threads make me think of a poem that I wrote years ago, after I spent Thanksgiving week-end with my nephew.  We told each other stories, stories which ignored the basic rules of narrative structure.

Later, I wrote this poem:

Narrative Lessons

The three year old tells me a story
that is really a list
of things you’d find in the firehouse
where the little old lady lived
once upon a time.

The three year old has not memorized
the five kinds of conflict
(or is it 6?
and what about the ones that overlap?).
He has not studied Aristotle’s rules.
He does not know about mimesis,
the mirror or the lamp.

He simply understands the objects
which he likes recited
to the grown ups who love
him best, the narrative that burns

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 5, 2015:

First Reading: Ezekiel 2:1-5

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10

Psalm: Psalm 123

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 48

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 12:2-10

Gospel: Mark 6:1-13

What an intriguing Gospel reading for this Sunday: Jesus rejected by people who had known him since he was little and who knew his family. Perhaps you can relate.

The first part of this Gospel (in the reaction of the people of Christ’s own country) gives us a clear warning about the risks we face when we have expectations of God that might be a bit too firm. We're not really open to God or God's hopes and plans for us when we think we know what God should be up to in the world. The society of Jesus' time had very definite expectations of what the Messiah would look like and what he would do--and Jesus was not that person. How many people ignored God, right there in their midst, because they were looking for someone or something else?

This Gospel also warns us about fame and acclaim. If you've been alive any length of time, you know that the world grants fame to an interesting variety of people. But once again, if we expect God to act like a star, we're setting ourselves up for disappointment.

Much of the Bible shows us God appearing as a stranger, as a baby in a manger, as an itinerant preacher, as a crucified prisoner. We hear God speaking in dreams, in a burning bush, a whisper here, a glimmering there. If we’re waiting for angel choirs in the sky to give us a clear message from the Divine, we may wait a very long time. We need to learn to listen for God in other settings.

And the end of the Gospel has a warning for us, as well. If we become believers because we think we'll be famous or we'll make lots of money or we'll have political influence--well, we're likely to be disappointed. The Gospel of Jesus is not about those things that the world considers important--no matter what those Prosperity Gospel folks would have you believe.

If we think of Jesus as building a church, the model that we see in a Gospel might point us in a different direction than the path that many of us have been treading

Jesus sends out his disciples two by two, with no possessions and not much of a plan. Notice what he does not do--he doesn't make them create a mission statement or a business plan. He doesn't have them raise money for buildings and programs. And he doesn't expect them to work fruitlessly--they are allowed to shake the dust off of their feet and move on if a community rejects them.

What would our lives look like, if we followed this model? What would our lives look like if we trusted God more than our retirement plans? Where are we stuck, needing to shake dust off of our feet and move on? Where might God lead us, if we can just learn to trust and learn to move?