Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, October 4, 2015:

Genesis 2:18-24

Psalm 8

You adorn us with glory and honor. (Ps. 8:6)

Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12

Mark 10:2-16

If you read the Gospels carefully, you'll realize that Jesus rarely addresses the pressing social issues of our day. Global warming? Nope, he never talks about it. Abortion? Nope. Homosexuality? Not a word: the Bible verses that may address homosexuality, depending on how one interprets certain Greek words, come mainly from the Old Testament and Paul.

But here Jesus talks about divorce. How curious, especially in light of other chapters, where Jesus seems to downplay marriage and family, where he seems to instruct people to abandon their families to follow him. Here he seems to tell husbands and wives that they must stay together, regardless of the circumstances.

Many scholars see the social justice side of Jesus here, the man who cared for the most outcast of society. Almost no one had fewer options than a divorced woman who lived during the time of Jesus. Then, and to a certain extent now, fewer things were more likely to plunge a woman with children into the bottom economic realm of society than divorce or widowhood.

In today’s Gospel reading, we see the concerns of Jesus with the most downtrodden of society: women and children. As our society becomes more and more stratified, we can all use this reminder.

It’s also a reminder that God wants something better for us. God doesn’t want us in societies that are so stratified that we only see people who are just like us. God doesn’t want our personal differences to drive us apart. God doesn’t want us severed apart from each other, if we can avoid it. Even in situations where divorce is the best option, the legacy is one of pain and a variety of new problems. God wants reconciliation.

God also recommends that we approach the world as well-adjusted children do. I think of some of the delightful children I've met through the years.  I love to watch young groups of children dance.  Their enthusiasm encourages the adults to join in.   I love the phase when children learn to draw and they haven't learned to judge yet.  I love that sheer delight in the art supplies.

I imagine God is much the same. We've got a wonderful world here, and we often forget how fabulous it is. We get so hung up on all the ways we think the world has gone wrong that we forget what is right. We spend time creating laws to try to control behavior, when we might do better to simply accept people for who they are, which is a major step towards loving them. We want to see the world in strict colors: black, white, no gray. We forget that the world is variegated. If we can leave the land of Law behind and enter the world of Love, we'll see a world washed in color, all of it good. We'll know what God knew, way back in Genesis, that the Creation is good, very good.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Feast of St. Michael and All Angels

Today, the Church celebrates the role of angels in the divine plan, my prayer book tells me (The Divine Hours, written by Phyllis Tickle). Our Orthodox brothers and sisters handle the question of angels better than most Protestants. Most of the Lutheran churches that I've been a member of don't talk about angels much, and based on the ideas of some of my students, many Protestant churches do talk about angels, but with a very shaky theology.

I'll never forget one time teaching Paradise Lost to South Carolina students in my Brit Lit survey class at a community college. One woman seemed particularly confused about all the angels in the story. "How could there be angels," she asked, "when nobody has died?"

It took me a few attempts to understand her question. She knew about angels from church, but only in the sense that we become angels when we die--which is a very recent idea about angels. I explained the more ancient idea about angels, which is that they are a species completely separate from humans. We got into a bit of a theology lesson, but I could see that she wasn't happy with these ideas about angels. She was much more comfortable with the idea of the angels being Grandma and Grandpa who died when she was a child. The idea of angels as a separate kind of entity with no free will? No thanks.

In a way, I understand. Angels are scary. Death is scary. It's rather brilliant to come up with the idea that we become angels when we die--and yet, this shaky theology defangs several concepts which should, in fact, be scary. We will die--and before that, everything we love will die. How do we cope with that idea?

Some of us cope by clinging to the idea that there is a Divine God with a plan and a vision that's vaster than anything we could develop on our own. This God has more power than we can conceive of--including legions of angels, angels that are there for us too.

Let me confess that I don't do angels well either. They seem a bit too New Agey for me, especially with the spate of angel books that were published 20 years ago, books that promised me that I would get to know my angels, books in which getting to know my angels was very similar to enslaving my angels to do my will. Blcch. Giving the angels a mission is God's job, not mine.

I often joked that I should combine two publishing trends and publish a diet book: Your Angels Want You to Be Thin! The Know Your Angels Diet Book. I'm not that mercenary, though (and if you are, feel free to steal my title), not that willing to make money off the real troubles and gullibility of humans. To borrow words from Blake, I don't want to be the one that makes a Heaven off of misery.

But now, years later, I find myself a bit envious of those people who grew up in traditions that had theologically sound approaches to angels. Again and again, I find in the traditions of others something I feel lacking in mine.

Luckily, I'm part of a Lutheran tradition that doesn't insist that we remain closed off to traditions that might enrich us spiritually, even if Luther didn't sanction them. We've seen an explosion of exploration of labyrinths. Maybe angels will be next.

For those of you who want some special Scripture for this high feast day, here's what the Lutheran church (ELCA) recommends:

First Reading: Daniel 10:10-14; 12:1-3
Psalm: Psalm 103:1-5, 20-22
Second Reading: Revelation 12:7-12
Gospel: Luke 10:17-20

Monday, September 28, 2015

The Pope and Integrated Lives

I've been intrigued by people's response to the Pope.  I know one colleague who watched the wall-to-wall news coverage, although she's Jewish.  Even my atheist friend watched some of the coverage.  Most commenters talk about the Pope's authenticity.

He does seem to be a man with a consistent message and a compelling vision.  He seems to be living a life in accordance with his values. 

It's what we should be able to expect from our leaders.  But sadly, we've come to accept much, much less. 

But I do wonder if the Pope has always been able to be so integrated.  I think of his time as a bishop in Argentina during a time of a repressive regime.  From what I can tell, he did not speak out at that time.  Granted, he may have worked more quietly behind the scenes.  But he was not the blazing figure of integrity that we see now.

I take courage from the arc of the Pope's story.  It gives me hope that we can continue to correct our trajectory.  If we are not yet doing all that we can to bend the arc of history towards justice (to use the words of Martin Luther King), there is still time. 

I also think about all the narratives that present people as being saved for a particular time in history.  The pope does seem to be just who we need right now.

It's another comforting idea.  If we're not living up to our full potential, perhaps God is saving us for a time when we'll blaze forth.

But can humanity wait?  Let us correct our trajectories now.

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Moses and Planning for the Future

We are off lectionary at my church.  Here's what we'll be reading today:

Deuteronomy 34:  1-12

It's hard for those of us of a certain age to read the text that we'll be studying this Sunday and not think about the last days of Martin Luther King Jr.  His last speeches are full of references to the last days of Moses.  What does it mean to see the Promised Land, but to arrive too late to live there?

I first read this text as a child in a distant Sunday School class at Our Redeemer Lutheran Church in Montgomery, Alabama.  I remember feeling that Moses had been treated unfairly.  He had done so much work, and then not to get the final reward?  Not fair!

I suspect that many children react the same way to many a Bible story.  Think of all the people in the Bible who are treated unfairly.  They try so hard, but in this life, they don't seem to get their just rewards.

As a grown up, though, I find this parade of people like Moses to be a comfort.  After all, many of us are working on huge projects, and we may not live long enough to see success.  But the Bible promises that the work will go on even when we are not there to lead the way.

My thoughts return to Martin Luther King Jr. and the work of the Civil Rights Movement.  I think of our own justice activities in Broward county.  I think of all the incremental gains, and it's impossible not to think of all the work still left to be done.

I think of those workers who built medieval cathedrals.  They must have known, especially in the early days, that they would not live long enough to worship in the cathedrals.  But still, they showed up to do the work.  They knew that there would be following generations coming who would complete the work.

God calls us to important work.  How will we answer the call?  How will we plan for the day when the next generation takes over the work?

Saturday, September 26, 2015

What I Read at the Retreat

Two weeks ago, I woke up at Luther Springs.  It was early and dark.  I was the first one up.  Happily, I had brought a book.

Nancy Ellen Abram's A God that Could Be Real:  Spirituality, Science, and the Future of Our Planet has been on my books-to-read shelf for many months.  I bought it after reading her essay at an NPR site.  One of the highlights of the retreat was having time to finally read it.

The first part of the book was wonderfully rich and satisfying, especially when she delves into recent scientific discoveries.  I also liked her brief history of how humanity has thought about God.

The book shifts to her musing about a god who could be real, and towards the end, I found myself frustrated.  Her idea of God seems just as likely to be real as many other versions of God.

Her view of God reminds me of Jung's idea of the Collective Unconscious, or perhaps of the ideas of 20th century writers who ran with that idea.  Her view of God is something that humanity has a role in creating.  She seems to say that every time humanity creates something noble and bold, we build up this God-like entity that is both part of us and greater than us.

She does not explore in depth what happens when humanity creates something vast and evil, like the Holocaust.  Her book does shift towards some of the challenges that humanity faces on a planet threatened by global climate change.  I found myself skimming some of it.

Much of what she discusses throughout the book is not new to me, from the idea that God isn't omniscient or omnipotent to the ideas about climate change to the other scientific developments that she covers.  But she writes about them and weaves them all together in compelling ways.

I'm glad I read this book.  It was especially enriching because the retreat materials we used weren't as intellectually interesting as I would have liked.

There are days that I look at my bookshelves and marvel at the books I once had time to read.  One of the nice things about being on retreat and off the grid is having time to read an old-fashioned book.  And what a gift to have a book that gives my brain plenty to chew on!

Friday, September 25, 2015

A Papal Reference Sparks Thoughts of Intentional Community

Yesterday the Pope mentioned Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton.  Apparently, not everyone knows who these Catholics were (should you need a primer, this article in The Washington Post gives lots of great information).

Every so often, I realize what a different world I inhabit.  As I listened to coverage of the Pope's address to Congress, I heard Day and Merton referred to as "little-known Catholics."  I could see Dorothy Day as being a bit obscure, but Thomas Merton?  One of the most important Christian writers of the 20th century?

Of course, there are many writers of prominence that most people simply haven't read or even heard about.  A monastic like Merton--perhaps it's understandable that we see him as more obscure.

I heard about the Pope's address on my way home from a happy hour going away party for a colleague who is moving across the sea.  I thought about how many people have come and gone from my school.  I am feeling a bit adrift.

In some ways, the teaching life has always been this way:  students come, and students go.  But once, colleagues stayed longer.

I think of monastics who take a vow of stability--they vow to stay in their monastery for the rest of their lives.  But I also think of Mepkin Abbey.  I've been going there regularly for over 10 years, and even the vow of stability doesn't always keep people rooted.

I think of the Pope's reference to Dorothy Day and Thomas Merton, both important to those of us who study intentional communities.  Dorothy Day founded her Catholic Worker houses, some of which still exist, and Thomas Merton took part in a much older tradition.

What would an intentional community look like in these unstable times?

In the meantime, I try to stay grounded, even as my work community continues to shift.  Maybe intentional communities in the 21st century will be rooted in the human life, not the place.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

The Monastery Memories that Restore a Measure of Calm

In times of trouble, I remember the monastery, which helps me control my panic:

I think of the silence:

I remember the Psalms wafting their way to the rafters:

I remember to trust in the hospitality of the world, where my needs will often be met in ways that I can't anticipate.

I think of my friends, both in the pages of books and in the people who join me on retreat:

But most of all, I remember the monastery dog, who led me across the grounds:

I think of the monastery dog's contentment, and I resolve to adopt the mindset of a dog:

I will live moment by moment and to trust that all will be well.  I will remember the arms that hold us all:

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, September 27, 2015:

Numbers 11:4-6, 10-16, 24-29

Psalm 19:7-14

The commandment of the LORD gives light to the eyes. (Ps. 19:8)

James 5:13-20

Mark 9:38-50

Here we have another Gospel that reminds us again that Jesus is not the warm, fuzzy Jesus that the modern church often depicts. This Gospel is harsh. Cut off my hand? Just because it offended me? What happened to forgiving 70 times 7?

Again and again, Jesus reminds us that we often let ourselves off the hook too easily. We don't require enough of ourselves. How many of us really do forgive 70 times, much less that 7 times more again? Too many of us won’t even forgive once, much less again and again. We refuse to begin the work of reconciliation, which is one of our main tasks in this world.

We're supposed to be the seasoning of the world, but too many of us do absolutely nothing. We close our ears to the cries of the oppressed. We know that we have resources, but we refuse to share. We cling to our possessions, even though we have more stuff than any human can use in a lifetime. The other day, I realized I had 3 pairs of shoes with me, between the shoes in my gym bag, the shoes on my feet, and the shoes that I brought to change into for spin class. I only have 2 feet, but I had 6 shoes with me. I thought of all the shoes in my closet. I thought of all the unshod feet in the world that could use the protection that even my shabbiest shoes offer.

Or worse, we behave in ways that would make our beliefs unattractive to the nonbeliever. Every time we gossip, lie, cheat, steal, or give in to our darkest natures, the world is watching. Our hypocrisy endangers us all on so many levels.

We move into the part of Mark where Jesus must realize that he's in great danger. He offers challenges to the larger domination system that controls the Earth. Jesus understands how many forces dominate us: both the secular ruling system, as well as the larger idea of a Satanic/fallen set of powers that keeps us from God's goodness, not to mention our own beliefs which hinder us. Jesus refuses to back down. He must know what will happen. The book of Mark, always apocalyptic in tone, becomes more so.

We see those echoes in the planetary calendar too. We’ve seen a seasonal shift, as we leave summer behind and autumn arrives. Once we drove home from work in broad sunlight. Now we squint into the gathering twilight. The produce sections in our grocery stores offer sturdier fruits and vegetables, like the gourds that remind us of the need to prepare for a harsh season ahead.

Additionally in this past week we have come to the end of the Jewish high holy days, with its reminders that time is short. Like Ash Wednesday, these holidays remind us that the years go by quickly and that we must continue to atone for all ways we’ve fallen short. We can be better. We must be better.

Time is short. We don't have much of it on earth, and Jesus always pulls us back to that existential fact. If we don't have much time, we're pressured to make the most of what we have. We have a huge task, one not likely to be completed in our lifetimes. Still, that's no reason not to get started building the Kingdom where the last will be first.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The Morning Before Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur begins at sunset today--the highest, holiest day of the Jewish calendar, at least as I understand it.

I've always been intrigued by other people's holidays.  I wish I could say that my interest inspires a deeper appreciation of my own holidays, but that's not always the case.

I've written a post that explores these ideas, and today it's up at the Living Lutheran site.  Go here to read it.

Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"As a child, I disliked belonging to what I considered to be an easy religion. I wanted kosher laws that I would struggle to keep. I wanted to do penance for all my sins. The concept of grace left me uneasy."

"The idea of a period of intense introspection enchants me. I also like the idea that it ends. Immersing myself in a period of repenting and atoning, fasting and prayer – that idea has enormous appeal. The idea that God seals the book, absolves us, and we go back to regular life also appeals to me. Most humans can't live in that kind of intense self-awareness and repentance for too long."

"So, this today, as my Jewish friends immerse themselves in this holy time, and as I go about my regular life, I'll try to remember to think about God and that Book of Life. I'll think about my current life and where I need some change in its trajectory. I'll pray for all of us who are engaged in a similar time of introspection."

Monday, September 21, 2015

Feast Day of St. Matthew

Today we celebrate the life of St. Matthew, one of the 12 disciples. Matthew was a tax collector, and that fact should give us all hope.

Throughout the Bible, we see God at work in the world. We see God using all sorts of humans, the kind of humans that a wise CEO wouldn't promote. But God sees their potential, and God calls them.

Sometimes, people protest and remind God of their unworthiness; think of Moses. Sometimes God has to do a lot to get their attention; think of Jonah.

But sometimes, the call comes, and the person responds, dropping everything to follow God's call. In Matthew, we see this example.

Maybe you're in a time of your life where you're feeling particularly unworthy.  You are not unworthy.  God can use the most hideous humans in the work of the redemption of creation. On this day, take a minute to remember God's grace.  We are chosen.  God wants to be in communion with us.

Maybe you're feeling a bit adrift as you wonder what comes next.  God is always offering interesting invitations. Take a moment on this day to listen for God's call.  What visions does God have for you that are better than any you could dream for yourself?

On this day, let us celebrate all the ways in which God takes humans from every level of society and turns them into a cohesive community.  Let us live in the promise of the God life that God wants for us.

Here are the Bible readings for today:

First Reading: Ezekiel 2:8--3:11

Psalm: Psalm 119:33-40

Second Reading: Ephesians 2:4-10

Gospel: Matthew 9:9-13

And here's a prayer I composed for today:

God full of grace and compassion, on this day that we celebrate the life of Matthew, help us remember that you have a plan for the redemption of creation and that we have a place in it. Thank you for the witness of Matthew and the disciples. Help us to follow in their example, that we may be a light, your light, in this shadowy world that so desperately needs brightness.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

God's Work, Our Hands Sunday

Some churches have already done their God's Work, Our Hands Sunday.  We had to postpone ours.  Originally we had planned to do it last week-end, but that was the women's retreat, so a substantial number of hands would be away.

This Sunday will offer choices for people.  People can work on quilt tops:

 There will be quilts to knot together:

 We will have a sewing machine to speed the process:

People can simply bring donations for the food pantry:

We will have donations of cookies that need to be packaged up to send to college students.

 My fearless spouse will set up the sewing machine and let the pre-teen girls work the foot pedal!

God's work, our hands--the faith that moves our feet!

Saturday, September 19, 2015

On the Eve of a High, Holy Week

As I write this, I'm listening to Terry Gross interview Nadia Bolz-Weber on NPR's Fresh Air.  I love being able to catch up on interviews that I've missed--the Internet is a wondrous thing!  This interview happened a day after an interview with Paul Vallely who talked about the Pope.  Two interviews that cover religious issues in one week? 

Perhaps this upsurge in religious coverage is happening as the Pope prepares to come here.  Continuing with the NPR coverage theme, yesterday on All Things Considered, David Brooks said this about the Pope's visit: 

"I think we're in danger of over-politicizing this visit. I mean, we're going to see mass displays of faith, of devotion, for millions and millions of people - probably thousands maybe even millions will have their lives changed or reconfirmation of faith in a way that politics can't touch.

And then finally, you know, we all give sermons and he'll give sermons, but the message is the person - the kind of person he is in the way he conducts himself, as E.J. says, the people he's visiting. He is displaying a devotion to God, a devotion to the least among us, a sort of soul on fire that will inspire millions of people - Muslim, atheists, Jews - it's going to be a huge cultural event, I think."

Next week is also Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish year, and my Hindu friend is in the middle of Hindu's holiest month too.  I like these times when religious traditions swell towards transcendence at the same time.

I'll be hoping for transcendence for us all.

Listen to the Bolz-Weber interview here.  Listen to the Vallely interview here.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Twelfth Century High Water Marks of Female Power

September 17 is the feast day of Hildegard of Bingen, mystic, herbalist, musical composer, naturalist, and Abbess. Her life was full of accomplishments, an amazing feat considering she lived in the twelfth century.

Until recently, I had never thought of the twelfth century as a high water mark of feminism, but female monastics did amazing things during that time period. By studying them, I come away with a new appreciation for the medieval Church, where talented women found a cloistered kind of freedom. In many ways, the cloistered life was the only way for medieval women to have any kind of freedom. Cloistered life offered the only protection available to women who lived at the edges or outside the margins of society: widowed, artistic, not wanting to be married, weird in any way.

But Hildegard's life shows that freedom was constrained, since women monastics answered to men. For years, Hildegard wanted to move her group of nuns to Rupertsburg, but the Abbot who controlled them refused her request.

We all face constraints of various kinds, and the life of Hildegard shows what could be accomplished, even during a time where women did not have full rights and agency. She was an Abbess, and because being in charge of one cloistered community isn't enough, she founded another. She wrote music, and more of her music survives than almost any other medieval composer. She was an early naturalist, writing down her observations about the natural world and her theories about how the natural world heals us. She wrote to kings, emperors and popes to encourage them to pursue peace and justice. She wrote poems and a morality play and along the way, a multitude of theological meditations.

She did all of these things, in addition to keeping her community running smoothly. Yes, I'm thinking about Hildegard as an administrator, a woman who could be efficient and artistic at the same time. It’s no wonder that I find her inspiring.

It's interesting to think about the different types of groups who have claimed her as their own. Feminists claim her importance, even though she didn't openly advocate equality. Musicians note that more of her compositions survive than almost any other medieval composer. Her musical works go in different directions than many of the choral pieces of the day, with their soaring notes. New Age types love her views of the body and the healing properties of plants, animals, and even minerals. Though her theology seems distinctly medieval, and thus not as important to modern Christians, it's hard to dismiss her importance as a figure from church history.

I often say that it's odd I'm drawn to monasticism, as I'm a married, Lutheran female who has all sorts of worldly commitments, and thus cannot fully vow obedience. But as I think about church history, I'm struck time and time again by how often monasticism has offered a safe space to women that no other part of society did. I shouldn't be surprised that it's a tradition that speaks to me still.

It’s a tradition that speaks to many others too: have you listened to the Hildegard of Bingen channel on Pandora?

Maybe today is a good day to tune in that medieval music. We could listen while writing letters to those in charge, letters which demand more work towards social justice. Or we could focus on other writing projects, as Hildegard of Bingen did. We could plant a healing herb garden.

Today, on her feast day, let us say a prayer of thanks for Hildegard of Bingen and other medieval matriarchs of Christianity.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, September 20, 2015:

First Reading: Jeremiah 11:18-20

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Proverbs 31:10-31

First Reading (Alt.): Wisdom 1:16--2:1, 12-22

Psalm: Psalm 54

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 1

Second Reading: James 3:13--4:3, 7-8a

Gospel: Mark 9:30-37

This Gospel seems to drip with extra meaning, in a month where we've seen refugees in increasingly desperate circumstances, while our political figures get increasingly meaner. Perhaps this is a work week where we wonder what on earth we're doing and how our lives have come to this. Maybe we're feeling sad about aspects of our lives at home.  Maybe we worry that soon we will lose our jobs and get to spend a lot of time at home.

Maybe we wonder if we're living up to our full potential.

We're surrounded by self-improvement plans. Maybe we'll go back to school to make ourselves great. Maybe we'll color our hair or buy a new wardrobe. Maybe we'll pay off our debts or buy a car that makes us feel special. Maybe we'll lose weight or bulk up our muscles. The world has no shortage of suggestions for ways that we might make ourselves better.

God has a different suggestion. Jesus says, "If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all" (verse 35).

Humans, most of us, aren't wired that way. Watch what happens at work when one of the higher-ups leaves and there's a vacancy to fill. Watch how many people convince themselves that they're perfect for that job. Watch children, who will always struggle for supremacy. Very few of us come to service naturally.

But those of us who have worked to adopt the servant ethos can tell a different tale. Those people might talk about how good it feels to serve, how their own desires disappear in the face of those that are needier than they are.

But there is a bigger reason why we're called to serve: God hangs out with the lowly. Go back to your Scripture. See how often God shows up with the poor, the outcast, the lowest people in the social structure. We serve, so that we meet God. We serve, so that we serve God.

This verse reminds me of the 25th chapter of Matthew, where humans are separated depending on whether or not they fed Jesus or clothed him or visited him while sick or in prison. And the ones headed to eternal punishment say, "When did we ever see you hungry or naked or sick or in prison?" And we get the classic rejoinder in verse 45: "Truly I say to you, as you did it not to one of the least of these, you did it not to me."

We serve God by serving. Leaf through the Gospels and let yourself be struck by how much of the message of Jesus revolves around this message. We are called to serve. We elevate ourselves not by making ourselves better, but by serving others, by serving those who have the least to offer us.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

A Women's Retreat in Pictures

My church took its largest group ever to the women's retreat at Luther Springs:

It wasn't a good week-end for outdoor activities as it rained much of the week-end:

But there was time for rocking on the porch:

And time for meditation and spiritual work:

It was good to recalibrate as we remembered what is most important.

And so we return refreshed and renewed, ready to do the work that God calls us to do:


Monday, September 14, 2015

Back from the Women's Retreat

I am back from the God's Spa women's retreat at Luther Springs, but still not back to "regular life."  I gave myself the gift of a day off.  I knew that I'd need time to decompress, plus I have grades due today for some of my online classes.

We had better instructions on this trip, so at least we did find the camp, unlike our August attempt.  Still, it's 10-12 hours of being on the road, so as to enjoy 40 hours of retreat.  What makes it worth it for me?

It's good to get away, and the retreat center is closer than my beloved Lutheridge, which is 12 hours of car time away.  It's good to get to a different landscape, even if I don't find it as inspiring as the mountains that surround Lutheridge.

It's good to have a chance to meet other women of faith.  I went primarily because I want to get to know some of the women of my church in a deeper way, and a retreat is a great vehicle for this.  I also got to meet other women from Florida, women I likely wouldn't have met any other way.

I didn't particularly get much out of the curriculum.  We had one of those "retreat in a box" kind of approaches.  I understand the appeal; if you don't have a retreat leader who has time to write curriculum, you can still have a retreat.

So we studied the Psalms and asked, "What areas of your life make you want to write a lament?"  and "For what do you want to say thank you to God?"  Maybe it's because I spend many of my spare hours writing about these very things--maybe that makes me more self-aware?  Maybe it's because I spent the week-end reading Nancy Ellen Abrams' A God That Could Be Real: Spirituality, Science, and the Future of Our Planet.  After a rousing analysis of modern cosmology, dark matter, dark energy, and a very different view of God, most curriculum would seem quite thin.

I was glad that I took the book with me, because it's such a treat to have time to read.  And it's a treat to have my brain grapple with something that had intellectual heft.

I also had time to do less intellectual activities, which was also welcome.  I did a group guided meditation.  I did some spa-like activities:  a foot soak/pedicure of sorts, a hand treatment, and hot towels on my face.

It's also good to have time to worship.  I loved the healing service on Saturday night.  It was my favorite.  The Communion service on Sunday was also good, but my attention was already feeling fragmented by then.

It was a rainy week-end so I didn't do as many outdoor activities as I thought I might do.  But that was O.K.  It was cozy to sit on the porch and watch the rain.

And what a treat to watch the rain as we made and deepened connections.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

At a Women's Retreat

This week-end, I am at a women's retreat at Luther Springs.

I plan to think about the ways I might spend the rest of 2015 journaling.

I will appreciate the art and the nature at the camp.

Maybe I'll learn new skills.

I want to recalibrate my life towards more joy.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Facebook Pictures as Prayer

Yesterday, a friend asked why someone would post a picture of their dinner on Facebook.  We had a great discussion.

I think we post our pictures in part because our cell phones and tablets with camera power make it so easy.  Our devices can connect almost instantly with Facebook--push a button, and it's on the FB page.

I think it's also because Facebook has become a journal, a logbook, a diary/scrapbook for so many of us.  I do wonder if we'll be able to access that material in 10-30 years.  Of course, I have a box of paper journals in my closet--they're not real accessible right now:  I have to dig them out of the box and flip through them with no good search tools beyond my reading skills.  But I expect to still have them in 10-30 years, barring catastrophe like fire. 

I think people post pictures because they're having a moment of happiness that they want to capture.  I rarely see angry pictures.  That's in direct contrast to the online articles that people link to--so much anger.  I rarely click through.  But I do linger on pictures.

I thought about my own morning yesterday.  I decided to make a quiche for breakfast because I had some Swiss cheese that needed to be used.  I went out to our little garden and selected herbs--the herbs that we planted a few weeks ago are flourishing.  As I snipped the bright green herbs which fell on the grated cheese and sautéed mushrooms, I felt such a swelling of contentment.

In some ways, not much has changed since my vegetarian days--I still get lots of joy from my tiny garden and from cooking good food.  I still look forward to the arrival of friends.

Last night, I dreamed about my high school friend who died in February.  We were filling up sodas at a soda station before we went into a movie.  It was so ordinary, and I woke up wishing we had had a profound conversation in my dream.  But I was also comforted by seeing her again, even though I know it was a figment of my subconscious brain.

On this September 11, I have the fragility of life on the brain.  I take comfort from knowing that I will be remembered, at whatever time I am snatched away from this life.  I am content with the efforts that I have made to live a life that's in alignment with my values.

And yet, I know that the alignment will slip if I'm not paying attention.  I think that reason, too, is why so many of us post our pictures on Facebook--it keeps us in sync with ourselves and with the ones we love so deeply.

I think of our Facebook pictures as a non-traditional form of prayer.  If we did it with intention, we could see it as talking to God, as saying, "Here's what happened to me today, here's what brought me joy, here's what I would like to have more of in my life."  As we post pictures to keep us connected with each other, we could pray for those whom we love.

And in capturing our lives, we can offer prayers of gratitude for all these things/people/events that we love enough to want to preserve and share on Facebook.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

How Should a Christian Respond to the Refugee Crisis?

I find myself unable to turn away from the refugee crisis in Europe.  The pictures make me want to weep.  I am an amateur student of history--I know how quickly one can become a refugee.

I firmly believe that most of the humans who are on the move are fleeing because they fear for their lives.  They're not looking for a better job.  They believe that if they stay, they will not survive.

I think that most people who leave their homelands have a similar mindset.  It's hard to forsake a homeland.  Most people stay, no matter how desperate the circumstances, because they want to believe that life will get better.  Most people stay because leaving is so difficult.

I've lately been hearing the refugee crisis in Europe called one of the worst humanitarian crises in decades and one of the largest movements of humans in a century--but I can't verify if that's true.  Still, I expect that this movement will change our planet in ways that we can't anticipate, both good and bad.

I am touched by the stories of towns and individuals who have opened their homes to these refugees.  I know that there are some in the U.S. who would like to do the same.

I am proud of the long, Lutheran tradition of helping with refugee resettlement.  For those who want to help in immediate ways, I'd start with Lutheran Social Services.  And of course, other denominations have been of similar service too.  Refugees will need all sorts of help, from housing to clothing to money to help in learning English.

For those of us who want to do more or who want to donate money, I'd offer Lutheran World Relief; this page describes what that organization is doing in the face of this current crisis.

There are many who will argue over whether or not we should respond at all.  And there are many more who will argue over the best way to respond.

The Gospels are clear:  we should treat these refugees as if Christ moves across continents with them.  We should see the face of God in the faces of these scared, hungry, desperate refugees.

We should not turn away.

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, September 13, 2015:

First Reading: Isaiah 50:4-9a

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Proverbs 1:20-33

Psalm: Psalm 116:1-8 (Psalm 116:1-9 NRSV)

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 19

Second Reading: James 3:1-12

Gospel: Mark 8:27-38

I can only imagine how much the Jesus in today's Gospel must have baffled people--Peter even goes so far as to rebuke him. It's important to remember that Jews during the time of Jesus weren't looking for the kind of spiritual savior that we have in mind when we use the term Messiah; Jews during this time period expected their Messiah to be a great warrior who would kick the Romans out of the homeland.

And here's Jesus, talking about being rejected by everyone and being killed and rising again; he mentions crosses--in that time, the only ones picking up a cross were those on their way to their own brutal public executions.

This Gospel was written during a later time of social upheaval (and written about an earlier time of social upheaval)--the reason the Gospel of Mark sounds so apocalyptic is because the Christian community feared attack from various quarters. This Gospel is written both to calm the community, as well as to give them strength to face what is coming, and the courage to do what must be done. The last chunk of the Gospel shows this motivation clearly. What good is our earthly life if, in preserving it, we lose our souls?

An intriguing question, even today--a time of social upheaval, where there are plenty of events to frighten us. Notice the language of Jesus. Following him is a choice. Crosses don't just fall on us out of the sky; we choose to pick them up when we follow Jesus.

It's a marketing scheme that you would never find in today's "How to Build a MegaChurch" model books. Emphasize suffering? Why on earth would people want a religion like that?

It's interesting also to reflect on Jesus' words at the close of this chapter--are we ashamed of Jesus? Do people know we are Christians by our actions? If they ask us about our faith life, are we able to speak coherently (or at least openly) about it?

These questions take me back to when I taught more classes. Several years ago, on a Monday evening, a student asked if she could see a book I had on my desk: The Violence of Love. I'm not sure what she thought it was, but I'm fairly sure she didn't think it was a collection of the homilies of Archbishop Oscar Romero (martyred for his faith and preaching on social justice in El Salvador in 1980). After class, she asked me "Are you Christian or Catholic?" In the past, I might have evaded the question by explaining how Catholics really are Christians. Or I might have hemmed and hawed and explained how my Christian faith and practice was different than that behavior of other Christians which embarrassed me.

On that Monday, I opted for simplicity. I said, "Christian." We talked about the book and Oscar Romero, about her Catholic upbringing and my Lutheran one, about her drift away from church and how she yearns for church but is afraid of it. She asked if she could find me next quarter to continue this conversation, and I said, "Any time."

I know that sometimes Jesus must cry himself to sleep when he watches my behavior. I like to think that on that Monday night, he said, "That Kristin. She's finally showing some signs of spiritual maturity." I like to think that he woke up Oscar Romero to tell him how his work still resonates. I like to think of Jesus and Oscar Romero, sharing some leftover flan that they found in the celestial refrigerator.

Are you willing to pick up your cross? Are you willing to talk about Jesus without being ashamed? Are you willing to follow Jesus, even though you must be aware that "we as Christians participate in the only major religious tradition whose founder was executed by established authority" (Marcus Borg, The Heart of Christianity, p. 91). And not only the founder, but many of the early missionaries of the faith, like Paul and Peter. If you're practicing Christianity the way you should be, you'll be a threat to the established order. Are you willing to take that risk?

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Papal Pilgrimages

We are back from our annual sailing trip--for more details on the trip itself, see this post on my creativity blog.

My brother-in-law has been Catholic since birth, and my sister converted.  So, while there, we talked about the pope.  My brother-in-law has a picture of himself being blessed by the pope when he was a child.  He's thinking of taking my nephew to see the pope when he comes to the D.C. area.  They likely won't get close enough for a blessing, but it would be enough to be in the area.

So many of us feel this way about this pope.  Before we left, I was talking to a friend whose daughter is in a Catholic elementary school, and the subject of conversion came up.  We both agreed that this pope makes the idea more attractive than it has ever been--she was raised a Free Methodist, and me a Lutheran. 
I've also been hearing people talk about how wonderful they find the idea of a Year of Mercy.  I sense a yearning for mercy that is a fierce hunger.  How would lives change if we posted our yearnings for mercy on Facebook with as much frequency as our various angers?

I'm remembering the first year of grad school when Pope John Paul II came to the University of South Carolina campus.  I had a friend from Georgia Tech come to Columbia, SC just to see him as he addressed students on the Horseshoe.  I've always regretted not going there with him.

Still, I will not take any pilgrimages to see the pope when he comes to the U.S. this time.  But I will be grateful to him for the goodness that he inspires in people.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Prayers for Labor Day

How will you celebrate this Labor Day?

Will you spend today putting away your white clothes and your sandals?  I will not.  I wear sandals year round, and I have one white skirt that I'll wear until October or November.  But I am old enough to remember a time when we were not allowed to wear white to church after Labor Day.  It was just not done in the traditional states of the U.S. South where I spent my childhood--even though the hot weather would continue well into September and October.  Back to school meant that feet went back into closed shoes--no more sandals.

Most of us will probably not participate in Labor rallies, picnics put on by our unions, or civil disobedience designed to bring more benefits to workers.

Sadly, for many of us, it's just a day off of work.

It's a good day to celebrate all of the work we do, the work for pay, the work that feeds our creative spirits, the volunteer work that bolsters the spirits of so many.  How can we honor the work that nourishes?  How can we devote more time to that kind of work?

A prayer for Labor Day:  Oh God of labor and rest, we pray today for all who work in various fields.  Let the work be nourishing.  Let the compensation be consistent and fair.  May all of our colleagues be easy to work beside.  We also pray for those with no jobs.  Let them find the work they need.  We pray for parents who toil without pay, and everyone else who works a similar job.  Mindful of your example, we also pray for rest on a regular basis.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Hull House and Communal Life

Today is the birthday of Jane Addams, creator of communal living environments extraordinaire. She created a communal house in England, before returning to the states to transform Chicago. Well, perhaps that's a stretch. But maybe not. Two thousand people each week used the social services and spaces (day care, library, meeting spaces) provided by Hull House. She was the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

I've always been fascinated by communal living experiments, and have done some dabbling of my own; in the 90's, my spouse and I had 2 housemates, both good friends, and their pets. I continue to think about that experiment and ways it could be improved upon. At the same time, I've gone to monasteries, which have been doing communal living in successful ways for thousands of years.

I wonder if having a spiritual focus helps communal projects have longevity. If a community gathers together to pray regularly, perhaps it's harder to fight or carry a grudge.

I wonder if having an artistic focus helps communal projects have longevity. If a community supports artistic visions and enables people to live out those visions, will people be more committed?

I continue to have this dream of a huge piece of land where every resident would have his or her own cottage. There would be communal spaces, like a kitchen, a media center, a chapel, a library, a studio with art supplies of every kind. There would be hiking trails, a huge garden, and perhaps some small animals, like chickens and goats.

Could such a place be self-supporting? Perhaps by selling eggs, produce, goat cheese? Or by having visitors come for retreats? Is this just a crazy utopian dream?

My grandmother, who grew up on a farm that supported several generations, used to scoff at my ideas of returning to the land. She told me that I had no idea how hard it was. But I've always been attracted to the idea of being self-sufficient. My great-uncle (my grandmother's brother) always pointed out that the family had been well fed during the Great Depression, and able to feed others. They may have had to wear their shoes with the holes in the soles patched up, but they never went hungry.

Communal living continues to appeal to me, as does the idea of self-sufficiency. The idea of such a place also supporting people's spiritual and creative aspirations makes it an even sweeter dream.

Or perhaps I'd rather just have a sailboat.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

A Meditation for Justice Sunday

My church will be celebrating Justice Sunday today, as we gear up for another year of working with BOLD Justice, working with county leaders to make our world more just.

The reading for Sunday, September 6, 2015:

Nehemiah 5:  1-13

Every year, when we have our Nehemiah action with BOLD Justice, I think about the book of Nehemiah, which is much less familiar to me than much of the Bible.  Our text today gives us a vision of justice restored.

Justice is different from charity.  Charity often fixes an immediate problem:  think of a food bank, for example, where a family gets several bags of food to tide them over.  Justice looks at the larger picture and ponders why we need food banks at all--where are the jobs that would allow people to earn enough to buy their own food?

Even if we aren't successful at creating change, God still calls on us to work for justice. 

Not to contribute to charity, although God mandates that too. But to work for justice.

In a book I cannot recommend highly enough, The Heart of Christianity, Marcus Borg explains the difference this way: "Charity means helping the victims. Justice asks, 'Why are there so many victims?' and then seeks to change the causes of victimization, that is, the way the system is structured. Justice is not about Caesar increasing his charitable giving or Pilate increasing his tithe. Justice is about social transformation. Taking the political vision of the Bible seriously means the practice of social transformation" (page 201).

He offers this comfort: "The world's need for systemic transformation is great, but it is important not to become passive or discouraged ('without heart') because the need is so great. None of us is called to be knowledgeable about all of it or capable of doing something about all of it " (page 204).

We are lucky to be part of a church that works for both justice and charity.  We are stronger in a group than we are alone.  Together we can help create a world where everyone has what they need.

We have been successful on many levels.  It's time to celebrate that success--and to continue the work.

Friday, September 4, 2015

Launch Into Labor Day

How shall we celebrate the end of summer?  A cook-out is always good:

Perhaps we should enjoy the fruits of summer before the gourds overtake the produce stands:

We have time to enjoy the hydrangeas and other summer flowers:

We could plan our autumn trips:

We could think longer term:  what shall we do in five years or ten?

We could think about a pilgrimage:

Or maybe just settle in with a shelf of books:

May our Labor Day week-ends be filled with only the labor that brings us joy.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

When Our Values Clash with Our Job Duties

This morning, I am thinking of Kim Davis, the clerk in Kentucky who has not issued marriage licenses to anyone since the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage.  She claims that her Christian beliefs mean that she must refuse to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

I've thought of my own work life, where I have been lucky that I have never been asked/ordered to do something that my moral compass would not allow me to do.  I know that if I refused for longer than a day or two, I'd be on the path to dismissal.  But since Kim Davis occupies an elected position, it's not as simple.

I'm seeing lots of Internet posts and Facebook links that express outrage.  I understand the outrage.  But I also think about the history of civil disobedience. 

I've been intrigued by a recent post that notes that Kim Davis has only been a born-again Christian for 4 years.   That fact explains the 4 marriages, which happened before her conversion.

I find it interesting that no pastor has come forward--where is her home pastor, her home church?  Maybe they have found a national spotlight too, but I haven't been plugged in enough to see it.

I see lots of ranting about hypocrisy (see the 4 marriages, above), but less sympathy.  My leftist friends might ask why we need sympathy.

In Kim Davis, I see a situation that might happen to any of us who have values that are at odds with a moment of history--and the less dramatic moments too.  In Kim Davis, I see a woman who is trying to figure out what to do when her values clash with what her job has become, and that's a situation that could happen to any of us.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, September 6, 2015:

First Reading: Isaiah 35:4-7a

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23

Psalm: Psalm 146

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 125

Second Reading: James 2:1-10 [11-13] 14-17

Gospel: Mark 7:24-37

Many people find this Gospel's depiction of Jesus disturbing, but I find it refreshing, even as it disturbs me. I grew up with an idea of an inclusive Jesus, a Jesus who came for all of us. The Jesus of my childhood was never angry (except perhaps for that incident in the temple), never irritable, never tired.

The Jesus of the Gospels isn't the Jesus of my childhood. If we read the Gospels carefully, we can see that the view of Jesus shifts as the community of faith continues to interpret the meaning of Jesus and to define what happened to Jesus and the first community of believers. Often we forget that the Gospels were written not by the first disciples (as I thought, when I was a child), but by people who came along later.

One early view of Jesus was an exclusive one, the one that says that Jesus came for the Jews. As the early Christian community expanded to include non-Jews, we can see chunks of the Gospels written with this development in mind. The story of Jesus and the Greek woman may be part of that mission.

Or perhaps we're seeing something more basic. I notice that a running theme in this Gospel is Jesus' attempts to get away, to move anonymously. It doesn't work. Everywhere he turns, there are the people who need him. We've all had those weeks at work or in our families where it seems that people need more and more of us and we can't get away from those incessant demands. We know how cranky that can make us. Maybe we're just seeing a Jesus who is tired and irritable. I like the idea of a snippy Jesus who can be reminded of his mission and who can soften his attitude. I like the idea that we can be occasionally cranky and not ruin our mission, just as Jesus was occasionally cranky, but managed to change our world so radically.

I also find the Greek woman to be refreshing. Here's a woman who fights for her daughter. Here's a woman who is told no, I didn't come for you--and she fights back. She presents a good argument, and it works.

I like the idea of a Jesus who can change his mind. I like the idea of a Jesus who listens to an outsider (a Greek, a woman) and becomes more inclusive.

Often the Gospel gives us a picture of Jesus who seems more divine than human. This Gospel shows me a refreshingly human Jesus, with traits (irritability, a desperate need for rest) that I recognize. I see a divine presence who might really understand me, since he's been under stress himself.

And this time, through this Gospel, I am happy to be reminded that a Divine answer of "no" may not be the final answer.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Filling the Beggar's Bowl

How shall we fill the beggar's bowl? 

What gifts have we to offer?

We may say our honeycombs are empty.  We may feel we have nothing to share.

But perhaps it's time to think differently.  Maybe our gift is steeped in time and tea and a good conversation:

Maybe we have books to share:

We can share the bounty found in nature:

We can lead the way through the labyrinth of life: