Saturday, October 31, 2015

Trick or Treat? Halloween for Christians

This post will offer no condemnation of witches or wizards. I’ve had fun at costume parties, and I have more than one happy childhood memory of trick-or-treating around my neighborhood. Still, I know that this holiday poses some interesting questions for Christians.

 It’s worth pointing out that when I was a child, in the 1970’s, this holiday was different.  I don't remember being able to buy costumes at a store; we assembled them out of what was on hand, usually our parents' clothes and make up and whatever we could construct (or what our mothers might sew).   Now Halloween is the second largest holiday in terms of what we spend on it, second only to Christmas. Candy, costumes, decorations, pumpkins: when you total what you spend on this holiday, you might be shocked.

Those of us with a social justice conscience must ask ourselves if this is the best use of our money. Even if you celebrate simply, you’ll likely spend a bundle on candy to give out to trick-or-treaters. In a year when we’re seeing one of the worst humanitarian crises in a century, as Syrian refugees and others fleeing the Middle East wash up on Europe's shores, we must ask if it’s ethical to spend our money this way. And the planet cannot afford too many more years of excess, whether it be candy wrappers or plastic/polyester (petroleum based, after all) costumes from stores.

There are ways to soothe that social justice concern. We could keep track of our spending and in November, we could send a donation that matches or exceeds our Halloween costs to an agency that tries to alleviate suffering, like Lutheran World Relief or ELCA World Hunger. We could make our decorations: instead of buying strings of orange lights that come from China, we could buy pumpkins from the local church that uses the pumpkin patch to fund education programs, and we could support local farmers when we buy mums which last until the poinsettias make an appearance. For that matter, we could decide to make our costumes instead of paying top dollar for flimsy costumes from the store.

We could spend some time thinking about those costumes and the human desire to transform ourselves into someone else. If we want to inject some deeper thought into our holiday, we could ask ourselves about the deeper meaning behind our costumes, if there is one. If we want to take a theological turn, we could spend some time considering the way we’d like to be transformed, and the promises of transformation that our triune God has made to humanity and all of creation.

We could also think of Halloween themes and the yearnings of our human hearts. Why are we so in love with vampires right now? Do we long for eternal life? What differences in the eternal life scenario are offered by vampires and by Christ? Or what do zombies tell us about our culture?  (for more on vampires and zombies and the Church, see this post by David Williams) If we choose a superhero costume, what do we long for: flight, strength, invisibility, cool gadgets? Do we want transformation for ourselves or are we hoping for a savior? Again, we might think about the salvation narratives offered by superhero tales and that of our own Christian tradition.

Halloween also offers an interesting opportunity to think about the issues of good and evil. So many Halloween narratives essentially boil down to a good versus evil theme. How do these themes mesh with Christian narratives?

And it’s important to remember that Halloween emerged from its pagan roots as a natural bridge to All Saints Day (November 1) and All Souls Day (Nov. 2).  More on those holidays tomorrow.

So, as a Christian with a conscience, I'd wish us all a happy Halloween. May we discover what haunts us and be blessed with a waking dream of how to banish the ghouls that prevent us from the life that God would want us to have.

Friday, October 30, 2015

Poetry Friday: Reformation Day

It's a strange juxtaposition of weather and holidays here.  We have yet to have our first real cold front come through, so it's still quite warm for October.  On the plus side, we can still swim in the pool, which we did last night after a walk to see Halloween lights and before watching It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.

On the minus side, daytime highs near 90 and high humidity do not put me in a Halloween/All Saints mood.

The poem below was written years ago, during another annoyingly hot October, where I thought about weather and social change--and this poem emerged. It appears in my first chapbook. Enjoy!

Reformation Day

 The catholic heat holds us
in a tight embrace for what seems an age.
We participate in the sacraments
designed to make us forget the hellishness
of everyday life: afternoons at the pool,
barbecues, beach trips, and for the fortunate few,
a trip to the mountains, a retreat, a pilgrimage.

We pay alms as we must: electric bills,
pool chemicals, cool treats. We pay indulgences
when we can’t avoid it: the air conditioning repair
man, the pool expert who keeps the water pure,
men versed in mysteries we cannot hope to understand.

Finally, the heat breaks. A cold front swoops
down upon us from the north country, a Reformation
bringing with it the promise of other Protestants,
more weather systems to overthrow
the ubiquitous heat, to leave
us breathless with the possibilities of change.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Theology of the Pumpkin Patch

Every year, as the lectionary returns to readings that use sheep or crop yields as a metaphor, I wonder what has been lost to modern ears. Last year, as I helped unload pumpkins from an 18-wheeler truck to our church’s pumpkin patch, one of the children asked, “Why are they so dirty?”

I said, "Because last week, they were growing in a field."

I could see the child looking at me as if I might be joking; after all, he's never seen pumpkins growing in a field. He may never have seen anything growing in a field. We are in an urban area, after all. I wondered if I should do more to explain.

And then I thought of all those agricultural metaphors, where Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven is like ... .” That parable of the seeds and the different types of ground – do we really understand that parable if we’ve never planted anything?

Each year our church transforms its front yard into a giant pumpkin patch. It’s one of the more popular fundraising and community outreach events that my congregation does. In my search for relevant metaphors, I’ve wondered, what does this pumpkin patch tell us about God and God’s community?

Our pumpkin patch contains all sorts of pumpkins, both the traditional orange kind and several types of green pumpkins. We offer both pumpkins and gourds. We have every size of pumpkin you could want, from the largest pumpkins that could be a chair, to those we’d use for a pie, to the very small, cute kind that you can put on a fireplace mantel.

In the variety of the pumpkins, we get a sense of God the creator who doesn’t stop at just one possibility. We get a sense that in God’s creation there’s room for every kind of pumpkin.

Those pumpkins don’t come off the truck by themselves. Our church must provide the labor to get the pumpkins to where we want them to be. When I helped unload the pumpkins last year, I thought, “I’ve never felt like a part of a more seamless Christian community than I do right now.”  

That’s not exactly true. But the times that shine in my memory are times of similar service: serving dinner to the homeless, doing a winterization project for homes of the poor in the inner city, working together to create a wonderful vacation Bible school experience for children. 

Unloading the pumpkins also reminds me of something else that I cherish about church communities: At their best, there is room for everyone. The littlest ones can carry pumpkins, if they want to help that way. Those of us without the strength to carry pumpkins can help sell them. 

I think of myself as having no upper-body strength, but clearly I’m wrong. By the end of an October night, I had carried at least 400 pumpkins. I would not have expected that I could do that since I can’t do 10 pushups at a time without my arms screaming at me. And yet, it needed to be done, and so I kept moving the pumpkins and pushing through my fatigue. At the end of the night, although I was exhausted and covered in dirt and pumpkin gunk, I felt an exhilaration that I hadn’t anticipated. Similarly, God has plenty of surprises for us. 

As I cradled those pumpkins, which so resemble human heads, I felt a strange tenderness toward them, the tenderness that I imagine God feels toward us all. In some ways, pumpkins are so sturdy and yet so fragile. All it takes is one slip and the pumpkin is rendered useless, a pulpy mess of slime and gunk. And yet, even from that accident could come new life, if one planted the pumpkin seeds. From that one pumpkin, we could grow a whole new patch, life out of death.

As I drove home after we unloaded the pumpkins, I thought about all the ways I was surrounded by evidence of God's grace: an abundance of pumpkins, a great group of fellow workers, the beautiful sunset, the almost full moon, the exuberant children, blessing after blessing. I felt gratitude for my healthy body that could carry all those pumpkins. I said a prayer for those who had grown and harvested the pumpkins in a distant field in New Mexico. I went home to wash the pumpkin gunk and soil off me, and I felt additional gratitude for warm water and a cold swimming pool in which to soak my sore feet. I felt more appreciation than usual for my soft bed and clean sheets.

The next morning, I woke up with very sore arms and a soul singing with gratitude. I said hello to the pumpkins I brought home, pumpkins that won't be here very long.

None of us will be here very long. I want to adopt a more sacramental approach to life. I want to see evidence of God's grace all around me, in the lowliest gourd, in the greatest pumpkin, in every human who crosses my path. 

A year ago I created this post for the Living Lutheran site- See more at:

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, November 1, 2015:

First Reading: Isaiah 25:6-9

First Reading (Alt.): Wisdom of Solomon 3:1-9

Psalm: Psalm 24

Second Reading: Revelation 21:1-6a

Gospel: John 11:32-44

Today we celebrate the Feast of All Saints', traditionally a time when we remember our dead loved ones and all the saints triumphant.   Some of us are lucky--we have come through the past year without death coming close to us or those whom we love.  Some of us have spent the past year grieving, and we can't imagine how we will ever leave the tomb of grief ourselves.

And along comes Jesus, who calls us to a new life.

Jesus constantly reminds us that the glory of God is all around us, if only we had eyes to see. Jesus invites us to a Resurrection Culture. Sometimes, it's a forceful invitation: the cancer that is caught in time, the loss of a relationship or job that leaves us open to something more nourishing, the addiction that loosens its hold, the return of the prodigal loved ones. Other times, we catch sight of God's Kingdom as a fleeting glimpse: the dance of butterflies, the bad mood that lifts, the perfect bottle of wine that we share with friends.

Still we must cope with the ultimate sorrow. As thinking creatures, we go through life aware that if we live long enough, we will lose all that we love. How do we square the Resurrection Culture of Jesus with this knowledge?

Jesus promises us that death is not the final answer. We may not fully understand how Jesus will fulfill that promise. Some will argue that we go directly to Heaven, and some will tell us that we'll wait in a safe place until the final coming of Christ. And in the meantime, Jesus invites us to participate in the creation of the Kingdom, right here, right now. We don't have to wait until we're dead.

Jesus stands at the door of our tombs and calls to us. How will we answer? Will we say, "Go away! I'm comfortable here in my coffin. Leave me alone." Or will we emerge, blinking, into the sunshine of new life? Will we let Jesus unwrap us from our death cloths?

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Theology, Great Pumpkins, and Sincere Patches

Last week while I graded a threaded discussion for my online class, I watched/had on in the background It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.  I've returned to this show periodically throughout my whole life.  It's interesting what leaps out at me each time.

When I was younger, I didn't think much about the theology behind the show.  But in my later years, as I watch Linus sit in the patch, a process which none of his peers understand, the theology leaps out at me.  I, too, go to my local pumpkin patch of a church, where we try to be sincere and to shape ourselves for the arrival of God.

I'm deeply uncomfortable with the theology of Linus.  I don't like the idea that the pumpkin patch must prove itself before the Great Pumpkin (God?) will arrive.

I recognize the fear that buzzes around the show:  what if all of this is a lie we tell ourselves?  What if there is no Great Pumpkin?  What if we have missed out on the candyfest because we were deluded?

Of course, as I watched the whole show, I saw the disappointment that the larger culture gives us.  Maybe we're not really invited to that party.  Maybe we'll go out hoping for treats in our bags but only get rocks.

The show was in some ways a lesson in scarcity thinking:  there's not enough to go around.  I've spent much of my adult life trying consciously to disrupt that kind of thinking.  If I can unclench my hands, the universe/God/life will fill my hands with goodness.

The later part of the show redeems itself a bit.  Lucy puts Linus, worn out from his night of waiting, into bed.  We are all assured that there will be a Halloween next year.  We haven't lost out on our only chance.
The show is full of other lessons too.  I wish more people would follow the advice of Linus when he said, "I've learned that there are three things you should never discuss:  religion, politics and the Great Pumpkin."

But here's the larger lesson:  Sometimes we have to wait in our pumpkin patches while others get to have parties and treats.  Sometimes we sit in our patch, hoping its sincere enough for the Great Pumpkin.  Even if the Great Pumpkin (whatever that represents in your life) doesn't come or is delayed, you can still have interesting adventures along the way.  Some of your friends and family will understand your life in the pumpkin patch.  Many more will not. 

And here's an even bigger message:  even if we feel we're all alone in our pumpkin patches, we're not.  We have friends who will look out for us.  This year I was struck by the fact that Lucy asks for candy for her stupid brother who is wasting his life waiting in the pumpkin patch.  I was also struck by the fact that the characters think that Linus is a bit loopy, but they still love him.  They may not sit in the patch with him, but they won't reject him.

And yes, I'm troubled by this theology too--and yet, it seems quite realistic to me.  Most of the Christians I know are like Linus in the pumpkin patch:  we gather, we invite, we have customs, we have hope, we keep watch, but in the end, we're not sure whether or not we've been abandoned or not.  At least, that's the way it seems to me, here from my precarious perch at midlife.

Monday, October 26, 2015

What We Lost in the Reformation

In these days around Reformation Sunday, we hear a lot about all we gained: the translation of the Bible into the language of the people, the idea that we don’t need intermediaries as we talk directly to God, all the great Protestant hymns and the diversity of ways to celebrate our faith. But in this discussion of what has been gained, what about what has been lost?

I spent a Lutheran girlhood in complete ignorance of the great tradition of Christian saints. My first exposure came as a young teenager in Charlottesville, Va., when, as the tallest blonde girl, I was selected to lead the St. Lucia Day procession. The grownups placed a wreath with candles on my head and lit the candles. The younger children carried their candles. I walked up the church aisle and held my head very still.

I still remember the exhilarating feeling of having burning candles near my hair. I remember hot wax dripping onto my shoulders – I was wearing clothes and a white robe over them, so it didn't hurt.
It felt both pagan and sacred, that darkened church, our glowing candles. I remember nothing about the service that followed, but it did inspire me to learn more about the saint. 

In the past decade, as I’ve explored monastic traditions, I’ve started to keep an alternate calendar in my head. In addition to the regular calendar and the liturgical calendar, I now am mindful of the saints days that are approaching. In the spirit of full confession, I’ll admit that so far I have focused on the saints who are more familiar: Francis, Hildegard of Bingen, Brigid, Patrick and Julian of Norwich. 

What did we lose by our Protestant rejection of these special feast days? Most obviously, we lost the opportunity to have more opportunities for festivity, both in our daily lives and our Sundays. But at a deeper level, we lost many opportunities for inspiration from those who have gone before us. I have taken great comfort from the knowledge of female medieval mystics, especially the abbesses. Like me, they wrestled with how to be a good administrator and how to balance the demands of community life with the yearning for God and the need for time for creative pursuits and opportunities.

My exploration of monastic traditions has also led me to feel the loss of Mary, the mother of Jesus, and I tend to blame the Reformation for this loss. When I’m at Mepkin Abbey, I notice the references to Mary threading through the day. As a feminist, I find that Mary offers us a point of entry into contemplating the feminine faces of God, which certainly may not be the leap that the Mepkin monks would mean for me to make.

I wonder: If our religious traditions had paid more attention through the centuries to the female saints and to Mary, could we have arrived at a place of more inclusivity sooner?

My exploration of the Celtic saints has led me to an appreciation of a sacramental outlook and a wish that our Lutheran understanding of the idea of sacrament was broader. Ancient Celtic Christians believed not only in the incarnate Jesus of the past but in the incarnate sacredness of everyday life: that every task existed to point us to the creator.

While I understand that perhaps sacraments should be a bit more special, I do wish we had more of them. In particular, Lutherans have lost a lot by not seeing 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 make mistakes, and my spouse forgives me. He forgives me, even though he knows I will likely make the same mistakes again and again. I do the same for him.  He sees me – the best me, the worst me – as I truly am, and he loves me. Largely, he loves me, not because of anything I might say or do to convince him, but because he knows me.

I know that Lutherans believe that sacraments are actions that we are commanded to do by God and that what I have described is more of the kind of sacrament described by The Anglican Book of Common Prayer:  an "outward and visible sign of an inward and invisible Grace." As a good Lutheran, I am able to comfortably dwell within this discomfort of ideas that don’t agree.

In fact, what I find most wonderful about the Reformation is that, while we seem to have lost some of the ancient practices, we have gained so many more possibilities. And what I love about being Lutheran is that I am part of a community comprised of people who are open to exploring even more ancient traditions in our quest for a life of meaning. 

We may be content with some of what was lost as the Reformation proceeded. But if we find we are not content, we are part of a tradition that should be open to change and reform.

Sunday, October 25, 2015

Reformation Dawn

You don't have much time left to decide how you'll spend Reformation Sunday.  Will you be going to church?  Protestant or Catholic?  Will you sing some stout German hymns?  Will you drink stout German beer?

Even if you're not a church going type, the Reformation has changed your life.  I won't cover 500 years of history here, but let us remember that Martin Luther translated the Bible into German so that anyone could read it.  Because the sacred text was available, more people achieved literacy.  I will always argue that more literacy is better.

More literacy for the masses has larger implications too.  Once people can read, they can see the reality that there are other ways to live our lives.  Once people can read, it's harder to oppress them, either spiritually or politically.  I will always argue that more freedom is better than oppression.

Suffice it to say that those Reformers launched us further down the road towards modernity than we would have been without them.

Will we some day say the same thing about a contemporary social justice movement?  Any political figures?  Is there a religious group that is even now working to change the Church in such ways that we will barely recognize it 500 years from now?

Or maybe these thoughts are too heavy for a Sunday morning.  Maybe you want to dress in red today and think about your personal Reformations for which you yearn.

May your bulwarks never fail! Wait, we don't use that line (from "A Mighty Fortress") any more. Drat! How will children learn that word?

That song seems more appropriate than ever for our age. Societal institutions left and right have shown us of their inadequacy. We're lucky to have God as our shield and comfort.

So, in whatever way you celebrate, may you have a meaningful Reformation Sunday.  I plan to spend some time thinking about grace and the places in my life that could use some grace.  I will pray that God fill me with the spirit of grace as I move through these darkening days of Autumn.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Reformation Dreams

One of my most memorable Reformation Sundays was spent with a Lutheran friend and an Episcopalian friend during our retreat at Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist monastery.

One of my friends said that she was glad not to be singing "A Mighty Fortress is Our God."  She said that she preferred the honesty of the Psalms.

We got in touch with Christian roots that are much more ancient than the roots that we usually celebrate during Reformation Sunday.

What ancient church traditions call to you this Reformation Sunday?

What new forms do you yearn to create?

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Poetry Thursday: A Poem for Breast Cancer Month

My breast cancer blog posts this week have put me in mind of a series of poems I wrote 15-20 years ago, when I used illness of all sorts as metaphor.

I think of the poems I wrote in a time that feels very long ago, poems where I take on the persona of a sick person.  My undergraduate self would have declared that we shouldn't create a black narrator if we were white, that men couldn't tell the stories of women.  My undergraduate self would have hurled accusations of appropriating stories.  Did I do the same thing with the poem below?

I wrote it about 15 years ago, when I was young and didn't really know anyone, except for my mother's cousin, who had suffered breast cancer.  Now I know far too many people who have been afflicted with cancers of all kinds--and many of them seem much too young (in their 40's) to have come down with rare cancers.

Someone once asked me, perhaps with a tinge of anger, if I knew of anyone who had breast cancer.  When I stopped to count, I was amazed.  Some days, it might be easier to count the number of women I know who have had no cancers.  When you add in the women who have had scares that came to nothing, it includes almost every woman I know.

There's probably a poem in that last paragraph--or perhaps a piece of investigative journalism.  But this is my theology blog.

As such, I wondered if the poem below really belongs here with my theology of all sorts.  But I thought that it falls into the tradition of Psalms as lament, and perhaps those angry Psalms. 

This poem first appeared in the journal Lynx Eye.

Radiation Sicknesses

All through adolescence, I longed to be lean.
I tried every diet, existing on a concentration
camp allotment of calories, trying to ignore
my fierce cravings, waking up with covers in my mouth
or sleepwalking to the refrigerator.

Now a skeleton stares back from my mirror,
eyes I’ve only seen in photos of Hiroshima victims.
I have achieved thinness, successfully svelte
beyond my wildest imaginings. I crave
no nourishment, cannot force food on myself.
Radiation treatments and chemo work miracles
my teenage mind could not create.

I spent my younger years dreaming of thinness, dreading
nuclear holocaust. I scanned the horizon for the flash
and mushroom cloud that never came.
I expected to lose my hair and vomit away my adult
life. I just didn’t expect to expose myself intentionally.

Bomb my breast with radiation.
The only thing missing:
the wail of air raid sirens.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, October 25, 2015:

First Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34

Psalm: Psalm 46

Second Reading: Romans 3:19-28

Gospel: John 8:31-36

Here we are at another Reformation Sunday. As we celebrate the actions of Martin Luther centuries ago, you may be wondering what we’re experiencing right here.

Maybe you’re in an angry space; maybe you’re saying, “Hey, I have some theses of my own that I’d like to nail to a nearby church door.” It’s been a tough few years for many of us, as we’ve watched our denominations wrestle with various issues.

Maybe you feel that the Church should move more quickly towards fully embracing the idea of same-sex marriage. Or maybe you feel it’s all moving too quickly. Maybe you despair and imagine God asking, “So, enough of these sexuality issues. What are you doing as a church to eliminate childhood hunger?”

Maybe you feel a bit of despair this Reformation Sunday as you think about the Reformations you thought you were witnessing. Maybe you’re wondering what happened to all that reform. Not too long ago, we might have thought that technology would transform us—or maybe we were ancient-future folks, hoping for more contemplative elements in our services, more praying of the liturgy of the hours, more pre-Reformation elements.

Maybe you’re feeling irritated as you wish we could just go back to being the church that we were in the 1950’s, before so many denominations lost their way. Maybe you’re tired of being the only one at work who’s living a liturgical life.

Or maybe you’re feeling joy. Maybe you’re delighting in hearing about different kinds of intentional communities. Maybe you’re seeing a different way to do Christian education which inspires hope for the next generation of believers. Maybe you’re feeling your creativity enhanced by your spiritual practices, or maybe it’s your spiritual life that’s enhanced by your artistic practices.

No matter where you are this Reformation Sunday, take comfort from the knowledge that the Church has always been in the process of Reformation. There are great Reformations, like the one we'll celebrate this Sunday, or the Pentecostal revolution that's only 100 years old, but has transformed the developing world (third worlds and those slightly more advanced) in ways that Capitalism never could. There are smaller ones throughout the ages as well. Movements which seemed earth-shattering at the time (monastic movements of all kinds, liberation theology, ordination of women, lay leadership) may in time come to be seen as something that enriches the larger church. Even gross theological missteps, like the Inquisition, can be survived. The Church learns from past mistakes as it moves forward.

Times of Reformation can enrich us all. Even those of us who reject reform can find our spiritual lives enriched as we take stock and measure what's important to us, what compromises we can make and what we can't. It's good to have these times where we return to the Scriptures as we try to hear what God calls us to do.

Once the dust settles, each of the previous time periods of Reformation has left the Church enriched, but enriched in ways that no one could have predicted--that's what makes it scary, after all. As we approach Reformation Sunday, I'd encourage each of us to tap our own inner Martin Luther. What is the Church doing well? What could be changed for the better? What part can we play?

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Female Cancers and Crankiness

Yesterday I wrote this post about my church's practice of having a breast cancer Sunday during October, which has become Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  My thoughts have continued in this direction.

Maybe I'm so aware of it because I go to a gym in a hospital to work out.  Maybe in other parts of the world, people aren't even aware of this month as having special cancer awareness.

Does other cancer warrant a whole month?  Maybe I'm just blissfully unaware of Colon Cancer Awareness month.

Now, before I go further, a few disclaimers.  Yes, I've lost people to cancers of all sorts, and yes, I understand the importance of early intervention.

But why no Lung Cancer Awareness month?  Lung cancer kills more women each year than any other kind of cancer.

Why no Ovarian Cancer Awareness month?  Imagine what might happen if the same resources went to solving ovarian cancer as we've spent on breast cancer.  Right now, most women won't discover that they have ovarian cancer until it's far too late.  What if we could develop some kind of test that would insure early detection?

I could write a feminist essay about how breasts have more cachet in our patriarchal culture, and thus, it's easy to have a breast cancer awareness month.  Lungs just don't have that same kind of pretty sex appeal.

I could write an investigative essay about how various foundations and individual crusaders have taken their personal battles to new levels.  What if one of those early crusaders had suffered from ovarian cancer instead of breast cancer?

But then I wonder if I should be writing about any of this at all.  Maybe I shouldn't let my crankiness get the best of me.

I will try to let go of my crankiness about Breast Cancer Awareness month by being grateful for my own good health.  I will be grateful that we live in a world that has changed so that we can talk about these diseases, so that people with these diseases won't feel so alone.  I will pray for those stricken by disease, by hoping for a world where cells never go cancerous.

And later this week, a poem!

Monday, October 19, 2015

Meditation for Breast Cancer Sunday

Our church has an annual Breast Cancer Sunday.  I wonder if other churches do.

In the spirit of full confession, let me admit to feeling queasiness about our annual breast cancer Sunday.  I feel a bit nervous by just confessing my queasiness.  I am not opposed to healing services.  But this particular Sunday with its focus on this particular disease makes me uneasy.

We could argue that we need to make people aware.  But surely anyone who's been conscious for any amount of time understands how to screen for this disease and the importance of early detection.

In fact, I would argue that the focus on breast cancer obscures other health issues.  Did you know that breast cancer is not the cancer that kills the most women?  No.  It's lung cancer.

And if we want to focus on the biggest killer of women, we'd have Heart Disease Sunday.

I know plenty of people who have suffered from breast cancer.  It's not that I don't have a face to go with the disease.  There are far too many faces in my memory.

Happily, most of those faces are still attached to living bodies.  I know of more people who have died of other cancers.

I will confess to theological thoughts that seem almost heretical in this past two years of many cancers.  I don't usually spend much time thinking of cancer, but in these past two years, a colleague has died of pancreatic cancer, a friend died because of a cancerous brain tumor that returned, a colleague has battled colon cancer that travelled to his liver, and my best friend from high school died of cancer of the esophagus.  The thought of cancer is never far from my consciousness.

I have found myself wondering about where cancer fits into God's plan.  I don't believe that our lives are set on a predetermined path, but I do believe that God has created everything with meticulous attention to detail.  How do I square that belief with a cancer cell?  The cancer cell undoes such a beautiful creation, the human body.  It looks like a design flaw to me. 

But here's the heretical thought:  maybe it looks like a design flaw, but it's not.  Maybe I think of it as a design flaw because I am human-centered.  Do we believe in a God who loves every element of creation equally?  I say that I do, but my belief falters in the face of cancer cells.

I think of those Bible verses that has God caring for a sparrow and knowing every hair on the human head.  Does God care equally for the cancer cell?

If I was a good theologian, I'd have an answer.  I don't.  I don't even have a Bible reference that helps me make sense of my quandary.

My creative practices help me with my theological quandary about God and cancer cells.  My creative processes have helped me to be comfortable with long periods of not knowing a clear direction.  I begin to write a novel, for example, in a place of uncertainty.  Do I have characters who are worthy of a book?  What will happen to them?  What's the purpose of this novel?  I don't have to know for sure, but I have to keep going.

I don't know for sure how cancer fits into the plan for creation.  Is it evidence of a fallen aspect of creation?  Or perhaps the cancer cell fits a larger purpose that I can't even conceive of--because, after all, I'm not God.

But I have trust in the Easter message that death does not have the final answer.  I have trust in a Creator and a creation that commits to resurrection on a daily basis.  With that faith, I can continue.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Feast Day of St. Luke

Today is the feast day of St. Luke.  Many of us might use this feast day to think about our physical health; St. Luke is the patron saint of doctors and surgeons. He's also the patron saint of artists, students, and butchers--there's likely a poem there, a poem about people who deconstruct, who reconstruct, who hack and who stitch.

The feast day of St. Luke offers us a reason to evaluate our own physical health—why wait until the more traditional time of the new year? Using St. Luke as our inspiration, let’s think about the ways we can promote health of all kinds. 

In terms of our physical health, are we overdue for any check-ups?  Do we need to recalibrate so that our unhealthy habits don't overtake us?  Do we need to add some practices to our lives so that we protect our physical and mental health?

Maybe we need to add some creative practices.

 St. Luke was a writer (he gets credit for the Biblical books of Luke and Acts).  He's also given credit as one of the first iconographers.  Today would be a great day to write our own Gospel that tells about the Good news that we're seeing in the world.  Or we could celebrate this patron saint of artists this way with the visual arts.

 We could experiment with a variety visual arts to see how they could enrich our mental and spiritual health. We might choose something historical and traditional, like iconography. Or we might decide that we want to experiment with something that requires less concentration and training. Maybe we want to create a collage of images that remind us of God’s abundance. Maybe we want to meditate on images, like icons, like photographs, that call us to healthy living.

St. Luke is also the patron saint of students.  Maybe it's time to plan for a class we want to take in January.

Or maybe we just want to make a beef stew; St. Luke is also the patron saint of butchers.  This NPR webpage gives a great beef stew recipe, and a link to an interview between Fresh Air's Terry Gross and the America's Test Kitchen chefs which tells how to maximize flavors in your beef stew along with other culinary chemistry wonders.

We are perched just before the beginning of a time of the year that is most hectic for many of us, that corridor between Halloween and New Year's.  Let us take some time to put some practices in place that will keep us safe as we travel that path.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Support Your Local Church's Pumpkin Patch

I am part of a church that offers a pumpkin patch every year.  It's a huge undertaking, from the offloading of the pumpkins to the selling of them.

Our church funds a variety of special projects and ongoing ministries with this pumpkin patch.  When we had a traditional Sunday school, funds went there.  We've used the funds to help repair the roof that covers the part of the building that is more used by community groups than by the church..  We continue to use the funds to pay for Vacation Bible School, an event which is attended by more neighborhood children than church member children.

I love the fact that the pumpkin patch itself is a form of community outreach and a service of sorts.  I love that it funds other community services.

So, this week-end, as you prepare for Halloween, drop by a local church pumpkin patch.  Your dollars will go further than if you bought a pumpkin at a grocery store. 

 If you're in South Florida and you want to support my church, it's Trinity Lutheran at the corner of 72nd and Pines Blvd, across the street (but on the same side of the street) from the South campus of Broward College.

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Setting Up the Sincere Pumpkin Patch

I am not as sore this morning as I expected to be.  Why might I be sore?

I spent a good chunk of yesterday afternoon and evening doing this:

Photo taken by Pastor Keith Spencer

Not the most flattering picture of me, I admit, but in many ways, my blogs capture my life, in most aspects (the ugliest, most unbloggable bits are on paper, waiting for some future grad student to stumble across them).

Yes, yesterday was the great pumpkin offload.  Every year in October, my church sells pumpkins, lots of pumpkins.  And before we can do that, we need to get them off the truck, an 18 wheeler.  That takes lots of people.

I've been part of the offload for three years now.  The first year, the offload lasted late into the evening.  We were still unloading pumpkins in the dark.  Last year, we finished earlier, but the experience still left me sore.

I'm less sore today.  I did get home and soak my entire body in the chilly pool, which might have helped.  I took ibuprofen last night, rather than waiting for my back to scream at me.

We had more people helping last night.  The first year I went to help, it was a skeleton crew.  I think that experience had many people asking people to help, instead of hoping that they would.  Hence, the less strenuous experience of last year and last night.

We also had fewer pumpkins to offload.  We only pay for what we sell, so the farmer who ships the pumpkins sent us fewer this year.

Photo taken by Pastor Keith Spencer

As always, I'm struck by the ways that our pumpkin patch serves as spiritual formation.  I love the way it brings our church together.  Much like Vacation Bible School, it's a time period where we need everyone to help out when and where they can.  Some of us offload pumpkins.  Some of us sell them.  Some of us show up in the evenings to turn the pumpkins to keep them from rotting.

It's church service that also supports the community.  We use the money that we raise for education--some years VBS, some years sending youth to the national gathering, some years for supplies.  One year the money helped repair the roof--it might not seem like supporting the community until one thinks about how many community organizations use our building, from AA groups to the drama group for developmentally disabled youth. 

The sight of a pumpkin patch in front of a church does provide some visibility in the time of year when most motorists aren't noticing us.  We have lots of people stopping by who would ordinarily never give us a second thought.  We have brochures that tell people about our church.  But I doubt that pumpkin purchasers ever come back for worship.

Last night, though, as I watched the first pumpkin patch customers stop by, I thought about the small children and their joy at choosing pumpkins.  Would that ever translate into a later yearning for church?

Of course, that's not why we do it--if we wanted to plant that kind of seed, we'd do something less labor intensive. 

This morning I'm full of gratitude.  I love having seasonal markers, even when our weather hasn't shifted.  I'm happy that I can still carry pumpkins, even though I've had more aches and pains in the past year than I'm used to.  I'm happy to be part of this wonderful church community.  I'm grateful for the workers who grew the pumpkins and the soil that nurtured them.  I wonder how much longer those distant fields, in the parched western part of the U.S., can sustain this life.

Photo taken by Pastor Keith Spencer

It's a potent reminder of how much life changes.  I want to adopt a more sacramental approach to life.  I want to see evidence of God's grace all around me, in the lowliest gourd, in the greatest pumpkin, in every human who crosses my path.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, October 18, 2015:

Isaiah 53:4-12

Psalm 91:9-16

You have made the LORD your refuge, and the Most High your habitation. (Ps. 91:9)

Hebrews 5:1-10

Mark 10:35-45

Imagine being one of the 12 disciples; imagine the possible rivalries. Every so often, as with this Sunday’s Gospel, we see the very human side of the disciples.

Most of us, from the time we are little children, we want to be loved best in all the world. Unfortunately, many events happen to convince us that love is rare, and that if one person is loved, it means we must be loved less. Humans tend to see love as finite and to feel like there’s not enough to go around.

If Jesus was a different kind of leader, he might have decided to pit the disciples against each other, so that he could feed his own ego watching them compete for his favor. Those of you from dysfunctional families or Machiavellian workplaces have probably seen this technique in use.

Happily, we don’t worship that kind of God. We might expect Jesus to be a leader of comfort and compassion. We might expect Jesus to figure out a way to respond so that everyone gets to feel good about themselves and be assured that Jesus loves them all exactly the same.

We don’t worship that kind of God either.

Jesus reminds them that they don’t know what they’re asking. Again and again, Jesus tells his disciples, and centuries of believers to come, that the last will be first. Again and again, Jesus stresses that we're here to serve. Following Jesus isn't about self-empowerment. We don't follow Jesus because we hope to become rich. Other religions, like Capitalism, might make that promise, but not Christianity. Christianity is NOT just a big self-improvement program.

Sure, we might become better people, but not by the route that the larger world offers us. Christ tells us that we fulfill our destiny by serving others. It goes against most everything else we've ever learned. We're not supposed to look out for number one? We're not supposed to be most concerned about ourselves and our families? No, we're not.

You might feel as much despair over the need to have a servant’s heart as you did by last Sunday’s Gospel about giving away all our wealth. But here again, we can change our trajectory by taking small steps.

For some of us, if we really start to live a Gospel life, it will take practice and undoing of a past life of bad habits. Start small. Do good deeds for people that you like. Practice radical patience. Be on the lookout for all the people who need your smile or a kind word. Let other people take the credit for your ideas. Give away more money. Add some more prayer time to your day to focus on the needs of others.  Go through your day as the monks do, offering prayers for the world periodically throughout the day.
Ask God to show you how to have a servant's heart.

Maybe God will call you to heal others, like St. Luke, whose feast day we celebrate on October 18. Maybe we will have a different apostle as a role model. There are many ways to serve, and a vast world in need of our service.

Who knows where this path may lead? But we know that Christ calls us to follow it. By imitating Christ, we can change ourselves, and in the process, we can change the world.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Post Storm Strategies

We like rivers that stay within their borders as they lazily drift towards the sea:

We don't like the reminders of the laws of Physics that govern the planet, the storms of the century, the thousand year floods:

We want to believe that we are creating structures that will outlast us, modern cathedrals that will make our descendants marvel:

We persevere, even though we know it could all be swept away in an afternoon.  We build the buildings,

Cornerstone for Mepkin Abbey Chapel

plant the flowers,

write the words,

capture the images:

In this way, we walk the labyrinth of life:

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Lessons of Columbus and Our Spiritual Lives

Writing time is short this morning, so let me run a Columbus Day post that I wrote a few years ago.  It's one of my favorite meditations on Columbus.

Today we celebrate Columbus Day: October 12 was the actual day of the first sighting of land after almost 2 months at sea. I’m always amazed at what those early explorers accomplished. At Charlestowne Landing (near Charleston, SC), I saw a boat that was a replica of the boat that some of the first English settlers used to get here. It was teeny-tiny. I can't imagine sailing up the coast to the next harbor in it, much less across the Atlantic. Maybe it would have been easier, back before everyone knew how big the Atlantic was.

In our spiritual lives, we may be feeling a bit like Columbus. Let’s ask some questions prompted by Columbus Day, questions that may lead us to some meaningful meditations.

Below, when I talk about our spiritual lives, I’m talking about our individual lives and expressions of spirituality, as well as our corporate spiritual lives, the lives we live in the company of fellow believers.

--In our spiritual lives, are we the explorer or are we the native populations of new continents? Or are we members of the Old World? In other words, are we always striking out for new lands? Or are we waiting to be discovered? Are we so tied to our traditions that we can’t even imagine how our lives could be different?

--As spiritual people, how long are we willing to be at sea? I’m part of a church tradition, mainstream Protestantism, that looks back longingly to the 1950’s, when it seemed that everybody made time for church. Many of us hope that we will soon return to a time when church returns to its central location. But we may have only started our time at sea, on a voyage of discovery. Can we trust God? Can we continue to hold onto our faith when we're in the middle of a vast ocean, with nothing but our instruments and the stars to guide us, with no sense of how far away the land for which we're searching might be?

--We may be certain we’re on a quest to find one kind of wealth. In the process, we may discover something completely different, something far more valuable? Will we recognize the value of what we find?

--The explorations in North and South America changed our cooking forever. Imagine a culinary life without corn, sweet peppers, tomatoes. Imagine life without chocolate. What ways can our spirituality enrich our cultures?

--Of course, if I was looking through the Native American lens, I might say, "Imagine life without smallpox." What are the possible negative impacts implicit in the collision between secular culture and sacred culture? Can we mitigate those? Should we mitigate those?

--These explorations wouldn’t have been possible without the patronage of the wealthiest of society members. In our current world, many of us are some of the wealthiest people on the planet. North Americans may not feel like it, but we’re the Isabella and Ferdinand of our time. What projects should we be funding? What spiritual projects will make the kind of lasting legacy of funding the voyage of Columbus?

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Your Giving Allows Others to Give

At the end of September, we had breakfast with a man we first met as our campus pastor and professor of Religion.  I've written a bit about that morning here, but I want to record some thoughts which have come back to me through the last 11 days.

Our campus pastor has gone on to be a parish pastor, and when he retired, he started working for Novus Way, which runs 4 Lutheran camps.  Lately, he's been raising funds for a campaign to expand Luther Springs.

It's an amazing turn of events, because not too long ago (12 years?), Luther Springs was close to insolvency, and now, the camp has to turn away participants because there's not enough space.

Our former campus pastor talked about his experience going to churches and synod meetings and the smaller units that make up the synods.  He has noticed that pastors tend to think that people won't donate, but when he talks to the people, they are happy to donate.

And he has also noticed what many a person has already observed:  one person's gift allows others to feel comfortable giving.

In my younger days, I thought my giving was useless, because I had so little money.  In my midlife days, I still feel like I don't have the kind of money that would allow me to fund the whole project.  I know that all of us donating smaller bits of money can add up to the whole project, and so I donate.

What I forget:  my giving signals others that this project is worthwhile.  In some way, it's my giving (or your giving, or anyone's giving) that gives others permission to give, and often more generously than they might have otherwise.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

For the Beauty of the Earth, For the Beauty of the Skies

I have been watching Venus from my writing room window for weeks now.  And this morning, I can also see Jupiter.  As the moon rose higher, I watched for Mercury, but never saw its dim light.

Pam Ward-Reagan's picture

Later in the month, we will be able to see 2 other planets with our naked eyes.  For more on this morning's sky layout, go to this site.  The moon is beautiful this morning:  a slim crescent with the outline of the moon above it.

I'm reminded of an old saying about the old moon cradling the new moon in its arms.  But I don't have any cameras that can capture what I saw this morning.

I also didn't have a camera to capture the sunrise on Thursday.  It, too, was breathtaking, but in a different way than the astronomy lessons of these past several pre-dawn mornings.

My sense of wonder at God's amazing creation even stretches to the animal that used my pool as a toilet.  I suspect it was a raccoon.   Last week we heard chittering noises.  I said to my spouse, "Is it inside or outside the house?"  When he said outside, I assumed we would go back to sleep.  But he went to investigate.

There were 2 raccoons, one in our pool, and one out.  Luckily the one that was in was still alive and could pull himself out.  Later we found our small beach ball deflated by claws or teeth.

I find it amazing that we have raccoons visiting us, even though we're not near any sort of forest.  Again, I give thanks for the diversity of creation.

I'm reminded of that old hymn, which was one of my favorites of my youth.  I'll post the first stanza here, and I'll hum it all day.  I changed the last line to be the one I remember.

"For the beauty of the earth,
   For the beauty of the skies,
For the Love which from our birth
   Over and around us lies:
Christ, our God, to Thee we raise
This our hymn of grateful praise."

Friday, October 9, 2015

Switching Out the Prayer Books

This week I switched out my prayer books.  I use Phyllis Tickle's The Divine Hours for my fixed hour prayer. It's a 3 volume set, so three times a year, I trade out prayer books, taking book marks from one and adding them to the next one. Each time, I shake my head at how quickly time zooms by.

I've been using these wonderful books since Advent of 2005. In 2004, I went to Mepkin Abbey, and I really wanted something to help me pray through the day. I picked up a book in the bookstore. I was attracted to its small size. But each prayer encounter was almost too short. It didn't really replicate the Mepkin experience.

As I was reading Henri Nouwen's Genesee Diary, I realized that I really wanted a prayer book that was calibrated to the liturgical seasons. I wanted to be reading Advent verses at Advent, for example. And so, I made the leap.

I'm happy to have also discovered these prayers on an Internet site, so that I don't have to carry the books around with me. Would I have bought the books had I known of the Internet source? Probably. It's nice to be able to pray without a computer.

Some of you would say that you don't need a book to pray, which, of course, is true. But for those of us who need the structure, fixed hour prayer can work well. For those of us who can't figure out what to say when we pray, fixed hour prayer can work well. I love the idea of being part of a world-wide prayer web.

And of course, the Tickle volumes are just one of many resources. As I've blogged before, many people are rediscovering the value of this ancient discipline, people of many different denominations.

This time as I switched the prayer books, I took a minute to realize that Phyllis Tickle died a few weeks ago.  There wasn't much coverage of her death, for so many reasons.  But I imagine when future scholars write about the church history being made during the last two decades, her name will be prominent for so many reasons.  One of those reasons will surely be the revival in fixed hour prayer that she spearheaded.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Rahab and Faithfulness

My church is off lectionary for a few months.  Thus Sunday, we will ponder the story of Rahab, found in Joshua 2:  1-23.

In this passage, we find the story of faithful Rahab, who protects the Israelite spies from the townspeople planning to kill them and assists their escape from the town.  She bargains for protection for her family during the coming invasion, and she is promised what she wants if she follows instructions.

Traditionally her story is told as one that demonstrates faithfulness and reward for that faithfulness.  I worry about that interpretation and how we might see it if we feel we are not being rewarded.  Will we criticize ourselves for not being faithful enough?  I hope not.

I have Christian martyrs on the brain as I read the story of Rahab.  I think of all the people who sheltered Jews during the time of the Holocaust--many people survived because of those efforts, but let us not forget those who were killed because of their faithfulness.

I also see this as a story of how God will use the outcast of society to transform that society.  Think about Rahab, who was a prostitute--not only a woman, but the lowest kind of woman in patriarchal society.  Yet without her assistance, the Israelite spies would have been killed.  She not only shelters them, but she tells them how to survive and escape.  She knows the land, in a way that people in a higher rung of society might not.

What motivates some of us to provide assistance and some of us to turn away?  It's hard to know, but of one thing we can be certain:  God can use any one of us.  We may assume that since we don't have money or power or importance, that we are not essential--our culture beams that message to us every day.  Watch network TV and see for yourself.

But the Bible shows us story after story of the most unlikely people turned into agents of God's vision for creation.  If a prostitute like Rahab has a starring role, there is room for all of us.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The lessons for Sunday, October 11, 2015:

First Reading: Amos 5:6-7, 10-15

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Job 23:1-9, 16-17

Psalm: Psalm 90:12-17

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 22:1-15

Second Reading: Hebrews 4:12-16

Gospel: Mark 10:17-31

So, far, this month is proving to be Tough Text month. I suspect most Americans will have more problems with this text than with the divorce text of last week.

We've spent centuries rationalizing our way around the demands of this text. We talk about how the needle's eye is really a gate in Jerusalem (something that scholars doubt), so that we can convince ourselves that one could be both rich and righteous, even if that might be rare. We return to our stewardship messages, reminding each other that Jesus calls us to be generous. We consider a tough stewardship message one that asks people to give away 10% of their income.

No, Jesus has the tough stewardship message: sell what you have and give the money to the poor.


I've had this argument with believer and non-believer alike, who say, "You can't really believe that Jesus means that literally."

Yes, in fact, I do. And of course, the next question: "Why aren't you doing that then?" Well, sadly, I'm as attached to my possessions--and their symbolic security--as the next person.

The last decade has taught us much about the danger of counting on our possessions for security. We've seen how quickly wealth can be liquidated--and for what. I remember getting an account statement after a particularly volatile quarter.  As I considered the drop in value, I thought of how much happier I might be had I given that money to the poor instead of hoarding it for my future. Now it's vanished, gone, like steam. No one has benefited--except, perhaps, for the people who made a profit off my money before it vanished. And I'm fairly certain the poor didn't see the benefit of that.

Jesus returns to this message again and again: our attachment to money is spiritually dangerous, the biggest spiritual danger that most of us face. Comparatively speaking, he doesn't spend much time at all on other sins. He never talks directly about homosexuality, the issue that's splitting so many churches. But he returns again and again to the message that the rich must share with the poor.

Jesus calls us to radical generosity. We are to do more than just follow a set of laws, like the young man was so capable of doing. We are to jettison our stuff, so that we're more able to follow Christ. Jesus calls us to give away our wealth, so that our grasping hands can be open for the blessings that God wants to give us. We are to unclench our hands, release our money (and fear), and trust in God.

But the good news of this Gospel is that Jesus loves us where we are. So you're not radically generous right now. Start where you are. Increase your giving by 1%. Pick up the check more often when you go out with friends. You've got a lot of possessions gathering dust, and you probably know some young people just starting out who could use them. Leave larger tips. Quit complaining about your taxes.

Like every other spiritual trait, we grow stronger as we practice. Unclench those greedy, grasping hands.   Open your hands and your heart to the gifts that God wants to give you.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Love in a Time of Climate Chaos

Last night, I had a Facebook chat with a dear friend in Columbia, South Carolina who was waiting to see if she would be evacuated should a dam break.  She lives on a bit of a hill that overlooks the main road, with no lake or river nearby--and she might be evacuated.

In the end, she wasn't.  But how surreal to be exchanging information about the weather, thoughts about how to secure what might be left behind, ideas about how the scenario would end if we transformed it into a movie, chat about how we both couldn't sleep when a storm is in the area--all the while knowing that a knock on the door could come at any moment.

I thought of all the ways we are lucky:  if she had to leave, I could likely keep track of her.  She was not swept away by the first round of flooding like so many people were.  Above all, we live in a first world country, which, while our government cannot control the forces of the weather, it can respond in the aftermath.  We do not have to fear rebel forces who will sweep in to take advantage of chaos.  We will not be taken away to camps, never to see our homelands again.  Our houses will be rebuilt.

Of course, the minute I wrote that last sentence, I thought about all the flooding victims who will not see their homes rebuilt.  I'm thinking of the obvious Hurricane Katrina examples, but there have been many epic floods in the last 10 years--here and throughout the world.

I am already missing the planet we used to have.  And yet, I understand that the planet has never been in a state of stasis.  I realize that we can count on nothing but change.

I wonder how our societal institutions will change in a time of climate chaos.  There are the obvious examples of providing help; I was touched by how many of my South Carolina friends were organizing water deliveries, even when the roads to the victims were still flooded.

Institutions will also be needed to provide other kinds of comfort--and courage, along with the comfort.  Our deepest ideas and ideals will be tested. 

As institutions, are there ways we can prepare for those challenges now?

Monday, October 5, 2015

A Prayer for Those Who Face the Flood

I have lived in several parts of South Carolina, before moving to Florida, and I'm seeing pictures from across South Carolina, particularly Columbia--yikes!  I can scarcely comprehend the scope of that flooding.  I'm seeing buildings that I recognize, buildings with water almost up to the roof.  I'm seeing road and interstates that I recognize that look like rivers now.

I am reminded that nothing--nothing--that I have to deal with this week is of any consequence at all.  I still have some staffing of classes left to figure out, but I am safe and dry, my house is not damaged, the city's water system is still operating, and no one is in danger from the decisions that I make.

I am hoping that dry up and clean up go quickly and that everyone is safe when the floodwaters recede.  But let me do more than hope.  Let me pray:

Oh God of All Weather, please be with your people who cannot escape the relentless rain.  Please bring them comfort as they sit in the darkness, waiting for the restoration of services.  When the floodwaters recede, please be with them as they face the enormous clean up.  Remind us all of your promise

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Feast Day of St. Francis

On Oct. 4, we celebrate the life of St. Francis of Assisi. Many congregations will do this by having a pet blessing service. Here again, we see a powerful life story reduced to something significantly more mundane. I would argue that the church almost always does this reduction act – and why? Why give up the power of these stories that way? We see that in our approach to Jesus Christ, and in our approach to every other believer who has a dramatic story. Are we afraid of the implications?

We often remember St. Francis because of his work, "The Canticle for the Creatures." Many people see him as one of the early environmentalists. I have no problem with animal rights crusaders and the environmental movement, but it's important to remember that St. Francis was so much more.

He spent many years of his early ministry living with lepers and caring for them. He gave up everything he owned – and he was rich – in a quest for a more authentic life. He inspired others to follow the same path, and he founded two religious orders that still thrive.

In churches that celebrate the life of St. Francis, will we hear these parts of the story? I doubt it. Those are the parts of the story that are threatening to the social order. We can't have young people behaving in the way that St. Francis did. What on earth would happen then?

Our society would be transformed. And one of the ways that Christians have let down their faith, this is one of the most damning: We dampen the transformative message of the gospel or we dumb it down into some sort of self-help drivel. The gospel can transform us as individuals, sure, but then we are called to go out and transform our societies. God has called us to do redemptive work.

So, on this day when we celebrate the life of St. Francis, let's consider how we treat our pets and how we treat our modern-day lepers. I'm willing to bet that the community in which you live pets are treated much, much better than lepers. Think about how your church would react if someone brought their pet dog or cat to church. Now think about how your church would react if a drunk, smelly, raggedy person walked in.

Lately, I've been thinking about the care we offer our pets and contrasting that care with the amount of care we give ourselves. We often do no better at taking care of ourselves than we do of taking care of the poor and outcast of our society. I've known more than one person who cooked better meals for their dogs than they do for themselves. You can probably offer similar examples: Humans who make sure that their pets see dentists, even when the human members of the family don't take care of their teeth, dogs who see therapists, pets who get wonderful treats that humans deny themselves – the list could go on and on.

Why is it so hard to achieve balance in our societies? Why can't we take care of the destitute in the same way we take care of our pets? Why does self-care often fall to the bottom of our to-do lists? Why do we practice self-care and then not do the larger work of caring for the world?  Why do so many of us care for creation so badly or not at all?

As we think about the life of St. Francis, let's think about the wealth that we have and the ways that we can share it. Let's think about the earth and the ways we can care for our patch of the planet. Let's think about all the voiceless members of our society: plants, pets, children, the destitute, the elderly. Let us resolve to follow the model of St. Francis long after we’ve left the pet blessing service.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Obvious Beauty, Elusive Joy

In 2009 at Mepkin Abbey, I chased a butterfly--but not with a net, with a camera.  I wanted the perfect picture:

Is the picture above the perfect picture or the one below?

What we forget when we see perfect pictures:  all the imperfect pictures that we also took:

My pastor does amazing work with a camera.  He says that for every perfect picture, he takes dozens if not hundreds of shots that aren't quite what he was going for.

As I look at the shots that I missed, I'm struck by the beauty of the plants that are part of the labyrinth where I chased the butterfly:

What other beauties might we miss when we focus on the more elusive joys?

How can we remain mindful?

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Lutheran Field Report

Yesterday, we had a wonderful breakfast with our old campus pastor and Religion professor who was in town.  He came to our house, and then we headed to the beach.  We drove because it was a hot and humid morning.  We had a tasty breakfast with a lovely view, although it was scorchingly hot with no breeze.

Over breakfast, we had a great conversation about the value of turning off cell phones so that face-to-face connection can be made.  We talked about the value of church camp, as a way to leave our technology behind for a time. 

We talked about how rare it is to share a meal with not one cell phone on the table.  We talked about how many people say that the only face to face conversations that they have is at camp, where connectivity is iffy.

We also caught up on news of classmates and news of Lutherans from across the southeast.  Our former campus pastor does a lot of travelling from Synod to Synod on behalf of Novus Way, which oversees 4 Lutheran church camps.  He says he's energized by what he sees going on in individual churches and Synods.  He noted that lay people, especially, these days are doing amazing things.

How wonderful to hear this report from the field.  How wonderful to be still be connected in so many ways.

I left for work feeling nourished in all sorts of ways.