Thursday, December 31, 2015

Spiritual Resolutions: Keeping the Light Lit

Ah, that time of year again, when we make resolutions.  Many of us will begin our diets tomorrow.  We'll start an exercise program in the next week.  We'll cut down on our drinking or other bad habits.

Some of us might make spiritual resolutions.  Maybe this is the year we'll pray more.  Maybe we'll go on a retreat.  Maybe we'll be in church every week.  Perhaps we'll crochet a prayer shawl or work on a quilt for refugees.  Maybe this will be the year that we give 12% or 15% of our income--or maybe we'll finally achieve our goal of tithing.

Any of these resolutions would be a perfectly fine thing--even if we only did them for a month or two.  But perhaps this is the year to think about the larger reasons for why we do the things we do.

In the past, many of my resolutions, both spiritual and secular, revolved around me, me, me.  This year, I'd like to think about the larger culture.  How can my resolutions help improve the world around me?

When I think about my past year's spiritual highlights, I remember the Godspa Women's Retreat in September.  But I don't remember it because it strengthened me spiritually, although it did.  It was a highlight because it brought me closer to the women in my church--and those relationships have strengthened our local church in a number of ways.

Similarly, I think of our Christmas day experience of taking a peace lily and a card to the Muslim mosque that's down the street from our Lutheran church.  While it was interesting to experience a Muslim service, I have hopes that we did more that day--that we helped build our South Florida community.

This year, I want to adopt a simple spiritual resolution.  As I move through the day, each and every day, I want to be aware; I want to ask myself, "Are you building community or are you tearing it apart?"

I live in a world of fraying fabric when it turns to community.  There aren't huge, gaping holes, not yet, but the unraveling is clear.  My workplace is full of anxiety about the future, as I imagine many halls of higher education are these days.  For much of the day, every day, I am surrounded by people who are upset, people who are sorrowful, people who are angry beyond reason, people who spend their hours haunted by worst case scenarios.   I turn on the TV, and it's more of the same.  Even moving through the world eavesdropping on the conversations of strangers, I hear negativity and doubt and suspicion. 

I want to keep that Christmas message in my head all year.  I want to remember that although we live in a land of deep darkness, the darkness will not overcome the light.  I want to work to let more light into the world, not to dampen out all the lights around me.

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, Jan. 3, 2016:

First Reading: Jeremiah 31:7-14

First Reading (Alt.): Sirach 24:1-12

Psalm: Psalm 147:13-21 (Psalm 147:12-20 NRSV)

Psalm (Alt.): Wisdom of Solomon 10:15-21

Second Reading: Ephesians 1:3-14

Gospel: John 1:[1-9] 10-18

I'm thinking about this Sunday's Gospel as the year ends.  I'm doing my end of year accounting:  what have I written, what have I published, where has my food/alcohol/caloric drink consumption gone off track, how did I do with exercise?  I also think about more important stuff:  how well did I do in staying in a state of gratitude, how present was I to others, how well did I do with sharing my money and time, how tuned in was I to God?

It's much too easy to fall into a state of deep depression, as I realize all the goals I had a year ago, and all the ways I met and didn't meet them.  My goals don't change much from year to year--thus, the next question:  why haven't I mastered all of this yet?

This year, I've decided to try to view myself and talk to myself the way that our loving God would do. No more castigating myself about the weight I've lost and regained and lost and regained again. No more disappointment about the poems that I haven't written. No more stern words to myself about the food I have and have not eaten.  I'll try to view each day as a day to become ever more connected to a sense of wonder.

The cool thing about our God, the Gospel reminds us, is that God came to live with us. And the Bible tells us that God probably sojourns with us more often than we recognize (think about all those visits by strangers in the Old Testament, strangers that turned out to be God in disguise). God understands the challenges that come with having a human body and brain. I like to think that God would not be as harsh in judging me as I have been. And if God can cut me a break, maybe I can learn to do that too.

And maybe, I'll have some success at some point. Or maybe, I'll learn to think about my successes, and give myself credit for them, rather than always focusing on the ways I haven't measured up. As I strategize throughout the year, I'm better at recognizing what I've accomplished, as I think about where I want to go. There's something about the New Year though, that brings out my harshest inner critic.

As you look at the trajectory of the Bible, you could make the case that God has had some false starts in God's project for redeeming creation. False starts, wrong turns, rough drafts--creativity specialists would tell us that these are necessary to get to success.

And what I often think of as a failure is not--it's just an unfinished project. Even with Jesus, which we might argue is one of God's success stories in the redemption of the world--that's an unfinished project. Jesus began (or continued, depending on your view) the salvation of the world, but you don't have to look far around you to realize that the world isn't exactly redeemed yet.

Our Scriptures and our spiritual ancestors remind us that we are not left abandoned. God never crumples up the rough drafts and throws them away--go back and reread the first creation story in Genesis; God declares everything "good" or "very good."  In John 14:18, Jesus promises, "I will not leave you orphaned; I will come to you." If God can take a long term view of redemption projects, so can we.

So, even if you've already broken your New Year's resolutions, don't give in to self-loathing. Remember that God finds humanity so fascinating, so worthy of attention, that God comes to be with us. And if God finds us redeemable, we should work on having a similar attitude.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

New Year's Resolution: To Issue More Invitations

As the new year approaches, many of us will be making resolutions in all areas of our lives.  What spiritual resolutions are we considering? 

I wrote an essay for Living Lutheran; in it, I consider why it's so easy to invite people to my church during the Christmas season than during the other seasons of the church year:  "But the larger issue remains: Why is it hard for me to invite people to church when we’re not doing fun activities? When we’re mired in the long season after Pentecost, for example, I often don’t feel enthusiastic about church myself, so it’s hard to invite people along."

That may be unfair to those summer months after Pentecost, I know.  And I also know that there are many out there who would tell me to get out of my own head--they might remind me that souls are on the line.

I don't think that the souls on the line, people will burn in hell approach to evangelism has ever worked--at least not in the last several decades.  But my thinking during December does give me insight to a way evangelism might work:  "The world has a variety of yearnings, and our churches can answer some of them. Shaping our invitations to be an answer to a heart's desire is a much more effective form of inviting than the blanket invitations that evangelical groups of my youth used to offer."

My New Year's resolution?  To offer more invitations, to be "more alert to people’s yearnings and the way my church is already working to fill them, and issue more invitations to give the Holy Spirit room to work."

Go here to read the whole essay.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Remembering the Slaughtered Innocents

Today we remember the slaughter of the innocent boys of Bethlehem, killed by Herod as he tries to get rid of any possible competition, even if that competition is newly born and not likely to challenge him for decades.  Below is the essay that I wrote that Living Lutheran published a year ago.

I remember the first time in my churchgoing life that Dec. 28, the day we commemorate the Holy Innocents, fell on a Sunday. The brave pastor actually preached on the slaughter of the Bethlehem boys by Herod’s orders. The pastor apologized for his lack of Christmas cheer.

I was old enough to be fascinated by this juxtaposition between Christmas and martyrdom. Soon after, I discovered that the feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, falls on the day after Christmas.

What does it mean that the early church included these days commemorating martyrdom so close to Christmas? Why must we be plunged into messages of gloom so soon after the message of hope contained in the Christmas story?

Perhaps the early church was more aware of the darkness that’s always lurking at the edges of the cheer. But I suspect that every culture has done its best to repress the knowledge that martyrdom and other types of doom could be around the next corner.

I have Facebook friends who angrily talk about how much they loathe religion with its manmade deities manufactured to bring us false comfort – and I wonder what kind of religious tradition they’re invoking. Many a Christian feast day reminds us that we may pay an ultimate price for our beliefs.

But then again, this is the time of year when it’s tempting to spend extra time with the baby in the manger. He’s so cute, after all. We like the picture of that cozy stable, the animals who sing the baby to sleep, Mary and Joseph who find shelter.

This Christmas-card picture ignores the other facts: the lack of adequate shelter, the stink of the animals, the woman forced to give birth in unsanitary conditions, the brutal government that will soon force the family into refugee status.

We may want to forget, but Jesus never forgot. And if we’re honest, we can spend some time thinking about how many people still face these kinds of adverse conditions today. We are not so very far away from ancient Rome. In many ways, our societies have scarcely evolved at all.

Let us take some time away from our holiday festivities to remember those who have died for their faith. Let us offer prayers for those who are still persecuted. Let us take some time to remember the refugees who must flee abuse of all sorts. Let us light a candle as we remember God’s promise that the kingdom breaks through in the presence of the baby in the manger. Let us celebrate God’s vision of a kingdom where families will not have to flee the terror of tyrants, where the faithful will not be stoned for their beliefs.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Christmastide Continues

This week at our church, we will linger in the land of Christmas a bit longer.  We will have just one service, where we will hear the Christmas cantata again.  It's a more participatory cantata this year than in the past, so I don't mind.   It will likely be a smaller service, in terms of attendance.  My spouse and I will stay to count the money, which should be easier with the smaller attendance, plus we won't have to separate all the monetary gifts:  this one for the pastor, this one for the staff, this envelope for poinsettias, that one for food baskets, on and on.  Today, it all goes into the general fund.

I would encourage us not to leave Christmas behind too quickly. Many of us have had busy Decembers. We can leave our Christmas trees up for a few more days (twelve, even, until Jan. 6, Epiphany) to enjoy the vision we haven't had a chance to take in during our busy Advent. We can eat one last Christmas cookie, while we reflect on the past year, and plan for the year to come. We can pray for the patience of Simeon, for the wisdom of Anna, for the courage of Mary and Elizabeth and Joseph, who said yes to God's plan. We can pray that we have the boldness of John the Baptist, who declared the Good News.

We can pray for the strength to evolve into people of hope, people who watch and wait, confident in the knowledge that God fulfills all promises.

But let us not rest too long in the land of Christmas.  As our pastor reminded us a few years ago, if we leave Jesus as the baby in the manger, we've missed the point.

I have added to that thought as we moved through the liturgical year.  If we leave the savior on the cross, we've missed the point too.  But even the Easter story is only part of the larger point.

A thread runs through all these Good News stories.  Christmas reminds us that God breaks through into our regular lives in amazing ways.  The rest of the stories in the Gospels show us God doing just that.   God came to be with us, to experience human life in all the ways that we experience it--and that includes rejection and death.

The story of Jesus reminds us that death doesn't have the final answer.  Some Christians have decided that Jesus came to earth so that we can get a ticket to Heaven.  But that approach misses an important point too.

God wants to walk beside us not so that we'll get a ticket to Heaven.  God wants to walk with us so that we can be part of the redemption of creation.  Artists everywhere know that when we create together, we're likely to go in directions we wouldn't have anticipated.

God knows it too.

Let this be the year that we discover this great joy.  Let us be the people who have lived in a dark valley but who have seen a great light.  Let us live light-filled lives.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Celebrating Christmas by Visiting a Mosque

Yesterday was an unusual Christmas for us.  I'm beginning to think that there's no such thing as a usual Christmas, but yesterday was highly unusual.

At 1:15, we headed over to our church to be part of a group that took a peace lily and a card to the mosque that's down the street from our Lutheran church.  On the fourth Sunday in Advent, church members had an opportunity to write good wishes on the card:

Later, our pastor read the card to make sure that all would be well.  Happily, the most risky thing that anyone had written was "Merry Christmas."

Just before 2:00 on Christmas afternoon, we drove over to the mosque.  We weren't sure what to expect.  It's the kind of mosque with separate entrances for males and females, but after we took our shoes off, we were all seated in the male section on chairs.

Most of the males were seated on the floor.  Older males with mobility issues sat on chairs.  Some of the males stood up and then kneeled deeply with foreheads on the floor--some did this regularly, some only as they first came in, some not at all, and some followed a pattern I couldn't discern.

We were seated as the speaker (the imam?) delivered an address that seemed like a sermon.  The themes of the sermon weren't unfamiliar to me:  you show your love for Allah and his prophet Muhammad by being the best version of yourself.  People are judging all Muslims by our behavior, so pay attention to how you behave in the world.  It's not enough to behave properly, but you also need to act out of love.  The supremacy of love and the beating back of fear were themes woven through the 40 minute part that we heard.

People kept arriving throughout the talk.  After the talk, we got to witness the time of prayer.  I thought, I am a white, Christian woman seated on the male side of the mosque; I am not likely ever to witness this again.

The prayers were in Arabic (I think).  There was a time of standing, a time of deep kneeling, some motion similar to the crossing of oneself that some Christians do.  The leader did most of the chanting, and at one point, the men answered back.

It was a fascinating experience, all of it, from an ecumenical standpoint and from an exercise in modern Sociology/Anthropology.

I had one moment of disbelief tinged by fear, during the sermon time as more and more men filled the room.  I thought, what am I doing here, a good Lutheran girl surrounded by Muslim men--not safe, not safe, not safe!  And then I laughed at myself, a woman on a peace mission who feels that flare of fear.  I reminded myself that no one wants any trouble, that I'm in the U.S., not some remote part of the world--and even in a remote part of the world, I would likely be treated with respect.  Those horrific crimes, like the woman raped to death in India on a bus at Christmas a few years ago, those make the news because they are so bizarre and out of the ordinary.

I also know that my white skin and U.S. citizenship buys me protection that many females across the world don't have, but we weren't at the mosque to discuss that.  We were at the mosque to bring a message of peace and hope on Christmas day.  And I had noticed that there was a police officer on hand--not to protect me, but to protect the mosque.

In the South Florida area we've only had a few anti-Muslim incidents, some graffiti, and some of that just hateful or strange, not necessarily targeted at Muslims--they happened in the same week of some anti-Jewish incidents.  There's plenty of hate out there.

Luckily, the men in the mosque were very welcoming.  The leader invited us to the front to make a speech.  Our pastor gave our message of peace and good will and hope for continued co-existence.  Lots of men held up their phones and iPads and took pictures.  As we filed out, people shook our hands, thanked us for coming, wished us a Merry Christmas, and outside, offered us a fried falafel-like ball.

It was an amazing experience, one completely outside of our usual Christmas celebrations, but one that felt right at home.  As our pastor reminded us one Christmas Eve, if we leave the baby Jesus as a cute infant in the manger, we've lost the point.  Jesus came to equip us to do exactly what we did yesterday--to reach out to people who are very unlike us, to make community and neighbors out of unlikely groups.

It was a great way to celebrate the birth of Jesus, of God breaking into the world in new and unlikely ways.  It was a great way to let our light shine, so that the darkness does not overcome it.

Friday, December 25, 2015

Be Not Afraid!

Last night, we filed back to the sanctuary from the end of our 5 p.m. Christmas Eve service that opens and closes outside in the butterfly garden.  One of the little boys that I see regularly during Sunday services noticed me wiping my eyes.  He said, "Are you crying?"--imagine a tone of disbelief and a bit of condescension.

His mom came to my rescue, explaining that we sometimes cry when we're happy, that we don't always cry when we're sad.  The boy said, "You mean like in Star Wars, when [spoiler deleted]."

And then we chatted about that.  I was spared from having to explain how much our pastor's sermon had meant to me.  He had talked about refusing to give in to our fear.  He talked about larger geopolitical fears, but also our personal fears.  He talked about how many times Jesus commanded his disciples to let go of their fears. 

I haven't let myself realize how fearful I'd been feeling until that sermon.  I have spent much time this past week visiting my friend who is my age who is in the hospital with a collapsed lung that is taking its own sweet time to heal.  My aching feet make me realize that I'm not as young as I once was.  I find myself worrying about being a lonely, little old lady when I've outlived everyone, but I'm worried that may happen sooner rather than later.

I began the day catching up on old NPR shows, and I began Christmas Eve by listening to this episode of the Diane Rehm show, where religious leaders had a similar theme to my pastor's Christmas Eve sermon.  Some of the comments moved me so much that I copied them from the transcript, and I leave them here for your Christmas Day enjoyment.

"Well, fear washes over you. It's not necessarily something that you can control as I'm not decided to be afraid or not to be afraid. The gift of a faith tradition, of all of our faith traditions, they give us a place to go to help us understand and navigate fear in such a way that we don't perpetuate it or get caught up in the frenzy of it. And it seems to me that the gift and the importance of standing as friends in this moment is a way to remain firm in a belief system that overcomes fear. "  Episcopalian Bishop Budde

"And so, it's up to us, to then teach about the nature of what fear actually is. And there are tremendous teachings throughout the Jewish tradition, for example, that talk about how, in a sense, fear is an idolatry. That, that it is -- we are turning our fear into something that we are, ironically, worshipping instead of overcoming that fear and looking more deeply into our hearts about what we really are. And what really binds us together as human beings."  Rabbi Steinlauf

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Thinking about the Theology of "Star Wars" on Christmas Eve

I have seen the new Star Wars movie, and I will write a post that contains no spoilers.  I will also assume that we're familiar with the older movies, and that I'm not spoiling anything if I say that the new movie carries on with the familiar themes of light and dark, of duty, of right and wrong, of forces in the universe that surround us all.

Before I saw the movie, a friend and I were corresponding via Facebook about the themes of the movies.  I wrote, "The Force is always with you, even unto the ends of the earth."  I'm not sure she caught my Biblical allusion.  I was intrigued to see how much the new movie continues the idea of the Force as a variation of God.

I have always been uncomfortable with the idea of God as something humans can channel for our own selfish, or even selfless, gains.  I have been impressed with the way that the movie engages this issue.

This movie paints its view of right and wrong in bold colors with little subtlety.  But there is the acknowledgement that we're all temptable.  The movie, while not subtle, does more with the idea that we're none of us fully formed than past movies have done--as I would expect, these forty years later.

It's  an interesting movie to see as Christmas approaches, with Advent texts ringing in my head.  The movie does interesting things with light and dark--nothing unexpected for me, nothing that surprised me--but it did delight me.

Because I am an English major and an amateur theologian, I found all the symbolic stuff irresistible.  As I always do, I think about the larger message.  Is it a movie about God?  Do we see a Christ figure?  I love the intersections of pop culture and religion.

If you do too, don't miss this series at the Sojourners site.  There's a great piece on Han Solo, the Han Solo of the original movie.  I love this insight:

"The Bible is full of stories of people being given honors and responsibilities they don’t think they deserve (and to our eyes, definitely don’t): The ascendant king David welcomes Mephibosheth, the grandson of his deposed enemy, to dine at his table. Paul, a violent oppressor of the Christian faith, becomes a leader of the oppressed church. And in the Christmas story, an entire planet full of people who have learned to be content living in the dark get shown God’s wondrous light — at great expense to the light-giver himself.

It’s in God’s character to want more for people than they want for themselves. This shows up again and again in the ways God interacts with our world. And we are made in God’s image — when we see this kind of story told well, we respond to it.

The original version of Star Wars tells this kind of story about Han Solo. At the outset, Han is living moment-to-moment with no check on what he is or isn’t willing to do. The only guideposts he lives by are whether the options before him are enjoyable and beneficial to him. When he says he isn’t a freedom fighter, he’s not just saying that he’s too busy to take part in a revolution — he’s also saying that he believes himself to be too much of a scoundrel to be trusted or relied on for anything morally upright. He doesn’t deserve to be part of the club. But over the course of the movie, he is shown grace by the other characters, and offered a seat at their table just as he is. That offer moves him and changes him."

Do we see these elements in the new movie?  I haven't had enough time to process it all yet, and truth be told, I will need another viewing before I can be sure.  As I always tell my students, the first reading/viewing of a text has us all figuring out the basics, like plot and character.  It takes additional readings/viewings to discover the more subtle aspects, like the symbolism and the deeper themes.

That's one way I teach students to determine the difference between works that will stand the test of time and fluff that we don't need to spend much time with.  Good texts bear that revisiting and reward us.

And I suspect that the new Star Wars movie would hold those sorts of rewards.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 27, 2015:

First Reading: 1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26

Psalm: Psalm 148

Second Reading: Colossians 3:12-17

Gospel: Luke 2:41-52

How quickly the children grow up! Could this Jesus in Sunday's Gospel really be the same baby we just saw in the manger? Can this boy be the same Jesus we'll be meeting soon? We spend so little time with Jesus as a young boy that it's strange to get these glimpses.

Those of you who live around teenagers will probably find the Jesus in Sunday's Gospel familiar. He's so self-absorbed. He doesn't worry about his parents' feelings and anxieties. And yet, he's mostly obedient, mostly a good kid.

We think of Jesus as a special case. We tend to focus on his divine aspects and overlook the human ones. Yet any child arrives with his or her own agenda. In the end, most children are a bit of a mystery. We wonder where they get that quirky sense of humor, or those interests that are so unlike any others in the family. If we're honest, most of us have moments, maybe quite a lot of them, where we wish those children would just conform, just be the little people we wish they would be.

The relationship that Mary and Joseph had with Jesus was no different. We might protest, "But Mary and Joseph knew that he was special!" Every parent feels exactly the same way: this child is born for greatness. Yet in how many ways our children will break our hearts.

And it often starts with education. Notice that Jesus has ditched his parents to stay behind with teachers and scholars. He has his own business, and Mary has her wishes, and they will likely clash. Read Mark's Gospel (go ahead, it's short, it won't take you long), and you'll get a different view of Mary and her view of the mission of Jesus; she's not always happy, and in several places indicates that Jesus is embarrassing the family.

But in the end, this week's Gospel is also a story of nurture. God comes to be with us in human form, and not just grown-up, self-sufficient form. God becomes the most vulnerable of creatures, a baby, and thus becomes, the second-most vulnerable, a teenager. Those of you who struggle with a teenager may not find comfort from the Good Friday outcome of this story. But maybe you can find comfort from the fact that even Jesus could be a pain-inducing teenager.

And we all can find comfort from this chapter in the Christmas story. Hear the Good News again. God comes to be with us, in all of our brokenness. God loves us in spite of, because of our brokenness. God lives with and mingles in our human messiness. We might even say that God glories in our messiness, that out of our messiness salvation comes.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Advent 4: Soon and Very Soon

I like the years when Christmas comes later in the week.  I like the chance to enjoy the 4th candle on the Advent wreath a bit longer.

We did the non-traditional signing of the card to go with the peace lily.

On Christmas Day, we will take them to our neighboring Muslim mosque that's in a storefront down the street.

In this unseasonably warm Advent, our poinsettia plant from 2 years ago has yet to realize that it's time to turn red.

And yet the signs are there--the Advent decorations being packed away, 

the chancel getting readied for Christmas.

And in the far-off distance, wise people stay alert for signs from the stars.

We know the promise:

We have passed the darkest time of the year.

Monday, December 21, 2015

The Feast Day of St. Thomas

Today we celebrate the life of St. Thomas. It's also the Winter Solstice. It's the time of year for doubting, for feeling that the dark will never recede. It's a good day to celebrate the most famous doubter of all.

Who can blame Thomas for doubting? It was a fantastic story, even if you had travelled with Jesus and watched his other miracles. Once you saw the corpse of Jesus taken off the cross, you would have assumed it was all over.

And then, it wasn't. Thomas, late to see the risen Lord, was one of the fiercest believers, legend tells us, Thomas walking all the way to India.

I wonder if Thomas is near and dear to the heart of the more rational believers. We're not all born to be mystics, after all.  I worry about our vanishing sense of wonder.  We've all become Thomas now. We don't believe anything that we can't measure with our five senses.

The more I read in the field of the Sciences, the more my sense of wonder is reignited. I continue to be so amazed at the way the world works, both the systems we've created and the ones created before we came along. The more I know, the more I want to shout from the rooftops, "Great show, God!" (long ago, when my friend had small children, they would shout this refrain whenever they saw something beautiful in nature, like a gorgeous sunset; I try to remember to shout it too).

So today, as the earth leaves its darkest time and inches towards light, let us raise a mug of hot chocolate to St. Thomas, who showed us that we can have doubts and still persevere. Let us raise a mug of hot chocolate to solstice celebrations and all the ways that the natural world can point us back to our Creator. Let us pray that our rational selves live in harmony with our sense of wonder.

Here's a prayer from Phyllis Tickle's The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Winter for this day: "Everliving God, who strengthened your apostle Thomas with firm and certain faith in your Son's resurrection: Grant me so perfectly and without doubt to believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that my faith may never be found wanting in your sight; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen."

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Longest Night Service

My church has been doing a Longest Night/Blue Christmas service for 3 years now.  I wasn't aware of this tradition before my church started doing one.  I went to our first one, but last year, I didn't go because I had family in town.  Last night I went again.

It was a very small group, 6 in the congregation, plus our pastor and organist; the first service two years ago had almost 30 people, although I may be remembering wrong.

It was a lovely story.  We lit the candles on the Advent wreath, as we read a liturgy that explored reasons why this season might be leaving us empty-feeling.  We read some Bible verses.  Woven throughout the service was the singing of each verse of "O Come, O Come Emmanuel."

During the prayer, we had prayer stations.  We had a stop at the baptismal font to remember our baptism and a station where we could be anointed with oil.  We had a station where we could light candles to remember our loved ones and a Christmas tree where we could hang a paper ornament on which we had written our blessings.  We had a station with a box of sand where we could write our sins and shortcomings in the sand and then wipe it away.

We ended with communion and sang "Silent Night" together.  It was a beautiful service.

In important ways, it reminded me of Compline service at Mepkin Abbey--it's a good way to end the day.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Advent 3: Unexpected Weariness

We thought that it would be a quieter week, a week of caroling, a week of contemplation:

We did not anticipate the friend in a hospital with a collapsed lung:

We thought the grading would be easier:

We did not anticipate how many students would self-destruct in the final days of the term:

Now we approach the end of Advent, with so much left to do:

But let us think of the stories yet to come:

There is still time to contemplate the wonder:

Friday, December 18, 2015

Love and the Law and Student Complaints

It is that time of year, both the time of festivities--Christmas, graduation!--and also the time of tears.  I've spent hours and hours this week trying to sort out the issues of students with complaints.  And then there was the issue of the student who thought she was on target to graduate, only to find out the day before graduation that she had failed 2 remaining classes, both of them in my department.

Many failures led up to that moment.  The largest one was her failure to turn in required work.  She also failed to keep tabs on her class.  But she showed up for graduation clearance, and no one told her that she was off the grad list, as she could have reasonably expected. 

I wrestled with the best approach.  My inner judge wanted to punish her.  I heard that voice inside me saying, "Well, maybe you'll learn to check your e-mails if we make you repeat these classes.  Maybe you'll learn to get your work done if we punish you."

It would have been punishment--her family had already arrived for graduation, and she had already spent a lot of money on her portfolio for portfolio review, our event where our students hope to meet future employers.

My inner efficiency expert wanted to pressure the teachers to change the grade--my inner efficiency expert just wants problems to go away.  Luckily, I am skilled at resisting this urge when it comes to teachers.  I don't want a grade change if there's no way to justify it to any auditors who might come along later.

One teacher allowed the student to turn in the missing papers.  One teacher wasn't sure she wanted to do that.

Yesterday, in an early morning meeting with the dean, the teacher, me, and the other department head, I asked the teacher, "What would you have done had the student found out on Monday that she had failed?"  The teacher would have created an additional assignment for the student.

Yesterday we were running out of time, so we crafted a compromise.  The student could go to the morning portfolio review--but then she had to do the extra credit assignment before the late afternoon graduation ceremony.  Happily, she did.

In my various responses and in the responses of the others involved (teacher, dean, other department head), I saw us as metaphors for the responses of the Church to the Bible.  I saw the Law based approach--what I think of as the discipline and punish approach.  It's attractive, I admit, at least to those who can live by the Law.  There are clear rules, along with clear punishments for rule breakers.  We know what happens when we screw up.  It's easy to categorize people, the in and the out.

But Jesus came to show us a new way, a way based in love and forgiveness.  However, that approach doesn't require us to let people walk all over us.  The unattractive feature of this approach is the difficulty in figuring out the correct approach to wrongdoing.

In our solution, the student still had some work to do.  But she wasn't kept out of the important gatherings of the day.

I liked watching us all work together.  By working as a team, we came up with a solution I hadn't though of on my own.  It's what should happen, but doesn't happen as often as I'd like.

I wonder if it would happen if I prayed for an open heart more often?  Yesterday, knowing that I would start my work day with the meeting and then with the student who had spent hours in hysterics on Wednesday, I prayed as I got out of the shower.  I prayed for wisdom and insight and guidance and for an open heart.

My epiphany, when I asked the teacher what she would have done on Monday, felt like an answer to that prayer, as it gave us insight and a path to follow.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

When You Need Cookies for a Cookie Exchange

It's the most wonderful time of the year . . . when we eat cookies for dinner!

I confess, I didn't plan to have cookies for dinner.  I was having tea at 3:30 with colleagues and friends, and someone had brought a huge container of cookies that they'd gotten at a cookie swap.  I grabbed a few, and after tea, life got hectic, and I never actually had dinner.

I know that many of us are living these kinds of lives these days.  Maybe we have cookie swaps to attend.  Maybe we need a bit of sweetness for these days of holiday hecticness.  Maybe we have folks to visit in the hospital.

When we went caroling on Sunday, it was great to have containers of cookies to bring to the sick and the shut in.  We had them left over from a church women's group cookie swap. 

There are days that I wish I had packages of mixed cookies in the freezer, ready to pull out and go when I visit a friend in the hospital or take food to a family with a sick child.  But I know that if I had cookies in the freezer, they'd more likely go into me, not to the sick.

Still there are times we need cookies, and so, I offer the following recipes.  The first one is quick, the kind of cookie we all need for those days when we remember we said we'd bring dessert, and we only have a few ingredients in the house.  from one of my favorite cookbooks:  Beatrice Ojakangas' The Great Holiday Baking Book.   She's got a recipe for every conceivable holiday and great ways to celebrate the passage of the seasons.

The sugar cookie recipe is the one I make when I'm cutting shapes with cookie cutters.  They're delicious iced and plain.    Roll them thin, and they're crisp.  Roll them thick, and they're like tea cakes.

Take a moment to slow down. Take a bite of sweetness and savor it. Think about the other kinds of sweetness that you'd like to see manifest in your life.

Butterscotch Bars
1/4 C. butter, melted
1 C.  packed brown sugar
1 large egg
1 C. flour (partial whole wheat works well)
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. vanilla
1/4 C. nuts (I prefer pecans, but you might like walnuts)

Preheat the oven to 375.  Butter a 9 inch square pan.

Beat the brown sugar, butter, vanilla, and egg together until light and fluffy.  Stir in the flour and baking powder, and when combined, the nuts.  Spread the batter into the pan.

Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the center is firm to the touch.  A tester may not come out completely clean--the bars will solidify as they cool.  You should cut into serving size bars after 10-20 minutes of cooling.

This recipe is easily doubled and baked in a 9 x 13 inch pan.  You could also add chocolate chips into the batter or melt 1/2 c. of chips and drizzle across the top of the bars.

Sugar Cookies
2 sticks butter
1 C. sugar
2 eggs
¼ C. milk
2tsp. baking powder
4 C. flour
2 tsp. vanilla

Cream butter, sugar, eggs. Add milk and dry ingredients. Roll out to ¼ inch thickness on a floured board and cut with cookie cutters. Sprinkle with colored sugar or leave plain to frost when cool (or to enjoy plain). Bake 10 minutes at 375. Easy frosting: moisten powdered sugar with enough milk to make spreadable and tint with food color.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 20, 2015:

First Reading: Micah 5:2-5a

Psalm: Luke 1:47-55 (Luke 1:46b-55 NRSV)

Psalm (Alt.): Psalm 80:1-7

Second Reading: Hebrews 10:5-10

Gospel: Luke 1:39-45 [46-55]

Finally, we have moved away from John the Baptist--although he's there, in utero, leaping at the sound of Mary's voice.

I love this Gospel vision of improbable salvation: two very different women, yet God has need of them both. I love the way this Gospel shows that even the impossible can be made possible with God: barrenness will come to fruit, youthful inexperience will be seen as a blessing.

Take some Advent time and look at the Magnificat again (verses 46-55). Reflect on how Mary's song of praise sums up most of our Scripture. If we want to know what God is up to in this world, here Mary sings it for us. He has raised up a lowly woman (who would have been a member of one of the lowliest of her society). He has fed the hungry and lifted up the oppressed. He has continued to stay with Abraham's descendants, even when they haven't always deserved it. We can count on our strong God, from generation to generation.

Take some Advent time and think about Mary's call to be greater than she could have ever expected she would be. She could have said no to God--many do. But she said yes. That acceptance didn't mean she would avoid pain and suffering. In fact, by saying yes, she likely exposed herself to more pain and suffering. But in saying yes, she also opened herself up to amazing possibilities.

Think about your own life. Where do you hear God calling your name?

Perhaps I will adopt a different New Year's resolution this year. I usually have resolutions about eating better and exercising more and tending to my writing. Maybe this year, I will resolve to say yes to God.

The very thought makes me a bit terrified. My control freak self doesn't like this idea of saying yes. My control freak self doesn't understand why I would want Mary, mother of Jesus, as a model.

How can we be like Mary? How can we be like Elizabeth, who receives an even more improbable invitation? Where would we be led, if we said yes to God?

God has a greater narrative for us than any we can dream of. Let this be the year that we say yes to God and leave our limited visions behind.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Praying for Our Muslim Neighbors During Christmas Week

Yesterday, our pastor launched an interesting initiative.  He's been thinking about how to support our Muslim neighbors who worship down the street in a storefront mosque.  We've worked with them before on multi-faith projects--and more mundane projects like sharing our parking lots when overflow parking is needed--so our reaching out wouldn't be a surprise.

Here's what our ELCA Lutheran church will be doing:

"This Sunday during our time of prayer we will invite people to prayerfully consider committing to pray for the peace and well-being of Shaik Shafayat Mohammed and our Muslim brothers and sisters of the Darul Uloom Institute, our nearby neighbors, and for peace on earth. Those who commit to pray daily for the Christmas week will be offered a praying hand pin as a reminder of their commitment and they will be asked to sign the giant card that we are sending along with a peace lily to them next week."

What a wonderful way to celebrate Christmas! 

We spend time each Advent/Christmas season hearing messages of peace.  Perhaps some of us meditate on peace or pray for it.  And every year brings us more news of violence, more reason to pray for peace.

I like that our initiative will give us both a general and a specific focus for our prayers.  I don't have a sense of a wide anti-Muslim sentiment down here in South Florida--but I know that the fires of hatred can burn through a community before any of us have the awareness of it in enough time to prevent it.  I like being proactive in this way.

And yes, we have plenty of other groups in our community that can use these prayers of peace.  That's another beautiful aspect of this project.  By being aware of one group's need for prayers, we can widen our consciousness to pray for others.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Poetry Monday: the Angel Gabriel in Miami

Yesterday we went caroling.  Today I scrolled through old blog posts as I tried to remember why we didn't go caroling last year--I think we had visiting family to get to the port.

Yesterday as we caroled, I remembered why I don't always go caroling.  It's not like the caroling of my youth, where our Girl Scout troop would go to a nursing home and sing in the main room or go from room to room.  We go to houses of shut ins and yesterday, we made a stop at the ICU too.

In short, we spend more time in the car than we do singing.  I want to believe it brings joy to those we visit.  I  do know that the carolers are having a good time.

As I scrolled through posts from last December, I realized that it was precisely a year ago that I started working on my angel Gabriel in Miami poem.  I suspect that in December, I just had the idea.  It wasn't until later, in January, that I would write the poem. 

I described I the process n this blog post.  In short, I saw this picture on Beth's Facebook update:

and on the same day, I saw this picture in a different Facebook post

and a poem began to emerge.

It wasn't until I revised the poem in June and returned to the original January post about the poem that I ended it in a satisfying way.  I originally had the angel Gabriel finding Mary in that real estate office.

Here is the complete poem, which seems perfect for this third week of Advent:

A Girl More Worthy

The angel Gabriel rolls his eyes
at his latest assignment:
a virgin in Miami?
Can such a creature exist?

He goes to the beaches, the design
districts, the glittering buildings
at every boundary.
Just to cover all bases, he checks
the churches but finds no
vessels for the holy inside.

He thinks he’s found her in the developer’s
office, when she offers him coffee, a kind
smile, and a square of cake. But then she instructs
him in how to trick the regulatory
authorities, how to make his income and assets
seem bigger so that he can qualify
for a huge mortgage that he can never repay.

On his way out of town, he thinks he spies
John the Baptist under the Interstate
flyway that takes tourists
to the shore. But so many mutter
about broods of vipers and lost
generations that it’s hard to tell
the prophet from the grump,
the lunatic from the T.V. commentator.

Finally, at the commuter college,
that cradle of the community,
he finds her. He no longer hails
moderns with the standard angel
greetings. Unlike the ancients,
they are not afraid, or perhaps, their fears
are just so different now.

The angel Gabriel says a silent benediction
and then outlines God’s plan.
Mary wonders why Gabriel didn’t go
to Harvard where he might find
a girl more worthy. What has she done
to find God’s favor?

She has submitted
to many a will greater than her own.
Despite a lifetime’s experience
of closed doors and the word no,
she says yes.

Sunday, December 13, 2015

The Feast Day of Santa Lucia

December 13 is the day that Scandinavian countries celebrate Santa Lucia day, or St. Lucy's day. There will be special breads and hot coffee and perhaps a candle wreath, for the head or for the table.

 The feast day of Santa Lucia is one that’s becoming more widely celebrated. Is it because more Midwestern Scandinavian descendents are moving to other climates? Are we seeing a move towards celebrating saints in Protestant churches? Or is it simply a neat holiday which gives us a chance to do something different with our Sunday School programming and Christmas pageant impulses?

I first heard about St. Lucia Day at our Lutheran church in Charlottesville, Virginia. As the tallest blonde girl, I was selected to lead the St. Lucia day procession when I was in my early teen years. The grown ups 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.

A year or two later, Bon Appetit ran a cover story on holiday breads, and Santa Lucia bread was the first one that I tried.

A picture from that cover story

What a treat. For years, I told myself that baking holiday breads was a healthy alternative to baking Christmas cookies--but then I took a long, hard look at the butterfat content of each, and decided that I was likely wrong. I also decided that I didn’t care.

 I still bake that bread every year, and if you’d like to try, this blog post will guide you through it. If you’re the type who needs pictures, it’s got a link to a blog post with pictures.

As a feminist scholar and theologian, I’ve grown a bit uncomfortable with virgin saints, like Santa Lucia. Most sources say we don’t know much about her, which means that all sorts of traditions have come to be associated with her. Did she really gouge out her eyes because a suitor commented on their beauty? Did she die because she had promised her virginity to Christ? Was she killed because the evil emperor had ordered her to be taken to a brothel because she was giving away the family wealth? We don’t really know.

 The lives of these virgin saints show us how difficult life is in a patriarchal regime. It’s worth remembering that many women in many countries don’t have any more control over their bodies or their destinies than these long-ago virgin saints did. In this time of Advent waiting, we can remember that God chose to come to a virgin mother who lived in a culture that wasn’t much different than Santa Lucia’s culture.

 Or we can simply enjoy a festival that celebrates light in a time of shadows.

I love our various festivals to get us through the dark of winter. When I lived in colder, darker places, I wished that the early church fathers had put Christmas further into winter, when I needed a break. Christmas in February makes more sense to me, even though I understand how Christmas ended up near the Winter Solstice.

 So, happy Santa Lucia day! Have some special bread, drink a bracing hot beverage, and light the candles against the darkness.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Advent 2: Persevering

It's been a whirlwind week, like so many weeks in December have the potential to be.  There were family members from a distant state:

  Visitors mean airport transport, meals out, trips to places we rarely go.

There were cookies to bake for exchanges and gingerbread cookies to decorate.

There were papers to grade, seemingly endless stacks of papers to grade.

Still there was time for Advent meditation:  yarn to spin into prayer shawls,

a poem reflecting on prophets and December activities while candles keep their watch.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Recommitting to Advent

Last night we lit the 2 candles on the Advent wreath--poor second candle.  We lit it on Sunday and last night.  I am still hopeful that we will continue to take Advent moments to light the candles.  I want to avoid our usual pattern:  faithfulness weeks 1 and 2, followed by complete neglect during weeks 3 and 4.

This year, we have a strange holiday pattern.  We have had family in town visiting during this past week, and now our holiday visits are over. 

We still have our classes that we're teaching to finish, but mine will be done soon--it's all over but the grading and the turning in of final grades, in fact.

In short, unlike other Advents, this year it may be easier to find time for Advent in weeks 3 and 4 than it has been this past week.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Rising Strong, Staying Open-Hearted

Hard to believe that two weeks ago we'd have started thinking about cooking the Thanksgiving turkey.  I'd have already been up, of course.

During the very early morning hours of Thanksgiving week, I read Brene Brown's Rising Strong.  Until recently, I had never heard of this woman.  Then, about 2 months ago, people referenced this book again and again.  I'd read a blog post and see mention of this book.  I'd see a Facebook mention.  I'd hear someone talk about it.  Finally I decided to see if the library had it, and happily, I got it before Thanksgiving.

I really liked the book.  Much of it covers material I already knew, but it's good to have a reminder.  If you've spent any time around Recovery people, self-help people/books, and/or Oprah, you, too, likely already know this stuff.  But Brown's way of telling the material is powerful.  The woman knows how to tell a story!

I loved the story of an early morning swim on vacation with her husband--how she was thinking about how glorious it was, while he was still mired in a nightmare he'd had about his inability to save the children from drowning.  They have the kind of encounter that in early days might have led to a fight and days/months of bad feelings.  But in a process that Brown calls "The story I'm telling myself," they're able to talk about their emotional landscape and to deepen their bond.

I, too, have found it easier to talk earlier about what's going on with my emotional life.  I haven't gotten good enough yet to avoid the negative feelings completely, but at least I can say, "You might be perceiving this, but it's about this and not about you."  I've gotten much better at saying, "I'm feeling this way--is it legit or am I misreading something?"

My favorite part of the book was when she talks about the world being divided into 2 types of people:  those who believe that people are doing the best that they can, and those who believe that people could do so much better if they would just do so--in other words, the judgmental types.  And of course, some of us are both, depending on how tired we are, how unappreciated we feel, how much we feel like we have to do it all.

I find this an interesting question, and I've asked others if they agree with her division.  I've also started to ask people if they believe that we're all doing the best we can.  I may stop asking that question because the answers are starting to depress me.

Actually, I already knew that many of us don't believe that people are doing the best that they can do.  I have often said things like "I know that __________ didn't go to grad school hoping that they could shut down a department/school/church/institution"  or "I know that _____ is trying to solve this."  And usually, people say, "Yeah but, if they would just do ___________, then the problem would disappear."

This part of the book reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from theologian Marcus Borg, a thinker who generated many of my favorite quotes.  In The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, he says,  "When I stand in a supermarket checkout line and all the people I see look kind of ugly, I know that my heart is closed" (page 154).

Brown shares her husband's insight:  "All I know is that my life is better when I assume that people are doing their best.  It keeps me out of judgment and lets me focus on what is, and not what should or could be" (p. 113).  I agree with him.

Brown explains why this might be true:  "Most of us buy into the myth that it's a long fall from 'I'm better than you' to 'I'm not good enough'--but the truth is that these are two sides of the same coin.  . . .  Self-righteousness is just the armor of self-loathing" (p. 119).

While this book is not marketed as a book of spiritual practices/formation, it's a solid entry in that field.  How would  our churches change if we all made a vow to behave in the open-hearted ways that Brown describes?  How would we change?

Thus equipped, I feel certain the world would change, as we moved through it.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 13, 2015:

Zephaniah 3:14-20

Isaiah 12:2-6 (Isaiah 12:6)

Philippians 4:4-7

Luke 3:7-18

This Sunday we get  . . . John the Baptist.  Again?  Really?  Isn't it time for an angel to make an appearance?

I'm tired of having John the Baptist call me a viper. I know, I know, I have all these faults. Don't threaten me with that ax. I try so hard to bear good fruit, but I'm afraid it isn't enough. I'm surrounded by people who are clearly in a more crabby mood than I am, and I'm trying to be sympathetic, but it's hard. This attempt of mine to transform myself into a compassionate person is taking longer than I thought it would. I see people at work having meltdowns, and my response is to hide under my desk (metaphorically, although there are days that the thought of literally curling up under my desk is almost irresistible). I don't go to them to say, "What can I do to help you through this painful time?"

Perhaps I'm ready for that ax after all.

Or maybe, I need to pay attention to John the Baptist with a bit more focus. Advent reminds me that I'm not my final, improved version of myself. Advent reminds me that I still have work to do. And I need to hear that message. I'm lazy and inclined to coast, and it's good to know that God has a vision for me that is vaster than any I could dream myself.

John's message is not one ultimately of despair. He doesn't say, "There's nothing you can do. The messiah is coming, and all is lost."

No, John tells us to repent. It's not too late. The word repent is often associated with seeking forgiveness of sins, but that's a very narrow definition. The larger meaning of that word is to turn. Turn away from what isn't working in our lives. Turn towards God and all the ways our lives could be better.

How are you bearing fruit? One reason God came to be with us, one reason God took on human form--to show us how to live. If living like Jesus is your goal, what kinds of practices can get you there?
Even this message can make me feel a bit of despair.  There are so many possible practices, so little time.  Or do I really have as little time as I think I do?

We live in a culture that likes to keep us busy. We are all too busy to heed John's message: "Repent." Turn around. Do it now, before it is too late.

What would our culture look like if we took Jesus as our model of behavior? If we trusted God more? If, instead of listening to the blare of TV and the Internet and the many forms of media, what would happen if we listened for God? What would happen if we structured our lives according to the plan that Jesus reveals? What would happen if we decided that Jesus meant what he said, and we structured our lives accordingly?

As you think about the implications of the answers to those questions, you see why our culture rushes in to fill the voids that most of us don't even perceive in our individual lives and larger communities. For if we lived our lives and made our decisions based on the Kingdom that Jesus reveals, it would be a very different world indeed. John gives us a hint later in the Gospel for today: if you have two coats, share with the person who has none, and likewise with food; don't cheat people; be content with your wages.

Repent. Turn away from the life of bloat and greed that our culture of consumption offers us. Turn towards a vision of Kingdom living. Don't wait until you're dead. Do what you can to create the Kingdom here and now.

The Christmas angels will be here soon with their message of hope.  But John the Baptist, too, has a message of hope, if we have ears to hear. 

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Invitation to Gingerbread--and to Church

Why is it so much easier to invite people to church when we are doing this?

On Saturday, I met a friend of a friend who goes to church with me.  We all met to go to my spouse's concert, and after the concert, I said, "You should come to church tomorrow.  We're decorating gingerbread people!"

I just blurted it out, and later I thought, how interesting.  I don't usually go around inviting people I've just met to come to church.

But I do love the joy of gingerbread Sunday--and I want to share a Sunday that shows our church at its best as people create extravagantly.

On other Sundays, we may also be creating extravagantly--but it may not be as evident. 

But the larger issue has to do with the way that I know that the unchurched may respond to my invitations.  I don't want to seem coercive.  I don't want to be that woman who invites people so incessantly that people avoid me.

But I do realize that I risk going too far in the other direction.  There are people who would be open to the invitation, if I would issue it.

So on days where we do delightful things like decorating gingerbread, I'm likely to invite more people.  On days when we work on social justice issues, I'm likely to invite my like-minded friends.  When we quilt for Lutheran World Relief, I invite quilting/crafting friends.  I plan to invite people to Christmas Eve services like I do every year, because that time inspires yearnings that my church might answer.

I'm not looking to increase membership.  This may sound heretical, but I'm not looking to save souls, at least not in that traditional way.

It's the Christmas yearnings that have given me insight into the invitation process.  I've had the staunchest of atheist friends tell me that December makes them ache for midnight mass.  I would name that ache the stirring of the Holy Spirit--but of course, I wouldn't use that language when talking to my atheist friends.  It would be a complete turn-off, and thus, useless.

Instead, I say, "You could come to church with me.  The mass would be slightly different, but still familiar.  We'd have candles.  We'd sing the songs you miss so much."

She never comes to Christmas Eve at my church, but she continues to talk about her longing, and I'll continue to issue the invitation.

The world has a variety of yearnings, and our churches can answer some of them.  Shaping our invitations in the shape of an answer to a heart's desire is a much more effective form of inviting than the blanket invitations that evangelical groups of my youth used to offer.

Monday, December 7, 2015

Days that Will Live in Infamy

Today is the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor.  When I was younger, I knew more people who could still remember where they were when the attack happened.  Now, most of those people have died.  This event has receded into history, one of those events that seem like the far-distant past.

I talk to many people today who feel like we're living in a time of great threat between terrorists abroad, terrorists at home, and the huge number of guns in this country.  A day like today is a good time to think about events of the past and to remind ourselves that we've rarely had a world that felt safe.

The powers of darkness always swirl around us, looking for ways to take over.  Our job is to continue to keep our lamps burning brightly, to stock the oil so that we're not caught short.  Our job is to tell the alternate narrative, that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it.

Here is my favorite picture from the second Sunday in Advent that reminds us of the power of light:

Sunday, December 6, 2015

The Feast Day of St. Nicholas

I've run this blog post on St. Nicholas before, but that's fine.  I don't have much more to say about this holiday.  And like many of us, I'm a bit pressed for time this week, between the end of Thanksgiving travels, relatives arriving tomorrow, and coming into the home stretch of several academic terms.

Today is the feast day of St. Nicholas, a good day to stop and think about the Christmas season which is upon us.  I need to start slowing down or the season will have zoomed on by before I have a chance to catch my breath.

 It's always a bit of a surprise to realize that Saint Nicholas was a real person. But indeed he was. In the fourth century, he lived in Myra, then part of Greece, now part of Turkey; eventually, he became Bishop of Myra. He became known for his habit of gift giving and miracle working, although it's hard to know what really happened and what's become folklore. Some of his gift giving is minor, like leaving coins in shoes that were left out for him. Some were more major, like resurrecting three boys killed by a butcher.

My favorite story is the one of the poor man with three children who had no dowry for them.  No dowry meant no marriage, and so, they were going to have to become prostitutes. In the dead of night, Nicholas threw a bag of gold into the house. Some legends have that he left a bag of gold for each daughter that night, while some say that he gave the gold on successive nights, while some say that he gave the gold as each girl came to marrying age.

Saint Nicholas is probably most famous for his associations with Christmas. Today, all over Europe, the gift-giving season begins. I had a friend in grad school who celebrated Saint Nicholas Day by having each family member open one present on the night of Dec. 6. It was the first I had heard of the feast day, but I was enchanted.

We don't give gifts much, in my various social circles, but if I did, I'd want to start on St. Nicholas day and not end until Epiphany, Jan. 6.

Saint Nicholas is also the patron saint of sailors, who used to leave each other by saying "May Saint Nicholas hold the tiller!"

A friend posted this image on Facebook, Santas happily coexisting with Buddhas.  I love this idea of an ecumenical Santa scene!

 So, on this day, may we be led by the spirit of generosity, especially generosity to the poor. May Saint Nicholas hold our tillers and guide us to open our purses and wallets and bags of gold.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Advent 1: Preparing

At this point, the manger is full of only hay.  Soon enough, it will cradle the Christ child, but for now, it has no knowledge of its destiny.

Our choirs rehearse for the big day to come.

The shepherds watch their flocks, by day and by night, and the teachers wait for the day of their deliverance, Christmas vacation soon to come.

Our trees may be decorated, but are we really ready?

Some of us wonder about our destiny; are we still waiting to hear the call?

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

Friday, December 4, 2015

Elf on a Shelf, Grace on a Case

I've been only vaguely aware of the Elf on a Shelf craze--is it a craze?  A Facebook friend recently posted this photo: 

She wrote this: 

"Frankly I'll take the mensch on a bench...
Reality over fantasy...something to be said...oy!"

I couldn't resist.  I wrote:  "I'd like to invent Grace on a (Book)Case. For all the times we need forgiveness and someone to see us as worthy of redemption."

If we created an embodiment of grace, what would that look like?

Jesus.  O.K. that's the obvious answer.  But if we created Grace on a Case, I'd want something other than Jesus.

I have a vague image of a female in swirly clothes that could envelop us with grace. 

If only I was entrepreneurial.  If only I had more time.

Feel free to take this idea and run with it.  We need a Lutheran alternative!

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Words of Hope in a Time of Gun Violence

Another week, another shooting.  I have absolutely nothing to say.

No, impossible.  I have plenty to say.  Begin again.

We have been here before, and I don't just mean last week, with the Planned Parenthood shootings in Colorado.  The Advent readings take on renewed relevance in these days of mass murders.

Consider the first two verses from the Gospel text for last Sunday (Luke 21:25-36):

 21:25 "There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.

21:26 People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken."

Clearly, our situation is not new.

On my way to work yesterday, I saw a Jeep with a spare tire cover that declared, "Fear not!"

Before I heard about the shootings, I spent the afternoon reconsidering those angel directions from our Advent texts.  I've always interpreted that angel greeting to mean don't be afraid of me, the angel who is speaking to you.

But maybe it's a more general directive.  Now I imagine the angel Gabriel saying, "Yes, humans, you have a lot that makes you afraid and fretful.  Put those fears aside.  Don't let them disable you.  You will always face fear.  Don't let it overtake you.  Don't let it blind you to the wonders that God has for you."

If it's not fear overtaking us, it's our impulse to numb ourselves to these horrible events.  How can people be shot at a holiday party?  Some of us will force ourselves to shrug and not think about it too much. 

But that's a sure recipe for disaster.  We don't want to let ourselves go numb.  All too soon, we'll be numb to everything:  the good, the bad, the ecstatic, the despair.  We sacrifice the good emotions along with the ones that make us uncomfortable.

Let us become modern prophets.  Let us see clearly our world in ruins.  Let us remember that God is often found in the rubble piles of civilization.  Let us remind our societies that God wants better for us than this--and we can do better than this.

It's good to turn to John the Baptist, as we will in the texts for Sunday.  We can be the ones calling for the rough places to be made smooth.

To paraphrase  the words of John the Baptist in a different verse (John 1: 20), we are not the Messiah.  But we have heard the words of the Messiah.  We believe the promises.  We know that God does not leave us all alone, orphans in a cruel, cruel world.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 6, 2015:

Malachi 3:1-4 or Baruch 5:1-9

Luke 1:68-79 (Luke 1:78)

Philippians 1:3-11

Luke 3:1-6

In this week's Gospel, we see and hear John the Baptist proclaiming the good news. We'll see him in different contexts throughout the liturgical year. Luke gives a rather tame introduction--no locusts or wild honey. But he is living in the wilderness, which has led me to think of the role of wilderness in the lives of believers.

Again, in this season of relentless festivity, this Gospel (and all the Advent readings) might give us a bit of disconnect. Why is John in the wilderness? What is the nature of this good news?

If we're living in the wilderness, we may feel cut off or otherwise deadened. It's hard to think about wilderness, in this time of overdevelopment. Many of us live in places where there is more concrete than desert (or other forms of wilderness). Perhaps one of these places of relentless "development" is where John the Baptist would come from, if we re-cast the story in modern terms.

Or perhaps it would be useful to think of wilderness in other ways. Perhaps the wilderness is not a geographical place, so much as an emotional one. Can we even hear this good news in the world we live in?  We like to think that we're connected, but I've been wondering about all the ways that our technology keeps us disconnected.  We text each other instead of having conversations.  We get our news from so many sources, at every hour of the day, that we may go numb.  The human brain was not made for such misery.  Maybe the wilderness in which we find ourselves is one of shallow connection where our roots whither.

Many of us approach December with all kinds of dread. We don't have enough money to pay for necessities, much less gifts. We've lost loved ones, and the holidays remind us of those holes left by loss. We remember a time when we liked the holidays and we've lost that person who approached the season with wonder and joy. We have too much caretaking to do and no one taking care of us.

Listen to the words of John the Baptist again. Listen to God, who often calls to us from the wilderness. Let the words fill your heart with hope: "The crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God." (Luke 3: 5-6).

Your salvation is at hand: your grieving heart will be comforted, your anger and irritation will lift, the planet will heal itself as it always does, God will take care of you and everything you need is on its way.

Glad tidings of good news indeed.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Watching and Waiting and Keeping Our Eyes on the Prize

The climate talks are underway in Paris.  We've had climate talks before, and the world continues to warm.  I wouldn't blame those who are not optimistic.

The message of the last decade seems to be that we can't really be sure what future is coming at us.  Will the seas rise and swallow the coastline?  Will we have ever stronger storms?  Will wildfires burn up the inland regions?  Will it ever rain in the western U.S. again?

I've spent my life expecting disasters of all sorts that didn't come.  I spent the 80's and 90's watching for a mushroom cloud that would signal the beginning of the nuclear end.  Many people find that memory quaint. 

Will we some day see my fretting over rising sea levels as similarly quaint?  What apocalypse will haunt us then?

Today is World AIDS Day--once this spectre haunted my nightmares.  Now I am haunted by other diseases, the cancers that seem determined to colonize us all.

Yet it is important to remember how much progress has been made.  AIDS is no longer an automatic death sentence, and there are drugs that work prophylactically to prevent transmission.  Likewise, many cancers now have an admirable survival rate.  The Ebola outbreak of last year has subsided.

Today is also the anniversary of the day that Rosa Parks refused to move from her seat on that Montgomery bus.  She's been painted as a tired seamstress, an accidental activist, but that picture is not true.  She was an activist her whole life

Parks' act is often given credit for launching the Civil Rights Movement, but what many forget is that various communities had begun planning for the launch, even before they could see or know what it would look like.

In fact, for generations, people had prepared for just such a moment. They had gotten training in nonviolent resistance. They had come together in community in a variety of ways. They were prepared.

I am also thinking of those Advent texts that talk about waiting and watching.  We are not waiting in a spirit of hopelessness.  No, we wait and watch because we know that the trajectory of human history can change direction very quickly.  We keep watch for God at work in the world, and we watch because we know that God often comes to us in shapes and locations that we would not expect. 

Our world faces a variety of struggles for freedom, and we may not have much guidance from our leaders.  The Advent texts remind us of the value of community, of those who watch and wait with us.  Today is a good day to think about who those people are for each of us and how we can care for those relationships as we care for the larger world.

That old Gospel song reminds us to keep our eyes on the prize and to hold on.  The sacred texts remind us that there's more to waiting than hanging out to see what happens.  We are about to hear the stories of John the Baptist calling us to a different vision and Elizabeth and Mary, both improbably pregnant.

What visions incubate inside you during these darkening days of the year?  What Advent candles burn brightly to beat back the gloom?