Sunday, January 31, 2016

Preparing for the Feast Day of St. Brigid

Tomorrow is the feast day of St. Brigid, who founded some of the first Christian monasteries in Ireland, most famously the legendary one in Kildare.  She also founded a school of art that focuses on metal working and illumination.  The illustrated manuscript, the Book of Kildare, was created under her auspices.  Unfortunately, it's been lost since the Reformation, so we know it by its reputation only.

She's famous for miracles of abundance:  she’s associated with lakes of milk and abundant baskets of butter. Like Christ, she transformed water into nourishment: she’s legendary for transforming water into milk and water into beer.

Since her feast day falls on a Monday this year, if we plan to celebrate by doing anything out of the ordinary, we might want to prepare today.  Here are some ideas:

--We could create our own book of illuminations. Maybe this should be the year that we keep an illuminated journal. What would happen if we sketched more? What would happen if we collected images along with words?

--Even people who don't have drawing skills could do this project. Take a photo every day and see what opens up in your heart. Before you throw magazines away, clip images that speak to you. Once you have a collection, spread them out to see if they speak to you in a different way.

--How could we celebrate Brigid's interest in metal working? I'm certainly not going to take up welding. But jewelry making? Perhaps. Maybe it's time to look at the earrings I no longer wear, the necklaces that don't delight me. Could I make a new piece of jewelry? Or could I make some other kind of artistic creation?

--Brigid's miracles reveal a sense of abundance: lakes full of milk, baskets of butter, water turned into milk or beer. Thinking of butter makes me think of bread. Why not bake some bread today and slather it with butter? If you think you don't have time for a yeasted bread, why not an Irish soda bread?

--Deb Perelman over at Smitten Kitchen has an intriguing recipe in this post: soda bread that can be made in a scone shape (or in a skillet, if you don't have time for scones). And, in the spirit of Saint Brigid, it's best to consume all of the bread on the day that you make it. Abundance! Tomorrow, you could make more.

--Even if you don't bake, you could go buy a good bread and slather it with butter.

--Brigid is associated with fire. Let's build a fire and think about the flames as they dance. How can we be this kind of light to others?

--Or, thinking about fire in a different way, a metalworking way, what purifying flames do we need to invite into our lives? What habits do we need to throw into the flames so that we are no longer held back by them?

--I return again and again to the abundance associated with Brigid. How can we invite abundance into our lives? How can we recognize it and celebrate it?

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Candlemas: The End of the Christmas Season

Many of us think that Christmas ends on December 25.  The minute the gifts are unwrapped and the food eaten, it's time to put away the decorations.

Some of us celebrate until January 6, Epiphany, Three Kings Day.

Three years ago, I'd have been on my way to Mepkin Abbey.  I knew about Candlemas as a feast day, the day 40 days after Christmas which celebrates the day that Jesus would have been presented at the temple.

I knew that some monastic communities bless the candles that will be used for the upcoming year during Candlemas, and the Mepkin monks did bless a supply of candles.

non-Mepkin candles, made in my backyard

I didn't anticipate that Christmas decorations would still be hung.

Along the path remained some creches.

Although we get another minute or two of light each day, it still feels like the darkest days of the year. 

What a comfort to have a reminder of the light that has never left us, no matter how dark it seems.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Poetry Friday: "Consecration"

Are you experiencing a bleak January where you live?  While we have not had snow, we have had a week of flooding rains and even a tornado.  I think about the poor tourists, fleeing their northern weather, only to experience steady rain.

But there are periods of clearing, after all.  On Saturday, we went to the organic brewery at Hollywood beach.  What a treat!  I marvelled at the variety of languages that surrounded us.  I'm used to hearing Western European languages here, and of course, Spanish, but lately I've been hearing a lot of Slavic syllables.

Now we shall take a break and sing "It's a Small World After All."

If you're craving the beach, you might take a look at Dave Bonta's wonderful poem about beach glass.

His poem reminded me of an experience many, many years ago where we took a crew of visitors to Edisto Island, in South Carolina.  Edisto has a reputation as the beach in South Carolina where you'll find the best shells, but that day all the shells seemed the same, like small communion wafers.  Before I gave it a second thought, I popped one in my mouth.  I loved the salty taste, the smoothness of the shell against my tongue.

I thought of communion wafers, which crumble or get sticky when mixed with saliva, and shells, which don't.  There's a poem lurking there, but it's not the one I wrote.


I stand at the best shell-finding beach in South Carolina,
but all the shells look the same:
bleached by sun and salt,
all their jagged edges sounded clean,
all worn into rounded disks.
A sea of communion wafers
stretches before me, and before
I even think about what I’m doing,
I kneel and select one, wipe
it with my calloused fingers,
and pop it in my mouth.
I slide my tongue across the smooth surface
that tastes of the sea’s mysteries.
I resist the urge to bite or swallow.
I suck it clean and choose another and another
until I have a pocket of shells
awaiting my mouth’s consecration.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

To Touch the Face of God

Thirty years ago this morning, the space shuttle Challenger exploded.  I happened to be in a car and heard the news on the radio.  It wasn't until hours later that I saw the footage. 

I was not a fan of President Reagan, but he had some leadership skills that I've come to admire.  The man knew how to deliver a speech, as we might expect from someone who made his living as an actor before becoming a politician.  He was also blessed with some wonderful speech writers, like Peggy Noonan, who wrote the speech that he delivered after the loss of the Challenger.

The whole text of the speech can be found here.  It's a masterful work, from the beginning to the end. He talks directly to the family members of the crew and the other NASA workers.  He talks to the nation's schoolchildren, who would have been watching when the first civilian teacher in space was lost.  He talked to the nation, with stirring words about exploration and the continuation of what's been started.

I continue to be in awe of the conclusion of the speech:  "The crew of the space shuttle Challenger honored us by the manner in which they lived their lives. We will never forget them, nor the last time we saw them, this morning, as they prepared for their journey and waved goodbye and 'slipped the surly bonds of earth' to 'touch the face of God.'"

I find that image of astronauts touching the face of God to be a profound one, and I'm not sure why.  Astronauts go where most of us won't, so that's an aspect.  But I must also confess that I don't spend much time thinking about God as having a face.  What would it look like? 

It's also a very intimate image, an image of love and comfort.  It's the perfect way to end the speech that struck the perfect notes in the perfect combination, notes of comfort and courage and inspiration.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, January 31, 2016:

First Reading: Jeremiah 1:4-10

Psalm: Psalm 71:1-6

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Gospel: Luke 4:21-30

In this Gospel, we see the reactions of Jesus' listeners to his proclamation that the Scripture has been fulfilled. They can't believe that this boy that they knew as a child could be the Messiah. And then they decide to throw him over a cliff.

I wish I could say that I thought this behavior was bizarre, but I don't. Unfortunately, many people, even dedicated Christians, have this reaction to the Sacred.

How many times have you seen clear evidence of God working in your life? How many times have you discounted your experiences? "It can't be God. It's just coincidence that the issues for which I prayed for help and guidance have been resolved." We should be shouting for joy, and praying prayers of thanksgiving, and instead, we chalk it up to randomness.

In some ways, this behavior is similar to the desire to throw Jesus off the cliff. We discount the power of God, and so we diminish our relationship with God. Later, in the Good Friday story, we scoff at Simon Peter's denial of Jesus, but we often deny God on a daily basis. Many of us are committed to a scientific, rational view of the universe that leaves no room for a divine power. We throw God over the cliff.

Or worse, we're committed to a view of the universe as dark, chaotic, and threatening. We discount the power of light and good to overcome the powers of darkness. Again, we throw God over the cliff. God commands us to be children of the light, committed to love. Many of us prefer to wallow in our feelings of fear and despair. Ah, despair, the sin that medievalists would remind us is the deadliest of the deadly sins--for it is despair that keeps us from believing that life can be different, that God is really in control. And if we can avoid believing that, then we can avoid our responsibilities towards this world that God created.

One of the most insidious ways that we continue to throw Jesus over the cliff is in our daily behavior, especially if those around us know that we are Christians. So often, our behavior undercuts our Christian stance. What will the rest of the world think of our triune God when they see us behave in ways that they know are distinctly not Christian? How do we lead people away from Jesus by our unflattering behavior? It's time to remember that we are to be an example of the kind of world that Jesus came to help us create.

The new year, which is quickly moving towards becoming the old year, is a good time for reflection, a good time to turn inward and to become aware of areas where we could still use improvement. Sure, God loves us the way that we are (a gift of grace to be sure). But God always calls us to be better. It's time to work on our attitudes and beliefs and actions that throw Jesus off the cliff, attitudes and beliefs and actions that make others think that God is indeed dead.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Lent Approaches: Plan Now

Yesterday, I went to this wonderful website to think about coloring my way through Lent.  If you'd like to try something similar, this part of the website will give you templates to download.

And then, startled, I realized that Lent is just 2 weeks away.  I'm not quite ready to accept the fact that Christmas is over, and now it's time for Lent.  It seems like such a short time ago that I was reading my way through Henri Nouwen's Show Me the Way:  Readings for Each Day of Lent.  And now it's time to begin again.

I've been thinking about how quickly we move from Advent to Christmas to Lent to Easter--and then that long season of Ordinary Time.  I'd like to have more of these special activities for summer too.

But first, Lent 2016.  How will you make this season a time apart?

There are some of the obvious ways:  giving up something for Lent, adding some special readings, or going to an extra church service during the week.  But let's not forget some of the other possibilities too:

Pray in Different Ways:

--Maybe you want to add a visual element to your prayers:  coloring or doodling or collaging.

--Keep a prayer journal and look for ways your prayers are answered.  Write them down so that you'll remember.

--Use prayer beads.

Add some creativity to your days:

--Bake bread.  As you shape the bread dough, think about how God shapes you.

--Start a garden.  Or buy several bunches of flowers at the grocery store and arrange them into one bouquet.

----Write a poem about God. But before you start, fill in the following blank 25 times without thinking about it: God is like _______________________.

--Sketch or doodle or collage.

--Choose an art supply that gives you joy.  Use it once a week.

Do More Charity and/or Justice Work:

--Make an extra contribution to your favorite charity. Maybe you could make one extra contribution per week. It doesn’t have to be huge. But it could be.

--Clean out your closets. Give away anything you haven’t worn in the past year. Clean out your kitchen cupboards.

--When you go to the grocery store, buy some extra food for your favorite charity.

--Give some extra time during Lent. Volunteer at a soup kitchen or a food pantry. Go to a nursing home and sing some old Gospel songs. Think about the people you know who have lives that are falling apart; go buy cards and put them in the mail.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Feast Day of the Confessions of Saint Paul

Today the Church celebrates the conversion of St. Paul.  Take a minute to imagine how the world would be different if we had had no Saul of Tarsus.  There would have been no Saul persecuting the Christians, no Saul to have a conversion experience on the road to Damascus, no Paul who was such a singular force in bringing Christianity to the Roman empire.

Early Christianity would have had some traction even had there been no Paul.  Those disciples and apostles had a fire borne of their experiences to be sure.  But it was Paul and his compatriots who brought Christianity to populations apart from the early Jews.  Without Paul, Christianity might have withered on the tiny Palestinian vine, since the other disciples and apostles didn't have the same fervor for converting people outside the immediate geographical area.

Would someone else have come along?  Probably.  The Holy Spirit does work in interesting ways.  But Paul was a fascinating choice, a man with extensive training, a man who could speak to multiple populations.  For those of us who feel we don't fit in anywhere, we should take comfort from Paul's story.  The Holy Spirit can use misfits in fascinating ways.  The Bible is full of them.

Some criticize Paul's letters for their inconsistencies.  I would remind us that Paul was writing to real congregations who were facing real problems.  I imagine that he would be aghast at the idea that anyone centuries later would use them as a behavior manual to teach right behavior.  It would be as if someone collected an assortment of your e-mails and centuries later saw direct communication from God in them.

For those of us who have found Paul troubling in terms of his ideas about women, about married people, about slaves, I'd recommend Classics scholar Sarah Ruden's Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time (Pantheon 2010), which I first wrote about here.  She gives a window into the ancient world which I had never really peered through before.  Her depiction of sexual relations of all sorts makes me shudder, and more than that, makes me so glad to be alive today.  The Roman empire really was a rape culture in all sorts of ways.  Viewed through this lens, Paul's ideas on relationships seem radically forward-looking.

Here is a prayer for today:

Triune God, you work in truly wondrous ways.  Thank you for the ministry of Paul and all the ways that we have benefited from his missionary fervor.  Let us use the life of Paul as inspiration for our own lives.  Let us trust that you can use our gifts in all sorts of ways that we can't even imagine.  Give us the courage to follow your calling to the far reaches of whichever empires you need to send us.  Give us the words that congregations need right now.  Grant us the peace that comes from having partnered with you.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

"The Truth Is Out There": Where We Locate 21st Century Truth

The full moon in the western sky tells me that we're about a month from Christmas.  I remember driving back from Christmas Eve services, and we commented on the gorgeous moon, the awe and the hush, and the sense that an angel choir would not be out of the realms of the possible.

I had just gone to see the new-but-not-unfamiliar Star Wars movie, and here, a month later, we are on the cusp of a relaunched The X-Files.  I've been thinking about these story lines, about ancient Christianity, and what it means for those of us in the 21st century.

In this year in which we will elect a brand new president, no matter who wins, politics is never far away from my mind either.  In the coverage of campaigns, I am struck by those who are certain that their candidate will save us all, that their candidate can do what has not been done before.

I am also thinking of the idea of The Truth--who has access to it, and who is deluded.  I'm thinking of The X-Files as the new Gnosticism.  I never watched the show in its heyday, but my friends did, and thus, I feel like I saw the whole series.

I think of The X-File, Star Wars (the older version and the new one), and political campaigns, and the story line that unites them all:  we see a band of people  who are united in this cause that's larger than themselves, the outlines of which they only dimly perceive.  In many cases, they face very long odds, an almost impossible mission.  And yet, the community they create is one that makes it worthwhile--and in the case of campaign workers, I imagine it will be something that they will miss forever.

I'm also struck by the yearning for a savior--even if the savior ends up being one of them, these are groups that need a savior.  They're not going to find what they need by meditating, by going on solitary retreats, or by going inward in other ways. 

And again, my thoughts return to Christianity of all sorts, from the ancient to the modern.  What can churches learn from the popular culture that surrounds us?  Should we be more vocal in our offerings of what can soothe the yearnings of the 21st century searcher?  Or should we do what we do and assume that people will come to us as they notice us moving in the world?

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Prayers for Those Who Are Out in the Cold

So many residents in so many states in the U.S. awaken to snow this morning--perhaps record breaking amounts.  We pray for those who don't have adequate shelter.

Let us remember those who are isolated, wondering when the plows will come to dig them out.

May the electricity stay on, so that there can be warmth and comfort.

Although it may feel like winter is here to stay, send us a sign that spring will surely come.

And let us find a source of light to cheer us until the seasons shift.

But never let us forget the true source of all light.

Friday, January 22, 2016

David in the Early Years

Our church is leaving the Lectionary for a bit.  Here's a meditation that I wrote on King David, before he was King David.  There are lessons in his early life for us 21st century folks too.

The reading for Sunday, January 24, 2016:

1 Samuel 16: 1-13

In this text, we see how David comes to be on the path to being king.  If you're like me, we forget David's lowly origins.  I think of him in his greatness.  I forget that he started out as a shepherd boy, the youngest in the family, one not brought forward for a blessing.

Or perhaps that's not fair.  Maybe he needed to be with the sheep because the sheep needed protection.

But let us think on this for a minute, this issue of God's favor and the chosen one.  Notice again how God upends human expectations.  God chooses the lowly, not the oldest, not the one who is the most handsome, not the one with skills that are immediately apparent.

Here, as in other stories, David's time at the low end of the social structure will serve him well.  He can play the lyre; I imagine him playing as he watched the sheep, a boring job most of the time.  But that skill will be crucial, as David soothes King Saul when the evil spirits come upon him.

The story from his younger, pre-King days that many of us might remember is the story of David and his slingshot against the Philistine giant Goliath.  And just as he has killed the animals that threaten the sheep, he's able to kill Goliath.

We live in a society that's not as stratified as the time in which David and Samuel lived, but it's easy to feel like we're not one of the chosen ones--in our society, the chosen ones are so few.  But the Bible shows us again and again that we all have value to God.  And often, the ones who are most outside of society's favor--those left with the smelly, dirty, boring jobs, like tending the sheep, those who aren't even thought of when we think of God's blessing--those are the ones that God most often needs.

We are all capable of so much more than most of us realize.  God calls us to meet a larger destiny than we could dream of on our own.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

What Can Political Campaigns Teach Our Churches?

On my way to work yesterday, I heard this story on NPR about the people who have given up their regular lives to work for Ted Cruz campaign.  Some of them are no doubt retired.  But I was struck by the one man who gave up his job for the chance to work on the campaign.  I was even more intrigued by the woman who sounded so breathless with wonder at the fabulousness of her candidate.

I felt a swirl of emotions.  My first thought:  I have never felt this way about any candidate ever, that I would give up a full-time job to work for a candidate.  Part of me felt sad about that--but a larger part of me was thankful for my groundedness that helps me to realize the folly of placing all my trust and hope in the political system.

Of course, church was one of the main places where I learned to be wary of political systems, and I was also struck by the ways that the people in the news story seemed to see their candidate as a Messiah.  Were they not similarly warned?

I thought of the ways that people have yearnings, and the institutions that rush in to fill those yearnings.  That yearning for deliverance, for a Messiah, seems a yearning that the Church is uniquely qualified to fill.  And yet, we also know that people are often yearning for a different kind of deliverance than the one that Christ offers.

I was also struck by the community that the political campaign creates.  It's easy for that community to take root and blossom, in many ways.  They've taken over an unused dorm because it would be so cost-prohibitive to provide hotel space for the duration--at least that's the official story. I do wonder if the campaign also realized the potential for solidifying support by housing people this way.  It also helps keep spirits higher than they might otherwise be--campaigns can be a bit of a slog, after all.

I think the most successful churches are the ones that help create the earthly community for which so many of us yearn.  We might be able to take some lessons from political campaigns, as counterintuitive as that might be.

I do understand the power of being part of a group that's bigger than the sum of its parts, a group that can do more together than they would have been able to do alone.  I understand the pull of that dream that a campaign offers.

I couldn't help but wonder how the world would be transformed if we could capture that forward motion and use it to solve a different set of problems.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, January 24, 2016:

First Reading: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

Psalm: Psalm 19

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

Gospel: Luke 4:14-21

In this reading from Luke, we see Jesus in one of his early public appearances, reading in the Temple.  The passage that Jesus reads from Isaiah gives us an idea of what God has in mind for us and our mission in the world: preach good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, set the oppressed free, give the blind their sight.  In the years that follow, in the chapters of the Gospel to come, we see Jesus doing exactly what he said he would do.

We might be tempted to say: "Sure that was fine for Christ, but he was part God." The next part of this sentence is usually one designed to let us off the hook: so, therefore, I don't have to do what Jesus did (feed the hungry, visit the sick, work for the rights of the oppressed); after all, I'm only human.

Jesus was human too, and therefore, anything he did, we could do. In fact, some theologians posit that Jesus came to show us how to live God's vision for us right here on earth, in our own communities.

Interesting to think about church communities and individual Christians. How are we living out Christ's mission? Notice that Jesus doesn't say, "I came to show you how to model your church/synod/denomination according to modern business practices so that you can build up your endowment." Jesus doesn't say, "I came to give you this cool prayer--if you pray it three times a day, you'll get rich." Jesus does not say, "I came so that you might know to meet in a building once a week." Jesus doesn't say, "I came to revamp your worship service with music/media/atmosphere that's more accessible to the modern seeker mentality." Jesus has a very different agenda than the ones that modern people might want him to have.

As we will see in the coming weeks, Jesus focuses on community. Not just once a week, meet for an hour community, but a deep, committed group of people. He works with the people he meets, people like you and me, people who are far from perfect. He works where he is, in a distant outpost of a powerful empire. He doesn't say, "Well, I better move to Rome, because that's where the rich and the powerful people are, and they know how to get things done." He looks around, sees what needs to be done, and does it.

And it's important to realize that he does his work at great risk to himself. Empires realize that their future is threatened by communities that are deeply committed to the vision of God. They'd rather have us spend our hard-earned money--and work ever longer hours to get more money--on cheap junk made by oppressed people on the other side of the planet.

In the first weeks of this new year, it's a good time to think about how we might make this year different. How can we be part of the work that makes the scripture be fulfilled?

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Sunday Snow

We are back from a whirlwind visit to Williamsburg, Virginia, where my parents live.  My sister, brother-in-law and nephew came down from Maryland, and we celebrated a late Christmas.  Plane flights are so much cheaper before and after the two weeks around Christmas.  And I like stretching the season out.

When we made the plans back in November, I knew there was a possibility of bad weather, but I thought we had dodged it.  The weather reports called for highs around 70 on Saturday and 19 on Monday, so I knew some sort of system would be moving through.  But there was no mention of snow.
We planned to go to church; my parents worship at a lovely, Lutheran church next to the William and Mary campus, a building based on designs that Thomas Jefferson created.  My sister came in and said, "It's sleeting."  That sleet quickly turned to snow.

The snow didn't faze my family, who lives in the northern edge of the U.S. South.  I worried a bit, as it snowed fiercely for hours.  I kept wanting to run to the church windows to look out, but since no one else did, I tried to trust that all would be well.

I'm glad we didn't miss out on the worship service.  My nephew sat between me and my spouse, and he followed along, singing the hymns, participating in the liturgy, going to communion.  The last time we worshipped together, in fact, was for his first communion, where we didn't get to sit with him.

Pastor Ballentine preached on the second reading:  1 Corinthians 12:1-11, which talks about spiritual gifts.  My spouse and nephew made a list of my nephew's spiritual and non-spiritual gifts.  I liked the idea of making a list of gifts, and of keeping my nephew's 9 year old attention focused on the message, while also giving him a diversion.  He had been making a list of what a MacBook Air could do, so it was a good way to refocus his energies.

I was glad that we went to worship, but I was also glad to make it home.  Snow had started to build up on the streets, which felt a bit slick.

I did wonder if we might get snowed in and miss our flight on Monday, but we did not.  There was a bit of melting by Sunday evening, and by mid-morning on Monday, we made it safely to the airport.

It was good to be together as a family, to celebrate together as the snow drifted by the windows, and to worship together. 

Monday, January 18, 2016

Martin Luther King and Peter and All Our Confessions

I've always had a fondness for St. Peter. I've always had a fondness for all the disciples, really. Such flawed people. So much like us all. Today's feast celebrates Peter's assertion, "You are the Christ."

Think back to those early disciples, travelling the countryside with a mystifying man named Jesus. They must have had trouble figuring out exactly what was happening, much as we all do when we're in the midst of our life experiences. And yet, they are able to confess their belief and to commit to this new life path. For most, it will cost them their lives.

I think about our secular holiday that celebrates the life of Dr. Martin Luther King today, and the juxtaposition of the two holidays. As a child growing up in the 70's, even in the deepest parts of the U.S. South, we were taught to admire those Civil Rights workers (I went to fairly progressive schools; I know that not every Southern child had that experience). What tremendous odds they fought against! What vision they had! How solidly committed they remained!

The older I get, the more I continue to be impressed with that social justice movement. I'm especially impressed with their commitment to nonviolence. One of the books I keep meaning to read is Jonathan Schell's The Unconquerable World : Power, Nonviolence, and the Will of the People; I've heard him talk about one of his book's main points that the twentieth century's biggest leaps in transforming societies came from nonviolent movements: think about the collapse of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe, the Civil Rights movement in the U.S., and Gandhi's campaign in India. Those three examples are examples not just of nonviolent movements, but nonviolent movements rooted in religious belief.

I have argued before, and I will continue to argue until I die, that social justice movements that have a religious core will be more successful than those that don't. A religious core gives us the hope we need to keep going when it appears that all our efforts aren't working. A religious grounding assures us that just below the surface, justice simmers, and seeds wait.

So today, we celebrate both St. Peter and Dr. Martin Luther King. If you want a religious reading for the day, turn to Matthew 16: 13-20. Any of Dr. King's writings provide a respite, no matter what day of the year it is. We might offer a prayer for all the workers toiling in the social justice field, that their work might flower. We might pray for ourselves, that we hold fast to what is true, that we not sacrifice our deepest principles for political expediency, or the other darker temptations that lead individuals and social justice movements astray.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Poetry Sunday: Arcing Towards Justice

In 1996, when I was feeling despair, my friend Shannon gave me my favorite Martin Luther King quote: "The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice." I'm fairly sure he said this the night before he was killed, or perhaps it was the night before the night he was killed.

What a hopeful image. It inspired this poem, which was published in The Evening Reader, a beautiful literary journal published on newsprint (and the size of one of those newspapers that are often offered for free around cities). Since it was published in Newberry, S.C., it didn't have much of a wide-reaching distribution. Still it was one of my first publications as a grown up poet, so I shall always feel fondness for it.

Here's the poem, in all its youthful exuberance:

Arcing Towards Justice

Martin Luther King said that the arc
of history is towards justice,
and I must arc
towards justice as well:
ignore the politicians who would leave
children to starve
and adults to rot in prisons.
Some days I slump towards despair;
I don’t believe I can even save
myself, much less others.

Like Harriet Tubman, I cannot tarry
long in the swamps of despair.
I must go back, stretch out my arms, ferry
others to safety:
teach them to write, to analyze,
to dream the world they would want to inhabit.
I must teach them not to suckle
on the hatred spewed
by scared, old, white men
who are losing power, and so spurt poison.

I can build an ark of activism
for the diaspora of the dispossessed,
a sanctuary where we wait
for the old, white men to choke
on their own vituperative, vindictive vitriol.

We won’t even have to remove the mantle
of authority from their cold corpses.
It has been ours all along, from the moment
we claimed it as our own,
decorated it with our own bright threads,
chose our own best ways to wear our multi-hued
mantles, beacons to gleam and glitter
in the dark days of exile,
like comets arcing through the skies,
lighting the way home,
as a legacy of hatred burns
into harmless, intergalactic dust.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

Martin Luther King Quotes with Images from Mepkin Abbey

"The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice." 

“Faith is taking the first step even when you can't see the whole staircase.”

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

“Only in the darkness can you see the stars.”  

“Everybody can be great...because anybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”  

“If you can't fly then run, if you can't run then walk, if you can't walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.”

Friday, January 15, 2016

Martin Luther King's True Birthday

Today is Dr. Martin Luther King's true birthday; Monday is the day when many of us get a holiday. We will likely hear many people declare that this week-end should be one of service.

As a Lutheran and a social justice person, these declarations make me grumpy. Every week should be devoted to social justice, and that's one of my spiritual goals, to make sure I do some work of social justice and/or charity each week.

Of course, I realize that the rest of the nation could stand to be reminded periodically of the necessity of service and social justice work. It's a dark time, in many ways, and I find the words of King still inspiring, still consoling, still hopeful: "Here and there an individual or group dares to love, and rises to the majestic heights of moral maturity. So in a real sense this is a great time to be alive. Therefore, I am not yet discouraged about the future. Granted that the easygoing optimism of yesterday is impossible. Granted that those who pioneer in the struggle for peace and freedom will still face uncomfortable jail terms, painful threats of death; they will still be battered by the storms of persecution, leading them to the nagging feeling that they can no longer bear such a heavy burden, and the temptation of wanting to retreat to a more quiet and serene life. Granted that we face a world crisis which leaves us standing so often amid the surging murmur of life's restless sea. But every crisis has both its dangers and its opportunities. It can spell either salvation or doom. In a dark confused world the kingdom of God may yet reign in the hearts of men." (from this post on The Writer's Almanac).

Years ago on the NPR program Talk of the Nation, Tavis Smiley and Cornell West discussed King's legacy. They talked about the fact that when King died, he was not the beloved person he is today. Smiley said, "King's life was really about three things: justice for all, service to others and a love that liberates people. Justice for all, service to others and a love that liberates. Sometimes, when you have that as your agenda, you're not popular. You're not understood." The whole interview is well worth a listen or a read (go here).

Just think how profoundly our society would change if more of us devoted our lives to these three things: justice for everybody, service to others and love that liberates. There's a worthy goal to keep in mind, not just this week-end, but every week-end.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Powerball Ponderings: Earthly Power, God's Power

So, there are 3 Powerball winners, and one of the tickets was sold in Florida.  My spouse bought tickets here in Florida, but I do understand the chances of winning are not in our favor.

I thought of all of us buying our Powerball tickets as I considered the text that my church will be using this Sunday, 1 Samuel 8:  1-20.  In this passage that we'll explore on Sunday, we see the ancient Israelites demanding a king.  God's prophet Samuel tells them what it will be like to have a king.  At first it sounds great, a veritable jobs program.  But having a king comes with a price--and a cost.  The cost might be a version of taxes:  a certain proportion of crops.  But it will also cost them their children, both literally and figuratively.  It will cost them freedom and their future.

The people ignore Samuel, and here we have yet another example--not the first and certainly not the last--of God's people choosing earthly power despite the cost.

We may think that we're immune to the lure of earthly power, but I would submit that we are not.  I write this on the day after the drawing of the largest Powerball give away ever--clearly earthly power, in the form of money, is quite seductive.  We may dream of the great good we'd do with all that money, and perhaps we would.  But frankly, it doesn't take much money to do good in the world right now.  There's nothing stopping us from living like we've already won that money--nothing but our minds.

That's the problem with earthly power--it usually comes at great cost, and before we know it, our minds are enslaved.  We can't dream the kinds of expansive dreams that God needs us to envision.

Let us take time to think about all the ways in which we are like those ancient Israelites.  How do we desire a king that's not God?  Let us think of all the visions that distract us.  How have we let ourselves be shaped by what the world tells us we should want?  What does God want for us?

What would happen if we turned away and remembered God's vision of what it means to be the people of God?

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, January 17, 2016:

First Reading: Isaiah 62:1-5

Psalm: Psalm 36:5-10

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 12:1-11

Gospel: John 2:1-11

Today's Gospel presents the first miracle of Jesus, the turning of water into wine at a wedding. No doubt that some preachers across the country will take this opportunity to talk about weddings and the sanctity of marriage; they'll see the participation of Jesus as his sanction of this institution. Perhaps others will talk about miracles, while others talk about the proper way to treat one's mother.

I'm less interested in the marriage issue than in the miracle issue. In this Gospel, Jesus resists his mother's urging to help out with the wine. Why does he do that? Does he have a splashier miracle in mind as his announcement that he's arrived? Is it the typical rebellion of the child against the parent?

And then, why does Jesus change his mind?

You might make the argument that Jesus shouldn't care about whether or not the wedding guests had wine. You might argue it's a trivial miracle. But scholars would remind us that to run out of wine at a wedding would be a serious breach of hospitality. The whole extended family would suffer great embarrassment and shame—and there might be rippling effects through a community with strict codes that modern readers can scarcely imagine.

At a Create in Me retreat at Lutheridge, Bishop Gordy, head of the Southeast Synod of the ELCA, led a fascinating study of this text. He sees the this first miracle as showing us that Jesus was not so focused on his own agenda that he couldn’t act on the need for compassion for this couple who is about to experience great humiliation.

Bishop Gordy also pointed us to the abundance in this miracle. Just like the loaves and fishes miracle, Jesus provides more than humans can use—not just enough for the given situation. The wine doesn’t run out. Indeed, they have wine left at the end of the wedding feast.

And it’s good wine. God doesn’t just give out leftovers and lesser quality. We’re the ones who operate out of a scarcity consciousness. The miracles of Jesus, particularly in John’s Gospel, remind us that not only will there be enough, there will be great abundance.

What does Jesus need for this miracle? Water and jars. What could be simpler? Gail O’Day notes that the jars were used for purification. The old forms aren’t destroyed, just filled with newness and new purpose.

We often hesitate to ask God for what we truly need and want. We’re afraid of rejection. We’re afraid that the task is too hard. The miracle stories remind us that God can use the materials at hand to give us more abundance than we can use.

Perhaps this could be the year that we rid ourselves of our scarcity thinking. We worship a God of abundance and great giving. Rejoice in this good news.

Monday, January 11, 2016

David Bowie and Theology

I was surprised this morning to hear that David Bowie has died.  I had no idea that he was sick--why would I?  He just released an album, which sounds like it's fabulous.  This podcast made me want to go out and buy the CD right now, except that no stores are open.

I can't seem to think about anything else, so let me think about David Bowie and theology.  Can I make any connections?

Let's think about David Bowie as performer.  I've always been intrigued by David Bowie's ability to reinvent himself--and often to become exactly what the culture needed, but didn't know they needed.

The part of my Christian faith that appeals to me most these days is the part that tells me that I, too, can reinvent myself too--it's never too late to explore different possibilities for my life and my art.  I love the fact that David Bowie spent the last years of his life creating a jazz album that's not only a solid effort, but may well come to be considered a brilliant contribution to the field.

I also admire David Bowie for seeming to stay above societal pressure in his art.  The easy thing would be to do what one has always done, what the fans clamor for, what society expects one to be.  David Bowie rarely bowed to those pressures.

But how do his lyrics work as theology?

I am most familiar with the Bowie of the Let's Dance era of the early 80's, so I can't do as much with the 70's Bowie, although it wouldn't take much to see some of his personas as Christ-like, what with their other-worldliness, their androgyny, an almost gnostic idea of a creature from a distant star who comes to us with knowledge that few of us can access.  The Diamond Dogs Bowie could also be seen as Godlike, in that we are there in the ruins, as God is here in the ruins with us.

In terms of lyrics which most fit my theology, I'd choose "Under Pressure," the song co-written with Queen.  The beginning of the song talks about "The terror of knowing what this world is about"  and then goes on to explore what we should do about this terror.  The song ends with these lyrics, which seem like sound theology to me, especially if we come out of religious traditions which see God as the ultimate expression of Love:

"Love dares you to care for the people under pressure." 

"Love dares you to change our way of caring for ourselves."

I always feel a twinge of sadness when I hear of someone's passing--but when it's someone as talented as David Bowie, the world seems washed in tears.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Story Telling as Theology (and Evangelism?)

Today, instead of going to church, I will go to be with my quilt group.  We often have interesting theological discussions, and it's not the kind I'd have at church.  My quilt group includes me (a Lutheran), a Hindu, a Wiccan, an atheist, and a Jew--can't get much more ecumenical than that.

Last month, the atheist had written an amusing piece of fiction in which she imagines she's come to consciousness in purgatory.  At our quilt group, we had a rousing discussion about our different beliefs about what happens when we die.

My atheist friend does not believe in an afterlife.  And yet she wrote a piece about purgatory, which she imagines as a place of endless shoe shopping, which she hates, and having to make small talk with people she despises.

The next morning, I wrote what is probably one of my most favorite things I wrote last year.  My friend wrote from her point of view; I wrote from the point of view of God who was dealing with my friend's wrong perceptions of where she was and what she needed to do next.

She thinks she must earn her way to Heaven.  She doesn't realize that she's already there, but it's her attitudes that hold her back.  It could be worse.  Her attitudes could make her perceive herself as being in Hell.

It was an interesting exercise, exploring theology by way of fiction.  I know that some would be shocked that I presumed to talk in the voice of God, but happily, my religious tradition does not forbid it.

It's an interesting way of explaining how I perceive God--perhaps more effective than most other ways.  My atheist friend is not very open to lengthy conversations about religion or theology, but we had a conversation of sorts that lasted across weeks.

Here's how my piece concludes (again, I'm writing in the voice of God, not me): 

Humans yammer on and on about purgatory and hell and heaven, and when they get to me, they can’t quite leave their earthly beliefs behind. The ones who had the strongest beliefs are the ones who take the longest to relax into the true nature of the universe.

I wish I could console her. I wish that I could tell her that soon she will join her friends. Maybe it will be soon—these humans continue to surprise me. 

In the meantime, she’ll continue to make her own heaven, hell, and purgatory out of these childhood beliefs which are the hardest to shake. And I’ll be here, each step of the way.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Jesus' Job Hunting Process

This past week has been a week of many meetings, which leaves me much more exhausted than any other type of work.  I'd rather be teaching or reading student essays.  I'd rather spend the week registering students or even spend day after day dealing with student complaints--well, maybe not dealing with complaints, which leaves me exhausted in a different way.

As I wrote in yesterday's post, I've had the liturgical season in my brain as well, and my poet self can't help but notice the synchronicities and the disjunctions.  I spent epiphany wishing for wisdom and insight while sitting in a very long meeting in a dreadful room. 

Yesterday, I went to a training session to remind us all of the hiring process.  You might say, "How hard can it be?  Get the resumes, have some interviews, make an offer."

Our hiring process is much more involved:  there are multiple interviews and background checks and drug checks and an HR onboarding webinar kind of thing and an HR Orientation.  There are forms and a teaching demonstration and more forms and transcripts that must be provided.

Yesterday I had the baptism of Jesus on the brain.  I thought about the early days of Christ's ministry:  no forms, no interviews, no proving that one is already great at the job.  No--in the Gospels that have a baptism story, Jesus gets baptized and gets to work.  He doesn't have to go to school for years to get the credentials to be allowed to work.  There is no interview--John the Baptist recognizes Jesus and baptizes him.

I also think of my favorite aspect of the baptism stories that many of us will hear this Sunday.  I love that God declares satisfaction with Jesus before Jesus has done a single thing.  Jesus doesn't have to prove himself the best candidate for the job by choosing the right disciples.  Jesus doesn't have to attract 40 followers before being allowed to be part of God's organization.

Most of us live and work in cultures that don't accept us from the beginning.  We have to prove ourselves.  We have to have the right degrees and training.  We have to look and act in certain ways.

At church, when church is acting as its best self, we are welcomed as we are.  We hear of God's dream about how life could be better, but we are not kicked out of church if we can't make progress in a certain way.

Don't get me wrong:  our church will not allow total strangers to be alone with the children or the money.  We understand the world we're living in.  Our insurance requires us to have background checks of even the most unlikely candidates to abuse children, and our guidelines stipulate that no adult, no matter who it is, will be the only adult in a windowless room with children.

Still, it's a very different situation than the one that most of us face in other societal institutions.  It may be one of the little recognized, but sorely needed, gifts that the church has to offer, but one we rarely think to celebrate.

Friday, January 8, 2016

Poetry Friday: A Windowless Room, a Fluorescent Sky

It's been a week of many meetings, most of them in the same room.

 During Wednesday's meeting, I thought about the fact that it was Epiphany, and I sat in a windowless room under a fluorescent sky.  I composed lines for poems and eventually wrote a sonnet.  It's not a great sonnet, or even a good sonnet, but it kept me steady and focused.  Writing in rhyme and form is an interesting exercise, but not one I force myself to do often.
In the afternoon, I sketched angels and vines around the margins of my meeting agenda.  My Culinary colleague friend sitting beside me sketched an angel in profile.  Mine was full on, with a cartoonish face.  My writer colleague friend thought the angel was saying no, because of her o-shaped mouth.  I had intended to show that she was singing, so I sketched some musical notes around her head.

I thought of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez story, "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings"--I titled mine A Very Young Girl with Ragged Wings.  Her wings were ragged, and her gown had layers of ruffles that may or may not have been ragged.

My writer colleague friend asked if I was going to write about her.  My visual artist colleague friend asked if I was going to construct the dress.  I was just filling time during the afternoon meeting and responding to the doodle of my Culinary colleague friend beside me.  I thought about the different responses to my doodle--how intriguing!

I came home and checked through every slide for an online course I'll be teaching and did dishes.  I would have rather had a different 3 Kings celebration, but oh well.  My spouse has been fighting a cold (the cold has been winning), and even if he hadn't, I'm not sure what we would have done differently.

By the end of the day, I had written 2 poems in free verse (one written before I left for school), an unfinished poem in free verse, and a sonnet--plus a series of sketches--all in all, a great day in terms of creativity.  Here is my sonnet:

We stare at our phones and our screens,
no time to search for a star.
We consume information in constant streams,
but wisdom remains afar.

We sit in endless meetings
under a fluorescent sky.
Some look at numbers to determine meanings,
but most don't even try.

We wish for clear direction:
Come to Bethlehem and see.
We hope for resurrection:
Take your family and flee.

But even if the messenger did appear,
we are much too distracted to hear.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, January 10, 2016:

First Reading: Isaiah 43:1-7

Psalm: Psalm 29

Second Reading: Acts 8:14-17

Gospel: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

In this season of New Year's resolutions, consider this question: How would your life changed if you believed that God loves you the way you are, right now, before you even make any changes to become a better person?

It's true. God's not waiting for you to become more spiritual before God claims you. Even if you never get to the point where you pray more often, where you give away more money, where you become that good and patient person you are sure you can be, God loves you, marks you, claims you, is deliriously happy with you.

You don't have to lose that twenty pounds for God to find you worthy. You can have a wrecked household budget, and God still loves you.

Is your wounded elementary school/high school/adult child within you leaping up for joy yet? God would have given you beautiful Valentines during those horrid parties where the popular kids got all the Valentines and you didn't. God would choose you for the volleyball team, even if nobody else would, and God would never say hurtful things about your serve. God would have made sure to include you at lunch so that you wouldn't have had to spend your lunch hour hiding out in the library. God wouldn't make painful comments about your frumpy wardrobe, your golf swing, your decorating skills, your home repair skills, your kids, your career.

I worry that I'm veering towards goofiness, but I think that during our long years through the nation's educational systems, most of us learn all the ways we are inadequate, and most of us never unlearn those lessons. Even as grown ups, often the focus (in pop culture, in our jobs, in our families, in church even) is on our failings, on all the ways that we would measure up if we just did this thing or that thing or another thing. And then we work hard on self-improvement, and we've still got those messages: well, great, now you can focus on changing this next enormous thing.

All this effort towards self-improvement can make us a bit self-absorbed, and we forget to work on some of the real and serious problems in the world. What would happen if we decided that God needs us to be the person that we are, right here, right now, without any changes? What if we declared ourselves to be good enough?

Try it for a week or two or three. Tape the words of God to your bathroom mirror: "You are my beloved son/daughter; with you I am well pleased." Act like you believe that God loves you. Silence those voices in your head that tell you otherwise. Cease that negative self talk. And minimize the amount of time you spend with people who don't value you.

Think about the ministry of Jesus. Think about the healing nature of kingdom building that God calls us all to do. Jesus doesn't waste time saying, "Oh, if only I didn't have to spend so much time with all these sick people. If only I could get an audience with our Roman ruler. If only I had a different purpose, a different ministry, a different destiny."

We never see Jesus working to lose weight or to exercise more or to read more or . . . . Jesus gets right to work at the job God has called him to do. And keep in mind that God declares Jesus beloved and pleasing early on, before Jesus has actually done anything.

We don't have time to waste with all this negative New Year's negativity. God loves you before you ever make a self-improvement plan. In your baptism, God has already declared you perfect. Perhaps this year, instead of endless self-improvement plans, you could pledge to remember God's love for you each time your skin touches water. Imagine how your life might change if you could just do that!

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The Feast Day of the Epiphany

Today is the Feast Day of the Epiphany, when we celebrate the ways in which the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus is revealed early in the Christ story. More specifically, the Feast of the Epiphany celebrates the arrival of the wise men from the East to see and bring gifts to the baby Jesus.

Lately I've appreciated this story with its promise that God's message is available to all, not just the chosen few.

Of course, we have to be alert.  We won't always get the message in the blaze of an angelic choir.  We may need to study our source material, whether that be the sky or the sacred texts, for years or decades, before we see the miraculous.

God's message may send us on a journey that we didn't expect.  God's message often has that impact.

On this day, let us pray for the discernment to be able to see God's message against all the other twinkles that might distract us.  Let us trust that our gifts will be enough. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Poem for Epiphany Eve: Flights of the Family

I'm always interested the stories that we tell year after year--especially by what parts leap out at me in any given year.  It changes from year to year.

In this year of the largest mass migration since the end of World War II, perhaps it is not surprising that it is the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt that keeps beckoning to me this year. 

Of course, as I look back through my notebooks, I find that I've been inspired by this part of the story before.  There are gaps in the Gospel story where my imagination rushes in.  Jesus escapes Herod's murderous intentions.  Herod's actions turn the family into refugees as they flee to Egypt.  The story picks up later, in Nazareth, with Jesus grown.

Two years ago, I was reading T. S. Eliot and Coleridge and had some fun imagining what might have happened in this gap.  I wrote this poem.

To read the Eliot poem that inspired it all, or better yet, to hear Eliot read it, go here.  Instead of talking in the voice of the magi, I'm channeling Mary here.  Or is it Christ's voice?  As I was writing it, I was thinking Mary.  If I was a literary scholar, I could make the case for Christ or for Joseph, or for any number of political refugees.  I never have Central American refugees too far from my brain, and I see some images from our current dramas in the poem too.

Here's my take on it all.

Flights of the Family

                    “A cold coming we had of it,
                      Just the worst time of the year
                      For a journey, and such a long journey”

                                        “Journey of the Magi” by T. S. Eliot

A cold coming we had of it,
the desert floor like an abandoned
sea bed, the cactus hobbling
our efforts, a murderous dictator behind
us, uncertainty ahead, only vague
warnings by an angel to serve as a guide.

We moved by night with a foreign sky
stretched above us, all celestial navigation
useless.  We detoured around hostile
cities and dirty villages, angels singing
their songs to hurry us forward.
A hard time we had of it.

We stayed several summers amidst the alien
people clutching their gods.  We learned
new ways of foretelling the future
in that temperate valley smelling of vegetation.

But we had to return to the kingdom of Death,
that old dispensation.  I have seen birth
and death, so much death, the nails,
the pieces of silver, the thirty betrayals
that come before every daybreak.
I would be glad of another birth.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Prayers for All of Us Returning to Normal Life

In my part of the world, public schools begin again today after a 2 week break.  Those of us teaching college may start classes today or this may be a week of getting ready for those classes.  Those of us who are administrators return too--my hope is that no one has decided to quit in the past two weeks, but if someone must quit, that they do it soon, while I still have time to scramble.

Even those of us who don't have the leisurely breaks of students and teachers are likely coming back to our first full week of work in weeks.  Many of us have had at least one holiday in the past 2 weeks, if not 2.

We return to more sober work places.  Gone are the parties and the decorations and no more plates of holiday treats will be found in our offices.  Many of our colleagues may be more crabby or tired.  Some of us are returning with colds.

Let us pray for all of us today.  Let me compose a prayer for all of us returning to regular life:

Creator God, many of us return to our regular work lives today.  Help us to remain open to messages from you, whether they come by way of angelic messengers, signs in the skies, dreams, or deep yearnings.  Let us align ourselves with Mary and Elizabeth and all others who choose to believe that the improbable and impossible are not out of reach.  Give us the loyalty of Joseph and Anna and Simeon, and please grant us discernment to know who is deserving of loyalty.  Grant us the wisdom of those easterners who studied the stars.  Help us avoid every Herod who would do us harm.

Saturday, January 2, 2016

Epiphany Approaches

Somewhere, in a distant land under different skies, wise men study the stars:

The rest of us wait for more obvious messages, the angel choirs, the clear message, "Go and See":

Some of us may understand the urgency already:

The largest mass migration since World War II has been underway for months, brutal leaders transforming citizens into refugees.

Those of us lucky to enjoy stability wait for the Christmas flowers to bloom.

We know that the best gifts may be the unexpected ones.

And we have all been given the best gift of all.

Friday, January 1, 2016

The First Hours of a New Year

I begin writing this 2 hours before daylight--the first sunrise of a new year.  I've heard from a variety of friends about what they hope for in 2016.  I've made my own lists (see this post on my creativity blog).

I imagine God smiling at us all.  The division of time into months and years must seem rather arbitrary to one with a longer view.

I can't help but notice how many of my friends have dreams and goals that are similar to last year:  move to a different place, earn more money, lose the same amount of pounds.  Mine are similar too.  Perhaps it means that we've all reached a stable place in our adult years.  Perhaps it means that we should try a different approach to meeting our goals.  Maybe we need some fresh goals to inspire us to go further.

Part of me wonders about the wisdom of any of it.  I think of a friend decades ago who said, "I'm so tired of working on my romantic relationship.  When do we get to just be in a relationship?" 

I imagine God saying something similar:  "You were perfect when I made you--why this constant quest for improvement?"

Yet I also understand the desire to set goals.  I, too, worry that if I didn't have goals and plans that I'd spend all of my free time on the sofa, watching non-nourishing TV.

I try to set goals throughout the year, or as I think of it, making sure I'm on the trajectory I want to follow.  I know that small changes can yield huge results--so I check in on myself periodically.  I don't want to sail through life on autopilot.

There are many people who would tell us that if we approach these first weeks of the new year mindfully, we'll set the stage for the whole year.  I think of this blog post, where I talk about the idea of the first 32 days of a new year being important, an idea I got from Anne Patchett, who got it from her yoga teacher:  "She told me that her teacher, a great and wise yogi, believed that whatever a person did with thoughtful consistency for the first 32 days of the year set the course for the entire year."

Why 32 days?  I don't know--but it's similar advice to ones that scientists who study behavior give us.  It takes roughly 4-6 weeks to change a habit--to get rid of a behavior or to add a behavior.   To have it take root, it's not enough to just do something for a day or a week.

My other problem with typical goals for the new year is that they can be so self-centered.  Today I'd encourage us to take a look at the larger world.  Many of us are part of religious traditions that remind us that the work of creation is ongoing.  God has a vision for this world that hasn't been achieved yet.  Those of us who have spent the last weeks in a religious space have a sense of that vision.

How can we help make that world come into being?