Monday, February 29, 2016

Leap Year and the Concept of Time

My watch says it is March 1, but of course, it is not.  My computer knows the truth--it is February 29, the extra day we get every four years.

I feel the same way about leap day as I feel about the extra hour we get in the Fall if we live in places where we change the clocks.  I feel a mix of optimism and guilt.

Here's a whole extra day, not just an extra hour!  And I shall likely do what I do on any other day:  spend most of it at work.
But I'm happy to have a job; I'm happy that it's still mostly manageable.  One of the joys of my job lately comes from my colleagues--we're working on an interesting writing project.  I'm about to take on the idea of time in a writing chunk that I'm creating.

And now, along comes Leap Day, which shows us that our idea of time is an artificial construct in so many ways.  If you want some background on why we handle the calendar the way we do, today's entry for The Writer's Almanac will give you that.

I wish I could say that I have something special lined up, something that will bring me closer to God or my true self.  But I do not.  I feel like this day sneaks up on me every four years, which is ridiculous, because it's not like this day is unexpected.

Ah, well.  Maybe this early morning pondering will help me infuse this day with a bit of wonder and gratitude for the time that we have, a sense of intention for the time we have left.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

The Birth of Less Formal Writing

Today is the birthday of Michel de Montaigne. Many literary historians credit Montaigne with creating and perfecting the art of the personal essay--although many of Montaigne's contemporaries found his digressions distracting.

I first started teaching the British Literature Survey class in 1991. I taught British Lit from the beginning to 1789, a dizzying task. I remember talking about Montaigne and the personal essay and seeing blank looks. Students could understand the road from the Mystery plays to Shakespeare to 18th century farces to the movies they loved. They understood how poetry had evolved. But essays? They hadn't really read essays and couldn't be convinced that essays, particularly personal essays, were important. Who cared what one individual guy thought about things?

My how life has changed. Now I have many students who want to refuse to read anything that isn't based in fact. They feel that a true story has more validity. They scoff at writers who "just make stuff up," as if it's somehow easier and therefore more dismissible.

I used to refuse to read memoirs, just generally, on principle, unless the author had actually done something interesting--and going down into a self-destructive spiral was not how I defined interesting. I loved to read memoirs by writers and collections of interviews with writers and other artists.

I still do, but now I'm watching those memoirs unspool in real time by reading their blogs and seeing Facebook posts. I love hearing a poet talk about assembling a manuscript and then hearing that the manuscript will be published. I love seeing those steps: choosing a cover, assembling a book tour, planning individual readings. I have learned so much.

It's the same way with theologians and other people who explore spirituality.  I like seeing people puzzle out theology tangles.  I like watching people solve various issues in their churches.  I cannot count the number of good ideas I've adapted, ideas I might never have encountered had I not been noodling across the Internet.

So, thank you Montaigne. Thank you for thinking that a regular person's insights were important enough to capture, that we didn't have to be a queen or a king to be worthy. Thank you for writing down your thoughts. Thank you for publishing them. Thank you for hacking out the trail that would be traversed by so many important people--and people who may never be important in the ways we usually define history, but are important nonetheless.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Late Winter Longings

These are the days of late winter, when it seems the window panes will always carry a level of frost.

We are ready for a change in the weather, both the outer weather and our internal weather.

weather vane at Vizcaya Museum and Gardens, Miami, FL

We feel we are lumps of clay on a potter's wheel.  When will the potter come to transform us?

We look into the darker depths, as we listen.

We are ready for discernment.  We look for buds ready to furl into flowers.

We are ready for the sign.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Tolkien Between the Wars

I have been thoroughly enjoying The Fellowship:  The Literary Lives of the Inklings, by Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski.  It looks at the literary and spiritual lives of the intellectual group, The Inklings, which included J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis.

I particularly enjoyed the depiction of life between World War I and World War II, when the group members worked on individual projects and came together to read writing in progress, to drink, to have theological discussions, and to support each other.

This passage that described the life Tolkien lived just after publication of The Hobbit moved me.  It asks the question of whether or not Tolkien was happy, with a rather ordinary middle class life of family and teaching and writing.  The answer:

"On the whole, yes.  . . . The truth is that he was often depressed about his own work and the world around him, but he was also in many ways a profoundly contented man.  He loved his family, his friends, his writing, his painting; he knew their flaws, but they neither surprised nor embittered him.  His domesticity instilled a quiet stability that enabled him to navigate through life without the dramatic conversions and intellectual combativeness so characteristic of Lewis.  He found at home a refuge that rarely failed him" (p. 212).

His Catholic faith sustained him too:  he went to Mass daily.  "Yet underlying his pessimism about humanity was an indomitable hope, born, as surely as his pessimism, from his Catholic faith.  Belief in the ultimate triumph of good over evil, light over darkness, logos over chaos, bestowed upon all the oppositions in his life--scholarship and art, male friendship and marriage, high spirits and despair--a final and satisfying unity, a deep and abiding joy" (p. 213).

As I read this passage, I felt a sense of foreboding, as I know the historical events that will be rising up to meet this group.  I suspect, though, that what sustains Tolkien between the wars will sustain him during World War II.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

My Chapbook of Poems: Available to Order Now

This week brings exciting poetry news:  my forthcoming chapbook, Life in the Holocene Extinction, is available for pre-publication purchase at the Finishing Line Press website.  It will ship June 17, 2016.

This week I got to see the cover.  I had provided the art, but it's always hard to visualize how it will look as part of the cover.  I am so pleased with this cover:

I love the title of the chapbook, but I do worry that people will think of it as too bleak.  What I didn't anticipate:  that people might not realize we're in the middle of the 6th mass extinction for our planet, and that some have labeled it the Holocene Extinction.

But my collection is not altogether bleak, although it does ask the question:  "How shall we continue in our daily life in the middle of a catastrophe, a catastrophe we do not comprehend fully?"

I'll include the title poem in a different post, but for today, to prove my point, here is "Benediction."  It was first published in Referential, an online magazine which is still up (my poem is here).  I think it's the perfect example of a mix of despair and hope that characterizes much of my work:

After a long day at the hospital–
tests performed on her mother, tests that leave
her mother radioactive–the woman heads
towards school and spends
her evening with her English impaired
students. She struggles
to help them learn the rules
of grammar that they should have learned
years ago. The more advanced students wrestle
their sentences into paragraphs and shape
essays out of chaos.

She drives home late, stinking
of stale hospital air and close
classrooms. She notices the dark
spire of a neighborhood church, the garish
neon of surrounding fast
food dives and a strip joint.

She wishes the church
had a drive through. Short
of time and shorn of sleep,
she could use a benediction
to go. She longs for the celestial
bath that could strip
away her earthly grime, leave
her pure and prepared
for the next day’s struggles.

Instead she returns to her snug
cottage of a condo. She submits
to a quick shower while tea steeps
in the pot that she crafted in a different life.
She cuts some coconut bread
left by a concerned friend. With tea
and bread, ensconced in a comforter,
she reads the Psalms and waits
the night watch, willing sleep to come.

Go here to order your chapbook now.  And it's never too early to think about the holidays--poetry collections make great presents!

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, February 28, 2016:

First Reading: Isaiah 55:1-9

Psalm: Psalm 63:1-8

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 10:1-13

Gospel: Luke 13:1-9

In this week's Gospel, we get the parable of the fig tree, that poor fig tree who still hasn't produced fruit even though it's been 3 years. This Gospel gives us a space to consider our view of God and our view of ourselves.

Which vision of God is the one in your head? We could see God as the man who says, "Lo, these three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down; why should it use up the ground?" If we see God that way, and if we see ourselves as the fig tree, that's a scary proposition; we've got a few years to produce before God gives up on us.

A traditional approach to this parable might see God as the impatient one, and Jesus as the vinedresser who pleads the case for the poor little fig tree. I know that Trinitarian theology might lead us this direction, but I'm still uncomfortable with the idea of a God who gives up on humanity. Everything in Scripture--and the experiences of those who walked this path before us--shows us a God that pursues us, going so far as to take on human flesh and walk amongst us. This doesn't sound like a God that gives up after 3 years.

A modern (post-modern?) approach to this parable might be to see the man and the vinedresser as parts of the same personality. How often are you impatient with the parts of yourself that aren't changing quickly enough? Are you kind to yourself, like the vinedresser? Or does your inner voice threaten you with destruction if you don't change? I know that some of you are saying, "This sounds quite schizophrenic." To this comment, I would say, try to observe your own inner thoughts. I hope that you're always patient and kind, but I've been on a diet more than once, and I know how quickly the self-loathing voice comes forward.

This parable gives us a hopeful view of our spiritual lives, if we live with it a little longer. Many of us no longer interact with the earth in any way, which is a shame. I wonder how many aspects of this imagery we lose as we move from being a nation of farmers and gardeners to a nation of people trapped by pavement. We tend to think of plants as always growing, always producing. We forget that for any growth to take place, a period of fallowness is necessary.

Maybe you've felt yourself in a fallow place spiritually. Or worse, maybe you've felt yourself sliding backwards, a withering on the vine. Maybe you started Lent with a fire in your heart, and you've burned out early. Maybe you've spent years thinking about church development, wondering what the Pentecostals have that you don't. Maybe you haven't been good at transforming yourself into a peace-loving person.  Maybe you're more judgmental now than you were when you were your younger know-it-all self.

Look at that parable again. The fig tree doesn't just sit there while everyone gathers around, waiting for something to happen. The vine dresser gives it extra attention. The vine dresser digs around it to give the roots room to grow and gives it extra manure--ah, the magic of fertilizer!  We, too, can be the vinedresser to our spiritual lives. And we don't have to resort to heroic measures. We don't have to start off by running away to a religious commune. Just a little spiritual manure is all it takes.

You've got a wide variety of spiritual tools in your toolchest. Pick up your Bible. Read a little bit each day--to echo the words of Isaiah, train yourself to hunger after more than bread. Find some time to pray more. Find something that irritates you, and make that be your call to prayer; for example, every time I hear someone's thumping car stereo, I could see that as a tolling bell, calling me to pray.

If you can do nothing else, slow down and breathe three deep breaths. Do that at least once a day. Turn your anxieties over to God. When you're surfing the web, go to a site or a blog that makes you feel enriched as a Christian as opposed to all those sites that make you angry or anxious. Give some spare change to those people who stand in the medians of the roadways. Smile more--you are the light of the world, after all.

Time to start acting like it.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

How to Discern God's Calling

These last 2 weeks have been my weeks to lead our Intergenerational worship, our more interactive service.  The second week of the service usually includes some sort of art/creative project.

We've been studying King David and one of the questions of our study has been "What is God calling you to do?"  It's been awhile since we did any kind of writing project (except for writing messages on cards to our sick and shut-in, which aren't really writing projects), and I don't think we've ever done any kind of guided meditation.

Unlike most Sundays, I spread us out across tables so that no more than 2 people shared a table.  Everyone had paper and pen to begin with.

I went back to my time-honored practice of free writing:  just write.  Don't correct mistakes, don't read what you're writing, don't stop.  If you run out of things to say, then write, "I have nothing more to say, I have nothing more to say" until you have something to say.  Go where your brain wants to go.  As long as you don't stop, you can't do this wrong.

The prompt:  "What is God calling you to do right now?"

I had them write for 4 minutes.  Then we moved to the next module.  I said, "Tell me about a vivid dream you've had in the past few weeks." 

Four minutes later, I passed out colored pencils and crayons.  I said, "We've used words, and now we'll use images and colors.  What is God calling you to do right now?"

I had planned to stop there, but the last prompt bubbled up as I watched them move through this process.  I told them that for the last activity they could use words or images or both.  I said, "What are your deepest yearnings?"

I got good feedback--everyone, with the exception of some of the children who were in a surly mood, participated, and most people looked pleased.  I heard from some of the participants later, who said they found it a useful exercise.

I always worry a bit with the kind of exercise that we did on Sunday--people might dredge up difficult stuff, and while it feels like a safe space to me, with pastoral care if necessary--Sundays are tight, timewise, and I'd hate to leave anyone stranded with too much to process.  Happily, everyone seemed on solid mental ground as we left.

We talked a bit about the process.  Are these dangerous questions?  This idea that God is calling us to one life above all others--we talked about how it could be disruptive, if we never settle down to live the life we actually have.

I also talked about how it's important to tune in to ourselves periodically.  We have a lot of forces that distract us from self-knowledge.  It's good to check in.

Is self-knowledge the same as knowledge of God?  I could create multiple answers to that question.  I realize the danger in thinking that our yearnings are what God wants for us.  And yet, I think those yearnings can be signposts towards God.

We also talked about the quote from  Frederick Buechner in Wishful Thinking: "'The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet.'"

It seemed like a good Sunday morning.  I was glad to facilitate.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Activism Then, Activism Now

I began my Sunday by listening to On Being, as I do most Sundays.  Krista Tippett interviewed 2 people who are activists, but of different types.  Patrisse Cullors is a founder of the Black Lives Matter movement and Dr. Robert Ross has been doing amazing thinking and work in the field of public health.

He said this about young offenders:  ". . . why do we have juvenile incarceration at all, period, for anybody in this country? And so, again, we are criminalizing sick, traumatized, oppressed children early. This is powerfully spiritual, important work upon which the future of this nation rests. And I think it calls upon us to bring the best of the total experience of our best selves to the table. We can’t mail it in on addressing inequality in this nation. Each of us is going to have to bring the best of ourselves to the equation. Not just the best of ourselves, but the best of ourselves in unity and in coalition."

He talked about how our current Zero Tolerance approach puts young children on a path to jail--as Dr. Ross put it, zero tolerance is "the portal to the incarceration superhighway."

Because it's a show on spirituality, Krista Tippett brought us this nugget:  "I heard something that I haven’t been able to stop thinking about. At the American Academy of Religion meeting this year, which is, like, 12,000 theologians, Ruby Sayles, one of these women whose name we don’t remember, talked about how — she said none of us considered ourselves to be religious in the way our parents or grandparents were. There was a lot of religion, but we were rejecting so much of what we’d grown up with. We didn’t think that defined us. And we only realized later that even though that was true, we were steeped in that tradition, in the hope, in the sense of love, in the songs, in the community. We had our armor on. And she said, and then, we became involved in policy and we sent our children out into the empire without their armor on."

Patrisse Cullors pointed out that many youth today are not welcome in their churches, because of their activism and because so many of them are queer.  She also pointed out the patriarchy of the black church.  But she handed it graciously by saying this, "But that hasn’t stopped us from being deeply spiritual in this work. And I think, for us, that looks like healing justice work, the role of healing justice, which is a term that was created probably about seven or eight years ago, and was really looking at how, as organizers, but also as people that are marginalized, that are impacted by racism and patriarchy, that are impacted by white supremacy, how do we show up in this work as our whole selves? How do we be in it as our best selves, and how do we look at the work of healing?"

It was a well-balanced show, an interesting look at where activism is now.  To hear it or to read the transcript, go here.

Later yesterday, I watched the new documentary on the Black Panthers--activism then.  I found it fascinating, but despite it's length, lacking.  I wanted more on the formation, on the community building, on the interaction with the other activist groups.  But I also realize that a 2 hour documentary can't do everything.

I would love a follow up documentary with the surviving Panthers.  Many of them were interviewed, but they were speaking about the past.  I'd like to know what they're doing now.  I'd like to know what that intense activism at a young age meant for them as they moved into their 60's and beyond.

I'd love to know what their spiritual lives look like, and whether or not their early activism shaped that.  But that, too, would be a subject for a different documentary again.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Poetry Sunday: "Infrastructure"

Since this poem is so rooted in the news events of the week, I can't resist posting it here.  I do wonder if it will have any relevance, beyond historical curiosity, once this election year is far behind us.  I think that it will:  we will always have bombastic billionaires who want to build walls and the religious people who speak truth to that power, even as they are part of the powerful.


From behind a wall
of security forces and fans,
the pope advises us to build
bridges, not walls. Unlike prophets
of old, he boards his private plane
to return to his enclave.
Does he dine
on locusts and wild honey?

From behind a wall
of wealth, the real estate mogul blusters
about possible attacks by Muslim
fanatics. He boards his private
jet and heads to the next campaign
stop, a contrail of vast sums
vanishing into vapor.

The rest of us go to our jobs
as we hope to maintain our slipping
old on security of any kind.
We’ve watched immigrants and robots
move into our workplaces.
We know no walls will hold
back the hunger for cheaper labor.
We wonder when the bridges
will crumble beneath our aging cars,
what river our final resting place.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Purgatory Project

My writing project that is bringing me the most joy is a surprise to me.  I'm going to call this work the purgatory project going forward.

Some background:  Back in December, my atheist writer quilter friend had written an amusing piece of fiction in which she imagines she's come to consciousness in purgatory. I then 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.

My friend wrote a response, and then on Tuesday, I wrote another response.  installment, one which imagines God as welcoming all to the table to discuss politics:  Hitler, Dorothy Day, my atheist friend, and Marx.  Buddha and Mohammed are there too, and they're all watching the political debates, the way we might watch TV.

Here's a paragraph from Tuesday's piece (the speaker is God): 

"I pour us all tea, the only antidote for this campaign season. I set out the dainty sandwiches and the butter cookies. I could answer some of these questions, but I know that the joy comes from the arguing, not the settling of the existential issues."

I sent the piece to my quilting group, and my atheist friend and I had a rousing conversation over Tuesday lunch.  Then my friend wrote another piece and wove our stories together.  Our Hindu writer quilter friend has also written a purgatory piece, although her faith doesn't have purgatory--well, neither does my Lutheran faith for that matter, and my friend's atheism would preclude purgatory too.

Yesterday, I had an interesting discussion with my Hindu friend who wonders if we're not all writing thinly disguised autobiography.  She has noticed that our atheist friend's purgatory is remarkably similar to her present life.  I said, "But the part about having to stay at parties with make-believe drinks making small talks with people she doesn't like.  In present life, we can leave those parties.  In her purgatory story, she can't leave."

My friend gave me the arched eyebrow, and I suddenly realized my error--sure, we can leave the boring obligations, but we're still not released from having to go.
Yesterday, I wrote a piece that had been inspired by events of the week:  God as administrator.  It answers the question about how we came to have so many religious books with rules handed down by God.  God assures us that the words weren't captured correctly:  "What human amongst you hasn’t experienced the same thing? You craft an e-mail, and you spend lots of time in revising and clarifying before you send it out. And what happens? People see all sorts of meanings that you didn’t intend. And then you send out more clarifications and the meaning gets more twisted, and eventually you move on to other issues."

But here's my favorite part of that writing in the voice of God:  "My other creatures don’t seem to have this trouble. Spiders don’t spin webs hoping to gain entrance into heaven by their good behavior or by some set of rules that they imagine I’ve handed down about spiderwebs. They spin webs because it brings them joy—and gives them a way to provide for themselves. Some spiders take all sorts of creative liberties, and some take the quickest route."

I've said it before, but it's worth repeating:  it's an interesting way of doing theology and an interesting way of having conversations about religion.  I know that conservative traditions would frown on me writing in the voice of God, but happily, I'm not part of those traditions.

Stay tuned!  There will be more installments coming.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Bridges and Walls: the Architecture/Infrastructure of Faith

It's been interesting to hear the pope's recent comments on whether Christians are more likely to build bridges or walls, to see how the media reports his comments, and to hear the responses.

What did the Pope say?  Here's how NPR reported it on their website:

"'A person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian. This is not in the Gospel,' the pope said, according to the Catholic News Agency."

As an English major, I understand what he's trying to say.  Jesus came to create community, except for a few of those passages where he seems cranky and not interested in that mission.  And the whole concept of being in the world but not of the world suggests wall building, in our minds at least, of a sort.

I also know that in some communities that wall building needs to happen for healing to occur.  People who have been abused by loved ones need to build strong walls so as not to be hurt again.  Churches need to be walled spaces that screen carefully to keep out those who prey on the weak.  I could go on and on with these examples, but I suspect that the pope was not talking about these kinds of walls. 

I don't usually go to literal meanings, but perhaps the pope was talking about literal walls to keep out the poor and destitute, building walls to make sure that we keep our wealth for ourselves.  That literal meaning I could support.

The pope was not talking about our personal walls--no, he was making a political statement, about the world's poor and the world's wealthy.  And clearly, he was making a judgment about the politicians who want to build these walls.

The pope occupies an interesting place:  he's both a prophet, in the traditional sense, speaking truth to the powerful.  But he's also one of the powerful.  His words move across the world in a way that the words of a modern Micah or Nehemiah or John the Baptist would not.

Many of us in the first world also occupy that place.  We may feel that we are not part of the rich and the powerful, but in terms of the planetary economy, even the poorest first world inhabitant has more resources than much of the non-first world.

What we do with those resources is a different matter.  And here, again, the words of the pope resonate.  Are we building walls or building bridges?

What can we do to help construct good bridges?

Thursday, February 18, 2016

What Bubbles Beneath

We are in the early days of Lent.  Perhaps we still feel our hearts are carved of stone, unable to soften and uncurl.

Perhaps we find our souls in the branches of trees that have yet to bud.

Maybe we see ourselves as trapped in a labyrinth, only one path to follow, even though we may resist the circling.

But know this:  much bubbles beneath the frozen surface.

Your soul blossoms like a flower growing through the brick staircase.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, February 21, 2016:

First Reading: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

Psalm: Psalm 27

Second Reading: Philippians 3:17--4:1

Gospel: Luke 13:31-35

This Gospel is one of those that might tempt us moderns to feel superior. We're not like that wicked Jerusalem, are we? We don't stone the prophets and others who are sent to us. We're a civilized people.

But think of how many ways there are to kill the messengers of God. Let's start with our individual Bibles. Do you know where yours is? Have you touched it this week? This month? This year?

After all, one of the main ways God has to speak to us is by way of the Scripture. And if we don't read our Bibles, we lose out on a major avenue of communication with God. You might protest that you hear the Bible plenty when you go to church on Sunday. And that's great. Far too many churches have very little scripture as part of the weekly service. But it's not enough. We'd be better off if we read our Bibles every day. It's far too easy to be seduced by the glittering secular world; a daily diet of Bible reading can help us remember God's claim on us and our purpose in the world.

But the Bible isn't the only way we can learn about God and our place in the community. We can read the works of other holy people. There are plenty of books out there that can help us be more faithful. My reading list is fairly eclectic; if you're new to this, I'd start with the works of Henri Nouwen, Kathleen Norris, Madeleine L'Engle, and Thomas Merton, among many others.

You could also listen for God. Many of us are pretty good at talking to God, especially if we're in trouble. But we're not very good at listening. Henri Nouwen suggests that we take 10 minutes a day to quiet our minds, to sit and just listen. You might also keep a journal, which can be a very valid form of active meditation for busy Westerners. Don't just write down what happens to you during the day. Keep a list of things for which you're grateful. Keep a list of your heartfelt desires. Make a space for any sorts of intuition you have. Ask God for insight. Keep a keen ear for what God replies. Write it down so you won't forget.

We stone the prophets sent to us by God by ridiculing, of course. There are many effective ministers and churches out there. Just because one church's style doesn't work for you doesn't mean that you should work to tear it down. We should all be about the same business: being a light for Christ in the world, so that we can help people find their way. If someone else's techniques work, we should celebrate that.

We stone the prophets that God sends to us by refusing to pay attention. Look at your life. To whom do you pay highest allegiance? Your God? Your boss? Your nation? Your family? What keeps your loyalties split? How can you find your way back to God?

God tries to get our attention in all sorts of ways. We're prompt to dismiss our strange dreams (both the night kind and the daydreaming kind) and strange voices (both our own and the ones that come to us from books and other media). We're quick to believe everything our culture tells us about who we should be.

In this time of Lent, we can repent for all the times we've stoned the prophets (metaphorically). We can turn our attention to God and once again, try to be more faithful. God longs to gather us, as a mother hen gathers her chicks (for those of you hungry for female images of God, here's a Sunday gift). Come be part of the brood.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Lenten Discipline Progress Report: Week 1

First, the good news.  I am reading my way through Henri Nouwen's Show Me the Way:  Readings for Each Day of Lent.  I read it after I read the morning prayers in Phyllis Tickle's The Divine Hours.  It fits nicely with a daily discipline that I already follow.

However, this pilgrim is not doing well with her plan to color on sheets that give me a circle or a square for each day of Lent.  The spaces are too small, and my markers have too broad a stroke.

And frankly, adding another daily discipline to my life--in retrospect, I'm seeing the error of this plan.  But I would like to play more with color and markers.  Should I go to the store and get the perfect notebook?  The one that I have that I'm using as my weekly journal that keeps up with my goals and progress--I'd like something like that.

But do I really need to go to the store?

So, I have returned to the arts and crafts bookcase, and sure enough, I have some old sketchbooks.  They feel almost too big, but maybe the 6 x 8 sheets will be a good antidote to the too-small circles and squares.

The other problem I have with restrictive daily disciplines is that they may edge out the serendipitous discoveries that could come my way.  I had no plans to read The Fellowship:  the Literary Lives of the Inklings  by Carol Zaleski and Philip Zaleski as part of my Lent.  But it's a wonderful Lenten journey.  It's about the literary and spiritual lives of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien and their circles.

I find it curious that I can read this book and feel absolutely no desire to read the works of these writers.  I have a fondness for some of the theology of Lewis, and I spent my childhood years devouring the Narnia series.  I read The Hobbit, and although I enjoyed it, I couldn't make my way through any other Tolkien work.

When I read Paul Elie's The Life You Save May Be Your Own, I immediately went back to Flannery O'Connor (who, truth be told is never far from my thoughts) and Thomas Merton.  I wanted to read Dorothy Day and Walker Percy.  It was a different experience from The Fellowship.

It's good to remember that we are still in the early days of Lent.  There is still hope for our Lenten disciplines.

Monday, February 15, 2016

God's Promise to David

My church has been exploring the Old Testament, and recently, we read this passage together:

2 Samuel 7:  1-14a

It's interesting to read this passage just a few Sundays after reading about the baptism of Jesus.  We see two men early in their careers.  We see God proclaiming God's pleasure in the two men.  Jesus has yet to do anything impressive.  David, on the other hand, has done quite a bit.

We might think about David's trajectory and feel despair about our own.  David has been plucked from the obscurity of being a shepherd and the youngest.  He has made his way in King Saul's palace.  As God turned away from Saul, it became clear that God favored David.  Chaos ensues, and David emerges to win the throne.  Along the way, he defeats many enemies and wins many battles.

So, at this stage, it's no wonder that God makes this statement of support of David.  But look again at this speech of God's.  God knows that David is human--and if we remember the trajectory of the whole story, we know it too.  David will make massive mistakes, just as we will.  But God declares that even though there may be punishment for those mistakes, as the world will mete out punishment, God's love will remain.

God makes the same promise to us.  God doesn't judge us by the rules of the world.  God loves us regardless.

In these days of New Years resolutions going off the rails for many of us, that's a great reminder.  God chose you. God delights in you. God loves you.

You may find this hard to believe. You may be able to believe that God loves people like King David or Mother Theresa or Archbishop Tutu, or any number of people more worthy than you. The good news is that God loves you the same way. God sees you in the same way.

No matter how much you improve yourself, God will still love you. No matter how many times you lose sight of your goals and move further away from the best self that you could be, God will still love you. Of course God sees your full potential and probably hopes that you'll move in that direction. But even if you don't, God will love you anyway. No matter how miserably you've failed, God will always welcome you.

If we truly believed that God loves us the way God loves King David, would we be empowered to live our lives differently?  What would that look like?

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Thinking about Justice and Theology on the Feast Day of Saint Valentine

Here's one of those strange feast days, a feast day that's more popular in the general culture than it is in the church culture that pays attention to saints and their days. Of course, February 14, Saint Valentine's Day, hasn't been a true feast day for decades.  But as Christians, why not celebrate love, along with the rest of the Western world?

Well, it's fraught, isn't it?  How many of us have perfectly happy marriages?  How many of us have romantic relationships with a primary person at all?  In any church congregation, we likely have more divorced, widowed, and single people than married people, at least if our congregation matches national demographics.

We could spend the day talking about what we learn about God's love for us in the love that we experience from each other.   If my spouse's love for me is but a pale shadow of the way God loves me, then I am rich in love indeed.

We could talk about the actual story of the actual person of Valentine.  This blog post gives us interesting background:  "And I'd be all for recovering a St. Valentine's Day about civil disobedience -- not letting the state tell you whom, or whether, you can marry -- and friendship."

There are other justice aspects of this holiday.  Last night I went to the grocery store.  The flowers were right there just beyond the entrance, followed by a huge display of chocolates, and just beyond them, the bakery with every heart shaped confection you could want.  I thought about how much money we spend on this holiday--and I wasn't even near a jewelry store.

If you want to show me you love me, don't spend thousands on a bauble.  Go ahead and pay down the mortgage.  It may not seem romantic on its face, but what could be more romantic than ensuring that I have a roof over my head and a door that locks.

But there are even darker justice elements.  This blog post reminds us of how many of our Valentine's Day traditions are built on the backs of abused workers--and not just abused workers, but enslaved workers and children:  "70-75% of the world’s chocolate comes from cocoa beans harvested in West Africa, where almost 2 million children work under violent and hazardous conditions.  Many of these children are kidnapped or sold (some as young as 7 years old) and forced into such labor."  The statistics are similar for our roses, our diamonds, our technology, and our stuffed animals. 

I thought about this post as I was at the grocery store.  I bought us some fair trade chocolate as a treat.  I came home to see where my spouse had planted the hibiscus--so that we can see it out of the kitchen window as we wash the dishes--a better approach to flowers.  It seemed a good way to usher in Valentine's Day.

I also enjoyed these theology valentines--no need to pay for a card!

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Love Letters to God

My meditation is based on this text:

2 Samuel 22:  1-15

Tradition tells us that David wrote many of the Psalms, but modern scholars don't all agree on which ones, or even that David wrote them at all.  In this passage, we see why King David has come to be associated with so many of the Psalms.

One of the common themes of the Psalms is that of rescue from the wicked, from one's individual enemies, and from society's collective enemies.  We see that fierce image of God here, and that fierceness winds its way through the Psalms.  We see God in terms of battle imagery, which makes sense, since David is thanking God for help in battle.

The God in this passage is an angry God, one whom we wouldn't want to be against us.  This God takes all the elements of the universe and works a victory.  This is a God who comes down to be with us, to battle beside us.

It's a very different version of God than the one we see in Jesus.  What a different incarnation story!

We get a sense of that difference in Mary's song of praise to God that we find in Luke 1:  46-55.  Mary also sings of a God who does battle, but it's a different kind of battle.  Mary sings of a God who raises up the lowly.  God unleashes fierceness on the world, but with a very different goal.

In both of these passages, we see God's commitment to the people who are committed to God.  It's a mutual relationship.  It's a loving relationship.

It is interesting to read these passages in the context of Valentine's Day, which is fast upon us.  Look at our secular culture and what messages we get about what true love looks like.  At its worst, the message is one of consumerism:  we know we are loved by the lusciousness of the box of chocolates, by the rareness of the flowers in the bouquet, by the size of the precious stones.

God offers us a different love.  And as we offer our love letters to God, what would we say?

Friday, February 12, 2016

Poetry Friday: Rust, Dust, Construction, Resurrection

On Monday night before Ash Wednesday, I had such plans.  My spouse would be out late teaching his Philosophy class.  I wanted to make some headway with the short story I'd been writing and maybe do some grading.  But the story stalled, and I felt grouchy--I try not to grade when I'm grouchy.  I thought I might just go to bed early, but then the phone rang, and I couldn't fall back asleep.  There was nothing good on TV.

As often, I got myself back into a good mood by reading.  I picked up The Fellowship:  the Literary Lives of the Inklings  by Carol Zaleski and Philip Zaleski.  This book explores both the artistic and spiritual lives of C.S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and the literary circle that they formed in Oxford in the earlier part of the 20th century.  Based on the 50 pages that I read Monday evening, this book will be a treat.

I went to my computer to check on e-mail, and I read a friend's Facebook post that noted the anniversary of John Carpenter’s “The Fog,” with its plot of ghosts of shipwrecked lepers and Dave Bonta's description of construction cranes around London, and I came up with the poem that you can find here and pasted below.

But let me also post some background and pictures that will give present readers (and future scholars?) some insight into my writing process. 

The parking lot of my school is now a building site.  It began with the parking garage that we now use.  It was fascinating to see the way that buildings are created now, with huge slabs of concrete that are shaped elsewhere and trucked to the site.  Huge cranes, guided by humans, hoist the slabs into place, and thus, the walls come into being.

Last night as I left that parking garage for Ash Wednesday service, I caught sight of the sunset to the west.  I took a few minutes to capture some pictures. 

It seemed a perfect metaphor for Ash Wednesday:  a parking lot becomes a building, and we all know that the buildings that were here 10-20 years ago have vanished for many of these new buildings.

As I was writing the poem, I thought of those paper cranes that are a peace symbol.  I thought of our church a few years ago, with its dramatic Lenten chancel.

For Easter, we transformed this starkness by hanging paper cranes on the branches.  I tried to make a few, but my cranes looked crippled and deformed.  Happily, we had a teenager who was up to the task:

They transformed the trees:

I had these cranes on the brain too, as I wrote the poem below.  I like how the poem holds the tension of Ash Wednesday and Mardi Gras, of dust and resurrection within its lines, but doesn't resolve it.



Who will live in these shipwrecked leper
colonies? The cranes, the workhorse
of the Industrial Revolution, crank
away without ceasing, heaving future walls
into place. Pre-fab has such a different
meaning now, as big trucks rumble
the concrete slabs across a nation.

In my office, I fold paper cranes
the way I learned long ago, at a justice
rally on the 40th anniversary of the Hiroshima
explosion or maybe for an installation art
piece made of stripped branches.

I write lines from poems on the paper
before I make the creases. I tuck these cranes
into the corners of my office building
and the chain link fence around the construction
site. I imagine them coming to life
at night, a constellation made of cranes
in a starless sky, a navigation
device that no one will need or notice.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, February 14, 2016:

First Reading: Deuteronomy 26:1-11

Psalm: Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16

Second Reading: Romans 10:8b-13

Gospel: Luke 4:1-13

This week's text is the classic tale of Satan tempting Jesus in the desert. Jesus goes to the desert to find out "what it meant to be Jesus" (in the words of Frederick Beuchner). Jesus goes to the desert, that scorched, barren land. We begin our journey with Ash Wednesday, with scorched ashes from last season's palms that we used on Palm Sunday. Richard Pervo points out that it is a journey that starts in ash and ends in flames (think Pentecost). Along the way of our spiritual path, we will face similar temptations to the ones that Jesus faced.

The first temptation is so basic: basic sustenance, stones turned into bread. Most of us in the first world find ourselves caught up in a whirlwind of earning money. Why do we earn money? Well, of course, we need to cover our basic needs: food, shelter, clothing. But most of us have far more than we'll ever use. If you're like me, you have a multiple sizes of clothes in your closet, and even if you stayed within one size, you've probably got a month's worth of clothes that you could wear before you'd have to repeat. If you're like me, you've got a month's worth of food in the fridge and pantry, even when it's not hurricane season. If you're like most Americans, you have several cars, several computers, several televisions. Maybe you even have several houses.

In this time of Lent, it's worth the time to assess our relationship with our stuff.  All of our possessions require time and upkeep and money.  What might we gain by going back to the basics of providing for ourselves what we need and sharing our excess with others?  How can we trust that God will provide for more of our needs so that we don't have to work ourselves into a state of total exhaustion to do it?

Jesus is then tempted with power, and it's the rare person I've met who doesn't wrestle with questions of status and fame--and the power that comes with it. Even if you wouldn't sell your family or your self to be on TV, you've probably felt this temptation--or envy, because you weren't someone getting offers of fame and fortune. 

We don't seem to have very many people who are famous because of their breathtaking charity or their ability to bring light to a darkening world.  In a world where it's possible to be famous for being famous or related to famous people, how might our culture be different if we celebrated those who had brought light into the world? 

The third temptation shows the danger of succumbing to the second temptation: once we become wealthy and powerful, we're likely to forget that we're not God.  We use our money to insulate us, but we forget how fortunate we are to have that money. We begin to think that we earn that money because we're so talented, so capable, so educated--for many of us, the fact that we have one job over another is largely a matter of luck.

In our society, money makes us feel powerful. Fame makes us feel powerful. Acclaim makes us feel powerful. And these temptations take us away from God, where the true power lies. We want to think we can do everything on our own. We want to be like God--all powerful. We need to remember the words of John the Baptist: "I am not the Messiah."
We could also read this temptation as the yearning to control God.  How often do we pray in an attempt to control God? Maybe we pray for specific results to a problem. Maybe we pray for things we want, even if it's something that seems good, like an end to world hunger. Most of us aren't very patient with God's time scale. We wish God would just hurry up and show us the Divine Plan.

We need to look to the model of our savior, who also wrestled with temptation. We need to be resolute in our refusal.

The beauty of the cyclical nature of liturgical life is that it is full of chances to turn around. Even if you recognize that you've given in to these temptations or the many other temptations the world offers, it's not too late. God calls us to return. God gives us any number of welcome home parties. God waits patiently, like the father of the prodigal son. And God knows that we will stray again. Like keeping to a sensible eating plan, this spiritual path requires more vigilance than we can sustain all the time. And yet, the struggle to wage this spiritual warfare will yield results eventually.

Welcome to Lent, the season of ash and penitence. Repent, return, retool your lives. It is time again to commit to resurrection, to submit to the purifying flames of Pentecost. Turn away from the ashes and towards the light.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Ash Wednesday and the Marks of Mortality

Make no mistake:  mortality marks us all:

Some of us wear our marks more openly than others, but we are all slowly returning to dust:

We find our various ways to be brave in the face of this knowledge:

We do the work that must be done:

The palms that once waved over our pre-Easter, Holy Week celebrations are ready for a different starring role today:

The universe is built on this forming and reforming of matter and energy.  The universe is inside each of us, and we carry with us the history of the stars and the universe.

All our earthly atoms are made of recycled stars.  We are the dust of stars and to dust we shall all return:

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Shrove Tuesday: A Time of Tidying

Here we are, at the day before Lent begins.  I remember the 1970's, when people would come to church more than once a week--we might have had a Shrove Tuesday pancake supper.  We will not be doing that at my church today. 

More of us are familiar with Mardi Gras, usually as a drinking holiday.  And some of us might be familiar with Carnival festivities, which might last several weeks. 

Mardi Gras and Carnival, holidays that come to us out of predominantly Catholic countries, certainly have a more festive air than Shrove Tuesday, which comes to us from some of the more dour traditions of England. The word shrove, which is the past tense of the verb to shrive, which means to seek absolution for sins through confession and penance, is far less festive than the Catholic terms for this day.

Many of our Mardi Gras and Shrove Tuesday traditions come out of the need to use up the excess.  In medieval times, most Christians would give up all sorts of luxury items for Lent, luxury items like milk, eggs, and alcohol.  So just before Lent came the using up of the luxury items--because you wouldn't just throw them away.  Hence the special Mardi Gras breads and treats and the drinking.

We are at the juxtaposition of many holidays that involve tidying:  a Candlemas tradition involves sweeping one's house, the Chinese New Year has a time of deep cleaning, and many of the days leading up to Lent involve a straightening.  I don't have time for deep cleaning, but I will be grading rough drafts--a straightening of a different sort.

In the past, I've made special bread; if you have time, this blog post will walk you through the process.  I've made pancakes, but it always makes me somewhat sad to eat them alone.  I will not go out drinking tonight--I have to get up early tomorrow to go to spin class and then to work.

Today is also the day of the New Hampshire primaries--talk about interesting juxtapositions!  Yesterday was the Chinese New Year, which ushered in the year of the Fire Monkey.  The year of the Fire Monkey is often seen as a time of completion, and it has the potential to be a time of prosperity.  But fire years, while giving warmth, can also be times of aggression, restlessness, and impulsive behavior.

And then we move to Ash Wednesday tomorrow.  My poet brain is already whirring.

I will spend some time in contemplation as I move through the day.  I will have a sense of a different calendar that pulses beneath the secular rhythms of our culture.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Lent Approaches

This week, we leave the season of Epiphany.  Ash Wednesday will remind us of our dusty destiny:

We will change the paraments to purple:

Perhaps we will have a stark reminder of our mortality in the chancel:

It is time to decide on our Lenten disciplines:

It is time to move into a time of penitence:

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Microcosm of a Church in a Single Sunday Morning

A week ago, I went to every service.  Our church, although relatively small in terms of total Sunday attendance (100-125 worshippers), has 3 services.  Last week I went to all three to lead the congregational meeting that we've woven into the service and to talk about our congregational commitment to raising money for Luther Springs, our Florida camp.  We have discussion time in the weeks leading up to the prayers and votes that we do during the meeting.

It was interesting to go to all three.  Our 8:30 service is the most streamlined, although it has the essential elements of Word and Sacrament.  I noticed that the hymn "Jesus the Very Thought of You" was partially written by Bernard of Clairvaux, and I said a prayer of thanks for how much monasticism has been part of the church, even when we didn't realize it.

Our 9:45 service is the most interactive, and it's the one I choose when I can only go to one.  I did wonder if I like it so much because most of my friends can be found at that service. 

The 11:00 service is our least peppy.  It can feel downright ponderous.  But I am biased.  I notice that people sit and let the service wash over them.  At times, there are only a few of us in the congregation who sing.  I wonder how much people are comprehending.

But I do come from a teacher's perspective--when people aren't participating, I assume that something's wrong.  However, from a worship perspective, the Quakers and other contemplatives have reminded us again and again that there's much to be gained from sitting and getting ourselves to a still and quiet place.

And then I was part of the team that counted the money; I also had a bit of chili from the congregational chili cook-off that happened after our services.  It was a true microcosm of our church.  All we would have needed was a service project to make the microcosm complete.

It was interesting to see the differences in services and activities and to think about the different purposes that they serve.  I expected to feel exhausted by the end of it--after all, I spent over 5 hours at church. 

But instead, I felt soothed.  I went home with a supreme sense of contentment.  I was pleased to see our church in action, in all sorts of ways of action, in a snapshot of a Sunday morning.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Musical Antidotes to Collective Evil

The last few weeks have seen many important musicians head off to that great jam session in the sky.  A few weeks ago, the death of David Bowie took us all by surprise.  Then it was the death of Glenn Frey of the Eagles.  And this week, the death of Maurice White, of Earth, Wind, and Fire.

I remember those first Earth, Wind, and Fire albums that I got, the amazing cover art that seemed to promise revelations from ancient cultures.  And indeed, Maurice White was fascinated by these cultures, as this story on the radio program The World explained.

And this essay takes these thoughts even further, exploring how Earth, Wind, and Fire was revolutionary in so many ways:  "On slickly-produced tunes like 1974's Sly-influenced 'Shining Star,' EWF strove for an effervescent rhythm and blues that was a clever combination of Vietnam War-era counter-optimism, Black Arts movement-influenced Afrocentricity and Holiness Church messianism."

The article explores the ways that Earth, Wind, and Fire worked towards transcendence, the ways they were so successful: 

"White concocted music that meant to shield us from a world constantly threatening to harden us and turn our hearts cold — a post-civil rights America defined by the Nixon administration's terror tactics against anti-establishment activists, by the devastating influx of heroin in inner cities and by the ugliness of organized white resistance to busing.

In retrospect, Maurice White's clever idea in forming EWF was to power forward with an ethical black music that could force us to keep our heads up to the sky when it mattered most. It was as if through the EWF concept he wanted to offer a therapeutic public sphere, where we could all find collective peace of mind, where we could ward off the evil running through our brains. Today, the violence inflicted on black lives and trans lives and women's lives and Syrian lives forces us to question whether all lives really do matter to all of us; as a result, EWF's most politically explicit songs, like 1987's 'System of Survival' are relevant as ever."

I am not as familiar with today's musicians as I am with the musicians of my youth, so perhaps there's still a thriving musical culture/counterculture still attempting to do what Earth, Wind, and Fire did so successfully.  If so, I'd like to know about that music.  With the various aspects of our culture turning so vitriolic (here I'm thinking about the most recent Democratic debate), it would be wonderful to have an antidote.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Politics, "Star Wars," and Hope for the Future

I have a new post up at the Living Lutheran site.  It looks at the political race, at the latest Star Wars movie, and what those yearnings might tell the Church.

Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"Oddly, this [story about politics] made me think about the release of the latest “Star Wars” movie where we also see people in need of a savior, people willing to take huge risks to be part of a quest that’s bigger than themselves – the outlines of which they only dimly perceive. In many cases the characters face very long odds, an almost impossible mission, and yet, the community they create is one that makes it worthwhile."

"But it’s not just those characters in the movie – it’s also about those of us who flocked to see the movie the week it opened."

"What can churches learn from the popular culture that surrounds us?"

Go here to read the whole piece.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

The Nature of the Soul and Other Questions from a Literature Classroom

This week has been a week of many classroom observations.  One of my favorites was an Introduction to Literature class, which was discussing this sestina by Charles Algernon Swinburne.  It begins this way

"I saw my soul at rest upon a day
      As a bird sleeping in the nest of night,"

We then had an interesting discussion about how we view the soul:  as a bird in a nest?  Does the soul exist.  The teacher called on me, saying, "We have a poet in the room.  Kristin, how do you see the soul?"

Oh, the pressure!  So I answered honestly.  I said, "I see the soul as being somewhat trapped by the body, which will break down in all sorts of ways."

We talked about the body as a sort of cage, and I hastened to say that I wasn't really comfortable with the theology behind it.  I wanted to make a speech about the dangers of Gnosticism, but that would have required hijacking the whole class.  I also wanted to talk about the dangers of dualism, about the new philosophies of the mind, about all sorts of stuff that would have been tangentially relevant, but not particularly helpful to the interpretation of the poem.

In the end, I reminded myself that I was in the room to observe, not to take over.  And I was glad that I practiced the spiritual discipline of being quiet.  It was great to listen to the students have a spirited (soulful?  how many puns could I make?) discussion about the soul, about the ways we live a good life or recover from our mistakes--and I was interested that no one really mentioned God in a traditional way.  I could tell that the students who spoke had some sort of spiritual life--or at least, a yearning or two that had been acknowledged.  I couldn't tell you much about their specific beliefs or practices.

I admired the way that the teacher wove the conversation back to the line by line analysis of the poem.  I was happy that most of the students stayed with her.

But more than that, I was thrilled to see that students are still thinking about spiritual and philosophical questions, like "What is the nature of a soul?" 

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, February 7, 2016:

First Reading: Exodus 34:29-35

Psalm: Psalm 99

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 3:12--4:2

Gospel: Luke 9:28-36 [37-43a]

Here we are, the final Sunday before Lent begins.  Transfiguration Sunday gives us a chance to wrestle with an essential question:  who is this Christ?  Why worship this guy?

Do we worship Christ because of his glory?  The mystical elements of Transfiguration Sunday dazzle us and threaten to overshadow the rest of the story.  What a magnificent tale!  Moses and Elijah appear and along with Christ, they are transformed into glowing creatures.  A voice booms down reminding us of Christ's chosen and elevated status.

It's easy to understand Peter's response:  we'll stay on the mountain, we'll build booths!  It's easy to understand why the disciples stay quiet about this mystical experience.

Jesus then heals a child; he's a success where his disciples have failed. 

Do we worship God in the hopes of harnessing this kind of transfiguring power?  It's easy to understand this impulse.  But the rest of the lesson for today warns us against this impulse.

Jesus know that he's on a collision course with the powers that rule the world.  The disciples argue about who is greatest, and Jesus reminds him of the nature of his ministry:  to be least.

For those of us who worship Christ because we want transfiguration, it's important to remember what kind of transfiguration we're going to get.  We're not likely to get worldly power because we're Christians--in fact, it will be just the opposite. 

Will we get healing?  Maybe.  Will we be creatures that glow with an otherworldly light?  Metaphorically.  Can we charge admission and get rich from our spiritual beliefs?  Go back and reread the Gospels, and see what Jesus has to say about wealth.

Ah, Transfiguration Sunday which leads us to Mardi Gras, a few last hurrahs before the serious season of Lent, that season of ash and penitence.  Let us stay here in this glow. 

But let us not forget the path before us, the path that brings us off the mountain and into service. Let us not confuse the mountain top for the true relationship that God offers us.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Feast of the Presentation

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple, the ritual purification of the mother and the required presentation of new male babies and to make a sacrifice that was to happen 40 days after birth.  We read about this event in the second chapter of Luke.

It's been 40 days since Christmas--and this year, Lent begins next week.  But let's not get ahead.

Two things leapt out at me as I read the text for today.  The first is that Mary and Joseph make a sacrifice of turtledoves, which means they couldn't afford a lamb.  I think of the themes of poverty that wind their way through the Bible.  I think of God's habit of appearing where we least expect to find the Holy:  in the small corners of Empire, amongst the poor and outcast, in the body of a tiny baby.

I also think of Simeon, who has been promised that he would see the Messiah--and so he waits and he waits and he waits.  But finally, at the end of his life, he does hold the light of the world in his hands.

Imagine it:  to hold the light of the world in your hands.  In so many ways we still do.  We carry the light of the world inside us.  How can we, as embodied light from God, deliver this light to the world?

The Gospels show us that we have a role to play, even if we are not the Messiah.  Every person is important, even if we're part of the marginalized populations of our societies:  female, poor, old, less educated--the list could go on and on.  But God can use us all.

Some churches and monasteries will bless the year's supply of candles this time of year--in some traditions, we call today Candlemas.  I love this tradition.  Today would be a good day to light a candle and to think about our own lights.  Are we dimly burning wicks?  Take heart--the Bible promises that we can still be useful.  Does our light burn pure and true?  Take care to protect that flame.

Today is the last day of Christmas, but most of us bid that season goodbye 30-40 days ago.  Today would be a good day to give ourselves one last gift:  a meal together with those whom we love perhaps, or some down time to do the activities which bring us joy.

In this way, we can cup our hands around our candlelit lives, which may feel a bit flickery.  In this way, we can protect our dimly burning wicks so that we can live to blaze another day.

Monday, February 1, 2016

True Miracles and the Feast Day of St. Brigid

Today is the feast day of St. Brigid, one of the patron saints of Ireland.  She is one of the early Christians who stood at the intersection of Christianity, Druidism, and the other pagan religions of Ireland.  She is also one of those extraordinary women who did amazing things, despite the patriarchal culture in which she lived.

She founded 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.
Monastic, administrator, artist--it's no wonder that her story calls to me from across the centuries.

I didn't really know much about Brigid until about 2011 or 2012, when I read several blog posts about her.  In 2013, I drove all the way to Mepkin Abbey on her feast day.  I thought about her life as I drove across cold landscapes.  I finally wrote a draft of the poem that appears below.

Four years ago, I wrote this:  "I will try to imagine Saint Brigid through a more realistic lens.  I will write a poem where she tells me that she accomplished all sorts of things along the way, while all the time struggling to create her great illuminated work.  I will imagine something that she did that we know nothing of.  I will imagine that she will feel sad when she realizes that modern people don't even know of her great work, but instead of her institutions at Kildare and beyond.

I will think about a woman at midlife 1500 years from now, a woman who reads about my life.  What will amaze her?  How will she see the ways that I did, indeed, live an authentic life, even as I lost sight of that fact in the daily minutiae?  If she blogged about me, what would seem important enough to include?  How would she finish this sentence:  In the last half of her life, Berkey-Abbott accomplished ______________  ?"

I have yet to write about Brigid's lost work, but I did write the poem that imagines Brigid through a more realistic lens.  In August, it was published in Adanna, and I'm happy to repost it here.  If you want additional background on Brigid, see this blog post.

The True Miracle of Saint Brigid

You know about the baskets
of butter, the buckets of beer,
the milk that flowed
to fill a lake.

You don’t know about the weeks
we prayed for the miracle
of multiplication but instead received
the discipline of division.

I managed the finances to keep us all fed.
By day, I rationed the food.
At night, I dreamed of a sculpture
manufactured of metal.

I didn’t have the metal
or the time, but in the minutes
had, I illuminated
any scrap of paper I could find.

Lost to the ashes:
The Book of Kildare, but also
my budget ledgers, flowers
and birds drawn around the numbers.