Friday, September 30, 2016

Black Moons and Renewed Yearnings

Tonight, we have a black moon, which is not as dire as it sounds--it's the second new moon in a month.  Down here at the southern tip of the U.S., we've been able to see the sliver of moon with a silvery outline of the rest of the moon.

If you wait until evening, however, to see if your view is the same, you won't see it.  Moonrise in south Florida today is at 6:49 a.m.; times in other places will vary.

I am intrigued by all the vaguely religious connotations that go along with a black moon:  the second coming, the end of times, and a time when spells take on more potency.

When I was younger, I was intrigued by alternative religions, especially ones that didn't minimize females--that path led me to a variety of religious expressions that we might now classify as Wiccan.  I can't remember which writer suggested that we pay attention to the phases of the moon, that we start new projects when the moon was waxing into fullness.  As a college student, of course, I couldn't time my course work that way.  But the idea has stuck with me.

I don't believe that the position of the moon or the planets has more impact on daily life than other elements.  I suspect that many of us would make better decisions if we kept ourselves nourished and rested properly, and those actions would have a greater impact than a second new moon in a month.

Still, the idea of a time of increased potency intrigues me.  If we were to cast a spell today, if we wanted to harness the power of the new moon, what would we want our spell to do?

When I was young and wrote page after page of my wishes, hopes, and dreams, I had a better sense of what I yearned for.  These days, as I race from pillar to post, I have a vision of a fairy godmother who offers me 3 wishes--but first, she'd have to get my attention.

When I was young, I said that the first thing I would wish for would be unlimited wishes.  But let's take that off the table.  And let's assume we're not in a fairy tale where we'll be granted our wishes, but in a way that teaches us a lesson--we lose 20 pounds when our leg disappears or we get a small fortune because a loved one dies.

No, let us play with this idea of wish fulfillment.  I think that as we get older, we quit thinking about what we truly want.  Many of us have had too many experiences with our dearest dreams being squashed--and thus, we decide it's safer not to dream.  We'll settle for what we have.  We won't dare aspire to more.

If you could be granted 3 wishes, what would you ask for?  What's the top wish?   What would make your heart sing?

I don't believe in fairy godmothers, but I do believe in God.  I don't believe in a God of wish fulfillment, a Santa Claus God who gives us what we request.  But I do believe that God often wants what we want; God wants us to be fulfilled.  Like many a good friend, God has all sorts of resources, and might be happy to harness them in support of us--if we but say what we need or want.

Many of us are so beaten down that we feel we dare not ask.  Many of us seem to believe in evil devils who hover in wait to disappoint us.  I don't believe in those evil devils either.

Maybe the time is right to start a prayer journal of sorts.  Maybe it's time to record our yearnings.  Maybe we're tired of words and want to do some collaging or sketching.  Maybe we're too tired to do much more than pray.  But that's a powerful move too.

Let us get back in touch with our visionary and envisioning selves.

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Feast Day of Saint Michael and All Angels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, October 2, 2016

First Reading: Habakkuk 1:1-4;2:1-4

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Lamentations 1:1-6

Psalm: Psalm 37:1-10 (Psalm 37:1-9 NRSV)

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Lamentations 3:19-26

Psalm (Alt.): Psalm 137 (Psalm 137 (Semi-continuous) NRSV)

Second Reading: 2 Timothy 1:1-14

Gospel: Luke 17:5-10

Perhaps the Gospels of past weeks and months have left you feeling depressed. You have begun to realize that you will never succeed at this Christianity thing. You can't even remember to make a donation, much less tithe regularly. You'd like to invite the poor to your dinner table, if you ever had time to eat dinner yourself, and you wonder if you still get Christianity Points if you invite the poor to dinner, but pick up that dinner from the deli. You'd like to look out for widows and orphans, but happily, you don't know of any. And frankly, most of the week, you don't have a spare moment to even ponder these things at all.

This week's Gospel offers encouraging news. It reminds us that belief has the power of a seed. As fewer of us plant anything, we may lose the power of that metaphor. But think of how inert a seed seems. It's hard to believe that anything can come from that little pod. And then we plunk it into the earth, where it seems even more dead--no sun, no light, no air. But the dark earth is what it needs, along with water, maybe some fertilizer if the soil is poor, and time. And with some luck, and more time, eventually we might all enjoy a tree. And not only us, but generations after us--that tree will outlive us all.

Christ reminds us that faith is like that seed. And the good news is that we don't have to have faith in abundance. A tiny seed's worth can create a world of wonders. And it's good to remember that we don't have to have consistent faith. We live in a world that encourages us to think that we'll eventually arrive at a place of perfect behavior: we'll exercise an hour a day, we'll forsake all beverages but water, we'll pray every hour, we'll never eat sugar or white flour again, we'll cook meals at home and observe regular mealtimes. We want lives of perfect balance, and we feel deep disappointment with ourselves when we can't achieve that, even when we admit that we'd need ten extra hours in the day to achieve that.

Jesus reminds us to avoid that trap of perfectionist expectations. People who have gone before us on this Christian path remind us of that too. Think of Mother Theresa. Her letters reveal that she spent most of her life feeling an absence of God. But that emotion didn't change her behavior. She tried to reveal the light of Christ to the most poor and outcast, and was largely successful. She didn't feel like she was successful, but she didn't get bogged down in those feelings of self-recrimination. And even when she did, she kept doing what she knew God wanted her to do.

Many of us might have seen Mother Theresa as a spiritual giant. We might feel dismayed to realize that she spent much of her life having a dark night of the soul kind of experience.

On the contrary, we should feel comforted. Maybe these letters show that she wasn't a spiritual giant. And look at what she was able to do.

Or maybe we should revise our definition of a spiritual giant. If you read the journals, letters, and private papers of many twentieth-century people who have been seen as spiritual giants (Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Madeleine L'Engle, Dorothy Day), you'll see that feelings of spiritual desolation are quite common. The fact that we have these feelings--does that mean that God has abandoned us?

Of course not. Those of us who have lived long enough have come to realize that our feelings and emotions are often not good indicators of the reality of a situation. Our feelings and emotions are often rooted in the fact that we haven't had enough sleep or the right kind of food.

The people who have gone before us remind us of the importance of continuing onward, even when we feel despair. Christ reminds us that we just need a tiny kernel of belief. All sorts of disciplines remind us that the world changes in tiny increments; huge changes can be traced back to small movements. Your belief, and the actions that come from your belief, can bear witness in ways you can scarcely imagine. Perfection is not required--just a consistent progress down the path.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Need for Silence

Once, I would have watched the presidential debate, each and every one.  Once, I recorded them (on tape!) and made my students watched them--we then discussed the elements of argument present or not and wrote analytical essays.

That woman is no longer me.  I watched 15 minutes of the debate, and once the voices went up and the talking over each other started, I called it a night.

Once, I thought I needed to watch the debates to be informed, to be a good citizen.  This election, I don't feel I need the debates to tell me what I need to know.

If I had counted on last night's debate to get solid information, I don't know that I'd have gotten that.  Where was that moderator?  I'd like to see moderators have the power to cut the microphone when rules of good debating are ignored. 

I just don't have the patience for modern life, the shouting, the refusal to listen to each other to be able to find middle ground, the shouting.
This morning, I turned off the radio, and instead of rushing to fill the silence, I sat with it.

Later, I read this article by Andrew Sullivan, and this quote leapt out at me:  "The reason we live in a culture increasingly without faith is not because science has somehow disproved the unprovable, but because the white noise of secularism has removed the very stillness in which it might endure or be reborn."

The white noise in the context of his article is the ever-present stimulation of our phones and devices.  But the old-fashioned white noise of radios, TV, and words acts in much the same way.

I feel a need for silence, for stillness, after our hectic travel pace of the last week.  However, today is a day of many meetings.  But I often come up with interesting poem ideas on these days against that particular white noise.  Stay tuned!

Monday, September 26, 2016

God and Geology

I feel lucky that I'm part of a Christian tradition (Lutheran--ELCA to be specific) that doesn't require me to choose between science and faith in God.  Only for a brief time in childhood did I read the Bible as history--and thus, I'd have seen the earth as only a few thousand years old.

I wouldn't be able to square that belief with facts that come to us from the field of geology.  The earth is much older than a few thousand years.  A trip to the Grand Canyon hints at that truth of geology.

And of course, science can prove how old the rocks are:

I was struck by the crowds at the Grand Canyon, by how many people I saw who were oblivious to the Grand Canyon, who walked beside it, punching messages into their phones.  I didn't take pictures of those people.  I didn't want to be oblivious to the world around me:
I was also struck by the hardiness of the plants that are able to take root in such a harsh landscape:

 I'll remember that canyon, the consolation of a fierce landscape.  I'll remember that the world offers many vistas, if we would but open our eyes.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Spiritual Landscapes

We are back from a quick trip to Arizona--the son of grad school friends got married, and while we were there for the wedding, we went to the Grand Canyon.

I was expecting more of a desert fierceness, but we were in Flagstaff for most of our trip, and it reminded me of Asheville, North Carolina.  For most of our trip, there was a cold dreariness, gray clouds scudding across the sky, with periodic interruptions of drizzle and rain.  I found it delightful, although not what I was expecting.

When we went to the Grand Canyon, I was expecting to be overcome, and I was.  At the first glimpse, I grabbed my spouse's arm and said, "Oh, Carl!"  But with all the other humans there, it wasn't as spiritual an experience as I thought it could be.

Before we went, I was amazed at how many people told me that this part of the country was a very spiritual experience, both the Grand Canyon and Sedona.  In fact, I've been intrigued by these "thin" places in our landscapes, where we can almost feel the spiritual aspects seeping right out of the land.  I'm not sure I felt that sense, not in any unusual way.

I also wondered about people who claim that the earth is only several thousand years old, a claim which seems bizarre when I look out at that landscape.  It's a landscape that shows the power of water and wind and the process of erosion--and those processes take so much time to carve out what's left, what we see.

I would like more time to explore that part of the U.S., both the lower part of Arizona and Utah, but this trip was not the time.  We had a different trip this time, a pilgrimage that brought us back to our old friends, that gave us time to reflect on our grad school selves and our current selves.

I'm glad that we gathered for a joyful reason, a wedding.  I know that at some point, it will be funerals that bring us together--and so, for now, I cling to the joyous even more fiercely than I did when we saw our friends get married when we were all in our 20's.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Remembering the Trip to See the Joshua Trees

Yesterday's post made me think about our trip to California, at the end of 2012.

The desert enchanted me, with that floor that looked like a sea bed--because it once was:

I loved the small, sturdy Joshua trees.

I loved the wind farms--that capturing of the force of the planet to give us electricity.

But most of all, I loved that fierce and rugged landscape.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Poetry Friday: "Floods and Desert Canyons"

A week ago, I was talking to a friend who was about to take a trip to Palm Springs.  I asked, "Will you go to Joshua Tree National Park?"

Her face lit up.  "That's brilliant!  We have 2 days which are free, and I haven't been able to think about what I wanted to do.  Is it worth the trip?"

We talked about why it was worth it.  I went there just after Christmas of 2012, and the place continues to enchant me.

Of course, the desert enchanted me long before I ever saw it.  I've been writing poems about the desert for decades.  When I actually made it to the desert, I was happy to see that I had gotten the desert right in those poems.

Here's one of the ones that comes to mind.  After I read Craig Childs' The Secret Knowledge of Water, I wrote the poem below, which was published in The Ledge.  In many ways, it's a love poem.  But if you read it with baptism on the brain, you'll come away with something different.  If you read it as you think about the desert fathers and mothers, maybe you'll get something yet again.  Or could it be John the Baptist talking to God/Jesus?  Or a more modern believer, talking to God?

Floods and Desert Canyons

My friends assume I’m dry
and barren. They do not know of my secret
spots, a cup of water here, a pool
collected there. An occasional visit
from you keeps me hydrated.

I boil away with my own dreams and ideas.
I blaze with words, my surfaces
too hot to touch. My pitiless gaze
burns as I survey my culture,
dream of new life forms.

You surge through my carefully constructed canyons.
In a matter of minutes, you change the landscape,
sweep away the detritus.
You carve me into intricate
forms, unconsidered before I met your force.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The lessons for Sunday, September 25, 2016:

First Reading: Amos 6:1a, 4-7

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15

Psalm: Psalm 146

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16

Second Reading: 1 Timothy 6:6-19

Gospel: Luke 16:19-31

This Sunday, the Gospel returns to familiar themes with the story of Lazarus and the rich man. Lazarus is so poor that he hopes for crumbs from the rich man's table and has to tolerate the dogs licking his sores (or perhaps this is a form of early medicine). Lazarus has nothing, and the rich man has everything. When Lazarus dies, he goes to be with Abraham, where he is rewarded. When the rich man dies, he is tormented by all the hosts of Hades. He pleads for mercy, or just a drop of water, and he's reminded of all the times that he didn't take care of the poor. He asks for a chance to go back to warn his family, and he's told, "If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead."

Maybe by now you're feeling a bit frustrated: week after week of reminders that we shouldn't get too comfortable with our worldly possessions. Maybe you suspect the Council who chose this common lectionary of readings of being just a tad socialist.

Yet those who study (and tabulate!) such things would remind us that economic injustice is one of the most common themes in the Bible. To hear the Christians who are most prominently in the media, you'd think that the Bible concerned itself with homosexuality.

Not true. In his book, God's Politics, Jim Wallis tells of tabulating Bible verses when he was in seminary: "We found several thousand (emphasis his) verses in the Bible on the poor and Gods' response to injustice. We found it to be the second most prominent theme in the Hebrew Scriptures Old Testament--the first was idolatry, and the two often were related. One of every sixteen verses in the New Testament is about the poor or the subject of money (mammon, as the gospels call it). In the first three (Synoptic) gospels it is one out of ten verses, and in the book of Luke, it is one in seven" (page 212).

And how often does the Bible mention homosexuality? That depends on how you translate the Greek and how you interpret words that have meanings that cover a wide range of sexual activity--but at the most, the whole Bible mentions homosexuality about twelve times.

If we take the Bible as the primary text of Christianity, and most of us do, the message is clear. God's place is with the poor and oppressed. The behavior that most offends God is treating people without love and concern for their well being--this interpretation covers a wide range of human activity: using people's bodies sexually with no concern for their humanity, cheating people, leaving all of society's destitute and despicable to fend for themselves, not sharing our wealth, and the list would be huge, if we made an all-encompassing list.

It might leave us in despair, thinking of all the ways we hurt each other, all the ways that we betray God. But again and again, the Bible reminds us that we are redeemable and worthy of salvation. Again and again, we see the Biblical main motif of a God who wants so desperately to see us be our best selves that God goes crashing throughout creation in an effort to remind us of all we can be.

Some prosperity gospel preachers interpret this motif of a God who wants us to be rich. In a way, they're right--God does want us to be rich. But God doesn't care about us being rich in worldly goods. Anyone who has studied history--or just opened their eyes--knows how quickly worldly goods can be taken away. But those of us who have dedicated our lives to forging whole human relationships and helping to usher in the Kingdom now and not later--those of us rich in love are rich indeed.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Feast Day of Saint Matthew

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

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

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

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

Maybe you're in a time of your life where you're feeling particularly unworthy.  Take advantage of this day to remember God's grace and God's call. 

Here are the Bible readings for today:

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

Psalm: Psalm 119:33-40

Second Reading: Ephesians 2:4-10

Gospel: Matthew 9:9-13

And here's a prayer I composed for today:

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

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Watchman for the Community

I am late to the national discussion of Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman.  My parents got it for me for my birthday last year, before they realized there was controversy around the publication.  Since they'd already gotten it, they went ahead and gave it to me.

I didn't mean to put off reading it--in fact, it sounded interesting.  But I had others in the queue.  I loaned it to a church friend who was discussing it with her book group.  And finally, a few weeks ago, I picked it up.

In ways, I liked it better than To Kill a Mockingbird.  It's not as unsophisticated as I thought it might be, and when Jean Louise, grown up Scout, offers a passionate defense of states' rights, I was impressed with the nuance.  I don't feel as betrayed by the discovery that Atticus is not as progressive on the subject of race as we might have thought. 

In fact, he reminds me of my maternal grandfather, a Lutheran minister who served in South Carolina during the contentious time depicted in this novel.  Like Atticus, he had strong notions of justice, even if he didn't live them as fully as I might have hoped.  My grandfather died when I had just turned 19, so I didn't have a chance to know him personally as an adult.

However, I did have a chance to know my grandmother.  After my grandfather died, I went to see her every month or two.  Even after I moved to Florida, I saw her regularly.  Her views on race seemed so antiquated to me--and here they are, in this book, which is like visiting her, in a way.

At some point, it would be interesting to read the book again, to be on the lookout for the more subtle elements.  There's discussion of what it means to be a Methodist, for example.  Lee is also doing a lot with gender and class.  Race, religion, class, and gender:  Lee covers all the elements of being a Southerner in the middle of the 20th century.

And yet, it's more than a historical document.  As I watch this political season, I think of all the ways that these years depicted in Go Set a Watchman have come together to create this election year.

But ultimately, this book explores community--what elements we have, what's missing, what's important.  It wrestles with the essential question:  when to stay, when to leave, how to redeem our communities. 

Monday, September 19, 2016

Liberation Theology in Various Colors

Yesterday's episode of On Being had a great interview with Civil Rights worker Ruby Sales.  She talked about the difference between the black church and black folk religion.  She sees black folk religion as the savior of the U.S.:  "And I would go on further to say that black folk religion, the kind of resistance movements that came out of black folk religion, have saved America from tilting over into the abyss of fascism. It has been the salvation of a country. It has been the balance to talk about that kind of justice, and god talk, and reaffirmation, and love, and right relations. To talk about that in the heat of empire, to talk about God as a liberating God, has really been an important stopgap to save America from itself."

She also speculates about the necessity of a liberation theology designed for white people--it was a twist that I haven't spent much time pondering.  But she makes a good case:

And we’ve got a spirit — there’s a spiritual crisis in white America. It’s a crisis of meaning, and I don’t hear — we talk a lot about black theologies, but I want a liberating white theology. I want a theology that speaks to Appalachia. I want a theology that begins to deepen people’s understanding about their capacity to live fully human lives and to touch the goodness inside of them rather than call upon the part of themselves that’s not relational. Because there’s nothing wrong with being European American. That’s not the problem. It’s how you actualize that history and how you actualize that reality. It’s almost like white people don’t believe that other white people are worthy of being redeemed.

And I don’t quite understand that. It must be more sexy to deal with black folk than it is to deal with white folk if you’re a white person. So as a black person, I want a theology that gives hope and meaning to people who are struggling to have meaning in a world where they no longer are as essential to whiteness as they once were."

What would that theology look like?  It could be as varied as any of us, but Sales is on to something.  How do we define a life of meaning for people who are part of a race that was once a dominating/dominant force, but are no longer?

We might begin by reminding people that although those who rule the Empire may look like them in terms of skin color, but that doesn't mean that the forces of Empire are really working for them.  Empires tend to run by making us all feel fearful about how much we have and how we're going to keep it.

God offers us an alternate version, one which is not a zero-sum game, where your gains result in my losses.  God offers us an alternate vision in which we all gain, where we all have what we need.

That's a liberation view that could excite many of us.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

The Parable of the Sower

My church continues our off-lectionary adventure with this reading for Sunday, Sept. 18:  Luke 8:  4-15.

Many of us have heard the parable of the sower so many times that we may assume we already know everything there is to know about this story.  Indeed, if you read through the rest of Luke 8, Jesus explains the story in the usual way:  some of us fall into soil and blossom, and the rest fall onto different kinds of ground and fail to flourish ultimately.

Many of us have been had this parable presented to us as a yardstick for measuring ourselves:  what kinds of seeds are we?  And yet, seeds are not a good metaphor for humanity--or are they?  After all, it's not like seeds have any kind of self-determination.  They are more acted upon than acting.  If the sower doesn't toss them onto some sort of soil, they have no chance at all.  They can't go out and get their own water and fertilizer.  If weeds or thorns threaten them, they can't move.  Most humans have more options than seeds.

I'm also thinking of plants that I've had that seem to be dead--and yet, they have somehow rebounded.  I had a plant that had a pest who stripped off all its leaves.  Because I am a lazy gardener, I left the plant alone until I had time to plant something else in the box.  Imagine my surprise to find new leaves sprouting from the stalk that had looked so lifeless just a few weeks earlier.

As I think about this metaphor, I'm also thinking of my tomato plants, some of whom have sprouted in the most unlikely places.  I have a front flower box that I'd assume wouldn't be good for a tomato plant, since it's shady and doesn't get as much rainwater as other parts of the yard--plus the soil isn't deep.  And yet, last year, we got more tomatoes from the tomato plant that grew from reused potting soil that we put in the box than we did from other plants that had been placed more purposefully.

Perhaps we should be thinking about the soil of our lives.  We all have ears to hear and hearts that have the possibility of being open.  What can we do to ensure good soil for God's word?  For each of us the answers will be different:  some will require solitude, some time in nature; some will need some nourishing reading, while others will need creative outlets.

Whatever we need for the seeds of God's word to become sturdy sprouts that grow into strong plants--let us do it now.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

The Practice and the Product

You used to think of books as institutional memory.

If only your words could be captured on paper and bound into volumes, your ideas would be protected.

And then you tried to store those words in digital databases, easily carried with you, available to all who can access this wider web.

You planted trees, imagining that they would last centuries after your demise.

When the trees fell over, you made art.

But even that art is quickly eaten away by bugs and wind.

In the end, all that remains: ash and splinters. 

So let us return to the important practices, not because their products will outlast us, but because the process will sustain us.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Poetry Friday "Buddhist Housekeeping"

This has been a week of much breakage, happily none of it serious.  The other night I was putting away dishes, and a wine glass slipped out of my hand into the blender container.  I couldn't have done that if I had tried it. 

The blender container did keep glass from going everywhere.  And the glass blender container did not break.

Sometimes the glass is half full, and other days, it's half empty.  Some weeks, the glass is broken.  I thought about writing a poem, but then I thought, haven't I already written something similar?

Yesterday I went looking through a folder of old poems for it.  It seems like a good poem for a week when gravity seems to be working overtime in our house.

Buddhist Housekeeping

Embrace emptiness.
Pour the water on the floor.
Broken glass, swept shards.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Sanctuaries of all Sorts

I began my very early morning by reading this delightful meditation by Parker Palmer.  He reflects on the way the word "sanctuary" has changed for him:  "Sanctuary is wherever I find safe space to regain my bearings, reclaim my soul, heal my wounds, and return to the world as a wounded healer. It’s not merely about finding shelter from the storm: it’s about spiritual survival. Today, seeking sanctuary is no more optional for me than church attendance was as a child."

He includes a beautiful song by Carrie Newcomer, also named "Sanctuary."  I played it several times while I wrote a poem, the first poem in several weeks.

I went to the kitchen to make coffee in the early hours of the morning, the time that most people call the middle of the night.  The sight of the moon streaming across the dark branches of the gumbo limbo tree made me catch my breath in sublime happiness.

I used that image in the poem that I wrote, along with different meanings of the word "office":  praying the office, the office that you occupy as you do work.  After over a month of stunted poems at best, this one came easily--what a relief!

It has been a peaceful morning.  I made some oatcakes (like biscuits, only heartier) to have with the last of the lemon curd.  I worked on my short story.  I went for a walk with my spouse, and we watched the sun peek over the horizon.

And now it's off to school--new student orientation today!  It's a sanctuary of a different sort.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, September 18, 2016:

Jeremiah 8:18–9:1
Psalm 79:1-9 (9)
1 Timothy 2:1-7
Luke 16:1-13

Ah, the parable of the unjust steward. This parable may be one of the toughest to understand. Are we to understand this parable as a pro-cheating text? It seems that this tale is one of several types of unjustness, and it's hard to sort it all out. Let's try.

Much like the parable of the Prodigal Son, which sends up wails of protests about unfair treatment of undeserving children, this text makes one want to wail at first reading. There's the master, who believes the charges brought up against his steward, who seems prepared to dismiss him, based on those charges--let us remember that the charges may be false.

But the behavior of the steward seems slimy too; accused of unethical behavior, he seems to behave unethically, dismissing debt in an attempt to curry favor for a later time when he is dispossessed.

And then there's the surprise twist--the master approves of the steward's shrewdness.

There are several different approaches to this parable. The easiest approach is to look at the final lines of the Gospel, those familiar lines that so many of us would like to ignore, that we cannot serve God and money. This parable seems to suggest that it's hard to have dealings with money that don't leave us looking slimy.

We might ask ourselves how a stranger would view us if they looked at our budgets. On a personal level, the way we spend money shows our values. So if I say I'd like to wipe out childhood poverty, but I spend all of my extra money on wine, a stranger would question that. If I say that I value a Christ-centered economy, but I only give money to my retirement accounts, what would that stranger say? I will be the first to admit that I want to hoard my money, that it's hard for me to trust that God will provide.

We could ask similar questions about our institutional budgets. What does our church budget say about us? If we give more money to the upkeep of our buildings than to the poor, are we living the life that Christ commands us to live? These are tough questions, and I will honestly say that I haven't met many institutions, sacred or secular, that achieve balance very gracefully--especially not in economic hard times.

Parable scholars might caution us not to adopt the most obvious interpretation. Scholars would encourage us to see the parables in relation to each other. What are the parables that surround the one about the unjust steward?

In the text just before this one, we see the parable of the lost sheep, the lost coins, the lost sons (the Prodigal and his brother are equally lost boys). In the text after the parable of the unjust steward, we receive the story of poor Lazarus and the rich man, and you may remember that Lazarus has a tough life on earth, but a good life afterwards, and the rich man receives his reward early on, and goes to his tortures in the afterlife.

We might see this parable as one more cautionary tale about how we deal with wealth, as with the story of Lazarus. Or we might see the Prodigal Son's dad as similar in his mercy to the master of the shrewd steward--and of course, we could draw parallels to God, who gives us mercy, when we deserve rejection and to be left to our own devices.

It's hard to ignore the sense of urgency in all these texts. The steward must act swiftly, to dismiss debts while he still has the power to do so. The Prodigal Son's father doesn't have much time to decide how to act, once his son appears on the horizon. The rich man pleads with Abraham to be allowed to warn his brothers, and Abraham reminds him that they've had plenty of warning. The parables are interspersed with Christ's various admonitions to pay attention to the way we are living our lives.

Christ commands us not to lose sight of the true riches, the riches that our society doesn't comprehend fully (or at all). We are not our paychecks. There's so much more to us than our job titles. We have been entrusted with so much. We will be judged by how well we show stewardship of those resources.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Retreat Practices that Come Home to Dwell with Us

On Sunday, I spent almost two hours trying to use Skype to join a planning session for the 2017 Create in Me retreat.  The sound was never right, but I did get to answer a few questions.  Then my computer froze, and after 15 minutes of wondering if Skype might correct itself, it took me 30 minutes to fix that.  I tried to sign on to Skype again--another freeze, with another 45 minutes to correct/connect--and then I couldn't get the Skype site to load.  Grrr.

I realized that even if I could get Skype to work, I'd join the planning session for the last hour of their work together.  I decided to admit defeat.

Later, I was talking to my spouse as I tried to analyze why I felt both guilty and ashamed for my inability to join the planning session.  Then our discussion turned to other topics:  the role of the modern church camp, the types of retreats that have most touched our souls, the ways we might improve upon them.

I have long loved the Create in Me retreat for a variety of reasons, chief among them the opportunity to try new things--and to realize that I do love them or I don't.  Once upon a time, roughly 13 years ago, I had this idea that I could have a potter's wheel and a kiln--but after having used the wheel at several retreats, I've put that idea away.  Likewise a loom.  I always thought I would like a loom--but at one of the first Create in Me retreats I ever went to, I used a loom and it wasn't nearly as fascinating as it was when I was a child using one.

At this past Create in Me retreat, I used Copic markers for the first time.  Here's what I drew, inspired by the blaze of azaleas that I'd seen in bloom during my driving trip across the southeast:

At the time, I liked them well enough, but I thought other markers would be just fine.  I got home, tried every one that I had, and then headed to the art supply store to buy the Copic markers, a splurge I could afford at the time.

On Sunday, I said, "You know, I've been making at least one sketch a week ever since the retreat."  It's one of the few art forms that I've tried that was new (or newish) to me at the time that I've continued.

Here's my sketch from Sunday (our text was Isaiah 58:  6-12):

I like this art form because it's portable.  I have a cloth bag that I've requisitioned from the ever-expanding stash of bags we have.  In it, I carry markers, a pen, and my sketchbook.

I love this art form because it allows me to play with color, to swirl it on the page.  I love paints for the same reason, but the markers are easier to use--they're ready from the minute I uncap the marker, and there's really no clean up.  It's not as easy to blend colors as it is with paint--but the ease of clean up means that I do it more often.

When we talk about the value of retreats, we often talk about how we return to regular life refreshed and ready to plunge in again.  We don't talk as often about what we've learned and how we incorporate it into every day life--but that aspect can be just as valuable--if not more so.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Mindfulness Reminders

Yesterday was one of those days when I didn't feel as effective as I thought I would feel.  We were having a God's Work, Our Hands day at church, with several activities for church members to do: working on quilts for Lutheran World Relief, stocking the food pantry shelves, working on prayer shawls, writing notes of encouragement, and boxing up cookies for college students.

I had 2 people beside me work on the quilt.  At this rate, we will never finish a quilt. 

Actually, that's not true.  In the 2 years that I've been in charge of this process, we've finished 2.  And since we only work on them 1-3 days a year, that's not bad. 

As long as I don't compare my progress to that of churches that have lots of quilters who meet on a weekly basis to complete quilts, I'm O.K.  But yesterday, I was feeling ineffectual.

Then I came home and tried to use Skype to join a planning group that was meeting at Lutheridge (a camp that's 12 hours away) to plan the 2017 Create in Me retreat.  I was able to participate for about 5 minutes before the sound started getting wonky, and then the computer froze.  I was never able to get back on.

For about an hour after admitting defeat, I felt a strange mixture of shame and guilt.  The shame came because I couldn't get the technology to work--but why would I feel shame?  It's not my fault as far as I can tell.  I planned to participate, but then I couldn't--so why the guilt?  I couldn't participate in that way, but I hadn't completely wimped out.  I led a Facebook planning party for 8 days which generated some good ideas.  But still, I feel guilt because other volunteers are doing more. 

In the evening I watched a documentary about the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon--perspective restored in a strange way.  What's important is to do the best I can do each day, to remember that we really don't have very long on this planet, and to tell and show love.

September 11 is usually an odd day for me emotionally, often difficult, and yesterday was no different.  I wonder if that will change as the years go by.  April 19, with its anniversaries of Columbine and Oklahoma City, used to be similarly difficult.  This past year it slipped by almost unnoticed. 

I'm trying to use these types of anniversaries as a kind of tolling bell, a reminder to tend what is important and to let go of what is not, a reminder of mindfulness.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Coming Soon: God's Work, Our Hands

On this Sunday, September 11, at Trinity Lutheran Church, we will celebrate a Justice Sunday.  First we will gather for worship, where we will consider this text from an ancient prophet:

Isaiah 58:  6-12

Then we will do our annual God's Work, Our Hands Sunday.  Some of our works will be works of charity, like boxing up cookies for college kids or working on quilts for Lutheran World Relief.  Our church has begun its work with BOLD Justice, where we will have house meetings to determine the justice needs of our community.

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

Will we see this social transformation in our lifetimes?  We will certainly see some justice.  Just think about how much transformation you have seen in your own lifetime.  As short a time as 10 years ago, I had students assure me that our nation could never elect an African-American or a woman for president, that those candidates would never be taken seriously.  Now, that's changed.  It wasn't too long ago that same sex couples were denied the right to legalize their bond.  Now, that's changed.

The work we will do on Sunday is important too.  We may pray to God for change, and we should then expect God to equip us to make the change.  Gathering together is a way to strengthen our efforts.  It builds community too.

And it's just more fun.

If you're in the South Florida area, come join us:  worship is at 10, God's Work, Our Hands activities are at 11.  Trinity Lutheran Church is at the corner of 72nd and Pines Blvd., on the same side of the street at Broward College's south campus, just to the east of the campus.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

September 10 and September 12

Back in 2001, I taught an upper level Brit Lit class:  British Romanticism.  It was the first time I was teaching it, and I was thrilled.  On September 10, I began a week of William Blake's work, primarily "Songs of Innocence and of Experience."

We talked about the idea of innocence as being a state of good and of experience as being a state that we see as bad.  On September 10, we talked about the ways that Blake played with these traditions and turned them on their head.  We talked about the poems, and we talked about how his illustrations (or illuminations, as one of my grad school professors called them) both helped undergird the poem, but often undercut the interpretation of the poem we'd have without the illustration.

We talked about Blake's work for pay as an engraver--what does it mean to have to think backwards in composing a print?

It was a great class--it was our fifth or sixth class together, and each one had been that perfect combination of spirited discussion and a smidge of my lecture.  I closed the class on September 10, 2001, by asking, "Which world would you rather live in?  The world of innocence or the world of experience?"

Of we went, and then on Tuesday, all the events of September 11, 2001 happened; I was at a different campus.  When we returned on Wednesday, September 12, to discuss Blake, I couldn't resist beginning with my question of September 10:  "Innocence or experience?  Which do you prefer?"

I don't expect world events ever again to dovetail with my teaching as neatly as they did that week.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Ribbons of Prayers

On Sunday, I noticed one of my fellow parishioners looking at the prayer loom as he made his way back from Communion.  He didn't add any visible prayers of his own, but he touched the yarn that was there.  Did he pray?

I've spent several months thinking about prayer and how we can get prayer out of our heads and into the world in ways different than simply praying out loud together.  I love that the prayer loom gives our hands something to do while we're praying.  I love the way our prayers weave together in ways that are both beautiful and ugly:

Today I was looking at retreat pictures, and I remembered our approach to prayer at our Friday service at the Create in Me retreat.  We had banners hanging around the worship space; each banner had holes punched around the edges.  We had baskets of ribbons and markers below each banner.

Each banner had a word:  reconciliation, health, community, creation, justice, worship, relationships, and vocation.  We were invited to write prayers and tie them to the appropriate banner.

I liked this vision of all of our prayer ribbons fluttering, both alone and together, joined in a larger prayer represented by the banner.

We did this prayer project in early April.  And now it's early September.  I wonder how these prayers have been answered.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Poetry Thursday: "Seventh Grade Refugees"

President Obama's trip to Laos brought back a surprising flood of memories for me.  I remember the 1970's as a time of refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.  I found myself wondering what happened to all those refugees, particularly one who attended my school in 7th grade.  I remember riding the bus, unable to speak a common language, wondering what her life was like.

And of course, in the 7th grade, I had no idea of the horrors she had escaped.

This morning, as I was looking for a different poem, I came across one that I wrote about that experience of riding the bus, all of us out of place in so many ways.  It was published in The Julia Mango.

Does it work as a poem?  In some ways.  In some ways, it's too prose-ey.  In many ways, my poem doesn't trust the reader to make the connections.

But I still like it, and so, for a week where President Obama promises to help Laos, it seems appropriate.

Seventh Grade Refugees

They fled from Cambodia to Charlottesville
during one of the coldest winters of the twentieth century.
They left that harvest of corpses to come to the fertile
crescent that created vibrant democracy, Jefferson’s back yard.

I watched her on the bus, the first unfiltered blood
line I’d ever seen, her Asian features unpolluted
by the genetic codes of other races. Her nose blistered
and cracked in the uncommon cold. Her clothes, donated
by area churches, hung awkwardly off her frame.

But no one in my seventh grade class wore clothes that fit.
That time of enormous change, when the body
has plans of its own, when my own flesh
felt as unfamiliar as a refugee from a foreign land.

My best friend on the bus might as well have lived in the last
century, her home a tar paper shack with chickens
for pets, no indoor plumbing. With her bones broken
one too many times, she looked like what she was,
white trash
that no church group would step in to save.

I wish I could say that I saved
them both, that I befriended
the Cambodian girl and rescued my battered friend.
But pre-teens can’t perform miracles.

The Cambodian refugee and I shared no
common language. I had no words to summon
help for my abused friend. Their eyes haunt
me still, eyes that had seen too much already,
cold brutality institutionalized.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, September 11, 2016:

First Reading: Exodus 32:7-14

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28

Psalm: Psalm 51:1-11 (Psalm 51:1-10 NRSV)

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 14

Second Reading: 1 Timothy 1:12-17

Gospel: Luke 15:1-10

For Sunday's Gospel, we have the parables of lost things:  lost sheep (1 of 99) and a lost coin (1 of 10).  Let's consider what Christ is trying to teach us about the quality of being lost and the quality of being found. 

Some will look at the last sentence and see this Gospel as being about repentence, but when we look at it as part of a series of parables, it's less clear that repentence is the point.  After all, the coin doesn't have to do anything to be found; it just sits there.  The sheep might repent, but if you've ever tried to wrangle sheep, you know that repentence is not a sheeply quality.  And if we kept reading in Luke, we'd get to the parable of that Prodigal Son:  is he really sorrowful about his actions?  If he hadn't descended to such a state of poverty, would he have had his epiphany?

We could look at these parables as tales of precious resources lost and then found.  These two parables revolve around an economic resource:  a sheep and a coin.  In some ways, the metaphor might be lost on modern readers.  I've heard more than one reader talk about how ridiculous it is to get so excited over a lost coin.

But imagine a modern spin:  the person who loses 1/3 of a retirement portfolio, but it is restored before the golden years descend.  Or perhaps the person who was facing foreclosure, but home values rebound and the mortgage can be refinanced.  Rescued from desperate economic circumstances, would we not rejoice?

We know that God rejoices when we return, even as God must know that we will disappoint again.  We know that if we're lost, God will look under every shadow for us.  We know that God will go to great lengths to find us, even taking on human form and suffering crucifixion.

We worship a God who will not rest until we’re all present and accounted for. That’s Good News indeed.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Work Place Gratitude

I am fortunate to have spent most of my Labor Day week-end doing precisely what I would have chosen to do:  some sewing, some writing, lots of wonderful opportunities to be with a wide variety of friends, many of whom I wouldn't have known if we hadn't shared a workplace together at some point in our collective lives.

I also kept track of my online classes, which doesn't feel onerous--just one of a wide variety of online activities.  I did some work planning for the 2017 Create in Me retreat; I shepherded a Facebook Planning Party by posting a prompt each day and trying to return to the site to post further thoughts as the day went on.

Yesterday I realized that I hadn't completed some required training sessions, and so I did that.  They were very similar to other online training sessions I've taken, and they make me realize how lucky I am to have a safe workplace throughout most of my working life.  I learned such nuggets as "Do not push, shove, or trip your colleagues.  Do not yell."  Really?  People do this?

And yet, I know they do.  We have to do these trainings because somewhere, someone thinks it is O.K. to put hands on their colleagues.

And of course, they do so in creepy ways too.   The sexual harassment videos always make me feel unsafe, by reminding me of all the ways I could be unsafe.  Happily, no one in my office needs to be reminded, "It is never O.K to watch pornography on your office computer."

Who thinks that it is O.K.?  But once again, I've seen statistics that say that 75% of porn is watched during traditional work hours.  I'm guessing it's not all unemployed people watching that video.

So yes, as we leave Labor Day week-end, let me breathe my gratitude in and out.  Let me also send out my fervent prayer that we all have safe workplaces where we can do meaningful work.

Monday, September 5, 2016

A Theology of Work

The issue of work is never far from my mind, and Labor Day is a great time to think about it in depth.  Not a week goes by when I'm not wondering if I'm doing the work I was put on earth to do.  Of course, that presupposes a purpose of sorts. 

 It's interesting to me that I feel that I only feel I'm doing meaningful work if I'm making an important difference each and every day.  And if I'm being honest, I want it to be an important difference like the kind that Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks made, the kind of difference where future generations will be better off because I walked the planet (and yes, I realize this could sound like monstrous ego, but it's also fueled by a fierce yearning for social justice).  Did Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King feel that they made a difference each and every day?  Probably not.  It's only in retrospect that it's clear.

Maybe it would be better to ponder the ways I could make life better for the workers around me. I'd like to move towards the Buddhist teahouse approach of meaningful work.  In an interview with Bill Moyers, Jane Hirshfield explains, "Teahouse practice means that you don't explicitly talk about Zen.  It refers to leading your life as if you were an old woman who has a teahouse by the side of the road.  Nobody knows why they like to go there, they just feel good drinking her tea.  She's not known as a Buddhist teacher, she doesn't say, "This is the Zen teahouse."  All she does is simply serve tea--but still, her decades of attentiveness are part of the way she does it.  No one knows about her faithful attention to the practice, it's just there, in the serving of the tea, and the way she cleans the counters and washes the cups" (Fooling with Words:  A Celebration of Poets and Their Craft, page 112).

I wonder why we don't hear much about a Christian theology of work--it could be that the workplace is changing so quickly that theologians haven't had a chance to catch up.  We've gone from being a nation where the majority makes a living from agrarian pursuits, to a largely industrialized work force--and that's the 20th century.  And now, all those industrial jobs that so many of us suddenly miss--even though when I was in college, we rallied against those evil factories that gave people repetitive use injuries and lung disease from the fibers released in factories (both cloth fibers and metal/asbestos fibers)--those are gone away, as are many office jobs, as is any hope of job stability.

Or maybe it's because that theology isn't taught in our seminaries and grad schools.  This article says, "Courses on marriage and sexuality are staples of university and seminary curricula, but courses on work are rare. This mutually acceptable silence is a great pastoral failure, a squandered opportunity to understand the universal call to holiness in everyday economic life."

The article reminds us that we do have a theology of work, if we dig back far enough, to the Benedictines:  "The Rule has a larger lesson, though. Its guidelines for living in the monastery teach that work can be a component of spiritual practice and is essential to fulfilling a community’s needs, but it must never become an end in itself and in fact should be limited in order to prevent it from inculcating vicious habits. The discipline that Benedict enjoins upon his monks, and that workers today could emulate, is selective disengagement from labor."

Life in a monastery is compartmentalized in a way that I envy:  there are times for work, times for prayer, times for meals, times for study--there's some overlap, but not the expectation of multitasking that so many of us face. 

Can we create something similar in our modern workplaces?

It's interesting to think about the way that a Benedictine approach would reshape the questions that we ask about work:  "Taking Benedict’s approach would force us to reconsider how we think about our work. Instead of, 'What work am I called to?' we might ask, 'How does the task before me contribute to or hinder my progress toward holiness?; Not 'How does this work cooperate with material creation?' but 'How does this work contribute to the life of the community and to others’ material and spiritual well-being?' Not 'Am I doing what I love?' but 'What activity is so important that I should, without exception, drop my work in order to do it?'”

These are good questions for Labor Day--or any day.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

The Parable of the Two Debtors

Our church continues our off-lectionary adventures: this week's reading:  Luke 7:  36-50

We have so much to think about in this reading, and the parable takes up a very tiny part of it.  It seems one of the more straightforward parables:  two men, two debts, one of which is bigger than the other, and which one is more grateful for debt relief?

The parable is embedded in a larger story about how the contemporaries of Jesus treat him.  We have a woman who lives a sinful life, but she's the one who treats Jesus with the most hospitality, washing his feet (presumably filthy from weeks of walking through the muck that would have been the highway system) with her tears and anointing him with perfume.

A woman who lives a sinful life is even lower in status than a regular woman--and all women would have been low on the status list in this ancient patriarchal culture.  But she's the one who treats Jesus best.

Simon hasn't offered Jesus the simplest hospitality of water to wash his feet.  The names can be confusing.  At first, I thought we were talking about Simon Peter.  But I think that this Simon is actually the name of the Pharisee who invited Jesus to dinner.

Given the history of Jesus and the Pharisees, we can assume that it wasn't a simple dinner invitation.  I assume that this Pharisee was looking for ways to indict Jesus.  And when Jesus lets a sinful woman touch him, the Pharisee thinks he's found the evidence he seeks.

Jesus takes this opportunity to remind Simon--and us--of the larger reality, how religious people can be so blind to the sacred as it appears in our midst. We religious people forget that the God of our Judaic-Christian scripture is most often found in communities of the poor, destitute, and outcast. We prefer to stay in our sanitary structures, to not let the poor and destitute trespass in our hearts. In doing so, we're likely to miss out on a deeper relationship with God.

People who are part of institutionalized religious structure face dangers that we often forget to understand. We lose ourselves in rules and regulations; we create a rigid hierarchy to help us determine who is holy and who is a sinner. It's so easy to forget that our central task is to love deeply and widely. Jesus comes to tell us strange parables so that we'll remember. Jesus comes to show us a way to live that will be a way of love and far-flung community. Jesus comes to give his life, to show us that the way of love is such a threat to the larger culture of empire and conquest that we can expect the same. But God incarnate in Jesus comes to show us that the risks are worth the reward.

Jesus also comes to remind us that we're all debtors.  Some of us have a heavier load, and the relief of our burdens is greater.  But in the admonishment to the Pharisee, some of us might hear the relevant message that we've all got a burden.  And Jesus comes to lift that burden.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Nature of Our Miracles

Tomorrow, Mother Theresa will be made a saint.  On Wednesday, on NPR's Morning Edition, I heard a story about the miracles that must be attributed to her, or anyone nominated for sainthood. 

It's not enough to work miracles in life on this side of the grave; one must also work miracles after one's death:  "The idea is that a person worthy of sainthood must demonstrably be in heaven, actually interceding with God on behalf of those in need of healing."  The doctors come in, and if there's no medical explanation, the healing is declared a miracle.

Now I'm all for sainthood, even though I'm not a Catholic, and I've always understood the importance of setting the bar high so that not just anyone becomes a saint.  But on Wednesday, as I heard the news report, I thought that the standard for miracle might not be high enough.

I thought of all the people I know who are alive now but would not be if we were living 50 years ago.  Cures that would have once seemed miraculous--especially many cardiac operations--are now routine, occurring across the nation, many of them each and every day.

Does anyone go back to previous saints to examine those miracles?  We could, after all.  The news story reports that "more than 95 percent of the cases cited in support of a canonization, however, involve healing from disease." I'm not suggesting that sainthood be revoked.  But it would be interesting to see if those stories of miracles hold up, in light of later medical developments.

To me, the true miracle of Mother Theresa is her faith, even as she felt God's absence, as her letters from her later years document.  If someone can do the great things that she did, even while being unsure of God's presence--that's the true miracle to me, to carry on in the face of great doubt.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Can We Praise Too Much?

On Sunday, our church choir sang "Dona Nobis Pacem," first verse by verse, then as a round.  Some of you with huge church choirs and a person(s) paid to lead the music program may shrug.  But our choir is very small; on a good day, we have several voices in each section (soprano, alto, bass).  As with any choir, the quality of the voices varies; I don't think any member has had professional training.

On Sunday, "Dona Nobis Pacem" couldn't have sounded more perfect.  It was as if each voice had a piece tailor-made for it.  I was most impressed when the choir went into a round, and everyone stayed on track, a much harder task in a small choir when you can hear the other sections singing.

Afterwards, I rushed right up to tell the choir how much I enjoyed the anthem.  I have since wondered if I was too effusive with my praise.  I said, "It's the best work you've ever done, and I include every cantata, every Christmas, everything."

Later, I wondered if my praise stung.  After all, the choir worked very hard on each cantata:  some of them took months to put together.  They had only been working a few weeks on "Dona Nobis Pacem."  Did it hurt to be told that that work came across better?

And of course, I'm aware that some may disagree with me.  I like ancient music.  Most of the cantatas have been more along the lines musically of the kinds of contemporary Christian works that I dislike most, and some of the Easter cantatas have had some serious problems with theology, more suitable to evangelicals than Lutherans.

But to my larger point--is it tough to be told that the works we've spent the most time on aren't the best.  I thought of the work of Carolyn Forche, who has been writing important poems for decades now.  But she's most well-known for one of the first poems she published, "The Colonel."

I love this poem, and it's a joy to teach. For one thing, it launches an interesting discussion about what a poem is. I've seen this poem in an anthology of short, short fiction, and most of my students say it reads more like a snippet out of someone's journal.

It probably reads that way because in some ways, it is. Forche herself says, ""People have interpreted many features of this poem, but when I wrote it, I was just trying to capture details so that I would remember. I didn't even think it was a poem. I thought it was a piece of a memoir that got mixed up with my poetry book" (The Language of Life, page 135).

This poem is probably her most widely anthologized poem.  In fact, it's the only one of hers that I've ever seen in those anthologies that most of us use in our first year Lit classes. I've often wondered how Forche feels about that fact. I imagine her saying, "But I've written so many other poems. Some of them are much better." Or perhaps she's happy that a poem of hers has stayed in print and in our consciousness over 30 years after it was first published. I would be.

So, in the future, should I be more simple in my praise?  Or is my effusive enthusiasm a gift, no matter how much or little the choir has rehearsed?

I will probably be effusive--as an artist, I like a genuine reaction to my work.  I suspect most are the same.  After all, we usually hear more about what we've done wrong than what went well.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Candles to Start September

In the past few weeks, I've noticed how much I'm enjoying the photos of candles that people post.  With that in mind, let me give us some virtual light!

I loved this display of candles at a retreat I helped to lead in Richmond, Virginia in April:

I like the reflective surfaces--and a canning jar as a candle holder--just lovely:

I like all the elements in this photo, reminders of our sacramental life:

Let me not forget the Christmas Eve candles:

And the joy of making candles:

May our days be lit with love of all sorts!