Monday, October 31, 2016

Halloween Morning

Here we are at Halloween, that strange day that drives Evangelicals crazy, that day that seems such a patchwork of spiritual traditions, including Wiccan and other Pagan traditions. Here we are headed towards one of the spiritually thin times/places, that space where our world and other worlds might collide.

I confess that I have misgivings about Halloween, but they're not the ones you might expect from someone who regularly writes about theological issues and the life of both the Church and my own church. 

Halloween has never been that time for me. I've felt assaulted by noise and crime and adults acting foolishly and children rudely demanding candy--but never have I felt glimmers of the otherworld.

I think about all the money we spend on candy and costumes and decorations--although I'm not seeing as many decorations this year.  Yes, I'm that person who thinks about all the ways that our Halloween spending robs the poor--both in money that we don't give to charity and in the ways that we set the bar so high for lower income people who can't compete on that level.

But I also understand the importance of having festive days.  I know that people on limited budgets can have fun and are capable of setting boundaries and that we don't need to legislate every single aspect of life in an effort to protect people who are grown ups capable of protecting themselves.

At my old school, there will be a costume contest today.  One of our new colleagues asked if administrators usually dress up.  I said, "Some will.  Some won't."  I always look at people's costumes and wonder what they're telling us--and did the costume wearer choose to do that on purpose?  If I dress as a superhero, am I secretly yearning for some sort of power that humans wouldn't usually have?  If I dress as a zombie, am I letting the world know that I'm hollowed out, a version of a human that no one would love?

It's an interesting time to consider the practice of putting on a costume. On Halloween, I've noticed that adults don costumes that let them behave in ways that they never would in their regular lives. Sometimes this seems sinister to me.

But as a spiritual practice, it has something to teach us. Perhaps each day, we should think of ourselves as donning our spiritual costume that will let us be more like Christ. We might not be able to do it on our own--but in our costumes, with a healthy dose of make-believe, --we can become the people we want to be--kinder, praying people who work for social justice.

It's Halloween morning, as I write.  We could still have a more intentional Halloween.  We could spend a few moments in meditation as we light our Jack-o-Lantern candles.  We could think about the gloom that we want to chase away.  We could think about the light that we want to shine into the world.  As we give out candy, we could say a silent prayer for each recipient:  "May your days be sweet and your life be sweeter."

And tomorrow, as we observe the Feast of All Saints and Wednesday, as we observe the Feast of All Souls, we could send a donation to Lutheran World Relief or other worthy agencies, to assist all of those souls in Haiti and other places who are living a kind of suspended life as they try to recover from natural and human-made disasters.  We could match what we've spent on candy and pumpkins.  Or we could do more.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Reformation Sunday and Halloween Eve

So, have you bought all your candy for tomorrow?  Planned your costume?  Carved the jack-o-lantern?  No?  You still have time.

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

Even if you're not a church going type, the Reformation has changed your life--after all, you can worship in your own language and read the Bible and think about theology for yourself.  I won't cover 500 years of history here, but suffice it to say that those Reformers launched us further down the road towards modernity than we would have been without them.  I have argued that Martin Luther did more to promote literacy for the masses than anyone before or since--and that's just one example.

This week, The New York Times had a great article about Martin Luther.  It talks about the Reformation pamphlet, which Luther perfected--it could be read to illiterate masses, and it was short enough that literate Germans would actually read it.  He knew how to use imagery and how to choose collaborators.  He could write quickly--and he knew the publishing process inside and out, in terms of the mechanics and onward.

The article ends this way:  "'He [Luther] created a media storm with virtually no precedent in the age of print and became the most published author in the history of publishing, up to that moment,' he [Dr. Pettigrew, a Luther scholar] said. “Great men and women seize the moment, and I think he did.'”

It's good to remember that individual people can change the course of history.  If you could travel back in time, before Luther became so famous/infamous for his work, would people believe that Luther would be the person that changed the world so much?  A tortured monk and a university teacher?  I can imagine most people saying, "Who?  Not the emperor?  Not the pope?"

Is there a religious person or group that is even now working to change the Church in such ways that we will barely recognize it 500 years from now?  Or is the lesson that we don't recognize the true reformers in our midst?

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

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

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

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

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Walking Ecumenism

How do I love Pope Francis?  Let me count the ways . . . or just talk about the latest way.  Yesterday, just in time for Reformation 2016, NPR ran this story on the way that Pope Francis has been talking about Martin Luther and the issues around the Reformation.  This week-end, he will be in Sweden kicking off a year-long celebration as we approach the 500 year anniversary of the day that Martin Luther nailed his theses on the Wittenberg door in 1517.

Unlike Catholics of past generations, Pope Francis has talked about Martin Luther as a great man:  "On his flight back to Rome from Armenia, the pope told reporters: 'The church was not a role model, there was corruption, there was worldliness, there was greed, and lust for power. He protested against this. And he was an intelligent man.'"

I love that Pope Francis is open to the idea of a Lutheran-Catholic reunion of sorts.  He recently said that a Lutheran woman married to a Catholic man could take communion in his church if her conscience told her it was O.K.

I admire that Pope Francis moves cautiously towards a rapprochement.  Some have called it a "walking ecumenism."  Jens-Martin Kruse, pastor of the Lutheran Church in Rome, says, "Walking together, we find that we have lots of things more in [common than] we thought before."

I love this metaphor--it's walking, not flying on a plane or driving in a car together.  The pace is slow, but steady, which leaves time for talking, time for discovery, time for civilized disagreement--and it's walking, which implies both an ease and a rigor, but not a movement too extreme in either direction.

As we move through these days of political extremes, I give thanks for a man like Pope Francis who shows us a way to move through our differences towards a reunion.

Friday, October 28, 2016

Mid-Week Prayer Loom Interlude

On Wednesday evening, after early voting, I dropped my spouse off at choir practice and went out to pick up some provisions at Trader Joe's.  Along the way, I also stopped in a shoe store--the job that I start on Monday requires new shoes, as my old shoes are too informal and shabby.

I returned to the church before choir practice was finished.  I had thought I might keep the pumpkin sellers company, but they were wrapping up.  So, wishing I had brought a book with me, I went inside.

I sat for a minute and listened to the rehearsal.  And then I saw the prayer loom in the back corner of the sanctuary.

In July, we moved it to its current location, and I've woven some prayers into the loom since then.  It looks more full of threads and yarns, but I can't really tell if it's different.  I'm happy that it's there, bearing witness to the different ways we might pray.

On Wednesday night, because I was wearing casual clothes, I could kneel in front of the loom; I don't feel comfortable doing that in my church clothes.  I filled in some spaces near the bottom of the loom.  For my first prayer, I asked for guidance and wisdom as I moved to my new job. I wove a different color yarn as I prayed for restored health for those I know who are struggling.  I wove a different piece of yarn as I let various concerns drift through my brain, and I asked God to be with me.

I found it very calming and meditative to be weaving the yarn--but I always do.  Wednesday was different--the sanctuary lights were dimmer, and the choir practiced a piece for Christmas.

I thought about the aspect of kneeling, which I don't often do when I pray.  I had a friend once who said she put her glasses underneath the bed before she turned in for the night so that the first thing she had to do in the morning was to get on her knees to get her glasses--and then she'd remember to pray.  Back then, her behavior seemed extreme.  But now, I'm interested in the ways we can get our bodies involved in praying.

When people talk about bodily prayer, they're likely not thinking of my prayer loom experience.  Perhaps they're thinking about yoga or walking the labyrinth or interpretive dance.  But we're all after the same thing--to have a more complete conversation with God.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Lessons for the Modern Church in the Polling Place

Yesterday I took part in early voting.  I prefer to vote on election day; I like the idea of participating in a national activity.  I like casting my vote and then staying up as late as I can to see how my candidates did--while I still remember how I voted.

But this year, I didn't want to take any chances.  I'll be in my second week at a new job, and while employers are required to give me time off to vote, I know it might take some time on election day, and I know I'd be fretting about that.

So yesterday, my spouse and I went to one of the regional libraries to vote.  I was prepared to stand in line as long as it took--and I expected that it might take hours.

But it was much easier than I expected.  As I was surrounded by my fellow voters, and almost as many staffers who tried to keep the process running smoothly, my thoughts turned to the modern church.

I thought about how many churches I've been to when I wasn't sure of the process.  Because I've spent a lifetime in church, I could make informed guesses.  But someone who had never been to church would be lost.  We could learn lessons from the polling place--at every step, I had a guide saying, "Wait here, move here, participate this way."

I was also struck by the wide variety of people who showed up to vote.  I go to a church that is probably one of the more diverse Lutheran churches in the U.S., but I know that most churches are not.  I could make arguments on both sides over whether or not it's important.

Voting gives me hope for the future.  Here we are, a nation of people so often disgusted with the way that politics works--but still we vote.  I voted with a wide variety of folks:  all ages and races, all patiently waiting for a chance to have our say.

We hear a lot about how people don't vote, but I saw plenty of people making the effort.  Would we make that effort if we needed to do it one morning every week?  Likely not.  Would we have a stronger society if we did?  Probably.

We see many activities that could be worthy sliding away--people have less and less time to call their own.

During an election year, it's all too easy to tumble into despair.  But our religious institutions, when they're at their best, remind us to dream of a world that's better than the one we inhabit now.  The best of our religious institutions encourage us to transform our corner of the world, not just to wait for Heaven.  Politics, too, reminds us that the world could be better--and gives us a way to participate.  The best churches not only remind us that the world can be better but gives its members ways to work in that transforming effort.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

A Meditation for Reformation Sunday

The readings for Sunday, October 30, 2016:

 First Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm: Psalm 46
Second Reading: Romans 3:19-28
Gospel: John 8:31-36

Here we are, back at Reformation Sunday.  Each year, as this Sunday of celebration approaches, I find myself thinking about what needs to be reformed and what should be preserved.

Perhaps you feel like we've been living Reformation for the past few years as the Lutheran church has wrestled with the fallout from the various sexuality decisions of the Churchwide Assembly in 2009. Perhaps you are not happy with the changes that have been wrought. Or perhaps you are unhappy with the more recent election of a female bishop to head the ELCA—or maybe you’re unhappy because there are so few synodical bishops. Maybe you find yourself feeling very sympathetic to the Catholic church of Luther's day, the Church that found itself torn asunder by many movements of reform.

Regardless of the side on which we sit with these recent struggles, we might find ourselves feeling a bit fearful. We might worry about schism. We probably worry that there won't be a place for us in the church that emerges from all of this.

We should take heart that the Church has always been in the process of Reformation. There are great Reformations, like the one we'll celebrate this Sunday, or the Pentecostal revolution that's only 100 years old, but has transformed the developing world in ways that Capitalism never could. There are smaller ones throughout the ages as well. Movements which seemed earth-shattering at the time (monastic movements of all kinds, liberation theology, ordination of women, lay leadership) may in time come to be seen as something that enriches the larger church. Even gross theological missteps, like the Inquisition, can be survived. The Church learns from past mistakes as it moves forward.

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

We may think of that metaphor and feel despair, as if we will never be truly rooted, flowering plants. But rootlessness can be its own spiritual gift. The spiritual wanderers have often been those who most revitalized the Church, or on a smaller level, their spiritual communities. The spiritual wanderers are often the ones who keep all of us true to God's purpose.

If you have been feeling despair, take heart. Jesus promises that we will know the truth, and the truth will set us free. You might not be feeling like you know what the truth is at this current point; you may feel tossed around by the tempests of our current times. But Jesus promises that we will know the truth. We will be set free. We don't have a specific date at which we'll know the truth. But we will.

Rest in God's promise that we are all redeemable; indeed, we are redeemed. Rest in the historic knowledge that the Church has survived times of greater turbulence than our own. Rest in Luther's idea that we are saved by grace alone. Rest.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Prayer for Late October

These days, when the sun sets early, yet we know that soon it will desert us even earlier,

these nights, when the moon seems more alien,

these mornings, when mist rises off every surface, obscuring what we thought we knew,

in these days of a waning month and a season subsiding towards a cold decline,

help us to remember your promise of new life.

Monday, October 24, 2016

How We Talk about Sin

The NPR show, On Being, had a great episode with David Brooks, E. J. Dionne, and Krista Tippett.  It's the kind of episode where every bit is worth quoting--but for that, you may as well go here to read the transcript or listen to the show.

I was struck by the discussion of sin, and how even in conservative circles, there's an aversion to using that term.  Brooks proposes an idea that he got from Augustine:  "You really can’t talk about 'original sin.' People will just push you away. And so I go to Augustine’s concept of 'disordered loves' which is we all love a lot of things, and we all know some loves are higher than others. Our love of truth should be higher than our love of money, but because of some screw-up in our nature, we get our loves out of order all the time. So if a friend blabs to you a secret and you tell it at a dinner party, you’re putting your love of popularity above your love of friendship, and that’s a sin. And I think, in this world, which doesn’t like to peer darkly into brokenness, it’s easier to swallow the concept of two positive things that are out of order. And that’s a way you can introduce the concept of sin. But a lot of what we have to do now is reintroduce these concepts in a way that people won’t immediately think you’re preaching at them."

"Disordered loves"--that concept may become my favorite way to talk about sin.

My every day way of thinking about sin comes Gail Godwin, particularly in her novel Father Melancholy's Daughter: "A falling short from your totality. . . . Choosing to live in ways you know interfere with the harmony of that totality" (p. 198).

How do we stay in harmony with our totality?  How do we put our loves in proper order?

It's our life's work, these questions and their answers.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Mindfulness and the Chores

A tiny front has moved through, and now the weather is cooler.  Inside the house, it's 73 degrees, slightly cooler outside.

Several decades ago, I was a runner in South Carolina.  In the summer, I'd take a quick look at the morning weather stats, and I'd think twice about going for a run if the temp was higher than 73 degrees--happily, that was only a few summer mornings.

And now, both here and I suspect further north, our morning temps are rarely below 82 degrees throughout summer.

We're back to enjoying the front porch.  Last night, after I got back from the memorial service for our colleague who died in a diving accident, we took our wine and cheese to the front porch.  As the light darkened, we lit some candles.

It was a good way to unwind.  I've been surprised by how many people have been touched by my colleague's life and death.  One of my South Carolina friends wrote to me:  "I imagine if he'd been born in another century, he'd have been an explorer: sailed the world with Magellan, searched for spice routes to the East for one European crown or another.  Amazing to have someone so daring and intrepid right there in your midst." 

The main part of the memorial service consisted of a running slide show of pictures from various parts of our colleague's life--lots and lots of dive pictures.

A passion for diving does make for a better slide show that many lives would offer.  I picture my slide show:  here's Kristin at her computer wrestling with the last sentence of a short story.  Here she is with a purple legal pad--that's how we know she's working on poetry.

We've all been talking about living our best lives and about always being mindful that each day could be our last.  And yet, in many ways, we can't be mindful like that, minute by minute.  I think we can't always live in that moment of awareness that we need to be making the best of every hour on this earth--it's too intense, and then we'd do things like never clean the bathroom or load the dishwasher because who wants to be doing that, if any minute could be our last.

I'd like to read more self-help/mindfulness books that tell us what to do about our daily chores.  I know that there are books out there, some based on that classic Zen teaching:  "Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water."

Part of me thinks, I should write that book!  But I have plenty of other books to write. 

At some point in the last two weeks, I had been thinking about the idea of pastoral care, and the way that so many people seem to think that only pastors do pastoral care.  I thought, I should write a book that explores the idea of being a pastoral care person who works outside the church for those of us with different job titles that seem to have nothing to do with pastoral care--but it's the main focus of our days.

So many books to write, so little time remaining--let that be my bell that beckons me to mindfulness!

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Poetry Saturday: Salt Water Sacraments

The death of our colleague in a diving expedition gone wrong has made me think about all the ways we relate to our planet.  Most days and months, most of us likely give no thought to the planetary laws of Physics and Chemistry and Biology that affect us all.  In days of heavy weather or king tides or a death out in nature (as opposed to a car crash), we become uncomfortably aware.

I was looking through my poetry folder and came across the poem below.  It describes a true time, when I went for an early morning Easter run and watched a baptism in the ocean--and it really was a time of ferocious rip tides which had drowned swimmers.

I, of course, thought about our sacraments, how we try to channel the Divine, how we participate in rituals we scarcely understand.  Is God more like the parents and adults gathered around the child being baptized or more like the ocean, with its currents governed by larger laws?

For the record, most days I believe that God is like the parent or partner who wants the best for us--but I also believe that if we set forces into motion, God cannot always rescue us (much like the parent of any adolescent).

Salt Water Sacraments

In the nineteenth century, they’d have gathered
by a lake or a slow moving river.
They’d have worn white robes
and sung the hymns they knew by heart.
They’d return to shore for homemade cake and fresh-squeezed
lemonade, a recess for sweetness, a respite
from the sweat of daily life.

Today they gather at the edge of America,
the southernmost shore of the tip of Florida.
Easter Sunday, just at dawn, traditional
time for baptism. The beefy man in a white
shirt whips off his tie and wades
into the surf. Two girls in neon
swimsuits follow him. Brave

children in this month of drowned swimmers
sucked out to sea, drained bodies spit
back on the sand, weeping women
taking their dead away.

These children see the beach as a playground.
They don’t understand the depth of the commitment
they make, the true nature of the covenant.
Their parents think of all the dangers lurking
offshore, waiting to sting and strike sweet
flesh. Even the minister knows only
the vague shape of this sacrament,
has only glimpsed the vast expanse
of salt water beyond that anchors
and buoys and cradles.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Rituals of Grieving

It's been a difficult week at work.  By now, our school's loss of a gifted faculty member has made national news:  on Saturday, Patrick Peacock, a skilled diver with advanced certifications, died over 200 feet underwater in a cave.  Most of us have spent a stunned week trying to make sense of it all.

Of course, on some level, no sense can be made.  It's a dangerous cave, but he had successfully navigated it before.  He had the skills and the equipment--but equipment can fail, and even the most experienced divers can face challenges.  He was only 53.

I've wondered if we'd all be reacting the same way if he had died in a car crash.  Probably.  Our students have made a shrine.  They'd have done that regardless of the method of death.  We'd have cried.  We still would have had a piercing moment when we have to look at our lives and evaluate:  are we doing what we were put on earth to do?

I've been touched by how many students have had his classes and how he has affected them as a teacher.  I've been an adjunct for as many years as I've taught full-time, and I'm happy to know that adjuncts don't necessarily have less of an impact on students' lives.

Tomorrow I'll go to the memorial service.  I've spent the week thinking about the rituals that humans create to help them navigate life's passages.  I listened to Terry Gross interview Jonathan Safran Foer recently on an episode of Fresh Air; she says, "Well, you know, you mentioned ritual and the importance that some rituals have taken on in your life. You write about that in a paragraph in the book, where Jacob is thinking - and this is after his grandfather dies - he's thinking, Judaism gets death right. It instructs us what to do when we know least well what to do and feel an overwhelming need to do something. You should sit like this. We will. You should dress like this. We will. You should say these words at these moments, even if you have to read from transliteration. I think that really captures very well (laughter) how ritual can be very helpful at times when you don't know what to do or what to say or how to dress. And, you know, the Jewish rituals for mourning the dead tell you what to do for all those things."

I suspect that tomorrow's memorial service won't have any kind of liturgy.  I suspect that I will miss it.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Buddhist Pumpkins

It has been an exhausting week.  Last night I couldn't do much more after work than sit and stare at the TV.

Luckily, there was something to watch:  It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.  The wonderful colors of this show made me want to sketch with my own colored markers, but I was too tired to do even that.

Charlie Brown's treatment made me sad.  Why does he get rock after rock?  Why did Lucy have to tell him that he was on the do-not-invite list for the Halloween party?

This week has reminded me that life is not fair.  Some days, you get a bag full of candy.  Other days, you get rock after rock.  I tried to focus on the fact that Charlie Brown does get to go trick-or-treating, and he does go to the party.

Of course, he might have preferred to be left out, given his treatment.  He might have preferred to keep Linus company in the pumpkin patch.  Maybe it would have been better to go to bed early.

Last night, as I locked up my office, I looked at the Halloween decorations, decorations that others have put out.  I had this despairing thought:  I've missed a lot of one of my favorite months.  We're closing in on the end of October, and I have yet to make any pumpkin bread.  I have some decorating that I haven't done, and likely won't.

But at the end, Linus reminded me that Halloween will come again.  Maybe next year the Great Pumpkin will visit us.

Events of this week--the awful diving death of my colleague who was only 53--remind me that we may not have next year.  Thus, my determination to return home to enjoy one of the delights of the season, with this TV show.

I am still trying to be mindful each and every hour, to savor my life in that way.  So far, I'm not doing a great job.  But I am good at tuning in periodically throughout the day.

Clearly I will never be a Zen Buddhist.  And the theology of Linus and the pumpkin patch worries me too:   I don't like the idea that the pumpkin patch must prove itself before the Great Pumpkin (God?) will arrive.  I don't like that Linus will spend the next year preparing to be even better, in hopes that the Great Pumpkin will grace us with his presence.

Is the Great Pumpkin male?  I can't remember.

The show does not give us a Lutheran pumpkin patch, where grace rules the day, where a Great Pumpkin would love us even before we've done a single thing to prove ourselves.

Let me focus on the kindnesses of the show:  Lucy puts Linus, worn out from his night of waiting, into bed.  She has collected some candy for him.  Even though various Peanuts kids aren't always understood or accepted, they aren't completely cast out.  Charlie Brown and Linus have a friendship that will help them survive being the outsiders of their groups.

Let me remember that I haven't missed the whole of the season.  I always say that my favorite corridor is the one from Oct. 1 to Christmas.  There's still time:  time to bake pumpkin bread, time to enjoy the decorating efforts of others, time to think about buying some candy for trick-or-treaters.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, October 19, 2016:

First Reading: Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Joel 2:23-32

First Reading (Alt.): Sirach 35:12-17

Psalm: Psalm 84:1-6 (Psalm 84:1-7 NRSV)

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 65

Second Reading: 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

Gospel: Luke 18:9-14

As an English major and a Composition teacher, I immediately hone in on the speech of the Pharisee and the tax collector, the subject and the verb. The Pharisee is the subject in the sentence structure and the actor of each sentence: I _____ (fill in the verb). The tax collector asks God to be the subject of the sentence and the actor. What are we to make of this?

Some theologians would say that Jesus tells us that only God can deliver salvation. We can take on as many spiritual tasks as we like and do them all superbly, but it won't be enough. Some theologians would tell us that Jesus is reminding us of the value of humility. The Pharisee might be more spiritually pure, but since he lacks humility, he fails on some essential level.

Many theologians would comment on the human trait to draw lines of in groups and out groups, just as the Pharisee has done. As humans, we seem incapable of just accepting people. We want to change their behavior or their lifestyle or their beliefs. We compare ourselves to others, so that we can make ourselves feel better.

Jesus reminds us again and again of the futility of this action. The only way to salvation is to pray as the tax collector does: "God, be merciful to me a sinner." Notice the simplicity of the prayer. If we could only pray one prayer, this would be a good one. And a good second prayer would be one of thanks, thanks for all the way God showers us with blessings.

Jesus is clear about the dangers of exalting ourselves. In our current time, he might have spoken at greater length about the danger of humility turning into false humility. He might have preached to our inner adolescents, who might have protested and wondered why we should change our behavior at all, if it doesn't lead to God's favor. He might have told us that we do the things we do as Christians not to act our way to salvation, since that can't happen, but because we choose actions which will lead to enriched lives for ourselves and others.

It would be an interesting experiment to pray the prayer of the tax collector on a daily basis and to see how our lives changed. What a simple spiritual task. What a change of trajectory might be in store if we actually prayed it.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Pumpkin Patch Contemplations

Yesterday, I did my first-ever stint of selling pumpkins at our church's pumpkin patch.  I chose a shift where I wasn't likely to have too many customers; I wanted a slower time for my first time selling.  It was a beautiful day to sit outside before a stretch of seasonal gourds.

I sold exactly one.  The guy who bought the large pumpkin said, "I'm gonna put a spigot in it and serve drinks that way."  I wondered if he realized that the pumpkin didn't come as a hollow gourd, but I decided not to interfere.

We had other visitors.  I enjoyed watching the squirrels play hide-and-go-seek in the pumpkin patch.

Two women came at separate times and asked how much it cost to take pictures.  I didn't have the presence of mind to suggest a donation--I'm not sure I would have done that anyway.  I gave one little girl stickers, and she acted like she had won the lottery.

I had plenty of time to read, to take pictures, and to sketch.  As I thought about our pastor's observation that no other activity brings us into so much contact with our surrounding community, I made this sketch, and late in the process, the words "Pentecostal Pumpkins" came into my head.

Even if I didn't make many sales, it was a peaceful, meditative way to spend part of a day.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Pumpkin by Pumpkin, Note by Note

When I think of yesterday, I may remember it as a day of pumpkin offloading:

The offload went well--because it was Sunday after church, we had lots of people helping.  In just a few hours, our church's front yard looked like this:

But I also want to remember that it was a day of handchime practice. 

Yesterday, we started working on a piece that we want to play for Reformation Sunday, just 2 weeks away.  The first attempt to play through "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God" was a disaster, the melody line unrecognizable as some of us lost our places and some of us rang the wrong note at the wrong time. 

But first times are always like that.  We persevered, and by the end of a half hour, we played a recognizable version of "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God."  And we still have a practice session next week.

I want to remember the lessons of yesterday:  what seems insurmountable ( offloading 1700 pumpkins, getting ready to play handchimes in 2 weeks) is actually doable--one must proceed pumpkin by pumpkin, note by note.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Pumpkin Patch Evangelism

By the end of today, with luck and some dedicated labor, our church's front yard area will be transformed into a pumpkin patch.  Our pastor reminded us that no other event so connects us to our local community in the widest way.  Often when I describe the location of the church, someone will say, "Oh, the one that has the pumpkin patch every year!"

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

We don't do it to be widely known for having a pumpkin patch, of course.  We do it because it raises a large amount of money in a short amount of time.  In my heart of hearts, I'm not sure it's worth the effort, but the majority of our church does.

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

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

So, if you haven't already bought your pumpkin(s) for the season, drop by a local church pumpkin patch.  Your dollars will go further than if you bought a pumpkin at a grocery store. 

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

Friday, October 14, 2016

Cross-Gen Choir

Our church, led by our pastor's passion, has become a leader in Cross-Gen ministry--I'm coming to think of it as a movement, as I'm seeing more and more interest.

Cross-Gen ministry means intergenerational ministry, but it's more radical than just including children in as many aspects of worship as we can.  It means changing our mindsets to rework worship completely, if need be, not only for youth, but for everyone.  It means rethinking--and perhaps eliminating completely--the ways we've traditionally done Sunday School and Confirmation.  And it's not just about supporting our families; we've got to do all of this in a context that includes those of us who have never had children, those of us who are not in committed relationships, and those of us (who are all of us) with some troubled history of family in our past.

I've been thinking about cross-generational ministry in the ways we do worship and education, but the other night, my spouse related to me an experience that made me also wonder if we should rethink choir and other forms of music. 

Our choir has rehearsal on Wednesday nights, and on this past Wed., a child was there with his grandmother who was taking care of some other church tasks.  The choir asked him if he wanted to play the bongos with them on a song.  He said yes, and they worked on the song together.  At the end of the session, the child said, "Can I come play with you on Sunday?"  My spouse said that there was such yearning in his voice--and of course, the choir was going to say yes.

I know that most churches have a growth model--how do we reach families and young people and anyone else who can fill our pews.  But there are advantages to being a small church.  We don't have enough children to have a traditional children's choir.  If I had children, it might make me sad that they weren't getting the children's choir experience of my youth.

Or I might be happy that adults would include my child in their choir.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, October 16, 2016:

First Reading: Genesis 32:22-31

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Jeremiah 31:27-34

Psalm: Psalm 121

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 119:97-104

Second Reading: 2 Timothy 3:14--4:5

Gospel: Luke 18:1-8

For many years, this Gospel lesson troubled me. I tend to approach Jesus' parables as teaching us something about the nature of God, so I always look for the character who is supposed to resemble God. In this parable, of course, I immediately assume that the Judge is the God stand-in. But what does that say about the nature of God? Do we really worship a God that is so distracted that he'll only respond if we beat the door down several times?

 What does it say about us that we are so quick to see God as the male, corrupt judge?

Maybe God in this story is the widow. How would this change our view of God, our view of religion, if we saw God as the more helpless characters in Scripture, as opposed to an authority figure?

 It's a scarier view of God, to be sure. Most of us, if we're honest, would say that we prefer God the smiter to God the helpless widow. Even viewing God as a parent allows us to abdicate some responsibility. We’re 3 year olds, after all, praying to our parent God; we’re allowed to have temper tantrums and to refuse to do the right thing.

This parable teaches us that we're to cry out for justice day and night. If you're having trouble praying, turn your attention towards the people who are suffering in this world. Pray for whichever population is being slaughtered today. Pray for the survivers of genocide.  Pray for those on the run from slaughter chasing at their heels.  Pray for the people, whomever they might be this week, who are suffering from a natural disaster. Pray for all who need to have continuing courage to resist dictatorship. Pray for all who sit in prisons throughout the world.  Pray for the poor, beleaguered planet as it swelters beneath a merciless sun.

 If the stones can cry out for justice (a line from a different Gospel), so can you. And you can take comfort from the fact that God cries out for justice right along beside you.

 Remember, the parable promises a positive outcome. Go back to the first verse: "And he told them a parable, to the effect that they ought always to pray and not lose heart." That's the lesson of the parable. Always pray. Don’t lose heart.

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

High Holy Days Envy

When I was growing up, I knew no Jewish people. For that matter, I knew very few Catholics. Most everyone I knew was some variation of mainstream Protestantism, albeit usually a conservative variation, since I grew up in the U.S. South. Even during my grown up years in South Carolina, I knew very few Jews.

And then, I moved to South Florida. Now I've met a lot of Jews and gotten to know a few. I’ve been experiencing a strange sort of envy, as I watch my friends celebrate their Jewish holiest days.

My childhood self hated belonging to what I considered to be an easy religion. I wanted kosher laws that I would struggle to keep. I wanted to do penance for all my sins. The concept of grace left me uneasy.

The high holy days of Judaism appeal to me in just that very way. The problem with the concept of grace, the way that many people understand it, is that it leaves people with no obligation to do any kind of self-reflection that might lead to meaningful change. I've seen far too many people knowingly act in egregious ways, so assured are they that Jesus loves them no matter what they do.

The idea of a period of intense introspection enchants me. I also like the idea that it ends. Immersing myself in a period of repenting and atoning, fasting and prayer--that idea has enormous appeal. The idea that God seals the book, absolves us, and we go back to regular life also appeals. Most humans can't live in that kind of intense self-awareness and repentance for too very long.

Does Christianity have a similar time? The period before Easter, Lent and Holy Week, are the closest. I've wondered if every major religion has a similar period that happens once a year. Ramadan is one example, and I'm sure there are more.

I wonder why it's only once a year in most major religions. I'd argue that we could use this time of recalibration during each quarter of the year.

So, today, as my Jewish friends immerse themselves in this holy time, and as I go about my regular life, I'll try to remember to think about God and that Book of Life. I'll think about my current life and where I need some change in its trajectory. I'll pray for all of us who are engaged in a similar time of introspection.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Poetry Tuesday: "False Idols"

What a whirlwind few weeks!  Between our trip to Arizona and last week's hurricane disruptions, I feel like I've fallen out of time somehow.

I looked back through this blog, and I saw that it was only 2 weeks ago that my contributor copy of Adanna arrived.  As always, I'm impressed with the physical beauty of this journal.

I was happy to see my poem "False Idols" in the pages.  This morning, I'm thinking about how I might cast that poem differently if I wrote it today.  And maybe later, I will write a different version.  Maybe I'll write a False Idols poem each month.

And suddenly, I'm thinking of a larger collection, a different way to frame my poems with a spiritual theme:  false idols, true gods.  Hmm.  I'll keep thinking of this. 

But for today, here's the poem I wrote in June 2015, just published in Adanna, with a link to Luisa Igloria's poem that inspired mine (with thanks to Dave Bonta, for curating his Via Negativa site, which has inspired many of my favorite poems that I've written):

False Idols

“Every few months we thin
the coffers in our temples.”
                   Arguments with destiny: 12 by Luisa A. Igloria

We worship the god
of self-improvement plans, that idol
made of the gold of all our hopes
for lives changed
by exercising more, losing weight,
adding this, subtracting
that, these plans cost.

We thin our coffers
at the temples of our false
gods. Instead of potluck
suppers, we go to one more workout or work
late in our fluorescent offices.

We have banished
the other prophets who declared
a different gospel of improving
ourselves by purifying our souls.
Let those prophets preach
to the wind-scoured landscapes.
Let them eat locusts for lunch.
We shall dine on food cultivated organically,
We shall drink wines made with grapes
grown in a far away soil.

Only late at night, our electronics
silenced, do we hear
that still, small voice
that declares all of creation
to be good and very good,
perfection inherent in our beings,
that small flickering pilot light of grace.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Leadership Training

When my parents used to teach us about good manners, particularly table manners, they would say, "Would you do that if you were eating dinner at the White House?"

Of course, we would always say either, "But we're not eating at the White House!" or "We won't be invited to the White House, and if we are, we'll change."

My parents would always say, "You never know.  You could be invited to eat at the White House, and at that point, it will be too late to practice"--or a variation.

In short, we were trained that we should always behave as if we were eating at the highest table in the land.  That way, if invited, we would be ready. 

In some ways, it's a variation of the question "What would Jesus do?"  If we want to know how to behave, we need to hold ourselves to the highest standards.   Eventually, we don't even need to think about it.  We behave ourselves into the person we want to be.

 So far, I haven't been invited to eat at the White House, but I am glad to have been brought up this way.  If I had a child to raise, I'd use a similar approach, but I'd also train my child to believe that he or she might be running for president some day, and to plan accordingly.

It's not enough to always assume that the microphones will be hot or that the cameras will be running.  The problem with Donald Trump is that 10 years ago, clearly, he didn't want to be president.  Actually, the problem is larger than that:  a man who abuses power in all sorts of ways does not have the character that I want in a president.

I confess that I didn't watch the debate.  I know of artists and poets who planned to make art instead of watching the debate.  I have Facebook friends who were enjoying fellowship with friends instead of watching the debate.  I went to bed early for a grown-up, as I often do on school nights.

Once I would have made my students watch the debate and analyze it in terms of rhetorical devices.  But these days, I'd have a different writing prompt, one that's worked well in the past.  I would ask them to imagine that they find themselves in charge of the country.  What would they do first?

I've always told my students that they should plan what they would do in leadership positions, because they may very well find themselves there some day, and it might be sooner than they think. I tell them about Nelson Mandela, and that the reason that he was prepared to be president of South Africa was that he spent all that time in jail (more years than most of my students have been alive) planning for what he would do if he took over the country. He didn't nurse anger or bitterness. No, he planned, along with his compatriots, who were jailed with them.

Then I give them a copy of an interview (in the fabulous book We Owe You Nothing: Punk Planet: The Collected Interviews) with Jello Biafra which has this challenge: "It's time to start thinking, 'What do I do if I suddenly find myself in charge?'" (page 46 of the first edition). Many of my students find this idea to be a wonderful writing prompt, even as they're doubtful that they would ever be allowed to be in charge of a national government.

But we all know that they might be--and if not a national government, a local one or a school board member or a church council member or in charge of a department.  It's an interesting, and fruitful, way of thinking about leadership.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Prayers after a Hurricane

Let us remember that even though the ancient trees may crash to the ground, we are still rooted in you:

Remind us that new lives can be carved out of the ruins:

Even though the winds may rip our carefully constructed lives to shreds, you still hold us in your hands:

We will bloom again:

As the sun sets on this weather event, let us remember that you are the calm shelter in all of life's storms:

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Hymns for a Hurricane

Even though we have been spared a major hurricane coming ashore, I still can't put the hurricane coverage behind me.  I've been amazed to realize how many people I know up the coast from me:  friends in Port St. Lucie, Jacksonville, and across the Charleston area--and further up the coast, Myrtle Beach, the Outer Banks, and the DelMarVa area. 

Just by coincidence, I'm drinking my coffee in a cracked mug that came from  the Salty Dog CafĂ© that I got during a wonderful Hilton Head vacation in 2010.  I know that storm surge has become the major risk from this storm, and I'm wondering how those barrier islands will be transformed. 

Maybe as the day progresses, we'll realize that they've been lucky too.  And even if they haven't, no one in the U.S. will suffer the way that Haiti will suffer.  I've given this information before, but it bears repeating.  For those of you who want to contribute something to alleviate suffering, I recommend Lutheran World Relief--they've been in Haiti for decades now, and they'll stay there for decades to come, alas.  They also have a great record of actually using the money for relief instead of for staffing administrators in offices back in the U.S.  Go here to make a donation.

My favorite memory from Thursday is my spouse who played his violin on the front porch for over an hour.  The porch has always had good acoustics, but with everything moved off of it, the acoustics went from good to great.

He played a variety of songs, from "Singing in the Rain," "Keep on the Sunny Side," and "You Are My Sunshine" to a variety of hymns, like "Blessed Assurance":  the storm/rain medley.

I wondered if people heard the strains of the violin, if they smiled, if it brought comfort.  It did to me.
In fact, my coping technique throughout the lead up to the storm was to "sing" through the night. For much of the week, I found myself waking up between midnight and 2 a.m. wondering what the 11 p.m. update held for us.  I had trouble staying focused enough to pray, but if I focused on singing silently, I could soothe myself and eventually, after a very long time, fall back asleep.
There are many benefits to being a member of a group that sings, and here's one that's seldom talked about:  I have these songs memorized.  I can pull them up, even when the power is down, even in the deep of night when I don't want to wake anyone else up.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Post Hurricane Gratitude

I am surprised to be here with electricity, writing a blog post, sipping freshly brewed coffee.  Let me clarify:  I expected to be here, just not with electricity.  This time yesterday, I was sure we would be without power, and if we were lucky, it would only last for several days.  I was still worried about the storm wobbling west with stronger winds than we were expecting.

While I said my share of prayers, I don't believe that God decided to spare my house.  I have offered gratitude both to God and to the laws of planetary physics that kept the hurricane offshore.  But I also realize that luck probably had more to do with my good fortune. 

It certainly wasn't my good behavior.  I worship a God of grace; as my pastor reminded us in a Facebook post this morning addressed to people who would soon suggest that the hurricane's path had something to do with God's judgment, "God does not send cataclysms to get our attention or punish our sins or because you hate people who are different from you. If God punished our sins like you think God does or should then everyone (people like you) would be dodging tidal waves and meteors and volcanic eruptions instead of having time to post or tweet or even whisper such drivel."

Happily, I haven't seen many posts that suggest that Haiti was being punished or that southeast Florida was being rewarded.  Those of us who avoided a close catastrophe know that we did, and we're immensely grateful.

Part of my gratitude will include making a donation to those less fortunate.  For those of you who want to contribute too, I recommend Lutheran World Relief--they've been in Haiti for decades now, and they'll stay there for decades to come, alas.  They also have a great record of actually using the money for relief instead of for staffing administrators in offices back in the U.S.  Go here to make a donation.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

Weather that Nourishes All of Creation

I have always felt weird about praying about the path of hurricanes.  For one thing, I'm not sure that God gets involved in the laws of physics that way.

But for another, I'm aware that if I'm saved by the hurricane going elsewhere, it means doom for someone else.

Yesterday, I came across a way to pray about hurricanes.  The rest of this post is from a Facebook post written by Mary Mappus Finklea, who has given permission to share:


"Grant weather that nourishes all of creation."

 This petition from Holden evening prayer has always been particularly moving for me. Especially after staying at the Lutheran Seafarers Hostel in NYC and meeting a sailor who said it drove him crazy when everyone just wanted the storms to go out to sea. He said there are people there too to care about. I've also liked this petition because it's not "me-centered" as in 'get the storm out of MY front yard and send it up north to be some other guy's problem'. And the petition keeps in mind the welfare of plants, animals, livestock, etc.

So my prayer this morning is "Grant weather that nourishes all of creation."

(a Facebook post from Mary Mappus Finklea)

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, October 9, 2016:

First Reading: 2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Jeremiah 29:1, 4-7

Psalm: Psalm 111

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 66:1-11 (Psalm 66:1-12 NRSV)

Second Reading: 2 Timothy 2:8-15

Gospel: Luke 17:11-19

We've spent a lot of time lately wrestling with texts which offer us guidelines for discipleship which may seem close to impossible for modern people to follow: give away our wealth? Surely Jesus didn't mean that.

This Sunday's Gospel gives us a task which should be easier. We need to practice gratitude. It seems like it should be such an easy thing, but some people find it easier to give away their money than to be grateful. We focus on the prayers that we perceive of as unanswered. We find ourselves obsessing over people who seem to receive better blessings than we do. We nurse our disappointments, our hurt, our anger. We are in spiritually dangerous territory when we do this.

If you can pray no other prayer, get into the habit of saying thank you. If you think you have nothing over which you'd like to offer thanks, think again. Do your body parts work as well as can be expected? Even if you're not in the best health, you can probably focus on something that's a blessing. Once I saw Arthur Ashe on the Phil Donahue show, where he had appeared to talk about his recent diagnosis: he had AIDS. But he seemed so cheerful, and when asked about that, he said that he focused on what his body could do. He grinned and said, "I've never had a cavity." If only more of us could follow his large-spirited lead.

When you think about what's lacking in your life, you might focus on your lack of funds. But compared to the rest of the world, you've extremely wealthy. Want to know just how wealthy? Even if you're in the lower tiers of poverty in the US, you're still fairly well off compared to the rest of the world. You're still likely to have safe water and electricity and some sort of roof over your head--even a TV!

My friend Sue used to do a type of gratitude exercise with her children. When they saw a magnificent sunset or a field of flowers or a tree ablaze in autumnal leaves, they’d yell, “Great show God!” It could be a bit startling if you were the one driving the car and not expecting this outburst. Yet the spirit was infectious. Even today, when I see something beautiful in nature, I murmer, “Great show, God.”

The beautiful thing about cultivating a garden of gratitude is that it opens our hearts in a unique way. Being grateful can lead to those other spiritual disciplines that seem so hard taken out of context. We’re saying “Thank you” more often, which puts us in a space where prayer comes more naturally. We are aware of all the blessings that we have and we’re more inclined to share. Our hearts and our brains and our hands move in unison to work with God to create the kind of reality that God wants for each of us to experience.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Feast Day of Saint Francis

Today is the Feast Day of St. Francis.  These days, we might be more familiar with this saint, since our current pope chose the name Francis.  Many of us think of Francis as being kind to animals.  Today, what would Francis say about modern people and our pets?

When I was in elementary school, one of the most pressing theological questions concerned pets.  Would they go to Heaven?  I remember that it seemed like a pressing question.

Of course, I also worried about the unforgivable sin and the fact that various adults answered the question differently when I asked, "What is the unforgivable sin?"  So, I will grant you that I was an unusual child.

When I asked about pets and Heaven, some adults brushed off my question by saying, "Of course not.  Animals don't have souls."

I suspect that few adults today would go for that simple answer, at least the ones who share their lives with pets.  We live in a time where people spend enormous amounts of money on their pets.  Gone are the days when you'd spend a chunk of money for shots and that would be the extent of your vet bills for the life of the pet. 

Lately, I've been thinking about the care we offer our pets and contrasting that care with the amount of care we give ourselves.  I've known more than one person who cooked better meals for their dogs than they do for themselves.  You can probably offer similar examples:  humans who make sure that their pets see dentists, even when the human members of the family don't take care of their teeth, dogs who see therapists, pets who get wonderful treats that humans deny themselves--the list could go on and on.

 I wonder how Francis came to be so associated with pets.  I think of him as someone who looked out for the outcast of society as he cared for lepers.  We don't think about the implications of that aspect of his life in the pet blessing services that many churches will have to celebrate the life of this saint.

We also don't hear much about the work of Francis to help end the Crusades.It's a good day to think about modern wars and the sweep of destruction.  We might also think about just wars, the kind that many Crusaders would tell you that they were fighting.  What's the best way to rescue populations that are invaded?  Or should we intervene at all?

But there's more to Francis, so much more.   He gave up everything he owned--and he was rich--in a quest for a more authentic life. He inspired others to follow the same path, and he founded two religious orders that still thrive.  I can't decide which impresses me more, the insistence on an authentic life, even if it cost him everything or his fierce commitment to community.

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

Our society would be transformed.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Happy New Year!

Several people have asked me if my school has Rosh Hashanah off.  No, we don't. 

I remember the first autumn we lived down here, and how remarkable it seemed to me to have Jewish holidays off.  Before South Florida, I had never lived in any place with enough Jews to affect holiday policy in this way. We moved down here to be part of a more multicultural environment, but before we arrived, I hadn't thought of North American Jews as one of the cultures I'd get to meet.

I'm an equal opportunity celebrator: let's have some Muslim and Hindu holidays off too!

At my school, we have Christmas day and a day before or after Christmas--those don't seem like particularly Christian holiday times to me.  We have Good Friday off, which is strange to me, since there are only a few of us deeply Christian enough to observe this holiday.  Most people would probably rather have Easter Monday off--it would make travel on the week-end easier, if we're part of families who celebrate Easter in any way.

But back to this Jewish high holy day.  If I was a practicing Jew, this day, indeed this time, the 30 days before Rosh Hashanah up through Yom Kippur and beyond to Sukkot, would be drenched with meaning.  I've met many Jews who will fast on Yom Kippur, even though they don't observe any other part of the spiritual path which is Judaism.  I've met "cultural Jews" who will cook the foods of each holiday but participate in no other way.

Are there aspects of this holiday that can speak to us all?  Certainly.  I like the idea of times that encourage us to be mindful of our best selves--how we're manifesting our best selves and where we still need some work.  For many of us, that time comes once a year, around January 1.

I know that people eat sweets on this holiday in the hopes of having an upcoming year that's sweet. Does the same hold true for other kinds of invitations? Should we be doing activities on Rosh Hashanah that we hope to invite into our lives for the rest of the year?

I'm not sure that's a real Jewish tradition, but I like the idea of it. Here I sit, writing in the early hours of the morning--I hope that I can still be doing that as the year progresses.  Later today, I'll be in touch with friends and family, whether by way of Facebook, e-mail, or good old-fashioned face to face talking.  I've gotten away from some of the visual arts that I do--let me find time to do that today.  Today is the first day of the new term at my school--may there be many more!
Happy Rosh Hashanah to us all, whether we be cultural Jews, Orthodox Jews, ecumenically minded folks, or that large group of people who have no religious practice.  May the coming year be sweet in ways that will nourish us!

Sunday, October 2, 2016

Stay Alert--the Hurricane to Our South Version

Today I am distracted.  There's a huge hurricane to our south, and even though it won't affect the weather here in south Florida for several days, there's some part of me that wants to go fill the water bottles.

I won't do that--today is my day to be in charge at church while my pastor is away, so at least I won't keep checking the National Hurricane Center's website or the blogs at Weather Underground.  I will pray for everyone in the path of this storm--the people of Haiti, Jamaica, and Cuba have far fewer resources than I do.

I keep thinking of all the admonitions throughout the Bible that we stay awake and watchful.  I know that the ancients didn't have hurricanes in mind, but having a hurricane in the neighborhood can trigger an alertness that can be valuable in many ways.

Hurricane season reminds me of how little of my life is really in my control, and the idea that I'm in charge is such an illusion. I can no more control many of the currents (economic, health, political) that affect my life than I can control the weather.

I could live in denial of my essential powerlessness; many people do. I could pretend that benign powers bend to my will as I cast my votes and save my money and do all the things which may or may not lead me into healthy old age. I could eat my vegetables while I salt away money and try to believe it will all work out. Or I could become that sneering cynical person who is so tiring in social settings. Or I could become comatose with hopelessness.

Happily, I have another option. I can trust in God, who has promised that my needs will be met. I can trust that this creator, who has provided such a glorious planet, has not left us all alone to the whims of currents that we can barely perceive.

And I can help those who will come out on the other side of this storm as the unfortunate victims.  Let us all remember them, in advance, today as we meet and worship and pray.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Blessing Our Pets in Church

Across the country this week-end, many churches will be having services to bless pets. We do this ostensibly to celebrate the life of St. Francis, although there was so much more to St. Francis than his love of animals (more on that on his feast day on Oct. 4). Today, I'd like to think about pets and whether or not we should have a service to bless them.

I once attended a church that incorporated the pet blessing into the regular service, which meant that we all attended church with a variety of animals that day. I confess to being nervous. What if some of those less-friendly animals got loose? What if someone in the church was deathly allergic to the hair of one of those animals? I was deeply distracted that day and relieved to get out of the sanctuary. Worship should not inspire those feelings.

Many churches do a separate service these days. That means that people like me can avoid the whole thing. Don't get me wrong, I don't hate animals, and if I lived by myself, I might want a pet for companionship--but only if I worked fewer hours and travelled less.

Moving the worship service to a separate time, and perhaps a separate place, still doesn't solve the theological question. Why are we blessing our pets? I'd ask a harder question: why do we welcome pets into our sanctuaries while not welcoming the most destitute members of our society? Let's be honest: what would your church members do if a deranged homeless person walked through the doors or a skinhead or a family who didn't speak the language of members?

Maybe a pet blessing service opens our hearts to those who don't speak our language or look like us? But I'm also troubled by the knowledge of how much money we're spending on our pets. Gone are the days when you'd spend a chunk of money for shots and that would be the extent of your vet bills for the life of the pet. I know people who cook for their pets because they're horrified at what goes into pet food. Yet I don't see that passion for food safety translate into other areas of life.

What does it mean that we spend so much on our pets and so little on the poor? What does it mean that we care more about the health of our pets than our own health or the health of our fellow humans or the health of the planet?

I worry that our pets are shrinking our human contact. I know several people who are happier to spend an evening with a pet than with a friend. What does that say about our society?

A good pastor could address some of these elements in a pet blessing service. A good pastor could remind us that as we care for our pets who are thoroughly dependent on us, we are called to care for the poor amongst us, who are also thoroughly dependent on our generosity.

Yes, a good pastor could make all kinds of connections so that a blessing of the pets service avoids insipidness. Let me rest in the hope that most pastors who incorporate pet blessings will take advantage of this opportunity.