Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 4, 2016:

First Reading: Isaiah 11:1-10

Psalm: Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

Second Reading: Romans 15:4-13

Gospel: Matthew 3:1-12

Today's Gospel continues with the Advent theme of watching, waiting, and listening for the call. Today it's John the Baptist who tells us of what's to come.

The real, living Jesus was not who John's listeners expected. Many of them probably thought that John was talking about himself; after all, first century Palestine was full of self-proclaimed Messiahs, and I expect many of them spoke of themselves in the third person telling (or warning) of the deeds they would do. Many of John's listeners probably had no idea what he was talking about; humans seem incapable of thinking in terms of metaphor and symbol for very long. Many of them probably expected a Messiah that would come in a form they'd recognize: a warrior to save them from the Romans, a temple reformer to get rid of corrupt priests, or maybe someone who would lead them into the wilderness to set up a new community.

Are we not the same way? How many of us read the Bible literally, expecting specific answers to social or political issues that would have been unheard of thousands of years ago when the Scriptures were written? How many of us would welcome salvation when it comes? We go to church, we sit in our pews, we wait for God to appear. We wonder why we don’t feel the presence of God, as we go home to take a nap and gear up for our secular week ahead. We scurry through the rat race of our lives, substituting other things for God. We worship at the churches of Capitalism, buying things at the mall or on the Internet, which means we have to work overtime to pay for those things. We wonder why we feel unfulfilled. To try to fill that emptiness, we do more of the activities that leave us with gaping holes in our Spirit. We hear that voice, the voice of the Spirit--maybe it cries or maybe it whispers. It scares us, so we eat some more or flip through ever more cable stations or go to bed early--because we can't deal with the implications.

John warns what happens to those of us who don't listen: "His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire" (verse 12). Some of us don't like this vision of a God with a winnowing fork in hand. How does this mesh with a God of grace and love?

 I think of parents, like my cousins and my sister, and this past Thanksgiving when I heard much discussion of bad choices.  I was rooting for the next generation to buckle down and eat a slice of pizza so that we could move on to watching a movie--but one of them had to go to bed early because he refused to eat something that had contained pepperoni.

I think of John's fiery language and the idea of winnowing.  I think of God as a loving parent, wishing we would do what's good for us.  God doesn't have to do much winnowing. Our lifestyles are already punishing us. Many of us are already feeling that unquenchable fire.

The good news is that there is time to change our ways. There is still time to "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight." (verse 3). Advent, traditionally a time for getting ready, is a good time to think ahead. How could we make the next year to be our best spiritual year ever?

Choose just one simple action, whether it be keeping a prayer journal or making gratitude lists or learning to play or sing sacred music. Choose just one action and attend to it faithfully.

In this way, you will be in a much stronger spiritual place a year from now. You will be bearing fruit. God will call, and you will hear. God won't have to go to such great lengths to get your attention. Your deepest yearnings, the ones you didn't even know you had, will be filled, as you move towards God--and God moves towards you.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Creating a Contemplative Corner for Advent

I spent yesterday mired in accreditation documents--I say mired, but I was making progress.  By the end of the day, I just had a few pieces of information to add, information that will come from someone else, so I couldn't make much more progress.

I got home, and we had a simple supper of potatoes and fish.  We lit the first candle on the Advent wreath and sang the first verse of "Light One Candle to Watch for Messiah."  Later, we sat on the porch, in a true candlelit time.  By flashlight, I read a Henri Nouwen piece ("Waiting for God") about Mary, Elizabeth, and all the other Advent characters who wait.

Here's a Nouwen quote for your Advent reflection today:

"The whole meaning of the Christian community lies in offering a space in which we wait for that which we have already seen.  Christian community is the place where we keep the flame alive among us and take it seriously, so that it can grow and become stronger in us.  In this way, we can live with courage, trusting that there is a spiritual power in us that allows us to live in this world without being seduced constantly by despair, lostness, and darkness."

While I have not yet created much new art, aside from blog posts, with Advent themes, last night felt important:  the second night of Advent, a time out of regular time, even as we did normal activities like eating dinner and sitting on the porch.

On the Sunday before Advent, I ignored the Christ the King element of the lectionary, and looked forward to Advent:

So far, so good!

Monday, November 28, 2016

Down from the Mountain Top, Back to Regular Life

Yesterday, although we'd been home less than 12 hours, I went to church.  I wanted to help decorate Advent wreaths, including one of my own that I hope to use regularly over the next 4 weeks:

As I drove to church, I felt vaguely irritable and as I stopped at red light after red light, I wondered why I was pushing myself to get to church.  But once I was there, I was glad I did.  It was good to catch up with everyone, and good to get ready for Advent.  I got home and finished unpacking and setting up for Advent.

I love that we have a small tree of Chrismon ornaments.  My step-mom-in-law made us a set long ago.  I like that this tree gives us a different focus--and it goes well with the Advent wreath.

In the evening, we went back across town to the parsonage for the monthly ukulele meet-up.  We are playing for one of the Christmas Eve services, so I wanted to get the music.  Hopefully, I will practice.

There's a reason that we push ourselves so hard to make the drive back on Saturday.  It's good to have a day to get caught up after being away.  I wouldn't want to be going back to work today without yesterday to get organized.  Of course, it would be good to have another day or two--but one must go back to work, back to "regular life," sooner or later.

Most religious traditions separate regular life from "mountain top" experiences.  I am lucky to have had a week with several mountain top experiences.  There's the time on the literal mountain, my beloved mountains that surround Lutheridge.  There's the mountain top experience of being with my family.  And then there are the mountain top experiences of yesterday:  Advent wreath making at church, a restorative afternoon at home, and the joy of creating music together in the evening.  I am glad to have had them.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Advent Begins

Even though I spent over 12 hours yesterday, making my way back to South Florida from our family celebration in the mountains of North Carolina, I am still not feeling like I've made the transition from Thanksgiving to Advent.

But life teaches us that these shifts come to us, ready or not.  Here we are at the first Sunday of Advent.

Today at church we will make Advent wreaths.  Every year I take my straw form to church and wrap it with something different in terms of ribbons--I tend to stick to an Advent blue, although not everyone does.

Some years we light our wreath so regularly that we have no candle left to represent the first week of Advent by the time we get to Christmas.  Some years we can use last year's candles.

Each year, I have a fervent wish to have a more mindful Advent--some devotions in the evening or morning, a lighting of the candles.  I find myself missing the Advent calendars of my childhood--open a door and find a treat. 

Here's a calendar that my parents picked up in the early years of their marriage when they travelled Europe while stationed in France. 

The hearts are outlines, and thus, they link together--one for each day of Advent.

Perhaps this year, I'll create something each day of Advent and link it together.  Or maybe I will resolve to sketch more with my wonderful markers.  Let me see what happens.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Plan Before You Say Yes: A Saner Holiday Schedule

Yesterday's post talked about holiday budgets in the monetary sense. For today, I'd like to think about the upcoming holiday season in terms of time and energy budgets. I am often so enchanted by the holiday season that I say yes to way too many activities. I'm so pleased to be included that I say yes, before I think about the rest of my life and obligations.

I'm hoping that with a bit of planning, I can enjoy activities yet not find myself completely depleted and exhausted by the time I get to January 2.

Here are some suggestions:

--Plan your social calendar now. And keep it simple. Choose only one or two events per week-end. Declare that you won't go out on school nights or that you'll make it an early night if there's something to do the next day. You can't do everything, and you'll only feel irritable if you try. What's most important to you and the ones you love?

--Streamline some of the traditions. Do you really need to bake every kind of cookie that you remember from past holidays? Maybe you and your friends could have a cookie swap. Or get together to bake cookies together. Have a wonderful afternoon of cookie dough and wine and leave with enough cookies to get you through the holiday. For years, I did a cookie bake/swap with friends, which grew into a dinner swap, which we'd still be doing today, if I hadn't moved 700 miles away. Consider other ways to make the holiday meals simpler. Maybe this is the year to simplify the holiday card tradition. Ask yourself which events mean something to you and which you're doing because you always have.

--Purge the traditions that have ceased to have meaning. This one is tough. For example, I often find myself bored and irritable as I sit through The Nutcracker. I always think I'll love that ballet, probably because I loved it as a child. I don't love it as an adult. Why spend the money and time? Of course, if everyone else in the family adored it and wanted to go, it might be worth it. But now is a good time to have a frank discussion, before we're caught up in the sentimental sweep of December.

--Take time to help the needy, and if you have children, bring them along. Some of my favorite holiday memories involve helping others. My Girl Scout troop used to go caroling at nursing homes. The church of my adolescence assembled gift baskets for homeless women. My parents, along with social institutions like church, Scouts, and school, modeled the good behavior of working for social justice. It's stuck with me. December is a great time to train the next generation in the habits of social justice and charitable work.

--Plan for how we'll get back on track if we get off track. It's important to remember that even with all the best plans, we may find ourselves overscheduled and cranky. Plan now to forgive yourself for those times. Plan now for how you'll get back on track.

Friday, November 25, 2016

Plan Before You Shop: A Saner Holiday Budget

Yesterday in the U.S., we celebrated Thanksgiving. Many of us spent the day cooking, eating, and resting in a variety of ways. That's all about to change. Indeed for a few brave souls, it already has, as they've headed to the stores for bargains, bargains, bargains.

You couldn't pay me enough to go near a store today. I'd rather pay the extra money. Instead, this Black Friday is a good time to do some strategic planning to determine a sane approach to the holiday season. Today is a good time to plan for how we're going to have a meaningful December, how we're going to resist the consumerist, capitalist madness of a whirlwind that tends to sweep us all along.

Let's strategize. How can we avoid a hectic season? How can we invite more contemplation and quiet into December? How can we reach January with our budgets intact, our health robust, and our traditions strengthened?

Today's post will think about our monetary budgets and our shopping. Tomorrow's post will remind us of other ways to keep the holiday season meaningful yet less stressful.

--Make a budget before you buy a thing. Even as you're reading this, the Christmas shopping season begins for those of us brave enough to go into stores. Before you go, make sure you know how much you can spend. It's easy to get caught up in the shrill cycle of good deals and fierce desires. Don't buy so much that you'll still be paying off those credit cards in July. Nothing is worth that.

--Instead of buying stuff, buy experiences. Most of us have too much stuff. Why not give someone a meal out or a movie? Give the gift of your time.

--Don't forget that those gift-giving dollars can support arts cultures that so many of us would like to see thrive or at least not vanish. Give your gift recipient a book or a subscription to a literary journal. Give tickets to the theatre or the orchestra.

--Instead of buying stuff, donate to charities. I'm lucky enough to be able to buy just about everything I need, albeit my needs are fairly simple. I am haunted by all the charities that are underfunded. I am haunted by the gaping needs in the world. I would prefer that people give money to the needy than to buy more stuff for me. Chances are good that lots of people on your gift list feel the same way.

--Why give gifts at all? I understand the appeal of shopping for children, but maybe this year is the one where we should think about why we give gifts to grown-ups, many of whom are perfectly capable of buying those items for themselves.

--Could this be the year that everyone makes their holiday gifts? I know, it's too late for most of us to knit a sweater or to make anything elaborate. But why not write a poem for the ones you love? Why not begin to write the family history? Why not make a sketch or two? Make some cookies: eat some and box some up for presents.

--Have this year be the year of found presents. Give an interesting stone or shell that you found at the beach. Make an arrangement of twigs and dried leaves.

--Or, if you're not surrounded by nature, declare that this will be the year of regifting. Go ahead and be open about it from the beginning. Give the film enthusiast all those DVDs you no longer watch. Sort through all your baking pans and cookie cutters and give a few to your favorite chef. Are you really going to read all your books again? Give them away to people who might enjoy them.

--If you have people on your list who insist on presents that they can open, presents that are brand new and purchased especially for them, see if you can find a way for your gift-giving dollars to support local artisans or local merchants.

--Or use your gift-giving dollars to support farmers and/or artisans from less-developed nations. The organization SERVV does wonderful work and offers beautiful gift possibilities.  Go here for more information.

Tomorrow: Budgeting time

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Thanksgiving Gratitudes

I have always said that Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays.  I love that there's no gift giving tradition to leave us all in some variation of anxious and/or disappointed.  I love that the food can be towards the healthy edge of the spectrum.

But most of all, I love a holiday that revolves around gratitude.

Let me now make a list of all the things for which I am most grateful in the past year:

--At my midlife point of losing friends and not just because they move to a new town, I am grateful for the family and friends who are still here.

--I am grateful that my family continues to enjoy spending time together.  I had wondered if we might drift away from each other after the death of my grandmother, but we have not.

--I am grateful for my new job.  My old school has some structural problems that makes me fearful that it won't be here in 5 or 10 years, and realistically, I need to keep working for the next 10 years, much as I might wish I could retire.  It's good to be at a school that seems more stable, that prepares students for jobs in medical fields that will still have jobs when they graduate.  It's good to be at a school that talks about having a moral obligation to the students that we accept.

--I am grateful that I can still find nuggets of writing time in my new schedule.  I think back to the idea I had during our 2015 Thanksgiving travels, about a collection of linked short stories that revolves around student radicals/social justice workers who find themselves at age 50ish.  I originally thought I would have the characters be students who knew each other in their youth.  As the stories have evolved, the connection is that they all work in a for-profit arts school, and each one has worked in a different aspect of the social justice field.  It's been a fun project that lets me feel connected to both my more recent friends and my undergrad friends as I weave all of our stories into a different fabric.

--This past year has been the one that had my spouse teaching at the local community college, a change for him (his teaching the year before was at a for-profit school).  He loves it, and we have fascinating discussions about Philosophy--in some ways, it feels like we're back to our essential selves.

--I am grateful that my health continues to be stable, although I do have more aches than I once did.  This has been the year of the 10 day shred, an elimination diet that puts me back on a healthier track.  I am now roughly 18 pounds lighter than I was a year ago.  I'm grateful for that, but more than that, I'm grateful to have a new tool, the 10 day shred, that can help me as I need to get back on track in the months and years to come.

--This year, I had a poem nominated for a Pushcart Prize, a first for me.  That makes me happy, as does my chapbook coming out in physical form.

--I am grateful for the retreats that I had during the past year.  I am grateful for my local church, Trinity Lutheran, in Pembroke Pines.  I am grateful for everything, both the overtly spiritual and the more subtly spiritual, that keeps me spiritually grounded.

Let me not get so lost in my luckiness that I forget those who can't be so grateful.  Let me continue to yearn for and to work for a world where we all have enough to inspire gratitude.

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, November 27, 2016:

First Reading: Isaiah 2:1-5

Psalm: Psalm 122

Second Reading: Romans 13:11-14

Gospel: Matthew 24:36-44

So, here we are preparing for Christmas, and we get this apocalyptic Gospel. You might have been expecting a passage about the angel Gabriel visiting Mary. You might have thought you'd hear some prophecy about the coming of the Messiah. You would have even settled for those strange passages from John which talk about the word becoming flesh and moving into the neighborhood (as Eugene Patterson paraphrases it in his The Message paraphrase).
Maybe you don’t think of Advent as an apocalyptic time. Maybe you’re one of the church members who says, “Why can’t we sing Christmas carols?”

Again and again, our holy scriptures remind us that we need to stay alert and watchful. Again and again, our holy scriptures warn us that God is coming and that God won't always take on the shape we expect. Sometimes, our spiritual ancestors are lucky, as Abraham was, when he invited the strangers into his tent, and found out he was having dinner with God. Sometimes our ancestors aren't as lucky. Think of all those contemporaries of Jesus, many of them good, observant Jews, who were on the lookout for a different kind of Messiah. They wanted someone to deliver them from oppressive Roman rule. What did they get? A baby in a manger.

We think that we wouldn't have been so stupid. We would have recognized the Divine, as Christ moved among us.

But think of our own lives. Many of us are so busy that we can't even adopt traditional practices that move us closer to God, practices like regular prayer or tithing. Would we really recognize God in our lives, especially if God took on an unexpected form?

We might adopt another ancient spiritual practice for our Advent discipline. We usually think of Lent as the season of discipline and denial, but Advent cries out for a similar rigor, especially in our culture that goes into hyper-consumer-overdrive this time of year. This year, practice seeing the Divine in difficult people. It's easy to look at a little baby and to see God looking back out of that face. But for a few weeks, practice treating difficult people as if they are the embodiment of God. Your evil boss? Your difficult teenager? The homeless guy at the corner who won't take no for an answer when he asks for money? Your sad mother-in-law? How might things change if we treat these difficult people as the embodiment of God, as Christ incarnate?

Our changed approach might change their difficult behavior. However, let's be realistic. It probably won't change their behavior permanently.

But hopefully, if we approach everyone as God moving in the world, our attitudes will change. But even if they don't, this adjustment in perspective is good training. Again and again, Christ warns us to stay alert and aware. We live in a culture that wants us numbed (from too much TV, too much spending, too much drinking, too much working, too much, too much, too much). We need to adopt practices that train us towards a different way.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Feast Day of Saint Cecilia

Today is the feast day of St. Cecilia, patron saint of church musicians. She is often shown playing the organ, as in this painting by Claude Vignon:

So, if you're a church-going sort, celebrate this feast day by thanking your church musicians. Many of them are working for small salaries (or for free), and they probably don't hear many words of thanks.

St. Cecilia is also the patron saint of music and musicians of all kinds.  It seems appropriate to celebrate this feast day by listening to music.

Here's a picture by Botticini; are they playing instruments?

I love the idea of Saint Cecilia inspiring all sorts of music festivals throughout the ages; she continues to inspire musicians today.  Her Wikipedia article's largest section covers the many ways that artists in the last half of the 20th century wrote music inspired by her.

I am less comfortable with the idea of her fierce dedication to her virginity.  As a feminist scholar and theologian, I’ve grown a bit uncomfortable with virgin saints, like Cecilia.  She's more interesting than many, as she was married, and convinced her husband to accept her virginity.  She's one of the virgin saints not martyred because of her virginity.

The lives of these virgin saints show us how difficult life is in a patriarchal regime. It’s worth remembering that many women in many countries don’t have any more control over their bodies or their destinies than these long-ago virgin saints did.

Perhaps instead of celebrating this feast day with music, we might want to support a social justice organization that helps modern women in patriarchal countries where they have few rights.

But of course, we don't have to choose:  we can support women in less-developed countries, and we can support our local musicians.  Let's do both on this feast day of Saint Cecilia!

Monday, November 21, 2016

Preparing Our Hearts for Christmas

I have noticed the not-too-subtle seasonal shift, the Christmas commercials that have taken over from the election commercials that ruled the airwaves just a few weeks ago.  Today, before/as we launch ourselves fully into the holiday season, let's take a minute to remember why we're celebrating Christmas, if we're Christians.

It's not about the gifts under the tree, it's about the baby in the manger.

But if we stay stuck in the story with the cute baby in the manger, we've lost the important point of the story.

Let's remember the true meaning of that baby in the manger, if we're Christians.

And if we leave Christ on the cross, we've lost the even larger story.

And the empty tomb is not even the end of the story.  We have a mission--and it's not to get the best bargains on Black Friday. 

Could we transform our holiday season so that we're doing something to heal the world?  It could be something as simple as adding socks for the homeless to our shopping list or adding compost to our gardens.

Or maybe it will be something that transforms the world!

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Preparing Our Hearts for Advent

It doesn't feel like New Year's Eve, does it?  Yet, in some ways, it is. 

Here we are, once again at the end of a liturgical calendar year.  It is Christ the King Sunday, a holiday that has never been dear to my heart.  But this year, the message that Christ serves as a different kind of king seems particularly appropriate.

Next Sunday, it's on to Advent, one of my favorite seasons.  I keep several kinds of Advent.  I am as susceptible to Christmas frenzy as the next person, so for part of Advent, I'm listening to Christmas CDs and baking cookies.  But I also keep a contemplative corner of Advent, where I am more diligent about reading the sacred texts and lighting the Advent candles.

This year's Advent readings come from Isaiah--ah, apocalyptic Isaiah.  I am oddly ready.  It has been an apocalyptic year, both nationally in terms of the election, and personally, in terms of those dear to me losing jobs and battling disease and all the challenges that come with a life coming all in the same short period of time.  The Advent readings will be an appropriate way to end the calendar year.

I have already done some Christmas decorating, but I won't light the small trees that we have until after Thanksgiving, a compromise with my spouse, who doesn't want to move on to Christmas until after Thanksgiving.  In a way, I understand.

Over the next few days, I will buy some blue candles for the Advent wreath--the dripless kind this year.  Our straw Advent wreath is covered in wax.  I do worry about the fire hazard, but we don't leave it unattended.

Some years, I have a Christmas tablescape early on:  a red table cloth, a small tree.  This year, though, I'm going to commit to Advent on the dining room table.  I'll post pictures once I have it set up.  And then, on the Monday after the last Sunday in Advent, I'll change out the linens. 

Some people are sad when Christmas comes on a Sunday, but I like the extra time in the season that we get this year.  Today is a good day to spend some time planning for the kind of Advent season you'd like to have.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Poetry Saturday: Thanksgiving Approaches

Here we are, on a fast track to Thanksgiving.  Not for the first time, I have thought, what happened to November?

I remember in grad school, when I asked my English friend if they had Thanksgiving in Britain.  She gave me a look of disbelief and said, "No.  We didn't have Pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower to be saved by the Natives who they would slaughter later."

I'm paraphrasing, but that's the basic gist of what she said.  We collapsed into laughter.

I'm periodically haunted by Pilgrims and by our Colonial history.  It's strange to live down here on the tip of the continent, where most of history has been paved over, and before it was paved over, it wasn't that old anyway.

Years ago I wrote this poem.  It's not meant to be autobiographical, although my dad has grown to hate yardwork in his later years, and all of my family obsesses a bit over the nutritional content of food.  I tried writing it in a 3rd person voice, but couldn't make it work.  I see the characters in this poem as Thanksgiving archetypes on some level, but perhaps I'm glorifying them.

Shadow Pilgrims

If my parents had been Pilgrims,
the whole path of American history would have altered.

My father would have seen the New World
as one vast yard to mow. Retreating to the boat,
he’d have plotted his escape back to the crowded
Mother Country, with its lack of lawn.

My mother, having worked herself into a frenzy
as she planned the last perfect detail of the feast, would collapse
into a waterfall of nervous tears and find herself unable
to attend the festive meal.

My sister, who claims she can’t do math, would calculate
the precise amount of calories and fat grams in the food.
She’d tell us the percentages and weights of every bite,
throwing a temper tantrum when we ignored her.

My brothers would complain, as they always
do, about the lack of a large screen TV
on which to watch their primitive
games. Too stuffed to play the game themselves,
they might toss a football back and forth.

And I, I would be too worried about this year’s crop
of starving children to enjoy my own abundant
blessings. I’d join my father back on the boat, but first,
I’d slip the natives some weapons, whispering
“Keep these. You’ll need them later.”

Friday, November 18, 2016

Born Catholic, Born to Run

Thanksgiving is coming--ah that time when many of us might find an hour or two to read.

I've been reading Bruce Springsteen's Born to Run--so far, it's a great book.  I enjoyed the chapters about his childhood more than I thought I would:  very evocative details about a time that seems as distant as the nineteenth century.

Some of the chapters discuss Springsteen's relationship to the Catholic church as a child.  I hope that he continues to tell us how the church's shaping has impacted his adult years.

Now I'm to the chapters about his early years of forming bands and playing in all sorts of places.  It's a fascinating exploration of the different kinds of music and instruments that the musicians around Springsteen played in the late 60's.

I bought the book for two reasons:  I heard Springsteen interviewed on this episode of Fresh Air, and Terry Gross was full of praise for the book.  I was intrigued; Gross doesn't usually praise books in quite that way.

I was also assembling an Amazon order.  I wanted to pick up some old Bob Dylan CDs before the price went up in the aftermath of Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature.  But to get free shipping, I needed to add some books.  Thus, the Springsteen.

At the risk of sounding like some of my students, I didn't realize it would be so long--but I'm happy to be immersed in it.  It's the kind of book I like, an analysis of creativity and what helps or hinders and artist.  Even if I didn't know Springsteen's music, I imagine I would like this book.  But it helps that Springsteen is part of the soundtrack of my life.

There's a spirituality that infuses the book, the spirituality that recognizes the importance of song. I'm looking forward to reading more about that. 

But most of all, as I look towards Thanksgiving week, I'm looking forward to having time to read, a bit of time to slow down.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Gratitude Beckons

A week from now, we will sit down at our tables of gratitude.

Some will have spent the past month working on the meal.

Some will show up empty-handed.

Some of the arguments will seem familiar.

But some of us will find fresh connections.

We walk through this labyrinth both alone and together.

Can we find the common ground?

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The Readings for Sunday, November 20, 2016:

First Reading: Jeremiah 23:1-6

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Jeremiah 23:1-6

Psalm: Psalm 46

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Luke 1:68-79

Second Reading: Colossians 1:11-20

Gospel: Luke 23:33-43

Today we celebrate Christ the King Sunday, which is the last day of our liturgical calendar. The readings are familiar: we're back in the land of Good Friday, with our king crucified on a cross. Perhaps not the image we'd expect for Christ the King Sunday, but those of us who have been reading through this cycle, either for the first time or for the umpteenth time, will be familiar with these strange twists of imagery, with the upheaval of all our expectations.

I have always loved the cyclical nature of the lectionary, with its readings that loop around and remind us that all of life is cyclical. When I'm having a bad day (or week or month), it's important to remember that everything can change. When I'm having a good day (or week or month), it's important to express profound gratitude and to try not to dread the next downturn too much. With every downturn comes an upturn. The life of Christ shows us this.

Christ's life shows us that being king requires something different for a believer. It's not the worldly experience of kings, who are venerated and obeyed. Being a Christian king requires humbling ourselves and thinking of others before we think of ourselves. But our rewards are great. If we could emulate Christ's behavior, we'd have a wonderful community here on earth, and whatever we might experience in the afterlife would just be icing on the cake. We'd have already had a taste of heaven right here on earth.

Maybe we feel grumpy as the holiday season approaches. Maybe we've had a season of sorrow, and we can't quite manage to feel festive. Maybe we're tired of humbling ourselves and we'd like someone to humble themselves for us.

Well, here's some good news. Someone already has. Maybe in this season of thankfulness, we can concentrate on our good fortune, even if we don't feel it. We're alive to see the sunrise and the sunset, some of the best shows on earth, and they're free! Even if we don't have as much money as we'd like, there's always someone who is in worse shape. If we give some of our money away, we won't feel as constricted about money. Trust me. If you're feeling tight and pinched, now is the time to return to tithing. If we are having trouble keeping everything in perspective, maybe it's time to volunteer at a food bank or an animal shelter--or if we're not into organizational activities, we could do our part to pick up litter. We could smile at the janitorial staff. We could thank them for cleaning the communal bathrooms.

If we start working on our spirit of gratitude, the gift of generosity often follows. If we pray for those who need our prayers, our hearts start to open. If we work on forgiveness, our spirit soars. And soon we realize what it means to celebrate Christ the King Sunday.

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Gwen Ifill: Another Good Soul, Gone Too Soon

It has been a tough year in so many ways, but when I look back, I think I'll most remember death after death of people who seemed not quite my generation, but not that much older than me.  I was saddened to hear about the death of Gwen Ifill yesterday.  I kept on ploughing ahead through my afternoon, working on assessment documents.  I got home, and we watched the News Hour; I was struck by how many people commented on her graciousness, on her support of so many people, including younger women and other journalists and just about everyone who crossed her path.

I loved her stories about turning on the television and never seeing people who looked like her--except during political conventions, when she saw women like Shirley Chisholm.  And then she went on to become one of the women who would inspire those of us who turned on the TV and never saw people who looked like us.  I'm speaking as a white female, and yes, I do realize that I had one or two women, like Barbara Walters, who might have inspired me, whereas a black female growing up in the 70's would have had no one.

I was also struck by her colleagues who remembered that she agonized a bit about shifting from print journalism to television.  I had forgotten that she had her start in The New York Times.  But she was quick to admit that she had much more access to movers and shakers once she was on TV.

I was also struck by how many of her colleagues knew about her faith.  She grew up as a preacher's kid, and she was part of a church community during her adult life too.  And her colleagues acted like this was perfectly normal.  It made me realize how many people I know who are not part of a faith community and who see involvement with the church as an oddity that could be tolerated, but not discussed--that was at my old job.  I have no idea how people are at my new job.

I loved seeing the clips from her life, from all the stories she covered, from all the crowds whom she always seemed to greet warmly.  As I listened to people talk about her joy in life and her joy in work, I thought, I hope people say the same about me, when I'm no longer there.

I hope I model the same grace under pressure.  I hope to always have that curiosity that Gwen Ifill had.  But what I most take away from her life is the importance of reaching out to people of all persuasions, of making a way for others to come to the table, of looking out for the generations coming up behind us.

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Ministry of Optimism

What an interesting Sunday--because so many of my fellow church members are also Facebook friends, I had a sense of how people were feeling.  Many members of my church are immigrants or the children of immigrants.  A third to a half of our attendees on any given Sunday are minorities (although down here, the minority is the majority).  Feelings are still raw after the election.

Across the morning, we talked about the importance of standing with the oppressed and dispossessed.  We talked about the Christian history of staying silent too long, along with the Christian tradition of resistance.

I had resistance on the brain, having just written a blog post about it before leaving for church.  So perhaps it's not surprising that I would sketch this:

Along the way, several people thanked me for my writing.  I never know exactly what they're seeing:  what I write for our weekly newsletter?  My blog posts?  A stray poem here and there?  I just said "Thank you."

One woman said, "I love your positive approach to life."

I know that my positive approach can be irritating.  My spouse tends to be in this mood these days:  a glass half empty and what's there is poisoned kind of mood.  I'm trying to maintain some balance.  I'm fearful, of course, because beneath my sunny nature runs a strong stream of anxiety. 

But I also think it's important to remember that the end may not be nigh.  Most of us understand how high the stakes are, in a way that we might have forgotten in the past 8 years.  We have some amount of power, both as individuals and as groups.

And it takes a lot to shift the ship of state.  Many people have been angry with President Obama because he didn't accomplish as much as they wanted.  Similarly, people will be angry with Trump.

In the past few days, I've wondered about a ministry of optimism.  We all have our different spiritual gifts.  Maybe mine is optimism.

When I was sorting through paperwork this week-end, I came across some notes that I made during the 2011 Create in Me retreat.  I am reminded that God can take what is broken:

God can use our human hands:

And at the end, brokenness can be transformed into beauty:

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Beloved Communities: In Person and In Song

Yesterday, I wrote a blog post about Christian resistance in the 20th century.  Of course, it was a blog post, so I couldn't talk about each and every I didn't talk about each and every type of resistance.  I didn't talk about the U.S. Civil Rights movement, for example.

Happily, this morning, the NPR program On Being has a rerun of a conversation with the late Civil Rights elder Vincent Harding.  A lot of us forget about how brutal was the treatment that so many of those Civil Rights workers faced.  He describes a meeting after the murder of Schwerner, Chaney and Goodman, where the students were asked to consider whether or not they wanted to continue, with the assurance that there would be understanding for those who decided to return to their student lives:  "But he said let’s take a couple of hours just for people to spend time talking on the phone with parents or whoever to try to make this decision and make it now. What I found as I moved around among the small groups that began to gather together to help each other was that, in group after group, people were singing 'Kum Bah Ya.' 'Come by here, my Lord, somebody’s missing, Lord, come by here. We all need you, Lord, come by here.'”

Almost no one went back to their safe student lives.

In these post-election days, when so many of us are considering all the possible terrors that may lay ahead, let us remember that we have been here before, and not just in Nazi Germany, but here.  We have a great wealth in the ways of resistance.  Many of us may not know it, because we have been lucky; we have been spared, and we have not had to use it.

But for every social justice worker who has been slaughtered, the nuns in El Salvador, the resistors in Nazi Germany--we have examples of those who have survived, and not just survived, but thrived.

I listened to this interview and was amazed to remember how many of those men and women lived into a glorious old age.  We remember those cut down too young, like Martin Luther King.  But there are a mass of others left to remind us that one can stand up to evil, even the relentlessness of state-sponsored evil.

One can be transformative and live to tell the tale.

One can be transformative, but a beloved community can accomplish so much more.

You may be feeling despair--perhaps you feel you have no beloved community.  But of course, you could have one.  These communities committed to social justice haven't gone away just because we had 8 years of relative stability/progress when it came to human rights in the U.S.

While you're looking for that community, or while you're healing, or when you need some uplift, turn back to the music of that Civil Rights movement.  Let me recommend the Mavis Staples CD We'll Never Turn Back:  what a great CD:

I love the lyrics in spirituals that urge us to be strong, to not be swayed, to rest in the knowledge that good will triumph.  Of course, spirituals have a history that goes back further than the Civil Rights Movement. Tradition tells us that slaves sung many of those songs, or older variations, as they worked in the fields. 

Music historians would remind us that spirituals are but a subset of music that resists oppression.  I've also found comfort in the work of Woody Guthrie and in various punk and rock groups. 

 In the meantime, check out We'll Never Turn Back.  You'll never hear "This Little Light of Mine" in the same way again.  I've spent the morning singing, "Turn Me Around":  "Ain't gonna let nobody turn me around, turn me around, turn me around."  An added benefit of Mavis Staples:  her vocal range is accessible to many of our voices as we sing along.

Eyes on the prize, hands on the plow:  hold on!

Saturday, November 12, 2016

Christian Resistance and the Trump Era

On the day before the election, a few of us from my liberal arts college had a Facebook discussion about political candidates and Bonhoeffer.  My spouse called for a new Bonhoeffer to rise up.  I suggested that one of us (my spouse specifically) be that Bonhoeffer.  I was surprised to see how many of my college classmates had been thinking of Bonhoeffer in the waning days of the ugliest political campaign in recent U.S. history.

I posted that I had been thinking about Archbishop Romero.  I then pondered why martyrs were coming to our collective minds.

Now as I look back, I wonder if we were sensing something in the electorate.  If we were characters in an apocalyptic novel, a discussion of some of the most famous 20th century Christian martyrs on the night before an election--of course that would be foreshadowing, foreshadowing so obvious that literary critics might reject the story.

In the days after the election, I've watched people post the stories of grandparents and great grandparents who didn't leave Eastern Europe in time to avoid Hitler's genocide.  It's a question that has always haunted me:  how do you know when it's time to go?

The 20th century Christian martyrs remind us that perhaps we are called to stay, to speak truth to power, to fight for justice in our homelands.  They are also a sobering reminder of the price that might be paid, and of the slow pace of justice.  The blood of a Christian martyr does not immediately change the trajectory of those in power.

These next months and years may demand much of us--but I would argue that our Christian faith has always called us to those demands, regardless of who is in power.  Some years, it's easier to sit in our comfortable homes and hope that the political leaders are doing the work of transformative justice for us.  Some years it's clear that the system isn't working for those at the bottom.  Some years, the terror comes home and we realize that the situation is far more perilous for more of us than we ever realized.

I don't pretend to know what's coming next.  I pray for the courage to speak for the ones who may find themselves targeted in ways that they haven't been for decades.  The last time that the divide seemed this stark was many decades ago, in the 80's, when I was in college, when I had less to lose.

Let us all find the courage in these times.  Let us remember the power of banding together.  I'm thinking of a different set of Christian resisters in the 20th century.  Let us remember so many in Eastern Europe, like Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa, who stood up to the Soviet machine and not only survived to tell the tale, but transformed their societies at the same time.

Let us follow those models.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Poetry Friday: "Armistice Day at the Abbey"

Today is Veteran's Day.  Before it was Veteran's Day, it Armistice Day, the day that celebrates the end of World War I.  World War II was far more brutal in terms of lives lost and far reaching impact, but World War I was the war that stripped away all sorts of illusions and also showed us how technology might be used for destruction (think mustard gas).

 In so many ways, World War I was the one that catapulted us all into the twentieth century.  We got to see first-hand the ways that technology could be used for evil, as well as for good.  We got to see damaged war veterans return, and we got reports that made many people question the idea that war builds character.  And in a more positive spin, as so many men went off to war (and so many didn't come back), it opened up interesting doors for women into the world of work.

It all came at an enormous cost.  When I was in France with my parents, we stopped at several World War I cemeteries.  The white marble monuments stretched across the distance, as far as the eyes could see.  And I knew that it was only a fraction of the bodies fallen in the Great War.

A few years ago, I was at Mepkin Abbey on Armistice Day.  It also happened to be near All Saints Sunday, the first All Saints Day after Abbot Francis Kline had been cruelly taken early by leukemia, and the Sunday we were there was a memorial service for him. Part of one of the services was out in the monks' cemetery, and all the retreatants were invited out with the monks. I was struck by the way that the simple crosses reminded me of the French World War I cemeteries:

I took the above picture later from the visitor side of the grounds, but it gives you a sense of the burial area. I turned all these images in my head and wrote a poem, "Armistice Day at the Abbey."

 Armistice Day at the Abbey

The monks bury their dead on this slight
rise that overlooks the river
that flows to the Atlantic, that site
where Africans first set foot on slavery’s soil.

These monks are bound
to a different master, enslaved
in a different system.
They chant the same Psalms, the same tones
used for centuries. Modern minds scoff,
but the monks, yoked together
into a process both mystical and practical,
do as they’ve been commanded.

Their graves, as unadorned as their robes,
stretch out in rows of white crosses, reminiscent
of a distant French field. We might ponder
the futility of belief in a new covenant,
when all around us old enemies clash,
or we might show up for prayer, light
a candle, and simply submit.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The Readings for Sunday, November 13, 2016:

First Reading: Malachi 4:1-2a

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Isaiah 65:17-25

Psalm: Psalm 98

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Isaiah 12 (Isaiah 12:2-6 NRSV)

Second Reading: 2 Thessalonians 3:6-13

Gospel: Luke 21:5-19

Here we are, back to apocalyptic texts, a rather strange turn just before we launch into Advent (and just so you won't be surprised, those Advent texts can be on the apocalyptic side too). This week's Gospel is the type of text that many Christians use to support their assertion that we're living in the end times, that the rapture is near.

Keep in mind that the idea of rapture is fairly new; most scholars date it to the middle of the 19th century. But Christians have felt besieged since the beginning.

Perhaps the Gospel writer wants to remind us of the cost of following Jesus. Even those of us who won’t be massacred or martyred for our beliefs may find it hard to live openly as a Christian in this world. Many people assume that all religious people are kooks. The idea that a person could be an admirable believer is not one that we find reinforced in popular culture.

Perhaps the Gospel shows us the larger cost of existing in the world. Even if we're lucky enough to be born into a stable time period, to be part of a country with a stable government, if we're conscious, it's hard to escape the conclusion that it could all vanish at any moment. And even if we don't suffer on the grand (genocidal) scale, most of us will endure more loss than our younger selves would have believed could be survived.

Before we sink too deeply into depression, we need to remember that Jesus came to give us Good News. And that Good News is that we have each other, and we have a God who loves us, no matter what. If we devote our lives to that love, then we can survive all sorts of betrayal, loss, and persecution.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Prayers after Election Day

Yesterday morning, I wrote these words on my Facebook wall:  "For those of us feeling fretful on this election day, I say, "Be not afraid!" We are a nation of quilters, adept at taking frayed scraps and turning them into comforters. We are a nation of tinkerers, who can take metal scraps and turn them into cars and computers. We will be OK."

Last night, I wrote these words:  "No one will listen to my political predictions ever again. I've been wrong so often in this election season that I may never make political predictions ever again. No matter how these last few states break, I would never have predicted this night."

Let me be clear:  at Thanksgiving 2014, I declared that Hillary Clinton was unelectable as a deeply flawed candidate.  Then Trump became the Republican candidate.  I thought he was even more deeply flawed.

Last night, I was still convinced that Trump would not be elected.  I slept on the sofa between 8 and 10.  I woke up for a few minutes and said, ""Is this going to be just like 2000 when we stayed up until midnight only to be told that the election wouldn't be decided for days?" But at that point, I wasn't serious.

I woke up at 12:30 and said to myself, Let me see where we are with this election.  And then I couldn't fall back asleep.

I did watch part of Trump's speech, and I was impressed with his change of tone.  I'm choosing to focus on that.

Let me also remember history, both modern and ancient.  I'm choosing to focus on all the leaders who haven't been great to begin with, but have risen to greatness.  I won't be focusing on the opposite kind of leader as I think back through history.  I will remember the leaders who seemed a disastrous pick at the time but who went on to bring about important changes that we'd have never dreamed possible.  I will think of leaders who had hard rhetoric and harder hearts, but found a way towards a softened stance. 

I will remember my words, all the ways that I have seen the world I thought I knew come through a time of transformation.  I'm thinking of eastern Europe--that wall that came down suddenly in 1989.  I'm thinking about Nelson Mandela released from jail and shortly thereafter, to become the first freely elected president of South Africa and a nation transformed--that outcome was so impossible that few of us dared to hope for it.  Somewhere in my photo albums, I have a fading picture of a friend wearing his "Free Mandela" t-shirt.  He'd been in jail for our whole lives, and we expected he would die there, t-shirts or no t-shirts.

I think it's important to remember how strong the forces of evil seemed then.  But we built our shantytowns on the lawn, we helped Central Americans get to Canadian safety, we demanded changes in U.S. policy which were ignored or dismissed.  We bought our protest albums and went to concerts.  Elders sneered and warned us about the necessity of establishing anti-communist bulwarks, even if they were staffed by genocidal maniacs, as much of Latin America was in the 1980's.

For some of us, the forces of evil, or at least chaos, seem to be strong and gathering now.  But perhaps it's not as bad as it seems.  Maybe this time of divided electorate and hateful vitriol will be what spurs many of us to get back to work creating and safeguarding the kind of nation where we want to live.

It could happen.  It has happened.  It will happen again.

Today is a good day to pray.  We have a president elect who, unlike Nelson Mandela during his years in prison, has likely done no thinking about how to be president; he will need our prayers.  We will have some turmoil across the world; the world will need our prayers.

Let me begin:

Creator God, on this day after the election, we pray for our country and for all countries.  We pray for our leaders, those of our country and those in other countries who will now need to work with new leaders.  We pray for all citizens, that we may be involved and not passive.  We pray to find a way to bind the wounds and create a world that is closer to the one that you intend for us.

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Prayers for Election Day

Here we are, in the wee, small hours of election day, the calm before the polls open across the nation.  Some of us have already voted; many of us will report to do our civic duty today.

We have spent too many months spewing vitriol, some of us, and we've all been exposed to more ugliness than I remember seeing in any campaign season that I've been alive to see.  Those of us born after the fascist/strong man embraces of the earlier parts of the 20th century and spent our lives feeling lucky to have avoided front row seats at those debacles, we may be feeling all sorts of shivers today.

And those of us who are aware know that all the ugliness won't be over tomorrow.  How on earth can we repair what's been ripped apart?

I take a longer view than many people.  I am aware that decades/centuries of exile can be ended in a big swoosh.  God has softened harder hearts than ours.

I am an optimist at heart.  I see this election season as a hopeful one, even as it has driven so many of us to despair.  With a decision this stark, we have been forced to think about what we want.  It's not like past elections, where we basically had to choose between 2 men of similar temperaments who existed at the center of the political system.

So even though the ugliness won't end tomorrow, perhaps we will be inspired to help build the communities and institutions that we want.  And we can as for God's help--I fiercely believe that God wants more for this earthly creation too.

Four years ago, on an election day which now seems so different, I wrote the following prayers for election day.  They still seem like good prayers for a day that can be so divisive:

Prayer 1:   Just and merciful God, on this day help us to be wise as we cast our ballots.  Keep us from the dangers of despair.  Remind us of the times when the oppressed have been set free, and help us to be part of that process.  Give us the courage to do what must be done.

Prayer 2:   Generous God, as we head to the polls, help us stay mindful of those who have gone before us, those who didn't have the privileges that we enjoy.  Guide us as we choose our leaders.  Help us to discern which candidates will help bring to fruition the world that you envision for us.

Prayer 3:  Triune God, remind us that no matter what happens today, the sun will rise tomorrow.  Remind us of all the leaders who seemed a disastrous pick at the time but who went on to bring about important changes that we'd have never dreamed possible.  Remind us of the leaders with hard hearts that softened.  Remind us that you are a God who can make all sorts of dreams come true.  And remind us that we have a part to play too.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Prayer for the Day after All Saints

As part of our All Saints Sunday service, my church puts out a book, and we can write the names of the dead, either the ones who have died in the past year or the ones we keep in our hearts. Below is a picture from last year, as I forgot to take my camera yesterday:

It reminds me of the book the monks of Mepkin Abbey put out each November, although the Mepkin book feels like it will be more permanent.   When I was there several years ago, I wrote the names of my mother-in-law and grandparents who had died.  I found it much more moving than I thought it would be to write the names on the page and to think of that book being preserved at the monastery.  I tend to believe in monasteries as protectors and preservers of culture, regardless of what comes at them, and so inscribing the names felt important. 

At one point in the service yesterday, we prayed for the names in the book, and we could add names either out loud or in our hearts.  After the service, my spouse and I realized we hadn't added the name of our colleague who died in a horrible diving accident.

Happily prayer isn't a time-limited thing.  I spent much of the past few weeks praying for him and his family.

I've also thought of the idea of a book of the dead as a powerful symbol for what has been lost.  I haven't played with this idea except as it pertains to people.  Maybe I will this week.

Yesterday my heart was heavy not just with the memory of those who are lost to me through death, but of jobs lost, of relationships strained because of that loss.  I'm thinking of my old school.  The school I'm mourning, however, is not the school that exists right now.  It hasn't existed the way I think of it for many years.

Let me pray:

Comforter God, we give thanks for all these memories of those we have loved and lost, even as the loss makes us sad.  Help us not to let our sadness overwhelm us.  Let us know when to hang on to memories and when to face our daily tasks.  And remind us that although loss seems so very permanent, we know that loss does not have the final word--that through you, not even death can make that final severance.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

A Meditation for All Saints and All Souls

In this All Saints post, the wonderful artist Vonda Drees used this quote by Henri Nouwen, which has stayed with me all week:

"Remembering the dead is choosing their ongoing companionship."

The larger quote is wonderful too:

"As we grow older we have more and more people to remember, people who have died before us. It is very important to remember those who have loved us and those we have loved. Remembering them means letting their spirits inspire us in our daily lives. They can become part of our spiritual communities and gently help us as we make decisions on our journeys. Parents, spouses, children, and friends can become true spiritual companions after they have died. Sometimes they can become even more intimate to us after death than when they were with us in life.

Remembering the dead is choosing their ongoing companionship."

 Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith; the entry for August 29

Let me see what happens if I add some photos of  Mepkin Abbey burial sites to this Henri Nouwen quote:

The Ongoing Companionship of the Dead

As we grow older we have more and more people to remember, people who have died before us.

It is very important to remember those who have loved us and those we have loved.

Remembering them means letting their spirits inspire us in our daily lives.

They can become part of our spiritual communities and gently help us as we make decisions on our journeys.

Parents, spouses, children, and friends can become true spiritual companions after they have died.

Sometimes they can become even more intimate to us after death than when they were with us in life.

Remembering the dead is choosing their ongoing companionship

Saturday, November 5, 2016

Poetry Saturday: "Ode on an American Puzzle"

On Tuesday or Wednesday, I was driving home from work.  The weather felt more like late spring--not the fierce heat of summer, but not autumnal either.  The occasional porch still had a jack-o-lantern.  One house had things dangling from the porch rafters:  perhaps ghosts or perhaps plastic sheeting from a paint job in process.

I felt a bit sad, like I've missed one of my favorite seasons.  Last year, I took evening walks and enjoyed the Halloween lights.  This year, I'm not sure there were that many to be seen--but I don't know, because I haven't been out to look.

This morning I went looking through my poetry files, looking for a poem for All Saints.  I don't have anything that's perfect for All Saints, but I did find a poem that speaks to this autumnal sadness.

It probably will not surprise you to learn that I wrote it in the autumn of 2001, post terrorist attacks.  We were working on a puzzle, and it was soothing.  I was teaching the British literature survey class, and I had Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" on my brain--those figures on the urn, forever frozen in whatever emotional moment they experienced right then.

It's an interesting spiritual question:  how do we stay in the here and now?  How do we not get distracted by our sorrows?  How do we maintain our faith, in the face of enormous woes?

I've never thought of jigsaw puzzles as spiritual practice or meditation aid.  Perhaps I should.

Ode on an American Puzzle

These people do not puzzle over how the pieces
of their lives fit together. They know their purpose,
always at the center of the picture.
They will never return home to unfinished
craft projects and unwashed dishes. They will celebrate
continuously at this harvest dance, the deepest
darks of night and winter always at arm’s
length, the leaves always brightly colored,
mounds of pumpkins waiting for transformation,
every woman and man matched, the children tended.

Perhaps that is why I like puzzles.
As buildings melt and planes explode, and even smaller tragedies
rip apart the pieces of a life, I find
a measured calm that even poetry cannot provide.
I sit at this table, free from existential mystery.
I know what picture will emerge as I piece
this project into one. I know that all the parts
have been provided. I know that they will connect.
What other aspect of my life can hope
to offer the same consolation?

Friday, November 4, 2016

Hospice Chaplain Inspirations

People who know me know that when I think about alternate careers, my mind has come back to hospice chaplain.  Is this God speaking to me?  I don't have as much interest in being a parish pastor--I know that the parish pastor is often dealing with non-spiritual matters, like how to fix the roof.  But a hospice chaplain--walking beside people during the last days--that work seems spiritually meaningful to me.

I was prepared to like the recent Fresh Air interview with hospice chaplain Kerry Egan, but I didn't expect to like it as much as I did.  Interviewer Terry Gross says, "You write about how about one of the things you want to do is hold open a space of prayer or meditation or reflection when someone doesn't have the energy or strength to keep the walls from collapsing."

It occurs to me that many of our jobs require much the same thing, but of course, in a very different way than that of the hospice chaplain.  In other settings, we hold open this space much more silently.

A bit later, Egan says, "And what it really means is to model a sense of in the midst of this storm of emotion, you can stay calm, right? It does not have to overtake you. And you would be surprised at how powerful that is for someone else, just to be with someone who is maintaining a sense of presence, of not being in the past, of not being in the future, of literally being present, you know, in the presence. But that has a way of calming people down."

Yes, modeling calm behavior--how our world would be different if we all had that sense of mission!

She covers many wonderful topics, from learning to love our bodies to how she's observed that most of us are happy, yet we don't realize it until it's gone.  As you might expect, she encourages us to not wait until deathbeds (ours or our loved ones) to tell of our love and other important topics.

I often don't read the books discussed on NPR--I often feel like I've read the most important parts once I've heard the interview.  But I plan to read this one, On Living--Egan was such a wonderful companion this morning.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, November 6, 2016:

First Reading: Daniel 7:1-3, 15-18

Psalm: Psalm 149

Second Reading: Ephesians 1:11-23

Gospel: Luke 6:20-31

This Sunday we celebrate All Saints Day. It's a strange time of year for us Lutherans. We celebrate Reformation Day, we celebrate Halloween, we celebrate All Saints Day. To celebrate All Saints Day, we have the Gospel reading about the actions of Jesus which most frightened and disgusted some of his contemporaries. Would his actions have left modern people similarly outraged?

Think about his actions and your current life: what would make you feel most threatened? Jesus healed the sick, and most of us would be OK with that, especially if we're the sick people. We tend not to worry too much about technique or qualifications, if we feel better.

Do we feel threatened by Jesus forgiving sins? Probably not. We've had two thousand years to get used to the idea, after all. But if one of our contemporaries started traveling around, telling people their sins are forgiven--well, that's a different matter. Even if they make these pronouncements in the name of Jesus, we might feel queasy.

The action of Jesus that really seems to send people of all sorts into orbits of anger is his habit of eating with the outcasts of society. Most of us are prone to that discomfort. If you don't believe me, bring a homeless person to church and coffee afterwards. See what happens. Take a shabbily dressed person to a nice restaurant. See what happens. Suggest that your church operate a soup kitchen where the destitute will eat lunch every day; suggest that lunch be served in the sanctuary. See what happens. And it's not just your fellow church members--your local government might also chime in about what can and cannot be done on church property.

Here's the Good News. Jesus saw the value in all of us. Jesus especially saw the value in the least of us. When you're feeling like a total loser, keep that in mind. If Jesus came to your community, you'd be the first one invited to the table.

That's the good news about All Saints Day and Reformation Day. We tend to forget that all the saints that came before us were flesh and blood humans (including Jesus). We think of people like Martin Luther as perfect people who had no faults who launched a revolution. In fact, you could make the argument that many revolutions are launched precisely because of people's faults: they're bullheaded, so they're not likely to make nice and be quiet and ignore injustice. They're hopelessly naive and idealistic, so they stick to their views of how people of faith should live--and they expect the rest of us to conform to their visions. They refuse to bow to authority because they answer to a higher power--and so, they translate the Bible into native languages, fund colleges, rescue people in danger, insist on soup kitchens, write poems, and build affordable housing.

The world changes (for the better and the worse) because of the visions of perfectly ordinary people--and because their faith moves them into actions that support that vision. If we're lucky, those people are working towards the same vision of the inclusive Kingdom that Jesus came to show us.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Feast of All Souls

Today is the Feast of All Souls.  You might be confused--didn't we just celebrate this holiday yesterday?

No, that was All Saints.  All Saints was originally designed to honor the saints, those who had been beatified.  Official saints, canonized by the Pope.

All Souls Day, celebrated the day after All Saints, was designed to honor everyone else who had died. 

In some traditions, All Saints Day honors all the Christian dead, and All Souls Day honors those who have died in the past year.  Those of you with excellent memories of your English major days may remember that Sir Gawain left for his adventure with the Green Knight on All Souls Day.  Medieval audiences would have read a lot into that date of departure.  As Sir Gawain leaves, his castle-mates would have been expecting to celebrate his life the following year.
All Souls' would develop into the kind of day that drove Martin Luther crazy. On All Souls' Day, people would be encouraged to spend money so that their loved ones would get out of purgatory sooner. According to medieval theology, a soul wasn't ready to go to Heaven right away.

In most Protestant churches, All Saints' and All Souls' have merged into one, and that makes sense to me. Still, my inner English major will always have a sense of these alternative liturgical calendars. I like having more to celebrate, more ways to remind myself that there's more to life than what occupies most of my time (work--both on the job and at my house). I like having holidays that remind me that we're only here for too brief a time. It helps me to treasure the fleeting moments that I have.

 In most Protestant churches, I'm guessing that you'll only celebrate All Saints Sunday, unless you're part of a tradition that doesn't celebrate that holiday at all.  It is a holiday that has retained a lot of its Catholic form, and some Protestant traditions will want no part of that.

What a pity.  I'm all in favor of more church holidays, more ways to infuse spirituality into our lives.  So let's take a few moments today to think about those who have died recently.

Here's a prayer I wrote for today:

Comforter God, you know that we miss our recently dead.  We do take comfort from your promise that death will not have the final word, but there are stages of our grief where it is difficult to believe.  Please forgive us our unbelief and doubt.  Please keep reminding us of your love and care.  Please strengthen us to be able to provide the same quality of love and care to those around us who are grieving loss.  Please keep our creative imaginations focused on the redemption of Creation, where you have promised we will not have any reason to cry anymore.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

The Feast of All Saints

Today is the Feast of All Saints.  Traditionally, this day celebrates the saints who have gone on before us.  Traditionalists would not approve of what this church festival has become.  Most churches celebrate All Saints Day as the day we celebrate the lives of all our loved ones who have died, whether they were consistently saintly or not.  Traditionalists would only celebrate the lives of the truly beatified and the lives of those martyred for the faith.

I think that we could refashion this holiday to cover all those bases.  Those of us in non-Catholic faiths could probably use some instruction about what it takes to become a true saint.  We could all benefit by spending some time thinking about the behavior of the saints and how it is so different from our own.

At the same time, we could also benefit from celebrating the lives of the faithful who have gone on before.  As a Lutheran, I believe that none of us can behave our way to salvation, and yet many of us use that as an excuse not to worry about our behavior at all. 

Yes, today is a good day to think about how we could emulate the lives of the saints--or the lives of the faithful we have known.  Certainly we can begin with the lives of our lost loved ones.  What aspects should we invite into our lives?  From my mother-in-law, Carolyn Abbott, I would like to replicate her fierce love of and loyalty to her family members.  My grandfather Roof never gave away money to individual beggars, but he'd invite tramps to sit at the picnic table while he cooked them a fried egg sandwich; I'd like to emulate that hospitality.  My grandmother Roof began every day in devotional time; I'd be a more well-adjusted human if I followed her example.  My grandfather Berkey knew how to put everyone at ease with his charming graciousness; that kind of hospitality, too, I'd like to see more of in my actions.  My grandmother Berkey was always willing to put on a puppet show or a play; I'd like to meet people where they're living, the way that she did.

Here are some other ways to celebrate the Feast of All Saints:

--You might start with the lectionary readings for today:

First Reading: Revelation 7:9-17

Psalm: Psalm 34:1-10, 22

Second Reading: 1 John 3:1-3

Gospel: Matthew 5:1-12

--You could then light a candle as you remember the faithful in your life who have nourished you.  You could expand your thoughts to those who you didn't know who nonetheless have bolstered your faith.

--Write your living older family members a note or a card. Some day, you'll remember them on this feast day. Write them a note of appreciation now, while they are alive to appreciate your gratitude.

--Say a prayer of thanks for the saints who have gone before.

--Take a page out of the book of our Hispanic brothers and sisters. Prepare a picnic to share with the dead. Make some special sweet treats. This website has all sorts of interesting pages: recipes, photos of altars, and other interesting information.

--Plant some flowers. In many parts of the United States, now would be a great time to plant bulbs. Then in the spring, you'll have an additional treat.

--Remember your family stories. Even more important, start writing them down. You won't remember them forever. And there will be younger generations who will be starving for those stories.

--Make something with the herb rosemary, traditionally used as a symbol of remembrance. How about a chicken, roasted with rosemary, lemon, and garlic? Vegetarians can make a tasty bean soup with the same trio of rosemary, lemon, and garlic--add several cans of beans (whirled up in the blender, if you prefer a thicker soup) to your pot of rosemary, lemon, and garlic, and you've got an easy delicious soup. Throw in some steamed carrot pieces for an even more nutritious soup.

Here's a prayer I wrote for today:

Comforter God, we give thanks for all the saints who have gone before us.  Give us the wisdom, courage, and faith to follow in their footsteps.  And when the time comes that our earthly light will be extinguished, allow us to rest easy in the sure knowledge that we will be welcomed into the company of all the saints.