Sunday, December 31, 2017

Prompts to Help You Craft Your Goals for 2018

Some prompts to get you thinking about your goals, spiritual or otherwise, for the coming year:

--It's Dec. 31, 2018, and you look back over the past year.  What's your biggest accomplishment?

--What new activities do you hope to try during 2018?

--When do you want to say yes?  When must you say no?

 --What activities do you miss?  Choose one that you miss the most or one that's easiest for you to do in your current life.  How could you do this activity quarterly during 2018?

--It's Dec. 31, 2023.  What's your biggest accomplishment since 2018?  What's your biggest surprise?

--What small steps can you take that will shift your trajectory towards your goals?

--What are habits that you need to work on changing so that you're not undercutting your efforts?

--If you could only accomplish one big creative project before you die, what would you want it to be?  Would it be a collection of poems?  A novel?  Some sort of multimedia project? 

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Feast Day of the Holy Family

Today we celebrate the Holy Family.  This feast day is relatively recent; we've only been celebrating the Holy Family for the past 300 years or so.  Our idea of family, especially a family unit separate from multiple generations, after all, is really rather modern.

It's interesting to take up this feast day after all these days where we've celebrated Mary, and her decision to be the Mother of Jesus.  It's a great counterpoint to remember that fathers have a role in the family too. 

I always wonder if these kind of feast days bring pain to people who grew up in dysfunctional families.  I know plenty of people who have been scarred in ways that only family can do.  What do they take away from these feast day?  Despair in all the ways that families can hurt each other?  Hope that families can really be a sacramental rendering of the love of God?

Below you see a huge sculpture, made from a tree that toppled in a storm, of the Holy Family fleeing Herod's murderous intent.  I think of the Holy Family as refugee family, fleeing danger, with only the clothes on their back.  I think of all the families torn apart or torn away from their homeland because of terrible dictators.  I yearn for the day to come when we will not experience these fissures in the family.

Here is a prayer I wrote for this day:

Parent God, you know the many ways our families can fail us.  Please remind us of the perfection in family that we are called to model.  Please give us the strength and fortitude to create the family dynamics you would have us enjoy.  Please give us the courage to minister to those who have not had good family experiences.  And most of us, please give us the comfort of knowing that the restoration of creation is underway, with families that will be whole, not fractured, when all our members will be accounted for, when no one will go missing.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 31, 2017:

Isaiah 61:10—62:3
Psalm 148
The splendor of the LORD is over earth and heaven. (Ps. 148:13)
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 2:22-40

By now, you may be feeling that familiar post-holiday let down, even if you have great plans for New Year's Eve. Many of us spend the first weeks in the new year feeling bereft: our favorite set of holidays is over, our friends and families have left us and maybe left us feeling let down, and we have to deal with all the ways our holidays weren't what we wanted. Maybe we have whiney children to entertain. Maybe we're missing a loved one who won't ever return to us. We miss the lights and the sense of anticipation, the parties and the expectations. What's left to look forward to? Our New Year's resolutions? Presidents’ Day? No wonder so many of us go into a funk.

It's important to remember this feeling when we hear about the life of Jesus in the weeks to come. From a distance of 2000 years, it's difficult to understand why so many people were resistant to Jesus' message. But many of Jesus' contemporaries had a post-Christmas feeling when they saw Jesus in action: "This guy is our Messiah??? For how many years did we wait??? And this is what we get???" Keep in mind that the Jews of Jesus' time wanted a Messiah who would defeat the Romans and return their holy places to them. What did they get? A guy who spoke of love, a guy who offered them spiritual liberation, which was not the kind of liberation for which they yearned.

But throughout Jesus' life, there were some people who recognized him. Today we hear about Simeon. In later weeks, we'll hear about the first disciples, who left their careers and family to follow Jesus. We'll also hear about people who didn't believe, people who would eventually demand the death of Jesus.

Where are you in these stories in the weeks to come? Are you Simeon, who has been faithful, for decades longer than most of us could have been? Are you Anna, the prophetess who has been watching for a very long time? Are you Mary and Joseph, parents to a very special child? Are you the disciples, willing to risk it all, if it means a closer relationship with Christ?

Or are you a Pharisee, disappointed with what God offers you? How can you move away from being wrecked by your emotions, in order to see the great gifts offered to you?

Maybe, instead of adopting the standard resolutions (losing those 10 pounds, getting a raise, exercising more often), you could snap out of your post-Christmas blues by thinking about resolutions that would enrich you spiritually. Could you read your Bible more? Could you start and end your day in prayer? Could you move towards tithing? Could this be the year you take a retreat?

God reaches out to you, going so far as to take on human form. What are you willing to do in return?

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Sympathy for the Devil (Herod, in this Case)

On Dec. 28, we remember the slaughter of all the male children under the age of 2 in Bethlehem in the days after the birth of Jesus. Why were they killed? Because of Herod's feelings of inadequacy, because of his fear. The magi tell him of a new king that has just been born, and he feels threatened. He will stop at nothing to wipe out any rival, even one who is still a tiny baby.

We like to think that we wouldn't have reacted that way. We like to think that we'd have joined the band of wise men and gone to pay our respects. We like to think that we'd have put aside our worries of not being good enough and our doubts.

But far too many of us would have responded in exactly the same way, if we had the resources at our command. You need only look at interpersonal relationships in the family or in the office to see that most of us have an inner Herod whom it is hard to ignore.

If you're old enough, you've had the startled feeling when you realize that the next rising star at your workplace or your congregation or your social group is a generation younger than you. It's hard to respond graciously.

Many of us are likely to respond to our feelings of inadequacy in unproductive ways. If we hear a good idea from someone who makes us feel threatened at work or in our families, how many of us affirm that idea? Instead of saying, "How interesting," we say, "How stupid!" And then we go to great lengths to prove that we're right, and whatever is making us feel inadequate is wrong.

So often I feel like I will never escape middle school, that particular kind of hell, where the boundaries were always fluid. Kids who were acceptable one day were pariahs the next. Many adolescents report feeling that they can't quite get their heads around all the rules and the best ways to achieve success.

Adult life can sometimes feel the same way. We fight to achieve equilibrium, only to find it all undone. Most of us don't have the power that Herod had, so our fight against powerlessness doesn't end in corpses. But it often results in a world of outcasts and lone victors, zero-sum games that leave us all diminished.

But feelings of inadequacy can have lethal consequences, especially when played out on a geopolitical scale, the powerful lashing out against the powerless. We live in a world where dictators can efficiently kill their country's population by the thousands or more. Sadly, we see this Herod dynamic so often that we're in danger of becoming jaded, hardened and unaffected by suffering.

Now as the year draws to a close, we can resolve to be on the lookout for ways that our inner Herod dominates and controls our emotional lives. We can resolve to let love rule our actions, not fear. We can also resolve to help those who are harmed by the Herods of our world.

Thinking of Herod might also bring to mind the flight into Egypt, the Holy Family turned into refugees. We remember the Holy Family fleeing in terror with only the clothes on their backs -- and we remember that this story is so common throughout the world.

As we think about Herod, let us pray to vanquish the Herods in our heads and in our lives. Let us pray for victims of terror everywhere, the ones that get away and the ones that are slaughtered.

Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Feast Day of Saint John

The day after we celebrate the life of the first Christian martyr, St. Stephen, we celebrate the life of the only one of the original 12 disciples die of natural causes in old age.  Tradition tells us that John was first a disciple of John the Baptist, and then a disciple of Christ, the one who came to be known as the beloved disciple, the one tasked with looking after Mary, the mother of Jesus.

There is much debate over how much of the Bible was actually written by this disciple.  If we had lived 80 years ago, we'd have firmly believed that the disciple wrote the Gospel of John, the letters of John, and the book of Revelation.  Twentieth century scholars came to dispute this belief, and if you do scholarly comparison, you would have to conclude that the same author could not have written all of those books. 

Regardless, most of us remember St. John as the disciple who spent a long life writing and preaching.  He's the patron saint of authors, theologians, publishers, and editors.  He's also the patron saint of painters. 

Today, as many of us may be facing a bit of depression or cabin fever, perhaps we can celebrate the feast of St. John by a creative act.  Write a poem about what it means to be the beloved disciple.  Write a letter to your descendants to tell them what your faith has meant to you.  Paint a picture--even if you can't do realistic art, you could have fun with colors as you depict the joy that Jesus brings to you.

Here's a prayer for the day, from Phyllis Tickle's The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime:  "Shed upon your Church, O Lord, the brightness of your light, that we, being illumined by the teaching of your apostle and evangelist John, may walk in the light of your truth, that at length we may attain to the fullness of eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen."

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Feast Day of St. Stephen

Today we celebrate the life of St. Stephen, the man who is commonly known as the first Christian martyr.  What does it mean that we celebrate the life of a martyr so soon after we celebrate the birth of Christ?  After all, it's not like we know the birth day or the death day of St. Stephen.  Our ancient Church parents could have put this feast day anywhere.  Why put it here?

If you pay attention to the Lectionary readings, you will see that the issue of death is never far removed from the subject matter.  Time and time again, Christ is quite clear about what may be required from us:  our very lives.  And we'd like to think that we might make this ultimate sacrifice for some amazing purpose:  rescuing the oppressed from an evil dictatorship or saving orphans.  But we may lose our life in the midst of some petty squabble; in some versions of St. Stephen's life, he is killed because of petty jealousy over his appointment as deacon, which triggers the conspiring which ultimately ends in his martyrdom.

Many of us live in a world where we are not likely to die a physical death for our religious beliefs.  What does the life of this martyr have to say to us?

We are not likely to face death by stoning, but we may face other kinds of death.  If we live the life that Christ commands, we will give away more of our money and possessions to the destitute.  We will end our lives without as much wealth and prosperity--and yet, we will have more spiritual wealth.  If we live the life that Christ commands, we may have uncomfortable decisions to make at work or in our families.  We will have to live a life that's unlike the lives we see depicted in popular culture.  That's not always easy, but in the end, we can hope the resistance to the most pernicious forms of popular culture will have been worth it.

And history reminds us that events can unfold rather quickly, and we might find ourselves living under an empire that demands us to live a life different than the one Christ calls us to live.  We may face the ultimate penalty.  Could we face death?  Could we pray for the empire that kills us?  As Christians, we're commanded to pray for our enemies, to not let hatred transform us into our enemies. 

Let us take a moment to offer a prayer of thanks for all the martyrs who have come before us.  Here's a prayer for the day, from Phyllis Tickle's The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Wintertime:  "Almighty God, who gave to your servant Stephen boldness to confess the Name of our Savior Jesus Christ before the rulers of this world, and courage to die for this faith:  Grant that I may always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is in me, and to suffer gladly for the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen."

Monday, December 25, 2017

Full Mangers

Christmas Day dawns, and we are delighted to find the promise fulfilled, the mangers full.  The people who have dwelt in darkness have seen a great light! 

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it!


Sunday, December 24, 2017

Empty Mangers

The manger is empty, but not for long.

"Be strong and let your heart take courage, all you who wait for the Lord."  Psalm 31:24

"For God alone my soul in silence waits; truly, my hope is in God."  Psalm 62:6

A Prayer for Christmas Eve:

Oh, God, we weep in our chains.  So many things hold us captived in our devastations, the ruins of our cities.  Fill our hearts with courage.  Remind us of the promise of redemption.  Come to ransom us from all the things which hold us in fear.  Set us free.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Poetry Saturday: "Mary's Sonogram"

This time of year often takes me back to the days of my sister's sonogram. Not the routine holiday memory, I know.

I didn't actually see the sonogram in December of 2005, but we were in the area, and the whole family went out to dinner on the night that she had it. I think the grandparents were allowed to be in the room during the sonogram too, if they promised to keep the gender a secret.

We travelled to the dinner after the sonogram with my parents. It was just a few days before Christmas, so we had the Advent narrative ringing in our heads: the angel Gabriel appearing to Mary, her response. I remember my father saying, "What if sonograms had been invented then? What if Mary could have had a sonogram to see Jesus before he was born?"

That idea haunted my head for weeks, and I began to fashion it into a poem. I worried that it might seem irreverent, disrespectful of both Mary and all parents. But I think that some of the best poems feel dangerous in that way.

 As we get closer to Christmas Eve, my thoughts often return to Mary, that soon-to-be mother, and all parents. My thoughts return to the wonder of life and how amazing it is that any newborns survive--we start out so fragile and tiny.

Here's my poem:

Mary’s Sonogram

All children appear otherworldly in the womb,
a strange weather system come to disrupt
the world as we have known
it, to rain blessings on unsuspecting souls.

On a sonogram, all children resemble angelic messengers.
They appear in ghostly
shades of green and gray and black.
Complete with fingers and a cosmic
heartbeat, this great mystery, birthed
in passion, sweat and tears,
a bath of body fluids,
and nine months later, a baby
squeezes from the womb, blinking,
staggering us all with wonder.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Hope and the "Tyranny of the Quantifiable"

On Sunday, I heard an episode of On Being, which featured an interview with Rebecca Solnit.  It was aired during the 2016 election campaign, but I didn't catch it then.  Solnit talks a lot about hope, and how many of us think about hope in wrong ways or ways that leave us hopeless.

For example, Solnit talks about Walter Brueggemann, and says, "Yeah, and I listened to his interview, and he talked about how much hope is grounded in memory. And I was so excited to hear someone say that. We think of hope as looking forward, but memory lets us know, if we have a real memory, that we didn’t know. We didn’t know the Berlin Wall was going to fall, and the Soviet Union was going to fall apart, and the binary arrangement those of us who are older grew up in, where it seemed like capitalism and communism and the Cold War standoff was going to last for centuries.

If you study history deeply, you realize that, to quote Patti Smith, “People have the power” — that popular power, civil society, has been tremendously powerful and has changed the world again and again and again; that we’re not powerless; that things are very unpredictable and that people have often taken on things that seemed hopeless — freeing the slaves, getting women the vote — and achieved those things. And I feel like so much of what we’re burdened by is bad stories, both people who have amnesia, who don’t remember that the present was constructed by certain forces to serve certain elements and can be deconstructed and that things could be very different, that they have been very different, that things are always changing and that we have agency in that change.

And one of the simple examples I often go back to is that when you and I were small, to be gay or lesbian or otherwise — something other than standard heterosexual — was to be considered mentally ill or criminal or both, and punished accordingly. And to go from there to national same-sex marriage rights is an unimaginable journey. It’s — and that’s a lot of what my hopeful stuff is about, is trying to look at the immeasurable, incalculable, indirect, roundabout way that things matter.

My friend, David Graber, has a wonderful passage about how the Russian revolution succeeded, but not really in Russia. It terrified, or at least motivated, leaders in Europe and North America and elsewhere to make enormous concessions to the rights of poor and workers and really furthered economic justice in other places. And if you can say that a revolution was successful, but not in the country it took place in, then you can start to trace these indirect impacts."

Krista Tippett, the interviewer, sums it up nicely, "You have this wonderful sentence that 'History is like the weather, not like checkers.' And you talk about — here’s another: 'Sometimes cause and effect are centuries apart; sometimes Martin Luther King’s arc of the moral universe that bends towards justice is so long few see its curve; sometimes hope lies not in looking forward but backward to study the line of that arc.' It’s an un-American way of thinking, but it’s an essential way, I think, to inhabit this century, in particular."

Along the way, there's a wonderful conversation about the ways that New Orleans has gotten better after Hurricane Katrina, in ways that might not have happened, had there not been a massive storm.

She keeps reminding us that hope isn't a rosy optimism, an insurance that we can make everything O.K., because we can't.  Hope is about negotiating, realizing all the while that we can't possibly guess all the outcomes of our actions. 

She offers historical examples:  "And my wonderful environmentalist friend, Chip Ward, likes to talk about the 'tyranny of the quantifiable,' and I’ve been using that phrase of his for about 15 years. And it is a kind of tyranny, and I think — and it does get mystical, where you have to look at what’s not quantifiable. Martin Luther King is assassinated in 1968. A comic book about how civil disobedience works out was distributed during the civil rights movement, gets translated into Arabic and distributed in Egypt and becomes one of the immeasurable forces that help feed the Arab Spring, which is five years old right now; and most of it doesn’t look that good, but they did overthrow a bunch of regimes. And the French Revolution didn’t really look very good five years out, I was saying the other day.

She concludes this way, near the end of the interview:  "And hope is tough. It’s tougher to be uncertain than certain. It’s tougher to take chances than to be safe. And so hope is often seen as weakness, because it’s vulnerable, but it takes strength to enter into that vulnerability of being open to the possibilities. And I’m interested in what gives people that strength, and what stories, what questions, what memories, what conversations, what senses of themselves and the world around them.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

Winter Solstice and the Feast of St. Thomas

Today we celebrate the life of St. Thomas. It's also the Winter Solstice. It's the time of year for doubting, for feeling that the dark will never recede. It's a good day to celebrate the most famous doubter of all.

Who can blame Thomas for doubting? It was a fantastic story, even if you had travelled with Jesus and watched his other miracles. Once you saw the corpse of Jesus taken off the cross, you would have assumed it was all over.

And then, it wasn't. Thomas, late to see the risen Lord, was one of the fiercest believers, legend tells us, Thomas walking all the way to India.

I wonder if Thomas is near and dear to the heart of the more rational believers. We're not all born to be mystics, after all.  I worry about our vanishing sense of wonder.  We've all become Thomas now. We don't believe anything that we can't measure with our five senses.

The more I read in the field of the Sciences, the more my sense of wonder is reignited. I continue to be so amazed at the way the world works, both the systems we've created and the ones created before we came along. The more I know, the more I want to shout from the rooftops, "Great show, God!" (long ago, when my friend had small children, they would shout this refrain whenever they saw something beautiful in nature, like a gorgeous sunset; I try to remember to shout it too).

So today, as the earth leaves its darkest time and inches towards light, let us raise a mug of hot chocolate to St. Thomas, who showed us that we can have doubts and still persevere. Let us raise a mug of hot chocolate to solstice celebrations and all the ways that the natural world can point us back to our Creator. Let us pray that our rational selves live in harmony with our sense of wonder.

Here's a prayer from Phyllis Tickle's The Divine Hours: Prayers for Autumn and Winter for this day: "Everliving God, who strengthened your apostle Thomas with firm and certain faith in your Son's resurrection: Grant me so perfectly and without doubt to believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that my faith may never be found wanting in your sight; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen."

Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The Readings for Sunday, December 24, 2017:

First Reading: 2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16

Psalm: Luke 1:47-55 (Luke 1:46b-55 NRSV)

Psalm (Alt.): Psalm 89:1-4, 19-26

Second Reading: Romans 16:25-27

Gospel: Luke 1:26-38

Can we relate to Mary? Two thousand years of Church tradition tend to paint her in terms that serve whatever purpose society needed at the time. So in some decades we see Mary a perfect woman, sinless and blameless, the kind of woman who transcends humanity and gives birth to the Lord. Some decades write Mary out of the picture once the work in the stable is done, while other decades depict her as an interfering mother—the first helicopter parent!

We’ve heard the story of Mary so many times that we forget how remarkable it really is. We forget how bizarre the story told by the angel Gabriel must seem. A young girl growing God in her womb? A post-menopausal woman conceiving? It’s all too much to fathom.

I always wonder if there were women who sent Gabriel away: "I'm going to be the mother of who? It will happen how? Go away. I don't have time for this nonsense. If God wants to perform a miracle, let God teach my children not to track so much dirt into this house."

We won't ever hear about those women, because they decided that they didn't want to be part of God's glorious vision.

It’s important, too, to notice that God’s glorious vision doesn’t always match the way we would expect God to act. We see a history of God choosing the lowly, the meek, the outcast. Moses the stutterer, David the cheater, Peter the doubter. What business school would endorse this approach to brand building?

But our Scriptures remind us again and again that God works in mystical ways that our rational brains can’t always comprehend. If God can accomplish great things by means of a young woman, a woman beyond child-bearing years, a variety of wandering preachers and prophets, tax collectors and fisherman, just think what God might accomplish with all of our gifts and resources.

Of course, first we have to hear that message, that invitation from God. It’s hard for this message to make its way through all the fear-based messages beamed to us from our culture. The angel tells Mary not to be afraid, and that is a message we need to hear. Don't dance with your dread. Don't keep company with your fears, your worst case scenarios.

 We have much to fear, but we’re not that different from past cultures.   Our culture gives us stories of terrorists and a planet's climate near collapse and refugees who can find no shelter. Our Scriptures tell us those same stories.  But those Scriptures also tell us of a God that breaks into our normal lives to remind us that God is redeeming creation even if we aren’t aware of that process. Our prophets remind us that ruin doesn’t have to last forever. Gabriel gives the promise that nothing is impossible with God.

Now, that is Good News indeed.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Pre-Sabbatical Prayers and Blessings

On Sunday, we not only had an interactive art project with a manger and cloth strips; we also decorated gingerbread between services.

And then, we did this:

That's our pastor in the middle with the blue stole over his white robe.  We offered a prayer of blessing and protection before he left for his month-long sabbatical.

He's actually here through Christmas Eve, but it made more sense to do the blessing on a less hectic Sunday.

We've blessed him before, so it wasn't completely unfamiliar.  Before his sabbatical a few years ago, I led the prayer on Christmas morning, and we sent him on his way.  I led the prayer this year too.

This year, we also invited his spouse to come forward.  As part of the sabbatical, they will take a trip to Israel, and so we also included prayers for their protection.

I prayed that our pastor be able to experience rest and rejuvenation.  I prayed that the congregation left behind also have that gift.  My voice wavered a bit--how much do I yearn for rejuvenation!

I like that we're a congregation that prays in many ways.  If I'm being honest, I also like the fact that we pray at orderly times--no one is slain in the spirit and praying in tongues at our church.  But I also like that our congregation will come forward to lay on hands, if everyone is comfortable with that--which is part of the prelude to prayer time that I included.   We are a church that is careful with touching and boundaries--I think it's a crucial part of being an institution these days.

This morning, I'm offering similar prayers for us all:  let 2018 be a year of rejuvenation.  There's work to be done, and so many of us are so tired.  Let us get some crucial rest--but let us use that rest to do the hard work of restoration.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Joseph, Weaver of Social Fabric

Yesterday, our church heard the story of Joseph, who planned to quietly disentangle himself from the pregnant Mary--and then the angel comes in a dream to tell him of God's plan, and Joseph marries Mary.  I wanted to do something different for our interactive service.

I'd been thinking about Joseph's actions and how by accepting Mary, he keeps from shredding the social fabric, and we talked a bit about this aspect of the story.  If he had sent Mary away, he'd have still made a hole in at least two families.  And his actions would have likely had further effects.  We rarely shred and tear in one place without seeing stress in other parts of the social fabric.

I thought about a previous Christmas when I made strips of fabric for the wooden manger.  I wasn't there for that service, so I couldn't remember what we did.  But I had an idea for Joseph Sunday, as I'd taken to calling it in my head.

Happily, we still had the manger, although no one could remember where the legs had gone.  I stretched fabric across in one direction and taped it to the ends.

I cut strips of fabric:

On these strips of fabric, we wrote places where we wanted reweaving to happen in 2018, whether in our individual lives or our larger networks.  Here's part of my strip, where I talked about my house needing to be put together after Hurricane Irma and my need to prioritize:

And then we wove them together.

We talked about the symbolism, about how we all have issues, and how we are more supported when woven together.

We talked about whether the baby Jesus is under our concerns in the manger or whether or weaving could hold the baby Jesus.  I found this doll, which doesn't weigh as much as a real baby, but it's an interesting image:

We noted the crosses in the middle of our weaving, an unplanned bit of loveliness:

It was an interesting way of experiencing the way we weave ourselves together.  In the end, I untapped the weaving from the manger and took it home.  I'm not sure it would mean anything to people who hadn't participated.  I hope it means something to those who did.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Advent Discernment at Our Interactive Service

When my pastor asked me to plan and lead the interactive services for Advent, I didn't realize I was going to take a New Year's kind of turn.   On Dec. 3, we looked at the books I have which have modern poets interacting with the Annunciation story, and I told the group that the following Sunday, we'd practice listening for God's message and messengers.

Last week, we began by reading the Bible story of the encounter between the Virgin Mary and her cousin, Elizabeth.  I read a passage from Paul Wilkes' Beyond the Walls:  Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Life, a wonderful book I picked up on my first trip to Mepkin Abbey.  Wilkes goes to Mepkin Abbey once a month for over a year, and each chapter talks about a religious/monastic idea like faith and stability.

I read from the chapter on Discernment; I read a chunk that talks about silence.  I had laid out paper and art supplies:  markers, crayons, watercolors, and pens.  I encouraged people to use the supplies that spoke to them as they considered what God might be calling them to consider for 2018.  I made an offer:  if they wanted to put their response in an envelope that I'd brought, one per person, and I'd keep them for the year, and bring them in during Advent 2018.

I believe that this exercise can be powerful--a way of crystallizing what we need and what we yearn for.  And at the end, I talked about how our yearnings are often in alignment with what God yearns for.  We didn't have the conversation I'd love to have:  are those yearnings from us, from God, and how can we be sure?  I'm not sure I want to know what my fellow congregants think. 

Do I think that God plants our yearnings?  No, I don't think so.  But I think that those of us who go to certain types of religious institutions begin to shape ourselves so that our yearnings will match God's yearnings.

As I said, I believe that this exercise can be powerful, but I wasn't sure that my fellow worshippers would.  However, I got lots of feedback that others found it powerful.  In fact, one woman who was in town to visit her sister, a church member, and larger family, said that she woke up knowing that she had to go to church, and now she had found out why.  She said this experience was just what she needed.

Today we will talk about Joseph and the social fabrics that we weave or unweave by our actions.  I'll report back tomorrow!

Friday, December 15, 2017

Poetry Friday: "Advent Alienation"

Writing time is short this morning.  I was looking for an Advent poem to post, and I found one that I forgot writing.  The properties function tells me that I wrote it in 2011.  The details in the poem remind me of the times when my suburban church went to the inner city church to help serve meals, so 2011 seems about the right time.

I think it holds up well.  It's published for the first time here:

Advent Alienation

We prepare the royal highway
by going to the inner city
church to serve dinner to the homeless.

I serve pie with whipped cream,
coffee for a cold night. I pass
out scarves crocheted by comfortable women.

A voice cries out to the concrete canyons
of the city, “God knew
you before he created the Cosmos.”

Then the man slips back into slurry
speech, muttering incoherently about marriage
and wanting a glass of wine.

He says that the angels
will kiss his cheeks in Paradise,
and I’ll be present.

Not fully present now, I think
of my children safe at home,
my husband there to tuck them into bed.

I think of our roof with its leak
which seems insolvable,
but now I’m grateful for a roof of any kind.

I think of presents left to wrap,
a tree to decorate, a few last hectic
days at work, and a trip home.

I bless us all, gathered
in the chapel for Vespers, resident
aliens in this land of gaudy wealth.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Elizabeth's Song

She knows the angel Gabriel would never appear to her. 

She is the one peering through the window, seeing others receive miraculous news.

No longer is she clay, waiting to be shaped:

She is in the autumn of her life, as the season begins the shift to winter.

Her body swells with the weight gain from medication, with arthritis in joints she never thought about as a younger woman.

She will plant the bulbs, as she has done every autumn.

In the Spring, she will stay alert for the first blooms.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

The Feast Day of Santa Lucia

December 13 is the day that Scandinavian countries celebrate Santa Lucia day, or St. Lucy's day. There will be special breads and hot coffee and perhaps a candle wreath, for the head or for the table.

 The feast day of Santa Lucia is one that’s becoming more widely celebrated. Is it because more Midwestern Scandinavian descendents are moving to other climates? Are we seeing a move towards celebrating saints in Protestant churches? Or is it simply a neat holiday which gives us a chance to do something different with our Sunday School programming and Christmas pageant impulses?

I first heard about St. Lucia Day at our Lutheran church in Charlottesville, Virginia. As the tallest blonde girl, I was selected to lead the St. Lucia day procession when I was in my early teen years. The grown ups placed a wreath with candles on my head and lit the candles. The younger children carried their candles. I walked up the church aisle and held my head very still.

I still remember the exhilarating feeling of having burning candles near my hair. I remember hot wax dripping onto my shoulders--I was wearing clothes and a white robe over them, so it didn't hurt.

It felt both pagan and sacred, that darkened church, our glowing candles. I remember nothing about the service that followed.

A year or two later, Bon Appetit ran a cover story on holiday breads, and Santa Lucia bread was the first one that I tried.

A picture from that cover story

What a treat. For years, I told myself that baking holiday breads was a healthy alternative to baking Christmas cookies--but then I took a long, hard look at the butterfat content of each, and decided that I was likely wrong. I also decided that I didn’t care.

 I still bake that bread every year, and if you’d like to try, this blog post will guide you through it. If you’re the type who needs pictures, it’s got a link to a blog post with pictures.

As a feminist scholar and theologian, I’ve grown a bit uncomfortable with virgin saints, like Santa Lucia. Most sources say we don’t know much about her, which means that all sorts of traditions have come to be associated with her. Did she really gouge out her eyes because a suitor commented on their beauty? Did she die because she had promised her virginity to Christ? Was she killed because the evil emperor had ordered her to be taken to a brothel because she was giving away the family wealth? We don’t really know.

 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. In this time of Advent waiting, we can remember that God chose to come to a virgin mother who lived in a culture that wasn’t much different than Santa Lucia’s culture.

 Or we can simply enjoy a festival that celebrates light in a time of shadows.

I love our various festivals to get us through the dark of winter. When I lived in colder, darker places, I wished that the early church fathers had put Christmas further into winter, when I needed a break. Christmas in February makes more sense to me, even though I understand how Christmas ended up near the Winter Solstice.

 So, happy Santa Lucia day! Have some special bread, drink a bracing hot beverage, and light the candles against the darkness.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 17, 2017:

First Reading: Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11

Psalm: Psalm 126

Psalm (Alt.): Luke 1:47-55 (Luke 1:46b-55 NRSV)

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24

Gospel: John 1:6-8, 19-28

Today's Gospel returns us to John the Baptist. John proves to be such a compelling figure that the religious people in charge try to determine who he is. This interchange between John and the priests and Levites fascinates me. I love that John knows who he is, but he's not interested in explaining himself to institutional figures. Still he'll answer their questions.

One answer in particular keeps banging around my brain: "I am not the Christ" (verse 20). Some interpretations have him say, "I am not the Messiah." He's also not Elijah, not the prophet. When asked to explain himself more fully, he refers to Isaiah: "I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way of the Lord,' . . ." (verse23).

The first lesson from Isaiah seems more appropriate as a mission for the modern Christian, with its language of binding up the brokenhearted, proclaiming liberty to the captives, and comforting those who mourn. We are to be a garland, instead of ashes, to be the oil of gladness.

And yet, some days I feel it might be easier to be one of those old-fashioned Christians, who have the mission of telling everyone that Jesus loves them. And of course, the next question from many people would be, "Yeah? How does that change anything?"

And during times when I feel despair, either because of the brokenness that I witness all around me or the larger evils that I see in society, I see their point.  It's easy to get bogged down in that despair.

The message of today's Gospel is that we must be careful to remember that we are not the Christ. There are days when I shake my head and think, "I've been working on hunger issues most of my whole life: writing letters to legislators, giving away money, working in food banks. Why isn't this issue solved yet? How long will it take?"

I must practice saying, "I am not the Messiah." That doesn't mean I'm off the hook in terms of my behavior. I can't say, "I am not the Messiah," and stay home and watch reruns of The Simpsons and do nothing about injustice in the world.

But I am not the Messiah. We struggle against a huge domination system, as Walter Wink termed it. The lives of John the Baptist and Jesus serve as cautionary tales to me, when I get too impatient with how long it takes for the arc of history to bend towards justice (Martin Luther King's wording). They struggled against injustice and died in the maw of the system they worked to dismantle.

This week I shall practice a John the Baptist approach. I will recognize the importance of making the pathways straight, while continuing to insist, "I am not the Christ."

Monday, December 11, 2017

Can We All Have a Benedict Option?

I've spent the last week and a half reading Rod Dreher's The Benedict Option.  It's strange to read a book where I agree with the basic premise, but I disagree with lots of the reasoning that Dreher takes to get there.

Dreher summarizes the recent status of Christians (right at the turn of the 20th to the 21st century):  "We seemed to be content to be the chaplaincy to a consumerist culture that was fast losing its sense of what it means to be Christian" (p. 2).  Dreher claims that the culture has now become toxic for Christians--for all of us really--and that the only option is to strategically withdraw.

Some of us will physically withdraw by choosing to live in intentional community with others.  Some of us will withdraw by not participating--either widely or at all.  Some of us will withdraw periodically.

So far, so good.  But he comes at all of this from a conservative, orthodox position.  I suspect that some of our peace and justice ideas would intersect, but he's got a much more extreme view of gender issues and sexual identity issues than I'm comfortable with.  Many of our views on the education system sound similar, but I suspect that he and I would design very different curriculums.  I didn't find much to disagree with on the topic of technology:  he says that we must be very careful not to let our plastic brains be shaped by our smartphones.

Even though I disagreed with some of his points, he wasn't dreadful in making them.  He wasn't hateful, for example, in his rejection of homosexuality--but he was firm about the idea of sexual fidelity, and that sexuality must be limited to a one man/one woman option.

It was a good exercise for me--I do realize how seldom I read deeply when the author and I are in substantial disagreement.  And this book was interesting:  to see how the idea of monasticism could shape Christians in such different ways.  Dreher gives a solid summary of monastic movements, so even those who aren't familiar with monasticism will be able to navigate this book.

I'm glad that I didn't buy the book, but I'm glad to have read it.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

The House of the Tabletop Christmas Trees

A Jew, a Hindu and a Wiccan all come to the House of Tabletop Christmas Trees.  It sounds like the set up for a joke, but it's what happened yesterday when I hosted my quilt group.  I thought I might be the only one who celebrates Christmas, but while I am the only practicing Christian, we all observe Christmas to some extent.

I even got out my small collection of Christmas dishes.  Long, long ago, I had a group of grad school friends who gathered each Saturday to stitch.  One year we went to a house where we had cappuccino served in glass Christmas mugs, which I thought was the epitome of festiveness.  Years later, when I saw a similar set at an after-Christmas sale at Williams-Sonoma, I snatched it right up.  I have a set of 4 dessert plates, and 2 non-matching larger plates with a Christmas tree.

Now that I'm in a much smaller house, I question the wisdom of having stuff designed for just one season--but for now, I still have them, and it makes me happy to use them. 

While we were gathered, a cold front came through--with rain and gloominess, so it was great to be inside.  Last night, it was too chilly to linger long on the front porch.

It is hard to believe that two weeks from now will be Christmas Eve.  I always say that my favorite time of year is mid-September until late December:  so many great holidays, so many reasons to feel festive, such a welcome changes of weather (back and forth, from summer to winter and points in between), and so many memories.

Only yesterday have I found time to sit and listen to a whole Christmas CD.  It was great to have time to sit and catch up with friends, while listening to Christmas music.  While others feel sad that I don't have a traditional tree, like past years, I am happy that in every direction I look, a tree twinkles at me.

In past years, I've made use of Christmas greenery, and often ended the Christmas season with an oozy, goopy eye.  I'm allergic to pine, and last year, we spent every evening on the porch, surrounded by pine boughs.  By Christmas, I could hardly see out of my eye, my allergic reaction was so bad.

This year, I bought small rosemary bushes cut in a Christmas tree shape for the front porch.  So far this season, my eye is fine.

I can't say the same for my eating healthy goals.  On Friday, at our Holiday Open House Meet and Greet, I ate far too many cookies from Trader Joe's.  I bought them because I am usually not interested in mass produced cookies, but they were surprisingly delicious.

Ah well, far too soon it will be time to get back to more sensible ways.  Still let me look for ways to insert some sanity into my work days this week--we don't have any festive events at work this week.

Let us take some time today, before the holidays' hectic schedule completely overtakes us, to sit and contemplate the beauty and the mystery of the season.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

The Virgin Mary and the Discount Store

I saw the Virgin Mary outside of Marshalls last night.  She was feeding a bottle to a baby in a carriage.  In broken English, she asked for help for her baby.  I guessed that her native language was Italian, but it might have easily been Spanish or a language from the countries near the Holy Land.

No, I haven't lost my mind.  I am working on an idea for a poem.  But the above incident did happen--I did see a young woman in the shadows beside the entrance of Marshalls.  I smiled at her, even though I knew I might be inviting further interaction.  I would likely have smiled anyway, but in the season of Advent, with the Advent texts in my head, there was this strange moment when I thought about the Virgin Mary and angel messengers.

But of course, my encounter was more mundane.

She did ask me for money.  I don't often give away money (in fact, I rarely have cash), but there's something about a person with a child that can move me to give--and yes, I know that's easy to manipulate.  I know that there might be a man somewhere who drops the woman and baby off at a shopping center and says, "Don't come back until you get x amount of money."
But last night, I had a 10 dollar bill in my purse, which I gave her.  She said, in broken English, "But diapers cost $25 a box."
I said, "That's all the cash I have.  At least you now have more than you had."
Do I regret giving her the money?  No.  I suspect it will go to something for the baby, not for drugs or alcohol, the usual reason I don't give when I have cash.  But it did make me feel incredibly sad, this woman begging outside a discount store that has tons of deeply discounted clothes from past seasons.  It makes me feel sad knowing that harder times are surely coming for people in poverty.
And my brain immediately started crafting a poem.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Advent Signs and Signifiers

The world watches and waits.  Even the trees seem pregnant with meaning.

It is not the season for signs on the doorframe, but still we hang a wreath.

The angel will come, as angels always do.

The Divine will be found in places we would not expect, the small shacks and cottages on the margins.

We wait for the words we long to hear.

Every element of God's creation sings this song of love for us if we had but ears to hear.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Thinking about Elizabeth and Aging in this Advent Season

This Sunday, my church will hear the story of Mary's reunion with her cousin Elizabeth.  You may remember that both women are pregnant, and both women should not be pregnant:  Mary because she is unmarried, and Elizabeth because she is barren.  I have always assumed she is barren because she is older.  One version of Luke (earlier in chapter one) notes that Elizabeth and her husband are "very old."

Some years, it's Mary's part of the story that speaks to me:  a young woman, inexperienced, still under control of her elders, with something strange happening.

This year, I confess it's Elizabeth.  I think of all the ways that one's body changes not only with adolescence, but with old age.  I think of my own 52 year old feet, not swollen with pregnancy, but with arthritis.  I cannot imagine pregnancy right now.  And Elizabeth was older than I am.

I spent my younger years declaring that biology isn't destiny:  we can do whatever we want, no matter what bodies we inhabit. 

My middle-aged self is willing to admit that biology is often destiny, in ways we can't imagine when we're young. I'm seeing too many people at the mercy of bodies that they have increasingly less control over.  I've seen far too many people ravaged by the cancer cells that take over.

But the Mary and Elizabeth story reminds us of the body's miraculous capacity.  This year, I'm focused on life springing from improbable places.  I'm thinking of these pregnancies as metaphors, and it's Elizabeth's pregnancy that speaks to me this year.

In a culture like ours that worships youth and beauty, it is good to remember that God doesn't discard us when we might think we've outlived our usefulness.  We may look at our past decades and sigh over what we have not achieved.  God looks at us and sees so much potential.

Let us be like Mary and say yes to God.  Let us be like Elizabeth, ready for a new life, even if we're not sure exactly where it will take us.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Feast Day of Saint Nicholas

Today is the feast day of St. Nicholas, a good day to stop and think about the Christmas season which is upon us.  I need to start slowing down or the season will have zoomed on by before I have a chance to catch my breath.

 It's always a bit of a surprise to realize that Saint Nicholas was a real person. But indeed he was. In the fourth century, he lived in Myra, then part of Greece, now part of Turkey; eventually, he became Bishop of Myra. He became known for his habit of gift giving and miracle working, although it's hard to know what really happened and what's become folklore. Some of his gift giving is minor, like leaving coins in shoes that were left out for him. Some were more major, like resurrecting three boys killed by a butcher.

My favorite story is the one of the poor man with three children who had no dowry for them.  No dowry meant no marriage, and so, they were going to have to become prostitutes. In the dead of night, Nicholas threw a bag of gold into the house. Some legends have that he left a bag of gold for each daughter that night, while some say that he gave the gold on successive nights, while some say that he gave the gold as each girl came to marrying age.

Saint Nicholas is probably most famous for his associations with Christmas. Today, all over Europe, the gift-giving season begins. I had a friend in grad school who celebrated Saint Nicholas Day by having each family member open one present on the night of Dec. 6. It was the first I had heard of the feast day, but I was enchanted.

We don't give gifts much, in my various social circles, but if I did, I'd want to start on St. Nicholas day and not end until Epiphany, Jan. 6.

Saint Nicholas is also the patron saint of sailors, who used to leave each other by saying "May Saint Nicholas hold the tiller!"

A friend posted this image on Facebook, Santas happily coexisting with Buddhas.  I love this idea of an ecumenical Santa scene!

 So, on this day, may we be led by the spirit of generosity, especially generosity to the poor. May Saint Nicholas hold our tillers and guide us to open our purses and wallets and bags of gold.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 10, 2017:

First Reading: Isaiah 40:1-11

Psalm: Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13

Second Reading: 2 Peter 3:8-15a

Gospel: Mark 1:1-8

Today's Gospel takes us to John, a fascinating character. In today's reading, we see him, clothed in his strange costume, eating locusts and wild honey. Other Gospels present him as the cousin of Christ. Who is this guy?

I find him fascinating for many reasons. Maybe I'm always intrigued by a prophet. This year, I'm thinking about John's place in the drama of Christ's life, and how he seems completely comfortable with his place.

In earlier years, I've wondered if it would be hard to be John, with his more famous cousin Jesus overshadowing him. This year, I notice that he has the perfect opportunity to upstage Jesus--people of the time period were desperate for a Messiah, and there were plenty of predators wandering around, trying to convince people that they were the Messiah. John had more legitimacy and a wider following than most of the other people with their wild claims.

But John knows who he is. And he fills out his full potential by preparing the way for Jesus. Not only does John know who he is, he knows who Jesus is. John knows for whom he waits and watches.

We might be wise to see John as a cautionary tale too. John is one of the earliest to know the true mission of Jesus--indeed, in some Gospel versions, perhaps he realizes the mission of Jesus before Jesus fully does. Notice that John's life is turned upside down.

Many people are shocked to discover that being a Christian doesn't protect them from hard times. Being a Christian doesn't mean that we won't suffer sickness, that we won't lose our jobs, that we won't lose almost everything we love. To be human means that we will suffer loss--and thinking people know in advance that we will suffer loss, which means that we suffer more than once.

But we have a God who has experienced the very same thing. Think of the life of Jesus, who had no place to lay his head and died by crucifixion.

The good news is that we have a God who fully understands all the ways in which we suffer--and wants to be with us anyway. We have a God who fully understands all the ways in which we will fail--and loves us fully anyway.

John reminds us of our Advent goal, which is to keep watch, to stay alert. Of course, our Advent goal should spill over into the rest of our life. It's easy to keep watch in December, when the rest of the world counts down to Christmas. It's harder to remember to watch for God in the middle of summer. That's why we need to develop daily spiritual practices that will keep us watchful.

John also reminds us that we are not the Messiah. It’s Christ’s role to save people. It’s tempting to think that we can save ourselves and each other. But we can’t. It’s comforting to say, “I am not the Messiah,” as John the Baptist does, in John 1:20. In our daily lives, we’re confronted with scores of problems that we can’t solve, from various national debt crises to meetings about missed numbers and opportunities to friends and family who make disastrous choices. We can only do so much. We are not the Christ for whom the world waits.

That phrase can keep us humble too. Many a powerful figure has been disgraced by forgetting that someone else is the Messiah.

These days, perhaps we have the opposite problem. Far from feeling powerful, we may feel oppressed by forces outside our control. But our scripture readings offer comfort. We have a larger salvation, even when our daily lives feel like a persecution. Christ came to claim us, the Holy Spirit stays with us, and the day will come when we will be reunited ever more deeply with the Divine. Watch and wait and work for "a new earth, where righteousness is at home" (2 Peter 3: 13).

Monday, December 4, 2017

Annunciation from Different Angles

Yesterday, my church looked at the story of the Annunciation, where the angel Gabriel appears to Mary.  I was in charge of the interactive service, and I wanted to do something different, since I'm often in charge of the service that looks at the Annunciation.

Several years ago I was part of a project that had poets writing poems about the Annunciation.  Elizabeth Adams, the editor, created art to go with the poems.  Her publishing company published the book, and I ordered extra copies.  For more information about the book, and to order your own copy, go here.

We are celebrating Advent by having waffles between services, so as people ate their waffles, I read the story of the Annunciation in Luke.  After we sang two songs, we looked at the books.  We didn't have lots of time, so there wouldn't be a reading of the whole book, just a quick look to see what leapt out at us.

I divided the group into smaller groups, since I didn't have a book for everyone.  Each group chose a poem, with mine not being one of the options, and read it out loud.

The exercise seemed to go well.  People liked seeing the story from other angles, including from the perspective of the angel Gabriel.  The exercise did what I wanted it to do, which was to get us to think about the story in a different way.  Those of us who have been going to church for years have been hearing this story every year.  It's easy to forget how strange a story it is.

As I went to the next service, the more traditional service in the sanctuary, I looked at my feet which are a bit swollen with arthritis.  I thought about the story of Elizabeth, who was older than I am, and the swellings of middle and older age and of pregnancy--and I spent the next service, working on a poem.

So, it was a good morning, all around.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

A Different Look at the Annunciation

Today I am in charge of the interactive service at our church.  We are off lectionary, so we're looking at the story of the annunciation.  I was trying to think of something new to do.  We've done plays and that kind of approach.

Today, I'm taking copies of Annunciation:  Sixteen Contemporary Poets Consider Mary.  One of those poets is me.  When the book came out a few years ago, I ordered extra copies because I could get an author's discount.  I thought I might want to have them if I did readings, but so far, that hasn't happened.  They have sat on my shelf since they came to my mailbox.

So, today, we'll look through the book to see if any of the poems or woodcuts speak to us.  Yesterday I looked at the book to be sure that there wasn't anything too intense for children.  I should look again, because I got distracted by the poems that I read, and then I wanted to find more from the authors, and then I was down the rabbit hole of the Internet--but in a good way.

I've meant to return to this book since I ordered the copies.  I thought I might use it for an Advent practice, but that hasn't happened.  I'm glad to have an opportunity to spend some time with the book, and I hope others will enjoy it too.  If you'd like a copy, you can order it here.

I am often in charge of the interactive service during Advent, at least one of them, and I often choose the Annunciation.  I do worry that I say the same thing year after year.  There's nothing wrong with that--in fact it could be good.

But this year, I'm sure I haven't had this approach.  Tomorrow, I'll report back on how it goes.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

New Year's Eve

You may think I'm a bit early--or maybe you worry that December zoomed right by you.

No, I'm not talking about December 31, 2017.  I'm talking about the liturgical year, which ends today.  Tomorrow is the first Sunday of Advent, although with Christmas Eve on a Sunday, many churches might have already started observing Advent.

What if we used this day the way that some of us might use New Year's Eve?  We could serve champagne and stay up to greet the new year at midnight.

Far better, though, if we use this day to think about our spiritual lives, especially the past year of our spiritual lives.  What has fed us spiritually in the past year?  What might we like to see more of in the year to come?

For me, it's been a stormy spiritual year.  My work life has consumed more hours than I'm used to, as we geared up for an accreditation site visit.  Many of my friends have been working through new milemarkers in their lives:  new jobs, new houses, impending moves, children/family members in transition too.  And then, there have been literal storms, like Hurricane Irma, which has left many of us considering our life choices.

I am pleased that I held onto some of the spiritual practices that moor me, even as I've felt increasingly adrift.  But make no mistake:  I am tired of feeling like a tiny ship taking on water on a stormy sea.

I am ready for the occasional retreat that helps to restore me.  This past year, I couldn't go to the Create in Me retreat because it coincided with our accreditation visit.  This year, I've already requested and been granted the leave time for that retreat.  I'm hoping to get to Mepkin Abbey too.

I am ready for regular creative practices that inject delight into my week.  I've done a fair job at my sketchbook journaling, but I finished a poetry legal pad today, and I didn't write as many rough drafts of poems this past year as other years.

Perhaps it is time to get more involved in worship planning.  I've done some of that in the past year.  I've written prayers for the liturgy, which I always enjoy.  I've liked the days when I've been in charge of the whole service, although those days do leave me exhausted.  For Advent, I'm in charge of 3 of our interactive service, which I'm looking forward to.

In this new year, I also want to stay open to all of the possibilities.  I want to remember the Advent message of the importance of staying alert and awake.  And I want to remember that new life can come out of the ashes--when it looks like all is over (think Elizabeth), the new vision might be unfolding.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Building Cathedrals of Social Justice, Stone by Stone

Each week, new revelations emerge about powerful men and the women they've sexually abused.  Some of the revelations, like the ones about Matt Lauer, are horrific.  Others are more puzzling.  I did not come of age in the 60's; I'm not comfortable with nakedness in the workplace.  I'm don't subscribe to the "if it feels good, do it" ethos; the thought of prison or bankruptcy or job loss or gaining 50 pounds in a year keeps me from doing many things that might bring me temporary good feelings.

On Tuesday when Garrison Keillor was suddenly fired, I felt this weariness.  I wrote this Facebook post:

"In these days when it feels like no one is living a life according to their values--or maybe the problem is the repellent values--let me remember forces of good in my small corner of the world:
--our Vet Tech student group who raised over $1000 (small donation by small donation) for a local charity that helps fund operations for pets that belong to families who are too poor to pay for the operations.
--my pastor, who has never been afraid to the preach the Good News that demands justice for the poor and oppressed; he's currently working on a sermon that weaves themes of gender justice with the Advent story of the Annunciation.
--all of the faculty members I know who are tirelessly helping students get to the finish line.
--all of the people who share their stories to demand justice for both themselves and those who cannot speak.
--more family members and friends than I can count, many of whom have stood beside me for decades, demanding the better world that we know we can create."

It is good to remember that it's these small acts that so often build together until change comes.  And we may feel that the change is temporary, but it's really not.  I know that we may feel we're revisiting Civil Rights issues that we may have thought were solved or sexual harassment issues that we thought we laid to rest with Anita Hill--it's good to remember that even though we made progress, we weren't done.  And now it's time to do some more to bend the arc of history towards justice.

Today is a good day to remember what ordinary citizens can do.  On this day in in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger. This act is often given credit for launching the Civil Rights Movement, but what many forget is that various communities had begun planning for the launch, even before they could see or know what it would look like.  This liberation work had been going on since the end of the Civil War, and before, during the times of slavery.

For generations, people had prepared for just such a moment that Rosa Parks gave them. They had gotten training in nonviolent resistance. They had come together in community in a variety of ways. They were prepared.  We should take heart from their example.  Those Civil Rights workers faced much steeper odds than we face.

Today is also World Aids Day, a somber day that recognizes that this plague has been one of the most destructive diseases in human history. Let us remember another band of activists who worked hard to make sure that humanity vanquished this disease--I'm thinking of ACT UP, but AIDS united many groups that might not have otherwise found a common cause.

Many people idolize Ronald Reagan, but I will never be able to forget how he refused to take leadership as this disease emerged.  I am haunted by all the lives lost, and perhaps needlessly--if only . . . but history is so full of this needless loss.

It's easy to get bogged down in despair; we have survived earlier difficult days, and we will survive current and future difficulties coming our way too.

We can't know how long the struggle might be. Those of us who work towards social justice and human dignity for all are similar to those medieval builders of cathedral: we may not be around to see the magnificent completion of our vision, but it's important to play our part. In the words of that old Gospel song, we keep our eyes on the prize, our hands on the plow, and hold on.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Feast Day of Saint Andrew

Today is the feast day of Saint Andrew,  remembered as the first disciple.  He's the brother of Simon Peter, and Andrew is the one who told Peter about Jesus.  Andrew followed John the Baptist, and John the Baptist introduced Jesus as the true Messiah. Andrew believed, and Andrew brought his brother to see what he had seen.

Tradition has it that the brothers didn’t give up their family fishing business at first, but eventually, Christ requested full commitment. I’ve always wondered about the family relationships that simmer in the background of the Gospels.

I remember one Gospel reading that mentioned Jesus healing the mother-in-law of Simon Peter. I thought, mother-in-law? That means there must have been a wife. What did the mothers and wives and mother-in-laws think of the men abandoning their fishing business to follow Jesus?

I also think about the sibling relationships here. What does Andrew think about Simon Peter, who quickly moves into the spotlight? Is Andrew content to stay in the background?

We know from the passage in Matthew that begins with Matthew 20:20, that there is competition to be Christ’s favorite. We see the mother of James and John who argues for her sons’ importance. We see the other disciples who become angry at the actions of this mother. I extrapolate to imagine that there’s much jockeying for position amongst the disciples.

Christ never loses an opportunity to remind us that he’s come to give us a different model of success. Again and again, he dismisses the importance that the world attaches to riches, to status, to a good reputation. Again and again, Jesus instructs us that the last will be first. Jesus tells us that the way to gain prestige with God is to serve.

We see stories that show that Andrew is the kind of disciple who is working for the glory of Christ, not for other reasons. In John’s Gospel, Andrew is the one who tells Jesus about the boy with five barley loaves and two fish, and thus helps make possible the miraculous feeding.

Andrew was the kind of disciple we could use more of in this world. Andrew so believes in the Good News that he brings his family members to Christ, and he continued in this path, bringing the Gospel to people far and wide. We see him beginning this mission in John’s Gospel, where he tells Christ of the Greeks that want to see him.

Andrew gets credit for bringing Christianity into parts of eastern Europe and western Asia: Kiev, Ukraine, Romania, Russia. He’s the first bishop of the Church of Byzantium and patron saint of all sorts of places, from Scotland to Cyprus to Russia.

On this day when we celebrate the life of the first disciple, let us consider our own discipleship. Are we focused on the right tasks or are we hoping that our Christian faith brings us non-Christian glory? How can we help usher in the miracles that come with the presence of Christ? Who needs to hear the Good News as only we can tell it?

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 3, 2017:

Isaiah 64:1-9
Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18 (Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 NRSV)
Show the light of your countenance, and we shall be saved. (Ps. 80:7)
1 Corinthians 1:3-9
Mark 13:24-37

First of all, happy New Year! For those of us observing liturgical years, this Sunday marks the start of a new liturgical year. This year, many of the Gospel readings come from Mark, believed to be the first of the Gospels written (about 70 years after the death of Jesus).

Advent is a time that stresses that the liturgical year exists often in stark contrast to the calendar year. Stores have been decorated for Christmas for months, and we're only just beginning (the strictest liturgical traditions don't decorate for Christmas until after the last Sunday in Advent--that's much closer to Christmas than most of us would like). Worship planners field many complaints about not singing Christmas carols before Christmas Eve--and yet, we're observing Advent, not Christmas, so technically, Christmas carols aren't appropriate.

The readings for Advent will often seem jarringly out of place with the festive atmosphere one encounters in the secular world. Look at the Gospel for today. What an apocalyptic tone! Stars falling from the heavens and such tribulations as haven't been seen since the beginning of creation. This end times language is how we count down to Christmas?

Yet in many ways, this apocalyptic tone is appropriate. Watch and Wait. That seems to be one of the lessons for the day. Look at how many times the word Watch is repeated in the Gospel. Like a pregnant woman, like Mary, the people of God keep watch for God's presence in the world while we create new life on earth (with God's help). Perhaps we should take a cue from the Gospel and carve some time for meditation during this busy holiday season. We get so caught up in the frenzy and the festivity that it's easy to lose our focus on what the season should mean to us. Watch and Wait. Light a new candle each week as we watch for the Messiah.

Of course, the Messiah has already come--our salvation is assured. The idea of the end being contained in the beginning is part of our Advent readings as well. We hear the story of the preparations for Jesus' birth with readings that are often interpreted as prophecy about a Messiah (found in the Old Testament, particularly Isaiah) along with Bible readings that remind us that Christ will come again.

Christ is coming (as he has come before, as he is present with us now)--are you ready? Take some moments this season--quit buying Christmas presents, quit cooking, quit racing from party to open house to family reunion. Listen to the voice crying in the wilderness. Think about the promises that God has made to us, the commitments God asks from us. How can you prepare? For the Kingdom of God is at hand.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Brief Thanksgiving Recap

It's hard to believe that a week ago, I'd have been anxiously waiting to see if the turkeys would arrive and if they would be delicious.  Why was I anxious?  I called Doris' Italian Market, and they assured me that all was underway.  Still, I felt the burden of the responsibility.

In the end, we'd have been fine, even without turkey.  I didn't anticipate that people would bring so much food.  It was a delightful event.  I lost many hours of productivity to making the event happen--but then again, maybe it was the most important kind of productivity, working to weave us all together into a community.

And then I went home, packed, slept for a few hours, and then we drove north to celebrate Thanksgiving again, with a different community.  It was one of the best Thanksgivings ever, and I'll write about it in more detail in the days to come.

I returned home with a poem in my head--let me record the idea here before I lose it.  I want to write about Jesus getting a dog.  My cousin's family arrived with their new dog:  Slugger, the poodle/golden retriever mix.  They called it a Goldenpoo, but a Goldendoodle is probably a better name for the dog mix.

I thought I would write more yesterday, and I was home in time to do so.  But we discovered that our Internet connection had been lost, and so, there would be no blogging yesterday.  There was also no chance to do grading or other work for online classes, which made for a much more peaceful re-entry.  We washed clothes and ate turkey sandwiches on the front porch.  We took a nap and then, as the light left the sky, we walked to the marina.  It was good to be reminded of why we live here.

We are beginning to move out of our post-hurricane despair.  Part of our discussion on the porch yesterday revolved around the home repairs that need to be done, and how we have the opportunity to have a house that's closer to what we want.

How long will we keep the house?  We simply do not know, but hopefully we can fix it up and enjoy it, before those decisions come crashing on our heads.

My re-entry to work has been relatively calm too.  Let me hope that it remains so.  And now, let me get back to that work.

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Make an Advent Plan

This Sunday is Christ the King Sunday, which means we're at the end of the liturgical year. It also means that we're about to plunge into the Christmas season. This week-end is a good time to plan for how we're going to have a meaningful Advent, 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?

--Make a budget now.  Before you start shopping, 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.

--Instead of buying stuff, donate to charities. I'm lucky enough to be able to buy just about everything I need (and 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.

--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. 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?

--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.

--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. That tradition meant something. These days, though, I don't bake cookies all alone. Consider ways to make the holiday meals simpler. Consider ways to simplify the holiday card tradition. Ask yourself which church events mean something to you and which you're attending because you always have.

--Take time to help the needy, and bring your children 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. The words of Isaiah are knitted into every fiber of my being: "learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; defend the fatherless, plead for the widow" (Isaiah 1: 17). My parents, along with social institutions like church and school, modeled the good behavior of working for social justice. It's stuck with me. Advent is a great time to train the next generation in the habits of social justice and charitable work.

--Schedule time in your day to slow down. Now is the time to remember to pray. Now is the time to rest. Light the candles on your Advent wreath and contemplate the mysteries that so many religious traditions celebrate as the year winds to a close.