Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Different Types of Mardi Gras Festivities

Why is Trump addressing Congress on Mardi Gras?  Who decided that was a good idea?

Or maybe it will be a different kind of address, with a jazz band and beads being tossed around.  Nothing at this point will surprise me.

I know that many people aren't clear on why we celebrate Mardi Gras at all--I think back to how many of my students had no idea about how we came to have  Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday or most any other holiday.  They're happy to have a holiday that mandates drinking in the middle of the week.

I was always old before my time--these kinds of public drunkenness holidays make me anxious.

Today is Mardi Gras, and it's also Shrove Tuesday. It's the day before Ash Wednesday, the day before Lent begins. The holidays of Shrove Tuesday, Carnival, and Mardi Gras have their roots in the self-denial of the Lenten season. These holidays are rooted in  the fasting traditions of Lent and the need to get rid of all the ingredients that you'd be giving up during Lent: alcohol, sugar, eggs, and in some traditions, even dairy foods.

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

In the churches of my childhood, we had pancake suppers on Shrove Tuesday.  I wonder if churches still do that in other parts of the country.

I will celebrate Shrove Tuesday by meeting my friend at Panera.  We will talk about writing and other things which delight us.  It's a different kind of Mardi Gras, but it will make me feel festive nonetheless.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Spiritual Book Ends to a Sunday

Much of yesterday was taken up with church stuff--that's the unifying theme of this post.

--My church has been off-lectionary much more often than we've been on-lectionary.  I was glad that we decided to celebrate Transfiguration Sunday yesterday.  We don't always.  I don't know why I cared.  It's not my favorite church holiday.  But it was good to be together in that space again.

--In our interactive 9:45 service we did skits/puppet shows to tell the T-Fig story.  It was fun.

--It was also our healing service Sunday.  I was the assisting minister.  As I was laying on hands and anointing with oil, I thought about the fact that it was the 2 year anniversary of the death of one of my best friends, whom I met in high school and lived with during a few years in a communal household.  She died of a gruesome esophageal cancer.

--We only had a few hours at home after the service.  Soon it was time to head back to Pembroke Pines for ukulele night. 

--As I sat in the parsonage, singing gospel songs, I thought, this is why people want house churches.  I sing better in that setting, surrounded by voices and instruments.  And it's impossible to drift off, the way it is when I'm one of 50 congregation members in a sanctuary designed for 300.

--We advertised the event on a variety of ukulele meet up sites.  This time we had as many non-church folks show up as church folks.  We advertise it as a Gospel sing, so it shouldn't be a surprise to people.  One woman told us her spiritual name; I had never heard that language:  "I'm on Facebook as my spiritual name _______."

--She never told us her actual name, so I have no idea if it's similar, although I think both first names are the same.

--My spouse played his violin and mandolin (not at the same time), and at one point, our host switched to her upright bass.  It was wonderful.

--What does it mean that the ukulele event fed my spirit more than the church events of the morning?

--I know what brought me more joy--what brought God more joy?

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Visual Journaling 2017 (So Far)

We've had a good week-end, a catching up on tasks that must be done kind of week-end.  Last week-end was wonderful, but we didn't get much done in terms of the more mundane work, like paying bills, getting palm fronds off the roof, the tasks that come with being a teacher, that sort of thing.

But even with a chore accomplishing week-end like this one, there are soul satisfying moments.  In the late afternoon yesterday, we took a walk to the marina and walked home watching the sun set and the sky changing colors--so beautiful.

And Friday, we had time on the front porch.  My spouse played a variety of instruments while I sketched.  I was still thinking of that Trappist telescope:

And then I went back to a sketch from late January that I hadn't had a chance to finish:

I had written the word Sanctuary and sketched the railroad tracks underneath.  On Friday, I filled in the other spaces.  In later years, let me remember that I was reading Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad.

I started the above piece on the same day that I created this:

It was the week-end that Trump announced his travel bans, and the airports got snarled.  It was the Sunday before the 3 judge panel issued the stay that suspended Trump's plan.  The reading from Exodus had already been planned, and it seemed fortuitous.

On Friday, I also did this sketch, based on a doodling that I had done earlier in the week during a meeting:

I thought about the painting I used to do, the times I had finished a painting and still had some dribs and drabs of paint--not enough to save, but so much that I felt wasteful washing it down the drain.  Some of those small paintings that I made to run out the paint, some of those I like better than the larger painting.

On Friday, obviously I had no paint to use up, but I did finish what I wanted to get done and then had a bit of time.  Thus, the above sketch with birds and eyes.

I've also been going back to look at these entries in what I think of as a visual journal.  I started doing it in April of 2016, and I'm happy that I still continue to make roughly one entry a week.  I'd like to get some additional markers, but maybe I'll experiment with the less expensive ones that I saw in Jo-Ann's.  I like that I'm still playing with color, even if I am not in a painting phase or a fiber/fabric phase.

Today will be another day of getting tasks done--but at the end of the day, there will be ukuleles and a pot luck meal at the parsonage.  I like these days when I can live what feels like a more balanced life:  time for chores and time for creativity.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Trappist Telescopes and Other Inspirations

When I heard about the seven planets discovered by the telescope named Trappist, I thought, what a name for a telescope!  I've spent days thinking about what a monastic order has in common with a telescope and space exploration.

Not one piece of news coverage talked about the name of the telescope, so this morning, I stopped resisting my impulse to look it up.  I had no idea the name was an acronym.  The letters stand for:  Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope.

The Wikipedia article says that it was named in homage of the religious order known for brewing beer.  Hmm.  When I think of Trappists, I don't think of beer.  I think of vows of silence and stubbornly enduring fierce landscapes--which makes sense for a telescope.

Thursday's poem had monastic elements, but not outer space elements:  it compared the life of a mother with a baby and a toddler to the lives lived by monks.  I started thinking about it because of a Facebook friend's post about getting up to feed the baby periodically throughout the night and how the monks get praise for this practice, but not nursing moms.

Yesterday, I wrote another poem, which had its beginnings last week, before the news of the Trappist telescope and the 7 planets.  The beginning of the poem came to me in an image of an older woman unpacking a box of things from her youth.  What does she find there?  A red cape.

When I sat down to write yesterday, I wasn't sure what else she would find.  She finds a drop spindle and a pot in which she used to prepare porridge.  In that pot, she plants the apple seeds that she finds in the box.  She wears the glass slippers to church, but remembers why she put them in the box. 

This line might be my favorite from the morning's writing:  She feels her feet exhale when she sets them free.

Or maybe this line, from my short story that's written in the voice of an HR director:  "Any time I overhear the tiresome argument about whether or not an Ed.D. is the equivalent of a Ph.D., I think of the other meanings of the word 'terminal.'”

And so I went to the office, having already done important work.  But my brain continued to come back to that Trappist telescope.  Tomorrow I'll post pictures of the spiritual journaling that I did last night.

Friday, February 24, 2017

A Feast Day for Those Who Follow

Today is the traditional feast day of St. Matthias. In the 1960's, the Roman Catholic church moved his feast day to May 14, so that we're celebrating his life in a month that makes more chronological sense--Matthias was the apostle chosen to replace Judas Iscariot, who committed suicide after he realized what his betrayal had wrought, so it makes sense to celebrate his life after Easter. Of course, traditionalists will celebrate today. And Eastern Orthodox believers will observe his feast day on August 9.

I've recently become a bit fascinated with this saint. I've done a smidge of research, and I can't tell what, exactly, he's the patron saint of.

If I was in charge, I'd make him the patron saint of people who must wait for recognition. Would I make him the patron saint of people who must wait for recognition in the workplace only, or in any situation? Is that process of waiting so different?

I have this on the brain because I work in a place where our local job ladder is very short. We have lots of folks who have been working for the organization for ten years or more--when there's a job opening, we can't promote them all. And once a person has been promoted, it might be years--decades even--before there's an opening above.

I imagine that the circle of Jesus was similar. There's the inner circle, the twelve, chosen early. Then there's a massive outer circle. Who would have dreamed of the incidents that led to a job opening in the inner circle?

Of course, as a woman, I will always wonder at what Gospel revisions went on in the early church. Was the inner circle really that tight? Was it really only twelve? Was it really only men? We know that Jesus had a sympathy towards women that was uncommon for his time period. Would he really have excluded them from the inner circle?

Then I think of the logistics of being one of the twelve--all that travel, all those difficult circumstances. Maybe it was kinder of Jesus not to call women to be part of the inner circle. If you go back to the sayings of Jesus, it's clear that he doesn't see hierarchy in the same way that humans do--he clearly mocked the idea that some disciples are more chosen than other.

So, would Matthias have even seen his appointment as a promotion? Maybe it's just our later proclivity to make lists that sees this development as a promotion. Of course, there is that passage in Acts that seems to show that the disciples shared our proclivities toward hierarchy and list making.

I think of Matthias, patiently waiting, following Christ, never knowing the outcome. In that way, he's the patron saint of us all. We follow Christ, not knowing whether we'll be chosen for some superhuman greatness, or whether we'll be called to stay put, quietly ministering the people around us. Some of us believe that God has a plan for us, while others believe that God will use us where we are, like a master weaver. Some of us believe that the universe is essentially chaotic, but we are not excused from God's mission of Kingdom building. Some of us know that we cannot possibly comprehend any of this, and we know that we are lucky that God does not depend on our puny imaginations.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Meditation Rocks

In this high stress time, let's remember how simple it is to create a Zen garden:

How soothing it can be to rake shapes in the sand:

Those photos reminded me of the time that my spouse and I made meditation stones:

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed writing on the stones with a gold pen:

I don't usually wear clothes with pockets, but if I did, I might slip one of these worry stones in my pocket to take with me through the day:

I love how rocks turn into footprints:

There's probably a metaphor here.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, February 26, 2017:

First Reading: Exodus 24:12-18

Psalm: Psalm 2

Psalm (Alt.): Psalm 99

Second Reading: 2 Peter 1:16-21

Gospel: Matthew 17:1-9

Here we are at Transfiguration Sunday again. We celebrate this festival on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, although the earlier festival day was August 6.

It's such a familiar story that we may feel that we can get nothing new from it.  But it's a story that bears repeating. 

When I read the Gospel again, I'm not surprised by Peter's offer to build booths and celebrate the Transfiguration in a commercial way.  Christ's command to tell no one makes me pause.  Why can't we share this amazing moment?

Christ says this often. Go and tell no one--that seems to be a constant command. And it seems antithetical to the task of the Church.

In just a few months, we'll get a very different  Pentecost message. Aren't we supposed to go and witness? Spread the good news? If Jesus is our role model, what do we make of his command to stay silent?

In some ways, perhaps Jesus knew the times he lived in. He knew that early fame would undo his purpose. He knew that people would focus on the physical plane--"This man can heal my blindness"--but not the spiritual plane, the one where we need healing the most.

He also knew that people who see visions, who catch a glimpse of something otherworldly, are often shunned by the community. What would have happened if James and John and Peter came down from the mountain and proclaimed what they had seen? How would the community have responded?

Jesus knew that he couldn't appear too threatening to the status quo too early. In the verses that follow, the ones not included in this Gospel, Jesus makes clear that persecution follows those who see visions. And that persecution still persists today. Our culture tolerates those of us who pray. It's less tolerant of those of us who claim that God replies to our prayers.

The life of the believer is tough, and one measure of its difficulty is knowing when to speak, and knowing when to hold our tongues. Sometimes we should keep our counsel. Sometimes we should testify verbally. Always we should let our lives be our testimony.

Christ also might have been wary of the human tendency to rush towards transfiguration.  We yearn to be different, but so often, we shun the hard work involved.  We might embrace transformation before we stop to consider the cost.

Like Peter, we might want to turn Christ into Carnival: build booths, charge admission, harness holiness. Jesus reminds us again and again that the true work comes not from telling people what we’ve seen, but by letting what we’ve seen change the way that we live. Our true calling is not to be carnival barker, but to get on with the work of repair and building of the communities in which we find ourselves.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Catching February

Many decades ago, I kept a separate runner's log--2 of them, in fact.  One was fancy and spiral bound, full of inspirational photos and quotes and an essay at the beginning of each month.  One essay was titled "Catching February."  It was written by the guy who took over the project when Jim Fixx died.

The premise of that essay was that into every runner's life comes a time of February.  It's cold and bleak and downright dangerous to run in February (this was particularly true in the northern states before climate change made some winter months balmy).  The writer talked about returning the running regimen after having "caught a case of February."

On Sunday, I realized that I'm in a time of spiritual February.  Our church has had some deaths lately.  One was an older parishioner who had been in decline, so his death wasn't a surprise--but he was always in good spirits, so he'll be missed.  The other death was a bit of a shock:  a woman who fell and because of the blood thinners she was taking, she bled to death before anyone found her.  I got home and called a grad school friend:  her father, who has suffered from Parkinson's which has gotten much worse in recent years, has entered hospice care and is refusing food and drink.

I feel a sense of February in other ways too.  I'm feeling both disconnected from people, and worse, I'm in that phase that I sometimes experience, where I want to just finish the job of disconnecting, that "burn it down" phase.  I've been resisting this impulse by scheduling time with friends to reconnect and to remind myself that these friendships are important, that my sense of unmooring is partly in my head and partly that we're all working at different places now.

I've had friends who said they admire my faith or my beliefs.  I explain that it's not about faith or belief.  It's about the actions that we do, and especially when we do them during these times of spiritual February.

And so I go to church, even though I sometimes wonder if I might not get more nourishment by reading spiritual texts on my own.  I pray, even when I'm not sure that God is there or that God is listening.  I make dinner dates with friends so that I can remember that we are friends.  These are important spiritual practices, especially in a time of spiritual February.

Monday, February 20, 2017

More Thoughts on Meekness

Our pastor occasionally shares the sermon space with lay leadership.  A few days before Sunday, he asked me if I'd like to share some additional thoughts on the part of the Beatitudes for the day:  "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth."

I told him what I would say, that I would likely be somewhat political and talk about Archbishop Romero and the ordinary Civil Rights workers of the 1950's and 60's.  He said that was fine.

So, that was what I did.  I talked about Romero who was chosen to be Archbishop because the Pope's people thought he would not cause trouble--in short, that he would be meek.  But then he went on to champion the poor, who were being brutalized by both the government and the rebel groups.

And then he was killed.  I reminded us all that we may pay that price.

I talked about the Civil Rights workers, many of whom were not eloquent like Martin Luther King.  I said that being meek doesn't mean that we don't get off the sofa.

And I reminded us all that there are many ways to contribute.  If we're not comfortable marching, we can pick up some food for the food pantry each time we grocery shop.  I had Epiphany on the brain, having just blogged about the Epiphany stars, and I talked about how we needed to be the light that the world needed--as we move from the end of the season of Epiphany, as we prepare to move into Lent.

Hard to believe how February has just zoomed right by--Ash Wednesday is just around the corner.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Epiphany Stars: A Follow-Up Story

On the first Sunday of January, my church celebrated Epiphany, and I was the one leading the service.  For years, I had read about Epiphany stars--a practice early in the year, where participants choose a star with a word on it, and that word guides them through the year.

I decided to abandon the dark sermon about Herod and modern refugees and to go with Epiphany stars.  On Saturday, I cut out the stars, wrote words on them, and put them in a bag I got from the Mepkin Abbey gift shop.  In church the next day, the experience went well.  For more, see this blog post.

A few weeks ago, a woman stopped me on her way out of church.  She told me that she keeps the star that she drew out of the bag on the dashboard of her car.  The star instructed her to "look up."  She told me that she's glad that the star is there to remind her.

I knew the woman, but we're not church friends--in other words, she didn't have a motivation to find the experience a good one.  I was pleased to hear that the experience was meaningful for her, and meaningful beyond Sunday morning.

I thought about how I had been hesitant to choose that direction for Epiphany.  I was reminded of my own star:

I'm also aware that I was able to say yes because I knew that the service was Jan. 1, a day with sparser attendance--and attendance might also be impacted by everyone's knowledge that our pastor would be on vacation.  I was able to take a risk with a different kind of sermon, a more interactive sermon, because the day was going to be different anyway.

But I'm glad I said yes to that Epiphany service.  I'm going to try to use that as a reminder to say yes more often.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Labyrinth Longings

Two paths run side by side:

How much does the landscape change if we're just one loop to either side?

How much does the landscape change if we shift the season?

It is good to have a walk with a friend.

It is good to have a time apart.

Let us rest awhile in this place.

We take off our shoes because we're on holy ground, the holy ground of the labyrinth.

Friday, February 17, 2017

Writing Prayers 2018

Wednesday was a long day at work--long in terms of hours spent in the office, not long in terms of being onerous.  On the contrary, I liked feeling that I was solving problems and helping make the school stronger.

In the late afternoon, I got a pleasant surprise.  I had been thinking about which manuscripts were out in the world and trying not to feel despair about how few are out there circulating.  I checked my e-mail and found an offer to participate in the prayer project that has been one of my favorite writing assignments of the past.

I haven't been part of the project for several years, and the invitation to be part of this year's Bread for the Day made me very happy.

I try not to think about how many writing opportunities have come and gone for me:  editors that have retired, publishing venues that have changed or closed--and my own time constrictions which means that I can't find other opportunities the way I might have.

So, Wednesday's invitation made me happy not only because of the invitation itself, but because it reminded me that some doors might open again.

I will be writing the prayers for January 2018.  The first year, I wrote the prayers for August.  For the next two years, I wrote December prayers.

I found it a bit jarring to write prayers for Advent as we moved through the season of Lent.  But as an administrator, I'm often dwelling in multiple seasons:  I think about the schedule for an academic term that's six months away.  I plan events far off in the future.  I guide faculty through documenting a past year's worth of faculty development while also planning for the coming year.  I do the same thing for assessment activities.

Now I will be writing prayers for January while this past January is still in my memory--I wonder if that will affect the writing? 

Thursday, February 16, 2017

It Begins: The New Sanctuary Movement

This morning on NPR, I heard this story about a woman in Denver who reported to a church instead of reporting to her deportation.  I thought, and so it begins, our new sanctuary movement.

My current church would not work well as a sanctuary church--we have no shower or any way to bathe except for a sink here or there.  To get to the fellowship hall, one must leave the building, which might leave sanctuary seekers at risk--they'd have to choose between the church sanctuary and the fellowship hall.

We share our space with roughly 7 other congregations--because we have 3 large gathering spaces (our fellowship hall has two sides, and either can be used as a large space), it works well to share.  What would happen if one of the church groups wanted to shelter someone, and the others didn't approve?

We are a small church--occasionally we do a shelter week with a homeless group, and it's hard to get enough church volunteers to make that happen.  I'd be interested to know how churches shelter a person in an ongoing way--how are boundaries drawn?

I will be interested to see how the Trump administration handles this issue.  I know that for years, officials have been careful to keep immigration showdowns out of churches, hospitals, schools, and other "sensitive locations."  But those policies were created by other people.

I haven't always been sure of the faith lives of U.S. leadership, but I've known about the faith traditions that might have shaped them.  With past leaders, I thought there might be a chance that they'd understand the motivation of sanctuary churches.

With Trump, I'm fairly sure that he hasn't been around the types of people who have the theology that would lead them to offer shelter.  Will he react in authoritarian fervor?  Will he decide that he has more pressing issues and thus ignore the sanctuary movement?

I suspect that it depends on how the movement grows or doesn't grow--and what other issues emerge in the coming weeks.

I will be adding these sanctuary churches to my prayer list, my ever-growing prayer list.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, February 19, 2017:

First Reading: Leviticus 19:1-2, 9-18

Psalm: Psalm 119:33-40

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 3:10-11, 16-23

Gospel: Matthew 5:38-48

Turn the other cheek. Give up your coat and your shirt. Walk the second mile. This Sunday we get to texts which have been so misunderstood through the centuries that it’s hard to remember what Jesus was really saying. Jesus was NOT saying to let your abuser batter you day in and day out. Jesus was not instructing us to let evil steamroll right over us. Jesus was not even calling us to pacifism, a stoic acceptance of brutality that will buy us a better condo in Heaven for enduring hell on earth.

No, these are resistance texts. Yes, resistance texts.

These are texts that show us how to resist evil in such a way that evil elements will not turn around and destroy us. Likewise, these are texts that show us how to resist evil in such a way that we don’t become the evil that we are resisting.

It’s important to remember that the culture of Jesus was a vastly different culture. It was a culture based on honor. It was a culture based on social hierarchy. It was also a culture ruled by Romans who were not going to tolerate social unrest, Romans who would not hesitate to slaughter dissenters.

Jesus shows us how to live in this world, how to resist evil without being destroyed by evil. If you want to read the best text on this idea, I recommend Walter Wink’s Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. It is one of the best books of theology I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a lot of theology.

Let’s focus on the turning of the other cheek, since this passage is so well known. Notice that Jesus gives specific cheeks in specific order. That’s a detail lost on us, but it wouldn’t have been lost on the people who heard Jesus’ instructions. Walter Wink explains:

“Imagine if I were your assailant and I were to strike a blow with my right fist at your face, which cheek would it land on? It would be the left. It is the wrong cheek in terms of the text we are looking at. Jesus says, 'If anyone strikes you on the right cheek...' I could hit you on the right cheek if I used a left hook, but that would be impossible in Semitic society because the left hand was used only for unclean tasks. You couldn't even gesture with your left hand in public. The only way I could hit you on the right cheek would be with the back of the hand.

Now the back of the hand is not a blow intended to injure. It is a symbolic blow. It is intended to put you back where you belong. It is always from a position of power or superiority. The back of the hand was given by a master to a slave or by a husband to a wife or by a parent to a child or a Roman to a Jew in that period. What Jesus is saying is in effect, 'When someone tries to humiliate you and put you down, back into your social location which is inferior to that person, and turn your other cheek.'

Now in the process of turning in that direction, if you turned your head to the right, I could no longer backhand you. Your nose is now in the way. Furthermore, you can't backhand someone twice. It's like telling a joke a second time. If it doesn't work the first time, it has failed. By turning the other cheek, you are defiantly saying to the master, 'I refuse to be humiliated by you any longer. I am a human being just like you. I am a child of God. You can't put me down even if you have me killed.' This is clearly no way to avoid trouble. The master might have you flogged within an inch of your life, but he will never be able to assert that you have no dignity.”

Wink explains the other elements of the Gospel resistance readings here. It’s a great way to introduce yourself to his work, especially for those of us who aren’t up to reading his multi-volume works on resisting the various powers at work in this world.

For those of you who would sneer at the idea of resistance working in our evil, evil world, I would say that nonviolent resistance can bring mighty social change.

Walter Wink, writing in 1993, notes, “In 1989 alone, there were thirteen nations that underwent non-violent revolutions. All of them successful except one, China. That year 1.7 billion people were engaged in national non-violent revolutions. That is a third of humanity. If you throw in all of the other non-violent revolutions in all the other nations in this century [the 20th], you get the astonishing figure of 3.34 billion people involved in non-violent revolutions. That is two-thirds of the human race. No one can ever again say that non-violence doesn't work. It has been working like crazy. It is time the Christian churches got involved in this revolution because what is happening in the world is that the world itself is discovering the truth of Jesus' teaching, and here we come in the church, bringing up the rear.”  And of course, more lately we can point to a variety of revolutions, in the former Soviet Union and the Middle East, some of which have fairly peacefully gotten rid of dictators who had been in power for decades.

Maybe we are not up for the task of resistance, which can be scary and can lead us to unexpected places. At the very least, we can pray. We can pray for those people who are doing the heavy lifting of resistance. We can pray for those who are transforming their societies for good, whether they live in our country or on the other side of the planet. We can pray for the softening of the hearts of the hard ones. We can pray that we have the wisdom to recognize evil when we see it. We can pray that we have the courage to resist evil in whatever forms it comes to us.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

What the Monks Can Teach Us about Romantic Love

I’ve been going to Mepkin Abbey, a community of Trappist monks, regularly for over a decade now. When I first started going, I expected to learn many things: a different way to do worship, a variation of how to live in community, and the ultimate approach to hospitality.

I’ve learned a lot that I didn’t necessarily expect to learn from the monks, like different approaches to eating meals and new ways of looking at worship space. In hindsight, those aren’t the biggest surprises. No, the biggest surprise is how much I’ve learned about marriage from returning to this community of celibate men.

It sounds almost salacious, doesn’t it? “All I need to know about marriage I learned from a monk!”—it’s a bad movie, just waiting to be made. But in all seriousness, the monks have much to teach us about deep commitment. It’s a similar commitment to love that we see from our creator.

I've assumed that a monk who has taken final vows feels that certain decisions are settled forever: where to live/retire, what to do with one's time, what kind of food to eat, on and on I could go. In a way I've envied that decision. 

Cloistered monastics take a vow to a specific monastery or abbey. In many ways, the vow of stability is also a vow of commitment to a larger sense of religious institution.  It’s only been lately that I’ve been reflecting on marriage as a similar vow of stability. 

Likewise, those of us who have taken vows to a partner have taken a similar vow of stability, a commitment to place, where place is a person. But in many ways, marriage is more than just a pledge between two people. We commit not just to a relationship, but to a larger vision of what a marriage can and should be. By that commitment, we’ve closed the door to other decisions. In a way, life becomes easier.

Through the years, though, I’ve realized that not all monks will stay at the monastery until they die. It’s not a prison, after all. Perhaps my vision of the monastic vow of stability has been shallow? I’ve assumed that once the commitment is made, no other possibilities are ever considered. But of course, that’s not true.

In monasticism, as in married life, we periodically wonder about roads not taken. If the yearning is strong enough, the road not taken may be the road that has the stronger pull.

I know how easy it is to convince ourselves that a better life is possible. But we forget to consider the whole picture. Those of us wishing for more alone time forget how lonely that time could be if our wish was fully granted. We move to different houses and neighborhoods, only to be surprised when the new house has problems too. We forget that every job comes with its headaches. We wish our partners were different, while forgetting to appreciate the properties that attracted us in the first place.

Here, too, the monks model good behavior, and not just for monastics. The monks live in intense community and ideally, the needs of the whole community rise above the needs of one individual monk. 

In an ideal world, married people, too, have this kind of surrounding community, one likely composed of friends and family. In an ideal world, the church community serves as an anchor for these vows of stability.

As our culture celebrates Valentines Day, it’s a good time to consider what our church communities do to help those members who have taken vows. It’s a good time to consider what we can all do to celebrate a deep commitment to love.

Our larger culture sets aside a day to buy chocolates and champagne and cards—but every day should be a day that we celebrate love of all kinds. God who came to dwell with us showed us many examples of how to live a life committed to love.

How can we emulate that kind of love?

Monday, February 13, 2017

Valentine's Eve Nuggets

I imagine that across the world (at least in some industrialized nations), people are gearing up for Valentine's Day.  Before the madness sets in tomorrow, let us consider this holiday:

--I feel the same about this holiday as I do about New Year's Eve--why spend that extra money just because marketers have decided that we should?
--To me, this feast day is essentially a manufactured holiday, yet another one, designed to make us feel like we must spend gobs and gobs of money to demonstrate our love.

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

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

--I do understand why people want a holiday in the long winter months to celebrate love.  But I also understand how this holiday is painful to many:  those who have lost the loves of their lives, those who have never experienced the love for which they yearn, those who love in a different way.  After all, this holiday doesn't celebrate all love, but one certain kind of love, and the societal hype reinforces ideas that may get in the way of a realistic approach to relationships.

  --Every day, ideally, should be Valentine's Day, a day in which we try to remind our loved ones how much we care--and not by buying flowers, dinners out, candy, and jewelry. We show that we love by our actions: our care, our putting our own needs in the backseat, our concern, our gentle touch, our loving remarks.

--I think that in America we do a bad job of learning how to manage our emotional lives.  We think our feelings are real.  We forget that the emotion we have today will likely be gone by tomorrow.  We forget that our bad feelings are often triggered by all sorts of things that have nothing to do with how we really feel.  Low blood sugar has caused many a fight--and probably more divorces and break-ups than we like to think about.  Many of us go through daily life fatigued.  We think our boredom and sadness are caused by our families or our friends or our jobs--and that might be the case--or we might just need more sleep.

So, as we begin the mad rush to Valentine's Day, let us take a moment to remember the gift of being able to love each other.  Let us remember God, who first loved us, and who will love us long after all other love falls away.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Create in Me Flowers

Today's Valentine's post inspired by photos from Create in Me retreats--today, flowers!

But not the traditional Valentine's Day roses . . .

After doing some weeding yesterday and seeing how hard it is to uproot the dandelions, I'm thinking that a dandelion would be a more appropriate flower for Valentine's Day.

But I do love these metal flowers:  the colors and the permanence, so different from the love that comes to our lives.


Saturday, February 11, 2017

Create in Me Hearts

I've been looking through old Create in Me photos for Valentine's Day inspirations.

Today's photos: hearts!

Here's a close up of the stars, where we could write prayers or names of people who needed prayers:

Can you see that the name on the star is "Walt"?  Walt had had to cancel Create in Me plans that year due to an aggressive cancer that would ultimately take his life.

Sadly, he is not the only one we've lost.  We have now been having Create in Me retreats long enough that we have lost some of our CIM friends to death--which is not the kind of love we traditionally think of when Valentine's Day rolls around. 


Perhaps it's the kind of love we should be celebrating more often.

Friday, February 10, 2017

Court Cases and Language Matters

Last night I stayed late at the office to talk to a student before her 6 p.m. class--and then I went to follow up with the Director of Admissions who had brought her to me.  Thus, I was in the car as the moon played peek-a-boo with the clouds, and I heard the news that the federal appeals court had rejected Trump's demands to reinstate the travel ban.

I was listening to NPR, so I got to hear a great conversation about the Constitution and the way it's supposed to work.  I have always been impressed when our system of checks and balances works, even when I don't always agree.  There were moments in the post-September 11 years when I worried about the future of the first amendment, and if we had had more terrorist attacks, I think we'd be living in a more repressive country than we are now.

There was also a great conversation about human rights, and not just the right of U.S. Citizens.  I felt a bit teary, but then I always do when I think about these issues.  I have an almost religious reverence for these documents that have done so much to shape our thinking about human rights.

When I used to teach on-ground classes, I would have students read some of the important documents of our nation and write about them.  When I taught the first half of the Brit Lit survey class, we discussed the thinkers that led the early U.S. patriots to write those documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  In short, when I was teaching, I looked for ways to work these citizenship lessons into my classes.  Many of my students had never been exposed to them at all.  I worried about them; it's easy for people to strip you of your rights if you don't even know you have them.

Back in those days before September 11, 2001, I wouldn't have dreamed of the Patriot Act, and how people would willingly give up those rights in hopes of being a bit safer.  And then, how many of us willingly give up every scrap of privacy for the convenience of living so much of our lives online--and I'm the same, although it's partly because I feel that my life is so boring that I am willing to give up that privacy.

Yes, I realize how much I might regret that openness if a truly repressive regime that threatened more of us living in the U.S. came into power.  But last night, I felt that stirring of hope that I so often feel when talk turns to the Constitution.  Last night, I was moved by the power of those words to shape actions by some of the most powerful people in the U.S., perhaps in the world--and I reflected on how sturdy those early documents have proven.

And then I came home and spent some time with some different powerful words:  Margaret Atwood's.  Last night while I waited for the student, I wrote this Facebook post:  "Tonight I will have popcorn for dinner and read Margaret Atwood. No not "The Handmaid's Tale" or the other dystopias. Not "Cat's Eye," with its message of how female friends can turn on each other. No, I'm in the mood for "The Robber Bride," which has been on my list of books to revisit since reading Atwood's short story collection "The Stone Mattress," which has one story that revisits the characters."

I will write more about The Robber Bride later, but as I read I marveled at the power of Atwood's skill with words.  It was a great night, although much too short, remembering that words are important and that language matters.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Making All Things New

Candlemas told us that we, too, held the light of the world:

We see the first sprigs of Spring and feel a stirring of hope.

And yet, we worry:  what if we are too old and withered for the task at hand?

Our deepest worry:  what if it is too late for us?

But God reminds us that we are clay, never too late to be shaped:

If our hearts are made of glass, the light can shine through them and illuminate us all:

Our God can take any broken and abandoned metal and turn it into a new creation:

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, February 12, 2017:

First Reading: Deuteronomy 30:15-20

First Reading (Alt.): Sirach 15:15-20

Psalm: Psalm 119:1-8

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 3:1-9

Gospel: Matthew 5:21-37

Last week's Gospel looks easy in the light of this week's Gospel. Light of the world, salt of the earth: check. We know how to do that: feed the poor, be kind to everyone we meet, clothe the ragged, make sure that the oppressed are taken care of. Not easy, to be sure, but easy compared to this week's Gospel.

This week, Jesus tells us that our inner landscape must match our outer actions. Righteous actions aren't good enough. We must work for purity of heart and brain too.

Everyone I know seems to be wrestling with the same question: how can we live a life of integrity, a life that's in synch with our values? The Gospel gives us some fairly serious instruction along these same lines, as Jesus directs us to be sure that our insides and our outsides match. Apparently our current struggles with living a life that's in balance are not new to our time.

We all know what happens if our lives get out of synch. We become hypocrites, and most of us would say we don't want that. I could make the argument that the hypocrisy of Christians do more to hurt our Gospel mission than anything else. If you know any non-believers and you ask them why they don't believe, they won't often bring up the fact that belief in God requires a faith beyond their senses, a faith beyond what is scientifically provable. No, most non-believers will bring up the hypocrisy of Christians, from the smaller hypocrisies, like the Christian who pretends to be a friend to your face but spreads ugly rumors about you, to the huge hypocrisies, like all the sexual predators employed by the Church through the ages. How can they believe in the God of those types of people?

And if you ask the non-churched why they don't go to church, they will almost always bring up hypocrisy. And if I hadn't started going back to school, I'd have mentioned that too. I think back to when I was a self-righteous 19 year old, angry, angry, ANGRY about the cost of the church building, the offering collected in heavy, gold offering plates and being used to pay the light bill. I wanted to be part of a church like Luther Place, in downtown D.C., a church that transformed itself into a homeless shelter for women every night, a church that operated a variety of services for the dispossessed.

I think back to the favor that the pastor of that church did for me. I told him that I wanted to switch churches, that I wanted to drive past my suburban church and become a member of his church, a church that so clearly was doing what Jesus wanted it to do.

He studied me. He asked me which church I was a member of, and I told him that I went to St. Mark's, in Springfield, Virginia.

He said, "You know, we wouldn't be able to run any of the programs that we run without the financial help that they give us."

And then, in that precise moment, my perspective shifted. I started to move away from being a self-righteous, know-it-all 19 year old towards being someone who sees life as more complex. And thus, I entered into what I suspect will be a lifelong measurement: am I living the life that Christ calls me to live? If I'm to be light and salt and to begin living the life of God's Kingdom right here and right now, what does that look like? How can I make my inner attitude match my outer actions?

Jesus wants us to be more than surface Christians. It's easy to go to church service each week, to sing the hymns, to hug each other. It's harder to live our Christian values the rest of the week. Go back and reread all of what Jesus tells us to do, both in this Gospel and throughout the Gospel texts. Can we really live like that? We're called to forgive each other more times than we think we can. We're called to make peace with our neighbors before we head to church. We're called to give away our money to those who have less than we do.

The world watches to see how Christians live our lives.

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Poetry Tuesday: "Conserving the Scraps"

My brain is going in several directions.  I've been thinking of Mepkin Abbey, since for a few years, I travelled there in February; this year, I'll go in June.  I've been thinking of February holidays.  I've been looking at poems I wrote years (and decades) ago, as I've been looking for inspiration.  I've thought of the poems I've written that look at God in a different light.

I've been thinking of refugees, but I've also been thinking of how many of us are essentially in exile, far from home, unlikely to make our way back. 

My school needs a library assistant, and all night, I dreamed of hiring someone.  I awoke thinking about how much I love the library.

I remembered this poem, based on a real incident, where I saw a woman who was clearly homeless.  She sat in the public library, reading a big book.  Was it a book about quilts or did I make that up for the sake of a better poem?  I don't remember.

I think the poem holds up well, although I wrote it long ago.  It was first published in New Plains Review

Conserving the Scraps

The homeless woman sits in the library
and reads about the art of quilts.
Surrounded by all her worldly possessions, three
grocery bags full, she discovers the history
of this odd art, born
out of desperation
and poverty: the lack of basic supplies, the need
to conserve every scrap.

The homeless woman thinks of her own clothes, patched
so many times that she can’t remember
the original contours of the cloth.
She fingers her garbage bags,
the modern feedsack with multiple uses,
many a rainy night made bearable
by their plastic presence.

The homeless woman reads
the tales of modern quilters and their quest
for quality fabrics.
Unlike them, she appreciates
the durability of polyester, a rugged fabric
well suited for life on the streets.

Later, the homeless woman settles
her garbage bags around her in the shadows
and waits for scurrying sleep to come.
She thinks of cheerful quilt tops,
the differences in batting,
and wishes for warmth to call her own.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Another Sunday in Charge at Church

Yesterday I was in charge at church.  We are off-lectionary, so we were doing the second week considering, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted."

On Saturday, I didn't feel like I had much to say.  We've had one of our older members of church die this week, so it was interesting to read people's comments in the various Facebook posts.  I am always astonished at the theology exhibited, ideas along the lines of he was wanted in Heaven more than we wanted him here.  On Saturday, I also watched a bit of a documentary on Thurgood Marshall, while waiting for A Moveable Feast to come on PBS.

I felt a bit of what I usually feel when watching those shows, a frustration that I haven't done enough with my life.  But I'm fairly certain that Marshall didn't grow up saying, "I'm going to dismantle segregation, and here's how I will do it."  He was in the right place at the right time, and he was brave.

So, yesterday morning, I had some ideas, but I hadn't sketched out my sermon in my head.  I wanted to be open to the Holy Spirit.

In all 3 services, I talked about mourning, about how even though time may lessen the sting of grief, it doesn't really go away.  I talked about ways to deal with our sorrow, whether it be the sorrow of the wider world (which I made specific reference to refugees and the fact that more people are fleeing for their lives now than any time since WWII, which I didn't think of as a terribly political statement)--I said that no matter where we are on the political spectrum, there's plenty to make us mourn. 
In the early and late worship service, I pointed to the Exodus material that our pastor had chosen to go with the Gospel as a way to handle our grief, whether it be grief about the larger world or personal grief.  I pointed to the passage about rest.  I tied in a documentary about Chief Justice Thurgood Marshall, and then I came back to the Beatitudes to point out that Jesus says we don't have to be spiritual giants like Marshall, and what an inversion of what the world tells us that is.  I came back to comfort and how Jesus promises us true comfort.
I did mention the idea of Heaven where we meet our loved ones and dead pets at the Rainbow Bridge is a very recent idea, and that 1st century people hearing Jesus would not have heard comfort for those who mourn and thought of our modern idea of Heaven.  I've said this in our church before.  I hasten to add that it's not that I don't believe in Heaven, but that Jesus didn't come to buy us a ticket to Heaven, but to proclaim that God's Kingdom is here and now and we don't have to wait for it--and that's the comfort Jesus promises.
At the 9:45 service, I had 2 different ideas for arts and crafts:  to make art/writing about those we have lost and what makes us smile/gives us comfort remembering them--I didn't realize that Zori's grandmother was in hospice, and she got tears immediately.  I had said that my other idea was to write to our legislators about whatever in the world was making us mourn, but that felt dangerous too.
From there, people went to work.  I painted with watercolors, the kind that elementary school kids use.  I found it soothing, and we had a good sharing time.  We did talk politics, since many of us are heartsick over decisions being made at the national level, and those things found their way into our art about mourning and loss.  But it was a good sharing time, and while some said harsh things about Trump, we didn't say anything about Trump's supporters.
My spouse was at the late service, and he said that my sermon was more political than usual, but nothing out of range for our church.  And since he sits in the choir, he can see the reactions on people's faces, and he said that there was lots of nodding across the sanctuary.
I figure the advantage to having lay people preach occasionally is that the congregation gets to hear a different voice--and if they're in disagreement, they can say, "Well, she's not the preacher, is she?"
On her way out, one woman said to me, "I hope you're being groomed for this position."
I said, "If I am, I need to get back to school.  That thought isn't an unpleasant one."
But it's a thought for another day--today it's off to my office, getting ready for the accreditation site visit.

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Existential Exile and the Way Back

Rabbi Rachel Barenblat has an interesting post on existential exile.  She points out that exile in Egypt is a shorthand way for Jews to discuss a larger existential exile:  "When we talk about being slaves to a Pharaoh in Egypt, we're also always talking about experiences of constriction in the narrow places of our lives now."  Those narrow places can be overwork, letting the feeling of being overwhelmed overtake us, despair, depression.

She talks about Pharaoh:  "For the Me'or Eynayim, galut is a state of not-knowing God. It's a state of having fallen so far from unity that we don't even realize we've fallen. This, he says, is what we experienced in the Narrow Place. And Pharaoh is the exemplar of exile. He saw himself as a god, and had no awareness of a Source greater than himself."

I instantly made connections to first century Rome, where Caesar also saw himself as God.   Many 21st century Christians have lost sight of (or never known) how much early Christian language would have been an affront to Caesar, a way of saying fairly directly, "You are not the ultimate leader."

And of course, the parallels to modern politics leap out at me too.  We have a president who seems to be uninterested in discussion and infuriated by dissent. 

Rachel points out the value of Shabbat as our chance to taste the redeemed life, "to live for one day a week not in grief at the world as it is, but in celebration of the world as it should be."  Our religious practices are not the only way, of course, but they do lay a solid foundation.

Let us always be on the lookout for the practices that can lead us back from our existential exile.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Add This Book to Your Group's Reading List

Once my college roommate and I were English majors together, so I was surprised that she hadn't heard about August Wilson's ambition with his plays to write a play representing the African-American experience in the 20th century, 10 plays, one for each decade.  But I'm not sure I'd have known that fact if I hadn't spent so many years teaching the Introduction to Lit class, which often included Fences or The Piano Lesson in the standard textbooks.

I had August Wilson on the brain as I read Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad.  I didn't expect to have time to read while my roommate visited, but a week ago, my spouse took my roommate to see the Everglades, and they timed the traffic wrong--so my friend got to experience both the natural wonder of the Everglades and the human-made misery that can be Miami rush hour. 

I took advantage of that time to devour Whitehead's book--what a masterpiece.  In some ways, the book does what Wilson did, by showing the wide variety of the African-American experience in the U.S. in the 19th century--but in some aspects of its alternative history chapters, Whitehead uses history from the 20th century too.  It's an interesting weaving together.

I have heard many reviewers speak highly of the main character Cora, but that's not the element of the book that will stay with me.  I am most intrigued by how each chapter analyzes a different element of slavery in the U.S. and all the ways that institution has shaped the country.  But it's so much more than that--for example, Whitehead also uses Native American history as part of the book.

It's a book that doesn't shy away from all the varieties of brutality present in plantation life.  As a child, I knew about cruel overseers, at least from the time I read Uncle Tom's Cabin and saw Roots, but I never realized how cruel the slaves could be too each other.  And the book is quite clear about the way that exposure to cruelty quickly blunts the horror of it as it becomes acceptable.

I had thought about buying the book because I worried that I wouldn't be able to read it quickly enough in the 2 weeks that our public library allows for new releases.  But it's not a homework kind of book--it's a speedy read, a compelling, can't put it down kind of book.

Many have talked about the book as important in terms of remembering our history and how we got to this point in race relations in our country.  But it's a much bigger book than that--it reminds us of how the powerful will prey on those with less power, and in all the ways we can resist.

And yes, I would still be saying that even if we had a different administration in the White House.  But at this time in history, as we see the rise of populist leader after populist leader, especially the type who is not interested in preserving progress made towards human rights, the book's message seems ever more essential.

Will people of faith read this book through a different lens?  Perhaps.  But the importance of caring for the oppressed and dispossessed is an important element of most religions--this book reminds us of what happens when we don't.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Candlemas: Hold the Light, Be the Light

Today is Candlemas, where Christians celebrate the presentation of Jesus at the Temple, and pagans long ago celebrated the goddess Brigid (and the feast day of St. Brigid was yesterday), and some Wiccans today will be celebrating at Imbolc, or a variation of any number of pagan holidays. It's also Groundhog's Day.  It's one of those times when we can almost perceive the shifting of the seasons.  It's not spring yet, but it will be soon.

Candlemas is the feast day that speaks to me.  Candlemas celebrates the presentation of Jesus at the temple.  It's the last feast holiday that references Christmas.  We could see it as the final festival of Christmas, even though most of us have had the decorations packed away since even before Epiphany.

This morning I'm thinking of Simeon, who held onto the promise of the Messiah throughout his very long life before he saw it fulfilled.  He waits and he waits and he waits.  But finally, at the end of his life, he does hold the Messiah, the light of the world, in his hands.

Simeon holds the baby Jesus.  Imagine it:  to hold the light of the world in your hands.  In so many ways we still do.  We carry the light of the world inside us.  How can your body deliver light to the world?

Some churches and monasteries will bless the year's supply of candles.  I love this tradition, although it's never been mine.  Today would be a good day to light a candle and to think about our own lights.  Are we dimly burning wicks?  Take heart--the Bible promises that we can still be useful.  Does our light burn pure and true?  Take care to protect that flame. 

The holidays of early February (Groundhog Day, Candlemas, St. Brigid's Day, Imbolc and Oimelc ) remind us that the light hasn't really left us.  Spring will be here soon.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

The Feast Day of St. Brigid

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

Like so many of our early Christian church mothers, she felt called by God from a very early age.  She resisted attempts to get her married:  one account has her scooping out her diseased eye in protest of an impending marriage--and later, healing her dangling eyeball by putting it back in her head.  When we go back to read about the lives of women in medieval times, it's amazing that more women didn't fight harder to go join the cloistered life.

St. Brigid founded some of the first Christian monasteries in Ireland, most famously the legendary one in Kildare.  She also founded a school of art that focuses on metal working and illumination.  The illustrated manuscript, the Book of Kildare, was created under her auspices.  Unfortunately, it's been lost since the Reformation, so we know it by its reputation only.

She's also famous for her generosity, especially to the poor.  She showed this compassion early on, giving away all of her mother's butter to a poor person--and then, by her prayers, the butter was restored.

There are so many ways we might celebrate her feast day.  To celebrate her generosity, today would be a good day to give away some of our stockpile, secure in the knowledge that we'll find abundance as we need it.

To celebrate her miracles, which involved abundances of butter, milk, and beer, we could bake some bread and slather it with butter.

To celebrate her artistic tendencies, we could start an illuminated book of our own.  How would our lives change if we kept a daily book that illustrated all the miraculous abundance that we found in the world?

But above all, today is a good day to consider our own lives.  If centuries from now, a middle-aged woman read about your life as you’re living it, would she be inspired?

Across a space of centuries, Brigid inspires me.  I'd like to be a similar inspiration.