Friday, March 31, 2017

Verb Choices in the Beatitudes

Since we've been reading our way, slowly, oh so slowly, through the Beatitudes this year as a local church, I recently returned to this passage:

"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be filled."

What does it mean to hunger and thirst for righteousness? Several weeks ago, we talked about what kind of righteousness--personal righteousness or societal righteousness.  But I can't stop thinking about the verbs, especially in the context of our current political time.

What does it mean to hunger and thirst after righteousness?  What type of yearning is Jesus discussing here?

Many of us might say we hunger and thirst in this way.  Don't we post our outrage on Facebook as various groups look to be in danger of losing human rights?  Some of us have spent the last few months marching--some of us have spent decades marching.  Maybe we've taken a vow to communicate more regularly with our legislators.

I'm thinking that the key to understanding these verbs, this hungering and thirsting, has to do with our intention.  Notice that we are blessed not if we rage and rail for justice.  Jesus does not say "Blessed are those who are angry about injustice."

Of course our anger may be what moves us to the deeper emotion, the hungering and thirsting for righteousness.  Hungering and thirsting speaks of a yearning that lasts, that even as it is filled, it reoccurs. 

These verb choices suggest that we are never done with the task of hungering and thirsting after righteousness.   After all, even if we've eaten the most filling meal, we'll still be hungry 24 hours later.

In these times when many of us feel like we're fighting for rights that we thought had been secure, that thought is an odd comfort.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Fingerpainting Psalm 63

Last night, after a long week at work even though it was only Wednesday, I headed over to church.  I've been enjoying our Wednesday sessions with soup, Psalms, and creative responses.

Last night while our pastor read Psalm 63, we fingerpainted as a group, both alone and together:

We had the three primary colors, which is really all you need.  Some of us got involved with our whole hands:

Some of us used our fingertip as a paintbrush:

When my spouse needed to moisten the paint, he spit into his hand.  I was reminded of Jesus curing the blind man by mixing dirt and spit and putting it on the man's eyes.  Ah, the physicality of miracles and art!

I was struck by this part of the Psalm: 

"I thirst for you,
    my whole being longs for you,
in a dry and parched land
    where there is no water."

At first I worked in reds and yellows, the pigments of parchedness.  Later, I added some waves:

I was intrigued by the work of others.  It's always interesting to see what others see.  My spouse focused on being held in God's right hand, which in his picture is blue:

Even babies got into the fun last night:

As always, it's interesting not only to discover what others heard, but also how we approached the art supplies.  Last night, I heard about the difficulty of creating the right shade of green:

Afterwards, we shared beef and barley soup, and then we headed out into the evening, fortified in all sorts of ways.  I  have found this Lenten practice to be so nourishing, so much return for an hour's investment.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, April 2, 2017

First Reading: Ezekiel 37:1-14

Psalm: Psalm 130

Second Reading: Romans 8:6-11

Gospel: John 11:1-45

What a strange picture of Jesus in this Gospel. Remember the Jesus of several miracles ago? The one who instructed people to go and tell no one?

Here we see a Jesus who seems overly aware of the impact of his actions. It's as if we're seeing a man who is aware of his legacy and how he'll be seen--a man who is trying to control the story. And of course, we see foreshadowing in this story, foreshadowing of the death and resurrection of Christ, which we'll be celebrating in two weeks.

Notice that Jesus waits until Lazarus is good and dead before he appears to comfort the sisters and perform a miracle. It's as if he wants no dispute about the miracle. Unlike the past few miracles when Jesus raised people who had only been dead for a few hours, here he waits 4 days. There's no doubt about what he's done once he's raised Lazarus from the dead. We can't easily imagine that Lazarus has been faking his death for 4 days. Even if Lazarus wanted to help Jesus fake a miracle and put on a good show, it's hard to imagine that he'd willingly submit to being sealed in a tomb for 4 days.

As we watch the world around us gear up for Easter, we'll see a certain number of Jesus detractors. We'll see people who want to explain away the resurrection. The liturgical calendar gives us this story of Lazarus to return us to one of the main themes of our religion--we believe in (and are called to practice) resurrection.

And why is the idea of resurrection so hard in our fallen world? Do we not know enough people who have turned their lives around? Think of all the people who have risen again out of the ashes of drug addiction, madness, or domestic turmoil. Why are we so hesitant to believe in miracles?

Although writing about a different miracle, Wendell Berry has said expressed my idea more eloquently than I can today. In his essay, "Christianity and the Survival of Creation," he says, "Whoever really has considered the lilies of the field or the birds of the air and pondered the improbability of their existence in this warm world within the cold and empty stellar distances will hardly balk at the turning of water into wine--which was, after all, a very small miracle. We forget the greater and still continuing miracle by which water (with soil and sunlight) is turned into grapes" (this wonderful essay appears in his wonderful book Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community).

The world has far too many cynics. Christians are called to be different. Choose your favorite metaphor: we're to be leaven in the loaf, the light of the world, the city on a hill, the salt (or other seasoning) that provides flavor, the seed that pushes against the dirt. Each day, practice hope. Each day, practice resurrection.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Bold Justice 2017

As Christians, we're called not just to do charity work, but also to do the justice work necessary so that our societies no longer need charity work.

In Broward county, in South Florida, BOLD Justice, an ecumenical group has been meeting for ten (!) years to demand justice from our local leaders.  Some years we've worked on housing issues, some years dental issues, and so on.  We make real changes.

Each year, we gather together for a Nehemiah action, where we meet with political leaders to present our findings and our wish for change--and a suggestion about what that change should look like.  Last night was our 2017 action.  We talked about getting training for first responders so that those with mental health issues would be treated more humanely--this training has been happening, but we'd like to see the scope increased and widened.  So would the officials in charge.  The issue comes down to, as it so often does, money.

We continued our focus on the best way to care for the elderly.  We've done some work in past years in the area of abuse of nursing home residents.  Now we're working on bringing alternatives to those nursing homes to our area.  We've been advocating for the green house approach, which gives residents much more autonomy.

We also continue to work on the issue of civil citations, an approach to nonviolent, misdemeanor offenses committed by minors.  Our county, Broward, has adopted this approach, but we'd like to see it adopted state-wide, so that minors who commit these offenses aren't bogged down with a criminal record, as it is increasingly difficult to escape that legacy.  So, we didn't need to talk to local officials, but we did all get information on whom to call in Tallahassee, our state capitol.

We had roughly 67 of our church members at the event--and I go to a church where we have 75-100 members at worship on any given Sunday.  That sentence tells me that a majority of our members are committed to justice, and that fact makes me happy.  We're not attending church in the hopes that we get into Heaven or because we need a social outing on a Sunday.  We're trying to transform not just souls, but whole societies.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Photographing the Sacraments

Yesterday, we had the kind of baptism that used to drive me crazy:  we had more people taking pictures than standing with the parents to vow support of Christian upbringing.

I say it used to drive me crazy, because when I attended my nephew's first communion, I REALLY wanted to take pictures.  But I also wanted to be free from the distraction of my own picture taking and the obnoxiousness of other photographers to be better able to concentrate on the sacrament taking place.

Can we be present for God if we're angling for the best shot?

The picture taking didn't stop with the baptism.  As the family took communion, the photographer angled around the rail to get a picture or two.

Once, the picture taking made me crazy.  Now, I have a deeper concern.  It's been a long time since we baptized a child who was actually born to a congregation member.  So, when we as a church pledge to help raise the child in the faith, what are we promising?

I had never seen the families yesterday who wanted their children baptized.  I don't expect to ever see them again.  Why was the sacrament of baptism important to them?  And why didn't they go to their own churches?

I suspect that the answer is that the baptism was important to some other family member.  But the question remains:  why our small, Lutheran church?

For the families yesterday, I'm sure that some of them haven't ever been to church.  Our liturgy of baptism has the family reciting the Apostles Creed--they couldn't pronounce the word Pontius, as in Pontius Pilate.  Or maybe I'm wrong in assuming that if one has been to church occasionally one will have heard of one of the main actors in the Easter story.

I am not one of those Christians who says that we must get all children baptized, so that we can be sure that they're going to Heaven if they die.  I look at what we all promise during the sacrament, and I feel that we shouldn't do the baptism, if we're not taking those promises seriously.

Happily I am not a pastor who has to make those decisions.  I suspect the bishop would not be very happy with my decisions.

I will pray for the children we baptized yesterday--sadly, we will not be worshipping together or having VBS time or any of the other ways that I could help mold the faith of the children.

Or perhaps the Holy Spirit will surprise me.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Two Twenty-First Century Women Consider Annunciation

I have never had trouble falling asleep, but I do have problems staying asleep, and some weeks I consider myself lucky if I'm still sleeping past 3 a.m.  This past week was one of those weeks.

I don't spend too much time wondering why I'm awake or trying to force myself to fall back asleep.  I'm lucky in that I can function even with if I wake up extremely early.  Yesterday, I woke up around 1:30, and by 2:00, I got up and did some writing.

At 4:00, I thought I might fall back asleep, so back to bed I went.  It was a windy night, part of why I had trouble sleeping.  I watched the wind whip the palm fronds to and fro, and I thought of angel wings and the feast day of the Annunciation, which was yesterday.  Later in the day, I took a picture of the tree that inspired the poem that came to me:

Look at the two browner fronds at the bottom, closest to the trunk--don't they look like a pair of wings?

A poem came to me, and my hip started to ache, and I knew that sleep would not be coming.  I wrote this poem:

In the early hours of this feast
day of the Annunciation, I listen
for God’s invitation, but all I hear
is the roar of a motorcycle speeding
away after last call.  The rustle
of the palm fronds in the wind,
the only angel wings today,
as I lay enfolded in the arms
of my beloved of thirty years.

As I wrote the poem, I thought about Beth Adams and the book on the Annunciation that she put together.  I decided to send her an e-mail with the poem.  My e-mail ended this way:  "I don't like it [the poem] as much as the one I wrote for your collection, but as I wrote it, I thought of you and all the various approaches to the Annunciation, so I thought I'd share it with you.  Wishing you many blessings on this feast day!"

She wrote back to tell me that she was touched by my sending the poem to her, and she wrote a bit about Mary, about the way that the Virgin Mary was more present in Mexico City, from where she had just returned from a yearly sojourn.  She talked about the little shrines to the Virgin that she saw in Mexico and that she had once seen in the countryside of Quebec, but didn't anymore.  I thought about some of the shrines that I've seen here in people's yards, something that I never saw in other parts of the U.S. South where I've lived.

Later in the day, Beth sent me a meditation that she'd sent to the group doing a quiet retreat at the Cathedral where she worships.  She included my poem, which, along with the rest of her writing, moved me deeply.  In both her e-mail to me and her meditation that she sent to the participants, she talks about finding the presence of God in the ordinariness of life.  And she perceived my intention with the use of the word Beloved, that it can mean a human who holds us, but it also means the larger God who always enfolds us in love and grace, freely given.

I spent some time with her meditation and some time thinking about Mary and my relationship with her.  When I was in college in the 80's, the issue of Mary made me angry, like the patriarchal church thought it had done its job by venerating Mary, and now it could go on celebrating the maleness that it wanted to focus upon.  But in my later years, I see so many more nuances, both negative and positive.

It was a wonderful way to spend a feast day:  early morning meditation/writing time, corresponding with a friend, exchanging more ideas, and inspiring each other.  I feel so lucky to live in this time where technology enables all of this to happen in close to real time, so that this nourishment occurs on the actual feast day, not as we exchange letters through the paper mail system.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Feast of the Annunciation

Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, the feast day which celebrates the appearance of the angel Gabriel, who tells Mary of her opportunity to be part of God's mission of redemption. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary and says, in the older wording that I still like best, "Hail, oh blessed one! The Lord is with you!" Mary asks some questions, and Gabriel says, "For nothing will be impossible with God" (Luke 1: 37). And Mary says, ". . . let it be with me according to your word" (Luke 1: 38).

That means only 9 months until Christmas. If I wrote a different kind of blog, I'd fill the rest of this post with witty ways to make your shopping easier. But instead of spending the next nine months strategically getting our gifts bought, maybe we should think about the next nine months in terms of waiting for God, watching for God, incubating the Divine.

I find Mary an interesting model for modern spirituality.  Notice what is required of Mary. She must wait.

Mary is not required to enter into a spiritual boot camp to get herself ready for this great honor. No, she must be present to God and be willing to have a daily relationship, an intimacy that most of us would never make time for. She doesn't have to travel or make a pilgrimage to a different land. She doesn't have to go to school to work on a Ph.D. She isn't even required to go to the Temple any extra amount. She must simply slow down and be present. And of course, she must be willing to be pregnant, which requires more of her than most of us will offer up to God. And there's the later part of the story, where she must watch her son die an agonizing death.

But before she is called upon to these greater tasks, first she must slow down enough to hear God. I've often thought that if the angel Gabriel came looking for any one of us, we'd be difficult to find. Gabriel would need to make an appointment months in advance!

In our society, it's interesting to me to wonder what God would have to do to get our attention. I once wrote these lines in a poem:

I don’t want God to have to fling
frogs at me to get my attention. I want
to be so in touch that I hear the still,
small voice crying in this wilderness of American life.
I don’t want God to set fire to the shrubbery to get my notice.

We might think about how we can listen for God's call. Most of us live noisy lives: we're always on our cell phones, we've often got several televisions blaring in the house at once, we're surrounded by traffic (and their loud stereos), we've got people who want to talk, talk, talk. Maybe today would be a good day to take a vow of silence, inasmuch as we can, to listen for God.

If we can't take a vow of silence, we could look for ways to have some silence in our days.  We could start with five minutes and build up from there.

Maybe we can't be silent, but there are other ways to tune in to God. Maybe we want to keep a dream journal to see if God tries to break through to us in that way. Maybe we want to keep a prayer journal, so that we have a record of our prayer life--and maybe we want to revisit that journal periodically to see how God answers our prayers.

Let us celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation by thinking about our own lives. What does God call us to do?  How will we answer that call?

Friday, March 24, 2017

Remembering Romero

On this day in 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated; no one has ever been brought to trial for this crime.

Until recently, I assumed that we would never see Romero beatified.  I am old enough to remember when Romero was maligned as a communist.  But this new Pope has begun the process of canonization.

Saint Romero--how I like the sound of that. 

A few years ago, I created this card to commemorate his life:

I find his life inspiring for all the reasons you might expect:  the standing up to oppression, the speaking truth to power, the martyrdom.

Lately I've been thinking about the fact that he came into greatness late in his life; he was born in 1917, and I don't think he did his best work until the 1970's, in his late 50's/early 60's.  Looking at the trajectory of his life from the middle years of the century, one would not have predicted that he would speak so eloquently about injustice and the need to fight against it.

In fact, many scholars believe that he was chosen to be Archbishop precisely because he was expected not to make trouble.  All that changed when one of his good friends, an activist Jesuit priest, was assassinated by one of the death squads roaming the country. Romero became increasingly political, increasingly concerned about the poor who were being oppressed by the tiny minority of rich people in the country. He called for reform. He called on the police and the soldiers to stop killing their brethren. And for his vision, he was killed as he consecrated the bread for Mass.

Romero knew that he was in danger from various political forces in the country, but he refused to cower in fear and back down. Likewise, Jesus must have known what wrath he was bringing down upon himself, but he did not back down. Until the end of his life, he called upon us to reform our earthly systems, systems that enrich a few on the backs of the many. Romero and Christ both show us that the forces of empire do not take kindly to being criticized.

In the years since Romero was assassinated, we have seen the kind of economic injustice that infected El Salvador, where a very small proportion of the population controlled much of the money, take over much of the world.  What would Romero call on us to do?  How can we change the very economic structure that oppresses so many?

Romero's life story shows that the system will resist change violently and perhaps take lives along the way.  And yet, Christians believe that the trajectory of change will continue towards justice, and that we are called to be part of the mass who nudge/force that trajectory. 

We are Easter people living in a Good Friday world (I've seen this phrase credited to Barbara Johnson, but unsure).  God can take horrific suffering and death and transform it into resurrection. We know what happened to Jesus and those early Christians after the death of Jesus. Likewise, in death, Oscar Romero became a larger force for justice than in life. His death, and the martyrdom of other Church leaders and lay workers (not to mention the deaths of 75,000 civilians) galvanized worldwide public opinion against the forces of death in El Salvador. God is there with us in our suffering and with God's help, suffering can be transformed.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Insight from Different Versions of Psalm 126

Last night, at my church we had another Lenten soup supper with Psalms and creative responses.  I chose Psalm 126:

I started with the NRSV:

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,[a]
    we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
    and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
    “The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
    and we rejoiced.
Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
    like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears
    reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
    bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
    carrying their sheaves.

We read from the Contemporary English version (once I had a denim-clad Bible in this version):

It seemed like a dream
when the Lord brought us back
    to the city of Zion.[a]
We celebrated with laughter
    and joyful songs.
In foreign nations it was said,
    “The Lord has worked miracles
    for his people.”
And so we celebrated
    because the Lord had indeed
    worked miracles for us.
Our Lord, we ask you to bless
    our people again,
    and let us be like streams
    in the Southern Desert.
We cried as we went out
    to plant our seeds.
    Now let us celebrate
    as we bring in the crops.
We cried on the way
    to plant our seeds,
    but we will celebrate and shout
    as we bring in the crops.


Here it is in The Message:

It seemed like a dream, too good to be true,
    when God returned Zion’s exiles.
We laughed, we sang,
    we couldn’t believe our good fortune.
We were the talk of the nations—
    God was wonderful to them!”
God was wonderful to us;
    we are one happy people.
4-6 And now, God, do it again—
    bring rains to our drought-stricken lives
So those who planted their crops in despair
    will shout hurrahs at the harvest,
So those who went off with heavy hearts
    will come home laughing, with armloads of blessing.
We read each one, but The Message was the one we returned to again and again.  I was fascinated, as you knew I would be, at how the basic themes were the same, but the language so different.
I loved the idea of armloads of blessings:
My spouse thought about rain and the colors of joy:
Here's another picture:
Alas, I don't have pictures yet of the gardens created by others, gardens of yarn and pumpkins made of buttons.
I am loving this approach to the text, reading multiple times and letting the words sink in.  The different translations tonight added a richness.  I am hoping for rain in our drought-stricken places--I hope that for all of us.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, March 26, 2017:

First Reading: 1 Samuel 16:1-13

Psalm: Psalm 23

Second Reading: Ephesians 5:8-14

Gospel: John 9:1-41

Occasionally, a student will ask me how I know that a symbol is really a symbol, and not just me overreacting to something in the text. I always reply that we know we're looking at a symbol when the author comes back to it again and again. Then an image is meant to take on more weight.

Today's Gospel would be a good illustration of this point. Again and again, we see blind people in this text, from the physically blind to the metaphorically blind. Again and again, the text returns to blindness. Clearly, we're meant to explore issues of our own blindness. It's not bad to do a spiritual inventory periodically. Where do we see evidence of God in our lives? Where are we blind to God's presence?

As I read the text for this week, I found myself getting to this point from a different angle. Look at how Jesus cures this blind man. He mixes dirt and spit (dirt and spit!) onto the man's eyes and instructs him to bathe. I'm not the first to be struck by the earthiness of this cure: the use of different elements (dirt, saliva, and water), the rootedness of the cure in the physical (Jesus doesn't cast a spell, for example, or call on angels), and the simplicity of it all.

It might make us think back to the Genesis story, of God forming the first humans out of dirt (Adam) and an extra rib (Eve). It might make us think of all the ways that God uses basic, earthbound elements in both creation and salvation.

Think of our sacraments, for example. There's baptism, the word bound with water. And the water doesn't come to us from some special source--it's not like we special-order it from the Holy Land. Well, perhaps some churches do, but that's a foolish use of money, if you ask me. It's not like those waters have special powers. The power comes from the word--and perhaps more importantly, from the words that the congregation offers. When we baptize someone, the whole congregation takes a vow to support that person--when you wonder why baptism is such a public event, and why some people are adamant that it not be separated from the service and the congregation, that's why. It's not a photo op. It's a sacrament.

Think about Holy Communion. I've been to many Holy Communions now. Some churches use wafers specially ordered from religious communities, but you don't have to do that. I've had Communion with pita bread, with challah, and once, with a pizza crust. I've had good wine, bad wine, and grape juice. Again, what's important is the symbol of the elements, mixed with the words. It's not just about memory--it's how God becomes present to us, through a mystery that we don't fully understand.
As we work our way through the Scriptures, think about how often God takes simple things and turns them into routes that can lead to salvation. The most stunning example, of course, is the story of the Incarnation. During weeks where I'm impatient with my own failing flesh, I'm even more astounded than usual that the Divine would take on this project.

And we, of course, can work similar magic. Open up your dinner table, and observe grace in action. Forgive freely, and watch redemption work. Pray for those who would do you wrong, and notice what happens. Get your fingers in the dirt and watch the flowers bloom later. Take some simple elements and envision them as sacramental, a symbolic route to God.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Rites of Spring

Suddenly we notice every shade of green:

The azaleas may distract us from the work of Lent:

The dogwoods remind us of one of Spring's destinations:

Life out of death:

We see these rites enacted every spring, and every year, the first blooms pushing back against the earth surprise us:

Easter beckons, but we have a journey to complete:

Monday, March 20, 2017

Poetry Monday: "Consolations in Harsh Landscapes"

I love Rattle's feature "Poets Respond," which the journal describes this way:  "Every Sunday we publish one poem online that has been written about a current event that took place the previous week. This is an effort to show how poets react and interact to the world in real time, and to enter into the broader public discourse."

But I rarely have myself together enough to create/revise/come up with an idea for a poem in time for the Friday deadline.

This past Friday, as I was feeling sorrowful about the budget and simultaneously thinking of Saint Patrick, I wondered if I could revise this blog post into a poem.  I thought I would cut and paste lines into the shape of a poem and then revise, but that's not how it happened.  For the most part, I came up with lines inspired by the blog post, and then this poem emerged.

Consolations in Harsh Landscapes

Today patrons shall drink gallons
of green beer and cheer
at parades and watch
the green currents of many rivers.

I will look at the federal budget and remember
that even in a harsh
landscape like Saint Patrick’s Ireland,
strange shapes can flourish.

I will till my own soil, rocky
and marbled with thorns.
If truly desperate, I’ll suck seaweed
from the stones for nourishment.

I will set sail in my coracle,
casting away my oars.
I need no supplies that federal dollars
can bring me.

I will create new communities
on these stony shores.
The larger world may not yet know
but it needs our new brand of faith.

The poem didn't win, but that's not really why I wrote it.  I decided to post it here, since the topic is so timely that a more traditional publication is unlikely.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

The Feast Day of Saint Joseph

March 19 is the feast day of St, Joseph, Mary's husband, the earthly father of Jesus. I have done some thinking about Joseph, as many of us do, in the Advent season, when occasionally we get to hear about Joseph. He thinks of quietly unweaving himself from Mary, who is pregnant. This behavior is our first indication of his character. Under ancient law, he could have had Mary stoned to death, but he takes a gentler path.

And then, his life takes an even more surprising turn. He follows the instructions of the angel who tells him of God's plan. He could have turned away. He could have said, "I did not sign up for this!" He could have said, "No, thanks. I want a normal wife and a regular life."

Instead, he turned toward Mary and accepted God's vision. He's there when the family needs to flee to Egypt. He's there when the older Jesus is lost and found in the temple. We assume that he has died by the time Christ is crucified, since he's not at the cross.

Some of us today will spend the day celebrating fathers, which is a great way to celebrate the feast day of St. Joseph. We might also celebrate stepfathers and all the other family members who step in to help with the raising of children.

 Lately, I've been thinking about his feast day and what it means for administrators and others who are not the stars but who make it possible for stars to step into the spotlight.

 Most students will remember their favorite teachers. They won’t remember the people who scheduled the classes, the ones who ordered the textbooks and supplies, the ones who kept the technology working, the people who kept track of the records, the ones who interfaced with loan officers and others to get the money necessary for school. But those people are important, too.

Let us today praise the people in the background, the people who step back to allow others to shine. Let us praise the people who do the drudgery work that makes it possible for others to succeed.

Many of us grow up internalizing the message that if we're not changing the world in some sort of spectacular way, we're failures. Those of us who are Christians may have those early disciples as our role models, those hard-core believers who brought the good news to the ancient world by going out in pairs.

But Joseph shows us a different reality. It's quite enough to be a good parent. It's quite enough to have an ordinary job. It's quite enough to show up, day after day, dealing with both the crises and the opportunities.

Joseph reminds us that even the ones born into the spotlight need people in the background who are tending to the details. When we think about those early disciples and apostles, we often forget that they stayed in people's houses, people who fed them and arranged speaking opportunities for them, people who gave them encouragement when their task seemed too huge.

I imagine Joseph doing much the same thing as he helped Jesus become a man. I imagine the life lessons that Joseph administered as he gave Jesus carpentry lessons. I imagine that he helped Jesus understand human nature, in all the ways that parents have helped their offspring understand human nature throughout history.

Let us not be so quick to discount this kind of work. Let us praise the support teams who make the way possible for the people who will change the world.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Leaders of the Free World

Yesterday, I watched the first pictures of Angela Merkel and Donald Trump.  Angela Merkel has fascinated me for many years now--she's one of the first world leaders who is a woman, and she has a doctorate in physical chemistry--and the element which may fascinate me most is that she's the daughter of a Lutheran minister who came of age in communist East Germany.

I've spent some time trying to discover what strand of Lutheranism shaped her.  It seems that the East German government was somewhat permissive when it came to letting her father be a pastor--not what I was taught about communists when I was young.  But she also took part in communist youth activities which were almost compulsory, if one wanted opportunities.

What a difference from Donald Trump's youth and young adulthood.  And as older adults, their paths have not been similar.  My admiration for Merkel comes from many of her actions, but my love of Merkel comes from how she has handled the question of refugees.  I love her sense of hospitality and care for the stranger.  But underlying all of that is something else.  I get the sense that these refugees will be taken in and transformed into Germans, with jobs, who will give back to society for the next wave of people who will need them. 

It's much the way that Lutheran groups in the U.S. have helped refugees become citizens with a strong helping hand in the beginning, but an overall design at creating self-sufficient members of a new land.

It's clear from his budget that Donald Trump does not have the same values undergirding him as Angela Merkel does. It's a budget that worships military power while gutting every single program that helps people who are dispossessed from the larger society.  It is impossible to imagine Angela Merkel proposing such a budget.

I suspect that Angela Merkel's Lutheran beliefs are somewhat different than mine; I'm fairly sure we would disagree on what constitutes a marriage, for example.  But there are core beliefs that we find across almost all variations of Lutheranism (and much of Christianity for that matter), and that I don't see in this current administration:  care for the powerless, care for the dispossessed, care for those in the lower parts of society. 

We can disagree about how that care is distributed, but I always look at where we spend the money.  Budgets speak volumes about our values. 

Friday, March 17, 2017

Saint Patrick and Modern Harsh Landscapes

Today is the feast day of Saint Patrick.  But as with Mardi Gras and Valentine's Day, the secular aspects of these days almost completely overshadow the religious and spiritual origins.

All these centuries later, I still find Saint Patrick fascinating.  What surprises me lately is how I find different aspects of his life fascinating at different points of my life.  This year, I'm thinking about Saint Patrick and the harsh landscape that was Ireland when he lived there.

I spent part of last Saturday watching PBS travel shows with an Ireland theme.  The countryside that was once so rugged and foreboding is now lush and green and well-travelled.  But those ancient monks like Patrick, who carved out rich lives in Ireland and Scotland, faced significant hostility, from the people who lived there to the weather to the ground and the ocean.   Ireland and Scotland must have felt like distant outposts, a tough exile.  And yet, what they had to offer was exactly what was needed to keep the faith going.

Many of us may lately have a similar feeling, that we face hostile surroundings--especially in these times of fierce budget battles that are just beginning.  I have lived in times of federal budgets that gut all that I hold dear--it's heartbreaking, but in these times, outsiders are needed more than others.

Some of us may have been feeling that way much longer.  Many of us who have a religious practice have been feeling like we live in an alien landscape, one that doesn't support our dreams and values.

But instead of despairing and longing for the mythical glory days of past times when the Church was more influential in the U.S., perhaps we should think of ourselves as Celtic monks, trying to till a very rocky, thorny soil. We should take comfort and encouragement from how much God can accomplish, even in the most unlikely circumstances. There’s plenty of transformative work for us to do today.

The lives of the Celtic monks remind us that even in a distant exile, wondrous things can happen if we stay open to all of the possibilities.  During our times of exile, it's good to remember that basic truth.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Illustrated Lectio

My church is doing something different on Wednesday nights, and last night I got to experience it.  We had a simple supper of soup and bread, and then we read Psalm 8.  Five people read these words:

Psalm 8New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)

Psalm 8

O Lord, our Sovereign,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
    Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark because of your foes,
    to silence the enemy and the avenger.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and the stars that you have established;
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
    mortals[a] that you care for them?
Yet you have made them a little lower than God,[b]
    and crowned them with glory and honor.
You have given them dominion over the works of your hands;
    you have put all things under their feet,
all sheep and oxen,
    and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea,
    whatever passes along the paths of the seas.
O Lord, our Sovereign,
    how majestic is your name in all the earth!
We had a variety of art supplies, and then we got to work creating.  Some of us focused on that imagery of hands:
Some of us worked in two dimensions, while others worked in three.

Here's my painting, made with watercolor. 
Do you see the purple hand in the bottom left of the page?  Do you see stars and fish and notations both musical and mathematic?

I was most fascinated by my spouse's approach:
He focused on this passage
Out of the mouths of babes and infants
you have founded a bulwark
Then, he created this response, as part of his picture.
 His response made me visit the text again--out of the mouths of babies come bulwarks.  Fascinating!
I have heard this psalm so many times, but never really heard that bit.  I find it very interesting how this practice of a sort of lectio divina helped me to a new hearing.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, March 19, 2017:

First Reading: Exodus 17:1-7

Psalm: Psalm 95

Second Reading: Romans 5:1-11

Gospel: John 4:5-42

If you didn't read much of the Bible, you might assume that Samaritans are good people; after all, wasn't the only person who stopped to help the traveler who was assaulted and left for dead, wasn't that person a Samaritan?

Yes, and that's part of the point of the story that many of us miss. Church officials didn't stop to help. The only person who did stop to help was one of the lowest people in the social stratosphere.

Actually, today's Gospel introduces us to one lower, a Samaritan woman. We know that she has low status because she's a Samaritan and because she's coming to the well later in the day. It would have been the custom to come early in the morning to socialize, and the fact that she doesn't come then speaks volumes; she's an outcast among outcasts. She's a woman in a patriarchal society and part of a group (Samaritans) who have almost no social status. It would only be worse if she was a prostitute or a slave.

Yet, Jesus has a long conversation with her, the longest that he has with anyone recorded in the New Testament. Here, again this week, Jesus is in Mystic mode. She asks questions, and he gives her complex answers.

But unlike Nicodemus, she grasps his meaning immediately. And she believes. She goes back to her city and spreads the good news. And her fellow citizens believe her and follow her back to follow Jesus. Notice how she has gone from isolation to community.

Jesus preaches to them and seems to include them, complete outsiders, in his vision of the Kingdom. Hence the good news: Jesus came for us all.

In this Gospel, we see an essential vision of a messiah who will spend time with people who are completely outcast. We are never too lost for God. We don't have to improve ourselves to win salvation. God doesn't tell us that we'll win love if we just lose ten pounds or pray more often or work one more night in the soup kitchen or give away fifty more dollars a week to worthy charities.

Jesus doesn't send the Samaritan woman back to town until he's made a connection with her. He doesn't say, "Hey, if you're at a well at noon, you must be a real slut, if the women won't even let you come to the well with them in the morning. Mend your slutty ways, and maybe I'll let you be part of my vision for the Kingdom."

No, he spends time with her and that's how he wins her over. He knows that humans can't change themselves in the hopes of some kind of redemption; we can’t even lose 10 pounds in time for our class reunion, much less make the substantial changes that will take us into a healthier older age.

However, Jesus knows the path to true change; he knows that humans are more likely to change if they feel like God loves them and wants to be with them just the way they are. Jesus comes to say, “You’ve lived in the land of self-loathing long enough. Sit with me and talk about what matters.”

That treatment might be enough to motivate us to behave like we are the light of the world.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Poetry Tuesday: "Spinning Our Wheels"

Over the week-end, I got my contributor copy of Naugatuck River Review.  I'm happy to be included with such great writers.

The journal calls itself a journal of narrative poetry that sings, and I've been interested to see the many varieties of narrative poetry.  That being said, my poem that was chosen isn't as traditionally narrative poetry as others I've written.  It tells a story, but it doesn't have the same narrative arc as some of my work.

This poem is part of my series of poems that imagines Jesus moving about in the modern world.  These poems may strike some as humorous, some as heretical, but I've always tried to create spiritual truth out of this narrative situation.

I haven't been to spin class in several weeks.  My spouse was sick which took out one day, and then I pulled my back which took a week.  Last week was full of car swapping as we got the basic maintenance done.

These days, it seems like basic maintenance, and often a poor version of it at that, is taking up more and more of my time.  I am just exhausted by it all.  But I try to make sure the dishes are washed and the laundry done, even if not put away.  The bills are paid, and I'm staying on top of my work-for-pay.  Maybe that's enough.

I suspect the Jesus in this poem would tell me that it is.

Spinning Our Wheels

Jesus joined our spin class.
He came without a water bottle,
but we let him stay. We weren’t sure
about his sandals, but he seemed to manage.

Jesus has heard our prayers
for bodies that conform.
Jesus understands our shame
over the splotches and stains
from bodies that can’t contain themselves.

Jesus watches us sweat and slurp
our water, a friendly competition
to see who works out hardest,
measured in liquid units.

Jesus thinks about ancient purity codes,
the woman who had bled for over a decade,
and the blind man healed with spit and sand.
Jesus pedals faster and ponders
the human attitude towards body
fluids, our desperate attempts
to contain our essential selves
which want to flow towards the sea.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Women's Day in Church

Yesterday in our church, we celebrated International Women's Day.  I was one of three women who spoke in our late service about women in the Bible or the early church who meant something to me.  I chose St. Brigid and St. Hildegard of Bingen.  I wrote about their importance as women who needed to perform quite a balancing act between creative life and administrative life and spiritual life.

But I was more interested in our interactive service.  We read the passage in Matthew that talked about the command upon which balances the law and the prophets:  love God and love your neighbor as yourself.  Then we talked about what that would look like in church.  We talked about the ways our church shows love with the food bank and raising money for camp and such.

Then we did graffiti, writing ideas on large pieces of paper:

Here's the one I worked on--the words are mine:

I was struck by one conversation I had with a 10 year old girl.  I told her that when I was her age, if I had wanted to be a pastor, I couldn't have been, since the church didn't let women become pastors.  She looked at me as if I had lost my mind and was making up outrageous stories.

I hope she continues to find that idea outrageous that we would restrict jobs because of something like gender.  I hope that in 40 years, we realize we've made similar progress.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Descent into Lent

The staircase opens before us with an invitation to descend into Lent:

We will spend this season, and perhaps our lifetimes, making nests in strange places:

Maybe we feel our brokenness acutely, a time of dry brittle bones made of moss:

Perhaps the Holy Spirit will pacify, or perhaps a flower:

In our Lenten disciplines, let us remember the promise of Easter, that death does not have the final word:

Friday, March 10, 2017

Borning Cries and Other Life Passages

I was sad yesterday to hear about the death of John Ylvisaker; if we know him at all, most of us know him as the writer of "I Was There to Hear Your Borning Cry."  It's a beautiful song that tells us of the ways that God takes an interest in us throughout our lives, from the most mundane events to the most important.

It's that rare song, one that most of us are capable of singing, but without dumbing down the music.  It's not the unsophisticated structure that we find in much praise music that's also designed for singing by most voices.

Likewise, the lyrics are sophisticated, but not inaccessible.  Look at that first line:  God doesn't say, "I was there when you were born."  Hearing the baby cry upon birth is a much more lyrical way of expressing the same idea.

Ylvisaker wrote many songs that are treasured, but none with the reach of "Borning Cry."  But he was also a medical doctor, a professor, and a real estate developer (according to this obituary).

It's a reminder that's important to me about how broad the expanse of one's life can be.  We putter along assuming we're accomplishing nothing only to look up one day and realize that we've taught thousands of students, written more words than we can count, and done the daily clean up along the way that life requires..

I've had this idea on the brain more so this week, even before the death of Ylvisaker.  My spouse was grading essays from his Philosophy class, and one of his students quoted one of my spouse's mentors.  My spouse then had an interesting Facebook conversation with a wide-ranging group of our college friends, many of whom had taken classes from that mentor.  It was wonderful to hear how this group of folks who majored in a variety of topics, but who remembered the mentor as one of their best teachers--and they remember him decades after taking the one class.

Our old Philosophy teacher might be surprised to hear how many of us still remember him, even though we majored in something different.  Or maybe he designed his life and teaching in the hopes that we would.

Likewise, with an artist like Ylvisaker, I'll always wonder if the work that the wide public cherishes is the work that the artist thinks is best.  When I look at any anthology, that thought comes to mind.

In the end, I go back to the wisdom that elders across the spectrum have taught us:  we do our work, whether it be our creative work, our work with the upcoming generations, our work for pay, and even the drudgery work that most of us must do, and we do it to the best of our abilities because we can't know for sure which part is most important.

And that work that outlives us might happen much, much later in life than we're expecting.  We live in a world where we're more impressed with youth--we are bombarded with messages that tell us that if we haven't done our best work by the time we're 21, we might as well give up.  But if we look at Ylvisaker's life, we see an alternate narrative--he was over 60 years old when he wrote the work that most of us know, the work that will be sung at baptisms and weddings for many decades, and possibly centuries, to come.

Our culture also tells us that staying power proves the value of work.  But that, too, is a lie.  I like the spiritual aspect, the being present, the sacramental element--the meeting God in our daily work.  I like the idea that we are not required to transform the world in a single day of work.  For most of us, we have many years and decades to do that transformative work--and we have partners along the way.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, March 12, 2017:

First Reading: Genesis 12:1-4a

Psalm: Psalm 121

Second Reading: Romans 4:1-5, 13-17

Gospel: John 3:1-17

It's always interesting to come across a familiar verse in context. John 3:16 is one of those verses that many people can quote. And yet, we're at the end of centuries of disagreement about what it means. Does it mean that Jesus had to be crucified as a sacrifice for our sins, as many Christians will tell you? Does it mean that Jesus came to show us a different way of life, thus saving us, as many people uncomfortable with a sacrificial Jesus would have us believe? Does it mean that Jesus is the only way to the Divine? What about people who will never hear about Jesus? Will they go to Hell when they die?

John is the most mystical of the Gospels, and not surprisingly, Jesus acts as a mystic in this episode with Nicodemus. He's studying the Torah at night; first century Jews would recognize night as the time for serious study of the Torah. He asks Jesus serious questions, as a scholar would, and Jesus seems to give him nonsense answers about being born again.

Read what Jesus says again, and imagine how frustrating it must have been for Nicodemus. It's frustrating for me, and I come from a tradition that would be happy to explain it to me. I can talk about the ideas of Martin Luther with the best of them, the small and large Catechisms, and yet, Jesus seems to be offering mystical babble here.

These are the passages that I hate discussing with the confused and the non-believers. I'm a poet and an English major, so I don't have as much trouble getting my head around sacraments as more literal-minded folks do--but explaining it? That's a different matter.

Maybe we don't have to explain. I take part in all sorts of mysteries that I can't explain. I don't understand internal combustion engines, but I drive my car anyway, and I have faith that it will work. I can't explain how electricity is generated or how it powers all the things that make my life easy, but that doesn't stop me from turning on the lights when it's dark.

Advent and Lent are two times of the liturgical year when I am most conscious that I'm participating in a mystery--and therefore, I can't explain everything, especially not to the satisfaction of non-believers. I can't even explain it to me. As Jesus says, "The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit."

I have faith in being born again, although I might define that differently than my fundamentalist friends. Each day is like a new opportunity, a new birth, a new chance to re-align myself towards God. Each day, God wants to come be with me, and each day, I get to decide whether or not that will happen. Even if I go through a period of not living as mindfully as I'd like, I can start again, whenever I choose. And these liturgical seasons of Advent and Lent remind us of the need to turn and return to God.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

International Women's Day

March is the month designated to celebrate women's history; March 8 is International Women's Day.  We might ask ourselves why we still need to set time apart to pay attention to women.  Haven't we enacted laws so that women are equal and now we can just go on with our lives?

Sadly, no, that is not the case.  If we look at basic statistics, like how much women earn compared to men in the very same jobs, we see that the U.S. has still not achieved equality.  Although the Lutheran church has been ordaining women since the 70's, although we have a female bishop in the top position, our local churches are still likely to be led by white men.  If we look at violent crime rates, we discover that most violent crime rates have fallen--except for rape.  If we look at representation in local, state, and federal levels, we see that members of government are still mostly white and male.

And that's in a first world country.  The picture for women in developing nations is bleak.

Most of us understand why a world where more women have access to equal resources would be a better world for all of us.  Many of us have spent years and decades working to make that world a reality.  Some of us are lucky enough to have a church that supports the vision of equality that God offers to us as what the Kingdom of God looks like.

Not everyone has that experience.  And sadly, many people have experienced discrimination against women coming at them through their churches.

In this country, some of us will stay home today, a boycott of sorts.  There are all sorts of protests planned across the globe. 

And how will life change tomorrow?

We may not see immediate change, but rest assured, the world is changing.  We have had a female candidate for U.S. president who won the popular vote--I am surprised to see that event in my lifetime.

We know that the world can change very quickly, and God calls us to be part of the movement to change the world in ways that are better for all--and particularly for the vulnerable and powerless.  We have made great progress on that front.  But there is still more to do.

So, today, let us get started.  And let us pray for all who are with us on the journey.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Henri Nouwen on Hospitality on an Inhospitable Day

Each Lent, I read my way through Show Me the Way:  Readings for Each Day of Lent; the readings are taken from the works of Henri J. M. Nouwen.  Each year I wonder if I can possibly read anything new in this book that I've been using for a decade.  Each year, I do.

Even if I didn't, I'd still use it, because the ideas contained are so wonderful and so essential--it would be good to rediscover them each year.  But each year, something new leaps out at me. 
Yesterday, I underlined this passage:  "But still, if there is any concept worth restoring to its original depth and evocative potential, it is the concept of hospitality.  It is one of the richest biblical terms that can deepen and broaden our insight in our relationships to our fellow human beings" (p. 25).

How interesting that I underlined this passage on the same day that Trump presented his new travel ban.  I am guessing that Trump and his minions would not agree with this passage that follows:  "Old and New Testament stories not only show how serious our obligation is to welcome the stranger in our home, but they also tell us that guests are carrying precious gifts with them, which they are eager to reveal to a receptive host" (originally in Reaching Out; reprinted in Show Me the Way, page 25).

Do I think that if Trump had been raised in a different faith tradition he might have a different approach to refugees and immigrants?  Yes, yes I do.  It would be no guarantee, I know.  Many people are raised in faith traditions and grow up to be despicable humans.  But many more are shaped and formed in ways that last through adulthood.

I'm also interested in this book that I return to every year.  At some point, will I underline the whole book?

I wrote a blog piece on Nouwen and hospitality in 2011, but I didn't underline the book at that point.  Interesting.  In the blog piece, I referenced the passage that I underlined yesterday.  If not for the blog post, I wouldn't have remembered that the day's readings had spoken to me before.

Last week, I discovered that a new collection of unpublished Nouwen letters had been put together.  I'll order it as we get closer to Easter.  His writing, no matter the genre, has always provided such nourishment to me. 

Writing as hospitality--maybe I'll write more about that idea at some point.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Spiritual Journaling with Old Hymbooks

My week-end was book-ended by fun with markers.  On Friday, I wanted to see what my new markers (bought on Ash Wednesday) could do, and eventually, I created this:

Some might see it as too busy, but that's on purpose, as I suspect that I'd find a true Mardi Gras celebration an overwhelming cacophony.  And I was trying to create a feathery technique, like you might find on actual Mardi Gras masks.

On Sunday, I noticed a box of old red hymnals, last widely used by the Lutheran church in the 70's, with a free books sign.  So, I took some, with a vision using hymnal pages in my visual journaling.  I chose a chunk of "Onward Christian Soldiers," my favorite hymn from childhood, and part of "A Mighty Fortress" with its old language of bulwarks.

I glued them onto the page, and then I had to wait for the page to dry.  So, I drew a variety of purples on the back of my Ash Wednesday piece:

The effect on the other side is subtle, but I like it:

Here's the original, with no back coloring:

Then I was ready to work on my hymnal fragment piece.  I've worked with hymnal fragments before and had a similar experience.  I'm not thrilled with how the hymn fragments mostly disappear:

I decided to play with the bleed-through that can happen with these thin pages:

I like how it gives color to the other side, but I can still read the words and see the notes:

What will I do with this piece?  Stay tuned!

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Foreheads Crossed with Oil, Foreheads Crossed with Ash

Twice this past week at church I've made the sign of a cross on the foreheads of worshippers.  Last Sunday was our healing service, and I was assisting minister, so I used oil.  On Ash Wednesday, I used ashes.  What interests me is that I like smudging ashes more than using oil, and I wonder why.

Part of it comes out of the context of the service.  When people approach the rail at a healing service, I feel there's lots of hope and expectation, often tinged with desperation.  And yes, I realize I'm just a vessel of the Holy Spirit in this service, but I still feel some of that desperate hope directed at me.  And I wonder how people handle the disappointment that might come when their hopes for healing aren't delivered in the way they long for.

The ashes on the forehead are much more dramatic--is that why I like them more?  Or perhaps it is the more direct language:  "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."  There's no hope that we'll avoid that destiny--there's hope that death will open us to new opportunities, but that piece, whether metaphoric or literal, isn't part of most Ash Wednesday liturgies. 

Maybe that's why I like Ash Wednesday smudging best:  the reminder is stark, and the imperative is clear.  We are not here very long.  We must get on with what it is we are here to do in our very short lives.