Friday, June 30, 2017

Feeding the Flock

--I've spent the week thinking about students and hunger--but not the hunger for knowledge.  No, I've been thinking of statistics and anecdotes that talk about college students, many more of whom are facing hunger and homelessness than we would suspect.

--It's been a successful week of handing out food to returning students, primarily granola bars and fruit to our morning students.  Even the ones who have plenty of food at home are likely to forgo breakfast in the morning rush to get to class.  I liked being there to greet them and offer food.

--Our new campus executive director arrived on campus yesterday when I was greeting students and passing out food.  Later I met with him, and we discussed challenges on campus.  I talked about needing to increase retention and to convince students to stay in school.  I said, "So that's why you saw me handing out granola bars this morning."  He nodded and said, "Good, good."

I've worked for other people who would have immediately totaled up the cost of granola bars and wondered if it was worth it.  I'm glad we didn't have to have that conversation yesterday; I do realize that it may come later.

--Yesterday I submitted a proposal to be a presenter at a conference that I'm required to attend.  When my proposal was accepted, which means I don't have to pay the $140 conference fee, I immediately thought about how many granola bars I could buy.

--I've also been thinking of other ways to surreptitiously feed students.  I know that many students feel shame about not having enough.  I've thought of buying peanut butter and bread and putting it on the counter in the student lounge.  I've also thought about having a crock pot of soup--something cheap and nutritious.  I wasn't thinking of always having those available--but at least once a week, to have something out and available for students who might be hungry.  And it wouldn't take much to always have a fruit bowl on the counter.  I've been surprised by how many people are taking bananas this week.

--I've thought about the food pantry that we used to run at a former campus.   Finding storage for the food at my current campus would be a problem.  I have a vision for ready-to-go food bags that students could grab--instead of the food pantry at my old school that had a wide variety of food.

--Am I crazy to be spending so much mental energy on this project of mine?  Some might say my time would be better spent by tracking down students who aren't attending--and I do plan to do that with each progressive week.

--As I've thought about the past few days and all my various thoughts about food, I've wondered not only if I am crazy, but if this is God speaking to me.  I've thought of Jesus saying, "Feed my sheep."  I've rejoiced in my corporate credit card.  I will keep on with these projects until someone tells me not to do it anymore--and then I'll explain why we must.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Hunger and Hospitality

I am thinking about the monastic practice of hospitality and how that practice translates to other, non-monastic, non-overtly religious settings.  I'm thinking about the small college campus where I work.

I'm also thinking about the intersection between hospitality and food.  We've always been a hospitable campus:  when you get off the elevator into our lobby, you'll be greeted by at least one person at the front desk.

Of course, that's partly hospitality and partly safety.  We want to make sure that we know who has arrived, and we want to make sure that visitors know that we know.

I have been impressed with the way we greet returning students with the start of each quarter, but yesterday, I decided to go a step further.  For the morning students, I bought granola bars, bananas, and tiny, seedless oranges; I think they're clementines, but they go by lots of names now.  For the evening students, I put the fruit back out along with plates of cookies that a friend of mine picked up at a Winn-Dixie going out of business sale (I have 4 cases of cookies, and each case holds at least 16 packages, so I have plenty to distribute).

I got lots of positive feedback throughout the day.  I heard that students loved having food and loved the atmosphere.  That's one major reason why I did it.

I also did it because I know that students across the nation are more at risk of food scarcity.  I know that students are often rushed in the morning and even if they have food at home, they often arrive to campus having had no breakfast.  I'm also looking for ways to help those students who could use a few more food opportunities throughout the week.

But I'm mainly looking for these kinds of opportunities to create a sense of warmth and hospitality.  I want our school campus to have the kind of effect on students that Jan Richardson describes in a recent blog post:  "My experiences in Ireland gave me a new glimpse of the power of welcome, of what can happen when someone gathers us in and invites us to be at home when we are not at home, or have had to leave our home, or do not know where home is."

Many of our students are moving through harsh landscapes where they are not loved or affirmed.  I want our campus to be a shelter in the storms that swirl around them.

Can granola bars do that?  Yes, if they're part of a larger, intentional vision, one that Jesus taught us so long ago and that monks have continued to embrace.  You can't address deeper hungers if you don't address the more immediate physical hunger.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 2, 2017:

 First Reading (Semi-cont.): Genesis 22:1-14

Psalm: Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 13

Second Reading: Romans 6:12-23

Gospel: Matthew 10:40-42

This week's Gospel reading has the flavor of the theme that Jesus develops more thoroughly in the 25th chapter of Matthew--that reading where Jesus reminds us that as we treat the least of our fellow humans, that is how we treat Jesus. This tiny Gospel reading reminds us of some of the themes Jesus returns to again and again: stay alert and watchful. Treat everyone as if they're God in disguise.  Keep our Christian priorities always in the front of our vision, so that we know what's important.

If I wrote a modern paraphrase, I might say something like this: Why do you swoon over supermodels and superathletes? What good do they bring into the troubled world? Why are you not searching out the words of the wise ones among you? Why do you neglect your duties to the next generation?

When I was younger and not surrounded by multiple types of media, it seemed easier to ignore the siren calls of the larger world. I remember a world before cable TV: we had four channels, and when we lived in Montgomery, Alabama, we could sometimes see a snowy version of one of Ted Turner's superchannels out of Atlanta. Little did we know that we were seeing what would become one of the cornerstones of the cable world. Even in the early days of cable, one's viewing options only expanded to 10-40 channels, and then, as now, half of those were just dreadful creations formed to take advantage of cheap airwaves.

At graduation a few years ago, I listened in shock as our graduation speaker told the graduates that there was no Internet 15 years ago. Of course there was. But there wasn't a widespread World Wide Web, so the medium was text based and not as user friendly. Unless we were at a university dedicated to the technology, it was slow and clunky. Therefore, we weren't as prone to let it suck away our lives.

Now we're surrounded by electronic information, media, and gadgets. Of course, in some ways, it's invaluable. It's much easier to research any subject from the comfort of my computer--unlike the old days, when I'd have to go to a library. It's easier to keep in touch and communicate, at least for those of us plugged in. I've often wondered if Christian communities online can be as valuable--even more valuable--in terms of keeping each other centered, grounded and on track. Are we headed towards virtual communion? Is that possible? What would it look like?

But of course, I wouldn't be the first to point out all the ways the technology can lead us astray. We spend our days dealing with e-mail instead of doing real work. In our quest to be connected, we often let our connections in the real, human world slide.

The Gospel for today reminds us that there are rewards for righteous living. Traditionally, Christian communities (at least in the last 300 years) have translated those rewards as coming in the afterlife. But we shouldn't overlook that righteous, connected living has rewards for us in our lives right here and now. We will be able to recognize the prophets and disciples that Jesus promises to send. We will be able to discern the presence of the Holy Spirit. We will not neglect our duties to the young and disadvantaged. We will drink from the streams of living water and be able to know what nourishes us and what saps our strength.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Different Approaches to Vacation Bible School

I was reading past blog posts, and I realized that during most summers, in late June, I'd be involved in Vacation Bible School as the Arts and Crafts director.  It was stressful, it was fun, and it was rewarding.

I will be involved in VBS in a different way this year.  Our church is trying something different:  we will have camp counselors from Luther Springs come to do a week-long day camp at our church.

My grandmother's church did something similar.  She was still involved, as she helped with lunch.  Unlike my grandmother, I have to work, and I have no accrued vacation time that I can use until November, so I won't be volunteering this year.

We will help in other ways.  We have a vacant cottage, so some of the camp counselors will stay with us.  I imagine that we may need to help with feeding them and perhaps transport.  Still, it won't be the same.

I feel oddly sad about my inability to participate this year.  But I'm a grown up--VBS is not about me.  Our VBS serves neighborhood kids, who aren't church members for the most part.  We have about 8 children from the church who have participated in past summers--and that's all the church kids who were the target age who were in town.  The other 50-60 kids are from the surrounding neighborhoods, and VBS is likely to be one of few spiritual experiences they will have throughout the year.

I am hopeful that the camp counselors can make the experience even richer for the kids--or richer in a different way.  It's worth a try--just as our church doesn't have many young kids, we also don't have many adults who can commit to VBS the way our grandmothers did it.

Monday, June 26, 2017

A Different Kind of Sunday: AC Repair

Yesterday was different than most Sundays when we are in town.  We're usually out the door by 9:30, so that my spouse can get to choir rehearsal at 10:00.  I go to both the 9:45 service and the 11:00 service.  Afterwards we usually stay to count the money and make the deposit.

Yesterday morning as I was making my coffee, I thought, hmm, the air blowing out of the vents isn't as cool as I thought.  I went outside to discover that the fan blade wasn't turning.  I turned off the AC, hoping that as with some computer issues, a reboot would be all we needed.

Nope--the AC was definitely not working.  We made the decision to get it fixed yesterday, even though it meant paying a holiday/week-end charge.  We both have the kind of heavy duty schedule this week that would make it hard to find another day to get it done, which means hanging out waiting for the repair person.

And since we needed to wait, we both stayed home--besides, it was too late to get to church anyway.  It was interesting to have a very different Sunday morning.  I felt we should have brunch or work on a crossword puzzle or do one of those things that people do instead of going to church.

It wasn't a completely non-spiritual morning.  I listened to the delightful and spiritual conversation that Krista Tippett had with Martin Sheen on this morning's episode of On Being. I usually tune in to the show, but it's not always as wonderful as it was yesterday.

And throughout the repair process, I remembered to feel gratitude.   I was grateful that we have the money for the repair and that we were able to be put on the Sunday schedule.  I was grateful that the house didn't heat up too quickly.  We didn't have AC again until after 2, and the temperature didn't go above 81 degrees.  Hurray for high ceilings and trees that give shade!  And I was grateful for downtime, which allowed me to get a lot of things done.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Mepkin Ramble

Two weeks ago, I'd be halfway done with my ramble through the Mepkin Abbey grounds.  Because we had so little downtime, I had to make some decisions, and on Sunday, I decided to skip the 6:30 service and walk the grounds.

The sunrise was beautiful, but I couldn't really capture the colors:

I headed over to the labyrinth.  I tried to walk slowly and meditatively, but it wasn't as easy for me as it sometimes is.

I was enchanted by some of the plants that make the labyrinth rings:

Then I walked towards the river.  Once again, I tried to get some pictures of the statue.

I approached the river from the family gravesite and gardens, rather than from the parking area.  My heart leapt up as I saw some hydrangea bushes in bloom.  Do I love these flowers more than azaleas?  It's a different love.  Here's the view looking back:

I heard the deep, disturbing call of the alligators.  I felt cautious about getting too close to water.

I took these stairs because I knew they'd get me to a the field that's part of the retreat center.

And then, I discovered some turtle shells.  It took me awhile to realize they were dead turtles.  Did they crawl up there to die?  Did some animal snatch them from the water and eat them there?  Was I looking at the discarded trash from that meal?

I took a picture of this piece of heavy equipment--the Mepkin earth moving machine!  Sounds like a good children's book . . .

I added some stones to the cairns that had fallen down.

And then it was time to get ready for the Eucharist service.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

We Are Not the Messiah

Last night, my spouse was feeling despair.  He found out that one of his classes that he's about to teach is a class that comes to him with a syllabus, book, and assignments that he's not allowed to change.  Instead of feeling thrilled about the reduced work load for this week-end (creating a syllabus takes no small amount of time for him), he started to feel huge sadness about the state of higher ed in the U.S., where adjunct faculty aren't allowed to create their own classes or make the important decisions and where there aren't many full-time jobs left.

I have had this conversation many times in the past decade.  I, too, despair, and I have such a yearning to fix it all--but it's a problem much bigger than I am and far outside of my meager powers to do anything.

Last night, I thought about the fact that the next day would be the feast day of John the Baptist.  I said, "I wish I could fix this, but I can't"--a differently worded version of John the Baptist's answer to the question of identity:  "I am not the Messiah."

Now of course the fact that I can't fix the dynamics affecting the larger social picture doesn't mean that I can just shrug my shoulders and go with the status quo.  I must do what I can to ensure that the students get a quality education, that faculty have what they need to deliver that education, and that the staff are supported too.

And to continue this metaphor, John the Baptist reminds us to stay alert.  He's not the one for whom we wait, but that one is coming soon. 

We live in a culture that likes to keep us busy and distracted. We are all too busy to heed John's message: "Repent." Turn around. Do it now, before it is too late.

Today is a good day to think about John's message.  What parts of our society need salvation?  How can we be part of the redemption of all of creation?

And today, we might take a gentle look at ourselves.  We're none of us perfect, and while John's message about vipers and the ax that will chop down the tree that isn't bearing good fruit may sound harsh, it's one that we should sit with for awhile.

John the Baptist reminds us that we are called to emulate Jesus. Some days, though, I’d rather emulate somebody else. I’m so tired of working so hard to be a light to this fallen world.

When I feel that way, I need to listen to the words of John the Baptist again. I need to listen to God, who often calls to us from the wilderness. Most of us need to be reminded to listen to that call that God makes. Let the words fill our hearts with hope: "The crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God." (Luke 3: 5-6).

Our salvation is at hand: our grieving hearts will be comforted, our anger and irritation will lift, the planet will heal itself as it always does, God will take care of us and everything we need is on its way.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, June 25, 2017:

Genesis 21:8-21
Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17           
Romans 6:1b-11
Matthew 10:24-39
I wonder what the Family Values crowd makes of this Jesus, who in this week's Gospel warns us that he'll be turning family members against each other.  This is not the meek, do-goody Jesus who reads us a nice bedtime story and tucks us into bed.
No, this is one of the texts where Jesus warns us what we'll be sacrificing when we follow him.  Or seen alternately, this is one of those texts where Jesus reminds us that God wants to be the central focus of our lives.  Teaching after teaching, Jesus shows that God knows what competes.  In this text, it's our family that competes with God for central focus.  In other texts, it's money. 
As we look at the teachings of Christ, a central theme emerges.  Fear is at the root of all that keeps us from God.
Again and again, Jesus yokes his teachings of what will be required with the admonition to have no fear.  Here, Jesus tells us that God knows about the least little sparrow--and we're worth more than sparrows.  The wisdom of the Holy Spirit invites us to new life, not to paralyzing fear.  Jesus tells us that even sparrows are nurtured in God's economy.  Our religious texts remind us over and over again to be careful of where we store our treasures.
I love this vision of God who knows me from the individual hairs of my head to the rough soles of my feet.  I like this vision of God who helps me travel through the dangerous parts of the world.  I want to believe that I am worth more than sparrows, and I want to believe that in God's economy, sparrows are worth more than two pennies.
But again, Jesus warns us that we can't stop with that vision.  This is a God who keeps watch so that we can do the transformational work that must be done.  It is work that is likely to take us to threatening places where we may have to oppose the dominant power structure.  We may find ourselves crucified, in every sense of that word.
As I write this meditation, I'm thinking back to the events of Freedom Summer, that crucible moment in history which changed the progress of the Civil Rights workers forever.  I'm thinking of the youthful exuberance of those college students who headed south to register voters and to teach kids to read.
I'm thinking of how so many of them paid for those acts with bruises and broken bones.  I'm thinking of the ones who died terrible deaths.  I'm saying a prayer of thanks for the transformations that they brought.
Again and again, Jesus asks if we're willing to pay the price.  Again and again, Jesus offers the promise that we find at the end of this Sunday's Gospel:  if we quit our obsessive clinging to those elements that we think give us life, we may indeed find true life.  
We will find God. 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Christians and the Summer Solstice

Here we are in the season after Pentecost, a long, green season that needs some holidays.  Perhaps the summer solstice would fit that bill.

I am partially kidding, of course.  For one thing, many of us won't notice much change, once the summer solstice has come and gone.  Many of us live in places where we've been slogging through hot weather for over a month.  Many of us won't notice that the longest day of light has come and gone.  It sneaks up on us, this gift of light that's been added in small increments to our days since the winter solstice.

And yes, I understand the pagan roots of this day.  If we refused to celebrate every holiday with pagan roots, we'd have very little left to celebrate.

Let us think of some ways to celebrate the summer solstice--and to strengthen our faith:

--We have longer days now than we'll have at any other point in the year.  Let's use this increased light.  Let's get out and exercise.  Let's notice the glories of God's creation. 

--Let's enjoy the fruits of the season.  Sure, we can eat melon year round now, but it's more refreshing during the hot months--and a good way to stay hydrated.

--When the heat is just too much, let's escape in an old-fashioned way:  by seeing a movie.  Whether in the movie theatre or in the comfort of our own homes, seeing a movie is a great way to beat the heat.  If we feel our brains turning to mush, let's look to the movies to see if we see any overarching themes or characters that remind us of our own spiritual stories or the larger spiritual stories of our faith.  Even escapist fluff might remind us of the overarching importance of love in our lives or that the battle between good and evil will not be escaped.

--The shifting of the seasons is a good time to do some sorting.  As we pull out our summer clothes, let's get rid of the ones we never wore last year.  As we think about our summer activities, let's get rid of the sports equipment we will never use.  Let's sort through our picnic supplies.  Have we been hoarding craft supplies that need to go to a better purpose?

--These days of longer light might make us feel like we have more time--and many of our workplaces expect a bit less in the summer.   Maybe this summer we could donate a bit of time.  Often our churches could use some assistance, as people take long summer vacations.

--Let's think about the qualities of light and think about all the Bible passages that mention light.  If we are the light of the world, are we June light or February light?

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Monastery Dog and Other Poetry Inspirations

This morning, I finally wrote a poem.  I looked back through my poetry notebook, and it's been almost a month.  It has been a humdinger of a month, between my online ENC1102 class with its intense pace of a piece of work due 4-6 days of the week, work which must be graded, and my trip to Mepkin Abbey.

Yet I also feel like I've been telling myself this story every month:  Last month was a humdinger, but the pace of my life should be calming down soon, and I'll get some writing done. 

Let me sit with this idea for a bit, before I come up with plan A, B, C and a back up plan for each.  This morning let me be happy that I wrote a poem.

I came back from Mepkin with a new poem in my head, a poem inspired by a time during our retreat when I watched the monastery dog sleeping in the sun, and I thought of a previous retreat where we talked about needing to find time to write.  I thought about the monastery dog who knows how to prioritize her time.  I liked the contrast.

Over the past week, I've thought of different contrasts.  I thought of a retreatent who brought her own organic food and didn't eat the food prepared by the monks.  I thought of us all at the Sunday Eucharist service, even though we all came from a variety of practices.

I'm still wrestling with the poem, but I'm happy to have work on paper to revise.

I thought I had written about the monastery dog before.  In a blog post, from 2015, I had written this:

"At first I felt sorry for the monastery dog.  She seemed so eager for attention.  I thought about all the children who would never be part of her world.

Yet as my week-end at the monastery proceeded, I decided that the monastery dog was lucky.  She had a never-ending supply of visitors who would likely pet her.  The monks would take care of her.  Not every community has taken a vow of hospitality, after all. She could have been abandoned to a much worse fate.

And she had vast fields at her disposal.  No cooped up back yards for her.  Her joy at racing across the grounds made me happy too."

I thought I had written that poem, but I looked through older poetry notebooks this morning, and now I'm thinking that I planned to write it, but it's one of many poems that I never actually wrote.

The eternal question:  how many of these poem ideas should I return to? 

That's a question for another day.  Today it's time to return to the main campus for my week of trainings.  Today it's the student tracking system--another computer system that will be able to do far more than I will ever dream of asking it to do.

Yet another metaphor waiting for a poem . . .

Monday, June 19, 2017

Mepkin Mind

It is 5:17 a.m. as I write.  A week ago, I'd be about to leave Mepkin Abbey.  The drive back to Florida was uneventful and felt speedier than it sometimes feels.  I was grateful.

This past week-end has been one of finally getting caught up--I did the last load of laundry on Saturday, and did some required IT security training yesterday which will mean I can keep teaching my online classes at the community college.  I got a haircut on Saturday, which wasn't overdue, but my shaggy hair was driving me nuts.  In between, we spent lovely time on the front porch watching the rain showers come and go.

This will be a week of heavy duty training at the Ft. Lauderdale campus, where I have no office, so I'm taking my own mug, my own snack, and trying to remember what else I might need when I don't have an office.

Let me create my own Mepkin retreat in my head, a Mepkin Mind, where I can return when I need the soothing of chanted psalms:

Let me remember my delight at seeing a hydrangea bush in full bloom:

Let me remember the river that has seen so much, even if it is never the same river twice:

Let me adopt the attitude of Abbey, the monastery dog, who is always happy to be near us:

If she's ever stressed, I never see it:

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Father's Day and God as Father

It's Father's Day, and I have parenting, metaphors, and God on the brain.  I come from a religious tradition that emphasizes God as Father more than any other metaphor I've encountered, although that situation has been changing during the last 40 years.  I've often found it irritating, even though my own experiences with fathers have been overwhelmingly positive.

I know how lucky I am to have emerged from an intact family, to have a mom and a dad who continue to love each other, and continue to love my sister and me. I grew up in the 1970's and saw plenty of wrecked families. I've always wondered how people who come out of those wrecked families, especially those with absent or abusive fathers, react to the idea of God as a Father.

I would argue that much of the damaged theology that we see comes from this idea of God as Father, in all the negative ways that metaphor can include.  God as the Judge Father, God as the Punishing Father, God as the Distant Father--I am lucky to have found a church that doesn't talk about God as a withholding father who always evaluates us and always finds us wanting, but that theology is never very far from many of us.  It's what keeps many people away from church, I suspect.

Even though I have a good relationship with both of my parents, I'm not crazy about the idea of God as Parent of either gender. I think that God as Parent is an infantilizing metaphor. If God is a Dad--or so much more rarely, a Mom--then it follows that we're children, and too often, we see that as a reason for inactivity. But God needs us to be active in the world. I'd go further and say that God is counting on us. I much prefer the idea of God as partner. God can be the Senior partner; I'm cool with that.

Having just come back from Mepkin Abbey and having spent time with my friend who comes from a tradition that talks about our elders, who are so often wise, I have that metaphor on the brain.  How would our relationship with God change if we saw God not as a parent, but as a wise elder?  I know that even at my current age of almost 52, I need more people in my life who can keep sight of the larger perspective.  I need a God of a grander vision, a God who can remind me of what's important, a God who directs my eyes to the larger horizon.

Today I shall pray for that God to come to us.  We live in a landscape more increasingly wrecked by poisonous models of caretaking; I'm thinking primarily of the fractured political world we inhabit, whether we want to or not.  On this day, at the end of a week where we saw a man shoot congressional male leaders on a baseball field during an early morning practice, it's clear to me that we need a different model of how to be male in the world.

Happily, most fathers I know these days are different.  They're much more involved in their children's lives, regardless of the age.  They change diapers, they braid hair, they fix lunches, they teach children the skills they will need, and they help older children find their way in the world.  God, too, cares for us that way.  And we are called to care for each other similarly too.

Let us do so today--and every day.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Mepkin Photo Walk

A week ago, at 5:30 a.m., I'd have been walking back from my breakfast at Mepkin Abbey.  I have often thought about the fact that I so often keep monk's hours, although I worship less throughout the day than monks do.  At Mepkin last week-end, I woke up between 4 and 4:30 a.m., but that's not unusual for me.

If my camera takes good pictures at night, I can't figure out how to give it those commands.  I spent some time in the early morning as I walked to breakfast trying to capture the full moon:

A week ago, I would miss the Eucharist service on Saturday morning.  I was waiting for my friend to knock on my door for a walk, and somehow we missed each other.  I looked at my watch, realized it was 7:25, and not only was I going to miss my walk with my friend, but also the Eucharist service.

So I decided to take a walk by myself.  It was a different kind of communion service.

I have been walking the Mepkin grounds for over 10 years--sobering to realize.  I've been taking pictures since 2009.  I brought a camera to the retreat with me; I was determined to figure out how to make it work.

Let me hasten to say that these are not super sophisticated cameras that I have.  I don't change lenses.  I keep the auto function on, even though I could be the one making the artistic decisions--there are only about 9 choices on the slightly more sophisticated camera that I inherited from my sister when she decided that she would mainly take pictures on her iPhone.  In fact, one reason I would get a smartphone is to have an easy camera feature on a device that would fit in a pocket.

Since I have been taking pictures at Mepkin for 6 years now, I challenge myself to find new angles.  For example, here's a picture of a statue that I took in 2009:

Last Saturday, I noticed that some of the tree branches and twigs behind the statue have a thorny appearance.  I tried to capture that aspect.

Of course, the advantage of taking many pictures is that you get the occasional surprise.  My spouse delighted in this one, with Spanish moss not thorns, which I didn't even remember taking:

I feel like I see the world differently when I'm walking with the camera.  I notice angles and colors and the way the light changes a shot.  I can't always control what the camera sees, however.  Here was another shot that my spouse liked.  The cross didn't have this glow when I saw it with my eyes, but the camera caught it:

One of my friends asked me how I learned to take such good pictures.  I said that I take a lot of bad pictures, and every so often, one of them stands out.  It's one of the blessings of a digital camera:  one can take lots and lots of pictures.

Friday, June 16, 2017

The Many Ways of Looking at Exile

A week ago, I'd have already been on the road for 2 hours.  This morning, similarly, I've been awake for awhile, but I've been grading.  However, my mind wanders back to my time away at Mepkin Abbey.

We gathered to talk about the power of story.  We talked about the types of stories we might tell, and we focused on these four:  Hope, Exile, Repentance, and Home.  Our leader pointed out that almost any story can be framed as a story of one of these elements.  And since it was a retreat at a monastery, we focused on how religious traditions, particularly Christians, have seen these elements in telling our stories of the larger faith.

I thought we'd be writing our stories, but we told our stories--one of our retreat leaders modeled the process by telling by telling his story as we moved through each module.  We discussed, and then we broke into groups:  first pairs, then a group of 3, then 5, and then for our final gathering, we stayed as a large group and each person took a turn.  It was a great way to help us get to know each other.

During the retreat, the topic of exile was the element that most moved me to take notes.  I have always had this sense of exile--that I'm displaced somehow, never really home, never finding my larger tribe.  I've always seen this feeling/condition as one that needed fixing--and as soon as possible.  As we discussed exile, I had a moment of insight:  what if this feeling of exile is the norm?  Or what if it's actually a preferable state?  After all, when we're in a state of exile, we remember our true home (God or Heaven or something better, if you're not inclined to use religious terms).

We are to live our lives fully while holding onto them lightly.  Think about what this means:

--If we're in exile, we don't need to hoard anything.  We might as well use it.

--Exile re-orients us away from our things and illusions about our lives and towards what really matters.

--If we didn't end up in exile, we might forget we need God.

--When we're displaced, we're more in tune with the moment.

We talked about this idea in spiritual terms, that our true community (church, God, social justice co-workers, etc.) may not be the larger community (the U.S., the world).  But I also see this dynamic in places where we might not expect it to be at work; for example, how do we deal with the fact that we may feel in exile at places where we'd expect to feel at home, say, at church?

I wrote an e-mail to a friend upon my return.  She responded:  "I know, however, that I would have been abjectly unhappy if I had stayed in the village where my cousin still lives today.  So, what to do:  follow your dream of the big world, or then regret having lost your home for the rest of your life."

She's hit on an essential question:  how do we remain faithful as we live our lives as resident aliens?  The answer to that question is as varied as humanity itself.  More to come!

Thursday, June 15, 2017

God's Plans

At the Power of Story retreat at Mepkin Abbey, we had lots of opportunities for discussion.  I was interested in how many people talked about how their lives turned around after they gave up on their own plans, only to discover that God had a more interesting/wonderful/perfect plan.

I thought about this vision of God who patiently waits for us to abandon what we want and give in to what He wants--and it was always a male-gendered God with a plan for us (let me also point out how grateful I was that our retreat leader carefully avoided gendered pronouns when referring to God).

I said that I didn't really believe in an omniscient, omnipotent God who had the one perfect plan for us.  I said that I wasn't even sure that I believed in a God that had complete control, because then how do we account for evil in the world--I said that I knew that statement opened up a theological road we probably didn't want to travel this week-end.  I said that I thought our lives were more like a choose-your-own-adventure book where no matter what we chose, God would nod and say, "Yes, I can use your talents here."  God is like a weaver, where if we're a bunch of blue thread, God can work us into the tapestry, or if we're gold strands, God would figure out a different design.

It's what I truly do believe, and I understand why my view of God isn't as comforting as the idea of God who has a divine plan and all we have to do is submit.  I also worry a bit that I'm succumbing to heresy, with my belief in a not-all-powerful God.

But the monk who is in charge of the retreat center stopped me after that discussion to tell me how glad he was that me and my friends were there, and how we offered a different dimension to the retreat. 

As I've thought about it, I've realized what an unusual assembly of folks we were.  One of my friends was the only African-American woman there, and my other friend has a daughter who has severe mental disabilities, which gives her a very different outlook than most of us.  I enjoyed meeting some of the women in their late 70's who have lived wonderful lives and continue to do so.  I could tell that some of us had very conservative religious beliefs; one woman covered her head with a lace scarf whenever we were in the chapel.  A fairly large group of us are at midlife, later midlife likely, thinking about roads we didn't take, wondering about what to do next.

I doubt that any of us changed each other's minds about our views of God and God's plans.  But that's fine.  I am at a point where I no longer think about right or wrong viewpoints.  I envision God listening to us all and saying, "Well, you understand a piece of how I'm operating.  But I have such a larger vision--if only you could take it all in."

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, June 18, 2017:

First reading and Psalm
  • Genesis 18:1-15, (21:1-7)
  • Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19

Second reading
  • Romans 5:1-8

  • Matthew 9:35-10:8, (9-23)

In many modern churches, especially in the time around Pentecost, we spend a lot of time talking about mission, even if we're not realizing we're talking about it.  Does the church exist to serve the members?  Does the church exist to serve the community?  And what do we mean when we talk about the church anyway?

In this Sunday's Gospel, we get a very different vision of the early church than we'll get in parts of Acts.  In Acts, we often see the early believers arguing about doctrine, like who gets to belong and who doesn't--and once we've decided who gets to participate, there are debates about how to participate.

In this Sunday's Gospel, we see a vision of the early church in the way that Paul will practice it; to use a word that I see slung around frequently, we see a missional field.  Jesus gives instructions to his disciples to go out taking very little with them:  no food, no money, not even a change of clothes.  Their mission:  "Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons."

And what will they get for their troubles?  They will be flogged in the synagogues and drug before rulers, where we assume a gruesome death will follow.  Their message will divide families, but they are to persevere, to endure.

It's not a grow-the-church kind of message.  Who would sign up for this mission?  I'd much rather plan for Vacation Bible School or figure out how to pay for a new roof for the building.

I think about those early disciples, what they must have seen and heard as they followed Jesus--and how his message did not fall on deaf ears.  They went out and followed his instructions and I would argue they formed one of the largest social institutions in the history of the world (but I am also biased, I admit).

Are we to do the same thing?  Or should we see these words of Jesus as metaphor?

I would argue that the answer to both questions is "Yes."  There are many ways to announce that the vision of God for our world is at hand.  And there are many ways that we will be rebuked for that message.

This passage leapt out at me this morning:  "See, I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves" (Matthew 10: 16).  I have spent much of the past nine months feeling like a hopeful, optimistic lamb, making predictions about the world that prove to be terribly wrong, misreading many of the people in my various communities.  It wouldn't surprise me if many of us feel the same, even if the triggering situations are different.

Let us all be wise as serpents and innocent as doves--that mission is as important now as it ever was.


Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Mepkin Overview

I am back from my quick trip to Mepkin Abbey--before I head back to work, let me write down some impressions.  I expect to do some deeper pondering in the coming weeks.  But for now, here's an overview of what might come later.

--The drive up was grueling.  I left at 3 a.m., and all was going well, until I came to a stretch of highway at Jacksonville that had not one but two accidents.  It took me almost half an hour to go two miles, and I know it could have been much worse.  And at the end of my trip, Highway 17 was very congested.  We took a back route to Mepkin, and I got lost--made a left onto the road I thought was the correct one, since the sign said "Junction with 402" with an arrow.  But that road was Cainhoy Road, whereas the correct one was just ahead.  Luckily one of my friends had a GPS and came to get me.

--What's really strange about the drive up--I hardly recognized the Charleston/Mt. Pleasant area anymore, despite having lived there and making periodic returns.

--For the first part of the trip, I listened to commentators on the BBC dissect the British election of the day before, where Theresa May lost seats in the election that she called 3 years before she had to do so.  On the way back I heard some NPR pieces on the one year anniversary of the Pulse nightclub shooting.

--The weather was fairly beautiful, although it was June, so it was hotter than I'd like--but not as hot as it often is in June.

--The moon was beautiful too--I expected the full moon to keep me company on the drive, but it was mostly behind me as I drove north.  I kept trying to catch it rising, but I only got a glimpse on Friday night--a gorgeous, orange full moon.  The clouds and trees kept it obscured.

--It was strange to have the light of the full moon having just reread Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad, visiting a monastery that's a former slave plantation.  I thought about slaves making their escape, how scary the landscape seems even with the benefit of electric light.

--One morning, I heard the sinister call of the alligators, but I never actually saw one.  I thought of the T. S. Eliot line about the mermaids singing, and wondered how I might transform it with alligators making the song.  And then there's the plainsong of the monks . . .

--This year at Sunday Eucharist, we had a harpist--how cool!

--I knew that this retreat would be structured, but it was even more structured than I thought it would be.  Luckily, the subject matter (the power of story) continued to interest me, and I liked all of the people on the retreat.

--The most important idea that I took away:  I tend to see a time of exile, a feeling of displacement, as a situation that must be fixed as quickly as possible--but what if those times are the norm?

--The two friends I regularly meet at Mepkin were there too.  We carved out time to reconnect.  That's always wonderful.

--I didn't do much of my own writing, but I did get an idea for a poem that I will write this week.

--I didn't get to every service, the way I sometimes do.  There were times I sacrificed a service so that I would have time to walk with my camera.  That experience, too, was a worshipful one.

--I took a lot of pictures--over 500.  I brought a set of fresh batteries, but to be on the safe side, I should have brought 2 sets.  This trip is the first one where I brought the more sophisticated camera that I inherited from my sister.

--Back in January, when we decided to come, I thought, oh, good, summer, a time I haven't experienced at Mepkin--I'll see what the liturgical season is like.  But it was Trinity Sunday, a high festival, which was interesting too.

--I brought books, and I scanned Wired for Joy, a book I found on the Mepkin shelves, while I was there.  Wired for Joy irritated me, so I put it aside; it seemed fairly self-evident to me about being aware of moods, although the writer would call them wires, not simply moods, and wires get fried and can be rebuilt and such.  I read Rob Bell's How to Be Here, which also seemed a bit simplistic, albeit with good nuggets here and there--along with lots of white space.  It was not the kind of retreat with lots of reading time.

--The drive back was much easier, which is not always the case.  There is that feeling that I'm hurling myself across the southeast.  And I'm somewhat haunted by all the other trips I've made, both with others and all by myself.

--I got home by mid-afternoon, and it was good to have time to reconnect with my spouse and with my life here.

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Trinity Sunday Meditation with Photos

This blog will be quiet for a few days while I go up to Mepkin Abbey (don't come burgle my house--my spouse will be holding down the South Florida fort).  Let me post some reflections and photos as Holy Trinity Sunday approaches.

In many writing classes and workshops, I taught about the power of three--three main points can make a solid essay, while just one or two might mean you have an incomplete idea.

In Geometry, we learn about the stability of the triangle.

In community organizing, we learn the truth of the Margaret Mead quote:  "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

We see this same dynamic in our triune God.  I know that many Christians think of the Trinity as the central mystery of our faith, but it's never seemed as difficult to me as other aspects of theology. 

Triune God in 2 plants and wind chime

Some of us might think about changing the traditional language of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  What words would make more sense?  I prefer Creator, Son, and Holy Spirit.  There are so many elements that we could stress.

Perhaps the words of Walt Whitman make sense to invoke here, that line about containing multitudes.

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, June 11, 2017:

First Reading: Genesis 1:1--2:4a

Psalm: Psalm 8

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 13:11-13

Gospel: Matthew 28:16-20

This Sunday is Holy Trinity Sunday, one of those festival Sundays that seem a bit baffling, at first (like Christ the King Sunday, which comes at the end of the liturgical year). We understand the significance of Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. But what exactly do we celebrate on Holy Trinity Sunday?

At first reading, the Gospel doesn't seem to help. And Jesus certainly didn't spend any time indoctrinating his disciples on these matters which would later split the church. He alludes to the Triune God: we see him pray to God and he tells the disciples that he will send a Comforter. But he spends far more time instructing the disciples on how they should treat the poor and destitute, about their relationship to the larger culture, about their role in creating the Kingdom in the here and now.

You get a much better understanding of the Trinity by reading all the lessons together (thanks to my campus pastor from days of old, Jan Setzler, who pointed this out in his church's newsletter over a decade ago). These aren't unfamiliar aspects: God as creator of the world, God as lover of humans, Christ who came to create community, the Holy Spirit who moves and breathes within us and enables us to create community.

Notice that we have a God who lives in community, both with the various aspects of God (Creator, Savior, Spirit) and with us. It's an image that baffles our rational minds. It's akin to contemplating the infinity of space. Our brains aren't large enough or we don't know how to use them in that way.

My atheist and agnostic friends will sometimes pull up these issues of a triune God when they ask me to defend the faith. I tell them that I can't do it and that I'm content to be living as part of this great mystery. Baffled, they look at me. They say, "You're an educated woman. Certainly you can't accept something you can't explain!!!"

Well, frankly, there are many things I can't explain: electricity, computers, internal combustion engines, arcane French literary theory. Does that mean that I'm going to live in the dark or not use my car? Of course not.

The message that Jesus brings us is refreshingly simple, in that it's easy to understand: "Go and make disciples."

Obviously, it's not that simple, and here, too, interpretations of this text have split the church. Does our commitment stop once we've baptized people? What does it mean to make disciples? There's an infinite supply of answers.

The God that we see in our Scriptures is a God of action. We see God creating in any number of arenas. We are called to do the same. This is not a God who saves us so that we can flip through TV channels. Our God is a God who became incarnate to show us how to be people of action: Go. Make disciples. Teach. Baptize. Keep the commandments. We do this by loving each other and God. We love not just by experiencing an emotion. Love moves us to action.

Our job is not done once we’ve baptized. Our job is not done with the Rite of Confirmation. Jesus, as always, points the way. Why not share a meal together? Why not do some work (fishing perhaps? Building housing for the poor? Weeding the gardens?) together? Why not read the same book?  Why not pray together? Why not create a beautiful work of art together?

Or perhaps we should just be together--keep each other company in life's journey.

Our Triune God calls us to go and make disciples, but two thousand years of Church history shows us a delightful diversity of ways to do that. Theologian Frederick Buechner reminds us in his book Wishful Thinking: "The place God calls you to is where your deep gladness and the world's deep hunger meet." Jesus promises to meet us there.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Pentecostal Rain

The rainy season has returned.  I hesitate to use that term, "rainy season."  When we moved down here in 1998, we had a clear rainy season and then a dry season.  There was some blurring around the edges, but never torrential rains in the dry season, like we've seen in recent years.

Still, there's a comfort to thinking that the rain reappears on a schedule.  Yesterday, out of the corner of my eye, through the window I saw a flock of white sea birds against a gray, stormy sky. Oddly, my first thought was that it was snowing. If it ever snows in South Florida in June, we will know that the planet has crossed some sort of Rubicon.

Last night, as we enjoyed wine and cheese with our friends in their back yard, we heard storms rumbling towards us.  Happily, we live in the same neighborhood, so it didn't take us long to get home.  We may have left prematurely--it took awhile for the storms to settle in.

There was some talk of tornadoes and power outages, but our corner of the county was spared.  We didn't even get much thunder--or street flooding.  These days, with any rain, we keep a wary eye on the water levels on the streets.

I do miss the gentle rains, the pitter patter that lasts all night and soothes us to sleep.  We don't have much of that rain these days.

This morning, before dawn, I walked outside to watch the storms approach.  The sky pulsed with lightning from the east, but we have avoided thunderstorms so far.

I still have Pentecost on the brain.  This morning's light show reminds me that the Holy Spirit has all sorts of tongues of flame, all sorts of ways to get our attention.

Come, Holy Spirit.  Talk to us in the language of rain and thunder. 

Monday, June 5, 2017

If the Holy Spirit Tweeted

Yesterday, in our interactive service, talk turned to Twitter.  Our pastor printed out a Twitter primer.  One of our members pointed that people who already know about Twitter don't need the primer, and the rest of us are not likely to use it at all.

I am in the middle.  I know about Twitter, but I'm not on Twitter.  Those of you who read my work, whether blogging or otherwise, know that my writing tends to go on (and on and on) for more than 140 characters.

But more than that, there's only so much time in a day, and while I understand the advantages of being active in every language of technology that comes along, I'm drawing some boundaries.  I don't want to be a person who is so busy tweeting my life that I forget to live it.

I figured out early on that Twitter is more ideal for people who have their smartphones with them at all times--that's not me.  And I'm not sure how tweeting would help my professional life.  One person yesterday said, "You could get more people to read your blog!"  But the amount of time it would take to develop a following leaves me tired.

We also talked about the Holy Spirit and how the Holy Spirit communicates.  Maybe today the Pentecost rushing wind and the tongues of flame would come in the form of a tweet.  Would we even notice?

People who are on Twitter talked about how to find material again with bookmarks and likes and such.  I asked about who controls the data--"it's in the cloud!" I was told by an enthusiast.  We so often forget that the cloud is a big network of servers and data storage--and someone owns those elements.  We forget that the Defense Department was the original creator of the Internet, and while now we are welcome to use the network for our tweeting and our purchasing of more stuff than is good for us, that may not always be the case.

I'm not a Luddite, although I realize I may sound like one.  I just want us all to think about the larger pictures, the ones that hover in the background, off center, so that we don't notice them.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Pentecost PreDawn

Here we are at the beginning of a great festival Sunday, second only to Easter.

Will we hear about great rushing wind today?  Will we think about flames that appear on people's heads?  And what about all those languages?

I feel tired at the thought of it all.  I yearn for transformation, but on my own terms.

We all make this mistake:  wanting to harness the Holy Spirit for our own purposes. 

But over and over again God reminds us that the tissue thin parts of our lives are where transformation often happens.

Pentecost promises daring visions; we don’t have to know how we’re going to accomplish them. God will take care of that.

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Mepkin Approaches

A week from now, I will be waking up at Mepkin Abbey.  It will be both familiar and different.

What will be familiar:  the Abbey itself, the friends that I meet there, the long drive.

What will be new:  visiting during summer and being there for an organized retreat, The Power of Story.

I've been there at the end of the liturgical season that will begin after Sunday, Trinity, the long, green time after Pentecost, the season of ordinary time.  But I haven't been there during the summer months.  Will we still take long, rambling walks when the temperature soars?

Luckily there are indoor spaces at the new retreat center where we can talk.  I am anxious to catch up with these old friends, who began life as work colleagues long ago when we all worked at a local community college.  In those days, I was not interested in monasticism and couldn't have even told you that there was a monastery nearby.

Will the gardens be beautiful?  I've found something to treasure in each season that I've visited.

I'll bring a pile of books, real books printed on paper, because that's the way I travel.  I'll bring my laptop with vague ideas of the creative work I want to do.  I'll bring the camera.  I'll bring extra batteries.  What will I actually do while there?

I know that I will take pictures.  I know that I will walk, even if I sweat through my clothes.  I know that I will attend many services in one day.  I know that I will write something, although I'm not sure what (the long drive usually leaves me with lots of ideas).  I know that I will read, although it might be a book that I pick up at the monastery.

My hope is that I recalibrate myself in ways that are important.

Friday, June 2, 2017

Stewardship: the Planet Edition

Compassionate people have no shortage of outrage provoking events this week.  I feel sorrow at Trump's decision to pull the U.S. out of the Paris Climate Agreement, even though I felt that, as with most climate agreements, it was too little, too late.  Still, as my German friend points out, it was a treaty with 200 nations agreeing to specific actions, and that was no small thing.

So, for those of us feeling despair, let's remind ourselves of actions that we can take that will help the planet.  We know what to do, right?  Reduce, reuse, recycle.  Here are some ways to do that:

--If we're feeling despair because we know the power of large groups, let's remember that an international treaty is not the only way to harness that power.  We can join a local group that works on these issues.  We can give money to groups that work to save the planet.  The poet Matthea Harvey asked her ecologist sister for her recommendations for some of the most effective groups:
      --Union for Concerned Scientists (which does a lot of policy work and tries to get the government to take scientific information on board) 
      --Environmental Defense Fund (which does a lot of climate change work)
      --World Resources Institute (which does a lot of forest conservation and climate change work)
      --Conservation International (where she works)

--It's amazing how many plastic bottles end up in the trash, and then in waterways and washing up on beaches.  Buy a reusable bottle, and fill it with water from your tap.  Most of us have perfectly acceptable tap water, and the water that comes in those small bottles is likely from a tap from a far away state.  If you don't like the taste of the water that comes from your tap, let it sit in a pitcher overnight, or figure out a way to filter it, if necessary.

--Similarly, lots of plastic bags end up in the trash.  You could bring your own bags to the grocery store.  Even if you like those plastic bags, which I understand, you could bring those and get several shopping trips out of them.

--Buy items that come with less packaging if possible.

--Before you buy, ask yourself if you really need the item.  I try to check out more books from the library, for example.

--Every item that goes into your trash can is likely going to sit in the earth for a long time.  Most of us know that landfills don't let items decompose.  Try to put less stuff in the trash can.

--My grandmother buried her food scraps, which led to the most rich soil I've ever seen.  Even when she no longer needed it for the garden she could no longer create, she did that.  We can compost in any number of ways.  For example, I often put my cut flower arrangements out in the yard to finish decomposing--no digging necessary.

--If we don't want to get our hands in the dirt that way, we could plant.  I find it very healing to plant things, especially if they're fairly independent plants who won't need me after the first few weeks.

--Think about the ways that we use electricity and water--can we use less?  Let's start with basics:  turn off the lights, turn off TVs that no one is watching, turn off computers when we're not using them.  Don't let the water run when you brush your teeth.  Take shorter showers.  The hardcore among us already do this:  no need to flush the toilet after every use (if it's yellow, let it mellow; if it's brown, flush it down).  If no one's going to be home for hours, do you need to cool/heat the house as if people are there?

--If we own our houses, we could think of ways to make them more energy efficient.  Now might be the time to invest in solar panels.  We could install water saving shower heads and toilets.  If we need to replace our water heaters or appliances, we can get the most energy efficient, instead of the cheapest, if we are blessed with enough money.

--In everything we do, we should be aware of our carbon footprint.  Can we combine car trips?  Most of us drive alone in cars that pollute, even if they're hybrid vehicles.  Use them less.  Can we eat less meat?  Cattle production leads to more methane in the atmosphere, which contributes to global warming.  The next time you're on a packed airplane, rejoice:  your carbon footprint is lighter.

--Add the planet to your prayer list.  I pray for friends in failing health.  Our planet needs prayers too.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, June 4, 2017:

First Reading: Acts 2:1-21

First Reading (Alt.): Numbers 11:24-30

Psalm: Psalm 104:25-35, 37 (Psalm 104:24-34, 35b NRSV)

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13

Second Reading (Alt.): Acts 2:1-21

Gospel: John 20:19-23

Gospel (Alt.): John 7:37-39

Ah, Pentecost, day of fire and wind and foreign languages.

Contemplate how much of Scripture circles around the breath of God. Reread Genesis--creation comes into being because God breathes it into life. Something similar happens in the Gospel of John. Jesus breathes on his disciples and transforms them. Likewise in Acts--that great rushing wind. For those of you in love with words and older translations, we often find the same word in these passages: Pneuma (yes, that root that creates our modern word of pneumonia).

The twenty-first century church, at least some branches of it, is in serious need of the breath of God. Perhaps you are too.

I often think of those first followers, who went out with the breath of God in them, and transformed the world. In the history of social movements, few have been as broadly successful as Christianity.  My atheist friends would chime in that few have been as destructive--we both may be right. What an unlikely story: a small band of weirdly talented or distinctly ungifted men and women head out in pairs, carrying very little with them, and they survive enormous obstacles. In the process, they change the culture--and often, then, they move on. Think of the distances that they travelled--often on foot. Think of how hostile the culture was. You wouldn't be able to suspend your disbelief if you read it in a book.

The breath of God should transform us in the same way. Jesus transfers his powers to his disciples; we're given the power to do what he does. Now, if only we could believe it.

Maybe the key is to act as if you do believe it. You can do remarkable things, even if you don't feel like you can.

We start on a small scale. We go to church. Maybe we remember the weekly lessons on Monday. As years go by, we're better at being Christians throughout the week. We bolster our efforts with spiritual reading and prayer. As we find ourselves transformed, we transform those around us. Many of us stop at this stage or we run out of time--but some of us will go on to transform society: maybe we'll start a food pantry or create legislation that takes care of foster children. Maybe we'll challenge our home countries to look out for the civil rights of all. Maybe we'll issue the same challenge to other cultures. Hopefully, whether it be on a small scale or an international scale, no Christian can be immune to the call to care for the dispossessed, whether on a small, interpersonal scale, or a large, international scale.

It's also important to talk about the cyclical nature of the spiritual life and work. Even Jesus needed to retreat to solitude at times. Even Jesus had to practice self-care. If you feel that you've had the very marrow sucked out of your bones as you've cared for the world, maybe it's time to retreat. Even if you can't physically leave, you can let the machine pick up the phone and turn off the electronics. If you can't do much else, claim some time for the occasional nap. No one can go at an insane pace for very long and stay sane.

Pentecost is an overlooked church holiday. No church holiday gets as much time as Christmas, not even Easter. But Pentecost is such an important reminder of why Christmas happened. God became incarnate to prepare humans to carry on the work of Kingdom creation. And Pentecost reminds us of our job description.

So, receive the breath of God. For a powerful meditative exercise, you might imagine that as you inhale, God breathes into you. Breathe deeply.