Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Halloween Opportunities and Benedictions

----Today is the actual day in 1517 that Martin Luther nailed his theses to the Wittenberg door.  But for far longer, it's been Halloween, a holiday that both delights and bedevils the modern believer.

--I am a believer who has concerns about Halloween, but they're not the kinds of concerns that some Christians have.  I'm not worried about opening a portal through which evil will enter the world--that portal has been wide open for a long time.  I'm not worried about demon possession.  I am worried about how much we spend and whether or not that's the best use of our money.

--But I'm past the age of legislating all of that.  I'm happy to let grown people make their own decisions.  But I will exhort us all to at least think about these decisions.

--I wonder if I have underestimated this holiday as a way of letting us be creative in a way that most of us aren't sure we can be creative in our every day lives.  Yesterday was our pumpkin decorating day at school; I went with decorating rather than carving because I thought it would be less messy and less risk of knife wounds.  I was interested to see how warily people approached the table with art supplies.  But many of them really got into the spirit of creating.

--I will likely see a similar dynamic today, when I help judge the costume contest.  Most adults don't have much opportunity to don a costume throughout the rest of the year.

--One of the students yesterday thanked me for bringing all the supplies and organizing the opportunity to decorate a pumpkin.  She said, "It's like being a kid again."  I resolved right there to look for other similar opportunities throughout the year.  Homemade Valentines, anyone?

--As I watched people creating pumpkins, I thought of those parables of Jesus that begin:  "The Kingdom of God is like . . ."  Jesus often used family metaphors or agricultural worker metaphors.  I thought, "The Kingdom of God is like pumpkin decorating day."  We have a variety of pumpkins, a variety of supplies, and a variety of brains creating wonderful things.  No two pumpkins are the same, and they all have a beauty.  They don't have to prove themselves.  They are already worthy.

--As we light our Halloween candles tonight, let us think about the ways we can be light to the world.  Let us concentrate on the ways we can chase away the gathering gloom.

--As we give out candy, let us give a silent benediction to each trick-or-treater:  "May your days be sweet and your life be sweeter."

Monday, October 30, 2017

Confirmation and Reformation

Yesterday we had Confirmation rites along with our Reformation service.  It felt right. 

In the past, we've had Confirmation rites on Pentecost, which also feels right.  I know churches who have the Confirmation service on Mother's Day, which seems like a non-starter to me.  I know the tradition of welcoming confirmands on Easter, which also seems like too much competing for the same service.

We've now been at this church long enough that I have often known at least one confirmand since childhood.  Yesterday, one of the young women getting confirmed used to be the acolyte, and we'd play Hangman during Pastor's sermons--but we had to use words that Pastor used during the sermon.

After the rite of Confirmation, I watched the congregation file up for Communion.  I watched the littlest ones and thought, it will feel like a quick zip of time before we see these toddlers getting confirmed.

I have not been at one church long enough to see Confirmation rites of the children of anyone who has been confirmed during my tenure there.  I can only imagine how odd that would feel.  But it would also feel wonderful--that knowledge that faith formation has flowered.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Celebrate Reformation!

I will be celebrating Reformation Sunday by going to a Lutheran church--but I'd be doing that most every Sunday.  Let me list some reasons why Reformation Sunday--and the whole of the Protestant Reformation--is special to me:

--I give the Protestant Reformation credit for the increase in literacy.  No longer were people satisfied with hearing the Bible in Latin in church.  Martin Luther is famous for translating the Bible into the language of the German people, but he's just one of several people who not only advocated for the spiritual life being conducted in the language that people actually used.

--Martin Luther knew the power of the pamphlet:  short enough to be read out loud to people who can't read for themselves, cheap enough to be mass produced.  We still see the power of a short piece of writing today.

--The Protestant Reformation was a time of great music.  Today it sounds plodding and heavy, but it must have been invigorating to congregations used to hearing nothing but chant and plainsong.

--I love the idea of reform:  we are not perfect, and neither are our churches--or other institutions.  Today is a great day to think about how and where we need to reform.

--I'm a Lutheran, so I'll also advocate for the idea of grace.  I love the idea of God who loves us in spite of our faults, of God who can see the good in us, even when we're feeling worthless.

--Even as I long for unity, I love the diversity that the Protestant Reformation ushered in.  I think of all of my friends and all the interesting ways they worship, from a monastery to a Quaker gathering to a Unitarian church.  I know a variety of Catholics--that variety might have happened in different ways, had there been no Protestant Reformation.

So today, let us celebrate the gains for humanity that the Protestant Reformation made possible.  Let us also not lose sight of the terrible human cost of this division, in the variety of wars and purges that would sweep across Europe and beyond.  Let us continue to count on grace and reform as we move onward.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Halloween at the Abbey: the Photo Essay

When I first went to Mepkin Abbey, I arrived on Friday.  Halloween came on a Sunday.  On Saturday night we took a walk by the banks of the Cooper River.

We could see the housing development in the distance. We saw flickering candles and children trick or treating, as they do in communities that want to keep Halloween separate from Sunday.

On Sunday night, we took an evening walk along the wide drive that connects the Abbey to the main road.

It's lined with huge trees draped with Spanish moss.

We saw a pair of monks in the distance, and they, too, looked ghostly. I told my friend that if she vanished, I wouldn't be surprised. It all seemed so otherworldly that I wouldn't have been surprised by something truly supernatural.

I rarely feel the "thin space" that so many feel on Halloween, that time when the separation between worlds is thinnest. That night, I caught a glimpse, there on those very historic grounds.

I would not have been surprised to see the ghost of a runaway slave or a Native American.

The above is a detail from a Jonathan Green painting, "Seeking," that hangs in a private space in the Abbey.   I got to see it as part of a retreat in 2016. 

Friday, October 27, 2017

The Ides of October

On this day 55 years ago, the world came very close to nuclear war--I've heard more than one historian say that Oct. 27, 1963 was the day that the world was closest except for the two previous days when bombs were actually dropped.

It was the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and my parents had set their wedding for this day.  In the weeks leading up to their wedding, they fully expected that my dad, who was in the Air Force, would be called back to his base.  He wasn't, and they wed.

It's strange to think about those days during these days, when the world seems to be tottering backwards to those scary standoffs.  It's strange to think about the days of the Kennedy administration, even as some of the last documents about Kennedy's assassination are being declassified and released.

I try not to think about Kennedy's vast knowledge of history and how that knowledge helped him avert war.  Kennedy didn't want to telegraph the wrong messages.  I'm so grateful that he was successful.  That crisis could have so easily ended in a nuclear exchange.

I try not to think about how those in charge now are not similarly educated.  Yesterday, when I went to Publix to get a variety of supplies for upcoming school event, the bagger cautioned me against getting a flu shot. She said, "There's a flu shot out there that can alter your DNA, you know. It can change your behavior." I thought about explaining how a flu shot really can't alter your DNA, and even with altered DNA, your behavior isn't likely to change radically, and then I decided to let this opportunity for science education pass.

I wish I thought it was just undereducated hourly workers at Publix who have these odd beliefs, but I know it's not.  Still, like my parents, I will embrace hope, not despair.  They could have decided not to marry when the world was about to go up in flames.

The world is still about to go up in flames--or underwater.  But we can't assume that we'll die.  In fact, we're likely to live.

So let us buy our pumpkins and get ready for Halloween--or whatever other activities bring us joy.  Let us recommit ourselves to love and hope.  And let us also say a prayer for those in charge of massive weapons systems.  Let them not telegraph the wrong messages.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Shoddy Theology

We spend our days surrounded by shoddy theology, although we may not realize it as shoddy.  Just after Hurricane Irma, I was amazed by all the Facebook posts I saw that were so self-congratulatory, so proud of all the sincere prayers we offered up that our coast be spared--and see, prayer works!

So, does that theology mean that the people in Big Pine Key just didn't know how to pray?  Did God hear those prayers and laugh cruelly and bam--that island was wiped out?

We spend our days surrounded by shoddy theology, although we may not realize it as theology.  A few days ago, a coworker said something along the lines of, "You can't always stay comfortable.  You won't grow that way." 

I said, "But what if that kind of growth is overrated?  What if we push ourselves out of our comfort zones, and we end up mangled and broken?"

We spent some time talking about personal growth and development, and I posited that maybe our highest good didn't come from improving ourselves.  I got a blank look and then this comment:  "Maybe improving our finances?"

I said, "Maybe we should be thinking in terms of how we serve others.  Maybe that's how true self-improvement happens, when we focus on what others need."

I understand the danger of this theology--that way martyrdom lies, or the dangers of being abused by sociopaths and perverts.  But I am also worried about how many people in this country don't seem to be thinking of the greater good.

I try not to chime in too often.  I don't want to be that colleague/Facebook friend that people avoid because she's always undermining our aphorisms and mottos that make the world easier to understand.  But some days, I can't take the shoddy thinking one more minute.  Some days, I want us all to engage each other--and life--with more depth.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Meditation for Reformation Sunday

The readings for Sunday, October 29, 2017:

 First Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm: Psalm 46
Second Reading: Romans 3:19-28
Gospel: John 8:31-36

Here we are, back at Reformation Sunday.  Each year, as this Sunday of celebration approaches, I find myself thinking about what needs to be reformed and what should be preserved.

It's been a tumultuous year for many of us, a year of natural disasters, a year of discovering how far apart we are politically, a world where we might feel like history is in rewind mode, and we're afraid of what year our time machine might land.

Some of us might have been able to find comfort in our churches.  Some of us may be worried that just as the globe seems to be hovering on the edge of schism, so are our churches.

We should take heart that the Church has always been in the process of Reformation. There are great Reformations, like the one we'll celebrate this Sunday, or the Pentecostal revolution that's only 100 years old, but has transformed the developing world in ways that Capitalism never could. There are smaller ones throughout the ages as well. Movements which seemed earth-shattering at the time (monastic movements of all kinds, liberation theology, ordination of women, lay leadership) may in time come to be seen as something that enriches the larger church. Even gross theological missteps, like the Inquisition, can be survived. The Church learns from past mistakes as it moves forward.

Times of Reformation can enrich us all. Even those of us who reject reform can find our spiritual lives enriched as we take stock and measure what's important to us, what compromises we can make and what we can't. It's good to have these times where we return to the Scriptures as we try to hear what God calls us to do. It may be painful, but any of these processes may lead us to soil where we can bloom more fruitfully.

We may think of that metaphor and feel despair, as if we will never be truly rooted, flowering plants. But rootlessness can be its own spiritual gift. The spiritual wanderers have often been those who most revitalized the Church, or on a smaller level, their spiritual communities. The spiritual wanderers are often the ones who keep all of us true to God's purpose.

If you have been feeling despair, take heart. Jesus promises that we will know the truth, and the truth will set us free. You might not be feeling like you know what the truth is at this current point; you may feel tossed around by the tempests of our current times. But Jesus promises that we will know the truth. We will be set free. We don't have a specific date at which we'll know the truth. But we will.

We proclaim the Good News throughout the church year:  we are already redeemed.  God has already claimed us.  God's vision of a new creation breaks through our daily scrim each and every day if we would but open our eyes.

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

The Messages in the Destructions

Yesterday I came across a meditation on Noah and the Ark in Rabbi Rachel Barenblat's blog post

"And God tells Noah: make yourself an ark out of gopher wood, and cover it over with pitch: "וְכָֽפַרְתָּ֥ אֹתָ֛הּ מִבַּ֥יִת וּמִח֖וּץ בַּכֹּֽפֶר / v'kafarta otah mibeit u-michutz bakofer." Interesting thing about the words "cover" and "pitch:" they share a root with כפרה / kapparah, atonement. (As in Yom Kippur.) It doesn't come through in translation, but the Hebrew reveals that this instruction to build a boat seems to be also implicitly saying something about atonement.

Rashi seizes on that. Why, he asks, did God choose to save Noah by asking him to build an ark? And he answers: because over the 120 years it would take to build the ark, people would stop and say, "What are you doing and why are you doing it?" And Noah would be in a position to tell them that God intended to wipe out humanity for our wickedness. Then the people would make teshuvah, and then the Flood wouldn't have to happen. God wanted humanity to make teshuvah, and once again, we missed the message."

Later in the day, I had wine, cheese, artichoke-spinach dip, and crackers with friends in the neighborhood.  We're still talking about Hurricane Irma and the implications for the future.  Should we stay put and fortify our houses against future floods that are surely coming?  Should we move inland and/or upland?

This morning, after seeing some Facebook posts, I spent far more time this morning exploring artist Aurora Robson's website than writing poems or repairing storm damage, two activities I have not been paying as much attention to as I should.  She makes breathtaking sculptures out of trash, mainly plastic trash from what I can tell--and much of it is making a point about where that trash winds up.  She makes sculptures that look like exotic sea creations, and it's hard not to be aware that plastics and oceans are on a collision course, with oceans coming out on the losing end.

Last night I dreamed I was at our church's pumpkin patch to get some little pumpkins for school.  Most of the little pumpkins were gone, and the ones that remain had started to rot.  Not hard to interpret that dream.

Today is the anniversary of the day that Hurricane Wilma swept across the state.  That day seems like a demarcating point, a time of before and after, just the way that Hurricane Irma's landfall seems to us in South Florida.  That day seems a demarcating point between our carefree late summer visits with family and the autumn of our discontent.  We are luckier than many--our decisions about what to trash, what to keep, and how to repair can all be delayed.  Our leaking roof was fixed by pulling wads of leaves out of the gutter system.

I feel a bit like I've fallen out of time.  I wonder how many others feel similarly.  On the surface, all looks normal.  Underneath, we're making our calculations:  what to save, how much to spend, and further out, where it makes sense to live.

Right now, many of us don't have the information that we need.  We haven't heard from our insurers, so we don't know how much repair money we'll have.  We don't know how much or how quickly our rates will rise in the future.  Will we face powerful hurricanes every year or just once a decade?

I remind myself that most of us are living this reality--many who don't live in ravaged areas don't realize that they are living this reality, but those of us who are younger than 65 will have lots of decisions to make because of our changing planet, decisions that weren't part of our calculus of younger years.

But for today, those decisions will wait--again.  Today we must get back to work.  Tomorrow--or some later day--we'll think about those larger decisions. 

Monday, October 23, 2017

Six Week Storm Anniversary

Six weeks ago, we'd have been waking up in the dark--both the literal dark of pre-sunrise, and the dark that comes after a hurricane wipes out the power.  A few hours after waking up, we'd have made our way to our house through streets increasingly flooded as we got closer to our home.

That day seems a demarcating point between our carefree late summer visits with family and the autumn of our discontent.  We are luckier than many--our decisions about what to trash, what to keep, and how to repair can all be delayed.  Our leaking roof was fixed by pulling wads of leaves out of the gutter system.

I feel a bit like I've fallen out of time.  I wonder how many others feel similarly.  On the surface, all looks normal.  Underneath, we're making our calculations:  what to save, how much to spend, and further out, where it makes sense to live.

Right now, many of us don't have the information that we need.  We haven't heard from our insurers, so we don't know how much repair money we'll have.  We don't know how much or how quickly our rates will rise in the future.  Will we face powerful hurricanes every year or just once a decade?

I remind myself that most of us are living this reality--many who don't live in ravaged areas don't realize that they are living this reality, but those of us who are younger than 65 will have lots of decisions to make because of our changing planet, decisions that weren't part of our calculus of younger years.

But for today, those decisions will wait--again.  Today we must get back to work.  Tomorrow--or some later day--we'll think about those larger decisions. 

Let us pray that as we have time, we make decisions that make sense years from now.  Let us pray that we look up to realize that we've gradually made our way to a better place.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Halloween at Mepkin Abbey

I thought I had a Halloween themed poem that used elements from Mepkin Abbey.  This morning, I finally looked up the poem, and I was surprised that the Halloween elements weren't really there.  Let me see if I can add something.

Here's the original poem:

Autumn at the Abbey

I drove seven hundred miles from the tip
of Spanish speaking Florida to the Gullah drenched
lowcountry marsh.

I arose in the wee small hours of the morning
to drive up the spine of the state
with truckers and other insomniacs.

I saw the flaming
orange fields, the flickers
of light across the river.

I have eaten eggs from the chickens
raised by monks and been sprinkled
with holy water before bed.

I saw the baby Jesus
created from a
cornucopia of materials.

I harmonized with monks
and chanted my way through a quarter
of the Psalms.

I watched the monks at sunset
walking under Spanish moss draped
trees, ghosts from a different century.

Let me play with it.  Let me add some of my memories from my first visit, when we looked across the river and saw children trick-or-treating.  When we walked back to the Abbey, we saw monks in their white robes looking like ghosts.

All Hallows at the Abbey

I awoke very early to sing
lauds with the monks,
and then I set out for the river.

In the pre-sunrise mists that rose off the currents,
I would not have been surprised
to see a runaway slave.

In the afternoon, the fields flamed
orange and light winked
across the water.

I returned to the chapel to harmonize
with monks and chant
the Psalms that still speak to us.

As the sun sank, across the river, candles flickered
in carved pumpkins and costumed children participated
in a different ancient ritual.

As we walked to compline service, monks in white robes
walked under trees dripping with Spanish moss,
ghosts from a different century.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

The Kingdom of God Is Not Like a Business

I remember past church council meetings where we've gotten bogged down in discussions about whether or not we should run a church like a business.  I've felt similarly about discussions that arise with regularity in the education world--can we run colleges like a business?

As this past week progressed, I've had to deal with the unpleasant parts of a business:  the employee who isn't behaving correctly.  By the end of the week, I was dealing with a personnel situation that I've never really had:  a worker who just stopped coming to work with no communication.  I don't feel comfortable saying too much about this situation, but I'm stating here what anyone on our campus could have observed. 

In a way, this personnel situation is the easiest to deal with.  Clearly, when an employee stops coming to work and stops communicating, that worker doesn't want to keep the job.  The way forward is clear--unlike many other negative situations that an administrator might experience.

I've also had the parables of Jesus on my brain, and how he uses them to try to let us get a view of God and the world that God envisions for us.  I am glad that God is not like a modern boss.

Unlike a modern boss, God will give us many chances--God does not want to terminate us so that a better worker can be found.  God understands how the most unlikely of humans can be part of great things.

In our modern business world, we don't have the time that God has to try to correct personnel issues that impacting the organization negatively.  Once again, I'm reminded of the difference between chronos time and kairos time.  I can only do so much to make the modern business/education setting more like the Kingdom of God.

I'm glad that the Kingdom of God is not like a business.  I'm glad that God's time frame is so different from the type of time we experience in regular life.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Monastic Hospitality

The monks remind us of the many ways to embody hospitality.  An umbrella is never far away--visitors will be protected from sudden changes in the weather.

A basket of bug spray and sunscreen to protect guests from daily hazards that they may not have a chance to encounter at home:

At meals, guests have a choice of breads:

With our bodily needs met, we are ready for the other types of hospitality that the monks offer:  time for study:

time for worship:

and time for rambling walks in nature:

And thus renewed, we can return to the world to do the work of hospitality that heals.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for October 22, 2017:

First Reading: Isaiah 45:1-7

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Exodus 33:12-23

Psalm: Psalm 96:1-9 [10-13]

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 99

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

Gospel: Matthew 22:15-22

This week's Gospel contains a saying of Jesus that is probably familiar: "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's" (Mathhew 22, verse 21). Even people who have never set foot inside a church are probably familiar with this saying, although they may attribute it to somebody else, like Shakespeare or Ronald Reagan.

I love how Jesus realizes that the Pharisees have set a trap for him, and he manages to avoid entanglement. This passage also shows Jesus reacting to the legalistic outlook of the spiritual leaders. He seems to tell us not to be so rigid in our formulas of our finances. We know what we must do. We have bills and obligations (among them, caring for the less fortunate); we cannot escape those worldly cares. But in figuring out our tithes and taxes, we should not lose sight of the larger spiritual picture.

God calls us to more than a rigid formula of living. Instead of dividing up our budget into tight categories, we should always be on the lookout for ways to love each other. Some days/months/years, that love might be manifest in monetary ways. But in a way, just writing a check is much too easy. God calls us to be involved with each other's lives. That doesn't mean we need to hop on a plane to personally respond to every huge disaster. Look around--you'll see plenty of opportunities just outside your door.

My mother has a theory about tithing money. She posits that in our society, giving money isn't the same kind of sacrifice that it would be in earlier times. Most of us have more money than we know what to do with. You might disagree, but if you compare your income to the rest of the world's, you are rich beyond compare. I would argue that we buy so much stuff because we have that much disposable income. Do you really need more than one outfit a day? Is your closet overstuffed, like mine is? There's a disconnect.

My mother says that the more precious commodity in our culture is time, and I think she's right. Most of us can barely find time to phone each other. Have you tried to have anyone over for dinner lately? It seems to take the scheduling skills of those people who used to organize Superpower Summits. My mother's theory is that if Jesus spoke directly today, he'd tell us to sacrifice time, not money.

What if you gave 10% of your time? There's 168 hours in a week. If you gave 17.8 hours to God, how would you need to change your life?

And the reality is, that God wants and needs more from us than a mere 18 hours a week. God wants an ongoing relationship with each and every one of us. And that relationship should transform us to do the tough work of transforming creation, of creating the Kingdom of Heaven right here and now.

In these days of financial ups and downs, the message of Jesus seems more prescient than ever. If we save up our treasures on earth, moth or rust or inflation or deflation or bad policies or some other kind of ruin will leave us bankrupt.

The way we live our lives moves us closer to God or further away. If we devote our lives to God, our whole lives, not just an hour on Sunday, then we'll find a relationship that we can count on in good economic times and bad. And that relationship can help us transform not only ourselves, but our families, our communities, everyone we touch.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

The Feast Day of Saint Luke

On October 18, we celebrate the life of St. Luke, a creator, an evangelist, and a healer. Some churches might have a healing service in honor of Luke’s role as patron saint of doctors and surgeons. But St. Luke was so much more: he’s also the patron saint of artists, students, and butchers. He’s given credit as one of the founders of iconography. And of course, he was a writer--both of one of the Gospels and the book of Acts. As we think about the life of St. Luke, let us use his life as a guide for how we can bring ourselves back to health and wholeness.

The feast day of St. Luke offers us a reason to evaluate our own health—why wait until the more traditional time of the new year? Using St. Luke as our inspiration, let’s think about the ways we can promote health of all kinds.

Do we need to schedule some check-ups? October is perhaps most famous for breast cancer awareness month, but there are other doctors that many of us should see on a regular basis. For example, if you get a lot of sun exposure, or if you live in southern states, you should get a baseline check up from your dermatologist.

Many of us don’t need to visit a doctor to find out what we can do to promote better health for ourselves. We can eat more fruits and vegetables. We can drink less alcohol. We can get more sleep. We can exercise and stretch more.

Maybe we need to look to our mental health. If so, Luke can show us the way again.

Luke is famous as the writer of the Gospel of Luke and Acts, but it’s important to realize that he likely didn’t see himself as writing straight history. He was maintaining a record of amazing events that showed evidence of God’s salvation.

It’s far too easy to ignore evidence of God’s presence in the world. We get bogged down in our own disappointments and our deeper depressions. But we could follow the example of Luke and write down events that we see in our own lives and the life of our churches that remind us of God’s grace. Even if it’s a practice as simple as a gratitude journal where each day we write down several things for which we’re grateful, we can write our way back to right thinking.

As we think about St. Luke, we can also look for ways to deepen our spiritual health. In popular imagination, Luke gets credit for creating the first icon of the Virgin Mary. Maybe it’s time for us to try something new.

We could experiment with the visual arts to see how they could enrich our spiritual health. We might choose something historical and traditional, like iconography. Or we might decide that we want to experiment with something that requires less concentration and training. Maybe we want to create a collage of images that remind us of God’s abundance. Maybe we want to meditate on images, like icons, like photographs, that call us to healthy living.

St. Luke knew that there are many paths to health of all sorts. Now, on his feast day, let us resolve to spend the coming year following his example and restoring our lives to a place of better health.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Parables from the Pumpkin Patch

The pumpkin offload at church takes several hours--it's all human labor, no conveyor belts or machines to help.  Well, we had 2 wheelbarrows, which saved us some time, but not much.  Handing pumpkins hand to hand gives a person time to think.  And I thought about the great diversity in pumpkins, especially when we got the occasional green pumpkin.

This warty pumpkin made me smile.  We only got a few of those.

I also liked this one, with its curling stem.

And hauling pumpkins with my own two hands gave me time to reflect.  Does every culture equate smallness with cuteness?

As we nestled some of the pumpkins with the tropical flowers, I thought about how some of us, but only a very few of us, head out to cultures that are not ours and never return.

I thought of the spider that we found, who started out in a pumpkin patch in New Mexico and won't be able to return.  Will that spider always yearn for a different climate?  Or will the spider learn to love its new home?

I thought of how we accept diversity in a church pumpkin patch, but not in the larger culture.  And of course, I thought about how even in the church pumpkin patch, we can only accept a certain amount of diversity, if we want to make sales.  People expect their pumpkins to look a certain way.

I think of all the ways we have to be of service.  Some of us carry pumpkins.  Some of us sell them.  Others of us bring water and remind us to take breaks when we need it.  There are many ways to build a community, and we all can play a part.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Last Thoughts on This Past Sunday's Gospel

Yesterday, I preached the sermon at all 3 services.  It was interesting to revisit the Gospel and to try to say something new about it.  For those of you who have already forgotten, the Gospel was the parable in Matthew about the king and the wedding feasts and the guests who are too busy to come.  So the king calls them and invites a brand new set of guests.

So far, so good, right?  But then we get to the verses of Matthew 22:12-14, where the one wedding guest doesn't have a wedding robe, so he too is bound and cast into outer darkness.  The kingdom of Heaven is like this???!!!!

I went through several different interpretations of the parable with the congregation.  I find it troubling to see God as the king in the story, with all the sorting and casting away, but there's a long history of Christians who do.  I also talked about the Gospel as having a subtext that most of us won't understand, this many centuries away.  These aren't just stories to tell us who Jesus was.  In the case of Matthew, the Gospel is written for Christians who are trying to figure out how to integrate all these outsiders into what had been a Jewish offshoot.

For the record, I think the parable is most likely about that integration or failure to integrate.  But I also wanted to play with the parable's potential to shock us.  So I said, "What if God is the wedding guest who doesn't come with the right robe?"

I talked about Jesus not being the Messiah whom the Jews were expecting, for whom they were yearning.  They wanted someone to kick the Romans out of the homeland.  Jesus wasn't that guy.

Then I asked about our own experiences with God.  What if God doesn't come with the wedding gown of the miracle cure, the job we need, and so on?  What if God isn't a Santa Claus God who grants our wishes before we even know we have them?

I talked about God appearing where we least expect to find God, like in a manger, born to Mary and Joseph.  In current times, it would be like being born to a McDonald's worker and someone who drives a truck:  God without a wedding robe.

I ended by reminding the congregation that God invites us out into the darkness, the edges, the places we don't expect to find the Divine.  What will our response be?

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Pumpkin Offload

I've been watching--with some amount of jealousy, I freely confess--my friends' postings about Octoberfests and trips to see turning leaves and apples and harvest festivals of all types.  Today, perhaps I'll get some pictures of my own.

Our pumpkins are scheduled to arrive at our church at noon.  They are coming on a big 18 wheeler, which means we'll need to unload them.  We do it pumpkin by pumpkin and then we arrange them on the front yard of our church.

We do it for many reasons, but primarily, we do it to make money.  We use the money that we raise for education--some years VBS, some years sending youth to the national gathering, some years for supplies.  One year the money helped repair the roof--it might not seem like supporting the community until one thinks about how many community organizations use our building, from AA groups to the drama group for developmentally disabled youth, not to mention the other congregations that use our building.

Is the money worth the effort?  It's not just the effort of the offload, but it takes lots of human volunteer hours to sell the pumpkins and to turn them every night so that they don't rot.  Right now we have some church members who are fairly able bodied and retired, so we can make it work.  It doesn't take much imagination to envision a time when we don't have the type of congregation that can pull together a pumpkin patch.

So, if you haven't already bought your pumpkin(s) for the season, drop by a local church pumpkin patch.  Your dollars will go further than if you bought a pumpkin at a grocery store. 

If you're in South Florida and you want to support my church, it's Trinity Lutheran at the corner of 72nd and Pines Blvd, across the street (but on the same side of the street) from the South campus of Broward College.  We will be happy to sell you a pumpkin or a gourd of any size.  And if you want to help with the offload, come on by around 12:30--why do we go to the gym, if not to build muscles for such a time as this?

Saturday, October 14, 2017

Continue to Pray for the Synod Assembly

I just heard from my pastor who is at the Florida Bahamas Synod Assembly.  Three candidates remain for Bishop, and the next round of voting begins at 8.

So, let me take a minute to pray.

Creator God, please continue to bless the Florida Bahamas Synod Assembly with wisdom and discernment.  Let those who vote be able to hear the whisper of the Spirit that can lead us to new vistas. 

And since there will be another round of voting later today, let me also continue to pray.  I will add prayers for the candidates who did not win, and for those who saw their candidates not win.  I will pray that we can all gather to support the newly elected bishop, once we know who that person is.

Let us remember that the prayers should not stop today.  Whoever is elected will have lots of work to do, as we all do across the Synod and the nation.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Poetry Friday: "You Bring Out the Monk in Me"

Last week, I got my contributor copy of Adanna.  What a beautiful journal!  They published two poems that I was unsure of  when I first wrote them, but I've grown to like them.  One of them is "History's Chalkboards," which was my spouse's favorite.  When I read both poems out loud, my spouse was visibly moved by "History's Chalkboards," which is not a response that he often has to my poems.

The other poem was "You Bring Out the Monk in Me," which I thought might be his favorite, since if he saw himself as the "you" in the poem, he might be happy.  Of course, he's been well trained not to see literary work as necessarily autobiographical.

The poem was inspired by January Gill O'Neil's  "You Bring Out the Mitt Romney in Me," which in turn was inspired by other variations of this theme, which you can find in this post, along with some writing prompts.

I find it interesting that I would write a love poem that uses monastic imagery--but those who know me probably won't be surprised.

You Bring Out the Monk in Me

You bring out the monk in me,
the ancient practices in me,
the candles and incense in me,
the Psalms chanted across a day in me,
the calm of Compline in me.

You bring out the long robes in me,
the rough fabric in me.
You bring out the longing to know
the social order by the length and color
of our clothes, the simplicity of pattern in me.

You bring out the recluse in me,
the one who retreats in me,
the one accused of hiding in me,
the one who prays for the world
while the world carries on in obliviousness to me.

You bring out the silence in me,
the longing for only the words
that matter in me.
You bring out the perfectly balanced in me,
equal time for work, study, and worship.

You worry that there’s no space
for you in this equation,
but I assure you that space
remains in the silence,
the work, and the worship
because you bring out the monk
in me, the one who knows
what to keep and what to shuck away.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Prayer for the Start of a Bishop Electing Synod Assembly

Today the Florida Bahamas Synod begins its Synod Assembly.  It's an important one:  the Assembly will elect a bishop.

I've been to a bishop-electing Assembly before and found it fascinating.  Part of me wishes I could be there.  Part of me is glad to leave the task to others.  The job of being the bishop of our synod seems to be particularly soul sapping, and even though the candidates know this as they accept the nominations, I am glad to leave the discernment to others this year.

Who can lead us?  And why does this Synod seem so hard to lead?

I know a variety of reasons:  it's a big region, with churches spread out across a landscape that has not traditionally been Lutheran.  But other Synods have similar challenges and seem to be more cohesive and healthy--or maybe it just looks that way from a distance.

We could have a long conversation about this way of governing--did Jesus die on a cross for this?  But as of now, it's the structure that we have, and we can see its potential.  A group of believers that bands together for a larger purpose can be much more effective than one local church dealing with issues all by itself.

For the next few days, I will keep the whole Assembly in prayer.  Let me write a prayer, in case you are of the same mind but need some words:

Creator God, we pray for those who gather in central Florida as the Florida Bahamas Synod Assembly.  We pray for their discernment as they go through the process to choose a bishop.  We pray for the wisdom to choose the best leadership.  We pray, too, for those making other decisions that will be made along the way.  Let the Synod Assembly be a foretaste of the feast to come.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, October 15, 2017:

First Reading: Isaiah 25:1-9

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Exodus 32:1-14

Psalm: Psalm 23

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23

Second Reading: Philippians 4:1-9

Gospel: Matthew 22:1-14

Today's Gospel sounds impossibly harsh. The kingdom of heaven is compared to this story of a king who can't get people to come to the wedding feast? Is God really like the King who murders people who won't come to the party and burns their city? Is God really like the king who punishes a guest who comes in the wrong clothes? And such a punishment!

Some churchgoers, no doubt, will hear a sermon this Sunday that revolves around judgment and punishment. My opinion is that God rarely has to punish us, because our poor choices provide punishment enough.

So, let's look at this parable from a different angle: what's keeping us from accepting the invitation to the wedding feast? If the wedding feast is the kingdom of God, what keeps us away?

Obviously, as we devote more and more of our time to work, we have less time for the things that matter, like family, God, our friends. Many of us don't have time to eat; some of us can’t even slip away to go to the bathroom! Jesus is quite clear on this issue: we must prioritize. What good will it do us to work ourselves this way, to devote ourselves to earthly things, like work and earning money?

Or maybe we reject God's invitation because we feel inadequate. We'll accept at a later time, when we've improved ourselves. But that's the good news of God's grace that we find throughout the Gospels. We don't have to wait. God loves us in all of our imperfections.

Perhaps we should see ourselves in the wedding guest that didn't have the right garment. What clothes do we need to invest in to make ourselves better wedding guests?

Maybe we need to clothe ourselves in the garments of love and acceptance. Think of what attitudes you need to wrap around yourself, and work to shed the ones that do not serve you.

Maybe we need to clothe ourselves in some regular spiritual practices. We have thousands of years of history that suggest some techniques that work: regular prayer, regular spiritual reading, cultivating a spirit of gratitude, taking a day of rest, singing the Psalms to calm our nerves, and the list could fill a book.

Life is short, and Christ returns to this message again and again. We think we will have time to get to the things that will be important. We'll do it later, when the kids are older, or when we don't have to work so long and hard. We'll do it when we retire.  We'll wait until we have more money.  Once we lose that 20-100 pounds, we'll buy the right clothes and go to feasts to celebrate sacred occasions.

But God calls us to focus on the important things now. The apocalyptic tone of the recent readings may seem overly dramatic, but apocalypse dramas remind us that everything that is precious can be gone in an instant--and so the time to focus on what we hold dear is now.

It's a luxury that so many do not have, to appreciate what we have while we still have it, to be able to tell our loved ones that we love them while they're still with us.

Monday, October 9, 2017

A Meditation for Columbus Day

Today is the federal holiday that celebrates Columbus Day; I'm willing to wager serious money that most of us don't have the day off.  When your mail doesn't arrive, you can take a minute to remember Columbus, who wanted to find a shorter trade route, but failed miserably in that goal. 

I’m always amazed at what those early explorers accomplished. At Charlestowne Landing (near Charleston, SC), I saw a boat that was a replica of the boat that some of the first English settlers used to get here. It was teeny-tiny. I can't imagine sailing it up the coast to the next harbor, much less across the Atlantic Ocean. Maybe it would have been easier, back before everyone knew how big the Atlantic was.

For most cities, gone are the days when we'd mark this holiday with parades and time off. Those of us who grew up in the 70's and later have likely rethought this holiday.

What marked an exciting opportunity for overcrowded Europeans in the time of Columbus began a time of unspeakable slaughter and loss for the inhabitants of the Americas, many of whom have never recovered or who disappeared completely.  Let us take a minute to remember all of the cultures that have vanished because of these kinds of encounters.  Let us mourn that loss.

But although those cultural encounters came at an enormous human cost, it also provided the opportunity to enrich the cultures on both sides of these encounters.  Look at the European cuisine before the time of Columbus, and let yourself feel enormous gratitude for the vegetables that came from the Americas. Look at the cultures that existed in the Americas before the Europeans arrived and let yourself marvel at the ways in which technology enables the building of cities.  For those of us who benefit from domesticated animals, which is almost all of us, let us celebrate Columbus and the opening of the space between cultures.

We could remember that day in 1492 as the beginning of a time of enormous religious expansion, first for the Catholics and later for Protestants, many of whom needed a place to escape religious persecution. We could feel sorrow at the religious persecution of the Natives and of various other minority groups--or we could celebrate the religious diversity and tolerance that somehow survived our best efforts to kill it.

Or maybe we want to leave humans out of the picture and once again marvel at this amazing planet which is our home, at its diversity of land, water, and weather, at the currents that swirl through the oceans and the air, at the abundance of natural resources just waiting for us to stumble over them on our quest for something different.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

Shabbiness and Authenticity

Last night, we watched part of a PBS show about an English family circa 1920's, to judge by the period costuming, who is living in what I first thought was Italy, but later realized was Greece (the show was The Durrells in Corfu). 

I was less interested in the slow moving plot than I was in the house where they lived.  I gathered that we were supposed to find it decrepit.  The long shots showed some missing shutters, and the inner shots showed peeling paint, and every shot of peeling paint showed that a different paint color behind the peeling.  I assumed that I was supposed to see the furniture as shabby, not simply period pieces.

The decaying house looked so lovely, shot in that PBS light.  I thought about my own house and how lovely it would look with the right lighting.  I thought about a photo shoot in an issue of some country living magazine that comes to my door.  The owners of the old farm house said that they had decided not to replace mismatched floor boards because it looked more authentic.

Authentic--I'll start using that word to describe my house.  It doesn't need work:  it's authentic.  Why remodel my authentic house?

 The roofer came and we discovered that we don't have a roof leak--that the roof is in good shape and has at least several more years on it.  That's good news.

We spent part of yesterday taking apart the gutter system--lots of leaves packed in the gutters, which meant that water overflowed and went through the scupper and ran down the interior wall.  Happily, it seems to be an easy fix--unhappily, after all the rain of the past two weeks, the interior walls look horrible now.  We'll let them thoroughly dry and see what we're dealing with.

Hard to believe it was just 4 weeks ago that we sat on our friends' patio and watched the storm.  I am still a bit overwhelmed by how much work there is to do, but luckily most of the work is in the cottage, and so we will get to it when we get to it.

Although we have lots of work to do, I'm grateful to PBS shows and photo shoots of houses that make me realize that we can still be perfectly happy in our houses, even if they're shabbier than we'd like.  We can have lots of repair work that needs to be done, but still be rich in friends.

It is good to remember what really matters.  Let me offer a prayer of thanks.

Friday, October 6, 2017


What to say in these days of dreadful news?

These are the days that remind us that we don't always have to speak.  When there are no words, let us choose silence.

 Let us light our candles and remember our dead:  the souls, the dreams, and every hope we had for something better. 

Let us sprinkle yeast on the warm water and remember that we can't see the bubbling life that will come.

Let us sew our seams, even when we feel ripped and shredded. 

Especially when we feel ripped and shredded.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, October 8, 2017:

First Reading: Isaiah 5:1-7

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

Psalm: Psalm 80:7-14 (Psalm 80:7-15 NRSV)

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 19

Second Reading: Philippians 3:4b-14

Gospel: Matthew 21:33-46

Today's Gospel contains a parable that seems to tell the story of Christ, in the vineyard owner's son, who is killed by the tenants. I suspect that when modern readers, many of whom own property, read this lesson, they identify with the vineyard owner far more than they do with the tenants. But what would happen if we thought about ourselves as the tenants?

Notice how the tenants are so stuck in their self-destructive ways that they can't change. Now, as we settle into the season of autumn, as we race towards the end of the liturgical year, it might be useful to do some self-evaluation. What are our habits that get in the way of us living as the people of God? By now, you might despair to realize that these are the same patterns you've wrestled with before. But take heart. As you continue to attempt to make changes and go astray, each time you try to get back to a more wholesome way of living, it should take less time to make the necessary adjustments.

The Gospels that we've been reading give us reassurance that we can go astray, and God will still welcome us back. Now all this talk of going astray may not be the most useful image for us. Many of us have grown up in churches that berated us with talk of sin and tried to make us change by making us feel ashamed. We live in a toxic culture that tells us that we're not doing enough, not earning enough, not buying the right stuff. Many of us spend our days with voices in our head telling us those same messages. Who wants to come to church to hear the same thing? We've tried, we've failed, we know, we get it.

The danger is that we might quit trying to live the life that God envisions for us. God doesn't want us to live the way we've been living. Many of us might agree--we don't want to be living these lives.

So take a different approach. What would a healthier life look like? What would a God-centered life look like? How would it feel?

Now choose one action that gets you closer to that God-centered life.  We have a variety of choices.  Maybe we'll add one prayer to our day.  Maybe we'll donate to an additional charity.  Maybe we'll read to schoolchildren.  Maybe we'll turn off the news and quiet our brains so that we can hear God's suggestions of how to order our lives.  Small action by small action, choice after choice, day after day, we can structure a life that looks like the one God would hope we could have.

Of course, there will be times of despair.  There will be times of abject failure.  Read the lessons again and think about the natural order of horticulture. The land must be cleared occasionally so that new growth can take place. God continues to call to us to work for the vision of the redeemed creation that God gives us.

Remember that God promises that no matter how far away we are from that vision, God will meet us more than half-way. If we're feeling like a rejected stone, remember that God has great plans for rocks of every shape. 

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Feast Day of St. Francis

On Oct. 4, we celebrate the life of St. Francis of Assisi. Many congregations will do this by having a pet blessing service. Here again, we see a powerful life story reduced to something significantly more mundane. I would argue that the church almost always does this reduction act – and why? Why give up the power of these stories that way? We see that in our approach to Jesus Christ, and in our approach to every other believer who has a dramatic story. Are we afraid of the implications?

We often remember St. Francis because of his work, "The Canticle for the Creatures." Many people see him as one of the early environmentalists. I have no problem with animal rights crusaders and the environmental movement, but it's important to remember that St. Francis was so much more.

He spent many years of his early ministry living with lepers and caring for them. He gave up everything he owned – and he was rich – in a quest for a more authentic life. He inspired others to follow the same path, and he founded two religious orders that still thrive.

In churches that celebrate the life of St. Francis, will we hear these parts of the story? I doubt it. Those are the parts of the story that are threatening to the social order. We can't have young people behaving in the way that St. Francis did. What on earth would happen then?

Our society would be transformed. And one of the ways that Christians have let down their faith, this is one of the most damning: We dampen the transformative message of the gospel or we dumb it down into some sort of self-help drivel. The gospel can transform us as individuals, sure, but then we are called to go out and transform our societies. God has called us to do redemptive work.

So, on this day when we celebrate the life of St. Francis, let's consider how we treat our pets and how we treat our modern-day lepers. I'm willing to bet that the community in which you live pets are treated much, much better than lepers. Think about how your church would react if someone brought their pet dog or cat to church. Now think about how your church would react if a drunk, smelly, raggedy person walked in.

Lately, I've been thinking about the care we offer our pets and contrasting that care with the amount of care we give ourselves. We often do no better at taking care of ourselves than we do of taking care of the poor and outcast of our society. I've known more than one person who cooked better meals for their dogs than they do for themselves. You can probably offer similar examples: Humans who make sure that their pets see dentists, even when the human members of the family don't take care of their teeth, dogs who see therapists, pets who get wonderful treats that humans deny themselves – the list could go on and on.

Why is it so hard to achieve balance in our societies? Why can't we take care of the destitute in the same way we take care of our pets? Why does self-care often fall to the bottom of our to-do lists? Why do we practice self-care and then not do the larger work of caring for the world?  Why do so many of us care for creation so badly or not at all?

As we think about the life of St. Francis, let's think about the wealth that we have and the ways that we can share it. Let's think about the earth and the ways we can care for our patch of the planet. Let's think about all the voiceless members of our society: plants, pets, children, the destitute, the elderly. Let us resolve to follow the model of St. Francis long after we’ve left the pet blessing service.

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

What to Say?

What to say on this day after the worst mass shooting in U.S. history?  What can bring any kind of comfort?  Do I believe that U.S. hearts can change?  If the massacre of children in an elementary school can't make us change our approach, what makes us think this massacre will?

What to say on this day that the U.S. president will visit Puerto Rico, an island still suffering so much from a historic hurricane?

What to say as we hear about the death of Tom Petty?  We know that gifted artists will leave us every day, some of whom we will know, and most of whom we will not.

How do we keep our souls from sinking and strangling under the weight of so much bad news?  Day after day of bad news?

These are the days that remind us that we don't always have to speak.  When there are no words, let us choose silence.

Let us light our candles and remember our dead:  the souls, the dreams, and every hope we had for something better.  Let us sprinkle yeast on the warm water and remember that we can't see the bubbling life that will come.

Let us sew our seams, even when we feel ripped and shredded.  Especially when we feel ripped and shredded.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Helping Heavy Hearts in Church

I've been wondering why I haven't perked back up after our recent hurricane.  Sure, it was disruptive, but life is mostly back to normal.  Sure, we have repair work to take care of, but when have we ever not had repair work to keep up with?  There's the constant stream of stories out of Puerto Rico to remind me of how much worse it could have been.

In his sermon yesterday, our pastor reminded us that we've had disaster after disaster, seemingly something new every day.  And in the background, the biggest refugee crisis since World War II continues.  And it doesn't help to see government officials from various countries who are not behaving at their best (or--scary thought--maybe it is their best, but how can it be?).

Our pastor reminded us that we can't fix everything--no one can.  But we can donate to organizations who have the training and the resources to provide at least part of the fix.  We can donate to Lutheran Disaster Response if we want to assist those who have experienced the terrors of nature.  We can donate to Lutheran World Relief, who has a solid history when it comes to assisting refugees.

Our church's own food pantry needs donations--in the weeks after the storm, we've given away most of the food, even with a donation from FEMA.  Our pastor asked us to buy extra this week as we buy our own food.  I will.

Church sermons don't usually help me in the same way as yesterday's sermon.  I'd been beating myself up for feeling so weary.  It was good to be reminded that there are solid reasons why my heart is heavy.

And it was even better to be reminded of what we can do to help.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Poetry Sunday: "Jamestown"

Yesterday, I had several gatherings with different types of friends:  my quilting group that had been put off because of the hurricane and my every other month haircut that's an abbreviated spa day with a different set of friends.

It's always interesting being with different groups of people, but I was fascinated with our various responses to Hurricane Irma.  One of my friends is in the process of moving to Gainesville, and she has properties in three places (Ft. Lauderdale, Gainesville, and the mountains of North Carolina), and all three were affected by the storm--that geography tells you about the breadth and strength of the storm. 

Some of us worry about how we will deal with these storms as we age.  Some of us prefer hurricanes to other struggles that the natural world presents because at least we know they are coming.  We are all concerned that our insurance costs will rise and that we will be unable to afford to live here.

It seems likely that Hurricane Irma will have a similar effect to the storm seasons of 2004 and 2005:  many people will make some life decisions that they wouldn't have made without the push of a major hurricane.

When I think about my creative trajectory, I see an uptick in poems with an apocalyptic tone after the storms of 2004 and 2005.  Just before the storm, the woman who cuts my hair had discovered that she didn't have a wind policy to protect her home.  She said, "I packed everything that was important to me in the car, and I drove to Virginia to start a new life."

Her comment--indeed the whole day--made me think of poems that I wrote earlier.  This one was partly sparked by the comments of historians on the 400th anniversary of Jamestown in 2007.

She remembers only one
fact from years of studying American History.
Not one colony survived
for very long without women settlers.
Without the women, the men planted just one
crop, tobacco, with no nutritive value.
The ground devoted to addiction, the colony starving.

She returns to her handy needle
to sew tubes of seeds into her hemline.
She measures the weight of her possessions
with a calculating eye.
She discards the frivolous scraps of silk
that once passed for undergarments.
She adds a well-seasoned skillet to her pack,
a way to cook as well as a weapon.

She locks the house but leaves the key.
She threads the needle
through her shirtsleeve where she won't lose
track of it. She sets off for civilization.