Wednesday, January 31, 2018

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, February 4, 2018:

First Reading: Isaiah 40:21-31

Psalm: Psalm 147:1-12, 21c (Psalm 147:1-11, 20c NRSV)

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 9:16-23

Gospel: Mark 1:29-39

In today's Gospel, we see Jesus hard at work. Most of us are familiar with this aspect of the story. Jesus heals and casts out demons and heals some more.

But notice what he does in verse 35. He retreats. He goes to a lonely place to pray. He has to get up long before dawn to be able to have this private time for prayer. And he doesn't get to enjoy his time in solitary prayer for long. His disciples "pursue" him, and Jesus suggests they head to the next town.

It's what he was put on earth to do, after all. He travels all around the area, preaching in the synagogues and healing and casting out demons.  I must confess that I hadn't noticed all the casting out of demons until recent readings.  It's interesting to think about the demand for this particular skill.

But it's important not to lose sight of what fuels his activity. Throughout the Gospels we see Jesus preaching, feeding, teaching, healing--and periodically, he withdraws to pray. In his book, Tell It Slant, Eugene H. Peterson says, "Story and prayer are the core language of our humanity. We say most truly who we are when we tell stories to one another and pray to our Lord. Story and prayer are also the core language of our Scriptures: God tells us who he is, completely revealed in Jesus, the Word made flesh who completed 'the works that the Father has given me to complete' (John 5:36) and all the while is attentively listening and obediently answering, as a Son to his Father--praying. Our Scriptures consist mostly of stories and prayers. We enter most appropriately into that revelation when we listen and tell stories to one another and listen and speak to God in prayer" (160).

Most of us mirror Jesus in how busy our lives have become. Most of my friends report feeling like someone is always there, wanting, needing something from them. They get irritable. Some days, I think that older people, especially women, break their bones because they've had a whole life of people sucking the marrow right out of them. But what can we do, especially in this economy?

I think of Simon Peter's mother-in-law in the story, who jumps up from her sick bed to cook.  That's how I interpret "to serve them."  And now think of Jesus, also called to serve--a woman's destiny, in ancient times and in ours.  Jesus could have chosen a different path.  The powers that he commands could have put him on a leadership path, the way that we think of leadership:  others serving us, doing what we say.

God calls us to a servant's destiny. We are put on earth to be of service to others, doing the same things that Jesus did: preaching, feeding, teaching, healing. But God doesn't expect us to do these things without periods of rest. We need times of retreat, even if we can only schedule short times. We need times of prayer. We need time to listen for God, because the cries of the needy can drown out the still, small voice of God. We need time to refresh, and the easiest way to renew ourselves for the tasks ahead is to pray. The world, with all its aching yearning, will still be there after we emerge from our time of retreat.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Altar Austerity

I had never given much thought to the way we decorate a chancel until I went to Mepkin Abbey in 2004.  The space around the altar was changed, sometimes throughout the day, depending on the purpose of the worship service.  The flowers were in a huge urn beside the altar, not on the altar.  The flowers were cut from the grounds and mixed with some autumn leaf garland, the kind you could get from JoAnns.  It was very different from anything I had ever experienced.

I grew up in fairly traditional Lutheran churches.  We might have had a new banner here and there, but for the most part, they remained the same.  The flowers were fresh each week, but it was always a tasteful bouquet.  The paraments changed with the seasons, but the paraments were likely the same ones that the church had possessed for decades.  They looked like this:

The end of Maundy Thursday service was so forceful because we so seldom saw the stripped altar.  The altar in my current church has been created out of beautiful, white marble, but I'm not sure that people perceive it as marble from a distance.  Until recently, my church, like the churches of my childhood, decorated the altar with traditional paraments and white cloths that got washed every week.

Now we have no altar guild, so there's not as much pressure to use the paraments.  The families that might have bought those paraments have died long ago.  We can do more with the open space under the altar if it's not covered.

But it's important to remember that we have a substantial number of church members who might prefer a more austere altar space.  Last year, we draped the altar with fabrics to create this look:

But as we worked with the fabrics, one parishioner voiced her displeasure.  After trying different approaches and talking to her further, I realized that she would never like the same kind of altar that I do.  She thought that the draped and cascading fabrics looked too busy.  She missed the quiet paraments that we used to have.

I wonder if this tension is ever taught in seminary.  I wonder if the possibility of the worship space as artistic expression is taught.  I imagine that most seminaries assume some altar guild will take care of all that, but I realize I am likely selling seminaries short in assuming that seminaries focus on translating sacred texts and explicating them in words, not images.

I feel lucky that I'm part of a church that's willing to experiment.  But I also want to remain alert to the silent ones in the pews that might wish we didn't feel the need to experiment quite so much.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Sermon Notes: Demon Possession

So many people were interested in my sermon, especially people who couldn't be there, so I decided to post my sermon notes.  I don't always make notes for a sermon, but I wanted to be sure that this one went well.

I first talked about all the directions that my sermon might have gone:  ancient cultures viewing mentally ill people as demon possessed, the fact that demon possessions and exorcisms are still part of life in places like Africa, the movies from my childhood in the 70's that shaped the way we view demon possession.

But I decided that it was most useful to think about the ways we are still possessed by some modern types of demons.  I asked, "How many of you have your hands on your phone right now?"  Most people didn't, but the phone is never far away.

I mentioned other types of possession

--we have more faith in our 401K than in God.

--raging opioid crisis

--legal drugs too: alcohol use is way up.


--fitness and nutrition quests—or the lack of them. Many of us talk about sugar in the same way we once would have talked about demon possession.

--I’ve seen such political vitriol—it brings to mind that scene in The Exorcist, you know the one with the vomiting—and the inability to walk away seems a sort of demon possession too.

I talked about all the demon voices we hear hissing in our ears telling us that we're not good enough, that it's too late, that we've ruined everything.


I pointed to the part of the altarscape I had made a few weeks ago:

I said, "Think back to the baptism of Jesus and the words of God--before Jesus ever did anything.  God feels the same way about you":

--whether you’ve lived an exemplary life or messed up your life in a variety of ways.

--if you start your day with a stiff drink or a cup of coffee or a smoothie made of green goodness.

--if your kids run amok or if you run a stern ship

--if you’ve destroyed every relationship you ever had.

--if you’ve fulfilled your potential, or if you’ve misplaced it

--if you've done really dark things, like allegedly paying hush money to a porn star or invaded the bodies of unwilling gymnasts—GOD LOVES US ALL.

I paused and said, "However . . ."

God does have a vision of how our lives—and our world—can be better. God began the initial work of creation, the stories we find in Genesis, and that work of saving creation is found throughout the Bible .

I reminded us all of the wide variety of people that God calls throughout the Bible--these are people whom you wouldn't choose to be part of a winning team.  But God does.

God calls us to help with that creation process—both the creating and the saving. Sure, God could do it without us. I don’t understand why God wants us to be part of the process—it seems very inefficient to me. But God has a much larger vision than I do.

God has a larger plan and purpose for you. God would never give up on you, the way we so often give up on each other and on ourselves.

Let’s do some visualizing together. Think about your demons, the ones that torment you. Imagine them fully. Now hear the stern voice of Jesus talking to those demons: "Be quiet!" said Jesus sternly. "Come out of him! Or "Be quiet!" said Jesus sternly. "Come out of her!

Now imagine those demons gone. Enjoy the quiet. Know that you are healed. Know that you are loved.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Words of Wisdom from Mary Karr

As I've been gearing up for Sunday, I've been listening to Mary Karr in this week's episode of On Being.  What a delight:  a writer and a Catholic.

I was struck by this part where she discusses the difference between doctrine and practice.  I've had similar conversations, but those outside of the institutional church can't seem to grasp it: 

"I’ve done both. But I remember, before I did the Ignatian exercises, which I did probably around 2000, ’98, it was all very metaphorical for me. It was all very groovy, New-Agey. Resurrection was starting over, in some kind of hippy-dippy way. And in Ignatian spirituality, there’s a thing you do where you compose a scene with your body, with all the senses, that composes — the way St. Ignatius writes about it, it’s like: If you’re at the Nativity, if you’re at the Crucifixion, what can you smell? What do you touch? What does the cloth feel like on your skin? What do you hear? What do you feel? You try to put yourself, bodily, using your senses, into passages from the Scripture. It’s a very powerful practice, to take a passage from scripture and try to ask the Holy Spirit to put you somewhere, to place your mind and your senses in another place. It’s a very radical, dangerous kind of prayer to make. And I did this over 30 weeks. And they give you a lot of different methods of prayer. And somewhere in there, all of the stuff that had been metaphorical became very actual for me.

The idea of my sense of Jesus — I didn’t like Jesus, when I became Catholic. I came in on the Holy Spirit. And then I got that sense of Jesus that — I just noticed that the people who are always running the soup kitchens and taking care of the babies from El Salvador and bringing in orphans, doing all the good stuff, and who don’t seem really angry and crazy and kind of pissed off and really pious, they seem kind of realistic — always talked about Jesus all the time. So I thought, 'I’ve got to get on this Jesus boat. I’ve got to get with this Jesus program.' And somewhere in there, I just found that I was able to practice it.

Do I doubt? All the time. Sure, are there days that I wake up — to me, being a Catholic is like any spiritual practice. It’s a practice. It’s not something you believe. It’s not doctrine. Doctrine has nothing to do with it. It’s a set of actions. Everybody talks about the doctrine — do you believe in this? Do you believe in that?

What do you do, on a day? Do you get on your knees? Do you try to practice charity? Do you try to apologize for your mistakes? Are you trying to live a life that is less shameful than the one the day before?"

She talks about what she says to her unbelieving friends:  "Yeah, I think — it’s one thing I say to my friends who are atheists. I say: 'Look, why don’t you — you think I’m so full of horse dookie. Why don’t you pray every day, for 30 days, and see if your life gets better?' And my guess is that it will, just because if you think — let’s say there’s not a God. Let’s say I die, and there’s not a God, and the worms eat me, and that’s the end of it. Daring to hope every day — it’s much more radical, I think, to hope than to live in the despair I was born to. I think it’s much more dangerous."

The whole interview is full of wonderful insight.  You can hear or read the transcript here.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

What the Gymnasts Teach/Remind Us

As I've listened to the news coverage of the gymnasts testifying against the doctors who abused them, I thought, I hope our churches are listening--and our schools, and our sports teams, and any other institutions that we tend to trust when we turn our children over to their care.

One of the hardest writing projects I ever undertook was writing the safe space policy that our insurance requires of my church.  We had never had such a thing, but I thought, how hard can it be?

The actual writing of it wasn't hard, but the researching was horrible.  I read story after story of things that can go terribly wrong in a church that is too trusting--all those shattered lives!

The fixes are fairly simple--all doors must have windows, and they should remain open unless there's a very good reason to close them.  No adult should ever--EVER--be alone with a child.

In fact, if we could all enact that rule, we'd eliminate a lot of opportunities for abuse.

Our insurance policy also requires a background check for all church members who work with children--and in our church, that's almost everybody, since we're a small church.  But we don't do as much with traditional Sunday school as other churches, so it's mainly our nursery workers who need the background check.

As we were instituting these changes, we got some push back from older members.  I understand that we wish we could trust everyone.  We want to believe that our fellow church members wouldn't do such a thing as invade little children with their body parts.

Sadly, we can't.

If we're members of churches that seem a bit careless when it comes to the safety of children, this crisis in USA Gymnastics gives us a chance to discuss the safety of children and how we can do our jobs better.

The good news:  it often doesn't take much.  Even if we can't put windows in every door, we can make sure that adults are never alone with children.  If new members volunteer to work with children, we can pair them with seasoned members.  We can make sure that groups aren't at church all alone.  We can talk to parents and get them to assist with this process.

Let us not neglect this important work.  It may make us uncomfortable, but let us do it anyway.

Friday, January 26, 2018

What to Do with Old Bibles

I know that some of us would say that what we should do with old Bibles is read them, of course.  But that leads me to an interesting point:  do we read Bibles in the old fashioned way?  On paper?

If I'm looking up the readings for the week or the day, I read the Bible online.  It's a remarkable way to read:  I can choose the translation, I can choose the size font, and I could have someone else read it to me.

Do you read the Bible on your phone?  I don't have a smart phone, so it's not possible for me, but I'm guessing that in the first world, many of us read on our phones, just as we do so many other tasks on our phones.

I am most likely to read parts of the Bible when they show up in my prayer book, Phyllis Tickle's The Divine Hours.  I am most likely to read that text the old fashioned way, on paper.

I am trying to reduce the number of books that I have in front of a major house renovation.  I don't mind keeping books that are important to me, but I still have many books that I will never read again.  It's time to make sure that I really need to keep them.

That brings me to this shelf of Bibles that I have.  Some of them I bought for myself.  One of them is a Bible I had as a child we also have one of my spouse's childhood Bibles.  As I've moved through the world, people have given me their Bibles.  I have a Bible written in Greek and one written in Hebrew--I can't read those at all.  My mother-in-law gave us a Bible as a wedding present.  It has pages in the front for us to record our offspring.  We won't be needing those pages.  I rescued one Bible because it was left in a pile of books in an office I had at the University of Miami.

I have a Ph.D. in English, so my response to books is very different than the general public's.  I revere them in ways that most people don't.  I like them both for their content and as physical objects.  It's hard for me to get rid of them, but knowing that they are going on to be useful to others helps me with that process.

In a world awash with Bibles, it's hard for me to imagine that many people will want my old Bibles.  But I will likely get rid of them nonetheless.

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Feast Day of the Confession of St. Paul

Today the Church celebrates the conversion of St. Paul.  Take a minute to imagine how the world would be different if we had had no Saul of Tarsus.  There would have been no Saul persecuting the Christians, no Saul to have a conversion experience on the road to Damascus, no Paul who was such a singular force in bringing Christianity to the Roman empire.

Early Christianity would have had some traction even had there been no Paul.  Those disciples and apostles had a fire borne of their experiences to be sure.  But it was Paul and his compatriots who brought Christianity to populations apart from the early Jews.  Without Paul, Christianity might have withered on the tiny Palestinian vine, since the other disciples and apostles didn't have the same fervor for converting people outside the immediate geographical area.

Would someone else have come along?  Probably.  The Holy Spirit does work in interesting ways.  But Paul was a fascinating choice, a man with extensive training, a man who could speak to multiple populations.  For those of us who feel we don't fit in anywhere, we should take comfort from Paul's story.  The Holy Spirit can use misfits in fascinating ways.  The Bible is full of them.

Some criticize Paul's letters for their inconsistencies.  I would remind us that Paul was writing to real congregations who were facing real problems.  I imagine that he would be aghast at the idea that anyone centuries later would use them as a behavior manual to teach right behavior.  It would be as if someone collected an assortment of your e-mails and centuries later saw direct communication from God in them.

For those of us who have found Paul troubling in terms of his ideas about women, about married people, about slaves, I'd recommend Classics scholar Sarah Ruden's Paul Among the People: The Apostle Reinterpreted and Reimagined in His Own Time (Pantheon 2010), which I first wrote about here.  She gives a window into the ancient world which I had never really peered through before.  Her depiction of sexual relations of all sorts makes me shudder, and more than that, makes me so glad to be alive today.  The Roman empire really was a rape culture in all sorts of ways.  Viewed through this lens, Paul's ideas on relationships seem radically forward-looking.

Here is a prayer for today:

Triune God, you work in truly wondrous ways.  Thank you for the ministry of Paul and all the ways that we have benefited from his missionary fervor.  Let us use the life of Paul as inspiration for our own lives.  Let us trust that you can use our gifts in all sorts of ways that we can't even imagine.  Give us the courage to follow your calling to the far reaches of whichever empires you need to send us.  Give us the words that congregations need right now.  Grant us the peace that comes from having partnered with you.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, January 28, 2018:

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 111
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

It's interesting to consider the early days of the ministry of Jesus, as we do in these weeks before we launch ourselves into Lent.  Throughout the Gospels, Jesus preaches and teaches and does a bit of healing.  So far, so good.  But he also casts out demons.

I've written about demons before.  How do we modern folks see this act of casting out demons?

When I was young, my mother had a sensible explanation:  ancient cultures didn't understand mental illness, so demon possession was how they explained diseases of the brain.  It makes a lot of sense.

Lately, though, I wonder if we dismiss this idea of demon possession too quickly.  Perhaps it's a metaphor that can speak to us in other ways.

I joke that I'm the last person who doesn't own a smart phone.  But I also make clear that I'm not buying a smart phone package because I am surrounded by other screens.  I am no less possessed than those people who nearly walk into me because they are so distracted by their pecking at their phones, by the dinging that proves so intrusive.

I have learned the value of leaving the screens, however.  For every bit of connectivity that our technology buys us, it's worth remembering that our technology can keep us distracted and detached.  And we might feel less and less worthy as we see others who seem to be living charmed lives.  It's not hard to spiral into depression as we stay plugged in.

Our screens aren't the only things that possess us and keep us separated from each other and from God.  Maybe it's the political scene that has split you asunder from family and friends.  Maybe it's our health issues that possess us.  Some of us are possessed by our houses which need so much attention or by our vehicles.

For this week, let us think about all of our personal demons and all of our societal demons. Let us decide how we will attempt to cast them out. As a church, what can we do to minister to those afflicted? As individuals, can we be doing more to reach out to those who, for whatever reasons, feel on the outside of our communities?

When my mother-in-law was sick in the hospital, the hospital had us wear visitor stickers on our shirts. Sometimes I would forget that I was wearing mine, and I'd go to the grocery store. I noticed that people treated me more kindly. That sticker showed that I wasn't having a normal day.

We should go through our lives, seeing our fellow humans as wearing similar stickers that show their need for our gentle treatment. Think of what a different world we would inhabit if all people of faith made gentle treatment of their fellow humans a daily practice. Think of how those demons would be diminished.

Tuesday, January 23, 2018

A Time to Winnow

So, the government shutdown ends--until Feb. 8.  Will the Republicans in charge really deal with the Democrats' wishes to deal with those children brought into the U.S. without the proper paperwork (DACA kids and dreamers)?  I'll be surprised.

I'd be happy to be surprised, mind you.  If we can't muster sympathy for that set of immigrants, I don't have much hope for any others.

I have heard all sides of the immigration issue.  Most days, I feel like we've got a big country with lots of work opportunities--it's not a zero sum game.  I feel that immigrants and refugees have enriched the country, so why not have more?

I'm intrigued by how Christians have responded to refugees and immigrants.  I know that Lutheran Social Services have done so much to help integrate newcomers to their communities, and I know that other religious social service agencies have done the same.  Some of us point to the flight of the Holy family to Egypt to escape Herod as proof that we must be kind to those who flee.  I would argue that the commandment to welcome the stranger is woven throughout our sacred texts.

Here we are, one year into the Trump presidency.  While I am happy that some of our democratic institutions seem to be capable of resisting the autocratic urges of those in charge (and I'm including more than Trump here), I fight a daily despair about the progress that has unraveled.  I am worried about more than refugees.  I am worried about our larger planet too.

I am also, frankly, astonished that we can have a president who created a shell company to pay hush money to a porn star, and we don't see more outrage.  While in the past I have had worries about an American culture that seems a bit too worried about outdated morals, I now would welcome a bit more of that.  There's a degradation of the larger culture that worries me.

Perhaps this moment in history will serve as a winnowing fork to help us all determine what's important and what's not.  I worry about what we will all determine.

Monday, January 22, 2018

Monday Yearnings

This past week-end, my Lutheran synod, the Florida-Bahamas Synod, installed our new Bishop.  My pastor was the official photographer, and he's posted beautiful pictures:  a beautiful cathedral, bishops and higher ups from across the country who came, and beautiful shots that also capture the light that streamed in.

This morning, one of my Facebook friends posted pictures of a different type of installation.  I'm not Presbyterian, so I don't know exactly what she means when she says she was commissioned as a local pastor.  It sounds like an ordination, but I'm unsure.  She's wearing a beautiful handmade stole.

I love all the pomp and circumstance of these occasions--one reason why I also like graduations.  But they also leave me with a yearning that I suspect is never far away.  I yearn to be making this kind of progress and to be acknowledged in a setting where people have gathered to pray with me and for me.

Let me just sit with these feelings for now.  Just because I feel a yearning doesn't mean I need to act on it.  Still they are yearnings that never go away.  Let me also remember that.

Sunday, January 21, 2018


It is time to leave our shells behind.

It is time to see the world beyond our gates.

The children can suckle flowers.  We have work to do.

It is time to move.  We have been at the sidelines too long.

The world needs our unique gifts.  Now is the time.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Which Liberties Get Priority?

The first amendment to the U.S. Constitution enshrines a variety of rights:  freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and the right to petition the government.  We have spent the centuries discussing/arguing about the rights that are guaranteed and what it all means.

What is discussed more rarely is what to do when rights conflict with each other.  Some of those conflicts are easily navigated.  But most of them are not.

As I was trying to determine whether or not I was correct in the above paragraph, I came across this listing of every Supreme Court case that involves the first amendment, divided by the specific freedom guaranteed.  Since I just discovered it, I haven't had a chance to do much analysis.  The list includes the year of each court case; what does a sociologist or a historian make of which cases made their way to the highest court in the land during which year?  Can we make any pronouncements about what issues united and divided us when it comes to first amendment rights?

Right now, I'm fascinated by the religious liberty aspect.  What do we do when one person's religious rights are in conflict with one person's free speech (in the form of artistic cake expression)?  The Supreme Court will let us know this year.  The current administration seems to be more sympathetic to those who claim to be a Christian religious minority and thus have had their rights trampled upon by the past administration.

I'm not talking about Shakers or Mormons, of course.  I'm talking about health care workers who have to participate in abortions or birth control.

I feel some sympathy, while at the same time, I feel some trepidation at the road we travel down when we let people opt out of medical procedures and commerce because they don't approve.  I worry that we're headed towards a different kind of tyranny, one that won't be very friendly towards me or people like me (women, liberals, liberation theology types, Marxists, Socialists, artists, older people, childfree/petfree by choice--the list could go on and on, but you get the idea).

This year promises to be an interesting one, as more cases work their way through the system, which will force the courts (and some of us) to clarify which liberties should get priority.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Ash Wednesday Is Coming

My thoughts on hurricane wreckage has left me thinking of Ash Wednesday.  I've also been doing a lot of scrubbing the dust away as I've been cleaning and sorting recently.  I know that I'm wiping away the detritus of stars, but it's still astonishing how much dust there is. 

It seems to regenerate.  We're shedding dust continuously, but we don't die immediately.  Is it time to retire the metaphor of dust for Ash Wednesday?

I'm not really suggesting that we do so.  But it is good, in this time before Ash Wednesday, to consider what metaphors we will use.

As I've decorated the chancel for the Baptism of our Lord, I've thought about past altarscapes and chancel decorations.  Some churches I've been part of have used the Christmas tree to create a rugged cross.

My current church uses fake trees (don't judge!), so we can't use that.  The most startling change to the chancel that my pastor ever did involved a stark, tree-like thing, with empty branches.

For Easter, we made origami birds, which transformed those branches.

Here's a different shot of the chancel:

He's also used battered sandals in his altarscapes.  We use a lot of burlap in our decorating.

 Some years, we have a variety of cactus plants.

I have a vision of an moving hurricane wreckage into the chancel area, but that's not really practical.  Still, as I drive by trees bent over from the storm, I have a vision.  It won't work for church, but it makes me think of possible art projects for Lent.  Stay tuned!

Thursday, January 18, 2018

My Grandfather's Sermon Writing Process

Last night I discovered more hurricane damage.  My roll top desk sits under a window, and that window had been shuttered during Hurricane Irma.  I assumed no water could get in, but over the past month, I've discovered otherwise.  The envelopes at the top of the desk looked rained on, for example, but I rarely use envelopes anymore, so I didn't discover this fact until mid-December.

As I sorted through piles last night, I realized that water had gotten into one of the piles.  It was dry on top, so I didn't think to look through the pile.  In my defense, there was lot to do in the days after the hurricane, and no power with which to see.

Now the surface of the desk has a few ripples.  I am feeling such guilt about that.  I get this beautiful furniture from my grandmother's estate, and I can't properly care for it. 

I've written more about the roll top desk in this blog post on my creativity blog.  But here on my theology blog, I also want to remember that long ago, my grandfather wrote his sermons on that desk.  I come from a long line of writers, although the larger world may not see it that way.

But think about that writing discipline.  My grandfather, as far as I know, never recycled sermons, although I'm sure various themes surfaced again and again.  He wrote a new sermon every week.  I'm sure he wrote other things too:  articles for the newsletter, letters to the editor that appeared in local papers, letters to his family members, all the types of writing that don't seem important enough to be saved.

Did he write longhand?  I assume so.  The final step in his process was typing the sermon onto a folded sheet of paper:

He knew that he needed to keep the content confined to 4 sides of paper.  His sermons rarely spilled onto a new sheet of paper.

I've read some of his sermons, and I must confess, they don't appeal to me.  They explicate the Bible passage for the day, and they do it well--so I do understand their usefulness to a congregation in the middle of the 20th century that wouldn't have had much education or training in literary/Biblical analysis.  For me, I want more depth.

As I cycled through despair last night after discovering the hurricane damage, part of that despair was over something more existential than the way rain can damage wood.  My grandfather wrote week after week, and now he is gone.  We only have a few of his sermons.  We only have a few people left on earth who remember him at all--most of his parishioners are long dead too. 

We are here for such a short time, and it's so easy to let the days and years slip by.  Let us now resolve to stay resolute and seize joy as we go along.  

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The Readings for Sunday, January 21, 2018:

First Reading: Jonah 3:1-5, 10

Psalm: Psalm 62:6-14 (Psalm 62:5-12 NRSV)

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 7:29-31

Gospel: Mark 1:14-20

I'm interested that in this Gospel (as well as other stories we've had recently, like Mary's call in Advent), people don't seem to hesitate. They don't weigh the cost of discipleship. They don't create a spreadsheet that compares the pros and the cons.

No, God beckons, and these men leave their normal lives immediately.

The story we get in today's Gospel seems like a young person's story. How hard is it to give up everything when you're young and don't really have all that much to give up? I think of the mother of Andrew and Simon Peter, who must wonder if her sons have lost their minds. I imagine her sighing, saying, "Eh, they're young. They'll come to their senses and come back to the family business--I give them 6 months of this homeless lifestyle, following this wackadoo Jesus."

I think about Jesus moving in the world today, and I wonder if we’d recognize him and if we’d drop everything to follow him. Would we think about our jobs and the current unemployment rate and the likelihood that we’d never find a full-time job again if we dropped everything? Would we think about our family obligations? Would we worry about our stuff and our mortgages and how we’d pay our bills if we just dropped everything to follow Jesus?

Would we even hear Jesus at all? Many of us wander through the world with our cell phones pasted to our ears or our fingers, careening into innocent bystanders because we’re so oblivious. What would Jesus have to do to get our attention?

Our Bible stories train us to look for burning bushes, so we ignore the still, small voice that speaks to us out of the darkness of a sleepless night: it's not God, it's indigestion. We're ready for hosts of angels, or bright stars, or wise men who let us know that there's a new savior on the scene. But if God speaks in a small whisper, can we hear over the din of our electronics?

And if we hear, can we make time? I see God as the friend who continues to invite me to lunch, the one to whom I say, “I’m super-busy this month. What’s your calendar like for next month?”

The good news is that God continues to call us anyway. No matter how many times we reject God and God's hopes for us, God comes back to see if we're interested.

God has great visions for us. But even if we can't rise to those grand plans, God will entice us with smaller parts of the larger vision. And then, years later, we look up, amazed at how our lives' trajectories have changed.

What is God calling you to do? And if you're not comfortable with the larger plan, are there smaller bits you can do right now?

Maybe you're not ready to go back to school, but you could take a class or two. Maybe you can't leave your job, but you could try something different through volunteer work. Maybe you can't solve the larger social justice issue that keeps you up at night, but you could write a letter or educate your fellow citizens.

We are all so much greater than we know. Christ came to us to show us what is possible in a human life--and so much is possible. What part in this great human drama were you born to play?

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Art to Help Us Focus

Before Christmas, my pastor asked me if I'd create some sort of sanctuary decoration for the Baptism of Our Lord.  I said sure, even though I wasn't sure what I'd come up with.

Our altar has an open space, which makes it perfect for some sort of installation art.  I continue to be inspired by what our pastor did for Lent for several years:

I decided to do something similar to evoke baptism.  I had in mind flowing waters and rivers.  I thought about descending doves.  I went to JoAnns and got a great post-Christmas deal on a huge spool of light blue, sparkly ribbon that would prove to be important to my creative process.  I also collected some boxes to provide shape and layers:

I decided that trying to create a descending dove would be too complicated.  But I have a tabletop easel, and I drew something that I hoped would evoke a dove.  And then I added the words that I want us to remember when we think about baptism; God is well pleased with Jesus, and God feels the same way about us:

On Sunday, I arrived early at church and spread out my materials:

Then I went to work, draping fabric, taping ribbons, trying to evoke fluidity.  I ended up with this altarscape:

I still had ribbon left over, and so I moved to the space to the left of the altar.  I tried to create a different vibe, something that would evoke waterfalls and cascading water:

I wonder about the others who share our space.  What will they make of our decorations?

I could wonder the same thing about our parishioners.  I know that at least one of them would like to return to the more sedate decorating of our past, where an extra banner would be the only deviation from the paraments and flowers that the altar committee would set up.

I know that as a child I responded to the season of Advent and Christmas in large part because it shook up the normal worship style, which stretched so boringly across the calendar.  Suddenly we had different colors, different stuff in the sanctuary, something new each week to focus upon.

I like how my current church and pastor are willing to do the same thing throughout the liturgical year.  I remember being at Mepkin Abbey, long ago when I worshipped at a different church, and being intrigued and charmed by how the worship space changed during the four days we were there.  I yearned for a church that did something similar.

And now, I belong to one.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Learning to Dream Again

I confess that I have often approached Martin Luther King day as a celebration of how far we've come--and let us take a moment to remember how far we really have come, and in a relatively short time.  For example, when I took a summer job in 1985 at a D.C. office of Lutheran Social Services, I met a black woman who was old enough to have experienced Jim Crow laws and how they impacted travel by car just 25 years earlier.

And now, same gender couples can get married.

Some of us are worried about the erosion of Civil Rights.  We tell ourselves that once rights are given they can't be taken away, but you don't have to do too much digging in history to realize that statement is not true.

Some of us are frustrated that the rest of us never realized how much was left to be done.  That's fair.  But now it must be clear to us all.

So on this day that honors one of our Civil Rights leaders, let us take some time to think about the work left to do and how we might be part of it:

--We can shake the despair we might have been feeling in the past.  Let us dream boldly again.  If any society was possible, what elements would we want to have as part of that society?

--We can use our art, whatever those talents might be, to share that vision with others.

--We can use the old tools of writing letters to lawmakers, organizing, marching, and teaching to dismantle the structures that oppress.

--We can learn to use the new tools of social media--those are the tools that taught many of us how much work is left to be done.

--If we're spiritual/religious people, we can pray that our vision of a better future will come to pass.  We can ask for Divine help.

--We can remember that much of the work of social justice is not the type that will get us a holiday in our honor.  In fact, those Civil Rights workers, including King, did that kind of work for years and decades before breakthroughs happened.  We can do the work of making the sandwiches, running the childcare centers, working with disadvantaged students, listening to the dispossessed in our own communities.

There's plenty of work to do and a wide variety of ways to do it.  That's both a frustration and a blessing.  There's room for each of us, although the work we do may feel very piddly.

We can't always know that progress is being made when we work for social justice.  We proceed in faith, trusting that our work will not be done in vain.  Perhaps that's true of any big project:  books that we write, children that we raise, students that we educate, long-term relationships of all kinds.

Today is a good day to take some time to envision a better future, for ourselves, for our children, for future generations who will marvel at what's been done.  What dreams do we have?  If we believed that anything was possible, what would we want to see?  

Let us do what can be the hardest work of all--to believe that anything is possible.

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Installation Art in the Sanctuary

One of the things I love about my church is that we're willing to think about art in the worship space beyond the traditional paraments, banners, music, and flowers.  Most churches do this kind of experimenting periodically, most notably during Advent/Christmas and Easter.  We go further.

My pastor is on sabbatical, so he asked me if I'd come up with something for the baptism of our Lord.  I said sure.  I immediately thought of the glowing elements that we added to a baptismal font at the 2014 Create in Me retreat:

I won't be adding glowing elements or even the twinkly lights that first came to my mind.  I'm taking a variety of other elements to church with me.

I have a variety of blue fabric and sparkly fabric.  I have some wired ribbon, blue ribbon that I got for dirt cheap at an after-holiday sale at JoAnn Fabric.  I have some other ribbons too.  I have a variety of boxes so that I can do something with varying heights.  I've got some pieces of coral.

I have a vision of creating a river of fabric and ribbons.  I want to create a sense of cascading water.  I want to add the words of God about being well pleased.

Of course I will take pictures--stay tuned!

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Presidential Language

Every time President Trump says something offensive or outrageous or so, so wrong, I wrestle with whether or not to say anything.  Thursday's comment about immigration and who we admit and who we don't--and the profanity about some of the nations--well, I just don't know what to say.  Actually, I have a lot to say, but I'm not sure it's wise.

So, let me say a few things.

Let me remember that Donald Trump is a child of God, just like the rest of us.  God loves him as much as God loves any of us.

Donald Trump comes from a different religious tradition than I do.  My religious tradition teaches about compassion for the people fleeing from oppression.  Donald Trump seems not to have had that training, not from his religion, not from his friends, not from any world experience.  When I think about how dangerous wealth can be, it's because it protects someone like Donald Trump from hearing the stories of refugees, first hand, just before those refugees have to flee because the INS authorities are closing in on your Lutheran Student Movement conference.

Let me remember that God has such a different vision of what our world can be.  I've caught a glimpse of it, and I'm pretty sure that God's vision doesn't match Donald Trump's vision.

Let me remember that God chooses to come to humanity in various backwater places (to use a kinder phrase than the one that Donald Trump uses).  People of Christ's time probably had similar opinions about Nazareth as some of us do about Haiti--what good can come from there?

God shows us again and again that great things can rise from the trash heaps and dung piles.  God shows us again and again that the rulers of the empire may have no clue.  History shows us that too.

Still, our language shapes our reality, and it is hard not to despair.  But let me remember that I can only control what I control.  Let me commit myself to precise language that heals, not that sows division.

Friday, January 12, 2018

January Mission

Most of us have already put away the holiday decorations, the wreaths on the doors, the lights on the shrubbery, and the baubles we've collected through the years.

We must remember, however, not to abandon all the aspects of Christmas.  We can't leave the baby in the manger until Easter.

We must stay alert.  While there may be no angel choirs to sing to us, we can see God gleaming in the distance.

God still has invitations, for those with ears to hear.

We are more than dried husks of our former selves.  God is always making all things new.

How will we shape the clay of our lives and our world?

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Oprah Is Not the Messiah

I confess that I did not stay up to watch the Golden Globe Award show; I never watch those shows unless someone who is staying with me wants to see them.  Thus, I did not see Oprah's speech.  I haven't read it, but I've heard/read snippets.

It was inspiring, as I expected.  She's always had a great way of connecting with those of us who aren't super wealthy, of reminding us that she comes from very meager beginnings.

I think we're losing sight of how many of us came from very meager beginnings, if you go back a generation or two or three.  But that doesn't detract from Oprah's speechmaking skills.  Lots of people from meager backgrounds don't make the most of their opportunities and certainly can't speak about it as powerfully as Oprah does.

Lots of people have been taking up a lot of time by discussing whether or not she should run for president.  We can genuinely say that we've seen worse candidates.  But would she be best?

I think her powers of inspiration could be important.  I'd like a candidate devoted to calling us all to live our best lives.  Would she have the legislative capability to put programs and money in place to help us do that?  She might.

I've been thinking a lot about politics and about our desire for a messiah in that arena, someone who can swoop in and fix things.  Anyone who has been in a leadership position of any kind knows it's not that easy.  Some days we're lucky, and the ideas we offer are accepted with enthusiasm--and they work.  Other days we spend time redoing work we thought was finished months ago; if we're lucky, we do the work with grace and with better results.

 As the week has gone on, and Oprah-for-President/Savior fever has grown, I've thought of other stories we tell ourselves.  My thoughts have returned to The Last Jedi which I've written about at more length in this earlier blog post.

The movie explores the cultural desire for a Messiah, for someone who will save us.  But we're often doomed by our insistence on being the Messiah--it was interesting to watch this movie with the words of John the Baptist ringing in my head:  "I am not the Messiah."  I'm still thinking about these parallel ideas--how to respond to a world with so much need for a Messiah?  We can't be the Messiah, but people need more than just the promise that a Messiah will come.  I worry that I'm transposing my theological ideas on the movie, but here it is:  the Force (which I've always understood to be God) operates much more effectively in the world when there are spiritually attuned people to help.  Those light sabers and rocks won't move themselves. 

The idea that the Force can be used for good or for evil (or for profoundly mixed motives) isn't one that Christianity traditionally presents to believers, but it makes sense to me.  I don't see God as a parent, but as a partner, albeit a partner who knows more and has more resources than I do.

Our political lives would be very different if we saw our politicians in the same way, if we stopped waiting for someone to save us and instead saw opportunities to start creating the world where we want to live, if we did that hard and consistent work ourselves.

My religious tradition (mainstream Protestantism, of a Lutheran flavor) teaches me that God begins the work of salvation and through grace, I am saved.  But I am not saved just to sit on the sofa and whine about how no one cleans up this mess or helps out that population group.  One of Luther's quotes that is one of my favorites instructs that "faith moves our feet."

I have seen this same thread running through many religious traditions, those with saviors and those without.  We are not helpless in the face of injustice; on the contrary, the Divine commands/instructs us to get involved.

I might vote for Oprah--much depends on my choices.  I'd like to vote for someone with a political track record.  I'd like to vote for someone who is grounded by similar religious traditions as mine.  But if that candidate isn't running, I'd be happy to vote for someone who remembers what it's like to be on the outside and who can offer us a vision of a world where we're all better off.  Oprah has been that person in every incarnation of her life so far.  We could do worse.

And yes, I'm aware that we could do better--but we'll need to start thinking about that now and preparing now--and that work is necessary, not for the 2020 race, but beyond.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Jan. 14, 2018:

First Reading: 1 Samuel 3:1-10 [11-20]

Psalm: Psalm 139:1-5, 12-17 (Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 NRSV)

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 6:12-20

Gospel: John 1:43-51

In this week's Gospel, we see the start of Jesus' ministry--and what a simple start it is. A low pressure invitation to come and see.

Note what is left out of this narrative. I assume that many people declined Christ's invitation, for all the standard reasons: no time, conflict of interest, kids have after school activities, guests in town for the week, laundry and grocery shopping to do, too much work to do before quitting time; we are people with responsibilities; we can't just abandon them to follow some guy around the countryside. Experts tell us that it takes 4-8 invitations before a friend will come with you to church. Imagine what Jesus faced as he offered invitations to total strangers.

And notice that Jesus carries on. Jesus doesn't go off in a huff. Jesus doesn't spend time complaining about how he'd rather have a different sort of ministry. Jesus doesn't whine to God that God promised him something different, one of those mega-churches perhaps. Jesus walks from town to town, issuing a simple invitation: Come and see. The ones who respond to the invitation offer the same invitation to their friends. Come and see.

Jesus doesn't do spectacular miracles in the Gospel of John, at least, not at first. He tells Nathanael that he'll see great things, but he doesn't wow the audiences with his powers.

There are several powerful messages for us here in this Gospel. We, too, have been offered this invitation. Come and see. And what are we to make of what we see? How do we respond? Do we tell others? Do our lives change? Can other people tell that we've been changed?

One of the tasks that God calls us to do is to transform the world we live in, to make the Kingdom of God manifest here on earth. No small task. But God has given us an example of how to do this: Christ's experiences on earth show us the way.

For those of us who are members of small churches or small ministries, we should take heart in this example. Jesus doesn't start with a huge group. Jesus doesn't start with a huge budget. Jesus doesn't even have a building to call his own. Jesus shows us what we can accomplish with a small group of dedicated people.

Perhaps this doesn't sound like good news to you right now. Maybe you're tired and not feeling so dedicated. Maybe you find yourself waking up at 2 in the morning with doubts consuming you and eating away your stomach lining. Pay attention to the Gospel lessons in the coming weeks. God can work with that kind of disciple too.

In the meantime, listen for God. On a daily basis, an hourly basis, God constantly calls us to come and see. God always calls us to transform the world and God promises that transformation is possible, even probable. We are Resurrection People: Life blooms even in the middle of death, even in the deep midwinter.

Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Everything Old Is New Again

I continue to think about the latest Star Wars movie and what it's saying about our current lives.  I found this post to have an interesting view of the political aspect of the whole series:  "In the original trilogy in the 1970s and early 80s, it was The Man– an evil establishment that needed to be purified by a younger generation. In the prequels of the 90s, it was evil corporations secretly colluding with a corrupt government to create endless war."

In the current movie, we get a main character, an "unstable young white man has this horrific ideology, access to far too many weapons, and the desperate desire to demolish anything that he perceives as a threat– or is told to perceive as a threat."

The author sees the new generation of Star Wars movies as anxious to announce that the old is out and the new generation is ascendant.  She doesn't address the question of the spiritual aspect of it all.  Is the movie saying anything about the ways that generations move through church?  What does it mean that this next generation, which may or may not have vastly different ideas about the society that should emerge from the ashes, has been taught by the best of the Jedi masters of the past generation?

I find the female main character much more interesting than the conflicted young man.  Rey, perhaps because of her orphaned status, has more respect for the past generation--in fact, she saves the books (I confess that I missed this detail, but I read about it in reviews).

It's an interesting meditation, too, on how we pass on knowledge--do we need to write down the important ideas of our generations or will those ideas be preserved if they're important enough?  As an English major and an admirer of the monastic tradition, I vote for preserving our ideas on paper and a back-up medium.

My brain keeps coming back to one of the main temptation scenes, where Rey is invited to join a different resistance--or is it a resistance?  Could she and Kylo Ren build something new or are they both too corrupted by the old to do it effectively?

It's a question that every generation must answer:  what is worth keeping and what must be discarded?  And what happens if we accidentally discard the essential?

But perhaps I'm making the mistake that many theologians warn us against:  maybe it's all essential.

Or maybe God can use whatever direction we decide to go.  Some of us despair at the way that some parts of Christendom condemn same-sex marriage, while others see the embracing of same-sex marriage as essential.  In the end, these arguments and conversations will lead us all to a different world than we'd have otherwise inhabited, and history tells us that it won't be exactly like what either side would have predicted or preferred.

And then another generation will come along to point out what we've been overlooking and perhaps to smash what we've spent so long creating.

Monday, January 8, 2018

A Return to Sensible Life

This is the odd time in the academic calendar:  almost every college and university in our 3 county area will begin class today, unlike say, the fall or summer start.  The U.S. House and Senate return to work today, and I'm guessing that many statehouses swing into session too.

Even if we went back to work last week, this week is the first full work week for many of us in many weeks.  And even if we haven't had time off for the December holidays, the festive atmosphere is likely gone by now.

Some of us will sit quietly and stare at all the e-mails that have been waiting for us.  Some of us will care for the loved ones of others who need to get back to regular life and regular work.

Some of us will be happy--having a regular schedule keeps our moods more regular and makes it easier to eat in a more healthy way and to get some exercise.  Some of us will be sad--some of us won't have much in the way of time off for the next few months.

Some of us are grateful to have jobs, and some of us wish we had other jobs.  Let us not forget those wishing that they had any kind of work at all.

I spent the week-end getting the house cleaned up and putting away the Christmas decorations.  I didn't put out all of our decorations, so that part of my cleaning up task was easy--but also difficult because I really like the twinkling lights to brighten the winter darkness.

Luckily, I got some cool lights for a Christmas present.  They're tiny LED lights on a wire strand.  The off-on switch is in the shape of a wine cork, so you can put the wire down in an empty wine bottle or on the outside.  I'm looking forward to experimenting.

So, even though it's back to work and back to more sensible living, I'll stash some Epiphany bread in my lunch bag to go with the plain porridge I plan to eat.  Here's hoping that we all have a good first non-holiday week of 2018, a week full of both the sensible and the sweet.

Here's a prayer that I wrote a few years ago for this kind of return to regular life:

Creator God, be with us on this day when so many of us leave our holidays behind and return to our regular lives.  Give us extra measures of patience.  Give us creative solutions that we might never have seen without our time away.  Be with those looking for work.  Be with those of us who are frustrated with the work we have.  And help us all to realize that the important work may not be in our workplaces at all.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

The Sick Day after Epiphany

We will not be going to church today.  My spouse has been battling a cold all week, and now I'm battling it too.  And while that fact might not be enough to keep us home, if we had only us to consider, we are aware of how many people at our church are older and/or immuno-compromised in some other way.  We are only having one service, and even if we were careful not to touch anyone, we might still cough and spew out our germs.

Plus, we're both tired.  My spouse gets up, moves around for a bit, and then collapses on the sofa again.

So, we'll have another quiet day at home.   We'll eat the Epiphany bread that I made yesterday. 
I made loaves and a pan of rolls:

I'll pack away the Christmas dishes and the decorations.  I'll finish getting the house in order so that I'm ready to face the week to come.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

An Epiphany Meditation

Today is the Feast Day of the Epiphany, the last day of the Christmas season. This day is the one where we celebrate the visit of the Magi, the Wise Men who come to visit the Baby Jesus.  The Magi don’t miss the message of the star. They show up to do the work. They’re not lazing about hoping that something reveals itself. They are present and receptive to the message of the skies. They participate in the discovery of the message.

We might prefer the blaze of angel light, the night sky disrupted, the message plain and clear.  We might wish that we didn't have to rely on a lonely star, beaming its speck of light from such a great distance.  The wise men remind us of the Advent message, the value of watching and waiting and staying alert.

Too often, with both our Christmas story and our Epiphany story, we stay with the happy elements:  we focus on the baby in the manger, the arrival of the wise men, the happy crowd, all assembled.  We forget what happened next.  The journey of the Magi plunges the family into chaos, into flight, into refugee status.  These stories are not all sweetness and light.  Herod feels so threatened that he slaughters every boy in Bethlehem who is under the age of 2.  Forewarned, Mary and Joseph take their baby and flee for their lives.

Today is a good day to ponder the shadow side of this story, which is Herod, who stews over this vision that the wise men have given him. We might think about all the ways we turn good news into bad, of the ways that we stew over our thoughts and turn them into poisonous actions. We might make an Epiphany resolution to watch our thoughts carefully and to track our actions even more carefully.  We might resolve to help refugees who are still being plunged into chaos by the actions of despots.

Today is also a good day to think about wisdom, about gifts, about staying alert and watchful.  Let us not forget these important Advent and Christmas messages.  Most of us have already bid good-bye to Christmas and returned to our every day lives. Today is a good day to take one last Christmas moment, to recover our capacity for wonder, to delight in the miraculous, to look for the unexpected, and to rejoice in the amazing Good News of a God who loves us so much that the Divine One comes to live with us.

Friday, January 5, 2018

Epiphany Eve: The Path We Make by Dreaming

Here we are, at the 12th day of Christmas, the day before Epiphany.  Tradition has it that we should take down our Christmas decorations today, to avoid bad luck in the new year.  Hmm.  I've always waited until Epiphany--although if I'm being honest, I often wait until my husband does it, and he usually takes care of the undecorating on Epiphany.

We will likely take down the Christmas decorations tomorrow.  We're having some family members over on Sunday, and we'll need to do some cleaning, which will likely inspire us to put away the seasonal stuff too.

On Jan Richardson's blog post, I read about an interesting tradition, Women's Christmas, which is traditionally celebrated on Epiphany:  "In some parts of the world, Epiphany (January 6, which brings the Christmas season to a close) is celebrated as Women's Christmas. Originating in Ireland, where it is known as Nollaig na mBan, Women's Christmas began as a day when the women, who often carried the domestic responsibilities all year, took Epiphany as an occasion to enjoy a break and celebrate together at the end of the holidays."

She also includes a link to a free download of her Retreat for Women's Christmas, which includes  readings, art, questions--a great resource if you're in the mood for a contemplative treat with a spiritual theme, all done in a wonderful way.

She creates a retreat each year, and the theme for this year's retreat is "The Path We Make by Dreaming."  I love that theme, and I look forward to having time to explore the materials she's created.

May this be the week-end that we see the visions that we seek, even if they twinkle at us from a distance so very far away.  May we have the courage to move towards that vision, even if it requires a great journey or a different kind of leap of faith.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Snow Between Christmas and Epiphany

Snow swirls into the crevices and coastlines rarely affected this way.  Ponds freeze first, and then roads, and in some places, even the surf crystalizes.

We have just celebrated a season of waiting and watching.  We have heard of angels who tell us not to be afraid. 

We have heard of stars that twinkle a secret.  We keep an eye on the skies that deliver us only snow.

We know that the earth only looks cold and dead.  Beneath the surface where we walk, seeds await the signal for rebirth.

So it can be for us.  Soon we will unfurl our sprouts of magnificence.

But for now, let us curl into our hibernations.  Let us wait for that which will warm us.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, Jan. 8, 2018:

Genesis 1:1-5

Psalm 29

The voice of the LORD is upon the waters. (Ps. 29:3)

Acts 19:1-7

Mark 1:4-11

This Sunday marks the baptism of Christ. I can't help but think of all the years that are missing in this cycle--what would Christ have been like, as an adolescent, as a young carpenter?

I love the words of God in this baptism: "Thou art my beloved Son; with thee I am well pleased." Note that God says this at the beginning of Christ's ministry, before Jesus has actually done much. In fact, in this Gospel of Mark, the baptism scene is our first introduction to Jesus. Mark doesn't give us a nativity story.

Here's the best news of all: God feels the same way about you.

God feels the same way about you: you are God's chosen ones; God is well pleased with each and every one of you.

For those of us who might have grown up with the idea of an angry God, a punishing parent, this message can be quite powerful. God loves you, regardless of what you've done, in spite of what you've done. God's love has nothing to do with what you've accomplished. Certainly God has ideas of how we can live our best lives, in much the way a friend wants what's best for a friend, a parent wants a child to make choices that will lead the child to fulfillment. But regardless of what we've done or not done, regardless of the roads we've taken, regardless of how well we're living our mission to be the light of Christ in the world, God loves us.

This is a powerful message as we start the new year. For some of us, a new year is a chance to beat ourselves up over how much we haven't accomplished. We think of all the past resolutions we haven't been able to keep. We think of all the ways we haven't been our best selves. We think of all the people we've disappointed. We can quickly spiral into a vicious circle of self-hatred and depression.

God knows all the ways we might not deserve it, but God loves us anyway. Again, that's the great thing about being a Lutheran and believing in grace--God knows us completely, and God loves us thoroughly. We don't have to do anything to earn this love. Indeed, we can't.

Look at the great lengths God has gone to to let us know of that love. Think of the Christmas and Epiphany stories. God becomes a little baby, born in a stable--and why? To let us know of God's love. God becomes a refugee because of Herod's jealousy. God loves us so much--the Bible is full of stories that show God going to great lengths to show humanity this love. An observent person might say that God still goes to great lengths to get our attention.

The juxtaposition of Epiphany and the Baptism of Christ also gives us an opportunity to see how differently people respond to this gift of grace and love. Herod is so threatened that he slaughters every child in Bethlehem and the surrounding region. John, on the other hand, tells everyone about the coming arrival of Jesus.

How will you respond to God's great gift of love?

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Messiahs, Last Jedis, and Christmas Connections

On our recent trip to San Diego, we went to a beautiful Lutheran church downtown for Christmas Eve service.  We sang almost every Christmas carol possible, and we had communion.  We took our lit candles out into the chilly patio--we sang "Go Tell It on the Mountain," after singing "Silent Night" as we lit the candles; it was that kind of service.

And then we walked the 6 or so blocks back to our swanky downtown hotel.  We saw people sleeping on the ground, and I thought about the Gospel and what it means when there's no room at the inn.  On every block, people settled down to sleep on sidewalks and huddled beside buildings as Christmas Eve moved to Christmas morning.

I prayed for them as we walked past; the act of praying made me realize how many San Diego residents sleep/live out in the open.  I wanted to do more.  I had a vision of passing out Christmas cookies, but I had left them in my freezer a continent away.

I wish I could do more, like providing affordable housing.  But I know that homelessness is a complex issue.  If everyone had a house, we'd need a source of funding to care for the house.  Not everyone can hold down a job.  Not everyone is mentally stable enough to live in a house alone or with family members.  Not everyone wants to stay put.

On Christmas day, we hiked back down the hill to the Gaslamp district to see the latest Star Wars movie.  I'm a different kind of geek, the kind that sees the Jungian architecture, the one who sees everything through my English major lens, the one who can find a theological reading for every pop culture product that comes my way.

How interesting to see The Last Jedi less than 24 hours after Christmas Eve service and after an Advent month of longing--and after a political season that has included shifts I never would have forecast or believed.  I spent a lot of time thinking about what kind of theology the movie presents.  It's an interesting blend of ancient religions and modern spirituality, as always.  I don't believe that the movie tells us that the destiny of humans is pre-ordained--and how interesting that twist is to me.

I love the message of the movie, at least the take-away message for me:  we don't fight evil by adopting the tools of the evil regime, we fight evil by saving what we love.  A parallel message is that we don't have to be part of a spiritual dynasty to join the fight for the future--the Force is available to us all.

I thought of our cultural desire for a Messiah, for someone who will save us.  But we're often doomed by our insistence on being the Messiah--it was interesting to watch this movie with the words of John the Baptist ringing in my head:  "I am not the Messiah."  I'm still thinking about these parallel ideas--how to respond to a world with so much need for a Messiah?  We can't be the Messiah, but people need more than just the promise that a Messiah will come.  I worry that I'm transposing my theological ideas on the movie, but here it is:  the Force (which I've always understood to be God) operates much more effectively in the world when there are spiritually attuned people to help.  Those light sabers and rocks won't move themselves. 

The idea that the Force can be used for good or for evil (or for profoundly mixed motives) isn't one that Christianity traditionally presents to believers, but it makes sense to me.  I don't see God as a parent, but as a partner, albeit a partner who knows more and has more resources than I do.

We left the movie and walked back through the ritzy dining establishments that were open on Christmas day.  We left the Gaslamp district and walked by all the people setting up camp for the night by the city's sidewalks.  We exchanged Christmas greetings.

And again, I prayed for us all.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Renovate 2018!

The sun slowly rises.  The last time I saw the sun I was 30,000 + feet above the earth, as the onboard airline map showed me I looked down on the Mississippi River flowing to the Gulf of Mexico; it was a magnificent sunset as the plane flew from San Diego to Miami.  I reflected on the fact that it was the last sunset of 2017, and I was finishing the last book I would read in 2017, Lauren Grodstein's Our Short History.

I felt a bit weepy, both from the content of the book and the fact that the year was ending and the fact that my vacation was ending.  I'll say more about my vacation in the coming days.  Today, let me do my traditional New Year's Day thing and think about my plans and goals for the coming year.

In some ways, my plans and goals are the same as they always are.  More of what I want to invite into my life:  more writing, more intentional time with friends and loved ones, more healthy practices like eating vegetables and getting some exercise each day.  Less of the things which sap my joy in life:  less anger at the national news, less TV, less consuming of food and alcohol which will leave me less healthy as the years go by.

Some years I try to choose a word that will be a motto or mantra for the coming year.  This year's word is either "Remodel" or "Renovation."  Readers may remember that finishing the house renovations was my goal for 2017--and it was, but then, life (a huge accreditation project at work primarily) and Hurricane Irma, intervened.

A year ago, my spouse and I had decided to renovate the house first, and then with any money left over, to renovate the cottage.  But that was before the hurricane damage; now, we need to have a 2 pronged approach.  Right now, the cottage needs a new AC/heat system and flooring, at the minimum.  The big house needs to have all the floors replaced, a new wrinkle to our plans.  We still need to have a remodeled kitchen, and I'm wondering if it would be wise to rip out the walls in the small laundry room that got soaked from hurricane damage aftereffects.  We need a new fence and gates.

Let me remember the small, bright lights of good house news that came out of the hurricane.  Our roof is in good shape, a fact confirmed by several inspectors.  We have good neighbors.  We have insurance policies that will pay us when we have damage.

I like the words renovate and remodel because they suggest that there's no need to abandon our current lives and spaces.  We have a good foundation--let's build on that for 2018!