Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, March 4, 2018:

First Reading: Exodus 20:1-17

Psalm: Psalm 19

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 1:18-25

Gospel: John 2:13-22

Ah, the moneychangers in the temple! Many of us as children (and perhaps as adults) loved this tale. Finally, a non-wimpy Jesus. A Jesus who wasn't afraid to take on the religious establishment. As a sullen teenager, I looked around church and thought, boy, Jesus would have his work cut out for him here.

Don't get the wrong idea--I wasn't going to some church that was transgressing on any large scale, and not on any small scale, that I knew about. I just looked around and saw lots of hypocrisy. Look at all this gold, I would say. We could sell the offering plates and give the money to the poor. Why do we all buy church clothes? We could come in our jeans, and give the money that we would have spent on fancy clothes to the poor. Why don't we invite the poor to our potluck dinners?

In retrospect, I'm surprised my parents still talk to me. What a tiresome child/teen I must have been, so self-righteous, so sure of everyone's faults and shortcomings.

As I've gotten older, I've become interested in this story from the moneychangers' point of view. We often assume that the moneychangers were scurrilous men, out to make easy money, and I'm sure that some of them were.

However, I suspect that the majority of them would have told you that they were making salvation possible.

Under the old covenant, people had to go to the temple to make sacrifices to wash their sins away (it's a simplified version of a complicated theology, but let me continue for a few sentences). People who farmed had animals for sacrifice. Those who didn't, or those who came from far away, had to buy their sacrifice on site. And they needed help from the moneychangers and the animal sellers.

These people didn't know that Jesus had come to make a new covenant possible. They got up, went about their personal business, went to work, took care of their families--all the stuff that you and I do. They weren't focused on watching for the presence of God. They didn't know that they had been called to make way for a new Kingdom. They didn't know that the new Kingdom was breaking through, even as they showed up at their day jobs.

We might take a look at our own modern lives and institutions. In what ways do we think we're participating in God's law/kingdom/plan?  Are we doing the best we can? 

We might also take a look at our own modern institutions, especially religious ones. Where are we participating in God's plan? If Jesus showed up, what would he see as problematic? And how would we respond, if he pointed out something that needed some Spring cleaning, and it turned out that it was something we really cherished or thought that we were doing well?

What tables need to be overturned in our own temples of self-righteousness?  How can we leave the practices that no longer serve us well?

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Multiseasonal Desk

Somewhere, perhaps a sociologist or a grad student is working on an analysis of how we amuse ourselves at work.  There are easy answers that involve birthday cakes.  Even how we decorate--an obvious approach.

I have not always decorated for every season at work.  I haven't always had space of my own, and I've often been using my decorations at home.  I've been hesitant until recently to use decorations that have a clear religious theme.  I remember putting a plastic canvas stitched by my grandmother on my office door, and the main response I got was, "You know this is a Christian symbol, right?"

I always said, "Before that, it was a pagan symbol."

I said something similar yesterday, as I started decorating for our Spring into Health event:

Yesterday, I started decorating with Easter eggs.  And then, just for fun, I added my little pumpkin to the mix:

I did think about all the posts I've seen about not mixing Easter into our Lent.  And yes, I understand.  But the themes and images of Lent don't really fit with the festival atmosphere we're trying to create.

I decided to amuse myself further by adding some Christmas to the mix! My Christmas 2016 poinsettia is finally starting to turn red.

As I mixed the seasons and holidays, I thought about what our latest knowledge of Physics might tell us.  Let me grossly oversimplify:  this idea that time moves in a line is an illusion created by our brains which can handle a straight narrative, but not the concept of timelessness and eternity.

Any time that I create, I try to think about the ultimate creator.  I imagine God smiling at my feeble attempts to show that I understand quantum physics.  I imagine God offering a summer item to make the seasonal ensemble complete.

Sunday, February 25, 2018

Those Who Defy Gravity: Elphaba as Christ Figure

I'll be the first to admit that I'm often interpreting characters as Christ figures, and I do wonder if I do the same thing in my own life.  In real life, I'm less likely to be looking for a Christ figure, and more likely reminding myself that I am not called to be the Messiah.  But in my reading and viewing, my brain often goes to the Messiah story as metaphor.

So, I'd have likely come to the idea of Elphaba in the musical Wicked as Jesus, even if I didn't know that the creator of Godspell, Steven Schwarz, wrote the score.  I didn't see Elphaba as a Christ figure when I read the book--at least, I don't think I did--I read the book a very long time ago.

And it took me some time to get to Elphaba as Messiah in the musical when we went to see it yesterday.  But by the end of the first act, I was convinced.  Just consider:

--Elphaba is an outsider, misunderstood, taking on a powerful emperor. 

--Oz and the Roman empire have many similarities:  a brutal empire pitting people against each other, with powerful rewards for those who comply and crushing cruelty for those who don't.

--Elphaba has powers that she doesn't understand and can't fully control.  In some parts of some Gospels, Jesus, too, takes time to understand his mission and his power.

--Both Jesus and Elphaba are rejected with their reputations besmirched.

--And yet, they are both attractive, and they win followers.

--There are temptation scenes, the offer to use their power for a different vision.

--There are scenes in both stories of friendships and understanding, only to have much of it undone.

--And then, of course, there's the resurrection at the end of each story.

I caught whiffs of Godspell in the Wicked score, in both the music and the lyrics.  But I am sure that somewhere, some grad student is already working on this--I'll await the book which will do this analysis in depth.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Aridity of Lent

You have said that you can breathe new life into the driest of bones:

You have promised that all these threads of our lives can be stitched into new tapestries:

We see only a frozen surface; you know that live churns underneath:

We are bent close to the breaking point, but you will hold us up:

Some days you feel distant, but we know you keep us always in your sight and care:

Friday, February 23, 2018

Poetry Friday: The Bluest Hour Before the Dawn

Before we get too far away from the week that contained Ash Wednesday, Valentine's Day, and one of the worst school shootings so far, let me post a poem that came to me.  Many of the details in the poem are true:  I did decide to bake bread on Feb. 15, and I did run out of flour.  I did realize on the way home that I still had a cross of ashes on my forehead.  Did it all point to something more profound?  You decide . . .

The Bluest Hour Before the Dawn

The morning after one of the worst
school shootings yet, in the bluest
hour before the dawn,
I ground myself by making bread
because it is too dark
to dig in the garden
or repot the petunias.

I discover I have just enough
flour to make a sponge
and so I get dressed quickly.
I want to beat
the morning commuters, so I don’t
even brush my teeth or hair.
I’ll be back to knead the dough
before the crowds descend
to clog the cash register lines.

I buy the flour and a few
other items we’ll need soon:
milk and juice and a lipstick in a rusty
shade I thought was discontinued.
I consider the discounted
Valentine’s products, but I have already proven
my love with a flower bouquet clipped
from the tropical bushes that line the fence.

As I drive home, the light begins its slow bleed
across the sky, and I realize that I still wear
the ash cross on my forehead from last night’s
service. Dust we are, dust
and the remains of stars and the bread
dough that remains under my nails
long after the day is done.

Thursday, February 22, 2018

Prayer Vigils

Yesterday was the one week anniversary of the mass slaughter at our local high school.  I went to two vigils.  I didn't go to the one that's making the headlines, the one broadcast on CNN.  I'll be honest--to go to that one would have required that I get tickets (free but thinking ahead required), driven across the county, and stayed up very late, the real deterrent to me.

I've seen and heard bits of it, and to be honest, I'm glad I didn't go.  I wanted something more contemplative.  I wanted candles and spirituals.  I wanted psalms and prayers. 

So when a group from my church organized a group to go to a prayer vigil, I joined up.  We headed over to the city center at Pembroke Pines, where the local governing happens.

There was a strong police presence, and I heard one of the officers say, "We've just done a sweep.  We're clear."

The above picture gives you a sense of the type of gathering it was:  no candles, no spirituals.  We very properly had 3 religious leaders give a prayer:  Christian, Jewish, and Muslim, and I couldn't help but notice that we didn't have a female prayer presence.  Then each member of the City Commission spoke, along with a school board member.  They said very similar things, about how horrible it all was.

When it was over, we decided to head to a vigil at the Pembroke Pines Elementary School.  The principal of the school had a daughter who was killed at the high school; yesterday would have been her birthday.  This vigil was more what I was hoping for, even though it was too windy to light our candles.  Instead, we held up cell phones:

I was struck by all the children who attended.  I'm sure the older ones had a sense of why we were there.  I wonder what the littlest ones will remember.

I am feeling more certain that we are at a hinge point, the way that the Civil Rights Movement changed our politics.  This generation of students will make a change, even if the current crop of politicians can't seem to find their way.  This kind of event will radicalize many of them, and I predict that our culture will change in ways we can't foresee right now.

Here's a black and white photo that my pastor took.  It gives a sense of the size of the group gathered at the tiny elementary school.  It gives a sense of how we're hovering at this hinge of history:

Photo by Keith Spencer

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, February 25, 2018:

First Reading: Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16

Psalm: Psalm 22:22-30 (Psalm 22:23-31 NRSV)

Second Reading: Romans 4:13-25

Gospel: Mark 8:31-38

In this week's Gospel, Jesus gives us fairly stark terms about what it means to be a Christian, and it's worth thinking about, in our world where Christianity has become so distorted and used to justify so many questionable activities.

Over the last 50 or so years of the 20th century, many people came to see Christianity as just one more way to self-enlightenment or self-improvement. Many people combined Christian practices with Eastern practices, and most of them showed that they had precious little knowledge of either.

Or worse, people seemed to see Christianity as a path to riches. We see this in countless stories of pastors who took money from parishioners and, instead of building housing for homeless people, built mansions for themselves. We see this in the megachurch which is held up as an optimum model, the yardstick by which we smaller churches are measured and come up lacking. The bestseller lists are full of books which promise a Christian way to self-fulfillment or riches, while books of sturdy theology will never be known by most readers.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of a multitude of theologians who warns us against this kind of thinking, of what Christianity can do for us. He calls it cheap grace, this salvation that doesn't require us to change our comfortable lives (or worse, tells us to expect more comfort). He says, "Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate. Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a person must knock" (A Testament to Freedom 308).

Jesus reminds us again and again that Christians are to strive NOT to put themselves at the center of their lives. Taking our Christian lives seriously is sure to put us on a collision course with the larger world. Christ warns us that we may even lose our lives. I suspect that he means this on several different levels, yet it is worth reminding ourselves of how many martyrs there have been, even in the late-twentieth century, people who were murdered because they dared to take Christianity seriously and called on corrupt governments to change their practices or went to places where the rest of us are afraid to go to help the poor of the world.

If we don't put ourselves at the center of our lives (and what a countercultural idea that is!), then who should be there? Many of us deny ourselves for the good of our children, for our charity work, for our bosses. Yet that's not the right answer either.

God requires that we put God at the center of our lives. Frankly, many of us are much better at putting our children first or our students or our friends--but God? Many of us are mystified at how we even begin to do that.

Maybe it is time to return to that practice that surfaces periodically.  Years ago, people wore bands around their wrists that had these letters:  WWJD.  What would Jesus do?  It's a good question to ask as we move through our days. 

Imagine it this way:  if Jesus moved into your extra bedroom, how would your life change?  Would you watch the same TV shows?  Would you load up the family and go to church each week?  Would you have a family meal where you talked about where you saw God today?

Once God is at the center of our lives, then we are more well-equipped to care for the world. When we spend every spare minute watching broadcasters scream at each other in what passes for news shows, we are not emotionally equipped to deal with the cares of the world. But with God at our core, we can be God's hands to do God's work in the world.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Faith and Family

On Sunday, I took my mom and dad to church before driving down to Miami to drop them off for their cruise.  Our interactive worship service was starting a new module, and I was interested to see how it would turn out.  My folks were game.

We're using this devotional which weaves the poetry of Mary Oliver with Gospel readings for Lent.  We're adding some music in the beginning and communion at the end.  We've kept some of our Faith 5 practices, like talking about our highs and lows and how they relate to the text, praying for each other, and blessing each other.

It was a great first day, and I'm happy to have experienced it.  Even better, my parents liked it too.  My mom had been feeling anxiety about the cruise, which she talked about when we talked about our highs and lows.  On our way to the cruise ship, she marveled that she wasn't feeling anxiety anymore.

I feel fortunate that our faith journeys haven't taken us further away from each other, the way that often happens in families.  I'm grateful that we get to experience a wide variety of worship services together.  I'm grateful for the foundation that they gave me, and the way we still build on it together.

Here is the Mary Oliver poem that we read on Sunday.  It spoke to me in quiet ways.  One of our members mentioned having seen a mother duck with 12 ducklings, and another member reminded us that the goose was a symbol for the Holy Spirit in Celtic Christianity.  I spent the afternoon thinking of God as mother duck, God as wild goose nipping at our legs, and reminding myself that I don't have to walk on my knees.

 Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
call to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

New and Selected Poems, 1992

Monday, February 19, 2018

Fifty Years of Life in Fred Rogers' Neighborhood

On this day in 1968, Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood premiered.  While I'm fairly sure I didn't see the first episode, I was a regular viewer by 1969 or 1970.

Those were halcyon days for children's television.  I was one of the first viewers of Sesame Street and The Electric Company, and later Zoom.  I got to first grade knowing how to read, and pretending that I didn't; I knew how to read in part because my parents read to me and in part because of these T.V. shows.

I do remember the premiere of The Electric Company, which even as a young child, I could realize that they were trying to teach more complicated concepts.

At the time and for years afterwards, I thought they were more complicated concepts.  The Electric Company was trying to teach kids to read, I reasoned.  What did Mr. Rogers do in his show?

Now that I am older, I see Fred Rogers as having the more complicated task, as he taught children how to manage their anxiety, to accept themselves, to know the difference between fantasy and reality.  I can still sing the ending song that tells us it's such a good feeling to know we're alive.

Fred Rogers came to his signature show from a variety of backgrounds:  Presbyterian minister (ordained but not a preacher) and puppeteer, and a variety of TV shows.  He composed all of the songs on the show and most of the music.  He had background not only in theology but in child development.  All of these talents came together beautifully in Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood.

I find it interesting that Rogers was ordained, but that the larger Church realized the importance of his work with children's television and commissioned him to keep doing that.  It's a good reminder to those of us who feel called to ministry that our ministry can encompass many avenues--including those that earlier generations wouldn't have foreseen.  Fred Rogers went into the field of TV because he hated the medium, but wanted to see if the power of TV could be harnessed for good.  He wanted to see if TV could nurture us.

I'd say that the answer to his question is a resounding yes.  I know that our psychology is shaped in essential ways in our early years, and I feel so lucky that I was one of the earliest visitors to Fred Rogers' vision of a neighborhood. 

Sunday, February 18, 2018

More Thoughts On Ash Wednesday Metaphors

I've spent over two weeks thinking about Ash Wednesday and wondering if there are other metaphors we could use in addition to ash.  Let me capture a few more thoughts before I lose them.

But you might ask, why more metaphors?  What's wrong with ash?

Nothing is wrong with ash, but for those of us who grew up in churches that celebrate Ash Wednesday, the metaphor may have lost its power.  Some of us might have quibbles with the ash metaphor, especially as we clean out our fireplaces and fire pits.  We don't really turn into ash.  We turn into earth.

And I'm not suggesting that we change what we smudge on our foreheads every year.  Let me stress that.  In a way, it's cleaner to smudge ash that's made of burning last year's palms than it is to smear potting soil on our foreheads.

Tree branches and dead leaves are great Ash Wednesday metaphors, but not very far away from our traditional metaphors.  For our Ash Wednesday shadow box project, I brought in dried up banana leaves and dead flower that weren't decayed yet.

What are other metaphors for our eventual destiny?  I've been thinking of dryer lint, which is made up of particles of humans, after all.

Does old technology work as a metaphor?  I'm thinking of old hard drives that store lots of information, but we have no way to access it.  I'm thinking of old floppy discs.  I'm thinking of a DVD drive that I found in a drawer recently that seems to have no way of communicating with any of the technology that's in our house now.

If I worked in a hospital, I might come up with more metaphors:  perhaps the drip, drip, drip of a saline pack that will usher many of us across our last threshold.

This is the week that makes me think of smells that might be Ash Wednesday smells:  the spent gunpowder smell of a gun that's fired.  Old cooking smells.  That smell that's in hospitals that undefinable but unmistakable.  Smells are certainly harder to capture than visual images which may explain why churches and other artists do less with smells.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Confessions of a Distracted Housekeeper

My parents are sleeping in my guest room.  Our guest cottage is still not habitable, although we've taken steps.  Since the AC was damaged, we decided to go ahead and install the kind of AC/heating system that would be better.

I have spent days cleaning.  I confess that the house looks better when I clean and get it into some kind of passable shape.

I confess that I don't rouse myself to do the kind of deep cleaning I've been doing.

I confess that there are still parts of the house that could use some deep cleaning:  the upholstered chairs need steam cleaning, for example.  A rigorous housekeeper would move the furniture periodically to make sure that everything was clean underneath and behind.  I am not that housekeeper.

I confess that I've used the hurricane repairs as an excuse:  why clean, when we're going to rip it all up shortly?

I confess that I likely wouldn't have been doing this kind of deep cleaning on a regular basis, even if there had been no hurricane.

I want to believe in cleaning as spiritual practice, but I confess that it's not a spiritual discipline that speaks to me.

My house deserves a better partner than me.  Sigh.  There are many people who deserve a better partner than me.

But perhaps I am falling into the spiritual trap of despair.  Maybe I assume that there's a better partner out there for my house, but I'm plenty good enough.  I'm not the kind of housekeeper/homemaker that I might have been if I lived in this house in 1952, but I don't know anyone who is.  Most people I know have outsourced that work.

So, let me delight in my clean house and my parents who are still healthy enough to visit.  Let me find joy in a week that sorely needs some joy.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Ash Wednesday Imagery

On Ash Wednesday, I was assisting minister, so I didn't have as much time to sketch.  Some years I have more time at church before the service, as I would arrive with my spouse for choir rehearsal and sketch while he rehearsed.  This year, I got there a bit early, but I used that time to take pictures.

I'm not always able to capture the quality of light that I'd like to, but I did like this shot:

I love the huge tree branch that our pastor found and brought in--it was the perfect size. 

I love the way it curves around the cross.

That image found its way into my spare sketch.

I thought about using different lines from Isaiah.  That language about being the repairer of the breach has spoken to me before.

This year, with news of the awful school shooting ringing in my head and so much hurricane repair left to do, I feel too exhausted to ponder how to repair all of our breaches.  I feel parched, in need of water. Thus, my sketch for this year.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, February 18, 2018:

First Reading: Genesis 9:8-17

Psalm: Psalm 25:1-9 (Psalm 25:1-10 NRSV)

Second Reading: 1 Peter 3:18-22

Gospel: Mark 1:9-15

We begin Lent back in the country of baptism. Once again, we hear the story of the baptism of Christ. Didn't we just cover this material a few weeks ago?Indeed we did, and it should remind us of the importance of this sacrament. It gives us a chance to notice what we might not have noticed before.

We see that baptism doesn't protect Jesus from the trials and tribulations that will come.  In fact, he is driven into the wilderness, tempted by Satan, and I assume that the time with the wild beasts was not easy either.  For those of us who think that if we just pray properly, God will give us what we need, we should reread this passage again.  Who is this Spirit driving Jesus into the wilderness?  Is this Job's God making an appearance again?

This Gospel is not one that you would hand to non-believers to convince them that they'll have an easier life as a Christian.  Look at the end of the Gospel lesson: John the Baptist has been arrested. We can't say we haven't been warned about what might happen to us when we do God's work in the world.

But we're not excused from doing it. The Gospel ends with Jesus continuing his mission, preaching the gospel of God.

Lent is at hand. Many people think of Lent as Spring Training Camp (or Boot Camp) for Christians-these images aren't mine, but I've seen so many people use them.  Lent is a great time for us to get serious (again) about our faith journey. Lent is a great time to spend some contemplative time to consider the ways that we're living out our Christian faith and the ways that we could improve. Many people will give up something for Lent, like chocolate or alcohol or meat. Many people will add something, like more Bible reading, more prayer, more devotional reading, more charitable work.

The season of Lent begins by reminding us that we are dust, and all too soon, we'll return to dust. You can call yourself a creature made out of the ruins of stars (true!), but you're dust all the same.  The lessons of Lent reinforce this message.

We're not here for very long, and most of us have already used up at least half the time we have in this life. We just do not have time for most of the self-defeating and self-destructive behaviors in which we engage. Now is the time to take our eyes away from our screens and to focus on something more important. Now is the time to give up our self-loathing and to focus on our God, who is well-pleased with us.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Hearts of Flesh and Ash

This year we celebrate Ash Wednesday and Valentine's Day on the same day. 

In some ways they seem like competing holidays:  love vs. death.

Yet those of us who are conscious must realize, sometimes in moments that pierce us through, that all we love will be lost until we ourselves are lost.

We use a variety of ways to numb ourselves, to let us forget that reality for a moment or an evening.

Some of us adopt practices to keep us mindful of our dusty destiny.

Some of us can only face this message once a year.

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Letting the Good Times Roll

How does your church celebrate Mardi Gras?  Do you offer an alternate celebration for those who want festivity but not drunkeness?  Does your church do the traditional Shrove Tuesday pancake supper?

My church used to do a pancake supper, complete with delicious bacon that left a smell that lingered in the fellowship hall for weeks.  But we did it on Ash Wednesday, which made a kind of sense.  Have a meal full of the ingredients that once we'd have been giving up for Lent, and then head over to the sanctuary to be reminded of our dusty destiny.

But that was back in the days when we had a men's club that would cook on certain key days; they also prepared Easter Sunday breakfast.  It seemed a throwback to a distant time, maybe in the 1950's, when men repaired things and cooked occasionally, just to show that they could.

Tonight I'll return home, while my spouse heads out to teach his evening class.  I'll stop by the library to pick up books that are being held for me.  I'll continue with my great guest room sorting project.  It makes a kind of Ash Wednesday sense, if not a Mardi Gras sense.

Actually, we are at the juxtaposition of many holidays that involve tidying:  a Candlemas tradition involves sweeping one's house, the Chinese New Year has a time of deep cleaning, and many of the days leading up to Lent involve a straightening. Many of our Mardi Gras and Shrove Tuesday traditions come out of the need to use up the excess.  In medieval times, most Christians would give up all sorts of luxury items for Lent, luxury items like milk, eggs, and alcohol.  So just before Lent came the using up of the luxury items--because you wouldn't just throw them away.  Hence the special Mardi Gras breads and treats and the drinking.

In the past, I've made special bread; if you have time, this blog post will walk you through the process.  I've made pancakes, but it always makes me somewhat sad to eat them alone.  I will not go out drinking tonight--I have to get up early tomorrow to go to spin class and then to work.

Mardi Gras is one of those holidays, much like Halloween, that makes me want to stay inside and bolt the door.  It seems dangerous, all these adults getting senselessly drunk.  Women, especially women alone, rarely fare well in scenes of mass drunkenness.

No, I will turn on the porch light and stay safe at home.  I'll continue with my tidying.  I'll do a bit of writing, perhaps.  Or maybe I'll just settle into a good book.  I'm close to finishing Imagine Me Gone; I'm at the point where I want to know how the author will tie up all these threads.

Monday, February 12, 2018

A Creative Sunday: Transfiguring Trash to Prepare for Ash Wednesday

As we drove to church with our car full of trash and an easel, my spouse said, "None of this is coming home with us, right?"  I said, "Right."

Once I had the three dresser drawers and the trash laid out, I worried that we might not have enough raw materials to create shadow boxes:

I needn't have worried.   This group of people are up to any task.

One group layered their drawer with pages from old hymnals:

I started with some old candles and the branches from the banana tree that Hurricane Irma destroyed.

When I started ripping an old map, people's eyes lit up.  The locations are places where I've lived, places that feel lost to me now:

One group took a wrapped box and went in a different direction--cool!  The box was wrapped for part of a Christmas display at my school, and then I used it in my Baptism of Jesus altarscape (it was covered in fabric, but it provided height).  And here it is, transfigured again:

I was impressed with what we were able to create in just 45 minutes:

Here is how the box covered with hymnal pages ended up:

And here's how we will use them in the chancel:

I'm calling this a success:  hurricane trash transfigured into works of art.  In some ways, it's the opposite of the Ash Wednesday message--except that eventually, these works of art go to the trash bin where they were headed in the first place.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Transfiguring the Muck Before It Becomes Ash

Today at our interactive service we'll do an interesting mash up of days.  Our church has beignets between services:  it's Mardi Gras.  Today on the liturgical calendar, it's Transfiguration Sunday.  I completely forgot that fact when I planned our activity today, which is an Ash Wednesday kind of group art project.

In fact, I completely forgot about Transfiguration Sunday until the end of all of our services when I was taking apart the installation art that I made to celebrate the baptism of our Lord.  But by then, I had already planned and announced the art project.

Right now, in my car, I have 3 dresser drawers from a piece of furniture damaged in the flooding that came with Hurricane Irma.  I have a vision for shadow boxes, so I've put some damaged stuff in the car, along with a few branches and fading blossoms and clippers in case we want more.  Last week I told people what I had in mind and invited them to bring their own images of hurricane damage.

In some ways, it's may lead us to an interesting discussion of both Transfiguration and Ash Wednesday.  We think of Transfiguration as this transcendent moment on the mountain--and it is.  But the important part of the story, one that may be overlooked, is that we don't get to stay on the mountain.  We can't build our booths up there.  We have to come back to the muck and the mess.

Our lives are made up of so much muck and mess.  And Ash Wednesday reminds us that this muck and mess dries up eventually--we're ash, and all too soon, we'll blow away.

How can we transfigure this muck and mess?  Ash Wednesday BEGS us to wrestle with this question, now, before it is too late.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Ash Wednesday Hearts

This year brings us an Ash Wednesday that falls on Valentine's Day.  I have always considered Valentine's Day to be the ultimate Hallmark holiday, a day manufactured to make us spend gobs and gobs of money to prove our love.

I would not be going to a restaurant on Wednesday anyway.  I don't mind having church duties.  I wonder if the restaurant trade will see a drop in people going out to eat because Valentine's Day falls on a high holy day.  Probably not.

Ash Wednesday reminds us of our ultimate destiny:  it all ends in ashes.  We might say, "Well, then, what's the point?"

I use Ash Wednesday as a call to consciousness.  Let me remember, before it all ends in ashes, that we should pay attention to what's important.

Valentine's Day is similar, a day to remind us of what's important.  What do we love?  Who do we love?  How do we show that love?

Celebrating these days at the same time seems oddly appropriate.  We are here for such a short time. We try to hard to preserve what we have, thus ensuring that we will have to watch what we love flake away from us. We are dust, and we will return to dust sooner than we care to think about. 

In the meantime, let us love well.  Let us create ashes because we burn so brightly, not because we let our love molder.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Charity Work and Consciousness Raising

Since I first heard about this idea, I've wanted to try it at the schools where I work.  I first heard about a Souperbowl in the context of youth groups and churches.  It's the idea that the group will collect cans of soup in the weeks before the Superbowl.  Some groups have run contests to see who can collect the most soup.  Some groups use it to remind themselves that the Superbowl spends gobs of money on something ephemeral, while God calls us to something more essential.

Back in the fall, we received a directive from the president of our school:  each month, our campus should be doing something that gives back to the community.  In some ways, we already do this.  Our students go to health fairs and do assessments for the community.  Our Vet Tech department does Clinic Days with free health care for pets.  I could go on and on. 

But I decided to look for ways to do more as a campus.

In November and December, we had a sock drive, where we collected socks for the homeless.  In January, I launched a Souperbowl contest:  we'd collect cans of soup until the Superbowl, and I'd keep them separated by Program.  We'd see who could collect the most soup.

With each of these drives, I've wondered if it was worth it.  But we did collect about 30 pairs of socks--that's 30 pairs that homeless people didn't have before.  Yesterday I consolidated our cans into 2 boxes that once held paper.  It's not a carload of food, but it's not just a few cans either.

I decided to take the cans to my church's food pantry.  My church serves the same geographic area as my school.  And I know how my church operates the food pantry.  I know that my church runs a legitimate food pantry:  the food we donate will go to hungry people just because they're hungry.  We're not going to make them listen to a religious presentation before we give them food. 

I know that one of the reasons we have this directive of giving back to the community is because we hope to become more well known throughout the community.  I'm not sure we've done that with our projects.

But I think we've done something just as important, if not more important.  We've given our school community a way to give back to the larger community.  And we've done some educating too.  With our sock drive, we posted information about the fact that homeless populations are often most in need of socks and underwear.  With our soup drive, we talked about food pantries and their need for the most basic food.  One student decided to donate her left over hurricane supplies so that someone else could get good use out of those cans.

I wonder what project we should do next.  Stay tuned!

Thursday, February 8, 2018

People Get Ready: Lent Begins in One Week

This morning, I was stunned to realize that Lent begins in one week.  Didn't we just celebrate Candlemas?  How can this baby in the Temple already be on his way to Calvary?

We're all on our way to our ashy demise.  But along the way we can do more to enrich that journey.  Many of us choose a Lenten discipline.  Many years Lent comes and goes before I can barely register it.

Let's make a list of some ways we can enrich our Lenten journeys. 

I've been thinking about how quickly we move from Advent to Christmas to Lent to Easter--and then that long season of Ordinary Time.  I'd like to have more of these special activities for summer too.

But first, Lent 2018.  How will you make this season a time apart?

There are some of the obvious ways:  giving up something for Lent, adding some special readings, or going to an extra church service during the week.  But let's not forget some of the other possibilities too:

Pray in Different Ways:

--Maybe you want to add a visual element to your prayers:  coloring or doodling or collaging.

--Keep a prayer journal and look for ways your prayers are answered.  Write them down so that you'll remember.

--Use prayer beads.  You don't need special beads.  You can string some beads together and use them to remember to pray or to keep track of your prayers.

--Explore ways to use movement as you pray.  Hold a yoga stretch and pray.  Walk a labyrinth.  Dance to show your appreciation to your creator.

Add some creativity to your days:

--Bake bread.  As you shape the bread dough, think about how God shapes you.

--Start a garden.  Or buy several bunches of flowers at the grocery store and arrange them into one bouquet.

----Write a poem about God. But before you start, fill in the following blank 25 times without thinking about it: God is like _______________________.

--Sketch or doodle or collage.

--Choose an art supply that gives you joy.  Use it once a week.

Do More Charity and/or Justice Work:

--Make an extra contribution to your favorite charity. Maybe you could make one extra contribution per week. It doesn’t have to be huge. But it could be.

--Clean out your closets. Give away anything you haven’t worn in the past year. Clean out your kitchen cupboards.

--When you go to the grocery store, buy some extra food for your favorite charity.

--Give some extra time during Lent. Volunteer at a soup kitchen or a food pantry. Go to a nursing home and sing some old Gospel songs. Think about the people you know who have lives that are falling apart; buy cards or write notes and put them in the mail.

Do Less

--Here's a radical idea.  What if our Lenten discipline was to do less?  Many years, the thought of adopting a Lenten discipline makes me want to cry because it feel like one more impossible promise I'm making to myself and God.  What if we resisted the cultural and Christian pressure to do more, more, more.  What if we consciously tried to do less?  Would we clear space in our lives to finally know what's really important to us?

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Meditation on Transfiguration Sunday

The readings for Sunday, February 11, 2018:

First Reading: 2 Kings 2:1-12

Psalm: Psalm 50:1-6

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 4:3-6

Gospel: Mark 9:2-9

I often approach Transfiguration Sunday by thinking about ways to transfigure myself. In just a few days, we enter the season of Lent, that season of ash and penitence. I often discover that people are Christian when they announce what they're giving up for Lent; how sad that I can't tell in any other way that they're Christian.

Many of us approach Lent as a time to recalibrate in deeper ways.  Many churches add additional study or worship opportunities during Lent.  Many individuals adopt a Lenten discipline that asks us to add a spiritual practice to our lives that we haven't tried before.

Some of us are too tired to even come up with a transfiguring plan.  Maybe we envy the Peters of the world, with their shaggy enthusiasm.  Maybe we wish that Jesus would call us the Rock upon which he will build his church, even as Christ has to correct Peter again and again.

Maybe we are feeling like sand, the former rock of faith abraded away by the difficulties of life.  We know that a house built on sand will wash away with a big storm or with the daily movement of the waves.

But take heart:  concrete mixed with sand will be stronger.  And where do those of us who are sand find concrete?  Often we don't even have to look.  Often our family and friends are in their concrete phase when we're in our sand phase.  We strengthen each other, even when we're unaware that we're doing it.  But how much stronger we could be if we were more intentional.

If we're lucky, we've found larger networks that strengthen us too.  Maybe it's a church full of people who can be concrete when we're sand.  Maybe our colleagues at work help us to be our best selves.

 Jesus knew the value of community. He knew the human tendency to rush towards transfiguration.  We yearn to be different, but so often, we shun the hard work involved.  We might embrace transformation before we stop to consider the cost.  But if we are surrounded by community, the work transforms into something more festive.  If we stay on top of the mountain after the light fades, we may come to feel stranded.

Jesus reminds us again and again that the true work comes not from telling people what we’ve seen, but by letting what we’ve seen change the way that we live. Our true calling is not to be carnival barker, but to get on with the work of repair and building of the communities in which we find ourselves.  

We can be the rock, the concrete, the sand.  Christ's vision is big enough to transfigure us all.

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Mourning a Mother Who Isn't Mine

This morning, as I reached for cumin to spice my refried beans mixture that I was creating for lunch, I almost chose the curry powder.  My mind zipped around a bit, thinking about most of the curry dishes that I don't like, and then a soup from long ago that I did like.

And suddenly, I stood in my kitchen, staring out the window at the early morning darkness, mourning a mother who isn't even mine.

Long ago, when I worked at a community college in South Carolina, one of my colleague friends had her parents down for a visit.  Her mother was teaching her daughter some soup recipes, and my friend brought us the extras. 

We ate a soup made of grated apples, potatoes, yogurt and cumin, which was so delicious that I got the recipe and made it for years.  I always blended it for luxurious smoothness.  The ingredient list sounds boring, but the soup is wonderful.  I'll have to dig it out of my files.

I thought of the path travelled by my friend, her mother, and her daughter.  The mother is still alive, but lost to Alzheimer's.  My friend has told me all the ways that her mother is no longer the mother she once knew--for example, once she hated applesauce, and now she can't get enough.  And yet, the mother she knew is still in there somewhere.  Once they sang hymns together--somehow the mother still knew them, even though she wasn't sure she knew her daughter, my friend.

I have gone through a similar process with my grandmother, although I didn't live with her, so I didn't experience the same agony.  My grandmother became sweeter as she lost her memories.  I don't think my friend is that lucky.

I'm thinking of all the losses that come into a regular life.  In a way, it's a mournful way to start the day.  I can remember my friend's mother when she was a vibrant woman, the kind of older woman I hope to be. I think of all the mothers I remember this way.

Let me change this mourning to gratitude.  I am grateful to have these examples of how to live a life.  I'm grateful to have known mothers who are not mine.  Although I don't have the daily interactions with my friend that I did when we worked in the same place, we still stay close--a similar trajectory that I share with many friends.  It's s different kind of soup, nourishing in a different way.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Interactive Worship Service Update

The larger part of our interactive service yesterday was a conversation where we decided on an approach for the coming months.  We decided that we'd do this project that revolves around Mary Oliver's poetry for Lent and then decide what to do from Easter to Pentecost.

We've been trying to do an interactive, multigenerational approach to worship for a long time now, as have some other pastors and churches. Many of us have changed our approach:  children grow up, families move away, and worship often changes in response to these realities.

Plus, this kind of service takes a lot more effort.  There are resources out there, but it's easy to work our way through them rather quickly.

Next week, we'll do the Ash Wednesday art project that I've been thinking about for awhile.  In this blog post, I wrote about whether or not we need a new set of metaphors for Ash Wednesday.  This coming Sunday, we'll see if we can develop any.

I have a vision for the drawer from a ruined chest of drawers as a sort of Cornell box.  Can I find enough wreckage to make an interesting display?  Will others bring some stuff?  We'll see.

It was good to sit with this group of regular worshippers and sort out what we still like about the service and what we don't.  We don't care about having a PowerPoint to work our way through.  We do want to begin our service with songs that we sing together.  We do want to do the Faith 5:  to talk about our highs and lows, to tie the Word into our weekly activities, to pray, and to bless each other.

I feel lucky that we have a group who is so willing to be involved, rather than passively watching a service (which is often how I perceive the traditional worship at our church).  We're lucky that we have a pastor who lets us be involved in this way.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

The Ministry of Work

This week at work has been the kind of week where I do all sorts of work that I'm not sure I was hired to do:  fix the Keurig machine, make a bulletin board that celebrates African American History week, a trip to Wal-Mart to buy a variety of supplies, and bringing in books for the library's display that celebrates African American History.  Don't get me wrong--I'm not complaining.  But most weeks, I do wonder what would have happened if my school had hired a "Not my job description, below my pay grade" kind of person.  It might have taken awhile to manifest, but the results wouldn't have been good.

Luckily, I like feeling useful.  I like knowing that my actions both large and small make the campus a better place.  I'm the one who refills the sugar containers and who makes sure we have the sugar to do it.  It's a small thing, and people don't often notice when I do it.  But if no one did it, we'd notice.  The campus would be a slightly less welcoming place.  Too much of that, and people start to look for a more welcoming place.

Some of our ideas fall flat--for instance, we were planning to have a chili cookoff a week from today, but so far, no one has signed up to compete.  We'll send out an e-mail on Monday, and if there's no interest, we'll move along to another project.  I've bought lots of heart shaped cookie decorating kits for Feb. 14, so lack of interest in a chili cookoff won't break my heart; in fact, I was only doing it because a few people suggested it.

I'm taking a page from the way my church approaches these kinds of projects.  I see myself in a pastor/leadership role.  There are important tasks to be done, and I do them.  There are ideas that feed my creative soul, and I do them.  If others have a vision that fits with the larger mission of the school, great, if they want to lead that project.  If no one wants to lead a project, we don't do it.

I'm lucky in a way that many church pastors aren't:  my campus has only been in existence for about 6 years, so I don't have to wrestle with the "That's the way we've always done it" response.  People are happy for our efforts to make the campus a cohesive community.

As I think about why I'm happy to do a variety of efforts in the hopes of building community, I'm realizing that because people are happy and appreciative, it makes me more willing to do the tasks.  I've worked at places where people sneer and say, "Why bother?"  It's dispiriting.

I'm happy to be at my current campus.  It's not exactly the liberal arts college where I thought I'd work back in my grad school days when I pictured my life.  It's not the ministry I might have chosen, had I gone to seminary.  But it has elements of those ideals, and so, it works for me right now.

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Feast Day of Saint Simeon

Today is the feast day of Saint Simeon.  Those of us who celebrate Candlemas on Feb. 2 will remember this man as the one who had been told that he would see the Messiah before he died.  When he held Jesus, he said the words that many of us still use as part of our liturgies:  "Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; 30 for my eyes have seen your salvation 31 that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel."

It's a brief appearance, but if we go back to read the Gospels, we may be surprised to realize how short these texts are.  Very few people get much space on the pages.

We honor Saint Simeon because of his faithfulness.  We don't know much about him, so we project a picture of steady belief, even as he gets ever nearer to death.  But I suspect that part of his outpouring of words comes from having some doubts along the way.

The thoughts I've had during this Advent to Candlemas season have revolved around the old people who are part of this story.  I'm guessing that in most churches, the emphasis is on the young people:  the Virgin Mary, the baby Jesus.  We watch our children act out the stories of characters not much older than they are.

As I wrote in December, this year the story of the older cousin Elizabeth really leapt out at me from the Advent stories.  I have a number of friends who are in their 50's and older.  I'm 52.  We've seen our bodies betray us in a number of ways, but pregnancy is not on our list of expectations.  If I'm honest, most of us would not see a late life pregnancy as miraculous news, but we don't live in the same kind of culture as Mary and Elizabeth did.

And now, with the Candlemas story, we see old people again, Simeon and the prophetess Anna.  The churches of my childhood didn't spend much time on the old people in any story.  The lectionary readings focus on Jesus and the disciples, who are often presented as men in the youthful prime of their lives.

I'm forever grateful to feminist scholars who have returned to these texts and given them a new spin as they imagined what would happen if we moved women to the center of the narratives--or, if not the center, at least out of the marginal shadows.

I feel a need to do something similar with the stories of the old folks.  Elizabeth, Simeon, and Anna are great places to start.

Today, let us remember that God makes us a similar promise to the one that Simeon receives.  We need but open our eyes to see the presence of the Divine.

Friday, February 2, 2018

Candlemas 2018: Holding Hope

Mary was not the only one who held Jesus:

Candlemas celebrates the presentation of Jesus in the Temple, which would have taken place 40 days after birth.

We are 40 days from Christmas, in the depths of a winter from which we may feel like we will never leave behind us.

Maybe we feel ancient, like Simeon.  Maybe unlike Simeon, we have lost sight of the vision and the promise.

Let us remember that though we may only see a fallow field, underneath life sprouts.

Let us remember that buds wait to unfurl, even when we can't imagine how the miracle will be accomplished.

Mary held hope in her hands, and so did Simeon.  We do too.  Let us not forget:

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Medieval Monastics and Modern Women

Today is the feast day of St. Brigid.  I've written about her many times before.  This blog post will give you a more traditional approach to her and her feast day.

Just this week, an editor at Gather magazine wrote to ask if I'd be interested in writing an article about what these medieval monastic women can teach us moderns about prayer.  Of course I would!  After I wrote back with my idea for a possible approach, I thought about how strange it is that these medieval women still speak so clearly to me. 

I won't say much about the approach I plan to take.  I need to write the article first.

I'm also thinking about Mepkin Abbey.  A few years ago, we moved our annual meeting there to February instead of the fall.  It was wonderful to drive to the Abbey on the feast day of St. Brigid and then to be there to celebrate Candlemas with the monastic community.

I loved leaving my tropical landscape and heading to a more wintry one.  But even in the winter dreariness, I'd see the occasional daffodil popping out of the dirt.

I've now been at Mepkin Abbey in every season, and they each have their charm and appeal.  I love being at a monastery during the feast days that celebrate a monastic of the past, although the Mepkin monks don't do much to commemorate St. Brigid, based on the times that I've been there.

I think about the Mepkin monks and the history of monastics who have kept their traditions alive.  I think of Brigid who founded several monastic orders, did her own creative work, and left abundance in her wake.

Today is a good day to consider our own lives.  If centuries from now, a person read about your life as you’re living it, would she be inspired?

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