Saturday, June 30, 2018

Monastic Retreat Cottage

For the past few weeks, I've been thinking about our cottage transformed into a monastic retreat.

I wanted to take pictures of the cottage after last Saturday's intense work.  As I looked through them, I was struck by the monastic retreat effect that we created:

The bedroom looks cozy, at least in this picture.  A headboard would make it better:

This shot shows the small bookcase--imagine it filled with interesting books on creativity and theology!

It's not a kitchen that my younger self would love.  My younger self baked in huge batches.  But perhaps it's a kitchen for how we live now (minus the dishwasher and the microwave that many people would want):

There's a parking pad in the back of the property, near the door that's usable now.  It's a parking pad, but it's only good if one has a small car and good parking skills.

I've talked about turning this space into a labyrinth, but it might be a bit small.  I also think it could make a good garden spot for meditating or writing.

As I've thought about the future of the cottage this week, I've thought of monastic retreats, but as I've said before, I haven't figured out how one would market that.

These are decisions that don't need to be made right now.  But it pleases me to have created this oasis, even if I don't know what to do with it beyond the occasional guest.

Friday, June 29, 2018

Thoughts on the Youth Gathering from One Who Is Away

In these days where the news leaves me especially prone to despair, I've been taking great solace from the posts I'm seeing from the national gathering of Lutheran youth in Houston.  It's a huge group, and I'm inspired by their hope and enthusiasm.
When I think about just giving up, I will think about these youth.  I will think about my years of training in non-violent resistance to evil.  I will remember that we can't know when the tide is about to turn, when evil leaders will be washed away to sea.
I think about the similar formative experiences of my youth (by which I mean pre-college).  I went to a Lutheran youth gathering in Purdue in the early 80's.  I went to several national gatherings for adults and families that explored issues of development in other nations--were they called Mission events?  I remember long drives across the nation's cornfields.  I remember coming home and buying the albums that others had brought for us to listen to on their cassette tapes.
Most important, I remember the power of seeing us all assembled, of realizing that my small Southern church experiences were not the only ways to be Lutheran in a world of non-Lutherans.  I remember the jolt of realizing that we could be a serious force for good, not just in our individual communities, but in the larger world too.
This year's gathering has all sorts of interesting elements, to judge from the posts made by my pastor friends who are there.  I've seen the gathering singing Journey's "Don't Stop Believing"--shivers!  I'm seeing pictures from an interactive Worship booth, where the youth can wear vestments and learn about the elements of worship.  I've seen the supplies needed for the service projects--huge stacks in the days before the gathering, and then the groups on their way to serve.  I've seen the speakers and the musicians.
I hope that they will come back from this mountain top experience transformed.  And I hope that they are nurtured in that transformation when they return.  I hope they seek out retreat experiences in the future to rekindle these flames as they flicker.  I hope that they help us all in the work that God has called us to do. 

Thursday, June 28, 2018

Reweaving the Fabric of Society

Before we get too far away from Sunday, let me record what we did in church.  My pastor had wanted to do something to commemorate the anniversaries of the Pulse Nightclub shooting and the Charleston shooting.  During the week that we were exchanging ideas, Trump's evil policy that separated children from parents at the border was happening.  I remembered a prayer weaving that we did at the Create in Me retreat, and I suggested something similar, a group weaving project that would remind us that even when it feels like society is frayed and unraveling, the scraps can be rewoven into something beautiful.

I found one of our picture frames and created this loom.  I lashed sticks that I found in the yard to the frame and used yarn:

My vision was that we'd start on the weaving in the 9:45 service, which is more interactive and open to creative approaches to worship.  Then we'd take it to the table in the sanctuary, and we'd invite members of the 11:00 service to join in the weaving.

I used the fabric that we'd used in our Pentecost projects.  I liked the opportunity to remind people that the Holy Spirit is loose in the world helping us with our weaving.

As I expected, people found the weaving meaningful.  At the end, my spouse pointed out the yellow cross in the center of the weaving that emerged from our effort:

We decided that we liked the weaving too much to take it apart right away.  So now it rests in the altar, with the other Pentecost projects.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 1, 2018:

First Reading: Lamentations 3:22-33

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 2 Samuel 1:1, 17-27

First Reading (Alt.): Wisdom of Solomon 1:13-15; 2:23-24

Psalm: Psalm 30

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 130

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 8:7-15

Gospel: Mark 5:21-43

Notice how rooted in physicality is our Gospel for Sunday. We've got a bleeding woman and a dying girl. At the end of the Gospel, Jesus orders food for the no longer dead girl. The Gospel practically oozes on the page.

Notice too how we've got a variety of people--all they have in common is their fierce belief and their willingness to do whatever it takes for healing. They will ignore all the years of ill health. They will ignore their rational voices that say that one man can't bring health. Even when they're surrounded by naysayers, they believe. They will ignore death, so powerful is their hope.

Notice that in this passage Jesus focuses his attention on some of the most outcast of his society: a little girl and a bleeding woman. If you've studied the Old Testament, you understand how outcast a woman who never stopped bleeding would be. Ancient purity codes were quite strict about body fluids, particularly when they came from women. And a female child would have also been seen as expendable, at least in the larger society. Yet Jesus doesn't withhold his power from them, even if they're not important to the larger society.

This Gospel echoes the story we heard last week. Here is Jesus again, talking to his disciples about their fears. Here is Jesus, doing what should be impossible for humans to do. Last week he's controlling nature. This week, we seem him controlling the human body. We even see him overcome death.

These stories make me think about my own faith, particularly during these hot, hazy days of summer, when it seems impossible to get off the couch. What would inspire me to go to Jesus in a similar way? I try to imagine Jesus saying to me "Daughter, your faith has made you well." I think of all the ways that my faith can--and does--fall short.

This Gospel is instructive, in that it shows what it might take to get our attention focused on what's important. If my little nephew lay dying, I would move Heaven and Earth to find a cure. If I had a disease that no one could cure, I might be moved to try things my rational brain wouldn't accept. Over and over again, in many a disease narrative, we hear people tell us that their disease redirected their attention and turned out to be a strange blessing.

I'm always wary of this approach--I don't want to glorify suffering and disease. I don't mean to imply that the sick ones are lucky, and the healthy ones are ill. But with this Gospel, it wouldn't hurt to take a look at our own faith lives. Where is God trying to get our attention? How strong is our faith? What would it take to make us yearn for Christ, to search so fervently for our Savior?

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Poetry Tuesday: "Artifacts"

A few weeks ago, I got my contributor of The Atlanta Review, which published two of my poems.  Because my writing time is short this morning, let me post one of them here.

You will likely read this and assume I'm writing autobiography, and in a way, I am.  My grandmother did have a wonderful tin of buttons; shaped by the Great Depression, she saved every button before using the cloth from worn out clothes for other purposes.  I have no idea what happened to that button tin.

She did have beautiful hydrangea bushes.  I have often wished I saved some of the soil that she created by composting, but I didn't.  I don't have her soil on the mantel, but I have lots of other artifacts that remind me of times long gone.


In the end, so little is left
behind: a tin filled with every button
that ever came into the house,
a hydrangea bush blooming blue
in someone else’s back yard.

I sew a button onto one seam
of each garment in my own closet, a hidden
token to remind me of you.

Some might keep ashes,
but I dig from your compost patch,
the place where you buried
the scraps left from every meal you ever ate.

You followed the almanac’s instructions,
but I don’t have that resource.
I blend your Carolina dirt
with the sandy soil that roots
my mango tree.

Some of it I keep in a jar
that once held Duke’s mayonnaise.
I place it on the mantel
of the fireplace I rarely use,
to keep watch with a half burned
candle and a shell
from a distant vacation.


Sunday, June 24, 2018

Rescued from Wreckage

I am rather astonished to be able to say that after 9 months of wreckage, the cottage is back to operational again.  Make no mistake, it still needs some work:  there's a door frame that has rotted out at the bottom, the floors are still concrete (and not the attractive kind of concrete), and the furniture is a mash of leftovers.  But I think we've achieved a level of rustic-cozy, as opposed to rustic-scary.

Because yesterday was stormy, my spouse couldn't work on his yard projects, so he helped--one reason why we were able to get it done.  He focused on what still needs to be done; he's most distressed about the hot water.  The cottage and the main house share the hot water source, which means the cottage has to wait a few minutes for the water to get hot.  It takes longer now that we have an on-demand hot water heater.  At some point, we may get an on-demand system for the cottage alone.  But for now, we need to get the main house repaired so that we see how much money we really have for the cottage.

As I was working on the cottage, I was taken back to the early days of our marriage, where there was one apartment that needed some work before we moved in.  I remember that scrubbing and wondering how the final result would look.

Like that apartment, we have curtains in the cottage that we have made ourselves.  I really like them, but my spouse said, "It's not much better than students who attach sheets up to the windows with push pins."  I like that they pull the eye up from the place where the floor meets the walls, where there are still stains from the flooding.

Yes, the walls need repainting, but we didn't have time for that.  So many repairs and beautification, but so little time.

And part of the problem is a lack of vision/agreement about what to do with the cottage.  One of my friends suggested that I turn it into some sort of space--whether it be office, music/arts studio, or pool party space, that I want to be in.  I understand her point, but I tend to perch on the same pieces of furniture, even when more attractive places open up.

We've thought about doing short term rentals, but that idea is not appealing to me for a variety of reasons.  I feel like I can hardly keep up with my current obligations, so I'm hesitant to take on something as large as managing a vacation rental.  Plus my city has lots of rules and regulations, which makes me even more hesitant.

I'm also hesitant because I think that many people are expecting something luxurious, like something out of a glamorous travel magazine--and I worry that they'll be inclined to complain vociferously and bitterly when it's not what they expect.

I think of our mishmash of furniture, which I find oddly appealing, but I know that others might not.  It reminds me of Mepkin Abbey, when I first went there.  The sheets weren't Egyptian cotton, and neither were the towels.  They were clean and soft from years of use.  Each room had a different type of desk and desk chair--comfortable, but from a much earlier decade.

Right now, the cottage has that type of furniture:  two chairs that were rescued from the trash heap of a school library remodel, a rocker that has the University of South Carolina seal on it, a folding wooden chair with a cushion.  The tables are plastic and battered, but sturdy.  The kitchen has a complete set of white dishes and cooking pans--very serviceable.  The bed has a mattress that's only a few years old, slept on for less than a year.  It has new sheets that I got on sale--otherwise I couldn't have afforded the organic cotton.  It also has a cheery quilt that I made.  The towels are also new and rarely used, and thus, more luxurious than many of our towels. 

The rugs that we got last Sunday don't cover as much of the floor as I had hoped.  But they work well enough for now.

As we sat in the living room yesterday to take it all in, I thought, yes, this will work.  The camp counselors will have a clean, safe place to sleep tonight, with lots of comforts, like the breakfast foods we bought for them yesterday.  That's more than much of the world has.

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Hydrangeas at the Crossroads

Some of us wear our scars more visibly than others.

The wise ones say that we can't know the miseries of others until we've walked a mile in their shoes.

But perhaps we can't walk those miles; perhaps we only hear the whispers of sorrows in their songs.

There is a solace in shared coffee cups. 

We remember our elders in many ways.

We look for hydrangea blooms at the crossroads.

There are other signposts, if we have but eyes to see.

Friday, June 22, 2018

Cottage Conundrums

I have a small cottage in my backyard, which is a small backyard.  We think that the cottage was once a garage, but for years (decades?), it's been a cottage with a small kitchen, a medium-sized living room, and a bedroom with a closet and a bathroom.  The cottage is 440 square feet, small for a U.S. living space, but many people across the globe would find it spacious.

When we first moved in, we had a friend who needed a place to live, and we offered it to her.  For the most part, the arrangement worked well, and then she decided to move to Utah.

We haven't done much with the cottage since, although we've had ideas.  We could make a lot of money if we rented it short term, but we'd spend a lot of time getting it ready for each visit.  We could rent it to a long-term tenant.  We know people who wish they had office space, and it would make a nice office--which would probably result in less wear and tear on the space.  We've thought of moving the dining room suite out there and eating there during the few times a year we have people over; that scenario wouldn't preclude keeping it as space for overnight guests.

I am aware of the aching need for rentals for people with moderate income.  Those people often have whole families, and the space doesn't really work for more than 2 people.  I am also aware of how many immigrants would feel like they'd won the lottery if I made it possible for them to live there.

With the recent hurricane, I hesitate to rent it out again--especially to people who would have no other resources if a storm came and the cottage couldn't be fixed quickly, a scenario which is not only possible, but increasingly likely as sea levels rise.

Two weeks ago, I volunteered the cottage to house Luther Springs camp counselors who are coming down here to be in charge of our Vacation Bible School next week.  I needed motivation to do the hurricane clean up that was still to be done.  We discovered that the AC had stopped working at some point, and since it was just installed in March, we had the AC company back to fix it.  So far, so good.

As we've been working on getting the cottage ready for the camp counselors who will be arriving Sunday, we've also been talking about what to do with the cottage. We were talking about what it would take to get the cottage to anything rentable, particularly on a short term basis, like Air BnB. Rustic-cozy might not appeal to that crowd.

What do I mean by rustic-cozy? No TV. Perhaps no wi-fi. Concrete floors--but with a rug on the floors. Flowered curtains and quilts. A serviceable shower, but not a garden tub. A serviceable kitchen without a lot of work space.

Suddenly, I had a vision of a monastic retreat house, something for everyone who has ever yearned for Thomas Merton’s hermitage. Those are the type of people who might be reliably quiet.  They wouldn't complain about the lack of luxury.  

I have no idea how to find those people or if they’d be willing to go on that kind of retreat.

I also thought of offering optional retreat exercises, mostly along creative lines.  We could create a vision board.  We could make creations with beads that would help us pray.  Could the back parking pad be transformed into a labyrinth?  It's barely big enough for many vehicles--the thought of a labyrinth makes me smile.

So many possibilities, so hard to know what to do.  I will spend the week-end on the most immediate task:  finishing the cleaning, so that the cottage is ready for those counselors.

Thursday, June 21, 2018


We live in dizzying times.  After weeks of insisting that he could do nothing, because the law is the law, President Trump ended the policy of separating children from their parents at the southern U.S. border.

Did he have a change of heart?  Is this executive order simply one of a number of ways to manipulate his way to what he wants?  Does he have a plan or a vision?

I confess that I do not know, and I can see any number of scenarios which might be possible.  Or I may be looking for a method where there is only madness.  As I watched the news last night, I felt incredible weariness.  I feel like I've been working on immigration issues, particularly those that revolve around Central America, for over 30 years now, and we haven't improved the lives of anyone.  Nicaragua, Guatemala, and El Salvador may have slightly less repressive regimes and civil wars may be over for the moment, but civilians are still being terrorized on all sides.

I also see my brain stuck in its usual rut.  No matter how many successes my brain sees, it always thinks about ways that improvement is still needed.  So let me take a minute to express joy at the end of the evil policy of family separation.

I don't use the word "evil" often.  I'll use any number of other words to express negative aspects, but I reserve the word "evil."  This policy was evil, pure and simple--not misguided, not wrong, but evil. 

I wasn't sure that this administration would be influenced by our collective outrage.  I am glad to see that hearts can be softened, even if it's for reasons of optics, not morality. 

I realize that a letter from someone like me, an ordinary citizen trying to cobble together a middle class existence, doesn't bear the same weight as others.  I suspect that the Pope's outrage didn't soften administration hearts either.  I'm not sure what did.  The thought of damage to those running in 2016 elections?  The counsel of first ladies, present and past?

I realize that those families will be held in those tent cities that went up.  I'm not happy about that either, but I've always had problems with my country's repressive immigration policies.  But at least children will not be ripped away from parents. 

I am still fretful about what new outrages may be in store.  But I'd be more frightened if we hadn't been able to solve this issue, if we were still separating families at Christmas of 2018, if no one had been able to intervene.

I am happy for these examples of what it takes to defeat evil, even if the fight is far from over.  We wrote letters and e-mails and made phone calls; some of us went to the border to record what was happening; a wide variety of groups both religious and secular raised voices against evil; on and on I could go--and this time, we've won a victory.

This morning, let me pause to take a breath, to say, "Good job."  Let us always be a force for peace and justice in the world.  Let me pray:  give us the strength for the next onslaught.  Let us not be overwhelmed at the size of the task of caring for the poor, the outcast, the oppressed.  Onward!

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The Readings for Sunday, June 22, 2018:

First Reading: Job 38:1-11

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 1 Samuel 17:[1a, 4-11, 19-23] 32-49

First Reading (Alt.): 1 Samuel 17:57--18:5, 10-16 (Semi-continuous)

Psalm: Psalm 107:1-3, 23-32

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 9:9-20

Psalm (Alt.): Psalm 133 (Semi-continuous)

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 6:1-13

Gospel: Mark 4:35-41

We live in storm-tossed times. I write this sentence on a regular basis through the years, and frankly, it doesn’t seem like much has changed, except that this year than I have less faith that our politicians can find a solution, and I have less hope that we will collectively find our way to better times. In these early days of hurricane season, I feel haunted by the idea that a big storm will come along and finish us off.  I worry about literal storms and the larger storm clouds that seem to be gathering across the globe.  In these days, I wish I knew less about the 1930's and the events that brought us World War II.

Maybe we can relate to those disciples in this week's Gospel. The boat is taking on water. We're sinking. We'll die out here in the middle of this lake. It was bad back there with the crowds, but we don't want to perish this way.

And so, like the disciples, we call out: "Where are you God? Don't you care about us, Jesus?"

Look at the response of Jesus in this passage. Many theologians have noted that he doesn't mock them for their fears. Their fears are real and valid. But he asks them why they're letting their fears get the best of them. It's as if he's saying, "I'm right here. I'm with you. Have you forgotten what is possible when I'm in your boat?"

And then, he calms the storm.

Just because we're believers, that doesn't mean that we will never experience storms. We will, and we will likely be afraid. But Jesus assures us that even though we might feel alone, we are not alone. The storms will come, and storms will go. But God is always there, with us, in our boats.

Again and again, Jesus reminds us where we should place our loyalties, and it's not the nation-state.  Again and again, Jesus tells us how we can save our souls, and it's not by the ways advocated by politicians.  We will be judged by how we treat the poor, the oppressed, the outcast.  We may not be able to save them all.  But we cannot turn away.

In these times when we may be feeling that we're seeing our societal fabric unravel right before our eyes, it's good to remember that God is in the boat with us.  We may not have the solution.  We may have less power than we wish we had.  We may not be able to imagine how a just world will emerge from the wreckage.  We may despair over how quickly the world seems to want to return to wreckage.

That despair can be as deadly as any storm.  God has a vision of a better world, one where the poor, the oppressed, and the outcast finally find a home.  Don't let despair keep us blind to that vision.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

You Are Not Powerless: Keep Writing

On Friday, I wrote this post about ways we could protest the administration's approach to deterring illegal immigration by separating parents from children.  Throughout the day, I wrote several Facebook posts to let people know how easy it is to write to their senators and representatives.  I tried to space my posts so that I'd show up in people's FB feeds periodically to remind them to let their voices be heard.

And of course, I wrote my own e-mails:  to both senators, to my representative, to the Department of Justice, and to Donald Trump.

I want to record the responses, because I find them interesting.  Thus far, I've gotten no response from the DOJ.  I got an e-mail from Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz which seemed like an auto-reply message to let me know that my e-mail had been received.  I got an interim message from Senator Marco Rubio that said it was an interim message and that I'd get a more detailed response later.  Those two messages came just after I sent mine.  I got Senator Bill Nelson's response yesterday evening, which detailed what he is doing to put a stop to this inhumane policy, including co-sponsoring S. 3036, the Keep Families Together Act.

The strangest response was from President Trump, an e-mail which told me all about his successful summit with North Korea. I expected either no response, or a response that told me that I didn't know what I was talking about. I didn't expect a response which discussed a different aspect of the president's week in such great detail.

I may send follow up e-mails today, or perhaps I'll make some phone calls. Let me cut and paste the contact info here, to make it easier for us all to find:

Here is the site for the House of Representatives contact info, and this site will give you information for the Senate.

This website explains our options for contacting President Trump.

Contact the Department of Justice in one of the ways explained on this site.

Here's the original e-mail that I sent; feel free to use it as a template for your own communication:

I am writing because the current policy of separating immigrant parents from children at the border is beyond cruel. I am also concerned that we no longer consider domestic violence or gang violence to be grounds for asylum, but I am MOST concerned about the fate of these children who are separated from their parents. I know that there are bills coming to Congress next week that will address this issue, and I wanted you to know how much I want this issue solved so that parents and children are never separated in this way again. Thank you so much for anything you can do.

We may feel like we're powerless but we're not. And the truly powerless are counting on us. 

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Father's Day and Our View of God

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

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

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

Of course, I see the value of viewing God as a loving parent, but I'd love for us to expand our metaphors for God. I'd also love us to take our view of God, and see if it could have impact on our own lives. How might our parenting change, if we used God as the parenting model? How might we change our creative lives, if we used God as model? Maybe we'd be more forgiving, in both instances. Maybe we'd look at all that we create and call it "Good" and "Very Good," as in the first Genesis story, the one that comes before Adam and Eve and the snake.

Or maybe it's time to work a bit harder to make the God as Father metaphor fit our current lives.  Many of the fathers whom I know today are much more involved in the lives of their children than fathers of past generations were.  They change diapers, they cook meals, they're part of the car pool, they coach teams--what if we viewed God as someone who packed our lunch for us?  What if we saw God as soccer coach or the one who taught us to sail or program computers?

Most fathers I know these days seem infinitely patient and even-tempered.  Many religious traditions have not focused on that aspect of God, but have instead seen God as a fiery judge.  But what if we saw God as someone who encourages us to try again, even though we've fallen short?  What if we saw God as an older, wiser presence who tries to help us discover the best way to live our lives?

Friday, June 15, 2018

Stop this Cruel Policy!

Today is a good day to take some actions on this administration's cruel policy of separating parents from children at the border.  I didn't realize until it was too late that yesterday was a day of protest, but clearly it will take more than one day to stop this evil.

Next week Congress will vote on an immigration bill that will call for keeping families together.  I plan to call my senators and representative today.  If you don't know who represents you, this website will tell you.  Here is the site for the House of Representatives contact info, and this site will give you information for the Senate.  I plan to write, call, and e-mail.

I also plan to contact Attorney General Jeff Sessions.  If you would like to do that too, this site gives you options.  Sessions' recent complaints about the way that church groups are interpreting his actions suggests to me that he's listening.  His interpretation of Romans suggests to me that he needs to go back to Sunday School. 

And while we're at it, why not contact President Trump?  This website explains our options.

I don't know if any of these actions will make a difference, but we must try.  We cannot let our country continue down this road.  We cannot take children from their parents because their parents are fleeing a horrible situation in their home countries. 

Even if we disagree on this issue, the uptick in these separations means that there's a unanticipated drain on resources.  There are several nonprofits providing vital free legal aid that need financial support: The Texas Civil Rights Project; the Florence Project in Arizona; and Kids in Need of Defense and The Young Center, which work nationwide.

We're running out of room in the places where we send these children to stay.  I plan to donate to charities that assist these immigrant families.  While I'm taking action today, I plan to make a donation to Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, a group which is assisting those separated families.  Go here to donate or to help in other ways.  If you want to assist a local charity, this New York Times article notes that the Catholic Charities of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas is helping families with supplies and humanitarian relief.

These are the days that break the hearts of caring people, but we can't shut down.  We may feel we have no power, but it's important to remember that we do.  It's important to use that power as a force for good in the world.  Lots of people who are truly powerless need us.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Flag Day and Faith

Today is Flag Day, which has never been a holiday that made much of an impression on me.  But today, I'm thinking about flags and religious expression.

On Sunday, I was rummaging in the arts and crafts closet, and I came across some small flags--the Christian flag, as I've always thought of it.  As with so many things in that closet, I wondered how we had come to have them.  I see that flag much more rarely now than I once did.  Once, it seemed that every church chancel had one, along with the U.S. flag. 

I'm not crazy about having any flags in the chancel, but I'm not opposed to other symbolic fiber art.  I wonder if that's strange.

When I used to teach symbolism to students, I asked how many of them would be upset if I set a U.S. flag on fire.  Many of them nodded.  I said, "Would you be upset if I burned my sock?  Why not?  They're both fabric, after all."  It was an interesting way to launch a discussion of symbolism.

It's that symbolism that makes me want to have a church that's free of flags.  Flags do have that history of requiring allegiance.  And church spaces should remind us of the One who deserves our complete allegiance.

If I had the kind of arts and crafts closet that I wish we had at church, it would be interesting to experiment with flags and banners.  If we created a flag that represented our beliefs, what would we put on such a flag?  Would it need to be representational?

If it had meaning to others, if that was important, it would need to be representational on some level.  We made some banners for Pentecost:

I have been surprised by how many people ask me what the banners mean.  To me, they clearly represent flames and tongues and spirit, in all sorts of interpretations of that word.  I wonder if others don't see it or don't trust what they think they are seeing.

Most of us understand the meaning of the U.S. flag because we've been instructed since childhood that the stripes represent the colonies, and the stars represent the states.  If we didn't already know that, we might be baffled by the fabric. 

That's likely more and more true of worshippers.  Many of us haven't been schooled in the symbols of our faith.  We may be entering a time where our religious art becomes more important, in a way that it was in medieval times, as a way of educating people.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, June 17, 2018:

First Reading: Ezekiel 17:22-24

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 1 Samuel 15:34--16:13

Psalm: Psalm 92:1-4, 11-14 (Psalm 92:1-4, 12-15 NRSV)

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 20

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:6-10 [11-13] 14-17

Gospel: Mark 4:26-34

In the Gospel for Sunday, we hear the teaching that compares the kingdom of God (think this world, not Heaven) to seeds, in particular the mustard seed.  It's an agricultural metaphor that makes me wonder, as I always do, how well these metaphors work as we move away from being a culture that grows plants.  If we've never planted a seed and tended the sprouts, is the parable lost on us?

What might a modern parable teller use?  Mold?  A virus that overtakes a human or a computer system?  A bit of code that destroys a computer program?

We might object to those ideas.  We might say, "Those metaphors are so destructive--surely Jesus didn't have that in mind?"

Many scholars, however, would point out that mustard seeds left untended do grow into plants that can be terribly destructive, even as they provide shelter for birds.  It's great for birds, but not so great for anything else that a farmer wanted to grow.  The mustard seed would grow into a plant that had the potential to strangle everything else.

The Kingdom of God is a weed that strangles the plants we intended to grow to become a huge tree that shelters birds--yes, we can see how the earliest audiences of Jesus might go away confused.

Return to that idea of a seed, something tiny that can grow into something huge.  Think about the self-contained nature of the seed.  This part of the metaphor might provide comfort.

The Kingdom of God doesn't start out huge.  It begins as a tiny seed that just needs some water, some soil, and some light--nothing revolutionary, but from humble beginnings, a revolution begins.

In these post-Pentecost times, it's good to remember that we're not required to arrive on the scene full-grown.  Often in the post-Pentecost narratives and in the letters of Paul, I come away feeling inadequate, as I look at what those early believers managed to accomplish with such few resources.

And here I am, with all sorts of technological advances, only to spend so much time stumbling and beginning again.

Yet the parables remind me that even small seeds can become fields of wheat that feed a nation or giant trees that shelter wildlife.

What do we need to sprout?  What soil and spiritual manure would help us become more firmly rooted?  Summer might be a great time to try a new spiritual practice or to return to a practice that fell away in the hectic pace of Lent and Easter.  More prayer?  More journaling?  A book and/or study group?  A service project?

What water would refresh us and encourage us to sprout?  A different kind of worship service?  A retreat at a church camp or a monastery?  An online learning community?  Some work to create social justice?

How can we get the balance of enough sunshine and shade?  For all the time we plan to spend in spiritual activity, we should plan for Sabbath time too, a time to stay still and unplug/unwind.

You may feel like a dried out husk that has no hope of sprouting.  The Gospels assure us that we are little pods of potential waiting to bloom.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

A Return to "Angels in America"

Yesterday I did what I have wanted to do for some time now:  I reread Angels in America, both plays. 

I brought them to work to set up a book display in the library for Pride month, and I opened Millennium Approaches.  I wrote this Facebook post:

If you haven't already thought of it, now is a good time to reread "Angels in America," which just won a Tony award for best revival. I suspect it will have much to say to our current time. I shall let you know. I pulled it off the shelf, and opened to this epigraph from "The Testing-Tree" by Stanley Kunitz:
"In a murderous time
the heart breaks and breaks
and lives by breaking."

I thought of the first time I read the book, on a different rainy afternoon, back in 1993 or 1994.  Back then, I had colleagues with whom I had discussions about literature, both classic and current, and one of them told me that I had to read this play.  And so I got it and read it in one great gulp.

When the plays came to the Kennedy Center in 1995, we went with my parents, and it was perhaps the most amazing theatre I've ever seen or will ever seen.  And then, for the last 23 years, I haven't revisited the plays, even as I've thought it would be interesting.  When the revival won a Tony award on Sunday night, I wasn't surprised.  But I did want to know if it held up well.

So, I read both plays, straight through--and they do hold up, on many levels.  It is strange to read them now, when AIDS is a more manageable disease and not an instant death sentence.  It is very strange to read the anti-Ronald Reagan sentiment, much of which I still agree with, but I would be happy to have that president back again.  So much has changed since the dark days of the setting of these plays--and so much darkness remains.

The plays are about so much--the ways we can and can't be our best selves, the work we're called to do and the work we cannot do, the ways we connect with each other and the ways we fail so miserably.  These aspects of the plays seem timeless.  I can't imagine humans will ever master those issues so completely that the plays won't speak to future generations.

When I read the plays back in the 90's, the sexuality issue seemed intense and new to me--but we've seen the plot trajectories of closeted gay men struggling with their identity in so many works of art that this narrative arc isn't as interesting as it once would have been.  I do think we live in a culture where we don't discuss the ways our bodies fail us, particularly as we grow older.  I see Prior, the AIDS patient, as a metaphor for that aging process, even though I don't think Kushner meant him to be.  I'm much more interested in the caretaking issue, especially in the not-much-discussed Mormon mother of the closeted gay man who arrives to take care of the unraveling young wife.

I am struck by the abandonment in the plays--why is it so hard to stay together?  But I'm also struck by the youth of the main characters--they aren't much older than 30, so they don't have much experience.  But there's also the larger issue of God's abandonment of creation--the angels in the play implore the characters to stop the world's progress in the hopes that God will return.  Prior knows this approach won't work, and so, he gives the sacred text back.  It's a theology that isn't mine, but I understand how it might seem to explain so much about our current world.

I'm also struck by the idea that we hold the sacred text in our bodies--we are the text.  That idea seems both ancient and post-modern to me.

I have never done much thinking about angels, outside of the types of angels we find in literature, like Milton.  I'm not one of those people who wears an angel pin or counts on a guardian angel.  I imagine that those people would be baffled by the angels in this play, these abandoned creatures who are trying to continue in their calling, even though God seems to be gone.

Would the plays work without the supernatural elements?  Yes, but it wouldn't be as rich. 

It's interesting to think about these plays as part of the literature of apocalypse.  I'll need to think more about that.  I tend to be drawn to apocalyptic literature of a different type, although I do love a good disease narrative arc.  Why haven't I made the apocalypse connection before?  When I first read the plays, I was thinking of nuclear winter, not AIDS.  By the early 90's, I assumed humanity would survive that disease--it's fairly preventable, after all. 

It must be hard to be Tony Kushner, having written this momentous work, returning to the page.  Or maybe it's a relief, knowing that important work has been done.

And now, it's off to work of my own.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Poetry Monday: "Son Salutation"

My time is running short this morning--but that's O.K., because I had a relaxing week-end, plus I'm caught up on my grading for my online classes.

Over the week-end, I got my contributor's copy of The Atlanta Review, so let me post a poem for your Monday reading pleasure.

Son Salutation

Jesus goes to yoga class.
Gabriel tells him that he needs a practice
to reduce his stress, and Michael sings
the praises of flexibility.

Jesus watches a class first,
humans stretching themselves into unnatural
shapes. He senses their pain
and wonders if there’s a more efficient
way to dispatch that discomfort.

He could heal them with a single
word if they had faith.
He unrolls his yoga mat
to join them as they arch
into dog shapes and fish curves.

He’s been crucified on a cross.
He thought he understood the limits
of human pain. But on this hard, wood
floor, he senses yet another threshold.

After several weeks, he admits
to feeling better. That persistent flare
of pain in his lower spine
has faded. The kink of muscles
in his right bicep has ungnarled.

His classmates, too, notice
improvement. They sleep
through the night to rise
with renewed energy. They feel
new hope. The ones
who have touched
the sweat of Jesus report
the easing of every chronic condition. 

Sunday, June 10, 2018

The Start of the Camp Season

Today many church camps (and camps of all kinds) will welcome their first batch of campers.  The counselors have been trained, the cabins opened and aired out, the mending of boats and equipment is complete:  and now, the work begins.

Participation in a church camp is an important predictor of whether or not a person will continue attending church as an adult or return to church as an adult.  Many of us had our faith shaped at camp, and we can still sing the camp songs.  Many of us experienced a different kind of worship at camp, one that seemed more relevant, and that memory sustains us through many a different kind of worship in our lives.

These days, many people get their only taste of wilderness at a camp.  Granted, it's a tamed sort of wilderness, but it's a place where weeds are allowed to sprout, where we don't control what lives in the tall trees and deep lakes, and where we experience weather often without the benefit of climate controlled buildings.  Some camps are even devoid of wi-fi signals or cell phone towers nearby.  It's a different kind of wilderness, to be without our electronics.

Campers will have a chance to do some activities that may not be part of their everyday lives, like hiking on a trail or paddling a canoe.  There will be some arts and crafts, and some campers will have new materials to play with.  Some may see their first bonfire and have their first s'mores.  Others will learn to cook in a more primitive way.  There might be dramas and songfests. 

For some campers, this may be their first experience being away from home for more than a week-end.  Camp may be their first experience of being away from family and a first introduction to the idea of a larger family, a family of humanity.  The luckiest ones will come away from camp with lifelong friends.

So today, let's offer a prayer for those campers who will have all of those experiences.  Let us pray that these experiences at camp sustain them throughout their years.  Let us pray for counselors and all the others who care for the campers.  Let us pray for all the administrators who work behind the scenes to keep it all running smoothly.  Let us pray for parents and grandparents who help make it possible for children to go to camp.  And let us pray for the little camper in all of us.

Friday, June 8, 2018

Immigration Chaos

I'm hearing about the clog in the courts down in Texas where people crossing the border have been detained in systems that aren't designed for this.  There aren't enough court workers to process people quickly or at all--or to shelter them while waiting for trial.  Children have been taken from parents, but there aren't local shelters.  It breaks my heart on so many levels.

I've been thinking about it from the perspective of parents and children--to have children ripped from the arms of parents?  Are we really this country now?

This morning I'm thinking about it from the perspective of the workers on all sides.  I imagine that people who work from the law enforcement side must be somewhat used to this kind of chaos when families are forcibly separated.  But I think of court reporters and judges and all of the others who would ordinarily never see this level of sorrow.

This morning, I feel like I should do something, but I don't know what that something should be.  I'm think of my small cottage and the underground railroad.  Perhaps I should give some money to Lutheran Immigration Services, since they are probably working on this issue from an angle that I would want to support.

I can also pray.  It's good to remember that when I don't know how to fix things, I can pray.

God of all shelter, I cry to you about the state of this nation, once a safe harbor, now an additional terror.  I pray for those who came here seeking safety and new starts.  I pray for those U.S. citizens plunged into chaos as policies change on the whim of a few.  I pray for those who must now care for huge numbers of terrorized children.  I pray for my government, for softer hearts.

Thursday, June 7, 2018

A Prayer Made Out of Sunrise Snippets

Several weeks ago, I wrote a list of fragments and observations that went on to become an interesting poem.  Let me try this again:

--This is a love letter to the two parrots in a palm tree that screech at each other.

--This is also a love letter to a pair of abandoned shoes at the beach, tan suede, clean, barely used, made for a man's foot.

--The sun rises, as it always does.  The clouds are the middle managers.  They know that their job is to make the boss look good.

--This morning, the clouds have settled on apocalypse as a theme, in contrast to the man sitting on the steps, playing his harmonica.

--Does the sun see the people running to the sand to catch the sunrise?  Is it aware of how many people ignore the sunrise for whatever magic their phones offer?

--Before the sun came up, I spent the morning looking at graduation pictures of people I remember as little children at church.

--This is a loved letter to all of us on this planet which can seem so doomed.  But the sun comes up each morning, and there is coffee enough to fill all of our mugs, and the hands of the master potter can still make sense of it all.

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, June 10, 2018:

First Reading: Genesis 3:8-15

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 1 Samuel 8:4-11 [12-15] 16-20; [11:14-15]

Psalm: Psalm 130

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 138

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 4:13--5:1

Gospel: Mark 3:20-35

We are used to the picture of the family of Jesus that we see at Christmas time:  the brave, young Mary, ready for whatever God has in mind for her.  Kind Joseph, who plans to leave pregnant Mary, but is convinced to stay beside her.  The couple fleeing the murderous Herod. 

And then, perhaps, a few weeks later, we might see the young Jesus who stays behind to learn a bit more in the Temple in Jerusalem.  In some lectionary years, we see Mary imploring Jesus to save a wedding where the wine has run out; Jesus says he's not ready, Mary persists, and Jesus puts aside his own plans and transforms water into wine.

Or maybe we're used to the Mary that we see around Easter, particularly the weeping mother at the foot of the cross.

We're likely not familiar with the Mary that we see in today's Gospel, the Mary who hears the rumors of her son's madness and comes to try to get him to change course.

What's going on here?  Is she embarrassed?  Did she not know that being the mother of the Messiah might mean some embarrassment when the neighbors started talking?

Those of us who have ever loved someone who took a different path that the world doesn't understand may feel some sympathy for Mary.  Those of us who have watched children grow up and go their own way may feel sympathy too. 

When Gabriel appeared to Mary and gave her an outline of the plan that God had for her, she probably didn't envision the Jesus that appeared some thirty years later.  Her whole culture trained her to look for a different Messiah, perhaps a Messiah who cleansed the Jewish homeland.  She probably thought of that cleansing in military terms, the ejection of the Romans, perhaps.

She likely wasn't thinking of a spiritual revolution.

After all, there were plenty of people running around Palestine leading spiritual revolutions, all sorts of people, some legitimate, some deranged, who were happy to tell first century people how to cleanse themselves and purify their religions and make God happy.  I've read one scholar who posits that the family of Jesus was upset because he could be using his powers to make money and instead he was giving away his miracles for free.  In these early chapters of Mark, Jesus does a lot of healing which attracts much attention.

Or perhaps Mary was upset because she saw her son was on a collision course with any number of authorities.  Maybe she wanted him to fly under the radar more.

We might argue that she has no right to feel that way, because, after all, Jesus came precisely to be on that collision course--that's what he had to do to create the salvation that he came to bring.

Even if Mary understood God's plan thoroughly, she still might want to protect her child.  That's what good parents want, to save their children from harm and destruction.  She still might protest the fact that the salvation of the world required the precious life of her beloved child.

For those of us struggling to chart our own course, we might take comfort from today's Gospel.  If even the family of Jesus didn't fully embrace his path, we, too, can expect a bit of resistance.

For those of us struggling to live an integrated life, where our weekday selves don't contradict our Christian values, we can take courage from today's Gospel.  It's not an easy task, this living an authentic life.

Of course, the Gospels don't promise us a happy ending.  Even if we live honestly, we may find ourselves on a collision course with the larger world, with the forces of empire, with the culture that shoots other messages at us and infuses our surroundings with poisonous values.  Even authentic people can end up martyred.

In fact, authentic people are more likely to end up martyred.  But throughout the Gospels, Jesus promises that the life we achieve through our integrity will be worth the price.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

What Would Jesus Bake?

Yesterday came the ruling from the Supreme Court that found that the rights of the baker had been violated when the Colorado Civil Rights Commission ordered the baker to make a cake for a same sex wedding.  I took note of some particulars:  it wasn't about whether the religious rights were more important than the free speech/expression right or the equal right to marry.  Instead, the Justices were ruling that the Civil Rights Commission was dismissive and disparaging of the baker's religious beliefs and rights. 

In short, it was a much more narrow decision than most of us may realize, and it may not help settle any future cases.  The court case says that the baker has a right to a religiously neutral hearing, and he didn't get that.  It's about the adjudication of the case, not the case itself.

Of course, that will not stop many of us from weighing in.  I saw one Facebook meme that asserted that we can be sure that "Jesus would bake the damn cake."

Immediately, I thought, really?  The same Jesus that in the Gospel of Mark seems to reject family in favor of the work of ministry?  I have read the gospels many time, and I don't see a pro-marriage Jesus in any of them.

Would Jesus bake the cake?  Or would Jesus ask how much the cake would cost?  I envision Jesus using the cake as a teaching moment, talking about how much the wedding would cost, reminding us of how those dollars could be used to feed the hungry with something more substantial than cake.

Would Jesus ask why we needed these public displays of commitment?   I envision Jesus saying, "Anyone can throw a party and declare their eternal love.  Call me in 20 years and tell me about your relationship.  And then, call me 30 years later.  If you can hold your love together for a lifetime, we'll come to a party, but it makes no sense to do this at the beginning."

Or maybe Jesus would say, "Let's celebrate love of all kinds.  Most of you show more devotion to your pets than to your other family members.  Why are we not having ceremonies about that love?"

Perhaps Jesus would say, "Sure, it's easy to show love to those who love us.  But if you can love your enemies--truly love them--that's worth a festive event of this scale.  That's love that's worthy of a special cake."

I could go on and on, but I'm sure we get the idea.  The only thing I know for sure is that when we're sure of how Jesus/God would respond, we're often wrong.  And that direction intrigues me even more:  what aren't we seeing, when we offer what we're sure Jesus would say or do?

Monday, June 4, 2018

Sunday Report

Yesterday I was in charge of church, so I left the house early.  Overall, it was a good morning.  I knew that my sermon would talk about Pharisees, and I thought I might also talk about cracked clay pots.  I had forgotten that the Old Testament lesson gave us the original commandment to keep the Sabbath holy--so I talked briefly about the origins of this idea that we've spent centuries fighting about.

How do we keep the Sabbath in a way that pleases God and pleases us?  There are likely more ways than many of us have wanted to let ourselves believe.

Yesterday, I kept the Sabbath the way that many in my family have always kept the Sabbath:  by spending a chunk of the day in church.

I think that it's been ages since Pentecost, but yesterday, I was reminded that it's only been two weeks.  Before the late service, I heard parishioners talking about the beauty of Pentecost banners and mosaics we'd made.  Those comments made me very happy

I've been changing the elements a bit each week.  The picture below is of Pentecost:

I've since moved all the mosaics to the altar and added some candles.   Here's a view from the back:


Now it's time to think about what kinds of projects should come next.  There's a huge, beige space at the front of the sanctuary.  I'm envisioning filling it with green of some sort.  We could paint canvases and hang them on push pins.  We could do a weaving.  We could do so much . . .

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Koinonia and Intentional Community

Can I just say how delighted I am that the word that won this year's National Spelling Bee is koinonia?  And I am delighted that spell check knows the word--because I just misspelled it when I wrote it.

I have visions of the nation looking up the word--online, as so many of us do.  And then it takes them to Koinonia Farms in Americus Georgia.  In this time of racial divisiveness, that place has an inspiring story of black and white farmers working together in the heart of racial ugliness in the middle of last century.

It's the birthplace of many an initiative.  Perhaps the most famous is Habitat for Humanity. Less well known is the Jubilee Partners community in Comer, Georgia, a spin off community from Koinonia that has helped resettle refugees for several decades.  During my college years, I visited them several times, and that idea of intentional community still has a hold on my imagination.

That group was in the process of building homes for the community, and they were beautiful, simple, functional facilities.  I think about creating something similar:  small cottages with a single larger house or two.  Then, when people want solitude, it's there, but there's communal space too.  My experiences have shown me how important it is that everyone has their own bathroom, which they are responsible for cleaning.  I think that the kitchen can be more communal--people are willing to pitch in to clean up after a communal meal. 

For now, I'm living in a much smaller intentional community of two--and it's time to go to Home Depot to work on various projects.

Friday, June 1, 2018

Hurricane Season Begins

Today is the beginning of the Atlantic hurricane season--but it's already begun, as our friends in the mountains of North Carolina know.  Once again, my friends who live around Asheville are having a much worse hurricane season than the rest of us.

Let that sink in.  Think about how far inland and upland my Asheville friends are.  They are suffering massive amounts of rain, and it's not over yet.

In this same week of our first named storm, we got information about Hurricane Maria and Puerto Rico.  It did not come as a surprise that the death toll was higher than originally reported--but so high!  Over 5,000 dead.  And those who are left alive, many of them are far from back to normal.

That's true of many of us who suffered one of the worst hurricane seasons in modern memory in 2017.  Think of the people in Houston.  Think of those in the path of Irma.  And then, Maria, just for good measure.  There are Caribbean islands which will be forever changed.

In this week of our first named storm and the beginning of the 2018 season, we are far from recovered.  We've had a very rainy month of May, which has delayed our fence project.  But finally this week, the survey company came, and now we can mail the property survey and the notarized documents to the fence company--and then, they can apply for permits and buy supplies.

And we're still in the very early stages of getting the damaged floors restored.  We did get confirmation that the floor joists are Dade county pine, one of the more water/rot resistant types of wood that exists.  So we won't need to rip those up.  They've been here since the house was built in 1928, and they will probably be here long after the Atlantic reclaims the coast.  Two hundred years from now, divers may swim in the wreckage of my house, and the floor joists will likely remain.

On this day where hurricane season officially begins, let me write a prayer:

God of all creation, we come to you with hearts heavy because we have seen so much damage down by howling winds and flooding rains.  We pray for all who have lost so much.  Let us remember that even though the ancient trees may crash to the ground, we are still rooted in you.  Even though the winds may rip our carefully constructed lives to shreds, you still hold us in your hands.  Keep before us your Easter message, that new lives can be carved out of the ruins.  Let us remember that you are the strong shelter in all of life's storms and that we need not be afraid.