Sunday, July 29, 2018

All Our Attempts to Micromanage the Miracles

Today we celebrate Saint Martha, one of the few named women in the Gospels, one of the few to make multiple appearances.

My favorite glimpse of her is from the story in Luke, where she hustles and bustles with household chores and grows ever more exasperated with her sister Mary, who isn't helping.

It's good to remember what Jesus says to her, when she demands that he make Mary help. Christ says, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her" (Luke 10: 41-42).

I hear those words anew this morning. I, like Martha, am worried and distracted by many things. In my younger years, I thought that my worry might spur me to action. In my later years, I've come to realize that I often worry about items that won't be impacted at all by my fretting.

We also see Martha at the story of Lazarus, her brother, who has been dead in the grave for several days when Jesus comes. She is convinced that her brother would still be alive if Jesus had gotten there in time. And she's worried about the smell when Jesus orders the grave opened.

I recognize this control freak, micromanaging Martha. I see her every day in my own behavior.

I love that Jesus doesn't get angry, doesn't send her away. I love that again and again, she doesn't quite realize the huge truth of Jesus, but he's patient. He doesn't bend himself into pretzel shapes so that she'll be comfortable, but neither does he reject her.

It's interesting to me to see in her behavior and in Peter's that we see that it takes time to grow into our role as disciples. Neither Peter nor Mary understand Jesus right away, but patient Jesus continues to work to shape them.

I, too, am far from where I want to be as a disciple. I take courage from these stories that remind me that there is hope for the lagging disciple.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Summer Slipping Away

I have been looking at the pictures from Lutheridge, where they've been celebrating Christmas in July.  I wonder what it would be like to return to Lutheridge for a more traditional summer camp week.  As a child, I went almost every summer for a week.  As an adult, I return to camp in the non-summer seasons, most often the Create in Me retreat.

I've been looking at pictures this week in particular because my nephew is at camp for the first time, and I've been hoping to catch a glimpse of him.  I see him in one picture on the climbing rock wall, looking like he's having a great time--hurrah!

For most of us, these are the waning weeks of summer.  Most camps will only have a few more weeks to offer school age kids experiences of all sorts.  Many public school teachers report back for work in the next week or two or three.  Even those of us who have jobs that aren't affected by the school year calendar may find ourselves impacted.  I'm seeing back to school supplies already in the stores.

But we still have a few weeks--and many of us will have longer than with hot weather.  Let us seize the joys of summer:  the perfect melon, the perfect ice cream, the perfect tropical drink.  Let us take an afternoon with a good book.  Let us enjoy the dark, air conditioned joy of a movie theatre.  Let us build a fire and eat s'mores.  Let us have an outdoor worship service.  Whatever brings you joy this summer, take some time to do it before the season slips away.

Friday, July 27, 2018

The Glue of Tradition

Yesterday, as I was helping to create our second annual chocolate potluck on campus, I thought, with any luck, we're creating the traditions that someone will want to upend in 20 years or so.

First, some background:  last year, we had a chocolate potluck that was a contest.  This year, we ditched the contest aspect and decided to do it to celebrate graduation.  We invited grads back, but in my mind, it was really to remind current students of the ultimate goal.

I put out cards with an invitation for people to write a note of congratulations to a grad--and people did.  That made me happy.

I've spent a lot of time in institutions that have long standing traditions--most of us have.  Long standing traditions can be both a blessing and a curse.  It's hard to try something new when people already have annual events that they love dearly.  The calendar will only hold so much, and people increasingly have less time.

It's also hard not to have those traditions--it's made me realize how much societal glue a longstanding tradition can provide.  So I've been trying to create some.  Happily, I'm at a place where I have support for that.

I've been thinking about my attempts to create traditions at work and comparing it to what we do at church.  Right now, at my church, many of the members who had distinct ideas about what we needed to be doing are no longer with us.  We also don't have a lot of the people who once did the work that those traditions required. 

It frees up some much needed space.  But it also means that we need to put some new traditions in place.  Don't we?

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 29, 2018:

2 Kings 4:42-44

Psalm 145:10-19 (Psalm 145:10-18 NRSV)

You open wide your hand and satisfy the needs of every living creature. (Ps. 145:17)

Ephesians 3:14-21

John 6:1-21

In today's Gospel, we see Jesus feed the multitude from a tiny offering of two fish and five barley loaves. It's important to remember where this story comes chronologically in Jesus' ministry. He's already gotten quite a reputation as a worker of miracles. Indeed, that's why the crowds won't leave him alone; they can tell that Jesus is something special. And the disciples have witnessed the power of Jesus time and time again.

I mention this fact because I'm always surprised when the disciples act the way that humans do--the way that you and I do. Jesus tests them, by asking how they will buy enough bread for everyone.

Of course, there's not enough money in their communal pockets to buy bread. Jesus knows this. One of the persistent messages that Christ gives us is that to rely on money to solve problems is to put our faith in the wrong system.

Notice that the disciples don't come up with any grand plan. They've watched Jesus work miracle after miracle--they've seen this with their own eyes!--and it never occurs to them to dream big. No, they still live in a world where it takes money to feed people.

Some theologians accuse the disciples of having a scarcity consciousness--a state of mind that's all too familiar to people of our time. It's the fear of running out of what we need, and so we don't share. We don't share, and our hearts become shriveled and tiny, as opposed to the way they would blossom if we trusted God more and shared our stuff. Who amongst us doesn't have more than enough stuff to share? We're drowning in possessions.

Perhaps they are stunted in this way. But again, I think they're just not used to the power that has come to dwell with them. They're rooted in the world and they forget what they're capable of.

Jesus has a different vision. He takes that small offering and feeds the throng of people. He takes something that seems so insignificant and this act grows into one of his most famous miracles.

Our rational brains can't accept this. Most of us could eat two fishes and five loaves all by ourselves--how could Jesus feed everyone?

Not only does Jesus feed everyone, but they have leftovers, 12 baskets full! It’s one of the many times that Jesus shows everyone that the world is full of abundance. Jesus offers us more wine than we can drink (John 2, the first miracle in this Gospel), more bread than we can eat.

It’s so easy to forget what God is capable of. We don't dare to dream big dreams, for fear that we'll be disappointed. We worry that if we share our resources, we won’t have enough for ourselves and our families. We don’t dare imagine that there’s enough for everyone.

We also forget how much God desires to be an active part of our lives--and we forget how active God is in the world. All our scriptures remind us of how God yearns for communion with us--and what wondrous transformations happen when humans go to meet God. Not just personal transformations. It's very well and good if you become a better person, more compassionate and more generous. But God has a much grander vision, one that doesn't stop with our individual lives.

How can you be part of that Kingdom? Christ didn't come to get us ready for Heaven, although many church traditions focus on that part of his mission. Christ came to show us how the Kingdom can be right here, among us, here and now. We can begin by sharing our basic resources and trusting that God will multiply our generosity.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

The Aesthetics of Chaos

At the Frank Stella exhibit on Friday, I remarked to my spouse that I liked very few of the geometric paintings for which he is famous, while I could look at the amazing sculptures all day.  My spouse said, "Well, your aesthetics has always run to chaos--making beautiful things out of what most people would see as a mess."

In a way, he's right, at least about some things.  When I paint or sketch or doodle, I'm usually making swirls and playing with color.  When I collage, I'm a bit neater.  When I eat, I don't like my foods to touch.  My quilts run to imprecise geometrical lines, while other fabric art has been more like my paintings.  My fiction writing could probably use a bit more chaos.

My spouse would probably categorize my housekeeping as chaos, while I would categorize his as sticky (as in there's still sticky spots after he cleans, and he tends not to see the stickiness, whereas I do).  If no one has tried to clean up my chaos, I know exactly where everything is.

I arrived home last night to chaos not of my making.  We've been trying to get the house ready for the great flooring project.   My spouse had been trying to move stuff to the cottage and lost 3 bookcases, one of them falling on him when he lost control of the dolly and fell into the pool.  When I got home, he was still wet and limping.

The bookcases were empty, but still awkward--and they're twenty years old, cheap things made of pressboard.  My spouse had warned that they might not make the move.  I have noticed that the ones that we move out to the cottage by carrying them, instead of bumping them along in the dolly, survive.  Sigh.

I think my spouse is mostly O.K., although a bit sore from landing on the step in the shallow end of the pool.  It could have been so much worse.  He could have hit his head and drowned, for an extreme example.  He could have been held under by the bookcase and drowned.  He could have broken something.  We can replace bookcases.  We can't replace him.

I slept well last night, but I am still a bit weary this morning.  We keep moving our possessions, and we still have work to do--and that's before the real chaos of floor repair and replacing begins.

This morning, I'm taking some heart from the creation story in the book of Genesis--the first one, not the one with the snake and the forbidden fruit.  The first Genesis story is much more straightforward.  God creates beauty out of chaos and declares everything to be good and very good.

Let me remember that beauty can come out of chaos.  Let me remember how often the chaos creates the art supplies from which the beauty will be built.

Monday, July 23, 2018


Yesterday was the feast day of Mary Magdalene, and it was a Sunday when we had planned to explore gender issues--and I was in charge of all three services.  I had played with a variety of sermon ideas, but I changed everything when I realized yesterday morning before church that it was the actual feast day of Mary Magdalene.

The heart of my sermon revolved around the idea that Mary Magdalene has been marginalized, as have the women of the early church.  What would our society look like if those stories hadn't been suppressed? 

What if we had celebrated Mary Magdalene as the first witness to the resurrection?  What if we celebrated her as the one who was first to tell of the resurrection?

For that matter, what if instead of celebrating the evangelizing apostles who went out with very little in their pockets, we celebrated the ones who stayed to build up the communities that the apostles created?

The powers of patriarchy are very strong, so perhaps we would still have ended up with the same type of society.  But the idea of an alternate community committed to living the ideals that Jesus gave us--that idea might have taken stronger root if we had celebrated a different approach.  As I've said before, most of us can't be the kind of disciple that leaves family and commitments behind to traipse the country.

Many of us have been raised to believe that's what Christ wanted us to do--there's a Great Commission after all that tells us to go to all the lands and make disciples.  But we could do that by staying rooted.

Many point to the Gospel lessons, but I wonder what Gospels were left out of our Bible.  Maybe there were Gospels which present a different picture.  Maybe Jesus traipsed for awhile and then found a good place to put down roots.

Or maybe it's my monastic mindset that wants to believe these things, that we can be effective witnesses by creating alternate communities right in the heart of empire. 

Regardless of the way we choose to do it, it's important that we do what we can to be communities that can reweave the fabric of society that is increasingly frayed and torn.  That's our great commission for the 21st century.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

The Feast Day of Mary Magdalene

Today, we celebrate the life of Mary Magdalene. Take a minute to read the New Testament reading for today: John 20:1-2, 11-18.

When I think about Mary Magdalene, I don't think about the tales that have her as demon possessed. I don't usually trust the ancient writers when it comes to their descriptions of emotional states. When I was younger, I was taught that Mary Magdalene likely had mental illnesses, which ancient people would have explained as demon possession. Feminist scholars taught me to wonder if the ancient church had a vested interest in stripping Mary of her story and her power.

After a hectic week, I wonder what Mary has to teach us about pace and rushing and hurry, hurry, hurry. It's Mary who stays behind to grieve, while the male disciples are running off to do whatever it is they feel compelled to do. It's because she stays behind to rest and to grieve that she gets to be the first to see the risen Lord.

I think of Mary Magdalene and the ways her life was changed by her discipleship. I wonder if she ever missed those demons or if she spent every day in deep awareness of how much worse her life could be and had been. I wonder what happened to her once her brief time with Jesus was over.

What do ancient women have to teach modern women? Would we have anything to say to each other if we could sit down to share a meal?

I suspect we'd all be able to talk about the difficulty of leading a balanced life. We'd talk about the demands that our families have. Would ancient women wonder if they were living up to their full potential? Would modern women from industrialized nations understand the precarious lives that ancient women faced? Or do we all feel we're living precarious lives?

For Christians, the comfort of the Gospel is that our God took on human form and came down to dwell with us. Our God understands all the difficulties of being human. Our God got to see firsthand that life is precarious.

For Christian feminists, the comfort of the Gospel is that Jesus included all the dispossessed in his ministry. Jesus spent a lot of time with women, and if you read the Gospel with compassionate eyes, you'll see that the women followers often seem to be much more stable. They seem to understand the nature of Christ's mission much more quickly than the males do.

One of the lessons of Mary Magdalene might have to do with reputation and how the world might slander us for our faithfulness. But we really can't worry about that. The world will slander us for all sorts of reasons. The story of Mary Magdalene reminds us that there are greater rewards than respect and a good reputation.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

Shoe Transformation

One of my Create in Me friends has transformed a pair of shoes in an amazing way.  Take a look:

I love the messages that she's put on her shoes.

And the glitter!

She declares her beliefs with boldness.

She's a pastor down to the shoes on her feet:

It reminds me of the passage from Romans 10: 15:  "How beautiful are the feet of those who preach good news!”

Here are the shoes before their transformation:

Amazing!  It makes me want to cut up magazines and make my shoes into something new--but I wear sandals, so there wouldn't be much surface area. 

One last look to brighten your Saturday:

Friday, July 20, 2018

Tomboy Gratitudes

Before I tell the story of yesterday morning, let me spoil the suspense by telling the ending:  I am not hurt.  It could have been otherwise.

Yesterday during my walk to the beach, I fell.  The sidewalk was just the tiniest bit uneven, and my shoe got caught.  Down I went.  Happily, I didn't hit my head, but I did land on my hip that had already been hurting.

My first thought:  Damn, I bet I broke my hip.  And even if I didn't break it, it's only a matter of time. 

And then I had to laugh at myself.  I've been tripping over pavement since I was 8 years old, and while I don't have skinned knees as often as I did when I was a child, it's not an unfamiliar feeling.  I took a quick inventory of my wounds and kept walking.

While I did skin my knees, it's my thumb on my right hand that hurts worst of all of my body bangs from yesterday.  I managed to rip a corner of my thumbnail, so every time I tap the space bar on the keyboard, I feel it.

I want to say it was my years of drama training that taught me to fall.  Or maybe it was the years of clown ministry (ah, the 70's and early 80's!).  Or maybe a self defense class here or there.  Most probably it was a matter of luck that I didn't rip the skin off my palms and then take the brunt of impact on my elbow.

I have a vision of an internet meme, if only I knew how to start one:

Age 53 and still skinning my knees!

Or maybe this slogan would be catchier:  Tomboys forever!

So let me count up my gratitude:  I'm grateful that I could take a tumble and continue my walk.  I'm grateful for strong bones.  I'm grateful that it was a reason for falling that doesn't necessarily presage disaster:  it's not a stroke, heart attack, or something dire.  I'm grateful for parents who let me be my tomboy self as a child, so skinned knees are nothing that seems disastrous to me.  I'm grateful for a safe neighborhood where I could fall down and sit on the sidewalk for a few minutes without human predators swooping down on me.  I'm grateful for blood that clots quickly and skin that knows how to heal itself.  I'm grateful that I can fall and get myself up, dust myself off, and kiss my own wounds (O.K. that last was metaphorical--I didn't really kiss my skinned knees, but I did think of how we train our kids and ourselves that a kiss can heal an owie).

Thursday, July 19, 2018

Celebrate Seneca Falls

Today in 1848, the first U.S. women's rights convention was held in Seneca Falls, New York. Among the demands made by the women assembled was the right to vote.

I could make the argument that it's historical events like this one that set us on the road towards expanded pulpits, although it would be many more years after women started exercising their right to vote (in 1920) before we'd see women in Protestant pulpits. The major exception to that sentence would be the Pentecostal churches. The Pentecostal branch of Protestantism was more open to women preachers early on, since the movement was founded by women.

Of course, I must admit that we're still far away, very far away, from full parity. We still see very few female senior pastors compared to males. We still see very few female bishops, when we compare those numbers to the bishoprics held by males. But we've made amazing progress in the years since the Seneca Falls Convention.

What I find most exciting about the various human rights movements of the past few centuries is how the idea of rights for one group expands to affect other disenfranchised groups. I'm a Lutheran, and as a denomination, we're still wrestling with the idea of homosexual people serving as pastors. The ELCA allows homosexual people in lifelong committed relationships to serve as pastors, but also allows churches to decide not to invite homosexual pastors to serve them.

And of course, there are still plenty of mainstream Protestants who aren't comfortable with women serving. The work is not done.

And I'm not even taking on the Catholic church.

But today, let us celebrate Seneca Falls. Let us celebrate those few brave women who dared to dream of a more inclusive world. Let us offer prayers of gratitude for those women and for human rights workers everywhere. Jesus constantly reminded us that we're to look out for the poor and the oppressed. Those who work for human rights show us ways that we might fulfill Christ's mission.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 22, 2018:

Jeremiah 23:1-6
Psalm 23
Ephesians 2:11-22
Mark 6:30-34, 53-56

The Gospel for this Sunday bookmarks two of Jesus' most famous miracles (but they're left out of the Gospel reading; we've already done them, or we'll do them later): the feeding of the great throng with just five loaves and two fishes, and Jesus walking on the water and calming the storm. As we ponder the Gospel for this week, it's good to remember that Jesus has been busy.

Notice that not even Jesus can stay busy all the time. The first part of the Gospel has Jesus trying to get away to a lonely place, and the last part of the Gospel shows the amazing things that Jesus accomplishes after he prays. These passages give us insight into our own care. Like Jesus and the disciples, many of us are living such busy lives that we don't even have time to eat.

The work of building God's Kingdom in our fallen world will wear us to a husk; it’s true of Christ, and it’s true for us. Notice that in these passages, Jesus doesn't find renewal in the Synagogue--he finds renewal in retreating and praying.

Most of us live such busy lives that we have built no time for retreats. Even on vacation, many of us are still working.  And most of us don't take vacations with the aim of spiritual renewal.  Instead we take vacations that leave us frazzled and exhausted--we come home needing a vacation to recover from our vacation.

Luckily, this Gospel also shows us a simpler way to recharge. It's one that you can do anywhere, at any time. Notice that Jesus prays.  Prayer serves many purposes, but the main purpose is to give us an intimacy with God. Our friendships don't survive long silences. Likewise, our relationship with God thrives when we make time to talk to God.

One reason Jesus came to us was to model the life we're to emulate. And if Jesus prays, we should take our cue from him. Throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus praying perhaps more than any other spiritual practice we'll called upon to do. We don’t see Jesus tithe, and we rarely see him going to weekly services. Instead, his prayers undergird his spiritual life and make it possible for him to do the works of charity and healing that he does.

The ministry of Jesus has much to teach us, and one of the most important lessons is that we can't take care of others when we're not taking care of ourselves. Jesus prays, Jesus takes retreats, Jesus shares meals with friends--these are the activities that leave him ready to care for the masses.

Our mission is the same as Christ's. Like Jesus, we're surrounded by hordes of hungry people. Broken people need us.

Yet we will not be able to complete our mission if we don't practice basic self-care. The message of today's Gospel is that it's O.K. to take time to pray. It's O.K. to retreat. It's O.K. to eat a slow meal with friends.

Not only is it O.K., it's essential. Christ, the incarnation of God on earth, needed to take a break. So do we all.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Strange Streets and Surreal Times

Yesterday was a bit surreal:

--We have a U.S. president who seems more willing to trust Russia than to trust our allies of 50 + years.  Hearing the news of the Trump-Putin meeting in Helsinki was just bizarre.  I found myself thinking of a classic episode of The Simpsons that has Homer in Cuba saying, "I think we can trust the president of Cuba" as all of their valuables are taken by the government.

--As I went to pick up one of our college friends who was in town, I heard news of an exchange student who was a secret agent.  It's enough to make me wonder what year it is.  But it's clearly a year that has never existed, if we have double agents making connection with the NRA as our U.S. president has a meeting with the Russian president without anyone else present.

--I'm glad that I'm not a writer of thrillers.  How does one compete?

--My college friend had said he wanted to go to an Armenian restaurant, so I had researched a possibility.  In the car, he said, "Are there any restaurants from Hungary?  I could be wanting some Hungarian goulash."  I suggested Old Heidelberg, a German restaurant that has several kinds of goulash.  I didn't think we'd actually end up there, but we did.

--My friend loves to order appetizers for the table, but the Germans don't really have the kinds of appetizers he likes to order:  no jalapeno poppers, no crab-filled puffy things.

--I had envisioned a lovely night of half price appetizers in downtown Hollywood--but I was also expecting to end up someplace totally different--that's what happens often when we're with this particular friend.  But to end up at a German restaurant?  I wouldn't have thought that would happen.

--We had a very leisurely meal, and so, it was strange to drive home through the dark streets.  At a stop sign, there were several groups of unruly people.  At a stop light, a dark-skinned man staggered into the stopped traffic and said, "I want all of these cars."  I'm not sure how we caught his eye, but he lurched to us, pounded (lightly) his fist on our car hood, and said, "God bless you."  My spouse rolled down his window and said, "Brother, God bless you too."  The light changed, and we all drove away.

--It's the kind of scene that could have ended very differently.  I'm glad that it ended with blessing.  My spouse heard the man say, "Some folks don't see it (or Him?)" as if to say, "You and me, we see it."  I heard him say, "Some days, I just don't see it"--as in, some days I feel God's presence, and some days I don't.  Regardless, I felt an odd moment of connection with a man who most of us would have perceived as threatening.

--I wanted to go home, cook a meal or cookies, and bring it back--but I know how many ways that could have gone wrong.  Instead I said a prayer for us all, out there on strange streets, looking for connections where they may or may not be wise, including our president.

Monday, July 16, 2018

When the Well Runs Dry

I have been feeling a bit dry and withered as a blogger this past week.  Some weeks, I have more ideas than I can use.  Then I hit a dry spot.

I've been writing for decades, so dry spots don't freak me out as much as they once did.  I know that the trick is to just keep going, to show up at the desk, to trust that all of my dry spots have led me to an oasis in the distance that I didn't realize was there.

I've also been thinking theologically, thinking about all the passages in the Bible that promise that the dried out bones of our lives are not the only reality.  Once I assumed that we got the dry and dusty passages because of the part of the world where the Bible writers lived.  Now I recognize a universal metaphor when I see one.

I spent part of the week-end packing up books to get ready for the great flooring project.  As I packed up my theology books, I reflected on how much more time I used to have to read.  And that reading helped to feed my writing life.

I've heard this time of the writing life referred to as "the well going dry."  Let me look for ways to fill the well that fit with my current life.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Woody Guthrie, Singing Saint

Today is Woody Guthrie's birthday. It's also Bastille Day, the French equivalent (sort of ) of our Independence Day. I see this historical event as one of many that launched us on the road to equality. It's an uneven success to be sure. More of us in the first world enjoy liberty than those in developing nation. But that thirst for freedom and equality found some expression in the French Revolution, and I could argue that much liberation theology has some rootedness in that soil (yes, it would be a problematic argument, I know).

I see Woody Guthrie as one of the unsung (ha ha) liberation theologians.

I've always asked my students if they're familiar with his music, and they always say they're not. Then I sing a bit of "This Land Is Your Land," and they realize that they do know his work.

Unfortunately, the most radical verses of that song are often not sung:

"In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I'd seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?

As I went walking, I saw a sign there,
And on the sign there, It said "no trespassing." [In another version, the sign reads "Private Property"]
But on the other side, it didn't say nothing!
That side was made for you and me. "

Throughout his life, Woody Guthrie showed a compassion for the poor and the dispossessed that we see so rarely from famous/talented/artistic people. He also showed an amazing capacity for nurturing the talents of the next generation (most notably, Bob Dylan and later, through his music, Bruce Springsteen and U2). We could argue about his Huntington's disease: what was responsible for what? We could talk about his womanizing and his abandonment of his children, and I'm not arguing that he gets a free pass on that behavior because of his disease or because of his artistic talent.

I am saying that his lifelong radicalism impresses me. His lifelong commitment to his art impresses me. His struggle to be a better family man, requiring a fresh start again and again, impresses me. His ability to create art in spite of his lack of formal training and education, impresses me.

He has written songs that school children sing, songs that rock and roll folks sing, songs that invade my sleep and sweeten my dreams.

If I was the person in charge of modern feast days, I'd canonize Woody Guthrie. His songs point the way to living a more solidly ethical life. His life does not, except by example of some things not to do. And yet, at the end, despite his wanderings, the love of his life, Marjorie, continued to care about him.

It's easier to love someone like Woody Guthrie who has a brain disease that makes him behave badly. It would be much harder if he was a jerk just because he was a jerk.

You might ask me why he deserves a feast day. I would point out his prolific output, his variety of types of songs, his embrace of dispossessed people of all sorts, his embrace of freedom. I would argue that his music can lead us to the social justice actions that God commands. I could make a case that his music leads us to God, both the songs he wrote, and the songs inspired by his life and work.

What better person to make a saint? I'm not exactly serious, because I know most people could make a fairly lengthy list of people who deserve sainthood more.

But for today, let's celebrate a musical legend. Let's celebrate the man who gave us the line "This land was made for you and me." Let's sing!

Friday, July 13, 2018


Many weeks, I have more blog posts than I have days to write them.  The ideas bloom on the hydrangea bush of my brain.

Some weeks, the calm surface of the river of my brain hides many currents swirling beneath.

These past few days, my brain has felt more like a field of rocks, all similar, nothing beckoning me to linger long.

I look into the monotones of my thought, just in case some life would appear.

I stack the stones into a form that says, "We were here."  I want to see what my brain does with that cairn.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Poetry Thursday: "God at the Creativity Retreat"

Yesterday a student came to my office to ask, "Do you have any art supplies?"  That made me inordinately happy.  Of course I have art supplies!  She only wanted scissors.  But I was happy to be seen as a source of creative ingredients.

My office has many art supplies, and I often think I'd be happy if I had no other duties but to lead creative projects.  But that's not what I'm called to do right now.  And much of my work requires creativity, even if it's not the scissors and markers variety.

The encounter also took me back to the Create in Me retreat, and this morning, I dug up a poem that I wrote at one of them.  It was a year we studied the first creation story in Genesis, the one without the snake and the forbidden fruit and the entrance of sin into the world.

No, this was the first creation story, where God declares everything very good.  And this poem emerged during the retreat:

God at the Creativity Retreat

God comes to our creativity retreat
and notices the smallness of scale
and scope. God creates several new
species while some of us paint icons
and others make miniatures.

God doesn’t understand
the instant rejection of creations.
God spends part of each
day leaning into our ears to whisper,
“It is good.”

God vaguely recalls creating calories,
but doesn’t understand all the fuss
over them. After a long
day of workshops and craft sessions,
God finishes eating all the cake icing,
while some of us look away.

We drive down the mountain
hoping for inspiration to claim
the coming year. With spirits softened
we see all the possibilities
and proclaim them very good.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 15, 2018:

Amos 7:7-15
Psalm 85:8-13
Ephesians 1:3-14
Mark 6:14-29

The Gospel lessons of should dispel any aspirations of glory and fame that we have as Christians. It's an idea that's almost antithetical in our society.

Our society has become one that worships fame and publicity. Now young people don't want to just earn a lot of money--they want to do it in a way that brings them fame. David Brooks has done some fine work looking at the youth of decades ago and the youth of today.  Young adults used to go to college to find a meaningful philosophy of life; now that goal is #16 on the list.  When I saw him speak several years ago, he recounted his experience of going to college campuses and asking audiences if they'd rather have lots of fame or lots of sex; overwhelmingly, the students voted for fame.

The Gospel for this Sunday--and most Sundays--defines success differently than modern people would. John the Baptist, someone who has remained true to his mission, is killed by King Herod. And why? A mix of motives, but the Gospel mentions King Herod wanting to impress a young woman and Herod's unwillingness to hear the truth and to admit the truth.

So, John the Baptist loses his head. Literally. Not a comforting vision for those of us who struggle to live our faith day by day. This reward is what we can expect?

Jesus never promises us an easy time, at least not the kind of easy time the world dangles in front of us when it attempts to seduce us. We see this even in Christian communities. We feel like failures when our churches aren't megachurches. We feel like we're not a success when we have to struggle to find the money to pay our church’s bills--or worse, when we have to cut staff and programs.

But if we look at the portrait of the earliest church, we'll see that it wasn't the megachurch model. The early church builds on an idea of cells, tiny little house churches of committed Christians. Some days I shake my head in awe at what a small group of people can accomplish.

And then I laugh at my own lack of memory. My History and Sociology classes years ago taught me the exact same thing: the most fascinating change is often created by small, committed bands of people. And the most successful changes are often made by people who are grounded and rooted in some kind of larger faith vision.

Yet the Gospel for this Sunday reminds us that success may not be at the end of our individual stories. We could commit ourselves to Christ’s mission only to find ourselves wasting away in prison, a victim of a corrupt society.

It’s a risk worth taking. We know how sustaining our faith can be and how important it is to build a faith community. We know how larger faith communities can change the world for the better.

Jesus offers us a chance to be part of the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom where everyone has enough and everyone feels that love. Of course, the catch is that the Kingdom isn't here yet. We have to help build it. We've caught glimpses of it breaking through. It's both now and not yet, this elusive Kingdom. But when we feel/glimpse/experience/live it, we know that it's worth whatever we must endure for the sake of it.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Green Vistas on Vacation

Orlando has one of the biggest convention centers I've ever seen.  It's actually multiple convention centers connected by skyways between buildings that keep pedestrians covered and above the traffic.  On Friday afternoon, as we walked back to the car, we stopped to admire the natural vista off to one side.  I could hear the traffic that's never far away in a Florida city.  But I also saw a grove of tall pines and maples in their full, green glory.

I thought of a long ago argument about Orlando and whether it's a fake city or not.  Actually, we were arguing about whether or not theme parks are fake.  I said that I wasn't paying the kinds of admission prices to go in to have a totally manufactured experience:  "It's all fake," I said.  My friend argued more vociferously than I had ever heard her argue before.  Clearly, I had struck a nerve.  I knew that one of her dreams was to work for Disney, but I didn't realize how personally she took a criticism of the industry.

I still don't want to pay the kinds of prices that one pays for admission at those parks--but more than that, I don't want to stand in those long lines at the park or pay even more money for a fast pass.  But I thought about that argument about what's fake and what's not as I walked around the resort this past week-end. 

I loved seeing all the lush vegetation, even though I know it's a manufactured landscape--but really, aren't many landscapes these days managed and manufactured?  I was impressed with the wide variety and health of the plants.

I thought of recent arguments that we need church camps to keep an appreciation of wild places alive in us.  But many church camps are less and less wild these days--at least the ones on the east coast.  Many camps have a slogan that's a variation of "A Place Apart," but many of them are easily accessible by highway.  It's not necessarily a problem--just a feature of modern life.  As a child, when I went to Lutheridge, one of my favorite church camps, if I forgot something, I'd have to do without it.  Now there's a huge WalMart right outside the camp gates.

I know that people pay a pretty penny to enjoy resorts, just like they do at theme parks--the social justice question of whether or not it's a good use of money is one that I'll save for a different post. 

I know that resorts pay to have that lush vegetation not to preserve it or to give humans a longed-for green space, but for different reasons.  I know that most of the people at the resort when I was there were not out appreciating the nature, but out appreciating the theme parks.

Long ago, I taught a Scriptwriting for Games class.  We had interesting discussions about what constitutes real life--if a person spends more time online than out interacting with real humans, what is real life?  Back then, we didn't have the types of social media that we have now.  Now the question seems ever more relevant.

What is real, and what is manufactured, and if it's manufactured, is it less real?  In some ways, these questions have always been ones that Philosophy handles better than any other realm of the humanities.  In some ways, it doesn't matter.  But in these days of paving over every vacant space and erecting huge buildings that may or may not improve our lives, they seem ever more relevant.

I could--and often do--spend lots of time wrestling with these questions.  But for my 4 days away, I decided to focus on appreciating the green spaces that aren't often part of my vista. 

Monday, July 9, 2018

Monday Prayers

This morning, I woke up thinking of all of those tasked with reuniting the youngest children separated from their parents at the southern U.S. border--that deadline is upon those people.  I said a prayer for everyone--not the least, those little children and their distraught parents.

I also said a prayer for all of those EDMC schools that are closing soon, schools which include seventeen Art Institutes, nine Argosy campuses, and 3 South University campuses. Many of those campuses will start their Summer term today, and many students will likely show up not hearing the news.  New starts have had their enrollment agreements cancelled, but continuing students may not have read the e-mails that went out last week.

I am widening my prayer to include us all, those of us exposed to disheartening news, day after day after day.  I miss those days when it seemed the whole world had turned a corner, that we were headed to brighter days, when the week and the powerless would be protected, when more people would have a chance at a brighter future.

Saturday, July 7, 2018

The Sacrament of Song

When I've told people that I would be spending my vacation day on Friday watching my dad in a Barbershop competition, most people said, "Your dad cuts hair?"

No--my dad sings in a barbershop group, as long-time readers of this blog know.  In fact, he's part of an award winning group, The Alexandria Harmonizers.  He's traveled the world with them:  the group sang at the Great Wall of China and the group was invited to France celebrate one of the big anniversaries of D-Day.

They did not win yesterday, but it was a tough field in which to compete.  We didn't see every group, but we saw a lot of them.  I am always impressed with the groups that keep this tradition alive.  There were more groups of young singers than I thought there would be--and yet, why was I surprised?  Roots music is often appealing.  In an age that sees young people creating artisanal cheese businesses and urban farms and whiskey distilleries in a spare closet, why wouldn't there be a return to Barbershop?

I am also astonished at the types of music that can be made into a Barbershop arrangement.  My favorite song, not sung by my dad's group, alas, was the arrangement of Paul Simon's "American Tune."  I would not have thought it was possible to transform that song in such a way.  I know the lyrics, of course.  They seem particularly appropriate:  "We come on the ship they call Mayflower.  We come on the ship that sailed the moon.  We come in the age's most uncertain hour, and we sing an American tune."  Throughout, the lyrics return to "It's alright, it's alright, it's alright," and at the end remind us that we can be forever blessed.  Beautiful!  I needed that message during my adolescent years when I first listened to the lyrics enough to memorize them, and I need them at this point in the life of the nation.

Before the results of the competition were announced, we enjoyed a small concert from last year's winner.  They did a medley of the work of Stephen Schwarz.  I had no idea that the music of Godspell and Wicked could be transformed into Barbershop arrangements--but they can.

I thought of this music, Godspell and almost everything that Paul Simon has ever written, music which serves an almost sacramental purpose for me.  It's a concrete reminder to me of God's grace.  I thought of the fellowship that I saw on display all day yesterday.  I thought of all the ways that music calls us to our better selves.

On our way back to our cars last night, my family started singing "Doe, a deer."  Three generations walked down the sidewalk singing that song from The Sound of Music at the top of our lungs.  It will be my favorite memory when I think of this competition.

Some people walked by us and looked at us like we were deranged people who had escaped from an institution.  Others smiled.  The lucky ones sang along as they walked along.

I had a vision of the whole city, united in song, healing the rifts and bridging differences in a way that only music can--another feature of a sacrament.

Friday, July 6, 2018

Theology Prompt: The Morning After the Day Before

If I had my camera with me during my walk along the beach on July 5, I'd have taken pictures of the mounds of trash.  Most of the mounds are in bags, which are stacked up beside the trash cans that are along the beach.  Crews had been at work for hours before sunrise; I don't think that the crowds of people at the beach for Independence Day neatly bagged their trash before they left.

As I walked, I paid attention to the trash that I saw.  It would all be picked up of course, but for now, random pieces of trash lined the Broadwalk.  I was most struck by the debris that once we would have hauled home:  coolers, umbrellas, a variety of clothes.

In a history class long ago, our teacher reminded us that most of what archaeologists discover comes from digging in the garbage dumps of former societies.  I often wonder what future archaeologists will make of our trash.  Certainly they will comment on the huge amount of plastic.

As I walked, I looked at all the trash, both the collective version and the individual pieces, and I thought about the symbolism.  What could we learn if we use this trash as a symbol?

Jesus told parables with very strange comparisons to get everyone to think in ways they hadn't before.  His contemporaries would have reacted in a very different way to being told they are like yeast; in the days of Jesus, wild yeast was often what spoiled a dough, not what gave it life.

If the Kingdom of God is like the beach after a day and night of festivities, how might that work?

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 8, 2018:

First Reading: Ezekiel 2:1-5

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 2 Samuel 5:1-5, 9-10

Psalm: Psalm 123

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 48

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 12:2-10

Gospel: Mark 6:1-13

What an intriguing Gospel reading for this Sunday: Jesus rejected by people who had known him since he was little and who knew his family. Perhaps you can relate.

The first part of this Gospel (in the reaction of the people of Christ’s own country) gives us a clear warning about the risks we face when we have expectations of God that might be a bit too firm. We're not really open to God or God's hopes and plans for us when we think we know what God should be up to in the world. The society of Jesus' time had very definite expectations of what the Messiah would look like and what he would do--and Jesus was not that person. How many people ignored God, right there in their midst, because they were looking for someone or something else?

This Gospel also warns us about fame and acclaim. If you've been alive any length of time, you know that the world grants fame to an interesting variety of people, for an interesting variety of reasons--and very few of these people gained fame for their efforts to make the world a better place for more people. If we expect God to act like our modern media stars, we're setting ourselves up for disappointment.

Much of the Bible shows us God appearing as a stranger, as a baby in a manger, as an itinerant preacher, as a crucified prisoner. We hear God speaking in dreams, in a burning bush, a whisper here, a glimmering there. If we’re waiting for angel choirs in the sky to give us a clear message from the Divine, we may wait a very long time. We need to learn to listen for God in other settings.

And the end of the Gospel has a warning for us, as well. If we become believers because we think we'll be famous or we'll make lots of money or we'll have political influence--well, we're likely to be disappointed. The Gospel of Jesus is not about those things that the world considers important--no matter what those Prosperity Gospel folks would have you believe.

If we think of Jesus as building a church, the model that we see in a Gospel might point us in a different direction than the path that many of us have been treading.

Jesus sends out his disciples two by two, with no possessions and not much of a plan. Notice what he does not do--he doesn't make them create a mission statement or a business plan. He doesn't have them raise money for buildings and programs. And he doesn't expect them to work fruitlessly--they are allowed to shake the dust off of their feet and move on if a community rejects them.

What would our lives look like, if we followed this model? What would our lives look like if we trusted God more than our retirement plans? Where are we stuck, needing to shake dust off of our feet and move on? Where might God lead us, if we can just learn to trust and learn to move?

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Declarations and Constitutions

It's a strange moment in the life of the nation to consider this July 4th holiday, which celebrates the Declaration of Independence, the nation's birthday.  Strange to think that we chose this day for our national birthday holiday, not the day when the war for independence was won.  It's the day that we made our declaration, which wasn't certain to be respected.  It's the day that we declared our independence, which wasn't certain to be won.

Some of us might have chosen a different day to commemorate our nationhood.  I love the Constitution and might have chosen a day that takes us back to that foundational document. 

I look at the past 18 months, and I see an interesting tension, one that has always been there.  We've seen U.S. leadership that seems determined to take the nation in a very different direction from the past.  We see roughly half the nation approving of that direction, able to spin it in ways that support the nation.  We see the other half worrying about fascism and dictatorships past and present.

Some of us come away determined to resist (the Declaration of Independence group).  Some of us (the Constitution group) have been comforted by the way that the system of checks and balances still seems to work, albeit sometimes in a very rough way. And there's another element that has risen to the surface, a group that we rarely talk about in our national holiday celebrations:  the group that has run roughshod over others, whether they be people who got here before them, children, women, religious minorities, other groups, usually with darker skin, who are weaker and more vulnerable.

Periodically throughout the year, not just on this day, I think back on the people who shaped our national history, even if they didn't know they were creating a nation.  I am keenly aware that our leaders are making choices that take us on a certain path, and the road back may be lost forever.  This can be good, as with the various Civil Rights legislation of the 1960's.  Other choices can lead to bloodshed and lives lost and decades spent recovering.  These choices are sometimes necessary, as with World War II.  But would they have been necessary if different decisions had been made earlier?

I am also a Christian, who has spent much of her life hearing the ancient warnings about being too invested in this world.  I'm not one of those Christians who thinks we're only here as a holding pen or proving ground until we get to go to Heaven.  No.  I believe that God has a very different idea of what makes this world a good place, and that vision doesn't often match what national leaders have in mind.  God wants to create a world where we all have enough and the weakest and most vulnerable are protected--and God invites us all to be co-creators of this vision.

My religious traditions have warnings about the empires of the world.  And yet, I've still been brought up to believe that government, when done well, can help the arc of history bend towards justice.

I am listening to the NPR folks read the Declaration of Independence out loud, as they do every 4th of July.  As always, my eyes tear up--and the tears are somewhat different this year.  In the past, I've disagreed with my government, but I didn't worry that its leaders wanted to cede power to Russia or other totalitarian states.

But these tears are also tears of gratitude.  I know that the signers of the Declaration were far from perfect.  I know that good history can come from bad actors. 

I appreciate the risks that these signers took.  When they pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, there was a good chance that they were signing their very lives away. 

For those of us committed to a brighter vision of what our nation can be, especially for those of us with a vision of a nation that protects the most helpless and vulnerable, I offer a prayer on this Independence Day.  Let us continue in our commitment.  Let us pledge our sacred honor.  Let it not come at the cost of our lives, but if it does, let us be brave together to secure a better future for those who come after us.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Communion Experiences, for Crowds Large and Small

When I first saw the pictures of white umbrellas at the national Lutheran youth gathering, I thought that people were waiting for mass transit in the rain.  Then I read the captions and realized that's how people found their way to a communion station.

At first, I was simply impressed with the simple solution to what could be a logistical nightmare:  how to get 30,000+ people communed in a huge setting.  And then I thought about the symbolism of the umbrella.  Neat!

Our communion yesterday was much simpler.  At our interactive service, we moved from our discussion table to the communion area where we stand in a semicircle as the bread and wine are consecrated.

As we walked to the table which serves as our makeshift altar, one of our members' young grandsons asked, "Where are going?"

"To communion.  Do you remember what that is?"

"Sure.  It's where we get bread, except without the butter or cream cheese."

We all smiled--he's got part of the idea.  In some later year, he'll have a different experience of communion to be sure.

In fact, as I'm reflecting, he had a different experience at the later service yesterday.  He carried the tray that holds small cups of white grape juice or red wine.  His grandmother stood behind him and said, "The blood of Christ, shed for you."  It was a much more formal communion experience.

I feel lucky to have had such a wide variety of communion experiences.  If I had to choose which ones were most meaningful?  Probably the ones that are part of retreats--more specifically, the Create in Me retreats.  But as soon as I choose that one, I think of others.

I realize that I'm lucky.