Thursday, January 31, 2019

Singing in a Foreign Land

I am visiting my mom and dad in Williamsburg, Virginia for a few days.  For a few moments in December, I thought about a holiday visit, but it's much easier in January when we have fewer commitments.  It's also cheaper.

They live in a retirement community that has multiple levels of care; they have an independent living unit.  Yesterday I went with Mom and Dad's singing group to the Memory Care Unit, where most of the residents have some form of dementia, which I assume is permanent. It was somewhat distressing, although everything was orderly. I was probably more distressed than the residents. They tapped their fingers and nodded their heads and perhaps wondered why we were singing "Sleigh Ride" along with patriotic songs. Or perhaps they're not trying to make sense of the world anymore.

We sang lots of traditional songs, stuff I learned in elementary school, like "This Land Is Your Land."  It made me wonder if kids are still learning these songs.  What will they sing to us when they come visit?

I thought of the ways that songs stay with us, even when our brains have let go of so much other information.  We sang "Sleigh Ride," and many of the Alzheimers residents mouthed the words.  I have noticed this in church too.

I thought of that line from the Psalms:  "How can we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land?"  As I recall, that Psalm was written during the Babylonian captivity.  But it has always spoken to me, since I have always felt myself to be in an exile of some sort.

Now I'm thinking about exile in a different way yet again.  Being here at my parents' retirement community has given me an interesting change of perspective.  It is sobering to realize how easy it is to tip into poor health, especially as we age.

But it is comforting to know that this process doesn't have to rip every comfort from us.

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

An Atheist and a Lutheran Write a Book about Purgatory and God

Yesterday before I got on a plane to come to Virginia to see my parents, I had a lovely morning with one of my writing friends.  A few years ago, she started writing a work of fiction about waking up and finding herself in a place that she assumes is purgatory.

But the purgatory is nothing like what she expected.  My friend grew up in a traditional Catholic household, in Germany, and that was awhile ago.  She became an atheist and a Marxist.  I grew up in a Lutheran household, the granddaughter of a Lutheran minister, but I was encouraged to read theology and to think about a variety of issues.  My parents didn't react with horror when I came up with ideas that might have been seen as heresy by my grandparents' generation--instead, we had interesting conversations.

In short, we're an interesting pair.  She sent our quilt group the pages she had written--our quilt group consisted of me, a Jewish person, a Hindu, and a Wiccan.   I responded back in the voice of God.  Here's an example:

"Humans yammer on and on about purgatory and hell and heaven, and when they get to me, they can’t quite leave their earthly beliefs behind. The ones who had the strongest beliefs are the ones who take the longest to relax into the true nature of the universe.

I wish I could console her. I wish that I could tell her that soon she will join her friends. Maybe it will be soon—these humans continue to surprise me.

In the meantime, she’ll continue to make her own heaven, hell, and purgatory out of these childhood beliefs which are the hardest to shake. And I’ll be here, each step of the way."

At the time, I had no vision that we would keep up our collaboration--in fact, I worried that she might be offended.  On the contrary, she was delighted, and we continued in our call and response style of writing.

Now we're working on putting it all together.  One of my goals for this time away is to read the whole thing from the beginning to the end.  It will be a treat.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, February 3, 2019:

First Reading: Jeremiah 1:4-10

Psalm: Psalm 71:1-6

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 13:1-13

Gospel: Luke 4:21-30

In this Gospel, we see the reactions of Jesus' listeners to his proclamation that the Scripture has been fulfilled. They can't believe that this boy that they knew as a child could be the Messiah. And then they decide to throw him over a cliff.

I wish I could say that I thought this behavior was bizarre, but I don't. Unfortunately, many people, even dedicated Christians, have this reaction to the Sacred.

How many times have you seen clear evidence of God working in your life? How many times have you discounted your experiences? "It can't be God. It's just coincidence that the issues for which I prayed for help and guidance have been resolved." We should be shouting for joy, and praying prayers of thanksgiving, and instead, we chalk it up to randomness.

In some ways, this behavior is similar to the desire to throw Jesus off the cliff. We discount the power of God, and so we diminish our relationship with God. Later, in the Good Friday story, we scoff at Simon Peter's denial of Jesus, but we often deny God on a daily basis. Many of us are committed to a scientific, rational view of the universe that leaves no room for a divine power. We throw God over the cliff.

Or worse, we're committed to a view of the universe as chaotic and threatening. We discount the power of good to overcome the powers of evil. Again, we throw God over the cliff. God commands us to be children of the light, committed to love. Many of us prefer to wallow in our feelings of fear and despair. Ah, despair, the sin that medievalists would remind us is the deadliest of the deadly sins--for it is despair that keeps us from believing that life can be different, that God is really in control. And if we can avoid believing that, then we can avoid our responsibilities towards this world that God created.

One of the most insidious ways that we continue to throw Jesus over the cliff is in our daily behavior, especially if those around us know that we are Christians. So often, our behavior undercuts our Christian stance. What will the rest of the world think of our triune God when they see us behave in ways that they know are distinctly not Christian? How do we lead people away from Jesus by our unflattering behavior? It's time to remember that we are to be an example of the kind of world that Jesus came to help us create.

The new year, which is quickly moving towards becoming the old year, is a good time for reflection, a good time to turn inward and to become aware of areas where we could still use improvement. Sure, God loves us the way that we are (a gift of grace to be sure). But God always calls us to be better. It's time to work on our attitudes and beliefs and actions that throw Jesus off the cliff, attitudes and beliefs and actions that make others think that God is indeed dead.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Poetry Monday: "Good Friday in the Telemetry Ward"

I just finished reading Barbara Ehrenreich's newest book, Natural Causes: An Epidemic of Wellness, the Certainty of Dying, and Killing Ourselves to Live Longer.   I saw it at the library and remembered her article that came from the book.

It's one of the more interesting parts of the book, but the rest of the book has merit too.  She's often most interesting to me when she's looking at the sociology of a subject, but in this book, her discussion of cell biology covered material I didn't know.

And some of it was newer information.  Until recently, we didn't have much knowledge about the role of macrophages in spreading cancer throughout the body.  We still don't have as much knowledge as we will, but it's a different way of thinking about cancer, that there are cells that help blast openings in blood vessels that allows the cancer to travel.

I kept waiting for her to dive a bit deeper into the societal fear of dying, but that was not the focus of this book.  This book explored our desperate wish to stay mentally sharp and physically flexible into old age--also a worthy topic.

As I flipped through the book this morning, I came across the list of books that she's written--what an amazing assortment.  Most of us will remember her work documenting how the working class live and barely survive (Nickel and Dimed and Bait and Switch).  But she's done a lot of work on the medical profession, especially historical and feminist work.

Her current book doesn't explore the hospital as much as I thought it might.  If you read the article back when it appeared in April of 2018, you've read about as much as she discusses.

I think that our fear of aging and death is rooted in our fear of hospitals.  I remember when my mother-in-law was in the hospital for months as she died, and I thought, well, my fear of hospitals is not very irrational at all.  I was reading a lot of Beckett at the time, but I can't remember why.

Out of that time came this poem:

Good Friday in the Telemetry Ward

And so we wait in Beckett’s world.
We don’t know exactly who will come
or what the news will be.
We’re stuck together in this grim
room with molded furniture that doesn’t quite contain
us and rows of machines which offer
dietary diversions but no nourishment.

Day after day, we appear.
Have we done our duty?
Can we do no more?
We hope to see the ones who can explain
the medical mysteries, but instead we meet
fools and madmen who speak to us in a language
we can scarcely comprehend. Bad
news or good? Who can tell?

At least in an apocalyptic
landscape, the TV might mute
permanently. Now we live in a low
grade hum: the background noise of multiple
channels, machines that monitor,
machines that must take over.
No true night in the telemetry ward.

I study for my final exams,
my mother-in-law studies for hers.
Post-war literature, a coma-like state,
the limbo-like suspension between worlds.

Sunday, January 27, 2019

Visioning Process for a Church: Day 1

We spent part of yesterday at the church having a visioning session/retreat about the future. A developer wants to buy part of our lot. We have 4 acres, but if you drive past the church on the major road, you don't realize what a big lot it sits on. The developer has offered to build us whatever we want on the back part of the lot for ourselves as part of the sale.

Of course, this has all been verbal. We're waiting on a more formal something in writing. We've had interest before, and often people don't follow through, because they have to do all the work.

We were not visioning what we would want to build, although that was a tiny part--but we stayed away from that, because it might not happen. But we spent the afternoon talking about where we are as a church, and where we envision going. It was interesting to me, both for the information and the process.
We began by introducing ourselves by more than our name:  how long we've been at the church, what we like, and what we're worried about as we think about the future of this church.

Most of us were worried about dwindling numbers of attendance.  I was struck by how many people said, "We've got to get more young people attending."

But what if we don't?  Maybe our mission field is midlife and beyond.  Maybe that's a growth model we should consider.  After all, people with midlife might bring younger people with them.  But then again, they might not.  And that could be O.K.

We are early in this visioning process.  In an ideal world, we wouldn't build a thing before we worked our way through a long, intentional process.  It will be interesting to see where it leads us.

Saturday, January 26, 2019

Sanctuaries of All Sorts

Yesterday was another strange day, to hear that Roger Stone lives in Ft. Lauderdale and appeared at the U.S. Courthouse downtown.  As I left spin class yesterday morning, a sheriff's helicopter landed on the roof of the hospital, which I thought was strange--that's not usually how patients get transported.

Now I wonder if it had anything to do with the national news.  The courthouse is not that far away from the hospital that houses the wellness center where I go to spin class.

And by afternoon, the good news that the government would reopen.  Hurrah!  Of course, in 3 weeks, we could find ourselves in the same place again, but I'm guessing that everyone will try to avoid that.  Shut downs don't usually work well as a political tool, and now maybe everyone will remember that.

In between, I had a pleasant day at the office, with enough down time between dramas to get my extensive filing done.  January brings the updating of many forms, and since they need to go in the 7 tab faculty folders in a particular way, I usually take care of it.  That also gives me the opportunity to check to make sure that everything is in place.  Occasionally I say, "Hmm, the last time we observed this faculty member was late 2017.  What year is it?  Better get that on the calendar."  We have mostly adjuncts, lots of them, and it's easy to lose track of all that needs to be done and then recorded on paper.

Still, it's exhausting work on some level, and so, last night, as with many Friday nights, I was in bed early.  I was able to take some time to sketch before bed:

I like the vaguely spiritual imagery--clearly I'm still back in Epiphany, with its star symbolism.  I like the railroad, with its recall of the underground railroad and the idea of riding the rails that took off in the 1930's--and the ways that people get through Mexico in this current immigration story.

I think I've got the beginning of a poem!

I'm also recalling an earlier sketch that I did almost two years ago to the day.  I created the Sanctuary part and added the tracks later as I read Colson Whitehead's The Underground Railroad:

I'm used to going back through blog posts and my offline journals to see what was happening.  It's only recently that I can do this with visual journaling--how interesting!

And now it's off to today's spin class and then to the Visioning session at my church, as we decide where to go as a people of God.  Just a regular Saturday!

Friday, January 25, 2019

Angels in the Artwork

During my 6 week journaling class, I noticed some images recurring in my sketchbook.  When I look back, I see a lot of doors, but that makes sense:  the book we were reading used the door as a metaphor.

I see flames and hearts.  I see eyes.  I also see wings:  butterfly wings, wings that aren't attached to anything, wings on regular humans, and angel wings.  When we were at the Ringling Museum on Monday, I was intrigued by the variety of angel wings.

My friend and I talked about how the angel wings that surrounded us are different from what we think of as angel wings.  The wings in the art museum were not light and fluffy.  Some of them had intricate feathers.  One seemed constructed of peacock plumes.

I was surprised by the variety of colors, especially the rust colors and the blues.  I wondered if the colors were chosen for their symbolic value or were modeled after actual wings that the artist saw in the natural world.  I tried to research this question, but once I typed colors of angel wings into the search engine, I came away with all sorts of new age resources--think angel wings and chakras and channeling--but nothing from the world of art history.

As I walked through the museum that was so full of art from time periods that I rarely studied while in school, I reflected on how I would have responded to the art when I was younger.  I'd have been frustrated by how few of the artists I'd ever heard of.  I'd be annoyed by all the religious imagery, while also hating the portraits.  My younger self would have scoffed at all the angels.

I am glad to have evolved into my older self, the one who is intrigued by the diversity of angel wings.  Now, to remedy my lack of knowledge about art that happened before the 19th century!

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Creating a New Church Building from the Ground Up

My church will meet for a visioning session on Saturday.  We've got an interesting opportunity in terms of our chunk of land and the possibility of a new building if we sell some of it.  While it is not clear that we'll vote to move in this direction, it's been an interesting experience for me to think about what I'd want in a building if we were creating it from the ground up.

My mind immediately goes to the absence of affordable housing in our county.  Could we build a building that had affordable housing units along with a small worship space?

But we're a small church, in terms of humans--could we really be landlords to all the people who might move in?

I like the idea of a retreat center that makes up the bulk of the church:  lots of small sleeping spaces with communal bathrooms with shower spaces.  We could use the sleeping spaces during shelter weeks, where we give homeless people a temporary space.  We could host retreats.  We could do so much with a retreat center.

I'd love an indoor labyrinth--what a great addition to a retreat center.  It would be protected from the elements--and the vandals that targeted our past outdoor labyrinths.

I love the idea of a better kitchen.  Right now we don't have a stove because of code restrictions and the cost of retrofitting our current kitchen.  It would be great to have a more industrial kitchen, even though we don't really need it right now.

I love the idea of artist studios.  I would love for my church to become a center that studies the intersections of creativity and spirituality.

Of course, part of me resists the idea of taking on a building at all.  Buildings do need so much care and attention--and money--as the years go on.  But a building can be a blessing too, with space for lots of groups and various ways to care for the community. 

The church building we have right now is very dated--it hasn't been updated much at all, and it shows it.  It would be so wonderful to start over.  It's a wonderful opportunity.  But it's also a heavy responsibility.  I'd really like us to get this right.

I'd really like to know what "right" looks like.

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, January 27, 2019:

First Reading: Nehemiah 8:1-3, 5-6, 8-10

Psalm: Psalm 19

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a

Gospel: Luke 4:14-21

In this reading from Luke, we see Jesus in one of his early public appearances, reading in the Temple. The passage that Jesus reads from Isaiah gives us an idea of what God has in mind for us and our mission in the world: preach good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, set the oppressed free, give the blind their sight. In the years that follow, in the chapters of the Gospel to come, we see Jesus doing exactly what he said he would do.

We might be tempted to say: "Sure that was fine for Christ, but he was part God." The next part of this sentence is usually one designed to let us off the hook: so, therefore, I don't have to do what Jesus did (feed the hungry, visit the sick, work for the rights of the oppressed); after all, I'm only human.

Jesus was human too, and therefore, anything he did, we could do. In fact, some theologians posit that Jesus came to show us how to live God's vision for us right here on earth, in our own communities.

Interesting to think about church communities and individual Christians. How are we living out Christ's mission? Notice that Jesus doesn't say, "I came to show you how to model your church/synod/denomination according to modern business practices so that you can build up your endowment." Jesus doesn't say, "I came to give you this cool prayer--if you pray it three times a day, you'll get rich." Jesus does not say, "I came so that you might know to meet in a building once a week." Jesus doesn't say, "I came to revamp your worship service with music/media/atmosphere that's more accessible to the modern seeker mentality." Jesus has a very different agenda than the ones that modern people might want him to have.

As we will see in the coming weeks, Jesus focuses on community. Not just once a week, meet for an hour community, but a deep, committed group of people. He works with the people he meets, people like you and me, people who are far from perfect. He works where he is, in a distant outpost of a powerful empire. He doesn't say, "Well, I better move to Rome, because that's where the rich and the powerful people are, and they know how to get things done." He looks around, sees what needs to be done, and does it.

And it's important to realize that he does his work at great risk to himself. Empires realize that their future is threatened by communities that are deeply committed to the vision of God. They'd rather have us spend our hard-earned money--and work ever longer hours to get more money--on cheap junk made by oppressed people on the other side of the planet.

In the first weeks of this new year, it's a good time to think about how we might make this year different. How can we be part of the work that makes the scripture be fulfilled?

Monday, January 21, 2019

Bending History Towards Justice

This day has always felt almost sacred to me. I've always been impressed with the Civil Rights movement, with how they stayed civilized, even when the agents of civilization (the police, the sheriff, the white establishment) seemed mad and crazed with rage. I've always been impressed with how they held fast to their beliefs, even when they flew in the face of what society might teach us. I've always been impressed with the changes that they wrought.

My younger self, that impatient nineteen year old, was impatient with how long social change took. My older self looks back at how far we've come and how quickly, and I suck in my breath and pray for continued success. A black president: my nineteen year old self would not have believed it would have happened in her lifetime. But it has.

At one point, having this day declared a holiday seemed an impossibility. I remember the first year the nation observed it. It was a much more quiet holiday in the 80's than it is today. Social change often seems slow, downright glacial--and then, we zoom ahead.

May we always be moving ahead. History also shows us that we can slip behind.

But let me also remember King's approach to history. In 1996, when I was feeling despair, my friend Shannon gave me my favorite Martin Luther King quote: "The arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice." I'm fairly sure he said this the night before he was killed, or perhaps it was the night before the night he was killed.

Today is a day to dream big and bold visions. We could change our society. We could make it better, bending towards justice. What would that society look like?

We have to dream that dream before we can achieve it. We have to find the courage to hold tightly to our visions. We have to face down all the fire hoses, both those of our minds which inform us of the impossibility of our dreams and those of our society, that tells us to move more slowly.

But first we have to dream. Dream boldly, today of all days.

History will bend in some direction: how can we help it arc towards justice?

Sunday, January 20, 2019

The Death of a Favorite Philosophy Professor

Yesterday was a tough day in our house.  My spouse found out that his favorite undergraduate Philosophy professor, Garth Kemerling, died last year. He was only 69.  The obituary didn't say how he died or what he died of.

I was sitting in the front bedroom where I write, and I heard strange noises from the back of the house.  I found my spouse bent over with his face in his hands.  We'd been experimenting with some hair dye, and at first I thought something dreadful had happened to his hair or eyes.  But he was sobbing because of the obituary.

We spent much of the day crying on and off.  Some deaths when they come are expected.  I'm thinking of my best friend from high school who had suffered a horrifying esophageal cancer.  I still cry a bit here and there, but when the news came, I wasn't surprised.  On the contrary, I was surprised she held on as long as she did.  Our professor's death came as a shock.

Yesterday was one of the days when I realized the value of Facebook.  My spouse spent the day corresponding with classmates who were similarly sad.  They exchanged memories.  They comforted each other.

I felt sad not just because of the death of our favorite professor, but because the type of education we all received at our small, Lutheran, liberal arts college doesn't exist much any more.  Our education revolved around the questions of our values and how to shape our lives according to what matters.  Of course we had important subject matter to learn, but the conversations around that subject matter and before and after class came back to the core values that our institution hoped to instill in us.

I am willing to bet that not many people get that kind of education anymore.

As I watched the day unfold, I thought of all the times when I wondered if anyone would care if I up and disappeared.  Dr. Kemerling probably had no idea that people felt so strongly about his classes and his modeling of young lives.  When I feel similar thoughts, let me remember yesterday.

My spouse is my favorite Philosophy professor, but Dr. Kemerling was my second favorite. The world needs more Philosophy professors like him, not fewer. Sigh.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Arcing towards Justice

This week-end that ends in a holiday celebrating Martin Luther King invites us to consider where we've been, how far we've come:

We try to root out racism, and some of us are surprised at what a hearty plant it proves to be.

Some of us thought we'd have arrived already, to a history that had already arced towards justice.

Instead, we are building a cathedral of justice, one that will take many generations of artisans.

We may not see the finished structure in our lifetime, but we work on a larger project.

Let us continue to seek justice for all, for as both Christ and King reminded us, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

Let our lives be the bell that rings out a message of freedom and the end of oppression.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Farewell, Mary Oliver

I confess that I am late to loving the poet Mary Oliver.  It was not until this past year, to be specific, that I really read much beyond "The Summer Day" poem--and to be truthful, I hadn't read the whole poem, just those 2 final lines:  "Tell me, what is it you plan to do / with your one wild and precious life?"

During the season of Lent, a group of us at my church did a 6 week series of journaling exercises that came from the intriguing company SALT; it's still available here.  Each week gave us a Mary Oliver poem, a passage from the Bible, and writing prompts.  It was during this journey that I realized the scope of Oliver's talent.

I had made the mistake of many critics:  I saw her poems as short and fairly simple.  If I thought about her at all, I probably had vague thoughts of a nature poet.  While she's certainly working in that tradition, she's doing so much more.

Consider, for example, this poem:

Wild Geese

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

New and Selected Poems, 1992

I don't think I had ever read this poem before 2018; those first three lines made me woozy with a variety of emotions.  And yet it's not a poem that encourages us to hedonism--no, it calls us to be more attentive, to be present.

Before our Lenten journaling group, I hadn't realized the spiritual nature of so many of her poems.  During Lent, we read "The Poet Thinks about the Donkey," a poem that considers the donkey that carried Jesus into Jerusalem, an event Christians celebrate on Palm Sunday.  As with many of her poems, I thought I understood it on the first read, and then it stuck with me much longer than other poems that are more complex.

During one of our sessions at church, my parents were with me, and later  my Dad called to get the name of the poet we'd been reading.  One of the things I admire about Oliver's work is its wide appeal to so many people.  The poems are profoundly moving--and yet so quiet, so easy to grasp.

 I love that the poems are short--easy to read in a single sitting. I love that the natural elements draw us in to hear the central message.

I love the theology of these poems. It's a theology of love and respect. It's a theology that tells us that we are worthy. It's a theology that tells us we don't have forever, so quit wasting our precious days. It's a theology rooted in nature, but in the every day kind of nature, not the travelling to a distant mountain slope with sherpas to assist us kind of nature. It's a theology so understated that many readers likely don't even recognize it as a theology.

I want to write these kinds of poems, poems that point towards the Divine, rather than shoving readers in that direction.

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Poetry Thursday: "When I Run Away to Theology School"

It's the time of year when some school programs start; I'm thinking specifically of some programs that train people to be spiritual directors--in fact, I've thought about these programs on and off for a long time. 

A few years ago at Mepkin Abbey, one of my friends said, "You've been talking about being a spiritual director for a long time.  Maybe you should look into that more deeply."

I thought about starting this year, but this year is the year of an accreditation visit, so I couldn't be sure that I could get to the schools I'm considering for the 2 weeks required onsite.  However, I've been increasingly aware of a determination to start in 2020.  I am not getting any younger, and while I'm not sure how I'll use the credential, I'm sure that I'll enjoy the process of getting it.

And it's much cheaper than seminary.  But let me confess that I'm not ruling out seminary.

These January thoughts have made me return to a poem that I wrote.  It was recently published in TAB: The Journal of Poetry & Poetics.  If you want to hear me read it, go here.

When I Run Away to Theology School

When I run away to theology school,
I shall think no more of mortgages and insurance rates.
Sea level rise will recede to the backwaters
of my consciousness. I will eat
whatever is served to me, and I will fall
asleep at a regular hour.

When I run away to theology school,
I will turn off the news. I will submerge
myself in books from an earlier age.
I will abandon the controversies
of our current time to lose myself
in arcane arguments of past heresies.

When I run away to theology school,
I will pray more regularly. I will spend
more time in the chapel. I will write liturgies
and construct worship spaces to match.

When I run away to theology school,
I will finally structure my life in a way
that makes sense. I will strip
my life to its barest essentials.
All will be revealed
when I run away to theology school.

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, January 20, 2019:

First Reading: Isaiah 62:1-5

Psalm: Psalm 36:5-10

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 12:1-11

Gospel: John 2:1-11

Today's Gospel presents the first miracle of Jesus, the turning of water into wine at a wedding. No doubt that some preachers across the country will take this opportunity to talk about weddings and the sanctity of marriage; they'll see the participation of Jesus as his sanction of this institution. Perhaps others will talk about miracles, while others talk about the proper way to treat one's mother.

I'm less interested in the marriage issue than in the miracle issue. In this Gospel, Jesus resists his mother's urging to help out with the wine. Why does he do that? Does he have a splashier miracle in mind as his announcement that he's arrived? Is it the typical rebellion of the child against the parent?

And then, why does Jesus change his mind?

You might make the argument that Jesus shouldn't care about whether or not the wedding guests had wine. You might argue it's a trivial miracle. But scholars would remind us that to run out of wine at a wedding would be a serious breach of hospitality. The whole extended family would suffer great embarrassment and shame—and there might be rippling effects through a community with strict codes that modern readers can scarcely imagine.

At a Create in Me retreat at Lutheridge, Bishop Gordy, head of the Southeast Synod of the ELCA, led a fascinating study of this text. He sees the this first miracle as showing us that Jesus was not so focused on his own agenda that he couldn’t act on the need for compassion for this couple who is about to experience great humiliation.

Bishop Gordy also pointed us to the abundance in this miracle. Just like the loaves and fishes miracle, Jesus provides more than humans can use—not just enough for the given situation. The wine doesn’t run out. Indeed, they have wine left at the end of the wedding feast.

And it’s good wine. God doesn’t just give out leftovers and lesser quality. We’re the ones who operate out of a scarcity consciousness. The miracles of Jesus, particularly in John’s Gospel, remind us that not only will there be enough, there will be great abundance.

What does Jesus need for this miracle? Water and jars. What could be simpler? Gail O’Day notes that the jars were used for purification. The old forms aren’t destroyed, just filled with newness and new purpose.

We often hesitate to ask God for what we truly need and want. We’re afraid of rejection. We’re afraid that the task is too hard. The miracle stories remind us that God can use the materials at hand to give us more abundance than we can use.

Perhaps this could be the year that we rid ourselves of our scarcity thinking. We worship a God of abundance and great giving. Rejoice in this good news.

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Martin Luther King's Actual Birthday

Today is Dr. Martin Luther King's true birthday; Monday is the day when many of us get a holiday. We will likely hear many people declare that this week-end should be one of service.

As a Lutheran and a social justice person, these declarations make me grumpy. Every week should be devoted to social justice, and that's one of my spiritual goals, to make sure I do some work of social justice and/or charity each week.

Of course, I realize that the rest of the nation could stand to be reminded periodically of the necessity of service and social justice work. It's a dark time, in many ways, and I find the words of King still inspiring, still consoling, still hopeful: "Here and there an individual or group dares to love, and rises to the majestic heights of moral maturity. So in a real sense this is a great time to be alive. Therefore, I am not yet discouraged about the future. Granted that the easygoing optimism of yesterday is impossible. Granted that those who pioneer in the struggle for peace and freedom will still face uncomfortable jail terms, painful threats of death; they will still be battered by the storms of persecution, leading them to the nagging feeling that they can no longer bear such a heavy burden, and the temptation of wanting to retreat to a more quiet and serene life. Granted that we face a world crisis which leaves us standing so often amid the surging murmur of life's restless sea. But every crisis has both its dangers and its opportunities. It can spell either salvation or doom. In a dark confused world the kingdom of God may yet reign in the hearts of men."

Those words are from King's address when he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964; it holds up remarkably well, as do so many of King's writings.

Years ago on the NPR program Talk of the Nation, Tavis Smiley and Cornell West discussed King's legacy. They talked about the fact that when King died, he was not the beloved person he is today. Smiley said, "King's life was really about three things: justice for all, service to others and a love that liberates people. Justice for all, service to others and a love that liberates. Sometimes, when you have that as your agenda, you're not popular. You're not understood." The whole interview is well worth a listen or a read (go here).

Just think how profoundly our society would change if more of us devoted our lives to these three things: justice for everybody, service to others and love that liberates. There's a worthy goal to keep in mind, not just this week-end, but every week-end.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Currents of Baptism

Just over a year ago, my pastor asked me to do something with the sanctuary to transition from Christmas to the Baptism of Jesus.  I wasn't sure I could pull it off.  A few years ago I had an idea for making a small prayer chapel out of a larger room, and it never quite came together.  I still feel a twinge every time someone asked me about interior decorating kinds of creative projects.

But I said yes last year, and I started collecting a variety of cloths and ribbons that would suggest rivers and water.  We have a great space under the altar, and I used it in this way:

I also used the ledge on the back wall as a focal point.

I loved the way the sanctuary looked at the end.  Perhaps that's what gave me courage to keep transforming the sanctuary throughout the liturgical year.

As we move into this liturgical year, I'd like to avoid just doing what we've already done.  Yesterday when I arrived at church, my pastor had already started decorating.  I asked if I could add the ribbons, and he said yes:

We both agreed that it gave the blue cloth some suggestion of currents.  I had brought some ocean elements from home.  I like this one best:

I had a different idea for the jar of shells and coral, but alas, I couldn't get the gold ribbon to stand up straight to support the descending dove I'd created.  I didn't get a close up, but the jar is on the left side of this picture:

It's fun to create these elements.  I think it helps us worship when the space changes and gives us something new to consider.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Ancient Spanish Monastery in the Subtropics

There's an ancient Spanish monastery in Miami, and the story of how it came to be here is amazing--for more, see their website.  I've been wanting to go see it for years, but the days when I could go, they have been closed.

Yesterday the stars aligned, and my spouse and I made it over.  It was a strange mix of people:  the devout, the tourist/curious types, and lots of folks taking photo shoots:

I loved this juxtaposition of a bride and suit of armor.

I'm astonished at how we're allowed to touch just about everything.  Perhaps they figure that the subtropical climate is much more of a threat to the centuries old structures than the oil of our fingers.

There were "crystal" chandeliers hanging in the trees; are they there all the time or just for the wedding that would take place?

The tour was worth it--just the right amount of time and information.

This nativity scene is apparently popular:  #4 on some worldwide list.

This room, the chapter room, has the best acoustics--in the original monastery, monks would gather to hear the abbot read to them.  My spouse went back after the tour and sang Dona Nobis Pacem, and it was the high point of our time there.

This labyrinth is one of the smaller ones I've seen.  Could we create something like it in our back yard?

It was the perfect kind of outing, something outside of what we usually experience, much more interactive than a movie, with physical activity and mental stimulation.  What a great way to spend part of our Saturday!

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Monasteries, Abandoned and Otherwise

I so enjoyed our time on the porch on Thursday night that we had dinner on the porch again last night.  I wanted to capture the monastic chapel kind of vibe we've created.

Yes, I am aware of the irony of trying to capture a monastic vibe as we ate hamburgers.

I had the kind of administrator day that exhausts me:  doing the last prep work of getting ready for a site visit by accreditors.  It's not the big visit; it's scheduled for 2 hours on Monday, and then the same person will be doing a site visit for the Ft. Lauderdale campus (there's an advantage to having the same executive director for each).  Still, a site visit requires assembling many files and moving them to the conference room.  But we are ready!

I emerged blinking into the late afternoon sunset after a day of squinting at folders and getting small cuts from file tabs.  My back ached in a strange way; after all, I hadn't spent the day slumping in my desk chair, but had been going back and forth from office to copy machine.

It was a relief to sit on the porch and watch the light change.  The family across the street was having a birthday party for the toddler, and guests arrived.  It felt strange to feel excluded from a party I didn't want to attend.

Eventually, we moved inside.  We were oddly chilly, so we decided to have a fire in the fireplace that we only use once or twice a year.  That cheered me up.

When I drove home, I expected to crash into sleep before 7, but I'm happy to report that I stayed awake until 9.

I explored the camera to try to get it back to a setting that allows me to take pictures more quickly.  I succeeded!  Before I took a picture and the picture froze on the picture for what felt like 10 minutes.  Now I can click, click, click.

Here's an interesting effect, and I have no idea which setting allowed it:

Today we may go to a real monastery.  I've been wanting to go to the Ancient Spanish Monastery in North Miami Beach, and they seem to be open; in the past, when we've thought of going, they were closed for a special event.

Friday, January 11, 2019

First Thoughts on Lenten Jouraling Journey

I have been thinking about offering a journaling class for my congregation for Lent.  Here are some of my initial thoughts:

I'd use some elements of the journaling class that I just took:

--each participant would get 4 of the good markers in 4 different colors, which we could (theoretically) blend to make other colors--I must confess, I wasn't good at blending marker colors, but others were. I'd also buy us some cheaper black markers in 2 different fineness grades, felt tip, not ball point or gel.

--I'd have people buy their own sketchbooks or paper--and of course, we have plenty in the arts and crafts closet. I know that people are particular about paper.

--We'd meet at 6:30 on Wednesdays to sketch and/or journal together. Each week, I'd prepare a different kind of journaling experience (one week with an art prompt, one week a collage prompt, one week maybe a poem to sketch, maybe some guided imagining/imaging--there's all kinds of stuff!), but of course, people would be free to do their own thing. People could share their work or not. I chose 6:30 so that people could participate for a bit and still go to choir.

--Would we want food as part of the Wed. night meeting? I'm fairly sure that I could not make that happen week after week all by myself. We could brownbag or potluck or a different person bring a crockpot of soup each week.

--How long should the meeting last? I'm thinking 6:30 to 8:00, but 6:30 to 7:30 could be good, with the option to stay longer if people wanted.

--We'd start on Ash Wed, but just to hand out materials, and then to go to Ash Wed. service at 7:00. We'd finish on the Wed. of Holy Week. I'm out of town on March 27, but I could prepare materials in advance.

--I'm thinking of having a different poem and a different meditation each week, plus a Bible passage. I'd hand the ones for the coming week out at the end of the Wednesday time together. Maybe I'd also send a short prompt/reminder/suggestion every 2-3 days by way of e-mail (or paper mail for those who don't have e-mail).

--I've also thought of an online option for those who can't attend on Wed. I've become a bit concerned about Facebook in terms of the ethics of the company, and I have artist friends who refuse to use FB when it comes to sharing creative work--FB isn't proactive enough to prevent stealing and doesn't step in forcefully when work is stolen. I've never had that happen, but it does concern me.

I've thought of a shared blog site open only to members of the Lenten Journaling Journey. That way if people couldn't attend, they could post work, see the work of others who are willing to share, and I'd post a write up of our time together each week.

It's also fine with me if we don't explore online options.

--Would participants prefer a consistent theme (for example, my online journaling class that I did in the Fall revolved around doors and thresholds)? Or would people be more interested in a variety that would go where the Spirit moved us each week?

I'm interested to see how this develops--stay tuned!

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Harmonizing with our Gifts

This week  I've been thinking about the baptism of Jesus, and God's words of being well pleased, even before Jesus has done anything to deserve it.  And how strange is it, that I feel we have to do something before God decides whether or not to be pleased with us.

On Thanksgiving, I came across this Richard Rohr quote--I found it in Joyce Rupp's Open the Door:  "The goal isn't to get somewhere.  The goal isn't about forcing something to happen.  The goal is to be in harmony with the gifts that are already given."

If only it could be that easy--but that would mean we've discerned what gifts we have.  And of course, that we know how to be in harmony with them.

Still, in times like these first few weeks of January, when people's thoughts turn to self-improvement, it's interesting to think in terms of already having what we need.  How would our lives changed if, instead of wishing we had different gifts, we learned how to best utilize the gifts that we have.

Notice that I'm still using self-improvement language:  "learn how to utilize."  The phrase "being in harmony" suggests something different to me, a gentler, wiser approach.  That language of being in harmony brings to mind sitting with a friend, a pot of tea, and some delicious scones.

Here's a sketch I made when I first read the quote.  I should probably keep it out to remind me that I'd like to harmonize with my gifts:

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, January 13, 2019:

First Reading: Isaiah 43:1-7

Psalm: Psalm 29

Second Reading: Acts 8:14-17

Gospel: Luke 3:15-17, 21-22

In this season of New Year's resolutions, consider this question: How would your life changed if you believed that God loves you the way you are, right now, before you even make any changes to become a better person?

It's true. God's not waiting for you to become more spiritual before God claims you. Even if you never get to the point where you pray more often, where you give away more money, where you become that good and patient person you are sure you can be, God loves you, marks you, claims you, is deliriously happy with you.

You don't have to lose that twenty pounds for God to find you worthy. You can have a wrecked household budget, and God still loves you.  God loves you even when you are crabby, grumpy, all those emotions we try so hard not to feel.

Is your wounded elementary school/high school/adult child within you leaping up for joy yet?  When you were a new kid at school,God would have made sure to include you at lunch so that you wouldn't have had to spend your lunch hour hiding out in the library.  God would choose you for the volleyball team, even if nobody else would, and God would never say hurtful things about your serve. God wouldn't make painful comments about your frumpy wardrobe, your golf swing, your decorating skills, your home repair skills, your kids, your career.

I worry that I'm veering towards goofiness, but I think that during our long years through the nation's educational systems, most of us learn all the ways we are inadequate, and most of us never unlearn those lessons. Even as grown ups, often the focus (in pop culture, in our jobs, in our families, in churches even) is on our failings, on all the ways that we would measure up if we just did this thing or that thing or another thing. 

And then we work hard on self-improvement, and we've still got those messages: well, great, now you can focus on changing this next enormous thing.

All this effort towards self-improvement can make us a bit self-absorbed, and we forget to work on some of the real and serious problems in the world. What would happen if we decided that God needs us to be the person that we are, right here, right now, without any changes? What if we declared ourselves to be good enough?

Try it for a week or two or three. Tape the words of God to your bathroom mirror: "You are my beloved son/daughter; with you I am well pleased." Act like you believe that God loves you. Silence those voices in your head that tell you otherwise. Cease that negative self talk. And minimize the amount of time you spend with people who don't value you.

We don't have time to waste with all negativity. God loves you before you ever make a self-improvement plan. In your baptism, God has already declared you perfect. Perhaps this year, instead of endless self-improvement plans, remember that God needs you just the way you are, without any changes, and God has a purpose that includes us, in all our imperfections.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Evolving Faith

I've been getting the daily meditation from theologian Richard Rohr for years now.  Lately, they've been speaking to me more deeply than they have in some years.  I know that he chooses a theme for the year, and the recent themes have been of great interest.

This year's theme is Old and New:  An Evolving Faith, which is explained this way:

"As you witness so much division, fear, and suffering in our world, you may wonder what path—if any—there is toward healing and hope. Perhaps your church or faith has been important to you, but now you may be questioning if it is still a trustworthy or relevant guide. Does Christianity have anything of value left to offer?

Franciscan Richard Rohr suggests that there are good, beautiful, and true gems worth holding on to. At the same time, there are many unhelpful and even harmful parts of what has passed for Christianity that we need to move beyond. In his Daily Meditations, Father Richard helps us mine the depths of this tradition, discerning what to keep and what to transcend."

Here's a nugget that I found so wonderful that I've written it in numerous places so as not to lose it.  It's from the Friday, Jan. 4, 2019 meditation:  "The ride is the destination, and the goal is never clearly in sight. To stay on the ride, to trust the trajectory, to know it is moving, and moving somewhere always better, is just about the best way to describe religious faith."

The whole meditation is here.  That link will take you to the website of the Center for Action and Contemplation, where you can find many resources.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Epiphany Art Projects

Yesterday was a great creativity day:  I wrote 2 blog posts and baked some gluten free communion bread.  While it cooled, I made some new elements for my windowsill altar.  Here's how it looks this morning:

Then we headed off to church.  I wasn't planning to write a poem, but one came--and then this morning, I shaped that poem beginning into something more finished.

Then yesterday, I made a sketch, inspired by the poem;  I was especially taken by these lines:  "Avoid the houses made of gingerbread / and all the traps the world will set."

I also liked this Epiphany sketch, which helped inspire the poem I wrote:

When I got home, my star word was waiting from a member of a Facebook group.  I decided to make it into a card, so that I'd remember as the year went on.

My star word is journey--it's one that was chosen blindly for me.  It's been interesting to see the words that others have gotten and to compare them to mine:  care, anoint, steadfast, care, future, prepare, spirit, inheritance.

The rest of the day was not as creative, as I had lots of work to do to get my online classes ready.  But that's O.K.  With a creative morning to undergird the day, I'm happier regardless.

Sunday, January 6, 2019

Epiphany in Pictures

It is the feast of the Epiphany, the day that celebrates wise men and the stars that they follow.

One group's journey towards wisdom can be the event that plunges others into refugee status.

We will only see the new star if we've spent time studying the sky.

Some people get Divine messages in the form of angel choirs. 

Others get a more distant message.

Some of us will never hear the message.  We are too distracted.

Let us remember the Advent teachings; let us remain alert.

Let us have the courage to follow Divine messengers to new wisdom.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Epiphany Poem, Prayers, and a Recipe

Here we are, at the day before the feast day of Epiphany.  How shall we prepare?

Many cultures celebrate Three Kings Day with a special bread. Many families have charms that are baked into the bread that signify what will come in the new year. Even if you don't have special charms, you could use things you do have: a nut, a foil wrapped coin, a dried cranberry, a piece of frozen fruit.

This blog post gives you a recipe, with photos, for a simple, no-knead 3 Kings Bread. Why not bake it for tomorrow?

As you bake the bread, you might ponder the word "epiphany" and all its variants. What epiphanies do you need/knead for the coming year?

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

And here's a poem that has a similar wish, albeit expressed in a different way:

Celestial Visions and Insect Songs

When someone curses
you and your stars, switch
to the tarot deck. Cast
your runes to approach
the future in a different way.

The stars reveal The Future
only to a select few,
which is why we had to invent
these other ways to divine
our ever present ancestor,
The Future. We squint
to see what it holds
in its wrinkled hands.

The Future, mysterious and hooded,
prefers the shadows, the galaxies
hidden to our casual eyes.
Very few of us want to know.
We prefer the icy sparkle, the knowledge
in our stars kept light years away.

But if you listen, you can hear
our destinies in every insect song.
Every butterfly sighting reveals
our future: the crawling
creature cocooned
until a moment of brief
beauty, the rush skyward,
the descent into the dust
that will reclaim us all.

Inspired by Laura M. Kaminski’s Ghazal with lines from The Book of Flight and Luisa A. Igloria’s Trusting the process.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Wandering Wise Men and the Stars They Follow

I have been greatly intrigued, and at times highly amused, by the Internet meme of the 3 plastic wise men and a camel who make their way across modern landscapes.  The wise men look like children's toys, and upon doing some "research," I've found that they're made by Playmobil or Fisher Price.  I have no idea how many people are doing this.  I haven't participated this year, but perhaps in later years.

Until this morning, I didn't realize how many people were doing this project as a reaction to the Elf on a Shelf--a way to have a daily practice that's whimsical but doesn't involve Santa.

I wonder how many wandering wise men practitioners think about the problematic aspects of the 3 kings.  With Epiphany falling on a Sunday this year, I wonder if churches will talk about the troubling parts of the story.

If we take the Bible literally, it's hard to make this part of the story fit with later parts of the savior story.  How far ahead of the birth did the star in the east start shining?  How long does it take to walk that distance?  Did the magi arrive at the manger too?  If Herod slaughtered all the children under the age of 2, why do we have no historical record of that slaughter?  What happened to the valuable presents in the later years?

Even if we don't take the Bible literally, the story presents difficulties for modern sensibilities.  What do we do with the fact that these wise men are an ancient version of astrologers?  What type of ethnic minority are they?  Do they come from Persia or from Africa?  Why does that old hymn say that they're from the Orient?  Do we all remember that Orient and Oriental are no longer the preferred terms as they imply something a bit ugly?

If I was preaching this Sunday, I'd take one of several approaches.  The classic, non-political approach would be to remind us all of the importance of regular practice.  The wise men notice a new star because they are studying the skies week after week.  Or I might talk about how sometimes the Good News comes via angel choirs in the sky, but for some of us, the message is more subtle.  I use the story as a reminder to look up more often, to take in the larger vistas.

We could talk about how Divine messages can often send us on unexpected journeys.  Or maybe we want to talk about gifts; we could talk about the symbolic meanings of the gifts that we traditionally associate with the magi:  frankincense, gold, and myrrh. 

If I was in a daring mood and preaching epiphany, I might remind people of the civil disobedience aspects of the story:  the ruler of the land sends the magi on a spying mission and commands them to return to report to him.  They disobey.  Their disobedience, alas, does not overcome evil; Herod continues to sow chaos and bloodshed.

Or perhaps I'd talk about the refugee aspects of the story.  The magi come, and the Holy Family must flee Herod's murderous jealousy.  Herod is not the first despot to create a refugee crisis, and we can be sure that the many refugee crises that we see in our modern age will not be the last.  What does it mean that our savior was a refugee?

I have preached the Epiphany message before, and I went with the idea of Epiphany stars (more in this post and this one).  Later in the year, I had one church member tell me that she found it meaningful for more than just one Sunday. 

But my brain keeps coming back to those wandering wisemen.  I like the dailiness of arranging the toys.  I wonder if we could do something similar with other seasons--a Holy Spirit nudge!

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Exiting the Holiday Season

Some of us returned to regular life yesterday.  Some of us have yet to have a holiday at all--as a child of a church organist and the granddaughter of a Lutheran minister, I'm aware that the month of December is not a restful one for many workers.  Those of you with people in the medical industry and the police/EMS/fire industries can relate.

Some of us return to regular life today.  Let us now offer up a quick prayer for all the governments that re-open today--and the federal agencies that remain closed because of the shutdown.  I cannot imagine being a brand new U.S. senator or representative arriving to Congress today--so much that needs to be done and so little will to do it.  I want to believe that people run for office because they have a vision of improving the world, not because they want to stonewall any movement at all.

Some of us are still on vacation until Monday.  I'm thinking of all the teachers that I know who don't report to work until Monday.  I'm also thinking of all the parents I know who have been juggling more responsibilities with the school system closed for several weeks.

I had several days off throughout the holiday season, and yesterday was our first day back at full capacity.  I found it somewhat exhausting to go from slow to supercharged in one day. 

Overlaying all of this is my trying to hold onto the liturgical season.  We're still in the season of Christmas, after all.  The wise men are on their way.  Epiphanies will come--will we be alert to them?

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

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, January 6, 2018:

Isaiah 60:1-6

Psalm 72:1-7, 10-14 (11)

Ephesians 3:1-12

Matthew 2:1-12

Some of us have always celebrated the 12 days of Christmas, which begin on Christmas Day and end on January 6, the feast of the Epiphany. But it’s rare in the lectionary that we celebrate Epiphany at all, much less on an actual Sunday. The 3 wise men have such a place in our collective imagination that it’s interesting to return to the actual story that only appears in Matthew. What a strange tale!

Notice that it’s not 3 wise men, but a group of wise men from the East. Some have speculated that they were scholars of some sort or astrologers or maybe kings from a distant land. Clearly they are men of power and wealth. They can afford to travel, and they can afford to bring lavish gifts.

It’s no wonder that the wise men from the east would come to one of the population centers of the Roman empire looking for the King of the Jews. It’s an interesting statement that they assume that they’re looking for someone who has political power. Those of us who know the rest of the story already know that they couldn’t be more mistaken.

Herod is also a man of power and wealth, but he reacts very differently from the wise men of the east. The wise men come a great distance to be part of the story. Herod, too, could have participated in the Good News and the work of Kingdom building. God wouldn't boycott him, just because he was a tool of the Roman empire. God can use any of us, no matter who we've been or where we are.

But Herod has no interest in hearing God’s invitation. Notice that not only is Herod troubled, but all of Jerusalem. Herod consults not only his own staff, but also the chief priests and scribes of Jerusalem.

Herod’s reaction shouldn’t surprise us. He’s not a Roman emperor, after all. He rules only as long as his Roman overlords say that he can. He’s already feeling threatened, and then wise men from the East appear, searching for a ruler who isn’t Herod. We may say that we’d have reacted differently, that we’d have joined the quest and rejoiced when we found Jesus, but we’re likely kidding ourselves.

What does it mean that the good news of the birth of Jesus comes not only to shepherds (in Luke’s Gospel, not Matthew’s), but also to strangers from a distant, non-Jewish country? From the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, we see the inclusivity of the incarnation of God. And from the beginning, we see the rejection of God’s invitation, from Herod onward through all of Jerusalem.

Jesus escapes death by government hands in this story, but again, those of us who know the whole story know that Jesus can only dodge the authorities for so long. Before Jesus opens his mouth, his trajectory places him in direct conflict with the ruling government. His very birth threatens the establishment, as will the rest of his life.

I think of that simplistic bumpersticker: “Wise men still seek him.” But we shouldn’t forget that the quest of the wise men also puts them at severe risk as they meet with Herod, who might have easily had them killed for their impudence of searching for a King of the Jews that wasn’t sanctioned by the state. Indeed, he likely would have killed them, had he not needed them for intelligence gathering.

Wise men and women do indeed still seek Jesus, but we often underestimate the risk. Jesus doesn’t come to occupy a tidy corner of our lives. Jesus doesn’t come to invite us to lunch once or twice a month.

No, God comes to live with us, in all of our brokenness and messiness. God comes to turn our lives upside down—and to turn us around. God has a very grand plan for creation, and for all of the individuals inside of that creation. A life spent searching for Jesus may well set us on a collision course with everything that our culture tells us we should be searching for.

The world tells us to seek wealth; God tells us that we have more than we need and that we should give it all away. The world tells us to seek education; Jesus comes to give us a very different education, one based on compassion and sharing. The world tells us to seek power that only empires can maintain; Jesus shows us the brutality of that kind of power.

But Jesus also tells us that another, deeper power is ours for the taking. Jesus shows us the power of community and love. Jesus comes to show us a different kind of sojourn.

We like to think we’d have reacted differently to Jesus, had we been alive back in the time of Herod. We like to think that we would understand the Epiphany in the ways that Herod and the inhabitants of Jerusalem did not. Would we?

Yes, wise men and women still seek him, but daily life often grinds our capacity for wonder out of us. We miss the miraculous as it twinkles at us, daring us to see, inviting us on a marvelous journey. Let this be the year that we see the portents and the signs, the year that we say yes to God.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Be the Wax Splash to the World

Some of us will be celebrating the feast day of the Holy Name of Jesus.  Some of us may think about Jesus being circumcised 8 days after birth.  Most of us will simply go on our way celebrating the new year.

This morning, I want to write about my sermon on Sunday.  We were off lectionary, so we read about the presentation of Jesus at the temple--I'd prefer to celebrate that festival 40 days after Christmas, but that's not the church I attend.  I took a variety of approaches to the text.
I began by talking about how hard it is to know what's true anymore, which is strange considering how much access we have to so much information--but therein lies part of the problem, the overwhelming availability of information.  I also talked about how easy it is to create fake knowledge.

I talked about Simeon and Anna, who kept their faith in what had been revealed to them much longer than most of us would--they knew what was true.

I talked about Simeon holding the light of the world in his hands.  I talked about my time at Mepkin Abbey and the sermon that discussed Simeon holding Jesus.  I talked about this scene as one of many in the Bible where God appears among the folks who are low in the scale of social status.  One couldn't get much lower than Anna--a widow, an old woman, a Jew in first century Palestine far away from the power center of Rome. 

I talked about the time of transition to the new year as one when many of us do self assessing and come up lacking.  But God doesn't see us as lacking.  God has invitations for us--and even if we've rejected God's invitations before, God keeps coming back to invite us again.

I then talked about what our pastor had preached in a Christmas Eve sermon years ago, that if we leave Jesus as this cute baby, we're missing the message.  Jesus comes to go out into the world, not to be contained by us.

I said, "If we were a smaller congregation, I'd invite you up to the altar, to see what you can't see."  I described my spouse on Christmas Eve, blowing out the candles which had been lit for hours, when one of them tipped over and spilled wax over the white marble altar.  I held up a sheet of paper and said, "Here's my low tech representation of what you would see if we gathered at the altar":

I had sketched it in the hour before the service, when I got ready for the service, and I thought about a different direction for the sermon.

I talked about the wax splash as a metaphor for what happens with the message of Jesus.  It stays concentrated at first, but it can't be contained. 

I looked at the congregation and said, "You are part of this wax splash.  You have so much to offer.  You, too, hold the light of the world in your hands and in your heart.  This world needs that light, now more than ever before.  Go forth and shine."

Several people came up to tell me that this sermon was the best I had ever preached.  It was different than the one I planned to preach--I had planned to preach about Anna and her age and how we may think it's too late for us, but it's not.  I included part of that message, but I didn't know I was going to talk about the wax splash until I saw it and thought about it at 9:30, just half an hour before the service started.

I rarely preach from a scripted sermon, and I often don't use notes.  I rehearse in my head a lot, but I leave room for the Holy Spirit to intervene.  One woman told me after the service that she really needed to hear what I had just preached.

It's a good message for the new year:  be the wax splash.  The world needs this good news, and if not us, then who will deliver it?