Thursday, February 28, 2019

Dream Job: Program Director at a Retreat Center?

One of my Create in Me friends has gotten a job as Program Director at Lutheranch.  Create in Me is a retreat at Lutheridge, and Novus Way is the larger group that oversees 4 retreat centers:  Lutheridge and Lutherock in North Carolina, Luther Springs in Florida, and Lutheranch in Georgia.

I am genuinely happy for my Create in Me friend.  I am always intrigued by people's paths, especially when the path leads to a retreat center.  Once I assumed that one needed to be ordained to be a program director--the few program directors I knew were ordained, which made having communion at worship possible.  But at a Create in Me retreat almost 10 years ago, our Bible study leader shared that most Lutheran camp program directors were not ordained. 

A different Create in Me friend and I had a conversation about becoming program directors, specifically at Lutheridge.  My friend pointed out that she wouldn't want to be responsible for training all the camp counselors for summer sleep away camp.  I agreed.

I know of some retreat centers that have programs only for adults.  I wonder if there's a complete list somewhere.  I'm most interested in a retreat center that focuses on arts and spirituality, particularly creative practices (the process as opposed to the product) and spirituality.  That intersection is not seen as unusual, like it once was.

I love the idea of working in a setting that celebrates creativity and spirituality.  I love the idea of spending my work days helping people explore both their creative and spiritual yearnings.  I am sure that there would be less idyllic parts of the job:  paperwork, unhappy retreat participants, the various crisis here and there.

I want to believe that the joys would outweigh the aggravations.  I look forward to living vicariously through my friend's experiences to get additional insight.

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, March 2, 2019:

First Reading: Exodus 34:29-35

Psalm: Psalm 99

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 3:12--4:2

Gospel: Luke 9:28-36 [37-43a]

Here we are, the final Sunday before Lent begins. Transfiguration Sunday gives us a chance to wrestle with an essential question: who is this Christ? Why worship this guy?

Do we worship Christ because of his glory? The mystical elements of Transfiguration Sunday dazzle us and threaten to overshadow the rest of the story. What a magnificent tale! Moses and Elijah appear and along with Christ, they are transformed into glowing creatures. A voice booms down reminding us of Christ's chosen and elevated status.

It's easy to understand Peter's response: we'll stay on the mountain, we'll build booths! It's easy to understand why the disciples stay quiet about this mystical experience.

Jesus then heals a child; he's a success where his disciples have failed.

Do we worship God in the hopes of harnessing this kind of transfiguring power? It's easy to understand this impulse. But the rest of the lesson for today warns us against this impulse.

Jesus know that he's on a collision course with the powers that rule the world. The disciples argue about who is greatest, and Jesus reminds him of the nature of his ministry: to be least.

For those of us who worship Christ because we want transfiguration, it's important to remember what kind of transfiguration we're going to get. We're not likely to get worldly power, money, or fame because we're Christians--in fact, it will be just the opposite.

Will we get healing? Maybe. Will we be creatures that glow with an otherworldly light? Metaphorically. Can we charge admission and get rich from our spiritual beliefs? Go back and reread the Gospels, and see what Jesus has to say about wealth.

Ah, Transfiguration Sunday which leads us to Mardi Gras, a few last hurrahs before the serious season of Lent, that season of ash and penitence. Let us stay here in this glow.

But let us not forget the path before us, the path that brings us off the mountain and into service. Let us not confuse the mountain top for the true relationship that God offers us.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Poetry Tuesday: "Cassandra Considers the Dust"

I woke up feeling like I had dreamed about home repairs for much of the night.  None of the houses in my dreams was my current house.  In the dream just before I woke up, it was a beautiful Victorian in disrepair, and I was not only remodeling it as living space, but also putting in a beauty parlor upstairs.

We are in that stage of home repair when I feel like we will never be done.  I am not surprised my dreams reflect this state.

It is interesting to read The Uninhabitable Earth while making these kinds of housing decisions.  Why buy the beautiful but expensive copper tiles for a backsplash if we're just going to get out when we can figure out how?

My Facebook feed is a mix of people, and the theology minded among us are keeping an eye on the decision of the United Methodist Church about a way forward when it comes to LBGTQ issues.  Here, too, my inner Cassandra wonders how we've all let ourselves get so distracted by issues that do seem important, until one ponders the trajectories of climate change and the current decisions we're making.

I'm also tired of how hard it is to know where to put some of my stuff.  Parts of my closet aren't easily accessible, and I've filled up the few shelves that are open with books and other stuff that needs a flat space.  Part of me has been waiting for the house to be restored--why move things twice?  Part of me worries about the front bedroom, the part of the house that is most tipping toward chaos, and how much it looks like an episode of The Hoarders.

I thought of my poem about Cassandra and the question of the dust.  Let me post it here for our Tuesday reading pleasure.  It was first published in Southern Women's Review, and I included it in my latest chapbook Life in the Holocene Extinction.

Cassandra Considers the Dust

By day, she talks to her patients
about the implications of their high
cholesterol levels, their spikes
in blood pressure, their weight that creeps
ever higher. As she prescribes
medication, she recommends more
exercise, more vegetables.

She stays late at night to monitor
the ones who succumb to surgery.
She has split open chests
to scoop out the gunk that clogged
the intricate roads of the interior.
She has reshaped routes and patched
together with delicate stitches.

She leaves the computers on the ramparts
to keep watch. She thinks of monks
in distant monasteries who chant
prayers while most of humanity dreams.

She drives home to her dark house.
Inside, she turns on one dim
light. She doesn’t want to see
the dust. She can’t remember
the last time the house enjoyed
a deep cleaning.

She thinks of rising oceans
and wonders how long
until the house sinks
into the sea.
She leaves the dust
to its own devices.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Demonstrations of Love and Mercy

I have been trying to read poetry books in one big gulp.  Ideally, I'd then go back and reread, but I don't always get to that part.  I love seeing how lines and symbols and themes wind their way through a single volume.

Yesterday I read American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin by Terrance Hayes--wow what a book!

I read it in the hour while my spouse was at choir rehearsal, the hour before church starts.  How strange to sit in the sanctuary and come across these lines:

Christianity is a religion built around a father
Who does not rescue his son. It is the story
of a son whose father is a ghost

In a way, it's true--but it's a different understanding of the crucifixion than the one I have and a different idea of God.  I don't necessarily believe in a God that can swoop in and save us--where does free will fit into that view of God.  And yet, just the way that humans can sometimes intervene in each other's lives and change a trajectory, perhaps God can too.

It's a powerful collection of poems, full of interesting lines and twists and plays on words, like this one "failed landlord with a people of color/Complex."  The book explores politics, race, parental relationships, the difficulties of U.S. history.

After church, we watched Love and Mercy, the film about two periods of Brian Wilson's life.  It was fascinating to watch the music making process of both Wilson alone and with the Beach Boys.  And I loved the story line of the later Wilson, the one where love can save a person.

Let me see if I can tie this back to the crucifixion place.  I believe that Jesus was crucified because the empire of Rome found him threatening; crucifixion was reserved for enemies of the state.  It's an interesting idea, that Christ's message of God's transforming love was so threatening to the empire of the day that they decided to get rid of him.

Could anyone have saved Jesus once he was on that collision course with Rome?  We could spend lifetimes debating that.  But I don't believe that God required Jesus be crucified as a blood sacrifice to get rid of humanity's sin.  I don't believe in that kind of God or in the theology of substitutionary atonement.

But I do believe in the power of love to save us.  Yesterday gave me some great examples, from the book of poems to the story of Brian Wilson to the gospel declared in church to singing with my spouse at the end of the day.

Now, to get the day old bread from Publix--another way of showing love to students who need that kind of grace.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

The Feast Day of St. Matthias

Today is the traditional feast day of St. Matthias. In the 1960's, the Roman Catholic church moved his feast day to May 14, so that we're celebrating his life in a month that makes more chronological sense--Matthias was the apostle chosen to replace Judas Iscariot, who committed suicide after he realized what his betrayal had wrought, so it makes sense to celebrate his life after Easter. Of course, traditionalists will celebrate today. And Eastern Orthodox believers will observe his feast day on August 9.

I've recently become a bit fascinated with this saint. I've done a smidgeof research, and I can't tell what, exactly, he's the patron saint of.

If I was in charge, I'd make him the patron saint of people who must wait for recognition. Would I make him the patron saint of people who must wait for recognition in the workplace only, or in any situation? Is that process of waiting so different?

I have this on the brain because I work in a place where our local job ladder is very short. We have lots of folks who have been working for the organization for ten years or more--when there's a job opening, we can't promote them all. And once a person has been promoted, it might be years--decades even--before there's an opening above.

I imagine that the circle of Jesus was similar. There's the inner circle, the twelve, chosen early. Then there's a massive outer circle. Who would have dreamed of the incidents that led to a job opening in the inner circle?

Of course, as a woman, I will always wonder at what Gospel revisions went on in the early church. Was the inner circle really that tight? Was it really only twelve? Was it really only men? We know that Jesus had a sympathy towards women that was uncommon for his time period. Would he really have excluded them from the inner circle?

Then I think of the logistics of being one of the twelve--all that travel, all those difficult circumstances. Maybe it was kinder of Jesus not to call women to be part of the inner circle. If you go back to the sayings of Jesus, it's clear that he doesn't see hierarchy in the same way that humans do--he clearly mocked the idea that some disciples are more chosen than other.

So, would Matthias have even seen his appointment as a promotion? Maybe it's just our later proclivity to make lists that sees this development as a promotion. Of course, there is that passage in Acts that seems to show that the disciples shared our proclivities toward hierarchy and list making.

I think of Matthias, patiently waiting, following Christ, never knowing the outcome. In that way, he's the patron saint of us all. We follow Christ, not knowing whether we'll be chosen for some superhuman greatness, or whether we'll be called to stay put, quietly ministering the people around us. Some of us believe that God has a plan for us, while others believe that God will use us where we are, like a master weaver. Some of us believe that the universe is essentially chaotic, but we are not excused from God's mission of Kingdom building. Some of us know that we cannot possibly comprehend any of this, and we know that we are lucky that God does not depend on our puny imaginations.

Saturday, February 23, 2019

United Methodists Meeting this Week-end

The second largest Protestant denomination meets this week-end to decide the future when it comes to homosexual relationships.  Right now, the official policy of the United Methodist Church is that "homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”  But on the ground, individual churches have adopted different approaches.

I don't envy the folks who are meeting this week-end to try to come to some sort of consensus/compromise.  No matter what happens, there will be angry, angry outcomes.

I know this truth because of what happened in my own Lutheran expression, the ELCA.  In 2009, I thought the compromise was admirable, even though I wanted a less wishy-washy outcome.  Essentially, ELCA pastors can now be in committed same-sex relationships, but individual churches can choose not to call them.  Similarly, the ELCA will not condemn same-sex relationships, but individual churches don't have to host same-sex weddings or be welcoming in less obvious ways.

The UMC group meeting this week-end will choose from 3 possible outcomes, according to this article in The Washington Post.  The first option will be something similar to the ELCA option:  "One of the proposed plans, endorsed by the UMC’s Council of Bishops, would remove that language from the church’s law book and leave decisions about same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBT clergy up to regional bodies. This proposal, called the One Church Plan, would open up many options for those who support the LGBT-inclusive practices, but it would not compel individual churches or clergy to engage in those practices."

Another option would be to stick to the traditional teaching and to be stricter about enforcing the anti-homosexual stance.

But there's a third option:  "A third option would create three branches of the church reflecting the different approaches to LGBT issues. One branch would maintain the current bans, another would expect all its clergy and regional groups to support full LGBT inclusion, and the third would neither forbid nor require the inclusive practices. This plan would take several years longer to implement than the others."  I can't even imagine how to handle that increased bureaucracy that would come just from setting up that plan.

I am reflecting how few friends I have that come from the UMC tradition--I have a few back in the Carolinas and Tennessee.  But there are none in South Florida to my knowledge.  I can't imagine that I have friends down here who are closeted UMC members.  Most of my South Florida friends come from the Catholic tradition, even though few of them are still part of it.

For those of us with UMC friends who may be struggling with the decision of the larger church body, this article about how to support them may help.  It's good advice regardless of the question at hand.  We are so often not skilled at walking beside people during a crisis.  I'm guilty myself:  I want to fix things--quickly--and keep moving along.

One of the wondrous things about my late middle age is that I'm more sympathetic to my failures, which makes me determined to do better, but also gives me some gentleness (usually) when it comes to my own failings and the failing of others.  I don't lose days or weeks or months in recriminations anymore.  I understand that most people are doing their best to the best of their ability. 

I will keep our UMC compatriots in prayer this week-end.  May they be at their best.  May the Holy Spirit move in them and through them.  May they discern the best path for their worshiping body. 

Thursday, February 21, 2019

The First Catholic Parish in North America

Yesterday I stopped on my way south to have breakfast in St. Augustine.  But first, I decided to see if the Cathedral was open.  If nothing else, I could take pictures of the grounds:

What a wonderful statue: 

To my delight, the worship space was open.  When I ducked inside, I was blown away by the richness of the colors and the imagery--not just stained glass, but even ceiling panels:

Here is the view of the rear of the cathedral:

And a close up of the statue of the Virgin Mary:

The space had many focal points, which I've seen in other Catholic spaces, less so in Protestant spaces:

Each side had a different statue and space:

So did each of the crosspieces of the cathedral seating space:

I walked to the back of the church, but the restroom area was gated and locked.  Part of me understood--St. Augustine has plenty of public restrooms.  Part of me was sad.  But I was glad that I walked the whole perimeter:

I crossed myself with the holy water in the baptismal font.  I left feeling like I'd gotten an unexpected blessing.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, February 24, 2019:

  • First reading
    • Genesis 45:3-11, 15
  • Psalm
    • Psalm 37:1-11, 39-40
  • Second reading
    • 1 Corinthians 15:35-38, 42-50
  • Gospel
    • Luke 6:27-38

Turn the other cheek. Give up your clothes if asked. This Sunday we get to Luke's version of texts which have been so misunderstood through the centuries that it’s hard to remember what Jesus was really saying. Jesus was NOT saying to let your abuser batter you day in and day out. Jesus was not instructing us to let evil steamroll right over us. Jesus was not even calling us to pacifism, a stoic acceptance of brutality that will buy us a better condo in Heaven for enduring hell on earth.

No, these are resistance texts. Yes, resistance texts.

These are texts that show us how to resist evil in such a way that evil elements will not turn around and destroy us. Likewise, these are texts that show us how to resist evil in such a way that we don’t become the evil that we are resisting.

It’s important to remember that the culture of Jesus was a vastly different culture. It was a culture based on honor. It was a culture based on social hierarchy. It was also a culture ruled by Romans who were not going to tolerate social unrest, Romans who would not hesitate to slaughter dissenters.

Jesus shows us how to live in this world, how to resist evil without being destroyed by evil. If you want to read the best text on this idea, I recommend Walter Wink’s Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination. It is one of the best books of theology I’ve ever read, and I’ve read a lot of theology.

Let’s focus on the turning of the other cheek, since this passage is so well known. Notice that Jesus gives specific cheeks in specific order. That’s a detail lost on us, but it wouldn’t have been lost on the people who heard Jesus’ instructions. Walter Wink explains:

“Imagine if I were your assailant and I were to strike a blow with my right fist at your face, which cheek would it land on? It would be the left. It is the wrong cheek in terms of the text we are looking at. Jesus says, 'If anyone strikes you on the right cheek...' I could hit you on the right cheek if I used a left hook, but that would be impossible in Semitic society because the left hand was used only for unclean tasks. You couldn't even gesture with your left hand in public. The only way I could hit you on the right cheek would be with the back of the hand.

Now the back of the hand is not a blow intended to injure. It is a symbolic blow. It is intended to put you back where you belong. It is always from a position of power or superiority. The back of the hand was given by a master to a slave or by a husband to a wife or by a parent to a child or a Roman to a Jew in that period. What Jesus is saying is in effect, 'When someone tries to humiliate you and put you down, back into your social location which is inferior to that person, and turn your other cheek.'

Now in the process of turning in that direction, if you turned your head to the right, I could no longer backhand you. Your nose is now in the way. Furthermore, you can't backhand someone twice. It's like telling a joke a second time. If it doesn't work the first time, it has failed. By turning the other cheek, you are defiantly saying to the master, 'I refuse to be humiliated by you any longer. I am a human being just like you. I am a child of God. You can't put me down even if you have me killed.' This is clearly no way to avoid trouble. The master might have you flogged within an inch of your life, but he will never be able to assert that you have no dignity.”

Wink explains the other elements of the Gospel resistance readings here. It’s a great way to introduce yourself to his work, especially for those of us who aren’t up to reading his multi-volume works on resisting the various powers at work in this world.

For those of you who would sneer at the idea of resistance working in our evil, evil world, I would say that nonviolent resistance can bring mighty social change.

Walter Wink, writing in 1993, notes, “In 1989 alone, there were thirteen nations that underwent non-violent revolutions. All of them successful except one, China. That year 1.7 billion people were engaged in national non-violent revolutions. That is a third of humanity. If you throw in all of the other non-violent revolutions in all the other nations in this century [the 20th], you get the astonishing figure of 3.34 billion people involved in non-violent revolutions. That is two-thirds of the human race. No one can ever again say that non-violence doesn't work. It has been working like crazy. It is time the Christian churches got involved in this revolution because what is happening in the world is that the world itself is discovering the truth of Jesus' teaching, and here we come in the church, bringing up the rear.” And of course, more lately we can point to a variety of revolutions, in the former Soviet Union and the Middle East, some of which have fairly peacefully gotten rid of dictators who had been in power for decades.

Maybe we are not up for the task of resistance, which can be scary and can lead us to unexpected places. At the very least, we can pray. We can pray for those people who are doing the heavy lifting of resistance. We can pray for those who are transforming their societies for good, whether they live in our country or on the other side of the planet. We can pray for the softening of the hearts of the hard ones. We can pray that we have the wisdom to recognize evil when we see it. We can pray that we have the courage to resist evil in whatever forms it comes to us.

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Julian of Norwich and Student E-mails

We are reaching the time in one of my online courses that I teach where students miss quizzes and write me pleading e-mails trying to convince me to open the quizzes back up.  I can't do that.  I'll grade late writing, but quizzes must be taken before the due date or not at all.

I try to soften the blow a bit in my response.  I usually say something like this:  "After the quiz deadline, I can't reopen quizzes. But fortunately, each quiz is a very small percentage of your final grade. So just keep moving forward and doing your best and all shall be well."

I'm always tempted to add the complete quote from Julian of Norwich:  "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well."  I wonder if any of my students get the reference.

In my early days (the late 80's) of discovering female voices that had been left out of literature anthologies, I most treasured Julian of Norwich for her writing. In later years, the theology of her writing fascinated me--so many centuries before any blooming of anything that could be called feminist, here was a woman writing about a feminine face of God.

I would never have predicted I'd be using her words to encourage my students to keep working towards success.  I suspect she wouldn't be upset.

Saturday, February 16, 2019

What the Monks Can Teach Us about Valentine's Day

Monks have much to teach us about deep commitment. Many a monastic commitment lasts longer than the typical marriage.

It’s a similar commitment to love that we see from our creator.

Cloistered monastics take a vow to a specific monastery or abbey of monastics who have taken the same vow to place and institution. Marriage can be a similar vow of stability to a specific community.

By that commitment, we’ve closed the door to other decisions. In a way, life becomes easier.

Our larger culture sets aside a day to buy chocolates and champagne and cards—but every day should be a day that we celebrate love of all kinds. 

God who came to dwell with us showed us many examples of how to live a life committed to love.

How can we emulate that kind of love?

Friday, February 15, 2019

The Day After Valentine's Day: Keep the Vibe Going

My Facebook feed was awash with pictures of friends celebrating Valentine's Day:  relaxed people at restaurants, flowers, chocolates, and other treats.  What a nice change from what often trickles across my Facebook feed:  distress and anger over politics.

What would happen if we kept the Valentine's vibe going?  What if we continued to look for opportunities to shower expressions of emotion onto our loved ones?

What if we widened our circle of loved ones?  We could write notes of encouragement and/or thanks to our political leaders, and let us not forget the local leaders.  We could write similar notes to coworkers and people in our churches and civic groups.  We could write letters or cards to loved ones far away.  We could do the same for those who don't have loved ones who will write to them, like prisoners, refugees, or members of our churches who have outlived their friends and families.

What if we spent a few minutes each day creating a love note to God?  We could begin by saying thank you.  We could make a daily practice of noticing the beauty of creation and saying, "Great job with that flower!"  "Wonderful colors on that bird!"  "That sunrise was the most special one this month!"  If we kept our observations (will we write them?  Take a picture?  Love note by way of paint?), we'd have a wonderful collection that might sustain us in our low moments.

Let us also remember that we need to show ourselves the same level of care.  What does your soul need to feel nourished?  How can you sustain yourself so that you can continue to love the world that can be so hard to love at times?

Let us keep the Valentine's vibe going!

Thursday, February 14, 2019

The Difficulties and Opportunities of February 14

This day may be difficult for many.  Valentine's Day has always come with difficulties:  on this day that is designed to celebrate love, many of us may feel left out.  We may not have significant others or we may have lost our significant other, or we may have a love that isn't honored by the larger society.

Some of us may feel annoyed by the expectations that come with this holiday.  We may not like feeling mandated to spend gobs of money to demonstrate how much we love.  This idea becomes even trickier if we have a partner who would really like this kind of demonstration--and what if we don't have the money or couldn't get the right gift/reservation/time off?

In short, this day was fraught, even before the events of last year.

This day is also the anniversary of a school shooting, the one at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.  That event has never been far from my consciousness, since I live in the county where the shooting took place.  I don't know if this day will always be a triggering event out there in the larger country.

In this county, people are observing this one year anniversary in several ways.  Many communities in this county will observe a moment of silence.  Some are devoting themselves to a day of service.  Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School  will provide opportunities for students who come to school today; students aren't required to come today.  I've heard news coverage that says that many families in our county will stay home and together today, which doesn't seem like an altogether bad way of celebrating Valentine's Day.

Every day, ideally, should be Valentine's Day, a day in which we try to remind our loved ones how much we care--and not by buying flowers, dinners out, candy, and jewelry. We show that we love by our actions: our care, our putting our own needs in the backseat, our concern, our gentle touch, our loving remarks, our forgiveness over and over again.

We should extend these actions beyond our significant others and family members. Our friends deserve the same level of care. We often spend more time with our co-workers than with our family and friends, I wonder how we would transform the workplace if we focused on radiating non-sexual love there too.

And then there is the task of caring for the world. Every week, we are reminded of the difficulties (and outright evil) that exist in the world, and some weeks this knowledge intrudes more than others. We must be the lanterns that defeat the difficulties and evil.

On this Valentine's Day, let us go out into the world, living sacraments, to be Valentines to one another, to bring love into all the corners of the a weary world.

Wednesday, February 13, 2019

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The reading for Sunday, February 13, 2019:

  • First reading
    • Jeremiah 17:5-10
  • Psalm
    • Psalm 1
  • Second reading
    • 1 Corinthians 15:12-20
  • Gospel
    • Luke 6:17-26

We may feel that this Gospel is familiar; careful readers may see a difference between what we read this week in Luke, and the more common version of the Beatitudes we usually read in Matthew.

Luke begins similarly enough with 4 Blesseds:  "Blessed are you who are _______."  It sounds much more familiar than the way that Matthew says it:  "Blessed are the  ______."

Unlike the Beatitudes that we read in Matthew, in Luke, 4 blessings are followed by 4 woes:  Woe to you who are rich, full, laughing, spoken highly of.

Is Jesus really cursing those of us who are wealthy and well-fed, those of us who are in a good place in our lives?  That would not be the Jesus that I know.  I don't usually wish I had a knowledge of Greek and a gospel written in Greek, but here I do.  I wonder if there's a better interpretation of "woe."

One of the traditional approaches to this version of the Beatitudes is to say that this text shows Jesus upending the traditional order.  Everything our culture teaches us about who is a winner and the vast lot of us who are losers--Jesus comes to tell us that in the Kingdom of God, we can look forward to a new social order. 

That idea can lead us to lots of new questions:  is this Kingdom of God Heaven?  Is it an earthly Kingdom?  Did it come when Jesus came to us 2000 years ago or is it still in the process of evolving? 

And if we're more honest, those of us who are in a less-distressed/more comfortable part of our lives might wonder where our place will be.  Do we need to give up all our money?  Are our happy days numbered?  Is Jesus reminding us that all is cyclical?  What does Jesus really want from us?

These are the questions that have kept theologians busy for centuries.  Some have said that if you were choosing the most important passages of the Gospels, we'd do well to choose this text. Some have called it a guidebook to the proper behavior of Christians. Is this text an updating of the Ten Commandments or the replacing? Or something else altogether?

For those of us who see the Bible as a guidebook for moral behavior, we might see ourselves challenged to approach the text in a new way. For those who see moral behavior as our ticket to Heaven, we might also be challenged to think differently.

Christ came to announce that God's plan for redeeming the world had begun. That plan involves our pre-death world, which is not just a place where we wait around until it's our turn to go to Heaven. No, this world is the one that God wants to redeem. Christ comes to invite us to be part of the redemptive plan. 

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Poetry Tuesday: "The Archangels of America Retire"

I went down a bit of a rabbit hole the other day.  I was working on a poem idea about Gabriel, and I wondered about the other archangels.  I don't spend much time thinking about angels, and I didn't receive much schooling about this topic--hence, the internet search.

It will come as no surprise to you that there's some strange stuff out there that one finds when one launches a search with key terms like angels, archangels, and angel hierarchy.  I didn't find much information sponsored by academic organizations, but I didn't really expect to find much.  I was more surprised to find the amount of information from the fringes that I found.

My internet rambles reminded me of a poem about the Archangels of Destruction retiring.  I haven't looked at it in years, so I went to my files this morning.  I think it holds up well, and seems more relevant than when I wrote it years ago.

The Archangels of Destruction Retire

When the polar ice caps thaw,
the Archangels of Destruction consider
their career plans. Creation
has gotten out ahead of them.

Science and ancient hatreds collaborate
in new and more effective ways of death.
Each decade, a different continent deals
with genocide, each one more horrifying
than the last.

Pestilence, that ancient foe,
so ever-present as to seem friendly,
wraps the earth in swaddling clothes.

The specter of nuclear annihilation
haunts the dreams of children yet again.
Small countries lust for large weapons
and starve their civilians in service
to that vision.

With little for them to do,
the Archangels of Destruction change course.
They retire, and some decide to work on their golf
game. Others return to the angel school
and discover the pleasure of thundering
hymns. Most concentrate on the pleasures
of grandchildren and all the neglected
hobbies of the past: cooking and travel and friendships.

Monday, February 11, 2019

A Prayer for Monday

Creator God,

On this day when it feels like we're stuck in a never-ending season, send us signs that new life is sprouting.  During this time when life feels increasingly precarious, let us remember that you steer us towards a brighter future.  Be with those who have no jobs or those who cannot get to their jobs.  If this will be the kind of week without appreciation for all we do, remind us that we are cherished in a larger way.

Be with those in positions of power who are making decisions that will affect us all, and grant them wisdom.  Keep us all in your constant care and let us remember that we have more in common than that which divides us.  Keep us safe.

We know that you have a larger vision--let us trust that.


Sunday, February 10, 2019

Prayers for Those Who Are Out in the Cold

Some residents in the U.S. awaken to snow this morning--perhaps record breaking amounts. We pray for those who don't have adequate shelter.

Let us remember those who are isolated, wondering when the plows will come to dig them out.

May the electricity stay on, so that there can be warmth and comfort.

Although it may feel like winter is here to stay, send us a sign that spring will surely come.

And let us find a source of light to cheer us until the seasons shift.

But never let us forget the true source of all light.

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Using Star Words after Epiphany

On a Facebook post, Wendy Russel talked about how she had kept the conversation about star words going with her church group, and I'm posting them here so that I can find them again later (if you need more background information about the use of star words, go to this post):

Week 1- draw word and talk about how to use the word as your lens through which God may be calling you to look at your life

Week 2 - look for a scripture passage that resonates with you in light of you word and then look for one or more passages you completely do not get the application and all God to reveal the lesson or healing or peace you are to receive

Week 3- find as many antonyms for your word as you can. Think about what the antithesis of you word is. Be ready to recognize when you find your self in that void and try to use your word to pull yourself out.

Week 4- find a hymn that brings you to your word

Week 5- look at all the Creeds ( in the UMC we have multiple Creeds at our disposal at the back of the hymnal) and discover how your word fits and calls you into a right relationship with God

Week 6- look at the communion liturgy in all elements and find how your word calls you into communion

Week 7- look at the baptismal covenant and see how God is calling you to a life of discipleship thru your word.

In the Facebook thread, some people wondered how to adopt these ideas to Lent. I made this comment:

For those of us thinking about star words and Lent, someone had posted in a different post that they were doing something similar for Transfiguration Sunday, but calling them cloud words. Combining cloud words with the ideas above could take a church through the Lenten season. I also liked the Stations of the Cross suggestion. Another possibility that popped into my mind was the last words of Jesus--my pastor has created a sermon series for Lent around the last words, and I wonder if doing something with star/cloud words and the last words of Jesus on the cross might lead to new revelations.

Friday, February 8, 2019

The Shelf Life of Spiritual Practices

A Facebook friend of mine made a comment that she knows that spiritual practices have seasons.  She was wondering if a discipline of hers might be ending as she made a transition between markers and oil paints.

How transformative!  I tend to see myself as failing if I let a spiritual discipline slide away.  But there's not enough time in the week to do all the disciplines that have nourished me.  And if I held fast to every one of them, I wouldn't have room to discover anything new that might nourish me in a better or different way.

I used to pray the liturgy of the hours, although I'd often only get 4 sessions done in a day.  That was easier before I had the kind of office job that required me to be there 40+ hours a week.  Until our home repairs upended my regular routines, I still prayed the morning office.

I still take a bit of time most mornings to do something along the lines of a devotional.  But I'm not praying a fixed prayer that Christian communities pray across the globe.  I may return to my prayer books written by Phyllis Tickle.  But I may not.

My journaling has taken on a visual component, along with a spiritual component.  Doing the sketching sinks me quickly into a meditative state.  Often something bubbles to the surface.  I hope that it's one way that God can speak to me.

Here's my sketch from yesterday, which was sparked from the lines of poetry that I created earlier in the day:

In this temple of old bones and white whiskers,
I water the plants and feed the cats.
The work of a prophetess is never done.

And the sketch:

I remember feeling the same passion for praying the liturgy of the hours that I feel for sketching.  I wonder what passion might take the place of sketching some day?

Thursday, February 7, 2019

A Poem for Anna the Prophetess

Last week-end had us celebrate Candlemas (the presentation of Jesus at the Temple) on Feb. 2 and the feast day of Saint Simeon on Feb. 3.  One of my Facebook friends posted "A Song for Simeon," the T. S. Eliot poem that imagines Simeon at the end of life, perhaps having an existential crisis, or maybe just feeling the age of his bones. 

I immediately thought about a companion poem, a song for Anna, the prophetess who is also mentioned in the Presentation at the Temple text in Luke's gospel (Luke 2:  22-38).  But until this morning, I haven't had time to play with this idea.

This morning, I wrote these lines:

In this temple of old bones and white whiskers,
I water the plants and feed the cats.
The work of a prophetess is never done.

Then I stopped, struck by the idea of a villanelle.  I find the villanelle form to be one of the most difficult.  A villanelle needs a first and third line that can be repeated and thus can stand on its own.  The lines need to end in words that can rhyme (if you want to know more, go here).

I made a change to make the rhyming easier:

In this temple of white whiskers and old bones,
I water the plants and feed the cats.
The work of a prophetess is never done.

I wrote out the villanelle structure, leaving blank lines.  I'll come back to it later.  I wanted to write the original poem that I envisioned, without struggling with the villanelle structure.  So, I flipped the page of my legal pad, and I was off and running.

I wrote a poem that juxtaposes the life of men in the temple with the women who are doing the background work:  the sweeping and the cooking, the repairing of the rips, and the tending of the children.  In the last lines, I hope I'm invoking the Advent text from Isaiah:

                       The prophetess
proclaims the good news
with every meal and all the surfaces made straight.

Here's the Isaiah text:

"A voice cries:
'In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
Make straight in the desert a highway for our God."

Just yesterday, I was feeling more alignment with the Simeon of the Eliot poem and the exhaustion that seeps through every line.  I thought I might never write again, although I did record an inspiration in a Facebook post (A week ago, I'd have been about to go with my parents and their group of friends to the Memory Care Center to sing. Today I am getting ready for a day that will consist of mostly meetings. O.K., poet brain, get to work in the background. Perhaps you'll also want to mix in a Revolutionary War battlefield and a ship called the Hermione and maybe you want to think about Harry Potter or maybe that's too much . . .).  

What a delight to actually write a poem this morning.  And now, off to the other work that the day will usher in.

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, February 10, 2019:

First Reading: Isaiah 6:1-8 [9-13]

Psalm: Psalm 138

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 15:1-11

Gospel: Luke 5:1-11

Today's Gospel is one we must have heard a gabillion times, if we've been going to church for any amount of time at all. As the Gospel becomes familiar, perhaps the rich symbolic language loses some of its power. The symbol of the fisherman is one we find across church cultures; the mission of fishing for people, too, is one that most faiths hold in common.

Let's look at the Gospel again, to see what we might have missed. In these times of longer work days for those of us still lucky enough to have a job, I'm struck by the fact that Jesus comes to call Simon Peter and his friends and family during their work time. Christ, too, is on the job. The familiarity of this Gospel makes me forget that first verse, that tells us Jesus is preaching when he slips into the boats. I wonder what the crowds who came to hear the word of God made of that?

Jesus slips into the boat of weary fisherman who have had an unsuccessful night. What convinces Christ that these men are the cornerstone of his work on this planet?

If you were setting up your new ministry--or any other kind of venture--would you choose the men that Jesus chose?

In hindsight, it's easy to say "Of course." But take a minute and consider the story for today.

We see fisherman, and unsuccessful fisherman. In the Palestine of Christ's time, these men wouldn't have been at the bottom of the social ladder, but they'd have been close, viewed as solidly working class or lower. It's hard, heavy work to do this kind of fishing--and dirty work, as there are fish and nets to clean.

These are not men who own land, the kind of men that would have had status. These are not men who have been trained by religious authorities, as we might have expected Jesus to choose for his ministry.

Jesus chooses regular, ordinary people. These are not men with gifts of oratory, not first. These are not the best and the brightest, at least not at first. But Jesus chooses them. In similar ways, Christ still calls us, if we can hear.

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

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

At this point, perhaps you echo John the Baptist, "I am not the Messiah." Perhaps this knowledge that God still invites us to be part of Kingdom building makes you feel tired, instead of excited. You think of the chores you have to do each day, your family responsibilities, the work tasks.

The men in Luke's Gospel were no different. In the previous chapter, Jesus has healed Simon's mother-in-law. These are not young, single men, fishing on a boat to pay for college. Just like so many of us, these men had families and work and lots to accomplish in a day.

But Christ calls, and they respond. Perhaps it's because of the nets that are so full to bursting that they almost sink the boats. Perhaps they realize that on their own, they have empty nets, while with Christ in the boat, they're successful in ways they didn't think they could be.

It's a potent metaphor. Christ wants to join you on the boat. Will you give him a place to teach the world? Christ wants you to try again, when you're convinced that only failure can come from casting down your nets again. Will you follow Christ? Will your nets be empty or full to bursting?

Cast down your nets. Cast them down again and again and again until you are a different kind of fish and a different kind of fisherperson.

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Worship Service Transitions

My church seems to be moving away from having 3 services to having just one.  While part of me understands, part of me hates to see our innovative side slip away--because the one service that we're keeping is more traditional.

I've been trying to think about why I hate the idea of the innovation side slipping away.  Part of it, of course, is because that was the service that meant the most to me.  We did a lot with a variety of creative practices, and I was often in charge.

I don't hate not being in charge--but I will miss the creative outlet.

More than that, I miss the way we were able to connect with each other in a way that I'm not sure we can during a traditional service.  I wonder if there's a way to maintain that connection, even if we don't meet every week.

If we had a creative brunch once a month, could that work?  Would it be in addition to the church service or a service on its own?

That's the key question--do we need to offer a less formal option as a worship service?  And what does it mean to worship?  Could we do our own thing and join the traditional worship for communion?  Hmmmmm.

The other part of the question:  how do we connect with each other if we're meeting for a worship service?  There's the possibility of coffee hour after church, but since we're a small church, many of us have tasks after church that keep us from coffee hour:  clean up, money counting, and occasional rehearsals.

I wish I had a tidy solution--that would be a great way to end this blog post.  But so far, I just have possibilities, and I'm not even sure they'd be of interest to anyone but me.  I'll keep thinking on this and reporting back.

Monday, February 4, 2019

Poetry Monday: "Huck at Midlife"

Today I head back to the office, although I may return home midmorning to await the delivery of the kitchen cabinets when my spouse needs to leave to teach.  My rambles back through Revolutionary War land have ended, and it's back to regular life.

I'm not sure why my thoughts have turned to Huck Finn and not some figure of colonial times.  I've been making my way through The Fire This Time:  A New Generation Speaks about Race--what amazing essays!  Perhaps that's why my brain is thinking about race and slavery and the relationship between Huck and Jim. 

My writing time is short this morning, so let me post a poem which takes these ponderings in a different direction. I wrote this poem after getting an e-mail from a friend. She had gone to Mepkin Abbey and really enjoyed sitting by the Cooper River. She said it reminded her of Huck Finn and all those wonderful descriptions of the river; I think she gave me the last line, in fact, which I'm fairly sure comes from Mark Twain himself.

Her rapturous e-mail sent me back to the novel, which I don't like as much as I feel like I should like, but I can understand its importance to American Literature. And as I often do, I found myself wondering about what happens after the novel ends--it's a practice that drove some of my graduate professors nuts; I remember one of them saying to me, "They're characters in a novel. When the novel is over, so is the life of the character."

However, I've found much creative fodder in imagining the lives of characters 10 or 20 years later; maybe you, too, might find this writing prompt to lead you to some interesting territory. I wonder if a book made of only these kind of poems would be compelling or would it get tiresome?

In the meantime, here's the poem:

Huck at Midlife

Huck reconsiders his adolescence, that dogged
pursuit of unshod feet and freedom
of all sorts. At what point
did he decide that money mattered?

Huck rests his hands on his paunch, a pregnant
flab of flesh foretelling of future heart attacks.
He wonders what’s become of Jim
and all the other friends of his youth.

Have they forgiven him for the arrogance
that comes with youth? He flushes
each time he thinks of wrong directions,
fleeing north only to find himself back in slave territory.

Huck balances the bank accounts,
his ledgers neat and contained. He’s ahead
with his scheduled personnel reviews,
taxes paid according to the timetable.

He returns to his snug house, the wilderness
kept outside where it belongs.
His wife has kept dinner warm. She bustles
in the kitchen while he kisses his sleeping children.

Only late at night does his faithfulness
waver. Only after midnight does he let
himself think of his first love,
that river, awful, still, and grand.

Sunday, February 3, 2019

The Feast Day of St. Simeon

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

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

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

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

Recently the story of the older cousin Elizabeth really leapt out at me from the Advent stories. I have a number of friends who are in their 50's and older. I'm 53. We've seen our bodies betray us in a number of ways, but pregnancy is not on our list of expectations. If I'm honest, most of us would not see a late life pregnancy as miraculous news, but we don't live in the same kind of culture as Mary and Elizabeth did.

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 2, 2019

The Season of Christmas Ends with Candlemas

Today is Candlemas, where Christians celebrate the presentation of Jesus at the Temple, and pagans long ago celebrated the goddess Brigid (and the feast day of St. Brigid was yesterday), and some Wiccans today will be celebrating at Imbolc, or a variation of any number of pagan holidays. It's also Groundhog's Day. It's one of those times when we can almost perceive the shifting of the seasons. It's not spring yet, but it will be soon.

Candlemas is the feast day that speaks to me. Candlemas celebrates the presentation of Jesus at the temple. It's the last feast holiday that references Christmas. We could see it as the final festival of Christmas, even though most of us have had the decorations packed away since even before Epiphany.

This morning I'm thinking of Simeon, who held onto the promise of the Messiah throughout his very long life before he saw it fulfilled. He waits and he waits and he waits. But finally, at the end of his life, he does hold the Messiah, the light of the world, in his hands.

Simeon holds the baby Jesus. Imagine it: to hold the light of the world in your hands. In so many ways we still do. We carry the light of the world inside us. How can your body deliver light to the world?

Some churches and monasteries will bless the year's supply of candles. I love this tradition, although it's never been mine. Today would be a good day to light a candle and to think about our own lights. Are we dimly burning wicks? Take heart--the Bible promises that we can still be useful. Does our light burn pure and true? Take care to protect that flame.

The holidays of early February (Groundhog Day, Candlemas, St. Brigid's Day, Imbolc and Oimelc ) remind us that the light hasn't really left us. Spring will be here soon.

Friday, February 1, 2019

A Poem for the Feast Day of St. Brigid

Today is the feast day of St. Brigid, one of the patron saints of Ireland. She is one of the early Christians who stood at the intersection of Christianity, Druidism, and the other pagan religions of Ireland. She is also one of those extraordinary women who did amazing things, despite the patriarchal culture in which she lived.

She founded founded some of the first Christian monasteries in Ireland, most famously the legendary one in Kildare. She also founded a school of art that focuses on metal working and illumination. The illustrated manuscript, the Book of Kildare, was created under her auspices. Unfortunately, it's been lost since the Reformation, so we know it by its reputation only.

Monastic, administrator, artist--it's no wonder that her story calls to me from across the centuries.

I didn't really know much about Brigid until about 2011 or 2012, when I read several blog posts about her. In 2013, I drove all the way to Mepkin Abbey on her feast day. I thought about her life as I drove across cold landscapes. I finally wrote a draft of the poem that appears below.

Several years ago, I wrote this: "I will try to imagine Saint Brigid through a more realistic lens. I will write a poem where she tells me that she accomplished all sorts of things along the way, while all the time struggling to create her great illuminated work. I will imagine something that she did that we know nothing of. I will imagine that she will feel sad when she realizes that modern people don't even know of her great work, but instead of her institutions at Kildare and beyond.

I will think about a woman at midlife 1500 years from now, a woman who reads about my life. What will amaze her? How will she see the ways that I did, indeed, live an authentic life, even as I lost sight of that fact in the daily minutiae? If she blogged about me, what would seem important enough to include? How would she finish this sentence: In the last half of her life, Berkey-Abbott accomplished ______________ ?"

I have yet to write about Brigid's lost work, but I did write the poem that imagines Brigid through a more realistic lens. It was published in Adanna, and I'm happy to repost it here. If you want additional background on Brigid, see this blog post.

The True Miracle of Saint Brigid

You know about the baskets
of butter, the buckets of beer,
the milk that flowed
to fill a lake.

You don’t know about the weeks
we prayed for the miracle
of multiplication but instead received
the discipline of division.

I managed the finances to keep us all fed.
By day, I rationed the food.
At night, I dreamed of a sculpture
manufactured of metal.

I didn’t have the metal
or the time, but in the minutes
had, I illuminated
any scrap of paper I could find.

Lost to the ashes:
The Book of Kildare, but also
my budget ledgers, flowers
and birds drawn around the numbers.