Sunday, March 31, 2019

Fictional Theology (?)

I have been at the AWP conference, one of the biggest annual conferences for writers in the U.S. It's grounded in writing programs (think MFA primarily), and thus, it's more prone to the genres traditionally taught in those programs.  So, there's lots of panels for poets and fiction writers, less for everyone else.

Happily, I write in a variety of genres, so I always find something interesting when I go.  But I was academically trained in a time of deconstruction, so I do tend to notice what's missing.

Last year, there were about 4 sessions that had anything to do with theology.  This year there was one, maybe two, if you count a session that had something to do with witches--I went to something else, so I can't be sure.  And the one session that mentioned faith in its title also mentioned sexual preference and one other element.

I have wondered if the lack of sessions means that the conference organizers don't get proposals for sessions that explore the writing of theology or if they get proposals but assume that there's not much audience for them.

Yesterday I had an interesting encounter as we waited for an elevator.  I talked to a very young looking woman who had just gotten her MFA, and she asked, "Are you a poet?"

I said, "Yes.  And I write theology."

She asked, "Fictional theology?" 

I was flummoxed, and I can't remember exactly what I said.  Perhaps, "No, the regular kind."

I spent the rest of the day thinking about the idea of fictional theology.  My grad school friend and I talked about it briefly.  She said she didn't think it was such an odd question.  She said, "Think about the works of Madeleine L'Engle.  It makes sense that someone going to this kind of conference would think that you meant something like that."

I found that a much more comforting idea than my initial thought, which was that this person who had just gotten a graduate degree didn't understand what I meant when I said I wrote theology.

And it's not lost on me how many people might see the theology that I write as fictional, but I don't think the woman waiting for the elevator meant to talk about whether or not God is real.  But then again, it's hard to know for sure.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

1 John 3: 10-24: Love One Another

Tomorrow, my off-lectionary congregation will consider 1 John 3: 10-24. The message is familiar. Like much of the passages we hear proclaimed in our church, this one boils down to this command: “Love God and love one another.”

There are days when I’d prefer just to be given some eating restrictions and a money amount to donate and be done with salvation. But God is much more demanding than that. We are to love each other. It’s even more difficult than it sounds—we have to love even the most unlovable ones.

I tend to look at the behavior and attitude of others as impediments to loving them. But we’re not let off the hook. We must love even the horrible people among us; in fact, those people may be more in need of love than anyone else.

Why is it so hard to love each other? We don't want to get involved. We don't know what to say. We don't know how to act. So, we take the easier route and lose ourselves in our busy routines. We get so frantic with our schedules that we don't have time for ourselves, much less each other, much less God.

Or maybe our difficulty loving each other has different roots. Here’s a question that we pondered at last year’s Create in Me retreat: "What do we love that gets in the way of loving others?” Maybe it’s money. Maybe it’s the illusion that we’re in control. Maybe it’s wanting things to be the way they have always been. The answers are as varied as the humans asking them.

The solution doesn’t have to be vast. But figuring out how to love each other can be overwhelming. There are so many ways of loving each other that it can be hard to find our niche.

But we all have a place where we can start: in prayer. We can pray for those who have no one to pray for them. We can pray for the ones we love. We can pray for the people we know and the ones we don’t.

We can use our emotions as a call to prayer. Like the chiming of a bell, if we feel irritation, let’s pray for the person causing the irritation. If our heart overflows with happiness, let’s pray for the ones prompting the happiness. If we hear dreadful news, let us center ourselves with prayer before we consider the next word or action.

Let us center ourselves in prayer. Let us ask that God soften our hearts so that we can love each other the way God commands.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

The Role of a Modern Prophet

What does it mean to be prophetic today?  I came across this article, an interesting conversation between Walter Brueggemann and Kenyatta Gilbert.

At first I felt a bit of despair when I read Brueggemann's comments early in the conversation:  "I think a prophet is someone that tries to articulate the world as though God were really active in the world."  I thought, I'm not sure I feel that God is active in the world the way that Old Testament prophets did.

But I'm not sure that Brueggemann does either.  Later, he clarifies:   "I think what we believe is that God energizes and empowers human agency and human agents, when they are empowered, can change this. So, what happens to well off people like me? We don’t want to exercise human agency; we like it the way it is and if we are terribly disadvantaged, one can be in such despair that you don't undertake any human agency. So, it seems to me that the point of preaching is to say that God’s hopes are to be performed through human agency and it seems to me that the promise of the gospel is that the powers and principalities will yield to human agency that is authorized and empowered by God. And, that’s a hard piece of news because on the one hand, we want to despair or on the other hand, we want to wait passively and have God do something for us."

I like the idea of human agency energized and empowered by God, agency dispatched with a vision of healing human suffering.  The prophet should be the one who names the human hurt, but also the one who inspires us to remember the world that God envisions for us all.  The prophet should be the one who calls and inspires us all to action.

That's a view of a modern prophet that I can believe in.

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, March 31, 2019:

First Reading: Joshua 5:9-12

Psalm: Psalm 32

Second Reading: 2 Corinthians 5:16-21

Gospel: Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Ah, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. We've heard it so many times that we may have forgotten pertinent details. We remember clearly the younger son, the one who squanders his fortune in a foreign land and becomes so hungry and desperate that he yearns for swine food. We understand this part of the parable. Even if we haven't been the wastrel child, who among us has not occasionally envied the ease with which some of our society just do their own thing and give themselves to riotous living. We assume the younger son represents us as our worst sinner selves.

We forget that this story has two lost sons.

Yes, the older son is just as lost as the younger. Perhaps more so.

Look at his behavior and see if you recognize yourself. He has to find out from the servants what is going on. He hasn't been invited to the party. He has done all the right things, been steadfast, honored his father and society, and what does he get? Does he get a party? No!

Which child is more lost? The one who gives into his animal nature, who indulges in carnal pleasures? Or the one who shows himself to have all sorts of repressed anger, a well of resentment that erupts all over his poor father?

In his book, The Return of the Prodigal Son, Henri Nouwen says, "Looking deeply into myself and then around me at the lives of other people, I wonder which does more damage, lust or resentment?" (71). What a powerful question!

Nouwen sees this parable as being about love and how we're loved and how we're afraid that we won't be loved. We spend a lot of time looking for the approval of others. Nouwen says, "As long as I keep running about asking: 'Do you love me? Do you really love me?' I give all power to the voices of the world and put myself in bondage because the world is filled with 'ifs.' The world says: 'Yes I love you if you are good-looking, intelligent, and wealthy. I love you if you have a good education, a good job, and good connections. I love you if you produce much, sell much, and buy much'" (42). Obviously, we can't win this game.

Luckily, we don't have to win. God loves us regardless. Of course, learning this lesson of love may take us a lifetime. We have to force ourselves to the disciplines that will thaw our frozen hearts. Nouwen suggests, "Although we are incapable of liberating ourselves from our frozen anger, we can allow ourselves to be found by God and healed by his love through the concrete and daily practice of trust and gratitude" (84).

He goes on to say, "There is a very strong, dark voice in me that says the opposite: 'God isn't really interested in me, he prefers the repentant sinner who comes home after his wild escapades. He doesn't pay attention to me who has never left the house. He takes me for granted. I am not his favorite son. I don't expect him to give me what I really want" (84).

Yes, trust and gratitude can be difficult moods to sustain. But we're called to do that. And then we're called to work on a deeper transformation. We must become as full of love as the father in the parable.

The traditional approach to this parable is to see the Father character representing God, which is certainly true. But many of us assume we cannot love the way God can. Maybe not. But we have to try. Nouwen says, "Perhaps the most radical statement Jesus ever made is: 'Be compassionate as your Father is compassionate.' . . . "what I am called to make true is that whether I am the younger or the elder son, I am the son of my compassionate Father. I am an heir. . . . The return to the Father is ultimately the challenge to become the Father" (123).

How on earth can we accomplish this? Nouwen suggests that we cultivate these three traits: "grief, forgiveness, and generosity" (128). To those I would add that we should commit ourselves to believing in resurrection. Believe in the possibility of second (and third and fourth and fifth) chances. Believe that the lost will be found. Believe that the Prodigal will return. Throw a fabulous party. And when you notice that someone is missing from the party, someone is standing in the shadows, stewing in resentment, anger, grief, envy--go get that person and invite them to the party. Remember that we are children of a God whose love we cannot begin to comprehend.

Model that behavior.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Praying for Those Who Don't Have Anyone to Pray for Them

I usually get to church early on Sundays.  My spouse is in the choir, and they spend the hour before church rehearsing.  I don't mind the extra time.  I read or sketch or work on church projects.

On Sunday, I read/skimmed Martha Grace Reese's Unbinding series (Unbinding Your Heart, Unbinding the Gospel, Unbinding Your Church).  My church is about to do the 40 days of prayer experience, and I've been asked to help lead it.

In some ways, I feel like there are many around who are better at prayer than I am.  There are those who seem to live their lives in constant prayer, while I often have to write it into my schedule.  There are those who can tell you--often at great length--about all the times that prayer changed everything.  I am riven with doubt.

Still, I will help lead the prayer time.  Perhaps it will be good to have someone like me on board.  Maybe I will help those out there who are skeptical.  I also plan to offer some non-traditional prayer prompts.

What will those be?  I have no idea.  I'll post them here once I know.

I did come across a good suggestion in Unbinding the Gospel:  remember to pray for those who have no one to pray for them (p. 115).

Our church has a prayer station in the back of the sanctuary where people can write the people we're praying for on blue cards.  Those cards are brought forward and we say their names during the prayers of intercession.

On Sunday, I was one of the readers--which meant I could offer an additional prayer.  I said, "We pray for all of those who don't have someone to write their name on a blue card."  I heard someone say "Amen."

Maybe I'll be able to help lead a church through 40 days of prayer after all.

Monday, March 25, 2019

The Midway Point of Lent

It is the long season of Lent, when we wait for our hearts to shift, just as the seasons are shifting.

Our hearts are brittle, even as they stretch towards something we can't quite identify.

Our hearts may feel like a container made of stone.

But even in that container, we find a reserve of holy water, a bit of love to sustain us through this season.

The purple paraments remind us that we're not yet ready to set the altar for the long green season where everything grows in a boundless way.

But we see the shoots of a new growth. 

We know that soon we'll be in a relentless battle against all the weeds that would strangle the work.  Let us rest in this season a bit longer before we commit to resurrection.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

What Does It Mean to Be Radical?

Last night, I had an interesting conversation with my pastor, who pointed out that people have left our local congregation for being too radical.  Then I realized we had very different (or are they so different?) ideas of what radical means for a congregation.

I suggested that although we're a radical congregation, as congregations go, we're not really radical in terms of our behavior.  We're not sheltering people in the country who don't have the proper papers and are in danger of being deported.  We're not chaining ourselves to detention centers to prevent their operation.  I thought of the Christian martyrs like Dietrich Boenhoeffer who decided that assassination was the morally correct response to his own desperate times.

My pastor, on the other hand, is deeply aware of what he would not be allowed to do in other churches.  We have a variety of charity and justice initiatives, even if we do not have many children in our pews.  We could try to start programs to attract young families, but my pastor has decided to lead the church in becoming more of what we already are, rather than twisting ourselves into pretzel shapes to attract those who aren't with us yet.

We are also a radical church in terms of whom we welcome.  It was at this church that I got to know a  transitioning, transgendered person for the first time.  It is at this church that we have a Muslim woman joining us.  We don't perform many marriages at this church, but we would marry people of the same gender.

I've been part of this church for almost a decade now, so I forget how radical these actions are for an organized church.  It's these social issues that are tearing many individual congregations and institutional churches apart.  It shouldn't surprise me--and it doesn't--to find out that people have left our church because of this direction of radical hospitality that we have taken.

But still, I wonder, is it enough? 

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Quotidian Mysteries that Reveal God

This morning I am thinking of all the mystics who have counseled us that we can find God in the ordinary actions of everyday life, particularly in our chores.

I'm thinking of this Zen proverb: "Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.  After enlightenment, chop wood, carry water."  I am thinking of more recent female mystics who think similarly about household chores.

Long ago, Kathleen Norris gave a talk which became a wonderful, small book, The Quotidian Mysteries:  Laundry, Liturgy, and Women's Work.  That book is packed away in a box in the cottage, but happily, the Internet is happy to give me some quotes.  Here's my favorite this morning:

“Laundry, liturgy and women's work all serve to ground us in the world, and they need not grind us down. Our daily tasks, whether we perceive them as drudgery or essential, life-supporting work, do not define who we are as women or as human beings.”

Can the same be true of our work drudgery?  I'm thinking of accreditation documents.  I like the original writing of the documents, but the revision process is exhausting too me:  making sure the writing is the same across forms, looking up the numbers and statistics, and fixing the formatting.  I start to get grumpy when I realize how much information is repeated.  I start to think about the huge document we're creating and how it represents not just what we're doing on our campus, but the tremendous amount of time it takes to put it all together.

This morning I woke up thinking about quotidian mysteries like that kind of writing task.  It's easy to see God when we write something that delights us.  Can we find God in writing that drains us?

Let me try:  as I think of how much of the writing of accreditation documents is revision, revision, look up something, revise again, let me remember that much of the work of creation is in those details.  I imagine God perfecting the design of a tree:  "This branch design didn't work just like I wanted:  the information isn't getting from the trunk to the leaves like I envisioned, so the leaves aren't the right shade of green.  Let me tweak this design."

Or would it be the transplanting of a tree design to another region?

I don't think I have the metaphor quite right.  Hmm.  Let me keep thinking.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Ephesians 2: Metaphors for the Body of Christ

This week, my off-lectionary church will be considering the second chapter of Ephesians. As I read this chapter several times, I was drawn to the imagery at the end of the chapter. Notice the language of building a structure: Christ is the cornerstone, and the prophets and apostles are the foundation. It’s a very different image from ones we might be used to hearing.

It wasn’t too long ago that we were thinking about the body of Christ, and how all of the body parts need to work together. You might be the eyelash of the body, which seems like an insignificant part. But if you didn’t have eyelashes, you’d constantly get dust in your eyes and have trouble seeing.

We’ve also been used to agricultural metaphors. If Christ is the vine, and we are the branches, what does that mean? If that vine bears fruit, what kind of fruit are we? We may think of the withered fig tree and what can be done.

Now we have a different metaphor, but it teaches us the same sort of lesson. We need a good foundation for a building to last through the decades and the centuries. But a good foundation isn’t enough.

A wall standing by itself is not a building that will shelter us. We need the presence of other walls to finish the building.

A roof without proper support won’t last long. Some of us are called to be the rafters, while others might be hardware (nails, screws, hurricane strapping) that keeps the frame holding together. All of that work won’t last long without something to protect the wood: tar paper, shingles, tiles, concrete.

The last verses of the chapter give us a building that functions as a metaphor on several levels. The church is made of members, much like a building is made of joists and beams and rafters and all of the elements that hold it all together. Ideally, the church is built on good foundational elements: Christ, ancient teachings, the wisdom of those who have studied intensely, the creative practices of those who delve deeply.

But the building also works as a metaphor for us as individuals. We are called to be church together, but this chapter also reminds us that God dwells in us, and as such, we can be temples for God.

It’s an interesting idea, the individual as a mobile temple by which God moves in the world. Here, too, we can be temples with a solid foundation, pilings of Christ and the apostles and the prophets. With a solid foundation, we won’t be destroyed by all the storm forces that will damage a flimsy structure.

I’m cautious about this metaphor because we live in a time where we’re told we need to look out for ourselves (and our nation) first and let the others fend for themselves. But history has told us over and over again that we are stronger when we stand together.

This message winds throughout this chapter from Ephesians. We are stronger when we stand together. When we stand together, we are so much more than a wall. We are a structure that prevails.

Thursday, March 21, 2019

Lenten Journaling Group: Week 2

Last night at my church, I led our journaling group through several exercises.

When I first got to the fellowship hall, I took a jar of shells collected through the years and laid them on a table:

As people arrived, I invited them to choose a shell that spoke to them.  We sat for a few minutes while others gathered, and then we began.

We started with prayer, and then I read the first chapter of Genesis (I skipped some of the middle days of creation).  We ended with God declaring everything good--very good--and then taking a day of rest.

We journaled for 10 minutes.

I then invited the group to the second table where they would choose from the tin of buttons,

some rectangles of cloth,

pieces of yarn, 

and spools of thread:

I gave some writing prompts:  what do we learn about God from considering these items? 

If you had to explain God to someone who hadn't ever heard of God, how would you use these elements?  

I reminded people that they could do whatever appealed to them:  create a story about the button that wanders away or make something out of the elements:

We journaled for 10 minutes, and towards the end, I reminded people of the Genesis story of creation and asked if we learned anything about creation from our own creating.

We had a few minutes for sharing.  We prayed, and then we ended our second full night of journaling together.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, March 24, 2019:

First Reading: Isaiah 55:1-9

Psalm: Psalm 63:1-8

Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 10:1-13

Gospel: Luke 13:1-9

In this week's Gospel, we get the parable of the fig tree, that poor fig tree who still hasn't produced fruit even though it's been 3 years. This Gospel gives us a space to consider our view of God and our view of ourselves.

Which vision of God is the one in your head? We could see God as the man who says, "Lo, these three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down; why should it use up the ground?" If we see God that way, and if we see ourselves as the fig tree, that's a scary proposition; we've got a few years to produce before God gives up on us.

A traditional approach to this parable might see God as the impatient one, and Jesus as the vinedresser who pleads the case for the poor little fig tree. I know that Trinitarian theology might lead us this direction, but I'm still uncomfortable with the idea of a God who gives up on humanity. Everything in Scripture--and the experiences of those who walked this path before us--shows us a God that pursues us, going so far as to take on human flesh and walk amongst us. This doesn't sound like a God who gives up after 3 years.

In an eye-opening conversation at a women's retreat in 2016, a pastor proposed this approach to the parable: what if God is the withered tree and humans are the manure?

It seems an essential question: how are we manure, for God, ourselves, and the world? And what manure do we need to nourish ourselves?

Maybe you've felt yourself in a fallow place spiritually. Or worse, maybe you've felt yourself sliding backwards, a withering on the vine. Maybe you started Lent with a fire in your heart, and you've burned out early. Maybe you've spent years thinking about church development, wondering what the Pentecostals have that you don't. Maybe you haven't been good at transforming yourself into a peace-loving person. Maybe you're more judgmental now than you were when you were your younger know-it-all self.

Look at that parable again. The fig tree doesn't just sit there while everyone gathers around, waiting for something to happen. The gardener gives it extra attention. The gardener digs around it to give the roots room to grow and gives it extra manure--ah, the magic of fertilizer! We, too, can be the vinedresser to our spiritual lives. And we don't have to resort to heroic measures. We don't have to start off by running away to a religious commune. Just a little spiritual manure is all it takes.

That spiritual manure can take many forms:  maybe we need to add a different activity, or maybe we need to do less.  The parable reminds us that it doesn't take much in times of time or money--we just need to rearrange the dirt around our roots and add some enrichment. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Monastic Al-Anon

Once, I had no trouble booking a retreat at Mepkin Abbey.  Back then, individual retreatents were likely to stay in these quarters:

Now, Mepkin Abbey has a beautiful, fairly new retreat center:

It's much harder to get a space for a retreat.  For over a year, I've gone to the site where one books online (also a fairly new development), and there's not a space to be had.

Late last week, I was writing to my two friends who have often met me there for a retreat.  I was strategizing for how we might snag a spot later in the summer, and then I went back to the Mepkin site and saw spaces in the Care for the Caregiver retreat. 

I read the description:  "To afford caregivers an opportunity to come away for a while, to rest and to reflect on who they are in the role of "caregiver." It will be a time to look back at when and how they took on the role of "companion" to someone who is ailing; where they are physically, emotionally, and spiritually in that role and how might they garner strength and fortitude to continue on this challenging journey."

At first, I thought the date conflicted with Synod Assembly.  I checked the calendar and realized that Synod Assembly was the week-end prior.

My soul lurched up in yearning.  And yet, I found myself feeling unworthy.  My two friends have much more intense caretaking duties than mine:  one has a mother with Alzheimer's who lives in her same house, and the other has two grown children with disabilities. 

The retreat had 10 spaces left, in a calendar with no spaces left.  So I felt less bad about claiming one of them.

My caregiving is a much more subtle, less visible kind of caretaking.  My spouse has some chronic conditions.  Most days, he's fairly functional.  But there's not many days where I don't find myself strategizing because of the conditions--some of that is on me, and some because of the conditions.  And I'm always thinking about the future as one of several tracks, and one of those tracks is young widowhood.

I am always aware that my situation could be so much worse--and that at some point in the future, it likely will be worse.  On the darker days, I think about some kind of support group, and yet, I feel like I hardly have time for the daily tasks of life, like grocery shopping.  Where would I find time for a support group?

I wrote to my friends about the possibility of this retreat, and in the hours before I heard back from them, I continued to feel pulled to this retreat.  When both friends said they would go, I wanted to jump for joy.

Is this God trying to tell me something?  Just my Mepkin longings which are never far from my surface?  Whatever it may be, I have registered for this retreat and gotten my leave request approved.

I am not good about accepting help or asking for support.  The U.S. doctrine of self-reliance has formed me.  In my brain, I hear the echoes of my maternal grandmother, "I don't want to be a bother."  Perhaps this retreat can show me a different way.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Travel's Lessons

Four weeks ago, I'd have been getting in the car for my drive to Savannah for the accreditation conference.  I had spent the weeks leading up to the trip feeling a bit of anxiety and not being sure exactly why--or knowing why and not having much control over these feelings.

I am always happy to have made the trip once I'm back--well, almost always.  I'm surprised that the thought of traveling makes me so anxious.  What happened to that young woman who used to declare that she'd be just fine as long as she could throw her pillow, her running shoes, and a good book in the car?

That woman is decades older now and understands all that can go wrong.  That woman now worries about the humans and the work left behind.  That woman now longs to be several places at once.

I have these ideas of traveling on the mind in part because I will be traveling next week:  it's AWP time, and I decided that I needed to force myself to go.  I'm moving out of my comfort zone with this trip across the country to Portland, Oregon.  I will be meeting a grad school friend there, so I won't be completely alone.  And I have resources.  But it's not like last year, when the conference was in Tampa.  If something went wrong, I wasn't that far from home.

But things likely won't go wrong.  And if they do, I'll figure out what to do.  These lessons are some of the more important ones that traveling teaches us.

Now for the tasks of this week:  it's the last week of Winter quarter.  I have accreditation documents to finish.  Let me begin all of this with my bread run to Publix.  Students still need bread and treats, no matter where we are in the quarter.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Tilling a Rocky, Thorny Soil: The Feast Day of St. Patrick

Today is the feast day of St. Patrick, perhaps one of the most famous saints. Many people will celebrate this day by drinking green beer, watching a parade, drinking more green beer, baking soda bread, drinking more green beer, eating corned beef and cabbage, drinking more green beer, and drinking more green beer.

But what can we learn from those early Irish saints like Saint Patrick? How can they inform our spiritual lives?

If you looked at the early life of St. Patrick, you would not think that he was on a path to be a great leader of the early church. He was born into a noble family, kidnapped, and sold into slavery — an experience which would later make him successful in God’s mission in ways he never could have anticipated. Because of his time as a slave, he could understand the language when he returned to bring Christianity to Ireland.

Later scholars have suggested that Patrick and his compatriots were sent to minister to the Christians who were already there, not to conquer the natives. Other scholars have speculated that one of the reasons that Christianity was so successful in Ireland was because Patrick took the parts of pagan religions that appealed most to its followers and showed how those elements were also present in Christianity--or perhaps incorporated them into Christianity as practiced in Ireland.

All scholars seem to agree: Patrick was essential in establishing Christianity in Ireland. And he wouldn't have been so effective, had he not spent time there as a slave, which meant he learned the language and the customs of the country.

So, when we despair over our bad fortune, perhaps we can remember St. Patrick, born into a noble family, sold into slavery--an experience which would later make him successful in God's mission in ways he never could have anticipated.

In many ways, modern people are living in as distant an outpost of empire as those ancient Celtic monks. Many of us are far from the corridors of power, whether they be in the U.S., in China, or in India. Most Christians reading this post are far from the places where Christianity flourishes today, in parts of Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

But instead of despairing and longing for the mythical glory days of past times when the Church was more influential in the U.S., perhaps we should think of ourselves as Celtic monks, trying to till a very rocky, thorny soil. We should take comfort and encouragement from how much God can accomplish, even in the most unlikely circumstances. There’s plenty of transformative work for us to do today.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Reading Leviticus and Deuteronomy Again for the First Time in Decades

On Tuesday, before I went to the BOLD Justice rally, I read the texts that my off-lectionary church will be considering this Sunday:

Leviticus 19: 2, 9-18 and Deuteronomy 24: 10-21.

Just for fun I read the rest of the chapters that contain the readings. I was struck by all the rules and the laws. I expected to be overwhelmed: these books are famous for laying down the law.

But Tuesday night, as I read these chapters again for the first time in decades, I was struck by something new. The laws never get very far away from an ethics of care. We are leaving fruit on the vine so that the less fortunate have something to glean. We are allowed to take care of ourselves and our families. But we also have to take care of the less fortunate. And then we have a few laws on what can be mixed and what cannot (for example, not forcing the mating of different animals). And then it’s back to care for the immigrant, the widow, the poor, the child.

I drove to the BOLD Justice rally as I heard the news about the ways that the very wealthy broke laws to get their children into elite schools. It's an amazing tale of deceit, which shouldn't surprise me by now. I'm hearing talk of people who claimed that their children needed extra accommodations, which meant their child could have extra time on a test--in some cases, the person who was assisting the "disabled" student changed the test. There was even one person who took the test for another person. And there were sports records that were faked.

All sorts of thoughts swirled through my head about the way we treat our children, about the advantages we want for them, about what we will do to make sure they get as many advantages as possible. In this aspect, the rich are no different.

It was interesting to compare what we are doing with BOLD Justice to all the news we hear. There’s precious little news of people advocating for the less fortunate. Very few of us are going to great lengths for someone else’s children.

At the end of the rally, a group of us stayed with little Layton, while his mom Jeannine made her way back from the front of the sanctuary. I want to believe that any group of people would have done that, especially if they knew the child who had become separated from his mom. If I watch the news, it’s easy to believe that we’re quickly becoming immune to the cries of children who are separated from their parents.

Layton’s story is a happy one, but we all know that many children will not be that lucky. Even the wealthy parents who tried to make sure their children got an elite education were operating out of an ethics of care for their own children—that ethics got warped somewhere along the way, but it started in good intentions, I am sure.

But now, as in ancient times, not every child is that fortunate. Our earliest Biblical texts remind us that God expects us to care for the less fortunate. We aren’t expected to give everyone every kind of advantage; Leviticus and Deuteronomy talk about the correct way to treat slaves, after all. These texts aren’t calling us to radical redistribution of wealth and resources. But these texts remind us that we can be fair even if we can’t be equal. These texts call us to an ethics of care—and modern life reminds us of what happens when we abandon that ethics of care.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Prayers after the New Zealand Shootings at a Mosque

I awoke to news of shootings in two mosques in New Zealand.  As I have written on the news of another shooting, I have no words.  Or, more accurately, I have words, but it feels so futile.

A shooting at a religious site is more shocking to me than other shootings.  I am sad to report that I've become a bit used to school shootings, although I always force myself to remember that school shootings did not used to be so common.  I went to high school in Knoxville, Tennessee.  The high school parking lot was full of trucks with gun racks, some of them with guns in them--but we didn't shoot each other.  We were much more creative.

But a religious site still makes me pause.  And today, shootings in New Zealand, not a common place for stories of violence of any kind.  I've always given New Zealand all sorts of credit:  first to give women the right to vote and resistance to the nuclear arms race, especially in the 1980's.

And it's not difficult to imagine what was in the shooter's manifesto that he (it's always a he) left.  I'm glad that authorities have decided not to release it.

So, once again, we pray.  We pray for all of those minorities who now feel a bit more targeted because of the shootings. I pray for the rest of us too, because these acts of violence make us all feel less safe. I pray for all the tortured souls who pick up weapons to deal with whatever consumes them.
But above all, I pray with yearning for the day when the promise is fulfilled, when Creation is fully redeemed, when we no longer fear this kind of horror.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Report on Our First Lenten Journaling Session

Months ago, I volunteered to lead a Lenten journaling group that would meet every Wednesday of Lent.  We did a quick session before Ash Wednesday.  Last night was our first longer session.

We worked our way through an ancient practice, lectio divina. First, I read this passage out loud, and everyone listened to see what words and phrases leapt out at them:

1 Corinthians 3: 10-16: 10 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building on it. Each builder must choose with care how to build on it. 11For no one can lay any foundation other than the one that has been laid; that foundation is Jesus Christ. 12Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— 13the work of each builder will become visible, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each has done. 14If what has been built on the foundation survives, the builder will receive a reward. 15If the work is burned, the builder will suffer loss; the builder will be saved, but only as through fire. 16 Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?

We spent 3 minutes in silent contemplation, and then I read the passage again. For 10 minutes, we responded in whatever way we wanted; most people seemed to use a combination of words and images.

I read the passage again, and we spent another 10 minutes in individual responding. Some of us started a new page, while others continued to work on their first response.

To close, I read the passage one more time, and we took 3 minutes to finish our responses. We then spent some time discussing any insights that we had.

Words that jumped out at people:
God's temple
revealed with fire
God's Spirit dwells in you

We talked about the unsettling aspect of this passage, the idea that some of what we're building will be destroyed. We talked about the fire.  We talked about the idea of building on the work that has already been done. We talked a bit about our process too: did we use words or images first?

As we worked our way through the night, I was also thinking about my response as a group leader.  I had explained the timing of it all, but I still felt this odd unease when people stopped before time was up.  But I noticed that some people paused and then returned to their work.

I was happy that I, too, was able to respond, even though I was keeping track of time.  First I wrote down the words, and then I started to draw:

I was surprised by the different fire imagery that emerged.  There's the obvious flames.  But there's also an image that looks like a candle or a lamp--and then the star, too, is a flame.

It was an interesting night.  I'm looking forward to next week.   

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, March 17, 2019:

First Reading: Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

Psalm: Psalm 27

Second Reading: Philippians 3:17--4:1

Gospel: Luke 13:31-35

This Gospel is one of those that might tempt us moderns to feel superior. We're not like that wicked Jerusalem, are we? We don't stone the prophets and others who are sent to us. We're a civilized people.

But think of how many ways there are to kill the messengers of God. Let's start with our individual Bibles. Do you know where yours is? Have you touched it this week? This month? This year?  Of course, we might argue that the Bible app on our phone makes it less important that we have a paper Bible on the shelf.  But do we use it?  We can look up any chunk of the Bible online and read it in multiple versions.  But do we?

One of the main ways God has to speak to us is by way of the Scripture. And if we don't read our Bibles, we lose out on a major avenue of communication with God. You might protest that you hear the Bible plenty when you go to church on Sunday. And that's great. Far too many churches have very little scripture as part of the weekly service. But it's not enough. We'd be better off if we read our Bibles every day. It's far too easy to be seduced by the glittering secular world; a daily diet of Bible reading can help us remember God's claim on us and our purpose in the world.

But the Bible isn't the only way we can learn about God and our place in the community. We can read the works of other holy people. There are plenty of books out there that can help us be more faithful. My reading list is fairly eclectic; if you're new to this, I'd start with the works of Henri Nouwen, Kathleen Norris, Madeleine L'Engle, and Thomas Merton, among many others.

You could also listen for God. Many of us are pretty good at talking to God, especially if we're in trouble. But we're not very good at listening. Henri Nouwen suggests that we take 10 minutes a day to quiet our minds, to sit and just listen. You might also keep a journal, which can be a very valid form of active meditation for busy Westerners. Don't just write down what happens to you during the day. Keep a list of things for which you're grateful. Keep a list of your heartfelt desires. Make a space for any sorts of intuition you have. Ask God for insight. Keep a keen ear for what God replies. Write it down so you won't forget.

There are many ways to stone the prophets that God sends us.  One is by ignoring them.  Another is by ridiculing. There are many effective ministers and churches out there. Just because one church's style doesn't work for you doesn't mean that you should work to tear it down.  There are many ways of being faithful. We should all be about the same business: being a light for Christ in the world, so that we can help people find their way. If someone else's techniques work, we should celebrate that.

We stone the prophets that God sends to us by refusing to pay attention. Look at your life. To whom do you pay highest allegiance? Your God? Your boss? Your nation? Your family? What keeps your loyalties split? How can you find your way back to God?

God tries to get our attention in all sorts of ways. We're prompt to dismiss our strange dreams, both the night kind and the daydreaming kind.  We try to ignore the strange yearnings inside us that might be God trying to show us a vision of a different life. We're quick to believe everything our culture tells us about who we should be, and much too quick to dismiss God's set of alternate values.

In this time of Lent, we can repent for all the times we've metaphorically stoned the prophets. We can turn our attention to God and once again, try to be more faithful. God longs to gather us, as a mother hen gathers her chicks.   Come be part of the brood.

Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Saving Soles

My church shares worship space with a variety of other congregations, and occasionally we partner on initiatives.  One of our Spanish congregations is collecting shoes for Venezuela.

I first heard about this call for shoes during a week-end of power failures of all sorts, both the electrical grid and the getting humanitarian aid to the desperate and the visionary leading of a country.  I wondered how the shoes would get to the feet that need them.  I wondered if we should be doing more.

I think of my own shoes that still have so much wear in the soles, but may have some worn places in the lining.  I do tend to wear my shoes until they have holes somewhere.  Those are the shoes I love.

But of course, I also have shoes that never quite worked.  Those I can donate.

It's easy to feel paralyzed at the scope of the need in the world.  I like a project like this one:  I can look through my closet to see if I have shoes that others might need more than I do.

If I let myself think about all the things needed by all the souls in the world, I'll become completely overwhelmed.  If I focus on protecting some soles, I'll be able to do a small piece of good.

In a recent Facebook meditation, Dr. Megan Rohrer says, "Jehosheba’s mother had a lot of men killed in order to ensure that she would be on top of the royal ladder. Jehosheba secretly kept Joash alive. This story reminds us that women can be oppressors too. When fixing the whole world feels too overwhelming, remember Jehosheba changed the world by doing the best she could for one person. If you are someone more likely to notice those you couldn’t help than the few you could, consider forgiving yourself this week."

It's a good reminder.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Hurricane Appeals

Last night, I finally did something I've meant to do for months.  I have been putting off writing an appeal to our windstorm insurance company--such a huge task to look through all the paper I've accumulated as we've done the various tasks. We already got the settlement from the flood insurance company, but we had a substantial amount of other hurricane damage too--$22,000 + as it turns out. I know that, because I sorted paperwork and wrote the appeal letter yesterday. I'm glad I waited until later in the day to do it. It left me somewhat unsettled again--all that damage and the knowledge that hurricane season is right around the corner.

I also got caught up on my grading this week-end--part of that had to happen, because grades are due today.  They are them turned in.

Now I need to turn my attention to figuring out dates for the class that starts on Wednesday.  The work is never ending. 

When I look back on these days and wonder why I wasn't writing and creating more, let me remember that online teaching, even though it is much more convenient than on-ground teaching, takes a chunk of time, and some parts of the term take more time than others.

Let me also remember that hurricane repair takes a lot of time.  I was struck as I sorted the paperwork by how much correspondence has been required.

And let me also remember the despair.  Some people might revel in the fact that they got to make home repairs and changes--all funded by insurance funds.  I am not that person.  I periodically become bogged in despair.  Even when the repairs are over, years later I can hear a song or smell something that takes me back to the repair days, and I weep.

I am glad that I didn't do the appeal letter on Friday night.  I am glad that I was able to be productive in a variety of ways through the week-end.  Now I must get ready for this heavy-duty week that is ahead of me. 

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Time Change Grumpies

I am feeling grumpy and frazzled today.  I got over 8 hours of sleep; I should feel better.  Let me collect some thoughts before church.

--Last night we ushered in Daylight Savings Time.  A time change always discombobulates me, no matter whether we're going ahead or back.

--This morning, I have spent much time comparing microwaves, trying to determine whether or not a convection oven feature would be worth several hundred extra dollars.  I'm about to say no, but I don't want to make a decision while grumpy.

--Yesterday afternoon, I spent much time looking at drape possibilities.  We also ordered the backsplash and the undercounter lights.  It feels good to be making progress.

--Will this be the week we get countertops?

--I had a lovely morning yesterday with my quilt group, which meets much more irregularly than we once did.  There is a soothing quality to stitching.

--I came home and finished How to Stop Time by Matt Haig--a wonderful meditation on aging and love.  How would life change if a human life was many centuries, not many decades?

--I also got grading done and grades turned in for the class that ended before Spring Break.

So, let me feel good about what I've done.  Let me get ready for church.  Let me keep trying to keep calm and grounded and centered.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Ash Wednesday Journaling

I am tired, tired, tired today.  It's been a week of phone calls about home repairs, a week of planning a student event at work, a week of strategizing the writing of accreditation documents, a week of covering a class for an adjunct who got a full-time job, a week of 2 evenings at church, a week of feeling ever-more-behind with my online classes.

Let me focus on the joys.  Let me remember the students who were so thrilled that we grilled burgers (both meat and veggie) for them.  Let me remember the people who commented on the positive energy of the event.  Let me also remember Ash Wednesday, before it gets away from me.

I arrived at church on Ash Wednesday with the makings of a dinner:  chili that my spouse made on Monday, brie cheese, 3 kinds of bread, and salad.  I was meeting with a journaling group that I'm leading for Lent.  I wasn't sure what to expect.

I was surprised by the turnout, although some of those may have been there as something to do before church.  We didn't have as much time last night as we will for other Wednesdays in Lent.

We ate our meal, while we talked about the logistics of the coming weeks.  We decided that we didn't want a meal to be part of our meeting.  We talked about the best time to meet.  We talked about whether or not we wanted to share (for the most part, we said no).  I asked about whether or not we wanted prompts in between the Wednesdays that we will meet (yes) and the best delivery method (e-mail, not Facebook or blog).  And then I passed out the markers and launched our first session.

I invited people to make marks with the markers and to see how the colors blend.  I also reminded them that the back of the paper might give them interesting insight.

For the actual journaling, I reminded people that they could work in markers or pen or pencil.  I invited them to use words, shapes, and/or colors.  I explained the principle of free writing:  just keep going, and if you have nothing more to say, write that until you have something more to say, until insight bubbles up.

I asked question #1:  What do you hope that the weeks of Lent will bring you?

Four minutes later, I asked question #2, which could be a variation of question #2:  During the season of Lent, what do you hope for when you think about your relationship with God?

And then it was time for our first meeting to come to a close.  I didn't have time to journal with the group, but later, in church, I made this sketch:

Friday, March 8, 2019

Thinking of Sarai on International Women's Day

Today is International Women's Day. I recently wrote this essay about Abram and Sarai; my pastor is off lectionary, and it was interesting to return to Genesis 12 for the first time in decades. This story contains so many elements, and it reverberates with many issues today. I read it completely differently than I did when I was a child reading my way through the book of Genesis.

This passage is one of the ones that people use to justify a Jewish homeland, to justify Israel. There are many justifications for Israel, but an ancient religious text should not be one of them. Then, as now, one person’s new homeland creates another person’s displacement.

Abram and Sarai, although blessed by God, are not immune from displacement either. When a famine makes them leave their adopted home of Canaan, Abram and Sarai are looking for a new place to live. Then, as now, they don’t leave because they want a higher living standard. They leave because they want to eat. They leave because they have to do this to survive.

Long ago, when I first heard this story, I didn’t think about the gendered elements. Sarai is at risk because she is female; Abram is at risk because he is her husband. They create a subterfuge, which results in Sarai being taken by the Pharaoh.

I’m sure that when I was younger, I saw this as the equivalent of winning some sort of contest: Sarai gets to be queen!

Now that I am older, with the benefit of lots of social science research, I see her as a victim of trafficking. Because of her desperate circumstances, she agrees to precarious circumstances. We should remember how little power women had, then as now.

Let me be more blunt, since there won’t be underage children reading these words. I now read about the beautiful Sarai, and I know that she will endure rape, and likely at the hands of many men. She will not have the power to refuse. My skin crawls, and I want to vomit at the thought of this kind of torture.

We think we have come a long way as humans, and we have. But it’s important to know that slavery is at an all-time high in human history. There’s never been an easier time to own a slave. We know that women and children are valuable primarily because there are men who will pay to rape them. We know that humans don’t do a good job of protecting the most vulnerable.

My heart breaks for Abram and Sarai, even as my heart breaks for separated families today. How will they stitch their lives together again? How will Sarai heal from her nightmare? How will Abram be of use to her in her recovery?

But in the end, they are the lucky ones. Pharaoh doesn’t kill them, and they are free to go. They have each other. It’s more than many refugee families will ever have.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, March 10, 2019:

First Reading: Deuteronomy 26:1-11

Psalm: Psalm 91:1-2, 9-16

Second Reading: Romans 10:8b-13

Gospel: Luke 4:1-13

This week's text is the classic tale of Satan tempting Jesus in the desert. Jesus goes to the desert to find out "what it meant to be Jesus" (in the words of Frederick Beuchner). Jesus goes to the desert, that scorched, barren land. We begin our journey with Ash Wednesday, with scorched ashes from last season's palms that we used on Palm Sunday. Richard Pervo points out that it is a journey that starts in ash and ends in flames (think Pentecost). Along the way of our spiritual path, we will face similar temptations to the ones that Jesus faced.

The first temptation is so basic: basic sustenance, stones turned into bread. Most of us in the first world find ourselves caught up in a whirlwind of earning money. Why do we earn money? Well, of course, we need to cover our basic needs: food, shelter, clothing. But most of us have far more than we'll ever use. If you're like me, you have a multiple sizes of clothes in your closet, and even if you stayed within one size, you've probably got a month's worth of clothes that you could wear before you'd have to repeat. If you're like me, you've got a month's worth of food in the fridge and pantry, even when it's not hurricane season. If you're like most Americans, you have several cars, several computers, several televisions. Maybe you even have several houses.

In this time of Lent, it's worth the time to assess our relationship with our stuff. All of our possessions require time and upkeep and money. What might we gain by going back to the basics of providing for ourselves what we need and sharing our excess with others? How can we trust that God will provide for more of our needs so that we don't have to work ourselves into a state of total exhaustion to do it?

Jesus is then tempted with power, and it's the rare person I've met who doesn't wrestle with questions of status and fame--and the power that comes with it. Even if you wouldn't sell your family or your self to be on TV, you've probably felt this temptation--or envy, because you weren't someone getting offers of fame and fortune.

We don't seem to have very many people who are famous because of their breathtaking charity or their ability to bring light to a darkening world. In a world where it's possible to be famous for being famous or related to famous people, how might our culture be different if we celebrated those who had brought healing energy into the world?

The third temptation shows the danger of succumbing to the second temptation: once we become wealthy and powerful, we're likely to forget that we're not God. We use our money to insulate us, but we forget how fortunate we are to have that money. We begin to think that we earn that money because we're so talented, so capable, so educated--for many of us, the fact that we have one job over another is largely a matter of luck.

In our society, money makes us feel powerful. Fame makes us feel powerful. Acclaim makes us feel powerful. And these temptations take us away from God, where the true power lies. We want to think we can do everything on our own. We want to be like God--all powerful. We need to remember the words of John the Baptist: "I am not the Messiah."

We could also read this temptation as the yearning to control God. How often do we pray in an attempt to control God? Maybe we pray for specific results to a problem. Maybe we pray for things we want, even if it's something that seems good, like an end to world hunger. Most of us aren't very patient with God's time scale. We wish God would just hurry up and show us the Divine Plan.

We need to look to the model of our savior, who also wrestled with temptation. We need to be resolute in our refusal.

The beauty of the cyclical nature of liturgical life is that it is full of chances to turn around. Even if you recognize that you've given in to these temptations or the many other temptations the world offers, it's not too late. God calls us to return. God gives us any number of welcome home parties. God waits patiently, like the father of the prodigal son. And God knows that we will stray again. Like keeping to a sensible eating plan, this spiritual path requires more vigilance than we can sustain all the time. And yet, the struggle to wage this spiritual warfare will yield results eventually.

Welcome to Lent, the season of ash and penitence. Repent, return, retool your lives. It is time again to commit to resurrection, to submit to the purifying flames of Pentecost. Turn away from the ashes and towards the light.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Ruined Stars: An Ash Wednesday Meditation

Today is Ash Wednesday, the day in the Liturgical year that reminds us that we are dust, and all too soon, we'll return to dust. Those of us who go to Ash Wednesday services will have a cross smudged on our foreheads, a cross of ash ideally made from burning the palm branches from the previous year's Palm Sunday. We hear some variation of these words: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

You can call yourself a creature made out of the ruins of stars (true!), but you're dust all the same.

You say you're unfamiliar with Ash Wednesday? Are you one of the bajillion people who celebrated Mardi Gras yesterday or maybe you went further and had yourself a season of Carnivale? You have participated in the liturgical year without perhaps even realizing it. Those holidays arose as a response to the liturgical season of Lent, which begins with Ash Wednesday. In much earlier church times, Lent was a time of discipline, of giving up, of penitence. Many Christians, if they were wealthy enough to afford the items in the first place, gave up sugar and meat and fat and alcohol. So, as the season of Lent approached, they had to get all those items out of the house--thus, a festive party opportunity!

Yesterday, my campus celebrated Mardi Gras, sort of. We had beads, but no festive drinks. We bought charcoal grills the day before, and my boss, the executive director of the campus, spent the afternoon grilling burgers for all. We had salad and veggie burgers, and two kinds of cake. They were sheet cakes--carrot and red velvet--that one can buy at Costco type stores. In other words, they were fairly simple, but some people acted as if they were eating the food of the gods. It was a hectic day, and it took days out of my work week to plan and shop, but it was satisfying to see people having such a good time.

Some might ask why my focus wasn't more academic; some might wonder if I was avoiding the true work. I have no idea. I know that some of our students need the food. I know that some of our students need to feel more stitched in to the campus. I know that some of our students see the campus as their only source of stability. These kinds of events help foster a good morale, and therefore, I have hopes that these kinds of events improve retention. I have no way of measuring my theory, no measurable outcomes that I can definitively link to campus co-curricular activities.

They also bring me joy. Let me not underestimate that factor. The joy keeps me going through the less fun aspects of the job.

And now, the season of penitence. It also happens to be the season of a lot of writing of accreditation documents. This pairing makes sense to me.

Behold the words of ancient wisdom:

"Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return." We walk this planet for such a short time. This high, holy day reminds us of that fact--viscerally. We are a marked people.

Later in the day, I will lead a journaling class at church before Ash Wednesday service. Here's my favorite photo of ashes on the forehead, which happens to be my forehead after the 2014 service:

Here's a quote from Henri Nouwen to start your day. It's from A Cry for Mercy: "Our temptation is to be so impressed by our sins and failings and so overwhelmed by our lack of generosity that we get stuck in a paralyzing guilt. It is the guilt that says 'I am too sinful to deserve God's mercy.' It is the guilt that leads to introspection instead of directing our eyes to God. It is the guilt that has become an idol and therefore a form of pride. Lent is the time to break down this idol and to direct our attention to our loving Lord. The question is: 'Are we like Judas, who was so overcome by his sin that he could not believe in God's mercy any longer and hanged himself, or are we like Peter who returned to his Lord with repentance and cried bitterly for his sins?' The season of Lent, during which winter and spring struggle with each other for dominance, helps us in a special way to cry out for God's mercy."

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

The Transition from Epiphany to Lent

Here we are as the season shifts from Epiphany to Lent.  Some of us will celebrate Shrove Tuesday--pancakes for all!  Some of us will have even more fun with Mardi Gras and its more extreme celebration of Carnival.

But those of us who are poets have much to work with:  stars that appear suddenly, ashes, transfigurations of all sorts.  I like the idea that human bodies are composed of decomposed stars. 

We think of Transfiguration Sunday as this transcendent moment on the mountain--and it is. But the important part of the story, one that may be overlooked, is that we don't get to stay on the mountain. We can't build our booths up there. We have to come back to the muck and the mess.

Our lives are made up of so much muck and mess. And Ash Wednesday reminds us that this muck and mess dries up eventually--we're ash, and all too soon, we'll blow away.  In cosmic time or geological time, we're here for a blip.

Transfiguration Sunday reminds us that God has other plans. God can take dust and create a world. God can take the dust of all our dashed hopes and turn them into a creation of glowing wonder.

I tend to think of Ash Wednesday metaphors in terms of what is decomposing: stars, bodies, all sorts of biological matter. But decomposing takes many forms.  I'm thinking of the loss of history, the layers we build upon, the deconstruction of buildings to create the structures we prefer, the concrete that smothers the land.  I'm thinking about how dreams decompose.

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

Monday, March 4, 2019

Installation Art for Transfiguration Sunday

Over the past several years, I've really enjoyed thinking about different ways of decorating the sanctuary--beyond paraments and banners and flowers.  There's a fine balance--I don't want the focal elements to be too distracting.  But I do want to see if I can create something non-verbal and non-musical that can add to people's understanding of the Gospel, that can help foster a different attitude.

Yesterday was Transfiguration Sunday, a festival day where we celebrate Jesus going up a mountain with a selection of the disciples.  While there, his clothes and face glow, and Moses and Elijah (dead prophets) appear.

I wanted to create some sort of piece that would speak to that.  I had shimmering gold cloth and gold ribbons and lights.  I had a vision for a piece suspended high, but I wasn't sure how to do it.

Then I saw my wedding veil, with its wired headpiece, and I had a plan.  I got to work an hour before the Sunday service started, and created this:

It's not exactly what I had in mind, but nothing ever is.  As I developed my plan through the week, I worried that it would evoke something different:  a ghost or something Christmas-y, or something from a wedding.

Here's how it looks from a distance:

I like that it evokes the crown that Jesus will soon wear after his transfiguring time on the mountain top:  the crown of thorns.  I like that I used Christmas lights and ribbons to end the season of Epiphany.

And then after church, I took it all down:  time to prepare for the much more somber time of Lent.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

A Poem for Transfiguration Sunday

Transfiguration Sunday puts me in mind of many things, the ways we long to be transfigured, the ways that life can transfigure us. As I've gotten older, I've realized how many ways life is fragile, and that realization itself has transformed me. I'm not going to get seethingly angry, especially about things that are out of my control. Life is very, very short, and we are not here very long.

Those of you who read my poems, my blog posts, any of my writing at all--you recognize this theme.

It's also interesting to me the many ways that we move through the liturgical year and the resonances that my haunt us. I am getting to the age when I know more people who have had cancer than haven't.  It's also the time of year that is the anniversary of a different friend's mother's death after an agonizing struggle with breast cancer that moved to the brain.

Was I thinking of that friend and her mother when I wrote the poem below? Probably.

This poem was published in The Healing Muse. It's part of my series of poems where I imagine Jesus moving through our modern lives (going to spin class, playing putt putt or softball, helping with hurricane clean up).

Transfiguration Sunday on the Cancer Ward

He waits with them because who knows
better how disconcerting
it is to discern one’s disjointed bones
dissolving into water. He remembers
how it feels to be forsaken.
He remembers feeling life flow out of him,
only a husk of his former humanity remaining.

Here, he can’t do much.
In a world of free will, cancer cells can multiply,
bright sons of the morning who would rather reign
in hell than serve in heaven.
Here on the cancer ward, he can’t do
much, but he does what he can.

He brings ice chips and water to those annoyed
by their drought desert mouths.
He offers consolation to the woman who complains
that she can see all her bones through her translucent skin.
He offers tales of transfiguration,
and holds out the hope of resurrection.
He reminisces with those who are too far
gone to remain on the earthly plane much longer.
They trade tales of what they’ll miss most:
crisp sheets on a fresh-made bed,
long lingering meals,
birdsong in the morning,
the change in light that signals a new season,
homemade bread,
the soft rains and gentle sunsets,
a perfect bottle of wine.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Women's History Month Begins

It's been a long time since I've been on a traditional college campus during the month of March.  I wonder if Women's History Month is still celebrated at all.  I realize that March has other appeals for traditional campuses:  basketball competitions and spring breaks and such.

In churches, we also have a lot going on in March.  The season of Lent always takes place during March, and in many years, we have Transfiguration Sunday and Ash Wednesday too.  Black History Month in February has less competing with it.

What would a church celebrating Women's History Month look like?  Would we have a celebration of feminist theology?  Would we change the pronouns of God to feminine ones?  Would we read Bible verses that give us female imagery for the Divine?  Would we look at female saints?

On this first day of Women's History Month, let us give thanks to the foremothers who have gone before us.  Let us resolve to look for ways to celebrate that heritage.  Let us be inspired to be lanterns to later ages.