Thursday, July 18, 2024

Camp at Midweek

It has been a whirlwind week, in some ways.  Working with middle schoolers at camp leaves me more exhausted than any other experience so far this summer, and in fact, it may be the single most exhausting thing I ever do.  It has its peak moments, like Vespers on Monday, and its low points, like leading the group through Bible Study yesterday.

We are in Bischoff Lodge, which is the unairconditioned large gathering building that is part of the Wilderness cabin area.  We have 55 middle schoolers, 9 counselors, one area director, and the two of us leading the group.  That's A LOT of people for a space that's not designed for that many people.  And did I mention that it's not air conditioned?

On Tuesday, we had them go outside and see who could build the tallest, most secure structure out of materials that they could find (think sticks, branches, stones).  They seemed to have the most fun doing that, and it was the time when most of them were most engaged.

It was quite a contrast to yesterday, when they were listless and sullen.  I looked at the group as my co-leader was reading the story book, and I could not point to one who was engaged.  Maybe they were, and I just couldn't tell.  But I doubt it.

The curriculum involves a different story book each day, the kind of book that would be popular with first or second graders.  I'm not sure it's the best choice for middle schoolers, but mine is a minority opinion.

This morning, we'll try something different.  We'll send them outside to create something out of materials that they find--a sculpture, a 2 D picture--that represents one of the stories we've read together, either the Bible stories or the story books.

Tomorrow morning they assemble the final art project, a paper lantern, made of frames made of popsicle sticks, to make 4 square sides, and paper that's like parchment paper that one uses to line baking sheets.

I feel a bit of despair that we haven't done a good job.  I think we've done our best with what we've been given, but it's hard to believe that any campers are leaving enriched by our experience together.

Or maybe I'm being too hard on myself.  Our Vespers service felt like it was more meaningful, and we've had a few moments in our morning teaching that seemed to break through the lethargy.

I always tell myself that it's hard to know what really takes root, and we won't know.  But I'm pretty sure that nothing took root yesterday.  I hope today will be different.

Tuesday, July 16, 2024

Vespers in the Dark

Yesterday was the most full day as a C3ARE leader at Lutheridge.  The C3ARE leaders are the ones who do the Bible study, along with one Vespers service.  We are also invited to go along with any other activities, from swimming to crafts to various outings.

Unlike last year, when we only had 8 middle schoolers, we have a huge group of middle schoolers, 55 of them, 55!  Our meeting space is barely large enough.  We're indoors, at least, but it's not air conditioned, and with all those bodies in the room, it gets muggy by the end.  Our C3ARE sessions will be slightly later each morning, so I'm not looking forward to the warmer weather at the end of the week.

Yesterday morning left me a bit frustrated--it's hard to get everyone to focus.  And then we went to lunch, where everyone sang "Happy Birthday" to me, which was cool.  But the best part of the camp day for me was the Vespers service, which we planned.

We thought about the fact that Vespers for our set of campers, the Night Owls, is much later than for others.  It would be dark, so we talked about light and dark.  First we talked about how we tend to talk about God in terms of light blazing forth in terms of angel choirs and such.  I asked how else God's message comes to us in our Christmas stories.  I was so happy that the kids talked about the wise men and the star and Mary--God coming to us in the dark.

We're doing an experiment with seeds.  I wrapped some basil seeds in a wet paper towel, which I put in a plastic bag and put into a dark box.  We'll unwrap them in a few days when we talk more about how God works in the dark.

I had in mind Barbara Brown Taylor's Learning to Walk in the Dark, and I wondered if it would have a good meditation to read, but it was too late to get that book.  So instead, I created a guided meditation of sorts, doing some focused breathing and paying attention as we had less and less lights on in the Lake Pavilion.  We ended up with everyone at the railings, while I guided them to look up at the night sky, look out at the lake, look down at the ground, to remember that God is all around us and messages from God are all around us.

Then we sang "This Little Light of Mine."  One guy really wanted to sing "Kumbaya," so we did that too.  And then it was time to turn on the lights and have a closing prayer.  

Afterward, the area director counselor told me how much she appreciated the Vespers service and how it was so meditative, an exercise in mindfulness, which she really needed.  So, at least it worked for someone.  But I also felt that the middle school campers were much more engaged in the evening than they were in the morning, which was cool.  

Maybe that momentum will follow through today.  But even if it doesn't, I'll hope that something meaningful breaks through, even as I understand that I am unlikely to ever know for sure.

Monday, July 15, 2024

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 21, 2024:

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

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

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

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

Most of us live such busy lives that we have built no time for retreats. Even on vacation, many of us are still working. We're still plugged in by way of our cell phones and laptops. And most of us don't take vacations with the aim of spiritual renewal, which is a shame. Instead, we spend huge amounts of money going to theme parks or once-in-a-lifetime destinations--and then we complain that we can't afford a week-end retreat. 

But we can pray.  We can pray in the midst of a fancy vacation, or in solitude, or when we're surrounded by crowds, or whenever we need to recharge. 

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

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

Our mission is the same as Christ's. Like Jesus, we're surrounded by hordes of hungry people. Broken people need us (and perhaps we feel pursued by them).

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

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

Sunday, July 14, 2024

Sermon for July 14

July 14, 2024

By Kristin Berkey-Abbott

Mark 6:14-29

We’ve spent the last several weeks thinking about the nature of power in the context of Jesus and his ministry. Two weeks ago we heard about Jesus’ ability to raise the dead, and then last week, his power seems to dry up in the face of the unbelief of the people in his home town. Today the scene shifts to the court of King Herod, which lets us think about the type of power that the world so often thinks of when we think about power. Herod has political power, the kind of political power that most of us will never experience. Every time that Herod appears, we see the limits of this kind of power.

An important historical note: the Herod of Mark 6 is not the Herod of Matthew 2 who had the encounter with the Magi who were looking for the new king of the Jews who had just been born. That was Herod the Great who felt so threatened by this news delivered by the Magi that he killed every boy in Bethlehem under the age of 2. The Herod who beheads John the Baptist is Herod Antipas, and there was a Herod between Herod the Great and Herod Antipas. These Jewish rulers did have a great amount of power, but not nearly as much as Roman emperors had. They had as much power as Rome allowed them to have, and it could be taken away if Rome decided that they weren’t ruling well.

At first read, Herod seems to have the kind of power that many absolute rulers, the kind that allows them to put a man to death just because he’s a bother. In this case, it’s John the Baptist who has been criticizing him—but the death doesn’t happen right away. The writer of the Gospel of Mark only gives us a brief bit of information about what makes Herod so immoral that John the Baptist criticizes him, taking the wife of his brother. Herod can’t abide this criticism, and so arrests John the Baptist, but he’s not completely closed off to the man. In fact, Herod protects him from the grudges of his new wife Herodias, and we find out that Herod likes to listen to John the Baptist, even though the man “perplexes” him. So why does Herod feel that he must kill John? It’s not because John criticizes him, although Herod can’t let that criticism go without punishment.

In today’s Gospel we see that Herod, the man who can have people jailed, the man who can start wars, the man who can marry his brother’s wife, ultimately, his power is limited too. Herodias develops a scheme, with the help of her daughter (confusingly named Herodias in this passage, although she is more commonly known as Salome) to have John the Baptist killed.

But make no mistake—Herod is still in charge. We can assume that Herodias has wanted John the Baptist dead for some time; it’s not a new desire, since Herod has protected John. What has changed?

We might be tempted to blame alcohol, and popular culture has often credited the seductive skills of the dancing daughter. But this is Herod, who is for all purposes, a king. He doesn’t have to do a thing he doesn’t want to do—unless Rome tells him he does, and certainly Rome does not particularly care whether or not some strange prophet criticizes the marital habits of Jewish rulers of the Jews.

In some ways, Herod seems as drained of power as Jesus. And what drains him of his power? The sway of other people. He’s made a promise in the presence of other people. If he says no, what will his guests think of him?

We might say that Herod has made an oath and that’s he’s honorable and feels he must keep his oath. But we know that’s not true. He divorced his first wife so that he could have Herodias. If we look into his history, he has a habit of disregarding the oaths he’s made to family, friends, and strangers alike. Herod wants power and he’ll do what it takes to get it. If it means he needs to behead John the Baptist to save face, he will. Saving face means he maintains power, although it’s hard to imagine that any of his dinner guests will stage an uprising because Herod goes back on his word to a dancing girl. Still, Herod is influenced by the court of popular opinion.

In an odd way, as I get older, I find Herod a sympathetic character, both the Herod who meets the Magi or the Herod that we meet here. Both Herods are so afraid of losing power that they make terrible decisions. We like to think that we would be different. We would recognize wisdom when it appears before us, either in the form of the Magi or the form of John the Baptist. But really, would we?

Herod in today’s Gospel serves as a warning to us all, even if we don’t have the power to order the beheading of a prickly prophet. Herod’s story shows us what is likely to happen if we care too deeply about the opinion of others instead of worrying about what really matters—it’s a problem that can rear its head when we least expect it, even if we’ve been alert.

If we care too much about the opinion of the people who surround us, we run the risk of making disastrous decisions. Perhaps not disastrous to the extent of a head on a platter, but disastrous to the ways that our lives might have been otherwise and disastrous to the vision that God has for creation.

Herod wonders if John the Baptist has come back to life when he hears the words of Jesus. Some see this as Herod feeling guilty. Going back to the text again and again, I found myself wondering about the similarities between the message of Jesus and the message of John. What does Herod hear?

Both men, Jesus and John, talked about God telling us that a new way of life is possible. Maybe Herod hears and ponders. But ultimately, he can’t respond to that message because he is too invested in the way that life is now. He has power, and in every scene in which a man named Herod appears throughout the Gospel, preservation of power is at the root of that man’s actions.

We may say that Herod has nothing to say to us, since we will likely never have that level of power. But in last week’s Gospel, we saw that it’s the rare person that is open to the message of Jesus and John; most of us are rarely able to see and hear the Good News, even if it stands right there in front of us, yelling or criticizing or healing.

Herod’s story offers a powerful testimony to the corrosive effects of power. We would be wise to think of our own power, our own feelings of inadequacy, how we attempt to control the elements of our lives or how we don't—all the ways that we pay attention to the opinions of random strangers instead of paying attention to those who have our best interests at heart.

How is God speaking to us today? What strange prophets prick at us, needling us to be better humans? What strangers come to tell us of signs of a new reign, God breaking through in new ways? How are we training ourselves to be alert so that we don’t miss out on God?

Friday, July 12, 2024

Music Week Snippets, with Quilting

My week is catching up with me.  I realize that my idea of a late night would make most people laugh--"We made it to 10:00!"  Still, I'm not feeling like I have a coherent blog post about a single topic in me right now.  Let me record some snippets from the week:

--It has worked well, having house guests who are participating in Music Week.  One is participating, and the other going on day trip hikes.  We've done a combination of eating meals in and eating meals out.  We've had time to catch up and time to do new stuff together.  At times, the house has seemed a little small for us all, but that's O.K.  Most important:  the plumbing can handle extra people.  I had no doubts about the HVAC system, but plumbing can be so problematic.

--I went to quilt group day Wednesday and assembled two back for Lutheran World Relief quilts.  One was for the fish top I assembled earlier this summer.  

I am loving the fancy sewing machine that allows me to zip work together.  I am loving all the fabric that we have.

--For the past few days, I've found myself singing my song, or more accurately, my lyrics to "Poor Wayfaring Stranger"--more accurately, I've been mixing my lyrics with the more traditional lyrics, which also works well.

--Because of bear season, we had taken down the birdfeeder with suction cups that we usually have on one of the back sliding glass doors.  We put it back up to get it out of the way.  I've been loving watching the birds come to the feeder.  Bear season or no, maybe we'll keep it up year round.

--I've been loving having numerous worship opportunities, all of them high quality.  It's what I imagined would happen year round, when I imagined living here.

Thursday, July 11, 2024

Opening Liturgy of Hope for Advent and Other Seasons

We had Advent themed morning worship on Tuesday at Lutheridge's Music Week, a delightful Christmas in July kind of vibe.  I was particularly struck by the opening liturgy, a responsive reading:

One (our chaplain read this part):  The world says, "All is lost."

Many:  God says, "All is loved."

One:  The darkness says, "The light is dying."

Many:  The light says, "The fire is catching."

One:  Fear says, "Cover your eyes and your ears."

Many:  Hope says, "Wait, watch, and listen."

My first thought was "What a great Advent liturgy!"  But then I thought about how appropriate it would be in many other circumstances, a major reason why I wanted to capture it here.

Wednesday, July 10, 2024

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 14, 2024:

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

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

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

Jesus never promises us an easy time, at least not the kind of easy time the world dangles in front of us when it attempts to seduce us. We see this even in Christian communities. We feel like failures when our church membership numbers shrink. We feel like we're not a success when we have to struggle to find the money to pay our church’s bills.

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

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

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

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

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