Thursday, December 8, 2022

Benediction from a Professor

Tuesday was the last day of my Tuesday classes.  I realize I say this often, but how can it be December already?  I have been trying to be observant of the passage of each day so that I don't lose a moment, so that I appreciate every scrap of time that I'm here, a seminarian, which in a way is existing out of the regular rhythms that most 57 year olds experience.

But yesterday was indeed the last day of Tuesday classes.  It seems like just yesterday that I came into the classroom, the first in-person class of my first week of Fall 2022 term, just yesterday that I was grateful for the air conditioning during a DC heat wave in late August.  I watched my professor wrestle with the technology, and I thought, OK, it's not just me who has trouble with the classroom technology--different campus, same struggles.

My professor soon captured my imagination, and that class, Foundations of Preaching, has never let me down.  I'm always happy to have attended; I always leave enriched.  Last night was no exception.

Last night concluded our second round of sermons.  I feel like we've really come into our own, or as our professor says, "You've all found your preaching voice."  One of my classmates preached her first sermon in English just six weeks ago.  Last night, you would never have known she was so new to preaching in English, as she preached again.

Our professor had some final words, and then she said, "I wasn't going to say this, but it came to the surface, so here it is:  God did not make a mistake in inviting you to do this work."  I started writing down her words, and she repeated them.  I let my tears well up and spill over as she said, "You are not here by mistake."  I was not the only one--many of us wiped our eyes.

She had advice for us as we fulfill our call.  She said that one of the most prophetic things we can do is to tell our people that God loves them just as they are.  She said that we might be surprised how many people have never heard that God loves them.  She concluded class by saying, "Never miss an opportunity to tell them" (her emphasis).

I left the class feeling blessed in all sorts of ways.  I felt like I had gotten a specific benediction and a blessing, a laying on of hands without the actual laying on of hands.  But I've also been blessed in other ways.  Our professor has a wealth of experience and expertise, and I feel blessed (in the sense of lucky) to have been in her presence for a semester.

And the wealth will continue.  Next semester I will take her Women and Preaching class, an upper level class.  I can hardly wait! 

Wednesday, December 7, 2022

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

 The readings for Sunday, December 11, 2022:

First Reading: Isaiah 35:1-10

Psalm: Psalm 146:4-9 (Psalm 146:5-10 NRSV)

Psalm (Alt.): Luke 1:47-55 (Luke 1:46b-55 NRSV)

Second Reading: James 5:7-10

Gospel: Matthew 11:2-11

Here again, in this week's Gospel, Jesus reminds us of the new social order--the first will be last, the last will be first. Since many of us in first world churches would be categorized as "the first," this edict bears some contemplation. What do we do if we find ourselves in positions of power? Are we supposed to walk away from that?

Well, yes, in a sense, we are. Again and again, the Bible reminds us that we find God on the margins of respectable society. Again and again, we see that God lives with the poor and the oppressed. Nowhere is that message more visible to Christians than in the story of the birth of Jesus.

We get so dazzled by the angels and the wise men that we forget some of the basic elements of the story. In the time of great Roman power, God doesn't appear in Rome. No, God chooses to take on human form in a remote Roman outpost. In our current day, it would be as if the baby Jesus was born on Guam or the Maldives. Most of us couldn't locate those islands on a globe; we'd be surprised to hear that the Messiah came again and chose to be born so far away from the most important world capitals, like Washington D.C. or London, Beijing or Moscow.

God came to live amongst one of the most marginalized groups in the Roman empire--the only people lower on the social totem pole would have been captives of certain wars and slaves. Most Romans would have seen Palestinian Jews as weird and warped, those people who limited themselves to one god. Not sophisticated at all.

God couldn't even get a room at the inn. From years of Christmas pageants, we may have sanitized that manger. We may forget about the smelliness of real hay, the scratchiness, the bugs, the ways that animals stink up a barn.

God chose a marginalized young couple as parents. Did God choose to be born in the palace of Herod? No. We don't hear about Joseph as a landowner, which means that his family couldn't have been much lower on the totem pole, unless they were the Palestinian equivalent of sharecroppers. God does not choose the way of comfort.

Again and again, Jesus tells us to keep watch. God appears in forms that we don't always recognize. God appears in places where we wouldn't expect to find the Divine. Jesus reminds us again and again that there's always hope in a broken world. God might perform the kind of miracles that don't interest us at first. The Palestinian Jews wanted a warrior Messiah to liberate them from Rome. Instead they got someone who healed the sick and told them to be mindful of their spiritual lives so that they didn't lose their souls.

Many of us experience something similar today. We want something different from God. God has different desires for us than our desires for our lives. We ask for signs and miracles, and when we get them, we sigh and say, "That's not what I meant. I wanted them in a different form." We turn away.

The John the Baptists of the world remind us to turn back again. Repent. Turn back. Forswear our foolish ways. Go out to meet God. Your salvation is at hand.

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

The Feast Day of Saint Nicholas

 It is the feast day of Saint Nicholas, and I don't have much to offer in terms of my own decorations.  I do have a new picture:

I am not sure if these blow up creatures are supposed to go together.  Is there some new movie I don't know about?  Lyle, Lyle Crocodile Saves Christmas?  Is that Lyle the Crocodile?  Clearly the other character is Santa, the character derived from Saint Nicholas.

It's always a bit of a surprise to realize that Saint Nicholas was a real person. But indeed he was. In the fourth century, he lived in Myra, then part of Greece, now part of Turkey; eventually, he became Bishop of Myra. He became known for his habit of gift giving and miracle working, although it's hard to know what really happened and what's become folklore. Some of his gift giving is minor, like leaving coins in shoes that were left out for him. Some were more major, like resurrecting three boys killed by a butcher.

My favorite story is the one of the poor man with three children who had no dowry for them. No dowry meant no marriage, and so, they were going to have to become prostitutes. In the dead of night, Nicholas threw a bag of gold into the house. Some legends have that he left a bag of gold for each daughter that night, while some say that he gave the gold on successive nights, while some say that he gave the gold as each girl came to marrying age.

Through the centuries, the image of Saint Nicholas has morphed into Santa Claus, but as with many modern customs, one doesn't have to dig far to find the ancient root.  I don't have many Santa Claus ornaments or decorations, but I do collect favorite pictures.  Here's one my grad school friend posted years ago to her Facebook page:

I love the ecumenical nature of this picture of Santa: Santa statues coexisting peacefully with Buddha statues. And then I thought, how perfect for the Feast Day of St. Nicholas!

More recently, a new favorite Saint Nicholas image, courtesy of my cousin's wife:

In this image, Santa communicates by way of American Sign Language. As I looked at the background of the photo, I realized Santa sits in a school--the sign on the bulletin board announces free breakfast and lunch.

The photo seems both modern and ancient to me: a saint who can communicate in the language we will hear, the promise that the hungry will be filled.

In our time, when ancient customs seem in danger of being taken over by consumerist frenzy, let us pause for a moment to reflect on gifts of all kinds. Let us remember those who don't have the money that gifts so often require. Let us invite the gifts of communication and generosity into our lives.

Monday, December 5, 2022

Isaiah, Jesus, and the Issue of Prophecy in an Advent Season

I knew that going to seminary would challenge my faith in all kinds of ways.  I knew that a seminary education might make it hard for me to have conversations with people who had different kinds of learning/training.  But Advent has challenged my faith in ways I didn't expect--so far, nothing earthshattering, but strange, nonetheless.

I wrote an earlier post about the Foundations of Preaching class approach to preaching the ancient prophets:  "Several times our professor reminded us that if we're preaching the Hebrew Scripture passages, the answer to the prophets question is never Jesus. In other words, we think that Jesus is the Messiah foretold by ancient prophets, but those prophets would not have thought that. The first Christians knew that something earthshattering had happened in the ministry of Jesus, and to make sense of it, they turned to their scripture, which would have been the Hebrew Scriptures. They had to decide if they were at a hinge moment when they created a whole new approach to God that would require abandoning past scripture or if they could use what they had been taught to make sense of it."

My Hebrew Bible class (what an earlier generation would have called Old Testament class) professor said something similar.  Isaiah, to whom we turn in many an Advent reading, is not predicting Jesus.  Prophecy is not fortune telling, not future forecasting.  I understand why so many people think the prophets who lived hundreds/thousands of years before Jesus were telling everyone that Jesus would arrive, Jesus specifically, not a general savior.  I was taught that too, in Sunday School, by people who had never heard differently, kind, older people who taught the classes based on what they were taught.  These same Sunday School teachers of my youth thought/taught that the Gospels were factual histories written by people who were there to witness it all.

So far, my seminary studies haven't challenged my faith here.  I came to seminary accepting parts of  the Bible as truth, but not fact.   I see sacred texts as inspired by God, not dictated by God.  And I see more sacred texts than just those collected in the Bible.  I have assumed that those of us who have gone to seminary in the past 10-20 years will have come across these ideas.

So it's jarring to hear Advent sermons and blogs and tweets that still talk about Isaiah as predicting the coming of Jesus.  I accept that older theology and music will have those ideas.  But if you've gone to a mainline seminary recently, why are you still preaching that the Hebrew prophets told us about the coming of Jesus?  Why are you preaching that Isaiah was talking to us in the 21st century?  The ancient prophets were concerned with the people in their own time, not centuries into the future.  The salvation that concerned them was not my personal salvation--or anyone's personal salvation--but the salvation of the whole community.

As I said, not a huge deal, and certainly the larger church community would not see this as particularly interesting.  But it's leaping out at me this year, in part because I had to preach on a text from Isaiah, and my professor was very clear that if we made the classic mistake of saying that Isaiah was predicting Jesus, we would fail the assignment.  

Here's the one reference to Jesus that I kept:  "In this time of Advent, I encourage us to think about Jesus who comes to tell us that the kingdom of God is inbreaking, happening right here and right now. . . . In this time of Advent, as we prepare ourselves to welcome the inbreaking kingdom of God, let us develop a prophetic imagination for our own day. Let us walk in a world illumined in ways that dictators can’t imagine."

(I will be recording this sermon for my S. Florida home church, so more will be coming soon).

Sunday, December 4, 2022

Annunciation in Fabric

 On Thursday, we had our last working/creative day in Creative Process, Spiritual Practice class.  It was supposed to be fabric day, and it was.  We had material:  felt, tulle, satin, and canvas, along with black t-shirts.  We had twine and rope, both in natural color and blue, green, and deep purple.  We had two sewing kits, massive sewing kits with tools and thread spools in every shade.  We had scissors and hot glue guns and paint.

It was interesting to see what people did with the materials.  One classmate started embroidering with the thread.  One stretched out a length of canvas, plugged in a hot glue gun, and started affixing twine to it.  One stared at the materials, waiting for inspiration.  One took the paint and spread it on her hand, which she then used to make hand prints on canvas.

I took a selection of fabrics and twines, along with a pair of scissors.  I thought I would make the kind of fabric art I used to make, something with layers and the tulle spread over it.  But I didn't like the way it looked.  I cut shapes out of felt in two colors of blue and arranged them on the pink.  I sewed them all together, but the sewing was only to keep them in place, not to preserve them for history.  

Here's what I ended with:

Annunciation, Month 3

When I first started, I had a vision of rivers, but that quickly became a descending dove kind of feel.  But something about the shapes and the Advent time we're in made me think of the Virgin Mary, of pregnancy, of Jesus as a fetus.  So, if it's important to know what the artist thought she was creating, that tulle-wrapped blob at the bottom is baby Jesus in utero.

The blue shapes to me represent Mary, mother of Jesus, partway through her answer of yes, the agreeing to be part of God's plan in the invitation that the angel Gabriel conveys.  I like the shapes, the way they have an energy, the way they suggest both power and a drawing in conservation of that power.

I have really enjoyed this class, and part of me is sorry to see it come to an end.  I've enjoyed all the exploring we've done, and the books we've discussed.  I am so looking forward to the next class that I'm taking with this teacher, Chapel Visuals--that anticipation makes it easier to say goodbye to this class as the semester comes to an end.

Saturday, December 3, 2022

Women in Late Mid-Life: The Future of the Church

I was with a group of seminary students on Thursday night, along with 2 of our faculty members, and the subject of why young people aren't going to church and what should we do about it.  One of our students who is from the Democratic Republic of Congo posed the question, in the context of what surprised him about the U.S.  

I decided to listen, even though I have opinions.  I should have opinions, since I've been hearing people talk about this issue for much of my life.  The answer never really changes, but the specifics do.  Clearly, we're not offering what young people want, since they're making other choices.  On Thursday night, some people talked about what church represents (homophobia, racism, sexism) and why young people reject that.

If we had had more time, I might have asked if young people had ever been interested in the institution of church--or the practice of church.  Outsiders might ask why we care so much, and the standard answer would be something along the lines of young people being the future of the church.

Demographically perhaps they are--they have more years to be alive than I do, after all.  But lately, I've been wondering if we're asking the wrong question.  Maybe young people aren't the future of the church--maybe the people who will take church into the future, maybe those folks belong to a different demographic.

Before I go further, let me say that I realize I have some biases; I have some dogs in this fight.  I don't have children, so I don't spend time agonizing over why they don't want to go to church.  When I was younger, I didn't want to go to church either.  As an adult, I sometimes don't want to go to church.  Maybe the problem is church--but that's a different blog post.

When I think of The Future of the Church, I think of women in late middle age.  I know that I've probably written something similar here before; I decided not to bring it into Thursday night's conversation.  I'm fairly sure I was the oldest person in the room.  The one faculty member is having a 40th birthday party, which he invited us to, which is how I know how old he is.  The other faculty member talked about her experience being part of a focus group of people who were 18-35 years in age.

So many women in my circle are headed to seminary right now, at a time when we might be more likely to be settling in our last few working years before retirement or grandmotherhood (am I really that old?  Yes, it's quite possible for me to be a grandmother now, if I had had children right away who then didn't delay in having children).  When we talk about The Future of the Church, that's the change that comes to my mind.

What changes will we be able to make?  I have no idea just yet.  And a darker question:  will we be allowed to make changes?  I am sure that we will have to force some changes, and I don't know that it will be a bad thing.

The fact that younger people aren't interested in church makes me think that the changes that older women will make might be the ones that younger people have been waiting for.  They will certainly be the changes that I've been waiting for. 

Thursday, December 1, 2022

Eyes on the Progress Prize

Here we are, World AIDS Day, in yet another year of our no-longer-new pandemic, a disease that's much easier to contract than AIDS, a disease that like AIDS preys on the more vulnerable in our society.

Maybe all diseases target the more vulnerable.  And our epidemiologist friends would remind us that diseases don't have emotions or calculations.  Diseases infect where they can, and in vulnerable populations, diseases have more opportunity.

AIDS is still a fairly fierce disease, even though we have medications that can keep people alive for decades--that's still a lot of disease management, which isn't a cure.  According to this site, there are still more than 17 million new AIDS cases each year.  Every week, more than 13,000 people die of AIDS related diseases.

At this moment in time, COVID-19 isn't killing as many of us.  But it is still a disease to be reckoned with, a disease that leaves lots of wreckage in its wake.  Like AIDS, many of us assume that COVID-19 has been tamed or disappeared.  But like AIDS, some of us are more protected than others.

Dec. 1 is also the anniversary of the day in 1955 when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white passenger. This act is often given credit for launching the Civil Rights Movement, but what many forget is that various communities had begun planning for the launch, even before they could see or know what it would look like.

In fact, for generations, people had prepared for just such a moment. They had gotten training in nonviolent resistance. They had come together in community in a variety of ways. They were prepared.

Someone asked me once how I had come to be such an optimist. I've always had an optimistic streak, but frankly, my whole world view shifted when I watched Nelson Mandela walk out of prison. I fully expected him to be killed, but again, my worldview shifted when I watched South Africans stand in line for days (days!) to elect him president. And he was ready to be president because he had spent those decades in prison thinking about how he would run the country and making plans.

I have seen enormous social change happen in my lifetime--in the face of such evidence, I must agree with Dr. Martin Luther King, who said the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice.  

Some years, that arc seems so long and the bending so difficult to discern.  Diseases show us where we need to bend that arc towards justice, where there's still opportunity for progress.

On this day of grim disease statistics, let us also remember what various social justice movements have taught us.  If we can harness the will of a group of people towards a similar goal, we can make great strides.  I am heartened by our class of sermons on Tuesday night--many of us referenced the great social justice warriors of the 20th century; I talked about Vaclav Havel and another classmate referenced Archbishop Tutu.  In many ways, they defeated the forces of evil with optimism, a tool that we can all adopt.

Those of us who work towards social justice and human dignity for all know how long the struggle might be. We are similar to those medieval builders of cathedrals: we may not be around to see the magnificent completion of our vision, but it's important to play our part. In the words of that old Gospel song, we keep our eyes on the prize, our hands on the plow, and hold on.