Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Altarscape for Bread Month

I was in charge of church on Sunday, and all went well; for notes on my sermon, see yesterday's blog post.  

While I was happy about the sermon, what made me even happier was my altar design.  

A week or two ago, when I realized that this was the August of bread year for the lectionary, I thought about changing the altar.  I remember as a child hating summer at church, "the long green season," as a long-ago pastor called it.  I loved the Advent/Christmas season for many reasons, but mainly it was because the church of my childhood changed all sorts of worship factors that shook up the stuff that makes it so boring for children, and adults too.

I thought about bread and grain and did a bit of browsing on various web sites, looking for fabric or wreath elements that would evoke bread.  I found a great deal on 100 stalks of wheat, so I ordered it.  I wasn't sure of what 100 stalks would translate too--would it be enough?  Would people at the back of
the church be able to see it?  I think it's a success from that standpoint.

I decided not to buy any fabric once I realized that the piece I had my eye on was similar to a table runner that I have; it's in the picture above.  I looked around my office and realized that the little tea pot I rarely use has a grassy theme that can work with wheat:

I also brought with me some of the baskets that I have in the office.  I had a friend who was downsizing several years ago, and I came to look around her house to see if I could use any of her discards.  I took as many baskets as I could fit in my car, and hardly a week goes by that I don't use them.  But this may be the first time I've used them in creating an altarscape.

I was putting away the AV equipment after the service, and I overheard a parishioner say, "The altar is so pretty."  I'm calling this one a success.

Monday, August 2, 2021

Sermon Notes: August 1, 2021

On Sunday, my pastor was out of town.  Months ago he had asked if I would lead church when he was gone, and of course, I said yes.  When it got closer to time, and I saw the readings, I was happy--bread month!

As I listened to the Gospel being read, I was struck by the people asking God for a sign.  I started there, asking "What more of a sign do people want?"  From there, I went back to Psalm 78:  23-29, which we had just sung responsively.  I talked about how manna had come to the people on the run from Egypt, that at first they were grateful, but then they complained about the lack of variety.

I talked about how we're not any better, and I referenced a poem I once wrote that began with the line, "She would complain about the taste of pies in Heaven"--and that's all of us.  Then I made my way back to the Gospel, with Jesus telling the people to hold out for the true bread, which is him.

I asked us to think about what nourishes us.  Society will give us specific answers, answers usually designed to sell us stuff.  I talked about Richard Rohr's book Falling Upward, and his theory about the two halves of a human life.  For the first half, we work towards the milestones that our society tells us we should want:  the education and degrees, the job, the spouse, the children, the house.  Then we might get to the midlife and wonder what it has all been for.

If we're lucky, we come to the question of what nourishes us, and we start sorting that out.  If we're really lucky, we move towards a life that really matters.

I said that the past 18 months had triggered some of that for many of us, and that the next few weeks might offer additional challenges.  I pointed us to verse 34, and introduced N.T. Wright's idea that this line would make a good prayer:  "Give us this bread always."  I challenged us to use the influx of bad news as the monasteries use bells--to remind us to pray.  So that every time we hear a piece of bad news, we should use that as a reminder to pray:  "Give us this bread always."

Along the way, I talked about the inbreaking Kingdom of God, not as a place that happens after we die or in the far, far future, when we've had a chance to transform society, but it's happening right here, right now, shimmering just behind the surface of what our society tells us is real life.  And we have a chance to be part of it.  We need to ask not only what we nourishment we need, but what our society needs.  And then we can pray that Jesus gives us that nourishment always and in all ways.

Sunday, August 1, 2021

Bread Month Begins

Welcome to bread month! Over the next four weeks, the Gospel lessons will return again and again to this common New Testament symbol. We will be offered many opportunities to think about the meaning of this symbol.

I often tell my literature students that they can tell when something in a story might be a symbol because it shows up again and again, taking on an unusual significance. Our lectionary creators want to make sure we understand the importance of bread in the ministry of Jesus.

You might say that you already know. You take communion every week. You've heard that story of the loaves and fishes multiplying. Maybe you even pay attention to the bread that you buy each week as you choose the most nourishing loaves. Maybe you savor some bread and wine with your cheese on any given week-end, and you contemplate the life-giving properties of your snack. Despite all the recent attacks against carbs, most of us know that some variation of grain has kept most of human civilization alive more reliably than any other foodstuff.

The Gospels this month, however, remind us that there is much more to life than sustaining our all-too-human bodies. We hunger and thirst and we crave anything which might guarantee that we'll never hunger or thirst again. Jesus reminds us that it's natural for humans to want bread, but he tells us that we sacrifice so much if we stop with physical bread. Jesus reminds us of our larger purpose, which is communion with God.

In the language of economics, we need to pay ourselves first. We can't possibly do the work that God calls us to do if we're starving for spiritual bread.

Somehow, create some connections so that you can develop spiritual habits to go with your other habits. Pray while you're brushing your teeth. Listen to the Bible (via CD, tape, or download) as you drive to work. Have some spiritual sustenance delivered to your e-mail inbox every day. When you call your mom, check in with God when you hang up the phone. When you update your Facebook status, remember that God wants some facetime with you too. When you eat food, say grace, even if it's a snack and not the meal that you crave.

We are created for so much more than our earthly eyes can see, so much more than our cramped brains can comprehend. Spiritual habits and disciplines start to crack open our vistas so that we can enlarge our possibilities.

Over and over again, our spiritual texts ask us why we hunger for that which is not bread. Let's start training ourselves to hunger for the true nourishment.

Saturday, July 31, 2021

One Week, One Sketch

I spent the last week working on a sketch.  In a way, there's nothing unusual about that.  But in a way, it was different because it reminded me of an important life lesson.  Here's the finished sketch:

On Friday, July 23, I started a sketch.  It was going to be of a woman facing forward with a flappy hat on her head.  But I hated the way I sketched her eyes, so I decided to change it by turning it into a sketch of her back.  I covered the face with marks that I thought would be hair, but it ended up looking like a veil or a shroud.

I don't have a great before picture, because I hated the sketch on the first day and thought I would abandon it.  Here's a not-great screen capture from my morning watch session:

I put the sketch aside thinking I was done with it.  But then I thought about how the hair/veil along with the hat made me think of a beekeeper's headgear.  And so, the next morning, I played with it a bit more.  I added some bees.  I added some beehives in the distance and a jar of honey in the foreground.  On day two, just 24 hours after I was ready to abandon the sketch, I decided that it had potential.

On Sunday, July 25, I added the mountains in the background and started to add some color.  Over the next days, I continued to add color and to think about the area at the bottom of the sketch.  I had thought it would be a fence, but I didn't like my options for fence color.  If I made it a wood fence, I worried that it would blend in with the cat, the jar of honey, and the basket.  So I decided to make it a stone/marble wall.

As I've sketched each morning and as I've spent the rest of the day thinking about what to do next in the sketch, I've thought back to day one when I planned to abandon the sketch.  And as I kept showing up, I found more and more to like, and I had more and more ideas.

Did I execute them all?  No.  Did I perform them perfectly?  No.  But that's not the point.  My skills have improved, but again, not the point.

The sketch has given me delight and made me interested to know what will come next.  And it's reminded me not to give up on a creative endeavor too early.

Friday, July 30, 2021

Online Orientation: the Seminary Edition

For months I have known that I would need to do an online orientation before I was allowed to take seminary classes.  The orientation is not set up so that one can do it way far in advance; for fall term, the online orientation opened Monday, five weeks before classes start.

It's a class that's set up in Blackboard, a Learning Management System, which helps us all learn how to use the system.  Even students who are taking face to face classes in person may need to know how to use the system, so it's good to get us all some training.  And what's even more important about doing this orientation through Blackboard is that we can do this orientation on our own timeline.  When I try to think about how this orientation might once have been done, I imagine having to report to campus a few days early or the week before classes started.    This year, I'm glad we don't have to do that.

For the past few days, I have worked my way through part of the modules.  I have spent the last few months exploring the extensive website, so much of the information wasn't new to me.  One of the modules covered the information that was discussed during the Academic Planning Session that I did back in June.  One of the modules talked about ways to be successful in online classes.

As I watched, I thought about how useful these modules would be if I had never had an online class--I find the whole format overwhelming at times, and I have had many years of experience with a variety of online platforms.  I'm impressed with the way the Office of Community Life has thought of all sorts of things I will need to know as a student taking online classes.

I have made my way through the modules on plagiarism and sexual harassment, through modules that gave me a student handbook and the catalogue. I am intrigued by the information given in the Writing for Seminary module--they must have gotten some pushback on expectations here, as they give lots of information about how the seminary is a graduate school and grad school writing is different from undergraduate writing.

Again, if I hadn't spent so many decades in higher ed, maybe this would all seem new to me.  But even if it isn't new, it's pleasant to be exploring these modules.

And I'm impressed by the depth and breadth here.  I remember the orientations that we put together a year ago as we were pivoting from in-person new orientations to ones delivered virtually.  We did not cover nearly as much, but in some ways, we didn't have as much to cover--some of it had been handled during the Admissions process.  We also didn't have a flexible platform, like Blackboard.  And we didn't have a lot of time. 

This online orientation for Wesley Theological Seminary makes me realize how much better it could have been.  And it makes me grateful that so much care has been taken on my behalf as an incoming MDiv student.

Thursday, July 29, 2021

Feast Day of the Bethany Siblings

In the decades/centuries before 1969, on July 29, we would have celebrated Saint Martha, one of few named women in the Gospels.  Now we celebrate not only Martha, but also her sister Mary and their brother Lazarus.

In a way, I think it's a shame, as each of these siblings deserves their own feast day.  But today let us ask if we can we learn something from celebrating all of them together?

In many ways, Martha is the most famous of the siblings, and I've written about her extensively.  Many others have written about Mary.  I'm intrigued by the people who go back to the Greek to try to prove that Mary actually had some authority, that the reason that she wants to sit at the feet of Jesus while Martha gets the meal ready is that she had been out and about in the countryside, in the way that the disciples had been sent.

Lazarus, also famous, is one of the few humans brought back from the very dead.  He didn't just die an hour before Jesus arrived.  He had been dead for days.  I've always thought he deserved a story of his own, a follow up.  I'm not the only one who thinks this, of course.  Yeats is one of the more famous writers to revisit Lazarus after the tomb; I should revisit his play "Calvary."

Depending on how you attribute the various references to the women named Mary (all the same Mary?  Who is the sister of Martha and who is the Magdalene?  And then there's the mother of Jesus), Martha gets more space in the Gospels than her two siblings. We see her complaining about Mary not helping her, and we see her scolding Jesus for not coming earlier to keep her brother from dying.

I have always sympathized with Martha, and I still can feel the shock that come when Jesus doesn't.  But in my later years, I see compassion in the words of Jesus when he reminds Martha that she worries about many things.  It's only been in my later years that I see Martha's anxiety in a more clinical way.  It's only been in later years that I see the harm in Martha's behavior, the way that obsessive anxiety for the ones we love can destroy so much.

Do I know what to do about my own obsessive anxiety?  I know a few tricks, sure.  I haven't explored every possibility; so far, I don't take any meds for my anxiety outbreaks.  When I'm in the throes of an anxious day, I wonder if it's time to find a health care provider who can prescribe them.  When I'm having a normal day, I think that I am managing just fine.

In some ways, I see a thread running through the stories of these siblings.  Christ shows up to tell them that they're not doing fine.  One of the siblings, Mary, is open to Christ's message, while Martha is not.  We might think it's too late for Lazarus, but it's not.

Once again, I find myself wanting to know what happens in a year or two or ten.  Does Lazarus return to regular life?  Having lost him once, does his family appreciate him more?  Does Martha ever get a handle on her anxiety?  Does Mary go out to create the first convent?  Or is she so tired of having to deal with her sister that she finds a solitary existence in a nearby desert?  

The Gospels give us such small snippets, but that leaves us room to find ourselves in these stories.  One of the benefits to feast days and lectionaries is that we have the opportunity to return to them periodically to see if we're finding something new.

This year, I'm reminded that God works in ways that humans don't fully understand, and that we need to resist the impulse to micromanage the miracles.  But even if we don't, God won't go off in a huff and abandon us.

This year, I'm hoping that humans can also model that behavior.  We're beset with anxiety, as are those around us.  Let us remember that resurrection can still occur.

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, August 1, 2021:

Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15

Psalm 78:23-29

The LORD rained down manna upon them to eat. (Ps. 78:24)

Ephesians 4:1-16

John 6:24-35

In this Gospel, we continue to see Jesus hounded by the crowds. They understand what Jesus offers: the miracle of food in an uncertain time. Jesus knows what they're up to. Jesus understands what they seek. But Jesus also knows that they need more than just a meal's worth of food.

At one point, the crowds ask him for a sign. I have a vision of Jesus sighing and wondering what more he can do. He’s multiplied food. He’s offered them parables and teachings. He’s healed the sick.  He's cast out demons.  What more do they want?

He understands their deep hunger and yearning. They mention Moses, which leads me to believe that some of them miss the deep connection their ancestors had with God. Perhaps they thought it was easier in the desert, where they just went where God led them and ate the food God gave them. Perhaps they grow weary of the distractions of modern life, the diversions offered by Greek and Roman culture. They want to know where they can get some modern-day manna.

We might feel the same way.  We might sigh heavily, thinking of all tasks we must do simply to keep body and soul together. We might wonder how we can find time for one more obligation.  We might miss the simpler lives that we may think believers once enjoyed.  But we can enjoy that easy relationship too.

Again and again in the Bible, we see God, who simply wants to be with us. We don’t have to transform ourselves into spiritual superheroes. God will be content to watch T.V. with us, to have fun with whatever creative play dates we’ve arranged with our children or our friends, to go for a walk in the neighborhood.

The Bible reminds us that God even wants to be with us during the not-so-fun times. When we’re stuck at work, eating microwave popcorn instead of dinner again, God wants to be there. When we’re trapped in traffic, God doesn’t mind commuting with us. When we’re so immersed in child rearing that we wonder if we’ll ever get to talk about adult topics again, God wants that experience too. When we’re feeling lost and lonely, God is willing to endure that too. When we don’t know how we’re going to put food on the table, God will help us sort that out.

The sustaining bread of life is right there, always ready, always fragrant and nourishing. The enduring food is ready to be shared, ready to be multiplied. The table is ready; come and eat.