Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, October 2, 2016


First Reading: Habakkuk 1:1-4;2:1-4

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Lamentations 1:1-6

Psalm: Psalm 37:1-10 (Psalm 37:1-9 NRSV)

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Lamentations 3:19-26

Psalm (Alt.): Psalm 137 (Psalm 137 (Semi-continuous) NRSV)

Second Reading: 2 Timothy 1:1-14

Gospel: Luke 17:5-10


Perhaps the Gospels of past weeks and months have left you feeling depressed. You have begun to realize that you will never succeed at this Christianity thing. You can't even remember to make a donation, much less tithe regularly. You'd like to invite the poor to your dinner table, if you ever had time to eat dinner yourself, and you wonder if you still get Christianity Points if you invite the poor to dinner, but pick up that dinner from the deli. You'd like to look out for widows and orphans, but happily, you don't know of any. And frankly, most of the week, you don't have a spare moment to even ponder these things at all.

This week's Gospel offers encouraging news. It reminds us that belief has the power of a seed. As fewer of us plant anything, we may lose the power of that metaphor. But think of how inert a seed seems. It's hard to believe that anything can come from that little pod. And then we plunk it into the earth, where it seems even more dead--no sun, no light, no air. But the dark earth is what it needs, along with water, maybe some fertilizer if the soil is poor, and time. And with some luck, and more time, eventually we might all enjoy a tree. And not only us, but generations after us--that tree will outlive us all.

Christ reminds us that faith is like that seed. And the good news is that we don't have to have faith in abundance. A tiny seed's worth can create a world of wonders. And it's good to remember that we don't have to have consistent faith. We live in a world that encourages us to think that we'll eventually arrive at a place of perfect behavior: we'll exercise an hour a day, we'll forsake all beverages but water, we'll pray every hour, we'll never eat sugar or white flour again, we'll cook meals at home and observe regular mealtimes. We want lives of perfect balance, and we feel deep disappointment with ourselves when we can't achieve that, even when we admit that we'd need ten extra hours in the day to achieve that.

Jesus reminds us to avoid that trap of perfectionist expectations. People who have gone before us on this Christian path remind us of that too. Think of Mother Theresa. Her letters reveal that she spent most of her life feeling an absence of God. But that emotion didn't change her behavior. She tried to reveal the light of Christ to the most poor and outcast, and was largely successful. She didn't feel like she was successful, but she didn't get bogged down in those feelings of self-recrimination. And even when she did, she kept doing what she knew God wanted her to do.

Many of us might have seen Mother Theresa as a spiritual giant. We might feel dismayed to realize that she spent much of her life having a dark night of the soul kind of experience.

On the contrary, we should feel comforted. Maybe these letters show that she wasn't a spiritual giant. And look at what she was able to do.

Or maybe we should revise our definition of a spiritual giant. If you read the journals, letters, and private papers of many twentieth-century people who have been seen as spiritual giants (Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, Madeleine L'Engle, Dorothy Day), you'll see that feelings of spiritual desolation are quite common. The fact that we have these feelings--does that mean that God has abandoned us?

Of course not. Those of us who have lived long enough have come to realize that our feelings and emotions are often not good indicators of the reality of a situation. Our feelings and emotions are often rooted in the fact that we haven't had enough sleep or the right kind of food.

The people who have gone before us remind us of the importance of continuing onward, even when we feel despair. Christ reminds us that we just need a tiny kernel of belief. All sorts of disciplines remind us that the world changes in tiny increments; huge changes can be traced back to small movements. Your belief, and the actions that come from your belief, can bear witness in ways you can scarcely imagine. Perfection is not required--just a consistent progress down the path.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

The Need for Silence

Once, I would have watched the presidential debate, each and every one.  Once, I recorded them (on tape!) and made my students watched them--we then discussed the elements of argument present or not and wrote analytical essays.

That woman is no longer me.  I watched 15 minutes of the debate, and once the voices went up and the talking over each other started, I called it a night.

Once, I thought I needed to watch the debates to be informed, to be a good citizen.  This election, I don't feel I need the debates to tell me what I need to know.

If I had counted on last night's debate to get solid information, I don't know that I'd have gotten that.  Where was that moderator?  I'd like to see moderators have the power to cut the microphone when rules of good debating are ignored. 

I just don't have the patience for modern life, the shouting, the refusal to listen to each other to be able to find middle ground, the shouting.
This morning, I turned off the radio, and instead of rushing to fill the silence, I sat with it.

Later, I read this article by Andrew Sullivan, and this quote leapt out at me:  "The reason we live in a culture increasingly without faith is not because science has somehow disproved the unprovable, but because the white noise of secularism has removed the very stillness in which it might endure or be reborn."

The white noise in the context of his article is the ever-present stimulation of our phones and devices.  But the old-fashioned white noise of radios, TV, and words acts in much the same way.

I feel a need for silence, for stillness, after our hectic travel pace of the last week.  However, today is a day of many meetings.  But I often come up with interesting poem ideas on these days against that particular white noise.  Stay tuned!

Monday, September 26, 2016

God and Geology

I feel lucky that I'm part of a Christian tradition (Lutheran--ELCA to be specific) that doesn't require me to choose between science and faith in God.  Only for a brief time in childhood did I read the Bible as history--and thus, I'd have seen the earth as only a few thousand years old.



I wouldn't be able to square that belief with facts that come to us from the field of geology.  The earth is much older than a few thousand years.  A trip to the Grand Canyon hints at that truth of geology.





And of course, science can prove how old the rocks are:

 
 
I was struck by the crowds at the Grand Canyon, by how many people I saw who were oblivious to the Grand Canyon, who walked beside it, punching messages into their phones.  I didn't take pictures of those people.  I didn't want to be oblivious to the world around me:
 
 
 
I was also struck by the hardiness of the plants that are able to take root in such a harsh landscape:
 
 

 I'll remember that canyon, the consolation of a fierce landscape.  I'll remember that the world offers many vistas, if we would but open our eyes.

Sunday, September 25, 2016

Spiritual Landscapes

We are back from a quick trip to Arizona--the son of grad school friends got married, and while we were there for the wedding, we went to the Grand Canyon.

I was expecting more of a desert fierceness, but we were in Flagstaff for most of our trip, and it reminded me of Asheville, North Carolina.  For most of our trip, there was a cold dreariness, gray clouds scudding across the sky, with periodic interruptions of drizzle and rain.  I found it delightful, although not what I was expecting.

When we went to the Grand Canyon, I was expecting to be overcome, and I was.  At the first glimpse, I grabbed my spouse's arm and said, "Oh, Carl!"  But with all the other humans there, it wasn't as spiritual an experience as I thought it could be.

Before we went, I was amazed at how many people told me that this part of the country was a very spiritual experience, both the Grand Canyon and Sedona.  In fact, I've been intrigued by these "thin" places in our landscapes, where we can almost feel the spiritual aspects seeping right out of the land.  I'm not sure I felt that sense, not in any unusual way.

I also wondered about people who claim that the earth is only several thousand years old, a claim which seems bizarre when I look out at that landscape.  It's a landscape that shows the power of water and wind and the process of erosion--and those processes take so much time to carve out what's left, what we see.

I would like more time to explore that part of the U.S., both the lower part of Arizona and Utah, but this trip was not the time.  We had a different trip this time, a pilgrimage that brought us back to our old friends, that gave us time to reflect on our grad school selves and our current selves.

I'm glad that we gathered for a joyful reason, a wedding.  I know that at some point, it will be funerals that bring us together--and so, for now, I cling to the joyous even more fiercely than I did when we saw our friends get married when we were all in our 20's.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Remembering the Trip to See the Joshua Trees

Yesterday's post made me think about our trip to California, at the end of 2012.



The desert enchanted me, with that floor that looked like a sea bed--because it once was:



I loved the small, sturdy Joshua trees.



I loved the wind farms--that capturing of the force of the planet to give us electricity.



But most of all, I loved that fierce and rugged landscape.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Poetry Friday: "Floods and Desert Canyons"

A week ago, I was talking to a friend who was about to take a trip to Palm Springs.  I asked, "Will you go to Joshua Tree National Park?"

Her face lit up.  "That's brilliant!  We have 2 days which are free, and I haven't been able to think about what I wanted to do.  Is it worth the trip?"

We talked about why it was worth it.  I went there just after Christmas of 2012, and the place continues to enchant me.

Of course, the desert enchanted me long before I ever saw it.  I've been writing poems about the desert for decades.  When I actually made it to the desert, I was happy to see that I had gotten the desert right in those poems.

Here's one of the ones that comes to mind.  After I read Craig Childs' The Secret Knowledge of Water, I wrote the poem below, which was published in The Ledge.  In many ways, it's a love poem.  But if you read it with baptism on the brain, you'll come away with something different.  If you read it as you think about the desert fathers and mothers, maybe you'll get something yet again.  Or could it be John the Baptist talking to God/Jesus?  Or a more modern believer, talking to God?


Floods and Desert Canyons

My friends assume I’m dry
and barren. They do not know of my secret
spots, a cup of water here, a pool
collected there. An occasional visit
from you keeps me hydrated.

I boil away with my own dreams and ideas.
I blaze with words, my surfaces
too hot to touch. My pitiless gaze
burns as I survey my culture,
dream of new life forms.

You surge through my carefully constructed canyons.
In a matter of minutes, you change the landscape,
sweep away the detritus.
You carve me into intricate
forms, unconsidered before I met your force.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The lessons for Sunday, September 25, 2016:


First Reading: Amos 6:1a, 4-7

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15

Psalm: Psalm 146

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16

Second Reading: 1 Timothy 6:6-19

Gospel: Luke 16:19-31


This Sunday, the Gospel returns to familiar themes with the story of Lazarus and the rich man. Lazarus is so poor that he hopes for crumbs from the rich man's table and has to tolerate the dogs licking his sores (or perhaps this is a form of early medicine). Lazarus has nothing, and the rich man has everything. When Lazarus dies, he goes to be with Abraham, where he is rewarded. When the rich man dies, he is tormented by all the hosts of Hades. He pleads for mercy, or just a drop of water, and he's reminded of all the times that he didn't take care of the poor. He asks for a chance to go back to warn his family, and he's told, "If they do not hear Moses and the prophets, neither will they be convinced if some one should rise from the dead."

Maybe by now you're feeling a bit frustrated: week after week of reminders that we shouldn't get too comfortable with our worldly possessions. Maybe you suspect the Council who chose this common lectionary of readings of being just a tad socialist.

Yet those who study (and tabulate!) such things would remind us that economic injustice is one of the most common themes in the Bible. To hear the Christians who are most prominently in the media, you'd think that the Bible concerned itself with homosexuality.

Not true. In his book, God's Politics, Jim Wallis tells of tabulating Bible verses when he was in seminary: "We found several thousand (emphasis his) verses in the Bible on the poor and Gods' response to injustice. We found it to be the second most prominent theme in the Hebrew Scriptures Old Testament--the first was idolatry, and the two often were related. One of every sixteen verses in the New Testament is about the poor or the subject of money (mammon, as the gospels call it). In the first three (Synoptic) gospels it is one out of ten verses, and in the book of Luke, it is one in seven" (page 212).

And how often does the Bible mention homosexuality? That depends on how you translate the Greek and how you interpret words that have meanings that cover a wide range of sexual activity--but at the most, the whole Bible mentions homosexuality about twelve times.

If we take the Bible as the primary text of Christianity, and most of us do, the message is clear. God's place is with the poor and oppressed. The behavior that most offends God is treating people without love and concern for their well being--this interpretation covers a wide range of human activity: using people's bodies sexually with no concern for their humanity, cheating people, leaving all of society's destitute and despicable to fend for themselves, not sharing our wealth, and the list would be huge, if we made an all-encompassing list.

It might leave us in despair, thinking of all the ways we hurt each other, all the ways that we betray God. But again and again, the Bible reminds us that we are redeemable and worthy of salvation. Again and again, we see the Biblical main motif of a God who wants so desperately to see us be our best selves that God goes crashing throughout creation in an effort to remind us of all we can be.

Some prosperity gospel preachers interpret this motif of a God who wants us to be rich. In a way, they're right--God does want us to be rich. But God doesn't care about us being rich in worldly goods. Anyone who has studied history--or just opened their eyes--knows how quickly worldly goods can be taken away. But those of us who have dedicated our lives to forging whole human relationships and helping to usher in the Kingdom now and not later--those of us rich in love are rich indeed.