Thursday, August 25, 2016

To Return Again

Last night, my spouse thought I would be home by 7--but it was my late night at work, as Wednesdays have been for some time, so I wasn't home until 8:30.  It was a simple misunderstanding, but by the time I got home, he was starting to feel panicky.

He could have been angry when I pulled in the driveway or relieved.  He chose the latter.  He greeted me with a big hug and told me of his fears.  We hugged multiple times last night.  We know how lucky we are--and at some point, we will face this loss.  At some point, one of us will not be coming home.

I thought about this sudden re-orienting, this reminder of what's really important.  I thought about all of my returns.

This morning, I'm thinking about other returns--what would be the most famous return in the Bible?  The Prodigal Son?  God who returns again and again?

I thought about God, who surely wants to welcome us as warmly as my spouse welcomed me home last night.  I thought of all the times I have returned to focus my attention on things spiritual again.  I imagine God saying, "I'm so glad you're back.  I was getting worried."

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The Readings for Sunday, August 28, 2016:

First Reading: Proverbs 25:6-7

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Jeremiah 2:4-13

First Reading (Alt.): Sirach 10:12-18

Psalm: Psalm 112

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 81:1, 10-16

Second Reading: Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

Gospel: Luke 14:1, 7-14

Here is another Gospel lesson which reminds us how different a world is the one that Jesus ushers in. It also shows us that ancient times weren't much different than ours.

We spend much of our day vying for power and position. Even in settings where there's not much to be gained by winning favor, one still sees a ridiculous amount of energy and time spent on power games. Think of the last meeting you had. Think of how short that meeting would have been if you could have gotten rid of people who spoke up to say, essentially, "I agree with what the last person said." Think of all the time wasted in currying favor with the people in charge or with each other.

Alternately, maybe you're more familiar with colleagues who try to cut each other down. Even when the stakes are small, even when the outcomes don't particularly matter, people will wage nasty battles to prove that they're right and everyone else is wrong.

Outside of the workplace, one also sees this dynamic. In volunteer situations, people often want to prove that they're indispensable. We even see this in our relationships with friends, the one place where you would think we would approach each other as equals. Likewise in marriages--many spouses spend absurd amounts of time trying to prove that one way of doing things is the right way, and all other ways are bad.

Psychologists would tell us that we play these power games because we're trying to satisfy our needy egos. We want to feel important because we spend much of our lives feeling insignificant. But instead of addressing that pain by making others feel better, we try to make others feel worse. We put people down so that we feel better. We connive and work to wound others.

Christ comes to usher in a new age. Again and again, he reminds us (in the words of today's Gospel), "For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted" (Luke 14: 11). We don't win favor with God in the way we might win favor with the boss. God is well aware of God's importance. We don't need to make God feel like the big man so that we might win a promotion.

God calls us to a higher purpose. We're to look out for the poor and downtrodden. And we're not to do it because we'll be repaid by the poor and downtrodden. We do it because Christ came to show us how to crack open the world and let the Kingdom light shine into the dark cracks. And the way to do that is not to show how wonderful we are. The way to let God's light shine is to look out for the marginalized of the world.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Signing Our Names for Justice

How many times would you sign your name to secure justice for someone else?

I'm not talking about signing a petition, although that's an interesting angle too.  I'm talking about the governor of Virginia, who tried to restore the voting rights of 200,000 felons earlier this year with a decree that restored the rights of each felon all at once--one signature required.

Some legislators protested and the Virginia Supreme Court said that he needed to restore rights one person at a time--that's a lot of signatures, and he's vowed to work his way through every single case.

I listened to this story yesterday as I was driving home from work, and I thought of the two students that I had helped in the afternoon.  I had to go to the registrar's office, get a file, make copies of transcripts, and then try to puzzle what classes had been transferred and what might still need to be transferred.  Once we made all of those decisions in-house, and it would have been me making those decisions.  Now I'm trying to sleuth my way through other people's decisions.

My afternoon task took some time, 45 minutes per student, but it's nothing compared to what the Virginia governor is facing.

I thought about the other factor--I had students sitting in front of me, so I had to take some action.  The governor could have chosen to do nothing.  Since felons have few advocates, he'd have likely faced no criticism.  He could have shrugged and said, "Well, the Supreme Court told me no--what can I do?"

Instead, he took the route that will require him to sign his name over and over and over again.  It's not a particularly brave stance--not the kind of action that so many Civil Rights workers took in the 50's, 60's, and beyond.

But it's inspiring nonetheless.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Blessed and Headed Back to School

Today in public schools across Broward county in southeast Florida, students go back to class; the same is true for our huge community college.  In public schools, teachers have been reporting for duty to get ready for at least a week.

Our church blessed students yesterday and teachers and staff the week before.  Based on what I'm reading on various blogposts and in various Facebook updates, the Blessing of the Backpacks as part of August church services is becoming fairly common across the nation, or at least in the Southeast.

I'm all in favor. Lately, I've come to believe that as a people of faith, we need to spend more time on blessing and laying on of hands. And as I remember my own school years, I remember it as being fraught with dangers of all sorts. Yes, by all means, let us bless our students and their backpacks.  Let us bless the adults who are charged with so much responsibility.

I've heard of churches that collect school supplies for the less fortunate and the blessing of the backpacks includes a blessing over those supplies and for those children.  I like that idea too.  Our synod did something similar earlier this summer, and we collected items as a church.

When I was a child, we did none of this.  I'm glad we do it now.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Job's God in a Time of Climate Change

Our church continues to make its way through the book of Job.  The readings for Sunday, August 21, 2016:

Job 38:25-27; 41:1-8; 42:1-6

In these passages, God continues to give Job a tour of creation.  When I first read it, it was hard for me to shake the tone of God saying to Job, "Who are you to question me?"  But my response still shows a human-centered approach to God, God as being defensive.

Why is it so hard for us to come to Job's realization?  Why is it hard to see God as expansive?

For some of us, it's hard because we have to admit our puniness.  Humans are not the center of the universe.  Creation was not made for humans.  We are not the largest element or the smallest--and that means contemplating the idea that we are not the most important.

I will be interested to see how theologians wrestle with these ancient views during our own time of extreme climate change.  Is it different to read the texts for this week as we create new records for hottest month and hottest year on record?

I find this vision in Job a comfort in our own times of mass extinction.  Creation will continue, even as various species expire.  God will continue to delight in creation, in all of its varieties.

God seems to invite Job to join in this wonder and exaltation.  I'd like to see other translations of Job's response.  My text uses words like despise, dust, and ashes.  Job's response seems extreme, but maybe it's just more ancient, and thus, harder for me to understand.

Like Job, I need to return to this vision that God offers.  I despair in what seems like planetary depletion, but God reminds us that the Creator works in wondrous ways.  I need to be reacquainted with this rain bearing God, the one who makes grass spring out of the desolation.

Saturday, August 20, 2016

What Would You Tattoo on Your Body?

First, let me acknowledge that I realize that many Christians take quite seriously the Biblical prohibitions against tattoos on the body, so what I'm about to write might seem heretical. 

When we were in the water park on Thursday, I noticed several people with Bible verses tattooed on their bodies--usually not the whole chunk of text, but just the book, chapter, and verse.  That got me to wondering:  if you could choose only one text to tattoo on your body, which one would it be?

And would the text you choose today be different than the one you would have chosen when you were younger?

I have loved the Micah 6:8 text since I first heard it during a Lutheran Student Movement national event:  the Lord requires of us justice, mercy, and walking humbly with our God.  But would I want that in a tattoo?  I've long loved the verses that admonish us to beat our swords into ploughshares--but is that the most important text?

Lately I've had the words of John the Baptist ringing in my ears:  I am not the Messiah.  But again, a tattoo with those words?

I saw tattoos with religious themes that had no Bible verse.  One man had these words tattooed across his larger than usual stomach:  "Only God can judge me."  Was that about his body?  Just a reminder of whose judgment is important?

And of course, there were tattoos with no words but religious imagery--or was it?  I was surprised by how many tattoos had images of death:  skulls and guns and apocalyptic scenes.  I don't really understand the appeal of having those images on my body forever.

I wondered how people decided to go with a tattoo.  Was it a kind of evangelism?  Did people think I might leave the water park and look up those verses?  Was it an action of witness?  Did the person choose it because it had deep meaning to the person?

And then the sociologist in me had other ponderings.  Are certain branches of Christianity more inclined towards these tattoos?  And there's the larger issue of societal acceptance of tattoos.  When I was a child, tattoos had an unsavory connotation--and now people carve all sorts of things into their bodies.

Of course, if I hadn't been at a water park, I wouldn't have seen many of these tattoos at all.  Now I wonder how many tattoos surround me, covered up with clothing.  Maybe it's a more private thing than I've been assuming.

I still come back to the question that interests me most:  we only have so much room to tattoo our bodies, so how do we choose?  So many essential Bible verses, so little fleshly canvas.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Remembering my Baptism at a Water Park

My sister and 10 year old nephew are visiting us this week, which means we are having a stay-cation.  My nephew wanted to go to a water park in the Bahamas, but decided he could be happy with the huge one in the neighboring county.  It was nothing like the waterslides of my youth, which usually consisted of a few concrete slides and mats for all.

Yesterday we went to a water park that had over 20 slides.  You could ride in mats, innertubes, rafts, or just your back, depending on the ride.  There was a lazy river, a wave pool, and a place for very little kids.

We spent the day surrounded by water, and I confess that at first I spent more time thinking about Physics than about water.  How could we be sure that we wouldn't get airborn and sail off the slide?  What actually happened in that vortex?  Could the raft really get that high?  How much did we all weigh and how should we space ourselves in the inner tube built for 4?

Later in the day, I thought about all the water we sloshed through the park--how we moved it on our bodies, how it dripped off the rides only to evaporate, how it got cleaned and recycled.  I thought about third world citizens who would be amazed at this wealth of water, and I thought about how few of us really seemed to appreciate it.  I also thought about how thirsty I was as we trooped from slide to slide.  I didn't want to pay the hefty price for a park drink, and there were no water fountains for drinking.

As we floated on the lazy river, with water raining down on us, I thought of Martin Luther and his advice to remember our baptism each morning as we splashed water on our faces.  I've since wondered if he really said that, since people in Luther's day used water very differently than we do.  But I do appreciate the sentiment.  As we floated, I imagined all my inadequacies washing away.

At first I thought, if only it was that easy.  But the sacrament of baptism tells us that it is that easy, that water and words combined with God's grace can do what we cannot do ourselves.