Thursday, March 22, 2018

A Movie Drenched in Grace

I have finally been to see the movie, A Wrinkle in Time.  I say finally, even though the movie hasn't been out very long.  But it's felt like a struggle to find time to see it, even though I've been looking forward to it--albeit with a certain amount of dread--since plans for it were first announced.

Yesterday I wrote a general review of my experience in this blog post.  But I've also been thinking of the movie in theological terms.  I'd been hearing reviews from people who were disappointed that L'Engle's Christian theology was taken from the story.

I contend that it's there, but you have to be alert.  The most obvious way that the Christian message is still there comes from the plot:  the idea of love as a saving force is very Christian.

Yesterday I wrote this Facebook message:  "I thought that my belief in the saving power of love came from sappy pop songs. Upon further reflection, I am now sure that it came from Madeleine L'Engle's "A Wrinkle in Time." Or perhaps my solid Lutheran upbringing. Probably both."

But the more powerful message in the movie is one of grace, even if it's not discussed in that specific theological term.  I found myself weeping at the idea that there's only one Meg Murray--and by extension, only one of any of us.  But more than that, I was weeping at the improbability that any of us would be born exactly the way we are--but it happened.

And then what do most of us do?  We spend much of our lives resisting what makes us wonderful.  We try to change what we perceive as weakness.  We go through our days judging ourselves and everyone around us and we all come up as wanting.

But think of how the world would change if we saw ourselves as perfect, exactly the way we are.  Or to take that idea further--what if what we think of as our imperfections are actually our gifts?

The plot shows Meg again and again that she is more powerful than she knows, that she has strengths that she has yet to perceive, that she is a gift to the world, and that it is her ability to love that is the greatest gift of all.

If that's not a Christian message, then I don't know what is.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel: Palm Sunday

The readings for Sunday, March 25, 2018:

First Reading: Isaiah 50:4-9a

Psalm: Psalm 31:9-16

Second Reading: Philippians 2:5-11

Gospel: Mark 14:1--15:47

Gospel (Alt.): Mark 15:1-39 [40-47]

Palm Sunday has become a busy Sunday. Somewhere in the past twenty years, we've gone from hearing just the story of Jesus' triumphant entry into Jerusalem to hearing the whole Passion story--on Palm Sunday many Christians leave the church with Jesus dead and buried. If we return to church for the rest of Holy Week, we hear the same stories on Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. It makes for a long, Sunday Gospel reading--and reinforces one of the paradoxes of the Passion story: how can people shout acclaim for Jesus in one day, and within the week demand his Crucifixion? Maybe it's good to hear the whole sad story in one long sitting, good to be reminded of the fickleness of the crowd.

It's one of the central questions of Christian life: how can we celebrate Palm Sunday, knowing the goriness of Good Friday to come? How can we celebrate Easter with the taste of ashes still in our mouth?

Palm Sunday reminds us of the cyclical nature of the world we live in. The palms we wave this morning traditionally would be burned to make the ashes that will be smudged on our foreheads in 10 months for Ash Wednesday. The baby that brings joy at Christmas will suffer the most horrible death--and then rise from the dead. The sadnesses we suffer will be mitigated by tomorrow's joy. Tomorrow's joy will lead to future sadness. That's the truth of the broken world we live in. Depending on where we are in the cycle, we may find that knowledge either a comfort or fear inducing.

Palm Sunday offers us some serious reminders. If we put our faith in the world, we're doomed. If we get our glory from the acclaim of the secular world, we'll find ourselves rejected sooner, rather than later.

Right now, we live in a larger culture that prefers crucifixion to redemption.  For some of us, we see a brutal world that embraces crucifixion:  no second chances, perhaps no first chances.

It's at times like these where the scriptures offer comforts that the world cannot. Look at the message from Isaiah: "The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him that is weary. . . . For the Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been confounded; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame; he who vindicates me is near" (Isaiah 50, first part of verse 4, verse 7, and first part of verse 8).

God promises resurrection. We don't just hope for resurrection. God promises resurrection.

God calls us to live like the redeemed people that we are. Set your sights on resurrection.  We are already redeemed--it's up to us to fold the grave clothes of our lives and leave the tomb.   Turn away from the cultures of evil and death that surround us.

Now more than ever, it's important that people of faith commit to redemption and new life. From the ashes, let us build the community that God wants for us.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Lenten Discipline: Tulips and Pumpkins

I've gotten away from my Lenten discipline of mixing holidays and seasons and taking pictures.  Last night, I tried to return.  I had a tulip from my office who was spending time with us, and pumpkins which have been on the porch since October:

Later, I moved the rotting pumpkin to the part of the yard where I've been leaving them.  Here the pumpkin is on top of other pumpkin corpses, but they blend into the earth:

I thought about other mixes:  the tulip and the basil (spring and summer)--not as interesting.

I couldn't quite capture the tulip and the rosemary cut into a Christmas tree shape--but it's interesting how I changed the color of the tulip:

On this first day of Spring, I see this mixing of metaphors that shows where so many of us are, both seasonally (first day of spring, as yet another blizzard-making storm prepares to travel through the northeast) and in our lives (still young, yet seeing our mortality on the horizon).

Monday, March 19, 2018

The Feast Day of St. Joseph

Today is the feast day of St. Joseph, Mary's husband, the earthly father of Jesus.  Here are the readings for today:

2 Samuel 7:4, 8-16

Psalm 89:1-29 (2)
Romans 4:13-18
Matthew 1:16, 18-21, 24a

I have done some thinking of Joseph, as many of us do, in the Advent season, when occasionally, we get to hear about Joseph.  He thinks of quietly unweaving himself from Mary, who is pregnant.  This behavior is our first indication of his character.  Under ancient law, he could have had Mary stoned to death, but he takes a gentler path.

And then, he follows the instructions of the angel who tells him of God's plan.  He could have turned away.  He could have said, "I did not sign up for this!"  He could have said, "No thanks.  I want a normal wife and a regular life."

Instead, he turned towards Mary and accepted God's vision.  He's there when the family needs to flee to Egypt.  He's there when the older Jesus is lost and found in the temple.  We assume that he has died by the time Christ is crucified, since he's not at the cross.

Some of us today will spend the day celebrating fathers, which is a great way to celebrate the feast day of St. Joseph.  Lately, I've been thinking of his feast day and what it means for administrators and others who are not the stars, but who make it possible for stars to step into the spotlight.

Let us today praise the support teams, the people in the background, the people who step back to allow others to shine. Let us praise the people who do the drudgery work which makes it possible for others to succeed.

For example, I am not the kind of person who immediately decides what to do with each piece of e-mail.  Consequently, once every few weeks, or more often, I need to go hunting for a particular e-mail.  I am amazed at how many e-mails I send and receive in any given day.  And yes, much of it is not that important.

But occasionally, an e-mail exchange can quickly settle a problem.  Some times, it's good to have an e-mail chain for reference. 

Many of us grow up internalizing the message that if we're not changing the world in some sort of spectacular way, we're failures.  Those of us who are Christians may have those early disciples as our role models, those hard-core believers who brought the Good News to the ancient world by going out in pairs. 

But Joseph shows us a different reality.  It's quite enough to be a good parent.  It's quite enough to have an ordinary job.  It's quite enough to show up, day after day, dealing with both the crises and the opportunities.

Joseph reminds us that even the ones born into the spotlight need people in the background who are tending to the details.  When we think about those early disciples and apostles, we often forget that they stayed in people's houses, people who fed them and arranged speaking opportunities for them, people who gave them encouragement when their task seemed too huge.

I imagine Joseph doing much the same thing, as he helped Jesus become a man.  I imagine the life lessons that Joseph administered as he gave Jesus carpentry lessons.  I imagine that he helped Jesus understand human nature, in all the ways that parents have helped their offspring understand human nature throughout history.

Let us not be so quick to discount this kind of work.  Let us praise the support teams that make the way possible for the people who will change the world.

Here is a prayer that I wrote for today:

Creator God, thank you for your servant Joseph.  Help us to remember his lessons for us.  Help us look for ways to shepherd your Good News into the world in ways that only we can.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

Mepkin Moving Forward

This morning, because of my Facebook friendship with Pastor Andy of my parents' church in Williamsburg (St. Stephen's Lutheran), I read this great piece in The New York Times about Mepkin Abbey.  It includes beautiful pictures of the Abbey in its present incarnation, along with historical pictures from the 1950's.

The essay explores the issues that this monastery faces, as their members grow ever older; a newer monk who is in his 60's is one of the younger ones.  It's not a problem that only Mepkin Abbey faces:  "Across all orders, the number of Catholic brothers in the United States has declined by more than two-thirds since 1965, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate. But Trappist communities may be particularly vulnerable, since their traditions are more isolating and, in many ways, more resistant to modernization."

The story discusses the direction that Mepkin Abbey will move:  "Many young people of the Roman Catholic tradition, Father Guerric added, will simply not be attracted to forms of monasticism that require celibacy and a lifetime commitment. But there’s a growing belief among Mepkin’s brothers that certain elements of the Trappist tradition — its cultivation of mindfulness, stillness and inward exploration — are increasingly relevant to today’s youth. And the abbey, they say, is a repository of wisdom about the benefits of contemplative living."

They will offer new programs, along with the retreats they've already been offering:  "The abbey’s new affiliate program will offer two new short-term monastic options for people of any, or no, faith traditions: a monthlong monastic institute, open to men and women, and a yearlong residency. And in a departure from its otherwise passive approach, Mepkin created an ad campaign — albeit a small and highly targeted one — to publicize the program. (It featured copy that read: “BE A MONK. FOR A MONTH. FOR A YEAR.”)."

In the past year or two, I've been noticing that the Abbey offers more retreats that are more organized and cost a pre-set amount.  I wonder if that move is tied to the Abbey's efforts to offer more so that they can keep going.

Every time I go to Mepkin Abbey, I wonder how they sustain themselves--and the answer that this article gives us shows us the precariousness of their situation.  They sustain themselves through mushroom sales, through retreatents, through donations of both money and time (they have volunteers that help keep the Abbey running) along with some paid labor.

I'm impressed that they are able to face their uncertain future, to pray, and to plan.  I love the idea of reaching out to spiritual searchers, even if they're not Catholic or Christian.  But I also love that they're not abandoning their core monasticism.  I look forward to seeing where they head--and hopefully being part of that journey.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Colcannon as Metaphor for the Spiritual Life

Thinking about St. Patrick's Day often takes me back to my early days as a budding vegetarian back in high school. I got one of those vegetarian magazines and decided to fix my family a special St. Patrick's Day meal. I would make Colcannon. Yes, Colcannon! It would be spectacular! They would never forget how fabulous it tasted!

I've now been cooking long enough that I would have skipped right over that recipe, a dish made primarily of mashed potatoes and cabbage. Blhhhhhh.

But no, I made Irish soda bread and Colcannon and served the family dinner with a flourish. Oh, my poor, long-suffering, generous family. What meals they endured as I experimented with vegetarian cooking. Looking back, I realize I was lucky to have such a family, who didn't complain too much about my cooking. My working mom was grateful to have anyone else cook, and she'd buy the ingredients. My dad, a long-distance runner both then and now, was interested in health. My sister, left to her own devices, would have had tacos every night.

We ate all the Irish soda bread that night, and each one of us finished our portion of Colcannon. It wasn't that bad--it just didn't taste like what I was expecting.

I see that experience as a metaphor for so much of life. Let's think about Colcannon as a metaphor for the spiritual life.

Many of us navigated towards a spiritual life with certain expectations. Maybe we remembered the churches of our childhoods: packed sanctuaries on Sundays and bountiful potluck dinners and vibrant youth groups. Or maybe we hoped to find inspiration to lead us to our better selves. Perhaps we wanted to learn to pray better or to be less judgmental. Maybe we yearned for grand choirs with brass ensembles that come in for special occasions.

In the meantime, we've had to learn to live with what we actually have on our plates for dinner. We don’t attend the churches that our grandparents had. We may sit in pews that are mostly empty. We may wonder where all the youth went. Maybe we have a decent choir, but we wish we had a good Sunday School for adults. Or maybe no aspect of the church is as glorious as we wanted it to be.

 We may have hoped for spiritual transformation, only to find ourselves still wrestling with how to be the best humans we can be. We go to church—so why are we still so irritated with the difficult people in our lives? We may wonder if we’ve been sold a bill of goods, much like I wondered whether or not that vegetarian magazine was going to lead me astray with every recipe.

Yet our current Colcannon spiritual lives are perfectly satisfying, perfectly nourishing, if we could only bring ourselves to feel happy about them. We may not be able to find anyone who wants to start a homeless shelter, but we have fun working on Vacation Bible School each year. We may not be able to find the extra time each week to attend a group, like WELCA or a Bible study, at the church, the way our parents did, but we find ourselves making deep connections during coffee hour. 

And though we still find ourselves not as spiritually evolved as we hoped we would be, maybe we think the hurtful things instead of saying them to the difficult people. Maybe we find that we’re better able to pray for the difficult people. Maybe we evolve enough to feel compassion for everyone, ourselves included.

So, wherever you are, enjoy the Colcannon that's on your plate, even if you wish you had shepherd's pie or lamb chops. Some day, you'll likely have the lamb chops that you see others enjoying--but for now, treasure the taste of cabbage and potatoes. The lamb chops will taste that much better later for having had to wait. Or maybe you’ll decide that your colcannon of a spiritual life is what you yearned for long before you realized what you had.


Friday, March 16, 2018

When Bridges Crumble and Crash

Yesterday, one of our EMS instructors asked me if we had a TV on campus.  I knew that something must be wrong--people don't ask for a TV so they can catch up on their viewing of cartoons.  I thought about 2001, when we gathered around the TV at the University of Miami where I taught; we were desperate for more information in the wake of the terrorist attacks.

We have no TVs on campus--I was a bit startled to realize that.  Once, I arrived at a campus where every classroom had a TV/VCR combo, and I thought I had landed at a place that had big budgets.  Now we expect a computer in every classroom and office.  That's how we caught up with news yesterday, with the larger computers and the small ones that we call our cell phones.

Yesterday's news:  a bridge collapse at Florida International University.  FIU was on Spring Break, so that's good--it could have been worse. The bridge wasn't yet open to pedestrian traffic, so it could have been worse. It didn't happen at rush hour--it could have been worse.

Still, it's pretty bad. And it's the second time in two months where I've written to my family to let them know that I wouldn't have been at a area school where a tragedy occurred, and my spouse wouldn't have been either. 

We were having a Spring into Health event at my school yesterday.  Once a quarter we have this event that serves several purposes:  it's a fun event for students, it's a pre-Orientation event for students who will join us next quarter, and it's an open house for potential students and the community.  The bloodmobile was parked in the front parking lot.

I confess that I don't give blood as often as I should.  I hate needles, and I hate that the pre-giving process takes so long.  Part of me understands why they need to ask so many questions, but part of me says, "You're going to test my blood, so let's just get this underway."  No, I've never had sex for money or injected myself with anything with a needle or . . . .

I lead a very boring life, in terms of infectious disease, which makes me a perfect candidate for giving blood.  I no longer have the low blood pressure of my long distance running youth, but I'm still healthy.  But I hate needles.

Yesterday, as the news trickled in about the bridge collapse, I thought about donating blood.  I finally decided to do it during the end of the bloodmobile's stay.  If anything went wrong, I'd soon be heading home.

Nothing went wrong, of course.  The only thing that's ever gone wrong was when I donated during a very low blood pressure day, and the bag just didn't fill.  As possibilities go, that's not too bad.  One of my colleagues fainted yesterday.

My experience last night was perfect.  I headed to the bloodmobile bus at 6:10, and I was done just before 7--the actual taking of the blood took about 12 minutes.  The phlebotomist was gentle and kind--the qualities I need in someone who approaches me with a needle.

As I sat in the chair, squeezing the rubber ball, I offered prayers for those who needed our blood.  I said several prayers of thanks for my boring life which has resulted in my clean and healthy blood.  I offered prayers for all the people I know who cannot donate blood. 

And then I prayed for us all, in this larger, crumbling world.