Monday, December 5, 2016

Preaching Report: Gabriel and Mary and Good News Delivery Systems

Yesterday's preaching went well.  My church is off-lectionary, so we heard the story of Gabriel appearing to Mary.  I talked about Mary as an unlikely vessel for the holy, which my spouse worried offended some.

And yet, my larger point was true:  if you were God and going to make yourself completely vulnerable, would you choose Mary?  Of course not.  You'd choose someone with more and better resources.  Mary had so little.

Of course, throughout the Scriptures, we see God choosing the most unlikely ways to break into the world and to make changes.  It's become one of the things I treasure most about God.

I had worried more about what I said about the journey to Bethlehem because of taxation purposes was likely not a fact.  I first came across this idea in Reza Aslan's Zealot:  The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth:   "Luke's suggestion that the entire Roman economy would periodically be placed on hold as every Roman subject was forced to uproot himself and his entire family I order to travel great distances to the place of his father's birth, and then wait there patiently, perhaps for months, for an official to take stock of his family and possessions, which in any case, he would have left behind in his place of residence, is, in a word, preposterous" (p. 30).

I don't read the Bible as history--what folly that would be--but I know so many people who do.  They are astounded and disbelieving when told that there is no historical record of this census of the Romans.   My spouse reminded me of how many people at the late service are considerably older and not used to thinking of the Bible as true but not factual.

I used to wonder how many people complained to the pastor when he returned, but probably no one does.  They probably shrug and feel happy that I'm not preaching all the time.

My spouse also points out that most people are with me by the end of any sermon I give, that I bring it around to material we can all agree on.  Yesterday was no different.  At the end, I talked about remembering how much God wants to be with us so much that God will put up with the indignities of being trapped in human form.

Good news indeed.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Advent Meditation on Mary

Today my church, which is off-lectionary, will be exploring Mary.  Beyond Advent, Protestants traditionally don't spend much time thinking about Mary, which is a shame, because she has much to teach us.

I think of Mary and her need to wait.  She's not Moses, called to leading people out of slavery.  She waits through pregnancy and then through the childhood of Jesus. 

Her role is vital, but it's often a background role.  It's only later that we realize that it's really a starring role.

I think of Mary, who occupied one of the lowest rungs in her society:  a woman who lived in a distant outpost of the Roman empire. 

Only a slave might have been lower.  Two things leap out at me:  one is that God can use any of us, from the highest to the most powerless.

And from this place of displacement, Mary gains understanding.  Perhaps that is why so many feel comfortable praying to her.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Poetry Saturday: "Exercising Freedom"

I've been looking at poems from past years that I wrote during Advent, about Advent, poems that explore holiday themes of all sorts.

This year, I wrote a different kind of Advent poem.  I had all sorts of imagery in my head:  thoughts of the recent election, refugees fleeing all sorts of horror, news of wildfires in the mountains of the U.S. south, this Adrienne Rich poem, and a variety of poems posted in mid-November on the Via Negativa site.

I wrestled with the title, as I often do.  Part of my problem is that I couldn't decide if I thought the poem was hopeful or not--it's both hopeful and doomed, and I like the fact that it can occupy both spaces at once--as is so often the case with so many of us and so many events.

This week, as I've been reading Isaiah along with other Advent texts, I've thought about this poem, which I actually wrote the week before Thanksgiving, although Advent was already on my brain.  Are the voices of the ancestors these ancient prophets?  Perhaps.  Or maybe they are the apocalyptic novelists I've always loved.  Or maybe they are the social activists who have always inspired me.

Or maybe all of it.

So, a poem to enjoy on your first Saturday of Advent!

Exercising Freedom

"We were always
Trying to run toward each other."
                        Luisa A. Igloria, “Landscape in an afterlife
Once again, you find yourself
on the old revolutionary road
with the houses that once hid
the asylum seekers.

The long road stretches
before you, overgrown
with brambles and struggling seedlings.
You see the fires
ahead, burning cities
or perhaps the lights
of fellow travelers.
Smoke hides the mountains.

The road is lined
with the suitcases of immigrants
who abandoned all the essentials
they once lugged to a new country.

You have kept your treasures
sewn into your hemlines, heirloom
seeds and the small computer chip
that holds your freedom papers.
Your grandmother’s gold hoops dance
in your earlobes and twinkle
around your fingers.

You hear the voices of the ancestors,
colored with both reason and panic.
Go faster, they urge.
You are needed up ahead.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Administrator Week: Letters, Prayers

This week, in the midst of many visions and revisions of accreditation documents, I took a minute to catch up on other administrator paperwork.  Some of it, like transfer credits from other schools, I'm familiar with.  But yesterday came a never-done-before task.

I signed acceptance letters.

I took a minute to remember my own acceptance letters along the way--the ones that admitted me to schools and programs where I yearned to be.  I thought about my spouse's acceptance into the MPA program in 1995--a letter that might have changed our lives more than any other letter, as it was just the start of a half decade of many changes, including selling much of what we owned and moving to South Florida.

I took a minute as I signed each letter to imagine the potential student receiving it.  What life-changing news was my signature part of?  I wondered if my letter would be one of several, leading the student to have to make decisions.  I also know that for some students, this letter will be a last chance at higher education.

I took a minute to say a prayer for each of these possible students.  It was a nebulous prayer, more along the lines of something I borrowed from Julian of Norwich:  "May all be well."  But it was a prayer without words, a luminous moment.  The words have come later, as I've thought about this moment during my work week.

As I move into administrator duties at my new job that are both familiar and new, I also offer a prayer for myself, that I remember to pray for all these lives that are now so linked together in this setting that is new to me.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Eyes on the Prize, Hands on the Plow

In these days of so many of us fretting over the future of the nation, let us take a pause to remember what ordinary citizens can do.  Today, December 1, gives us 2 movements to celebrate.

On this day in in 1955, 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.  This liberation work had been going on since the end of the Civil War, and before, during the times of slavery.

For generations, people had prepared for just such a moment that Rosa Parks gave them. They had gotten training in nonviolent resistance. They had come together in community in a variety of ways. They were prepared.

And in this way, a group of ordinary people made the arc of history bend towards justice.  We should take heart from their example.  Those Civil Rights workers faced much steeper odds than we face.

In these days of dead dictators (I'm thinking of Fidel Castro) and the distress that so many of us feel over the current state of politics--and the temptation to romanticize past decades--let us also remember that  today is also World Aids Day, a somber day that recognizes that this plague has been one of the most destructive diseases in human history. Let us remember another band of activists who worked hard to make sure that humanity vanquished this disease--I'm thinking of ACT UP, but AIDS united many groups that might not have otherwise found a common cause.

Many people idolize Ronald Reagan, but I will never be able to forget how he refused to take leadership as this disease emerged.  I am haunted by all the lives lost, and perhaps needlessly--if only . . . but history is so full of this needless loss.

It's easy to get bogged down in despair; we have survived earlier dark days, and we will survive any darkness coming our way too.

We can't know how long the struggle might be. Those of us who work towards social justice and human dignity for all are similar to those medieval builders of cathedral: 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.

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 4, 2016:

First Reading: Isaiah 11:1-10

Psalm: Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19

Second Reading: Romans 15:4-13

Gospel: Matthew 3:1-12

Today's Gospel continues with the Advent theme of watching, waiting, and listening for the call. Today it's John the Baptist who tells us of what's to come.

The real, living Jesus was not who John's listeners expected. Many of them probably thought that John was talking about himself; after all, first century Palestine was full of self-proclaimed Messiahs, and I expect many of them spoke of themselves in the third person telling (or warning) of the deeds they would do. Many of John's listeners probably had no idea what he was talking about; humans seem incapable of thinking in terms of metaphor and symbol for very long. Many of them probably expected a Messiah that would come in a form they'd recognize: a warrior to save them from the Romans, a temple reformer to get rid of corrupt priests, or maybe someone who would lead them into the wilderness to set up a new community.

Are we not the same way? How many of us read the Bible literally, expecting specific answers to social or political issues that would have been unheard of thousands of years ago when the Scriptures were written? How many of us would welcome salvation when it comes? We go to church, we sit in our pews, we wait for God to appear. We wonder why we don’t feel the presence of God, as we go home to take a nap and gear up for our secular week ahead. We scurry through the rat race of our lives, substituting other things for God. We worship at the churches of Capitalism, buying things at the mall or on the Internet, which means we have to work overtime to pay for those things. We wonder why we feel unfulfilled. To try to fill that emptiness, we do more of the activities that leave us with gaping holes in our Spirit. We hear that voice, the voice of the Spirit--maybe it cries or maybe it whispers. It scares us, so we eat some more or flip through ever more cable stations or go to bed early--because we can't deal with the implications.

John warns what happens to those of us who don't listen: "His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire" (verse 12). Some of us don't like this vision of a God with a winnowing fork in hand. How does this mesh with a God of grace and love?

 I think of parents, like my cousins and my sister, and this past Thanksgiving when I heard much discussion of bad choices.  I was rooting for the next generation to buckle down and eat a slice of pizza so that we could move on to watching a movie--but one of them had to go to bed early because he refused to eat something that had contained pepperoni.

I think of John's fiery language and the idea of winnowing.  I think of God as a loving parent, wishing we would do what's good for us.  God doesn't have to do much winnowing. Our lifestyles are already punishing us. Many of us are already feeling that unquenchable fire.

The good news is that there is time to change our ways. There is still time to "Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight." (verse 3). Advent, traditionally a time for getting ready, is a good time to think ahead. How could we make the next year to be our best spiritual year ever?

Choose just one simple action, whether it be keeping a prayer journal or making gratitude lists or learning to play or sing sacred music. Choose just one action and attend to it faithfully.

In this way, you will be in a much stronger spiritual place a year from now. You will be bearing fruit. God will call, and you will hear. God won't have to go to such great lengths to get your attention. Your deepest yearnings, the ones you didn't even know you had, will be filled, as you move towards God--and God moves towards you.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Creating a Contemplative Corner for Advent

I spent yesterday mired in accreditation documents--I say mired, but I was making progress.  By the end of the day, I just had a few pieces of information to add, information that will come from someone else, so I couldn't make much more progress.

I got home, and we had a simple supper of potatoes and fish.  We lit the first candle on the Advent wreath and sang the first verse of "Light One Candle to Watch for Messiah."  Later, we sat on the porch, in a true candlelit time.  By flashlight, I read a Henri Nouwen piece ("Waiting for God") about Mary, Elizabeth, and all the other Advent characters who wait.

Here's a Nouwen quote for your Advent reflection today:

"The whole meaning of the Christian community lies in offering a space in which we wait for that which we have already seen.  Christian community is the place where we keep the flame alive among us and take it seriously, so that it can grow and become stronger in us.  In this way, we can live with courage, trusting that there is a spiritual power in us that allows us to live in this world without being seduced constantly by despair, lostness, and darkness."

While I have not yet created much new art, aside from blog posts, with Advent themes, last night felt important:  the second night of Advent, a time out of regular time, even as we did normal activities like eating dinner and sitting on the porch.

On the Sunday before Advent, I ignored the Christ the King element of the lectionary, and looked forward to Advent:

So far, so good!