Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 30, 2017:

First Reading: 1 Kings 3:5-12

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Genesis 29:15-28

Psalm: Psalm 119:129-136

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 105:1-11, 45b

Psalm (Alt.): Psalm 128 (Psalm 128 (Semi-continuous) NRSV)

Second Reading: Romans 8:26-39

Gospel: Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Today we have a series of interesting parables which Jesus uses to explain the Kingdom of Heaven. I don't think that Jesus is explaining the afterlife, the way that many of us might assume when we hear the word "Heaven." Instead, Matthew uses that word as shorthand for a concept that's closer to "life as God intended." Of course, I'm grossly simplifying, but instead of doing an in-depth exploration of the word "Heaven," let's look at the images Jesus uses.

Note the smallness, the almost invisibility, of the first two images (verses 31-33): mustard seeds and yeast. There are two elements which are interesting. One is that these small grains left alone will transform themselves into something bigger--and in the case of yeast, will transform the surrounding elements too. Leave flour alone, and it won't change much in terms of volume. Even if it gets buggy, the bag won't explode. But add yeast and water and a bit of sweetness and leave the bowl in a warm place for a few hours--when you return to the bowl, the dough might be overflowing. Likewise with a seed. Plant it in the earth with a bit of fertilizer, add some water each day, and leave it alone--if you're lucky, you get a shrub or a tree. If we go out looking for the kingdom to be a big, glorious thing, we might miss the Kingdom.

Many people simply don't register the presence of God because they're looking for the wrong thing. They're looking for something huge and powerful. For example, think about the Jews of Jesus' time. They didn't want spiritual salvation. When they talked about a savior, they wanted someone who would kick the Romans out of their homeland. They missed the miracle of Jesus because they looked for the wrong sign.

The next set of metaphors (verses 44-46) talks about the preciousness of the Kingdom and also a bit about the effort required to find it. The treasure/pearl doesn't just fall into the men's laps--they're out looking.

We live in a culture that doesn't want to put in a lot of work. If you don't believe me, watch the claims that advertisers make: I can lose weight by working out 7 minutes a day, I can make thousands of dollars a month by working just 15 minutes a day, I can get a college degree without leaving my house. I love talking to my colleagues and collecting their strange student stories. One of my colleagues had a student stomp out in a huff when she realized she'd have to write essays. Keep in mind, my colleague teaches an English Composition class. Did the student think they'd be creating macaroni collages?

And then I start to wonder why this student imagines that she can go to college and not have to work. Where does she get that message? Of course, the culture in which she lives beams that to her all the time.

Likewise, Kingdom living requires some effort on our part. God wants to meet us, but we have to go forward towards God. We have to look for the right signs, and we have to make some effort. That effort might be regular prayer, spiritual reading, going to church, turning ourselves into caring people, giving more of our money away.

But the end of this week's Gospel assures us that the effort will pay off. We don't want to be in the furnace where men weep and gnash their teeth. For those of you who read the end of the Gospel as a metaphor of Hell after death, you might be right. But I would argue that life is terribly hellish right here and now for people who aren't doing transformational work.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Dinner with the Camp Counselors

Last night's dinner with the camp counselors went well.  I was nervous about it, and those of you who are better at these social occasions might wonder why.

I knew it would be just me and the 5 camp counselors for dinner.  I'd have been less nervous if some of the church VBS leaders had tagged along, but they had been working VBS all day, so I understood why they didn't want to make the trek to my house.

I had decided to make chicken with poblano mole sauce.  It's been a success when I've served it before, but it's unusual.  I made a black bean and corn salad to go with it, and I put out tortillas and tortilla chips.  I hoped that people would find enough to eat.

Happily, they loved the chicken.  They took seconds of everything.  We talked about Wednesday's dinner.  I worried that they get pasta too often.  They've been staying in people's houses all summer, and some of them have been doing this for several years, and they said they've never had spaghetti.  So, I will make my pasta with marinated veggies, along with some meatballs in a tomato sauce, and I'll let them decide how to combine it all.

I find it fascinating that I'm making meals for 4 college students and a high school student, and no one is a vegetarian or a vegan.

The item that makes me most nervous about hosting a get together with people I don't know is the question of what we'll talk about.  I needn't have worried.  Our conversation was wide ranging, from all the foods one can deep fry (squares of mac and cheese anyone?) to strange food combinations, like peanut butter on a burger to various camp experiences, some with food, some not.  We spent a lot of time after dinner talking about musical instruments.

The high school student was fascinated by the dulcimer, which I bought for $40, but never taught myself to play.   Actually, it would be more accurate to say I taught myself, but now I don't remember--it was a brief season with the dulcimer. 

By the end of the evening, he played it with a bit of a slide guitar sound.  As always, I'm fascinated by how people play instruments when they've had no training.  What makes some of us frozen with fear, while others explore? And I was intrigued by the fact that all of us can play the ukulele, to some extent.  Is the ukulele becoming more popular?  Or was it just some fluke?  I suspect it has to do with how affordable an instrument it is and how accessible.

They stayed for about an hour and a half after dinner.  We talked not only about musical instruments, but about camp experiences, both the residence camp and the travelling to churches to assist with VBS camps.  I was interested to know what kinds of lodging they'd had.  They've stayed in people's guest rooms mostly, with a sleep sofa here and there.  So our cottage is perfectly fine; in fact, one of them said, "If I was a college student here, I'd love to rent something like this cottage."

As I cleaned up, I tried not to notice all the ways I'd failed to clean my house for them--I was too busy getting the cottage in shape.  I had clean dishes and a clean bathroom, but my floors could use a sweeping, and let's not talk about the dust. 

I decided long ago that I can't keep up the housekeeping standards of a past generation.  But I don't want to let that fact keep me from extending hospitality.  I suspect that most people don't even notice the dust--or they say, "Hey, I'm not the only one who lets the dusting get away from me."

I'd like to have people over more often--but that often requires a feat of scheduling that's beyond me.  So for now, let me be happy to have had this experience--and its reinforcement of my belief that this hospitality is a worthy skill to practice.

Monday, July 24, 2017

Sunday Reunions

Yesterday was not only the day that the camp counselors came.  Our old campus pastor also came to worship.  I had time to reflect on our various journeys.

My spouse and I met at Newberry College, a Lutheran school in South Carolina that had more Southern Baptists than Lutherans.  Our campus pastor was also a professor.  Later, he would return to parish ministry and spend time as parish pastor at my grandmother's church in Greenwood, S.C., so I stayed in touch in a way I might not have otherwise. 

Much later, my spouse served on the board of Novus Way, the group that oversees 4 Lutheran camps and more programs than I could list here.  Our old campus pastor retired and found that he needed more to do than supply preaching--and thus, he travels across multiple states, supporting the mission of Novus Way.

Yesterday he came to our church for a variety of reasons; the main one was to give my spouse a beautiful print in honor of his service.  He also talked to the congregation about what their donations have made possible.  After the service, we had pizza and talked further.

At one point, I said, "Who'd have ever thought, back when you were my Phenomenology professor, that some day we'd be here, talking about church camp?"

One of the church members said, "Phenomenology?"

I said, "Yes.  I had to give an oral report on exorcism.  And one of my classmates was an ordained Baptist minister, and he said, 'Oh yes, I've done lots of them.'  And I never quite recovered my momentum."

Soon after that, we gave our campus pastor a hug, and he was on his way, driving all the way back to South Carolina in one day.  I said to my spouse, "I'm both glad that we're not making that long drive and slightly envious of that meditative state he might achieve."

We came home to keep working on projects, chief among them getting the cottage ready for the camp counselors.  I hope they'll be comfortable--I've done as much as I can do to that end, with the resources that we have.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Hosting the Camp Counselors for VBS

A few weeks ago, I was struck by the idea that for the first time in years, I wouldn't be helping out with VBS.  This week, it's occurred to me that I am helping, and it may end up being just as labor intensive, although it will be very different.

This year, many fewer of us will actually be helping with VBS itself, in terms of being on site and working with groups of children.  This year, a group of camp counselors from Luther Springs will be running our VBS.  We will have VBS in the day, not in the evenings.  We will have a much smaller group of kids.  It's both strange and a relief.

We have often had more neighborhood kids than children from our own church; we just don't have that many children as part of our church family.  Is VBS a valid ministry, worth the money and time we devote to it?  I know about the studies that show that one common denominator in adults who attend church are that they attended VBS or church camp.  I suspect that those adults were also going to church as children.  I don't know the stats for children who only attend VBS or church camp.

Of course, we're not putting together a VBS week just to have church members in 20 years.  Why are we doing it?   For a variety of reasons:  because we always have, because we feel it's important to these kids at this time, because we've had fun doing it, because we have a core group of people who are public school teachers and thus they have time in the summer.  If that core group didn't exist, those of us with full-time jobs in the summer literally would not have time--or we'd have a very streamlined VBS, with fewer decorations and other elements.

This year, we have camp counselors coming, something we've never done.  We have an empty cottage, so 3 of them will stay here.  I will provide dinner two nights this week.  I'll provide some transportation.  I've already done a lot of shopping and prep work.  I will do some cleaning this afternoon.  I've done laundry so that they will have sheets and towels, and then I will do laundry after they leave.  It will probably end up being the same amount of work as past years, when I've led the arts and crafts--but it feels very different.

My cottage is a historic structure, and it has some quirks.  I am hopeful that they'll be delighted with the lodging--but I'm worried that its flaws will detract from their experience.  Of course, for the most part, they'll just be there to sleep.  Let me also remember that people who are expecting resort-like accommodations don't usually sign up for a summer as camp counselor.

Likewise, I hope they like the meals I've planned.  I put a loaf of bread and peanut butter and jelly in the cottage, along with breakfast foods.  They won't starve.

I think I'm also feeling some anxiousness because we haven't done this before, so I'm not sure what to expect.  The schedule is still a bit loose.  So I'm preparing meals that can sit for awhile. I'm telling myself that all will be well.  And it will.

I also want to remember something one of my VBS planner friends said to me when we had lunch on Friday.  She said that hosting the camp counselors is like hosting missionaries.  It was only later that I reflected how many people I know who worked at church camp who have gone on to work in the Church.  Perhaps these experiences will not only be formational not only for the children who come to VBS, but also for these counselors.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Feast Day of Mary Magdalene

Today, we celebrate the life of Mary Magdalene. Take a minute to read the New Testament reading for today: John 20:1-2, 11-18. How interesting to have the Easter story out of sequence, here in the middle of summer. In some ways, we can hear some nuances when these passages come to us at a time that's NOT the end of Holy Week and Lent.

Actually, the verses in between the ones for today's Gospel interest me. After Mary tells the disciples about the empty tomb, several of them race towards the tomb. They look, they assess, and then they go home. It is only Mary who stays behind to weep.

But because she stays behind to weep, to be still for a bit, she gets to be the first to see the risen Lord. The male disciples are first to see the evidence of resurrection, but Mary sees Christ. Soon othrs else will see him, but she is first.

There have been many moves throughout church history to strip Mary of her importance. Many church teachings portray her as a prostitute, as mentally ill, or both. More recently, we've had The DaVinci Code, which has many people talking about the possibility of Jesus having a family with Mary Magdalene. What is it about this woman that pushes our buttons?

The early church was quite unique. Throughout his ministry, Jesus makes clear that women are important. True, no woman is listed as a disciple. But it was women--and their money--that made the ministry of Jesus much easier. It was women--and their money--that kept the early church afloat. But somewhere in the middle ages, history was rewritten to make women seem dangerous, demented, soiled, and stupid.

That's the beauty of having Scripture that's written in our own language, that we can read for ourselves (those of us who are literate forget what a great gift we've been given). We can go back to see what the Scriptures actually say.

The story of Mary Magdalene seems similar. We need to be reminded to stay alert. Busyness is the drug that many of us use to dull our senses. But in our busyness, we forget what's really important. We forget to focus on Christ and living the way he commanded us.

If we're too busy, we might miss Christ altogether. Both the Old and New Testament teach us that God will come to us in forms we least suspect. If we're not careful, we'll assume that we're not needed and go back to our houses. If we're not careful, we won't notice that the gardener is really Jesus.

It's good to be reminded of the resurrection story in the middle of July. Now the year is over half way done. We don't have the magic of spring to renew our spirits. We may be feeling scorched by the weather and by our dashed hopes for the year. It's good to remember the story that we can be part of; it's good to remember that we're promised grace and salvation.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Creativity Report: Thursday Evening

Last night, I got home earlier than I have any other night this week.  I did some writing--a very small bit of writing.  Once I could write a huge chunk of short story, if not the entire short story, in an hour or two.  Now I feel lucky if I get a paragraph or two without feeling despair at not knowing how to write the story.

Next week we are hosting 2 camp counselors who are arriving to help our church lead Vacation Bible School.  Last night I found out that I'll be feeding them 2 nights, which is fine.  After all, when we agreed to host them, I assumed we might be feeding them dinner every night.  This week, my dinners have been my favorite:  wine, crackers, and cheese, which I feel O.K. about since I've been vigilant in portion control.  But that won't do for camp counselors.

I've had some poblano peppers that I bought when I planned to make a mole sauce.  They were on their last days, so I used the impending approach of camp counselors to make the sauce.  Later, I stuck it in the freezer for next week.

I had planned to collage, but I was running out of time.  I decided to go ahead and do it, just to see what would happen.  A few weeks ago, I was cleaning out some shelves, and I found a lot of materials that we kept in anticipation of doing more collaging.  I decided to throw away old calendars.  But I kept the envelopes of images and words that I cut out and saved. 

Last night, I decided that I didn't have to look through every envelope.  I found an old Christmas card that I liked, and I decided it would form the anchor of my collage.  I chose a few phrases, and a few other images.  When I was sorting, I came across a stash of mat boards that we bought at a sale long ago.  I decided on a purple mat board, even before I chose the images.  I love how it all came together:



I do notice that I tend not to collage like other people.  I have a lot of open space in my collages.  If I like the original image, it's hard for me to add other things on the image.  You'll notice that the Christmas card image is untouched, although I let things creep onto the white border.  The lantern had the purple glass.

When I used the modge podge, the images wrinkled a bit, and the blob at the lower right of the Christmas card formed.  I try to see it as part of the process, but my inner perfectionist is not happy.

If I look at this collage as a journaling exercise, it's clear to me what my soul is saying.  I'm ready for Christmas!  I'm also interested in more open spaces, in a different landscape.  What do those turtles mean?  Coming out of my shell or going in?  Wishing my house was more portable?

I didn't spend more than 45 minutes on this project, but I found it immensely satisfying.  Let me remember that for the future.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Judge Not

My church is off lectionary.  For Sunday, July 23, 2017, we'll be thinking about this text:  Matthew 7:1-5


This famous text has Jesus telling us not to judge, followed by the example of taking the speck of dust out of our own eyes before we try to remove the logs out of the eyes of others.  Along the way we're reminded that we'll be judged in the same way that we judge others.

Some of us should shake in fear at those words.  But this morning, as I read them again, I thought about the way I judge others and the way I judge myself.  Frankly, I'm much harder on myself.  I give others the benefit of the doubt as I remind myself that I can't possibly understand every aspect of what's affecting them.

Meanwhile, in my own head, I hear a chorus of voices that remind me of all the ways I'm not living up to my full potential, of all the ways I've let everyone down.  You might think I need some therapy, and you might be right, but I suspect I'm not alone in this.  I know many people who are far more gentle with each other than they are with themselves.  Just listen to how people talk, and you'll see.

With that in mind, let us return to the text again.  This text is not about the way we should judge.  No, I believe that Jesus is telling us not to waste precious time in judgment.

It's a variation of what one of my most beloved yoga teachers told me long ago.  She caught me looking at a fellow student when I couldn't hold a pose.  She said, "Don't compare yourself to your classmates.  It won't help.  Focus on your own body."  It's wise advice in a variety of contexts.

When we judge, we're comparing.  Maybe we're comparing to a standard that we feel everyone should be attaining.  Maybe we're comparing ourselves to our larger society.  Maybe we're finding ourselves superior.  Maybe we come up lacking.

It's not helpful.  It's not a good use of our time.  Jesus reminds us again and again of our main task:  to love each other and to love God.  Judging doesn't get us there.

Life is very short, and judgmental behavior robs us of many joys.  Let us resolve to stop judging each other.  Let us resolve to stop judging ourselves.  Let us look at the world with a different set of glasses:  let us look through the lenses of love.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The lessons for Sunday, July 23, 2017:

First Reading: Isaiah 44:6-8

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Genesis 28:10-19a

First Reading (Alt.): Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19

Psalm: Psalm 86:11-17

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 139: 1-11, 22-23 (Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24 NRSV)

Second Reading: Romans 8:12-25

Gospel: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Again this week we have agricultural metaphors--what an intriguing scenario, to have an enemy that sneaks into your fields to sow weeds, instead of just destroying the field outright. And what an interesting response of the owner: to let the wheat and the weeds grow, to separate the useful from the useless later, once the growing is done and the reaping finished.

The traditional response to this Gospel sees this story as a metaphor about Judgement Day. My problem with that metaphor is that weeds don't turn into wheat, and I don't like the implications of that. The parable comes much too close to advocating predestination for my Lutheran sensibilities to be happy with this interpretation.

Luckily, humans aren't solely weeds or wheat. I know that there are some weeks where I'm more of a weed than anything that is of agricultural use. And I'm the pesky kind of weed; I'm not the kind of weed that grows quietly alone; I impede the spiritual progress of others, strangling and choking and making life miserable. I console myself by telling myself that we all have those days or weeks or seasons where our weedy natures take over.

But I can’t take too much consolation. These summer Gospel readings remind us that we don’t get to sleep in the soil forever. We don't get to loll around in our wheatfield, hoping that we're one of the chosen ones and not one of the weeds. At some point, the wheat will be separated from the weeds.

Let us return to the idea of sowing and seeds, a useful metaphor in so many ways. How can we sow seeds now that will blossom into good gardens later? There are as many ways to do this as there are vegetables in the garden right now in many parts of the country.

Maybe we could pray more. Maybe we could resolve to be cheerful, no matter what the day brings. Maybe we could give one or two percent more of our income away. Maybe we could remember to say “please” and “thank you.”

Our basic task is to reflect God's light into a world that dims each day. How can you best do that?

If you feel disheartened, like your weedy self is too firmly rooted, remember those who have gone before you. One of Christianity's most successful evangelists, Paul, was killing Christians before he converted. If God found a use for Paul, God can use your seedling talents too.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Beggar's Bowl

Each year when I visit Mepkin Abbey, I go to the huge sculptures carved when two ancient trees toppled.



I am struck by this woman and her beggar's bowl.



Each year, the bowl holds something different.  This year, it was a painted rock amongst the coins and stones.



Some years, there are more coins.



One year, there was a cross.




Another year, in deepest winter, the bowl held Spanish moss and petals from a decaying flower:




I think of her face each time I see a homeless person at an intersection, a cardboard sign instead of a begging bowl.





I think of the weariness carved into wood, the weariness we all carry:


Monday, July 17, 2017

Epiphany Stars Still Guiding Us

Last week I led worship service.  As the late service ended, I stood at the back at the door to shake hands of departing parishioners. 

One woman said to me, "I still have those things you handed out one of the last times you were in charge."  At first I had no idea what she meant, and she said, "Those things with the special word or phrase on them."

I said, "Do you mean the Epiphany stars?"

She did; I wrote about it in this blog post back when I led the Epiphany service.  I wrote a word or a phrase on a star, created a bag of stars, and we passed the bag around letting people pull a star out of the bag.  The idea is that the star will guide us through the year.

I asked the woman what word was on the star.  She said, "Say no."

I said, "And have you been saying no?"

She said no.  Happily, I didn't see the humor in that, so I didn't laugh; she was serious, after all.

I said, "Well you still have half a year."

That sent me back to my two words:  in the practice session, I pulled out "Listen."  During the worship service, I pulled out "Say yes."

How have I been doing?  I've been trying.

I was glad to have had that encounter with the parishioner.  For one thing, I'm glad that she still remembered the experience, half a year later.  And I'm glad that she reminded me of my own stars.  I have been aware of my tendency to say no much too quickly, but often, when I change my mind to say yes, I'm glad.  And like everyone else, my attention span fragments in many directions these days.  It's good to be reminded of the need to be present and listen.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Good Reading for Sleepless Nights

The last few nights have been somewhat sleepless.  I'm the first one on the list of people the alarm company calls when the alarm goes off at school.  We've had calls two nights in a row about the same classroom.  The first night, Friday night, it took me 2 hours to fall back asleep.  Last night I had trouble sleeping, but when the call came, I did manage to fall back asleep.

The first night, I got up and read two chapters of the last Harry Potter novel.  I'm finding myself frustrated in the same ways (moments of delight at the inventiveness punctuated by long spells of boredom when I think about scenes that could be eliminated or condensed) that I was with the first 2 novels, and I don't know if I'm up for 700+ more pages of this.

Last night, I read Love, Henri:  Letters on the Spiritual Life, a collection of Henri Nouwen's letters.  What a delight!  I'm not done yet, but it has captivated me--I can't wait to return to it.

I had hoped that it would be this kind of reading experience.  I've always loved Nouwen's journals more than his more intentional writing.  And when I've read work pulled from letters he wrote, I've loved that too. 

His letters are full of warmth and honesty, no matter the audience.  They're also full of good advice, even now, decades after they were written for someone specific.  Here's an example:  ". . . we would do well to think about what pastoral care for nostalgic people means.  After all, don't we all desire to return to paradise?" (p. 8).

I was also intrigued by his work/academic/pastor life trajectory:  not serious to get tenure at some schools, not theologically minded enough, not focused on regular pastoral life, so hard to please everyone.

The beginning material by the woman who compiled the text also provided fascinating insight into his writing life, his letter writing life.  He was so meticulous, and even though his letters may talk about how long it has taken him to respond, he was responding to lots of people and staying connected.

I wish I could say that after reading his work, I fell into a blissful, non-worried sleep, but that was not the case.  I read his book and wanted to write letters or theology or stay up late praying.  To me, that's the mark of a wonderful book.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Sing of Bastille Day and Birthdays

Today is my birthday. It's also Bastille Day, the French equivalent (sort of ) of our Independence Day. I see this historical event as one of many that launched us on the road to equality. It's an uneven success to be sure. More of us in the first world enjoy more liberty than those in developing nations. But that thirst for freedom and equality found some expression in the French Revolution, and I could argue that much liberation theology has some rootedness in that soil (yes, it would be a problematic argument, I know).

It's also Woody Guthrie's birthday.

I share my birthday with many famous people (Irving Stone, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Gerald Ford), but I've always been happiest to share my birthday with Woody Guthrie. I see Woody Guthrie as one of the unsong (ha ha) liberation theologians.

I've always asked my students if they're familiar with his music, and they always say they're not. Then I sing a bit of "This Land Is Your Land," and they realize that they do know his work.

Unfortunately, the most radical verses of that song are often not sung:


"In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I'd seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?

As I went walking, I saw a sign there,
And on the sign there, It said "no trespassing." [In another version, the sign reads "Private Property"]
But on the other side, it didn't say nothing!
That side was made for you and me. "

Throughout his life, Woody Guthrie showed a compassion for the poor and the dispossessed that we see so rarely from famous/talented/artistic people. He also showed an amazing capacity for nurturing the talents of the next generation (most notably, Bob Dylan and later, Bruce Springsteen and U2). We could argue about his Huntington's disease: what was responsible for what? We could talk about his womanizing and his abandonment of his children, and I'm not arguing that he gets a free pass on that behavior because of his disease or because of his artistic talent.

I am saying that his lifelong radicalism impresses me. His lifelong commitment to his art impresses me. His struggle to be a better family man, requiring a fresh start again and again, impresses me. His ability to create art in spite of his lack of formal training and education, impresses me.

He has written songs that school children sing, songs that rock and roll folks sing, songs that invade my sleep and sweeten my dreams.

If I was the person in charge of modern feast days, I'd canonize Woody Guthrie.  His songs point the way to living a more solidly ethical life.  His life does not, except by example of some things not to do.  And yet, at the end, despite his wanderings, the love of his life, Marjorie, continued to care about him.

It's easier to love someone like Woody Guthrie who has a brain disease that makes him behave badly.  It would be much harder if he was a jerk just because he was a jerk.

You might ask me why he deserves a feast day.  I would point out his prolific output, his variety of types of songs, his embrace of dispossessed people of all sorts, his embrace of freedom.  I would argue that his music can lead us to the social justice actions that God commands.  I could make a case that his music leads us to God, both the songs he wrote, and the songs inspired by his life and work.

What better person to make a saint?  I'm not exactly serious, because I know most people could make a fairly lengthy list of people who deserve sainthood more.

But for today, let's celebrate a musical legend.  Let's celebrate the man who gave us the line "This land was made for you and me."  Let's sing!

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Love Each Other as You Have Loved the Monastery Dog

Near the end of our June retreat at Mepkin Abbey, I said, "I'm going to go home and love my husband the way we all love the monastery dog."

When I first met the monastery dog, I felt sorry for her.  I heard the story about how she appeared at the monastery in very bad shape, with a chain around her neck.  The monks took her in and taught her to trust the humans that show up at the monastery.

When I first met the dog, I thought about all the children who would never be part of her world.  But she has a never-ending supply of visitors who would likely pet her.  The monks take care of her. 

I'm intrigued by how most people respond to the dog.  Almost everyone pets her head as she comes up to them with her wagging tail.  Many people kneel her level, all the better to be with her.  She seems to put most people in a better mood, and they respond to her accordingly.

She makes it easy to love her, in a way that humans don't always.  But how would the world change if we treated each and every human in the loving, soothing way that we treat the monastery dog?

I've had similar insights as I've watched toddlers move through the world.  I remember seeing a toddler in the process of having a crying meltdown in the parking lot--I'll never forget seeing the adult who was with her drop to her knees and talk in soothing tones.

If we treated everyone that way, what a better world we would live in!

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 15, 2017:

First Reading: Isaiah 55:10-13

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Genesis 25:19-34

Psalm: Psalm 65:[1-8] 9-14 (Psalm 65:[1-8] 9-13 NRSV)

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 119:105-112

Second Reading: Romans 8:1-11

Gospel: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

This Gospel returns us to one of my favorite metaphors: the seed. When I first read this Gospel lesson as a child, I read it as an indictment of the seeds. Clearly some were just bad or worthless. Now, as an adult, I see this Gospel as being primarily about the ground. We've all got lots of potential, but some of us just aren't in the right kind of ground to flourish.

Unlike seeds, we can move. I'm not necessarily talking about a literal move, although the idea of moving to be near a great religious community doesn't strike me as absurd, the way it once did. Many of us move for much more stupid reasons.

Unfortunately, given the state of housing and job markets, many of us are as rooted as plants need to be. However, there are still many things we can do to enrich the soil in which we find ourselves.

The first thing we should all do is take a long, hard look at the people with whom we spend time. Are these people who are bringing out our best traits? Or do we have negative friends, people who encourage us to gossip, to tear others down, to be angry or sour? Perhaps it's time to expand our network of friends.

Think about your daily schedule. What activities leave you feeling icky? For example, many of us start our days by watching the local news. What would happen if you turned off the news and read a chapter of the Bible? You'd probably leave the house feeling calmer. I know that you'll tell me you only watch the news to get the weather and the traffic. Well, there are better ways to get that information. The local news carries such horrific stories, and our bodies can't handle that stress.

Likewise, what do you listen to in the car? Does it soothe you or drive your heart rate through the ceiling? Invest in something that calms you (a CD, a podcast, a tape). Get something that reminds you of who you're supposed to be. I've noticed that when I'm listening to Godspell, I'm less likely to curse my fellow drivers, and the lyrics stay with me through the day.

Think about your charitable activities. Just as we tithe money, we should tithe time. You'll feel better if you can do more for others. Even if you don't like the populations we usually think of when we think of charity, you can find someone who needs you. Read books to elementary school kids. Or, if you don't want to deal with humans, go to a food bank and sort food. Or call charitable agencies and offer to do free data inputting.

And don't forget that humans have a need for retreat. Build mini-retreats into your day:  find some green space and go there to pray; read something inspiring, if you can't leave your desk; find web sites with inspiring material and visit; close the door to your families, don't answer the phone, and practice deep breathing. And think about a longer retreat. Summer camp isn't just for kids any more. And if you can't go during summer, many church camps have year-round programming, often at very affordable prices. Or go to a monastery, many of which often will just ask for an offering.

And know that there are times in your life where your heart won't be fertile soil. But if gardening teaches us anything, it's that soil can be redeemed--and if you want to keep on with this metaphor: what redeems soil? Poop! Lots and lots of poop! So give thanks for all the poop that falls into your life and pray that it transforms the soil of your heart. The redemption process goes faster if you participate. And teeny changes can lead to incredible rewards. Here, in the sweltering days of summer, think about one change you can make and commit to a weekly practice until the weather cools off.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Buttons, Blog Posts, and Prayer Ideas

When I was a child, I loved my grandmother's button box.  I'm sure it baffled her.  My grandmother came of age in the Depression.  She would patch and repair a piece of clothing, and once it was no longer usable, she'd cut off the buttons and save them.  She sewed much of the family clothes, and buttons came in packs that included more buttons than she needed.  She saved them.

She didn't see them as objects of beauty, the way that I did.  She didn't understand why I loved to run my fingers through the buttons or let them fall out of my hands in a stream. 

She saved more buttons than one seamstress would ever use in a lifetime.  This morning, I came across this idea in this post that uses buttons as a prayer device.  It's geared towards children, but as with many good ideas, it could be used with a whole congregation.

On Sunday, I wove a piece of yarn through the prayer loom and reflected that I was seeing new yarn there.  For awhile, I wondered if I was the only one who used it.  But clearly, I'm not.  That idea, too, was one I first discovered in a post on the Internet.  For more on how we used it with VBS children, see this blog post.  For more on how we used it for Maundy Thursday, see this blog post.

This morning I am grateful for all the great ideas that are out there, just waiting for us to discover them.  I'm grateful that we're integrating different ways of prayer into our worship services.  When I was young, they'd have been limited to retreat exercises or camp.

I'm also missing my grandmother and her button box.  Even though I now have a button box of my own, I wish I had hers too.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Walter Wink and the Modern Congregation

At my church, when our pastor goes away, he tries to find one of us to preach.  It saves our tiny congregation the cost of a supply pastor, plus some of us have considered going to seminary and have some advanced training, so he has congregational resources.

If I'm in town, I say yes when my pastor asks me to preach.  I understand that it's a rare opportunity for lay person in most congregations, and I think that having some additional voices is a bonus.  I often don't know the text in advance, because we're often off lectionary.

When I realized that I'd be preaching on the part of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew that instructs us to turn the other cheek, give up our garments, and walk the extra mile, I knew that I would bring in Walter Wink.  While I don't think his interpretation is particularly radical, I know that it's different from what most of us learned along the way.

Weeks ago, I told my pastor what I planned to do:  "I plan to talk about active resistance that keeps us alive vs. passivity (which has been a gospel too often preached to those who suffer violence.  Reading Walter Wink on this subject changed my life!"

He responded:  "Great - way too many folks fail to grasp the implications of these texts as active resistance."

I also made a point of telling the congregation that I had told our pastor that I would talk about Walter Wink and the book Engaging the Powers, which was published by a Lutheran publishing house--I wanted them to know that I wasn't going out on a shaky limb all by myself.

I expected people to be more upset than they were.  On the contrary, they thanked me for explaining the backstory to the text, about how the right cheek had significance--Jesus specifies the right cheek, which means it's a backhanded slap meant for inferiors.  If I turn the other cheek, I'm putting the aggressor in an impossible place--he can't hit me, and I've said through my actions that I will be treated with dignity. 

It's the same with being forced to walk a mile.  Modern readers wouldn't realize that the subtext is that it's a Roman soldier forcing a person to walk a mile carrying gear--but only a mile, because Rome fancied itself to be civilized and a soldier could be punished if the civilian walked more than a mile.

We also looked at the passage about praying for enemies.  I didn't want to make assumptions about how we all feel about U.S. political leaders. 

I said, "I'll use Vladimir Putin, and you fill in the blank thinking of the person in politics who most fills your Facebook feed with anger and fuming." I thought it was an elegant approach. I said that I needed to remember to pray for Putin, not just to be infuriated by his actions. I needed to remember that God loves Vladimir Putin every bit as much as God loves me. I need to try to see the face of Christ in Putin, as hard as it may be.

I talked a bit about God and free will and demanding that God take action on social justice issues. I said, "I know some of you are now expecting that lightning will come from the sky and strike me dead for presuming to talk to God that way. But we're allowed to do that--read your Psalms, if you don't believe me. I'm allowed to say, 'Hey, God, you need to do something about your man Putin."

I ended by reminding people that we're not put on earth to suffer and die so that we get a good spot in Heaven.  No, Jesus comes to tell us that the Kingdom of God is being created right now, and we can be part.  I said, "And that, my friends, is the Good News that Jesus proclaims again and again."

I was much more eloquent, and I can't quite capture it here.  I think that's because the Holy Spirit was talking through me--before I said it, I wasn't exactly sure how I was going to end.  And suddenly the words flowed.

It was one of the best services I've ever led.  In part, it was because I had a great text.  And I've come to realize that there are days when it all goes well--or badly--for no reason I can discern.

I'm grateful that Sunday's service went well--as my pastor said, it's an important message for people to hear, this necessity of resisting evil in ways that don't make us evil and part of the problem.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Cycles, both Moon and Seasons

As I've been watching the moon move to fullness, I've been thinking about the last time I saw the full moon:  when I was at Mepkin Abbey.  A month ago, I'd have already been on the road for a few hours.

The night of June 9, we were all trying to see the full moon rise, but our view was obscured by trees and clouds.  We could see an orange orb trying to break through as we walked back up from the river.  I stayed up longer than my friend and walking partner.

One of our fellow retreatents decided to stretch out on the vast grassy area to watch the moon.  I didn't have her dedication.  She reported that it was glorious.

On Saturday morning, as I walked to the refectory for breakfast at 5:15 a.m., I tried to take pictures of the moon as it was setting:



A monk in a wheelchair broke the time of silence to tell me that I had missed the moon at its best, when it rose last night, so orange.  I whispered, "I saw it too."

I thought about how we are all bewitched by the moon, even as most of us have religious practices that don't root us in the natural world.  But the monks at Mepkin Abbey may be more rooted in the natural world than the rest of us, as they do some small scale farming.

Soon I will head to church to lead services today so that my pastor can enjoy some vacation time.  When I agreed to do it, July 9 seemed so far into the future.  As I'm thinking about the fact that we're at the halfway point of the year, I realize that soon our attention will shift again.  I'm already seeing displays of school supplies--can Halloween be far behind?

Saturday, July 8, 2017

From the Detritus, A Mid-Summer Art Project Plan

Last night, as my spouse talked on the phone, I tried to sort through some shelves.  We moved into this house 4 years ago, and I haven't touched many of the things I put onto the shelves since then.  I wanted to make sure that we still needed those things.

What did I find?  Lots of detritus of technology past.  In one packet of stuff that came with a computer that I no longer remember, I found a CD that I can load onto my computer which will let me have a free trial of AOL for 30 days--how many generations of computer software ago was that?

On a shelf of even older technology, I looked through what I assumed would be blank paper journals.  Lo and behold, some of them had writing.  From 2007, I found a log I kept when I was first Assistant Chair of General Education--just in case anyone ever asked me to justify myself.  I decided not to look through that one too closely.

I found a journal that I forgot I ever kept.  Long ago, before my current pastor was my pastor, he asked me to be part of a group he formed to help him with his dissertation, which looked at how we might encounter God in the outdoors.  Our group went to various locations, experienced the location, wrote in our journals, and then discussed.  We walked around the lake at the community college, the Hollywood Beach Broadwalk, and a labyrinth at an Episcopal school.  Once our pastor was done with our journals for his dissertation writing, he gave them back to us.  Fascinating!

I found a lot of materials that we kept in anticipation of doing more collaging.  I decided to throw away old calendars.  But I kept the envelopes of images and words that I cut out and saved--and I've developed a mid-summer art project plan.  I will collage with these materials that I collected at least 5 years ago.  I'll also go through the pile of magazines that I have in the living room.

So, this will be a different kind of collaging.  I've always collaged with images that spoke to me from magazines--I've never used images that I collected years ago.  Will it be an experience of time looping back on itself?  Or just a different curating of images from which to choose?

Stay tuned!

Friday, July 7, 2017

Some Cures for the Summer Doldrums

So, here we are, after Independence Day, on the long, slow slide of summer into fall.  And yet, for those of us church goers, we don't have much to look forward to, in terms of festivals or changing paraments or anything that can punctuate these doldrums.

Let me remind myself of some of the summer joys that I still need to enjoy and how they can help illuminate an inner life.

--I have yet to light a fire in the fire pit.  In some ways, now that we're into the months where the evening low temperatures never dip below 80 degrees, a fire makes no sense.  But it might lift my mood, as I thought about flame as metaphor for the Divine.  Or I could toast marshmallows and remember summer camping trips.

--Some of my friends are helping out at summer camps across the nation.  While I can't do that, let me think about elements of camp that I could do on my own:  some devotional time, some singing of camp songs perhaps.  Maybe it's time for a different kind of arts and crafts!

--Let me enjoy the fruits of the season, especially melons.  Let me rejoice in the diversity that God has created.

--There's still time for a barbecue or two or three.  Down here, we grill year round.  But maybe I could add some seasonal treats to the grill:  corn on the cob comes to mind.

--I need to swim more.  I need to go to the ocean at least once to feel the power of the sea.  I need to remember that while my body can't do everything it once can do, it can do a lot.  Let me also remember to stretch.

--Summer is a great time for good books.  Let me remember to read.  So many books, so little time.

--Let me take advantage of longer stretches of light--we're losing about a minute of light each day.  It's a slow leak.  Let me watch sunrises and sunsets and think about how to be the light of the world.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

In Search of Our Grandmother's Gardens

Stranded in South Florida, I long for hydrangeas like my grandmother used to grow.



A poet in California misses the hibiscus that took over her Cuban grandmother's Miami yard.




I live in a climate where orchids grow out of what they can grab from the air.



But I want the foliage of my youth.



God smiles at our longings and keeps creating in hopes of delighting us.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Meditation on Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 9, 2017:

First Reading: Zechariah 9:9-12

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

Psalm: Psalm 145:8-15 (Psalm 145:8-14 NRSV)

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 45:11-18 (Psalm 45:10-17 NRSV)

Psalm (Alt.): Song of Solomon 2:8-13 (Semi-continuous)

Second Reading: Romans 7:15-25a

Gospel: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30


In this week's Gospel, we see the mystical Jesus, the one of bizarre stories and metaphors that confuse. The first part of this week's Gospel has those strange comparisons calling us children in the marketplace, and then Jesus reminds us that he and John are the latest in a long line of people sent by God to get our attention. And then the Gospel ends with that strange bit about easy yokes and light burdens, when the very definition of yoke and burden encompass experiences that aren't easy and light.

Maybe in these days of rising prices, you're feeling the more traditional definition of yoke and burden, a strangling and a crushing sensation. Maybe you're weary of the world's problems and the inability of governments to even attempt to solve them. Maybe you wish for a savior to show up in our troubled times. But then you'd have to wonder if we'd even notice, in our world of noise and distraction.

Sometimes, when I feel most bleak, I like to return to the words of the Old Testament prophets. It's good to remember that no matter how terrible our historic age seems, it's not really a new situation. This week's reading from Zechariah commands us: "Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope."

That command is our burden and our yoke. We must be prisoners of hope. We are called to commit to resurrection. That doesn't stop with our belief in a resurrected Lord. That's just one sign, among a galaxy of signs, of a God who creates and recreates the cosmos daily.

In our deepest despair, we must remember that we're Resurrection People. To me, that's one of the beliefs that separates Christianity from the other major religions. We don't believe in a fixed universe. We don't believe that we're doomed. We don't believe that we have to accept our lot with stoic resignation and wait for a better life--in a future lifetime, in Heaven, but not right now.

No, our burden and our yoke is that God calls us into partnership in this remodeling of the world into one that is more in line with God's vision and plan. Could God just step in and order it to be so? Perhaps. But God didn't create that kind of universe. For whatever reason, God found it much more interesting to design a world in which we have free will. We can put our necks into the yoke that God offers us and discover that what appears to be a burden is, in fact, a blessing that transforms us as we transform the world.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Declaring Freedom

Yesterday I made copies of the Declaration of Independence.  As I gave out granola bars and fruit, I said, "I have granola bars, I have fruit, I have copies of the Declaration of Independence--all you need to get your holiday week-end started out right."

A few students took a copy, which made me happy.  But even if few people took my hint and my handout, I'm glad that I could be there to remind us all that there's more to Independence Day than having the day off, than wearing patriotic colors, than having a cookout or enjoying fireworks (or comforting our pets and PSTD sufferers who do not enjoy fireworks).

I think we often forget what these founding parents risked as they launched this fight. I think we forget that the odds were stacked against them. I love these stories of the fight for justice. And to my friends who would tell me of the imperfections of the American story, I would concede some points. But to me, the important thing is that we continue to try to get it right. We continue to try to set free the oppressed and to keep the lamps of liberty lit. We acknowledge the times we've gotten it all frightfully wrong (slavery, the genocide of the Native Americans), but we keep trying to get it right. I see Independence Day as an interesting point where Liberation Theology meets politics and revolution and the world will never be the same.

Today is a great day to be inspired by those men who signed the Declaration of Independence on this day in 1776.  They pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, so great was their belief in what they were doing.  It's a good day to think about our commitments, our values, what we hold most true.

Here's an interesting thing to ponder on this Independence Day: for what would you be willing to pledge your life, your fortune, and your sacred honor?

Today let us say prayers of thanks for those who have done the hard work of fighting for liberties of all sorts.  Let us pray for those who are still oppressed.  Let us pledge allegiance to our God who sets us free.

Monday, July 3, 2017

When Your Church Is Overamplified

I've joked, but only half jokingly, that my current church will turn me into a Quaker.  There's something about our occasionally over-amplified sanctuary that makes the idea of sitting together in silence incredibly appealing.

Yesterday we got to church, and although I usually go to the interactive service in the hall, I decided to sit in the sanctuary and do some meditative drawing while the choir rehearsed.  But after 20 minutes, I had a ringing headache.  I'm not sure whether someone had adjusted the controls on our various microphones and speakers or whether I was just in a sensitive state. 

I mentioned it to the choir, who made adjustments.  But by then, it was too late.  It took hours for my headache to go away--hours and aspirin when I got home. 

I suggested that at some point, they try an unamplified approach.  The woman who plays the flute said, "But then you couldn't hear us."

I suspect that we could.  Maybe people would actually quiet down when the choir was performing.  Maybe with the choir unamplified, the rest of us in the congregation would feel the need to sing.

By the end of yesterday's service, I was yearning for a very quiet, unamplified, contemplative service--preferably held in a cool, dark sanctuary.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

National Holidays and Worship

Will your church be celebrating Independence Day today, this Sunday before the national holiday in the U.S.?  Will you sing patriotic songs?  Will you think about how the national story intersects with God's story?

I understand the appeal of this holiday and why we'd want to bring it into our worship services, but still, part of me shudders.  Too many churches throughout our nation's short history have tumbled into the idea that God has chosen this nation for special things, and it's then a short trip to thinking that our nation can do no wrong.  And we know that's not true--right?

I would prefer that we celebrate the creation of the Constitution.  Everyone can foment revolution, although happily, not everyone does.  But it takes a special group of people to create a document that leads to good government, a document so flexible that it's still useful over two hundred years after its creation.

If we must mix national holidays into our religious practice, celebrating the Constitution would make more sense than celebrating the beginning of a war.  The Constitution, after all, is what guarantees us the right to practice our religion.  The Constitution, much more so than the Declaration of Independence, is what gives us our freedom.

I do love the way the Declaration of Independence ends:  "And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor."

As we approach this national holiday, it's worth considering the types of causes to which we would mutually pledge our lives, our money, and our sacred honor.  The people who signed this declaration knew the stakes couldn't be any higher.

What holds the same importance to us, here in the early part of the twenty-first century?

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Visions of God

This week I plan to write a short story about a woman who teaches Animation at a for-profit art school.  It will be about a research oriented, facts-based, very cerebral person who starts having dreams about God--God always looks the same, like a female quilter (I think she'll look like a frumpy, middle-aged woman, because if I made her Indian or African-American, that might be stereotypical).  God will tell her to repair the frayed fabric, and the main character won't be sure of what to do exactly.

On Thursday, I decided to work in Mepkin Abbey.  The main character will have a friend who is like me:  a Lutheran married woman who loves monasteries and celebrates saints' feast days.  The friend will invite the main character to join her at Mepkin Abbey to talk about the dreams she's been having.

I've been thinking about how we think about God for a long time now.  In college, I spent lots of time thinking about how society might change if we viewed God as female.  But what kind of female?

If we view God as a kind grandmother, that's not as upsetting to the status quo as if we view God as a fierce warrior.  God as a mother bird sheltering us under her wing--that's a fairly standard response to a request for female imagery of God.  But God in her studio, working so intently that she forgets to feed the children--we don't see that vision very often, or ever.

Now I'm trying to enlarge my vision of God even further, but moving beyond an anthropomorphic picture of God doesn't come naturally to me.  I've tried thinking of God as a physical force like gravity or electricity or ocean waves.  I've tried using animal imagery or plant imagery when I think of God.  These ideas don't come naturally.

I realize that people who have always viewed God as Father have a similar struggle when trying to think of God as non-male.  I try to have sympathy.

Lately, as humans have expanded our idea of gender, as we try to move beyond a binary idea of gender, I've been trying to think of God as more fluid too.  Our view of God as Trinitarian, as 3 in 1, helps here.  Many of us have always viewed God as unfixed, although we might not have realized that we've been thinking that way.

What would happen if we could unmoor our minds from visions of God that we've already had?