Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, October 5, 2014:

First Reading: Isaiah 5:1-7

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20

Psalm: Psalm 80:7-14 (Psalm 80:7-15 NRSV)

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 19

Second Reading: Philippians 3:4b-14

Gospel: Matthew 21:33-46

Today's Gospel contains a parable that clearly tells the story of Christ, in the vineyard owner's son, who is killed by the tenants. I suspect that when modern readers, many of whom own property, read this lesson, they identify with the vineyard owner far more than they do with the tenants. But what would happen if we thought about ourselves as the tenants?

Notice how the tenants are so stuck in their self-destructive ways that they can't change. Now, as we settle into the season of autumn, as we race towards the end of the liturgical year, it might be useful to do some self-evaluation. What are our habits that get in the way of us living as the people of God? By now, you might despair to realize that these are the same patterns you've wrestled with before. But take heart. As you continue to attempt to make changes and go astray, each time you try to get back to a more wholesome way of living, it should take less time to make the necessary adjustments.

The Gospels that we've been reading give us reassurance that we can go astray, and God will still welcome us back. Now all this talk of going astray may not be the most useful image for us. Many of us have grown up in churches that berated us with talk of sin and tried to make us change by making us feel ashamed. We live in a toxic culture that tells us that we're not doing enough, not earning enough, not buying the right stuff. Many of us spend our days with voices in our head telling us those same messages. Who wants to come to church to hear the same thing? We've tried, we've failed, we know, we get it.

The danger is that we might quit trying to live the life that God envisions for us. God doesn't want us to live the way we've been living. Many of us might agree--we don't want to be living these lives.

So take a different approach. What would a healthier life look like? What would a God-centered life look like? How would it feel?

We'll probably each have different answers to those questions. For some of us, a God-centered life would mean that we could let go of our anger; we could quit judging everyone and accept them with love. For some of us, a God-centered life would mean we could quit trying to fill the holes in our hearts with other substitutes that don't quite work: food, alcohol, sex, drugs, approval, exercise, work. For some of us, a God-centered life means that we don't order our lives around the quest for money, but instead we work for justice.

But again, as we focus on the end result we'd like to achieve, we must be careful not to get overwhelmed. It's a bit like starting a diet, when you know you have 50 pounds to lose. But if you make changes and stay with them consistently, and you keep orienting your choices towards that thinner person you'd like to be, in a year or two, you'll be amazed at the transformation.

So, start small. Take time to pray. Take time to read things that make you feel hopeful, instead of despairing. Take time to really listen to people, instead of trying to get done with that commitment so that you can rush on to the next one. Breathe deeply. Say thank you.

When you go astray, or when you feel your gifts have been trampled, take heart. Read the lessons again and think about the natural order of horticulture. The land must be cleared occasionally so that new growth can take place. God continues to call to us to work for the vision of the redeemed creation that God gives us.

Remember that God promises that no matter how far away you are from that vision, God will meet you more than half-way. If you're feeling like a rejected stone, remember that God has great plans for you. You can become the cornerstone that supports a building that you weren't even able to envision at an earlier point in your life.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Cotton and Dust

One year at Mepkin Abbey, my friend and I walked to the African-American cemetery.  To get there, you have to walk through fields of cotton.

My friend commented that she'd never actually seen cotton growing in a field.  I, on the other hand, grew up for part of my life in Alabama, where we learned about the importance of the cotton gin by going to a field, picking some cotton, and seeing how difficult it is to pull the seeds out of it.

I assumed that I would spend my life surrounded by fields of crops.  But then I moved to South Florida, where I'm surrounded by concrete.

Vizcaya with Miami in the Background

A few years ago, we drove through Georgia to get to my grandmother's funeral.  For part of the trip, we took some back roads.  I saw cotton fields and was struck by how seldom I see cotton growing anymore--or any agriculture.

North Carolina Apple Orchard

I will spend much of my life mourning all that is passing away, missing all the items from my past which once seemed so permanent.

It's a potent lesson, from the cotton field that ends in a cemetery--nothing is permanent.  All is passing away.

Monday, September 29, 2014

The Feast of St. Michael and All Angels

Today, the Church celebrates the role of angels in the divine plan, my prayer book tells me (The Divine Hours, written by Phyllis Tickle). Our Orthodox brothers and sisters handle the question of angels better than most Protestants. Most of the Lutheran churches that I've been a member of don't talk about angels much, and based on the ideas of some of my students, many Protestant churches do talk about angels, but with a very shaky theology.

I'll never forget one time teaching Paradise Lost to South Carolina students in my Brit Lit survey class at a community college. One woman seemed particularly confused about all the angels in the story. "How could there be angels," she asked, "when nobody has died?"

It took me a few attempts to understand her question. She knew about angels from church, but only in the sense that we become angels when we die--which is a very recent idea about angels. I explained the more ancient idea about angels, which is that they are a species completely separate from humans. We got into a bit of a theology lesson, but I could see that she wasn't happy with these ideas about angels. She was much more comfortable with the idea of the angels being Grandma and Grandpa who died when she was a child. The idea of angels as a separate kind of entity with no free will? No thanks.

In a way, I understand. Angels are scary. Death is scary. It's rather brilliant to come up with the idea that we become angels when we die--and yet, this shaky theology defangs several concepts which should, in fact, be scary. We will die--and before that, everything we love will die. How do we cope with that idea?

Some of us cope by clinging to the idea that there is a Divine God with a plan and a vision that's vaster than anything we could develop on our own. This God has more power than we can conceive of--including legions of angels, angels that are there for us too.

Let me confess that I don't do angels well either. They seem a bit too New Agey for me, especially with the spate of angel books that were published 20 years ago, books that promised me that I would get to know my angels, books in which getting to know my angels was very similar to enslaving my angels to do my will. Blcch. Giving the angels a mission is God's job, not mine.

I often joked that I should combine two publishing trends and publish a diet book: Your Angels Want You to Be Thin! The Know Your Angels Diet Book. I'm not that mercenary, though (and if you are, feel free to steal my title), not that willing to make money off the real troubles and gullibility of humans. To borrow words from Blake, I don't want to be the one that makes a Heaven off of misery.

But now, years later, I find myself a bit envious of those people who grew up in traditions that had theologically sound approaches to angels. Again and again, I find in the traditions of others something I feel lacking in mine.

Luckily, I'm part of a Lutheran tradition that doesn't insist that we remain closed off to traditions that might enrich us spiritually, even if Luther didn't sanction them. We've seen an explosion of exploration of labyrinths. Maybe angels will be next.

For those of you who want some special Scripture for this high feast day, here's what the Lutheran church (ELCA) recommends:

First Reading: Daniel 10:10-14; 12:1-3
Psalm: Psalm 103:1-5, 20-22
Second Reading: Revelation 12:7-12
Gospel: Luke 10:17-20

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Software Bugs and Human Failings

I have spent my whole life working on improving myself.  I have ambitious plans and not just at the new year.  For every failing, I have even more ways to try to ensure that the failings will never manifest themselves again.  I do this with my physical body, with my spiritual practices, with my creative endeavors. 

But what if I tried being more accepting?  I saw this paragraph in this post by poet Dale Favier, who has spent a lifetime in the computer field:

"As I wander on through life, observing various human endeavors, I've come to realize that everything is like that. Nothing has really been built to specs. Nothing quite operates as advertised. The flaws are various and infinite. All you can do is fix a few of the most glaring problems. The rest will have to stand. You can see it in software, because software is uniquely observable: it does exactly the same thing, over and over again, and it breaks down readily into tiny discreet steps. But everything works that way."

The rest will have to stand!  That's such a radical idea in so many ways.

And here's an even more radical idea:  sometimes the flaw is the very thing that the world needs.

And of course, my inner theologian wonders if the bugs are really part of the design.  Perhaps God, who is infinitely wise, put the bugs there intentionally, for some reason that is only apparent in a vista that is larger than I can see.

Saturday, September 27, 2014

"Nature, Red in Tooth and Claw"*

I know so many people who say that they feel closest to God in nature.  I always assume that they mean the kind of nature that we find in places further away from human-made civilization:  mountain tops, deep woods, volcanoes--places like that.

I assume that they don't mean the kind of nature when a hurricane swirls or a tornado sweeps down.  They don't mean the kind of nature when one animal eats another.

I have this on the brain because of a backyard drama that I witnessed the other day.  My spouse was at the back window.  He called for me to come quickly but quietly.

We spent the next 15 minutes watching an owl eat a creature.  From the picked-clean skeleton we found later, we think it was a smaller bird.  There was no struggle.  The owl had already made the kill.

We watched as the owl picked and pulled with its beak.  It was both fascinating and slightly nauseating.

We have at least 2 owls in our neighborhood.  We've spent several nights watching them swoop in the palm trees.

Yes, in the palm trees.  I think of owls as residents of distant woodlands.  My neighborhood is half a mile from the Atlantic ocean and half a mile away from one densely populated urban center, which is only one of many densely populated urban centers in South Florida.

In short, I don't think of it as owl habitat.

I asked my spouse why owls would live here, and he said, "Why not? There's plenty of food and little competition."  Plus, no one shoots at them, like might happen in a distant woodland.

It's easy to feel close to God in the twilight, as I watch the owls fly through the dark and call to each other.  When I watch one bird eat a smaller bird, my thoughts don't first go to the glory of God and the creation God has made.

And it's even harder when I think about the cancer cell.  In my human-centric way, I want to see the cancer cell as an aberration.  What if it represents the future in terms of evolution?

My religious tradition tells me that God loves the sparrow, so therefore, I should rest assured that God loves me.  We've often interpreted those passages to mean that God loves us even more than the lowly sparrow, since we're obviously the more highly developed creatures.  Others read those passages as reassurance that God loves us all the same.  Both views are troubling.

My friend sees the presence of the owls as celestial message.  I worry about habitat loss.  My spouse sees the presence of the owls as evidence of their smart migration to an easier place to live.  Perhaps we are all correct.

How does God see it?

*Tennyson's words, not mine.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Other People's Religious Holidays

Yesterday, one of my Jewish colleagues brought a traditional Rosh Hashanah dessert for another Jewish colleague.  The dessert was easily shared:  bits of things (cherries, crisp things,) coated in a dark honey glaze, some with sesame seeds.

We talked about holiday foods.  One colleague is what is often called a cultural Jew:  she likes the foods, she observes the holidays to a certain extent, but she rarely goes to services.  She's not part of a temple.

The other colleague is much more hard-core.  When I asked if it was appropriate for a Lutheran to wish them a happy new year, she gave me a withering look and said, "I've been in intense study for a month to prepare for the holy days.  If you think it's just about the new year, you are sadly mistaken."

I wanted to protest that I'm fairly ecumenical as far as Christians go.  I wanted to defend myself.  Or alternately, I wanted a low-key conversation (not a diatribe, not a lecture) where we compared traditions.

But I know that religious conversations can make surrounding colleagues uneasy, so I backed away.  I said, "I know.  I have a rabbi friend who has been writing a poem a day during the time that leads up to the high holy days.  She's been posting them on her blog, and it's been a fascinating discipline to watch."  Thanks, Rachel!

It made me think about our various religions, of how many Jews I know and how many different ways they are celebrating these days of awe.  I suspect that it will be easier to get parking places at work today, as many folks will be taking today off.  Our public schools give the day as an official holiday, so even some non-Jews will be taking the day off  to take care of children.

It also made me think about how we talk to each other about our religious traditions, especially in places like the office, where we're all thrown together.  It's one thing to have a conversation about religion in a quilting group or over lunch.  But it feels much more risky in an office.

Maybe I'm the only one who feels this way.  I was brought up not to talk about religion, sex, or politics, not even at the dinner table.  I was brought up that it was rude to talk about those topics at school (unless in a class where we study and discuss the subject from a safe academic distance) or at work.  To look at my workplace, though, I'd say those rules have changed.  Maybe that's not the case in the nation's heartland, but it seems true here.

I'd like a deeper connection with my colleagues by talking about our different religious beliefs, but I also know that religion has been used as a weapon.  And even if not used as a weapon, it's too easy for people to feel trounced by religious conversations.

Today, I will not be at work either.  My sister and nephew come today!  His school district in Maryland also gives this day as a day off.

Happy Rosh Hashanah to us all, whether we be cultural Jews, Orthodox Jews, ecumenically minded folks, or that large group of people who have no religious practice.  May the coming year be sweet!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, September 28, 2014:

First Reading: Ezekiel 18:1-4, 25-32

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Exodus 17:1-7

Psalm: Psalm 25:1-8 (Psalm 25:1-9 NRSV)

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 78:1-4, 12-16

Second Reading: Philippians 2:1-13

Gospel: Matthew 21:23-32

This Sunday's Gospel continues to explore the notion of fidelity and fairness. People ask about Jesus--who grants him authority?  Jesus gives them a question they're afraid to answer, for fear of getting the wrong answer, and Jesus refuses to answer the question. 

Instead, he gives a parable about two sons, neither of which is true to his word.  One says that he'll go work in the vineyard, and he doesn't.  One says he won't work, but then he does.  Which son represents you?

The lesson of this Gospel is clear: we get credit for our actions, not for our speech. This idea may fly in the face of what we believe to be good Lutheran theology. What about the idea of grace? Many of us were taught that we're such dreadful humans that there's nothing we could do to justify the gift of salvation. God swoops in and redeems us, even though we're fairly hopeless people. That was the message I got from many a church event, Lutheran and otherwise.

But as a grown up, going back to revisit these passages, I'm amazed at how often God requires more of us than just saying we believe in Christ, more than just accepting Christ as our saviour, more than just having faith. In the words of Luther, faith should move our feet. In the words of James, faith without works is dead.  We don't confess belief in Christ so that we can relax on the sofa.  We confess our faith and go to work in the vineyard.

Our goal each and every day is to be the light of the world, the yeast that makes the bread rise, the radiance that allows people to see God at work in the world.  Notice how small our actions can be.  The yeast is tiny, but from its small actions, flour and water transform into bread.

Ideally we're yeast and light, but the good news of today's Gospel, and many of the others that we read throughout our 3 year lectionary cycle, is that even when we fall short, God will still love us. If we've said we'd do the work, and we fail to do it, we have other days when we can show up. God will still welcome us. The world is full of darkness, waiting for our light.