Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The lessons for Sunday, May 28, 2017:


First Reading: Acts 1:6-14

Psalm: Psalm 68:1-10, 33-36 (Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35 NRSV)

Second Reading: 1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11

Gospel: John 17:1-11

In this week's Gospel, we see Jesus at the end of his mission. We see Jesus praying, telling God all the things he (Jesus) has done. We also see Jesus handing over his ministry to his disciples.

What a strange thought, that these humans are ready for such a large mission. And yet, even my devout atheist friends have to admit the success of these early followers. And those of us several thousand years out might be wondering what Jesus did to foster this success. After all, if you set out to choose a group of people to bring the Good News to the far corners of the planet, you would likely pass those early disciples right on by.

That's the wonderful news that winds its way through the Bible. God can use all sorts of misfits and scraps of humanity to accomplish wonderful things. In her wonderful book, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, Anne Lamott says, "You've got to love this in a God--consistently assembling the motleyest people to bring, into the lonely and frightening world, a commitment to caring and community."

Notice that all of Jesus' followers were given responsibilities. They didn't just show up at church and wait to be entertained. They didn't march off in a huff when Jesus didn't do things the way the last savior did. I'm sure that Jesus lost some people along the way--after all, he made some stringent demands. But he also gave people ownership and expectations.

Jesus taught his followers to live in the moment, to not worry so much about 5 year projections or the future of the faith. He taught people to focus on the needs of the community and not on power structures that they hoped to maintain.

Jesus commanded his followers to be dependent on each other and to trust that God would provide for them. Think about one of the Gospel's versions of the last supper. Jesus sends them into town to procure things and when they're asked what they're doing, they're to say that the Lord has need of these things. And it works! When they're sent out, they're sent out two by two, with only what they can carry (and it's a light load). This ensures that they'll make connections in the new community, not just trust in each other and the people that they already know.

I'll admit that it's simplistic to look at Jesus' ministry in this way. We can't just set out into the world in pairs (we can't, can we?). We can't decide to start over in thinking about the way we do ministry.

But maybe we can refocus a bit. The church does best when it focuses on the needs of the community and looks to fulfill those needs. Many of us might think in terms of a soup kitchen or a day care, but there are other needs too. Maybe our frazzled community needs a contemplative service, where people can come into a candlelit sanctuary and sit and hear the lessons, without a sermon and communion and all the other stuff we cram into a service. Maybe people need a noon concert series. Maybe people need to come to paint and to listen to the voice of God in the paint. Maybe people need a book group to keep their minds from turning to mush.

If you don't know where to begin (the needs of our communities can seem overwhelming), start by emulating Jesus as we see him in this lesson. We can start by praying for each other. We can pray for all our colleagues, not just the ones that are out sick. We can pray for all our church members, not just the ones who don't come to church anymore. We can pray for our leaders: our pastor, our President, our boss, Congress, the mayors and city managers. We can pray for our friends and family. Jesus told us to pray without ceasing, and these days, it seems we have no shortage of those who need our prayers.

So, start with some simple approaches. Say a prayer of thanks before you eat, and as you say grace, remember those who are hungry. Pray for the end of hunger in our world. Say a prayer of thanks at the end of the day and the beginning of the day, and thank God for the people in your life who mean so much to you. When your boss yells at you, when your clients are frustrated, when your students curse, pray for them. Be the mirror that reflects God's light into a world that needs it so desperately.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Poem for a Morning after a Bombing

What to say on a morning after a bombing in Manchester that seemed to target children and teens attending a concert? 

I could talk about the first news story I heard, about cab drivers who took children home, even though they had no money.  I could talk about hearing of hotels who sheltered unaccompanied children.  I am always heartened by the ways that humans come together in a crisis.

I thought about posting a poem that had something specific to say about terrorism.  But I don't have many of them, and the ones that I do have are not quite right this morning.  I clicked on a poem in my files called "Safe"; it's about what happens when Jesus joins the baseball team.  It pleased me, but again, I'm not sure it's quite right this morning.

Instead, let me offer this poem.  Maybe it will cheer us as we remember our own days of eating GORP.  Maybe the thought of falling safely asleep under a wide open sky will remind us that terrorist events really are few and far between. 

Let us remember how the natural world can heal us.  Let us pray for all who need healing.


Heading for the Hills


I recognized the menace in the murky waters.
I never felt my family’s fellow joy
in the ocean. I refused
to wade deeper than my ankles.

I saw how the sea seduced
people, luring them with lapping
waves, then sucking them out into the depths.

I did not even collect shells. If the ocean thought
I would be enticed that easily,
it could think again. I knew of its creepy
creatures that crawled across the dark bottom,
the currents that swirled at cross
purposes. I wanted no part.

I preferred our mountain escapes. Content
to hike the tallest parts of the state, I filled
my pack full of water and trail mix, home made
Gorp, that magical mix of cereal and peanuts,
raisins and candy. I loved to sleep
in a mummy bag that hugged my shape
and kept me safe. We ate dinners
made out of reconstituted powders and got along
in ways we never did in the flat plains
of every day life. My sister and I gathered
firewood and played cards, collected leaves
and tried to whistle like the birds.

In the mountains, I knew the contours
of possible catastrophe, and it didn’t frighten
me. I knew how to work the snakebite
kit (which I shouldn’t ever have to use, if I made sure
to walk with heavy footsteps). I knew the bears
were far more interested in my candy than in munching
me. I knew the force of gravity would not suck
me off the mountainside, that we would safely sleep
beneath the stars after we counted all the constellations.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Brunch Thoughts

--Months ago, I bought a Groupon for a 2 for one brunch.  The expiration date was fast approaching, so yesterday, we met a group of friends in downtown Hollywood.  We walked to the restaurant, which meant the all-you-can-drink mimosas really was a good deal.  We stayed there for 3 hours enjoying good food, great conversation, and mimosas.

--How would our experience of worship change if we could have all-you-can-drink mimosas during church service? 

--I've thought many times before about how it would be nice if communion could be a real meal, not just a shred of bread and a thimble of wine.  I've been lucky to have a few worship experiences that were built around meals, and as I have always thought, they were more meaningful.  But were they more meaningful because they were new and carefully planned or because they were truly more meaningful?

--I realize that a real meal and ever-flowing mimosas would work better in small churches than large ones, and in different worship spaces, of course.

--As I was getting ready for our walk to brunch, I was listening to reports from Trump's trip to the Mideast.  What to make of one of the least spiritual U.S. presidents heading to the world's holy sites?  Is it a Nixon in China moment?  And what would that mean in this context?

--What will Pope Francis say to Donald Trump?  Of all the places where I'd like to be an unseen observer, that's the one I'd choose.  At least, this month.

--My New Year's goal was to have more brunch.  I'm not sure I've been very successful.  But there is time yet.

--We're almost at the half-way point of the year.  It's good to think about the trajectory of the year.  But I won't be doing that thinking this morning.  It's time to shift my focus back to work.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Feast Day of St. Helena

Today is the feast day of St. Helena, the mother of Constantine.  You may or may not remember that Constantine was the Roman ruler from 306-337.  Yes, that's a long time ago, and you may wonder why a theological blog would be interested in him, or his mother, at all.  Constantine gets credit for being the first Christian Roman ruler (although some historians would point out that he was not solely Christian) and for making the spread of Christianity possible.

Even if he was not personally responsible for the spread of Christianity (we'll let historians debate that, while we move on towards our discussion of Helena), he helped foster the spread of the faith by bringing an end to religious persecution.  The Edict of Milan, which set Christians free to worship as they chose, also gave freedom from persecution to other religions too; everyone was set free to worship whichever god(s) they wished.

Today we celebrate his mother, St. Helena (although if you're Catholic, you'll have to wait until August 18).  Did she bring up Constantine in the faith?  We simply do not know.

St. Helena has come to be associated with holy relics, and perhaps we might find the roots of the Reformation with her.  If she had not so vigorously asserted the power of these relics (if indeed, she did; I realize that we're talking about legend here, not history that's been written down), would their power have continued into the medieval time period?  If there had been no relics, no selling of indulgences, would Martin Luther have felt strongly enough to write his 95 theses and post them on the Wittenberg door?

If this stretch is too much for you, let's just celebrate St. Helena as the mother of Constantine, and one of his influences.  Under Constantine's rule, Christianity came to many of our ancestors, and for that, we can be grateful.

It's important to remember how much influence we may have on future generations as parents, as relatives, as concerned adults.  You may have days where you despair, where you wonder what your life means as you endure useless meetings, bullying colleagues, pointless work.  But God can use it all.  In the life of someone like Helena, we see that we don't all have to be a Constantine.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Elegy for Us All

This past week, as my spouse was sick, I had extra time to read.  I read Hillbilly Elegy:  A Memoir of a Family and a Culture in Crisis by J. D. Vance.  It's the kind of book that makes me wonder about the implications offered for those of us who are people of faith.

Would I have read this book if it hadn't been so much a part of the political campaign?  Likely--I do come from east Tennessee hillbilly stock myself.   But the conversations that swirled around this book during the political campaign did lead me to expect a different book.  It's not really a work of sociology.  No, it's a memoir.

As memoirs go, it's mildly interesting.  There are memoirs that explore the issue of white poverty much more lyrically, with more beautiful language--the Rick Bragg book All Over but the Shouting is my all-time favorite in this genre.  I would say the same thing if I was talking about dysfunctional family depictions.  Dorothy Allison's work is much more brutal--tough to read, but I couldn't put it down.  I didn't have a similar compulsion to return to Hillbilly Elegy.

It's interesting to think of these 2 issues in generational terms.  Bragg's work, and Allison's too, are about an older generation of white folks.  The drug of choice, and destroyer of families, in their work is alcohol.  In Vance's view, it's pain pills.

Hillbilly Elegy does a good job of describing the crisis in which so many communities find themselves.  It doesn't give any sense of what can be done about any of this--in fact, I came away with a bleakness about the prospect of lifting people out of poverty.

It is a memoir, after all.  Memoirs aren't required to create policy recommendations.  But it left me wishing for more.

I also wondered about the complete lack of a discussion of religion or faith in the book.  My hillbilly relatives have a deep faith and a connection to the community through their Lutheran church.  I can't help but think that faith gives them a very different framework than the one Vance describes.

As I said, it's a memoir, and I'm sure I expected too much.  But after hearing about what an important book it was, I did expect a deeper discussion.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Hospice Chaplain Work Days Again

This has been a tough week for many of my colleagues at work.  It's not the same kind of tough week endured at my old job:  no mass lay offs.  But it's been a week of bad news about family members, the death and ICU kinds of bad news.

I go into efficient administrator mode during these days mainly by finding teachers to cover the classes or by teaching them myself.  But I also take a minute to pray--and I work hard to remember to pray in the days and weeks after the bad news.

I am also picking up on various tensions at work.  They are more of the high school/middle school tensions:  who has been mean to who, who feels excluded, who has the best/most/worst in the currency of gossip.  Recently I walked by a group of colleagues and heard one say, "A certain someone talked to me in a way that I don't quite appreciate."  I kept walking.  Life is very short, and I'm not getting tangled up in all of that drama anymore.

When I'm in an expansive mood, I'll pray for those folks too.  I remember those days of drama and when it all felt so very important, back in those days before disease and death afflicted so many who are close to me.

There are also the quieter conversations, where I hear about the fears we all share:  what is the future of higher ed these days?  And where do our various schools fit in?  After these conversations, I remind myself to pray.

I'm reminded of the work of many a hospice chaplain I've known or read about, the ones who cannot heal our physical issues, but who can be with us while we face what must be done.  There are times when I feel like administration jobs are similar.  As an administrator, I can't fix everything (some weeks, I cannot fix most things), but I can be present.  I can slow down and listen and offer a cup of tea.  And then I can pray a silent prayer.

Some weeks, I say, it's not much, it's not enough, I wish I could do more.  Other weeks, I wonder what would happen if more of us prayed silently for guidance and hope and healing throughout our days at work.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Festival of Homiletics Envy

Some of my pastor friends are at the Festival of Homiletics; one of them is an official photographer.  I've been seeing their Facebook posts, and I must confess, I'm envious.  All that great preaching!  All those wonderful speakers!  And I've heard so many good things about San Antonio.

It occurs to me that I, too, could go to this festival.  So many festivals/conferences--so little time.  And then, there's the money--not just for the festival, but for the hotel, the food, the airfare.  Sigh.

I do not work in a setting where I'd get money to go--the best I could hope for in this current higher ed environment would be to be able to go without using my vacation days.

But the past year has shown me that my current situation is not my forever situation.  And the past half decade reminds me that I am not going to live forever on this earth.

I tend to think of my bucket list as places I'd like to visit before I die.  While that's well and good, let me expand it a bit.  Let me remember my wistfulness as I've looked at pictures from the Festival of Homiletics.  Let me think about festivals and conferences like this one, and let me go sooner rather than later.

And in the meantime, let me rejoice in our current technology, which means that I can hear some of these people preach online.  I can read their books.  I can read or hear interviews.  There are many ways to be nourished, even from a distance.