Tuesday, November 25, 2014

What's the Best Thing that Happened?

Back in the summer, I kept a logbook--see this post for more details about a logbook.  It's much easier in many ways than keeping a journal or writing blog posts.

As I was going back through it, I came across this idea, which seems infinitely adaptable for Thanksgiving conversations.  Maybe we can avoid the family arguments that so many of us dread around the holidays.

I came across this idea when reading Austin Kleon's Steal Like an Artist.  It's a quote from Nicholson Baker*, talking about writing The Anthologist"If you ask yourself, ‘What’s the best thing that happened today?’ it actually forces a certain kind of cheerful retrospection that pulls up from the recent past things to write about that you wouldn’t otherwise think about. If you ask yourself, ‘What happened today?’ it’s very likely that you’re going to remember the worst thing, because you’ve had to deal with it—you’ve had to rush somewhere or somebody said something mean to you—that’s what you’re going to remember. But if you ask what the best thing is, it’s going to be some particular slant of light, or some wonderful expression somebody had, or some particularly delicious salad. I mean, you never know… "

It's a variation on the gratitude exercise, it seems to me:  list 5 things each day for which you are grateful.  Your life/outlook will change.

I wrote this down, thinking I'd use it at work.  Maybe when people come to me to complain, to fret, to blow off steam--maybe I'll start remembering to use this prompt to shift the conversation:  tell me the best thing that's happened to you this week.

And maybe this week, during my Thanksgiving travels, I'll ask this question about the best thing that's happened in the past year.

*I realized I'd never really heard of Nicholson Baker, or at least, I thought I hadn't.  So I did what modern people did:  I Googled.  I came across this fascinating article from a few years ago.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Acting the Parable

Yesterday, after a good morning jog and listening to a fascinating show on Islam on NPR's show On Being (you can listen/read here), we headed off to church.

We had a variety of experiences at church, but I want to focus on the one that's most intriguing.  At our more interactive service, we divided into 2 groups.  One group prepared the story of the rich man and Lazarus with puppets.  The other put on a skit.

It was the exact same story, of course.  We already had the puppets on hand and a box of costumes.  We had 15 minutes to get ready.

Then we presented our dramas.  And I spent the rest of the day thinking about how this is such an effective way to explore the Biblical texts.

Many of us go to churches where worship revolves around a good sermon.  Now I like a good sermon as much as the next person, but there are all sorts of problems with a sermon.  Many of us don't learn well that way--it's why we might not do well with schools set up with this kind of lecture.  And too many sermons I've heard over 48 years have not been worth the time it took to sit still to hear them.  For more on this subject, see this post over at Jan Edmiston's wonderful blog.

What happens when we act out the story, rather than listen to someone explicate it?  I suspect it lives longer within us.  I suspect that we remember it longer.  I suspect that it nudges us at key points in our lives.

I realize that this approach might have some problems too.  Not everyone is up for this kind of interactivity.  Some people might feel paralyzed with fear at the very idea.

I think of my Quaker friends who would prefer to sit quietly with the text.  Full silence has its pull on me too.

I think of my friends who work in other art forms who would tell us that singing a text or painting a text would work in similar ways.  I suspect they are right.  We have whole libraries of hymnals that show that past generations have thought so.  We have gorgeous stained glass windows and paintings that show that in a pre-literate population, we can learn by other ways.

I am glad to go to a Lutheran church where we experiment with all sorts of ways to hear the Good News.  Our late service was full of testimony--several people who gave stewardship sermonettes.  Our early service before the interactive service has no sermon at all.  And our interactive service contains dramas and art projects and all sorts of alternate ways of coming to an understanding of Jesus and his message.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Last Sunday of the Church Year

It doesn't feel like New Year's Eve, does it?  Yet, in some ways, it is. 

Here we are, once again at the end of a liturgical calendar year, the last Sunday of year A.  It is Christ the King Sunday, a holiday that has never been dear to my heart.

This year's Advent readings come from Mark--ah, apocalyptic Mark.  I am oddly ready.  It has been an apocalyptic year, full of people at midlife battling dread diseases and relationships spiraling apart and all sorts of ghastly news events.  The year 2014 has already been Markian.  The Advent readings will be an appropriate way to end the calendar year.

I often think of Nora Gallagher's comment in Things Seen and Unseen; she talks about feeling like she's moving on an alternate calendar to the Day Timer that charts the calendar year.  I can relate.

It's a great time to read a book about the liturgical year. Even if you're already part of a religious community that follows the liturgical calendar and you think you don't have anything new to learn, Joan Chittister's book, The Liturgical Year: The Spiraling Adventure of the Spiritual Life, is worth a look. And for those of you who can't comprehend the value of a church calendar that follows a different cycle than the worldly calendar, Chittister will explain, in elegant, beautiful language.
So, start the new year by reading about the old year, the liturgical year. Even if you're anti-Catholic, like some of the reviewers at Amazon, you'll likely find something to enrich your spirit. And even if you disagree with most of it, it's good to read something completely outside your realm of experience (in fact, a brain researcher, Barbara Strauch, says that's how our brains stay young, by wrestling with ideas outside our realm of experience--go here to read the article).

Saturday, November 22, 2014

The Redemption of Spectacular Failure

I had thought that I might be heading to a place of sadness.  I read Nikky Finney's excellent response to Daniel Handler's racist joke at the National Book Awards.  She wrote to the National Book  Foundation suggesting that they apologize too; they declined.  She concludes her piece:  "Even if our mouth was not the mouth that said itwe still must have and find the courage to speak out against such moments as these, lest all our windows be broken, lest all our great literary celebrations be reduced to a watermelon patch."

I felt that leaden sorrow--but then I ran across this story of how Handler is making atonement:  he's making a $10,000 donation to We Need Diverse Books--and for 24 hours, he matched donations.  Now that's a classy way of apologizing.

Sure, it would be nice to live in a world where apologies for these kinds of comments aren't necessary because everyone is enlightened and thinks before they speak.  But we don't live in that world yet.

In her speech at the National Book Awards, Ursula K. Le Guin reminds us of why art is important and how artists will be necessary:  "I think hard times are coming when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now and can see through our fear-stricken society and its obsessive technologies to other ways of being, and even imagine some real grounds for hope. We will need writers who can remember freedom. Poets, visionaries—the realists of a larger reality."

She reminds us that the reality we have now may not be the reality that we always have:  "The profit motive often is in conflict with the aims of art. We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable. So did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art—the art of words."

What a wonderful reminder of why we need to do what we do as writers and artists!

And because this is my theology blog, I'd also add that spiritual people have that same sort of power.  The world relies on spiritual people to call us all to be our better selves.

And sure, spiritual people can fail at that, as can institutions--and sometimes fairly spectacularly.  I like the example of Daniel Handler, which serves as a great reminder of how even spectacular failure can be redeemed.

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Spiritual and Creative Lessons from Bach

Longtime readers of this blog know that I love the show On Being; the host, Krista Tippett covers such a wide range of topics which so often feel so relevant to my current life.

Her latest show on Bach was no exception.  You can explore it here.  I'll capture some of the items which intrigued me.

Are we creating or are we discovering?  Here's an interesting take on that:

"And, Bach wouldn't have ever thought of himself as a maker of music. In fact, when he died, there's an obituary of a guy who really couldn't stand Bach. Bach made quite a few enemies in his life. And he wrote this really trenchant thing that says, in English, that Bach was a music maker. And that was considered the worst insult. And this is like, oh, I'm not a music — he's a music discoverer. So, Bach viewed himself as a discoverer of music, not as a maker."

Why create?  Bach had a view which seems so alien to many of us today:

"It's to the glory of God and nobody else. Because the whole point was that he was out to glorify God by showing — by discovering the relation between nature and God. That was his only goal. And if you don't understand that, you cannot understand why, for example, he had no interest in posterity. A concept we cannot comprehend.  . . . He had no interest, for example, that his cantatas, his passions survived. I mean, just think about it. You've produced this masterpiece, and then you say, oh, it's OK, you can destroy it. That's fine. Because God will know, God will not forget that I did it, and that's good enough for me."

On learning from those who have mastered the art form before you came along:

"By and large, classical music, there's so much respect for the art form that, say, improvisation is not encouraged. But this is crazy. I mean, Beethoven was probably the biggest improviser ever. Bach would improvise for hours at the organ. It's not just that he could, that is the way they did music. It was just to improvise, to change.

They used to take other people's music, and that's how you learned your trade — your craft, is by taking other people's music and rewriting it. Take this Vivaldi concerto and make it better. That was perfectly accepted. That was the way people did things. They didn't worry about intellectual rights..."

On Bach's work ethic:

"And to him, to work very hard was to glorify God. Because to be lazy would be insulting God. So, his work ethic was not just that's the way he was brought up. That's not true. It's because it was part of his belief system."

And yet much of that work was not composing something new: 

"No, no, but most day was spent copying, rehearsing. . . .Practicing. Getting his musicians. The time he had to actually think, well, now, what's the melody like? Was just a few hours to write something of the size of, you know, an entire Beatles’ album. Actually it's more music than that. You know, Christoph Wolff, “Volf” I should say, German pronunciation, says you know, the “St. Matthew Passion” — he probably wrote it in or three weeks, he said, to their professional composer would have to take a three-year leave of absence...   But something of that scale would take three years for a professional composer. He'd do it, you know, two, three weeks."

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Mepkin Thanksgiving

In a week, it will be Thanksgiving.  Hard to believe--where has the year gone?

This morning, I want to focus my gratitude on one area, and see where it leads me.  I want to think about my decade of trips to Mepkin Abbey.  First and foremost, I'm grateful for the spiritual deepening that comes from those times at Mepkin.

I am grateful for how the monks conserve the land.

I am grateful to have time to sit by the banks of the river.

I am grateful for the writing projects which may not have ever developed, had I not had this writing time.

I am grateful for treats of all kinds from the gift shop.

I am grateful for the comfort that comes from knowing that the monks pray for us all, each and every day.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, Nov. 23, 2014:

First Reading: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

Psalm: Psalm 95:1-7a

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 100

Second Reading: Ephesians 1:15-23

Gospel: Matthew 25:31-46

This week, the liturgical year comes to a close with Christ the King Sunday. In some churches, this will be a high festival day that celebrates the power of Christ. But the Gospel reading makes it clear that Kingdom power is not the same as worldly power.

We might expect a Gospel reading that reminds us that Jesus transcended death. We might get a Gospel reading that tries to scare us with a vision of Christ at the next Coming, descending in glory to judge us. Well, in a way, we do.

But the vision we get is not the one that we might expect. We might expect to be judged and found wanting because of what we've been told are sins: our drinking, our gambling, our loose sexuality. We might expect to be judged for all the Sundays we decided we'd prefer sleep to church. We might expect to be judged because we've been lazy, and we didn't go for that promotion at work.

This Gospel reminds us of how God will judge us. Did we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, welcome the stranger, visit the imprisoned? If so, then we have been attending to our royal tasks.

And why do we do this? The Bible is full of stories of the Divine showing up in circumstances where we wouldn't expect to find God. The Bible tells us that God prefers to hang out with the poor and the marginalized. If we want to find God, we need to go there. We have a history of thousands of years of Christians whose lives support what the Bible tells us--we will find God in the meekest of places. Next week, we celebrate Advent, where we remember one of our central Christian stories: God comes to be with us two thousand years ago, but not in the power center of Rome. No, God comes to us in one of the outposts of Roman civilizations, and God lives with one of the groups of people that the worldly, dominant power structure of the time despised.

This Gospel also reminds us that we are to see God in everyone. It's easy for me to see God in the eyes of my husband as he looks at me lovingly. It's harder for me to see my difficult coworker as Jesus incarnate. In any given day, we are besieged by people who aggravate us, from our family members to our colleagues to strangers who drive the road with us or shop in the same stores or send their children to the same schools. By forcing myself to treat everyone as Jesus-in-Disguise, I will transform myself into the Christian that I want to be.

Jesus was the model, after all. Jesus had dinner with the outcast. Jesus treated everyone with love and respect, even people who were out to sabotage him. I could let myself off the hook by saying, "Well, yeah, he was God incarnate. I could do that too, if I was God incarnate."

No, you can do it, because Jesus did it. Jesus came to show us the full potential of a human life. Jesus came to dwell among us and to show us a better way to live. It's not the way the world tells us to live. The world would scoff at a king who sought out the poor and dispossessed, who sold his possessions so that he would have more money for the poor.

But Christians know that our power lies in our compassion. We don't achieve compassion by sitting in our homes, working on being more compassionate. We become more compassionate in the same way that God did, by getting involved in the world.

And we're not doing this for some after-death reward, although many preachers will use this Gospel to lecture on that. We do this because God has invited us to be part of the redemption of creation--not in some far away time, but in our very own. We don't have to wait for Jesus to come again. When we model Jesus in our everyday behavior, Christ re-enters the world.

We're not here to make money, to have a good retirement, to accumulate stuff. God has a greater purpose for us, one that will leave us infinitely more satisfied.