Monday, October 24, 2016

How We Talk about Sin

The NPR show, On Being, had a great episode with David Brooks, E. J. Dionne, and Krista Tippett.  It's the kind of episode where every bit is worth quoting--but for that, you may as well go here to read the transcript or listen to the show.

I was struck by the discussion of sin, and how even in conservative circles, there's an aversion to using that term.  Brooks proposes an idea that he got from Augustine:  "You really can’t talk about 'original sin.' People will just push you away. And so I go to Augustine’s concept of 'disordered loves' which is we all love a lot of things, and we all know some loves are higher than others. Our love of truth should be higher than our love of money, but because of some screw-up in our nature, we get our loves out of order all the time. So if a friend blabs to you a secret and you tell it at a dinner party, you’re putting your love of popularity above your love of friendship, and that’s a sin. And I think, in this world, which doesn’t like to peer darkly into brokenness, it’s easier to swallow the concept of two positive things that are out of order. And that’s a way you can introduce the concept of sin. But a lot of what we have to do now is reintroduce these concepts in a way that people won’t immediately think you’re preaching at them."

"Disordered loves"--that concept may become my favorite way to talk about sin.

My every day way of thinking about sin comes Gail Godwin, particularly in her novel Father Melancholy's Daughter: "A falling short from your totality. . . . Choosing to live in ways you know interfere with the harmony of that totality" (p. 198).

How do we stay in harmony with our totality?  How do we put our loves in proper order?

It's our life's work, these questions and their answers.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Mindfulness and the Chores

A tiny front has moved through, and now the weather is cooler.  Inside the house, it's 73 degrees, slightly cooler outside.

Several decades ago, I was a runner in South Carolina.  In the summer, I'd take a quick look at the morning weather stats, and I'd think twice about going for a run if the temp was higher than 73 degrees--happily, that was only a few summer mornings.

And now, both here and I suspect further north, our morning temps are rarely below 82 degrees throughout summer.

We're back to enjoying the front porch.  Last night, after I got back from the memorial service for our colleague who died in a diving accident, we took our wine and cheese to the front porch.  As the light darkened, we lit some candles.

It was a good way to unwind.  I've been surprised by how many people have been touched by my colleague's life and death.  One of my South Carolina friends wrote to me:  "I imagine if he'd been born in another century, he'd have been an explorer: sailed the world with Magellan, searched for spice routes to the East for one European crown or another.  Amazing to have someone so daring and intrepid right there in your midst." 

The main part of the memorial service consisted of a running slide show of pictures from various parts of our colleague's life--lots and lots of dive pictures.

A passion for diving does make for a better slide show that many lives would offer.  I picture my slide show:  here's Kristin at her computer wrestling with the last sentence of a short story.  Here she is with a purple legal pad--that's how we know she's working on poetry.

We've all been talking about living our best lives and about always being mindful that each day could be our last.  And yet, in many ways, we can't be mindful like that, minute by minute.  I think we can't always live in that moment of awareness that we need to be making the best of every hour on this earth--it's too intense, and then we'd do things like never clean the bathroom or load the dishwasher because who wants to be doing that, if any minute could be our last.

I'd like to read more self-help/mindfulness books that tell us what to do about our daily chores.  I know that there are books out there, some based on that classic Zen teaching:  "Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water."

Part of me thinks, I should write that book!  But I have plenty of other books to write. 

At some point in the last two weeks, I had been thinking about the idea of pastoral care, and the way that so many people seem to think that only pastors do pastoral care.  I thought, I should write a book that explores the idea of being a pastoral care person who works outside the church for those of us with different job titles that seem to have nothing to do with pastoral care--but it's the main focus of our days.

So many books to write, so little time remaining--let that be my bell that beckons me to mindfulness!

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Poetry Saturday: Salt Water Sacraments

The death of our colleague in a diving expedition gone wrong has made me think about all the ways we relate to our planet.  Most days and months, most of us likely give no thought to the planetary laws of Physics and Chemistry and Biology that affect us all.  In days of heavy weather or king tides or a death out in nature (as opposed to a car crash), we become uncomfortably aware.

I was looking through my poetry folder and came across the poem below.  It describes a true time, when I went for an early morning Easter run and watched a baptism in the ocean--and it really was a time of ferocious rip tides which had drowned swimmers.

I, of course, thought about our sacraments, how we try to channel the Divine, how we participate in rituals we scarcely understand.  Is God more like the parents and adults gathered around the child being baptized or more like the ocean, with its currents governed by larger laws?

For the record, most days I believe that God is like the parent or partner who wants the best for us--but I also believe that if we set forces into motion, God cannot always rescue us (much like the parent of any adolescent).

Salt Water Sacraments

In the nineteenth century, they’d have gathered
by a lake or a slow moving river.
They’d have worn white robes
and sung the hymns they knew by heart.
They’d return to shore for homemade cake and fresh-squeezed
lemonade, a recess for sweetness, a respite
from the sweat of daily life.

Today they gather at the edge of America,
the southernmost shore of the tip of Florida.
Easter Sunday, just at dawn, traditional
time for baptism. The beefy man in a white
shirt whips off his tie and wades
into the surf. Two girls in neon
swimsuits follow him. Brave

children in this month of drowned swimmers
sucked out to sea, drained bodies spit
back on the sand, weeping women
taking their dead away.

These children see the beach as a playground.
They don’t understand the depth of the commitment
they make, the true nature of the covenant.
Their parents think of all the dangers lurking
offshore, waiting to sting and strike sweet
flesh. Even the minister knows only
the vague shape of this sacrament,
has only glimpsed the vast expanse
of salt water beyond that anchors
and buoys and cradles.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Rituals of Grieving

It's been a difficult week at work.  By now, our school's loss of a gifted faculty member has made national news:  on Saturday, Patrick Peacock, a skilled diver with advanced certifications, died over 200 feet underwater in a cave.  Most of us have spent a stunned week trying to make sense of it all.

Of course, on some level, no sense can be made.  It's a dangerous cave, but he had successfully navigated it before.  He had the skills and the equipment--but equipment can fail, and even the most experienced divers can face challenges.  He was only 53.

I've wondered if we'd all be reacting the same way if he had died in a car crash.  Probably.  Our students have made a shrine.  They'd have done that regardless of the method of death.  We'd have cried.  We still would have had a piercing moment when we have to look at our lives and evaluate:  are we doing what we were put on earth to do?

I've been touched by how many students have had his classes and how he has affected them as a teacher.  I've been an adjunct for as many years as I've taught full-time, and I'm happy to know that adjuncts don't necessarily have less of an impact on students' lives.

Tomorrow I'll go to the memorial service.  I've spent the week thinking about the rituals that humans create to help them navigate life's passages.  I listened to Terry Gross interview Jonathan Safran Foer recently on an episode of Fresh Air; she says, "Well, you know, you mentioned ritual and the importance that some rituals have taken on in your life. You write about that in a paragraph in the book, where Jacob is thinking - and this is after his grandfather dies - he's thinking, Judaism gets death right. It instructs us what to do when we know least well what to do and feel an overwhelming need to do something. You should sit like this. We will. You should dress like this. We will. You should say these words at these moments, even if you have to read from transliteration. I think that really captures very well (laughter) how ritual can be very helpful at times when you don't know what to do or what to say or how to dress. And, you know, the Jewish rituals for mourning the dead tell you what to do for all those things."

I suspect that tomorrow's memorial service won't have any kind of liturgy.  I suspect that I will miss it.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Buddhist Pumpkins

It has been an exhausting week.  Last night I couldn't do much more after work than sit and stare at the TV.

Luckily, there was something to watch:  It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.  The wonderful colors of this show made me want to sketch with my own colored markers, but I was too tired to do even that.

Charlie Brown's treatment made me sad.  Why does he get rock after rock?  Why did Lucy have to tell him that he was on the do-not-invite list for the Halloween party?

This week has reminded me that life is not fair.  Some days, you get a bag full of candy.  Other days, you get rock after rock.  I tried to focus on the fact that Charlie Brown does get to go trick-or-treating, and he does go to the party.

Of course, he might have preferred to be left out, given his treatment.  He might have preferred to keep Linus company in the pumpkin patch.  Maybe it would have been better to go to bed early.

Last night, as I locked up my office, I looked at the Halloween decorations, decorations that others have put out.  I had this despairing thought:  I've missed a lot of one of my favorite months.  We're closing in on the end of October, and I have yet to make any pumpkin bread.  I have some decorating that I haven't done, and likely won't.

But at the end, Linus reminded me that Halloween will come again.  Maybe next year the Great Pumpkin will visit us.

Events of this week--the awful diving death of my colleague who was only 53--remind me that we may not have next year.  Thus, my determination to return home to enjoy one of the delights of the season, with this TV show.

I am still trying to be mindful each and every hour, to savor my life in that way.  So far, I'm not doing a great job.  But I am good at tuning in periodically throughout the day.

Clearly I will never be a Zen Buddhist.  And the theology of Linus and the pumpkin patch worries me too:   I don't like the idea that the pumpkin patch must prove itself before the Great Pumpkin (God?) will arrive.  I don't like that Linus will spend the next year preparing to be even better, in hopes that the Great Pumpkin will grace us with his presence.

Is the Great Pumpkin male?  I can't remember.

The show does not give us a Lutheran pumpkin patch, where grace rules the day, where a Great Pumpkin would love us even before we've done a single thing to prove ourselves.

Let me focus on the kindnesses of the show:  Lucy puts Linus, worn out from his night of waiting, into bed.  She has collected some candy for him.  Even though various Peanuts kids aren't always understood or accepted, they aren't completely cast out.  Charlie Brown and Linus have a friendship that will help them survive being the outsiders of their groups.

Let me remember that I haven't missed the whole of the season.  I always say that my favorite corridor is the one from Oct. 1 to Christmas.  There's still time:  time to bake pumpkin bread, time to enjoy the decorating efforts of others, time to think about buying some candy for trick-or-treaters.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, October 19, 2016:

First Reading: Jeremiah 14:7-10, 19-22

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Joel 2:23-32

First Reading (Alt.): Sirach 35:12-17

Psalm: Psalm 84:1-6 (Psalm 84:1-7 NRSV)

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 65

Second Reading: 2 Timothy 4:6-8, 16-18

Gospel: Luke 18:9-14

As an English major and a Composition teacher, I immediately hone in on the speech of the Pharisee and the tax collector, the subject and the verb. The Pharisee is the subject in the sentence structure and the actor of each sentence: I _____ (fill in the verb). The tax collector asks God to be the subject of the sentence and the actor. What are we to make of this?

Some theologians would say that Jesus tells us that only God can deliver salvation. We can take on as many spiritual tasks as we like and do them all superbly, but it won't be enough. Some theologians would tell us that Jesus is reminding us of the value of humility. The Pharisee might be more spiritually pure, but since he lacks humility, he fails on some essential level.

Many theologians would comment on the human trait to draw lines of in groups and out groups, just as the Pharisee has done. As humans, we seem incapable of just accepting people. We want to change their behavior or their lifestyle or their beliefs. We compare ourselves to others, so that we can make ourselves feel better.

Jesus reminds us again and again of the futility of this action. The only way to salvation is to pray as the tax collector does: "God, be merciful to me a sinner." Notice the simplicity of the prayer. If we could only pray one prayer, this would be a good one. And a good second prayer would be one of thanks, thanks for all the way God showers us with blessings.

Jesus is clear about the dangers of exalting ourselves. In our current time, he might have spoken at greater length about the danger of humility turning into false humility. He might have preached to our inner adolescents, who might have protested and wondered why we should change our behavior at all, if it doesn't lead to God's favor. He might have told us that we do the things we do as Christians not to act our way to salvation, since that can't happen, but because we choose actions which will lead to enriched lives for ourselves and others.

It would be an interesting experiment to pray the prayer of the tax collector on a daily basis and to see how our lives changed. What a simple spiritual task. What a change of trajectory might be in store if we actually prayed it.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Pumpkin Patch Contemplations

Yesterday, I did my first-ever stint of selling pumpkins at our church's pumpkin patch.  I chose a shift where I wasn't likely to have too many customers; I wanted a slower time for my first time selling.  It was a beautiful day to sit outside before a stretch of seasonal gourds.

I sold exactly one.  The guy who bought the large pumpkin said, "I'm gonna put a spigot in it and serve drinks that way."  I wondered if he realized that the pumpkin didn't come as a hollow gourd, but I decided not to interfere.

We had other visitors.  I enjoyed watching the squirrels play hide-and-go-seek in the pumpkin patch.

Two women came at separate times and asked how much it cost to take pictures.  I didn't have the presence of mind to suggest a donation--I'm not sure I would have done that anyway.  I gave one little girl stickers, and she acted like she had won the lottery.

I had plenty of time to read, to take pictures, and to sketch.  As I thought about our pastor's observation that no other activity brings us into so much contact with our surrounding community, I made this sketch, and late in the process, the words "Pentecostal Pumpkins" came into my head.

Even if I didn't make many sales, it was a peaceful, meditative way to spend part of a day.