Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, August 31, 2014:

First Reading: Jeremiah 15:15-21

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Exodus 3:1-15

Psalm: Psalm 26:1-8

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 105:1-6, 23-26, 45b

Second Reading: Romans 12:9-21

Gospel: Matthew 16:21-28

This Gospel shows us a picture of Jesus who knows that he's on a path to crucifixion. With clear sight and clear mission, Jesus warns his disciples of what's ahead.

Peter has a typical reaction: "That will never happen." Peter reminds me of the certain type of believers, the ones who deny the ugliness of the world and the difficulties of life. These are the ones who tell us that our problems will vanish if we just pray hard enough.  I'm thinking of an encounter I witnessed lately, when one woman said to another who had just gotten a troubling diagnosis to pay no attention to the earthly doctors because she's got a Heavenly doctor.  Just keep praying, the woman was advised.

My inner cynic raged, but I kept quiet.  I've lately wondered if our modern sin is that so many of us are so quickly moved to rage.  I also think of the larger sin of despair, the disbelief that anything can change.  This Gospel passage has moved many of us to talk about the crosses that we have to bear, and this counsel has discouraged too many from even thinking about the possibility of change.
We'll have all kinds of crosses to bear, Jesus warns us, and we'll lose our lives in all kinds of ways. But we'll get wonderful rewards.

It's important to stress that Jesus isn't just talking about Heaven, or whatever your vision is of what happens when you die. If Jesus spoke directly, Jesus might say, "You're thinking too small. Did I give you an imagination so that you let it wither and waste away? Dream big, dream big."

 In Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church, N.T. Wright stresses that Jesus doesn't just announce a Kingdom in some Heaven that's somewhere else. On the contrary--the appearance of Jesus means that God's plan for redeeming creation has begun. And we're called to help. Wright says, ". . . you must follow in the way of the cross, and if you want to benefit from Jesus' saving death, you must become part of his kingdom project." (204-205). He points out, "But God ordered his world in such a way that his own work within [our] world takes place not least through one of his creatures, in particular, namely, the human beings who reflect his image" (207). And for those of us who feel inadequate to the task, Wright (and before him, Jesus) reminds us of all the talents that we have at our disposal: "God gloriously honors all kinds of ways of announcing the good news" (226).

For many of us, the most difficult part of Jesus' mission that he gives us will be the willingness to believe that the arc of history bends towards justice, as Martin Luther King reminded us. The arc of history also bends towards beauty and wisdom and love and mercy. Some of us are so beaten down that we forget. Some of us would have no problem being crucified for our faith, but it's much harder to believe in God's vision of a redeemed world and to work to make that happen. But scripture and thousands of years of theology makes it clear, as Wright says, "We are called to live within the world where these things are possible and to agents of such things insofar as they lie in our calling and sphere" (248).

We'll lose our current lives of bitterness, fear, hopelessness, and rage. But we'll find a better one as we become agents of the Kingdom.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

God as Fabric Artist

It has been awhile since I posted a poem--and I just had 4 poems of mine published at the wonderfully cool, online journal Escape Into Life.  Since it's an online journal, they can do neat things with images, and my poems are paired with wonderful fabric art.  Go here to see the feature.

The poem below is part of that series.  Longtime readers of this blog may remember that I included some of these stanzas in this post about the God of the rough drafts.

Long ago, at a Create in Me retreat, we talked about God the creator and the various Genesis stories and what they mean for our own creative processes.  And this poem emerged shortly thereafter.

When God Switched Fabrics

On the third day, God switched
fabrics. At first, God had followed
respectfully the lessons of the elders:
which fabrics could be used,
which fabrics couldn’t go together,
which decorative objects were suitable.
God stuck to the established patterns:
Flying Geese, Star of Bethlehem, and Log Cabin.

But on the third day, God declared,
“Enough.” God created the universe
with leftover scraps of velvet,
silk, leather, and denim. God stitched
it all tightly together with ribbon and lace.

When God created foliage,
God decided to design new patterns.
Even the elders exclaimed over God’s
grand visions.

When God began the creation of the animals,
God discovered the dimensions offered
by fabric dyes. God played with pigments
and new patterns appeared.

By the time God created humans,
God claimed the title of fabric artist.
God didn’t waste time
in the age-old debate of craft versus art.
God blazed new trails mixing fabric,
paint, clay, and metals to create
new forms yet again.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Cultivating Peace through Prayer

So here we are in the pre-dawn darkness of a Monday.  In cloistered communities, the monastics have already sung at least one service. 

I have friends who scoff at the practice of prayer.  They say what I would have said when I was 19:  "Why don't they get out there and do some real good in the world?  Feed the poor or something useful?"

I've argued the point, but often felt ineffective.  This past week, I was delighted to read this post by rabbi Rachel Barenblat which made the case more skillfully than I've ever been able to do it.

I especially loved this piece of Buddhist theology:  "Lately I've been working on finding the right balance between paying attention to the world and its many injustices, and cultivating an internal sense of peacefulness and compassion. Against this backdrop, a friend recently shared with me a teaching from her Buddhist practice. According to this way of thinking, if one increases one's own suffering, one adds to the suffering of the universe; if one increases one's own peacefulness, one adds to the peacefulness of the universe."

 I love the idea that by cultivating a sense of peace in myself that I'm cultivating peace in the larger world. I will remind myself again and again that a stressed/angry response is not only unravelling myself, but a larger unweaving of the world.

Rachel ends the post with this Jewish approach to the issue of cultivating peace:  "In other words: the other mitzvot ask us to make certain choices when opportunity presents itself. But in the case of peace, we have to be proactive. We have to cultivate peace not only where we are, but also in the places where we haven't been yet (or where peace hasn't been yet). We have to cultivate external peace, and internal peacefulness, precisely in the places -- and the hearts and minds and souls -- which aren't yet peaceful. And when we do this work, we can hope that we awaken God on high to do the same."

And she argues persuasively throughout the post that prayer and other contemplative practices can be the most effective tools in waging peace.

I often joke that my prayer list is so long that I need half a day to get through it.  Lately, it's not a joke, and I tell myself that even if I run out of time, the monastics do not. I've found it an enormous comfort to know the monastics are praying. 

I suspect I'm not alone in feeling comfort.  I'm reminded of one of my favorite Kathleen Norris quotes:  "Deep down, people seem glad to know that monks are praying, that poets are writing poems. This is what others want and expect of us, because if we do our job right, we will express things that others may feel or know, but can't or won't say" (The Cloister Walk, page 145).

So on this day when so many people are returning to school, let us hold them in prayer.  In this time when so many conflicts have exploded across the world, let us pray for peace.  In a year when so many people I know have been stricken with dreadful disease or more localized pain, let us pray for healing and wholeness.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

True Hospitality, Scruffy Hospitality

We have a dining room table that comfortably seats 6 when expanded with the extra leaf--although, usually the extra leaf means we've got 8 coming for dinner.  And in our current dining room, we really can't expand the table.  We can't even move the table out from the wall and still have room for everyone to maneuver around it.

That hasn't stopped me from having people over, of course.  But last night looked to be a challenge.  We had 10 adults coming over, plus 3 children and a baby.  Hmm.

I thought about the movie I saw a few weeks ago, the movie that made my friend say, "This movie makes me want to move to the South of France."  I replied, "This movie makes me want to move my dining room table outside." 
I thought about doing that, but we've had brutal heat this week.  And it's been a bad summer in terms of mosquitoes.

So, we moved some living room furniture out of the way, and we moved the dining room table into the living room.  I still had to put out a call for extra chairs, but my guests had some.  I do miss the days of having a house big enough to store folding chairs for just such an occasion.  But we made do.

I don't have a tablecloth big enough to stretch across the dining room table that I rarely expand.  I no longer have a length of cloth that I could use.  But I do have a quilt that was given to me by the women's group at my mom's church when I went to be a retreat leader.  It's a simple quilt, made of squares, machine stitched together, knotted instead of quilted. 

I stretched it across the table.  It had barely enough width, but not quite enough length.  I decided it would do.

As I set the table, I thought, "What would Martha Stewart do?"  Certainly not what I would do.  She would never buy a house that couldn't comfortably accommodate her dining room table.  She probably has a whole house full of tablecloths that fit that table.

But it was a fun evening nonetheless.  I'm glad I didn't let my lack of Martha Stewartness keep me from having people over.

It put me in mind of this blog post on scruffy hospitality, which encourages us not only to come as we are, but to host as we are.  The writer, an Anglican priest, shares his sermon, which has this nugget of wisdom:  "Scruffy hospitality means you’re not waiting for everything in your house to be in order before you host and serve friends in your home. Scruffy hospitality means you hunger more for good conversation and serving a simple meal of what you have, not what you don’t have. Scruffy hospitality means you’re more interested in quality conversation than the impression your home or lawn makes. If we only share meals with friends when we’re excellent, we aren’t truly sharing life together."

I've been making more of an effort to have people over, even if I won't have a chance to deep clean or dust.  My toilet and sink will be clean, but we may eat off paper plates, like we did last night, because we still don't have a working dishwasher.

I know people who never have people over for dinner, and part of me understands.  It might be easier to go out to dinner together.  But that will prevent a lot of us from socializing.

I much prefer to say, "Come on over.  We'll be serving ________.  Feel free to bring a dish, or just bring yourselves."  I don't know about you, but it seems that any gathering of friends these days includes a vegetarian/vegan, a diabetic, and someone who's avoiding gluten.  My theory is that if everyone makes sure to bring something that they can eat, then we'll all be fed.  And if someone comes who hasn't had time to shop, we can feed them too.

Scruffy hospitality!  It probably wouldn't make for a compelling TV show, but it's more of a livable lifestyle than the one that Martha Stewart promotes.

And it's an ancient spiritual discipline. 

What would Jesus do?  He'd invite us all to gather and share.  We need to do it more often.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Effectiveness Measured: Armed or Nonviolent Uprisings

I have been thinking about non-violent resistance and the best paths to social change since I was old enough to know I was interested, which must have been around age 13 or so. On Thursday, I heard a story on NPR that explored why social justice movements succeed or fail.  It was such a compelling story that I read the article.

The 2 researchers looked at more than 300 cases of resistance to explore whether violent or nonviolent instances of resistance are more likely to lead to social change.

The article in Foreign Affairs primarily focuses on the recent uprisings in the Middle East as it ponders whether or not armed or unarmed uprisings are more effective.  The answer?  Unarmed uprisings are more likely to affect social change:  "Civil resistance does not succeed because it melts the hearts of dictators and secret police. It succeeds because it is more likely than armed struggle to attract a larger and more diverse base of participants and impose unsustainable costs on a regime. No single civil resistance campaign is the same, but the ones that work all have three things in common: they enjoy mass participation, they produce regime defections, and they employ flexible tactics."

The article doesn't address the spiritual aspect.  I've wondered if social justice movements that are rooted in a spiritual discipline are more likely to succeed.  The spiritual discipline gives people the courage to keep going long after others have quit--at least, that's my theory that I would seek to prove, if I had more time.  The spiritual discipline reminds people that this life is not all there is, and that protecting one's own life may not be the greater good.

This article in The Nation, a discussion between Jonathan Schell and Taylor Branch, explores the idea of non-violent protest rooted in spirituality.  Jonathan Schell says, "So there really is a counter-story to the dominant narrative of the twentieth century--the shocking and unbelievable expansion of the use of violence. But this sort of subterranean stream of nonviolence was also present. The fall of the British Empire, the fall of the Soviet Empire--these are not the small change of history. These are serious events."

Taylor Branch goes on to talk about the Civil Rights Movement in the U.S. South:  "The people suffering segregation in the South had no other weapons. They had no money. They didn't have much education. They were a tiny minority of the population, and only a tiny minority of that minority was involved in a nonviolent revolution. And yet they believed there was much power in it. It came out of the refuge of the church. The mass meetings there substituted for all the institutions that they really didn't have. They didn't have a newspaper. They didn't have a theater. They didn't have any deliberative structure whatsoever. They developed nonviolence at a very special moment in history. "

I suspect more work is out there that explores the idea of successful social justice movements rooted in spirituality.  I'll keep my eyes open.

Friday, August 22, 2014

Crosses: Hiding and in Plain View

When I've been at Mepkin Abbey, I've loved seeing the variety of crosses.  I confess that I love a simple cross best:

Cross in the newest chapel at the retreat center

I'm a Lutheran, so I find the crucifix both startling and a strange comfort. 

Mepkin has a variety of cemeteries, places where you would expect to find a cross.

But what delights me most is the scene where I only see the cross in retrospect.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Day After the Feast Day of Bernard of Clairvaux

Today is the day after the feast day of Bernard of Clairvaux.  My post about him is up at the Living Lutheran site.  Go here to read it.

Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"Those of us interested in monasticism, both new and old, owe a debt to St. Bernard. He was responsible not only for founding his own monastery but for sending monks out to establish monasteries or to rescue already-formed monasteries from heretical directions. We give him credit for the founding of hundreds of monastic communities."

"We could give Bernard of Clairvaux credit for moving the church toward a more personal faith, although I imagine he would be horrified at the manifestations of those ideas of a personal relationship with Jesus that many of us have. He also played a part in elevating the status of Mary within the church."

"The feast day of Bernard of Clairvaux is a good day for some introspection. Are we living an integrated life in the best way that we can?  How are we helping our communities? Is the way that we’re living our lives making the future church stronger or weaker?"