Friday, January 30, 2015

Preparing for Candlemas

A year ago, I'd have been on my way to Mepkin Abbey, and two years ago, I spent the same week-end at Mepkin Abbey. 

It was my first time celebrating Candlemas, the feast day which occurs Feb. 2, which celebrates the day 40 days after his birth when Mary and Joseph presented Jesus at the temple.  The priest Simeon holds the light of the world in his hands. 

The monks change their worship space, and often a piece of art helps commemorate the day.  Above you see the art for Candlemas 2013.  I was also struck the first year by a flowering branch. 

Through the four days that I was there, the flowers unfurled.

It's the time of year when we're all longing for light.  We get 30-60 more seconds of light each day, but in those tiny increments, it's hard to realize the small beginnings of spring.

It's a good week-end to think about the ways we can capture the light.  Maybe we will light candles--strike a match against the darkness.

Maybe we'll hang colored glass at our windows--let the light scatter into colored sparkles.

Maybe, as the full Christmas season comes to a close, we'll enjoy the flowers of the season.  Below, the amaryllis that was in the chapel last year.

And my poinsettia, which has lasted since Christmas 2013.

We all hold the light of the world inside us.  In these darker days of winter, we need to remember to let that light shine brightly.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Technology and Community

Long ago, I went to a different church and served on a different church council.  I still keep in touch with some of those parishioners.  Yesterday's post about modern demons, like the demon of disconnectedness, struck a chord with one friend from that time period.  He wrote to talk about feeling disconnected from communities, as yesterday's post discussed.

About a year after I served on church council with him, he and his wife moved to Costa Rica, and they have since moved to Peru, where there is only one Lutheran church, but the service is in Spanish.  The ex-pats who speak English tend not to be Christians.  He talked about these blocks to connectedness.  I was touched that he wrote, and I wrote back.  I've pasted a version of my ideas below.

I've always wondered if electronic/online communities can serve as a community of sorts for people who don't have access to churches where they can gather in person. I suspect it would work better if people had some sort of connection before they left and then returned electronically.

For example, if a former church where you still knew the members attending broadcast its service in real time, and you could stream it on your computer, would you feel connected? Or would it make you feel worse, with no real people around you? These questions intrigue me.

At work, where I spend most of my time, I, too, find few Christians. So, reading all sorts of things via computer during the work week helps. But how would I feel if that was my only connection to Christianity?

It's hard to maintain community, whether it be electronic community or in-person community.  Technology can be used for good or ill when it comes to community building.  I wonder what tools are out there that we're not utilizing?

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, February 1, 2015:

Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 111
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

What on earth are we to make of this Gospel? Here we see Jesus casting out demons, an act which might make us modern folks very uneasy. We don't believe in evil spirits, do we?

Do we?

In her book, Preaching Mark, Bonnie Bowman Thurston points out that the person who had demons was cast out of the worshipping community, and thus away from the presence of God. She encourages us to wonder what "demons" separate people from our worshipping community today.

We might broaden our scope to think about what “demons” separate people from their larger communities in general. We might turn our analytical skills back on ourselves. What separates us, as individuals, from the communities of which we yearn to be part?

For some of us, it is that we just do not feel worthy. In her book High Tide in Tucson, Barbara Kingsolver describes her childhood as a child who read a lot; as a consequence, she says she’s often surprised as a grown up to find that people really do want to be friends with her. Many of us suffer from the kind of low self-esteem that might be described as a demon plaguing us.

Or maybe we don’t want to be part of any of the societies we see around us. Maybe we’re turned off by the values which can be so different than ours. Maybe we’re surrounded by mean people, by greedy people, by people who do not want the best for us. It’s not a far stretch to describe some of the larger communities in our world as demon possessed; evil does seem to be in charge.

For many of us, the issue is time. We’re increasingly overburdened by our to-do list. For those of us still lucky enough to have jobs, we’re likely doing not only our work, but the work of those who have been fired or not replaced. We work longer hours, and then we have family commitments, and our possessions need attention. We never have much down time, even when we sleep or go on vacation. We may feel tormented by demons who never leave us alone, who bedevil us so much that we cannot think.

For many of us, those demons are our electronics. Many of us are possessed by our smart phones, by our Internet ramblings, by all the things which promised to connect us (the demon seduction) but that leave us with so little time to make real connections with that which would bring us joy.

For this week, let us think about all of our personal demons and all of our societal demons. Let us decide how we will attempt to cast them out. As a church, what can we do to minister to those afflicted? As individuals, can we be doing more to reach out to those who, for whatever reasons, feel on the outside of our communities?

When my mother-in-law was sick in the hospital, the hospital had us wear visitor stickers on our shirts. Sometimes I would forget that I was wearing mine, and I'd go to the grocery store. I noticed that people treated me more kindly. That sticker showed that I wasn't having a normal day.

We should go through our lives, seeing our fellow humans as wearing similar stickers that show their need for our gentle treatment. Think of what a different world we would inhabit if all people of faith made gentle treatment of their fellow humans a daily practice. Think of how those demons would be diminished.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Poetry Tuesday: Early Morning Thoughts on Angels

At church on Sunday, we were talking about Jesus in the Temple and how surprised Joseph and Mary were to find him there.  Our pastor said, "Come on--there were angels at his birth.  What more do you need to know your child is special?"

There are many answers to that, of course.  We could argue that most parents of newborns feel that someone very, very, very special has been delivered to them.  I argued that the Gospel of Luke wasn't meant to be literal.  Maybe those angel choirs symbolized the feelings that many new parents have about their babies.  One woman theorized that it had probably been awhile since Jesus did anything special.

The season of Advent to Ash Wednesday always sets me to thinking about angels.  I am a good English major, and so I am well aware that more of our theories of angels come from Milton than from the Bible--or worse, from people's desperate desires, and the purveyors of sentimentality who prey on those people.

On the days when I believe in literal angels, I believe in them as a species separate from humans, living or dead.  When I die, I will not join the angel choirs.  Those choirs are for angels.  Humans do not die to become angels.  Angels were in existence long before humans.

I like the idea of angels moving amongst us, but not in the same way that most people do.  I don't believe in guardian angels who are there to step in and save me from myself.  But I do like the idea of angels who take an interest.  I do like the idea of angel messengers, although I suspect that most of us are deaf to the message.

Long ago, after the exhaustion that comes from explaining medieval ideas of angels and their place in the universe so that my Brit Lit students could understand Milton, I wrote the poem below.  For many decades, I've been writing poems that imagine Jesus moving through our modern world (see "Heaven on Earth", "New Kid," and "Strange Communions").  Occasionally I play with similar ideas with angels.

Here's my take on guardian angels.  I wrote it after hearing voices I couldn't identify outside my window in the wee, small hours of the morning.  Readers of Milton's "Paradise Lost" will notice some echoes.

Strategies Before Sunrise

The neighborhood angels congregate
outside my window. It’s very late,
3 a.m.—and they know their charges sleep
safely under the covers in darkened homes.

The angels make calls
on their interstellar cell phones to check
stock prices, check on family members. Sell,
buy, a career change, the futures
market, sleep, snack: their arguments
filter into my dreams.

These angels drink light beer
as they play checkers, strategizing
while waiting for sunrise. They’d prefer
a more challenging game, a better beer,
a darker blend, foamed with honey
and the yeasty blend which bespeaks bread.
But only rebel angels partake of chess, lagers
and all the forbidden conspiracies which tempt
the good citizens of the celestial spheres.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Feast Day of Timothy, Titus, and Silas

Today we celebrate the lives of Timothy, Titus, and Silas, missionaries and friends of Paul. Imagine having Paul as your mentor. Imagine that your work together is so fulfilling that you become friends. Imagine that you are one of the organizers of the early church.

In many ways, those men lived in a time as tumultuous as our own time. The Christian church of their time faced just as much chaos and confusion as our own time. Many of us look back and imagine the time period of Paul as a golden age of Christianity, but in truth, it was one of those time periods of competing directions, and it wasn't always sure which way Christianity would go. Would it stay a denomination within Judaism? Would it be persecuted out of existence? Would it continue to embrace its egalitarian beginnings? Would it be adopted and co-opted by local governments? How far-flung could the faith become and stay faithful?

We face similar questions, against a different set of canvases. It's worth pondering today, on this day that we celebrate the lives of missionaries and Church fathers, what roles we might play in the next emergence of our Christian faith.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Fishers of People

Today many of us will hear the invitation stories of Jesus.  It's early in his career, and he's inviting people to come and see what he's all about.  He'll make them fishers of people!  And some of them drop their nets and leave everything behind.

Later in one of the Gospels, Jesus will heal Peter's mother-in-law.  I remember the first time that idea sunk in.  Mother-in-law?  Does that mean that Peter had a wife?  What happened to her?

I always thought of these early disciples as very young.  But in a recent post, a friend of mine who's recently been to the Holy Land, dispels that idea.  While he was there, the group went to an archaeological site, and he considers the implication of these recent finds:  "This archaeological discovery is important because it dispels the myth that Peter and Andrew, James and John, were peasant fishermen. In fact, they were middle class business men who most likely had a fleet of fishing boats and lived a comfortable lifestyle."

In some ways, it's easy to give up everything for Jesus when one is young and hasn't made commitments yet.  When one is middle-aged and has a mother-in-law--with all the commitments that relationship implies--it's harder.

But maybe the reality is that it's hard, no matter at what age the invitation comes.  My friend has an interesting take on this question of what it means to follow Jesus.  He approaches the question from the standpoint of what it means to leave everything behind to follow Jesus.  He asks what we need to leave behind--and it's not necessarily our in-laws or our mortgages: 

"Some of us will need to leave behind our need to simply make more money and feather our nests, and learn the values of service and generosity. Others will need to leave behind our need to be in charge our our own destiny and trust Jesus to be in control of our lives. Some will need to leave behind our fears of what the future will bring and venture into the great unknown. Others will have to leave behind our need to control or manipulate other people, and ask how we can best serve our neighbors."

It's a question that we should never have too far away from our consciousnesses.  It's hard to stay focused on the triune God.  So many things pull our attention away from God.  What do we need to leave behind to be better followers?

Saturday, January 24, 2015

God Calls Us to Communion

How do we experience the call of God?  Is it as clear as the tolling of a bell?

Do we understand the steps involved?

Perhaps we experience the call as a walk through a corridor, surrounded by stone, struck by sunlight.

Maybe the call is partially hidden, only glimpsed if we learn to see in a new way.

Or maybe the call is a clear sign.

Whatever the nature of the individual call, we know that we will not walk the path alone--it's a call to live in communion.