Friday, July 31, 2015

Nuggets of Wisdom from Nadia Bolz-Weber

I came across this interview with Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber.  I know that she's not everyone's cup of tea, but her interview had some wonderful nuggets.

Here are some that I want to remember:

"I don’t understand how in mainstream, middle-class America, Christianity became about pretending you had your shit together, and putting on nice clothes for an hour every week, and keeping a smile on your face. It started with rank fishermen, and prostitutes, and tax collectors, and people who were eating with their unwashed hands, and somehow it became that. What the hell happened?"

"But extending influence and power in the corridors of government? I’m just too suspicious of human beings to think that our projects are going to be anything but self-serving. I’m not idealistic about human projects or our ideas, but I really am idealistic about God’s redemptive work in the world. I mean, I’ve just seen it over and over, and I’ve seen it despite myself and my own heart and my own life. That I believe in. We do the best we can as humans with our projects, but if that’s the thing we’re banking on or we have idealism about, we’re always going to be disappointed. Something ugly will always rear its head. The great news is that sometimes God does redemptive things through our projects and our institutions and ourselves despite us. I just kind of always look for that."

"God didn’t come and get me through any other symbol system but this one. This is my truth, and this is where I sort of stake my claim and my life, and whatever God was up to at the cross, it has to be accomplished through means I’ll never understand. How could it be limited to what I understand? That’s so arrogant."

When asked what else people are looking for when they come to her church:  "A place where they don’t have to culturally commute in order to show up. Culture has to do with aesthetics, it has to do with humor, it has to do with pop culture references, it has to do with so many things, and there’s a commute that postmodern people have to make if they’re going to show up to a mainline church because culturally it’s so different, it’s just so different, and you just feel uncomfortable when you’re in a context that so culturally different from what you’re native to. And I don’t know that the church realizes that there’s that crevasse culturally between who they are and who young folks are. It’s massive. So there’s no sort of outreach strategy that’s going to bridge that."

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The lessons for Sunday, August 2, 2015:

First Reading: Exodus 16:2-4, 9-15

First Reading (Semi-cont.): 2 Samuel 11:26--12:13a

Psalm: Psalm 78:23-29

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 51:1-12

Second Reading: Ephesians 4:1-16

Gospel: John 6:24-35

Welcome to bread month! Over the next four weeks, the Gospel lessons will return again and again to this common New Testament symbol. We will be offered many opportunities to think about the meaning of this symbol.

I often tell my literature students that they can tell when something in a story might be a symbol because it shows up again and again, taking on an unusual significance. Our lectionary creators want to make sure we understand the importance of bread in the ministry of Jesus.

You might say that you already know. You take communion every week. You've heard that story of the loaves and fishes multiplying. Maybe you even pay attention to the bread that you buy each week as you choose the most nourishing loaves. Maybe you savor some bread and wine with your cheese on any given week-end, and you contemplate the life-giving properties of your snack. Despite all the recent attacks against carbs, most of us know that some variation of grain has kept most of human civilization alive more reliably than any other foodstuff.

The Gospel this week, however, reminds us that there is much more to life than sustaining our all-too-human bodies. We hunger and thirst and we crave anything which might guarantee that we'll never hunger or thirst again. Jesus reminds us that it's natural for humans to want bread, but he tells us that we sacrifice so much if we stop with physical bread. Jesus reminds us of our larger purpose, which is communion with God.

In verse 27, Jesus says, "Do not labor for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of man will give to you." I suspect that many of us are like me, laboring so hard for our daily bread that we don't have much time for spiritual food. When we're feeling overstretched and burdened by our calendars, it's easy to want to sacrifice some of our tasks. We might find ourselves saying, "It's summer. If I don't go to church, people will assume I've gone on vacation. No one will miss me. I can get my grocery shopping done and be that much further ahead." We might say, "I don't have time to pray! I have all this ironing to do!!!" We might grumble, "Who can read the Bible in such a dirty house? I'll just run the vacuum, and then I'll settle down for some Scripture reading."

In the language of economics, we need to pay ourselves first. We can't possibly do the work that God calls us to do if we're starving for spiritual bread.

Somehow, create some connections so that you can develop spiritual habits to go with your other habits. Pray while you're brushing your teeth. Listen to the Bible (via CD, tape, or download) as you drive to work. Have some spiritual sustenance delivered to your e-mail inbox every day. When you call your mom, check in with God when you hang up the phone. When you update your Facebook status, remember that God wants some facetime with you too.  When you eat food, say grace, even if it's a snack and not the meal that you crave.

We are created for so much more than our earthly eyes can see, so much more than our cramped brains can comprehend. Spiritual habits and disciplines start to crack open our vistas so that we can enlarge our possibilities.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Feast Day of Saint Martha

Today we celebrate Saint Martha, one of the few named women in the Gospels, one of the few to make multiple appearances.

My favorite glimpse of her is from the story in Luke, where she hustles and bustles with household chores and grows ever more exasperated with her sister Mary, who isn't helping. 

It's good to remember what Jesus says to her, when she demands that he make Mary help.  Christ says, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her" (Luke 10: 41-42).

I hear those words anew this morning.  I, like Martha, am worried and distracted by many things.  In my younger years, I thought that my worry might spur me to action.  In my later years, I've come to realize that I often worry about items that won't be impacted at all by my fretting. 

We also see Martha at the story of Lazarus, her brother, who has been dead in the grave for several days when Jesus comes.  She is convinced that her brother would still be alive if Jesus had gotten there in time.  And she's worried about the smell when Jesus orders the grave opened.

I recognize this control freak, micromanaging Martha.  I see her every day in my own behavior.

I love that Jesus doesn't get angry, doesn't send her away.  I love that again and again, she doesn't quite realize the huge truth of Jesus, but he's patient.  He doesn't bend himself into pretzel shapes so that she'll be comfortable, but neither does he reject her.

It's interesting to me to see in her behavior and in Peter's that we see that it takes time to grow into our role as disciples.  Neither Peter nor Mary understand Jesus right away, but patient Jesus continues to work to shape them.

I, too, am far from where I want to be as a disciple.  I take courage from these stories that remind me that there is hope for the lagging disciple.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Ministry of De-Escalation

Like much of the nation, I've been pondering the situation of Sandra Bland and what happened in Texas.  The story which started me down this road was the one broadcast by NPR's Morning Edition, where an analyst listens to the recording of what happened at the side of the road where Bland was first pulled over.

The analyst points out several times where different decisions could have been made by both Bland and the state trooper.  But for reasons that may never be fully clear, they both decided to escalate.

In the national conversation that I've seen, we focus on police-community relations, but I'm willing to bet there are many workplace situations where we see similar decisions to escalate.  Even if these incidents don't result in death, they still result in a society where people are distrustful and angry.

I think about my own workplace, where I often see angry, angry students.  I try to calm them down, and I try to ascertain what's brought them to me.  I know it's nothing good--people don't make a special effort to go to a department head to report on the great job that a faculty member is doing.

I try to remember to smile, but in a sympathetic not a condescending way.  I try to listen.  I try to explain what the situation might look like from a faculty point of view, but I try to do this without making students feel that their concerns have been dismissed.

Often, I can't fix the situation.  They come too late with too much work remaining undone.  But I try to keep the situation from escalating.  Students and their parents are all too ready to go to the upper levels of management or to the press or to bring in lawyers.  And even if there's no case, I would prefer we not go down those roads.

I've spent time lately thinking about ministries and how we see our ministry.  I've wondered how our nation might change if we saw our ministry as being one of reconciliation. 

One way to do that might be to seize opportunities to de-escalate situations.  People can't be reconciled when everyone is vibrating with anger.

I can't make everyone's anger vanish, but if I keep my anger and frustration tamped down, I've taken a giant leap towards de-escalation.  If only more people could do so.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Living in Community

In a variety of places, I've done a lot of thinking about what it means to live in community.  It might be easier if we only had to sit two by two, making community in pairs.

 Maybe we could fit three people into our community, side by side, on a bench. 

Some days, I think that three is one too many.

Some days, I want to be in community with only myself.

But we are called to greater community.

And from these connections, a community to the even larger world, a way to minister.

And eventually, we will join the largest community of all. 

Let that be the spur that helps us to connect on this side of the grave.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Dreams and Visions

Rachel Barenblat has an intriguing post on Jewish thoughts about what happens while we sleep:  "The Talmud teaches that sleep is 1/60th of death. When we go to sleep, our tradition teaches, we place our souls in God's keeping -- and when we rise and sing the modah ani, we thank God for restoring them to us and for the gift of another day. Sleep means letting go of whatever we've been carrying all day, and letting go of control. When we sleep we have to trust that our hearts will go on beating and that the world will keep on turning."

I've been haunted by my dreams.  One night I dreamed I was pregnant.  It was June, and I was due in July, but I wasn't very big.  I was thinking of all the things I should be doing to get ready to leave work:  getting the Fall schedule ready, hiring adjuncts, straightening my office.  I was walking to my car across a campus that isn't mine, and I had to pick my way carefully across a construction site.  The school campus was just a wreck.

The night before that dream, I dreamed I was trying to walk safely away from a highway.  I could see the lovely neighborhood with cafes and bookstores where I needed to be, but I was kept from getting there by overpasses and chain link fences and whizzing traffic.

If I was a character in a book dreaming such things, you'd lob criticism at the writer for being so obvious.  I woke up thinking that my subconscious was not being very original.

Am I longing to be pregnant?  No--but I do wish to be incubating something new.  Do I know how to get there?  No.  I have glimmerings, but I can't quite figure out the way from here to there.

And yet, my dreams were hopeful.  In my pregnancy dream, I had just come back from a well-baby pregnancy check up with good news that my yet-to-be-born baby was fine.  In the highway dream, I was able to hop over guard rails to avoid traffic.

Like I said, my dreaming brain may not be very original.  But maybe my dreaming brain worried that if it sent me subtle dreams, I'd miss the meaning.  Maybe my brain decided to be blaringly obvious.

I'm grateful to my dreaming brain.

And the theologian part of me thinks of the God who speaks to humans in dreams and visions.  If my recent dreams have been communications from God, I'm grateful.  They're not quite as obvious as some of the dreams in the holy texts:  no voice saying, "Get up and leave now before the evil dictator arrives."  I'm grateful for that too.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Poetry Saturday: Missing the Demons

I spent some time this week thinking about Mary Magdalene as her feast day came and went.  It's not the first time.  In this post, I come back to these thoughts:  "I think of Mary Magdalene and the ways her life was changed by her discipleship.  I wonder if she ever missed those demons or if she spent every day in deep awareness of how much worse her life could be and had been.  I wonder what happened to her once her brief time with Jesus was over."

I've played with these ideas before.  I've written several versions of a poem that imagines the demons of Mary Magdalene.  Here's the latest one:

The Fifth Demon

You moderns read about my demon
possession, and you think of The Exorcist:
gravel voices out of the mouths of schoolgirls,
mouths that spew gobs of green goo.

I tell you, it wasn’t like that. Each demon
had a unique personality, a tone
that only I could recognize. In the night,
the hiss of their suggestions soothed
me into sleep. By day, their constant
criticisms and complaints proved motivation.

And then I met Jesus. His voice
filled my head and crowded out the demons.
His stories left me slightly dizzy,
like I had spent weeks sleeping
on a sailing ship and returned to land.

I miss the fifth demon most.
I lost them, and then I lost
him, and now I have only the tomb
of my empty mind.