Friday, October 24, 2014

What I Listened to on My Autumn Vacation

One of the advantages of travelling by car is the chance to listen to CDs.  For a variety of reasons, I almost never do so at other times.  Sigh.

I took a variety of CDs on our recent trip to the mountains.  It's the older Johnny Cash CD that I can't get out of my mind:  American V:  A Hundred Highways.  It's an amazing CD, with a variety of spiritual songs.

Some of the songs are flat-out spirituals, like the older "God's Gonna Cut You Down."  I loved the last song he ever wrote, "Like the 309." That one is a somber look at aging and death, but it's cut through with humor.  It's built around a reference to a train, and that lonely train song shows up again in his cover of Hank Williams' "On the Evening Train," a melancholy song about a husband putting his wife's coffin on the train, while their child weeps.

I wept at his cover of the old Gordon Lightfoot song, "If You Could Read My Mind."  I knew that this album was the last one that Cash did before he died, and while I can't be sure that he recorded this song after the death of June Carter Cash, it does have the deep longing and loss wrapped through it.

He also covers Bruce Springsteen's "Further On Up the Road."  While it's not overtly a spiritual song, when it's offered in the company of these other songs, sung in the rough voice of an aged Johnny Cash, it's hard NOT to see it as a spiritual look at death.  I like that idea that we'll all meet again, even if we're not sure exactly where or how, whether it's later in life or after death.

I'm late to discovering this CD--it's been out since 2006.  But what an excellent find!  It's an oddly comforting CD, even though hopefully, I'm not at the end of my life.  And while I don't agree with all the theology, like a God that will cut us down, it speaks to a heritage that I'm glad to be able to access.  Plus, it's a great song.

Many of us likely don't place Cash alongside other great spiritual singers.  But listen to this CD, and you might change your mind.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Journals of Plague Years, Past, Present, and Future

One of the anticipated joys of travelling is more time to read.  This year, I took Connie Willis' The Doomsday Book with me.  I read a reference to it in this post.  At the time, I was reading a different book about the medieval plague, Geraldine Brooks' Year of Wonders.  I decided to read Willis next.

But it's a big book, and I've been having trouble making progress.  However, during my time away, I devoured it--amazing what having no computer access can do.

The book revolves around time travel--a researcher is supposed to go back to a time in the medieval period before the plague arrives in England, but something goes wrong, and she arrives just in time for the arrival of the plague.

The book also revolves around the idea of disease.  The researcher is stranded because back in the current time, a strange strain of flu begins to sweep through the city.  At the end of the book, we find out that the lethality rate of the flu was 68%--not quite as bad as the 90% mortality rate of the plague strain that the time travelling researcher experiences, but it's easy to imagine that in more challenging circumstances, with lack of medicines and fluids and soap, the lethality rate would be higher.

It's a book that also has some interesting meditations on religion, especially at the end.  The time traveler talks into her recorder, even though she's unsure that anyone will hear her.  She says, "He [the priest for the village] continues to say matins and vespers and to pray, telling God about Rosemund and who has it now, reporting their symptoms and telling what we're doing for them, as if He could actually hear him.  The way I talk to you.  Is God there, too, I wonder, but shut off from us by something worse than time, unable to get through, unable to find us?" (p. 348). 

Even more daringly, Willis connects the time travel with the Christ story.  There's an interesting meditation in this passage that haunts me:  "God didn't know where His Son was, Dunworthy thought.  He had sent His only begotten Son into the world, and something had gone wrong with the fix, someone had turned off the net, so that He couldn't get to him, and they had arrested him and put a crown of thorns on his head and nailed him to a cross" (p. 366).

Both narratives also deal with the issue of hospitality, of being a stranger in a strange land, of being stranded and how we cope.  It also explores how humans deal with the unexpected and the strange, and why we panic or don't.  It has all sorts of lessons for us as we deal with the Ebola crisis--and a good reminder that flu has been far more lethal throughout history.

Willis' book was published in 1992--why haven't I discovered it before?  I think about 1994 or so, when I started to research the plague and its impact on early British literature.  I read Plagues and Peoples, but no fiction.  I read Laurie Garrett's excellent The Coming Plague, where I first heard about Ebola.  The Doomsday Book deserves a spot beside them.

For those of us interested in medieval religion, this book can give interesting insight.  I find my thoughts drifting back to the depiction of the Christmas Eve mass, which will be a much different service than the ones that many of us will enjoy in just 2 months.

The village priest n the book comes from a much lower caste than the priests that the gentry matriarch wishes she could have.  We see some of those priests come to the village--but they are not of much use during a crisis.  The book gives an interesting counterpoint to the common wisdom that many priests abandoned their parishes during times of plague.

Experts tell us that we are long overdue for a pandemic that will have the scope of the medieval plague or the 1918 flu or the flu in the book.  As religious people, how will we react?  This book gives us some wisdom.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, October 25, 2014:

First Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34

Psalm: Psalm 46

Second Reading: Romans 3:19-28

Gospel: John 8:31-36

Today's Gospel promises that we shall know the truth and the truth shall set us free. For some of us, this comes as welcome news, perhaps even as we feel a bit doubtful. After all, the Gospel doesn't tell us how we'll know the truth: will we just recognize it? Will consensus dictate what the truth is? If a majority of people believe, is that how we'll know we're in the campsite of truth?

The Gospel doesn't tell us those details. The Gospel writer John was more mystical than practical. But it's interesting to think about the issue of truth as we approach Reformation Sunday.

Think about how many of our spiritual ancestors were in a minority, before they were in a majority. If we're looking for majority rule to tell us whether or not we're looking at the truth, we will miss a lot of the truth.

Think of Martin Luther (or rent the film, Luther) and what he was up against. The Catholic church had a stranglehold on the spiritual life of Europe when Luther came along and suggested that they'd gotten off track. He didn't intend to start a new branch of Christianity. But his life shows what might happen when we start pointing out the truth. We might overturn a whole social order and begin several hundred years of new denominations. If I wanted to, I could spread many of the most exciting social movements of the twentieth century (for example, the movement to secure human rights for everyone) to the ideas that Luther put into motion. Or think about the worldwide push towards literacy. Luther might not have envisioned the changes he put into motion when he translated the Bible into common German, but he understood the importance of enlarged access. Where would we be if we still had scriptures in a language that we couldn't understand? Will we know the truth if it's in a language that's foreign to us?

Think of a revolution closer to our own time. One of the biggest spiritual stories of the twentieth century has to be the rise of the Pentecostal movement, which we can trace back to Azusa Street in Los Angeles in the early part of the twentieth century. Even those of us outside of the movement can admire the ways in which Pentecostal ideas have enriched all of us believers (the idea that there are different gifts of the spirit, for example; even if my gift is not speaking in tongues, I might have a different gift to offer, one that is equally valuable; the trick is to know my gift and commit to it). Even those of us who are fearful of the spread of Pentecostal and Evangelical ideas have to admit that our siblings in those churches understand mission in ways that many of the rest of us don't.

Those of us who feel like we're part of a dying tradition would do well to remember that even times of death can lead to times of renewal. We may be planting seeds. Those seeds might grow into plants that we can't even visualize right now.

We're in a time of tremendous renewal, even if we find ourselves part of a mainline tradition that seems determined to ignore these developments. Google the words Emergent Church and see what you find; many Christian groups who wouldn't have even spoken to each other in the 1950's are rethinking ways to do church and working on social justice movements together. Research the New Monasticism to see the ways that people are radically committing to the life of faith.

Consider the Internet, and how the Internet is revolutionizing our faith lives. We can tithe or redistribute our wealth much more easily with the Internet as a tool. We can read or listen to stories of faith to inspire us. We can go to sites to pray the Daily Office.

Will we one day look back and realize that the Internet fueled a Reformation in our own time, just as the printing press helped to speed Martin Luther's Reformation? We can't know. And again, the Gospel should echo in our ears, as we spend more and more time in virtual communities and less time with actual humans: we will know the truth (but one suspects we'll only know the truth if we're on the lookout for it).

And what a promise: the truth shall set us free.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Planning a Retreat I Won't Attend

This past week-end, we took one of our whirlwind trips to North Carolina--for more on the trip itself, see this post on my creativity blog.

We went primarily because my spouse needed to be at Lutheridge for a finance subcommittee (for the larger Novus Way Board of Trustees) meeting.  Fortuitously, the retreat to plan the Create in Me retreat was happening at the same time.

What made it a strange experience is that I won't be at the retreat itself.  My absence is no reflection on the retreat--on the contrary, it sounds like it will be a great retreat.

I was happy to be at this retreat to plan the retreat for a variety of reasons.  It's always a great group of people, even as the individuals come and go and come again.  Seeing us all in a room makes me happy.  Realizing how long I've known them astonishes me.

It also makes me want to dream big.  I joked about wanting Lutheridge to create a retirement community so that we could spend our golden years having a Create in Me retreat year round.  But I wasn't really joking.

On Friday night, we had a great Bible study session;  this year's theme is "Jesus and Justice."  We explored passages from Isaiah and corresponding passages from the New Testament.  Our group was about 1/3 people with seminary training and/or rigorous reading in academic religious materials.  The rest of the group has gotten substantial education through churches and other arenas.  So we had a vigorous discussion.

In fact, we had such a vigorous discussion that we got off schedule--but what a wonderful reason to get off schedule.  We looked at passages about dimly burning wicks and bruised reeds.  We looked at different translations that talked about lifting up the oppressed--in some translations, it was "the poor," instead of the oppressed, and I prefer the older translation.  We talked about pathways being made wide and the crooked ways made straight.  I was transfixed by the passage that talked about binding the broken-hearted.

The poet in me was intrigued by the way the different words can be used:  binding can be a healing bandage or a constricting force, and to level can be good or bad.  Lots of potential.

So, we didn't do the arts meditation on Friday night but on Saturday morning.  We were given a 3 inch pillar candle, a reed, a Sharpie marker, and a roll of masking tape.  We wrapped the candle in masking tape, a surprisingly soothing experience.  We had to somehow incorporate the reed but not break it.

When we were done, we wrote words of injustice on the tape.  Some people wrote general words, like "unloved" and "despair."  Some wrote words like "trafficking" and "racism."  I wrote words like "student loans" and "Holocene extinction."

And then we lit the candles.  Eventually they will burn down and have an interesting effect.  The light shines through the words to remind us that the light is not overcome by the injustice.

We spent the rest of the day talking about the schedule and ways to make it more effective.  We talked about anything special that we need to have because of the theme.  We planned the worship service.

I'll be sad to miss the retreat, but I was glad to be able to help to make it a great retreat for those who will be there.  Before we started doing this approach to retreat planning, I wouldn't have dreamed that a retreat to plan a retreat could be almost as nourishing as the retreat itself.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Alternate Prayer Language

I was corresponding by Facebook message with a grieving friend.  She said she couldn't stop crying.  She said she wasn't good at prayer.

I wrote, "We pray in all sorts of languages--sobs aren't often discussed as prayer, but they are."

I am an English major, an old-fashioned believer in books.  So after some additional interchanges, I wrote, "Anne Lamott wrote a great little book on prayer. She says the most common prayers are 'Help me' and 'Thank You.'  The language of gratitude and the language of sobs--common prayers."

All day long, I thought about the language of prayer, the languages that we might not think of as prayer, but they are.

For example, my pastor, Keith Spencer, takes amazing photos and pairs them with Bible verses.  You can see his wonderful work at this blog site.  His process strikes me as a form of prayer, the kind of prayer that praises God and God's creative power.

What other non-word prayers do we offer?

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Called to Health on the Feast Day of St. Luke

I first wrote this post for the Living Lutheran site.  It's been several years since they ran it, so I'm hoping they won't mind if I feature it here.

On October 18, we celebrate the life of St. Luke, a creator, an evangelist, and a healer. Some churches might have a healing service in honor of Luke’s role as patron saint of doctors and surgeons. But St. Luke was so much more: he’s also the patron saint of artists, students, and butchers. He’s given credit as one of the founders of iconography. And of course, he was a writer--both of one of the Gospels and the book of Acts. As we think about the life of St. Luke, let us use his life as a guide for how we can bring ourselves back to health and wholeness.

The feast day of St. Luke offers us a reason to evaluate our own health—why wait until the more traditional time of the new year? Using St. Luke as our inspiration, let’s think about the ways we can promote health of all kinds.

Do we need to schedule some check-ups? October is perhaps most famous for breast cancer awareness month, but there are other doctors that many of us should see on a regular basis. For example, if you get a lot of sun exposure, or if you live in southern states, you should get a baseline check up from your dermatologist.

Many of us don’t need to visit a doctor to find out what we can do to promote better health for ourselves. We can eat more fruits and vegetables. We can drink less alcohol. We can get more sleep. We can exercise and stretch more.

Maybe we need to look to our mental health. If so, Luke can show us the way again.

Luke is famous as the writer of the Gospel of Luke and Acts, but it’s important to realize that he likely didn’t see himself as writing straight history. He was maintaining a record of amazing events that showed evidence of God’s salvation.

It’s far too easy to ignore evidence of God’s presence in the world. We get bogged down in our own disappointments and our deeper depressions. But we could follow the example of Luke and write down events that we see in our own lives and the life of our churches that remind us of God’s grace. Even if it’s a practice as simple as a gratitude journal where each day we write down several things for which we’re grateful, we can write our way back to right thinking.

As we think about St. Luke, we can also look for ways to deepen our spiritual health. In popular imagination, Luke gets credit for creating the first icon of the Virgin Mary. Maybe it’s time for us to try something new.

We could experiment with the visual arts to see how they could enrich our spiritual health. We might choose something historical and traditional, like iconography. Or we might decide that we want to experiment with something that requires less concentration and training. Maybe we want to create a collage of images that remind us of God’s abundance. Maybe we want to meditate on images, like icons, like photographs, that call us to healthy living.

St. Luke knew that there are many paths to health of all sorts. Now, on his feast day, let us resolve to spend the coming year following his example and restoring our lives to a place of better health.


Friday, October 17, 2014

Support Your Local Church Pumpkin Patch

I am part of a church that offers a pumpkin patch every year.  It's a huge undertaking, from the offloading of the pumpkins to the selling of them.

Our church funds a variety of special projects and ongoing ministries with this pumpkin patch.  When we had a traditional Sunday school, funds went there.  We've used the funds to help repair the roof that covers the part of the building that is more used by community groups than by the church..  We continue to use the funds to pay for Vacation Bible School, an event which is attended by more neighborhood children than church member children.

I love the fact that the pumpkin patch itself is a form of community outreach and a service of sorts.  I love that it funds other community services.

So, this week-end, as you prepare for Halloween, drop by a local church pumpkin patch.  Your dollars will go further than if you bought a pumpkin at a grocery store. 

If you're in South Florida and you want to support my church, it's Trinity Lutheran at the corner of 72nd and Pines Blvd, across the street (but on the same side of the street) from the South campus of Broward College.