Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Poetry and the Unendurable, the Every Day

As I write, I am listening to the poet Marie Howe on the NPR show On Being.  It's a rebroadcast, and I've already written about it here.  But today, different parts leap out at me.

"The church was a very important aspect of life to me — the part we can't see — the world inside the world. I was bored by the parish church we went to and I could tell that it was, uh, all too human. But I was lucky enough to go to a school — I was dragged there actually, I didn't want to go in seventh grade to the Academy of the Sacred Heart, where the nuns were so forward thinking. And it was the '60s and they were way ahead of us in terms of understanding what theology had to do with social justice, service, questioning authority. And it was there that I began to appreciate that spirituality could be rigorous. It could be imaginative. And it was an essential part of living in the physical world to through those women, really. But mostly, I love the stories of the Old Testament or what the Torah and the New Testament. And the stories are still extremely compelling to me."

"But I remember hours of on being in the bathtub reading Lives of the Saints and just be riveted by these lives. I've actually been trying to write an essay about this. And because for me, it was the only example I knew of women who were subjects of their own life, not objects, but subjects — who were choosing their own life, or looking out from their own faces who were deciding how they would live moment to moment. And there were very few examples of this around me."

"Thich Nhat Hanh, you know, whom I know you've talked to, says, you know, when you wash the dishes, wash it as if it were the baby Buddha, or the baby Jesus, you know. And, uh, well, that's what the church used to be. I mean, it used to be that we would attend these things every week that would remind us of these, you know, the sacredness of the everyday. And it's harder to find it now."

I mean there's this guy in New York. I say it's a guy. It could be a woman. Last Spring, there was somebody who was drawing on the sidewalk in blue chalk and all it said was happiness, a big happiness with a big blue arrow this way. And I would see these around and I thought this is terrific. This is really kind of wonderful. Like, happiness is this way, that way. And one day, I was waiting for my daughter and her friends to get off one bus and we were going to get on another. And there was the big blue chalk and it said happiness. And then there was a big circle drawn on the sidewalk and it said here. And everybody who walked by stood in the circle. We did too.   . . . And it was like—and you stood in the circle and you felt great. Here's where it is, the this-ness. Here it is. And we were like yay, you know. And people went by and they're like me next, you know. And, and there was a poem there. I mean that was a poem."

And here's that poem:

Hurry  (by Marie Howe)

We stop at the dry cleaners and the grocery store
and the gas station and the green market and
Hurry up honey, I say, hurry,
as she runs along two or three steps behind me
her blue jacket unzipped and her socks rolled down.
Where do I want her to hurry to? To her grave?
To mine? Where one day she might stand all grown?
Today, when all the errands are finally done, I say to her,
Honey I'm sorry I keep saying Hurry —
you walk ahead of me. You be the mother.
And, Hurry up, she says, over her shoulder, looking
back at me, laughing. Hurry up now darling, she says,
hurry, hurry, taking the house keys from my hands.

"Can we ever really be seen? I think the thing of Jesus, I mean he must have been like this — and Buddha must have been and all these great enlightened ones, he must have been able to really see people, you know. And people didn't feel ashamed in front of him and in relationship to him. They didn't seem ashamed. And they're constantly screwing up. I mean all those guys were constantly screwing up."

"The unendurable happens. You know, people we love and we can't live without are going to die. We're going to die — one day are going to have to leave our children and die, you know, leave the plants, and the bunnies, and the sunlight, and the rain and all that. I mean it's unendurable. Poet — art knows that. Art holds that knowledge. All art holds the knowledge that we're both living and dying at the same time. It can hold it. And thank God it can because nothing out in the capitalistic corporate world is going to shine that back to us, but art holds it."

Go here to read the transcript and/or to hear the interview.

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Church as Bad Boss and a Buddhist Teahouse Approach to Work and Life

--Labor Day dawns:  it's the earliest day that Labor Day can come, on this first day of September.  It will be a scorcher down here at the southern tip of the U.S.

--Will you spend today putting away your white clothes and your sandals?  I will not.  I wear sandals year round, and I have one white skirt that I'll wear until October or November.  But I am old enough to remember a time when we were not allowed to wear white to church after Labor Day.  It was just not done in the traditional states of the U.S. South where I spent my childhood--even though the hot weather would continue well into September and October.  Back to school meant that feet went back into closed shoes--no more sandals.

--Perhaps you will spend today thinking about labor relations.  No, probably you will not.  But if you are in the mood, this post offers interesting insights into how we think and behave as churches employing staff--which includes clergy.  Church-as-boss:  and what bad bosses we can be!

--The post details some of the reasons why churches can't always be as generous as we'd like as bosses.  But in the end, the Church often does not treat its workers fairly, even if there are strong rationalizations for behaving this way.  And we rely on volunteer labor, labor which just doesn't exist much anymore.

--The post ends with this good advice:  "In the meantime, I ask you in the parish to appreciate your church workers – from the person who vacuums the sanctuary to the person who preaches the sermon.  If we can’t pay them what they are worth, at least we can thank them for making it possible for us to gather as a community and grow in faith together."

--I will spend the day being grateful that my workplace in academia is generally safe and that my work is not too onerous.

--I will also spend some time wondering if I'm doing the work I was put on earth to do.  Of course, that presupposes a purpose of sorts.  Maybe it would be better to ponder the ways I could make life better for the workers around me.

----It's interesting to me that I feel that I only feel I'm doing meaningful work if I'm making an important difference each and every day.  And if I'm being honest, I want it to be an important difference like the kind that Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks made, the kind of difference where future generations will be better off because I walked the planet (and yes, I realize this could sound like monstrous ego, but it's also fueled by a fierce yearning for social justice).  Did Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King feel that they made a difference each and every day?  Probably not.  It's only in retrospect that it's clear.

--I'd like to move towards the Buddhist teahouse approach of meaningful work.  In an interview with Bill Moyers, Jane Hirshfield explains, "Teahouse practice means that you don't explicitly talk about Zen.  It refers to leading your life as if you were an old woman who has a teahouse by the side of the road.  Nobody knows why they like to go there, they just feel good drinking her tea.  She's not known as a Buddhist teacher, she doesn't say, "This is the Zen teahouse."  All she does is simply serve tea--but still, her decades of attentiveness are part of the way she does it.  No one knows about her faithful attention to the practice, it's just there, in the serving of the tea, and the way she cleans the counters and washes the cups" (Fooling with Words:  A Celebration of Poets and Their Craft, page 112).

--How can we infuse this Buddhist teahouse approach into every aspect of our lives?  What would change?

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Transforming Sunday School and the Worship Service

My church, Trinity Lutheran Church in Pembroke Pines, Florida, is featured in this month's The LutheranThe issue's cover story is about transforming Sunday School, and our Worship Together service is one of the features of the article.

The article discusses the successes in transforming Sunday School, and I understand that focus.  I do want to stress that we didn't find the formula that's working now right away.

Our 9:45 service blends elements from Sunday School and a traditional worship service.  We have a liturgy that we follow most weeks.  Instead of a sermon, we have a puppet show or a reader's theatre or some sort of interactive approach--although occasionally we don't.  We break into small groups where we model a Faith 5 approach to faith development that families can practice in their homes.  Every other week, we have an arts/craft project of some kind.  We've just celebrated the second year of this approach.

Our church had been experimenting with re-making Sunday School for almost a decade before we came up with this approach.  Before I was a member, I was fascinated with the church's experiment with intergenerational Sunday School.  For a season after I became a member, we had fun with skits and improv in Sunday School.

But we found that there was an initial burst of enthusiasm, only to find that a few months later, we were down to one child or two.  We also found that those approaches took a lot of work in writing, preparing, and coordinating with all the volunteers.  It wasn't until we combined elements of Sunday School with elements of the worship service (like Communion, which we do every Sunday) that we found success.

We currently use resources from Faith Inkubators, which makes it much easier.  We have a team of lay leaders who take turns in developing the arts and crafts project and leading the service.  There's less risk of burn out when we share responsibility.

Our worship service is much more laid back, while at the same time being participatory.  The service has more in common with church camp services or Vacation Bible School than with the traditional service.  I confess to missing some of the high church style of traditional worship:  paraments that change, the hymns that remind me of my grandparents, the chanting of the Psalms.  But I love, love, love the sense of really knowing my fellow worshippers that our 9:45 service fosters.

And because we're a small worship group, we're very welcoming to visitors.  I worried it might be overwhelming, but people seem to jump right in.  We do make a point of telling visitors that they have more traditional options with our early service and our 11:00 a.m. service.  But often visitors come back to our service.

It wouldn't work for everyone in every setting.  And church history tells us that our approach won't always work for our church.  But I'm happy that it's working now.

Friday, August 29, 2014

My Church Is Featured in "The Lutheran"!

My church, Trinity Lutheran Church in Pembroke Pines, Florida, is featured in this month's The LutheranThe issue's cover story is about transforming Sunday School, and our Worship Together service is one of the features of the article.

Tomorrow's post will give more information about our approach, including some of the things we tried before we came up with the strategy that's working now.  I think it's important to stress that the failed attempts taught us a lot as we moved towards the intergenerational, participatory approach that we have now.

Here are some quotes from the article to whet your appetite:

“'The success of Sunday school happened at a time when people were satisfied relegating religious things off to experts — pastors or Sunday school teachers,' he said. 'The expert model doesn’t satisfy people the way it used to. Fortunately for us Lutherans we have this concept called the priesthood of all believers. We can help people identify their spiritual gifts and help them participate in ways they couldn’t before because [the experts] took over those responsibilities.'”

“'Instead of faith being just another something we do for an hour every week, it becomes a shared experience,' Kippen said. “'Parents come to see the church as their partner in raising faithful kids, and kids learn that church is not just what we do, but who we are.'"

"Despite the challenges, Shallue remains optimistic: 'I am not dispirited about the statistics at all. We have great opportunities to start thinking about new ways to do faith formation, rather than trying to do the same old [programs] harder and better.'”

And a quote from my pastor:  "'It’s a relational experience, unlike traditional worship, which can be passive and unengaging,' Spencer said."

The whole article is online, and well worth your time.  Go here to read it.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The Baskets of a Life

You want to believe that every human has a basket of angels to watch over us.

Perhaps you feel that your life's basket holds only sand, good for nourishing nothing.  Or perhaps your basket contains the ashes of all the happiness of your past.

This basket reminds us of God's promise of hope. 

After all, what is the manger, but a basket that holds a promise in a most unexpected place?

For today, select a word from the basket to remind you of the promise and potential of the years yet to come.

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.