Friday, September 19, 2014

Poetry Friday: "Fixed Hour Prayers"

I don't have much writing time today.  So let me post a poem.  It's from the group of poems 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.

Those of you who follow my poetry and/or my blogs know that monasticism often informs my writing and that I often find The Liturgy of the Hours seeping into my writing as image and symbol and unifying theme--and often in ways that surprise me.

How did I come to think of a monastic chapel in conjunction with a hospital?  I don't really remember.  But I do remember that the poem came out fairly easily once it percolated in my subconscious for awhile.

Fixed Hour Prayers

Her father’s inner life, closed
to her, and now, to him, a distant
monastery, a vow of silence
required for visitation.

Still, she makes her pilgrimage. She brings
baskets of goodies: the pistachio nuts
he loves, the puzzle books,
some warm socks. She leaves
her offering on his dresser.

She listens to the Gregorian chant
of her father’s wheezing lungs,
a language at once both familiar
and strange. The nurses, with their Psalmody
of medications, appear throughout the day,
a liturgy of the hours.

Before she leaves, she reads
the books of her childhood
out loud to him: the otter
making his journey home, the children
finding their way through a dark forest,
families forging a life on a prairie.

She reads these bedtime stories,
a compline of comfort
that asserts the possibility
of safe passage through the night.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

An Administrator Considers the Day after the Feast Day of St. Hildegard of Bingen

--I find it disconcerting that I was so wrapped up in my administrator/teacher duties yesterday that I forgot it was the Feast Day of St. Hildegard of Bingen.  For more on her life, go to this blog post that I wrote for the Living Lutheran site.

--Hildegard is one of those women who did so much, despite the constraints of the medieval age in which she lived, and I wonder why on earth I can't accomplish more.  Or let me be more accurate:  by last night, I was wondering why I seem destined to copy the same files again and again and again.

--At least I have them to copy.  One of the hard lessons I've  learned of administrator life:  don't let anything out of your control before you make a copy.  I make both paper copies and electronic copies.

--I think of Hildegard who must have faced similarly repetitive tasks as she kept her nunnery afloat.  Yet she managed to write so much music, music that has survived.  What's wrong with me?

--Let me stop to remind myself that I have written quite a lot--maybe not this week, but most weeks, I get a poem written and some other creative work too, in addition to blog posts, which for me, take some time to compose.

--Hildegard of Bingen wrote regularly to all the powerful men of the day to encourage them to pursue peace.  Like Hildegard, I've dedicated some of my time and energy to social justice matters.  That work is important, but it does explain why the time for my creative work ebbs and flows.

--I wonder if Hildegard thought that she wasn't writing much.  I wonder if she envisioned larger gardens.  I wonder if she chafed at the duties that kept her away from the creative work or social justice work that she wanted to be doing.

--My theory:  in the day to day, we feel we aren't doing much.  But when we take the full measure of a life, we see how much a life can encompass.

--Here's one of my favorite parts of the blog post that I wrote for Living Lutheran:  "We all face constraints of various kinds, and the life of Hildegard shows what could be accomplished, even during a time when women did not have full rights and agency. She was an abbess, and because being in charge of one cloistered community wasn’t enough, she founded another. She wrote music, and more of her music survives than almost any other medieval composer. She was an early naturalist, writing down her observations about the natural world and her theories about how the natural world heals us. She wrote to kings, emperors and popes to encourage them to pursue peace and justice. She wrote poems and a morality play and along the way, a multitude of theological meditations."

--Like Hildegard, we can compose our lives similarly.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, September 21, 2014:

First Reading: Jonah 3:10--4:11
First Reading (Semi-cont.): Exodus 16:2-15
Psalm: Psalm 145:1-8
Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 105:1-6, 37-45
Second Reading: Philippians 1:21-30
Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16

I've often thought that these parables that use work metaphors are less useful to those of us toiling in the 21st century--and I've wondered how the contemporaries of Jesus would hear this parable.

Outrage is the classic response to the idea that the workers who toiled all day getting the same wages as those who show up one hour before quitting time.  We howl, "But that's not fair."

Some preachers will use this Gospel as an excuse to preach on the classic idea that life isn't fair.  Maybe they'll remind us that we're fortunate that life isn't fair (how often do we pray for justice, when what we really long for is mercy?) or maybe they'll give us a real soul-sapper of a sermon about the grinding nature of life.  Or maybe congregations will hear about the idea of grace being extended to us all, no matter how long it takes us to acknowledge it.

But the poet in me immediately searches for a new way to frame this parable.  What if, instead of toiling in the vineyard, we're invited to a party?  Those of us who come early get to drink more wine, eat more goodies, and engage in more hours of intense conversation.  We get to spend more quality time with our host.  Those who come later will still get to drink wine, eat goodies, converse, and have quality time.  The wine won't have soured, the goodies won't have molded, the conversation won't have dwindled, the host won't be tired and wishing that everyone would just go home.  The party will still be intensely wonderful.  But those who come late won't have as much time to enjoy it.

God does call us to toil in the vineyard.  But toil is the wrong word, or at least, in our world, it has negative connotations that can't be easily overcome.

Don't think of it as the kind of work you had to do in that soul-deadening job with that boss who delighted in tormenting you.  It's not that kind of work.  It's also not the kind of work where it's OK to just show up and keep the seat warm, wondering when it will be time to return home, to the place you'd rather be (which would be Heaven, in this metaphor, I suppose).

Instead, God's work is like that enriching job, the one where you were challenged, but not overwhelmed.  God's work engages you on every level and you look up at the end of the work day, amazed at how time has passed and how involved you have become.  At the end of God's work day, you're amazed at all you've been able to accomplish.

God calls us to partnership in an amazing creative endeavour.  We're called to transform the world, to help reclaim the world for God's vision.  In Surprised by Hope, Bishop N. T. Wright reminds us, "But what we can and must do in the present, if we are obedient to the gospel, if we are following Jesus, and if we are indwelt, energized, and directed by the Spirit, is to build for the kingdom.  This brings us back to 1 Corinthians 15;58 once more:  what you do in the Lord is not in vain.  You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that's about to roll over a cliff" (208).

The ways that we can do this Kingdom work are varied, from helping the poor, to enjoying a good meal, to writing a poem, to consoling a friend, to playing with your dog, to painting . . . the list is as long as there are humans in the world.  Wright assures us that "God gloriously honors all kinds of ways of announcing the good news" (226).

Do the kind of creating that involves you on many levels, that makes you lose your sense of time, that leaves you unmoored in your wonder at the beauty of creation.  That's the work that God calls us to do. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

Mary, Mother of Jesus, Pray for Us

I wrote a blog post in early September that ended with this image:

I started thinking about how many images of Mary one encounters at Mepkin Abbey.  The one below is my favorite, with the candles lit at Compline:

I accidentally found this one as I peered in the window of what seems to be a pottery studio:

There's this statue which is the top of the first image:

And then there's the painting on the wall behind the statue; I think Mary might be at the bottom, but I'm not sure:

There are paintings that change with the liturgical season/holiday.  The one below is for Candlemas, which celebrates the presentation of Jesus at the temple 40 days after his birth:

And here's the traditional image, Mary at the manger, done in non-traditional medium of found metals:

Are these images a comfort?  Is the idea of Mary praying for us a comfort?  These days, I find the idea of anyone praying for me a comfort:

In difficult weeks, I resolve to meditate on these images and to find peace in the idea of Mary praying for me.

Saturday, September 13, 2014

A Visit to the Gilded Age

My parents are in town for a long week-end.  What a treat!  I feel fortunate in that they are fairly easy company to host.  We like similar activities, and our food preferences are similar.  When parents are coming--anyone's parents--I do tend to clean more vigorously in advance, but it's good to tend to those tasks.

I've said it before:  one reason I like having out of town guests is that we tend to get out of the house and explore our surroundings.  Ever since we moved down here in 1998, I've had the historic mansion Vizcaya on my list of places to get to, but we haven't yet.
My mom saw it listed in a book of 1000 places to visit before you die, so we decided to go yesterday, on their first full day of the visit.  There's too much that might disrupt the plan if we wait until Monday.  And since we have a week day free, we wanted to avoid the week-end.  For more on the trip, see this post on my creativity blog.

At first, I enjoyed seeing the house, with each room decorated ever more lavishly and in some cases outrageously.  And I loved the gardens, which were extensive and amazing.

And then I started to think about the excesses of the Gilded Age, which came just before Vizcaya was built in 1915.  I started thinking of the lower classes who must have seen mansions like Vizcaya as all that was wrong with their lives.  I thought of the huge numbers of workers that it took to build the house and the huge staff it must have taken to run the place.  I wondered how the staff dusted the elaborately carved ceilings.  Or was the lighting dim and no one noticed?

I thought of our current time.  What would be the current version of Vizcaya?

I live in a part of the country where the distance between the upper class and the lower class is extreme. I see beautiful mansions on the water, modern Vizcayas.  And I see slums that have more than a bit of 3rd world element to them.

Many sociologists might predict class warfare in the not-too-distant future, but I don't.  We live in a country that preaches that we, too, could have a Vizcaya to call our own if we just worked hard enough.

But I do wonder about the excesses of good fortune.  What makes the difference between the super-rich who share and the super-rich who just build another mansion in another part of the world?

If I ever become part of the super-rich, I hereby swear that I will be happy with smaller living spaces, so that more people can have housing.  I will give money to groups like Habitat for Humanity so that more houses can be built for more people.

I also know that according to most of the world's standards, I am part of the super-rich.  And so I do give money to Habitat and to Lutheran World Relief, so that others can benefit from my good fortune.

It gives me a window into the mind of the super-rich.  Just as I don't feel super-rich, maybe they don't either.  Maybe that explains the hoarding, the saving of the money into ever bigger siloes.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Seeds, Sprouts, and Seasonal Shifts

We're trying an experiment in my church.  We're spending 2 weeks with each text.  Last week we read Matthew 13:1-9, the parable of the sower, with the seeds that fall on different types of ground. 

Last week's discussion of seeds took me back to a children's sermon that I preached in 2012.  That week's Gospel talked about mustard seeds, and I had found a jar of mustard seeds, which was so cheap that I should have bought several. 

I came up with the idea of sprouting them much too late--or so I thought.  But I wrapped them in some damp paper towels, which I kept damp.  Much to my surprise, in just 4 days, they looked like this:

It took nothing more:  not special food, not sunlight, no enriched soil.  Just cover and dampness.

I've been thinking about seeds, how tiny they are:

I've been thinking about how quickly seeds sprout with just the slightest encouragement.

But I'm also thinking about the potted plants on my porch.  At the beginning of summer, they were full and lush.  These days of heat have taken their toll, no matter how much water I give them.

The parable reminds us that the sprouting process is not the hard part.  No, as anyone who has tried a healthier approach to living knows, the hard part comes in later seasons.

As a church, maybe we should talk more about what to do when we're feeling our faith wilting.  Maybe we should talk about the season of wilting as a normal part of the faith cycle.

The ways to deal with a wilting faith are similar as the ways to enrich the soil to make sure that seedlings thrive.  The ways are as varied as humans.  The trick is to keep doing the practices that have worked in the past, even when we're not sure that they're presently working.

We keep reading our Bibles even when we'd like to be watching old movies.  We keep going to church, even though we might rather sleep.  We pray, even as we wonder if anyone hears us.   The list could go on and on.

Eventually, we will look up and realize that we have some new leaves on our brittle stems.  We will have left the time of rocky ground and thorns, and we will be ready for new shoots to take root.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, Sept.14, 2014:

First Reading: Genesis 50:15-21

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Exodus 14:19-31

Psalm: Psalm 103:[1-7] 8-13

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 114

Psalm (Alt.): Exodus 15:1b-11, 20-21 (Semi-continuous)

Second Reading: Romans 14:1-12

Gospel: Matthew 18:21-35

The Gospel for today, at least the first part, is probably familiar to most of us. Peter is looking for the magic number of times that he must forgive--and you can tell he's annoyed, ready to cut off the person who has offended him, but he'll forgive seven times--and you know that he's probably already forgiven that person eight times. Jesus tells him he must forgive seventy times seven.

I remember in fifth grade Sunday school class where we studied this passage. We immediately got to work on the math. And if you were an obsessive child, like I had a tendency to be, you started keeping a list of how many times you had forgiven your sister.

I had unwittingly proven Jesus' point. Peter asks a stupid, juvenile question, and Jesus gives him an answer to let him know how petty he has been. By now, we should all know that Jesus didn't come to give us a new set of legalisms to follow.

Jesus then gives us a parable about the nature of forgiveness. Most of us will need more forgiveness throughout our lives than we really deserve. We are like indentured servants who can never hope to pay off our debt, but we're miraculously forgiven.

Most of us, happily, will never experience indentured servitude in the traditional sense. But in our past years of financial collapse, many of us have discovered a different kind of indebtedness. Many of us owe more on our houses than they will ever be worth again. Many of us owe more on our credit cards than we can ever repay, and we likely don’t even remember what we bought. Because of the lousy job situation throughout the country, many of us are chained to jobs that no longer satisfy. Think of how wonderful it would be if someone came in and relieved us of those debts. Think of forgiveness the same way.

Our task--and it sometimes seems more monumental than paying off a huge financial debt--is to extend that quality of forgiveness and mercy to others.

Who needs your forgiveness? Have you told those people that they're forgiven? Do they know it by your loving actions? To whom do you need to repent? What's keeping you from doing it?

And now, for the part that might be even harder for many of us—have you forgiven yourself? I've gotten fairly talented at forgiving my loved ones, but I'm still not good at forgiving myself. I'm still angry and annoyed when the struggles I thought were past me resurface. I'm still hard on myself for my shortcomings, even as I acknowledge that my shortcomings could be worse.

Fortunately, God has a higher opinion of me than I do of myself. God is willing to forgive me for my shortcomings--even as I fall short again and again.

Let us model ourselves after God's capacity for forgiveness.  And if our capacity to forgive isn’t at 70 times 7 yet, let’s pray for an expanded ability to forgive. Let us also remember to pray for our enemies, both the personal ones and the political ones, the inner voices that berate us, the outer voices that shrilly defeat all peace initiatives, all the enemies who would undo us.