Sunday, July 24, 2016

Poetry Sunday: "Morning in America: 1984"

Yesterday's post about Tim Kaine's social justice formation in Honduras took me back to my own social justice formation days in college.  After one argument about the USSSR, my father said, "Have you ever read The Communist Manifesto?  You should read it and find out what the Soviets really have in mind."

And so I did.  I bought my very own copy which felt very transgressive and radical.  The content of that book, however, did not seem so very radical.  And it didn't have a blueprint for the Soviet takeover of the world.

In those days, my father and I could not have foreseen the imminent collapse of the Soviet Union.  We also would not have forecast that a later political candidate, Donald Trump, would have so many connections to the current leader of Russia.

Decades later, I wrote a poem about those days.  It first appeared in The Julia Mango and in my chapbook, I Stand Here Shredding Documents:

Morning in America: 1984

I read The Communist Manifesto on the DC Metro,
surrounded by commuters going to their downtown jobs
and tourists in town to see their government in action.

I wear sensible shoes and my hair in a braid.
I work in a tough part of town, that summer
that DC has the nation’s highest murder rate.

That season is also the one when the social
service agency runs out of resources. My summer job:
to answer the phone, to tell the downtrodden there is no money.

Between calls, I return to Marx. I picture
him, prowling the streets of Europe, winding up in the British
Museum, where he could write and stay warm.

I write my own poems. I imagine they will change
the world, that all I must do to rid the planet of injustice
is to point out the inequities, nothing to lose but our chains.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Church Training and Political Readiness

I am intrigued by several aspects of Tim Kaine, newly picked to be Hillary Clinton's running mate.  If you're looking for more analysis of the Republican National Convention, see this blog post.  But since this is my theology blog, let me focus on some of the religious aspects of Kaine:

--He took time off from law school to go with Jesuits to Honduras.  That alone would be enough for me--but there's more.

--This NPR story tells us that he helped to run a school in Honduras.  He's got some education experience, presumably in the Jesuit tradition.  Hurrah!

--The same story tells us that he worships at a majority black Catholic church.  In my younger, more radical days, his Catholicism might have been a deal breaker for me--no longer.

--He sings in the choir.  I want to know about his favorite choir experiences.  I want to believe that being part of a musical group is great training to be part of a political team.

I will be interested to see how the Democratic National Convention will proceed next week.  I like that both Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine have done social justice work.  I hope the tone of next week's politics will call us to our better selves.  This week's politics out of the Republican National Convention made me want to renew my passport and flee.

Friday, July 22, 2016

After the Demonic Possession: the Feast Day of Mary Magdalene

On July 22, we celebrate the life of Mary Magdalene. Take a minute with the reading for her feast day: John 20:1-2, 11-18.

There are many approaches to Mary Magdalene.  Some people focus on her notorious past, while a variety scholars remind us that she might have been painted with the brush of prostitution to discredit her.  I often find my mind returning to her demon possession.  Was she mentally ill?  What does the idea of demon possession have to say to modern people?

I am thinking metaphorically, not literally.  I do not believe in demonic possession, at least not in the ways depicted by modern popular culture.  But I have seen so many varieties of demons who drive us that I can't dismiss the idea by saying it's all mental illness.

One traditional approach to Mary Magdalene is to see her as one of the many healed by Jesus.  She's not the only one with demons flushed away, but she is the most famous.

I wonder if she missed the demons, once Jesus cleaned them out of her. As anyone who has wrestled with modern demons knows, our demons are comfortable, which is why it’s often hard to let them go. I imagine Mary Magdalene, in the quiet of the night, having trouble sleeping, missing the hiss of the demon who told her she wasn’t good enough.

It’s strange company, the demons that we keep inside us, but it’s often better than the loneliness of no company.

I think of Mary Magdalene, as I imagine her: always ready to let go of the annoying demon of feminine expectations, but who wishes she could summon back the demon of compulsiveness. I imagine her finding it hard to get anything done without that devil driving her ever onward.

As I think of the Easter morning story, I wonder if we’re seeing a vestige of Mary Magdalene’s possessed personality. What drove her to the tomb? I understand the ancient customs surrounding the care of dead bodies, and I understand the laws regarding dead bodies and the Sabbath. But in one Gospel, it’s only Mary who is so deeply concerned about the body of Jesus. What drives her to the tomb?

In Mary’s reaction to the man she assumes is the gardener, I recognize my own demon of anxiety. I watch her ask a perfect stranger about the body of Jesus. I watch her throw all caution and decorum away, so desperate is she to complete this task, as if completing the task will restore the world to right order.

Many of us suffer in the grip of these demons of anxiety, these beliefs that somehow, through our manic quest for control, we can keep the world from spinning into chaos. We might argue for the benefits of medication, and indeed, if it’s a matter of brain chemicals that are out of balance, we would be right.

But all too often, something else is at the root of our modern possession. Maybe we haven’t stopped to grieve our losses, as Mary needs to do in the garden. Maybe it’s the fear of loss that is coming to all our lives. Maybe it’s that insistent hiss from both inside and out that says that we will never be enough: good enough, clean enough, accomplished enough, nice enough, attractive enough, loved enough.

The Easter message comes to cast out these demons again and again. Christ reminds us that he’s here, always waiting, always watching, always ready for us. Even if we don’t recognize him, Jesus will not cast us away. It is the voice of Jesus that can silence all of our demons and help us to be at peace. Christ’s voice calls us to what’s important in our lives.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Prayer Loom in Pictures

Our church first experimented with a prayer loom for Holy Week, specifically with our Maundy Thursday service.  I had thought we might do more with it in the months that followed, but we didn't.  Happily the prayer loom was just fine left all alone.

Last week, I moved it to the arts and crafts area of VBS.  It looked like this, with the Holy Week prayer stands still there:

We had four groups of elementary school children come through the arts and crafts room last Thursday.  With each, I explained the concepts of prayer and talking to God, and how the strands of yarn represented our prayers.  The children were eager to choose their yarn and start weaving:

I talked about how we could write people's names on strips of cloth or tags of paper and weave them in.  A few children did that.

One group wove one strand of yarn and went to painting with watercolors.  One group spent the whole time weaving.  One group had some of the children interested in the loom for the whole time while the others painted.  At the end of the night, the loom was significantly fuller.

I have now moved the prayer loom and the basket of yarn to the back of the sanctuary, with a sign (which I borrowed from this site) that invites everyone to weave more prayers:

It will be interesting to see what it looks like in the months to come.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 24, 2016

First Reading: Ecclesiastes 1:2, 12-14; 2:18-23

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Hosea 11:1-11

Psalm: Psalm 49:1-11 (Psalm 49:1-12 NRSV)

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 107:1-9, 43

Second Reading: Colossians 3:1-11

Gospel: Luke 12:13-21

Here is another Gospel where Jesus tells us how to live, and he does it both directly ("Take heed and beware of all covetousness; for a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions") and through the use of a parable.

In this parable we meet a common figure in Jesus' parables, the person saving up treasures on earth. Recognize yourself? We've moved away, many of us, from needing larger barns, although I've met more than one person who moved to a bigger house, just to have room to put all their stuff. In fact, the average square footage of new construction grows increasingly large, while the US family grows smaller. Barn, silo, house--it's all the same to Jesus. And it all goes back to the human need for security. We store up treasures because we're so afraid of the future.

Jesus comes to preach the radical Gospel of sharing. One aspect of his good news is that we have a Creator who will provide for us. That news is supposed to free us up to give away what we have. Not just our surplus, but all of it.

Most of us don't even do a good job of giving away part of what we have. We're not good at sharing. We're good at hoarding, although if you look at the US savings rate, you might argue we're not even good at that. Most of us fill our longing for security by buying more and more and more--and wondering why we feel so empty.

Usually, as we get more money, we want more money. We turn our attention to building our wealth and securing our wealth--and it takes a lot of time and attention. That process takes time and attention away from what matters: our relationship with God and our care for God's Kingdom.

Does that mean we shouldn't save our money? More and more, I've come to think that if we save more than we give to charity, we're on shaky spiritual ground.

Let me be the first to admit. I DO save more than I give to the poor. I'm working towards getting to the point where I give equal amounts to the poor and to my savings account. But I truly think that I'd be better off if I gave MORE to the poor and less to my savings. I agree with Archbishop Desmond Tutu who said that the unequal distribution of wealth across the globe is the greatest moral crisis of our time. I'd like to be a one-woman redistributor of wealth. But I'm not there yet.

Again and again, Jesus calls us to recalibrate our values. Again and again, Jesus reminds us to turn to God. Even if we're not ready to embrace the vision that Christ has for us, even if we're not ready for full throttle Kingdom living, we can move that way. We can boost our charitable contributions. We can leave bigger tips. We can give change to panhandlers. We can invite the lonely over for a meal. We can speak up in support of the poor (advocate for affordable housing? tell our senators and representatives to fund the food stamp program? there are so many possibilities). If we're not ready to let go of our assets, we could think about how our investments could be used to support our values. Instead of giving each other stuff for every holiday, we could think about what it is we really want: maybe we want charitable contributions, or maybe we want to agree to go on a spiritual retreat or a pilgrimage, or maybe we want a prayer partner.

As with all movement, it's amazing how a small change in direction changes our trajectory over the course of a lifetime. At the very least, we can meditate on passages like these, and pray for the strength and courage to trust God and not our money.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Ukuleles on Retreat

Each time I post about my ukulele experiences, I am surprised by how many people respond with wishes that they, too, could learn.  Because some of these people are also people who go to the Create in Me retreat, I've wondered about teaching people some basic ukulele chords at the next retreat.

One of the joys of travelling by car is that I could bring a lot of ukuleles with me; I know ukulele musicians who would probably let me borrow instruments for half a week.

We'd realistically only have 2 days--could we learn enough so that people could go on to teach themselves?  I think so.  And more importantly, people could experiment with the instrument to decide if they like it enough to buy one.

The larger issue is one that is present at every retreat:  we offer lots of activities and lots of opportunities to try a variety of arts and crafts.  Would enough people be interested in ukuleles to justify the effort of bringing them and teaching people?

I have a vision of an initial workshop followed by several 15 minute sessions each day--if people then want to keep practicing, they can.  If not, they cement what they learn, and then they're free to try other things.

This approach might turn out to be a good way to learn an instrument, as part of a temporary community which can gather multiple times throughout the day--a luxury that most of us don't have in our non-retreat lives.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Ukulele Metaphors

Yesterday, our weeks of ukulele lessons culminated in a recital of sorts.  We played "This Little Light of Mine" as the first song of our VBS service:

I love this picture of me and the ukulele:

Yesterday was a day of church endings of several starts:  our week of Vacation Bible School came to an end with our VBS Sunday service, and our 5 weeks of ukulele came to an end.  I've been seeing church friends and acquaintances much more often than I will for the rest of the summer, as we take our vacations and go back to work/regular life and get ready for school to start.

In so many ways, it's been a wonderful time, and I'm somewhat sad for it to come to an end.  It reminds me of other high festival times, like Holy Week or Advent/Christmas.  It's been a great opportunity to have something similar in the summer, which is so often a time of vanishing/ramping down in U.S. churches.  It's been good to stay connected to people.

There's no doubt in my mind that we've deepened the spiritual lives of the VBS kids--will it stick?  I don't know, but I know the statistics:  it's these kinds of experiences, along with church camp, that are the best predictors of adult church participation.

Have we deepened the spiritual lives of the ukulele group?  To be fair, it wasn't designed to be that kind of group or experience.  It was designed to teach a group of people efficiently and to provide fellowship--it's done that.  Most of us started out with no experience, and we can now pluck our way through a song.  We'll keep meeting on the last Sunday of every month, so it's been a success, since we want to keep going.

We are also preparing ourselves for the potential of something larger:  teaching children?  becoming more of a part of worship?  We don't know yet, but we're strengthening the foundation.

In so many ways, that's a metaphor for spiritual and church life.  We gather to strengthen ourselves, both individually and as a larger group.  We know that God has gathered us for a reason, even if we're not sure what it is.  But we prepare, and thus, we are ready.