Thursday, December 8, 2016

Keeping a Calm Space

Last month, as I caught up on e-mails, I listened to this wonderful Fresh Air interview with hospice chaplain Kerry Egan. 

Interviewer Terry Gross says, "You write about how about one of the things you want to do is hold open a space of prayer or meditation or reflection when someone doesn't have the energy or strength to keep the walls from collapsing."

It occurs to me that many of our jobs require much the same thing, but of course, in a very different way than that of the hospice chaplain.  In other settings, we hold open this space much more silently.

A bit later, Egan says, "And what it really means is to model a sense of in the midst of this storm of emotion, you can stay calm, right? It does not have to overtake you. And you would be surprised at how powerful that is for someone else, just to be with someone who is maintaining a sense of presence, of not being in the past, of not being in the future, of literally being present, you know, in the presence. But that has a way of calming people down."

Yes, modeling calm behavior--another way of keeping the walls from collapsing. 

Each time I have dealt with an upset person (often a student), I have tried to model this calm behavior--while at the same time wondering how people get through life with such a hair-trigger outrage response.  I have wondered if people have changed, if I'm just coming in contact with more stressed out people, if once I hung out with a more laid-back bunch.

But it's also clear to me that we have more people ready to express their rage much more quickly than they once did.  Yesterday I heard the news stories about the guy who drove from North Carolina with his shotgun, thinking (because of a false news story) that he was going to liberate children being held in a sex ring at a DC pizza place.  I thought, who does these things?

Most of us won't be moved to that kind of action, but more of us these days seem to be suffering from extreme moods.  And those of us who are Christians can help to bring peace to the world by some of the hospice chaplain actions that Egan describes.

I look forward to reading the book--and I see a window of time approaching where I might do it.  Perhaps in time for the new year, and some resolutions of a different sort!

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, December 11, 2016:

First Reading: Isaiah 35:1-10

Psalm: Psalm 146:4-9 (Psalm 146:5-10 NRSV)

Psalm (Alt.): Luke 1:47-55 (Luke 1:46b-55 NRSV)

Second Reading: James 5:7-10

Gospel: Matthew 11:2-11

Here again, in this week's Gospel, Jesus reminds us of the new social order--the first will be last, the last will be first. Since many of us in first world churches would be categorized as "the first," this edict bears some contemplation. What do we do if we find ourselves in positions of power? Are we supposed to walk away from that?

Well, yes, in a sense, we are. Again and again, the Bible reminds us that we find God on the margins of respectable society. Again and again, we see that God lives with the poor and the oppressed. Nowhere is that message more visible to Christians than in the story of the birth of Jesus.

We get so dazzled by the angels and the wise men that we forget some of the basic elements of the story. In the time of great Roman power, God doesn't appear in Rome. No, God chooses to take on human form in a remote Roman outpost. In our current day, it would be as if the baby Jesus was born on Guam or the Maldives. Most of us couldn't locate those islands on a globe; we'd be surprised to hear that the Messiah came again and chose to be born so far away from the most important world capitals, like Washington D.C. or London, Beijing or Moscow.

God came to live amongst one of the most marginalized groups in the Roman empire--the only people lower on the social totem pole would have been captives of certain wars and slaves. Most Romans would have seen Palestinian Jews as weird and warped, those people who limited themselves to one god. Not sophisticated at all.

God couldn't even get a room at the inn. From years of Christmas pageants, we may have sanitized that manger. We may forget about the smelliness of real hay, the scratchiness, the bugs, the ways that animals stink up a barn.

God chose a marginalized young couple as parents. Did God choose to be born in the palace of Herod? No. We don't hear about Joseph as a landowner, which means that his family couldn't have been much lower on the totem pole, unless they were the Palestinian equivalent of sharecroppers. God does not choose the way of comfort.

Again and again, Jesus tells us to keep watch. God appears in forms that we don't always recognize. God appears in places where we wouldn't expect to find the Divine. Jesus reminds us again and again that there's always hope in a broken world. God might perform the kind of miracles that don't interest us at first. The Palestinian Jews wanted a warrior Messiah to liberate them from Rome. Instead they got someone who healed the sick and told them to be mindful of their spiritual lives so that they didn't lose their souls.

Many of us experience something similar today. We want something different from God. God has different desires for us than our desires for our lives. We ask for signs and miracles, and when we get them, we sigh and say, "That's not what I meant. I wanted them in a different form." We turn away.

The John the Baptists of the world remind us to turn back again. Repent. Turn back. Forswear our foolish ways. Go out to meet God. Your salvation is at hand.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Feast Day of Saint Nicholas

Today, all over Europe, the gift-giving season begins. I had a friend in grad school who celebrated Saint Nicholas Day by having each family member open one present on the night of Dec. 6. It was the first I had heard of the feast day, but I was enchanted.

Still, I don't do much with this feast day--if I had children or gift-giving friends, I might, but most years, I simply pause to remember the historical origins of the saint and the day.

It's always a bit of a surprise to realize that Saint Nicholas was a real person. But indeed he was. In the fourth century, he lived in Myra, then part of Greece, now part of Turkey; eventually, he became Bishop of Myra. He became known for his habit of gift giving and miracle working, although it's hard to know what really happened and what's become folklore. Some of his gift giving is minor, like leaving coins in shoes that were left out for him. Some were more major, like resurrecting three boys killed by a butcher.

My favorite story is the one of the poor man with three children who had no dowry for them.  No dowry meant no marriage, and so, they were going to have to become prostitutes. In the dead of night, Nicholas threw a bag of gold into the house. Some legends have that he left a bag of gold for each daughter that night, while some say that he gave the gold on successive nights, while some say that he gave the gold as each girl came to marrying age.

How did we get from these stories to our current Santa Clause?  The question that interests me more is how we got from these stories to Santa Clause to the current buying frenzies that consume many of our Christmases.

Would we have a different approach to gift giving if we gave presents throughout the season instead of a mad rush on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning?  Would we feel differently if we only gave and got one gift? 

What if we started our gift giving today and gave our last gift on Epiphany?  What if we gave a gift to a charity for every gift we gave to a loved one?

Let me end with another little-known fact:  Saint Nicholas is also the patron saint of sailors, who used to leave each other by saying "May Saint Nicholas hold the tiller!"

So, on this day, may we be led by the spirit of generosity, especially generosity to the poor. May Saint Nicholas hold our tillers and guide us to open our purses and wallets and bags of gold.

Monday, December 5, 2016

Preaching Report: Gabriel and Mary and Good News Delivery Systems

Yesterday's preaching went well.  My church is off-lectionary, so we heard the story of Gabriel appearing to Mary.  I talked about Mary as an unlikely vessel for the holy, which my spouse worried offended some.

And yet, my larger point was true:  if you were God and going to make yourself completely vulnerable, would you choose Mary?  Of course not.  You'd choose someone with more and better resources.  Mary had so little.

Of course, throughout the Scriptures, we see God choosing the most unlikely ways to break into the world and to make changes.  It's become one of the things I treasure most about God.

I had worried more about what I said about the journey to Bethlehem because of taxation purposes was likely not a fact.  I first came across this idea in Reza Aslan's Zealot:  The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth:   "Luke's suggestion that the entire Roman economy would periodically be placed on hold as every Roman subject was forced to uproot himself and his entire family I order to travel great distances to the place of his father's birth, and then wait there patiently, perhaps for months, for an official to take stock of his family and possessions, which in any case, he would have left behind in his place of residence, is, in a word, preposterous" (p. 30).

I don't read the Bible as history--what folly that would be--but I know so many people who do.  They are astounded and disbelieving when told that there is no historical record of this census of the Romans.   My spouse reminded me of how many people at the late service are considerably older and not used to thinking of the Bible as true but not factual.

I used to wonder how many people complained to the pastor when he returned, but probably no one does.  They probably shrug and feel happy that I'm not preaching all the time.

My spouse also points out that most people are with me by the end of any sermon I give, that I bring it around to material we can all agree on.  Yesterday was no different.  At the end, I talked about remembering how much God wants to be with us so much that God will put up with the indignities of being trapped in human form.

Good news indeed.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Advent Meditation on Mary

Today my church, which is off-lectionary, will be exploring Mary.  Beyond Advent, Protestants traditionally don't spend much time thinking about Mary, which is a shame, because she has much to teach us.

I think of Mary and her need to wait.  She's not Moses, called to leading people out of slavery.  She waits through pregnancy and then through the childhood of Jesus. 

Her role is vital, but it's often a background role.  It's only later that we realize that it's really a starring role.

I think of Mary, who occupied one of the lowest rungs in her society:  a woman who lived in a distant outpost of the Roman empire. 

Only a slave might have been lower.  Two things leap out at me:  one is that God can use any of us, from the highest to the most powerless.

And from this place of displacement, Mary gains understanding.  Perhaps that is why so many feel comfortable praying to her.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

Poetry Saturday: "Exercising Freedom"

I've been looking at poems from past years that I wrote during Advent, about Advent, poems that explore holiday themes of all sorts.

This year, I wrote a different kind of Advent poem.  I had all sorts of imagery in my head:  thoughts of the recent election, refugees fleeing all sorts of horror, news of wildfires in the mountains of the U.S. south, this Adrienne Rich poem, and a variety of poems posted in mid-November on the Via Negativa site.

I wrestled with the title, as I often do.  Part of my problem is that I couldn't decide if I thought the poem was hopeful or not--it's both hopeful and doomed, and I like the fact that it can occupy both spaces at once--as is so often the case with so many of us and so many events.

This week, as I've been reading Isaiah along with other Advent texts, I've thought about this poem, which I actually wrote the week before Thanksgiving, although Advent was already on my brain.  Are the voices of the ancestors these ancient prophets?  Perhaps.  Or maybe they are the apocalyptic novelists I've always loved.  Or maybe they are the social activists who have always inspired me.

Or maybe all of it.

So, a poem to enjoy on your first Saturday of Advent!

Exercising Freedom

"We were always
Trying to run toward each other."
                        Luisa A. Igloria, “Landscape in an afterlife
Once again, you find yourself
on the old revolutionary road
with the houses that once hid
the asylum seekers.

The long road stretches
before you, overgrown
with brambles and struggling seedlings.
You see the fires
ahead, burning cities
or perhaps the lights
of fellow travelers.
Smoke hides the mountains.

The road is lined
with the suitcases of immigrants
who abandoned all the essentials
they once lugged to a new country.

You have kept your treasures
sewn into your hemlines, heirloom
seeds and the small computer chip
that holds your freedom papers.
Your grandmother’s gold hoops dance
in your earlobes and twinkle
around your fingers.

You hear the voices of the ancestors,
colored with both reason and panic.
Go faster, they urge.
You are needed up ahead.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Administrator Week: Letters, Prayers

This week, in the midst of many visions and revisions of accreditation documents, I took a minute to catch up on other administrator paperwork.  Some of it, like transfer credits from other schools, I'm familiar with.  But yesterday came a never-done-before task.

I signed acceptance letters.

I took a minute to remember my own acceptance letters along the way--the ones that admitted me to schools and programs where I yearned to be.  I thought about my spouse's acceptance into the MPA program in 1995--a letter that might have changed our lives more than any other letter, as it was just the start of a half decade of many changes, including selling much of what we owned and moving to South Florida.

I took a minute as I signed each letter to imagine the potential student receiving it.  What life-changing news was my signature part of?  I wondered if my letter would be one of several, leading the student to have to make decisions.  I also know that for some students, this letter will be a last chance at higher education.

I took a minute to say a prayer for each of these possible students.  It was a nebulous prayer, more along the lines of something I borrowed from Julian of Norwich:  "May all be well."  But it was a prayer without words, a luminous moment.  The words have come later, as I've thought about this moment during my work week.

As I move into administrator duties at my new job that are both familiar and new, I also offer a prayer for myself, that I remember to pray for all these lives that are now so linked together in this setting that is new to me.