Saturday, May 28, 2016

Inspirational Words from Around the Internet

Facebook has many gifts:  we can stay connected, we can reconnect, and we can meet new people and places.  There are days when the amount of outrage and rage on Facebook makes me think of swearing off of all social media.

But then there are weeks like this one, where people post links to all sorts of inspirations, which lead me to various sites which make me happy to be alive and hopeful for the future.  Let me record some of the links that I've been happiest to find:

Here's a wonderful quote from Desmond Tutu:

I don't preach a social gospel; I preach the Gospel, period. The gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ is concerned for the whole person. When people were hungry, Jesus didn't say, ‘Now is that political or social?’ He said, ‘I feed you.’ Because the good news to a hungry person is bread.
I love that last line.  This site gives all sorts of other inspirational quotes.

I've noticed several people finding inspiration from Richard Rohr, and this site gives a daily meditation.

Parker Palmer has been inspiring me for decades, but this blog post spoke to me in multiple ways.  It's a graduation address that he gave in 2015 at Naropa University.  It includes 6 suggestions for living a good life.  Here's a quote that spoke to me this week:  "Care about being effective, of course. But care even more about being faithful, as countless teachers do — faithful to your calling and to the true needs of those entrusted to your care. You won’t get the big jobs done in your lifetime. But if, at the end of the day, you can say, 'I was faithful,' you’ll be okay."

And then, while I was at the blog section of the On Being site, I came across these wise words of Sylvia Bernstein:  "Spirituality doesn’t look like sitting down and meditating. Spirituality looks like folding the towels in a sweet way and talking kindly to the people in the family even though you’ve had a long day."  (for more, go here)

I had never heard of the poet David Whyte before my Mepkin Abbey retreat, and now I feel like I come across references to him every week.  This essay was just what I needed the other morning.

For example, he talks about the way that we experience time: 

"Sometimes we forget that we don't have to choose between the past or the present or the future. We can live all of these levels at once. (In fact, we don't have a choice about the matter.)
If you've got a wonderful memory of your childhood, it should live within you. If you've got a challenging relationship with a parent, that should be there as part of your identity now, both in your strengths and weaknesses. The way we anticipate the future forms our identity now. Time taken too literally can be a tyranny. We are never one thing; we are a conversation—everything we have been, everything we are now and every possibility we could be in the future."

He's got a great way of thinking about how the way we act now will impact our future:  "What could you do now for yourself or others that your future self would look back on and congratulate you for—something it could view with real thankfulness because the decision you made opened up the life for which it is now eternally grateful?"

The whole article is full of lots of interesting ideas, lots to ponder, lots to mull over.  He says things that I already knew, but in new ways--and it's good to be reminded of the essential questions!

Friday, May 27, 2016

The Songs that Shape Us

Two weeks ago, my spouse practiced his violin on the front porch.  Towards the end of the practice time, he played "Oh, Mary, Don't You Weep."  I could sing every verse, and I thought, how do I know this song?

Long ago, I had a cassette tape of a group called HARP, composed of Holly Near, Arlo Guthrie, Ronnie Gilbert, and Pete Seeger.  During my first year of grad school, that tape played regularly in my car stereo.  I wondered if I could get a copy of it on CD, since the tape has long ago gone to cassette heaven.

Not only could I get the original 8 songs, but there's a CD that has other songs from the recording session.  So I bought it.  It was a splurge, but I had an Amazon gift card from Teacher Appreciation Day.

We live in a time where it seems that everything ever made is available on the Internet, but that's not true.  I remember when I thought I would replace all my LPs with CDs, and I was surprised to realize how much of my collection was not being digitized.

Part of my purchase was impulse buy--but part of it was being surprised that the CD even existed--and wanting to own it while I still could.

This week, I've been listening to it in the car.  It's been a treat to revisit these songs--truth be told, I haven't listened to the new songs that are included, because I've been enjoying hearing this music again.  I can sing along, and I even remember the harmonizing, the background patter, the backup bits.

I've been stuck on "Pallet on the Floor"--and I'm struck by how many artists have recorded it (an impartial list is here).  And as I've been driving from place to place, belting out these lyrics, I'm thinking about how little has changed in the 30 years since I first heard this song recorded by these artists.  I'm still teaching, still writing, still dedicated to my spouse.  I'm still thinking about some of the same social justice issues:  why as a society do we shrug and say, "The poor, the homeless, the abused, the junkies, the _________ we will always have with us."

I might argue that things are worse in 30 years.  This political season has been ugly, and it's likely to get uglier.  There are more homeless and less affordable housing and fewer shelters than there were 30 years ago.  There are fewer jobs for regular people.

And yet, how much has changed.  A woman runs for the office of president, and she may win.  We've had our first president who had a black father.  My homosexual friends can marry.  We argue about who can use which bathroom, but it means we have an awareness of transgender people.  As I write this, President Obama delivering a speech at Hiroshima is being broadcast on the BBC.

I think about the songs that have given people the courage to work for this change.  I think of the songs that say, "You are not alone in these values that you hold dear."

I think of songs as a sort of prayer, with a lineage that goes back to the Psalms and back further.  We have the songs that remind us of who we are.  We have the songs that call us to a higher and better purpose.  We have the songs that mourn.  We have the songs that rage and remind us that we have become too passive, too accepting.

I am so grateful for these songs.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Spiritual Manure: The Important Questions

It's hard to believe it's been a month since I led the retreat Bible study on parables.  My mom sent me the feedback on the retreat, all the aspects of it:  fascinating to read.

The response to my Bible study was very positive; my favorite comment said that she could have continued with me as leader all week.  One comment talked about how meaningful the Sunday session was for her, which of course made me think, Sunday, Sunday, what did we do on Sunday?

Happily, I wrote a blog post that answers this question.  I remember that I planned to talk about lamps and how we're called to be light to the world.  But Saturday night, after doing some preliminary work with that parable, the pastor for the retreat said to me privately, "I hope you don't plan to talk about lamps.  That's part of my interactive sermon tomorrow."

I said, "Thanks for telling me.  We'll do something else."

I'm pleased that I can switch gears.  Is that a benefit that comes from years of teaching or have I always had that talent?  I also think that years of drama club work with improvisation have helped here too.  But again, was I drawn to improvisation because I'm already good at thinking on my feet?

I digress.

I decided to go back to that little tree that wasn't producing fruit.  We discussed for a bit, and then, we did a bit of individual writing, since we hadn't done as much of that as I had planned.  The questions I planned to ask were important, and I wanted people to write, in the hopes that they'd remember.  I set it up as freewriting, that they were to write a set amount of time (4 minutes I think), that they were to keep going without stopping, that if they ran out of things to say that they just repeat a word, that they go wherever the writing took them, without editorializing or editing.

We had talked about being the withered tree.   I asked, "What manure do you need so that you can thrive?"

We talked about the withered tree as the world.  I asked, "How can you be manure to nourish the world?"

We talked about the withered tree as God.  I asked, "How can you be manure for God?  What does God need from you right now, as you are, right now?"

People were writing so fervently, I hesitated to call time.  Then once we'd written on all three questions, we had good conversation.

I thought it was effective.  I'm glad to know that others did too.

Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Meditation on This Week's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, May 29, 2016:

1 Kings 18:20-21[22-29] 30-39

Psalm 96 (7)

Galatians 1:1-12

Luke 7:1-10

In this week's Gospel, we get the story of the centurion of great faith.  This centurion will not be the only one that we see throughout the New Testament.  What's behind their presence?

We may have forgotten our history.  We may have forgotten that Jesus lived in an occupied territory.  There's a reason why Christ was crucified, a Roman style of execution, not a Jewish one.  Centurions were omnipresent in the culture to keep the peace, by brute force if need be.  That might be one reason why they make appearances now and then.

From a distance of 2000 years, we also may have forgotten about the earliest conversations in the Christian Church, before it really became the Christian Church, about who could be included and who should be left out.  If we go back to the Gospels, it becomes clear that Jesus did not come only for a small group of Jewish people.  The Gospels show the broadening ministry of Jesus.

It's also important to realize that in speaking highly of the centurion, Jesus is embracing an enemy.  The centurions work for Rome, which means that they often have to oppress Jews and other cultures that Rome defeated.  Yet Jesus recognizes faith when he sees it.

It's a surprise to find faith in this kind of man.  It's a lesson that we would do well to remember.  We tend to think we know how God works in the world and how humans respond.  Then, as now, we can find examples of righteousness in unexpected places.

The Gospel lesson for this week is also a story about power, the kind that the world embraces and the kind that Christ offers.

The centurion is used to having a certain amount of power, as his language makes clear.  But then, as now, human power only takes us so far.  We may be able to hire and fire people.  We may be able to issue orders that people must follow.  But all this worldly power can only take us so far, especially when we face the issues of sickness and death.

Do we have the faith of the centurion?  Are we open to faith in unexpected places?  How can we be enriched, so that we're not surprised by the centurion types who may wander through our lives?

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

A Walk by the Woods--with a Camera

Yesterday, I took a day trip with a group from church.  We headed to the Everglades, to the Loop Road in the Big Cypress Nature Preserve.  We stopped along the way to take pictures and/or enjoy the natural world.

You might imagine a church group stopping to pray or handle snakes or something like that.  Nope.  We're Lutherans.  If we prayed, we did it silently.

It was good to be away from the city, away from the office, outside.  We were lucky that the weather was a bit overcast, and not as humid as it has been.

I found myself once again appreciative of God as creator.  What diversity!  And that's just in our little patch of the country.  When I consider the whole planet, my heart sings, and my artist self wants to pick up her markers, her fabrics, and every other creative medium.

I was also interested in seeing everyone's artistic process up close.  I know how I take pictures.  But I've never been in a group taking pictures.

Here's what I learned:

--I tend to take a few pictures and assume I'm done.  Because I was with a group, I stood staring more than I would have on my own.  I appreciated the browns and greens. 

The image above is blurry, but I like it anyway.  We got home with lots of pictures that look like Impressionist paintings.

--We didn't see much wildlife.  We were too big a group.  Plus, it was late in the season for birdwatching.  We did see more alligators in one day than I've ever seen.  Plus a group of them:

--I don't tend to let things in nature be themselves.  For example, I saw the below, and I said, "That looks like a statue.  Or an angel who has lost her wings.  Look at the red and green plants above--don't they look like wings?"

--Here's a close up of a wood knob, where I saw a face that I didn't see when I was staring at it from the creekside.  It's interesting to get home and see what I didn't realize I was seeing through the camera lens:

--On the way back, my pastor talked about his journey through camera equipment.  He mentioned some prices--yikes! And I thought my new markers were expensive.

The day turned out to be a bit longer than I expected.  We didn't get home until almost 4.  But it was worth it. I felt restored and refreshed--and looking forward to more art inspired by the trip.

Monday, May 23, 2016

When a Church Group Takes a Photo Expedition

My church's pastor has been taking amazing photos for years now.  Recently, he started pairing those photos with Bible verses; go here to see what I'm talking about--scroll down to see a full sample.

A few weeks ago, he sent out an invitation to some church members to go with him to a nature preserve in the county above ours.  It was a Monday, and I probably could have made a lot of rearrangements to miss work--but because it was a bit of a last-minute possibility, I decided not to go.

It was a successful outing, so he arranged another outing, this time to the Everglades.  This time, I had more lead time, so I decided to go ahead and take the day off and go. 

I've wanted to see how my pastor chooses his subjects.  I know that he takes the photos first and then decides on the Bible verse--or at least, that's his usual approach.  But how does he find the photo?  Perhaps after today, I'll know.

I'll take my camera too, but my pastor has much more sophisticated camera equipment than I have.  Still, I look forward to seeing what develops (ha-I didn't even mean to make a pun!  but does that pun even work in this digital age?).

I had thought that we might be taking this trip before the summer weather returned, but we're about a week and a half too late.  Ah, well.  I'll take bug spray and sun screen and hope for the best, by which I mean that I hope other people sweat the same way that I do.  I'll take a towel to sit on.

I'm assuming we'll be out traipsing in nature, but perhaps it's going to be less of a nature walk than a nature sit, waiting for wildlife, waiting for the right camera shot.

I'm taking this day off to go on this outing for many reasons:  the art process insight reason, the chance to make art myself, and the chance to be out in the kind of nature that's been mostly paved over down here.  I'm also interested in the fact that it's church folks going out in my pastor's van.  What will that be like?  And it's a repeat trip--what does that mean?

My church is in the process of creating several types of ministries which you wouldn't find in the typical "How to Run Successful Programs" church guide (is there such a guide?  I was writing satirically, but perhaps there is).  We may create a Dine and Jam ministry--we have a lot of musicians who might like to get together in a non-choir setting--and we may do something else with ukuleles.  This photography expedition feels like another kind of nascent ministry.

I've long been interested in the intersections of faith and art and creativity--I didn't want to pass up a second chance to see this process up close.

I'll be back in this space with more details tomorrow.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Exile: Extinction and Survival

My church goes off-lectionary frequently.  Part of me is sympathetic:  I, too, grow weary of the cycle at times, and I long for something different to ponder.  Part of me mourns the fact that we're not in sync with the larger Christian world; when we're on-lectionary, I love knowing that Christians of all sorts throughout the world are reading the same texts.

Today my church will hear about the Babylonian exile.  We've already explored the Assyrian exile.

How interesting to read these stories in light of all the migration, forced and voluntary, happening through the world today.  We live in a time when more humans are on the move across the globe than any time since the end of World War II.  Our various cultures will be shaped and changed by this movement.

Our thinking about exile is both similar and different to how the ancient Israelites saw exile.  We see evidence of that thinking in the texts that tell the story of exile (2 Kings 17:  5-20 and 2 Chronicles 36:  5-21), with its emphasis on the sins of the leaders and the people and the displeasure of God, who needs to punish everyone for going astray.

Historians might explain it otherwise, explaining how the Israelites lived in a bad location, between various warring countries, which meant that armies were always crossing the land of Israel.  Historians would say that Israel and Judah were the weaker countries in a region of heavily armed, fierce fighting cultures.  Historians would tell us that these smaller, weaker countries were living on borrowed time and that it should have come as no surprise that they were conquered.

But generations after the forced exile saw it as God's punishment, and some of them saw it as their task to figure out how to get back to God's favor.  They would have centuries to wrestle with this question, as generation after generation was subsumed by whatever empire ruled the world at the time.

If we read the Gospels deeply and then do some research, we might see the Pharisees in a more favorable light.  They did not insist on purity laws because they wanted to make Christ's ministry difficult.  They thought that if they could get the Jews to perfect their observation of all the laws that God gave them in the early days, then God would look favorably upon them, and all that was lost would be restored.

Humans are prone to this thinking, and especially humans who have lost so much--or who come from families/cultures who have focused on the loss.

Some theologians might remind us that from these great losses come great growth.  We might argue that if cultures don't go out into different parts of the world, they will become more and more insular and eventually die.  Historians might tell us that exile inoculates a culture against extinction.  If a group stays in the same geographical spot, they are easier to destroy.  If parts of the group have migrated, they can regroup, even if a genocide has occurred elsewhere.  We see this dynamic with both centuries of Jewish culture and Christian culture.

I realize this idea is small comfort when one has lost one's homeland and everything that matters.  One does not sit in the ashes and say, "From this event will come great art and then a stronger culture."  And yet, it is usually true.

I'm interested in the various communities that are formed by exiles.  Often they are more vibrant than the ones left behind.  Exile can teach us what is important, what we value.  We see this trajectory in the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles of the ancient Israelites.

We live in a time of exile of all sorts.  Some of it is geographical, as people become ever more mobile and countries more unstable.  Some of it has to do with psychology, as we are required to make adjustments in the face of what we thought we knew having to change.  Some of us must leave our families and some will have our families leave us.  Some must shed identities.

In a time of exile, it is good to remember the value of creating community in the place where one has washed up.  It is good to remember that although we may feel abandoned, God is there with us.