Thursday, May 28, 2015

Incubating the Improbable

My post on the Feast of the Visitation is up at the Living Lutheran site.  Those of us who grew up in Lutheran churches of the past may not know about this holiday.  Even my Catholic friends often don't celebrate feast days.

But the more I learn about feast days, the more I yearn for what they promise:  an enriching of our spiritual lives, a way to have more festival times, a way to be inspired, a way to learn about important heroes of the faith who might be otherwise lost to us.

Now, the Feast of the Visitation doesn't celebrate the lives of people lost to us.  Anyone who has paid attention during Advent knows about the lives of Mary, mother of Jesus, and Elizabeth, mother of John.  They were cousins, and unexpectedly, improbably pregnant.  During their time of getting ready, they spent time together.

My post explores the implications of this feast day.  Here are some quotes to whet your appetite:

"I love this story of new life being held in unlikely wombs. I love this message that biology is not destiny, that our bodies can do all sorts of wondrous things, like heal, generate new life, and nourish what we previously thought to be impossible."

"Never far from my mind are the issues of discernment, call and retreat. God calls both Mary and Elizabeth, and both say yes to a radical change of direction to what they might have planned. And it's a change that will have an impact on the rest of their lives, not just a year or two. What a great idea: to take some time away from regular life to support each other and to prepare."

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, May 31, 2015:

First Reading: Isaiah 6:1-8

Psalm: Psalm 29

Second Reading: Romans 8:12-17

Gospel: John 3:1-17

Ah, Holy Trinity Sunday. It's interesting to look at various denominations to see how each one handles the idea of the Trinity. Some Christians are certainly more Trinitarian than others. I know that the idea of a Triune God is a huge stumbling block for many people.

As a child, this concept didn't bother me much. It seemed obvious that humans had many different sides, so why shouldn't God? As I got older, the idea of God being able to split those selves into various incarnations seemed a cool trick, but why shouldn't God be able to do that? I'd like to do that, but I don't want those other responsibilities that come with divinity. I'm working to be happy to let God be God, to let the mystery of the Trinity not even enter my consciousness.

Lately, as I've been thinking about community, I return to the idea of the Trinity--we worship a communal God who desires to be in community with us. I've always liked the symbolism of a braid, and Trinity Sunday seems a good time to return to that symbol. In a braid, each strand can stand alone--but what a more intriguing shape they make when woven together.

We might look again at the story of Nicodemus, a man who was a serious scholar. Jesus tells him, and us, that we must be born anew. We might look at our place in the braid of the Kingdom and wonder how we might be born anew. We are not that far from Pentecost. We should be listening for the Spirit.

I love verse 8, which says, "The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know whence it comes or whither it goes; so it is with every one who is born of the Spirit." My rational mind rebels. My rational brain demands that we make a plan, a plan for each day, a 5 year plan, a 10 year plan. My rational brain makes lists and wakes me up at 3:00 in the morning with worries.

I like the mystical promise of the Spirit. We do not have to know what we are doing; we do not need a plan--we just need to be open to the movement of the Spirit, a task which is not as easy as it might sound. God invites us to be part of the work of creating the Kingdom, right here and right now. But Christ tells us that we need to be born anew.

The evangelical movements have done a lot with John 3:16, which may be one of the most famous Bible verses. Many evangelicals can tell you the exact day and time that they were born again. However, many of us find this model lacking. Being born again is not a one-step process, when we invite Jesus into our hearts and we're done. Most of us need to be born again each day, day after day.

Now is the time for a different approach to this effort of being born again. We could greet each day, asking our Triune God to help us be born anew to be braided into community and Kingdom building. We could end each day by thanking our creator for the ways that we've been shaped that day.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Interactive Pentecost

Our church's 9:45 Worship Together service tries to do several things, and one of them is to have us all interact with the Biblical texts:  we sing, we do our best to sign, we look for ways we see the Bible intersecting with our lives, we act out the stories, we do a variety of art projects.  It's a small group, so there's no sitting there watching others interact.

On Sunday, I confess that I wanted to just sit.  But I'm a good sport, so I pushed through my lethargic mind set.

We divided into two groups.  One group would tell the story of Pentecost using the language of puppets, and the other group would use the language of pantomime.  I was in the pantomime group.  We could use props, but no words.

We cut flames out of paper.  We made fans to simulate the wind.  I was Peter, and I found it strangely easy to mime the speech found in Acts 2.

The hope is that we will all remember the Pentecost story long after Sunday morning.  We've been part of it, after all.

Yes, I know that the hope of every worship planner is that we remember the stories and lessons of each Sunday long after we go home. 

But I left church energized--all my lethargy expelled.  If I had gone to our larger service, I doubt that would have happened.

I love having the option to have an interactive service.  I often tell people that we're creating this service for our children who need something different.

Sunday was a potent reminder that many days, adults need something different too.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Prayers on Memorial Day

The wind has howled all night, as we have moved from Pentecost to Memorial Day.  I wake up with a vague unease, as I often do on Memorial Day.

Is it because of Memorial Day?   Even though my dad was in the Air Force, and then the Air Force reserve, for most of my life, I, like many Americans, have felt some ambivalence about the military. I have some trouble reconciling my religious beliefs which tend towards pacifism, to the necessity for military protection. There have been times in my lifetime where I've thought, at last, we're moving towards a world that won't need military action. And then the world launches into a new form of barbarism.
It is impossible not to realize the cost of war.  There's the money, of course, and the death of soldiers.  We may forget the other costs:  the families of military members, the injured veterans, the civilians damaged in so many ways, peace of all kinds shattered.

So, on this day which has become for so many of us just an excuse to have a barbecue, let us pause to reflect and remember.  If we're safe right now, let us say a prayer of gratitude.  Let us remember that we've still got lots of military people serving in dangerous places.  And recent events have reminded me that the world we feel is safe can quickly dissolve into conflict and war.

Oh so quickly.

Today, I'd like to be at a national monument, listening to one of the service bands perform. Or maybe I'd rather be in a contemplative spot, saying a thank you.  Or maybe something more festive.  I miss the small town parades; I know that my college town of Newberry, South Carolina will be celebrating in ways that remind me of the 1950's.  Now I no longer know the stories of my neighbors.  I don't know whose great great grandfather/uncle served in which ways.

Now I live in a place that feels more like a future U.S., where English isn't the dominant language, where there are more recent arrivals than people with ancestors buried in the soil. Most days, I'm cool with this, and invigorated by it.

But today, I feel uneasy.  Part of it is the wind.  I've lived in states in the U.S. South where this kind of wind portends a fiercer wind later, as the heat has time to build to storms.

Part of my unease is how invisible the military feels to so many people today.  Once, all of my schoolmates had relatives, often a father, who had served in the military.  Now I find that I'm often the only one.  Growing up, I chafed a bit under the expectations of military family discipline.  Now I find myself thinking we might all be better if national service was required.

In his lecture several weeks ago, David Brooks responded to a question about the value of national service.  He said, "A kid from Connecticut living with a kid from Birmingham living with a kid from Cody, Wyoming--that would be valuable in many ways."

We've become a more stratified society in so many ways, and not just the economic ways that often trigger handwringing.  More and more, most of us tend to meet people just like us.  Maybe that's the source of my unease.

But most likely my unease comes from this day to honor the dead--while realizing that we are far from a world where we can beat our swords into ploughshares and practice war no more.

So, let me return to a valuable practice.  Let me pray to the One who has more power than I do in these matters.

 Here's a prayer I wrote for Memorial Day:

God of comfort, on this Memorial Day, we remember those souls whom we have lost to war.  We pray for those who mourn.  We pray for military members who have died and been forgotten.  We pray for all those sites where human blood has soaked the soil.  God of Peace, on this Memorial Day, please renew in us the determination to be peacemakers.  On this Memorial Day,we offer a prayer of hope that military people across the world will find themselves with no warmaking jobs to do. We offer our pleading prayers that you would plant in our leaders the seeds that will sprout into saplings of peace.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Pentecost Morning

While other parts of the country are having a bit of a cool stretch, we are waking to a hot Pentecost morning.  It's the kind of shimmery heat where I wouldn't be surprised to see flames.  But they probably wouldn't be the flames of the spirit so much as the flames of wildfire.  It's that season in Florida.  We share many things with California--I wonder if our fire seasons are the same.

I think of other Christian holidays where mythical creatures appear and leave presents in the dark overnight hours.  I see no gifts yet.

What gift would I like to receive from the Holy Spirit?  I have no desire to speak in tongues.  I know what Western societies have done to their prophets.

Only profits get attention in our culture, rarely God's prophets. 

And the attention that comes to prophets usually comes with a bullet attached--and sure, one might get beatified 35 years later (I'm thinking of Archbishop Romero), but social justice doesn't happen quickly or easily or at all.

I would like to be gifted with patience.  I would like to be less judgmental.  I would like to accept that others get to make their own choices, and they're not likely to look to me for advice.

I want the rushing wind to scour me out, but I don't want it to hurt.

I want to be startled into new appreciation.  I want to say, "Hello, Holy Spirit.  It's good to see you again.  What have you been up to?"

I want the answer to fill me with longing not fear.

I want to be ready to be rekindled, to burn with a flame that does not destroy but transforms.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

The Beatification of Archbishop Romero

A ceremony to beatify Archbishop Oscar Romero happens today in San Salvador.  I never thought I would see this in my lifetime.  Romero is still a divisive figure in many circles, even 35 years after his martyrdom.  He is not universally beloved, like Mother Theresa.  You wouldn't think that his fierce commitment to the poor would win him enemies, but he combined politics and spirituality in a way that still repels many.

Beatification is a step towards sainthood.  A verifiable miracle is required for beatification.  For canonization (sainthood), a second miracle must be verified.  At every step of the way, every aspect of the candidate's life is supposed to be analyzed.

Romero left us much to analyze, with his daily radio addresses, his sermons, his letters.  I wonder if in future years, candidates for sainthood will have their Twitter feeds analyzed, their blog posts, their Facebook posts.  We lead such public lives, most of us, these days.

I know that I return to the life of Romero with some regularity on this blog.  He has been one of my spiritual touchstones since my college years in the 1980's.  Those days are beginning to seem very far away.  I remember President Reagan warning us of the possibility of Communists swarming over the border into Texas, if El Salvador fell.  I remember thinking that the Texans could take care of them with little effort.  We probably wouldn't even have to send extra weapons.

I remember meeting refugees from El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua.  Long before I knew as much about Romero as I do now, I knew that he was right about the horrors endured by the poor caught in the crossfire in those countries.

Unfortunately, they're still in the crossfire.  El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates of all countries.  In his article in The New Yorker which looks at the life of Romero and the history of Central America, Carlos Dada concludes, "Due to criminal violence, mostly related to gangs and drug cartels, El Salvador has one of the highest homicide rates on the planet. Poverty, one of the structural problems so frequently pointed to by Romero, has decreased only because a third of Salvadorans have left El Salvador, and many of them send money back. Corruption has been rampant under both rightists and leftists. It’s a good time, it seems, to reread the teachings of the now celebrated Archbishop."

Today is also a good day to pray for those caught in the crossfires of policies gone terribly wrong.  It's a good day to pray for leaders across the spectrum who must decide how to respond.  It's a good day to pray for the poor and the dispossessed.

Sadly, it seems that every day is a good day for those prayers.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Pentecost in Pictures

You may be hollowed out by grief and loss.

But the Holy Spirit can rush in to fill those hollow spaces.

It's a wind that can fill the sails of your life and take you to new places.

On the eve of the first Pentecost, those believers didn't know what was about to happen. I imagine that they felt at loose ends.  They didn't understand they stood at a turning point.

We often don't know we're at a hinge time until much, much later.

Maybe we have been feeling that we're in a post-Ascension, pre-Pentecost time. Maybe one mission has come to an end, and we're not sure what to do next.

Pentecost promises us that we won't be adrift forever. At some point we'll hear the rushing wind and feel the flame, and we'll be able to do more than we ever dreamed possible.

And then, every gate will open.

For a more substantial essay on this subject, see my latest post over at the Living Lutheran site.