Sunday, March 26, 2017

Two Twenty-First Century Women Consider Annunciation

I have never had trouble falling asleep, but I do have problems staying asleep, and some weeks I consider myself lucky if I'm still sleeping past 3 a.m.  This past week was one of those weeks.

I don't spend too much time wondering why I'm awake or trying to force myself to fall back asleep.  I'm lucky in that I can function even with if I wake up extremely early.  Yesterday, I woke up around 1:30, and by 2:00, I got up and did some writing.

At 4:00, I thought I might fall back asleep, so back to bed I went.  It was a windy night, part of why I had trouble sleeping.  I watched the wind whip the palm fronds to and fro, and I thought of angel wings and the feast day of the Annunciation, which was yesterday.  Later in the day, I took a picture of the tree that inspired the poem that came to me:



Look at the two browner fronds at the bottom, closest to the trunk--don't they look like a pair of wings?

A poem came to me, and my hip started to ache, and I knew that sleep would not be coming.  I wrote this poem:

Annunciation
 
In the early hours of this feast
day of the Annunciation, I listen
for God’s invitation, but all I hear
is the roar of a motorcycle speeding
away after last call.  The rustle
of the palm fronds in the wind,
the only angel wings today,
as I lay enfolded in the arms
of my beloved of thirty years.

As I wrote the poem, I thought about Beth Adams and the book on the Annunciation that she put together.  I decided to send her an e-mail with the poem.  My e-mail ended this way:  "I don't like it [the poem] as much as the one I wrote for your collection, but as I wrote it, I thought of you and all the various approaches to the Annunciation, so I thought I'd share it with you.  Wishing you many blessings on this feast day!"

She wrote back to tell me that she was touched by my sending the poem to her, and she wrote a bit about Mary, about the way that the Virgin Mary was more present in Mexico City, from where she had just returned from a yearly sojourn.  She talked about the little shrines to the Virgin that she saw in Mexico and that she had once seen in the countryside of Quebec, but didn't anymore.  I thought about some of the shrines that I've seen here in people's yards, something that I never saw in other parts of the U.S. South where I've lived.

Later in the day, Beth sent me a meditation that she'd sent to the group doing a quiet retreat at the Cathedral where she worships.  She included my poem, which, along with the rest of her writing, moved me deeply.  In both her e-mail to me and her meditation that she sent to the participants, she talks about finding the presence of God in the ordinariness of life.  And she perceived my intention with the use of the word Beloved, that it can mean a human who holds us, but it also means the larger God who always enfolds us in love and grace, freely given.

I spent some time with her meditation and some time thinking about Mary and my relationship with her.  When I was in college in the 80's, the issue of Mary made me angry, like the patriarchal church thought it had done its job by venerating Mary, and now it could go on celebrating the maleness that it wanted to focus upon.  But in my later years, I see so many more nuances, both negative and positive.

It was a wonderful way to spend a feast day:  early morning meditation/writing time, corresponding with a friend, exchanging more ideas, and inspiring each other.  I feel so lucky to live in this time where technology enables all of this to happen in close to real time, so that this nourishment occurs on the actual feast day, not as we exchange letters through the paper mail system.

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Feast of the Annunciation

Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, the feast day which celebrates the appearance of the angel Gabriel, who tells Mary of her opportunity to be part of God's mission of redemption. The angel Gabriel appears to Mary and says, in the older wording that I still like best, "Hail, oh blessed one! The Lord is with you!" Mary asks some questions, and Gabriel says, "For nothing will be impossible with God" (Luke 1: 37). And Mary says, ". . . let it be with me according to your word" (Luke 1: 38).

That means only 9 months until Christmas. If I wrote a different kind of blog, I'd fill the rest of this post with witty ways to make your shopping easier. But instead of spending the next nine months strategically getting our gifts bought, maybe we should think about the next nine months in terms of waiting for God, watching for God, incubating the Divine.

I find Mary an interesting model for modern spirituality.  Notice what is required of Mary. She must wait.

Mary is not required to enter into a spiritual boot camp to get herself ready for this great honor. No, she must be present to God and be willing to have a daily relationship, an intimacy that most of us would never make time for. She doesn't have to travel or make a pilgrimage to a different land. She doesn't have to go to school to work on a Ph.D. She isn't even required to go to the Temple any extra amount. She must simply slow down and be present. And of course, she must be willing to be pregnant, which requires more of her than most of us will offer up to God. And there's the later part of the story, where she must watch her son die an agonizing death.

But before she is called upon to these greater tasks, first she must slow down enough to hear God. I've often thought that if the angel Gabriel came looking for any one of us, we'd be difficult to find. Gabriel would need to make an appointment months in advance!

In our society, it's interesting to me to wonder what God would have to do to get our attention. I once wrote these lines in a poem:

I don’t want God to have to fling
frogs at me to get my attention. I want
to be so in touch that I hear the still,
small voice crying in this wilderness of American life.
I don’t want God to set fire to the shrubbery to get my notice.

We might think about how we can listen for God's call. Most of us live noisy lives: we're always on our cell phones, we've often got several televisions blaring in the house at once, we're surrounded by traffic (and their loud stereos), we've got people who want to talk, talk, talk. Maybe today would be a good day to take a vow of silence, inasmuch as we can, to listen for God.

If we can't take a vow of silence, we could look for ways to have some silence in our days.  We could start with five minutes and build up from there.

Maybe we can't be silent, but there are other ways to tune in to God. Maybe we want to keep a dream journal to see if God tries to break through to us in that way. Maybe we want to keep a prayer journal, so that we have a record of our prayer life--and maybe we want to revisit that journal periodically to see how God answers our prayers.

Let us celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation by thinking about our own lives. What does God call us to do?  How will we answer that call?

Friday, March 24, 2017

Remembering Romero

On this day in 1980, Archbishop Oscar Romero was assassinated; no one has ever been brought to trial for this crime.

Until recently, I assumed that we would never see Romero beatified.  I am old enough to remember when Romero was maligned as a communist.  But this new Pope has begun the process of canonization.

Saint Romero--how I like the sound of that. 

A few years ago, I created this card to commemorate his life:



I find his life inspiring for all the reasons you might expect:  the standing up to oppression, the speaking truth to power, the martyrdom.

Lately I've been thinking about the fact that he came into greatness late in his life; he was born in 1917, and I don't think he did his best work until the 1970's, in his late 50's/early 60's.  Looking at the trajectory of his life from the middle years of the century, one would not have predicted that he would speak so eloquently about injustice and the need to fight against it.

In fact, many scholars believe that he was chosen to be Archbishop precisely because he was expected not to make trouble.  All that changed when one of his good friends, an activist Jesuit priest, was assassinated by one of the death squads roaming the country. Romero became increasingly political, increasingly concerned about the poor who were being oppressed by the tiny minority of rich people in the country. He called for reform. He called on the police and the soldiers to stop killing their brethren. And for his vision, he was killed as he consecrated the bread for Mass.

Romero knew that he was in danger from various political forces in the country, but he refused to cower in fear and back down. Likewise, Jesus must have known what wrath he was bringing down upon himself, but he did not back down. Until the end of his life, he called upon us to reform our earthly systems, systems that enrich a few on the backs of the many. Romero and Christ both show us that the forces of empire do not take kindly to being criticized.

In the years since Romero was assassinated, we have seen the kind of economic injustice that infected El Salvador, where a very small proportion of the population controlled much of the money, take over much of the world.  What would Romero call on us to do?  How can we change the very economic structure that oppresses so many?

Romero's life story shows that the system will resist change violently and perhaps take lives along the way.  And yet, Christians believe that the trajectory of change will continue towards justice, and that we are called to be part of the mass who nudge/force that trajectory. 

We are Easter people living in a Good Friday world (I've seen this phrase credited to Barbara Johnson, but unsure).  God can take horrific suffering and death and transform it into resurrection. We know what happened to Jesus and those early Christians after the death of Jesus. Likewise, in death, Oscar Romero became a larger force for justice than in life. His death, and the martyrdom of other Church leaders and lay workers (not to mention the deaths of 75,000 civilians) galvanized worldwide public opinion against the forces of death in El Salvador. God is there with us in our suffering and with God's help, suffering can be transformed.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Insight from Different Versions of Psalm 126

Last night, at my church we had another Lenten soup supper with Psalms and creative responses.  I chose Psalm 126:

I started with the NRSV:

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,[a]
    we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
    and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
    “The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
    and we rejoiced.
Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
    like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears
    reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
    bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
    carrying their sheaves.



We read from the Contemporary English version (once I had a denim-clad Bible in this version):

It seemed like a dream
when the Lord brought us back
    to the city of Zion.[a]
We celebrated with laughter
    and joyful songs.
In foreign nations it was said,
    “The Lord has worked miracles
    for his people.”
And so we celebrated
    because the Lord had indeed
    worked miracles for us.
Our Lord, we ask you to bless
    our people again,
    and let us be like streams
    in the Southern Desert.
We cried as we went out
    to plant our seeds.
    Now let us celebrate
    as we bring in the crops.
We cried on the way
    to plant our seeds,
    but we will celebrate and shout
    as we bring in the crops.

 


Here it is in The Message:

It seemed like a dream, too good to be true,
    when God returned Zion’s exiles.
We laughed, we sang,
    we couldn’t believe our good fortune.
We were the talk of the nations—
    God was wonderful to them!”
God was wonderful to us;
    we are one happy people.
4-6 And now, God, do it again—
    bring rains to our drought-stricken lives
So those who planted their crops in despair
    will shout hurrahs at the harvest,
So those who went off with heavy hearts
    will come home laughing, with armloads of blessing.
 
We read each one, but The Message was the one we returned to again and again.  I was fascinated, as you knew I would be, at how the basic themes were the same, but the language so different.
 
I loved the idea of armloads of blessings:
 
 
 
My spouse thought about rain and the colors of joy:
 
 
 
Here's another picture:
 
 
 
 
Alas, I don't have pictures yet of the gardens created by others, gardens of yarn and pumpkins made of buttons.
 
I am loving this approach to the text, reading multiple times and letting the words sink in.  The different translations tonight added a richness.  I am hoping for rain in our drought-stricken places--I hope that for all of us.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, March 26, 2017:

First Reading: 1 Samuel 16:1-13

Psalm: Psalm 23

Second Reading: Ephesians 5:8-14

Gospel: John 9:1-41

Occasionally, a student will ask me how I know that a symbol is really a symbol, and not just me overreacting to something in the text. I always reply that we know we're looking at a symbol when the author comes back to it again and again. Then an image is meant to take on more weight.

Today's Gospel would be a good illustration of this point. Again and again, we see blind people in this text, from the physically blind to the metaphorically blind. Again and again, the text returns to blindness. Clearly, we're meant to explore issues of our own blindness. It's not bad to do a spiritual inventory periodically. Where do we see evidence of God in our lives? Where are we blind to God's presence?

As I read the text for this week, I found myself getting to this point from a different angle. Look at how Jesus cures this blind man. He mixes dirt and spit (dirt and spit!) onto the man's eyes and instructs him to bathe. I'm not the first to be struck by the earthiness of this cure: the use of different elements (dirt, saliva, and water), the rootedness of the cure in the physical (Jesus doesn't cast a spell, for example, or call on angels), and the simplicity of it all.

It might make us think back to the Genesis story, of God forming the first humans out of dirt (Adam) and an extra rib (Eve). It might make us think of all the ways that God uses basic, earthbound elements in both creation and salvation.

Think of our sacraments, for example. There's baptism, the word bound with water. And the water doesn't come to us from some special source--it's not like we special-order it from the Holy Land. Well, perhaps some churches do, but that's a foolish use of money, if you ask me. It's not like those waters have special powers. The power comes from the word--and perhaps more importantly, from the words that the congregation offers. When we baptize someone, the whole congregation takes a vow to support that person--when you wonder why baptism is such a public event, and why some people are adamant that it not be separated from the service and the congregation, that's why. It's not a photo op. It's a sacrament.

Think about Holy Communion. I've been to many Holy Communions now. Some churches use wafers specially ordered from religious communities, but you don't have to do that. I've had Communion with pita bread, with challah, and once, with a pizza crust. I've had good wine, bad wine, and grape juice. Again, what's important is the symbol of the elements, mixed with the words. It's not just about memory--it's how God becomes present to us, through a mystery that we don't fully understand.
As we work our way through the Scriptures, think about how often God takes simple things and turns them into routes that can lead to salvation. The most stunning example, of course, is the story of the Incarnation. During weeks where I'm impatient with my own failing flesh, I'm even more astounded than usual that the Divine would take on this project.

And we, of course, can work similar magic. Open up your dinner table, and observe grace in action. Forgive freely, and watch redemption work. Pray for those who would do you wrong, and notice what happens. Get your fingers in the dirt and watch the flowers bloom later. Take some simple elements and envision them as sacramental, a symbolic route to God.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Rites of Spring

Suddenly we notice every shade of green:



The azaleas may distract us from the work of Lent:



The dogwoods remind us of one of Spring's destinations:



Life out of death:




We see these rites enacted every spring, and every year, the first blooms pushing back against the earth surprise us:



Easter beckons, but we have a journey to complete:


Monday, March 20, 2017

Poetry Monday: "Consolations in Harsh Landscapes"

I love Rattle's feature "Poets Respond," which the journal describes this way:  "Every Sunday we publish one poem online that has been written about a current event that took place the previous week. This is an effort to show how poets react and interact to the world in real time, and to enter into the broader public discourse."

But I rarely have myself together enough to create/revise/come up with an idea for a poem in time for the Friday deadline.

This past Friday, as I was feeling sorrowful about the budget and simultaneously thinking of Saint Patrick, I wondered if I could revise this blog post into a poem.  I thought I would cut and paste lines into the shape of a poem and then revise, but that's not how it happened.  For the most part, I came up with lines inspired by the blog post, and then this poem emerged.


Consolations in Harsh Landscapes


Today patrons shall drink gallons
of green beer and cheer
at parades and watch
the green currents of many rivers.

I will look at the federal budget and remember
that even in a harsh
landscape like Saint Patrick’s Ireland,
strange shapes can flourish.

I will till my own soil, rocky
and marbled with thorns.
If truly desperate, I’ll suck seaweed
from the stones for nourishment.

I will set sail in my coracle,
casting away my oars.
I need no supplies that federal dollars
can bring me.

I will create new communities
on these stony shores.
The larger world may not yet know
but it needs our new brand of faith.

The poem didn't win, but that's not really why I wrote it.  I decided to post it here, since the topic is so timely that a more traditional publication is unlikely.