Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Love in a Time of Climate Chaos

Last night, I had a Facebook chat with a dear friend in Columbia, South Carolina who was waiting to see if she would be evacuated should a dam break.  She lives on a bit of a hill that overlooks the main road, with no lake or river nearby--and she might be evacuated.

In the end, she wasn't.  But how surreal to be exchanging information about the weather, thoughts about how to secure what might be left behind, ideas about how the scenario would end if we transformed it into a movie, chat about how we both couldn't sleep when a storm is in the area--all the while knowing that a knock on the door could come at any moment.

I thought of all the ways we are lucky:  if she had to leave, I could likely keep track of her.  She was not swept away by the first round of flooding like so many people were.  Above all, we live in a first world country, which, while our government cannot control the forces of the weather, it can respond in the aftermath.  We do not have to fear rebel forces who will sweep in to take advantage of chaos.  We will not be taken away to camps, never to see our homelands again.  Our houses will be rebuilt.

Of course, the minute I wrote that last sentence, I thought about all the flooding victims who will not see their homes rebuilt.  I'm thinking of the obvious Hurricane Katrina examples, but there have been many epic floods in the last 10 years--here and throughout the world.

I am already missing the planet we used to have.  And yet, I understand that the planet has never been in a state of stasis.  I realize that we can count on nothing but change.

I wonder how our societal institutions will change in a time of climate chaos.  There are the obvious examples of providing help; I was touched by how many of my South Carolina friends were organizing water deliveries, even when the roads to the victims were still flooded.

Institutions will also be needed to provide other kinds of comfort--and courage, along with the comfort.  Our deepest ideas and ideals will be tested. 

As institutions, are there ways we can prepare for those challenges now?

Monday, October 5, 2015

A Prayer for Those Who Face the Flood

I have lived in several parts of South Carolina, before moving to Florida, and I'm seeing pictures from across South Carolina, particularly Columbia--yikes!  I can scarcely comprehend the scope of that flooding.  I'm seeing buildings that I recognize, buildings with water almost up to the roof.  I'm seeing road and interstates that I recognize that look like rivers now.

I am reminded that nothing--nothing--that I have to deal with this week is of any consequence at all.  I still have some staffing of classes left to figure out, but I am safe and dry, my house is not damaged, the city's water system is still operating, and no one is in danger from the decisions that I make.

I am hoping that dry up and clean up go quickly and that everyone is safe when the floodwaters recede.  But let me do more than hope.  Let me pray:

Oh God of All Weather, please be with your people who cannot escape the relentless rain.  Please bring them comfort as they sit in the darkness, waiting for the restoration of services.  When the floodwaters recede, please be with them as they face the enormous clean up.  Remind us all of your promise

Sunday, October 4, 2015

The Feast Day of St. Francis

On Oct. 4, we celebrate the life of St. Francis of Assisi. Many congregations will do this by having a pet blessing service. Here again, we see a powerful life story reduced to something significantly more mundane. I would argue that the church almost always does this reduction act – and why? Why give up the power of these stories that way? We see that in our approach to Jesus Christ, and in our approach to every other believer who has a dramatic story. Are we afraid of the implications?

We often remember St. Francis because of his work, "The Canticle for the Creatures." Many people see him as one of the early environmentalists. I have no problem with animal rights crusaders and the environmental movement, but it's important to remember that St. Francis was so much more.

He spent many years of his early ministry living with lepers and caring for them. He gave up everything he owned – and he was rich – in a quest for a more authentic life. He inspired others to follow the same path, and he founded two religious orders that still thrive.

In churches that celebrate the life of St. Francis, will we hear these parts of the story? I doubt it. Those are the parts of the story that are threatening to the social order. We can't have young people behaving in the way that St. Francis did. What on earth would happen then?

Our society would be transformed. And one of the ways that Christians have let down their faith, this is one of the most damning: We dampen the transformative message of the gospel or we dumb it down into some sort of self-help drivel. The gospel can transform us as individuals, sure, but then we are called to go out and transform our societies. God has called us to do redemptive work.

So, on this day when we celebrate the life of St. Francis, let's consider how we treat our pets and how we treat our modern-day lepers. I'm willing to bet that the community in which you live pets are treated much, much better than lepers. Think about how your church would react if someone brought their pet dog or cat to church. Now think about how your church would react if a drunk, smelly, raggedy person walked in.

Lately, I've been thinking about the care we offer our pets and contrasting that care with the amount of care we give ourselves. We often do no better at taking care of ourselves than we do of taking care of the poor and outcast of our society. I've known more than one person who cooked better meals for their dogs than they do for themselves. You can probably offer similar examples: Humans who make sure that their pets see dentists, even when the human members of the family don't take care of their teeth, dogs who see therapists, pets who get wonderful treats that humans deny themselves – the list could go on and on.

Why is it so hard to achieve balance in our societies? Why can't we take care of the destitute in the same way we take care of our pets? Why does self-care often fall to the bottom of our to-do lists? Why do we practice self-care and then not do the larger work of caring for the world?  Why do so many of us care for creation so badly or not at all?

As we think about the life of St. Francis, let's think about the wealth that we have and the ways that we can share it. Let's think about the earth and the ways we can care for our patch of the planet. Let's think about all the voiceless members of our society: plants, pets, children, the destitute, the elderly. Let us resolve to follow the model of St. Francis long after we’ve left the pet blessing service.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Obvious Beauty, Elusive Joy

In 2009 at Mepkin Abbey, I chased a butterfly--but not with a net, with a camera.  I wanted the perfect picture:

Is the picture above the perfect picture or the one below?

What we forget when we see perfect pictures:  all the imperfect pictures that we also took:

My pastor does amazing work with a camera.  He says that for every perfect picture, he takes dozens if not hundreds of shots that aren't quite what he was going for.

As I look at the shots that I missed, I'm struck by the beauty of the plants that are part of the labyrinth where I chased the butterfly:

What other beauties might we miss when we focus on the more elusive joys?

How can we remain mindful?

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Lutheran Field Report

Yesterday, we had a wonderful breakfast with our old campus pastor and Religion professor who was in town.  He came to our house, and then we headed to the beach.  We drove because it was a hot and humid morning.  We had a tasty breakfast with a lovely view, although it was scorchingly hot with no breeze.

Over breakfast, we had a great conversation about the value of turning off cell phones so that face-to-face connection can be made.  We talked about the value of church camp, as a way to leave our technology behind for a time. 

We talked about how rare it is to share a meal with not one cell phone on the table.  We talked about how many people say that the only face to face conversations that they have is at camp, where connectivity is iffy.

We also caught up on news of classmates and news of Lutherans from across the southeast.  Our former campus pastor does a lot of travelling from Synod to Synod on behalf of Novus Way, which oversees 4 Lutheran church camps.  He says he's energized by what he sees going on in individual churches and Synods.  He noted that lay people, especially, these days are doing amazing things.

How wonderful to hear this report from the field.  How wonderful to be still be connected in so many ways.

I left for work feeling nourished in all sorts of ways. 

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, October 4, 2015:

Genesis 2:18-24

Psalm 8

You adorn us with glory and honor. (Ps. 8:6)

Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12

Mark 10:2-16

If you read the Gospels carefully, you'll realize that Jesus rarely addresses the pressing social issues of our day. Global warming? Nope, he never talks about it. Abortion? Nope. Homosexuality? Not a word: the Bible verses that may address homosexuality, depending on how one interprets certain Greek words, come mainly from the Old Testament and Paul.

But here Jesus talks about divorce. How curious, especially in light of other chapters, where Jesus seems to downplay marriage and family, where he seems to instruct people to abandon their families to follow him. Here he seems to tell husbands and wives that they must stay together, regardless of the circumstances.

Many scholars see the social justice side of Jesus here, the man who cared for the most outcast of society. Almost no one had fewer options than a divorced woman who lived during the time of Jesus. Then, and to a certain extent now, fewer things were more likely to plunge a woman with children into the bottom economic realm of society than divorce or widowhood.

In today’s Gospel reading, we see the concerns of Jesus with the most downtrodden of society: women and children. As our society becomes more and more stratified, we can all use this reminder.

It’s also a reminder that God wants something better for us. God doesn’t want us in societies that are so stratified that we only see people who are just like us. God doesn’t want our personal differences to drive us apart. God doesn’t want us severed apart from each other, if we can avoid it. Even in situations where divorce is the best option, the legacy is one of pain and a variety of new problems. God wants reconciliation.

God also recommends that we approach the world as well-adjusted children do. I think of some of the delightful children I've met through the years.  I love to watch young groups of children dance.  Their enthusiasm encourages the adults to join in.   I love the phase when children learn to draw and they haven't learned to judge yet.  I love that sheer delight in the art supplies.

I imagine God is much the same. We've got a wonderful world here, and we often forget how fabulous it is. We get so hung up on all the ways we think the world has gone wrong that we forget what is right. We spend time creating laws to try to control behavior, when we might do better to simply accept people for who they are, which is a major step towards loving them. We want to see the world in strict colors: black, white, no gray. We forget that the world is variegated. If we can leave the land of Law behind and enter the world of Love, we'll see a world washed in color, all of it good. We'll know what God knew, way back in Genesis, that the Creation is good, very good.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

The Feast of St. Michael and All Angels

Today, the Church celebrates the role of angels in the divine plan, my prayer book tells me (The Divine Hours, written by Phyllis Tickle). Our Orthodox brothers and sisters handle the question of angels better than most Protestants. Most of the Lutheran churches that I've been a member of don't talk about angels much, and based on the ideas of some of my students, many Protestant churches do talk about angels, but with a very shaky theology.

I'll never forget one time teaching Paradise Lost to South Carolina students in my Brit Lit survey class at a community college. One woman seemed particularly confused about all the angels in the story. "How could there be angels," she asked, "when nobody has died?"

It took me a few attempts to understand her question. She knew about angels from church, but only in the sense that we become angels when we die--which is a very recent idea about angels. I explained the more ancient idea about angels, which is that they are a species completely separate from humans. We got into a bit of a theology lesson, but I could see that she wasn't happy with these ideas about angels. She was much more comfortable with the idea of the angels being Grandma and Grandpa who died when she was a child. The idea of angels as a separate kind of entity with no free will? No thanks.

In a way, I understand. Angels are scary. Death is scary. It's rather brilliant to come up with the idea that we become angels when we die--and yet, this shaky theology defangs several concepts which should, in fact, be scary. We will die--and before that, everything we love will die. How do we cope with that idea?

Some of us cope by clinging to the idea that there is a Divine God with a plan and a vision that's vaster than anything we could develop on our own. This God has more power than we can conceive of--including legions of angels, angels that are there for us too.

Let me confess that I don't do angels well either. They seem a bit too New Agey for me, especially with the spate of angel books that were published 20 years ago, books that promised me that I would get to know my angels, books in which getting to know my angels was very similar to enslaving my angels to do my will. Blcch. Giving the angels a mission is God's job, not mine.

I often joked that I should combine two publishing trends and publish a diet book: Your Angels Want You to Be Thin! The Know Your Angels Diet Book. I'm not that mercenary, though (and if you are, feel free to steal my title), not that willing to make money off the real troubles and gullibility of humans. To borrow words from Blake, I don't want to be the one that makes a Heaven off of misery.

But now, years later, I find myself a bit envious of those people who grew up in traditions that had theologically sound approaches to angels. Again and again, I find in the traditions of others something I feel lacking in mine.

Luckily, I'm part of a Lutheran tradition that doesn't insist that we remain closed off to traditions that might enrich us spiritually, even if Luther didn't sanction them. We've seen an explosion of exploration of labyrinths. Maybe angels will be next.

For those of you who want some special Scripture for this high feast day, here's what the Lutheran church (ELCA) recommends:

First Reading: Daniel 10:10-14; 12:1-3
Psalm: Psalm 103:1-5, 20-22
Second Reading: Revelation 12:7-12
Gospel: Luke 10:17-20