Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, October 25, 2014:

First Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34

Psalm: Psalm 46

Second Reading: Romans 3:19-28

Gospel: John 8:31-36

Today's Gospel promises that we shall know the truth and the truth shall set us free. For some of us, this comes as welcome news, perhaps even as we feel a bit doubtful. After all, the Gospel doesn't tell us how we'll know the truth: will we just recognize it? Will consensus dictate what the truth is? If a majority of people believe, is that how we'll know we're in the campsite of truth?

The Gospel doesn't tell us those details. The Gospel writer John was more mystical than practical. But it's interesting to think about the issue of truth as we approach Reformation Sunday.

Think about how many of our spiritual ancestors were in a minority, before they were in a majority. If we're looking for majority rule to tell us whether or not we're looking at the truth, we will miss a lot of the truth.

Think of Martin Luther (or rent the film, Luther) and what he was up against. The Catholic church had a stranglehold on the spiritual life of Europe when Luther came along and suggested that they'd gotten off track. He didn't intend to start a new branch of Christianity. But his life shows what might happen when we start pointing out the truth. We might overturn a whole social order and begin several hundred years of new denominations. If I wanted to, I could spread many of the most exciting social movements of the twentieth century (for example, the movement to secure human rights for everyone) to the ideas that Luther put into motion. Or think about the worldwide push towards literacy. Luther might not have envisioned the changes he put into motion when he translated the Bible into common German, but he understood the importance of enlarged access. Where would we be if we still had scriptures in a language that we couldn't understand? Will we know the truth if it's in a language that's foreign to us?

Think of a revolution closer to our own time. One of the biggest spiritual stories of the twentieth century has to be the rise of the Pentecostal movement, which we can trace back to Azusa Street in Los Angeles in the early part of the twentieth century. Even those of us outside of the movement can admire the ways in which Pentecostal ideas have enriched all of us believers (the idea that there are different gifts of the spirit, for example; even if my gift is not speaking in tongues, I might have a different gift to offer, one that is equally valuable; the trick is to know my gift and commit to it). Even those of us who are fearful of the spread of Pentecostal and Evangelical ideas have to admit that our siblings in those churches understand mission in ways that many of the rest of us don't.

Those of us who feel like we're part of a dying tradition would do well to remember that even times of death can lead to times of renewal. We may be planting seeds. Those seeds might grow into plants that we can't even visualize right now.

We're in a time of tremendous renewal, even if we find ourselves part of a mainline tradition that seems determined to ignore these developments. Google the words Emergent Church and see what you find; many Christian groups who wouldn't have even spoken to each other in the 1950's are rethinking ways to do church and working on social justice movements together. Research the New Monasticism to see the ways that people are radically committing to the life of faith.

Consider the Internet, and how the Internet is revolutionizing our faith lives. We can tithe or redistribute our wealth much more easily with the Internet as a tool. We can read or listen to stories of faith to inspire us. We can go to sites to pray the Daily Office.

Will we one day look back and realize that the Internet fueled a Reformation in our own time, just as the printing press helped to speed Martin Luther's Reformation? We can't know. And again, the Gospel should echo in our ears, as we spend more and more time in virtual communities and less time with actual humans: we will know the truth (but one suspects we'll only know the truth if we're on the lookout for it).

And what a promise: the truth shall set us free.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Planning a Retreat I Won't Attend

This past week-end, we took one of our whirlwind trips to North Carolina--for more on the trip itself, see this post on my creativity blog.

We went primarily because my spouse needed to be at Lutheridge for a finance subcommittee (for the larger Novus Way Board of Trustees) meeting.  Fortuitously, the retreat to plan the Create in Me retreat was happening at the same time.

What made it a strange experience is that I won't be at the retreat itself.  My absence is no reflection on the retreat--on the contrary, it sounds like it will be a great retreat.

I was happy to be at this retreat to plan the retreat for a variety of reasons.  It's always a great group of people, even as the individuals come and go and come again.  Seeing us all in a room makes me happy.  Realizing how long I've known them astonishes me.

It also makes me want to dream big.  I joked about wanting Lutheridge to create a retirement community so that we could spend our golden years having a Create in Me retreat year round.  But I wasn't really joking.

On Friday night, we had a great Bible study session;  this year's theme is "Jesus and Justice."  We explored passages from Isaiah and corresponding passages from the New Testament.  Our group was about 1/3 people with seminary training and/or rigorous reading in academic religious materials.  The rest of the group has gotten substantial education through churches and other arenas.  So we had a vigorous discussion.

In fact, we had such a vigorous discussion that we got off schedule--but what a wonderful reason to get off schedule.  We looked at passages about dimly burning wicks and bruised reeds.  We looked at different translations that talked about lifting up the oppressed--in some translations, it was "the poor," instead of the oppressed, and I prefer the older translation.  We talked about pathways being made wide and the crooked ways made straight.  I was transfixed by the passage that talked about binding the broken-hearted.

The poet in me was intrigued by the way the different words can be used:  binding can be a healing bandage or a constricting force, and to level can be good or bad.  Lots of potential.

So, we didn't do the arts meditation on Friday night but on Saturday morning.  We were given a 3 inch pillar candle, a reed, a Sharpie marker, and a roll of masking tape.  We wrapped the candle in masking tape, a surprisingly soothing experience.  We had to somehow incorporate the reed but not break it.

When we were done, we wrote words of injustice on the tape.  Some people wrote general words, like "unloved" and "despair."  Some wrote words like "trafficking" and "racism."  I wrote words like "student loans" and "Holocene extinction."

And then we lit the candles.  Eventually they will burn down and have an interesting effect.  The light shines through the words to remind us that the light is not overcome by the injustice.

We spent the rest of the day talking about the schedule and ways to make it more effective.  We talked about anything special that we need to have because of the theme.  We planned the worship service.

I'll be sad to miss the retreat, but I was glad to be able to help to make it a great retreat for those who will be there.  Before we started doing this approach to retreat planning, I wouldn't have dreamed that a retreat to plan a retreat could be almost as nourishing as the retreat itself.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Alternate Prayer Language

I was corresponding by Facebook message with a grieving friend.  She said she couldn't stop crying.  She said she wasn't good at prayer.

I wrote, "We pray in all sorts of languages--sobs aren't often discussed as prayer, but they are."

I am an English major, an old-fashioned believer in books.  So after some additional interchanges, I wrote, "Anne Lamott wrote a great little book on prayer. She says the most common prayers are 'Help me' and 'Thank You.'  The language of gratitude and the language of sobs--common prayers."

All day long, I thought about the language of prayer, the languages that we might not think of as prayer, but they are.

For example, my pastor, Keith Spencer, takes amazing photos and pairs them with Bible verses.  You can see his wonderful work at this blog site.  His process strikes me as a form of prayer, the kind of prayer that praises God and God's creative power.

What other non-word prayers do we offer?

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Called to Health on the Feast Day of St. Luke

I first wrote this post for the Living Lutheran site.  It's been several years since they ran it, so I'm hoping they won't mind if I feature it here.

On October 18, we celebrate the life of St. Luke, a creator, an evangelist, and a healer. Some churches might have a healing service in honor of Luke’s role as patron saint of doctors and surgeons. But St. Luke was so much more: he’s also the patron saint of artists, students, and butchers. He’s given credit as one of the founders of iconography. And of course, he was a writer--both of one of the Gospels and the book of Acts. As we think about the life of St. Luke, let us use his life as a guide for how we can bring ourselves back to health and wholeness.

The feast day of St. Luke offers us a reason to evaluate our own health—why wait until the more traditional time of the new year? Using St. Luke as our inspiration, let’s think about the ways we can promote health of all kinds.

Do we need to schedule some check-ups? October is perhaps most famous for breast cancer awareness month, but there are other doctors that many of us should see on a regular basis. For example, if you get a lot of sun exposure, or if you live in southern states, you should get a baseline check up from your dermatologist.

Many of us don’t need to visit a doctor to find out what we can do to promote better health for ourselves. We can eat more fruits and vegetables. We can drink less alcohol. We can get more sleep. We can exercise and stretch more.

Maybe we need to look to our mental health. If so, Luke can show us the way again.

Luke is famous as the writer of the Gospel of Luke and Acts, but it’s important to realize that he likely didn’t see himself as writing straight history. He was maintaining a record of amazing events that showed evidence of God’s salvation.

It’s far too easy to ignore evidence of God’s presence in the world. We get bogged down in our own disappointments and our deeper depressions. But we could follow the example of Luke and write down events that we see in our own lives and the life of our churches that remind us of God’s grace. Even if it’s a practice as simple as a gratitude journal where each day we write down several things for which we’re grateful, we can write our way back to right thinking.

As we think about St. Luke, we can also look for ways to deepen our spiritual health. In popular imagination, Luke gets credit for creating the first icon of the Virgin Mary. Maybe it’s time for us to try something new.

We could experiment with the visual arts to see how they could enrich our spiritual health. We might choose something historical and traditional, like iconography. Or we might decide that we want to experiment with something that requires less concentration and training. Maybe we want to create a collage of images that remind us of God’s abundance. Maybe we want to meditate on images, like icons, like photographs, that call us to healthy living.

St. Luke knew that there are many paths to health of all sorts. Now, on his feast day, let us resolve to spend the coming year following his example and restoring our lives to a place of better health.


Friday, October 17, 2014

Support Your Local Church Pumpkin Patch

I am part of a church that offers a pumpkin patch every year.  It's a huge undertaking, from the offloading of the pumpkins to the selling of them.

Our church funds a variety of special projects and ongoing ministries with this pumpkin patch.  When we had a traditional Sunday school, funds went there.  We've used the funds to help repair the roof that covers the part of the building that is more used by community groups than by the church..  We continue to use the funds to pay for Vacation Bible School, an event which is attended by more neighborhood children than church member children.

I love the fact that the pumpkin patch itself is a form of community outreach and a service of sorts.  I love that it funds other community services.

So, this week-end, as you prepare for Halloween, drop by a local church pumpkin patch.  Your dollars will go further than if you bought a pumpkin at a grocery store. 

If you're in South Florida and you want to support my church, it's Trinity Lutheran at the corner of 72nd and Pines Blvd, across the street (but on the same side of the street) from the South campus of Broward College.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Monday Report: Two Great NPR Stories

Monday was a day for interesting programming on NPR, programming which has much to say to religious folks.

There was this brief story on the millennial generation and how they give money to charity.  It may or may not surprise you to realize that this generation is distrustful of all sorts of charitable institutions.  This generation needs to feel invested.  And then, the story analyzes new technological platforms and how charities might utilize Facebook and other platforms which might be less familiar to the rest of us.

The highpoint of Monday was this discussion on Diane Rehm's show about the future of the Catholic church.  She assembled a great panel of guests, people who are quite knowledgeable about the Catholic church, some of whom are practicing Catholics.  It was a great discussion about both the future of the church, about religion, and about Catholicism more particularly.

In a time of such bad news, it was wonderful to have the good news contained in these stories.  In a time of quick clips, it was wonderful to have depth and insight.  In a time where religion and religious values are often ridiculed, it was wonderful to see them taken seriously.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for October 19, 2014:

First Reading: Isaiah 45:1-7

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Exodus 33:12-23

Psalm: Psalm 96:1-9 [10-13]

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 99

Second Reading: 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10

Gospel: Matthew 22:15-22

This week's Gospel contains a saying of Jesus that is probably familiar: "Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's" (Mathhew 22, verse 21). Even people who have never set foot inside a church are probably familiar with this saying, although they may attribute it to somebody else, like Shakespeare or Ronald Reagan.

I love how Jesus realizes that the Pharisees have set a trap for him, and he manages to avoid entanglement. This passage also shows Jesus reacting to the legalistic outlook of the spiritual leaders. He seems to tell us not to be so rigid in our formulas of our finances. We know what we must do. We have bills and obligations (among them, caring for the less fortunate); we cannot escape those worldly cares. But in figuring out our tithes and taxes, we should not lose sight of the larger spiritual picture.

God calls us to more than a rigid formula of living. Instead of dividing up our budget into tight categories, we should always be on the lookout for ways to love each other. Some days/months/years, that love might be manifest in monetary ways. But in a way, just writing a check is much too easy. God calls us to be involved with each other's lives. That doesn't mean we need to hop on a plane to personally respond to every huge disaster. Look around--you'll see plenty of opportunities just outside your door.

My mother has a theory about tithing money. She posits that in our society, giving money isn't the same kind of sacrifice that it would be in earlier times. Most of us have more money than we know what to do with. You might disagree, but if you compare your income to the rest of the world's, you are rich beyond compare. I would argue that we buy so much stuff because we have that much disposable income. Do you really need more than one outfit a day? Is your closet overstuffed, like mine is? There's a disconnect.

My mother says that the more precious commodity in our culture is time, and I think she's right. Most of us can barely find time to phone each other. Have you tried to have anyone over for dinner lately? It seems to take the scheduling skills of those people who used to organize Superpower Summits. My mother's theory is that if Jesus spoke directly today, he'd tell us to sacrifice time, not money.

What if you gave 10% of your time? There's 168 hours in a week. If you gave 17.8 hours to God, how would you need to change your life?

And the reality is, that God wants and needs more from us than a mere 18 hours a week. God wants an ongoing relationship with each and every one of us. And that relationship should transform us to do the tough work of transforming creation, of creating the Kingdom of Heaven right here and now.

In these days of financial insecurity, the message of Jesus seems more prescient than ever. If we save up our treasures on earth, moth or rust or inflation or deflation or bad policies or any other kind of ruin you want to name will leave us bankrupt.

The way we live our lives moves us closer to God or further away. If we devote our lives to God, our whole lives, not just an hour on Sunday, then we'll find a relationship that we can count on in good economic times and bad. And that relationship can help us transform not only ourselves, but our families, our communities, everyone we touch.