Sunday, July 23, 2017

Hosting the Camp Counselors for VBS

A few weeks ago, I was struck by the idea that for the first time in years, I wouldn't be helping out with VBS.  This week, it's occurred to me that I am helping, and it may end up being just as labor intensive, although it will be very different.

This year, many fewer of us will actually be helping with VBS itself, in terms of being on site and working with groups of children.  This year, a group of camp counselors from Luther Springs will be running our VBS.  We will have VBS in the day, not in the evenings.  We will have a much smaller group of kids.  It's both strange and a relief.

We have often had more neighborhood kids than children from our own church; we just don't have that many children as part of our church family.  Is VBS a valid ministry, worth the money and time we devote to it?  I know about the studies that show that one common denominator in adults who attend church are that they attended VBS or church camp.  I suspect that those adults were also going to church as children.  I don't know the stats for children who only attend VBS or church camp.

Of course, we're not putting together a VBS week just to have church members in 20 years.  Why are we doing it?   For a variety of reasons:  because we always have, because we feel it's important to these kids at this time, because we've had fun doing it, because we have a core group of people who are public school teachers and thus they have time in the summer.  If that core group didn't exist, those of us with full-time jobs in the summer literally would not have time--or we'd have a very streamlined VBS, with fewer decorations and other elements.

This year, we have camp counselors coming, something we've never done.  We have an empty cottage, so 3 of them will stay here.  I will provide dinner two nights this week.  I'll provide some transportation.  I've already done a lot of shopping and prep work.  I will do some cleaning this afternoon.  I've done laundry so that they will have sheets and towels, and then I will do laundry after they leave.  It will probably end up being the same amount of work as past years, when I've led the arts and crafts--but it feels very different.

My cottage is a historic structure, and it has some quirks.  I am hopeful that they'll be delighted with the lodging--but I'm worried that its flaws will detract from their experience.  Of course, for the most part, they'll just be there to sleep.  Let me also remember that people who are expecting resort-like accommodations don't usually sign up for a summer as camp counselor.

Likewise, I hope they like the meals I've planned.  I put a loaf of bread and peanut butter and jelly in the cottage, along with breakfast foods.  They won't starve.

I think I'm also feeling some anxiousness because we haven't done this before, so I'm not sure what to expect.  The schedule is still a bit loose.  So I'm preparing meals that can sit for awhile. I'm telling myself that all will be well.  And it will.

I also want to remember something one of my VBS planner friends said to me when we had lunch on Friday.  She said that hosting the camp counselors is like hosting missionaries.  It was only later that I reflected how many people I know who worked at church camp who have gone on to work in the Church.  Perhaps these experiences will not only be formational not only for the children who come to VBS, but also for these counselors.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

The Feast Day of Mary Magdalene

Today, we celebrate the life of Mary Magdalene. Take a minute to read the New Testament reading for today: John 20:1-2, 11-18. How interesting to have the Easter story out of sequence, here in the middle of summer. In some ways, we can hear some nuances when these passages come to us at a time that's NOT the end of Holy Week and Lent.

Actually, the verses in between the ones for today's Gospel interest me. After Mary tells the disciples about the empty tomb, several of them race towards the tomb. They look, they assess, and then they go home. It is only Mary who stays behind to weep.

But because she stays behind to weep, to be still for a bit, she gets to be the first to see the risen Lord. The male disciples are first to see the evidence of resurrection, but Mary sees Christ. Soon othrs else will see him, but she is first.

There have been many moves throughout church history to strip Mary of her importance. Many church teachings portray her as a prostitute, as mentally ill, or both. More recently, we've had The DaVinci Code, which has many people talking about the possibility of Jesus having a family with Mary Magdalene. What is it about this woman that pushes our buttons?

The early church was quite unique. Throughout his ministry, Jesus makes clear that women are important. True, no woman is listed as a disciple. But it was women--and their money--that made the ministry of Jesus much easier. It was women--and their money--that kept the early church afloat. But somewhere in the middle ages, history was rewritten to make women seem dangerous, demented, soiled, and stupid.

That's the beauty of having Scripture that's written in our own language, that we can read for ourselves (those of us who are literate forget what a great gift we've been given). We can go back to see what the Scriptures actually say.

The story of Mary Magdalene seems similar. We need to be reminded to stay alert. Busyness is the drug that many of us use to dull our senses. But in our busyness, we forget what's really important. We forget to focus on Christ and living the way he commanded us.

If we're too busy, we might miss Christ altogether. Both the Old and New Testament teach us that God will come to us in forms we least suspect. If we're not careful, we'll assume that we're not needed and go back to our houses. If we're not careful, we won't notice that the gardener is really Jesus.

It's good to be reminded of the resurrection story in the middle of July. Now the year is over half way done. We don't have the magic of spring to renew our spirits. We may be feeling scorched by the weather and by our dashed hopes for the year. It's good to remember the story that we can be part of; it's good to remember that we're promised grace and salvation.

Friday, July 21, 2017

Creativity Report: Thursday Evening

Last night, I got home earlier than I have any other night this week.  I did some writing--a very small bit of writing.  Once I could write a huge chunk of short story, if not the entire short story, in an hour or two.  Now I feel lucky if I get a paragraph or two without feeling despair at not knowing how to write the story.

Next week we are hosting 2 camp counselors who are arriving to help our church lead Vacation Bible School.  Last night I found out that I'll be feeding them 2 nights, which is fine.  After all, when we agreed to host them, I assumed we might be feeding them dinner every night.  This week, my dinners have been my favorite:  wine, crackers, and cheese, which I feel O.K. about since I've been vigilant in portion control.  But that won't do for camp counselors.

I've had some poblano peppers that I bought when I planned to make a mole sauce.  They were on their last days, so I used the impending approach of camp counselors to make the sauce.  Later, I stuck it in the freezer for next week.

I had planned to collage, but I was running out of time.  I decided to go ahead and do it, just to see what would happen.  A few weeks ago, I was cleaning out some shelves, and I found a lot of materials that we kept in anticipation of doing more collaging.  I decided to throw away old calendars.  But I kept the envelopes of images and words that I cut out and saved. 

Last night, I decided that I didn't have to look through every envelope.  I found an old Christmas card that I liked, and I decided it would form the anchor of my collage.  I chose a few phrases, and a few other images.  When I was sorting, I came across a stash of mat boards that we bought at a sale long ago.  I decided on a purple mat board, even before I chose the images.  I love how it all came together:

I do notice that I tend not to collage like other people.  I have a lot of open space in my collages.  If I like the original image, it's hard for me to add other things on the image.  You'll notice that the Christmas card image is untouched, although I let things creep onto the white border.  The lantern had the purple glass.

When I used the modge podge, the images wrinkled a bit, and the blob at the lower right of the Christmas card formed.  I try to see it as part of the process, but my inner perfectionist is not happy.

If I look at this collage as a journaling exercise, it's clear to me what my soul is saying.  I'm ready for Christmas!  I'm also interested in more open spaces, in a different landscape.  What do those turtles mean?  Coming out of my shell or going in?  Wishing my house was more portable?

I didn't spend more than 45 minutes on this project, but I found it immensely satisfying.  Let me remember that for the future.

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Judge Not

My church is off lectionary.  For Sunday, July 23, 2017, we'll be thinking about this text:  Matthew 7:1-5

This famous text has Jesus telling us not to judge, followed by the example of taking the speck of dust out of our own eyes before we try to remove the logs out of the eyes of others.  Along the way we're reminded that we'll be judged in the same way that we judge others.

Some of us should shake in fear at those words.  But this morning, as I read them again, I thought about the way I judge others and the way I judge myself.  Frankly, I'm much harder on myself.  I give others the benefit of the doubt as I remind myself that I can't possibly understand every aspect of what's affecting them.

Meanwhile, in my own head, I hear a chorus of voices that remind me of all the ways I'm not living up to my full potential, of all the ways I've let everyone down.  You might think I need some therapy, and you might be right, but I suspect I'm not alone in this.  I know many people who are far more gentle with each other than they are with themselves.  Just listen to how people talk, and you'll see.

With that in mind, let us return to the text again.  This text is not about the way we should judge.  No, I believe that Jesus is telling us not to waste precious time in judgment.

It's a variation of what one of my most beloved yoga teachers told me long ago.  She caught me looking at a fellow student when I couldn't hold a pose.  She said, "Don't compare yourself to your classmates.  It won't help.  Focus on your own body."  It's wise advice in a variety of contexts.

When we judge, we're comparing.  Maybe we're comparing to a standard that we feel everyone should be attaining.  Maybe we're comparing ourselves to our larger society.  Maybe we're finding ourselves superior.  Maybe we come up lacking.

It's not helpful.  It's not a good use of our time.  Jesus reminds us again and again of our main task:  to love each other and to love God.  Judging doesn't get us there.

Life is very short, and judgmental behavior robs us of many joys.  Let us resolve to stop judging each other.  Let us resolve to stop judging ourselves.  Let us look at the world with a different set of glasses:  let us look through the lenses of love.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The lessons for Sunday, July 23, 2017:

First Reading: Isaiah 44:6-8

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Genesis 28:10-19a

First Reading (Alt.): Wisdom of Solomon 12:13, 16-19

Psalm: Psalm 86:11-17

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 139: 1-11, 22-23 (Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24 NRSV)

Second Reading: Romans 8:12-25

Gospel: Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43

Again this week we have agricultural metaphors--what an intriguing scenario, to have an enemy that sneaks into your fields to sow weeds, instead of just destroying the field outright. And what an interesting response of the owner: to let the wheat and the weeds grow, to separate the useful from the useless later, once the growing is done and the reaping finished.

The traditional response to this Gospel sees this story as a metaphor about Judgement Day. My problem with that metaphor is that weeds don't turn into wheat, and I don't like the implications of that. The parable comes much too close to advocating predestination for my Lutheran sensibilities to be happy with this interpretation.

Luckily, humans aren't solely weeds or wheat. I know that there are some weeks where I'm more of a weed than anything that is of agricultural use. And I'm the pesky kind of weed; I'm not the kind of weed that grows quietly alone; I impede the spiritual progress of others, strangling and choking and making life miserable. I console myself by telling myself that we all have those days or weeks or seasons where our weedy natures take over.

But I can’t take too much consolation. These summer Gospel readings remind us that we don’t get to sleep in the soil forever. We don't get to loll around in our wheatfield, hoping that we're one of the chosen ones and not one of the weeds. At some point, the wheat will be separated from the weeds.

Let us return to the idea of sowing and seeds, a useful metaphor in so many ways. How can we sow seeds now that will blossom into good gardens later? There are as many ways to do this as there are vegetables in the garden right now in many parts of the country.

Maybe we could pray more. Maybe we could resolve to be cheerful, no matter what the day brings. Maybe we could give one or two percent more of our income away. Maybe we could remember to say “please” and “thank you.”

Our basic task is to reflect God's light into a world that dims each day. How can you best do that?

If you feel disheartened, like your weedy self is too firmly rooted, remember those who have gone before you. One of Christianity's most successful evangelists, Paul, was killing Christians before he converted. If God found a use for Paul, God can use your seedling talents too.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Beggar's Bowl

Each year when I visit Mepkin Abbey, I go to the huge sculptures carved when two ancient trees toppled.

I am struck by this woman and her beggar's bowl.

Each year, the bowl holds something different.  This year, it was a painted rock amongst the coins and stones.

Some years, there are more coins.

One year, there was a cross.

Another year, in deepest winter, the bowl held Spanish moss and petals from a decaying flower:

I think of her face each time I see a homeless person at an intersection, a cardboard sign instead of a begging bowl.

I think of the weariness carved into wood, the weariness we all carry:

Monday, July 17, 2017

Epiphany Stars Still Guiding Us

Last week I led worship service.  As the late service ended, I stood at the back at the door to shake hands of departing parishioners. 

One woman said to me, "I still have those things you handed out one of the last times you were in charge."  At first I had no idea what she meant, and she said, "Those things with the special word or phrase on them."

I said, "Do you mean the Epiphany stars?"

She did; I wrote about it in this blog post back when I led the Epiphany service.  I wrote a word or a phrase on a star, created a bag of stars, and we passed the bag around letting people pull a star out of the bag.  The idea is that the star will guide us through the year.

I asked the woman what word was on the star.  She said, "Say no."

I said, "And have you been saying no?"

She said no.  Happily, I didn't see the humor in that, so I didn't laugh; she was serious, after all.

I said, "Well you still have half a year."

That sent me back to my two words:  in the practice session, I pulled out "Listen."  During the worship service, I pulled out "Say yes."

How have I been doing?  I've been trying.

I was glad to have had that encounter with the parishioner.  For one thing, I'm glad that she still remembered the experience, half a year later.  And I'm glad that she reminded me of my own stars.  I have been aware of my tendency to say no much too quickly, but often, when I change my mind to say yes, I'm glad.  And like everyone else, my attention span fragments in many directions these days.  It's good to be reminded of the need to be present and listen.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

Good Reading for Sleepless Nights

The last few nights have been somewhat sleepless.  I'm the first one on the list of people the alarm company calls when the alarm goes off at school.  We've had calls two nights in a row about the same classroom.  The first night, Friday night, it took me 2 hours to fall back asleep.  Last night I had trouble sleeping, but when the call came, I did manage to fall back asleep.

The first night, I got up and read two chapters of the last Harry Potter novel.  I'm finding myself frustrated in the same ways (moments of delight at the inventiveness punctuated by long spells of boredom when I think about scenes that could be eliminated or condensed) that I was with the first 2 novels, and I don't know if I'm up for 700+ more pages of this.

Last night, I read Love, Henri:  Letters on the Spiritual Life, a collection of Henri Nouwen's letters.  What a delight!  I'm not done yet, but it has captivated me--I can't wait to return to it.

I had hoped that it would be this kind of reading experience.  I've always loved Nouwen's journals more than his more intentional writing.  And when I've read work pulled from letters he wrote, I've loved that too. 

His letters are full of warmth and honesty, no matter the audience.  They're also full of good advice, even now, decades after they were written for someone specific.  Here's an example:  ". . . we would do well to think about what pastoral care for nostalgic people means.  After all, don't we all desire to return to paradise?" (p. 8).

I was also intrigued by his work/academic/pastor life trajectory:  not serious to get tenure at some schools, not theologically minded enough, not focused on regular pastoral life, so hard to please everyone.

The beginning material by the woman who compiled the text also provided fascinating insight into his writing life, his letter writing life.  He was so meticulous, and even though his letters may talk about how long it has taken him to respond, he was responding to lots of people and staying connected.

I wish I could say that after reading his work, I fell into a blissful, non-worried sleep, but that was not the case.  I read his book and wanted to write letters or theology or stay up late praying.  To me, that's the mark of a wonderful book.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Sing of Bastille Day and Birthdays

Today is my birthday. It's also Bastille Day, the French equivalent (sort of ) of our Independence Day. I see this historical event as one of many that launched us on the road to equality. It's an uneven success to be sure. More of us in the first world enjoy more liberty than those in developing nations. But that thirst for freedom and equality found some expression in the French Revolution, and I could argue that much liberation theology has some rootedness in that soil (yes, it would be a problematic argument, I know).

It's also Woody Guthrie's birthday.

I share my birthday with many famous people (Irving Stone, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Gerald Ford), but I've always been happiest to share my birthday with Woody Guthrie. I see Woody Guthrie as one of the unsong (ha ha) liberation theologians.

I've always asked my students if they're familiar with his music, and they always say they're not. Then I sing a bit of "This Land Is Your Land," and they realize that they do know his work.

Unfortunately, the most radical verses of that song are often not sung:

"In the squares of the city, In the shadow of a steeple;
By the relief office, I'd seen my people.
As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking,
Is this land made for you and me?

As I went walking, I saw a sign there,
And on the sign there, It said "no trespassing." [In another version, the sign reads "Private Property"]
But on the other side, it didn't say nothing!
That side was made for you and me. "

Throughout his life, Woody Guthrie showed a compassion for the poor and the dispossessed that we see so rarely from famous/talented/artistic people. He also showed an amazing capacity for nurturing the talents of the next generation (most notably, Bob Dylan and later, Bruce Springsteen and U2). We could argue about his Huntington's disease: what was responsible for what? We could talk about his womanizing and his abandonment of his children, and I'm not arguing that he gets a free pass on that behavior because of his disease or because of his artistic talent.

I am saying that his lifelong radicalism impresses me. His lifelong commitment to his art impresses me. His struggle to be a better family man, requiring a fresh start again and again, impresses me. His ability to create art in spite of his lack of formal training and education, impresses me.

He has written songs that school children sing, songs that rock and roll folks sing, songs that invade my sleep and sweeten my dreams.

If I was the person in charge of modern feast days, I'd canonize Woody Guthrie.  His songs point the way to living a more solidly ethical life.  His life does not, except by example of some things not to do.  And yet, at the end, despite his wanderings, the love of his life, Marjorie, continued to care about him.

It's easier to love someone like Woody Guthrie who has a brain disease that makes him behave badly.  It would be much harder if he was a jerk just because he was a jerk.

You might ask me why he deserves a feast day.  I would point out his prolific output, his variety of types of songs, his embrace of dispossessed people of all sorts, his embrace of freedom.  I would argue that his music can lead us to the social justice actions that God commands.  I could make a case that his music leads us to God, both the songs he wrote, and the songs inspired by his life and work.

What better person to make a saint?  I'm not exactly serious, because I know most people could make a fairly lengthy list of people who deserve sainthood more.

But for today, let's celebrate a musical legend.  Let's celebrate the man who gave us the line "This land was made for you and me."  Let's sing!

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Love Each Other as You Have Loved the Monastery Dog

Near the end of our June retreat at Mepkin Abbey, I said, "I'm going to go home and love my husband the way we all love the monastery dog."

When I first met the monastery dog, I felt sorry for her.  I heard the story about how she appeared at the monastery in very bad shape, with a chain around her neck.  The monks took her in and taught her to trust the humans that show up at the monastery.

When I first met the dog, I thought about all the children who would never be part of her world.  But she has a never-ending supply of visitors who would likely pet her.  The monks take care of her. 

I'm intrigued by how most people respond to the dog.  Almost everyone pets her head as she comes up to them with her wagging tail.  Many people kneel her level, all the better to be with her.  She seems to put most people in a better mood, and they respond to her accordingly.

She makes it easy to love her, in a way that humans don't always.  But how would the world change if we treated each and every human in the loving, soothing way that we treat the monastery dog?

I've had similar insights as I've watched toddlers move through the world.  I remember seeing a toddler in the process of having a crying meltdown in the parking lot--I'll never forget seeing the adult who was with her drop to her knees and talk in soothing tones.

If we treated everyone that way, what a better world we would live in!

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 15, 2017:

First Reading: Isaiah 55:10-13

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Genesis 25:19-34

Psalm: Psalm 65:[1-8] 9-14 (Psalm 65:[1-8] 9-13 NRSV)

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 119:105-112

Second Reading: Romans 8:1-11

Gospel: Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

This Gospel returns us to one of my favorite metaphors: the seed. When I first read this Gospel lesson as a child, I read it as an indictment of the seeds. Clearly some were just bad or worthless. Now, as an adult, I see this Gospel as being primarily about the ground. We've all got lots of potential, but some of us just aren't in the right kind of ground to flourish.

Unlike seeds, we can move. I'm not necessarily talking about a literal move, although the idea of moving to be near a great religious community doesn't strike me as absurd, the way it once did. Many of us move for much more stupid reasons.

Unfortunately, given the state of housing and job markets, many of us are as rooted as plants need to be. However, there are still many things we can do to enrich the soil in which we find ourselves.

The first thing we should all do is take a long, hard look at the people with whom we spend time. Are these people who are bringing out our best traits? Or do we have negative friends, people who encourage us to gossip, to tear others down, to be angry or sour? Perhaps it's time to expand our network of friends.

Think about your daily schedule. What activities leave you feeling icky? For example, many of us start our days by watching the local news. What would happen if you turned off the news and read a chapter of the Bible? You'd probably leave the house feeling calmer. I know that you'll tell me you only watch the news to get the weather and the traffic. Well, there are better ways to get that information. The local news carries such horrific stories, and our bodies can't handle that stress.

Likewise, what do you listen to in the car? Does it soothe you or drive your heart rate through the ceiling? Invest in something that calms you (a CD, a podcast, a tape). Get something that reminds you of who you're supposed to be. I've noticed that when I'm listening to Godspell, I'm less likely to curse my fellow drivers, and the lyrics stay with me through the day.

Think about your charitable activities. Just as we tithe money, we should tithe time. You'll feel better if you can do more for others. Even if you don't like the populations we usually think of when we think of charity, you can find someone who needs you. Read books to elementary school kids. Or, if you don't want to deal with humans, go to a food bank and sort food. Or call charitable agencies and offer to do free data inputting.

And don't forget that humans have a need for retreat. Build mini-retreats into your day:  find some green space and go there to pray; read something inspiring, if you can't leave your desk; find web sites with inspiring material and visit; close the door to your families, don't answer the phone, and practice deep breathing. And think about a longer retreat. Summer camp isn't just for kids any more. And if you can't go during summer, many church camps have year-round programming, often at very affordable prices. Or go to a monastery, many of which often will just ask for an offering.

And know that there are times in your life where your heart won't be fertile soil. But if gardening teaches us anything, it's that soil can be redeemed--and if you want to keep on with this metaphor: what redeems soil? Poop! Lots and lots of poop! So give thanks for all the poop that falls into your life and pray that it transforms the soil of your heart. The redemption process goes faster if you participate. And teeny changes can lead to incredible rewards. Here, in the sweltering days of summer, think about one change you can make and commit to a weekly practice until the weather cools off.

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Buttons, Blog Posts, and Prayer Ideas

When I was a child, I loved my grandmother's button box.  I'm sure it baffled her.  My grandmother came of age in the Depression.  She would patch and repair a piece of clothing, and once it was no longer usable, she'd cut off the buttons and save them.  She sewed much of the family clothes, and buttons came in packs that included more buttons than she needed.  She saved them.

She didn't see them as objects of beauty, the way that I did.  She didn't understand why I loved to run my fingers through the buttons or let them fall out of my hands in a stream. 

She saved more buttons than one seamstress would ever use in a lifetime.  This morning, I came across this idea in this post that uses buttons as a prayer device.  It's geared towards children, but as with many good ideas, it could be used with a whole congregation.

On Sunday, I wove a piece of yarn through the prayer loom and reflected that I was seeing new yarn there.  For awhile, I wondered if I was the only one who used it.  But clearly, I'm not.  That idea, too, was one I first discovered in a post on the Internet.  For more on how we used it with VBS children, see this blog post.  For more on how we used it for Maundy Thursday, see this blog post.

This morning I am grateful for all the great ideas that are out there, just waiting for us to discover them.  I'm grateful that we're integrating different ways of prayer into our worship services.  When I was young, they'd have been limited to retreat exercises or camp.

I'm also missing my grandmother and her button box.  Even though I now have a button box of my own, I wish I had hers too.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Walter Wink and the Modern Congregation

At my church, when our pastor goes away, he tries to find one of us to preach.  It saves our tiny congregation the cost of a supply pastor, plus some of us have considered going to seminary and have some advanced training, so he has congregational resources.

If I'm in town, I say yes when my pastor asks me to preach.  I understand that it's a rare opportunity for lay person in most congregations, and I think that having some additional voices is a bonus.  I often don't know the text in advance, because we're often off lectionary.

When I realized that I'd be preaching on the part of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew that instructs us to turn the other cheek, give up our garments, and walk the extra mile, I knew that I would bring in Walter Wink.  While I don't think his interpretation is particularly radical, I know that it's different from what most of us learned along the way.

Weeks ago, I told my pastor what I planned to do:  "I plan to talk about active resistance that keeps us alive vs. passivity (which has been a gospel too often preached to those who suffer violence.  Reading Walter Wink on this subject changed my life!"

He responded:  "Great - way too many folks fail to grasp the implications of these texts as active resistance."

I also made a point of telling the congregation that I had told our pastor that I would talk about Walter Wink and the book Engaging the Powers, which was published by a Lutheran publishing house--I wanted them to know that I wasn't going out on a shaky limb all by myself.

I expected people to be more upset than they were.  On the contrary, they thanked me for explaining the backstory to the text, about how the right cheek had significance--Jesus specifies the right cheek, which means it's a backhanded slap meant for inferiors.  If I turn the other cheek, I'm putting the aggressor in an impossible place--he can't hit me, and I've said through my actions that I will be treated with dignity. 

It's the same with being forced to walk a mile.  Modern readers wouldn't realize that the subtext is that it's a Roman soldier forcing a person to walk a mile carrying gear--but only a mile, because Rome fancied itself to be civilized and a soldier could be punished if the civilian walked more than a mile.

We also looked at the passage about praying for enemies.  I didn't want to make assumptions about how we all feel about U.S. political leaders. 

I said, "I'll use Vladimir Putin, and you fill in the blank thinking of the person in politics who most fills your Facebook feed with anger and fuming." I thought it was an elegant approach. I said that I needed to remember to pray for Putin, not just to be infuriated by his actions. I needed to remember that God loves Vladimir Putin every bit as much as God loves me. I need to try to see the face of Christ in Putin, as hard as it may be.

I talked a bit about God and free will and demanding that God take action on social justice issues. I said, "I know some of you are now expecting that lightning will come from the sky and strike me dead for presuming to talk to God that way. But we're allowed to do that--read your Psalms, if you don't believe me. I'm allowed to say, 'Hey, God, you need to do something about your man Putin."

I ended by reminding people that we're not put on earth to suffer and die so that we get a good spot in Heaven.  No, Jesus comes to tell us that the Kingdom of God is being created right now, and we can be part.  I said, "And that, my friends, is the Good News that Jesus proclaims again and again."

I was much more eloquent, and I can't quite capture it here.  I think that's because the Holy Spirit was talking through me--before I said it, I wasn't exactly sure how I was going to end.  And suddenly the words flowed.

It was one of the best services I've ever led.  In part, it was because I had a great text.  And I've come to realize that there are days when it all goes well--or badly--for no reason I can discern.

I'm grateful that Sunday's service went well--as my pastor said, it's an important message for people to hear, this necessity of resisting evil in ways that don't make us evil and part of the problem.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Cycles, both Moon and Seasons

As I've been watching the moon move to fullness, I've been thinking about the last time I saw the full moon:  when I was at Mepkin Abbey.  A month ago, I'd have already been on the road for a few hours.

The night of June 9, we were all trying to see the full moon rise, but our view was obscured by trees and clouds.  We could see an orange orb trying to break through as we walked back up from the river.  I stayed up longer than my friend and walking partner.

One of our fellow retreatents decided to stretch out on the vast grassy area to watch the moon.  I didn't have her dedication.  She reported that it was glorious.

On Saturday morning, as I walked to the refectory for breakfast at 5:15 a.m., I tried to take pictures of the moon as it was setting:

A monk in a wheelchair broke the time of silence to tell me that I had missed the moon at its best, when it rose last night, so orange.  I whispered, "I saw it too."

I thought about how we are all bewitched by the moon, even as most of us have religious practices that don't root us in the natural world.  But the monks at Mepkin Abbey may be more rooted in the natural world than the rest of us, as they do some small scale farming.

Soon I will head to church to lead services today so that my pastor can enjoy some vacation time.  When I agreed to do it, July 9 seemed so far into the future.  As I'm thinking about the fact that we're at the halfway point of the year, I realize that soon our attention will shift again.  I'm already seeing displays of school supplies--can Halloween be far behind?

Saturday, July 8, 2017

From the Detritus, A Mid-Summer Art Project Plan

Last night, as my spouse talked on the phone, I tried to sort through some shelves.  We moved into this house 4 years ago, and I haven't touched many of the things I put onto the shelves since then.  I wanted to make sure that we still needed those things.

What did I find?  Lots of detritus of technology past.  In one packet of stuff that came with a computer that I no longer remember, I found a CD that I can load onto my computer which will let me have a free trial of AOL for 30 days--how many generations of computer software ago was that?

On a shelf of even older technology, I looked through what I assumed would be blank paper journals.  Lo and behold, some of them had writing.  From 2007, I found a log I kept when I was first Assistant Chair of General Education--just in case anyone ever asked me to justify myself.  I decided not to look through that one too closely.

I found a journal that I forgot I ever kept.  Long ago, before my current pastor was my pastor, he asked me to be part of a group he formed to help him with his dissertation, which looked at how we might encounter God in the outdoors.  Our group went to various locations, experienced the location, wrote in our journals, and then discussed.  We walked around the lake at the community college, the Hollywood Beach Broadwalk, and a labyrinth at an Episcopal school.  Once our pastor was done with our journals for his dissertation writing, he gave them back to us.  Fascinating!

I found a lot of materials that we kept in anticipation of doing more collaging.  I decided to throw away old calendars.  But I kept the envelopes of images and words that I cut out and saved--and I've developed a mid-summer art project plan.  I will collage with these materials that I collected at least 5 years ago.  I'll also go through the pile of magazines that I have in the living room.

So, this will be a different kind of collaging.  I've always collaged with images that spoke to me from magazines--I've never used images that I collected years ago.  Will it be an experience of time looping back on itself?  Or just a different curating of images from which to choose?

Stay tuned!

Friday, July 7, 2017

Some Cures for the Summer Doldrums

So, here we are, after Independence Day, on the long, slow slide of summer into fall.  And yet, for those of us church goers, we don't have much to look forward to, in terms of festivals or changing paraments or anything that can punctuate these doldrums.

Let me remind myself of some of the summer joys that I still need to enjoy and how they can help illuminate an inner life.

--I have yet to light a fire in the fire pit.  In some ways, now that we're into the months where the evening low temperatures never dip below 80 degrees, a fire makes no sense.  But it might lift my mood, as I thought about flame as metaphor for the Divine.  Or I could toast marshmallows and remember summer camping trips.

--Some of my friends are helping out at summer camps across the nation.  While I can't do that, let me think about elements of camp that I could do on my own:  some devotional time, some singing of camp songs perhaps.  Maybe it's time for a different kind of arts and crafts!

--Let me enjoy the fruits of the season, especially melons.  Let me rejoice in the diversity that God has created.

--There's still time for a barbecue or two or three.  Down here, we grill year round.  But maybe I could add some seasonal treats to the grill:  corn on the cob comes to mind.

--I need to swim more.  I need to go to the ocean at least once to feel the power of the sea.  I need to remember that while my body can't do everything it once can do, it can do a lot.  Let me also remember to stretch.

--Summer is a great time for good books.  Let me remember to read.  So many books, so little time.

--Let me take advantage of longer stretches of light--we're losing about a minute of light each day.  It's a slow leak.  Let me watch sunrises and sunsets and think about how to be the light of the world.

Thursday, July 6, 2017

In Search of Our Grandmother's Gardens

Stranded in South Florida, I long for hydrangeas like my grandmother used to grow.

A poet in California misses the hibiscus that took over her Cuban grandmother's Miami yard.

I live in a climate where orchids grow out of what they can grab from the air.

But I want the foliage of my youth.

God smiles at our longings and keeps creating in hopes of delighting us.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Meditation on Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 9, 2017:

First Reading: Zechariah 9:9-12

First Reading (Semi-cont.): Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

Psalm: Psalm 145:8-15 (Psalm 145:8-14 NRSV)

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 45:11-18 (Psalm 45:10-17 NRSV)

Psalm (Alt.): Song of Solomon 2:8-13 (Semi-continuous)

Second Reading: Romans 7:15-25a

Gospel: Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

In this week's Gospel, we see the mystical Jesus, the one of bizarre stories and metaphors that confuse. The first part of this week's Gospel has those strange comparisons calling us children in the marketplace, and then Jesus reminds us that he and John are the latest in a long line of people sent by God to get our attention. And then the Gospel ends with that strange bit about easy yokes and light burdens, when the very definition of yoke and burden encompass experiences that aren't easy and light.

Maybe in these days of rising prices, you're feeling the more traditional definition of yoke and burden, a strangling and a crushing sensation. Maybe you're weary of the world's problems and the inability of governments to even attempt to solve them. Maybe you wish for a savior to show up in our troubled times. But then you'd have to wonder if we'd even notice, in our world of noise and distraction.

Sometimes, when I feel most bleak, I like to return to the words of the Old Testament prophets. It's good to remember that no matter how terrible our historic age seems, it's not really a new situation. This week's reading from Zechariah commands us: "Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope."

That command is our burden and our yoke. We must be prisoners of hope. We are called to commit to resurrection. That doesn't stop with our belief in a resurrected Lord. That's just one sign, among a galaxy of signs, of a God who creates and recreates the cosmos daily.

In our deepest despair, we must remember that we're Resurrection People. To me, that's one of the beliefs that separates Christianity from the other major religions. We don't believe in a fixed universe. We don't believe that we're doomed. We don't believe that we have to accept our lot with stoic resignation and wait for a better life--in a future lifetime, in Heaven, but not right now.

No, our burden and our yoke is that God calls us into partnership in this remodeling of the world into one that is more in line with God's vision and plan. Could God just step in and order it to be so? Perhaps. But God didn't create that kind of universe. For whatever reason, God found it much more interesting to design a world in which we have free will. We can put our necks into the yoke that God offers us and discover that what appears to be a burden is, in fact, a blessing that transforms us as we transform the world.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Declaring Freedom

Yesterday I made copies of the Declaration of Independence.  As I gave out granola bars and fruit, I said, "I have granola bars, I have fruit, I have copies of the Declaration of Independence--all you need to get your holiday week-end started out right."

A few students took a copy, which made me happy.  But even if few people took my hint and my handout, I'm glad that I could be there to remind us all that there's more to Independence Day than having the day off, than wearing patriotic colors, than having a cookout or enjoying fireworks (or comforting our pets and PSTD sufferers who do not enjoy fireworks).

I think we often forget what these founding parents risked as they launched this fight. I think we forget that the odds were stacked against them. I love these stories of the fight for justice. And to my friends who would tell me of the imperfections of the American story, I would concede some points. But to me, the important thing is that we continue to try to get it right. We continue to try to set free the oppressed and to keep the lamps of liberty lit. We acknowledge the times we've gotten it all frightfully wrong (slavery, the genocide of the Native Americans), but we keep trying to get it right. I see Independence Day as an interesting point where Liberation Theology meets politics and revolution and the world will never be the same.

Today is a great day to be inspired by those men who signed the Declaration of Independence on this day in 1776.  They pledged their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor, so great was their belief in what they were doing.  It's a good day to think about our commitments, our values, what we hold most true.

Here's an interesting thing to ponder on this Independence Day: for what would you be willing to pledge your life, your fortune, and your sacred honor?

Today let us say prayers of thanks for those who have done the hard work of fighting for liberties of all sorts.  Let us pray for those who are still oppressed.  Let us pledge allegiance to our God who sets us free.

Monday, July 3, 2017

When Your Church Is Overamplified

I've joked, but only half jokingly, that my current church will turn me into a Quaker.  There's something about our occasionally over-amplified sanctuary that makes the idea of sitting together in silence incredibly appealing.

Yesterday we got to church, and although I usually go to the interactive service in the hall, I decided to sit in the sanctuary and do some meditative drawing while the choir rehearsed.  But after 20 minutes, I had a ringing headache.  I'm not sure whether someone had adjusted the controls on our various microphones and speakers or whether I was just in a sensitive state. 

I mentioned it to the choir, who made adjustments.  But by then, it was too late.  It took hours for my headache to go away--hours and aspirin when I got home. 

I suggested that at some point, they try an unamplified approach.  The woman who plays the flute said, "But then you couldn't hear us."

I suspect that we could.  Maybe people would actually quiet down when the choir was performing.  Maybe with the choir unamplified, the rest of us in the congregation would feel the need to sing.

By the end of yesterday's service, I was yearning for a very quiet, unamplified, contemplative service--preferably held in a cool, dark sanctuary.

Sunday, July 2, 2017

National Holidays and Worship

Will your church be celebrating Independence Day today, this Sunday before the national holiday in the U.S.?  Will you sing patriotic songs?  Will you think about how the national story intersects with God's story?

I understand the appeal of this holiday and why we'd want to bring it into our worship services, but still, part of me shudders.  Too many churches throughout our nation's short history have tumbled into the idea that God has chosen this nation for special things, and it's then a short trip to thinking that our nation can do no wrong.  And we know that's not true--right?

I would prefer that we celebrate the creation of the Constitution.  Everyone can foment revolution, although happily, not everyone does.  But it takes a special group of people to create a document that leads to good government, a document so flexible that it's still useful over two hundred years after its creation.

If we must mix national holidays into our religious practice, celebrating the Constitution would make more sense than celebrating the beginning of a war.  The Constitution, after all, is what guarantees us the right to practice our religion.  The Constitution, much more so than the Declaration of Independence, is what gives us our freedom.

I do love the way the Declaration of Independence ends:  "And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor."

As we approach this national holiday, it's worth considering the types of causes to which we would mutually pledge our lives, our money, and our sacred honor.  The people who signed this declaration knew the stakes couldn't be any higher.

What holds the same importance to us, here in the early part of the twenty-first century?

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Visions of God

This week I plan to write a short story about a woman who teaches Animation at a for-profit art school.  It will be about a research oriented, facts-based, very cerebral person who starts having dreams about God--God always looks the same, like a female quilter (I think she'll look like a frumpy, middle-aged woman, because if I made her Indian or African-American, that might be stereotypical).  God will tell her to repair the frayed fabric, and the main character won't be sure of what to do exactly.

On Thursday, I decided to work in Mepkin Abbey.  The main character will have a friend who is like me:  a Lutheran married woman who loves monasteries and celebrates saints' feast days.  The friend will invite the main character to join her at Mepkin Abbey to talk about the dreams she's been having.

I've been thinking about how we think about God for a long time now.  In college, I spent lots of time thinking about how society might change if we viewed God as female.  But what kind of female?

If we view God as a kind grandmother, that's not as upsetting to the status quo as if we view God as a fierce warrior.  God as a mother bird sheltering us under her wing--that's a fairly standard response to a request for female imagery of God.  But God in her studio, working so intently that she forgets to feed the children--we don't see that vision very often, or ever.

Now I'm trying to enlarge my vision of God even further, but moving beyond an anthropomorphic picture of God doesn't come naturally to me.  I've tried thinking of God as a physical force like gravity or electricity or ocean waves.  I've tried using animal imagery or plant imagery when I think of God.  These ideas don't come naturally.

I realize that people who have always viewed God as Father have a similar struggle when trying to think of God as non-male.  I try to have sympathy.

Lately, as humans have expanded our idea of gender, as we try to move beyond a binary idea of gender, I've been trying to think of God as more fluid too.  Our view of God as Trinitarian, as 3 in 1, helps here.  Many of us have always viewed God as unfixed, although we might not have realized that we've been thinking that way.

What would happen if we could unmoor our minds from visions of God that we've already had?

Friday, June 30, 2017

Feeding the Flock

--I've spent the week thinking about students and hunger--but not the hunger for knowledge.  No, I've been thinking of statistics and anecdotes that talk about college students, many more of whom are facing hunger and homelessness than we would suspect.

--It's been a successful week of handing out food to returning students, primarily granola bars and fruit to our morning students.  Even the ones who have plenty of food at home are likely to forgo breakfast in the morning rush to get to class.  I liked being there to greet them and offer food.

--Our new campus executive director arrived on campus yesterday when I was greeting students and passing out food.  Later I met with him, and we discussed challenges on campus.  I talked about needing to increase retention and to convince students to stay in school.  I said, "So that's why you saw me handing out granola bars this morning."  He nodded and said, "Good, good."

I've worked for other people who would have immediately totaled up the cost of granola bars and wondered if it was worth it.  I'm glad we didn't have to have that conversation yesterday; I do realize that it may come later.

--Yesterday I submitted a proposal to be a presenter at a conference that I'm required to attend.  When my proposal was accepted, which means I don't have to pay the $140 conference fee, I immediately thought about how many granola bars I could buy.

--I've also been thinking of other ways to surreptitiously feed students.  I know that many students feel shame about not having enough.  I've thought of buying peanut butter and bread and putting it on the counter in the student lounge.  I've also thought about having a crock pot of soup--something cheap and nutritious.  I wasn't thinking of always having those available--but at least once a week, to have something out and available for students who might be hungry.  And it wouldn't take much to always have a fruit bowl on the counter.  I've been surprised by how many people are taking bananas this week.

--I've thought about the food pantry that we used to run at a former campus.   Finding storage for the food at my current campus would be a problem.  I have a vision for ready-to-go food bags that students could grab--instead of the food pantry at my old school that had a wide variety of food.

--Am I crazy to be spending so much mental energy on this project of mine?  Some might say my time would be better spent by tracking down students who aren't attending--and I do plan to do that with each progressive week.

--As I've thought about the past few days and all my various thoughts about food, I've wondered not only if I am crazy, but if this is God speaking to me.  I've thought of Jesus saying, "Feed my sheep."  I've rejoiced in my corporate credit card.  I will keep on with these projects until someone tells me not to do it anymore--and then I'll explain why we must.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Hunger and Hospitality

I am thinking about the monastic practice of hospitality and how that practice translates to other, non-monastic, non-overtly religious settings.  I'm thinking about the small college campus where I work.

I'm also thinking about the intersection between hospitality and food.  We've always been a hospitable campus:  when you get off the elevator into our lobby, you'll be greeted by at least one person at the front desk.

Of course, that's partly hospitality and partly safety.  We want to make sure that we know who has arrived, and we want to make sure that visitors know that we know.

I have been impressed with the way we greet returning students with the start of each quarter, but yesterday, I decided to go a step further.  For the morning students, I bought granola bars, bananas, and tiny, seedless oranges; I think they're clementines, but they go by lots of names now.  For the evening students, I put the fruit back out along with plates of cookies that a friend of mine picked up at a Winn-Dixie going out of business sale (I have 4 cases of cookies, and each case holds at least 16 packages, so I have plenty to distribute).

I got lots of positive feedback throughout the day.  I heard that students loved having food and loved the atmosphere.  That's one major reason why I did it.

I also did it because I know that students across the nation are more at risk of food scarcity.  I know that students are often rushed in the morning and even if they have food at home, they often arrive to campus having had no breakfast.  I'm also looking for ways to help those students who could use a few more food opportunities throughout the week.

But I'm mainly looking for these kinds of opportunities to create a sense of warmth and hospitality.  I want our school campus to have the kind of effect on students that Jan Richardson describes in a recent blog post:  "My experiences in Ireland gave me a new glimpse of the power of welcome, of what can happen when someone gathers us in and invites us to be at home when we are not at home, or have had to leave our home, or do not know where home is."

Many of our students are moving through harsh landscapes where they are not loved or affirmed.  I want our campus to be a shelter in the storms that swirl around them.

Can granola bars do that?  Yes, if they're part of a larger, intentional vision, one that Jesus taught us so long ago and that monks have continued to embrace.  You can't address deeper hungers if you don't address the more immediate physical hunger.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, July 2, 2017:

 First Reading (Semi-cont.): Genesis 22:1-14

Psalm: Psalm 89:1-4, 15-18

Psalm (Semi-cont.): Psalm 13

Second Reading: Romans 6:12-23

Gospel: Matthew 10:40-42

This week's Gospel reading has the flavor of the theme that Jesus develops more thoroughly in the 25th chapter of Matthew--that reading where Jesus reminds us that as we treat the least of our fellow humans, that is how we treat Jesus. This tiny Gospel reading reminds us of some of the themes Jesus returns to again and again: stay alert and watchful. Treat everyone as if they're God in disguise.  Keep our Christian priorities always in the front of our vision, so that we know what's important.

If I wrote a modern paraphrase, I might say something like this: Why do you swoon over supermodels and superathletes? What good do they bring into the troubled world? Why are you not searching out the words of the wise ones among you? Why do you neglect your duties to the next generation?

When I was younger and not surrounded by multiple types of media, it seemed easier to ignore the siren calls of the larger world. I remember a world before cable TV: we had four channels, and when we lived in Montgomery, Alabama, we could sometimes see a snowy version of one of Ted Turner's superchannels out of Atlanta. Little did we know that we were seeing what would become one of the cornerstones of the cable world. Even in the early days of cable, one's viewing options only expanded to 10-40 channels, and then, as now, half of those were just dreadful creations formed to take advantage of cheap airwaves.

At graduation a few years ago, I listened in shock as our graduation speaker told the graduates that there was no Internet 15 years ago. Of course there was. But there wasn't a widespread World Wide Web, so the medium was text based and not as user friendly. Unless we were at a university dedicated to the technology, it was slow and clunky. Therefore, we weren't as prone to let it suck away our lives.

Now we're surrounded by electronic information, media, and gadgets. Of course, in some ways, it's invaluable. It's much easier to research any subject from the comfort of my computer--unlike the old days, when I'd have to go to a library. It's easier to keep in touch and communicate, at least for those of us plugged in. I've often wondered if Christian communities online can be as valuable--even more valuable--in terms of keeping each other centered, grounded and on track. Are we headed towards virtual communion? Is that possible? What would it look like?

But of course, I wouldn't be the first to point out all the ways the technology can lead us astray. We spend our days dealing with e-mail instead of doing real work. In our quest to be connected, we often let our connections in the real, human world slide.

The Gospel for today reminds us that there are rewards for righteous living. Traditionally, Christian communities (at least in the last 300 years) have translated those rewards as coming in the afterlife. But we shouldn't overlook that righteous, connected living has rewards for us in our lives right here and now. We will be able to recognize the prophets and disciples that Jesus promises to send. We will be able to discern the presence of the Holy Spirit. We will not neglect our duties to the young and disadvantaged. We will drink from the streams of living water and be able to know what nourishes us and what saps our strength.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Different Approaches to Vacation Bible School

I was reading past blog posts, and I realized that during most summers, in late June, I'd be involved in Vacation Bible School as the Arts and Crafts director.  It was stressful, it was fun, and it was rewarding.

I will be involved in VBS in a different way this year.  Our church is trying something different:  we will have camp counselors from Luther Springs come to do a week-long day camp at our church.

My grandmother's church did something similar.  She was still involved, as she helped with lunch.  Unlike my grandmother, I have to work, and I have no accrued vacation time that I can use until November, so I won't be volunteering this year.

We will help in other ways.  We have a vacant cottage, so some of the camp counselors will stay with us.  I imagine that we may need to help with feeding them and perhaps transport.  Still, it won't be the same.

I feel oddly sad about my inability to participate this year.  But I'm a grown up--VBS is not about me.  Our VBS serves neighborhood kids, who aren't church members for the most part.  We have about 8 children from the church who have participated in past summers--and that's all the church kids who were the target age who were in town.  The other 50-60 kids are from the surrounding neighborhoods, and VBS is likely to be one of few spiritual experiences they will have throughout the year.

I am hopeful that the camp counselors can make the experience even richer for the kids--or richer in a different way.  It's worth a try--just as our church doesn't have many young kids, we also don't have many adults who can commit to VBS the way our grandmothers did it.

Monday, June 26, 2017

A Different Kind of Sunday: AC Repair

Yesterday was different than most Sundays when we are in town.  We're usually out the door by 9:30, so that my spouse can get to choir rehearsal at 10:00.  I go to both the 9:45 service and the 11:00 service.  Afterwards we usually stay to count the money and make the deposit.

Yesterday morning as I was making my coffee, I thought, hmm, the air blowing out of the vents isn't as cool as I thought.  I went outside to discover that the fan blade wasn't turning.  I turned off the AC, hoping that as with some computer issues, a reboot would be all we needed.

Nope--the AC was definitely not working.  We made the decision to get it fixed yesterday, even though it meant paying a holiday/week-end charge.  We both have the kind of heavy duty schedule this week that would make it hard to find another day to get it done, which means hanging out waiting for the repair person.

And since we needed to wait, we both stayed home--besides, it was too late to get to church anyway.  It was interesting to have a very different Sunday morning.  I felt we should have brunch or work on a crossword puzzle or do one of those things that people do instead of going to church.

It wasn't a completely non-spiritual morning.  I listened to the delightful and spiritual conversation that Krista Tippett had with Martin Sheen on this morning's episode of On Being. I usually tune in to the show, but it's not always as wonderful as it was yesterday.

And throughout the repair process, I remembered to feel gratitude.   I was grateful that we have the money for the repair and that we were able to be put on the Sunday schedule.  I was grateful that the house didn't heat up too quickly.  We didn't have AC again until after 2, and the temperature didn't go above 81 degrees.  Hurray for high ceilings and trees that give shade!  And I was grateful for downtime, which allowed me to get a lot of things done.

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Mepkin Ramble

Two weeks ago, I'd be halfway done with my ramble through the Mepkin Abbey grounds.  Because we had so little downtime, I had to make some decisions, and on Sunday, I decided to skip the 6:30 service and walk the grounds.

The sunrise was beautiful, but I couldn't really capture the colors:

I headed over to the labyrinth.  I tried to walk slowly and meditatively, but it wasn't as easy for me as it sometimes is.

I was enchanted by some of the plants that make the labyrinth rings:

Then I walked towards the river.  Once again, I tried to get some pictures of the statue.

I approached the river from the family gravesite and gardens, rather than from the parking area.  My heart leapt up as I saw some hydrangea bushes in bloom.  Do I love these flowers more than azaleas?  It's a different love.  Here's the view looking back:

I heard the deep, disturbing call of the alligators.  I felt cautious about getting too close to water.

I took these stairs because I knew they'd get me to a the field that's part of the retreat center.

And then, I discovered some turtle shells.  It took me awhile to realize they were dead turtles.  Did they crawl up there to die?  Did some animal snatch them from the water and eat them there?  Was I looking at the discarded trash from that meal?

I took a picture of this piece of heavy equipment--the Mepkin earth moving machine!  Sounds like a good children's book . . .

I added some stones to the cairns that had fallen down.

And then it was time to get ready for the Eucharist service.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

We Are Not the Messiah

Last night, my spouse was feeling despair.  He found out that one of his classes that he's about to teach is a class that comes to him with a syllabus, book, and assignments that he's not allowed to change.  Instead of feeling thrilled about the reduced work load for this week-end (creating a syllabus takes no small amount of time for him), he started to feel huge sadness about the state of higher ed in the U.S., where adjunct faculty aren't allowed to create their own classes or make the important decisions and where there aren't many full-time jobs left.

I have had this conversation many times in the past decade.  I, too, despair, and I have such a yearning to fix it all--but it's a problem much bigger than I am and far outside of my meager powers to do anything.

Last night, I thought about the fact that the next day would be the feast day of John the Baptist.  I said, "I wish I could fix this, but I can't"--a differently worded version of John the Baptist's answer to the question of identity:  "I am not the Messiah."

Now of course the fact that I can't fix the dynamics affecting the larger social picture doesn't mean that I can just shrug my shoulders and go with the status quo.  I must do what I can to ensure that the students get a quality education, that faculty have what they need to deliver that education, and that the staff are supported too.

And to continue this metaphor, John the Baptist reminds us to stay alert.  He's not the one for whom we wait, but that one is coming soon. 

We live in a culture that likes to keep us busy and distracted. We are all too busy to heed John's message: "Repent." Turn around. Do it now, before it is too late.

Today is a good day to think about John's message.  What parts of our society need salvation?  How can we be part of the redemption of all of creation?

And today, we might take a gentle look at ourselves.  We're none of us perfect, and while John's message about vipers and the ax that will chop down the tree that isn't bearing good fruit may sound harsh, it's one that we should sit with for awhile.

John the Baptist reminds us that we are called to emulate Jesus. Some days, though, I’d rather emulate somebody else. I’m so tired of working so hard to be a light to this fallen world.

When I feel that way, I need to listen to the words of John the Baptist again. I need to listen to God, who often calls to us from the wilderness. Most of us need to be reminded to listen to that call that God makes. Let the words fill our hearts with hope: "The crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God." (Luke 3: 5-6).

Our salvation is at hand: our grieving hearts will be comforted, our anger and irritation will lift, the planet will heal itself as it always does, God will take care of us and everything we need is on its way.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

The readings for Sunday, June 25, 2017:

Genesis 21:8-21
Psalm 86:1-10, 16-17           
Romans 6:1b-11
Matthew 10:24-39
I wonder what the Family Values crowd makes of this Jesus, who in this week's Gospel warns us that he'll be turning family members against each other.  This is not the meek, do-goody Jesus who reads us a nice bedtime story and tucks us into bed.
No, this is one of the texts where Jesus warns us what we'll be sacrificing when we follow him.  Or seen alternately, this is one of those texts where Jesus reminds us that God wants to be the central focus of our lives.  Teaching after teaching, Jesus shows that God knows what competes.  In this text, it's our family that competes with God for central focus.  In other texts, it's money. 
As we look at the teachings of Christ, a central theme emerges.  Fear is at the root of all that keeps us from God.
Again and again, Jesus yokes his teachings of what will be required with the admonition to have no fear.  Here, Jesus tells us that God knows about the least little sparrow--and we're worth more than sparrows.  The wisdom of the Holy Spirit invites us to new life, not to paralyzing fear.  Jesus tells us that even sparrows are nurtured in God's economy.  Our religious texts remind us over and over again to be careful of where we store our treasures.
I love this vision of God who knows me from the individual hairs of my head to the rough soles of my feet.  I like this vision of God who helps me travel through the dangerous parts of the world.  I want to believe that I am worth more than sparrows, and I want to believe that in God's economy, sparrows are worth more than two pennies.
But again, Jesus warns us that we can't stop with that vision.  This is a God who keeps watch so that we can do the transformational work that must be done.  It is work that is likely to take us to threatening places where we may have to oppose the dominant power structure.  We may find ourselves crucified, in every sense of that word.
As I write this meditation, I'm thinking back to the events of Freedom Summer, that crucible moment in history which changed the progress of the Civil Rights workers forever.  I'm thinking of the youthful exuberance of those college students who headed south to register voters and to teach kids to read.
I'm thinking of how so many of them paid for those acts with bruises and broken bones.  I'm thinking of the ones who died terrible deaths.  I'm saying a prayer of thanks for the transformations that they brought.
Again and again, Jesus asks if we're willing to pay the price.  Again and again, Jesus offers the promise that we find at the end of this Sunday's Gospel:  if we quit our obsessive clinging to those elements that we think give us life, we may indeed find true life.  
We will find God. 

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Christians and the Summer Solstice

Here we are in the season after Pentecost, a long, green season that needs some holidays.  Perhaps the summer solstice would fit that bill.

I am partially kidding, of course.  For one thing, many of us won't notice much change, once the summer solstice has come and gone.  Many of us live in places where we've been slogging through hot weather for over a month.  Many of us won't notice that the longest day of light has come and gone.  It sneaks up on us, this gift of light that's been added in small increments to our days since the winter solstice.

And yes, I understand the pagan roots of this day.  If we refused to celebrate every holiday with pagan roots, we'd have very little left to celebrate.

Let us think of some ways to celebrate the summer solstice--and to strengthen our faith:

--We have longer days now than we'll have at any other point in the year.  Let's use this increased light.  Let's get out and exercise.  Let's notice the glories of God's creation. 

--Let's enjoy the fruits of the season.  Sure, we can eat melon year round now, but it's more refreshing during the hot months--and a good way to stay hydrated.

--When the heat is just too much, let's escape in an old-fashioned way:  by seeing a movie.  Whether in the movie theatre or in the comfort of our own homes, seeing a movie is a great way to beat the heat.  If we feel our brains turning to mush, let's look to the movies to see if we see any overarching themes or characters that remind us of our own spiritual stories or the larger spiritual stories of our faith.  Even escapist fluff might remind us of the overarching importance of love in our lives or that the battle between good and evil will not be escaped.

--The shifting of the seasons is a good time to do some sorting.  As we pull out our summer clothes, let's get rid of the ones we never wore last year.  As we think about our summer activities, let's get rid of the sports equipment we will never use.  Let's sort through our picnic supplies.  Have we been hoarding craft supplies that need to go to a better purpose?

--These days of longer light might make us feel like we have more time--and many of our workplaces expect a bit less in the summer.   Maybe this summer we could donate a bit of time.  Often our churches could use some assistance, as people take long summer vacations.

--Let's think about the qualities of light and think about all the Bible passages that mention light.  If we are the light of the world, are we June light or February light?

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

The Monastery Dog and Other Poetry Inspirations

This morning, I finally wrote a poem.  I looked back through my poetry notebook, and it's been almost a month.  It has been a humdinger of a month, between my online ENC1102 class with its intense pace of a piece of work due 4-6 days of the week, work which must be graded, and my trip to Mepkin Abbey.

Yet I also feel like I've been telling myself this story every month:  Last month was a humdinger, but the pace of my life should be calming down soon, and I'll get some writing done. 

Let me sit with this idea for a bit, before I come up with plan A, B, C and a back up plan for each.  This morning let me be happy that I wrote a poem.

I came back from Mepkin with a new poem in my head, a poem inspired by a time during our retreat when I watched the monastery dog sleeping in the sun, and I thought of a previous retreat where we talked about needing to find time to write.  I thought about the monastery dog who knows how to prioritize her time.  I liked the contrast.

Over the past week, I've thought of different contrasts.  I thought of a retreatent who brought her own organic food and didn't eat the food prepared by the monks.  I thought of us all at the Sunday Eucharist service, even though we all came from a variety of practices.

I'm still wrestling with the poem, but I'm happy to have work on paper to revise.

I thought I had written about the monastery dog before.  In a blog post, from 2015, I had written this:

"At first I felt sorry for the monastery dog.  She seemed so eager for attention.  I thought about all the children who would never be part of her world.

Yet as my week-end at the monastery proceeded, I decided that the monastery dog was lucky.  She had a never-ending supply of visitors who would likely pet her.  The monks would take care of her.  Not every community has taken a vow of hospitality, after all. She could have been abandoned to a much worse fate.

And she had vast fields at her disposal.  No cooped up back yards for her.  Her joy at racing across the grounds made me happy too."

I thought I had written that poem, but I looked through older poetry notebooks this morning, and now I'm thinking that I planned to write it, but it's one of many poems that I never actually wrote.

The eternal question:  how many of these poem ideas should I return to? 

That's a question for another day.  Today it's time to return to the main campus for my week of trainings.  Today it's the student tracking system--another computer system that will be able to do far more than I will ever dream of asking it to do.

Yet another metaphor waiting for a poem . . .

Monday, June 19, 2017

Mepkin Mind

It is 5:17 a.m. as I write.  A week ago, I'd be about to leave Mepkin Abbey.  The drive back to Florida was uneventful and felt speedier than it sometimes feels.  I was grateful.

This past week-end has been one of finally getting caught up--I did the last load of laundry on Saturday, and did some required IT security training yesterday which will mean I can keep teaching my online classes at the community college.  I got a haircut on Saturday, which wasn't overdue, but my shaggy hair was driving me nuts.  In between, we spent lovely time on the front porch watching the rain showers come and go.

This will be a week of heavy duty training at the Ft. Lauderdale campus, where I have no office, so I'm taking my own mug, my own snack, and trying to remember what else I might need when I don't have an office.

Let me create my own Mepkin retreat in my head, a Mepkin Mind, where I can return when I need the soothing of chanted psalms:

Let me remember my delight at seeing a hydrangea bush in full bloom:

Let me remember the river that has seen so much, even if it is never the same river twice:

Let me adopt the attitude of Abbey, the monastery dog, who is always happy to be near us:

If she's ever stressed, I never see it:

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Father's Day and God as Father

It's Father's Day, and I have parenting, metaphors, and God on the brain.  I come from a religious tradition that emphasizes God as Father more than any other metaphor I've encountered, although that situation has been changing during the last 40 years.  I've often found it irritating, even though my own experiences with fathers have been overwhelmingly positive.

I know how lucky I am to have emerged from an intact family, to have a mom and a dad who continue to love each other, and continue to love my sister and me. I grew up in the 1970's and saw plenty of wrecked families. I've always wondered how people who come out of those wrecked families, especially those with absent or abusive fathers, react to the idea of God as a Father.

I would argue that much of the damaged theology that we see comes from this idea of God as Father, in all the negative ways that metaphor can include.  God as the Judge Father, God as the Punishing Father, God as the Distant Father--I am lucky to have found a church that doesn't talk about God as a withholding father who always evaluates us and always finds us wanting, but that theology is never very far from many of us.  It's what keeps many people away from church, I suspect.

Even though I have a good relationship with both of my parents, I'm not crazy about the idea of God as Parent of either gender. I think that God as Parent is an infantilizing metaphor. If God is a Dad--or so much more rarely, a Mom--then it follows that we're children, and too often, we see that as a reason for inactivity. But God needs us to be active in the world. I'd go further and say that God is counting on us. I much prefer the idea of God as partner. God can be the Senior partner; I'm cool with that.

Having just come back from Mepkin Abbey and having spent time with my friend who comes from a tradition that talks about our elders, who are so often wise, I have that metaphor on the brain.  How would our relationship with God change if we saw God not as a parent, but as a wise elder?  I know that even at my current age of almost 52, I need more people in my life who can keep sight of the larger perspective.  I need a God of a grander vision, a God who can remind me of what's important, a God who directs my eyes to the larger horizon.

Today I shall pray for that God to come to us.  We live in a landscape more increasingly wrecked by poisonous models of caretaking; I'm thinking primarily of the fractured political world we inhabit, whether we want to or not.  On this day, at the end of a week where we saw a man shoot congressional male leaders on a baseball field during an early morning practice, it's clear to me that we need a different model of how to be male in the world.

Happily, most fathers I know these days are different.  They're much more involved in their children's lives, regardless of the age.  They change diapers, they braid hair, they fix lunches, they teach children the skills they will need, and they help older children find their way in the world.  God, too, cares for us that way.  And we are called to care for each other similarly too.

Let us do so today--and every day.