Saturday, December 18, 2010

Looking for the Prince of Peace

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Isaiah 9:6

And I can't think of that verse without hearing this chorus from Handel's Messiah in my head.

This week one of my friends was missing from the Christmas Eve choir rehearsal because he believes in the Prince of Peace. Jim is a veteran and he was in Washington, D. C. with Veterans for Peace. On Thursday we got an email from our pastor that Jim had been arrested in front of the White House for civil disobedience. He was among 131 people arrested, including Daniel Ellsburg, who released the Pentagon Papers during the Vietnam War.

When I did a Google search on: Veterans for Peace arrest December 16, 2010, I got a number of internet blog entries, led by postings on the Veterans for Peace website, but there were no immediate hits from any major newspaper. Peace protests and 131 arrests are not news? When I searched on the Washington Post website, there was no mention of the arrests. Nor was there anything in the New York Times, except for this individual comment following an editorial about President Obama's remarks about Afghanistan. In the Boston area, there was only this article in the Merrimack Valley newspaper, but nothing in the Boston Globe.

On Veterans Day this year I started reading Shelly Rambo's book, Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining. Rambo speaks of three aspects of the "lens of trauma," "alterations in time, body and word" (p. 18-21). Trauma takes a person to an in between space, a liminal place, out of time, where at any time the person may re-experience the traumatic event—the past does not stay in the past. Trauma becomes part of body memory, bypassing conscious control by the brain over memories, so at any time body memory can be evoked by a sound, a smell, or a sight. In that way, trauma also bypasses human ability to put words to the event, because the suffering is imbedded directly in the body, and this isolates the sufferers because they can't access language to interpret their experiences. Rambo talks about the usefulness of theological language about and acts of witness as one way we can begin to be pastors and healers to those suffering from trauma. I have to confess that her book is one that I have needed to digest in small doses, but I was glad that I had read what I had about trauma when we heard from some of the veterans we were honoring after church the Sunday after Veterans Day.

The most memorable witness for me that day was the slender, even slight, young woman who was a Marine heavy diesel mechanic who, when she found out that she as a gung-ho Marine, couldn't get to Iraq using her mechanic's skills, volunteered for "mortuary affairs." It is clear that she really didn't know what she was volunteering for, and that perhaps there was no way in a two week training that she could have been prepared for what she would face. She shared a powerful witness to her time there: opening the body bags where every person was dressed like you, had the same kind of boots, dog tags, watch and wallet (because that's what the PX sold), and wondering which person you might find, and in what condition you might find this person's "remains." She now is studying to be a counselor, because she knows that veterans will need to talk to someone who understands. She is someone who speaks for peace, because she knows the cost of war.

For unto us a child is born…

I too have a yearning for peace. I want to stop grinding my teeth and tightening my muscles because I am stressed about budget cuts and increasing bureaucratic regulations at work that negatively impact thousands of elders, who are poor, sick, isolated and lonely people, because I am worried about friends and loved ones with chronic disease and pain, and because I have been confronted with the visible signs of incivility toward one another in this season in too many ways.

So today, instead, I want to celebrate and bear witness to the generosity of my colleagues who gave a thousand dollars so that we could buy grocery store gift cards for elders who don't have enough food to eat, and to understand that caring for people is an act of peace. I want to make my year-end donations to organizations that make a difference in my life and in the lives of the hungry in body and spirit, and in that act of giving know that our generosity and giving is a movement toward peace and healing and community. I want to applaud my friend Jim who has the courage to stand for peace and be arrested for his witness, and to shout out that ending war is a first step toward peace. Professor Valerie Dixon started each class session of "The Ethics of Peacemaking" with a time of meditation and prayer because she believed that we have to have peace inside, to know peace ourselves, in order to work for peace. We must know peace in order to do the work of the Prince of Peace.

My prayer today is that we each take the time to know or find a moment of peace within ourselves. Then may we share that peace with others and may we each be a witness for peace and healing, the holy wholeness that is shalom, in the world.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Heaven: sleeping in, where scrabble never comes

Trying to follow my own advice about paying attention to the rhythms of the season, I took a day off this week, and I slept in—that is, until it really was light out. That is not awfully decadent in some respects because I was up by 7 a.m., but in comparison to 4:45 a.m. or 5:15 a.m., when it is quite dark out, and I'm impelled out of bed by my alarm clock, it was amazing.

Then in a lovely piece of serendipity, I picked up Mending a Tattered Faith by Susan VanZanten and read this poem by Emily Dickinson.

Where bells no more affright the morn –

Where scrabble never comes –

Where very nimble Gentlemen

Are forced to keep their rooms –

Where tired Children placid sleep

Thro' Centuries of noon

This place is Bliss – this town is Heaven –

Please, Pater, pretty soon!

"Oh could we climb where Moses stood,

And view the Landscape o'er"

Not Father's bells – nor Factories,

Could scare us any more!

VanZanten says she likes this poem from the perspective of a night owl, as it describes heaven as a place where tired children get to sleep in without being awoken by the factory bells and where there is no early morning scrabbling into clothes and off to chores and work. How appropriate for a day off!

Dickinson's poem in the third stanza quotes a hymn by Isaac Watts: There is a land of pure delight. Watts' theology was that of looking to the future glory of heaven, but my understanding of Jesus' teaching of the kingdom of heaven is that we are called to kingdom building now. How else do we come to understand, as Jesus preached, that "the kingdom of heaven is at hand?" How do we live a life "where scrabble never comes?" Or at least, how do we minimize the scrabble in our spiritual life?

On Saturday morning I slept in again, and that put me at the breakfast table a bit later than usual, looking out the window at the bird feeder that I had restocked on my day off. Suddenly the birds of the air defined scrabble as they crowded around the feeder to eat and then, as quickly, chittered and squawked and flew away. This dance repeated several times during my breakfast. I was reminded of the passage from Matthew 6 about the birds of the air that neither sow nor reap, nor gather into barns, yet God feeds them. This passage is the one that goes on to say,

Stop worrying, then, over questions such as, 'What are we to eat,' or 'what are we to drink,' or 'what are we to wear?' Those without faith are always running after these things. God knows everything you need. Seek first God's reign, and God's justice (that is, the kingdom of heaven, in other translations), and all these things will be given to you besides. Enough of worrying about tomorrow! Let tomorrow take care of itself. Today has troubles enough of its own. (Matthew 6: 31-34, The Inclusive Bible)

I don't know whether rolling over until the sun comes up is something I can do every day, but certainly, turning over my troubles and worries to God and seeking to be an instrument of God's justice is a start on the way of the kin-dom of God. [See this note on kin-dom of God.] I pray that we all can scrabble less and seek that kin-dom more.

If we seek the spirit of this season, which is indeed the spirit of hope, peace, joy and love, rather than fall prey to the demands of this season, which seem to be greed, fear, competition and stress, we are more apt to be making way for God's presence in our lives and in the world. May we each take the time today to seek God's presence and to seek a place of bliss. My prayer is that, if we actually have done that, that we all are able to remember and carry that moment of heaven and bliss with us through the coming week, as we again (still) prepare the way for the Child who comes.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

There is a Season

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under heaven: (Ecclesiastes 3:1)

You may know the words to this in songs: I enjoy this lovely setting by Alfred Fedak or the 70's hit by The Byrds or as revived more recently by Bruce Springsteen.

The natural rhythm of this season might be that of bundling up for forays out into the cold to do the last of the fall chores or to take a brisk walk; snuggling under the covers until the sun comes up; eating hearty soups and stews and hot cereal; and gathering around a fire with a hot drink, good conversation and some handwork. I say that's what the natural rhythm "might be," perhaps because that's what I'd like my days to include, or that's what my body might prefer given its druthers.

And of course, "'tis the season to be jolly," but that is also in response to the darkening days of the year.

But my days in early December don't seem to be much different than my days in May or September: my daughter and I are getting up for early rehearsals—except now it's dark when we leave the house; I'm still taking a salad for lunch most days—except now I know that this lettuce cannot be growing locally outside; we stay up well past sunset, in fact we're not usually even home by sunset, and we just turn on the lights, stay up and ignore our bodies' yearnings for more sleep in the darkening evening hours. I have to allow extra time for scraping the frost from the car windows on these early mornings, and sometime soon, I'll have to allow even more time (=less sleep) to shovel the snow so that we can get to the car and be on our way, but our schedules make no allowances for the sun, the dark, the rain, the snow, the cold, and in the summer for the light and the heat. We make no allowances for foods that are not in season, not grown nearby, and not readily available without preservatives and processing. In fact in this season to be jolly, there is yet more rushing around, leavened only in some few places and times by quiet candlelit moments of Advent and Hannukah.

Frank Lipman in Spent, also found retitled Revive, writes:

We evolved over thousands of generations as beings who lived and worked in harmony with the seasons, and as a result these rhythms became imprinted in our genes. They are part of every aspect of our body's inner workings. … Every system in the body is affected by circadian rhythms. … Science has show clear patterns of brain wave activity, hormone production, enzyme production, cell regeneration, and other biological activities, each linked to these daily activities.

As Homo sapiens, we are physically and mentally designed to eat natural and seasonal foods from our nearby environs and exercise in spurts—exert, rest, recover, exert, and so on. We are meant to have fresh air, sun, and water. We are built to sleep when the sun goes down and wake when it rises. And very few of us are living this way. … If we don't move back in the direction of our genes, we will all ultimately end up Spent. (p. 7)

[Spent=overwhelmed, exhausted, and afflicted with this disorder that makes us feel decades older than our years; burned out—physically, mentally, and spiritually, p. 5].

Instead we are ignoring our natural rhythms, sitting at a desk all day, getting up in the dark, pressing on without rest or breaks, in the glare of electric lights and computer monitors no matter the hour, eating the quickest snack at hand, often foods that are hard to digest and/or of low nutritional value. In his program to revive and restore people from that Spent state, the first thing Dr. Lipman does is have people cut out sugar and artificial sweeteners from their diets.

Sally Fallon in Nourishing Traditions writes that,
In 1821, the average sugar intake in America was 10 pounds per person per year; today it is 170 pounds per person, representing over one-fourth the average caloric intake. Another large portion of total calories comes from white flour and refined vegetable oils. This means that less than half the diet must provide all the nutrients to a body that is under constant stress from its intake of sugar, white flour and rancid and hydrogenated vegetable oils. Herein lies the root cause of the vast increase in degenerative diseases that plague modern America. (p. 23)

Sprouting, soaking in warm acidic water, sour leavening, culturing and fermenting—all processes used in traditional societies—deactivate enzyme inhibitors, thus making nutrients in grains, nuts and seeds more readily available. (p. 47)
Not surprisingly, all of those ways of preparing food take time that most of us no longer give ourselves. If I want oatmeal this morning for breakfast, I don't usually think about starting it to soak 24 hours before, but that is the more seasonally rhythmic and digestively accessible method that Fallon suggests.

How could we all begin to honor creation's rhythms more wholly and fully? Being made in the image of God, our rhythms are God's rhythms. We are called to "Praise God with tambourine and dance; praise God with strings and pipe!" (Psalm 150:4) Can we find our way back to the rhythms of creation's great dance of praise? I fear that we cannot easily start or sustain this alone as individuals because so much cultural presence is against us. We need to have community support. Is this a way that Christian communities might be healthily countercultural? As we live in the season of preparation for the time when the "Word became flesh and lived among us," could we think of how we really are incarnated, embodied, and honor the rhythms that our Creator built into our bodies and into our environment? Let us not be conformed to this world, but rather be transformed.

May the peace and hope of the season be made alive in you today. Find one way to honor the rhythms of this season of God's creation, and send me a comment and let me know what it was.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Plan B or Hopeful Waiting?

One of my favorite Advent readings is Henri Nouwen's piece, "Waiting for God" found in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas for November 28. It's taken from "A Spirituality of Waiting" in The Weavings Reader, based on a sermon by Nouwen. So it was lovely to be able to turn to it this morning on this first Sunday of Advent. I invite you to read it in one of those places, if you can, and come back. I'll wait.

Nouwen captures our issues with waiting: the fear and frustration that usually infuse our waiting, and he looks at the Advent heroes of waiting: Zechariah, Anna, Elizabeth and Mary, whose waiting was done securely in the promises from God in their lives. They wait actively, present and alive to the moment. They wait in hope.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1)

Living in faithful hope is hard. I've been writing songs about waiting. I am happy to celebrate that I did use the word hope in my new anthem, Waiting. And if you wait until the fourth Sunday of Advent, I will record my church choir doing the premiere of that piece and will post it here.

It is the same watchful expectancy that Matthew 24: 42 calls us to. This morning we sang this hymn text to go with the Matthew text:

Keep alert, be always ready,

God's time approaches sure and steady,

God's strength will keep your heart from blame.

Clouds, the Spirit's light concealing,

disperse, God's purest light revealing;

creation will its Sovereign name.

Dry branches burst forth green,

God's advent signs are seen:


Christ's judgment won,

God's will be done;

God's new dominion thus begun.

New Century Hymnal #112

with this tune.

"God's will be done?" One of the things I've done in the last few months while waiting in the search and call process is to think about Plan B options. I've called it thinking outside the box. But since I found this wonderful piece on God's Call to Plan B, let's explore the idea of waiting in hope as living in Plan B.

God's Call, Plan B?

The Bible is full of plan B stories. Joseph who had so many aborted plans in his life gives us this message. He tells his terrified brothers, "You meant to do harm but God meant to bring good out of it by preserving the lives of others . . ." You may want to stop now and read the whole story again. (Genesis 50:18-21.) All of life is plan B. …

At this time of year, Mary and Elizabeth are our models. What a plan B they both lived. Luke 1:26-56. Are there some clues for my life? Mary spent time quiet and alone to hear God. Obedient to what she heard she hurried to check it out with a trusted friend. She and Elizabeth apparently shared a vision of what could be. Wondering what God might be doing? Could they really be part of the plan? You can almost feel their joy and excitement as you read the story. Maybe they thought about Hannah. Her song was similar to Mary's. (I Samuel 1:26-2:10). Certainly there were many times in their lives that they had cause to think that God had got it all wrong.

What does it take to live abundantly in plan B?

Waiting in hope, living in hope, requires faith and understanding that God keeps promises. As God calls us, God will sustain us. We need to be present to God's continued call and presence. What does the Lord require of you today? (Still Micah 6: 8?)

This is a good time, to follow Mary's example , and look for community and friends to wait with you as you wait on God's call. Online this weekend, I found two great website resources and communities that I'd like to share with you:

1) Lumunos is the successor to Faith at Work and has a wonderful set of resources on God's call in our lives, including the full piece on Plan B, mentioned above.

2) The Uncluttered Heart provides a daily Advent reflection and is also a book, and provides an option for an online Advent retreat. I found this site because The Upper Room originally published Nouwen's piece on waiting and they also published The Uncluttered Heart by Beth Richardson.

How is God calling you? What is God's promise for you in that call? How do you sustain your hope and faith? If your faith and hope are in tatters, perhaps you can trust God to mend it for you, as poet, Emily Dickinson, who wrestled with faith and doubt wrote:

To mend each tattered Faith

There is a needle fair

Though no appearance indicate –

'Tis threaded in the Air --

And though it do not wear

As if it never Tore

'Tis very comfortable indeed

And spacious as before --

For Advent, I'm planning on reading through more of Dickinson's poetry in a reflective way with the help of this book: Mending a Tattered Faith by Susan VanZanten. Let me know if you can join me. Meanwhile, welcome to Advent, where we learn again the lessons we need about waiting and hope and about being present and ready to hear God's call, in whatever guise it comes.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Lectio Divina with Color Doodles

I have been beginning to prepare for a study about the incarnated Christian, and bought some new books this past week, including Praying in Color by Sybil MacBeth. Last night I spent some time in contemplative doodling. Here are some samples:

I don't know whether these were prayers as as we usually think of prayer, but they do seem to be the visual version of "sighs and groans too deep for words." The falling leaf, the acorn, the red tornado and each of the others must have some meaning in or description of my life and thoughts and yearnings.

My cycle of Psalms reading this morning brought me to Psalm 119:17-24. The verse that caught my attention was "Open my eyes to the beauty of your law." (Using The Psalter: A faithful and inclusive rendering published by Liturgical Training Publications.)

So I thought that I might try to doodle/pray in color through a meditation on this verse.

The first thing that came to mind was eyes, so I tried to draw a pair of eyes. Tried is the operative verb. Eyes are hard to draw. So I reminded myself that this was doodling and started over with a fresh piece of paper. Doodling is much easier—no pressure. MacBeth comments on the need to let go of the "shoulds" in doing this, and enter into a spirit of playfulness and delight. I decided that the color of open eyes would be my focus. My eyes are a mutable green and blue, so those were the colors I pulled out. Lectio divina calls for an iterative reading and so after each reading of the verse I doodled again.

On second reading I thought that perhaps beauty could be captured in color and I drew a rainbow prism of color.

Then I wondered about what law: law of gravity, law of nature? Perhaps God's law is God's covenant of steadfast love? It's not man's law.

My final meditation was on open, rather than closed. Here is the end result:

Yes--this is a spiritual practice! My spirit has been engaged during both doodling sessions in contemplation and reflection about God, nature, and meaning. It is also quite soothing, and even delightful to be pulling out a colored pen and letting my hand lead my brain.

Delight is something to cherish, and MacBeth emphasizes that as she quotes the Psalmist:

I delight to do Your will, O my God, And Your law is within my heart." Psalm 40:8

So, grab some crayons or colored pens or pencils, and a piece of paper and pray in color today. Take delight in your hands and into your heart.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Baby Power

This week I read a great article on Fighting Bullying with Babies. If you haven't heard about the Roots of Empathy project where babies are brought into classrooms and children of all ages who have been aggressive and socially disruptive change their behavior, check it out! After you've read that, come back and let's think about how to apply that in our own lives.

One of my colleagues came to dinner with her delightful four-month old daughter a couple of weeks ago, and I have to say that my own mental well-being was greatly improved. An evening with a happy baby is as good as anything else I know for improving one's mood and outlook on life.

Biologically the only way the human race survives is that we have an instinctive protective and nurturing response to babies. One of the things I remember about reading Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan of the Apes as a child was the difference in baby development between man and the great apes, and if Tarzan hadn't already been a one-year old baby, he never would have survived living with the apes. Humans take more time to develop and so our biological hard wiring requires that we respond to babies in such a way to nurture them, and that happens because we feel good when we take care of babies. Other research shows that we get an oxytocin surge around babies.

I work for an elder services agency, and we have noticed an increase in the number of clients with mental health issues, and are trying to address that. We also have some clients who are just plain grumpy. This project about the power of babies made me wonder if we could have mothers and babies visit these elders and see if they can help re-establish social connections and improve mental well-being with a good baby fix.

One of the strengths of Christianity, I believe, is the theology of incarnation, that God became human and dwelt among us. It was a Jewish scholar/rabbi that I read some time ago (and now I don't remember who) who pointed out the amazing wisdom of Christianity's belief in incarnation that God came first as a baby. Now I can be as Scrooge-like as anyone about the commercialization of Christmas—Halloween wasn't over and Christmas decorations could be seen in some stores, and now two weeks before Thanksgiving, every store has started having Christmas sales and Christmas decorations are up. But if we can be reminded by the Roots of Empathy project about the power that any baby has to change lives, I think that we might remind ourselves of why, as we approach Advent, we wait again for the baby Jesus, and tell the story of that child's birth again and again.

Reporters shared their observations about classrooms using the Roots of Empathy project, "Around babies, tough kids smile, disruptive kids focus, shy kids open up." Believing that we are created in God's own image, it seems reasonable to project that when we respond to babies, we are responding to the divine essence. When we are most holy whole, we laugh; we can focus; we are open to the world and can be most truly ourselves.

We need more laughter in our lives. Children laugh any where from 200-600 times a day while adults only laugh 10-20 times per day. Yet laughter is truly one of the best medicines, and in use at least one of the world's most prestigious hospitals in their programs for stress management.

The Psalmist wrote this imperative: "Make a joyful noise to God, all the earth!" Do we really understand the power and value of that command? Laughter is one of the best of joyful noises! I used to receive a weekly email for people of faith with a sense of humor, called Rumors. Since its editor retired this spring, I have missed my weekly dose. No wonder it was such a tough summer. So I went back to the Rumor archives at WoodLake Books, and found this great story, that reminds us that one of the gifts that babies and children bring is the gift of laughter.

My husband and I had been happily married (most of the time) for five years but hadn't been blessed with a baby.

I decided to do some serious praying and promised God that if I could have a child, I would be a perfect mother, love it with all my heart and raise it with God’s love in my heart.

God answered my prayers and blessed us with a son.

The next year God blessed us with another son.

The following year, God blessed us with yet another son.

The year after that we were blessed with a daughter.

My husband thought we'd been blessed right into poverty. We now had four children, and the oldest was only four years old.

I learned never to ask God for anything unless I meant it. As a minister once told me, 'If you pray for rain, make sure you carry an umbrella.'

I began reading a few verses of the Bible to the children each day as they lay in their cribs. I was off to a good start. God had entrusted me with four children and I was going to do it right.

I tried to be patient the day the children smashed two dozen eggs on the kitchen floor searching for baby chicks.

I tried to be understanding when they started a hotel for homeless frogs in the spare bedroom, although it took me nearly two hours to catch all twenty-three frogs. When my daughter poured ketchup all over herself and rolled up in a blanket to see how it felt to be a hot dog, I tried to see the humor rather than the mess.

In spite of changing over twenty-five thousand diapers, never eating a hot meal and never sleeping for more than thirty minutes at a time, I still thank God daily for my children.

While I couldn't keep my promise to be a perfect mother – I didn't even come close – I did keep my promise to raise them in the Word of God.

I knew I was missing the mark just a little when I told my daughter we were going to church to ‘worship’ God, and she wanted to bring a bar of soap along to 'wash up' Jesus, too.

Something was lost in the translation when I explained that God gave us everlasting life, and my son thought it was generous of God to give us his 'last wife.'

My proudest moment came during the children's Christmas pageant. My daughter was playing Mary, two of my sons were shepherds and my youngest son was a wise man. This was their moment to shine.

My five-year-old shepherd had practiced his line, “We found the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes.” But he was nervous and said, “The baby was wrapped in wrinkled clothes.” My four-year-old 'Mary' said, “That's not 'wrinkled clothes,' silly. That's dirty, rotten clothes.”

A wrestling match broke out between Mary and the shepherd and was stopped by an angel, who bent her halo and lost her left wing.

I slouched a little lower in my seat when Mary dropped the doll representing baby Jesus, and it bounced down the aisle crying, 'Mama-mama.'

Mary grabbed the doll, wrapped it back up and held it tightly as the wise men arrived. My other son stepped forward wearing a bathrobe and a paper crown, knelt at the manger and announced, “We are the three wise men, and we are bringing gifts of gold, common sense and fur.”

The congregation dissolved into laughter, and the pageant got a standing ovation.

“I've never enjoyed a Christmas Program as much as this one,” laughed the pastor, wiping tears from her eyes. “For the rest of my life, I'll never hear the Christmas story without thinking of gold, common sense and fur.”

“My children are my pride and my joy and my greatest blessing,” I said as I dug through my purse for an aspirin. “And maybe their gift to all of us is the gift of laughter.”

That story prompted me to look through my other humor links and I offer these cartoons about babies in honor of baby power.

The Great Baby Rush

Manger-on the Go Stroller

Copyright Gospel Communications International, Inc -

May you find a child to laugh with you this week, and be reminded of the divinity that comes in those small and wonderful packages. Savor the lesson of empathy and compassion that we can learn from babies around us, and pay it forward.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Government or God?

The headline caught my eyes, as it undoubtedly intended. After all, it came from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, often ranked the best business school for marketing in the United States. Marketing knows about catching our eyes.

One of the key principles of Baptist polity is the idea, now firmly imbedded in American ideology and constitution, of separation of church and state, which is to say that the government can't tell you how or when to worship God, and conversely, the church can't tell the government how to rule. Massachusetts Baptist Isaac Backus, a victim of persecution and discrimination by the Congregationalists in Massachusetts where church membership did carry citizenship rights, corresponded with Thomas Jefferson, who was a deist, and they came up with the language that frames those rights and responsibilities. The underlying assumption of the founders, though, was that a belief in God was a given for good citizens. So, what choices do business school researchers think we are making now between government and God?

The research behind the Kellogg Insight headline is about how people seek stability in times of uncertainty, and that elections are just such times. Having waited with some trepidation on the outcome of this past week's election, most particularly the ballot questions in Massachusetts, I would agree that elections, even in places where our right to vote is firmly upheld, are periods of uncertainty. Yet I also take as a given that most people don't like change, and most of the impetus around our recent "throw the bums out" voting mentality is really a rejection of the changes that have occurred without our "permission." We blame the politicians for all of the changes in jobs, technology, the economy, our dreams and hopes, without acknowledging our own greed and gullibility. Yes, those mortgages really were too good to be true, and no, we really didn't have the money to pay for that big house, big car, and all of those gadgets. We vote for new politicians, believing in promises of a return to the good old days, and yet really cause more changes, because the good old days are gone.

Voting may feel like a regular part of the political landscape in many nations, but elections are also periods of uncertainty. Events like elections can shake people’s fundamental need to believe in an orderly structured world. To counter this apprehension, new research suggests people’s faith in a higher power becomes stronger. Surprisingly, the research also finds that when faith in the stability of God or the government is shaken, people turn to the other entity to restore a sense of control. (Kellogg Insight, November 2010)

Was this why we had so many guests in church last Sunday before the election? I had thought that Celtic folklore might have the explanation, that people are aware of the thinness of the boundaries between the mortal plane and the spiritual plane on Halloween and came to church for protection. In either case, there were definitely people who were in need, and seeking some sort of security or stability, a lot more than usual.

Researchers examined whether changing political climates can drive religious belief, especially faith in a controlling or interventionist deity. They found that beliefs toward God and the government can help satiate the same psychological need for structure and order and are interchangeable with one another.

“This research holds important implications for our understanding of the formation and strengthening of religious belief,” says Adam Galinsky, a professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School of Management and one of the study’s authors.

So, if we don't believe in a controlling God, what does this research imply that we want government to look like? People need structure and order, and whatever provides that structure will be what people will turn toward. But, is it the institution itself or the belief that provides the stability? One of the research studies compared "people’s sense of governmental stability and faith in a controlling God both before and after an election." This compares perceptions and intangibles, not institutions.

Results from college campuses in Malaysia and Canada … found that perceptions of decreased government stability, such as immediately before an election, led to increased beliefs in a controlling God. Conversely, increased perceptions of political stability led to weaker beliefs in an interventionist God.

Higher levels of religious belief, commitment, and possibly extremism might be more likely in those countries that have the least stable governments and other secular institutions.
It seems to me that fundamentalists of all religions are those people who want more certainty, and want someone/some Power to be in control. This abdication of control and, often, of responsibility means that someone else, either government or God, is expected to take care of us and take care of our problems. It would follow then in those situations that we don't have much mutual responsibility for one another.

If, however, we believe in a loving God, rather than a controlling God, and we believe that we are called to love God and our neighbors, then we must take care of one another, and find ways in community to provide stability and safety. In the alternate stream of ancient traditions, the village, the tribe, the community was the safety net. As Christians today turn again to the teachings of Jesus and to what the community of the first followers of Jesus looked like, we find that our roots are in taking action to aid one another and to share with one another. We share those roots with faithful Muslims and Jews. We are not to worship the idols of wealth and power, nor to depend on Caesar. "Render to Caesar that which is Caesar's and to God, that which is God's." We are God's children, created in God's image. In giving ourselves to the love of God and of our neighbors, we find security and safety that endures and that does not depend on making a choice between government and God.

Surely what elections teach us is that we cannot rely on the powers that be for security. For an in-depth look at how we need to be confronting The Powers that Be, read Walter Wink's book of that title, or get an excerpt here. We, that means each of us and our neighbors, are the security and stability that we need to cultivate through the power of Love. That probably means giving up control and temporal power. Ah, and will people vote for that?

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Autumn Leaves

I made a playlist of autumn music the other day. As I listened to it yesterday, I noticed how sad most of the songs were. Except for those few songs about harvest, songwriters conceive of autumn as an ending, a dying. This was across genres: folk, pop, rock—the classical pieces I picked were about the harvest, so I'll exclude them. If the song had autumn in the title, it was mournful.

I've always loved the fall, so this perspective came as a surprise to me. Growing up on a farm, the fall was a time of hard work, harvest bounty, and then in the late fall, the preparation for a time of lying fallow, of having a well-deserved rest. There was nothing sad about any of that. This is a time of culmination and celebration of the whole year's work! What could be more satisfying than picking the dozen butternut squash from the vines that spread across the side of my yard this summer?

You shall observe the festival of harvest, of the first fruits of your labor, of what you sow in the field. You shall observe the festival of ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in from the field the fruit of your labor. Exodus 23:16

My mother has always loved the autumn colors and would exclaim over the hillsides of quaking yellow-gold aspens and the reds of the brush oak beneath. It was sometimes tedious as a child, but now I too have that appreciation. At the end of my street the maple trees in the cemetery across the way have been a show for the past month, and my daughter has confessed to being distracted by the brilliant colors of a tree outside of one of her classroom windows. We have learned to appreciate and savor the beauty of the season.

So, I don't know whether the sad tone of these songs reflects our fears of maturity and culmination versus the excitement of youth and beginnings, or is a commentary on how distant we've become from the cycle of the seasons, but today I want to celebrate the crisp autumn air, the harvest of the work of our gardens and our lives, the beauty of each leaf as it just lets go and drifts to the next phase of its life. Carrie Newcomer's song, Leaves don't drop, (they just let go), says it well:

Leaves don't drop, they just let go,
And make a place for seeds to grow.
Every season brings a change;
A seed is what a tree contains;
To die and live is life's refrain.

Today, take the time to scuff through a pile of leaves, find some moments to let yourself rest and lie fallow and quiet, and eat some squash. May we find some leaf-like moments this autumn day where we just let go and make room for seeds to grow anew.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Value of Community and of Friendships

I've been missing from the blogosphere for a while. The past few months my energy has been absorbed mostly by my job and in some travel. I did preach a number of times during the summer, so did write some sermons, but somehow in the midst of all of that busy-ness (someone illustrated for me the other night that the Chinese symbols for busyness = kill/heart), I could not find words or energy to write.

I am in the search and call process, and have had some hopeful "nibbles," but the search process is long these days, and waiting has been very hard, particularly while juggling an extra full plate at work, and this has not been conducive to my reflective writing while in the midst of uncertainty.

Instead I have turned to writing music while waiting. Two of the recent pieces of music I've written are appropriate for Advent, that period in the Christian church year that is about waiting for the coming. I've adapted biblical texts, rather than write my own, and so it's the music that carries the emotional load of my uncertainty, restlessness, waiting or yearning, I've arranged the pieces for choir as well as in solo versions—who knows, maybe I'll have enough music to put out a CD sometime soon. I'll keep you posted.

But this inwardness and frankly, feeling stuck, has been a bit stifling. So when I got an invitation to attend an evening conference on Feminist Practical Theology Thursday night at Boston University, I decided to make that a priority in my week. The invitation was from someone who is now a PhD student at BU who is a good friend of the woman who was my fellow student pastor and with whom I had taken a class once. God knew I needed something and this nebulous link led me to it. There is a God, and God does speak in nudges. What a blessing to be in a community for the evening of feminist and womanist pastors and theologians, mostly women and some men.

The topic of the evening was "Practicing New Ways of Being in the Academy and the Church: Conversations with Emerging Feminist Practical Theologians." This evening was convened by Dr. Susan Abraham of Harvard University and Dr. Shelly Rambo of Boston University (who has a new book out that I am planning to buy and read: Spirit and Trauma: A Theology of Remaining) as a follow-up to a similar conversation last year, and coordinated by Ph.D. students Danielle Tumminio, Elizabeth Siw0-Okundi, and Xochitl Alvizo. My thanks to all of them!

Presenters addressed these questions:

How do we move in institutions where women's presence and authority is still challenged?

Rev. Jennifer Wegter-McNelly spoke of the little stones and pebbles that come our way in churches as women in leadership, and sometimes as rocks to the head and how that wears on us. She finds intentional ways of coping through feminist practical theology, by dealing with the systemic sin and through communal grace, looking to love people as God calls us to love, and overlooking the individual stones that they throw. There is no reward, she said, for being self-muting. Bring your whole self to the ministry. The most subversive and radical act you can do as a minister who is a woman is in being incarnational.

Dr. Courtney Goto spoke to our need to give intentional mentoring to other women, and mourned that she has now aged out of being mentored as a young woman of color, and is no longer invited to the international conferences where she so admirably met all of those diversity requirements. So now the institutions do not provide a way for her experience and confidence to be passed on in those settings. We must seek ways to pass along our learning and experience.

During the question period, I asked these two women how they were mentored now. Rev. Wegter-McNelly spoke of three groups of intentional colleagues in ministry that provide both fellowship and mentoring: a group of pastors in her denomination, a group of friends from seminary, and a group of women pastors from nearby churches of several denominations. Dr. Goto said that she gets mentoring from Asian-American religion academics in other places, not from other practical theologians, acknowledging the competition that sometimes exists in the same field or institution.

How do we build and maintain our church and academic friendships with other women?

Rev. Dr. Brita Gill-Austern and Rev. Dr. Sharon Thornton from Andover Newton Theological School celebrated their own friendship in their remarks. They asked us to consider the questions: why is friendship important and why embodied friendships nourish our spirituality? Friendship is an often neglected and under-emphasized spiritual practice. Spirituality requires that we strengthen the ways to give and receive love, and our capacity to love self and creation. Friendship gives us the opportunity to do that.

Brita Gill-Austern spoke of 6 practices of friendship:

1) Attentive presence to the other—if the translation of "I am that I am" might be "I am present", then God is present when and as we are present to one another.

2) Taking time—to stop to see takes time like having a friend takes time. Besides the necessity of spending time together to nourish friendship, this time might include a quick email, flowers, picking up lunch for someone, or holding your friends in thought and prayer. She showed a Chinese calligraphy hanging—the Chinese characters for busyness are "kill" "heart". If we are too busy for friends, our hearts shrivel.

3) Mirroring—friends help us form accurate reflections of ourselves.

4) Mutuality—mutual generosity and equality.

5) Forgiveness—in spite of not because of. Friendships are not perfect, so we must forgive one another to maintain them.

6) Being & doing justice in the world—we are drawn to their goodness and it enlivens and nourishes ours.

Sharon Thornton quoted Mary Hunt: "Women's friendships are the ultimate political act." She spoke of three friendships with women who have given her courage to be, competence to lead, and hope to continue. Friends provide a place to be vulnerable and vulnerability requires strength to open up. Friends give us at least three gifts: laughter as a thread to subvert, vision and space to be, and gratitude that counters cynicism.

Recommended reading on friendship: Fierce Tenderness by Mary Hunt and The Friendship of Women by Joan Chittister.

How do we write for diverse audiences in both academic writing and congregational sermons?

Rev. LaTrelle Easterling reminded us that in sermon preparation you are the instrument, and so you need to prepare yourself just like the flute or trumpet player would prepare her instrument: clean, oil, polish. First, be in prayer—hear God and the Spirit. Next, bring the gospel to the issues, not my issues to the gospel. Third, notice the everyday. Nothing is lost in the economy of God—all that you notice can work its way into a sermon. Your sermons should be portable and adaptable in their examples to different audiences, because the main points speak to the text.

Learnings from this gathered community:

Rev. Mary Elizabeth Moore, Dean of Boston University School of Theology listened throughout the evening and offered and asked for a summary of the practices that feminist practical theology offer.

She offered this metaphor. Practices are streams. Sometimes they rush joyfully, sometimes they slow and spread and go deeper, sometimes they take a while to find their way around obstacles, and sometimes they polish the pebbles and rocks that hit us and carry them downstream to become someone's treasures. We have heard about streams of tough vulnerability, beauty, laughter.

Loving the ordinary and unexpected.

Honoring the everyday sacred.

Loving and being loved by another so as to love all of God's creation.

Imagining what's not there yet!

Be intentional and create the friends and support you need.

Practice chins up defiance.

Being self-be who you are.

Uncertainty is okay as part of the process.

Toughening our beauty, beautify our toughness.

Telling vulnerable truth in full voice.

Nourish one another.

Speak your gratitude.

Recognize that writing is a lonely and communal process.

Celebrate community, especially across generations with the wisdom that each generation brings.

I celebrate the nourishment and blessing that this evening in community brought to me. Besides the presentations, I had the opportunity to spend some time and catch up with friends there and that was a great joy. I invite each of you in the coming week to spend some time holding your friends in thought and in deed and taking time for your friends as an intentional spiritual practice. The rewards will be self-evident.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Awakening to Thunder

The farthest Thunder that I heard
Was nearer than the Sky
And rumbles still, though torrid Noons
Have lain their missiles by –
The Lightning that preceded it
Struck no one but myself –
But I would not exchange the Bolt
For all the rest of Life –
Indebtedness to Oxygen
The Happy may repay,
But not the obligation
To Electricity –
It founds the Homes and decks the Days
And every clamor bright
Is but the gleam concomitant
Of that waylaying Light –
The Thought is quiet as a Flake –
A Crash without a Sound,
How Life's reverberation
Its Explanation found --
~Emily Dickinson, #1581, The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson

I woke at 3 a.m. to a thunderstorm and saw a flash of lightning and counted the seconds until the thunder crashed. One one thousand, two one thousand, three one thousand. Crash!!! It was close—less than a mile. I got up and took the fans out of the windows and closed them as the rain started and the thunder and lightning marched through.

What do you tell your children when it thunders? Are they afraid? Are you yourself afraid of thunderstorms? Or are you fascinated by them? What explanation do you use or understand? Are thunderstorms a sign of an angry God, or one of nature's amazing spectacles? Are the gods bowling in the skies? Or as Emily Dickinson suggests, can we understand lightning as a metaphor for a flash of inspiration and understanding, something that jolts us out of our usual thinking—that illuminates our lives for a moment?

Your way, O God, is holy. What god is so great as our God?
You are the God who works wonders; you have displayed your might among the peoples.
The clouds poured out water; the skies thundered; your arrows flashed on every side.
The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lit up the world; the earth trembled and shook.
Your way was through the sea, your path, through the mighty waters; yet your footprints were unseen.
Psalm 77: 13-14, 17-19

I grew up in western Colorado where there wasn't much rain (annual rainfall of 10-12 inches/year) and you could see the horizons for 50 or more miles away. My father was a farmer and we cared about rain. Watching rainstorms and thunderstorms is something I remember fondly, because my father would go out driving to the top of a hill, often with our company, and see where it was raining, and judge if it was raining on our crops on the "north forty" or on the neighbors somewhere else. He sought knowledge and understanding in watching the rain and lightning, and I think that this was also one of the times that he was close to God.

Then where does one find wisdom? Where is the place of understanding?
It is hidden from the eyes of the living. It is hidden from the birds of the air.
Perdition and Death say, "Only a rumor of it has reached our ears."
Only God knows how to get there; for God is where it is; for the Most High looks to the ends of the earth, and sees everything under the heavens all at once.
When God gave to the wind its movement, and measured the breadth and depth of the waters, and made rules for the rain, and designed paths for the lightning, God beheld Wisdom and named it, confirmed it and tested it.
Then the Most High said to us all: "Reverence for God—that is wisdom! And to shun all evil—that is understanding!"
Job 28: 20-28 (translation from The Inclusive Bible)
How do you seek wisdom?

This morning while I am heavy eyed from not much sleep, the air is fresh washed and the odor of honeysuckle is heavy in the air. I remember the rain and lightning, and just sit, listening to the birds that are singing without seeing Wisdom, but knowing its presence nonetheless. May we also find God's presence and the beginning of wisdom in the thunder and lightning and in this morning of creation.