Saturday, February 27, 2010

A Place to Excel: Generosity

Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking. (2 Cor. 8:7, NRSV)

Since you excel in so many ways—you have so much faith, such gifted speakers, such knowledge, such enthusiasm, and such love for us—now I want you to excel also in this gracious ministry of giving. (2 Cor. 8:7, New Living Translation)

Who do you know who excels in generosity?

Isn't this an interesting progression outlined in the verse above? After you excel in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in enthusiasm, and in love, then the ultimate place to excel is in generosity. That may be a slightly loose translation; grace, rather than generosity, or generous giving may be a closer translation, but nonetheless it captures the meaning of what Paul is trying to convey to the church at Corinth.

I am reading a book entitled The Giving Myths: Giving Then Getting the Life You've Always Wanted by Stephen McSwain that provoked these thoughts and questions, and I'm hopeful that he'll provide some direction or answers before I’m done reading.

Would you define yourself as generous? In this economic climate, I think many of us are fearful and perhaps had been holding back on our giving, rather than being more generous. But truly, I suspect that generosity is the sign that we have faith, and are filled with the Spirit (enthused) and that we love. Think about what expressions you might make about or of your faith, of the Spirit's presence within you, of your love for another—aren't all of those manifested in generosity?

Fear is the thing that gets in the way of love, of faith and, clearly, of generosity.

Jesus is quoted by Paul in Acts 20:35:

In all this I have given you an example that by such work we must support the weak, remembering the words of the Lord Jesus, for he himself said, 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.'

Do you ever think of that? How often do you act on it? What would you have to do, what or how would you have to give for you to think of yourself as excelling in generosity?

In writing that I was reminded of the management book, In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters. He named a key value: the ability to manage ambiguity and paradox and eight attributes of excellent corporations--summarized in his chapter headings. Unfortunately a number of the corporations he named as excellent in the 1980's are now defunct, so it's hard to know if those attributes really reflect excellence. Perhaps it is unnecessary to note, given the economic meltdown of the past two years prompted by greed, that none of those attributes included or ended with generosity.

Oddly enough, I just read something in God with Skin On by Anne Robertson that speaks to what happens when we have a generous spirit corporately: it's called cooperation rather than competition.

The business study looked at the field of Formula 1 racing and how the competition between the companies who developed the engines for the race cars affected both their own bottom line and the sport as a whole. They found that when a company was highly competitive, keeping its techniques and formulas away from the prying eyes of other engine manufacturers, the company rose to the top of its class.

On the other hand, when there was a sharing of technologies, methods, and information--a more open-source approach--the result was a successful overall industry. In other words, competition produced an engine that was superior to all the others and a good bottom line for the company that made it. Cooperation produced a variety of good engines across the board and a number of firms with sustainable profits. p. 67-8

Doesn't that sound like generosity? Robertson goes on to talk about the impact of cooperation vs. competition on relationships and our ability to be "God with skin on" for others--more on her book in another post.

I struggle with generosity myself, particularly around giving money, and had suspected that struggle came from being the child of Depression-era parents, but I think I may need to reflect on generosity for progress in my own spiritual and faith journey. As texts for reflection, my morning Psalm reading included these verses:

Deal bountifully with your servant, so that I may live and observe your word. Psalm 119:17

It is well with those who deal generously and lend, who conduct their affairs with justice. Psalm 112:5
Perhaps we need to ask for and trust in God's bounty, and understand that we emulate God in our generosity. Your generous comments are always welcome.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Highway Driving

The problem with getting away from it all is that when you live, as I do, in an urban area, you have to do a lot of highway driving before you are away from it all. If the highway is congested, it's yet another stressor that presumably you were trying to escape.

The other day as we were getting away from it all, heading south on Rt. 93 from Boston, I came to the split in the highway for the HOV lane (high occupancy vehicle = 2+people—and how it is that two people is high occupancy for a car is yet another commentary on the need to get away from it all). I don't take this road often and didn't act quickly enough to get into the lane, but consoled myself with the thought that there would be another chance.

Not so.

You see, the HOV lane has one entrance and one exit—if you take the HOV lane you can't get lost, and really, you can't get off either. You've made a commitment, and can sail on by the others who are stuck in the traffic jam.

A highway shall be there,

and it shall be called the Holy Way;

the unclean shall not travel on it,

but it shall be for God's people;

no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray.

Isaiah 35: 8

What does it take for us to get onto the Holy Way? God promises that we will not go astray once we are there. I think that many of us fear that we only had one chance, that we've missed our turn, or that it's too much hassle.

After missing the HOV lane, we finally made it down past the congestion and traffic thinned out some. But the point where you know that you really are away from it all is when, on Rt. 6 on Cape Cod at least, the road narrows to one lane with no passing for the next 13 miles. "No traveler, not even fools, shall go astray." There are a couple of exits, but for the most part, it is just a clear shot down the road. Sometimes, I think, we have to make choices to turn our lives over to God, to be on the Holy Way. Oddly, but blessedly, once that decision is made and we get past the congestion and mental mess that we are in, it is smooth traveling.

Perhaps the most important thing is not to mistake the commuter HOV lane for the Holy Way.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Singing the Psalms

One of the spiritual practices that has been most helpful to me is "singing the Psalms." A number of years ago, I had been trying to read the Bible daily and that just seemed too hard and dry, and then I found this article Introduction: Praying the Prayers Jesus Prayed: Learning to sing the psalms by Cynthia Bourgeault.

Music has always been a way to God for me, and music proved to be my path into the scriptures as well. While I do not always read the Psalms daily, at key times in my life I have read or sung the entire book of Psalms several times as a part of a daily morning and evening practice. Inspired by references to Benedictine monastic practices of singing or saying the Psalms daily in The Holy Way by Paula Huston, I thought that I would re-institute my cycle of Psalms calendar. This calendar includes readings morning and evening and you can read or sing or chant all of the Psalms in six weeks. So if you start on the first Sunday of Lent, you'll be done by Easter.

If you right-click you can get a larger printable version that you can print out for your own use. I also have this in an Excel spreadsheet that I could share—useful for when you want to change the starting date, and all the other dates will change. Leave me a comment with your email if you are interested.

One of my dear friends gave me the St. John's Illustrated Book of Psalms as a graduation present from seminary. This beautiful work of art is a double inspiration as I use it for my Psalm singing. One of the features of this edition is that each Psalm is categorized. According to their categories, with some Psalms being split into two categories, there are 57 Psalms of lament, 27 Hymn Psalms, 18 Psalms of Thanksgiving, 11 Psalms of Confidence, 11 Psalms of Wisdom, 10 Liturgy Psalms, 9 Royal Psalms, 6 Psalms of Zion Sings, and 5 Historical Psalms.

So, if as you go through you think that the Psalmist was wailing and whining a lot, it's true. More than a third of Psalms are lamenting or complaining to God. I think that is a useful reminder that our relationship with God can include complaints about God's behavior and anger at God and questions to God.

I would also highly recommend these singable inclusive language psalters: The Psalter by Gabe Huck, unfortunately out of print, but available used, and Psalter for the Christian People by Gordon Lathrop and Gail Ramshaw. Nan Merrill's Psalms for Praying goes even further in re-imaging the some of the militaristic and patriarchal language of the Psalms.

Someone once said that the Psalms cover every conceivable human emotion, so reading or singing the Psalms is very therapeutic. I hope that you enjoy your journey through the Psalms. If you want to delve deeper, Cynthia Bourgeault has an audio CD with a booklet of singing instructions, Singing the Psalms, and a book with an instructional CD, Chanting the Psalms. What is so helpful about Bourgeault's recordings is that they are of an ordinary singer doing this in everyday life. When I sing the Psalms early in the morning with a frog in my throat, it is not about a public performance, but about opening myself and the world to God's presence through the Psalms.

p.s. Realizing how limited time can be on weekday mornings, I also created a cycle for just weekends. This will take less than six months. See below:

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Listening to the Sun

This time of year it is possible to watch the sun rise without losing any sleep. Even though I am usually out of bed before the sun, in my morning routine, from my urban/suburban living room, though, I do not take the time just to sit and watch the sky brighten over the trees and the neighbors' houses to east. With the lengthening days, I am usually out of work and headed west as the sun is setting, but I don't really notice that either except for the solar glare as a driving hazard.

Author Paula Huston writes of her experience of sitting in solitude at sunrise and sunset, "I began to get a sense, which I hadn't had in years, of being part of all this: the sun's rising and its setting, the day's beginning and ending cupped in two palms far larger than my own. (The Holy Way, p.18)

Psalm 19: 1-6

The heavens declare the glory of God;

the sky proclaims its builder's craft. (New American Bible)

One day tells its tale to another,

and one night imparts knowledge to another.

Although they have no words or language,

and their voices are not heard,

their sound has gone out into all lands,

and their message to the ends of the world.

In the deep has God set a pavilion for the sun;

it comes forth like a bridegroom out of his chamber;

it rejoices like a champion to run its course.

It goes forth from the uttermost edge of the heavens

and runs about to the end of it again;

nothing is hidden from its burning heat.

(Psalter for The Christian People)

She continues after quoting Psalm 19, "I asked myself how I had so entirely lost this knowledge for so many years. How had I lost my membership in the great creation? (The Holy Way, p. 19)

Could we try this at least as a weekend practice during Lent? What if we allow ourselves fifteen minutes to read and meditate on this or another Psalm, and sit in solitude with the sun as company?

As I write this, I'm "on retreat." I am sitting in the afternoon sunshine, snug inside on a windy winter day. The wind has blown away the morning's clouds, and the sun is warming me in a way that the electric heat could not. I can see ocean's edge across the dunes—the sun's track is silver white now across the water, running its course toward the western edge. Even this, just sitting in the sun and absorbing its heat—something I loved as a small child when the afternoon sun warmed my bed and let me succumb to an afternoon nap, even if I didn't want it—I seem to have forgotten how just to let myself hear the message that one day tells another, and bathe in the warmth of creation. I think I can stop writing now and just sit in the sun and listen to the firmament declaring the glory of God.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Out of the Ashes

What kind of ashes do we choose? What ashes do we use and how?

Psalm 147: 16-17

God's command is sent out to the earth,

and the word of the Lord runs very swiftly.

God gives snow like wool

and scatters frost like ashes.

This winter we certainly have had snow like wool and frost like ashes.

I searched the Bible for places it discusses ashes, and most other references are either to sackcloth and ashes of mourning or to disposing of the ashes from the sacrifices on the altars.

Isaiah 58: 5-7

Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

Isaiah reminds us that our ashes cannot be of form only, but must be of substance, of action.

One of the most moving experiences of my field education (church internship) year during seminary came on the afternoon of Ash Wednesday. The church building had burned two years prior and we were holding services in the "sacred double-wide" trailer as we figured out if, and how, to rebuild the building. Traditionally, I understand, the ashes for the ritual marking come from burning some of the palms from the previous year's Palm Sunday. In this situation, we were not nearly so organized, but the pastor said, "We've got plenty of ashes around here—go outside and get some." I found one of the fallen and charred support beams out in front of the trailer that was being used as a border to a flower bed. I pried a hunk of ash off and took it inside and we ground it with a mortar and pestle. During the service, we mixed the ash with olive oil from Palestine and used that to mark the foreheads of people attending. This ash had meaning.

Out of the ashes, comes healing, cleansing and new life. That really is the meaning of the mark of ashes.

I discovered that those uses are literally true, as a search for "uses for ashes" came up with this product, a bag of wood ash.

Besides using ashes for Ash Wednesday, here are some of the other things you can do with ashes, according to the product description:

There are many great ways to use wood ash around your garden and your home:
1) Fertilizer: Wood ash is packed with potassium, phosphorus and calcium! Don't miss out on this great fertilizer! Adds potassium to your compost pile for complete nutrition.

2) Change PH levels in Soil: Wood ash reduces soil acidity as it is strongly alkaline.

3) Ward Off Slugs: Place a ring of ash around plants being destroyed by slugs and sit back and relax! The slugs who pass over the ring of ash are coated in the fine, dry particles. The ash acts just like salt on a slug and will dry that little guy up faster than you can say Bob's your uncle!

4) Protect Plants Over Winter: Heap wood ashes around fragile plants stumps like rhubarb, fuchsias, and ferns to protect them over the winter. Over the course of the winter nutrients from the ash will seep down to the roots of the plants as well.

5) Use as a Chicken Dust Bath: Wood ash in a box or crate makes an excellent dust bath for poultry.

6) Make soap: Soaking ashes in water makes lye, which can be mixed with animal fat and then boiled to produce soap. Salt makes it harden as it cools.

7) Control Pond Algae: One tablespoon per 1,000 gallons adds enough potassium to strengthen other aquatic plants that compete with algae, slowing its growth.

8) Boost Your Tomato Plants: To give your tomatoes and other calcium loving plants a shot in the arm add 1/4 cup in the hole when planting!

9) Shine silver: A paste of ash and water makes a dandy nontoxic metal polisher.

10) Enrich compost: Before the organic compound gets applied to soil, enhance its nutrients by sprinkling in a few ashes.

11) Eco-Friendly Ice Melting: Melting ice and show with minimum damage to environment! Ash adds traction and de-ices without hurting soil or concrete underneath.

12) Ash Glazes on Pottery: Glaze your Ceramics, Pottery & Clay Art.

Who knew?!

The Phoenix myth is also about new life out of the ashes, and I was happy to celebrate with my internship church their newly re-opened church building last month, on the fifth anniversary of the fire. I hope that they saved a supply of ash for Ash Wednesday, and I pray they run out of that supply of ashes before any more get created by a building fire.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Writings from Retreat

I have been "on retreat" for the past few days, and am on vacation for another few. My retreat and spontaneous vacation plans were prompted by the realization that I really needed a break, and I'm grateful for being able to take this time away. One of the interesting characteristics of the place where I spent some of my retreat time is that my cell phone didn't get reception, the internet didn't work, and the landline phone didn't have long distance. So the computer I had with me was really just a typewriter.

Just before I left I got an email advertisement for a book titled Reboot: Refreshing Your Faith in a High Tech World by Peggy Kendall. Although I only had time to read the on-line introduction/sample, I think I was operating in the spirit of this book while away. And my beeline for my email and internet connection on my return home certainly raises the question of technology's place in my life. I'll be thinking on these things.

My unplugged retreat time was not a problem though: I had stocked up on books. One of my pre-Lenten retreat readings was The Holy Way by Paula Huston. She examines ten spiritual practices: solitude, silence, awareness, purity, devotion, right livelihood, confidence, integrity, generosity, and tranquility, through her own life's struggles and search for those spiritual qualities and through lives of saints that exemplify them. I recommend the book, and you'll be hearing more about that as I roll out my writings from retreat during Lent as reflections.

Growing up as a Baptist farm child, the only saints I knew anything about were St. Valentine, St. Patrick and St. Nicholas, none of whom, no surprise, are the saints that Huston uses as her models. That made me wonder what the Baptist equivalents might be, but I have not yet come up with answers—the apostles and prophets don't quite exemplify all those traits. Yet, I guess that these secularized saints that were the only ones I knew as a child do exemplify some key traits: St. Valentine's Day is about love, and it is certainly a good thing to say "I love you" to those you love, and some people need the reminder; St. Patrick's Day is about green things, and by that point in the winter we all need the promise of new life and green and growing things; and St. Nicholas was all about giving, and in the ideal that also is a good thing, if it hadn't become overblown and commercialized.

One of the things I decided to do on retreat was to write some Lenten reflections, so I will be posting more frequently to this blog during Lent. I'm not committing to daily postings, but more than weekly. If you are giving up social networking for Lent as one of my Facebook friends has promised to do, or if you also are examining the more intrusive role of technology in your life, the good news is that these writings will be there when you get back, or you will never miss them.

In the meantime, Happy Valentine's Day. May you know the love of God in your life, and be reminded to tell those you love that you love them.