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?