Friday, July 2, 2010

Friday five: but how, then, shall we live?

Sally of the RevGals writes:

This has been a good week for British Methodism, The Annual Conference has discussed and debated many things and not shied away from some difficult stuff. New Ministers have been Ordained and received into Full Connexion. Add to that the fact that two amazing ladies; Alison Tomlin and Eunice Attwood have taken up their posts as President and Vice-President for 2010/2011–and that they have both inspired us in their speeches and preaching , and you begin to get the picture. In the Vice-President's Address Eunice gave an inspiring account of the type of church she wants to be a part of:

I want to be part of a church that is prayer-filled -
A church that is resourced and sustained by the Bible,
A church that can offer hope even in a credit crunch,
A church that can live well with difference and diversity.

I want to be part of a church that welcomes the wealthy, those who have power and influence -
A church that knows how to party and celebrate life,
A church that acknowledges death and speaks boldly of resurrection,
A church that doesn’t pretend to have all the answers but encourages all the questions.

I want to be part of a church that throws parties for prostitutes -
A church that welcomes those who seek asylum,
A church that longs and yearns for justice,
A church that listens to those no-one else wants to listen to.

I want to be part of a church that believes in transformation not preservation -
A church where all who are lost can be found,
A church where people can discover friendship,
A church where every person takes responsibility in sharing the good news.

I want to be part of a church whose hope is placed securely and confidently in the transforming love of God -
A church that engages faith in its communities,
A church that makes and nurtures disciples of Jesus.

A church where the story of God’s love is at the centre.
I want to be part of a church that offers outrageous grace, reckless generosity, transforming love and engaging faith.
This is God’s story Transforming Love: Engaging Faith.

My prayer is that by the power of the Spirit of God at work amongst us, it will increasingly be our story.

I want to be part of that church too, and at the danger of trying to add to such a wonderful litany of dreams/ visions and prayers I wonder which five things would you echo from or add to this. What kind of church do you want to be a part of in the 21st Century?

Bonus: Is there a hymn or a Bible passage that you would make your inspiration?

Well. That's a thinker, isn't it? Here's my answer:

I want to be part of a church that is

  1. humble–that can find a different standard of belonging than dogmatic “right” and “wrong.” That can be fully in conversation with people and institutions whose ideas, strengths, commitments are different from its own, for the betterment of all. That can admit when it’s wrong by its own standards, repent and do better next time. That cares less about its image in the world than its effectiveness in the relief of suffering and of spreading (or, at the very least, not impeding) the love of God. Talk with me about babies and bathwater all you want; I’m pretty sure that genuine love is the fulfillment of the Law. I want a church that isn’t so comfortable that it has all the right answers; that’s a kind of living death. I want a church that will recognize its own “-olatries” and work to tear them down. And could we maybe even (dare I say it) laugh at ourselves sometimes?
  2. engaged in a positive way–that truly sees the suffering/injustice within its walls, down the street, and around the world (which will require a good dose of characteristic #1, particularly in first-world environments) and wants to provide that cold drink of water to a child more than it wants to preserve itself. That seeks out the gifts of its body and brings them to bear on the problems it finds. However, the church should act within the political system of its country more as a voice of conscience than as a political power in its own right; it should be about raising questions about how we are to live together, instead of seeking power for its own sake. And–hear me now–its methods are every bit as important as its results. Scapegoating and scaring people into thinking they’re losing their grip on everything they hold dear so that they’ll support a particular political engine is hypocritical, reprehensible and, in the end, counter-productive. Witness the treatment of GLBT folks in the last twenty years as just one of many examples. We should be about tikkun olam.
  3. awake to the unfolding beauty of the world–that observes, listens, ponders and responds creatively. Where beauty is taken seriously as a characteristic of the Divine. Where the planet is celebrated and protected as our astonishing home. Where spirits open in song, art, dance and story, in response to the unbelievable gift of being alive and together under the sun, in God’s gaze, as part of the ongoing story of God’s people. Where, as the hymn says, “through the church the song goes on.”
  4. un-self-conscious about holding love of God and neighbor as its highest values. Period. Worship is vibrant, fresh, the central practice/equipment to the life of faith for all people–and I do mean ALL people–so that they may be sent out to love all the world. Not to convert them, just to love them. It must be extravagantly welcoming to everyone, as if love really does cast out fear. Doctrinal agreement and social conformity are not defining characteristics of this community; for once, it’s more about “us” than about “me.” And–don’t get me wrong–I’m not talking about a squishy “we are the world” sentiment here; I’m talking about honest, vigorous, creative, brave, get-your-hands-dirty love. Not onstage; in the trenches. And sometimes, we are the ones in need of help and teaching. Two-way relationships.
  5. hopeful, faithful, confident and patient enough to pour itself out as Christ did.

And let me just say this; it’s easy to talk about it on this level. The hard part is when we try to answer the question, “But how, then, shall we live?” Because working all this out is messy. Feelings get hurt. Dignities are affronted. Turf is impinged upon. Scabs are pulled off. Put your helmets on, people; this is a contact sport. But if those things don’t happen, from where does the growth come? Truly, if we’re not changed by the experience, what are we doing? And this is where the good stuff always comes–where we can be surprised by grace, by joy, by love.

Oh, and my answer to the bonus question? Albert Bayly's wonderful hymn does it for me (sung to BEACH SPRING):

Lord, whose love in humble service bore the weight of human need;

who, upon the cross, forsaken, worked your mercy's perfect deed.

We, your servants, bring the worship not of voice alone, but heart;

consecrating to your purpose every gift that you impart.

Still your children wander homeless; still the hungry cry for bread;

still the captives long for freedom; still in grief we mourn our dead.

As you, Lord, in deep compassion, healed the sick and freed the soul,

by your Spirit send us power to your world to make it whole.

As we worship, grant us vision, till your love's redeeming light

in its height and depth and greatness dawns upon our quickened sight,

making known the needs and burdens your compassion bids us bear;

stirring us to ardent service, your abundant life to share.

Called by worship to your service, forth in your dear name we go,

to the child, the youth, the aged, love in living deeds to show;

hope and health, goodwill and comfort, counsel, aid and peace we give,

that your servants, Lord, in freedom may your mercy know and live.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Hedgehogs in motion

I'm feeling philosophical today. Perhaps it was brought on by five full days of sitting more-or-less in one place, listening to nature, conspicuously NOT producing anything. I'm feeling de-cluttered in a way I haven't been for about nine months. It's delicious and clean and, well, simple.

On the way back from our vacation, Beloved and I were listening to the audiobook version of our wonderful book club's next selection, The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery. Two chapters in, it seems to me as if this is going to be one of those books I'll end up buying more than once because I keep thrusting it into the hands of all the readers in my life. You can find a synopsis at the link, so I won't bother with it here, but I have to say that Paloma–a mordant, intellectual, twelve-year old genius–will stay with me long after I finish the book. She has created a project for herself: to keep a journal of Profound Thoughts. I'll offer three of them here for your consideration:
  • (Art is) the beauty that is there in the world; things that, being part of the movement of life, elevate us...grace, beauty, harmony, intensity.
Paloma understands Major Works of Art (and has a fondness for Vermeer), but doesn't see them as the only containers for artistic expression; for her, art is both ever-present (like Meister Eckhart's image of God as a "great underground river") and something that must be sought, held and practiced.

Movement is a major intellectual theme for Paloma. Her observations thus far encompass not only the way we're defined by the direction we're pointed, but the way that progress (or even the anticipation of progress) irrevocably alters us:
  • Most people, when they move, well, they just move depending on whatever's around them. At this very moment, as I'm writing, Constitution the cat is going by with her tummy dragging close to the floor. This cat has absolutely nothing constructive to do in life, and still she is heading toward something–probably an armchair–and you can tell by the way she is moving that she is headed toward. Maman just went by on her way to the front door. She's going out shopping, and in fact, she already is out, her movement anticipating itself. I don't really know how to explain it, but when we move we are in a way destructured by our movement toward something. We are both here and at the same time not here, because we're already in the process of going elsewhere.
It's not simply our attitude that changes (which we can-do Americans hold as Tremendously Significant), but our fundamental nature. Simultaneous presence and absence...if you've ever tried to hold a conversation with someone who's absorbed in their TV program/text message/insert-your-pet-distraction-here, you know what this means. But to what effect on the person who's in two places at once? Paloma again:
  • What makes the strength of a warrior isn't the energy he uses trying to intimidate the other guy by sending him a whole lot of signals; it's the strength he's able to concentrate within himself by staying centered.
Food for thought, no?

Friday, June 18, 2010

Friday five: Remember me?

Hi, everyone–it's been a while, and I've missed you! But here I am, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed, redesigned and looking forward to coming back to the Reef.

RevGal Jan writes:

As I opened up my computer this morning, I directly went to my blog and RevGals to see what the newest Friday Five would be! Nothing was here, which seemed odd. Then I went to look at the calendar and counted the Fridays, and it is the THIRD Friday! How did that happen so quickly? It's my turn, so here's a quickie:

1. Do you tend to be a late person or one who is timely, arriving on time or earlier?

I'm used to being the one who runs the meeting/rehearsal/event, which means that I take being prepared and punctual seriously–it's a matter of respecting those good souls who have volunteered their time and effort for that which I've asked. It backs up on me sometimes, though:
  • I'm (unreasonably?) irritated by lateness. I know that life sometimes gets in the way, but I have a hard time not seeing habitual lateness as a sign of disrespect.
  • I drive Beloved nuts when we're going somewhere together–I'm the little bouncing animal gasping "Are you ready? Can we go? We're gonna be laaaaaaate!" She is gracious about this. :-)

2. Have you forgotten anything of importance lately?

The list of things I've forgotten lately is l-o-n-g. It's been an unusually stressful program year, and I've been in recovery mode for the last couple of weeks–and thus, not at the top of my game. But I'm working on it...and I get to go and sit beside a lake with Beloved for five days starting late next week. Huzzah, I say!

3. Is procrastination your inclination? Why or why not?

It depends. If it's a book or something over which I have creative control, I'm likely to go great guns until it's done, even months ahead of the deadline. But sometimes I have a hard time dragging myself off the couch to do another load of laundry!

4. Do you like schedules or spontaneity? Which works best for you?

I like spontaneity; I function better with schedules.

5. How do you stay on track with the various things you need to, people you must meet, etc., etc.?

My laptop has helped a lot, I think. WiFi and Google calendars and instant access to email. That having been said, I have 3 email accounts and 3 voicemail boxes to keep track of, which is a bit wearing.

BONUS: Whatever comes to mind about forgetfulness or lateness.

What was the question?

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Strengthening your core

I was fooling around with a friend's Wii Fit a couple of weeks ago, having a great time. At one point, as the machine was evaluating my relative strengths and weaknesses, it sort of hinted at the fact that I could use some work on my core strength; limbs are pretty good, but balance...not quite so much.

Hmmm...I feel a metaphor coming on.

My home church, this Lent, is working with the theme "Come Home" in all things worship-related. We're using the story of the Prodigal Son as a meta-narrative for the season. If you don't know it, here's a version of it--a paraphrase by Eugene Peterson which begins like this:

Then (Jesus) said,
"There once was a man who had two sons.
The younger son said to his father,
'Father, I want right now what's coming to me.'

So the father divided his property
between (the younger and older sons).
It wasn't long
before the younger son packed his bags
and left for a distant country.
There, undisciplined and dissipated,
he wasted everything he had..."

I heard this particular version of the story tonight for the first time. And this stuck with me: undisciplined and dissipated. Dissipated--as if the source of the young man's unhappiness was the fact that he lost track of his core, his essential being, his connection. Dissipated--as if his very self had scattered to the winds.

Huh. Ever felt that way? Ever been distracted by something shiny or something "worthy" or just too many somethings, and lost track of yourself? Of your place in the world? Of those things which keep you tethered to deepest reality? I certainly have.

Lots of times, I've heard this story told as if the young man's main problem was active debauchery. And it's easy to hear it or to read it from a place of righteousness: "WE certainly wouldn't be so overtly selfish and sinful. What a bad boy he was." As if we were the elder brother in the story.

This translation, though, suggests to me that the young man's problem was more subtle, more passive--that he just surrendered, little bit by little bit, his essential humanity. He settled for a lesser version of himself until his hunger and desperation brought him back to his senses. He could then go back home, having lost so much and yet regained that which was truly essential. His homecoming was met with gracious abundance on his father's part.

There's a wonderful hymn by Kevin Nichols in Evangelical Lutheran Worship called "Our Father, We Have Wandered." We sang it last Sunday, and the second verse goes like this:

And now at length discerning
the evil that we do,
behold us, Lord, returning
with hope and trust to you.
In haste you come to meet us
and home rejoicing bring,
in gladness there to greet us
with calf and robe and ring.

We don't often manage that kind of gracious welcome with one another. It's sort of ironic that we so regularly (especially when in groups) react as the elder brother in the story did, lost in our own righteousness--wanting judgment to be meted out to those who have "done it wrong" in many and various ways:
  • by daring to be both gay and Christian,
  • by daring to be both divorced and Christian,
  • by daring to be both mentally or physically ill and Christian,
  • by daring to be both homeless and Christian,
  • by daring to be both broken and Christian,
  • by daring to be both doubtful and faithful,
  • by daring to admit that sometimes the only way to God is through a pig sty, or, in short,
  • by daring to admit our brokenness and to reclaim our core selves in the company of the body of Christ.
It ain't easy. We make it awfully hard on one another. Vulnerable honesty just makes everyone uncomfortable; it seems a living thing unto itself--and a threatening one, at that. It's unpredictable. It doesn't follow the "rules." Those things which make us authentically ourselves sometimes scare our brothers and sisters out of their (right) minds.

But did you notice that, in the parable, the older son is also called to remember who he is, in the context of this new turn of events? To recall his own identity as a son, a brother, a loving being in the world? He lost track of himself, too--was dissipated as surely as his brother had been--but by his own righteousness, anger and jealousy. His father invited him to remember the joy at his own join in the celebration instead of sitting in judgment and resentment of his brother.

And so, whatever your own vantage point in the story in this particular Lenten season, I ask you these questions:

What is the "home" to which you return?
What strengthens your core?

And I end this post with a prayer of awestruck gratitude for a God that continues to welcome me back, despite my brokenness, despite my righteousness--who collects my scattered pieces and restores me to wholeness over and over again, and who runs out to greet me every time "with calf and robe and ring."

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Coloring outside the lines

I work, during the day, for Large Metropolitan Church (LMC)--large enough to have a full-time Communications Director. Much loveliness comes of this for LMC, including and especially seasonal devotional books. The over-arching Lenten theme at LMC is "coloring outside the lines."

"Interesting approach," mused my Internal Worship Planning Geek, when I first heard it. "Wonder how, exactly, that will play out."

One way is in a beautiful devotional. It contains original art by a member; meditations submitted by staff and members; a scripture reading and a prayer for each day; and--wait for it--a coloring page for each Sunday. And the book comes with a little box of six crayons.

Genius. An invitation to approach Lent in a very personal, creative and fresh way, if a body is willing. Staff and most members who've seen it have responded with delight. But yesterday, as our receptionist offered a book and crayons to a rather elderly member, I heard her say rather archly, "Well, I'd prefer to behave like an adult."

But she took them.

And I (goody for me) managed not to make a crack about needing to have the faith of a little child. Because faith takes us to all kinds of uncomfortable places. Some of them are deserts; some of them are moral crossroads; some of them are invitations to try something a tiny bit loose and silly and joyful.

My home congregation (both midwestern and Lutheran!) did just that on Transfiguration Sunday. Our opening song was the South African freedom song "We Are Marching in the Light of God." In subsequent verses, we are "dancing," "praying" and "singing in the light of God." Our drumming director worked out some simple dance moves for everyone to do while we sang and the drummers played. This sort of thing has been a bit lackluster in the past, (we're sort of self-conscious about all that movement and exuberance, don'cha know) but not this time. Almost everyone at both services, from age 3 to 83, was moving and singing and grinning. Maybe even transfigured, in a way.

The incandescent Barbara Brown Taylor notes in "An Altar in the World" that

We need the practice of incarnation,
by which God saves the lives of those
whose intellectual assent has turned dry as dust,
who have run frighteningly low on the bread of life,
who are dying to know more God in their bodies.
Not more about God.
More God.

Sometimes when people ask me about my prayer life,
I describe hanging laundry on the line.
After a day of too much information about almost everything,
there is such blessed relief in the weight of wet clothes,
causing the wicker basket to creak as I carry it to the clothesline.
Every time I bend down to shake loose a piece of laundry,
I smell the grass.
I smell the sun.
Above all, I smell clean laundry.

Above all, I am happy for practices that bring me back to my body,
where the operative categories are not "bad" and "good"
but "dead" and "alive."
As hard as I have tried to be good all my life--
as hard as I try to be good even now--
my heart leans more and more toward that which gives life,
whether it is conventionally good or not.
There are times
when dancing on tables grants more life than kneeling in prayer.
More to the point,
there are times when dancing on tables
is the most authentic prayer in reach,
even if it pocks the table and clears the room.

And now I have a hopeful image in my head of my crusty friend at home alone, using those crayons and chuckling to herself. And my wish for you, gentle reader, is that you give it a try, too. Dance. Laugh. Sing. Remember that life is our first, best gift from our loving Creator. Don't you think it's God's hope for that life to be colorful and extravagantly vibrant?

Some deserts are of our own making. I'm just saying.

Peace, y'all.