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 core...to 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.