“Darkening Sky” Spirituality

old bridge (deposit photos).jpgChange. Say it soft and it’s almost like puking.

I used to dread Autumn.

About thirty years ago (college era) Seasonal Affective Disorder dawned in me. My love for distinctive Midwestern seasons got complicated.

Since then, good support and meds have helped attune me to my holistic health, but I’d be lying if I said the 4th quarter was easy.

I trust I’m not alone with clinical depression and a sense of guarding my emotional health when the weather turns cold and dark.

In the Midwestern USA where I’m from, there is no more intense earth season than fall to enact the disruptive, beautiful prospect of transformative change.

All through autumn we hear a double voice:
one says everything is ripe;
the other says everything is dying.
The paradox is exquisite.

Gretel Ehrlich

In the psalms, life comes naturally in waves, and each one is faithful unto itself. Right now, you may be in a season of great joy. Enjoy it; it will pass. You may be in the midst of freaked-out fear. Hang on; something different is on its way.

In 12 days, I’m hosting a free/tip call-in class called Deep Change and the Psalms: Navigating the Intensity of Harvest Time, and you’re all invited.

Is it possible to accept a life that includes melancholia? Can we prepare for seasons of disruptive change and frame them as good? Or at least understand them so we can make the best of them?

What I’m calling “Darkening Sky” spirituality is a psalm-centered faith. This is theology that honors our most intense moments of transition, acknowledging God smack in the middle of whatever slow-mo rotating stage we’re on.

The parts of life we judge as intolerably dire straits the psalms name holy. As my psalmentor Rev. Dr. Clint McCann says, these moments of honest suffering are not good, but normal. See also Ecclesiastes 3 and Jesus’ mystical ministry of disrupting pretty much every life he encountered.

Need some courage? Here are a few psalm-songs that might be good company for your holy life that might feel like it’s unraveling: (Note: these are NOT cheer-up songs, but psalm-honest cries for what’s happening in you).

As summer moves into autumn, we know earth seasons will turn as they always have. It’s something we know, but sometimes do not wish to allow.

Here’s to allowing change to ripen what’s in our heart-gardens, that Gretel Ehrlich’s exquisite season would bring us to fullness before moving into the next.

Register now for Deep Change and the Psalms: Navigating the Intensity of Harvest Time.


Midrash Jesus II

laughing jesusAnd it came to pass on the day following the Sabbath that Jesus pinched a nerve in his back while painting a neighbor’s house. For his day job was carpentry.

Flat on his back in terrible pain, he prayed many psalms of lament, including Psalm 6 in moments of greatest suffering.

Monday at the third hour, just as the Lord was groaning, “OMG, I am weary from my groaning and my eye grows dark due to vexation*,” Mary knocked and entered, carrying a young, fresh puppy. This was Mary— no, not the one you’re thinking of. The other one. See, there’s Jesus’ mother, there’s Martha’s and Lazarus’s sister, then there’s… It’s confusing. Anyway: Mary.

Mocking him good-naturedly, she sing-song asked him, “Hmm. Which is easier, to forgive someone’s sins or to heal his body?”

And, setting the puppy down, it ran straight for the Rabbi, tromping on his chest and licking his face. And behold, the Lord became mirthful– at first a slightly painful sputter which quickly turned to delighted giggles.

Jesus laughed.

“This puppy can eat crumbs from my table anytime!” giggled Jesus. “Blessed are you, little dog, for you have made me forget myself and remember love.”

And Mary laughed too, partly because she loved Jesus so dearly, partly because some people thought the Lord could not get hurt or ill because he was somehow less than fully human (for she herself preferred the synoptics), but mostly because healing is a beautiful mystery that can come from unexpected places– even from a different species.

And after a few moments, the Lord dismissed the puppy and said to Mary in a grateful sigh, “Mary, be a servant and bring my ibuprofen, would you?” for though he had experienced great healing, the inflammation in his upper back region yet was great. “And something to eat,” he added, for he knew it was bad to take on an empty stomach.

*Yes, from Psalm 6.


Midrash Jesus I

Sculpture Relief Depicting Christ Healing the Blind Man

And after the weekend, verily, Jesus retired to a lonely place, cracked open an adult beverage and checked his Facebook feed on his laptop. And great was the *sigh* that he uttered– so great that the twelve, reclining in the next room, did inquire of the Master, “Master, why sighest thou in such an incredulous manner?”

And Jesus did stare at his screen with dismay, shake his head and mutter, ‘They know not what they do.” And his voice was great with irritation, for he knew it would not be the last time he would say this.

For a new “Friend” had posted something ignorant about Islam, naming the great tradition a tribe of haters.

And Jesus summoned the twelve and began to preach to them, saying, “You know that’s messed up, right? That my sheep are all over, some not of this fold? That anyone not against me I consider on our side? That my yoke is exceedingly easy but it will bust your ego and blow your mind? That I’m talking about a new world. You know this, Right? *Sigh* Okay, look. Now THIS is happening.”

And the Lord did click. And clicketh he did.

And poised to Comment on the ignorant child of God’s post, he did lovingly type on his device, “I disagree. I have Muslim friends– devout ones. They are truly about peace and goodness in the world. Sorry your experience has been different.”

And the Lord did post his comment.

And full of the Holy Spirit, he waited and watched in hope of a reply, a dialogue, some evidence of enlightenment.

After a minute’s time, the Lord did refresh his screen.

Behold, it went blank, for at that very hour he had been Unfriended.

Then the Lord dropped his jaw, closed it again, and then chuckled incredulously saying, “Really?”

And the twelve waited with bated breath on the Rabbi’s next move as the Master considered what manner of assholery this was, for he was pissed. And disappointed. And also full of compassion for his lost “Friend” whom had closed down their online relationship.

And the irony of the Prince of Peace being perceived as a threat to the former “Friend” was not lost on them. For this kind of thing happened, like, every day, especially with religious people. And, verily, it was getting old.

Then in the silent tension did Jesus gaze about the room at the faces of his chosen partners in ministry. And Jesus stood up abruptly, saying, “Well. Who feels like barbecue?” for he was quick to move on.


Give Me a Word for 2016

Portrait by my frolleague Roy DeLeon

My word arrived the other day: qavah.

At the turn of the year, Abbey of the Arts offers a free mini-retreat— twelve moments to imagine the next season of one’s life and ask for a word.

In the tradition of the old desert moms and pops, the Abbey’s Holy Disorder of Dancing Monks consider what word or phrase might be a compass, seed or traveling companion for the coming year. In past years for me it’s been a koan-thing– an idea to chew on over months.


Richard’s Word History:
2011 Stretch
2012 Empty
2013 Salmon
2014 Turn
2015 Edge


Which brings us to what 2016 seems to be serving up: qavah. (keh-VAH)

It’s a Hebrew word used a lot in the psalms, meaning wait, hope, expect. As in,

Wait/hope for God.
Be strong and let your heart take courage
and wait/hope for God.
(Psalm 27.14)

It’s root means gather.

As this word and I claim each other, here’s what I’m wondering about in a stream way:

Wait Patience Time
Weight
Loss Longing
Wait! Wait! Don’t tell me!
Okay! Tell me!

Expecting, Pregnant. Growing with Life
How exquisite and terrifying to have growing life within you.
Incubation takes time. What do I expect?
Surrendering, Giving one’s self.
Nutrition for a womb-person, energy for new ideas, new mysteries.
Will it be born? Borne away? Will it be what I expect?
What will its lifespan be? Is this how I value fresh, new things?

What comes to those who wait?
Sometimes good things. Sometimes nothing. Or worse.
What do I expect?
What am I waiting for?
My waiting and longing– is it hope-full and expectant of goodness, or am I tapping my foot offended like it’s a waste of my time.

Hmm. Could be an interesting year!

If you’re interested, try a “Give Me a Word” thing at the Abbey.

All best blessings to you, my friends, as we ease into a new year.


A Comma for All Saints Day

IMG_7116In confirmation class back in 1980, we were deep into the Third Article of the Apostles Creed (your favorite topic). Pastor Yunker, training us in the jedi ways of Lutheran doctrine, said this weird thing:

“Pay attention to the comma.”

Okay. What young teen isn’t riveted when invited to behold punctuation.

Here’s how my thirteen-year-old self memorized the Third Article from Luther’s Small Catechism:

I believe in the Holy Ghost;
the holy Christian church,
the communion of saints;
the forgiveness of sins;
the resurrection of the body;
and the life everlasting. Amen

You’ll note a number of phrases here separated by semicolons. The only comma is between “the holy Christian church” and “the communion of saints,” not setting them apart like the other petitions, but identifying them with each other.

As I understand it, the 1941 LCMS (Lutheran Church Missouri Synod) catechism and hymnal used that comma amid semicolons. Most every version I see these days has all commas.

A comma might matter on All Saints Day.

With it, we honor the holy Christian church being the communion of saints. Or at least the one being folded into the other as the Body of Christ beyond space and time.

Without it, we make a distinction between them. Not a bad thing, and theologically there may be good reasons to do so.

But in this moment of the liturgical year, we are re-membering who we are: All Saints. With the comma, we understand that the single, global church, having evolved over generations and sprawled across our planet is comprised of saints in communion. In other words, people embodying the Christ as they live in harmony, unity.

Sound like us?

Sure is. You with the barbecue drippings on your sweatshirt, her with the foul mouth, him oblivious to his rudeness, people theologically inferior to you– all of us forgiven sinners, all of us stumbling saints.

On All Saints, we re-gather, re-member, re-claim one another around the bombastic notion that Christ’s single, living Presence is made up of no one else.

We’re invited to live into God’s claim on us.

We’re challenged in our vocation to– depending on your favorite gospel of epistle– follow, obey, nurture friendship with and/or embody the Christ.

I like that comma.


Holy Communion & Them

Pic by Bernadette Morris (creative commons)

Pic by Bernadette Morris (creative commons)

Sermon: Emanuel Lutheran Church, Strawberry Point, Iowa
August 23, 2015

John 6.56-69

Lutherans talk about two sacraments: Holy Baptism and Holy Communion— visible signs of God’s invisible love. In Baptism, what’s visible? (Water). But Martin Luther taught that it’s not really about water. It’s about God’s promise inwithandunder that water. (Cool expression, huh? Say it with me: InWithAndUnder.

In the same way in Holy Communion, what are the visible, tangible elements? (Bread and wine or juice). Lutherans tend to say it’s not magic food. It’s the mystical presence of Christ’s body and blood inwithandunder the elements of food that are important.

In both Baptism and Communion, we celebrate the invisible, unspeakable mystery with ordinary earthy stuff.

Today’s gospel reading seems to be an invitation to think about the question: What is Holy Communion? 

It’s more than a mini-Meal. It’s about being intimately woven into God’s love, connected to the wider church and living day to day at school, where you work, where you play and at your kitchen table.

Last week our confirmation students and their parents gathered to talk about what confirmation instruction might look like at Emanuel, and I was remembering when I was in middle school in Rochester, Minnesota going through my 3-year career of confirmation: Classes each Thursday night including lecture, memorization of Luther’s small catechism, writing papers, Bible study, class discussion.

What was that like? To be honest…

I kinda loved it.

It was an important time for me. My intellectual self was so ready to explore my faith. Someone brought up at our meeting that Martin Luther loved questions. As both a pastor and a professor, he framed religious education with questions. So in his Small Catachism, for example, we pray the Lord’s Prayer, “Our father, who art in heaven” and we stop there and ask: “What does this mean?” We think about the words, we wonder at their meaning. And then we move on with the next petition: “Hallowed by thy name.” And we pause again. “What could this mean? We study carefully and take it in, following our curiosity and allowing the mystery of faith to soak into us over a lifetime, our education never complete.

I think part of Holy Communion is being students sitting at Jesus’ feet over a lifetime. A holy communion— togetherness—all of us with Jesus. Asking our questions, feeling the richness of our ancient tradition and experiencing what’s brand new that God is doing in you and me.

But we don’t do this alone with Jesus. Holy Communion is also about being connected to one another.

And to me that means jokes.

You see, almost every Sunday, my friend Gabe and I find each other and share a joke. All week I’m on the lookout for a good one to tell him on Sunday. Sometimes he has one for me. Because one of my favorite things in the world is laughter, I love that Gabe and I are connected this way. So, Gabe, here’s my joke for you today. Musicians will appreciate this one.

What’s the most musical part of your body?

Your nose, because you can pick it and blow it.

[Wait for uproarious laughter and/or disapproving groans]

Communion is about community with one another. Laughing with Gabe. Knowing where people at Emanuel usually sit. That Elle will probably be at the organ, Cathy at the piano, Robbie strumming and one of our many brilliant singers helping to lead singing. Passing the peace and knowing that some of us don’t like to be touched so I can hold my hands together as a handshake-hug for them. Being in touch with Chuck’s cancer, the success of our youths’ 4-H showings at the fair. Feeling the newness of our life together as the call committee works to discern calling a new pastor.

Communion means we are doing life together. I’m grateful for where we are together and how God is leading us into the future.

But community is not only us in this room. Let’s pull the camera back. We in this room are part of a larger body, along with every other little church worshipping this morning— here in town, across the country and all over the world.

The Apostle Paul’s favorite metaphor for the church is one single body to which the many, many body parts belong (obviously) and where each body part belongs to the others. Picture a human body— male or female— with each arm, leg, ear, toe and pancreas are fully whole, each body part good, good, good and clearly belonging to the whole person. Where would we be, Paul asks, without any one part?

Holy Communion means we’re jerked out of our individualism and self-centeredness to understand we are part of something way bigger than ourselves. Something we’re not in charge of. It’s world-wide, made up of all kinds of people, most of whom do not have white skin, do not speak English and do not own a car. The church we are part of is embarrassingly wealthy, and it is dangerously poor. Our one church suffers, our one church rejoices. Our one church has AIDS, cancer, and gets shot at; our church celebrates birth, scientific discoveries and the teensiest sign of peace anywhere in the world.

Holy Communion means we claim one another– all the One Anothers to whom we belong. Beyond this room, beyond our personal preferences and prejudices, even beyond this time!

That’s another dimension of communion. We are surrounded, the book of Hebrews reads, by a great cloud of witnesses, beyond space and time. So we are part of the whole people of God that includes Abraham and Sarah, King David, Ruth and Naomi, Simon Peter and Mary of Magdella as well as our loved ones no longer with us.

Who comes to mind for you? Picture there faces, hear their voices.

We are the church that includes our ancestors going way back, our dearest companions of our lifetime as well as children and grandchildren yet to be born.

A Russian Orthodox theologian named Alexander Schmiechen puts it this way: Worship with our One Body never really begins or ends.

When we ring the bell here at Emanuel and start our service, we are simply joining the worship that has been going on continually for eons and that continues in other time zones when we at Emanuel Lutheran are finished. It’s like we just sort of step into a stream that has been flowing almost forever.

Because we are in Holy Communion.

Let’s close with John’s gospel today.

Jesus says again, “Eat and drink. But look deeper. It’s me. Eat and drink and make me part of you.”

Now people who heard this were starting to get what Jesus was about. And it made them nervous. Why? They noticed the people with whom Jesus ate and drank.

Treasonous, cheating tax collectors working for Rome.

People so sick there were laws against touching them and being close to them.

Prostitutes, and women of ill repute that didn’t have much standing in the community apart from a man.

People it was a waste of time to be with, so ridiculous a prospect to be seen with them that it truly effected the reputation of Jesus’ 3-year ministry.

Because Jesus touched them, ate with them, laughed with them, went to football games with them, quilted with them, hung out with them. He treated them like he didn’t know they were a Them. You could make the case that Jesus was killed because of who he ate and drank with.

So when Jesus said in a number of different ways, “Eat and drink me,” it began to dawn on his students what he meant. Their lives would have to change to be with those Them. The barriers between Us and Them would be dissolving into respect, compassion, maybe even handshakes and hugs.

It must have seemed impossible.

If that wasn’t bad enough, Jesus went on: “I’m telling you. This is the Only Way. God, the Holy One of your ancestors, is calling you.” (John 6.65)

This was the last straw for some followers, the gospel says. Reading from chapter 6 that we heard today:

“Because of this many of his followers turned back and no longer went about with him.

And Jesus asked the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?”

There was, I imagine, a pregnant pause. The twelve looking around at each other.

And out of the awkward silence Simon Peter answered him, “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.

We have come to believe and know that you are the Holy One of God.” (John 6.68-69)

Can you feel a bit of what that must have meant to them?

And we sing those words from Peter’s mouth every Sunday around the gospel reading: “Alleluia. Lord, to Whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. Alleluia.” Except what’s different about what we sing and what’s in the story?

No alleluia.

I imagine the tone of Peter’s words to be pretty heavy. Maybe even agonizing.

Like: “Jesus, this is hard. You’re asking for a revolution. A way to live where there is no Them? Nobody that’s not part of who we think of as Us?!  No male or female, no black or white, no gay or straight, no republican or democrat, no honor student or drop-out, no diseased or healthy. You want our whole lives to change to be about Communion— you even want to change the way we think!”

And the twelve men looked around at each other. And the women disciples who probably were there but weren’t counted. Restless silence.

“Jesus. A change that’s inwithandunder this meal like a contaminant? Jesus, a new world that’s somehow hidden within this world? Holy Communion with you and *Those* People— the Only Way? Outrageous. Impossible. So much at stake.

*Sigh*.

Maybe there were tears in Peter’s eyes when he said it:

“Where else can we go? You have the words of real life.”

And maybe, in considering his failures of the past and knowing so well his fear of the future… maybe Peter added under his breath: “Alleluia.”


Where Else Would God Be?

WorldStretching

I heard him say, “The scandal of the Christian story is not that God became incarnate as a human. It’s that God is incarnate in every particle of creation. I mean… [dramatic pause] where else would God be?”

My Constructive Theology professor Dr. Eleazar Fernandez may never know how that woke me up.

“Where else would God be?”

The name Emmanuel means God With Us. The Incarnation we celebrate at Christmas is a recognition of God’s presence spun through creation. Now when church people talk about a particular day or season, it doesn’t mean it’s not real all the time. In this case, the Story of Christmas is that Holy breaks into our lives all the time, not just in late December.

But it’s good we have liturgical seasons to help us practice these kinds of things. Otherwise– for me, at least– all the rich bewilderment and awe of life…

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