Saturday, December 25, 2004

A Laywoman's Lectionary: A Great Light in the Darkness - For Christmas (12/25/04)

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness -- on them light has shined.
You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder.
For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. (Isaiah 9:2-7) [NRSV]
My favorite Christmas Story is probably Gian Carlo Menotti's little opera for children, Amahl and the Night Visitors. It was televised during my childhood, and my father once took my brother and me to a live production at the Cincinnati Symphony, when we were about nine and seven. That didn't work out so well, as my brother turned out to have intestinal flu and threw up in the middle, necessitating a return home, but I spent the rest of that December listening to the record and memorizing the score. I used to sing Amahl to myself, in my pathetically tuneless voice, as I wandered the sandy paths of a cottage resort in Florida the next spring, awaiting my father's return from his second wedding. Something about that Christmas miracle was sustaining to a child whose life was going to change yet again.

When I had children of my own, I introduced them to Amahl via a grainy VCR recording; today they, too, know at least bits and pieces of the music. And we did make it through an entire beautifully staged production a couple of years ago. Every Christmas I set aside a portion of an evening to sit in my quiet and candle-lit home and listen to the CD.

The operetta turns on the story of the Three Kings, journeying across a barren land in search of the meaning of a star. At its heart are the Amahl and his mother, living in isolation and need. He is cheerfully oblivious to the poverty that has taken from them sheep, goat, and food; she is increasingly irritated by his propensity for amusing himself with fantastical stories. She furiously sends him to bed after he has stayed out too late playing his flute, only to come inside with some of his biggest lies ever, about a star "as big as a window [that] moves across the sky like a chariot on fire."

Into the rest of the short production are packed the arrival of the kings (whom the mother at first believes to be another figment of her son's imagination); Amahl's humorous interactions with them; the musical and dancing entertainment provided by the local shepherds; the mother's longing looks at the visitors' display of wealth, which prompt one of the most hauntingly beautiful pieces of Christmas music in existence; her desperation for her son's circumstances; the revelation of the true character of the new king; and Amahl's innocent generosity, which leads to the first miracle of Christmas.

It's a simple enough story, full of whimsy, sorrow, and triumph. Overarchingly present are the great lights -- the light of the star which entrances a young child, puzzles his mother, and exerts a powerful pull on the three strangers, -- and the greater light to which it points. It is a children's opera, but it presents in an hour the entire sweep of Isaiah 9:2-7 as played out by the curious cast of characters who assemble in our imaginations each December.

"Have you seen a Child the color of wheat, the color of dawn? His eyes are mild, his hands are those of a King,As King he was born.
Have you seen a Child the color of earth, the color of thorn? His eyes are sad, His hands are those of the poor, as poor he was born.
Incense, myrrh and gold we bring to his side.And the eastern star is our guide."

Sunday, December 19, 2004

A Laywoman's Lectionary: Do You Believe in Dreams and Angels - For the Fourth Sunday in Advent (12/19/04)

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said,
"Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."
All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us."
When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-25) [NRSV]

This year, for me, Advent has had an ominous feel to it.

Maybe it was that first reading, in which Jesus warned that "about that day or hour, no one knows." Maybe it was John the Baptist, with his seemingly unbalanced rants. Maybe it's the appearances of these angels, last week to Mary, in person, and now to Joseph in a dream.
Maybe it's just the stresses of the season. It seems to get harder, not easier, each year. The rampant materialism -- last December I thought that one of my friends was going to have a complete breakdown right there in the coffee shop as she described her distressed attempts to avoid all malls and stores effective immediately the day after Thanksgiving. This year, I'm her. The organizational challenges -- children moving around the globe, home from college and gone again, one in France as I write this; college applications in the mail, meaning even more airline angst next winter; parents hours away dealing with a devastatingly serious illness; a job that offers no break until Christmas Eve; a house in chaos in which, nevertheless, 30-plus people will gather for Christmas dinner.

But no -- it's not the tensions inherent in my own little life. There is agitation out there, in the cosmos, well beyond the strains here at home and those pulling our nation and planet apart. And Christmas is the beginning of the church year, the beginning of the annual cycle of trying to identify and address and reconcile those grander movements. For Joseph, they at first appear to dwell in his own little life, just as mine do for me. He's just an ordinary man, a carpenter and an observant Jew, planning to marry the young lady down the road who has turned up pregnant. He's a decent sort of fellow, so he's going to break the engagement quietly, hoping to put a stop to the gossip around the village well before it even begins. Mary will have her own humiliation to deal with, but he won't compund it for either of them.

And then an angel appears, in a dream. What do you believe about your dreams? Joseph probably knew that the other Joseph's dreams turned out to be fairly significant. Israel was saved because of those dreams. When things happen in dreams, at least in the Bible, the tensions of family and home pale in contrast to the strains suddenly illuminated in the world.
My own dreams are fairly confusing and seldom remembered, except in those awful predawn hours when I find myself frantic to get back to sleep so that I can dream up a happier ending than the tortured one that has just awakened me. I wonder if Joseph tried to alter the course of his dream.

If he did, we will never know. In the story as we have it, he wakes up and does what he has been told to do. We don't hear anything about his surprise or his unrest; we are left to imagine that for ourselves.

Did he know, somehow? Did he understand that he had been pulled away from his personal concerns, away from even the concerns of the world as he knew it? His son is to be named Emmanuel, which means "God with us" -- how terrifying is that?

No wonder he woke up. His chances of ordinary fatherhood are gone. No typically tedious arrival for this baby, no simple pleasures of teaching his craft to his son, no anticipation of a son's successes to be enjoyed from the vantage point of old age.

In an essay I read recently, the author's wife prays "for the grace of a normal day."* Looks like that's out for Joseph.

His dream is as ominous as all the other events of Advent. I have never been struck as I have this year by the incongruity between what we as a noisy and acquisitive culutre make of Advent and what the Bible actually says about it. Good things are going to happen, but in a very, very hard way.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

A Laywoman's Lectionary: Reversals - For the Third Sunday in Advent (12/12/04)

My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise . (Luke 1:47-55) [NRSV].
Henry Ossawa Tanner's Annunciation 1898
The Bible is often an inhospitable place for women and yet here, after the dark insistence of the first two Sundays of Advent, is this exquisite anthem celebrating the gracious acceptance and wonder experienced by a young woman whom we would not criticize for a second had her song been instead one of fear and resistance.
The Gospel writers were, as far as we know, all men. Yet Luke finds room, again and again, to celebrate the spirit and contributions of women.
The Bible is full of people who resist God's call. Some of them murmur, "But I can't," and must be persuaded that they can. Some of them launch extended arguments with God. At least one of them has to be consumed by a whale before he gets it. And yet Mary, the least likely in a series of unlikely choices, embraces God's claim on her life without hesistation.
Mary refers to her "lowliness" and surely she, of all people, would know. Naive, unmarried, impoverished, and in something of a predicament. And yet, full of confidence that God has favored her with God's presence, bodily and spiritually.
Mary is not, so far as we know, an educated woman. Not a politician. Not a speechmaker. Not a sociologist or economist. And yet she grasps and proclaims, from the moment it is announced to her, the import of her pregnancy: the low, as always in the economy of the New Testament, will be lifted and the mighty will be, just as inevitably, laid low.
Pay attention! That is the recurring theme of Advent. Pay attention to the prospect of mystery in an isolated cave. Pay attention to the uneasy juxtaposition of material excess and spiritual poverty. Pay attention when angels show up unexpectedly.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

A Laywoman's Lectionary: Advent Unease - For the Second Sunday in Advent (12/5/04)

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near." This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'"
Now John wore clothing of camel's hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. "I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." (Matthew 3:1-12 [NRSV])

There is no way to get around it; this material always sounds a jarring note prior to the Advent we like to experience, the one where we sing carols and anticipate angels and shepherds and wise men from afar. Sheep and cattle and camels, too -- no scowling tigers or lunging bears. We like to limit our Advent discord to family squabbles over fake versus real, pine versus spruce, steady versus twinkling. No vipers ands burning chaff for us, thank you very much.

But there it is, right at the beginning of the Gospel, and what are we supposed to do with it?
I always wondered about John the Baptist. I mean, he sounds quite ill. Who would listen to a man wandering around in animal clothing, crunchy locusts and honey dripping from his hands as he shouted his unique mixture of invective and ecstatic proclamation?

Years ago, I used to work downtown, and a large lady with a tamborine made frequent lunchtime sojourns up and down the block in front of a major department store, shouting the good news of salvation to all the passers-by, who studiously looked the other way. A gentleman in a suit often roamed the same block, preaching fire and brimstone at the top of his lungs. One day he walked right up to me, pointed his finger in my face, and intoned in a deep bass voice worthy of James Earl Jones, "God sees all of your secret sins!"

That was not good news to me.

I spent this past Thanksgiving week-end in Chicago with my family, and we went to see the Christmas displays at Marshall Field's. Sure enough, the Chicago version of John the Baptist inhabited the corner in front of one of the Snow White display windows. This one was a yoing man, eanestly sincere as he repeatedly insisted into a bullhorn that the oblivious shoppers needed to hear the words of the Gospel and ensure their salvation. Most of the crowd, of course, ignored him or, if forced by the crowd in his direction, turned politely away.

John is extreme, for sure, and his harsh words interject, at minimum, a sense of unease into our holiday festivities. But Christmas is an uneasy holiday. There is such a gaping disconnect between the meaning of Christmas and the endless round of shopping, decorating and partying that we try not to notice it. But there is John, to remind us.

I'm not, by nature, much of a shopper, so I think it's wise for me to refrain from criticizing people who are. I can think of few less appealing ways of spending my Thanksgiving holiday week-end than racing through stores. But we did have fun inspecting the elaborate Marshall Field's window displays and checking out the giant tree inside. In years past, we've taken kids to see Santa, attended Nutcracker and Christmas Carol productions , and made a family tradition of one big night of downtown shopping. We host a huge dinner on Christmas Day, and a couple of years we've taken elaborate trips. We could by no means be mistaken for clones of John the Baptist.

But that unease is always there. Christmas, after all, is really about Easter. And before Easter comes the ministry of Jesus, with its passionate focus on the poor and distressed. And after Easter comes Pentecost, the baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire of which John speaks, which we are supposed to use to bring Christ into the world. There's just nothing in there about maxing out credit cards to buy stacks of plastic kitchens and toy weapons.

One of my favorite Christmas songs, which I've heard only at the church I now attend, is entitled "And Every Stone Shall Cry." You can read the lyrics and listen to a portion of it here. Its haunting melody reminds us that

Yet He shall be forsakenAnd yielded up to dieThe sky shall groan and darkenAnd every stone shall cry
but also that
But now as at the endingThe low is lifted highThe stars will bend their voicesAnd every stone shall cry*

That song, I think, reflects on what we are meant to hear in the story of John the Baptist each Advent. The outrage is there, of course -- outrage over a world which persists in focusing on the glitz and the tensions of holiday preparation rather than the incarnate presence of God, and which finds expression in a concluding prediction of angry judgment. But so is the disappointment, at our sad inability to recognize that, in the economy of the Bible, the low is always lifted high.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

A Laywoman's Lectionary: Keep Awake - For the First Sunday in Advent (11/28/04)

But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour. (Matthew 24:36-44 [NRSV])

A couple of years ago, when our son was waiting to hear from college admission committees, he and I were in what might understatedly have been referred to as an attentive posture of being. We could have been more accurately described as about to explode from the volatile combination of apprehension and hopefulness. We were on constant red-alert for e-mail and snail mail, attentive to the slightest alteration in the letter carrier's schedule. And when the news finally arrived, most of it good, we had waited so long and so hard that it was actually something of a let-down.

You can't live in a state of such tense alertness for long, at least not at my age, without doing some serious damage to your heart. Of course, there are far worse situations: a hospital room where a child lies in critical condition, the front lines of a war, the smell of smoke and the crackle of flames in the middle of the night. At such times, our sensory perception goes into high gear and the little things that we would not otherwise notice become etched into our very long-term memory.

Fortunately, most of us are not required to live in such tension for long periods of time. In fact, most of the time, we are barely aware of our surroundings. How many times have you driven dozens of miles down the interstate without really knowing it? Could you tell me what you had for lunch yesterday? You know your paid your bills last month, but do you have any clear recollection of having done so? No, most of the time we are on automatic pilot, just doing what we need to do more or less when we need to do it.

It has been posited that it is precisely that automatic-pilot approach to life that will leave some of us in the breach. Today's Gospel passage has become the foundation for the Left Behind novels. In that series of a dozen or more bestsellers, the end of the world as we know it begins with the disappearance of the "saved," in the course of an ordinary day and right before the eyes of friends and family. The premise, also based on the Book of Revelation, is that those who have been "saved" in this life will, on the Day of Rapture, be called to God's side in the blink of an eye, while the rest of the sorry human population will be left to its dread fate in the ensuing conflict between the battling forces of the Christ and the the antiChrist.

They aren't pretty books. The explicitly depicted violence is revolting, but no more so than the articulated vision of a god of violence and judgement who is out to render the universe into two opposing camps. Is that really what God means to do? Does God want us to be attentive only to the consequences of our actions in the context of an ultimate judgment between good and evil? The parallel to the Biblical flood story might seem to indicate that such is the case. Certainly the fear of a final catastrophic judgment seems endemic to human nature, as evidenced by the flood stories told by virtually every ancient culture.

However, I don't think that today's passage is placed here at the beginning of Advent, completely out of context, to remind us of the potential for disaster, or even to be attentive to the possibility of an event of gargantuan proprotions, like a hurricane or tidal wave. I think it's here to remind us to be attentive to the possibility that a colossal shift in the cosmos might be hidden in the smallest and most ordinary of events: the birth of a child in a cave on the outskirts of a small town.

"Keep awake, Jesus says, years later, to his followers. "Keep awake, " we are reminded, a month before Christmas. Keep awake for what?

I will be the first to admit that I do not "keep awake" for the Gospel message, for the good news that the world, and the part each of us plays in it, has been transformed. Mostly, I do my regular stuff. I check my e-mail and I prepare my lessons. I wash the kitchen floor and clean out the litter box. I teach my classes and go to meetings, at the school where I teach and at the church where I worship. I nag my children about their responsibilties. I do the laundry and ignore the vacuuming. Occasionally I remember to give thanks, for a crisp and blue-skied morning, for a child who has navigated a rocky passage, for a student who makes a leap of achievement. Sometimes I remember to pray ahead of time; for instance, before I open my opinionated mouth. (Not usually.) But mostly I am not awake or aware to the power or even the love of Christ in my life.

Sometimes. The truth about my walking has far less to do with my middle-aged quest for fitness than with my need for such awareness, which I tend to experience, if at all, when I am moving on my feet through God's created world. I walk largely as an exercise in attentiveness. There have been many occasions when I have paused as I have circled the small lake to which I often walk, noting a migrating bird or a startling shimmer of light across water, and been aware that the passing cars are missing something important. One afternoon I crouched behind the full-grown reeds of late summer, observing three green heron siblings learning to fly. Baby down feathers still stuck out here and there from their increasingly adult plummage, and as they hopped awkwardly from branch to branch, I worried like a mother heron that they were all about to fall in. Cars sped behind me and bicylists zipped down the nearby path. I was the only human witness to that first flying lesson.

Even that level of attentiveness is hard to maintain. Most of the time, we fancy ourselves too busy for the daily mindfulness to which both Buddhism and Christrianity call us. John Kabat Zinn entitles one of his books Wherever You Go, There You Are -- a point worth noting. Most of us are usually too busy with where we think we are going to attend to where we actually are.
Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister says that "The role of religion is to bring us to an awareness of life. The role of religion is to transform the world, to come to see the world as God sees the world and to bring it as close to the vision of God as we possibly can. Why? Scripture is very clear. What God changes, God changes through us."

Part of the good news is that we are now reminded, as the earth swings on its annual orbit, to "Keep awake." We have another opportunity, every year in the longest and darkest days of winter, to wake up and pay attention.

Friday, November 19, 2004

A Laywoman's Lectionary: Presby Present

And so I stopped going to church for awhile. I stopped teaching Sunday school and serving on committees and helping to run programs. I started reading a lot and praying a lot and journaling some.

I knew I was on the right track when, after I told the head of Christian Education at our church that I wouldn't be teaching Sunday School the following year because I was going to take some time out to focus on my own spiritual life, she responded, "Well, give me a call when you get bored."

I wasn't all that keen on a church leader implying that a personal spiriutal search would become a boring enterprise. Maybe that's why, despite the energy and activity of that church, I no longer felt at home there.

A friend, who knew that I was at loose ends, suggested that we try her Presbyterian church. She told me that a new minister had just begun his tenure there, and said that he was an incredible preacher. It was actually a bit strange that I'd never been to her church; our children attended a Montessori school housed there, so I'd been to the building nearly every day for seven years. Still, I'd never been in the sanctuary. I decided to take her up on her offer.

Sure enough, fine preaching and terrific music, along with a long tradition of social justice work. The church had been in the forefront of community racial integration efforts in the 60s, a move which, I eventually learned, had cost it hundreds of members.

A lot of people, I think, when they hear the word "Christian," envision masses of religious fundamentalist political conservatives singing contemporary praise music. And that is an accurate reflection of a powerfully vibrant portion of American Protestantism. But it's not immediately apparent -- certainly not through the media -- that while our numbers may be declining, there are still thousands of congregations housed in mainline Protestant churches, listening to preachers whose education and knowledge stretches far and wide beyond the Bible and seminary, singing under the direction of well-trained and multi-talented classical musicians, and engaged in significant social action.

It took me maybe seven or eight years to switch church memberships. For one thing, I was preoccupied with some family issues and a major career change, from law to teaching. For another, I had learned my lesson -- as soon as your name in on the rolls of a church, people start to call you up and ask you to do things. So I just modeled myself on a leach for awhile. I went to worship services, taught some Sunday school, volunteered here and there, and otherwise followed on my own little tangential path. My daughter got caught up right away -- this particular church welcomes its children enthusiastically, and the music director doesn't hesitate to get them right up there in front for their little solos. I will be forever grateful to her for noticing that my little girl could sing, giving her opportunities to perform, and helping her prepare her very first audition, for a place in the Children's Chorus of our city's orchestra.
Eventually, I felt ready to make the committment that church membership implied to me. By that time, I could no longer interest anyone in my family in even accompanying me on the occasional Sunday, let along joining with me. I decided not to worry about it. If God were calling me to participate in a religious community, then I would respond. Church can look like a "family thing," but it doesn't have to be.

I admit, though, that I felt a bit out of place. I had been on a journey of several years toward a more interior life of the spirit, and that's not a process Presbyterians are known for. Presbyterians, at least the ones I know in the liberal PC (USA), tend to focus on corporate worship and social action. Many of us will readily admit to a rather dramatic level of Biblical illiteracy and even less familiarity with the great witers of the last several centuries of Christian theology, prayer, and spirituality. Our own senior pastor is a man deeply committedto a life of prayer and a journey with God, but his natural pastoral inclinations tend toward the sphere of politcal and social engagement. I had been very much interested in those kinds of matters in my previous church, but had been on a different journey for so long that I doubted whether I had really found the right place with the Presbyterians.

However, I had become part of a small group at the church that was committed to pursuing the inward spiritual journey, and in bringing it to the attention of the congregation. It's been a slow process, but with the arrival of a new associate minister in the past year, we are seeing some lively movement. I served on the committee that ultimately called her to our church, and I was there in large part as a voice for the need to hone the adult education and spiritual formation component of out church. I think that she will help us make major strides in becoming a congregation that is truly focused on both the inward and the outward journey.
Our senior pastor has been at the church for ten years, just a little longer than I have. His message has consistently and emphatically been one of God's pervasive love for all of us. He hammers home his themes of diversity and inclusiveness week after week. In a practical sense, that means that it's pretty easy for us to get from the Biblical text to committments to justice in the areas of race relations, poverty, gay and lesbian rights, education, and other areas of social concern. In a personal sense, it means that we all hear, over and over again, that God's love for us never falters in its all-encompassing presence.

As it turns out, the Presbyterian Church (USA) is a good place for me to hang out.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

A Laywoman's Lectionary: Creation - For the First Sunday of Christmas (12/26/04)

Praise the LORD! Praise the LORD from the heavens; praise him in the heights!
Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his host!
Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars!
Praise him, you highest heavens, and you waters above the heavens!
Let them praise the name of the LORD, for he commanded and they were created.
He established them forever and ever; he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.
Praise the LORD from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps,
fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind fulfilling his command!
Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars!
Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds!
Kings of the earth and all peoples, princes and all rulers of the earth!
Young men and women alike, old and young together!
Let them praise the name of the LORD, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven.
He has raised up a horn for his people, praise for all his faithful, for the people of Israel who are close to him. Praise the LORD! (Psalm 148) [NRSV]

I guess it is not so surprising that one of the lectionary possibilities for the day after Christmas is this hymn of praise to God the Creator -- an echo of the creation stories of Genesis. After all, the Gospel of John begins, not with a nativity story (those, as a commenter last week pointed out, are found only in Matthew and Luke and are quite different, one from the other), but with the famous introduction that reads "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." Since one of the four Gospels begins with a re-introduction of the creation story, with Christ as its first and most central character, it's logical that one of our four lectionary choices this week is a reminder of the magnificence of God's creation. The readings from Isaiah and Hebrews proclaim the saving grace of God, and the reading from Matthew tells the harrowing story of Joseph's next dream and the flight of the tiny Holy Family to Egypt to escape Herod's murderous insanity, but the reading from Psalms enables us to indulge ourselves in gratitude for a beautiful universe.

Anyone who knows me at all knows that I try to find time every week, if not every day, to revel in the the outside world. Even though I live in an older, inner-ring suburb of an older, rust-belt midwestern city, I have no trouble finding spots of natural beauty. We are fortunate that powers-that-be of decades ago set aside vast spaces for parks, and for the 400-acre arboretum cemetry where I often walk, and that "little old ladies in tennis shoes" of only a few decades ago faced down some state visionaries dreaming of an interstate through one of our loveliest lake areas, a natural stopover for migrating birds in the spring and fall. Our city sits on the shores of one of the Great Lakes, and my New Year's Resolution, if I have one, which I guess I do now, is to find some time at least once a month to spend out on the lakefront.

This past year, I have had a considerable amount of good fortune in terms of witnessing the natural beauty of our country. I've taken long walks on the Atlantic coast and the Pacific Coast. I've trudged the dunes of Lake Michigan, walked the paths near Lake Chautauqua, and hiked in the forests and to the waterfalls of western North Carolina and western Oregon. I've been to Chicago and Portland, Traverse City and St. Augustine. I've flown 3,000 miles west and back again, and driven 1,500 miles south and north (with only one major car repair on my van with its 120,000 miles to show for it!). My report is that, despite the nasty divisiveness of the election, we live in a land of dazzling natural diversity. It makes complete sense for us to pause at this time of winter solstice, when much of nature is undergoing a process of rebirth underground and under snow, and offer our gratitude for the gift of this earth and its universe.

A few years ago, on an annual family vacation to St. Augustine, Florida, we all decided to go parasailing. As our guides took us an an extremely bumpy motoboat journey (I think they wanted to impress our teenagers with their speed and daring) over the waves and way offshore to our starting point, we passed a gannet riding the waves much more comfortably than we were. Gannets are large seabirds, seen out over the waters of St. Augustine only when driven inward by sea storms. I love their beauty -- stark white bodies with sleek black wings -- and their torpedo-like grace as they dive for fish from vast heights above the water. They don't come into shore, so the only way to view one close -up is to be out on the ocean yourself. Our guides were surprised by how thrilled I was to see what they had thought was "just some other kind of big gull."

The best was yet to come, though. I wasn't really all that confident about the whole parasailing idea. You hook yourself into a harness and the motorboat takes off, gradually lifting you 1400 feet into the air -- and heights aren't really my thing. But the flight is peaceful and the view is extraordinary. As we sailed over an ocean rolling in colors of teal, green and blue, a giant ray swam underneath us. We often see dead rays washed up on the beach, but I had never seen a live one except in the National Aquarium in Baltimore, where the exhibit of rays and sea turtles is mesmerizing. What an amazing sight that was from the air: that huge and ancient creature, with the odd shape that has served it well for 400 million years, gliding along just under the surace of the water, oblivious to the humans with whom it shares the world.

I realize that I could go on and on. Sometimes you have no idea where you will end up, when you sit down and start to write. I thought, at the beginning of the week, that I would write about the Flight to Egypt -- I have been so engrossed inthe dark and foreboding hints in this year's Advent readings. But as the week passed, I was increasingly drawn to the reading from Psalms, and now I can see why. Many of the other readings have been ominous, but they have also been about attentiveness: to signs around us, to proclamations, to angels and dreams and today, to the the natural world. We really need this time -- especially on an early winter day like this one when the sky is already darkening and huge flakes of snow are falling, with a great softness that belies the difficulties they are no doubt creating for holiday travelers -- we need this time at the end of the calendar year and beginning of the church year, to reflect on a world far beyond ourselves.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

A Laywoman's Lectionary: The Methodist Years

Why were we so attracted to a church about which we knew next to nothing? The preaching was the first main thing. Our senior pastor, who turned out to be rather famous in preaching circles, had started that new year off with one of his favorite approaches: a short series on a theme. The theme arose from the book In His Steps by Charles Sheldon. Written in 1896, it was, as far as I know, the first book to ask the contemporary question, "What would Jesus do?" For four weeks, our pastor preached on the response to that question -- as it might be answered at church, in the workplace, etc. His sermons were exactly what I was looking for, as I tried to figure out how to reconcile an increasingly upscale professional life with the call of the Gospel.

For the first couple of years, we were content just to go to church on Sundays. Church as lecture and concert, I guess you could say. We didn't know anyone (there were about 1500 members, with about 400 in attendance on any given Sunday morning) and we didn't know how to get to know anyone. That changed a bit when I was asked to join a committtee, but we were still on the periphery of the community. I don't think that we really understood that there was even such a thing as a church community. In retropsect it seems a bit odd, but I gave birth to my twins and then to my daughter during that period and, while their arrival and baptisms were duly noted in ther church bulletin, no one showed up with a dinner or anything else of use.
Things began to change shortly after our daughter was born. The church beban to focus on small group development, and we found ouselves hooked up with a neighborhood group of several young families like our own. We all had small children and most of us were on our own, far from extended family support. We were starving for companionship, eager to learn about our religion, and thrilled beyond belief to have found each other. Suddenly -- community!!! In the early years, we met regularly for various Bible and other studies and began to celebrate our holidays together. As the women quit work to mother fulltime, we began to get together for conversation every week, and started going away for an annual week-end together. At the same time, we all became deeply involved in the life of the church, teaching classes, taking classes, and serving on committees and boards. Many of us took two or three of the Methodist year-long DISCIPLE Bible study classes together.

As the kids grew and moved into involved sports and activities schedules and the moms went back to work, we found it harder to get together, and some of us drifted away from the church. A couple of years ago, the moms reinstituted our weekly get-togethers -- at a coffee shop these days, where other groups of women also show up and sometimes merge with ours. The days of meeting in someone's kitchen while the children play underfoot are long gone, but more recently we have been known to settle in at the tables we pull together for breakfast at around 10:00 and on occasion decide a few hours later that we might as well have lunch, too. Most of us are pretty liberal, politically and theologically speaking, and we live in a community of unusual diversity (all of which we take for granted, except at times like the recent election). We never run out of things to talk about.

For myself, over the years I found less and less sustenance of a spiritual nature through the church itself. Ministers came and went, and the preaching waxed and waned. I got burned out on volunteering. My husband lost interest -- and it's VERY hard to keep children focused on weekly Sunday School when their dad is sitting in the kitchen reading the paper. Our family was vacationing at the Chautauqua Institution every summer, and it was to the speakers and classes at Chautauqua that I was increasingly turning for my religious life. There were a few years when the music and preaching at Chautauqua would carry me all the way through to Christmas -- I would buy the tapes of the summer lectures and church services and listen to them as I drove around all year long. (I still do.) I took at least three journaling classes there over several summers, took yoga classses in the early mornings, and bought stacks of books from the authors I heard speak.

At Chautauqua I was discovering a rich tradition of Christian spirituality, contemplation, and scholarship that was not particularly accessible through my church. Over the years, I heard, many times over, speakers such as Benedictine Sister Joan Chittister, Episcopal priests Barabara Brown Taylor (my favorite preacher on the planet) and John Claypool, religious scholar Marcus Borg, commentator Karen Armstrong, Unitarian pastor Forrest Church, rabbi and lawyer David Saperstein (and, for the first time last summer, his brother, Rabbi Marc Saperstein), environmentalist Jane Goodall.

My favorite concert ever, and as spirit-moving an event as any of the Sunday services where 5,000 people rise to sing "Holy, Holy, Holy" in an outdoor ampitheatre, was Pete Seeger and Arlo Guthrie in combination. You haven't lived until you've been part of that same outdoor ampitheatre crowd that will come back to worship the next morning when, late on a summer Saturday night, Pete Seeger gets you all to sing "All people That on Earth Do Dwell" in a ROUND -- all 5,000 of you!

So I was a Methdodist in form and name, but not in practice or attentiveness anymore. I was reluctant to give up my church -- the building is huge, but I knew its every nook and cranny, and the architecture and stained-glass windows are breathtakingly beautiful -- and yet, I wasn't really there anymore. We went as a family to Christmas Eve services, because we couldn't abandon the music and the candles held by hundreds of people in the dark of a cavernous cathedral at midnight, but I was gradually responding to a call from another direction.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

A Laywoman's Lectionary: The Empty Years

There isn't much to say about my spiritual journey in my 20s, since I wasn't making one. I went to college -- three of them, in fact, in Massachusetts and Rhode Island -- and never set foot in a chapel or took a course in religious studies. I got married in a church, that little brick Methodist church of my childhood, but only because a tornado and torrential rains wiped out our plans for an outdoor wedding. I went back to the midwest for law school and I went to work.

Something was nagging at me, though. All those years in religious schools had taught me that my life was supposed to be one of service to others. As a child of the 60s, I did, like many of my law school classmates, have some vague and ill-defined ideas about using the law as a tool for social action, but it turned out that those kinds of jobs were few and far between, especially where I live. So I ended up in the corporate world, wearing elegant suits and making good money, taking regular business trips and eating in nice restaurants. And always, always, wondering whether I wasn't supposed to be doing something -- well, something more substantial with my life.

One day when I was in my late twenties, completely out of the blue, I told my husband that I thought that we should find a church. He was agreeable, and suggested that we check out a Methodist one a few blocks away. I was fine with that. The building had tremendous appeal -- it's built on the plan of a 13th century French cathedral.

It offered a safe trial -- the services were broadcast on weekly cable, so we didn't even have to go near the place to check it out! We liked what we saw -- great music and erudite preaching -- and so off we went, walking on a cold and sunny January morning down a narrow pathway that ran through the residential blocks between our house and the church. We had no idea what we were doing, but a month later we were official members of a large mainline United Methodist congregation.

Tuesday, November 02, 2004

A Laywoman's Lectionary: Education of the Head, Hand, and Heart

Next stop: a new boarding school, this one in western Massachusetts where, between high school and college, I would spend the next five years of my life. Are there many places on the planet more beautiful than the Connecticut River Valley and the Berkshire Mountains? (I'm afraid, though, that I would have to admit to having taken them largely for granted at the time.)

I had finally reached my father's objective for me: a New England boarding school of unquestioned academic reputation. Unfortunately, by the time I got there, it was the fifth of my summer camps and boarding schools in as many states, and I was exhausted from the repeated challenge of starting all over with completely new people in a foreign environment. My high school years developed into one extended period of acting out the losses of childhood and adolescence. I won't bore you with the details.

I will share some of the story from a spiritual point of view, however. You may recall that during my childhood years I had a tangential relationship to small-town midwestern Methodism, and had moved on in junior high to the mysterious ritual of the pre-Vatican II Catholic church. Suddenly, at fifteen, I found that I had landed in an entirely new religious environment.

My school had been founded in the late 1800s by a famous evangelist, whose purpose had been to provide a solid education for the young farm women of the area so that they could be trained as missionaries to foreign lands. A couple of years later, he founded a boys' school across the river, hoping to offer to young men of little or no means the rigorous education that the sons of the wealthy and prominent obtained at the famous New England prep schools.

The founder's legacy -- education of the head, hand, and heart -- left a pattern of interesting dichotomies all over our campuses. From an academic standpoint, our education was second to none. Our school was renowned across the country for the excellence of its college preparation for young women. (And no, I didn't know that when I arrived. I was fifteen, exhausted, and couldn't have cared less.)

The school also emphasized the value of manual labor. Every student had a job on campus, every day, changing positions each trimester. Sometimes I signed up for pre-breakfast preparation, wanting to get my work out of the way first thing in the morning. I can remember showering in the pitch dark and running down to the kitchen at 6:30 a.m., my long hair hanging down my back and soaking through my kitchen uniform. My favorite job was after-dinner tins -- the endless washing of pots and pans. It was a miserably difficult task, but it took so long that the tins girls could escape some of the two-and-a half hour evening study hall. Whenever I hear the song Spirit in the Sky, I think of spring evenings in the kitchen, dancing to the music as we dried off the huge cooking vats with all possible deliberation and lack of speed.

The job program was probably the reason I chose that particular school. I was given no choice about going away, but I was offered a few options in terms of destination. Most of the catalogues I flipped through featured girls in expensive clothing engaged in what looked like expensive occupations. The one I gravitated toward pictured young women in weird outfits and caps, scrubbing and sweeping and preparing food. I didn't have any more intrinsic interest in those activities than I do today, but I figured that a school where the students did real work couldn't be all bad.

And, finally...the religious aspect. Once again, something that was never discussed in my home, but became critical to my formation.

We attended daily chapel and Sunday church services and, amazingly, I usually showed up. My group of friends tended to be of a mind to skip the religious demands on our lives -- but I loved the morning chapel music and the eloquence of the speakers who visited our campus. I couldn't sing two notes in succession to save my life, but I could listen. I was astonished and mesmerized by my introduction to the Protestant tradition of religious music. While my friends were slinking out the back door of the chapel and hiding out in unoccupied buildings, I was hunkered down in my pew, soaking up the sounds of centuries of Christian organ and choral music.

I loved the speakers, too. I wasn't much of a student in those days, sticking to the subjects I liked and ignoring those I didn't, but when William Sloane Coffin showed up, I paid attention. I don't remember any specifics, but I know that to be awash in the words of the best speakers New England colleges had to offer during the 1960s was a transformative experience.
And so were words, in general. The words, astonishingly, of the Bible, and of the great religious writers of our time. We didn't just go to chapel and church. We also took religion classes as part of our regular academic schedule. Yes, just like in Catholic school -- religion every day. A year of Old Testament, a year of New Testament, and then electives.

These were not your usual high school religion classes. These were an incomparable gift. Our Old Testament class was basically a college-level survey course in the literary-historical critical analysis of the Biblical text. By the time September was half over, "JEDP"* resounded in my head and symbolized the approach that would forever after inform my aproach to the Bible. It was no longer a book of childhood mythologies and improbable miracles. It had become a puzzle, its intricately woven layers of texts challenging the intellect at every level. What a treasure trove of knowledge to hand over to high chool students! I have a friend here who was in my class at boarding school and not so long ago we smiled over those years. "JEDP!" she exclaimed. "We were so lucky! They taught us the Bible as if we were adult thinkers."

My senior year elective was called "Church and Society." We read Bonhoeffer, Freud, Frankl, and who knows who else. I still wasn't a religious person in any sense of the word but, again, my ordinary daily life was informed by the prophetic voices of our century -- in class --and of our decade -- in chapel. I was seventeen, and in an environment where I could assume that everyone grew up in the midst of the ongoing religious and philosophical discussions of the ages. Our school was mostly Protestant in theology , and mostly white in population, but its doors were wide open to every thought and question imaginable.

And, once again, it was a religion teacher who tried to open the windows to the broader world in a more pragmatic sense. My religion teacher senior year was a man from North Carolina. One morning as we walked to class through a couple of feet of snow, he asked where I was applying to college, and then began to rail against what he termed our "parochialism." Why are y'all so stuck on New England?" he asked. "Y'all should be thinking about Chapel Hill and Vanderbilt. Get out of here and find out something about the rest of the country!"

So what had I learned, by the time I was eighteen, about religion and the people who care about it? That the people who study and teach religion are often the ones who will push you onward and outward, into a vast universe of unanswered questions. That faith is a worldwide phenomenon expressed in a myriad of ways. That almost everyone of faith claims to have some hold on some kind of truth. That if there is a God, then that God seems to have numerous ways of trying to reach people. That religion can be a subject of deep and challenging intellectual inquiry. That it can be a source of illuminating joy or astounding evil. That it can be a matter of complete indifference. That it has inspired music so exquisitely powerful that if there were nothing but the music, that alone could make a believer out of someone not otherwise inclined in that direction.

I didn't yet have any idea that faith could seep into your life when you weren't paying any attention. That knowledge was to come much, much later, when I would begin to see it as the path toward a worldview of openness and curiosity and authenticity.

(*JEDP is shorthand for the four sources compiled to form what we know as the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, as posited by significant scholars of the 19th century and debated vigorously by Biblical inerrantists.)

Sunday, October 24, 2004

A Laywoman's Lectionary: The Catholic Years

Picture: A scrawny twelve-year-old girl with humiliatingly nondescript short brown hair and bangs, wearing a brand new plaid jumper, a pastel blouse with a Peter Pan collar, and black flats. She is being ushered through the high-ceilinged corridors of the convent, hugely built in the mid-1800s and home to classrooms, dormitories, elegantly crafted shelves and woodwork, well-appointed parlours, kitchens, dining halls ("refectories" in convent parlance), and cloistered chambers for nuns. Her guide is a nun -- and whatever that might be, the place is crawling with them. They are all decked out in long black habits and starched white wimples (new vocabularly words for our heroine), with crosses jammed into their black belts like hunting knives and lengthy strands of black beads swaying against the folds of their skirts. (The word "rosary" is, also, as of yet unknown.) As they reach the enormous Gothic chapel,
our young lady discovers that most of the women and girls, upon entering the door, dip their fingers into a container of water and make a mysterious sign across their bodies. They kneel in the aisle and then sidle into the long pews, where they again kneel on little cushioned benches that seem to have been placed there for just such a purpose. Being sort of Methodist, our observer has never seen anyone kneel in church -- not that she has ever encountered holy water or the sign of the cross, either. But she is willing to wait things out patiently. She is only twelve, but she has encountered enough new situations in life to know that there is no point in assuming or expecting anything. Whatever happens will always be something far different from anything that could have been anticipated.

The only man in evidence, grandly dressed in long robes, is at the altar, where he lifts an enormous round gold container of sorts into the air and chants something unintelligible. Most of the crowd in the pews chants right back. Within a few moments, all is made transparently clear: nothing will ever be comprehensible again. There will be no clarification of beads, crucifixes, water, hand signs, kneeling, nuns or chants -- it turns out that every single word is spoken in Latin.

And thus I was introduced to the Roman Catholic faith. A pre-Vatican II faith, in which young women were graduated from high school and immediately entered the convent, in which priests were placed on pedestals so high you could barely see them.

What was I doing there? My father and his brothers were graduates of a high-profile New England prep school and, while he wanted the same for me, my dad was convinced that our local school system was not up to the job of preparing me (to be prepared). He knew the nuns who ran the school -- it was 20 minutes further out into the country from our home. Many girls from our community attended the nuns' school, albeit as day students. I have my stepmother to thank for getting me out of the house on a permanent basis by the beginning of seventh grade.
In other words, I had arrived at a Catholic boarding school, kicking and screaming against my forced spearation from my friends, for academic and family reasons. No one in my family seems to have given a thought to the RELIGIOUS facet of the school, which would come to permeate my daily life. I can only conclude now that my family was so areligious (not anti-religious; just oblivious to the whole concept of religion) that it never occurred to them that anyone took it seriously. Not even nuns.

Here,in a nutshell, was life in a Catholic girls' boarding school in the mid-1960s:

blue wool skirts and white blouses designed in, oh, maybe 1940;

daily religion classes, Catholics and nonCatholics segregated from one another, but both taught by nuns;

long and narrow dormitories in which we slept on beds in rows of cubicles curtained off from one another;

the Beatles, the Stones, and the Supremes blasting from deeply recessed windows in hundred-year-old buildings;

a weekly liturgical music class and a weekly choral music class;

cigarettes in the bathrooms and in the fields behind the school;

skirts rolled up to reveal several inches of thigh;

Sunday Mass, Friday Mass, and, often, several other masses;
basketball with nuns in ankle-length habits;

Saturday morning sewing classes, which I avoided by hiding out on the soccer field;

Latin, statues, holy water, medals, missals, lacy caps for entering the chapel, tattered books on the gory and self-sacrificial lives of the saints, crosses all over the place, brief periods of freedom on late afternoon horseback rides, prayers before meals and classes, slipping out and curling up in those deep window wells for late night conversations long after the nuns had gone to bed;
numerous hours devoted to the development of carefully designed plots for infiltrating the cloistered area of the buildings where the nuns lived in order to research the answer to that endlessly challenging and earth-shaking question: What kind of underwear do nuns wear?

And, since it was the 60s: the Smothers Brothers, Lyndon Johnson, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, and Walter Kronkite.

If you watch the tv show American Dreams on Sunday nights, you can see in Meg's school some strong similarities to my own. The main difference, of course, was that we lived there, 24/7, and so it was nuns, may of them remarkably young and entirely Catholic, who filled in for parents.
I left that school after ninth grade as an agnostic at best, more probably an atheist. I had had my fill of religious indoctrination and, as a nonCatholic surrounded by medieval ritual, I emerged with a vastly enlarged capacity for skepticism. But I did make three gains that equipped me well for life:

In the first place, I became accustomed to a world in which women managed their own lives. The convent sat on acreage far out in the country and the nuns managed their farm, their convent, and their school. Men were seldom in evidence. Oh, there was a priest, but since I was not Catholic, his presence was of little significance to me. I didn't make confession or take communion or study with the upperclass Catholics, so I had virtually no interaction with him. I never had any reason to surmise that adult women were in need of male approval or cooperation for their endeavors.

Secondly, the nuns were, on the whole, particularly broad-minded women. Probably one of the most significant episodes of my entire educational career occurred when Sister Collette, who taught our nonCatholic religion class in 8th or 9th grade, decided that we would study comparative religions. An extremely young woman schooled entirely in the Roman Catholic tradition, she tried to teach us basic Catholicism, since that was what she knew. We, her irritable and difficult students, did not hesitate to communicate to her that her information conflicted with what we had picked up in various Protestant Sunday Schools. After running into several 13 and 14-year-old brick walls, she announced that she had realized that she knew nothing about religions other than her own, and so we were going to study them together. I don't remember any specifics about what we studied -- although I do know that the only Seder I have ever attended was the one we put togetherin our little pastel-painted Catholic classroom in the heart of midwestern farmland-- but I have always remembered her fearless and open-minded decision about what we should learn and how we should do it -- with respectful interest and graciousness.

Finally, I learned, without recognizing it as a life skill, to form friendships with other girls and women. I learned to see the members of my gender as reliable, trustworthy, and desirable confidants. I learned that girls and women are smart, talented, strong, funny, and hugely determined people. Year before last, I attended a reunion, and spent an afternoon with women I had last hung out with when we were 14 together. It was so easy. When you have talked with a good friend all afternoon and late into the night, month after month -- well, it's an incredible way to live asa young girl. I suppose that we were too independent of adult supervision, and too limited in our encounters with the opposite gender (not for want of trying, believe me), but we learned how to be with women. Don't misunderstand me -- I would not recommend that a twelve-year-old live away from home. But there are always compensations, and the company of strong women, whether twelve or 80 years old, is one of them.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

A Laywoman's Lectionary: When It Got Harder

If I had a spiritual home at all between the ages of seven and twelve, it was at the camp in North Carolina where I spent two summers. Twelve short weeks as I turned 10 and 11, but they probably saved my life. I've written a bit about my camp elsewhere; my children all became campers there, and two of them worked there last summer.

When I was seven, my mother and year-old baby brother were killed in a car accident on a glorious October day. I've written about that event elsewhere, too, and I won't dwell upon it here, except to say that it marked the end of my family's connectedness to the church. My grandmother told my brother, many years later, that she had decided to have nothing to do with a god who could permit such a terrible thing to happen, and my father has indicated, obliquely, that he did not feel much support or comfort emanating from the church after the accident.

It would be difficult, of course, for any community ever to provide enough comfort or support to a family at a time of such an unexpected and devastating loss. Beyond that, I can't comment, as I don't remember a thing one way or another.

My father remarried a couple of years later. His new wife and her children (and former husband) were known to us as family friends from Florida; she and her two youngest of moved to our home in Ohio. I suppose that I could write volumes on the wretchedness of blended family life from the point of view of a ten-year-old, but it's not a period of my life in which I have any interest in reliving.

We children did go back to Sunday School -- my stepmother viewed it as a weekly respite from the terrible trials of motherhood. I had acquired a stepbrother who was exactly my age and we quickly developed a Sunday morning routine. My dad would drive the four of us into town and drop us off at the back door of the church. My brother and I would would leave the younger boys to fend for themselves among the dedicated Methodists. We ourselves would walk quickly through the building, out the front door, and up the street to the drugstore at the main intersection of town, where we would further our education by reading Playboy and drinking Cherry Cokes. Think Scout and Jem Finch and you've about got the picture. An hour later we would walk back to church, go through the front door and out the back, where my dad would be waiting to pick us up. We had picked up some church lingo, and knew that if we told him that we had been studying Paul (whatever that meant), he would be satisfied.

It was a small town and everyone knew everyone else. It's likely that my dad knew where we were all the time, and remained silent to foster peace at home. I have no idea.

One of the few good things to come out of those miserable years was summer camp in North Carolina. My stepmother's solution to the blended family situation was to evacuate all children as quickly as possible, first to camp and, a little later, to boarding school.

I know that it sounds dreadful: send a not-quite-10-year old child away for two months barely seconds after her family has been reconfigured yet again? Well, it's not something that I would do if I found myself steparenting young children but, as I said, it made all the difference for me.

Camp was a place where a very sad girl could be carefree and independent and strong. The mountains of western North Carolina are gentle and embracing, the skies are clear (well... unless it's raining-- which would be about every day), the sunsets go on forever, and the streams run cold and clear. What better place for a respite from a tormented family life?
The camp was more expressly Christian in those days, and I do remember with pleasure the Sunday morning services on the point of land that jutted into the tiny lake, with all the campers and counselors dressed in white and the songs from an old Protestant hymnal. In today's diverse world, Sunday at camp is called "Special Day" and the programming is spiritual but nondenominational. It doesn't matter. That small haven in the mountains remains a place where generosity of heart and peacefulness of spirit are celebrated, where young children are embraced and then set free to explore a welcoming world of nature and freedom, and where God's touch, however you want to articulate it (or not), is everywhere.

Sunday, October 10, 2004

A Laywoman's Lectionary: When Life Was Easy

Let me introduce the next few weeks by saying that, while I'm going to try to write something each week about one of the Lectionary passages, I'm not making an offical start on the Lectionary itself until the end of November, just before the first Sunday of Advent, which is the beginning of the church year. (Didn't know the church had an offical year? Well, now you do. It differs a bit from a secular western calendar year, or a fiscal year, or a year as defined in other religions and/or cultures.)

In the meantime, I'm going to get started on a weekly schedule by posting a little bit at a time about my own spiritual journey. That way, anyone who comes across this journal will be able to discern to her satisfaction that I have absolutely no qualifications whatsoever to embark upon this project.

I have a lot of friends who have expressed hesitation about getting involved with religion in a formal way. I have other friends who are active Christians and others who are observant Jews and a couple who are devout Moslems and a couple who are practicing Buddhists. My own perspective is a Christian one, but I hope that anyone and everyone feels free to visit and leave comments. A few folks have already sent me emails and comments asking about adding their own persepctive, to which my response is: Welcome, and please join in!

I spent the first seven years of my life in idyllic circumstances. The oldest daughter of very young parents, the first grandchild on both sides, and the first girl for my paternal grandmother who had three sons, I was adored and doted on by almost every adult with whom I came in contact.

We lived in rural southwest Ohio, on several acres at the top of a hill behind my grandparents' own acreage. I was too young when we moved from an apartment in town out to the country, first to my grandparents' home and then to our newly built little ranch house carved into the side of a hill, to understand the ominous motivations behind the abrupt transistion. It was the early 50s and polio was abroad; parents thought that they could spare their children by moving from densely populated areas.

By the time October rolled around "when I was six," I was an older sister, to a three-year-old and a newborn baby brother. I absorbed the natural world as easily as I downed my morning orange juice and scrambled eggs: our house was surrounded by scarlet and gold trees in the fall, by soft snow and excellent sledding hills in the winter, and by carpets of flowers planted by my mother and grandmother in the spring and summer. I spent a lot of my time with my grandmother next door. She had a porch table full of jars of monarch caterpillars and chrysalises in various stages of development, a house full of books and games and art supplies, and unending patience for her oldest grandchild.

We spent the springs of my kindergarten and first grade years living near the beach in Florida. My father was trying to get a home construction business going, and one of the last houses he completed was ours. We moved put of our small rental house, set back among trees festooned with Spanish moss, to the spacious second floor of a triplex, sometime in the late spring of my first grade year. I acquired my very first room of my own, and my mother and I made big plans for how I would decorate it with shells and other ocean paraphernalia the following year. Photographs show a largely unfurnished apartment, an up-to-the minute 1960s kitchen with pink appliances, a handsome young husband and attractive blond wife, and three 1960 children: a little girl in dresses, short socks and Mary Janes; a little boy in shorts; and a fat and happy baby.

I can't say that we had any kind of spiritual life in those days. We attended the Methodist church in town, where my mother had sung in the choir as a young woman. As far as I know, she was the only member of the family who held an official church membership. I can remember standing on the pew next to her as she sang in the congregation, and straining to see around her slim body when my soon-to-be aunt came down the aisle in a hoop-skirted white wedding dress.

My father claimed no religious belief; he simply accompanied my mother. I don't think that any of my grandparents actually belonged to the church, although they were active participants in its major events and fundraising efforts. Many years later I discovered the names of most of the adults in my family -- parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles -- on the programs for a church anniversary celebration and the dedication of a new classroom wing. They had all been fundraising and building committee and decorating committee participants, but I believe that they saw themselves as fulfilling a civic duty rather than acting upon religious convictions. Certainly no one in my family talked or taught about a life of faith, and while our Christmas and Easter celebrations were extravagant, they were decidedly secular in nature. If I did go to Sunday School, or to summer Vacation Bible School, it wasn't with any resistance. But it wasn't with any sense of their import, either. The red brick church on the corner was simply one of several familiar spaces in my rural and small-town childhood, known to me in much the same way that my father's office and the town drugstore and grocery were.

I have a number of friends who grew up in the Methodist Church, attending Sunday School every week, belonging to youth groups, singingin children's and youth choirs. My husband, actually, is one of those people. One of my best friends has a whole string of pins for her thirteen years of perfect Sunday School attendance. In the Presbyterian Church that I attend now, enormous attention is lavished on the children's and youth programming, and the response on the part of both kids and parents is entirely positive. Who knows how things might have turned out for me in the church if my life had stayed on its ordinary and happy little track?

Monday, October 04, 2004

A Laywoman's Lectionary: What Is The Lectionary?

Simply put, it the Lectionary is a "collection of
readings from Scripture for each Sunday of the
year” such that the greater part of the Bible will
be read in three years. Year A concentrates on
the Gospel of Matthew, Year B focses on the
Gospel of Mark and Year C on Luke. The
Gospel of John is read mainly at Christmas,
Lent and Easter, as well as during Year B.
Readings from the rest of the New Testament,
the Old Testament and the Psalms
are included in the selections for each week.
The Revised Common Lectionary was
produced by the consultation on Common
Texts, an ecumenical body formed in the
mid-1960s for consultation on worship
renewal by North American churches.

Source: Longmeadow (Massachusetts) Congregational Church.

When I first returned to church, around the time that I hit thirty, I had no idea what the Common Lectionary was. Our senior pastor was a brilliant preacher, nationally recognized for his work in the pulpit, but he preferred to pick and choose among the texts (exactly what the Lectionary is designed to avoid). When he left after a sixteen-year tenure (I had been at that church for about five of those years), our new minister introduced us to the Lectionary concept and we began to hear the same passages, and preaching thereon, that were being heard on the same Sundays in other churches across the country

Stultifying? Perhaps that’s what the first minister I knew had thought. But the Lectionary provides a structure that is ultimately freeing. It moves a congregation through much of the Bible, both Hebrew and Greek, over a three year period. It prevents a preacher from focusing repeatedly on her favorite passages, or on those that most easily support his primary message through the years. It requires that we consider the Bible in its entirety, hearing texts with which we might not bother otherwise and focusing in fresh ways upon old standards

There are four selections each week: one from the Hebrew Bible, one from the Psalms, one from the Gospels, and one from the rest of the Greek Bible. Some preachers meld two or more into a sermon; others focus on one. Some are more comfortable with certain parts of the Bible rather than others. The same holds for individuals and small groups who work with the Lectionary.

I’m often part of a small group at my church that meets to read, contemplate and pray together, using one of the week’s Lectionary passages as a focus. Sometimes we challenge ourselves with a new and difficult text; sometimes we opt for an old standard. Always, we are surprised by how much there is to be found in a few short lines. We aren't experts by any means, but we are able to gain a lot by immersing ourselves in the Bible on something of a regular basis