Wednesday, December 19, 2012

First cup—"Do no harm"

What kind of final is appropriate for a course that has been more spiritual journey than about spiritual journey? That’s the challenge.

I love to teach; I think everyone who knows me pretty much gets that. I walk into the classroom with equal parts eager anticipation and dread. Eager anticipation—because something wonderful is likely going to happen, largely, I think, because students bring their stuff, meet great texts and questions and, incidentally, teacher, and something happens. Often unpredictable and wonderful. Dread—well, because these students are real folks, loaded down with stuff, and sometimes I’m wearing these big lumber jack boots when I should be wearing ballet slippers, and there I am galumphing all over the place. Like so many people-serving vocations, the prime directive is “Do no harm.” Sometimes there I am galumphing! Thank God, God often shows up to provide the choreography.

So, what kind of final? The course is Rel 320—spirituality, character, and service. Like Hum 310—Faith, Living, and Learning—it is designed to facilitate remembering and reflecting; it’s a discernment course. We read widely. We pay attention. We review our lives. We remember God. We wonder about our neighbor. We reflect on our vocation.

I’ve never really liked “finals”; the idea of final is so presumptuous. But I do place high value on remembering and reflecting. So, a final for a course that is designed to help student and teacher remember and reflect should provide one more opportunity to remember and reflect.

We left the classroom at WPC’s 205 campus—an appropriate move since so much of what we do is focused on neighbor and neighborhood. We went to Mt. Tabor Presbyterian Church—a wonderfully Northwest church on SE Belmont just west of 60th. We started in the sanctuary; it was a cold but well-lighted space. There I talked about journey and the importance of stopping on journeys to reconnoiter and thinking about where we have been, where we are, and where we are going. Spiritual journey, after all, is pilgrimage and pilgrimage requires reconnoitering and reflecting.

I introduced them to the labyrinth, another kind of journey; then, I gave them their “final,” asked them to reflect on the questions before they entered the labyrinth; when that journey was complete, they were to find a comfortable place in the church and “take their final.” When done, find me in TaborSpace (a sacred coffee space in the church), hand me their final—and they are “done.” So, we separated with handshakes and hugs and brief conversations—I think with a sense that something pretty nice had happened this semester in this class. I’m pretty sure, at least, that I did no harm.

The final? I asked them to complete the “Examen,” questions we had lived with all semester: What surprised me? What inspired me? What was life giving? What was life taking? What did I learn about God and/or me? Then, I asked, What are you carrying forward with you from your journey—in the short run and the long? Right, I know, not much of a test. No T-F. No multiple choice or fill in the blank or complete the sentence. I guess it might be defined as a “short essay” test. But, nope, not really. Only another moment to think about who I am, where I am, why I am, whose I am, who I am with, and where I am going. Probably the really important questions, anyway, and we spend a life time trying to get it right, right? (That’s part of why I love teaching—I get to keep working at getting it right—“it” being the classroom, relationships, God, and life.

What were their answers? Well, I’m going to share a few, over the next few days. Anonymously, of course; these are their stories, not mine, and I didn’t ask permission to share. But I love my students and they teach me so much—I want to share. Here are a few:

I learned that I need to be promise focused instead of problem focused. I need to remember that I am not alone; [God] is always present and with me.

The fresh discovery of how much I don’t know. It’s a scary thought. Why have I done the things I have in my life? One understanding that I will carry forward as a governing value in my life is the importance of serving others we share this great Earth with.

The idea that I was so afraid of my past that I was so caught up trying to cover it up that I place that in God’s place….

What surprised me? Jesus—he didn’t do all the right things for the right people. He did all the needed things for the wrong people.

The spiritual self needs to be exercised, challenged, strengthened, and rested. I cannot simply lock it away…. Be like water.

I learned that I’m ready to accept God into my life. I also learned that I don’t have to feel or be alone all the time.

Well, enough for now. I’ll likely share a few more of these over the next several days. Remember: “Not all who wander are lost.”

Saturday, December 15, 2012

First Cup—"The horror! The horror!"

I tend to keep silent about such tragedies as we have watched these
last few days. Words, one of the three ways we have to express ourselves, seem so inadequate--at least in my hands. (The others are touch and silence.) I find myself close to tears, suddenly, fighting despairing surrender and growing angry. Yet, these words came to me last night, suddenly as well. They do not say anything new, but that may be why they matter to me so much. This morning I read these words from Dr. Ajit Jetmalani, in The Oregonian:

"We should be focused on loving acts toward others
because that's what we can control."

So, for what it's worth, I offer this as a reminder that we live in a small, dangerous, and troubled world in which loving and simple acts of human kindness are the only real weapons we have.

Dark Faces Light Faces

A darkness walks among us,
only not outside us,
among us and through us and
in us, that means harm and hurt and horror and loss.

It is a selfish darkness that seeks its own pleasure
like Lucifer chewing on ashen fruit
Feeds on its self and the selves of others.
It is never full and, like a tape worm, is
often famished in a rich and lush world.

It is shadow. It lurks and assumes human form
more than any other. Insatiable and undiscriminating, but
innocence is a favorite meal; surprise a special spice.

Sin is the oldest name for this darkness; yet, it
has many names and faces—despair, distrust,
disconnect, dismay, loss, separation, disappointment,
denied. Meanness. The face of horror is a sad face pretending
something else—an ordinary human face. That
sits briefcase in hand, near the door, to escape

Yet there is also light among us. It walks
quietly but not secretly. Not as certain, for
sure, sometimes embarrassed. Sometimes we see it
most brightly in the darkness:

A slight connection—
hands held and bodies hugged.
Conversation over coffee around tables with friends.
Next to river light and sun light. Enjoying a moment.
Full. It feeds others, not itself,
and is seldom empty though more often ignored and
can breed darkness when unfed.
The face of light is an ordinary human face.


Friday, December 7, 2012

Second Cup—Christmas poem

Several years ago I started writing a poem as part of our annual Christmas letter. Usually this poem grows out of the reading the lectionary texts for the year. Often, I sneak ahead to the Advent and Christmas readings, seeking inspiration, which is usually rewarded.

This year's Christmas poem is rooted in an earlier text from those leading up to the end of the last lectionary year, culminating in this powerful, ironic, multi-layered paradoxical confrontation between Pilate and Jesus. Juxtaposed with the messianic prophecies of Advent and the humility of the Incarnation:


It’s all Currier & Ives and countless
other mock ups: The snow falls and the
darkness softens. Silence reigns—even
the animals softly low.

It is gently lighted by glowing candle or
aura radiating from the manger filled
with clean straw and perfectly formed boy.

There is warmth here.

The oh-so-familiar scene lies before us:
the one who comes to set the crooked
straight, the narrow wide and the bound
free, lies here, lovely and beautiful.

There is dissonance here.

We live in contradictions.
We bow to an upside down world we see
as right side up in dark mirrors only:

dim reflection of what is meant. Like
Plato’s chained, we hold to the shadows
killing those who offer sun.

King is your word.”


Sunday, December 2, 2012

First Cup—First Advent Sunday

Perhaps routines matter too much to me.

My Sunday morning routine: alarm at 6:30; coffee automatically dripping—while I head out to the newspaper drop box; the lectionary readings for today—while drinking my first cup; then, warm up the coffee and settle back on the couch for some serious Sunday comics reading. Soon, I wake up Judy, and while she gets ready for church, I finish the paper. Pretty invariable. It is a routine I look forward to; some might call it a ritual.

This morning: no newspaper.

As a younger generation would say: OMG! A Sunday without the comics is hardly a Sunday at all. Right? Well, perhaps my routines matter too much to me. All else is the same—except for this one addition—it is Advent, after all, so I have to make sure the tree basin for the Christmas tree is full of water. This one is very fresh and so very thirsty.

I am remembering this morning an Advent season many years ago when we spent Advent and Christmas as Lutherans at Central Lutheran near Lloyd Center. I’ll not go into why we were doing that because it is a story too long for today—and, in some ways, too dark to share. I’ll leave it at this: we were churchless and feeling okay about that until Advent showed up and the thought of going through this holy time alone was too great a thought. So, we escaped to Central Lutheran urged by Alice Keinberger, WPC’s librarian at the time—and experienced Advent and Christmas as fully and beautifully and theologically and as communally and as liturgically—as routinely—as, I think, it is meant to be experienced.

The Thessalonian lection for today—1 Thessalonians 3:9–13—calls us to such a place. We live as “in betweeners”: those who are grateful recipients of that Great Grace, the first Advent when we celebrate the One who came and who live in anticipation of that Great Grace, the second Advent when we will worship the One who is to come. We live in that past and future with the One who comes. How do we do that?

…and may the Lord make your love increase and overflow to one another and to everyone, as our love does to you. May he make your hearts firm, so that you may stand before our God and Father holy and blameless when our Lord Jesus comes with all those who are his own (1 Thessalonians 3:12-13 REV).

We live aware. We live on tip toes. We live in relationship with others who are aware and live on tiptoes. We live in expectancy, as my friend, Anne Smith teaches. We practice the future in the present by paying attention to God and scripture in community. We live with a sense of the past that forms us and in eagerness for the future that invites us—and as followers of the Way of Jesus who travels with us. We live in routines—the theological word for that is practices; we practice what it means to live as followers of Jesus: pray, read, talk, worship, remember, eat together, laugh, take care of each other, take care of the stranger. Remember.

The Romans had a god they called Janus; the god of beginnings and transitions and also of gates, doors, doorways, endings and time. Janus is typically presented with two faces: one looking forward and one looking backwards. As pagan as it sounds, I think this is the stance of practicing Christians: remembering the past and with reverence embrace the future with expectancy even as we live now, eagerly desiring to live in God’s reign, as persons who routinely hold both tenderly and loosely, walking the Way from and the Way to.

I know: missing the Sunday comics is not a tragedy, but it is a disruption—but a disruption that leads me to reflect on the importance of routine in our lives. Now, for my second cup, a shower, and church.