Kelly Fryer has a nice piece on schmoozing on her blog this week. It’s stunning how easily church members focus on our own comfort – such as the fear of having to ask someone’s name – rather than the obvious discomfort a visitor experiences in a new place. I've learned the hard way that you just have to ask people's names until you get it right, and not not ask for fear of embarrassment.
Since I've been on the other side of the visitor/ member divide the last couple Sundays, I second Fryer's remarks even more. That being said, I will add this – whether a church is welcoming tends to have no relation at all to its formality in worship. I’ve been in places with nosebleed-high liturgical practice where the community is warm and inviting -- especially toward children -- and I’ve been to churches that are very chatty, informal, and simultaneously quite exclusive toward anyone who is new. Bottom line: while some people find it easier to reach out than others, the most welcoming communities are those who actually expect visitors, plan for them and intentionally provide ways for the newcomer to get connected. (Fewer chairs at coffee hour isn’t a bad start.)
I can hardly stand to read the news these days. We're looking forward to spending some time with our non-U.S. friends and family soon, mainly because they are our friends and family -- but the most recent news has added to my list of reasons:
1. Western Europeans have had expensive gas for a very long time and simply don't whine about it. And they certainly don't whine about a few pennies of tax added so that the social costs of all that driving can be covered. (Yes, there are conservatives who want to scale back the social state, but things like road maintenance and transit are not on the chopping block). They are not environmental saints, but they are terribly practical when it comes to making life liveable on a threatened planet. Instead of whining, they've gone about building a society where, while plenty of people drive, the long list of those who can't -- and that includes children, seniors, and the blind, not to mention the poor -- aren't left out in the cold.
2. Nobody asks their candidates if they wear lapel pins.
I'm still reflecting on the orgy of words and thoughts from the Festival of Faith and Writing. I always come away from this event determined to read more and to write more, but it was wonderful to hear Katherine Paterson's closing charge on Saturday night: go play. Good advice for sabbatical, though illness this week -- our child's and our babysitter's -- has made some of those plans a little harder to carry out.
It's always fascinating how the in-person voices and egos of these writers compare with their writing. Generally speaking, it seems that the best writers (not necessarily the most successful) are the most likable and consistent with what you read on the page. I'm also drawn to the older ones, like Katherin Paterson, because in general they seem to have gotten over themselves. There's also, I have to say, a preponderance of Anglicans and Roman Catholics among these writers. Not so many Lutherans.
Yann Martel was the most memorable in speaking about claiming faith in a secular world -- humble, smart and activist in his own way. He has started a "book club of two" with the Conservative Prime Minister of Canada. Every two weeks he sends the PM a classic work with an explanation of why it is important. His argument: if we have the right to ask our leaders about their taxes and finances, we have the right to know what is informing their imaginations. Check it out here. (That's Stephen Harper in the photo, not Yann Martel).
I'm having a lovely time in Grand Rapids at the Festival of Faith and Writing. Great talks from Mary Gordon, Michael Chabon, Mary Karr, Franz Wright, Jon Muth. . .oh, my goodness, so much. It's like trying to get a drink from a fire hydrant.
One odd thing, perhaps a sign of how I should approach the sabbatical. . .
My cell phone -- newly replaced after Johann's attempted swim last week -- was working fine at home. Here, I can call, the call goes through, and I can hear my friends and loved ones on the other line just fine. But they can't hear me. Will just gives the report from home, and I have to hang up. My friends here at the conference tell me where to go to meet them. But I can't reply.
So maybe that's the point, for these first few days, at least: shut up. Just receive.
Tonight I walked out of church, intending not to be back until July. It's a very odd feeling.
Tomorrow I'm off to the Festival of Faith and Writing. It will be a welcome break away from routine, and with any luck I'll come back with renewed interest in writing for the next three months. At the moment, I just want to sleep and take a lot of long walks.
I imagine I'll have some things to blog about next week, but don't expect as much blog activity in the coming three months. I've tied myself to the mast on this sabbatical by limiting my technological options. I won't be hauling a wireless laptop around everywhere, for one thing. I think my larger project could benefit from more time away from the computer.
Spring is all around us now. Mergansers and loons have returned to Lake Calhoun and the ice is vanishing fast. It's a lovely time to be beginning 12 weeks of renewal. Peace to you all!
Sunday was my last sermon until August. It's a little odd, knowing that I will not be back worshiping with my community for that long. The only times before when I've had that long a leave from community were leaving my first call -- hard, more final good-bye -- and for the birth of my two children. And with the kids, I never knew exactly when the leave would start (In Katie's case, it was quite unexpectedly early), so every Sunday was a sort of, "Well, we might see you again. . ."
Of course, lots of church members are absent for periods of time -- not usually this long, but certainly for weeks at a time -- due to travel or just happenstance of life. But it's so different when you are the steady presence and everyone else moves around you.
Needless to say, I'm very excited about the rest that lies ahead. Next Sunday morning I will not be sleeping in because I'll be getting on a plane, but it will nevertheless be a very different kind of weeekend.
This afternoon I saw my son, three years old, do the "dead man's float" at Wood Lake Nature Center. He was fully clothed. It was not on purpose.
That image is seared in my brain at the moment, because I remember nothing between that and being waist-deep in muck, hauling him out. We had been walking along the marsh for half an hour on a wide path and some boardwalk. Johann's favorite activity was to break off a dead piece of cattail or marsh grass and throw it in the water, as if he were expecting it to float downstream as it would in the creek. J kept doing it again and again, as if expecting a different result.
Somehow, he found the one place along the path where there was no railing, a steep drop-off to the water and nothing in the way. I was literally two steps and way and saw him lose his balance, but couldn't grab him. It was maybe three feet to the water's surface and another three-plus feet of water.
We're all fine. He didn't break his neck, hit his head, or harm any limbs. He didn't breathe or swallow enough marsh water to make him sick. It was warm enough that nobody got hypothermia walking back to the car. Johann did, however, get a little hysterical when I suggested he get in the warm bathtub to clean up (and this is a boy who LOVES baths).
We tried processing a bit verbally, but it's tough with a 3-year old.
"Did you lose your balance and fall in?" "What's my balance?"
It’s unfortunate that the Acts pericopes for this week (Acts 2:36-41) and
next (Acts 2:42-47) disconnect the repentance and baptism of 3000 on Pentecost and what follows
– the entry of this new community into a pattern of breaking bread (v. 41) and sharing
all things in common (v. 44). These two things – repentance, turning around and the
breaking of bread with a forgiving Savior – are core elements of Luke-Acts, and
with this Sunday’s Gospel.
We tend to bracket the incredible number of converts at the
end of Peter’s sermon into the category of "Biblical statements that can't possibly translate into today's context". But which is more incredible in today’s context– that
3000 were added in one day, or that they shared all things in common? Or that more
were added to their number daily (47), even though people knew that this was a
community in which people sold their possessions in order to share them with
Sara Miles (who I’m very happy to announce will be preaching and speaking at
ECLC next February) has written powerfully in her memoir Eat This Bread: A Radical Conversion about this connection between
conversion and communion, and between Jesus’ feeding us with himself and our
call to feed others. At her church, St. Gregory of Nyssa, the communion table is
cleared at the end of the Eucharist and quite literally becomes the table of
fellowship with coffee and treats. And the gifts of the community to others are
gathered there as well.
The experience of being fed at Jesus’ table converted Miles
to Christianity, and in that feeding she also found her own call within St.
Gregory’s – starting a food pantry where, weekly, anyone who came to the church
doors was offered a bag of groceries, no questions asked.
Miles has said in a PBS interview that after years of
thinking that Christianity was about rules and strict creeds and unlikely
beliefs in creationism, she discovered that “faith is about hunger -- a hunger
I had always had -- and a willingness to
be fed by something you don’t understand.”
In this week’s Gospel, and in the Emmaus text, Jesus comes
as an unfamiliar figure to the disciples. They still don’t know what his
presence means, but as they eat with him their eyes are opened. As they are
willing to be fed by this stranger among them, they find their Lord.
Sunday night I went to see Mary Oliver at the State Theatre. It was a magical evening -- an almost-full house gathered simply to hear an aging, unassuming woman read her spare poetry for an hour. For once, the standing ovation felt completely natural and deserved.
I was also struck, having never heard her speaking voice, how much the voice I've heard in my head as I've read her work matched the one I heard from the stage. She is clearly a writer who has, as they say, "found her voice" and translated it to the page perfectly. She's also one of those writers whose work is so spare, so simple and so direct that you walk away thinking, "I could do that." But, of course, I can't. Making it sound that easy takes fifty years or so.
She confessed that her work is shifting a bit in recent years more toward the human landscape, and that she is more willing to speak directly about situations of injustice and violence in her poetry. She got the most raucous applause for a poem in which she imagines taking her dog to the White House, where Donald Rumsfeld would get down on the floor and play like a boy, "for once, a rational man." But clearly, the natural world is still Oliver's first love, and her attention to it the gift she offers to us all.
Until Thirst was published, few people would have called her a religious poet. Now that she occasionally invokes God or prayer or a biblical scene in a poem, she brings to humankind the same attention and compassion. "Gethsemane" reflects on how the natural world is always "wild awake." But then she shows true compassion for the disciples, and all us humans, so often not attentive to holiness:
Oh the dear bodies, slumped and eye-shut, that could not
keep that vigil, how they must have wept,
so utterly human, knowing this too
must be part of the story.
I am so grateful Oliver is still waking early, wild awake to God's grandeur around us.