Friday, December 30, 2011

Political Awareness; A Moment in Time

We were on the deck, taking a break from summer camp staff training, when we heard the news. Pouring over the newspaper, my friend made the announcement, and everyone who was there got angry or sad or frustrated or all of those combined. I, however, stood there dumbstruck, not understanding how the 1989 events at Tiananmen Square had any impact on my life.

I still don't understand very well the politics leading up to this incident, and I certainly didn't at the time. What I do remember is being rather startled that people my age were so concerned about what was happening on the other side of the world ~ and my confusion was exacerbated by the fact that we'd just spent a week or more at staff training, almost completely isolated what was happening in the world around us.

Today I follow as closely as possible to what's happening in Washington, the Occupy movement, Tahrir Square and across the middle east, the Mexican border ~ but that day, on the deck, was the first time I began to realize that I should pay attention to what's going on in the world. It's the first time that I internalized the importance of having an opinion, and that my opinion be deeply rooted in my faith. Thanks, fellow summer camp staff, for sharing that piece of your selves.


Thursday, December 29, 2011

Money in the Church

Every congregation I've ever been part of has struggled with finances. Contrary to the popular opinion that the church is swimming in extra money (though the Roman Catholic church may well be, I'd venture a guess that individual RC congregations struggle to make ends meet), many congregations aren't able to bring in enough funds to do the ministry to which they feel called.

My own congregation has wrestled with this issue over the past couple years, and is doing so again as we anticipate the upcoming fiscal year ~ which has got me thinking about how we decide what to pay for and what to cut when there's not enough money to do everything we feel called to.

For instance, we may well say that youth ministry is important; we may well say that evangelism is important, that expanding our presence in the community is important; we may say that adding to the church staff is important, that providing a free vacation bible school is important, or that hosting a huge party/bar-b-q/carnival for the neighborhood is important.

We can say out loud that these things are important. I learned long ago, though, that if we want to know what's actually important to a congregation (or a household, or a government), look at where the money gets spent. *Now, bear in mind, I'm not talking about those households who have to make choices about whether to pay for food or rent ~ when I mention households, it's those who have discretionary funds available.*

For some households, what's important is having a boat; for some, they spend their money on cruises and other travel; some spend a lot on home improvement. The list is potentially endless. But where the money goes, I believe, indicates what that household views as important.

Also, consider our nation (USAmerica). If we were to assume that what's most important is that which we spend the most on, we'd probably conclude that conducting war is the most important thing to our nation, and that bolstering healthcare or poor communities or school districts is pretty far down the list (but that's a post for another time).

I'm not thinking about those things right now ~ I'm thinking about congregational budgets. If a person were to look at the budgets of many congregations (especially many ELCA and other mainline congregations), we'd have to conclude that the most important thing to the congregation is the building. This is particularly true if we add to the mortgage the heat and light bills, the insurance, the lawn and building maintenance, and all the rest of the upkeep on the physical property.

We can say all we want that evangelism or youth ministry or outreach is important. The trouble is that our budget sheets tell a different story. Even if we really and truly believe that buildings are not important, we're stuck with them. Congregational leadership is stuck with decisions that were made before they entered the decision-making process. Other people made the decision to build a building on credit, and to saddle the future of the church with that debt. Sure, most of those decisions were made at a time when the neighborhood was booming. Thirty years ago, the neighborhood where the congregation I serve is situated was the new part of town, the growing edge where people with means went to live. Now, people with means live farther out, and the neighborhood is substantially poorer … but we're stuck with the debt incurred by previous leadership.

So I'm stuck lamenting. We can't stop paying the heat and light and mortgage. But if push comes to shove, and the budget has to be cut, it's not the heat and light and mortgage lines that will get reduced. We have to reduce the lines that go to ministry. We have to reduce our vacation bible school budget; we have to reduce our youth ministry budget; we have to reduce our outreach budget, and all the other non-essentials. The trouble is, if we're only making loan and utility payments, how are we different from a social club?

It's getting to the point where I wonder, What's essential to being the church? What one thing is it about church that, if it were gone, we would no longer be the church?


Thursday, December 22, 2011

Advent Solstice Reflection

solstice, the darkest day
     when despair seems, perhaps,
     to be most immanent
when hopelessness, maybe
     is most fully incarnate

yet, we gather ourselves into the
     warmth of home, the
     warmth of sanctuary, the
     warmth of community, the
     warmth of fire, the
     warmth of the Word of God

and when we gather,
     we tell surprising stories
         stories of who we are –
     but we don’t tell stories of
         despair, of hopelessness

Hope, and Light, and Love pervade
     times of darkness and despair

see, we have seen Christ born,
     God entering vulnerable into our life
we have heard words incarnate
     as the things we speak, good or ill
         become truth
we have tasted bread and wine
     sweeter and richer and subtler and deeper
         than any narthex cookies could be
and we know we will again

     in the face of despair
Gospel is light,
     breaking into our darkness
Light is Gospel
     pushing darkness to the edges,
     the outskirts,
     the margins

Then, we can’t help but to look into the darkness
         where, perhaps,
     far from the place we huddle around
         light and warmth and community
     we see Christ banishing darkness
         even where we cannot even see light

which, according to some, is hope –
     trusting what we believe to be true
         despite all the evidence

despite all the evidence,
     darkness in so many forms surrounding us
we proclaim light
     Word of God
         continually coming into the world

and, as we begin again, every day, to
         believe and hope,
     we might humbly echo Mary
         ‘Let it be with me according to your Word’
allowing our being to reflect,
         into darkness
Divine Light

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Scattered thoughts on feasting

Feasting. We're in the middle of the season for feasting. Between the parties, the special dinners, the cookies and candies that seem to be everywhere, and the snacking in the kitchen while preparing to feed others, it seems like we can't get away from feasting. It starts, sort of, at Halloween (when I'm sure I'm not alone in raiding my childrens' candy stash). Then the patriotic Thanksgiving feast lasts a few days; then, as soon as the turkey's gone, we're going to parties and baking for Christmas. Even many people who don't celebrate Christmas probably get wrapped up in the holiday feasting.

I have to say, I love feasting. I love getting together with family and friends for a beautiful and substantial meal. I love celebrating some special event, whether it's personal or communal or societal. I think, though, that we've lost an understanding of what it means to feast. No, that's wrong. We still know how to feast; we just don't know how to not feast any more.

There was a time in human history when most of our meals were simple; when we ate essentially the same thing every day, and meals were relatively simple to prepare. Every so often, a few times a year, the community would gather together to celebrate something ~ a religious observance, a changing of seasons, or maybe the harvest. The food at feasts was more substantial, more abundant, and probably of greater variety. The food at feasts was often richer, more fatty and therefore more flavorful. The extravagance of feasts marked something special.

We still mark special events with feasting. Truth be told, though, we could feast every day if we wanted to. We in the western so-called first-world have access to tremendous variety of food every day. We have access to tremendous amounts of food every day. We have the ability to eat on a whim, and so I think that feasting has probably lost some of its significance.

Plus, since we have easy and cheap access to processed, chemical-and-fat-laden, 'food' ~ which fills our belly without actually promoting health or wellness (all while what grows naturally out of the ground has become comparatively expensive ~ prohibitively so, for those who live in poverty), there is very little distinction between (what used to be) the plainness of regular eating and the richness of feasting.

It's gotten to the point that we're often no longer to differentiate between regular eating and feasting. And most of us are so removed from any awareness that this pattern is (physically and emotionally and spiritually) unhealthy.

Of course, I'm pointing out what I see as a problem in our society without promoting any feasible ways of working toward a solution. The trouble is, I don't think there is a 'fix' short of re-vamping our entire economic system by removing the ridiculous profit from the food industry (is it really ok to trademark seeds?), and by advocating for better patterns of eating across society.

But that's probably a bigger project than what I can tackle today.


Sunday, December 4, 2011

Advent In the Wilderness

up against the desperation of the
     holiday season
we set spiritual desperation, as we
are found in the wilderness, where a
     voice is crying;

a voice cries amid the wilderness of
     shopping malls,
the wilderness of holiday parties,
     of credit card debt
of the loneliness of the dark, and the
     darkness of the lonely

a voice cries, cutting through, though
     still and small
with good news: the Word of life is
     among us, bringing
comfort, comfort, even into this
     holiday wilderness