Friday Five: The Advent of Advent

advent-mary

At RevGalBlogPals, Mary Beth Butler invites us each to sit quietly…as Mary sits in the photo above…and consider five things about Advent. They might be images, practices, hymns, anything you like. Here are my five:

1. For me, Advent is always a chance to focus on the Magnificat in one form or another, whether that’s preaching on it, listening to songs connected with it, paying attention to the wide range of art that has tried to capture that moment between Mary and Elizabeth, or presenting adult education sessions on it. I love the strength of it, the hope of it, the poetry of it. It’s Advent at its best.

2. In the last congregation that I served, one of my favorite events was the Advent party on the second Sunday of Advent, when a good percentage of the congregation ate together, packed items for Christmas Eve on the streets of New York City among the homeless poor, made crafts of various kinds, decorated a very large tree in our Fellowship Hall and sang Christmas carols along with the Mediocre Ensemble, an orchestra made up of musicians of all levels and ages. Some people played well and played regularly, some pulled instruments out of attics or basements and only played once a year, some knew all the notes and played them easily, and some could only play a few of the notes in each song. Some years I played guitar with them (though more often I was helping coordinate another part of the evening and couldn’t be with them for the rehearsal in the first hour).   But when that orchestra played We Wish You a Merry Christmas and the lights went on for the first time on the tree, I knew we were in Advent.

3. For many years, Advent has also been a time that I associate with my workload ramping up big time and then slowing down a bit because the semester is coming to an end. In the third week of Advent, my academic semester ends. My grades are due well before Christmas so I’m swamped with papers, projects, and final exams to plow through in that week. But then, once they’re graded the pace and focus change a bit. In the many years when I was working in a parish it meant being able to move my attention entirely to parish preparations for Christmas and was a way for me to really focus on waiting and preparing for Christmas.

4. Nowadays, Advent means I begin to look forward to practicing for the Messiah sing-a-long. This will be my third year spending late November and early December getting ready for the New Westchester Symphony Orchestra’s Messiah sing-a-long and it’s beginning to become a new Advent tradition. The first year I was doing this, there were a huge number of notes that I didn’t yet know how to play, much less play in tempo, on my flute. Last year at this time, I had learned the fingering of all the notes, but getting the proper sound out of them was still a challenge. This year, it’s speed on some of the pieces like “Thou That Tellest Good Tidings to Zion” that is where I’m putting my effort.

5. Years ago, when Kathy and I first moved into our house in Dobbs Ferry, I ordered copies of Christmas carols for each of the instruments that our children played with the dream that, during Advent, we’d find time to take out our guitars, saxophone, violin, keyboard, and drum that were still being stored at our house even though most of the children had moved out. We’d sit in front of our Christmas tree, grab the carol sheet music, and play together.  It never happened. The sax was taken to a new home, the drum was given away, and the music stayed stored with the rest of our sheet music. Last year, when Kathy retired she began to play clarinet and I ordered a clarinet copy of the same book of carols. This year, she’s learned enough that she can play with me. Even before Advent has arrived, we’ve begun to rehearse some of the carols. I’m looking forward to an Advent when we can sit in front of the lighted tree and play together.

Conversion

18667792

I’ve just finished reading Katherine Howe’s new historical fiction novel, Conversion. Historical fiction is a genre I like a lot, so it shouldn’t be surprising that I’ve read both her The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane and her The House of Velvet and Glass.   I bought an inexpensive used copy of Deliverance Dane in late 2013 and really enjoyed it. I was very happy to have bought the book because it was one I wanted to pass on to Kathy, who also likes historical fiction, so she could read it too. Early this spring I found a used copy of House of Velvet and read that as well. I again passed it to Kathy, saying it wasn’t as good as Deliverance Dane but it was still worth the read. In July Howe came out with Conversion. Not wanting to pay full price for a hardback of it, I put my name on the library list to read it. My copy came in last week. Now that I’ve finished it I can say I’m glad that I got a library copy of Conversion rather than spending the money for even an inexpensive used copy of it. I have no interest in passing the book on to anyone.

From my perspective, Conversion just doesn’t work well. The “interludes” back in the early 18th century didn’t grab me at all. I know Howe was trying to stick closely to the historical facts in those sections but none of the characters in those interludes seemed full people, much less worth caring about. The parallels (and lack thereof) between what’s happening to the senior girls and what was happening in 18th century Salem seemed trite. I know they were meant to make us rethink how an unexplained sickness among teenaged girls would be explained today (as people did with the 2012 LeRoy New York situation upon which the author admits she drew) but the whole exploration came across as superficial and trite. I hung in with the book until the end only because the 2012 storyline, set as it was in a Catholic girl’s school, reminded me some of my own high school experiences.

Living Cosmology

This weekend was the “Living Cosmology: Christian Responses to Journey of the Universe” conference up at Yale Divinity . The event was sponsored by the Forum on Religion and Ecology under the direction of Mary Evelyn Tucker and John Grim, both of whose work I’ve come to appreciate a lot since I’ve been teaching the World Religions and the Natural Environment course. The event was very academic, being almost entirely university speakers presenting their papers on a range of cosmology topics from Cosmology, Law, and Erath Jurisprudence to Seeds, Soil, and Food.

The two panels that I enjoyed most were the first and third on Saturday morning. In the first panel, “The Influence of Teilhard de Chardin,” I got a chance to hear Ilia Delio (Georgetown) speak about the contrast between a Christianity that is based on the Adam myth of original sin and a Teilhardian, mystical Christianity that sees Christ as the cosmic person. I was delighted both to have the chance to hear her—I’d tried to sign up for her weeklong workshop on Teilhard last summer at Maryknoll, but I’d been closed out—but also to listen to her take on the relationship between technology and religion.

The other panel that I found very worthwhile was the one on “Views of the Divine.” There several speakers were intriguing. Mark Wallace (Swarthmore) started by speaking about the woodthrush as a “singing monk” (In line with Tibetan monks and singing bowls in its song) and then went on to point out how Christianity needs to get back to claiming to be an animistic religion. (His definition of animism was that all that exists lives and is holy) to respond to the crisis of heart that the world is currently having. Wallace was a strong speaker about whose courses and writing I’d like to learn more. Catherine Keller (Drew) went on to talk about reimaging the divine and spoke from her process panentheistic perspective saying that at the moment her favorite term for God is “the supreme entanglement.”   As in the other writing and teaching of hers that I’ve heard, her 12 minutes was dense (as in loaded with material to think about, not stupid) and gave me a lot to think about.

A lot of the speakers kept going back to the inadequacy of language for moving from a dualistic view of the world in which spirit and nature and separate rather than interwoven to a unified way of seeing creation. It’s an issue I’ve struggled with a lot, both in my teaching and in my leading of worship. I’ve also raised it several times in our Great Company and Green Sangha discussions so when it first came up at the Conference. I’d hoped there would be practical suggestions for ways to bridge the gap from one language to another. Instead what people said or implied was that someone would have to create a new dictionary to help us move into the non-dualistic world but no one wanted to make a start at that work.

Being at he conference made me feel as I often do when I attend workshops that are either connected with academia or with the parish—that I don’t quite fit in either world. As I listened to the academicians, I couldn’t help but wonder how most of what they were saying could ever be connected to the life of the average Christian. What, for example, would someone in the pews make of praying to God as “the divine entanglement?”  I left hoping for more speakers who could connect wood thrushes with spirituality in everyday wording and unify head and heart.

 

On The Town

On Thursday evening we were lucky enough to go into Manhattan to see our next door neighbor, Megan Fairchild, play the lead role of Ivy Smith in the play On the Town.

MeganasIvy

While it was hard not to hear echoes of Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra from the moment “New York, New York” was sung at the beginning, the play was great- updated (yes, it’s still set in the same time period, but a lot of the things that were glass shots in the movies wouldn’t work in a play), lively, well-acted and sung. Alysha Umphress as Hildy was SO funny and Megan’s dancing seemed so much above the types and quality of dancing that Vera-Ellen did in the 1949 film.

But the best part of the evening for me was where we were seated. We were seated in the center section of the front row in the last two seats to the left. That meant two things. When characters came on or off the stage to go into the audience, they walked right by us. It also meant that we could look into the orchestra pit throughout the performance and, since our seats were right in front of the part of the pit that had the flutes and clarinets, I happily watched them play for about as much of the performance as I watched the stage.   It made for a GREAT evening!

 

Friday Five: Guilty Pleasures

Over at RevGalBlogPals, it’s time to play Friday Five. This week it begins with the paragraph:

guilty-pleasure

“It happened again this week. In a social setting, during a conversation with people that included some I had just met, I made a reference to the church I serve. “Oh!” one of the new acquaintances exclaimed, “I shouldn’t have said hell!” Sigh. This kind of projection can be so tiring, as can the general need to be mindful of how our words and actions are perceived as appropriate (or not). In light of that, I relish moments to myself when I can shed all such perceptions and projections and just be. Occasionally this involves what might be known as a guilty pleasure.

For this week’s Friday Five, share with us five “perception be damned!” pleasures in which you indulge. We promise we won’t judge, or tell. What happens at RevGals stays at RevGals.”

In my ministry, for good or for bad, I try very hard to be “what you see is what you get” rather than “playing minister”. When I used to fill out PIFs (clergy resumes), in response to the question about what I was looking for in a congregation I’d put that one of the things I wanted was a congregation where each member of staff (including myself) can be a total person, not just a role. And when I was in a congregation, I’m pretty sure members of the congregation knew all of me—the rough and the smooth places in my life. I thought that was a good thing, since I hoped it would also give each of them permission to also bring all of themselves to the congregation’s life together.

Having said all that, do I have guilty pleasures? I do, even though they’re not connected with the parish. So here are five:

  1. I love books—academic books, books for ministry, novels, poetry, sci fi, mysteries, books in other languages, old books, new books—and, while I do go to the library for books I’m sure I’ll never read again and do get some books in e-format of one kind or another, I also love owning books. The owning is the guilty pleasure.
  1. Peanut M&Ms. I’ve had to give up most candy, including M&Ms since my soy allergy has become so bad, but peanut M&Ms used to be a guilty pleasure of mine. I loved the combined salt and sugar. I could always find a way to justify eating them since the peanuts were a source of protein.
  1. Instruments and time to play instruments. One of my favorite things in all the world is making music—singing (which makes me feel guilty if anyone else is around because I’m so tone-deaf), playing flute, playing guitar, playing mountain lark, playing uke. I’m not very good at any of these instruments, but I love making music and especially playing with others. In the ideal world I would make music of one kind or another two to three hours a day, seven days a week—and then listen to music for a few hours more. Working three plus jobs, my life really doesn’t allow me much time for music-making and there’s always something that should be done in place of it, so when I play music I usually feel like I’m stealing time from something that has a more legitimate claim on it.
  1. Non-work-related travel. Travel is a guilty pleasure for me because I know that it increases my carbon footprint. I don’t do most of my travel by foot or by bike or by public transportation. I do it by car (or if I’m lucky enough to be going somewhere farther away, by plane). I struggle with how to balance my desire to see something new or participate in something that isn’t in my neighborhood with the environmental cost of my doing so.
  1. Whenever I’ve had an opportunity to step away from noise and connections with the world, I have so loved the silence. By silence I don’t mean the lack of natural noise, I mean having to be connected, to speak, to be “on” and reachable by others. When I was in my twenties, my mother used to give me the gift of watching my (then one) child for a long weekend once a year, so I could go away to a cabin in the woods and soak up the silence, hike the nearby trails, and not have to speak or respond to anyone. I didn’t feel guilty being away from it all. Instead, it was heaven. For a variety of reasons I’m not at a place in my life where these kinds of opportunities for long periods of total silence are possible and I’d probably feel very guilty if given the chance.

 

 

Gratitude

trees

Now that my World Religion and the Natural Environment have finished the weeks of academically exploring what each major religion teaches about our relationship with the world around us, we’re finally at the point that I like best in the course, the point where we begin to explore ways in which the various religious teachings can be applied in our daily lives. We look at visions of the earth whole and at peace and dream about how we might get there. We focus on ways in which religions can help build community and offer and teach compassion to all beings, and we explore ways in which we can show our thankfulness for all that surrounds us and that we experience.

This week we focused on gratitude. Students kept journals of their connections with the natural environment and added photos, poems, phrases, and drawings that captured the things for which they were grateful. They then took what they’d come up with and turned it into liturgy – prayers, invocations, meditations, etc—using a form that would be found in one of the world’s religions of their choice.

Each year, the answers to this assignment take my breath away. Several years ago the assignment was due during the week in which Hurricane Sandy destroyed several of the students’ homes, and yet—despite such destruction, there was still such outpourings of gratitude and such beautiful liturgies. This year, there was nothing as devastating as Sandy.  Among the things my students were grateful for this year were:  apples and pumpkins; family and friends; cats purring; consciousness of breathing; healthcare while dealing with mono; laughing until their stomach hurt; Halloween; views from the top of a mountain; top

hiking, hiking, and more hiking—with friends, with family, in the Delaware Water Gap, in southern Pennsylvania, in Mohonk, and near their homes; yoga; leaves changing; rain and water (from a student whose home is in California, where rain these days is so important); dogs and fish; periods of disconnection from technology; living simply; amazing morning skies and gorgeous sunsets seen from a train car;

sunset

the skyline with the Brooklyn Bridge; the chance to study what one is passionate about; love; their bosses; popcorn and pizza; moments when the world is quiet (or quieter); and the greenest grass on a cloudy day. The liturgies they wrote included guided Buddhist meditations, Native American invocations, and Christian and Buddhist prayers of thanksgiving.

Most of these students don’t practice a religion. All but one has never written a piece of liturgy in their lives and may never do so again. The gratitude, though, shines out from each and every one of their assignments as they work to find ways to give thanks for each of their daily lives.   In the discussion at the end of this week’s class, one student announced that this assignment was her favorite assignment, not only in this class or this semester, but in her three years at Pace. I tend to agree with her- I think it’s my favorite assignment as well.

 

Disconnected From Religion

When I was twenty-two and first started teaching religious studies at a college level, most of the students were around the same age I was (or, in my evening classes, older than me).   In my Introduction to World Religions courses, I’d begin the first section exploring the general characteristics of religion, what students knew of religion—either firsthand or through previous studies, and ways in which they felt religion had had an impact on their lives or the world around them. Semester by semester, I’d have classes with more than half the students telling me that they were active Christians of one kind or another, another quarter telling me they were Jewish, and then a student or two who would come from other religious traditions. As we explored religion after religion in subsequent classes, students would compare that religion and what they were learning of its beliefs and practices to their religious experiences and we’d take on the insider-outsider problem and the biases that could come from doing comparisons in that way. The conversations could get heated but they were usually very interesting.

As I reached my late thirties, the make-up of my Introduction to Word Religions courses began to change. Instead of students who listed themselves as active followers of a religion, I began to have classes where the bulk of the students had been raised in a religion but had stopped attending after confirmation, bar/bat mitzvah, etc. because they either didn’t see how the religion in which they’d been raised connected with their current life or because they couldn’t believe something that they’d been taught as children during religious education classes. The class discussions moved toward conversations in which we unpacked what doctrines, creeds, and rituals that they’d only understood from a child’s perspective might mean from an adult’s view and how such fresh looks at old beliefs might connect with their current lives. We also spent a lot of time doing “everything you’d always wanted to know about” Judaism, Hinduism, Christianity, or whatever the religion of the week was. This gave people a safe setting in which to ask questions about things they’d seen, experienced, or heard about that had puzzled them. There were questions that came up about each religion, but the bulk of them often came from people who had practiced a religion but not understood why the religion had suggested they do or say something. The conversations could be challenging, but it was lots of fun to watch students often reconnect something they’d discounted back into their lives.

For the last several years, the make-up of my Introduction to World Religions courses seems to have shifted yet again. Now instead of active followers of a religion or former followers of a religion, the bulk of my students have never had any connection in their lives with a religion, nor are they aware of any connections that their parents may have had. In my Tuesday evening section of the course this semester, for example, only one student has had any connection with a religion (evangelical Christianity) and he no longer follows it. Religions of any kind—or spirituality in general- are something remote for the students and the challenge these days is to find a way to help them connect to the idea of any kind of religious experience or tradition.

As part of this course over all the years I’ve been teaching it, students have to attend a worship service in a tradition and then interview the clergy person leading that worship to learn more about the specific rituals and actions they’ve seen. In past years students have been able to connect that to their own former religious experience, but these students have nothing to which they can connect the encounter and so it becomes much harder for me to provide contexts for the religions they are studying. I think I’ve got to find a new way to teach the course to give them some more personal glimpses of what it might mean to have some spirituality in their lives, but to do so in a way that makes it clear that no one is trying to convert them to any specific belief system. The whole process is leaving me puzzling, rethinking, and trying to find some “Velcro” activities that will give them some feeling for what a religion can offer in an individual’s or a community’s life.

The Forested Landscape

Over the last four or five months, I’ve been reading a mystery series that I really enjoy. When I think, though, about what  my favorite book of the last several years would be, the answer surprises me since it’s not a novel, a book connected with religion, or a collection of poems. Instead, it’s Tom Wessel’s Reading the Forested Landscape, a book that came out more than fifteen years ago.

books

I ran across Wessel’s writing while doing a permaculture course at the New York Botanical Gardens. As I began to think through various permacultural configurations I realized I knew little about types of trees, how to tell which were native to our area, and why they did well in one area but not another. Trying to fill in at least a few gaps, I picked up Reading the Forested Landscape, expecting to leaf through it to find out some basics about trees. Instead, as I read the first chapter, I fell in love with the way Wessels was teaching the reader how to understand the history and current situations of a forested area by looking at various things happening on it. I was fascinated with the reasons why maples may dominate in one spot in a forest while pines take over another area, with the importance that a specific type of bark can have on the survival or decay of a tree, and with the impact of sheep, beavers, and other animals on the trees and plants of an area. When I finished the book, I immediately started reading it again, wanting to absorb as many details as I could.

I’ve read the book two more times in the last three years (something that is unusual for me because I very rarely reread a book even once). It has given me an appreciation  when I’m out walking or hiking of the various ways in which the landscapes that surround me have changed over the last two or three hundred years, for the ways in which individual trees grow, for the interaction of forests and animals, for the ways in which, if left alone for years, one type of landscape morphs into a very different type of landscape, and most importantly, for the beauty and complexity of trees and forests.

 

Our Earth’s Future

This fall I’ve been doing a great online course given by the American Museum of Natural History called “Our Earth’s Future.”   Over the past several weeks and continuing until mid-December, we’re learning about the science of climate change from specialists who work in oceanography, anthropology, earth science, climatology, physics, and more. This past week, for example, we heard from Dr. Michela Biasuitt, a scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who explained the science around climate change forecasts and the various modeling options that are used. The week before, Dr. Gavin Schmidt from NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies focused on how to talk about climate change and the problems and challenges that politics add to such a conversation. Each of us in the class has had a chance to research the climate changes that have occurred over the past one hundred or so years in our neighborhood (which has been very interesting because we have people in the class from as far south as Florida, from the southwest, from the west coast, from Texas and Wisconsin, and from the northeast).   We’ve read studies on climate change in a wide range of other parts of the world, from Greenland o the Sahel grasslands of Africa.

 

The course has been both interesting and challenging for me. While I spend a decent amount of time on environmental issues (for my course on world religions and the environment, for my work with several denominational and religious groups working on climate change issues, and in a lot of my volunteer time), this is really the first chance I’ve had to focus exclusively on the science involved in the issues. It’s giving me (and I suspect my fellow students who work in a wide range of areas as educators, journalists, horticulturalists, documentary producers, and more) a new vocabulary with which to speak and also a lot of information by which to back up my more general non-scientific statements. I’ve enjoyed learning about topics like ice core samples or climate feedbacks and forcings, I’ve been amazed that people still program in Fortran, much less that a major climate modeling system continues to be written using it as a programming language. But what I’ve found most fascinating so far, has been learning about the Eemian period, an interglacial period that was about 125,000 years ago that I’d never heard of before this class. The Eemian period seems to have a climate fairly similar to ours (although their CO2 wasn’t as high as ours is). Because of that it allows us to draw conclusions on how our present climate will be affected by ice melting based on the significant melting that happened in that time period.   While we’ve moved on as a class from the Eemian period into other areas of study, this is a topic I’m hoping to discover more about on my own.

 

A Broader Understanding of Saints and Souls

I love this Sunday.  It is a day to celebrate all in our lives that has reflected God and to make peace with all that has moved away in the direction of brokenness and incompleteness.

Technically yesterday (November 1st) was All Saints Day—usually celebrated as the Christian version of Memorial Day, a day for remembering those who have gone before us in faith and we traditionally hold up and honor those who led exemplary lives. In the Reformation, while Protestants got rid of individual saints days, All Saints Day remained because of the role of the grace of Christ in the lives of saints.  (“Thou wast their rock, their fortress and their might” echoes in my head as I write.) And All Saints Day is part of the dominical calendar, which means that if the day doesn’t land on a Sunday in any given year, it can be transferred to the following Sunday (in this case, today, November 2nd).

But people began to grumble that such a holy day left out many people, including those who had no chance to emulate previous saints and those who, like me, had such a chance but had at least a few major shortcomings.  So the Odilo, the great peacemaker who had already brought about a Truce of God between southern France and Italy, again became a peacemaker and moved in the direction of a more inclusive church by creating All Souls Day on November 2nd.

So today, liturgically, we celebrate both heroes and nobodies—all the people, bringing home the fat that every one of us—saints and souls together- are part of God’s inclusive welcoming creation.

maxresdefault

I suppose that was the basic point of the film St Vincent that I saw yesterday, a film that was predictable and sentimental, but because of the wonderful acting, was still a pleasure to watch.  You knew as soon as Brother Geraghty (Chris O’Dowd) announced that Oliver’s class was going to study and do reports on the saints, that Oliver was going to choose Vincent (Bill Murray) as his model for a saint because, despite his gambling, drinking, and hanging out in strip clubs, Vincent was a deeply caring man- the perfect all saint’s/all soul’s day model.  The film reminds us that we too often divide the world into heroes and nobodies when, with God’s grace we can yet make this a place in which all God’s children are seen as souls, in which each of us is seen as a saint in the making.

  Holding onto that reminder I wish there was a modern Odilo of Cluny, because as much as I love this All Saints/ All Souls Day, I don’t think it goes far enough.  All God’s children are to be seen as souls, as saints in the making, and all God’s children include so many more than just human children. Often I have learned more of what it means to be saintly from God’s other non-human children rather than from others of my species so a celebration that leaves them out seems to fall very short.

If God made all creation good and all beings fall at least a little short of what God means for us each to be, isn’t All Saints/All Souls Day about all of us? How do we rework our theology to make that clear? How can we expand a liturgical day like today to count in God’s non-human two-footed children, God’s four-footed children, God’s crawlers and swimmers, and God’s rooted children who dance today as the Spirit shakes their branches?   How might we imagine a church that would count all saints and souls, not just human ones, in on a regular basis?  How would our mission and outreach change if we lived into that kind of broader understanding of saints and souls? What would such a church then look like?   These are questions that I struggle toward answering these days because it’s that broader, more welcoming, more inclusive church in which I believe and want to bring into being.