A Place at the Table

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Our song of the day during worship this morning’s service was A Place At the Table. After a week of tough news in the United States, it was both healing and challenging to sing lyricist Shirley Elena Murray’s refrain: “God will delight when we are creators of justice and joy.”

Normally, hymns are hardly my favorite part of worship. I observe them politely while remaining essentially unmoved. But today’s featured song forced a bit of self-reflection that went a little something like this:

Sometimes, I feel stymied by the vast quantity of issues humanity has yet to surmount or, in some cases, even acknowledge. I feel helpless. I feel hopeless. I cling to the sour conviction that I am vastly under-qualified to  address personal and institutionalized prejudice against “others” (take your pick as to how we define those others at any particular moment).

But discouraging though my perceived helplessness may be, I suspect it’s actually the more pleasing alternative. What if I’m not helpless? What if, instead, I am paralyzed by fear?

Sure, I make parenting and personal decisions that I’d like to think have a positive impact on the world. But I could be doing more. What stops me? Fear. If I stand up as a stronger advocate for victims of injustice, some people may disapprove of my words and actions. Worse, some of the disapproval may come from people I care about. I don’t want to discover bigotry and/or ignorance in my loved ones. And I certainly don’t want to discover it in myself.

But my blind spots are there, whether I acknowledge them or not. I’m a product of my gender, my sexual orientation, my race, my class, my region, and my educational background. I have privileges I don’t even realize. There are ideas and realities to which I’ve never been exposed–either because they’re entirely outside my realm of experience, or because I haven’t been paying very good attention.

How can I be an advocate if I’m not an expert? How can I be an ally without co-opting or corrupting more authentic voices?

Beyond cultural issues, there are the usual human factors to consider. I can be cowardly, self-involved, and egotistical. I’m not always a good listener. And sometimes, I get so worried about causing or feeling discomfort that I avoid the difficult conversations and uphold a shameful silence.

“I’ll be more helpful when I have more time,” I tell myself. “I’ll contribute when I have more money, more knowledge, more patience, and more talent.”

Enough.

Today I’m admitting that I’ll never be perfect, and there will never be a perfect time to grow my own skills as an advocate or ally. But that doesn’t matter. My shortcomings are no excuse for holding back. Imperfect efforts are better than inaction.

The odds are that I won’t singlehandedly cause an amazing and newsworthy shift on behalf of human rights. But you know what? I don’t have to make headlines. I don’t have to be a visionary leader. I can be a courageous follower. I can join all the other humble people quietly building a more compassionate culture.

That’s the world I want to live in, the one Shirley Elena Murray describes in her hymn: “For everyone born, a place at the table, to live without fear, and simply to be. To work, to speak out, to witness and worship, for everyone born the right to be free.”

 

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Year C, Summer Lectionary

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Is June really almost already gone? Yes. What have I been doing with my summer? I’m not really sure. It seems to be dribbling away in an effort to keep the house semi-clean and the laundry semi-caught up. (Oh, and jam. We’ve made a lot of strawberry jam.)

Clearly, I haven’t been updating this blog. Sadly, I haven’t been following my kids’ lectionary cycle either. But I’m going to leap in this week with a little Galatians and see where it takes me!

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Holy Trinity Sunday (5/22) – The Gifts of Wisdom – Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31

Lectionary 9 (5/29) – A Centurion’s Servant – Luke 7:1-10

Lectionary 10 (6/5) – Paul as Apostle – Galatians 1:11-24

Lectionary 11 (6/12) – Saved by Faith – Galatians 2:15-21

Lectionary 12 (6/19) – Purpose of the Law – Galatians 3:23-29

Lectionary 13 (6/26) – Following Jesus – Luke 9:51-62

Lectionary 14 (7/3) – Mission of the Seventy – Luke 10:1-11, 16-20

Lectionary 15 (7/10) – The Good Samaritan – Luke 10:25-37

Lectionary 16 (7/17) – Martha and Mary – Luke 10:38-42

Lectionary 17 (7/24) – The Lord’s Prayer – Luke 11:1-13

Lectionary 18 (7/31) – New Life in Christ – Colossians 3:1-11

Lectionary 19 (8/7) – Meaning of Faith – Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16

Lectionary 20 (8/14) – Heroes’ Faith – Hebrews 11:29-12:2

Lectionary 21 (8/21) – Healing on the Sabbath – Luke 13:10-17

Lectionary 22 (8/28) – Humility and Hospitality – Luke 14:1, 7-14

Lectionary 23 (9/4) – Paul’s Plea for Onesimus – Philemon 1-21

Year C, Spring Lectionary

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Sometimes, I wonder if our faith formation director secretly picked out our Sunday School program for me. Oh, sure the kids love it and learn a lot. But seriously? The prepared lessons align with the Revised Common Lectionary. All of the materials (including the Whirl Story Bible) use color coding and symbols for the different seasons. It’s a Type-A School Nerd’s dream come true!

More on our Sunday School program later. For now, here’s a belated list of this quarter’s readings:

Lent 1 – Jesus is Tempted – Luke 4:1-13

Lent 2 – God’s Covenant with Abraham – Genesis 15:1-12, 17-18

Lent 3 – God Provides – Isaiah 55:1-9

Lent 4 – The Prodigal Son – Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

Lent 5 – Mary Anoints Jesus – John 12:1-8

Palm/Passion Sunday – Luke’s Holy Week – Luke 22:14 – 23:56

Easter Day – Jesus is Risen – Luke 24:1-12

Easter 2 – Alpha and Omega – Revelation 1:4-8

Easter 3 – Saul Meets Jesus – Acts 9:1-20

Easter 4 – Peter Raises Tabitha – Acts 9:36-43

Easter 5 – New Heaven and Earth – Revelation 21:1-6

Easter 6 – Promise of the Holy Spirit – John 14:23-29

Easter 7 – Paul and Silas – Acts 16:16-34

Day of Pentecost – Filled with the Holy Spirit – Acts 2:1-21

Inspiration via St. Augustine

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In The Road to Character, David Brooks seeks to uncover methods for living more in tune with “eulogy values” (beneficence, altruism, compassion, etc.) as opposed to the ideals that currently dominate our culture. He calls these dominant ideals “resume values.” Some examples would include ambition, efficiency, and craftiness. And though Brooks recognizes that resume values certainly have their place, he argues that they’ve run amok and led to a sense of spiritual emptiness.

Months after reading this book, it’s still on my mind… which means yes, I’d definitely recommend it. It inspired me and it frustrated me, in part because Brooks roundly rejects a format promising easy answers. Instead, he gives character portraits of multiple famous figures. Taken together, these portraits provide both insights and contradictions. There are no simple steps towards self-improvement.

I’m going back over my notes, rereading underlines passages, and thinking, “I know this applies to my life… but how? What does this mean for me?” I’m not sure how to answer those questions. I’m still just marinating in my mind, and something tells me that’s enough for now.

Throughout Lent, I keep coming back to the passage below. It’s about St. Augustine. I don’t have tons of insights regarding how to apply this reading. It just felt relevant and worth sharing.

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“He wanted to live a truthful life. But he wasn’t ready to give up his career, or sex, or some of his worldly pursuits. He wanted to use the old methods to achieve better outcomes. That is to say, he was going to start with the core assumption that had always been the basis for his ambitious meritocratic life: that you are the prime driver of your life. The world is malleable enough to be shaped by you. To lead a better life you just have to work harder, or use more willpower, or make better decisions.

This is more or less how many people try to rearrange their life today. They attack it like a homework assignment or a school project. They step back, they read self-help books like The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. They learn the techniques for greater self-control. They even establish a relationship with God in the same way they would go after a promotion or an advanced degree–by conquest: by reading certain books, attending services regularly, practicing spiritual discipline such as regular prayer, doing their spiritual homework.

But eventually Augustine came to believe that you can’t gradually reform yourself. He concluded that you can’t really lead a good life by using old methods. That’s because the method is the problem. The crucial flaw in his old life was the belief that he could be the driver of his own journey (198).”

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Yes, yes, and yes. I have definitely pursued spiritual growth the same way I’d pursue a promotion or advanced degree… in part because I don’t know any other way. Is there something I should be doing instead? 

What thoughts does this passage provoke for you? 

Not the Lent I’d Planned

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Lent first crossed my radar in college, thanks to multiple Catholic acquaintances. Actually, many members of my undergraduate social circle–yes, including atheists and Jews–observed Lent in a spirit of solidarity with our devout Christian pals.

It was during our senior year that my friend Theresa advised, “Don’t just use Lent as an excuse to jumpstart a diet. Pick something that helps you to be mindful about the quality of your life and the intention with which you live it.”

An excellent recommendation I’ve been trying to apply (with varying degrees of success) ever since.

To take it a bit broader: the traditional purpose of Lent (according to that bastion of spiritual expertise, Wikipedia) is for a Christian to engage in concentrated prayer, penance, repentance, and self-denial. Ultimately, Lent is about spiritual refocusing, about drawing closer to God.

Hence the 40-day fasting and/or making of resolutions.

I had big plans for Lent this year. I was going to guide my children through meaningful activities every day! We would do #picturelent at LECFamily. And I would thoughtfully implement each activity that came home in our seasonal Sunday School gift bag. Purple place mats to drive home the liturgical colors! Candle lighting to encourage meditation! A calendar with a daily activity and/or prayer! A book containing brief Bible stories and stickers to place on a three-dimensional cross!

But wait. There could be more. Wouldn’t my children benefit from witnessing my personal spiritual practice? Absolutely! So what distraction or harmful behavior am I giving up? What devotional activity am I adding to my daily regimen?

I must plan! I must execute! I must achieve!

Sigh.

I told myself I was being mindful, but this was really my own personal version of Lent as diet.

Given my outlook, it’s probably no surprise that the Universe decided to deliver a swift, spiritual kick to my head. Lately, my life seems to demand a lot of surrender. And it’s certainly prompting a ton of introspection. In short, I am not making Lent happen. Instead, Lent is happening to me.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the idea of intangible fasting. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the sacrifice I originally chose. I had planned to fast from pressures in order to be prayerful. For 40 days, I would eliminate “should” from my life–you know, all those not-quite-obligations that clutter a family’s calendar. This, I knew, would free up tons of time. And I’d reinvest that recovered time in reaching heights hitherto unknown, both as a Spiritual Being and an Impressive Mother.

But it turns out that I am not fasting from pressure and “should” after all. Instead, I am fasting from control. And I’m fasting from pride. Pride and control, after all, are really what my personal Lenten plans were all about.

Pride and control–two besetting sins I would never tackle on my own. Theoretically, I’m grateful that the choice is out of my hands.

So okay, kids, I’m letting go. We’ve basically given up on any rituals involving the special calendar and candle from our gift bag… and that’s okay. At least you’re interested in your Bible story book (and by “interested” I mean highly invested in fighting over the stickers). And you know what? It’s more than we did last year. It’s a start. It’s enough.

And okay, self, I’m letting go. I fritter away my personal time. I space out during prayer. Instead of sending God my gratitude, I fret about upcoming kindergarten registration. Instead of studying scripture, I read a romance novel. And instead of just surrendering to the beauty of this Lenten season, I (still) keep fighting to change it into something else entirely. Something else it was never meant to be.

But that’s okay. Because you know what? I’m learning. I’m at least trying to listen. I’m trying to be still. I’m trying to observe. I’m trying to surrender my illusion of control.

It’s more than I did last year. It’s a start. It’s enough.

I’m wishing you all a Lent filled with deepened spiritual practice and reflection. I would love to hear more about how you observe these 40 days. 

 

Ash Wednesday, Toddler Edition

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Very rarely do I leave church feeling holy and peaceful. At this particular point in my life, the words “anxious,” “sweaty,” and “embarrassed” seem much more applicable. Parenting… it’s such a humbling experience.

Ash Wednesday was no exception. I barged into the noon service full of naive optimism. Lights off, crosses veiled, and tables laden with beautifully arranged clay, water, oil, and ash… clearly, this was going to be a contemplative and meaningful experience. My children would just sense the mood and naturally fall in line. What could possibly go wrong?

Oh, what a foolish question to ask when you’re dragging a toddler and preschooler out and about around lunch time! During cold and flu season! To be fair, Big Sister was actually quite well-behaved. But Little Bro was a squirming, fractious mess. If he wasn’t begging loudly to go play in the nursery (which wasn’t open midweek), he was coughing and dribbling snot on all and sundry.

The service was arranged such that we had opportunities to interact separately with the displayed clay, water, oil, and ash before we all lined up to receive crosses on our forehead. A lovely idea… but unfortunately Brother’s initial clay-squishing quickly devolved into clay-flinging. Apparently, he was playing baseball in the sanctuary, a fact he announced several times. Loudly.

He is so very, VERY two years old. What’s more, his toddler behavior put my mind squarely on… myself. I started Lent in a self-centered stew. Why was MY child disrupting the meditative mood of the service? Why would he do this to ME? What is so deficient in ME as a mother that I can’t control him? The staff and congregation must think so poorly of MY parenting skills! Look at ME, ruining this for everyone!

What a powerful demonstration of the clay in my own nature. In contrast, how grateful I was for the silent acceptance/tolerance of the congregation. How grateful for the many moments on Ash Wednesday in which both staff and laypeople interacted so thoughtfully with my children.

And when the pastor drew the cross on my kids’ foreheads, my hubris and anxiety (momentarily) fell away. In that moment, I didn’t worry whether or not they were behaving appropriately and what people thought of us. Instead, I realized what a brief time I have to enjoy these little souls temporarily entrusted to my care… and all I felt was a deep sense of gratitude and wonder that God would share them with me in the first place.

To my congregation: thank you for helping me remember that He is God and I am not… and for giving me a gracious space in which to be so very, very human.

It’s certainly not the Ash Wednesday experience I had planned for myself and my family. But maybe that’s the whole point.

 

Start Small, Start Sensory

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Hands down, my favorite all-time parenting book is Wendy Mogel’s The Blessings of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self-Reliant Children. If you haven’t read it, I strongly recommend it to folks of all faith backgrounds (yes, including atheists and agnostics).

Mogel’s purpose in writing is to “help mothers and fathers develop a spiritually based parenting philosophy that will enable them to handle the rough spots in their children’s development themselves rather than feel they must turn to an expert every time a child veers off track” (31).

A bit of background: Mogel is a clinical psychologist who, as an adult, has embraced the religious aspect of her Jewish heritage. She theorizes that many well-intentioned parents end up feeling dissatisfied and/or inadequate because they lack meaningful perspective and purpose. What’s worse, our children may experience our love as both oppressive and conditional because we’re so obsessed with doing things “the right way” to help them get ahead in our mainstream 21st century culture.

It’s the whole trap of treating your kids like they’re your greatest achievement, as opposed to individuals you are blessed to know… and I fall into that trap. Constantly. So I tend to skim through Skinned Knee whenever I feel myself getting sucked into anxious, competitive parenting mode.

Religious practice is integral to the whole book, but Mogel’s final chapter deals specifically with “losing your fear of the G word and introducing your child to spirituality.” She frankly and fully addresses the ambivalence many of us feel regarding religious instruction. After all, we’re struggling with our own faith, trying to foster an adult perspective that may involve both paradox and doubt. We don’t want to “lie” to our kids, but nor do we want to bore or confuse them with our dogmatic musings.

Clearly, children’s religious needs differ greatly from our own. Mogel explains it well, inviting parents to introduce their children to God the same way they would to a new adult acquaintance. “Cousin Becky is a firefighter who really likes chocolate chip cookies,” I might tell my kiddos. I need to give them similarly concrete measures for what God does and what He appreciates.

Mogel elaborates: “The medium is the message. Emotions are evoked and memories etched not with brilliantly argued points of theology but through the senses. This is why religious rituals are designed explicitly to appeal to our senses… children’s delight in the world of the senses is always waiting to bubble out, so religious rituals have a natural and easy appeal for them” (255).

Rereading this chapter helped me focus my perspective. As much as lectionary readings speak to my syllabus-oriented soul, I’m not at a point in my life or my parenting where I can truly commit to organizing our spiritual practice around a specific weekly reading. So for now, I’ll focus home faith formation on (a) incorporating more regular prayer into our home life and (b) celebrating the different seasons of the liturgical church year.

You know, start small so we can experience some success.

What are your favorite parenting books? And what rituals do you enact at home to give your kids a sensory experience of God?