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April 24, 2009

The end of the day


Yesterday I got home from work before my husband. Odd. Usually this train-commuter is in his sweats, making headway on the crossword when I come up the stairs about 6:15. But he wasn’t home then or at 6:30 or 6:45. I called his cell and he answered—on the train.

“There’s been a fatality,” he said. “We don’t know when they’ll have the tracks cleared.”

He walked in about 7:30. The passengers hadn’t been told what had happened. Just that the police had finished. “How was it on the train all that time?” I asked, wondering how restless the home-bound workers had gotten. I often hear about the noise, yakking on cell phones. About general grumpiness.

Not last night, my husband reported. No talking. No complaints. Silence.

Was it an accident, a driver impatient to cross the tracks and get on with her evening who maneuvered around the lowered signal bars? Or a suicide, someone darting in front of the powerful engine long past the time when breaks could be applied? Both happen.

The first thing my husband looked for in the paper this morning was the 2-inch story that would tell us. Not there. So much news isn’t printed anymore as the pages in our daily paper get ever fewer and the staff of reporters ever smaller.

I suspect other riders were looking, too, to learn more. Maybe even a name. In their silence last night, they had held vigil, of sorts, for someone whose life had come to the end of the day.

And today, this first beautiful gift of Chicago spring with temperatures in the 70s, there are family and friends sorrowing. There is no way to let them know, but the commuters last night cared.

God’s peace to all.

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March 20, 2009

Miracle at 6:44 a.m.


That’s the precise time of the vernal equinox occurred here in Chicago: Spring!

True, the temperatures are still in the 30s. But the sun is bright in the morning’s blue sky. The tree branches, the smallest ones, are thickened and dark red with promise of new leaf. And the first robin of the season has predictably perched on the edge of my office cube. (It’s a Beanie Baby named Early “born” March 20, 1997, at the height of that particular stuffed-animal craze, but a gift from a friend who shares my eagerness for spring.)

We’re taught in Sunday school that the rainbow is God’s sign of promise for care of us and all creation. And it’s such a popular symbol, starting right away with the crayon set. I admit when a real one appears, it’s always amazing, astonishing, powerful. Unexpected.

Spring isn’t like that. It’s so subtle it’s sometimes disguised in late snowflakes. But it is predictable. Anticipated. Expected. And that makes it a sign, too, of God’s promise for care of us and all creation.

The question is, do we participate in this care? There are signs. I read a story yesterday about a pastor in Gaithersburg, Md., who is leading her congregation, Prince of Peace Lutheran Church , in a “carbon fast” this Lent to call attention to environmental stewardship. A week after Easter, on Earth Day, the congregation will break ground for their garden where they’ll grow vegetables for a food pantry and their own use, too. “The fast is to prepare” for the garden, Pastor Sarah Scherschligt said. “More important than preparing the soil of the ground is preparing the soil of your heart.”

Spring. That’s actually what the Middle English word “Lent” means. I remember being surprised when I first learned this years ago. How ordinary. How understandable for God’s people who count on the promise of new life and who are called to prepare soil and soul.

Psalm 51:10 is my song of spring, my prayer for Lent: “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.”

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February 27, 2009

Leaning into Lent

In the flurry of predictable, if not obligatory, articles about the start of Lent that appeared in newspapers this week was one that intrigued because it paired the traditional “giving up” practiced by Christians with the required “giving up” that our contracting economy has forced upon many Americans.

Adrianne Meier, vicar at Augustana Lutheran Church in Hobart, Ind., told the Post-Tribune that “...as people think about what they want to give up, they are thinking about what’s most important.” Excesses tend to stuff us—whether it’s too much cake or too many swipes with our credit card. And such indulging leaves us feeling fat.

But if not having enough to indulge pushes us past thinking about “giving up” to considering what’s core, what’s most important, then this already lean Lenten season may become one of real discovery.

How about you? In giving up, are you finding what’s most important?

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February 13, 2009

No church for Lincoln


Yesterday was Abraham Lincoln's 200the birthday, which got some press here in Illinois—mainly in the newspaper book section, as several historians makred the occasion with new tomes.

I read one of these Sunday, a review of Adam Gopnik's Angels and Ages, tracing the parallel lives of Lincoln and Charles Darwin who both were born Feb. 12, 1809. I was stopped in my perusal by this paragraph, a quote from Lincoln when he was attacked—in 1846 while running for Congress—for being a heathen:

"That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures: and I have never spoke with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular."

That was it. End of public discussion. Now compare this with the seemingly endless inquiries into the faith life and congregational affiliations of candidates for public office in the 2008 election. Makes me ask, Could Lincoln have been elected President in 2008?

It's all just a bit ironic to me, remembering my public grade-school days here in Illinois in the 1950s. We gave a nod to George Washington as "Father of Our Country," but it was Lincoln we loved. We carefully cut his craggy silhouette out of black construction paper and memorized the Gettysburg Address. We lived in the "Land of Lincoln" and were proud of it. He was our patriot. Our saint. But we never questioned his faith.

 

 

 

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February 6, 2009

'A man of Lutheran virtues'


That’s how Garrison Keillor described John Updike Wednesday in a column about the novelist who died last week. Read it all, but first guess just what Keillor—whose business, you could say, is built on knowing Lutheran virtues—listed.

OK, here’s Keillor’s list: “cheerful, hardworking, self-deprecating, ever grateful for opportunity.” Whether or not you know Updike and his books, do you think Keillor has it right with this summary of “Lutheran virtues?”
Would you add, or drop, something?

I’m remembering others who, like Keillor, describe themselves as appreciators of Updike and, particularly, as a man of faith. Stephen Paulson, writing our Easter feature in 2001 , takes off from a poem Updike wrote 41 years earlier, beginning his article on the Resurrection: “Leave it to John Updike to teach us something true about flesh—and the limits of his craft. In Seven Stanzas at Easter, he nearly leaves writing altogether to mount the pulpit and declare Jesus Christ’s victory over death.”

And Norman D. Kretzmann , Updike’s pastor who remembered that the writer told him he’d joined Clifton Lutheran Church in Marblehead, Mass., because it “nurtured the roots of faith he had grown up with in Pennsylvania.” It was at that church that Updike entered Seven Stanzas... in the congregation’s Religious Arts Festival and won the $100 top prize, which he donated back to the congregation. Sounds like something a “man of Lutheran virtues" would do, don’t you think.

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February 5, 2009

The path to healing


The February 2009 issue of The Lutheran has an essay titled "The calling of caregiving" by Lois D. Knutson, an ELCA pastor serving as a chaplain at a retirement community. She begins the article by telling how she became involved with her mother, first attending medical appointments, then running errands together, and generally becoming more involved in her mother’s life. This, Knutson says, is a common story among families with aging loved ones, even when they choose or need to enter a retirement community or nursing home.

The article cites information from the National Family Caregivers Association, such as that 59 percent of the adult population in America are caregivers or anticipate being family caregivers in the near future. Nearly two-thirds of Americans under age 60 think they will be responsible for elder care in the next ten years. Five million of these caregivers do so from long distance, such as out of state.

The thrust of the message is that caregiving is a spiritual calling in her view. She suggests that the perspective one has as a care giver makes a huge difference, and that seeing her helping her mother as a spiritual calling let her see the bigger picture.

Continue this column from the Isanti Cambridge Star, which Munday, an ELCA Church Council member writes with his wife, Fran Wohlenhaus-Munday.

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August 15, 2008

One minute more

It was a long flight from Minneapolis to Chicago...took a tour of the runways in before we took off as we were re-routed for the flight pattern. Clock time, 30 minutes—give or take a few. Worry time, lots more for the folks who were counting precisely, as they were connecting (or hoping to) with planes headed elsewhere. Folks were tired. Cranky. Anxious.

And our 757 was packed. And it was late afternoon on a Thursday, the work warriors headed back after meetings out-of-town. Count me among them. (Though I was energized by the first-ever gathering of ELCA teaching theologians and “big church” pastors held at Central Lutheran Church that effectively demolished stereotypes and suspicions as the 100+ who came together talked and worshiped and learned from one another.)

We’d talked, just that morning, about the surprising ways God has of breaking in to ordinary days, working in people to bring moments of grace to our days.

And then, as we landed, a flight attendant spoke over the intercom: “We have passengers on this plane with very tight connections, some to international flights,” she said. “We’d appreciate it if you would stay in your seats to let them off first.”

And she added, encouragingly, “Hopefully, someone will do this for you someday. Thank you.”

No buzz among the passengers, as we taxied in and then waited, again, for a gate.

When the plane did stop, the usual rush of cell phones flipping open and overhead bin doors popping up started up. And then: People stopped in place. Everybody seemed to remember the flight attendant’s plea and stood back, allowing the rather frantic stream to try for those connections. I was on the aisle. “Where to?” I asked as they passed. “Munich.” “San Francisco.” “London.” Even just “South Bend, but it’s the last flight out.”

Don’t know, of course, how many plopped into the seats that were taking them to their destinations. But whether they did or not, they all did know that their fellow passengers—strangers all—gave their own best, their time, at the end of a long day to give them their best chance. Did they see that as a moment of grace? I hope so. I did.

How about you? When did you last glimpse such an in-breaking of care in our hurried days? A few years ago it was popular to call such deeds “random acts of kindness.” But I think such particular and specific acts of kindness are just as significant. And surely markers of the Spirit among us.

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July 25, 2008

The Next Big Thing

It’s happening right now in Los Angeles: Jeff Favre , contributing editor to The Lutheran is seeing his first full-length play, The Next Big Thing staged at the Art/Works Theatre in Hollywood. Readers of the magazine will recognize Jeff’s name from his by-line on the insightful and delightful profiles he produces most months on our Faces page. He regularly has done other reporting and writing from his LA base since he left our Chicago office in 1999 to pursue his dream of writing for the stage.

You can take a sneak peek at the show and read about it , too. It sounds like great fun—a “garage band musical” set his 1983, when Jeff was a student at Evanston Township High School. But I’m confident it will be more than just fun because I know Jeff who is, indeed, marvelous fun but much more. Here’s what he told a reporter doing an advance piece: “The core of the show is the relationship between mother and son. I didn’t want to make a cliched show about an 18-year-old, but I did want to tap into that feeling most of us had in high school where we think we know better, be we don’t really know better. That’s what I want to get across.”

Me, I’m hopping a jet plane with another staff member in the morning to see the play. And if you’re in the LA area, you might want to do the same. It continues through August 16.

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July 18, 2008

Dive in the pool?

How about it—are you in a car pool this summer? Or swimming alone in streams of traffic and paying $4.29 a gallon for gas, which is the lowest price I saw this morning on my solo commute of 11 miles to the office from my home.

At breakfast, I’d read a story on the front page of The Chicago Tribune highlighting the van pool program offered by our regional transportation group. This matching service for commuters who don’t know each other but whose homes and offices are both close enough to make ride together make sense is at all-time high with 706 vans. But I’ll bet I passed that may autos on my drive. And just a handful had two people in them.

The fellow who runs a free, national carpooling web site, eRideShare.com , reported a tripling of hits, to 2,500 a day, in the last few months. But how many pick-ups does that actually result in?

If I sound skeptical, it’s because I am. I fear I agree with Alan Pisarki, who’s written for the Transportation Research Board : “We’re not going to see any renaissance in carpooling. The probabilities work against people. As much as they might like to do it, they decide it’s just not realistic.”

That pretty much sums up my situation: No one else in my neighborhood works at the Lutheran Center. I admit I haven’t checked eRideShare.com to see about the “neighborhood” of the Lutheran Center for possible matches. Yet I consider myself committed to reducing both pollution and use of gas—for all the reasons we know are crucial, as well as curbing costs. I seem stuck in traffic on this issue.

How about it—what are you doing? And why?

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April 18, 2008

Dig in

“Celebrate” seems to be the verb most paired with Earth Day observances. And I’m going to be doing that myself tomorrow when I take my volunteer shift at Ten Thousand Villages and help out with the store’s festivities including demonstrations by a master gardener and by an artisan skilled in coiling old newspapers into useful household objects. Events from concerts to park clean-ups are planned all over everywhere this weekend, leading up to the actual Earth Day, which is Tuesday, April 22, a work day for most of us.

But I’m thinking the real way to observe Earth Day is precisely by working, by digging in and doing the hard stuff to protect and to renew the environment—best as we can, and simply to halt further degradation.

Our May issue will be in homes soon and on-line next week, with cover stories on the environment. In writing the headline for one piece, I learned a lesson from author, H. Paul Santmire , an ELCA pastor who helped write the 1993 social statement, Caring for Creation. I’d titled his piece, “Our garden planet.”

He shot back, “No, it’s not ours, it’s God’s.”

Of course. I’d knew that, growing up singing and loving the hymn “This Is My Father’s World”...especially the lines, “I rest me in the thought of rocks and trees, of skies and seas; his hand the wonders wrought.” Of course the language is sexist, but turning to Evangelical Lutheran Worship #824, I found that the text was written in the 19th century by Maltbie D. Babcock. Who?

A Quaker religious leader, I learned, courtesy of a quick Google search. I like this man. Here’s a quote from him included in Quaker Spirituality (Paulist Press 1984): “Jesus promised those who would follow his leadings only three things: that they should be absurdly happy, entirely fearless, and always in trouble.” Sounds like someone eager and willing to dig in.

If you’re ready to dig in, too, a good place to start is with our cover stories because they begin at the beginning, with the biblical grounding that gives insight and energy to make needed changes. Two of them, Larry Rasmussen and Jim Martin-Schramm, also will be offering a workshop in June in Santa Fe, N.M., “The Power to Change: Energy and How We Live.”

Earth Day, of course, didn’t just happen. It was created in 1970 from hard work by one man: Gaylord Nelson, then a U.S. senator from Wisconsin who after losing his seat in 1980 became a counselor for The Wilderness Society. In 1995 he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of his environmental work. You can learn more about his life’s work in The Man from Clear Lake: Earth Day Founder Senator Gaylord Nelson (University of Wisconsin Press, 2004).

According to his obituary in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (July 4, 2005), Nelson’s idea for Earth Day grew out of reading a magazine article about the teach-ins happening on college campuses in the late 1960s: “I suddenly said to myself, ‘Why not have a nationwide teach-in on the environment.?’ ”

Why not, indeed? Check out the earthdaynetwork for a lifetime of assignments.

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March 28, 2008

'Don't Push Send'

Much of the work of singer/songwriter Carrie Newcomer explores the human and spiritual condition, revealing sensibilities of her Quaker faith. That’s part of what makes her popular in the contemporary Christian music genre, as well as with traditional folk enthusiasts. And it’s why our office received her 2008 album, The Geography of Light. It’s folk, blues, jazz. It’s soul-searching...especially the first track, “There Is a Tree,” And he last track is just plain funny...and true, so true.

It made me smile last night as I drove home through yet another slushy spring snowstorm. “Don’t Push Send,” Newcomer warns in an earthy voice that explores many of the “perils of instant gratification” that can ensue when you e-mail — impulsively, in the heat of emotion, or in auto mode, in the absence of attention to just what name is in the “To” line. She sings through a series of unfortunate situations in which people realize just a moment too late that “there’s things you can never quite amend” after you push send on an e-mail.

What fun, I thought, on this weekend leading up to April Fool’s Day to offer a little on-line opportunity for our blog readers to offer up remembrances of times when then pushed send...and wished they hadn’t.

So this morning I went to Newcomer’s web site, only to see that she already has a little conversation going on the subject. Check it out... Or you might want to confess right here.

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March 14, 2008

E-gratitude

Technology and theology mix in a wonderful way every day when God Pause pops up in my e-mail. I’m a subscriber to these daily devotions based on a specific passage of Scripture—a collaboration between Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minn., and Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, Calif.

Many weeks, I’m introduced to a new professor, pastor or other writer. Every so often, the contributor is someone whose work I know. That’s been the case this week, as Herbert Anderson has offered his insights. Herb has written for The Lutheran over the years, and I always learn so much—head, heart and soul—when I work with his work. That’s certainly been true for me again this week as I’ve been refreshed in the middle of the day when I’ve opened God Pause.

A retired ELCA pastor, Herb is a visiting faculty member at PLTS where he is research professor in practical theology at PLTS. An idea in his devotion for yesterday, March 13, shows just how “practical” his theology is. Taking a clue from how Paul opens his letter to the Phillippians— “I thank my God every time I remember you,...”—Herb floats the idea that it could be a model for communication today, on the Internet.

“Imagine,” he suggests, “receiving 12 e-mails in one day, all of which began with the writer giving thanks for remembering you. Imagine sending e-mails to 12 friends giving thanks for their friendship and the joy they have brought to you life.”

Imagine...and hit “send.”

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February 29, 2008

Our (extra) gray day

We in Chicago have had quite enough of winter, so waking up on this Feb. 29 to find more snow, more gray skies, more dank water filling perilous pot holes was a bummer. Enough! What a waste of our extra day, I gloomed to myself, on my drive to work as I maneuvered around those too-familiar pot holes and observed earnest, if weary, folk lifting shovels or steering snowblowers yet again.

Last Sunday a friend at church mused, “Why didn’t they add the extra day to June?” Who wouldn’t enjoy one more day of summer? Or even one at the end of November, when we sure could use the time as we’re already behind with our Christmas to-do lists?

But now is when we’ve got those extra 24 hours. So we might as well enjoy them.

Here’s how: First, visit Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac, which opens with a poem he chooses and includes daily musings. If you like it, as much as I do, you can have it delivered as an e-newsletter. Today’s fare begins with a stunning poem by W.H. Auden, "As I Walked Out One Evening," that addresses the preciousness of our every day, and it includes a wry history of the origins of Leap Day—some of which we’re all heard but not this, I’ll bet: “When Great Britain finally accepted the Gregorian calendar in 1751, 11 days had to be deleted from the year. The change led to antipapal riots, because people believed the pope had shortened their lives.”

Next, for further attitude adjustment to the winter blahs, read this prayer from Mary Jean Iron—one I love better than I live:

“Normal day, let me be aware of the treasure you are. Let me learn from you, love you, bless you before you depart. Let me not pass by in a quest of some rare and perfect tomorrow. Let me hold you while I may, for it may not always be so. One day I shall dig my nails into the earth, or bury my face in the pillow, or stretch myself taut, or raise my hands to the sky and want, more than all the world, your return.” (A Grateful Heart, ed. by M.J. Ryan, Conari Press, 1994.)

This gray day suddenly doesn’t feel so boring—to me, at least. Maybe for you, too?

And guess what, the sun just broke through.

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February 8, 2008

Cookies for sale

I’m waiting, perhaps too eagerly, for my annual March treat of Thin Mints. Like many of you, no doubt, I ordered my Girl Scout Cookies from a young friend in my congregation. She made the rounds during coffee hour, a rite of spring that dates back 80 years. Buying the cookies is an excuse to indulge ourselves and ignore thinking about calorie counts because we buy into the idea that the sales program is good training for the girls and supports needed programs. And some of us, me included, buy because we remember vividly how hard it was to go out, door-to-door, and sell.

This year we’re buying in at $4 a box.

After placing my order a week ago, I got to work Monday and opened an e-mail from my younger son (for whom I ordered several boxes) with a link to a story, Hungry Haitians Resort to Eating Dirt, that tells about quite a different kind of cookie sale. It seems that global price hikes in the cost of food combined with floods and crop damage from the 2007 hurricane season have left the poorest people who live in this poor nation with literally nothing to eat but dirt—which they do in what’s called mud cookies. It gives a whole new pathos to the term “dirt poor.”

Here’s the recipe for the mud cookies: Mix dirt and water, strain out rocks. Stir in shortening and salt. Pat into rounds and leave in the sun to bake. They’re sold at the markets or in the streets, for 5 cents apiece.

Doctors worry that people who depend on the cookies for sustenance risk malnutrition and infection, from parasites or toxins.

Thin Mints for some. Mud cookies for others. It 's a stark way to see the difference between the Haves and the Have Nots. What to do? Well, I didn’t cancel my order with the Girl Scout: The cookie sales do contribute to programs that help lots of girls in our communities.

But I did check to see what our church is doing to help the situation in Haiti that has led to such dire conditions. The Lutheran World Federation is involved in community development and promoting human rights. And, of course, ELCA World Hunger provides support. So here’s my math: I bought six boxes of Girls Scout cookies, that’s $24. Doubling that is an extra donation of $48 to World Hunger. It’s a small bite out of the horrific hunger that’s the daily fare of the poor.

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January 25, 2008

'Green' grandmas

Deep in a discussion about the environment with friends recently—specifically, how much we’d be willing to change our daily habits—one observed that if we just ran our homes like our grandmothers did, we’d all be making big improvements. Now, these women are of an age that our grandmothers kept house during the Depression. Here’s some of what we recall:

•Turning plastic bread bags inside out and washing them for future storage.
•Using string bags for shopping.
•Saving jelly glasses for use as juice glasses.
•Fusing slices of almost-gone soap bars together.
•Washing aluminum foil and reusing, reusing, reusing.

So it’s no surprise that my eye was caught by an essay in last Sunday’s Chicago Tribune, "A post-Depression environmentalist.” This tribute to his mother, who died recently, by Martin Fischer included a remembrance of “her darning our socks, a repair-and-reuse process for hosiery that she would maintain until failing eyesight made it too difficult.” And I saw again my grandmother sitting with her darning egg (a wooden tool with an oval on top a handle) making finely woven patches on the heels of our socks. I wonder what happened to that tool?

I think many of us would recognize our mothers and grandmas in Fischer’s observation: “My mother did not participate in the city’s recycling program. She did not think of herself as an evironmentalist. But her thrifty lifestyle could be praised and emulated by those of us who now worry about the excessive consumption that has been linked to global warming.”

Now, I’m not about to head to a flea market in search of a darning egg, but I think I will take another look at the Web of Creation, an on-line resource for our day that offers inspiring and practical ideas to support our “efforts to live, work and pray in ways that promote eco-justice.” It’s the creation of ELCA pastor David Rhoads, professor of New Testament at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago.

I’m a grandma now, myself, so it’s certainly my responsibility to carry on “being green”—easy, or not.

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January 24, 2008

Pennsylvania: Autopsy today for church shooting victim

State police investigating the fatal shooting of Rhonda Smith, 42, yesterday at Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church, Bucks County, called the incident "suspicious"—but have not said whether the shooting was self-infliced or a homicide. An autopsy is being performed today.

Meanwhile, 80 mourners gathered at the church earlier today to pray and to grieve the woman who was volunteering as receptionist while the pastor, Gregory Shreaves, was attending a retreat.

The Philadelphia Inquirer reported from the service:

"Perhaps you are here because you are frightened or scared of shocked or because you can't believe violence came to our country community," Shreaves said.

He described Smith as a daughter, sister and aunt whose brother is currently returning from Afghanistan.

"We are not here today to speculate about what might have happened in this tragedy," he said, calling on everyone at the prayer vigil to allow the police to continue their investigation."

For the full story, see Shock, grief over fatal Bucks church shooting.

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December 14, 2007

The problem with poinsettias

It isn’t that they’re poisonous.

That long-held belief that had us all carefully placing these plants that say “Christmas” out of the reach of children and pets, fearing that they’d be tempted to sample one of the bright leaves long considered toxic. But the National Capital Poison Center in Washington, D.C. , says that’s a myth.

Not to worry.

Except—it turns out that their proliferation in holiday use throughout our country, in homes and malls and churches, some 60 million projected to be sold at a cost of $220 million this Christmas season, may be toxic in a more serious way. The Chicago Tribune ran a story in its Perspective section that pointed out the enormous cost to the environment of growing these plants that are native to Mexico. They need heat: They can’t survive below 55 degrees. But not too much heat. So the growers use natural gas to warm their greenhouses and fans to cool them. Poinsettias guzzle fossil fuels, when grown outside their comfort zone.

We don’t think about that, of course. But perhaps we should. Can you picture a Christmas without poinsettias? Can you think about giving up a tradition, a way of life...once we realize the impact on the environment?

I’ve clipped the Trib article and will share it with my congregation’s altar guild. But I also wrote out my check for $11 to buy one to decorate our sanctuary this Christmas. And I checked the box indicating it is being given “to the Glory of God.” But I wonder.

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November 30, 2007

New Year's readings

So, have you decided what you’ll start reading on Sunday?

Maybe you think the question is about a month early: You haven’t even opened your Christmas presents, so how can you start your New Year’s reading?

I’m talking, of course, about the other “New Year,” which we know better as Advent. It is the time when Christians, from the ancient days on, have heard the call to prepare themselves for the coming of the Messiah. And that means learning from the Lord to “walk in his paths” (Isaiah 2: 3) ...not rushing through the decked halls of the malls.

But don’t think that last comment means I’m going to join the chorus of those lamenting the secularization of Christmas. I’m not. We’ve got a choice, you see. No one can take Christ out of Christmas, or keep in except us. And I’ve learned that the best way for me to “walk in his paths” during the dark December days is simply to make time for Advent devotions.

Several good options sit on my desk this afternoon. One provides brief reflections on biblical texts for each day, written by faculty from Luther Seminary and Pacific Lutheran Seminary . It’s called “Awake! Awake, and Greet the New Morn,” the title of an Advent hymn by Marty Haugen. It’s offered as a gift, with large-print copies also available (1-888-358-8437). Another small booklet is “Advent Profiles” by John Gugel, a retired ELCA pastor and frequent contributor to The Lutheran. His day-by-day meditation considers the various historical figures involved in the coming of the Messiah. It is published by Creative Communications for the Parish .

And Paraclete Press has published a beautiful, beautiful book of essays on the daily Scripture readings by leading theological thinkers and spiritual teachers—Scott Cairns, Emilie Griffin, Richard John Neuhaus, Kathleen Norris, Eugene Paterson and Luci Shaw—called God With Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas. It’s illustrated with classic art work from Rembrant and da Vinci to Gauguin and Chagall. I’ve not been able to not browse through these pages.

I return, though, to the essay before the daily devotions start in which Beth Bevis raises and answers the question: “What does it mean to ‘live the church year?’ ”

It means, briefly, that “The eternal is aligned with the here and now,” she writes. That is good to remember for every New Year.

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November 9, 2007

From twenty six pillars, everything

Two weeks ago I was in northern Minnesota—enjoying an incredible weekend built on books. It was a gathering of 14 women from several states who traveled to a lodge outside the small town of Malmo for a “reading retreat” organized by BookWomen, through the Minnesota Women’s Press . We settled in a circle of mismatched and mostly comfortable chairs in front of a soaring, and roaring, fireplace made of local rock for three days of discussions about the five books we’d read before arriving. We pondered how each advanced the theme for the weekend, “The Republic of the Imagination.”

And we ventured out for a drive on a brilliant blue morning to visit one of the Carnegie libraries, built early in the 20th century in Aiken. Glenda Martin, BookWomen retreat leader, knew that many people in Aiken had protested when a plan proposed tearing down the small, yellow-brick building for a parking lot. A handsome and considerably larger new library had been built several blocks away. But those who held “their” original library in esteem prevailed. Today’s it’s been remodeled according to national historical register regulations and is living a second life as an art center, named for Francis Lee Jacques who lived in Aiken early in his life and went on to a career as a nationally renowned painter of wildlife.

We went to pay homage. It was particularly appropriate that the current exhibit was on centered on words, a display of calligraphy. I admired many of the works, for the style and the skill. But the one that captured by imagination was a quote by Olof Lagercrantz who I have since found out was a 20th center Swedish writer, critic and literary scholar.

Here it is, the most wondrous definition of the alphabet I’ve ever come across: “Twenty six pillars of strength upon which our culture rests.”

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October 19, 2007

Losing the race

Other scientists sprinted into action following the published report of the comment made by a famed colleague—pioneering geneticist James Watson, who won the Nobel Prize 45 years ago for his work on DNA. It was front-page news in today’s Chicago Tribune. Watson’s peers rushed to refute his comment, quoted in a British newspaper, that it is wrong to assume the intelligence of Africans is “the same as ours.” They also canceled speaking engagements and suspended him from the very laboratory he once directed.

The 79-year-old hurried to apologize, too, saying, “I cannot understand how I could have said what I am quoted as having said.”

It’s hard to know what really has happened—except that great damage has been done. To more people that we can guess, including, of course, Watson himself.

What’s most troubling is what’s still to come. Rick Kittles, genetic medicine professor at the University of Chicago and director of African Ancestry Inc., says it well: “...when a Nobel laureate says Africans are less intelligent than Europeans, the average person on the street runs with it. That’s the sad part.”

And we risk losing the race to end racism.

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