Tuesday, February 28, 2012

No, Not a Leap Year Baby

My wife's birthday is today, February 28th....

Were you thinking, "Almost a Leap Year baby!" If so, gotcha!

This is a running joke in our family. Beth was not born during a Leap Year, but SO many people say that about her birthday. And yet when we tell them that she wasn't born during a Leap Year, they look at us uncomprehendingly.

This is not difficult. This is not a Zen koan where, if you asked me "What is Truth" and I could respond, "Go wash your bowls." The only change you have being a leap year baby is if you were born during a leap year! And yet everyone who says "Almost a Leap Year baby!" are sincerely impressed that Beth missed by one day being born on February 29th.

Interestingly, if her birthday had been March 1, I'll bet you that NO ONE would ever say "Almost a Leap Year baby!"

But this year is actually a leap year---and Wednesday is the big day!  I think I've only met one person who was born on February 29. He seemed to have fun with it. Upon turning 72, he said that now he was 18 and could vote, but he'd have to wait twelve more years till he could drink... 

Part of all this is the way cliches and expressions get lodged into people's thinking. I used to read articles where the author would say something like "It's only X-number of years till 1984," as if, because of Orwell's novel, that year was set in stone as the year totalitarianism would become the norm. "Fifteen minutes of fame" is another cliche routinely used by media writers; you'd swear that someone has a stop watch and is counting how many minutes certain people are occupying within the public's attention.

Church-growth discussions get cliche-ridden sometimes. "Core constituencies," "vital congregations," "the mission field," "the seven-day-a-week church," "changing the way we think about 'church'": phrases and sayings like these can become signs that pastors and lay leaders are impressed with trends. But awareness of trends needs to be combined with serious, unsentimental thinking about the specific congregation's health, strengths, and weaknesses.

Speaking of churches: Was it the play Greater Tuna that featured a funeral sermon laced with cliches? So funny! 

We don't have special plans for Beth's birthday but we'll probably go out to eat this coming weekend, and I'll have a treat ready when she gets home from work. I already have her gifts, of course. Just for the heck of it, we might extend her birthday celebration into Wednesday. Her birthday, after all, makes so many folks mindful of February 29th.   

Sunday, February 26, 2012

"Faithful Citizen" Curriculum Now Available

The Center for the Congregation in Public Life has designed the curriculum "Faithful Citizen" for church groups interested in current global issues and biblical teachings about covenant and ministry.  Check out the information on these lessons, which include an interview with Robert Bellah and also relevant film clips! http://www.faithfulcitizenstudy.com

Reflections on Psalm 121

For the past couple years, I've had a little side project, taking notes about Psalm 121, an ol' favorite among the psalms.  I decided to post some thoughts about the psalm, beginning with this one: http://changingbibles.blogspot.com/2012/01/psalm-1211-i-lift-my-eyes-to-hills.html  All eight verses are now posted. Although Psalm 121 isn't specifically Lenten, its confidence about God's guidance can supplement other aspects of our Lenten journey.

Cindy Sherman at the MoMA

Last spring I tagged along on my wife's business trip to Manhattan.  I walked over to the MoMA and enjoyed the exhibit on the abstract expressionists.  Beth can't attend a similar meeting this spring, so I'll miss the Cindy Sherman photographs discussed in this article: http://www.economist.com/node/21548143?fsrc=scn/tw/te/ar/mistressofselfeffacement Years ago, struggling with the culture shock of moving from the east coast to a very rural part of Illinois, I enjoyed purchasing art magazines at the nearest book store (a half-hour away), and one was an Art in America feature on Sherman and her self-portraits which are not, in fact, about her own self.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday services include the words, "Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return." You'd think that we wouldn't have to be reminded to remember death; we're reminded daily of death's inevitability and unpredictability. Our evening news almost always has at least one story of a shooting or a fatal automobile accident. Also, we all have lost loved ones whose absence is difficult.

But we never get "used" to death the way we get used to other things. I suppose we only get used to death as we see it certain kinds of movies and shows. Any horror or action movie contain “death tropes.” For instance, the first death will likely be a character with whom you’ve built no special sympathy. The dead person is the murder victim at the beginning of the mystery, or someone foolish enough to walk into that forbidden door, or the secondary character who is in the wrong place at the wrong time. When stories include a sympathetic character who dies early (Janet Leigh in Psycho) or when a sympathetic character dies at all (Cordelia in King Lear, Caitlin on the show NCIS), the effect is jarring.

We also introduce “tropes” in our interpretation of news stories. Who died in shootings today? No one with whom I’ve even a casual relationship. Where did the shooting happen? Not in my neighborhood. A hurricane strikes, a plane crashes: but where did it happen? Many times we'll worry about a disaster that involves people in our own country; some overseas crises become major news, but not always.

Though we never get "used" to death and its universality, sometimes the disaster is such that it awakens us to a kind of common expression of concern and humanity. One thinks of the Fort Hood shootings in 2009, and the 2011 shootings in Tucson which temporarily inspired national soul-searching about ugly political rhetoric.  Disasters in Haiti and Japan caused people to respond compassionately. Obviously 9/11 was a tremendous example of solidarity amid tragedy and shock.

Ash Wednesday---when we ponder death's inevitability through liturgy, prayers, devotional readings, or the use of ashes---can be a time of common humanity and concern for one another. We're not just asked to "remember death" privately, but to remember it among other people who are also seeking God who is alive, greater than life and death, and the source of our hope.

In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being (Job. 12:10).

If he should take back his spirit to himself, and gather to himself his breath, all flesh would perish together, and all mortals return to dust (Job 34:14-15).

For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light (Ps. 36:9).

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Is This My Job?

Browsing an antique mall a while back, I spotted several “FIGMO Charts” for sale among military items. “FIGMO,” if you don’t already know, is an acronym for, “F*** it, got my orders.” The chart is for short-timers, who can count the days till the end of their tour in Vietnam by removing stick-on numbers that cover the pretty lady's body. Predictably, the last three numbers are reserved for the lady’s most private parts. I didn’t purchase a chart, but I photographed one in case I could use it to illustrate a blog post someday....

That expression captures the frustration of work and duties when one’s time is running out. (For the rest of this post, I’m talking about civilian rather than military settings.) I think of the famous "parable of the talents" (Matt. 25:14-20), where the harsh master praises the initiative of the busiest servant and gives him more responsibilities. Depending on the circumstance, hard work does get you noticed and recognized. On the other hand, a person needs to be discerning: is this job really your responsibility? Should someone else be stepping up, too? Are you taking on more work than you can accomplish well?

I know a person who felt unappreciated and discouraged as time ran out on a difficult position, but the person tried to keep a good attitude and to keep involved in duties, to have integrity and character as a good worker.  On the other hand, you might be the kind of person who likes to pitch in and get things done----but if people know you’re a good worker, they may try to give you more work and then criticize your performance while they themselves are slacking off! Implied in the expression "FIGMO" is a sense of shared responsibility.

Similar dynamics happen in other settings like churches, too. You may not have “orders” that take you away, but you do feel like saying “Forget it” if your church is rounding up the usual suspects for certain programs. And sometimes, it’s just an acquaintance who hasn’t planned well and now bosses you to help.  I'm not as agreeable as I used to be to pitch in and help, because I know how good will can backfire.

You do need wisdom and firmness, so you don’t feel taken advantage of or taken for granted in different situations---and yet know that, overall, you’re striving for your best.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Gay Marriage Struggle within the UMC

In my 5/14/2011 post, I discussed the Presbyterian Church's vote to ordain gay persons, and I showed ways to support gay ordination biblically. Yesterday's NYTimes had this article about the struggle within my own denomination concerning gay marriage.


Sunday, February 19, 2012

Our Lenten Short Menu

This morning a Facebook friend posted this nice little piece about the barren places of Lent. The author comments that we Americans aren't big on fasting, and that "we choose our Lenten sacrifices from a very short menu." I admit I seldom bother with "giving up something," because of that very thing: do I think I'm such an amazing Christian, giving up desserts till Easter? For Lent, I double-up on my devotional reading. But this piece reminds us how life thrives in the most empty places, which is difficult for us to remember amid our abundance.


Saturday, February 18, 2012

Second and Third Parties

Every once in a while, as time allows, I’ve written a few news summaries for this blog, pertaining to current issues in politics and economics. One of my favorite writers, Thomas Friedman, had two interesting columns recently.  His NYT column last week discusses our need for “a second party,” that is, a Republican party less hardened on the right and more traditionally conservative: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/12/opinion/sunday/friedman-we-need-a-second-party.html?smid=tw-NYTimesFriedman&seid=auto

The other column, in this weekend’s NYT, also addresses the kind of political thinking that, amid “the circular firing squad” of the GOP debates, would provide potentially helpful options for the economy: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/02/19/opinion/sunday/friedman-a-third-voice-for-2012.html?_r=1&smid=tw-NYTimesFriedman&seid=auto