Monday, December 30, 2013

Five (Pretty Good) Reasons Not to Pray

Around this time of year, people think about New Year’s resolutions. Some of us even make them and some of us even keep them. There must have been many years when I resolved to pray more or to pray better or just to pray. I won’t embarrass myself by reporting the results of those promises in this post. Over time, however, I came up with a few magnificent excuses for not praying. Here are just a few.

    If I pray regularly for a while and then stop, God will be mad at me. Here I am attributing to God my very own prized pettiness. If someone invites me for lunch on several occasions and then omits to do so, I feel angry, hurt, rejected. Apparently, in my heart, I think God is as neurotic as I am.

   There are too many choices in praying. There’s the daily office; there’s contemplative prayer; there’s praying with Scripture; there is simply talking to God in my own words. Which one is best? God deserves the best. Here is an example of thinly disguised pride. Certainly someone like me, with my education and liturgical nous can only pray the best way.


   I might not pray properly. I spent twelve years in Catholic school and can clearly remember pictures of saints in rapturous prayer. Eyes cast heavenward, hands devoutly folded, kneeling upright, these men and women, and often boys and girls, were clearly in a religious transport of which I knew myself to be incapable. Better get a bit holier and then pray. As Paul tells us and as I have quoted on this blog before, “We do not know how to pray as we ought…” Of course I won’t pray properly. No one will. It matters not to God.

    I should save my praying for when I felt deeply moved to do so. Surely the best prayers came from deep feelings, great need or profound understanding. If I pray on a regular basis, even when I’m not “feeling it,” I might use up my prayer energy and then not have it when I need it or when my state of holiness requires it.  This notion that there is just so much religion that a person is allotted has plagued me for many years. I know it’s wrong, but I’ve had trouble shaking it. It is a basic denial of God’s boundless love.


    If I pray and find myself going deeply into prayer, I might not find my way out.  This is my prayer-as-addiction fear and it is one that troubles me deeply. In part it is based on pride, that I am capable of some sort of profound prayer. Worse than this is the fear that prayer might change me. Yes, prayer is supposed to change us. That’s what it’s for. But am I so attached to my idea of myself that even a change wrought by God is frightening and to be avoided? It’s this inability to surrender to God that is probably my greatest block in prayer. And in life.

So as we venture into the New Year, please pray for me as I will for you … that God who loves us more than we can imagine will light the fire of prayer in all our hearts so that we will pray possibly clumsily and probably infrequently but without fear.



Sunday, December 22, 2013

Sing Noel! Sing Noel! Sing Noel!

This close to Christmas, no one really wants to read anything, but I’m too structured a person to skip a week blogging, so here are three of my favorite Christmas carols for you to enjoy. I’m guessing that some might be new to you. Or maybe you haven’t heard them as often as you’d like. In any case, for your holiday pleasure, here they are:


The first selection is “A Virgin Unspotted”, sung by Chanticleer. This carol dates back to 1661 and I think you’ll find it very evocative of the theology of that time. Who wants to be redeemed “from death, hell and sin”? Me, that's who! If you're inclined at all, it's a polka. 



The second carol is “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree”. It is sung for you by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge. Try as I might I cannot find any satisfactory explanation of this carol and its exquisite text. It does speak of a very contemplative and tortured faith. Hence, I love it. Small boys singing “keep my dying faith alive”. Get your hankie ready.




Lastly, I offer Jackson Browne’s marvelous "Rebel Jesus". It’s very contemporary. It does not rest in a Reformation or counter-Reformation mind set. It certainly wasn't written or dreamed of by David or Solomon and I'm guessing it won’t be sung in any church any time soon. From the outside looking in, as it were, enjoy…


Monday, December 16, 2013

Lovely Lady Dressed in Blue



I admit it. I have issues with Mary, which is to say I have issues with how she has been portrayed, used, even exploited by “the church” over the millennia. Some of this misuse has been, in my opinion, accidental. The rest of it has been a convenience for the church to subjugate women.

Obviously, Jesus had to have a mother, and, even more obviously, his mother would be an important figure in Christianity. We do not meet Mary very often in Scripture. Luke, that old romantic, gives her a a lot of lines in the birth narrative, including her famous and song-filled visit to Elizabeth. John has her prompting Jesus’ first miracle at Canaan. 

Apart from that, she appears at the Temple where Simeon sings his great nunc dimitus and warns her of her coming sorrow. She is dismissed rather harshly by the pre-pubescent Jesus for worrying about his whereabouts. Then she is referred to parenthetically when Jesus makes his “Nazareth Manifesto” as N.T. Wright calls it, claiming that only those who do the will of God are his family. Then, of course, the faithful Mary appears at the cross watching her child be tortured to death.

From these brief appearances we derive the doctrine that she was a virgin (her whole life long if you ask Roman Catholics), sinless, mild, patient, faithful, and sorrowful. But then she is transformed into the glorified queen of heaven. We presume this glory and the sinlessness that prompts it from her role as the mother of God. There is something about Jesus’ having been made from her flesh that seems to require that Mary be a perfect human lest he be touched by or made from imperfection.

Her passive role in Scripture makes this conclusion easy. She does not quarrel as Peter does, she does  not doubt as does Thomas and she does not jockey for position as do James and John, nor does she grouse about work in the manner of Martha. The conclusion is that she is pure and sinless, preternaturally perfect.

To me this line of thought smacks of magical thinking. Theologians can talk themselves into all kinds of corners and, with Mary, I think they have tied their own hands and have muddled the thinking of generations of Christians, especially Christian women.

We can posit that Mary was the ideal mother because Jesus turned out so well. James, too if you’re Protestant, was exemplary, but her other children may or may not have been. Her marriage with Joseph was wonderful, we assume. But the fact is we just don’t know. 

Partly because of the meager attention she receives in Scripture and even more because the church has forced this ideal of sinless virginity and human perfection on her, we can never know the real Mary. 

Except that we can.

We know what marriage is. We know what giving birth and raising children is like. We know the dailiness of Mary’s life better than those Church fathers want to admit. I believe that their raising her up into glory was a means of dehumanizing her for the purpose of holding up an ideal of female perfection.

We know what it’s like to be young, alone, in trouble; we know what it is to be afraid, to love a spouse, to love a child and to lose the ones you love. Mary is the girl in the juvenile detention center who doesn't know what’s going to happen to her. She’s the girl in love with the football hero, the mother with the stroller and all the parcels spilling out of it. She’s the woman in the ER waiting to hear why her child can’t move her head. She’s me watching my son leave home. She’s me arguing with my daughter about smoking. She’s anyone of us watching our spouses grow old and weaken.

When I was a little girl growing up in the Church of Rome, I loved Mary. She was pretty, dressed in a lovely robe, approachable. I fancied she heard every word I said. Then suddenly, around 8th grade, she faded away. I knew I would disappoint her because I was not her kind of girl any more. Now I’m working my way back. We both love the same man, after all.


I invite you, reader, to make your way back to her acquaintance, too. She is as she has always been, a full-fledged human being given an extraordinary task which she, being full of grace, was just about equal to. She is our sister, our neighbor, our friend, maybe even our priest. We don’t need the church to define Mary. What there is in the New Testament is enough. Read those passages deeply. The Almighty has done great things to her. “They have no wine” she says. 

Monday, December 9, 2013

The True Self




When Shakespeare had Polonius say “to thine own self be true” he was not talking about the true self. He was talking about the made self that works best for you.  When we describe Horatio Alger as a self-made man, we are not talking about the making of his true self by himself.

The true self is not made by us. It is made by God.

Let’s back up. To be true to your self is to be authentic to the person that you have become, are becoming, want most to become. You want to be a kind person so you practice kindness. You strive to be honest so you make very sure to tell the truth at all times.

As a trivial example, a few years ago I decided to stop swearing. I have nothing against swearing and am often amused by it. But it didn’t feel like me. Just as wearing those chunky necklaces that were popular a few years ago didn’t feel like me. So I quit swearing and it has worked out well. I feel more like myself, less like someone adopting a behavior that doesn’t fit. But this has nothing to do with my true self. It is, rather, my shedding of part of a false self.

I used to think that my true self was simply me without my faults. Certainly, I was not created to be prideful, impatient, judgmental, but even if I were to somehow manage to rid myself of all my failings, escape from my false self, I would not, by doing so, see my true self.

Like everyone else, I was created by God. I am known by him both as a unique individual and as a part of collective humanity. Jesus was made man on this earth with the purpose of redeeming all of us, again both individually and collectively. Moreover, the Holy Spirit indwells in me just as in everyone else. I am known by the Holy Spirit, sanctified by the Holy Spirit as an individual and as part of collective humanity.

It is this created, redeemed and sanctified self that is my true self. This true self is what I have to seek and find and be in my life.

Of course we all live in a material world and we need to navigate it. We need items; we need activities, relationships. We have physical bodies that need care. I add all these things to my true self. I have a way of looking, dressing, speaking. I have things that I choose to do, people I choose to know.

All these additions can be “good” in every sense of the word. I can volunteer at a food shelf. I can be a helpful neighbor, a gentle mother or daughter. I can worship faithfully each Sunday, shop responsibly and spread the love of God wherever I go.

But none of these additions are my true self. Any of them can go away from me and I am still that created, redeemed, sanctified person that God knows and loves so well.
We have to distinguish what we do from what God does. Our additions are our own work. We need these additions, but we can’t think that any one of them is necessary to our union with God. This is good news because one day I might no longer be able to worship with my church community. I might lose my family, my importance in the world. In fact, ultimately, I will lose it - all of it. But I will still be my true created, redeemed and sanctified self.

The true self is you (or me) stripped bare of any additions, like a tree in winter. No ego. No hobbies. No accomplishments. Not even any good works. It relies on nothing but God. In creating us, God sent us off with the simple purpose of bringing us back home. Our truest happiness our deepest longing is for God. The work we do in this life to attain that union, and God’s work is to bring this about.

The true self is entirely dependent on God. This dependence, which is many magnitudes greater than any earthly dependence we might think we have, is a bit scary. But don’t be afraid. When all the additions go and there is nothing of our own doing left, the true self is there with God. 

Next week - Mary

Monday, December 2, 2013

Thy Kingdom Come



What does the word KINGDOM mean to you? To the American ear, is suggests either a fantasy or a promise. It is either a fairy tale realm, some relic of long ago or it is the heavenly kingdom we can expect when we die.

If LIFE, to a Christian, means more than mere physical existence, and DEATH means more than the end of that existence, let’s see if KINGDOM means more than heaven.

When I first read the Gospel in depth, I decided that Jesus was obsessed with the idea of “kingdom.” Again and again he talks about the kingdom. The kingdom of God this...the kingdom of God that...

I have observed seeds growing into great plants. I've seen the effect of yeast in dough and I have lost and then found money. But this kingdom that starts out small and grows, that affects everything it touches, that is so priceless that when it’s obtained everyone has to know….what kingdom might that be?

When Jesus says “the kingdom of God is at hand,”  which he says in all three synoptic Gospel accounts (Matt 3:2; Mark 1:15; Luke 10:9), he can’t be talking about a distant reward obtained upon death. Death is not "at hand," at least not for everyone at once. He is talking about the here and now. 

I’m not sure how many believing Christians see their religion primarily as a means of attaining heaven, but, if there is only one, then that’s one too many. The idea that we overcome sin, wash it away and attain some sort of perfection and then, in consequence, earn heaven is wrong. It’s more than wrong, it’s backwards. The kingdom itself is what changes us. As the character Book said in Firefly, "Faith fixes YOU." We can move with it or against it but we can’t block it. Living in the kingdom is what frees us from sin.

If we think about what Jesus did on earth, how he acted, we see that he was about the business of starting something. He went around alerting people to the coming of- the kingdom. He healed people, he cast out demons, he cleansed the temple, he broke rules, he challenged authority. He wasn't preparing us for heaven; he was training us for life.

Consider how the Beatitudes turn everything upside down. The poor in spirit are blessed as are the meek and those who mourn. This was not the order of the day in First Century Palestine with its ruling Roman class and its priestly elite. Purity was a ritual condition, purity of heart was some unknown abstraction – hippie talk.

Everything is different now. Old rules and old ways no longer apply. No more business as usual. It’s time for the kingdom. If anyone had any doubts, Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey to the praises of an ecstatic crowd. *

This kingdom that Jesus established 2,000 years ago is our destiny. It has begun through his life and deeds and it continues its growth through the actions of faithful people. I believe the church may have a role in it as well. Remember the promises in our Baptismal Covenant:

Will you continue in the Apostles’ teachings and fellowship, the breaking of the bread and the prayers?
Will you persevere in resisting evil and when you fall into sin repent and return to the Lord?
Will you proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ?
Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons loving your neighbor as yourself?
Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?

This covenant spells out the kingdom. What Jesus started in his ministry on earth we continue in a Christ filled life and God brings to fruition in his own time and in his own way. This idea is, for me, incredibly liberating. I am free to live as Christ lived. I am free to love as Christ loved. I have no need of sin, no need of possessions to make my life meaningful. My life is already meaningful. Yours is too.

The kingdom of God is at hand then. It has begun, not the way a presidency begins or a new job or even a new life.  God’s kingdom is scattered here and there. We get glimpses of it on lucky days. An act of kindness, a pretty melody, a friend turning to us for comfort might show us a bit of the kingdom. 

Late last summer, I took a walk through my neighborhood to a nearby park and around a lake. I decided to pretend that God’s kingdom had fully come. What would I see? How would things look? I was surprised. Here is what I saw:

The kingdom of God is a mail truck.
The kingdom of God is a cat hiding behind a bush.
The kingdom of God is an abandoned roller skate.
The kingdom of God is a woman cleaning out her garage.
The kingdom of God is a row of seven turtles sunning themselves on a log.
The kingdom of God is a picnic.
The kingdom of God is the grumpiest man in town fetching his mail.

Everything looked the same although it had a sweetness to it. It was holy. Is this how Jesus saw the world? Is this how he sees us?

I might have had a different experience walking through another neighborhood. What does Jesus see in poor neighborhoods, in wealthy enclaves, in war zones? I know he sees people to love, people who need him.

My friend Karen told me that she loves watching people just after they receive communion, the look on their faces, what they do with their hands, their shoulders. Let those who have eyes see.

If I am to take the kingdom seriously, as Karen apparently does, I need to see bits of it everywhere. I need to keep the message of Jesus in mind. I need to know that I am working for Jesus, to bring the kingdom upon us. Most of all, I need to believe that Jesus wasn't kidding when he said the kingdom of God is at hand. What is there to stop me from living this way? Not one thing.



*Some of my conclusions are informed by N.T. Wright’s Simply Jesus. It’s a wonderful book about our Lord’s time on earth and what it meant. You should read it.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

When LIFE is DEATH


In last week's post, I tried to find meaning in the way Jesus talked about life. I posited that the life we live as followers of Jesus is more than simple biological existence, even when that existence is at its material best. I also argued that this life that Jesus talked about is eternal life and that our promised eternal life has, in fact, already begun. We can glimpse this truth in some grace-filled moments. We should always be mindful that that we are living the true life, and, of course, we should live as if we knew it.

The corollary of LIFE is DEATH.

I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who believes in me will live and never die. John 5:25

If Jesus is life as he states here, then the absence of Jesus is death. Now it’s fair to note here that there are differing views on this concept. It is known that the earliest Christians believed they would not die, meaning they would not stop breathing, metabolizing, thinking etc. Some Christians, today, believe that death is not an intended part of creation, that our parting from our original purpose (see Adam and Eve and the Fall of Man) brought about death.

Certainly Jesus talked enough about “not tasting death” for people to conclude this. I am, however, declining to address this argument. We know that we do die. Our prayers ease our loved ones into a holy and peaceful death. If death were ever not part of the plan, it certainly is in the plan now.


But clearly the death that Jesus is talking about in the above passage from John, is a living death, a darker and more hopeless death than what we naturally face. It is a life without life, without the animating force of Christ. It’s a life with no comfort, no purpose, no connection with God. It’s death.





For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 6:23

If our life is more than mere biological function, if we are living beyond our material selves, then death would also be something beyond a simple biological end. If eternal life can enter into our lived existence now, then I believe that death can also overtake our living selves. As we see in the passage above, Paul connects this death with sin.

Let’s look anew at the tried and true association of sin, Original Sin in particular, with death. Let’s rework the notion that we die physically because humanity fell from grace. Let's tinker with the timeline while we're at it. Let’s write a new story.

Imagine a human, a young man; we'll call him Adam. He is driving to his Grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving dinner. He’s happily anticipating getting together with family, eating his Gran’s delicious mincemeat pie, watching a little football. The sun is shining on the open road. He is at peace with the world; he thinks he might even believe in God after all.


Then along comes a bunch of kids in a pick-up truck nearly running him off the road. He is furious, thinks of all sorts of evil outcomes for the youngsters, remembers that he doesn't really like his cousin Ralph and thinks that his girlfriend, Eve, might be breaking up with him. Suddenly, his calm is upended. He now has enemies, doubts, anger. Maybe he chases after the kids to let them know how stupid they are. Maybe he picks a fight with his cousin at dinner. Maybe he refuses to say grace with the family. Maybe he jumps the gun and breaks up with Eve himself. By text!

Or….maybe he just shakes his head at these reckless kids and says “Idiots.” Maybe he wonders if they have somewhere to go for Thanksgiving dinner. Maybe he hopes the police pull them over so they'll learn better. Then maybe he loves his family even more than ever, gives his Gran and extra big hug, teases his cousin gently, roots for the home team and falls asleep with a smile on his face.

I don’t want to overstate this young man’s state of grace or lack of it; we aren't talking about great evil or great saintliness here. But I hope you can see with me how one scenario is full of life and the other verges on death. A few days like this – and we've all had them – and our friend Adam is heading more surely in one direction or another.

Death then, the sort of death that Jesus tells us we can avoid, is, at the very least, a life without him. It’s a life of sin, of emptiness, of quarrels and spite. It might even be a life of crime and violence. 

Let’s hope this modern Adam finds the right way this time and doesn't let his pride take him over. Let’s hope he sees that the unpleasant people he meets are also children of God who are just finding their way as he is. Let’s also hope that he and Eve stay together, make a family, have LIFE. I think they will.






Monday, November 18, 2013

This is your LIFE


In Amazing Grace, A Vocabulary of Faith, the extremely brilliant Kathleen Norris, compiles a list of words that have perplexed her over the years of her faith journey. Norris is one of my favorite writers and I read her book with great pleasure. She did, however, somehow omit three words that have perplexed me over some years.

In the next three posts on this blog, I will attempt to unravel my tangled thoughts on LIFE, DEATH and KINGDOM.

First, LIFE.

 When Christians talk about “life” they are often intending eternal life. The idea of life after death has been a part of many major faiths for thousands of years. The ancient Jews did not believe that the soul lived on after death, but by Jesus’ time the idea of “resurrection” was fairly well-established although it was still a matter of some debate. Christians believe in eternal life, although most of us are willing to admit that we don’t actually know what happens then or there.


Beautiful as our ordinary life is with its blessings of fresh air, meaningful work, sex and chocolate, I think Jesus was intending something more when he talked about LIFE. And Jesus talked about life a lot.

I have come that they might have life and have it more abundantly.  John 10:10



This line is usually quoted to assure people that their lives will be happy. I think that’s a mis-reading. The abundance promised here is a fullness, a completeness. We know Jesus wasn't talking about goods or even family or friends. Jesus never prized those things. He is promising nothing less than a God-filled life, the life he, in fact, lived on earth. Jesus’ mission was to bring us into that life, to make that life possible for us.

He who finds his life will lose it. Matthew 7:14:

Here again is another familiar line. It is less comforting on the surface but no less comforting when we look deeply into it. When we find the life that Jesus wants us to have, we lose our old life. In the parlance of our time, losing our old life means giving up on friends, family, job, home, habits, pleasures or even all of the above. Jesus is not asking that. He is offering us a life of abundance, a life filled with God in whatever context we are right now. No need to leave your family, move to a faraway town or join a monastery. When we take up that offer, we lose our old life, the empty life, the hard-hearted, stiff necked life of no God. When we find our life, we find our true selves, the selves we were created to be.

I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. . John 14:6*

This statement is the most compelling because it identifies Jesus as life itself. Our lives depend on Jesus. No one reaches God except through him. This life that we long for, that is our gift, this life that is more than biological existence and more even than our daily activities, pleasures and pains is Jesus himself. The mystery of this life of ours in Christ can never really be explained. But it can be experienced. It can be glimpsed, fleetingly felt.

I would wager anything that, if you are reading this post, you have felt this “life” at some point. It is beautiful, but a life of faith isn't about peak moments of sublime grace. What we must do is search for the life that is promised to us and trust that we are living it daily.

And this life we are living, this God-filled life of grace is, in fact, eternal life. In other words, eternal life has already begun. We only have to realize it and live it. 

Yes, we continue is some way after “death”. Yes, God is in charge of that. And, no, we don’t know what our life after death will be like. The Scriptural promises of eternal life are many and convincing. But I don’t think Jesus meant us to bide our time in hopes of the afterlife. I think Jesus was telling us that the life he promised is available to us as soon as we follow him. When Jesus is life to you, as he said in the passage quoted above, you are living eternal life.

Imagine your life infused with God. Your home, the work you do, the people you love, all the things that make you laugh or smile or cry – all this is in God. Everything in life is more than we see or know. Every word, act, song, dance has meaning materially and spiritually. Jesus who walked on this earth made this life for us. This is abundant life. This is eternal life. This is holiness.

Listen in your mind and heart to the words of the hymn:

Breathe on my breath of God,
So shall I never die,
But live with thee the perfect life
Of thine eternity.
*********


*That this statement has long been an excuse for Christian exceptionalism is to be regretted. Personally I hold that the belief that Jesus only cares about, influences or saves those who are professed Christians is the most egregious nonsense. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Where does the Money Go?



Years ago a friend of mine stated that he didn't want his church offering going to any “social programs.” I’m not sure what programs he meant. It certainly wasn't the Halloween party or the Rector’s Tea, both of which were superbly social. I’m afraid he meant that he didn't want any of his contribution to go to anything like “charity.” Our church, like many churches, had an emergency fund – I think it was kept in a tin box – that was used to help out people in need who showed up at our door. 

You are probably feeling tempted to judge this person, I certainly have judged him over the years and anyone else remotely like him. Let's not judge though. There are people who see the church as being apart from the community. Churches shouldn't act politically; they shouldn't have a presence at the AIDS Walk, for example. Churches shouldn't intrude on society’s ills or blessings; they shouldn't attempt to heal social wrongs. I remember people being scandalized at the presence of clergy and women religious at the March on Washington. Horrified, actually.

There is an instinct to keep church as just church, the place you go on Sundays, the place you go to get married or buried. It’s the place for hymns and prayers and Holy Communion.

Is it fear that prompts some of us to see church this way? Are we afraid that our Christian faith might lead down some road we aren't ready to travel? Or is it an aesthetic reaction against anything un-beautiful, anything that clashes with silver chalices and sung canticles? Because church can be a haven for us…for me. I go there for peace and comfort. God wants me to have peace and comfort, doesn't he? There are Psalms that say so.

As beautiful as church is for me, as much as I treasure its rites and long for its safe and gentle embrace, I know that the church of Christ has to be a force in the world. I only have to read about three paragraphs into any Gospel account to see that Jesus actually forced himself on the world. He put himself in a volatile context, both through his Old Testament references and the imagery of his teachings. He stretched his hands into many a sweaty sick bed, embraced many an outcast. He ruined many a smart dinner party. He rattled many an august cage. If there were any beauty about his ministry, it was not visible to the naked eye.

It is our work in the world that makes us Christians. It is our Christianity that emboldens us to go out and work in the world. Churches must reach out into the community, and not just to attract new members (and more pledges). Churches, if they are to be Christ-like, must do the work of Christ. They must find the ones who need them. They must act out the Gospel as well as proclaim it.

But what if we don’t agree with how our church is acting out the Gospel? There are naturally some congregations, denominations that are not suited for you or for me. I couldn't belong to a church that burned the Koran, to cite an extreme example. On smaller matters, however, a more generous approach is needed.
 
Our church hosts an open dinner every week. People in need of food or just fellowship come regularly for both. It’s free. It’s open. It’s lovely. Has it made any disciples? I couldn't say.  Has it kept anyone from starving? Again, I have no way of knowing. Perhaps it’s useless. Perhaps it’s crucial and life changing. Perhaps ten years from now someone will turn her life around because of a kindness she received at this Open Supper. This is not a program that my friend would have supported. He would have tried to make sure his weekly contribution did not go to this meal.

In my opinion, he would have been wrong – was wrong. Is the Open Supper a proven success? Not at all. Is it a waste of time and money? God only knows. This is where our trust in God has to come in. If our leaders are making prayerful decisions about church activities, if we take part in these decisions, I believe we have to trust that our work will yield results even if we can’t see them right away – or ever.

These are just a few extra thoughts as we enter fully into stewardship season. Please be generous to your church, even if it’s only a dollar or two.. Please also, call your congregation to embody the Gospel and be a force in your world, even if only for a day.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Stewardship Season



If Twitter is any indication, clergy do not enjoy preaching about stewardship. And although it’s been a while since I heard any churlish comments like “Not another sermon about money,” I doubt that parishioners enjoy these homilies either. But, being servants of Christ, we all soldier on, preach and hear about pledges and budgets, fill out our pledge cards, stuff our envelopes each Sunday, count up the offering and church goes on for another year.

I wish it were just slightly otherwise. I wish it could be actually seen as holy, joyous and right. At the offering each Sunday, we pray:

Priest: All things come of thee, O Lord,
People: And of thine own have we given thee.

This is hardly an original proclamation. It is as familiar as “the peace that passes understanding”. Nevertheless, like so much of what we pray, we don’t take it seriously.

Everything is God’s. If we think we've earned our riches, we are surely kidding ourselves. In human terms, we earn wages and dividends; perhaps we inherit stocks and property. Human arrangements, however, do not reflect God. Our homes, our food, our children are God’s. Just ask anyone who has lost a house, a livelihood or a son or daughter. Our dependence on God is not some poetic frill that we utter but do not mean. It is complete and final.

Having an opportunity to affirm this truth by offering up some of the fruits of the earth that we happen to be holding in our hands at this moment should be seized upon gladly, not grumbled over. That we are blessed with a reminder of God’s ownership of us and all that is ours is a grace, a blessing. To see that gift for what it is - is holy.

I am not suggesting that people give more than they can. Certainly, some folks are called to actual voluntary poverty, but this is not for everyone. What is for everyone, though, is the grace that comes from knowing that our gift, whether large or small or even negligible, is given in love and for love. 

Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Saints of God



On 1st November, some Christian denominations celebrate All Saints Day. Saturday, 2nd November, is designated All Souls Day by the Roman Catholic Church and is exuberantly observed as the Day of the Dead in parts of Latin America. Coincidentally, Halloween is celebrated on the eve of All Saints Day.  Many of our fundamentalist sisters and brothers will correctly point out the Pagan or pre-Christian origins of Halloween. Christian holidays have pre-Christian origins. A new religion simply adopts existing customs. That is how human life works. No reason to get in a snit over it. Eggs. Rabbits. Trees in the house. Get over it.

The word “saint” has a lot of weight for some of us. Was Mother Teresa a saint? Was Julian of Norwich? Will I be a saint? Roman Catholics have an elaborate system - canonization - of determining whether or not a particular person’s holiness during his or her lifetime approaches the required level of sanctity. The Episcopal Church has a canon of sorts, too, called Holy Women Holy Men in which lives of selected individuals are summarized and devotions offered. Others, believe that all professing Christians are, by definition, saints.  

The saints of the church, in whatever canon, are a wonderful study. There are stories of brave and terrible lives, miracles of the breath-taking type, miracles of the eye-rolling type. There are stories of jaw-dropping forgiveness, dramatic conversions, and slow beautiful realizations. No two are alike. Any "Lives of the Saints" volume is a wise addition to your library. Enduring Grace by Carol Flinders, a study of women mystics, is still in print after many years. My favorite Christian writer, Kathleen Norris, tells some wonderful saint stories in Cloister Walk.

We look to stories of saints for inspiration, education, amazement and, if we’re honest, entertainment. Who doesn't love Francis of Assisi stripping naked in the town square to divest himself of his wealth or Lucy gouging out her eyes so she wouldn't be tempted to pride by her beauty, only to have her vision restored? Or, in more modern times, Theresa of Lisieux realizing that sin doesn't matter so much, that all she wants is to win souls for Christ.

Usually, if we call a living person a saint, we are exaggerating their virtue as in “She’s a saint for putting up with him.” But we are made in the image of God and are possessed of a soul that is eternal. Because of the Incarnation, Christ is within each of us. Our greatest moments are grace filled and any one of us is capable of godly action. That we suppress this most of the time does not diminish our fundamental holiness. As C. S. Lewis says: Next to the Blessed Sacrament itself, your neighbor is the holiest object present to your senses.

I do not ever want to be called a saint. The word has too much baggage. I will never call anyone else a saint for that same reason. Yet, carefully looking at any other person, I cannot fail to see a glimmer of holiness, that face of Christ. I know this is true because it does not work with people on television, even people I know to be very wonderful, like Mr. Rogers.

All Saints Day is an extravagant feast, appropriately as Christianity is an extravagant religion. We are invited to consider our own favorite saints, our Biblical heroes, our departed friends and family members and all the untold faithful who have joined our Savior. This day leaves no one out. Paul of Tarsus, my Aunt Mary, your always-in-trouble cousin, the grumpy neighbor down the street. All Saints Day also invites us to see our own holiness and that of everyone we meet. As the hymn goes:

They lived not only in ages past
there are hundreds of thousands still
The world is bright with the joyous saints
Who love to do Jesus’ will.
You can meet them in school or in lanes or at sea,
In church, or in trains, or in shops or at tea.
For the saints of God are just folk like me,
And I mean to be one, too.

For your listening pleasure, here is the entire hymn 





Monday, October 28, 2013

One Sunday I went up to the temple to pray....





“Two men went up to the temple to pray” Luke 18:9

Honestly, don’t you just doze off when you hear this one? It’s so obvious who is in the wrong and who is in the right and even why that is so. In religion class, even the slowest kids understood this story and would answer correctly every time. Jesus should have saved us all a lot of effort and skipped right to the more challenging story of the ten talents. That’s the trouble, though, it’s too obvious. The minute we congratulate ourselves on understanding the parable is the moment we become the star of the show.

One day, I went up to the temple to pray.I glanced around at my fellow congregants. Some people knelt. Some stood. Some seemed impatient, bored. Some seemed not to even care if we were using Rite I or Rite II. Others were deep in devout prayer. Some were appropriately dressed for Sunday; others wore jeans! One woman was smiling at a baby sitting behind her, not even praying at all. 



Such an array of right and wrong behaviors. I was happy to be counted among the properly behaving people, the prayerful, attentive ones, nicely dressed, well-groomed, on time with the responses. I tick every box, fulfill every demand. Prayer as performance art. Hooray for me. 

Over time, God gave me the grace to see myself for what I was (after he finished laughing at me) - the worst kind of Pharisee. Jesus might have pulled me out of my pew and used me as the example of the unjustified in his parable.

When we look at the context of this parable, we see that Jesus was talking to “some who trusted in themselves.” Here is the problem, then. I was trusting in myself. I know the right thing to do. I know how to behave in church. I know how to pray in a congregation. I can navigate the prayer book. It is within my power to offer a prayer, to ask God’s blessing on others.

Actually, no. It’s not.

I cannot pray without God. I cannot direct my own heart and mind to God. I cannot trust in myself. God, of course sustains my life and I can’t even breathe without him, but, more than that, it is God’s grace that turns my heart to him. The minute you trust in yourself you are rejecting God. Isn't that what Adam and Eve did when they decided to set their own course? Isn't that the basis of all sin? Isn't this the soul’s primary struggle?

Where does God end and where do I begin? 

We are taught to be self-reliant. Having confidence is considered necessary in our world. I don’t think God wants us to be incompetent. Doing our work well, managing our affairs, attending to our health, bearing our responsibilities – certainly these are important for life. Holiness is not opposed to survival. But at what point do we become apart from God? When have we begun to trust in ourselves more than God?

We need to be watchful and aware of the way we mythologize ourselves. Do I imagine that God is grateful for my worship but a bit embarrassed by someone else's? It hurts even to ask myself this rhetorically.

Check yourself in church some Sunday. Are you tabulating the right and wrong behaviors you see? How are you looking at your fellow parishioners? With judgement? With disapproval? With approval? Or with love?

Because we know how Jesus looks at us. And love is the antidote to pride. Love trumps judgment. Love puts us back in the hands of God who is love and lets us trust in him totally.

*********


He told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were right and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee standing by himself was praying thus. ‘God I thank you that I am not like other people, thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week. I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector standing far off, would not even look up to heaven but was beating his breast and saying, ‘ God be merciful to me a sinner.’ I tell you this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

  

Monday, October 21, 2013

Prayer Part IV: Praying with Everything



Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. Romans 8:26

Praying with everything was unattractive to me. I didn't like the expression. It was wishy-washy. It was a watered-down way of praying. I pictured someone sitting next to a precious article, Grandma’s watch or Uncle George’s tombstone and praying, perhaps for guidance from these people. Or worse, I imagined someone making the tiresome excuse that they can find God in Nature and, therefore, have no need of church. I suppose I’m a snob about prayer.

Since that time, I have prayed in the ways I just described and have found peace and love in the practice. And I still go to church every Sunday.

In Thessalonians, Paul tells us to: Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 5:16-18. How is a person meant to pray without ceasing? Didn't Paul have work to do, practical problems to solve, distractions? More to the point, didn't he have dry spells, moments of doubt and discouragement?

Paul is asking a lot of us, to be sure, but he also said that: we do not know how to pray as we ought. Paul knows that our prayer is always going to be insufficient. There is always going to be a little too much of us in it, too much crowding out of God. The solution is the Spirit who is there to pray in our place, to add to our prayer with sighs too deep for words.

Imagine the love Jesus felt for this world and all in it, a world he created after all. He came to it, was born of it. He looked at our world and at us and saw objects of his love. We can look around us and see everything in that same way, with that same love. This is prayer. The oak tree whose leaves are browning, the chickadee at the bird feeder, the shirt you are ironing, the face of the young cashier at Target, all holy.

Prayers right there.

It is the Spirit who is always with us, in us, prompting us to see a prayer where we would not, to open our eyes to the holy, to open our hearts to love where we would not dare to expect it.  Imagine! God is so determined that we pray that he has given us the Holy Spirit to pray with us because We do not know how to pray as we ought.

If the universe is God’s creation, which it is, and if all of creation was made holy by the Incarnation, which it was, then surely there are bright moments in our existence that await our understanding, our prayer. We cannot approach these miracles by ourselves. The Spirit leads us, fills in the blanks for us, opens our eyes, whispers in our ears the words that we can neither hear nor utter.

Our neighbor’s picnic umbrella blew off of their deck recently. It was torn in several places. A gusty wind blew it about the yard. Its tatters flopped sadly against the grass. Its once bright stripes were faded. I watched this for a few moments from the warmth of my dining room and without even connecting the obvious dots of brokenness, fading, helplessness Then, I knew I was praying. We do not know how to pray as we ought.

There was no need to connect myself to it. No need to read a lesson into it. That umbrella was a prayer and I prayed it with sighs to deep for words.

Prayer, then, in summary, can be recited, read, memorized. It can be a devout reading of scripture; it can be merely placing yourself in the presence of God. And it can be everything, just as God is everything.

We wonder if our prayers will be answered. They will. Aunt Clara’s cancer might come back, Sandy might not pass algebra. That crush of yours might not propose. Still our prayers are answered because the one prayer that we always say, that we don’t know how to say as we ought, is the prayer that brings us to God. It is the only prayer. It is God’s prayer and it’s ours.

********

If you have slogged though all four parts of this essay on prayer, thank you! I am adding here a brief bibliography, slim volumes that have helped my prayer. The catechism tells us that prayer is “lifting our hearts and minds to God.” I really can’t add much to that except that humility is necessary in prayer and that “We do not know how to pray as we ought but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words.”


Barry, William S SJ -  Paying Attention to God
Norris, Kathleen - Cloister Walk
O’Hea, Eileen CSJ - Manifesting in Form
Taylor, Barbara Brown - An Altar in the World
Wiederkher, Macrina OSB - A Tree Full of Angels

Monday, October 14, 2013

Prayer Part III: Praying for Nothing





In this third part of my series of essays on prayer, I want to address the practice of Christian Meditation. Please abandon any notion of mystics sitting for hours in a trance state. Meditation is about less: less atmosphere, less baggage, less fuss.

Here is the website for the World Community for Christian Meditation. It has abundant resources for the new or continuing practitioner. http://www.wccm.org/

Even if we have never practiced meditation, most of us have heard about it and read about its amazing benefits to the mind and body. It is a practice that has been around for many thousands of years. Yoga which traces its origins back five thousand years was devised as a means of increasing a practitioner’s ability to sit for longer periods of time.

The earliest traces of Christian meditation date back to the 4th Century CE with the desert fathers and mothers. These individuals, fed up with the increasingly complex ecclesiastical structures of the church (Imagine if they were living today!) took themselves off to the desert where they formed loose communities and prayed.


Their prayer was what we today call meditation. Much has been written about these communities and their more famous members, and I would encourage anyone to delve further into their history.

Christian Meditation today has taken two forms: one is Contemplative Prayer or simply Meditation and the other is Centering Prayer. They differ in major and minor ways, I suppose. Either practice comes under the heading of Praying for Nothing.

I know a good bit about Christian Meditation and almost nothing about Centering Prayer. John Main and Lawrence Freeman are spokespersons for Christian Meditation. Thomas Keating writes extensively about Centering Prayer. If you are research-minded, all these men are fine writers, very worth meeting.
And now to begin.

Praying for Nothing

In meditation, you are praying for nothing. In other words, you have no desired outcome. You aren't asking for anything. You aren't thanking God. You aren't praising God. You are simply sitting intentionally in the presence of God. You are not seeking forgiveness. You have no intention other than to be in the presence of God, which, of course, you are always.



Posture is important. Sit in a natural position, either in a straight-backed chair or on the floor. The idea is to be neither uncomfortable nor too comfortable. Sit up straight. Imagine a string guiding you from your tail bone through the top of your head. Then drop that image.

Follow your breath. Notice the in-breath and the out-breath, but breathe normally. Don’t worry if your breaths seem unevenly spaced. Meditation is a physical practice occurring in the material world and your body is important to it. Your body needs to be present. Feel yourself in every cubic centimeter of your body. Then drop that image. You are merely present in the sight of God. God loves you and is asking nothing of you.

Hold no image in your mind during meditation. If an image comes into your head, even if it is a holy image or an inspiring one, drop it. Gently. If a thought or distraction comes into your mind, drop it. Gently. Do not judge your meditation. Do not become impatient with yourself. Do not struggle. Do not fight. Your meditation will not be perfect. Not ever.

Most practitioners use a mantra. The mantra, or sacred word, helps to keep distractions away. It can be said silently with the breath. Maranatha is the mantra that is most typically suggested. It is an Aramaic word meaning “come Lord”. Because it is foreign, we are less likely to become distracted by its meaning. The first two syllables are said on the in-breath; the last two syllables are said on the out-breath. Ma-ra, breathing in. Na-tha, breathing out. Never stop saying this word during the entire time of your meditation. It is powerfully focusing. Just remember that you are focusing on nothing, thinking of nothing, imagining nothing.

Meditation is a very simple process: sit, breathe, say your word. Simple but not easy. A million distractions will fill your mind: the laundry, a phone call, Downton Abbey, hunger, worry, dirty diapers, the weeds, your boss, your diagnosis. Understand that nothing that comes into your mind during meditation has any particular meaning. It is not a message; it is simply your imperfect being pulling you away from your prayer.

Don’t be angry with yourself. Look at each of these distractions as a sweet child clamoring for attention. Pat that distraction on the head and send it on its way. Keep saying your word. Keep breathing. You may like to smile.

My models for sitting in God’s presence are my cats. At any given time one of them will hop onto my lap, asking no permission, make himself comfortable and just be. Where do my cats get such confidence? I don’t know, but they seem to know that I love them. They take me for granted.

I believe that it is this confidence in God’s love that is the gift of meditation, of praying for nothing. Perhaps it is simply the fruit of nearness.The effects of meditation are most discernible after a while. It was only after practicing meditation for 10 or so years that I was able to see what a different person I had become. Less stressed, more patient, more generous, kinder, gentler, better. How does this happen? Please refer to Paul’s letter to the Galatians where he talks about fruits of the spirit.

But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Galatians 5:22-23

Knowing that God loves us is good for us. Physically, mentally and spiritually.

For being all about nothing, the practice asks a lot of us. Instructors will advise you to meditate twice each day for about 25 minutes at a time. That's a lot for a beginner. It’s fine to start with once a day, but you should try for 25 minutes to give your spirit time to settle. It is perfectly OK to use a timer; everyone does it. When your time is up, offer a brief prayer of praise or thanks. “Glory be to the Father, to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning is now and forever. Amen” would work just fine.

You do not have to be a mystical sort of person to practice meditation. I am the least mystical person I know. In meditation classes, I've met people from all walks of life, all races and creeds, blind people, people in wheel chairs, triathlon winners. This is a very basic, accessible practice and I can’t recommend it strongly enough. 

I’ll close with some words from my first meditation teacher, Eileen O’Hea CSJ. In her final book, Manifesting in Form, she writes

Most of us have grown up thinking we have to earn God’s love; we have to do so many good things before we can rely on God loving us. This is a fallacy. We are already in love. Because all is one, we cannot be separated from the love that is our very being.
Meditation returns us to our initial state of creation, namely the experience of knowing oneness of being with Divine Being.


Next week: Praying with Everything

Monday, October 7, 2013

Prayer Part II: Praying with Something: Lectio Divina



You will probably have heard people say that they pray with scripture or that they pray the Psalms. Finding guidance and insight in Scripture is a common and effective practice. Lectio Divina, however, is a more specific way to pray with Scripture and this method is what I want to share with you today. Lectio Divina is a powerful and personal method of prayer. It is at once both structured and open-ended, and it boasts a long and respectable provenance.

Literally, "divine reading" has been around a long time. I won't make this a history lesson, but Lectio Divina is traceable back to the 3rd Century cleric Origen and was adopted and later adapted by Saints Ambrose and Augustine. Saint Benedict established it for his monks in the 6th Century, and it was formulated into a four step process in the 12th Century by Guigi II, a Carthusian monk. 

In Lectio Divina you are praying with Scripture. It is not Bible study. It is not looking for answers in the Bible. It is not hermeneutics. Neither is it literary interpretation. Resist the temptation to intellectualize the selected passage. There is a time and place for that, of course, but this is not it. Lection Divina is prayer that recognizes that our Holy Book is the Word of God.

I am indebted to The Benedictine sister, Macrina Wiederkehr’s wonderful A Tree Full of Angels for finally spelling this process out for me. Basically it is this:

First, take a passage of scripture. It shouldn't be any longer than about twenty verses and can be much shorter. Make a specific intention to read this passage with an open heart and in a prayerful way. In other words, ask God for help. Read and re-read it (aloud if at all possible) until you come to a phrase or even a word that strikes you as particularly meaningful, that speaks to your heart. Stop there. Even if your well-trained scholarly self frowns at you for not completing your assignment, stop.

Second, close your book and let the phrase inhabit you. Allow its deeper meaning to unfold within you. Try not to think too much here. Certainly repeat the phrase or word as many times as you like. Long-ish spaces of nothing are fine. Don’t try to close down your thoughts but neither should you over-think it. What does the phrase say to you? What ideas do you associate with it?

Third, speak to God from your heart about the passage and the phrase. Your praying doesn't have to be articulate or literary, just a word or two - or no words. Direct your heart to God with the passage at your side, so to speak. You may go off track. That’s fine but keep the thread alive that ties you back to the phrase.

Fourth, let the phrase go. Let the passage go. Just be whoever you are at this moment with God and know that you have prayed.

Don’t be discouraged if no phrase presents itself to you. This happens often. You still have prayed. You still have opened the Scripture and asked God’s help. You have prayed with the Scripture. You have also prayed with God.

I have found it helpful to write in a journal after the final step, maybe right away or maybe later in the day. Remind yourself of the phrase throughout the day. It will grow in meaning as the time goes by.

Wiederkher compares lection divina with eating. You look at food, inhale its aroma delight the sight of it. You take a bite. It’s yours. You claim it. You savor its taste and texture, its temperature and flavor. You swallow it and digest it. Your body works it without your awareness. Then it becomes part of you. So it is with the line of Scripture that spoke to your heart.

Let me offer one example from my own Lectio. A few months ago, I was reading a series of Easter passages in an attempt to open the mystery of the Resurrection. In 1st Corinthians, I came to 15:6 “…after that he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters…” The words “brothers and sisters” immediately struck me.

Seeing the Christian community as brothers and sisters was nothing new to me, nor was thinking of all of us on this planet as brothers and sisters. On an ordinary day, I would consider the phrase a bit over-used, a cliche. It didn't seem at all trite this time, though. Moreover, the point of the passage was not the Body of Christ as the Church but the fact that Jesus’ Resurrection was witnessed by many. Nevertheless, it was “brothers and sisters” that caught me and kept me for a day.

So what meaning did I find in this very common phrase? Partly, it was Paul’s extravagant inclusion of all these unknown people; partly it was the realization that these early Christians are my own brothers and sisters now, even after two thousand years. I became aware of these holy people and all holy people in a new and very immediate way. Maybe the web that connects us to each other and to Christ is stronger than blood or proximity or friendship.


But that phrase became a part of me in a new way and that was God teaching me a particular truth. That was prayer.