Monday, September 30, 2013

Prayer Part I: Praying for Something

If you were brought up in a devout family, you were taught to pray. You prayed at bed time and meal time. You went to church on Sunday and prayed. You God-blessed everyone on your list. Maybe you overheard your parents praying for a sick relative and you joined in. Praying came naturally.

Until it didn't.

As an adult, maybe you realized that you don’t really pray any more, certainly not with the natural faith of a child. Maybe you grew out of thinking that God could fix everything from Uncle Charlie’s alcoholism to the weather on the day of your school picnic. Maybe you decided that such prayer was really for children. Or maybe you know your heart so well that you've decided you aren't worthy to pray, that God might have issues with you.

But some people pray. You've seen them on television, in movies, in art, even at church. People ask you to pray for them. People interviewed at the scenes of disaster ask for prayers. Survivors of violence say it was prayer that got them through. It’s everywhere, so why is it so hard?

I have access to a religious library run by the Sisters of Saint Joseph of Carondelet. All books are sorted by subject: Bible Study, Feminist Theology, Labyrinth, Memoirs, etc. By far, most of the books in this one-room library are about prayer. People want to pray. People think they don’t know how.
I write about this not because I’m any sort of expert on prayer but because I have a bothersome need to pray and I believe you might have the same. Let’s start with the basics.

Praying For Something

In the Episcopal Church, our Book of Common Prayer (BCP) is a bounteous collection of prayers. It is impossible for me to write about prayer apart from this wonderful book. I suspect, however, that many of us don’t use it to its fullest. There are prayers for just about any kind of intention (a sick child, people at sea) and any sort of occasion (marriage, burial, ordination) and, of course, morning and evening prayer. These last two, also called the Daily Office, are used by clergy and laity alike…hence the “common” in Book of Common Prayer.

As a structured person, I love the Daily Office. The democracy of it also rings a bell; the Presiding Bishop and I are saying the same Daily Office. No elite prayers for her, no lesser ones for me. I love that the BCP lists readings of Scripture and Psalms for every single day in a two year cycle.  It’s a chance to “cover” the Bible bit by bit. I am a regular reader of the Daily Office but occasionally, I will depart from the prescribed prayers and read from the order for Matrimony or Burial or Baptism. As the Spirit moves me. Why wait until someone dies to pray “I know that my Redeemer liveth”?

All the prayers in the BCP are prayers for something. This is the method of prayer from our childhood, and it is not to be overlooked in adulthood. We ask God for a blessing, a favor, his attention, forgiveness…something. And they are all beautiful. Some are breathtakingly beautiful. We pray-ers are most comfortable and familiar with this kind of prayer.

Reciting written prayers is the standard practice of most Christians. The habit of praying daily is one to be fed and treasured. It gives shape to the day. It sets a Godly tone for the moment at hand and signals a blessed and peaceful rest when the day is done. Praying for something is very concrete. The words of the prayer guide you and, to the extent that you mindfully pray them, will clarify your purpose and will certainly turn your heart to God. Consider the Lord’s Prayer. Just the first two words are enough to knock you silly. “Our Father”. Imagine! God is my father. More than that, he is your father. What does that make us?

If you feel you should pray, that is a grace. That is God calling you to prayer. If you feel shy about it, pray to be able to pray. Yes, that's right. It is absolutely fair and acceptable to pray for the grace to pray. It sounds like asking the teacher for the answers to the exam ahead of time, but, trust me, praying to pray is a done thing. It is an act of humility and love.

So take up your prayer book. If you don’t think you can manage the Daily Office, say one prayer a day. Whatever you might have read about Thomas Merton, Julian of Norwich, C.S. Lewis, Evelyn Underhill or any other mystic you can name, be very sure that they had a habit of daily recited prayer. Even that rock star Pope Francis will be found with his Daily Office morning and night. I would bet anything.
In conclusion: one of my favorites from the BCP:

O God of peace, who has taught us that in returning and rest we shall be saved, in quietness and confidence shall be our strength: By the might of your Spirit lift us, we pray, to your presence, where we may be still and know that you are God; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Next time: Praying for Nothing: Meditation

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Limerick Bible - the Gospel of Mark

Some months ago a few people on Twitter suggested (sarcastically of course) that people should get to work on a Limerick Bible. This challenge struck me keenly because I had just completed a class on The Gospel According to Mark, taught by the brilliant Joan Mitchell CSJ, author of Beyond Fear and Silence: A Feminist Literary Reading of Mark. Joan wanted us to submit a culminating project. It should be modest, she told us, no 20 page papers,  and it could be ANYTHING that had to do with Mark’s Gospel.

People turned in a feast of songs, art projects, craft projects. There was even some glitter. I have no talent in that direction but two limericks did happen into my head and so I submitted them. Joan’s reaction was pretty much the opposite of what I would have expected in any of my 12 years of Catholic school, so I was encouraged.

Lately another couple of limericks came to mind, and I thought “Oh, why not!” So here we are. I have included the Gospel citations so as to imbue this nonsense with, at least, an air of scholarship.

The Gospel of Mark doesn’t waste time
So everyone says that it’s groovy.
It’s short and it’s sweet
You can read it complete
In less than the time of a movie.

A Syrophoenician woman
Sassed Jesus the moment he passed her.
The Gospel of Mark
Has plenty of snark
But most of it comes from the Master.

The moment of Transfiguration
Brought with it a terrible fuss.
Peter said “build a tent”.
Jesus knew what he meant,
But said “let’s keep it just between us”.

Money won’t get you the kingdom
A rich man was sorry to hear.
He had too much stuff,
So he left in a huff
‘Cause he held all his riches to dear.

A woman went into the temple
Her very last dollar to give
They all reeled in shock
When he said to his flock,
This is how everybody should live.

The women were stunned into silence
At the sight of Our Lord’s empty grave
The young man in white
Said “He left in the night”
Tell the people he came here to save.

I confess that translating Scripture into limericks does have a blessing to it. You come to know a passage a bit more than from simply reading or hearing it, especially if it’s a very familiar story. You must figure out the nub of meaning, perhaps not the arcane meaning or the mystical meaning, but the kernel of narrative meaning. So I recommend it as a past time. Do not, however, substitute this exercise for prayer. God might frown.

Next time I begin a more serious multi-part series on prayer. 

Monday, September 16, 2013

Shop 'Til You Drop

There’s a lot to be said for finding the right church. God’s many blessings are felt more abundantly when worshiping as part of Christ’s body. We are called to corporate prayer and the necessity of being part of a Christian community has been delineated by many eloquent voices. You can't be Christian all by yourself.

But it’s not always easy. In some locations, one’s particular denomination might be very much in the minority – or even missing entirely. And there is the matter of churchmanship. I know two faithful, life-long Episcopalians who walked out of a church service and never returned to that place of worship. One could not abide the new version of the Lord’s Prayer and the other took exception to the Eucharistic Prayer in Rite One. Perhaps they should simply have switched places.

Certainly, we all have our deal breakers when it comes to church. It is just possible that a particular form of worship or interior space or music or preaching will make it impossible for a person to be at all comfortable in that church.

When my family moved from the very Episcopalian east coast to the mostly Lutheran mid-west, I was hard pressed to find an Episcopal church within a reasonable distance. There were two. The first (and closest) was such a far cry from my “home ”parish in Pennsylvania that I wept throughout the entire service and left when it ended without saying a word to anyone. Homesickness, for sure. The second try was much closer to the kind of church I was used to, both in appearance and liturgy and I worshiped there for many years. It was not perfect. It was not like my home church. It never could be. But I stayed.

I know what it’s like to feel misplaced in a church. We are physical creatures with eyes, ears, histories and preferences. The look of a worship space, the hymns sung, the prayers chosen, the homilies preached matter a great deal to us. Certain of these resonate. Hearing and singing “Saint Patrick’s Breastplate” for example, would cover a multitude of deficiencies, like the lack of stained glass windows. Praying “All things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee” at the Offertory makes up for the lack of incense. It’s a trade off. If I am looking for an exact replica of the church I left behind, I will never find it, even if I search the world over. 

As I had to move on, so I moved on.

In my human imperfection, however, I see my simple needs as much bigger than they really are. Do these things matter? Isn't it God I’m worshiping on Sunday morning and not my own refined tastes? If I am so sophisticated that I can’t find God in Rite II, or in a plain sanctuary, or in a raggedy old organ, should I expect God to find a worthy soul in me? 

It is God’s word that we seek, God’s work that we do and God’s people that we are. At some point, my search for a church that exactly fits me, becomes a little too much about me. At some point I need to set aside this quest for churchly perfection and worship the Lord in the beauty of HIS holiness. Otherwise I’m just Carrie Bradshaw looking for the right pair of shoes.

If I find myself uprooted once again, and I hope I don’t, I’ll certainly “shop” for a church. I’ll visit one or two, but no more. I’ll accept that God’s word will be made known to me in the breaking of the bread. I won’t rate churches on assets that may appeal to my pride. I’ll let myself be guided to wherever God wants me and if it’s hard to adjust, if I feel diminished by a lack of beauty here or overwhelmed by too much of it there, I’ll be all the better for it.

In closing, I offer for your consideration this excerpt from C.S. Lewis’s little masterpiece The Screwtape Letters. Here we find the demon Screwtape advising his nephew demon, Wormwood, how to best keep his charge away from the “enemy” (God).

Surely you know that if a man can’t be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighbourhood looking for the church that “suits” him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches. ….the search for a suitable church makes the man a critic where the enemy wants him to be a pupil.

Monday, September 9, 2013

The Rebel Jesus, in which I react to Reza Aslan's Zealot

This is not a book review. I don’t propose to spend an hour or two evaluating a book that Reza Aslan spent 20 years researching and writing. Neither will this be a questioning of Aslan’s nerve, being himself a Muslim, to deliver a treatise on Jesus. Fox News took care of that.

In Zealot, Reza Aslan explores the life of Jesus of Nazareth through an exclusively historical lens. I have to say that I thoroughly enjoyed the historical details Aslan provides. Reading Zealot was like a trip to the Holy Land, a trip I’ll probably never make. Of course, I could have learned all that from other sources, but I didn't so, thanks, Reza. Moreover, I always enjoy reading about Jesus. I enjoy talking about him and thinking about him, too. So on several levels, this book was right up my alley.

But of course, I have some issues with this book or I’d not be writing about it.

In the first place, Aslan points out how Jesus’ story does not perfectly fulfill all the Old Testament prophecies. He claims, and rightly I think, that many episodes in the Gospel accounts (the birth narratives, for example) were massaged to align with prophecies. It was the lack of sophistication of the disciples, he says, that accounts for incongruities between what is written about Jesus in the New Testament and what was prophesied in the Old.

But must everything fit exactly?

I would ask the author if he believes that the Old Testament prophecies were literally true. Does God, for Aslan, speak ver batim through his prophets? And wouldn't a messiah claimant who perfectly replicated all the Old Testament prophecies raise a few red flags? Wouldn't that be just a bit too slick?

My second complaint is about the author’s reverence for context.

Over-prizing context might be a common trap for the historian. When actual historical records about a particular individual are wanting, an historian can infer much about a person from a time and place by the context in which that person lived and the events that took place. Thus, someone writing about a World War II battle could imagine a typical soldier, his typical sweetheart at home, his favorite music, his sweater vests, his proud parents, his reaction to the horrors he sees, his fears, his courage. The key word here is “Imagine.”

Yes, Jesus lived in a context. We haven’t historical records about him specifically, but we do know about the society in which he lived. We know what historical events affected the people he lived with, and we know the religious practices of the Temple at the time. People were truly suffering under the Romans. The Temple priesthood was corrupt. The poor of the countryside were near to starving and were despised by the Romans. There was great injustice, great unrest.

And most importantly to Aslan’s purposes, at the time Jesus began his ministry, there had been, and then would be until 70 CE, many claimants to the title of Messiah. They all promised to restore Israel to its former Davidic glory. They were all violent. Without exception they were all captured and executed. These putative messiahs were Hezekiah, Theudas, Judas the Gallilean, Athronges, a man we know only as The Egyptian, one we know only as The Samaritan, Simon son of Giora, and Simon son of Kochba.

Reducing Jesus’ ministry to its barest basics, it would be easy (too easy?) to read him in the context of his time as just another rebel hoping to topple the established priesthood, kick Rome out of Palestine and perhaps himself be anointed king by a newly freed and eternally grateful people.

This works if you’re writing a novel, as with our World War II soldier. We could imagine a narrative for a typical boy in 1944 away from home fighting for freedom. Again, the key word is “imagine”. But Aslan isn’t writing fiction. He’s writing history and presuming too many things about Jesus based on context. He’s extrapolating from other stories to tell the story of Jesus.

Because a lot of country people were illiterate, Jesus was illiterate.
Because Jews at this time only cared about other Jews, Jesus only cared about other Jews.
Because the other claimants wanted to overthrow the Roman occupiers, Jesus wanted to overthrow the Roman occupiers.
Because these other claimants wanted to be king, Jesus wanted to be king.
Because these other claimants gathered armies and preached violence, Jesus was gathering an army and preaching violence.

And worst of all…
Because these others failed, Jesus also failed.

It is pardonable and even normal for a non-believer, or, tellingly, in Aslan’s case, a former believer, to view the life and ministry of Jesus as wasted. We as readers shouldn't expect a testament from this author.

With that in mind, Zealot was not a disappointment. It does not portray Jesus as the Son of God, but we can’t expect it to.  I sense the author does have an agenda with this book, but he is not hostile to Jesus. He makes an effort to debunk Jesus as the Christ, but it is a bit ham-handed in my opinion. His arguments have the sound of a schoolboy, trying to defend his research.

Aslan simply does not understand the kind of kingdom Jesus was establishing, but he’s not the first to miss the point and he won’t be the last. He may have demystified Jesus for some readers, but he didn’t do so for me. I don’t think he’ll ruin Christianity for anybody.

The portrayal of early Palestine was vivid and compelling. I liked gasping at the excesses of the priest caste and the cruelty of the Romans. I liked reading about Jesus and his disciples. I even enjoyed Aslan’s take on the “feud” between Paul and James. I also enjoyed shouting “No!No!” whenever the author missed some key theological or doctrinal point.

And Jesus looks very handsome on the cover.

That rebel Jesus? Here’s the real one. Have a listen… 

Coming Next Week: Shop 'Til You Drop

Monday, September 2, 2013

You Might Be an Episcopalian If...

If you think that my blog posts area bit too serious and personal and have the essence of sadness in them, you're quite right. If you've concluded that I take myself and everything else too seriously…right again. But even I have a lighter side and here it is.

Perhaps you have been wondering what it is that makes Episcopalians so…so like the people pictured in The Church Mouse books by Graham Oakley or …so like the people singing - usually funeral hymns - in the Masterpiece Mystery series. Perhaps you suspected that you are, yourself, an Episcopalian. Well, here is the absolute truth.

Episcopalians are just like everyone else except for a few quirky traits. There may be more, but here are the essential ones. (With apologies to Jeff Foxworthy – not that he’ll ever know)

1. If you always vote straight Anglican in Lent Madness….you might be an Episcopalian.

2. If you own a seersucker might be an Episcopalian

3. If you can explain Apostolic Succession…you might be an Episcopalian.

4. If you  harbor secret Royalist might be an Episcopalian.

5. If you know who Evelyn Underhill, Philander Chase and Henry Whipple were…you might be an Episcopalian.

6. If you understand that the word “collect” is also a noun…you might be an Episcopalian.

7. If you can recognize the smell of frankincense…you might be an Episcopalian.

8. If you know how to pronounce “Michaelmas” and also know when it is celebrated…you might be an Episcopalian. Hint: here are some Michaelmas Daisies.

9. If you recognize all the Book of Common Prayer references in P.D. James’ mysteries…you might be an Episcopalian.

10. If you feel called upon to defend Henry VIII... a lot... you might be an Episcopalian.

11. If you were furious when Jed Bartlett put out a cigarette on the floor of the National Cathedral, even though The West Wing is just a TV show... then, my friend, you are most definitely an Episcopalian.

If any of these statements are true about you, just remember: The Episcopal Church Welcomes You!