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.