Sunday, December 28, 2014

Son of Man


Behold, the dwelling place of God is with mankind.    Revelation 21:3

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79 times. That’s how often Jesus refers to himself as the “son of man” in the four Gospel accounts. Theologians and scholars have debated the meaning of this reference for many years. Amateur that I am, I am going to weigh in on the discussion.

We know that birth had significance in the first Century AD and through all of Biblical time up to then. You were who you were born to be. In Matthew’s Gospel account, the first 16 verses summarize Jesus’ ancestry. It is no small thing that he is descended from Abraham. It is no small thing that he is descended from David.

It is likewise no small thing that Jesus’ ancestry was tweaked by some odd interventions. Isaac was not Abraham’s first born. It was Sarah’s insistence on dismissing the maidservant Hagar that cleared the path for Isaac to inherit his father’s fortune.  Jacob stole Esau’s birthright. Judah was an unlikely ancestor of David.

You could say that both Tamar and Rahab were necessary wild cards, and, had not Ruth persisted in following her mother-in-law, her story would have had no telling in Matthew’s account. Moreover, David’s acquisition of Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba, who gave birth to Solomon, another of Jesus’ ancestors, was as shocking as it was fateful. And Mary’s conception of Jesus was likewise not without controversy.

I think Matthew wanted his hearers to understand that Jesus’ lineage was profoundly directed, even forced, by God. Suppose you went to Ancestry.com to research your family tree and found some of these kinds of twists and turns. You might be embarrassed or even proud. But ultimately you would say, “Well, I am all these things. I am all these people.”

Like many, I routinely skimmed the 16 verses that begin Matthew’s account, believing them to be just a routine appendage. But when I read them, I was actually moved to see this parade of humanity that brought Jesus into our midst. We can tell ourselves that Jesus was born of a woman as we are, tempted as we are, human as we are, but I, for a very long time, failed to grasp that.

Not only was Jesus human, he was the product of all that humanity is, the brave, the false, the flawed, the holy. Who better to save all of creation than he who embodies it so exactly? Jesus became everything that we are. He gathered all of our history into himself and became man, the Son of man.

His identity as Messiah is kept quiet during his ministry. He asks his followers not to reveal his identity. Instead he calls himself the son of man, as if everyone he is speaking to is not likewise a son (or daughter) of man. His identity as human is that crucial to his message and his salvific role. To save us he had to be us. He had to feel our pain, know our sorrows and our joys, taste our life.

I also like to think that he enjoyed the title, that he couldn't get enough of the concept. He is human. He is with us. He is like us. All this because of his love for us. 

But Jesus didn't incarnate simply to rub elbows with us. Whatever salvation history you believe in, whatever redemption song you sing, you know that Jesus made something happen and that something, is articulated in terms of birth. We die to sin and are born in Christ. Unless a man is born again etc. etc. (John 3:3) In John's account, Nicodemus cannot believe what he is hearing. How can a physical birth not matter? How can a rebirth even happen? Re-birth language is so familiar to us that we smile at his fatuousness, but Nicodemus was just like everyone else in 1st Century Palestine.

John the Baptist greets his crowd with accusations and pre-empts their retort with this:

Don’t say to me, ‘We are children of Abraham’ for I tell you that God from these stones can raise up children to Abraham.

The birth that we thought we understood is different from this new birth. We are now heirs of the kingdom. We are children of God. The Son of man has made this so. By becoming us, he changed us. His incarnation has changed the nature of creation forever.  

Our main tie is no longer to our bloodline. Jesus gave us a new identity, one that trumps any other identity we might claim.


There is another twist. 

Jesus was not “made” in the same way that we are. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, made, in some way, directly by God. And who else in the Bible was so made? Why Adam and Eve of course.  And what, in our story, did Adam and Eve do? They began the human story, they were responsible for all they beheld and then they sullied it. It is Jesus, this second Adam as he is often called, who reverses it all. 

He became us to remake us. The incarnate Jesus makes it possible for us to live again perfectly in his perfect kingdom. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

Peter Pan - Some Thoughts



On December 4th I watched the live television production of Peter Pan. I have absolutely no complaints about it. It was fine. This is not a review. Plenty of those around.

The show actually got me thinking about religious themes in the story. Whereas I don't propose that J. M. Barrie tried to steer our desires toward God when he wrote his famous play, I do find some gut-wrenching, and, in consequence, spiritual tropes in it.This is not a theology of Peter Pan, but the themes of longing, innocence and make-believe suggest a larger intent that we usually find in a children’s story.

Of all possible names for Peter’s home, “Neverland” is the most counter-intuitive. It dares anyone to find it, challenges entry, and, by its name, denies its own existence*. It’s a place that cannot exist, and yet it does.

It’s not on any chart
You must find it in your heart.

Dreams are born there; time is unplanned there. Neverland is a far cry from Isaiah’s “new heaven and new earth,” but Peter longs for it the way we long for the Kingdom of God. What’s more he shares his longing -- he even preaches it. 

It might be miles beyond the moon,
Or right there where you stand.
Just keep an open mind, 
And suddenly you'll find
Never Neverland.

When we long for something, especially something that is not entirely clear to us, C.S. Lewis tells us that we are longing for God. Longing is a major theme in Peter Pan. Peter longs for freedom, autonomy, and adventure on one hand; on the other, he wants stories, pockets and a mother.

What do we make of this? Our human needs are both abstract and concrete, both of the spirit and of the flesh. When Peter ran away from home “on the day he was born,” it was because he feared becoming someone else’s idea of himself. Peter wanted to become his own person, free from obligations to anyone, not bound to ”silly rules.” No hedonist, he is all about ideals. Note the strict code of conduct in place in Neverland. Peter has gone overboard on the spiritual, the abstract. He would be quite at home in a Gnostic cult.

In his innocence, Peter pleases us but most of all he pleases himself.

I’m just the cleverest  fellow
‘Twas ever my fortune to know.   or

I think it's sweet
I have fingers and feet I can wiggle and wag.

How like this is the beautiful verse from Psalm 139…

I thank thee that I am fearfully and wonderfully made.

Peter’s delight in himself is pure. He is the apple of his own eye and, therefore can be the apple of God’s eye as Scripture tells us we must be. It is his self love that flows over into his love of others: Tinkerbell, the Lost Boys, Tiger Lily and her tribe, and Wendy. Isn't this how we are meant to be? Isn't it God's love for us that teaches us to love ourselves and others? 

Truly I tell you, unless you turn and come to me like little children you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Matthew  18:3

It’s easy to admire the delight that small children take in their own accomplishments, from finding their toes to riding a bike. They are fearfully and wonderfully made and they know it. 

A tension exists for us between these two themes of innocence and longing. We long for innocence, but, when we find ourselves in a state of innocence, we long for experience, maturity and reality…unless we’re Peter Pan. It’s not that Peter “won’t grow up,” it’s that he can’t. He has thrown down his marker and his fate is sealed. He can only make-believe. He agrees to be the Lost Boys’ father so long as it’s only pretending. Wendy badgers him “Are we only pretending?”

Pretending

This might be the most tragic state of existence and we've all been there. We all pretend and, at the same time, we all hate pretending. Pretending to be good. Pretending to have a happy family, a purpose, a meaning. Pretending to be carefree, brave. Pretending to be having fun. Pretending to be in love.

It’s a child’s game, pretending. You pretend to be a fireman, a cowboy, a ballerina, Joan of Arc. It’s a way of getting to know yourself and stretching your imagination. Looking back, I can’t remember if I was sadder while pretending or when the game was over. But I remember the sadness. And this is why I think so many of us grown-ups got a bit choked up when we watched Peter Pan the other night. Some of us are still pretending.

'Cause growing up is awfuller
Than all the awful things that ever were.


Peter rejects reality in order to live in Neverland, the place which denies its own reality. His charm is that he embodies the innocence and idealism that we've lost. His tragedy is that he has fooled himself. He has removed challenge and pain and contented himself with pretending.

Where is my true home?
Will this longing ever go away?
Am I just pretending?


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* The word “Utopia,” incidentally, means literally “no place.” So Barrie gets an A+ for that one.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

I Decided to Listen Up




In the prayer practice of lectio divina, one result is to “get a word”. Hearing a passage from scripture, a word will emerge. It will present itself to you. You will take that word for your own. It is a gift from the Spirit. It is yours to learn from and hear and re-hear. Yesterday, my word was “voice.”

The readings appointed for the Second Sunday in Advent are all about voices. There is the voice crying out in Isaiah 40:

A voice cries out:
"In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.

And then in Mark’s Gospel account, Chapter 1, John the Baptist is the voice in the wilderness:

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. 

Last week, at prayer group, I was struck with the different voices in our small circle. Different cadences, different tones. We were all talking about the same thing – Advent, darkness, light, Incarnation, but our voices, our sounds were unique.  Voices are like fingerprints. One gift of prayer group is that we don’t try to sound like each other.

Then I asked myself: do I hear everyone’s voice? Am I open to some and closed to others? Do I put up a sound barrier against some voices? Do I listen with love?

I was not entirely happy with my answers. I dismiss a lot of what I hear. It’s hard to get my attention. I like to think I have a general love for all God’s creatures, but then I skim over their voices, just taking what I must so that I won’t seem too unfeeling.

If we are made in the image of God, our voices reflect that. If people are image bearers, I should attend to them. So this Advent, I am making it my business to listen to every voice that I hear. No matter what people say to me, I am going to find some truth, some message, some bit of the holy in every voice.

We know that many people heard John the Baptist. But what about those who turned away? What about the ones who were busy or tired or who dismissed him as a crackpot? I don’t want to turn away from anyone – not during this Advent anyway. I want to hear every voice. People say empty words. They gossip; they lie; they self-promote; they try to sound hip and clever. 

This season of Advent I don’t even care. I am going to listen for the voice inside every voice. For these next weeks, everyone is John the Baptist.

Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,

for the mouth of the LORD has spoken. 

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber - a Reaction




Before you read this post, please know that it will contain “spoilers” as to the plot developments of Michel Faber's novel. It will not tell you everything but it will tell you some things, so if you’re the kind of person who doesn't like to know anything about a book before you read it, save this post until after you read The Book of Strange New Things.

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We all know that when things start out one way in a story, they are going to have to go the other way before the story is over. So when we meet Peter and his sweet wife Beatrice who are both deeply in love with each other and committed to their Christian vocations, we know, even though we don’t want to know, that things are going to change. Probably for the worse.

Peter, after many years of petty crime and addiction, has found salvation in Beatrice and Jesus (almost simultaneously). Beatrice, after an early life of abuse answered a calling as a nurse and found true love in a messed up patient (Peter.) It’s almost too good to be true.

We meet these lovely folks just as Peter is preparing to depart for a mission. He’s on his way to Orlando, but, no, not there. That’s just a launch site. Peter is off to some distant planet to bring the word of God to the native people living there. 

This is a serious work of literature. Despite the heavy Jesus talk and the alien overlay, it is not “Christian fiction,” nor is it the predictable sci fi space ship story.

Neither is this a typical dystopian novel. In fact, judging by the kindly natives and the temperate climate, the new planet, Oasis, might actually be a Utopia. A mysterious private company, USIC, has colonized Oasis, and we learn that the natives will withhold their food crops from the colonists unless a preacher is promised. 

Enter Peter who is about as full of the Gospel as a person can be. He is ready to enter into his mission, and the natives are delighted to welcome him.

When I saw the glowing comments in an advertisement in The New Yorker, I decided to read this book. Thinking that “the book of strange new things” referred to the novel itself, I expected some sort of fairy tale, perhaps a David Mitchell-esque allegory. But the book referred to is actually the Bible; the natives call it “the book of strange new things.”

On every page, I worried how this novel might let me down. I worried that the gentle natives would turn out to be evil, that Peter would descend into cynicism, that he would have an affair, that Beatrice would die, that a rival religion would come along and convert everyone. I worried most of all that Peter’s very na├»ve faith would fail him.

And it did. Sort of.

The Oasans, as Peter calls the natives, are eager for the Gospel, for the teaching. Their societal organization is developed almost to the point of genius. They manage their resources, help each other, guard their emotions and welcome strangers. 

Peter’s job is easy. His flock are without sin; moreover, they are without questions or doubts. The book of strange new things (the Bible) is to them a collection of verses to memorize. Their mysterious love for the book is plain though they don’t seem to need it, at least not the way we need it. I never see them challenged by any of it. I never see them changed by any of it. 

Peter would be better utilized ministering to his fellow USIC employees where the need is painfully obvious. His friends and colleagues on Oasis are either frozen into a mindless apathy or feverish with self hatred. But Peter sees himself as the servant of the natives. It is to them he devotes himself and it is in them that he is nearly lost. Their climate, their food, their speech, their habits subsume him. He is sunburnt, filthy, wasted skeletally thin, dehydrated and sleep deprived. He has forgotten his wife and even himself.

Back on planet earth, just about every disaster that we might ever predict is occurring. Financial collapse, climate disasters, rampant crime and brutality abound, and there is poor Beatrice left to deal with it all alone.  Oh, and she is pregnant! The electronic communications between her and Peter devolve into short angry directives. “Don’t come home,” she says.

Peter realizes that the purpose of the colonization of this planet is to ensure a place for the human race to come to when earth is destroyed. So the technology that USIC staff are developing and the relations it is building with the natives couldn't be more important. 

Peter decides to leave Oasis and his mission. Even though he sees himself a failure, he cannot ignore the needs of his wife back home. He cuts his contracted time short and leaves his congregation. No longer certain of his belief in God, he heads back to an uncertain future at home. 

We know that faith is tested. Some of us face horrendous tests; some of us are barely tested at all. Someone like Peter, whose faith saved him once, is vulnerable. Can his faith save him twice?

The author is a professed atheist (I looked this up mid way through the book; such was my dread of a bitter ending); he does not, however, leave us with an atheistic message.

Peter is heading home to find Beatrice, to be with her, to help her. Although they are both foundering, this reader hopes that together they can be restored and possibly restore others. He is doing the human thing, which is a thing he had almost forgotten how to do. If he can find God again at all, it will be by living into his humanity once more. 

That is the ending that I choose for Peter and Beatrice. I have known so many people whose faith is renewed when they are in dire straits, and God’s attention to us at those times is well-attested in Scripture. In the end, Peter does not need the book of strange new things; he needs his own human self to reach out to his wife and, then, I hope, to God.


Monday, November 24, 2014

In Line at the Bank




It was 1974. The Philadelphia Flyers, massive underdogs that they were, had won the Stanley Cup. The Broad Street Bullies, they were called.

On the last night of the finals, I stood outside celebrating the win with friends. The atmosphere was glorious. We cheered a carful of nuns who drove past us, honking their horn, waving white handkerchiefs from every window.

Weeks later, the trophy would be on display downtown. Anybody could go and see it, take pictures, whatever. One Friday afternoon, after work, I took the trolley in to Center City so I could cash my paycheck and have a look at Lord Stanley’s Cup. This was back when you actually got a paycheck on Friday and had to take it to the bank for deposit.

I got my grateful fill of the hubbub around the trophy. I drank in the pure fan glee at the sight of the thing, felt the excitement of everyone of the same mind as myself and then took myself off to the bank. As usual, back in those times, there was a long line at the bank on a Friday afternoon. All manner of humanity stood patiently, or not, holding that piece of paper that meant, “Now you can pay the rent, buy groceries, go to a movie.”

I was vaguely aware of an argument several people ahead of me in line. One woman seemed intent on making her point to another. They did not seem to be “together;” I had the impression that this was a chance encounter, perhaps an argument over whose place was whose in the line, normal stuff for a Friday afternoon in a city.

Then, the more argumentative woman turned around, spotted me in the line, pointed to me and proclaimed, “There. She believes in the power of prayer.”  Of course, I was at a loss for words. Introvert that I am, I didn't want to be drawn into this or any argument.  But she persisted. “Don’t you? You believe in the power of prayer, don't you?”

At this time in my life, I had been attending the Episcopal Church for about three months after several years of no church at all. I did not consider myself an expert on the power of anything. I barely considered myself a believer. But I answered, “Yes, I do.”

Proudly, the woman turned to her partner in argument and said, “There! See?” as if my agreement somehow proved her point. That was all she needed from me. I was a bit stunned at my response, but I didn't regret it. 

There is a reason I have remembered this episode so well after all these years.  Yes, the hockey championship may have cemented it in my mind somewhat, but I think it’s more than that. Somehow, this eccentric woman drew a response from me that has directed my life.

Our director of faith formation always asks the Sunday School children, “Where is God in this story?”

So where is God in this story? It’s logical to dismiss incidents like this. We can conclude that some people are simply odd and like to confront others with pronouncements. We can guess that there is some mental disorder at work freeing such people from normal inhibitions.

Oddly enough, however, if either of these incidents had occurred in a work of fiction, the reader would immediately see the exchange as meaningful, true and important. An author wouldn't insert such a scene without purpose. I am convinced that this real-life encounter was just as meaningful.

All our days are filled with moments of meaning. Everywhere we see evidence of God’s work, we face his image bearers, we use and value his creation, we hear its music. If one moment is a bit sharper than others, if one person seems a bit truer, that is just a tiny taste of God’s kingdom. It’s the merest whiff of God’s will. The worst thing you can do is close yourself off from it as I nearly did. The best you can do is breathe it in and smile. 






Monday, November 17, 2014

To Live a Vowed Life, Part II: Ruled



On October 5th, I was admitted as an Associate of the Order of Julian of Norwich, a contemplative order of monks and nuns of the Episcopal Church. In doing so, I promised to live my life according to the Associate Rule.


Does the idea of rules put you off? Are rules made to be broken? Situations with a lot of rules are generally thought best avoided. A broken rule implies consequences, sometimes severe ones. A contract violated, a discarded vow both provoke bad feelings and a ton of paperwork, as any contract or divorce lawyer will attest. So if anyone wondered about my decision to affiliate with a religious order, the question was always  about the vows.

The vows! Standard issue vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and the bonus vow of prayer. Even my rector, who knows me well, professed himself amazed that I would want to live under vows. People see religious vows as self-imposed trials, stringent tests of a person’s devotion, harshly imposed restrictions of freedom, comfort and even thought. Monastic history is replete with examples of all that and more. 

But religious rules are intended to give, not take away. The vows offered freedom not restriction; they are openings not closures. Modern orders offer this way of life as a gift. The great commandment, to love God and neighbor, is embedded in them all. Affiliate vows are, of course, adapted for persons living in the world so that one may own property, may be married, employed and may live outside the monastery.

Holy Poverty: Affiliates commit to a pledge of financial support to the Order. There is no required amount or percentage. It is a symbolic gesture of commitment as well as a gesture of non-attachment to material wealth. Additionally, the affiliate strives to free herself from the power that possessions can have. We recognize that our real dependence is on God.

Holy Chastity: Desire, of course, comes from God. Our desires, our sexual energy, our creative forces point toward God. Just as any appetite can become a means of gratification of the ego, so can the same appetites prompt gratitude and holiness. Partnerships (and there is no distinction made between same or opposite sex unions, by the way) for affiliates are meant to be life-long, exclusive and non-abusive. Of course, one may be single as well. Affiliates who are embarking on a partnership or ending one are urged to pray and seek spiritual direction.

Holy Obedience: A while ago I posted about my attitude toward obedience. Obedience has a bad reputation. Images of penances, starvation, and actual harm come to mind. Certainly abuses of power in prisons and totalitarian regimes suggest that obedience is to be avoided at all costs.

Lately, I've been thinking a lot about the term “faith formation.” Generally, it refers to efforts of the church to develop faith among its congregants. This is a good thing. But, for me, it also means that my faith is forming me. I am allowing my church, its creeds, its prayers and its liturgy to actually form me into a new person. So, too, with my vow of obedience. The Order of Julian with its, admittedly few, disciplines will form me. Even as I question doctrine, even as I am find myself on one side or another about a moral question, I will be formed by the church and the Order and made new. 

Holy Prayer: The Order of Julian is the only religious order that requires a vow of prayer. As an associate I am required to say one daily office and a special prayer asking God’s help for all in the Order. I am also expected to spend some hours each week in silent prayer. Beyond that I am vowed to continue serious religious reading and to make a life-long study of Julian’s Revelations of Divine Love. In terms of time and effort, the rule of Prayer is probably the most demanding.  Affiliates will differ in the amount of time they can devote to prayer and study. I may have plenty of time now, but next year obligations may keep me from spending so much time praying and reading.

As to the daily office, the Order uses the traditional appointment of psalms as shown in the Book of Common Prayer. Proceeding from the first psalm straight on to the 150th, the entire psalter is covered each month. As of November 1st, I have adopted this practice. At first I thought this would be disorienting, but it is quite the reverse. Of course, the office takes a bit longer, but just a bit. 

Living these vows is a work in progress. I may adhere to one or another differently from year to year. I may be granted a deeper understanding of one or the other and pursue that revelation. I may falter in my practice. Perhaps I will feel discouraged or abandoned. Something in my life may disrupt my practice or my disposition. I may gain or lose in grace and love.

Whatever happens, I have back up. I have people praying for me every day. I have individuals I can turn to. I have a monastery that I can go to for retreat and reflection. I have my vows that will keep me pointed toward my Savior and Redeemer.

Affiliation with The Order of Julian of Norwich is at two levels, the Associate and the Oblate. I am an Associate. There are many of us all over the world. We strengthen and bless each other and, with God’s help, we strengthen and bless all creation.

The Order has a lovely website where you can read more about monastic life and affiliate vows. The ipublications are especially interesting, especially to the theology-minded. The photo albums reveal much of monastery life; a talented photographer shares images of the place and the work there. I hope that you will visit the web site and also that you will see the many ways that our faith and our church find expression in the lives of the people.





Monday, November 10, 2014

To Live a Vowed Life - Part I - Chosen



A spiritual journey is a strange thing. It rarely makes sense in the living of it. Occasionally, there will be some gift of the Spirit and you think, “Oh, I bet that was God.” You wander about and find yourself inexplicably loving a complete stranger that you see for a moment on the street or on the bus. If you’re very lucky or very smart, you think once again, “Oh, that was God doing that.”

Then, in church you hear words that you’ve heard hundreds, maybe thousands, of times, and they jolt you. Maybe it’s “The gifts of God for the people of God,” or “Heaven and earth are full of your glory.” But this time, the words stun you. Suddenly, the Eucharist is a massive treatise on theology, and creation screams with the presence of God.

Personally, I am not fond of explanations, neither about my life, nor about anyone’s. It’s as easy to say that God has a plan as it is to say that everything is random. Explanations don't help. Let’s just live into our faith and our beingness. 

About a year ago, I suddenly felt the need to find a way to go off and pray, to live for some days in silence and contemplation. I also felt the need to connect to someone or something beyond my parish (much as I love my parish). Although wanting a silent retreat was a normal desire for me and one I've fed variously throughout my life, this intense desire to become a part of a contemplative religious body was new.

With a search in (God’s gift of) Google, I found Julian House Monastery just one state away. I posted about that visit here. After four wonderful days there, I knew without a doubt that I wanted to affiliate with the Order of Julian of Norwich. I submitted a petition and after some months of discernment on their part and mine, and quite a bit of paperwork, I was received. My admission rite was performed on October 5th of this year. My rector kindly recommended me, and three generous fellow parishioners sponsored me.

I have a medal that I wear around my neck. I may add the initials AOJN after my name. I have made vows of poverty, chastity, obedience and prayer.  I will be invited to the affiliates’ get-together, Julian Fest, in June. I am very, very happy.  People are happy for me. Probably it was God doing it.

Looking back over my life, my path, my journey, I can discern that this development makes sense for me, but I can just as easily see it as out of step with my experience. I could have easily ended up in a different church or no church, much less, in a religious Order. I could have had several husbands or none. I could have been some sophisticated literary person at a cocktail party or a selfless charity worker spending every weekend at a homeless shelter.  

The gift of this vocation is precious to me. I thank God for it every day. I know without a doubt that God is moving in my life every moment. This knowledge, however, simply assures me that God is moving in all our lives. What looks special from the outside, the medal, the letters, the vows, is really just my ordinary life now, just as a job in a coffee shop or a bank might be someone else’s ordinary life.

I resist the notion of God’s preference. God might have chosen Mary to be the mother of Christ, but does that mean that he loved her more than anyone else in Nazareth, or in the world? I don’t think so. God chose Abraham to be the father of millions, but did God actually esteem this man above any other? I cannot believe it. Just as I cannot believe that my call to a contemplative life proves that I am of a higher order in God’s, or anyone’s eyes. I don’t want to weigh the grace that I receive against anyone or anything.

My grandfather had favorites among his children. (My grandmother did not.) He played them off against each other all his life with predictable results: they never gave up snarling at each other. People would say he was playing God, but I don’t think God plays like that. It’s when we try to make sense of things, when we ascribe preferment to this or that person or this or that tribe that we lose sight of God. Life is not a game; only games are games. Winners and losers are for baseball and checkers and Monopoly. In life we are all winners.

God must love us all, magnificently and equally; we needn't jockey for favor. This is Julian’s teaching and I willingly admit her influence. Julian said that when God looks at us, all he sees is the brilliant beautiful beings he created. God sees us not as we see ourselves, nor as my grandfather saw his children. Is God blind to our sins? No. God sees the pain and sorrow that our sin causes and God feels every ounce of it. 

When I compose myself to say my prayers, when I study my vows, I know that these prayers, these vows, my life connect me to all of humanity. We are on level terms. We are all the apple of his eye.  

Next week I reflect on my vows. (Everyone is mad curious about my vows.)



Sunday, October 26, 2014

The Voice of Lament




Can sorrow honor God? Does our emptiness speak to God in a particular way?

The voice of lament is heard many times in Scripture, especially in the Old Testament. It is practically a refrain. Pain, longing, desolation – we hear these voices in the desert, on the road to Babylon, in ravaged cities. People describe their wounds to God in a way that, to some of us, is unseemly. All this loneliness, all that dependence – and the endless tears. Job, Hosea,and the writer of Lamentations could make us all a bit uncomfortable.

In our modern age, great shows of emotion, especially sadness is embarrassing. So is the voice of lament a sacred voice or is it a relic of less enlightened times? 

When my sister died two years ago, her youngest granddaughter wept. It was all she could do. All through the viewing, the funeral, at the cemetery and on the way home, she wept, quietly and continuously. Her parents and others held her, touched her, stroked her hair. She had nothing but her tears. Julia was 13 that year and nothing like this had ever happened to her.

Did she know she was praying? I couldn't say. But she was. She was wholly formed in that moment by her sorrow. She had nothing else, and, when you have nothing, what you do have is God, whether you know it or not, whether you want it or not.

Devastating emptiness like this is a rare thing in life. We might never feel it. Yet the voice of lament reaches out to us from Scripture across the millennia. But why heed this voice if it’s so far removed from us?

Consider the story of Hosea:
“Go, take to yourself a wife of harlotry, and have children of harlotry; for the land commits flagrant harlotry, forsaking the Lord” (Hos. 1:2). 

Hosea is required by God to marry a prostitute, Gomer. He is required to love her and be faithful to her, which he does and is. She gives him three children, two of which are not even his. These later two are called “Not My Loved One” and “Not my People”. Hosea is required to love them, too, and he does.

Even after she returns to her lovers, Hosea must love Gomer and ultimately take her back. God spoke to him:
“Go again, love a woman who is loved by her husband, yet an adulteress, even as the Lord loves the sons of Israel, though they turn to other gods” (
Hos. 3:1).

In Hosea, God himself laments:

O Ephraim, what shall I do unto thee? O Judah, what shall I do unto thee? for your goodness is as a morning cloud, and as the early dew it goeth away. Therefore have I hewed them by the prophets; I have slain them by the words of my mouth: and thy judgments are as the light that goeth forth. For I desired mercy, and not sacrifice; and the knowledge of God more than burnt offerings. But they like men have transgressed the covenant: there have they dealt treacherously against me. (Hosea 6:4-7)

Could this be any clearer? 

God uses Hosea’s life as an illustration of God’s own love of Israel. Hosea is a kind of demonstration project for the faithfulness of God, and Hosea shines the light of it.  Just as Hosea loved Gomer no matter what she did, so God loves us and will always take us back. Moreover, all our sins and wickedness will be turned to glory, just as Gomer’s two children were finally accepted and renamed.

In the New Testament, the voice of lament is heard much less often. To me, the reason for this is clear. God is now with us. We are no longer talking about a people breaking faith with God; we are no more crying out for salvation; we are in the midst of it. It is present. Surely people were just as sinful in the first Century AD, but the story is now about the Kingdom of God which has come.

In such instances as the sinful woman's weeping at Jesus' feet, Jesus' weeping over Jerusalem, the death of Lazarus, Peter's denial, Judas' suicide, the weeping women on the way of the cross, we see lament.


And then the big one:

Jesus cries out from the cross. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” [Matthew 26:47

The most original thinker of all time lost, in that moment, his originality and relied on a quote. His unique voice left him. He drew his response from the psalmist. [Psalm 22]

If Jesus were a character in a novel, this would be the part that all the reviewers would want to talk about. It is that important. It's that revealing.

Jesus is lamenting, not as God lamented in Hosea, but as a human being, using a tried and true prayer. He laments with all of humanity who has sung this psalm before him and known its bleakness. 

Jesus’ Incarnation is, for me, at this time, most perfectly expressed. He drew his prayer from human experience.  He was (and is) absolutely with us and of us. And when we lament, we are, likewise, with him. 



Dorotheos of Gaza was a 6th Century hermit. He came up with an illustration of what happens in prayer. He preached that when we pray, as we become closer to God through our prayer, we draw nearer to each other. In fact, the closer we get to God the closer we get to each other. And the closer we get to each other the closer we get to God.

That was what Jesus was doing, drawing us to himself and drawing us to God. 

When we pray in the voice of lament, for example, we join ourselves to all those many faithful who also prayed in that voice. It's a big voice. Because lament always brings us to God, it is a voice of hope and, ultimately, a voice of joy. What else could it be? 

In prayer, it is never just God and me. Even if I am praying secretly in my room as in Matthew 6:6, I am praying as part of the body of Christ. Augustine of Hippo tells us: He who loveth little prayeth little, he who loveth much prayeth much. 

The reason this is true is explained in Dorotheos' illustration. Approaching God is to approach our neighbor. Loving God is to love our neighbor.

The love we felt for little Julia that day in 2012 was palpable. The care we felt from God moved us toward her and toward each other. We went out in the morning in sadness but returned home with joy. 

Monday, September 15, 2014

I Know That My Redeemer Lives



Over the past weeks, the Episcopal Daily Office has featured the Book of Job for its Old Testament readings. Although many scholars agree that the events in this book never actually occurred, Job’s story is famous, often referred to and frequently invoked when people experience difficulty and despair. 

“Think of Job” we are told when we feel aggrieved. Job suffered and never denied God. And, of course, Job was rewarded in the end.  Even so-called non-believers remind us and themselves of this long-suffering hero who loses everything and then gets it back again.

The story of Job has no key part in the story of the Jewish people. Job is related to no one in Jewish history, he does not seem to have a place in any tribe. Perhaps he was one of the ones warning Pharaoh of impending doom, or perhaps he wasn't. He is not the link in any narrative thread. He is an outlier, a stand-alone.

But you can’t keep a good story down, so this wonderful book is part of our Canon and is told, albeit in a shortened version, in churches today. Job is wonderful. He’s George Clooney, Bill Moyers and Elizabeth II all rolled into one. He’s generous, fair, loving and rich. Everyone who encounters him, even briefly, goes away blessed. Until it all ends.

Job loses everything and can’t understand why. He suffers for no cause that he can discern. His friends urge him to look within for his fault. His own wife advises him to curse God. These supporting characters are almost comical in their blindness. They can see only one reason for Job’s suffering. He must have done something. God rewards the good and punishes the bad.

This thinking is not so far off from the prosperity gospel that is preached in far too many churches today. The purpose of religion is to win God’s approval which is worth actually very little intrinsically but is extremely valuable in the benefits that accrue to the believer. Job’s earlier life attested to this. His virtue and wealth were in balance. If one of these goes south, the other must have diminished as well.

Job’s search for answers is heart breaking. He sifts through every aspect of his life, every shred of doctrine known to him but finds nothing to explain what he sees as God’s sudden change of heart. “I know that my redeemer lives” he claims, and this famous sentence is prayed at our funerals to this day. His love for God and his faith in God’s goodness stand firm. He feels that God is far from him in his suffering, but he knows he has nowhere else to turn. Where else can he go? Just as Peter said when some followers turned away and Jesus wondered if they, too, would leave, “Lord, to whom shall we go?” (John 6:68), so does Job know that God alone can satisfy him.

Finally God comes to him. “Dress for action, like a man” demands God. “I will question you and you will answer me.” And thus begins one of the most powerful discourses in all of Scripture.

After a stream of rhetorical questions, such as “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? Tell me if you understand” to which he has no answer, Job capitulates to God’s eternal wisdom and power.  God then restores Job to his former wealth and status.  In fact, he gets twice what he had before.

To satisfy his readers, Charles Dickens added a second ending to Great Expectations in which Pip, the hero, marries a kinder gentler Estella. The first ending had them parting cordially and was, for me, much truer to character and story. In my view, someone did the same thing to the Book of Job.  Someone’s idea of a happy ending was totally earth-bound.

I do not begrudge Job his newly restored riches and reputation, but I do begrudge the story’s abrupt ending and the implication that wealth is reward for suffering. In my opinion, the reward for Job's suffering is the magnificent one-on-one with God that Job was granted. God spent 125 verses speaking with Job. The entire discourse takes up 135 verses. What would you endure for 135 verses with God?


I ask myself what did Job value after all this torment? Did he look with pleasure on his riches, his flocks, his charming new family? Or did he recall with joy and awe his 135 verses with the Almighty? What had the real value for him, his vast estate or his intimacy with his Creator? 

Monday, August 25, 2014

Compline and the First Weeks of Prayer Group





Early this spring two fellow parishioners invited me to help them start a prayer group.These two individuals had recently suffered serious difficulties in their lives and had developed very intense prayer practices through this great need. They wanted to be able to help other people find their way into prayer, to pray in a group for support and comfort and to grow further into their own spiritual life.

We certainly did begin this group. We met bi-weekly for three+ months and will resume a few weeks after Labor Day. We covered topics such as Centering Prayer, Lectio Divina; we discussed the different types of prayer, petition, intercession, praise, thanksgiving, oblation etc. We prayed together, It's been a qualitative, if not quantitative, success. Enough people have loved it that we feel encouraged to offer a second series in the fall.

It must be a hard thing to walk into a room with the purpose that you and others will pray together. You might feel exposed either in your inadequate praying (as if any of us are ever adequate) or vulnerable in your need. You might even feel that you have nothing to learn or gain from such an experience because you're fine praying as you are.The Sunday Eucharist does not deter people in this way despite the fact that, as we saw and studied, the prayers contained in the liturgy are just as soul-baring as anything could be. So our attendance was small, but enthusiastic.

The Daily Office has been a part of my life for 4 years. I find it so rewarding, so grace-filled, that I wanted to share it in some way with others. To that end I asked and received permission to lead a service of Compline during the summer months. It would be part of an overall prayer effort from the prayer group with additional elements to be determined in the future.

Unlike Morning and Evening Prayer, Compline does not have assigned readings that change from day to day. It is simple, short, sweet - actually very sweet. I set about preparing for this project.

So that people would feel entirely comfortable at this service, I made booklets that they could follow without having to find this or that page in the Book of Common Prayer. These were available on a table that people would pass on their way to their pews.

I transcribed the Order for Compline exactly from the Prayer Book, word for word. I didn't want anyone to have even one moment of uncertainty. I put the rubrics in red, just like in the old days. I included instructions for antiphonal reading of the Psalms and a request that everyone sit in the front pews. Remarkably, people did just that.

The one piece I did add was a prayer for members of our parish. Using the parish directory, I took all the first names of the parish and put them in columns on strips of heavy manila paper like bookmarks. It was easy to ask somebody to read one of these lists each night. Over the summer, we were able to pray for every member of our parish. Occasionally and serendipitously people were there to hear their own names and the names of their families read.

For atmosphere, I kept the lights dim and had one chair that the prayer leader (usually me but often another parishioner) could sit in during times of sitting. One candle burned to the side.

We began each evening with about 13 minutes of "still prayer," silent, undirected prayer. A chime would ring and we would stand and begin. Then followed another 15 or so minutes of spoken prayer, the Order for Compline. Many or few voices, once just my own voice. Praying into the darkness, the same words night after night.

Most nights we would observe the tradition of leaving in silence.

Over the months of Summer Compline, eighteen different people took part with an average nightly attendance of four. Five people absolutely loved the service and are eager for it to resume in the fall and again, more regularly, next summer. We hope.

Our next project is a half-day of prayer in November, sort of a mini-retreat. More about that when the time comes.

I feel a bit like the sower in the parable, tossing praying all over the place, blissfully unmindful that sometimes these efforts come to nothing. I feel that I have this one chance to do something and that I must get on with it. 

Over my life I have had many projects, some for work, some for family, some for church. This one has been different. The work is there, the preparation, the waiting, but the nerves are gone. Somehow gone. I feel oddly impervious to possible failure, ridicule or, even more dangerously, praise. 

That one evening when I said Compline alone - I didn't mind at all.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Does God Pray?



This is an idea that has only recently occurred to me, possibly because it seems to assume that God might lack something. What would God ask for? To whom would he pray?

I asked this question a couple of weeks ago on Twitter and received several profound and thoughtful answers. @sjpat3 said “Why not? I'll go out on a limb here and say that maybe that's how the Holy Spirit moves. Or how God moves us. #worksforme” and @canticanovae added “Seems likely, as Jesus prayed, and ‘whoever has seen me has seen the Father’” while @jnotudor said “I think spiritual communion is in God's triune essence.” I was surprised and delighted that no one who answered seemed to be shocked by the question.

Looking beyond the standard forms of prayer: adoration, petition, oblation and the like and considering contemplative prayer, I find an opening, so to speak, to believe in God's prayer. 

Centering Prayer and its cousin Christian Meditation are predicated on the idea that God is deep within us. God gave us our lives and God sustains our lives. We cannot develop in any way without God. The Psalms are full of this. 

Consider:

Indeed, there is not a word on my lips,
but you, O Lord, know it altogether. 
You press upon me behind and before
and lay your hand upon me.  Psalm 139


Although we have the physical ability to build houses, sew curtains, farm land, we are only pretending when we think this comes from our own strength. There is no progress without God - no holiness, no prayer, no virtue, no salvation. 


"For God alone my soul in silence waits," says the psalmist. (Psalm 62) We are born with this longing. We might need to set it aside some time while we deal with our life. We might not feel it equally every day. If we are honest with ourselves, though, we will see that our most powerful wanting is for God.

But what does God want?

The Lord looks down from heaven
and beholds all the people in the world.
From where he sits enthroned, he turns his gaze 
on all who dwell on the earth.
He fashions the hearts of them
and understands all their works.  Psalm 33

If I base my answer on Biblical texts, I'd have to say that what God wants is, quite simply, us. In fact, the entire body of Scripture is one big long chase scene. God is after us all the time. God pursues us wherever we go, whatever we do. God makes paths for us, signs for us, laws for us. God sends songs and poems to us. God sends his Son to us. 

Preachers tell us that God wants to be "in relationship with us." For me, that is much too mild a construct. A relationship is people having coffee, being Facebook friends, sharing golf tips. God's desire is total. Nothing short of complete union will do. 

"Batter my heart, three-personed God," begged John Donne. Could he have found that line, much less the thirteen verses that follow it, on his own? Was it not the link to the God of his heart that brought his glorious sonnet into being?

This is why I think God prays.

When we are moved to ask for God's grace, to seek his face, it is God leading us. When we marvel at the beauty of the created world or gasp at the tenderness between a child and parent, that is God showing us. When we walk up the aisle to receive the bread and wine made holy, it is God guiding our feet.

I believe that God's attention to us is continuous and total. I believe that God is never not looking at us. God pulls us toward him. God points us in his direction. Our prayers are sought by God even before we begin them. Our curiosity, our longing are nothing but the reflection of God's desire for us. And I call that desire prayer.

What is God's creation of the world if not a prayer? What is God's care for his work, the feeding of the ravens, the dressing of the lilies, if not a prayer? And what is the incarnation of Jesus, our Lord, if not a prayer?

So when you pray, remember that God has sought your prayers, that God is reaching for you just as you are reaching for God. Know when you pray, especially if you pray imperfectly, that God has put the words into your mouth, the ideas into your head, the passion into your heart.

"We do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words." Romans 8:26