Monday, January 27, 2014

Are We A Tribe?

I used to envy my Jewish friends. They had a connection to each other before they ever even met. It was blood, it was family, it was history and it was God. Nothing, no academic rivalry or romantic furor could undermine the identity they shared so easily. And it was big. It stretched back thousands of years and all across the globe.

When God sent Abraham off to Egypt, he promised him protection. He also promised him many descendents. This multitude of people issuing from Abraham became the people of Israel. Their history which we know so well, is a tribal history. They were ethnically connected. They were bound by belief and by the covenant under which they operated. They had enemies and fought them, sometimes winning. They have a history which they, even now, repeat to themselves and to each other with regularity. They are a tribe. They are one.

To this day, these people are a People; they see themselves as a people. Do they have their differences of opinion? Most definitely. But the identity which the Bible tells us God created in them is still there. After nearly four thousand years of history and despite a Diaspora stretching across the face of the earth, this people, this tribe, still lives their story and practices their faith.

Christianity, of course, proceeds from Judaism. We Christians continue the story of the Israelites on a tangent, so to speak. Our Messiah is the Messiah for which Jews waited and prayed all through their history. Our faith is based on Jesus’ fulfilling the Mosaic law and the Hebrew prophets. But are we a tribe? What unity can we claim?

Jesus set us on a different path with a different idea of unity. The old ties were no longer enough. 

Did Jesus care about blood ties? He said that his brothers and sisters were those who heard the word of God. (Luke 8:21) 

Did he care about nations? He rebuked tribe-only attitudes and almost got himself assassinated for it. (Luke 4:25-29) 

Did he care about property? He advocated divesting oneself of all property and following him. (Matthew 19:16-22) 

Did he care about rules? He ate with sinners, healed on the Sabbath and violated purity rules. (Luke 5:27-32; Mark 3:1-6; Mark 2:19-20)

Yes he was a devout Jew observing all feasts, quoting scripture, praying, blessing, and teaching, but he preached a togetherness that went far beyond his own people. Or, rather, he considered his own people to be all those who accepted his word.

This was a new concept and one that we still have trouble with. There are some 41,000 different denominations of Christianity. Some get along quite well with their neighbors; others are in a constant war of words with everyone else. When Jesus prayed that his disciples, and those who believe because of them (ourselves, in other words) become one with him and one with the Father through him, I think he meant a oneness that transcends our small divisions.

There is but one Gospel. There is but one Messiah. There is just one God and Father of all. I do believe that Jesus’ vision will come true somehow. I have to believe that the Gospel will enlighten everyone who hears it, that a seed of truth will be planted in every heart.

People are weak. Our petty concerns and squabbles are nothing but dust against the power of God and the will of Christ. Our errors can be wiped away in the blink of an eye when the time is right.

This means that I have to find a sense of oneness, of tribe, if you will, with all my Christian sisters and brothers. That means finding oneness with the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church as well as with the snake handler in Kentucky; with the Lutheran congregant who's almost just like me and with the "Evangelical" sitting in a mega church looking at a jumbotron; with my own dear vicar as well as with Mark Driscoll.

I cannot write anyone off.

This is not a human bond; it does not appeal in human terms. It does not offer the cozy feeling of family. It is a unity of spirit. As our Savior reminded his apostles,we are no longer of the world. We are of the Spirit and our hearts must live on spiritual things. Following Christ, living the Gospel, bringing the kingdom of God – this is our purpose and it is one we share with every Christian.

I have much pride in my church. I'm a bit of a snob both liturgically and doctrinally. I have spoken disdainfully of those “others” who do not worship or understand as I do. I have spoken worse about those who use their religion to hurt others, to wield power, to shame, to deride. This has not helped me spiritually, nor has it served Christendom. It has not brought even one person to know Christ.

I cannot write anyone off.

If God can see around all my flaws, I should be able to stand back from my own sense of rightness to find the soul in whoever it is that is before me at the moment. The Body of Christ into which we were Baptized and called daily is one Body. However differently and imperfectly we manifest our faith, the love that we find for each other is the only thing that will bring God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Cold

I live in the Upper Midwest of the United States, and in winter it gets very cold here. It’s not the coldest place on earth, but, as we like to say, you notice it. On January 6, this year, the Feast of the Epiphany, the temperature dropped to -23 degrees. That’s Fahrenheit. It was cold.

As I must do every day, I ventured out in the early morning to run some errands and I certainly noticed it. In fact, the cold that day was so aggressive, so omnipresent, that, for the few moments I was out in it, I could think of nothing else.

The Psalmist tells us that all of God’s creatures praise him, Everything owes its existence to God. Everything by its existence glorifies God. I wondered how the cold was glorifying God on that Monday.

I was unable to ignore the cold. Everything I did was because of the cold. I could feel the cold penetrate my down filled coat and my fleece lined hat and mittens. The cold contorted my face, hurried my steps, and quickened my breathing. It wouldn’t let me be. It was all I could think of.

The cold was merely being itself, being true to its nature. But by being so raw and relentless it pushed its nature onto everyone and everything.

Because God is creator, all of God’s creatures show his glory. “Heaven and earth are full of your glory” we sing each Sunday. To see the glory of God in a tree or an elk or a mountain we make an intention to do so, We go there, take in the sight and reflect. In a blade of grass, in the face of a neighbor, in a mud puddle, God can be found. But I did not find God in the cold. In stead, God found me.

If only I could glorify God that way. If only I could be so true to my own nature that God’s creation of me would be undeniable. How true, how pure can I be? How much of my lifetime of accretions can be rubbed away so that I can be like the cold?

I believe that Christ, by his Incarnation, gave us the power to be as profound and insistent as the cold. His sanctifying presence on this earth released a spark into all of creation. How would the world look if we, as followers of Christ, were as bold as the north wind, as inclusive as a blanket of snow?

This is not a call to aggressive evangelism. It is a call to bring forth our true natures as Christ’s own to cover the earth with love, to be obviously God’s own. Can we be that?

Sunday, January 12, 2014

My Favorite Books of 2013

Weeks and weeks after everybody else published their best-books-of-the-year lists, here I am with my own. Not only am I late-ish, but I am also cheating just a bit. Not every book on this list was published in 2013. But I promise that I read every one of them last year.

On average I read about 50 books each year. I read a lot of fiction, most of it “literary”, some murder mysteries. I read but sparingly in non-fiction. People’s accounts of what they did are my least favorite; the grander their deeds the less I am inclined to read about them. Books about faith are my most favorite. Of this latter category, there are many to choose from. In no particular order, then, here are my seven best books of 2013:

My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman. Called to a renewed faith in the midst of new love and illness, Wiman delivers a personal testament of his own searching and finding, questioning and accepting. This beautiful work is best read in short sessions over a long period of time so that all its truths can be absorbed. Wiman is himself a poet and writes about poetry, his own and others, and how writing brings him to himself.

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toiban Here is another testament but this one is fictionalized and offered  by the Mother of Jesus long after his death and Resurrection. This Mary is resilient, curmudgeonly, distrustful but still strongly, if differently, faithful. Her difficult child has left her lonely and sure of only one or two things. No spoilers here.

Simply Jesus by N. T. Wright This was my first reading of anything by the modern Anglican rock star of theology, and I was not disappointed. As a recent Ignatian exercitant, I am drawn to any writing that takes Jesus seriously both as to his purpose on earth and his divine nature. Wright views Jesus through the lens of history, yes, but, more importantly, as one who was destined, purposeful and most certainly successful.

Hitler’s Niece by Ron Hansen A young girl is sought out and favored by her charismatic and increasingly dangerous uncle. She is flattered. She has found a way out of her dreary life. The author is meticulous with history and generous with his human heroine though unforgiving with her nemesis. As the story unfolds we sense its inevitability despite one desperate slice of hope when a kindly Jesuit tries to counsel the young woman.

Harvest by Jim Crace This disturbing novel is set in a non-specific, pre-industrial agricultural community at the time of harvest. Times are tough but not too tough. A good harvest is needed and it looks to be just good enough. Survival in this place is achieved by a complex web of interdependence in the community.  There is a precarious harmony, based on need rather than fellow feeling. Some new people come to town. There is a mysterious fire. These happenings are enough to upend the delicate balance and bit by bit the interstices which hold the community together weaken and dissolve. It’s scary and it’s written almost totally in iambs.

Barchester Towers by Anthony Trollope Like comedies? Like marriage plots? Like gentle spoofs about church politics from days of yore? Me too! This wonderful Trollope classic could have been bitter and scathing; instead it is kindly and tender. And for this American, it was a bit of a vocabulary lesson as well. Do you know what a precentor is? How about a prebendary? My spellcheck has no idea either, so you’re not alone.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson I have thought long and hard about what I am going to say here. I hesitate to make blanket statements/recommendations, but I am making one now. This is a book every Christian should read. Apart from the New Testament, I can’t think of or even imagine any writing that so perfectly represents faith in Christ as does Gilead.

John Ames is an elderly pastor in the small town of Gilead, Iowa. He is writing a long missive to the child of his old age, to say what he will not have the chance to say to him as an adult. He digresses, of course, but what we learn and what this small boy will eventually also learn about his devout father and the God of his heart is so beautiful and so holy. The old man’s faith has reached an incandescence that I can almost believe is available to all of us, given the grace and the time and the will.

Here is one of the many reflections he makes about sin:

If the Lord chooses to make nothing of our transgressions, then they are nothing. Or whatever reality they have is trivial and conditional beside the exquisite primary fact of existence. Of course the Lord would wipe them away, just as I wipe dirt from your face, or tears. After all, why should the Lord bother much over these smirches that are no part of His Creation.

Monday, January 6, 2014

The Gift My Mother Gave Me

When we celebrate the Feast of the Epiphany, we recall the journey of the Magi and their gifts to the Christ Child. These gifts were emblematic of his kingship, gold; his divinity, frankincense; and his death on the cross, myrrh. Some say that our tradition of gift giving at Christmas derives from these first gifts.

Gifts are wonderful and come in all sorts of disguises. Some things that come to us as gifts seem, after a while, to be burdens; likewise, some problems that we face turn out to be gifts. A saint would say that everything that comes our way is actually a gift from God, whether it is a sinus infection or a child or learning to play the ukulele.

Mothers give their children gifts and the gift of faith is no exception. A mother models her own faith to her children and they learn about God from her. Yes, fathers do likewise, but indulge me, please. I want to talk about my mother.

She had a rough time with religion. Raised in a strict Catholic home, she received a religion based mainly on fear, sin, penance, unworthiness and guilt. Try as she might to temper that message for me, the scary pageant of evil was paraded before me and I learned that I had to become worthy of God’s love through sinlessness, which was, of course, impossible.

My mother was an unhappy person who never felt worthy of God’s love, who obsessed over her shortcomings and saw only the chasm dividing her from Our Lord. She was afraid of almost everything and there was truly no one to help her.

But God helped her a little bit.

My mother had a profound delight in the created world. Although she never exactly connected her love of creation with the creator’s love for her, things in the world touched her deeply. It could be a thunderstorm or a tree-covered hill in autumn. It could be the stars or a race horse. It could be the sad face of a person on the bus or an old tree root poking up through the pavement. Her times of joy came from these promptings.

It was this that she gave me, for I, too, share in this delight in the world. I know that my truest and first real awareness of God came from being with my mother as she would rejoice over some wonderful sight or sound.

She and I would often take a walk after supper. The nearby cemetery* was one of our favorite spots (her melancholy being operative here, perhaps). One spring evening we picked many, many violets. I can still remember the sight of her work-worn hand clasping them. It is that hand holding those violets that I can still see as clear as day, that hand holding God’s violets so carefully. My own were held less gently to be sure.

She found a small vase to put them in when we got home. They sat on the kitchen table. The next day during breakfast, my father smiled at them and I thought to myself: Has he ever seen her holding violets? Can he know what these violets mean? Can anyone? To me those violets in her hand meant something that I wouldn't really understand for many years - though I never forgot the sight of them.

you see, my mother’s "religion" had not been able to seep into her love of creation. It was the one place in her life untainted by fear and guilt. Whereas she felt herself unworthy of the love of the Supreme Being in heaven, she was quite at home with the beauty and grace she found on earth. Whether she knew it or not, her touch on flowers was prayer, the old neighbors she cared for were saints, the sky was God.

This is what she gave me, and, in my few godless years, I drew grace from created things. Thanks to my mother I was never far from God after all. Far from the pew, far from the Eucharist, maybe, but not far from prayer, grace, God. These words from Psalm 27 sum it up for her and for me, too.

What if I had not believed
that I would see the goodness of the Lord
in the land of the living!

* The picture above was taken in the actual cemetery that my mother and I walked in so often. Thank you Google!