Monday, February 24, 2014

My Protestant Reformation - Part One

Many people leave the Roman Catholic church to become Protestants. They all have their reasons. Many have, likewise, ventured in the other direction, also for their own reasons. I believe that we are all brothers and sisters in Christ and all share in eternal life. My own story is neither dramatic nor unique. Nevertheless, blogs being what they are, I feel I must tell it.

As a Catholic, I was what you could call “devout.” No one I knew doubted the truth of the Catholic church, much less the existence of God. Did I feel the presence of God in my life then as I do now, or was it my family, church and school whose presence I felt? I’ll never know. I do know that I prayed earnestly and was faithful in the sacraments, teachings and practice. Church was a big part of my life. It surrounded and defined me.

This is not going to be a post about how damaging the Catholic church is - or was. I went to Catholic school for 12 years, and I do not regret one day of it. I was “raised by nuns” some of whom I disliked, but most of whom I loved dearly. I parted company with the church over some issues, but I have no personal beef with it.

My understanding of Protestantism was that people believed they were already “saved” by Christ’s death and Resurrection and that they had no fear of hell. To be a Protestant was, therefore, to take the easy road. We learned that the Reformation took place because so many people were unwilling to embrace the rigors of true religion. Protestants certainly had nothing to teach me.

Then there came a time in my life when, without being too specific, it became very easy for me to “fall into sin.” I don’t live easily with cognitive dissonance so, to make my life simple, I rejected religion completely. I was like the fundamentalist who, when told that it is a sin to wear shorts, announces that she never believed in God anyhow. I met a lot of new people who were talking about a lot of things besides religion.

There was rock ‘n roll; there was philosophy; there was Civil Rights; there was feminism; there was art and literature. Who needed God with all this great stuff?

I became enamored of myself and my ideas. I loved other people insofar as they agreed with me. I was right. I was righteous. I was militant.

Do you know anyone like that? Big personality. Full of passion and zeal. Committed to a better world and always having a boyfriend. How can someone so irresistible be so unhappy? In the midst of all this, I felt that terrible emptiness that only comes when God is far away.

In those days, I often reviewed my non-belief, backing it up with logic and my own observation of a broken world and meaningless existence. Surely any God was so far away, so laissez-faire, that invoking him or her would be a waste of time. Maybe the universe hung together on its own. Maybe there was a system, like astrology or tarot or something that underlay it all. Maybe I needed to find out.

I ended all my friendships, moved to a new apartment, sold all my records and most of my furniture. All that was left was a Siamese cat and a hundred or so books. I decided to study anthropology, informally, on my own. I read many dozens of books, one book leading to another as so often happens. This study gave me a lot of answers about human behavior. For example,  the first things to develop in a culture are structure and ritual. Rules about families, rules about food, rules about work. It showed me what I knew as a small child, that religious practice is central to our lives.

What drives people to organize their lives this way? Why are ritual and structure so satisfying? Even before an actual God is envisioned, humans conduct themselves worshipfully. Why is this so? Where does this need come from? Holiness is natural, it seemed.  Why had I let it go?

"Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you." 1 John 27

Next week: what happened next!

Monday, February 17, 2014

The Bengali Tea Boy

Did you know that Buddhism has saints? It does. One in particular was Atisha, a monk and teacher who had renounced the magic of Tantra in favor of the Buddha’s teachings. He became so admired that he was invited to bring the teachings to Tibet.

Atisha had a tea boy who was sullen and disrespectful. Daily the teacher had to overcome his own pride and sense of self to show loving kindness to his tea boy. The tea boy was never grateful for this but continued in his bad tempered ways.

When Atisha finally accepted the Tibetan invitation, he heard that the people in that country were so cheerful and mild mannered that he feared he would have no one on whom to practice his compassion training. So he brought his tea boy to Tibet with him.

Is the lesson in this as obvious to you as it was to me?

In my last job, I had dealings with a contractor who constantly resisted the requirements in his contract. He made long and self-righteous claims as to why he should not have to comply. He invoked my (deceased) predecessor, wishing he were still in place. He went above my head to elected officials to court their approval and support. He was my Bengali tea boy.

Far from growing to despise this person, I actually came to love him. It was a miracle. His resistance, his whining simply made me value him all the more. I decided I would see the face of Christ in this person because I know it was there. I would treat him like a great sage, a highly valued colleague. I would listen to him with an open heart and I would say kind things about him afterward. My intention to love him became reality. 

I was not able to bend the rules for him as my predecessor had done, nor was I inclined to. He worked for an outstanding organization that did fine work and I praised it and him whenever I could. I was ruthless about the contract and fulsome in praise for all the good that they accomplished. I made friends with his co-workers and clients.

Did he grow to like me? I honestly doubt it. But that wasn't the point. I wasn't after getting him to like me. I was after getting myself to like him. And that did happen. Now that I am retired, I miss him most of all.
Everyone has a Bengali tea boy in her or his life. Everyone can learn to love and value that tea boy. Everyone can don the virtues of patience and kindness and direct all of that to the tea boy.

But, one last piece from this lesson, one closing, disturbing possibility…am I someone else’s Bengali tea boy?
If I am, Dear God, let that person find the grace that I found. Let her or him see the face of Christ in me.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Vanity of Vanities

Suppose in church one Sunday, after the Gospel is read and you and all the congregation have seated yourselves comfortably, smoothing out the creases in your Sunday attire, the preacher were to embark on a sermon that said nothing was worth anything. Imagine the preacher continued to explain that a stillborn child is luckier that a person who lives many years. Or what if the preacher said that because both rich and poor, wise and foolish, die alike, there is no reason to exert yourself?

Last week my study group undertook the Book of Ecclesiastes. We were told that because God has already created and made everything as it is, there is no point in exerting ourselves (3:14). We also found that there is no sure promise of afterlife (3:21) and that, though wisdom is better than foolishness, in the end, the fool meets the same end as the sage (7:15)
Vanity of vanities. All is vanity says the preacher (1:2).

Throughout Ecclesiastes the “preacher” reminds us that all our strivings, all our arguments, all our accomplishments are vanity. He adds that they are chasing after the wind.

There has been some study of the word “vanity” which is repeated many times in this book. The Latin vanitas was used by Jerome when he translated the Bible into Latin. So when translators wrote the book in English, the word “vanity” seemed the obvious choice. Some modern scholars have interpreted the word to better mean meaninglessness. If, however, we go back to the Hebrew word hebel, we find that it is mostly used to refer to smoke or mist or fog.

I prefer an actual image over a concept every time, so, for me,  mist it is. But if all my work is mist (as opposed to vanity), I’m still not very satisfied with the result. Granted “mist” seems a bit less condemnatory than “vanity”. Nevertheless, mist is nothing to be proud of.

Is there any comfort here at all? I think there is a little.

If I am working tirelessly to have my own bookstore (or anything) and even after all my effort and received advice, my effort fails, I am comforted that every other thing that anyone has ever done will also fade into nothingness eventually. I can look with some distance on my work. I can take a long view.

Suppose I have a child. Suppose then she grows up to be an addict. This does not reflect on me. She is the same as everyone else in the end. She is mist, just like an Olympic medalist or a poet or a priest.

Is there any comfort in that at all? Not a lot.

Granted, there is some value in seeing our efforts as meager before God and eternity. People get so enthralled with their own "legacy" that they fail to understand their place in the whole of God's order. Paul tells us not to live for earthly concerns but to live in the Spirit. The problem is, Ecclesiastes doesn't give us the Spirit.

Our faith is a faith of reward. Rewards are promised to us and Ecclesiastes sees no reward beyond the merest daily pleasure in work, food and drink (8:15). Certainly the Old Testament was heavy on rewards: the Promised Land, prosperity, reputation, issue, triumph over enemies.

But what rewards are promised to the follower of Jesus? Certainly no land or goods. No money, no Mercedes Benz. Not even victory in sports or war.

The Christian lives his or her life with the promise of a heavenly reward, right? Actually, I am going to walk right past this promise of heaven because I have no idea what heaven is like and it’s too abstract for me.
Paul said in Romans 8:32 “He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all – how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” What things? Is God promising us safety? He is not. Look around. Many people, many faithful people do not live in safety. Nor do they live in prosperity. Christians starve, sicken, die. Christians are poor and homeless. Christians suffer and mourn. What is our promised reward? What does God give us?

Very simply, the reward promised to the follower of Jesus is Jesus, is God.

Let’s go all the way back to Genesis 2. Here we are in the Garden with God, made in his image and given lovely tasks to perform. This is our reward. Certainly our imperfection surfaced and we lost that intimacy with God, but, thanks to our Redeemer, we can have it back. Do we get it back in heaven? On earth? We get it back on earth as in heaven.

Every act of Christian kindness, every loving word, every brave proclamation lands us, for that moment, right in the kingdom of God. We do not have to wait for heaven. We are to live our lives on earth as in heaven.

The preacher in the beginning of this post better have something pretty terrific up his or her sleeve or people are either going to force an intervention or just walk out.. The preacher, Ecclesiastes, had nothing particular up his sleeve. He ended with an exhortation to obey the law of God and await his judgment. 

I’m sure Ecclesiastes is now in the presence of God and feeling much better about things. After all, no lesser American treasure than Pete Seeger wrote a song based on his third chapter and no lesser 60’s icon than the Byrds covered it. You call that mist?

Monday, February 3, 2014


If there is one word in the English language that is bound to infuriate me, it is the word “obedience”. I have a visceral reaction to it. A naturally compliant person, I can only imagine how other, more rebellious types react.

Obedience was a stated requirement at home, at school and, of course, at church. We were to obey God, the priest, parents, teachers, civil authorities and anyone who was placed in authority over us. “All authority comes from God”. I've read that in the Bible myself.

Such a lot of obeying. How did any of us survive?

As a parent, myself, I never used this word with my children. I did ask them to do some things and refrain from doing others. Sometimes it worked out. Other times it did not. But I could not “pull rank” on them. The word “obedience” was not employed.

So decades later, when I think I am finally freed of this oppressive concept, I am reading Macrina Wiederkehr’s wonderful book Abide on lectio divina and she tells her readers to “take the scriptural passages in obedience. We must obey the passage. She says, “When you have finished reading the assigned Scripture text, it is time to LISTEN OBEDIENTLY” (emphasis hers) “Many of us are not eager for obedience,” she understates. I feel the old resistance stiffening my spine, but I proceed on trust.

Continuing, Macrina writes, “The obedience referred to here, though, is a listening so deep we are drawn into the Spirit of Jesus and given a wisdom that enables us to know how to respond to the Word…. You are being invited to be formed by the Word of God”.

formed by the word of God...

The assigned texts are not always passages of moral teachings. In one instance, Jesus prays to be glorified in his Apostles. How can I obey that? The next one was the “vine and the branches” speech. There is something to obey there; be fruitful or you’ll get pruned. I don’t like ultimatums, but I decided I would take the passages into myself. I tried to accept them as if they were quite natural to me, almost as if I might have written them myself. Was this obedience?

Obedience plays a big part in Scripture. Abraham’s obedience. Adam’s disobedience. Israel’s disobedience. Jesus’ obedience. I begin to wonder if there isn't more to obedience than I’d been given to understand in grade school.

I look closely at Abraham’s obedience. It is stunning. He looks up to God and God tells him to move here, to move there, to separate from his kinsman, Lot. Then drastically he is asked to offer his own son, Isaac, as a sacrifice, and, even then, he is prepared to obey. Without question. It is as if he had been formed by the Word of God.

How to understand such obedience? Is it ignorance? Is it blindness? Does he not care about these people or this place? Is he a puppet?

Paul again and again cites the faithfulness of Abraham. It is what sets Abraham apart; it is what made God choose him to be the patriarch of his people. This gift that Abraham has is more than what I have understood as obedience; it’s a oneness of will. Abraham’s will is one with God’s will. His faith which “was reckoned righteousness” is such that he can receive the will of God as if it is his own. In fact, it is his own. He is that faithful.

For the sake of contrast, let’s look at an instance of disobedience, the most famous one, the sin of Adam and Eve. Here are two humans who have definitely been formed by the Word of God. Their union with God was perfect. And yet, they flouted the one rule they were given. There were not asked to give up anything precious or to inconvenience themselves at all.

In many ways their disobedience is as hard to fathom as is Abraham’s obedience.  But their disobedience, their disunion with God, their failure to be formed by God’s Word is the emblematic act of our fall, our imperfection.

Paul likes to consider Jesus as the corrective of Adam (and Eve) and, by extension, all of humanity. Jesus is the supreme example of obedience, receiving the Father’s will as his own. His birth, his life, his ministry and his passion and death, were all taken in obedience out of a shared will, a common purpose, manifesting the perfection of faith. Thus our redemption.

If we seek unity with God, this obedience is part it. This is not like eating your vegetables or being quiet during class or cleaning your room. 

This is the big time. This is about being formed by the Word of God.  

God is seeking to perfect his creation and each one of us in Christ is asked to make that task ours as well. It’s an invitation, not a commandment. Our paths are constantly being revealed to us. God is gently shining a light on them.

Will we obey? Will I?