Monday, May 26, 2014


Today marks my 52nd post. Realizing that there were three posts in one week recently, for Julian of Norwich, I am nevertheless counting today as my one year anniversary of blogging.

A year ago I dreamt that I was preaching on Nicollet Mall. Actually dreamt. Actually preaching. Not even using notes. Nicollet Mall is a pedestrian corridor through a shopping/eating section of downtown Minneapolis and I have seen people preaching there. People always walk calmly by neither berating nor supporting the preacher. This was the case in my dream as well. Minnesotans are famously polite, or maybe just indifferent.

In any case, the dream stayed with me for months and this blog is the result. No, I don’t think God was telling me to start a blog. I think I was telling myself that I had some thoughts I needed to share. After some months of praying, I moved forward with “The Parishioner.” In real life, only one person knows about this blog. It’s our little secret: you, me, my spiritual director and God.

Heartfelt thanks to all who have read my posts. Whether you are a regular or occasional reader, I very much appreciate your attention. Traffic on this blog has been modest, I think, compared with many sites. There might be ways to increase traffic, but I am reluctant to use any strategies. Of course, I do try to get better, be more direct and purposeful.

Because I don't feel equipped to contend over controversial topics, I never post anything even remotely juicy.  There was a time when I was politically active, obnoxiously so, but those days are gone. Although I still am sympathetic with many “causes”, I have a quieter life now.

Even with this tame blog, readership has increased steadily suggesting to me that I am reaching enough people to feel justified in continuing. So continue I shall. A year ago, I thought that if only 3 or 4 people read my posts that would be enough.

For the next few weeks, however, I will revisit four of my previous posts. I will re-post two reader favorites (based on page views) and two of my own favorites. Just to be contrary, I won’t be noting which is which.

I hope you enjoy re-reading the posts or, perhaps, just finding out which ones counts as favorites. Comments are, of course, welcome. Additionally, you can follow me on Twitter @the_parishioner. I will be on retreat for a few days at the end of May but will otherwise be available just about daily.

Be well; enjoy the improving weather, and live in the light of Christ. 

Monday, May 19, 2014


“But he had so much promise!” Isn't that what people say? “A life of filled with promise” usually refers to a person who did not live up to his potential, someone whose early promise was not realized.

I am thinking about this because just recently I learned of the deaths of two old friends, Richard and Beth. 

In Richard's obituary, I read that he was a dazzling talent in high school. Reading on, the dazzle seems to have dwindled. Many years of retirement due to illness, minimal travel, quiet friendly get-togethers. The son of wealthy parents, well-educated, a promising entry into business, then, for whatever reason, Richard found himself simply teaching business classes at a state school. The voice of the obituary seems to grow quieter and quieter. Did Richard waste his life?

Beth, wife and mother, PhD in math, taught math at a prestigious east coast college, then not so much. A solid and certain presence in her faith community (in the end, Sufi), spending her last, quiet hours painting water colors. No more high level math; no more published papers and academic acclaim. Did Beth squander her gifts?

I taught school for eleven years and I am very familiar with the mandate to fulfill your potential. Every child has abilities; my job was to find them and ensure they were developed. Living up to your promise is seen as an obligation to society, to your family, to yourself, even to God - the whole burying the talents thing.

But I’m not so sure. I have watched many lives, and I’m not sure I've ever seen a wasted one. Richard had friends. People liked him. I liked him. He had views which he articulated well. He was an amusing dinner guest. He was sincere but not strident. If he made people smile or think, was that enough?

I loved Beth. She was for years, before I moved to the Midwest, my dearest friend. We were both seekers after God. We spent hours together, drank a lot of wine, laughed ourselves sick. We saw The Godfather five times together. In the theater. We went to church together and prayed together. As Beth grew closer to her soul and her faith, she grew farther from academia. She had a brilliant mind and a natural talent for abstract math. Did she waste her life? Many would say so.

Tianna was one of my students. She lived in the projects. Not especially smart or winning, she loved a laugh and a prank. In the classroom, she was a “challenge.” Two years after she was in my second grade class, I sat on our bed, propped up on pillows, pampered from just having given birth to our daughter a week before, I watched the noonday news while nursing my precious baby girl. I saw a stretcher being wheeled out of a building. The building looked a lot like the projects near my school.

Then it came. The reporter announced that the body of Tianna Lewis had been found beaten, raped and stabbed just that morning. My Tianna on the news. My baby Alice in my arms.

Nobody bemoaned a wasted life that day, at least not publicly. Tianna did not have a lot of promise. She was not expected to be great. She may or may not have grown up and accomplished fine things. Was her short, ten-year-old life wasted?

It was not. No life is wasted. Even a life lived only a few days or hours is perfect and complete. Life is a gift from God; however it is lived, it is not for nothing.

There will always be people who build great structures, found institutions, compose masterpieces. There will always be people who drift through life with nothing. There will be those whose love and grace fill a room, even a city, and there will be those whom no one notices. All this weighing and comparing of results is nonsense. More than that, it’s ungodly. Who are we to click our tongues over someone who does not fulfill her promise? What can we possibly know about any life? Why are we so quick to point that finger? Does all this judging give us an edge somehow?

Scripture has a lot to say about waste. God sends out his rain and it doesn't return to him but waters the fields. Jesus always puts his lamps on tables so everyone has light. Branches are pruned. Grain is winnowed. Flocks are sorted. Paul avidly grows the church from a tiny nubbin to a worldwide institution. So as a believer, I should be quick to frown when lives are not fully lived. The problem is: I can never hope to know when anything is wasted. 

My own life, my own vocation is barely visible to me. Another person’s life? Hidden. Forever hidden. So back off, people who like to shake their heads over “wasted lives.” You know nothing. Stand down, you who point accusingly at those who "wander and waste."

No life is wasted. Money, property, accomplishments, family, brilliance, reputation, are these not things of the flesh? A faltering businessman, a dropped-out academic, a murdered ten year old, none of these have failed to live up to anything. They were God’s children, showing the face of Christ to anyone who cared to see it. 

Monday, May 12, 2014

Jesus Saves

My favorite form of prayer is lectio divina. Literally “divine reading” the practitioner prayerfully reads a portion of Scripture, meditates on its meaning, prays with it and finally brings it into his or her own being. In this prayer, portions of the Bible that I thought I understood perfectly open to me in new and startling ways. Characters whom I thought I had analyzed to perfection suddenly present a different face.  Even Jesus will sometimes seem impossibly different.

Most recently, I've been praying with Matthew 14:22-33, the story of Jesus walking out to the apostles on water. The apostles are not expecting him (a lesson in itself there) and think he might be a ghost. He identifies himself, calming their fears (another lesson). Entire papers have been written on the “fear not” theme in scripture. Basically, don’t be afraid. Ever.

Peter, a study in impulsivity, tells Jesus to, if it’s really him, command him come to him across the water. Jesus simply says “Come.” I can almost hear the sigh in Jesus’ voice as he says this. “Come if you must but we both know how this is going to end.” Sure enough, Peter glides magnificently over the water but then suddenly realizes that the weather is bad and the water is deep. He starts sinking, begs for Jesus to help him. Jesus reaches out, grabs his elbow (or so I imagine) and rights him.

It’s easy to see Peter as the buffoon here. It’s easy to see Jesus as the eye-rolling master of patient forbearance. “Why did you doubt?” asks Jesus. “Because I’m human and full of doubts,” I want Peter to answer, “because you are too wonderful for me. Because even though I want nothing more than to understand you and believe in you, I’m too caught up in my own flaws to see that you've given me the power to do anything.”

I grew up with lots of religious instruction. This story was framed as an example for us children. The lessons were as follows:

  • Jesus is perfect. Do whatever he says.
  • Don’t be a show off.
  • Jesus might make a fool of you, even when you grow up, so be careful.
  • Peter committed every sin in the book and was caught out every time. So watch out.
  • Jesus doesn't like people who don’t have enough faith.

In lectio, I find the story to be very different. What does Peter want? He wants to do what Jesus is doing. He wants to be like him. He is desperate to learn everything about Jesus that he can, in any way he can. What is so wrong with being a little reckless when it comes to Jesus? If we feel moved to associate with the “other”, if we think we should spend time with sick people, or tell those in authority how we feel about their activities, is that a bad thing? What if we find ourselves loving our neighbor, or forgiving someone who has wronged us? Any of these can be as risky as walking across a stormy sea.

And Jesus? He wants Peter to come out of the boat, even knowing he’ll fail and fall. Yes, even knowing he will fail and fall. Can this be true for us as well? Could Jesus actually appear in our lives, unexpectedly, of course, nudging us toward something strange and new? If so, the story tells us that he’ll be there to catch us when we fail and fall.

If we are so apt to bungle our assignments, what is the point of Jesus’ making them in the first place? Why would he beckon us out onto the water, only to have to rescue us? Does Jesus actually want this seemingly pointless dance? I believe he does.

Remember, Jesus is in the rescue business. He rescued all of creation. Now and then and always, he will rescue us. He will point us in a direction. We’ll stream forward or fall horribly. It doesn't matter. He’s got us.

I've learned not to judge characters in the Bible. They are too familiar, too human. At Easter Vigil a young parishioner read the long story of the Israelites crossing the Red Sea. She read it magnificently; I could see every one of them, crossing in fear, buzzing with adrenalin. But I could also see the chariots and the chariot drivers. Scared out of their minds. Following orders. Every one of them important to somebody.  Jesus died for these ones, too, just as for Peter and for you and for me. Enemies or friends, fools or sages, it’s all the same to Jesus.

Peter was saved from the waters that night but he wasn't saved from death forever. One day he had his belt fastened to him and he had to go where he did not want to go.  (See John 21:18) Did he go fearlessly? Did he doubt yet again? Or did he see Jesus beside him, reaching for his elbow? Either way.....

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Julian of Norwich Part III

God's immense love for us was certainly not a new concept to Julian. But in her showings she understood it much more profoundly and explicitly. Julian saw God through the broad sweep of time. For her the creator, the redeemer and their holy spirit were complete and unchangeable from the beginning.

The union of creator and the souls of the created was perfect and irrevocable. The Incarnation and the Crucifixion and, of course, the Resurrection were always in God’s plan. God holds all of history in his hands. Every act, thought, wish, and glance is known and loved.

Our soul is oned to God, unchangeable goodness. And between God and our soul is neither wrath nor forgiveness in his sight. For our soul is so abundantly oned to God by his own goodness that between God and our soul may be right nought. And to this understanding was the soul led by love and drawn by might in every showing. Chapter 49

Where does sin come into all this? What about God’s famous anger at sin? What about sorrow and forgiveness? What about punishment? Hell? Purgatory? These are questions that Julian put to our Lord and she was given to understand that God has no wrath. He is only love. The punishment for sin is the sin itself and, out of love, God plans great comfort and honor for all of us when we join him in eternity.

Julian asked to see into hell. She had a look and, behold, she saw no one in it.

Our oneness with God trumps our attempts to apply a justice system to our actions, our sins, their effects, and God’s reaction.

For I saw that God never began to love mankind. For just as mankind will be in endless bliss, fulfilling the joy of God…just so has that same mankind, in the foresight of God, been known and loved from without beginning in his righteous intent. Chapter 53

This love is so extraordinary that Julian begs for clarification. She cannot understand how sin can be so unimportant. In fact, Christ tells her that he does not see it. He sees our suffering, our sadness; but what we see as sin is simply a negative space. With repetition she is somewhat satisfied with her understanding. She is told that All will be well, that every last thing will be well. With this she must be content.

Julian had her revelations, her showings, at age thirty, following a serious illness. Skeptics will point out that her experiences could be attributed to fever dreams. Of course they could. Or it’s possible that such a painful and debilitating illness prepared her to receive the showings, brought her into focus as it were, blotted out her day to day concerns.

Either way, she made careful records of the showings, the “short text,” and over the following twenty years reflected on them and wrote a longer meditation on them, the “long text”. At that point she closed herself in for the rest of her life. She died in her early seventies (even this exact date is unsure). In her small apartment, called an “anchorage” Julian had many visitors at her window. People came to ask her advice on spiritual matters. She was well regarded in town and received a few bequests so that she could continue her solitude without want.

As I was preparing this post, I encountered the story In Matthew of Jesus walking on water. Peter demands a sign of Jesus' identity. He wants to walk on water, too. Jesus bids him come forth. Peter's fear  surpasses his faith and he begins to sink. Julian had no fear, or, if she did, her faith was strong enough to see her through. 

I began to wonder what Jesus thought of Peter in his doubt and Julian in her faith. Did he favor one over the other? Did he cherish Peter's neediness? Did he admire Julian's nerve? And where am I in this scheme? As a child I would have loved such an encounter as Julian's or Peter's. I used to think I would prove myself to Jesus and he would be amazed. Not any more. I'm not sure if I'm better off now or worse. Time will tell. 

I do not envy Julian. She had a difficult life and lived in a dangerous time. I do admire her openness to the presence of our Lord. I admire her courage in accepting the revelations as well as her almost nagging persistence for clarity. But, most of all, I believe Julian. I believe that everything she says she saw and heard she did see and hear. I believe that she has understood and interpreted her showings correctly.

For whatever reason, in that turbulent time God chose to reveal massive truths to this ordinary woman. For whatever reason, she believed her savior rather than taking the safe route of holding only to church teachings. For whatever reason, her writings were hidden for 500 years and are now available to everyone. Who can know the ways of God? All will be well.

Recommended reading
Julian’s Gospel: Illuminating the Life and Revelatiopns of Julian of Norwich by Veronica Mary Rolf
The Complete Julian of Norwich by Father John Julian
The Showings of Julian of Norwich by Mirabai Starr

*all quotes above are from Rolf’s translation.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Julian of Norwich Part II

Julian's Church

As a devout Christian Julian was fiercely loyal to the church. Her writings are filled with praise for the doctrines and unquestioning confidence in the authority of the church. Julian is sincere in her wish to remain within the doctrines of the church. It was from the church, after all, that she learned about God in Christ. Julian and all around her, had to rely entirely on the church for understanding of all matters of faith.

But in all things I believe as holy church preaches and teaches. For the faith of holy church, which I had beforehand understood – and, as I hope, by the grace of God willfully kept its use and custom – remained continually in my sight, willing and meaning never to receive anything that might be contrary thereto." Chapter 9.

Nevertheless, these revelations from Jesus seemed to contradict church teachings.

Christians were (and still are in many settings) taught that Jesus’ sufferings were our fault. Our sinning brought Jesus to the cross and every moment of our lives must be spent in sorrow for the torment we caused our Lord. Jesus suffered as he did in obedience to the Father, not for love of us. 

Christian laity in the 13th and 14th centuries did not have access to Scripture. Individuals who knew no Latin were unable to read the Bible themselves. For lay persons to read Scripture was not encouraged; even many clerics were quite ignorant of its content.  It was up to the hierarchy of the church to share and interpret such Biblical passages as they deemed appropriate. As we know, this tension around access to Scripture became increasingly fraught as the years passed.

John Wyclif from 1374 to his death in 1384 agitated for a vernacular Bible. He and a group of Oxford dons translated the first English Bible, excerpts of which were distributed in pamphlet form by his flowers, known as the Lollards. Church and state together cracked down on Wyclif who died of natural causes several years before 70 of his followers were hanged.

The fate of these proto-Protestants would have been known to Julian. Still she persisted to write down everything revealed to her by Christ. It can’t have been easy to have to choose between what Jesus is showing her and what the church has so clearly taught. Whenever she could, she assured the reader that her trust was in the church’s teachings.

Her faith was heroic. She was certain that she received the word of God. She questioned Jesus and persisted in every point on which she was unclear. Jesus rewarded her with life-changing insights.

He was happy to suffer for our Redemption. His love was most like a Mother’s love. He looked at sinners with tenderness and pity. But he did not see the sin.

Although they do not specifically contradict church teachings, it is safe to say that the early 14th Century church would not have been comfortable with these revelations to Julian. Yet somehow she escaped scrutiny. She wrote of her showings. Copies were made. People came to her for spiritual help. She was in solitude but she was not in hiding.

Certainly God was looking out for Julian, keeping her safe. But I think God was also looking out for us, the citizens of the 20th and 21st Centuries who would need her revelations.

Julian struggled mightily to align her understanding of the showings with the teachings of the church which she loved and trusted. But she loved and trusted Jesus more. And this brings us to the third theme in Julian’s writing and tomorrow’s topic: God’s revelation of love.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Julian of Norwich Part I

We don’t even know her given name. 

At about age 50, twenty years after receiving a series of astonishing visions or “showings” from Jesus, she divested herself of her identity and entered a small apartment attached to a church to live out the remainder of her years in prayer. She took the name of the saint for which the church was named. Julian.

Julian lived her entire life in Norwich. She saw the bubonic plague descend on her town three times. She lived during the Hundred Years War. She witnessed the beginnings of dissent within the church and saw the Peasant Revolt of 1381.

Julian is famous today thanks to the efforts of scholars who rediscovered her writings and made them available. Born in 1342, she did not complete her “long text” report on her showings until the early 1400’s. It was 500 years later that copies were discovered. Half a millennium is a long incubation period. What can she possibly teach us today?

Breaking with my usual pattern of weekly posts, I will post this essay over three consecutive days. It’s too long for one day and it doesn't seem to warrant being spread out over three weeks. I make no claim to do justice to her writings. There will be a list of recommended readings at the end the Part III of this post.

In this essay I’ll touch briefly on three themes that I found in her writing: Christ’s wounds, the Church, and God’s love.

Christ’s Wounds

In typical medieval fashion, Julian focuses with jarring clarity and graphic precision on Christ’s physical torment. Christians of her time did not turn away from the gruesome aspects of Christ’s crucifixion as we are (as I am) inclined to do today. Julian likely received much of her knowledge about Christ’s crucifixion through annual passion plays that were the main event in the town of Norwich for many years. They were dramatic and emotional.

Actors would stage elaborate reenactments of Biblical events. Nothing was spared. The entire town would participate and watch as the mysteries of the Gospel were portrayed as vividly as possible. She longed to be part of Christ’s final hours and to see this suffering for herself.  The details of his torment served as an aid to devotion. She describes:

The great drops of blood fell down from under the garland (crown of thorns) like pellets, seeming as if it had come out of the veins…. And in the spreading abroad they were bright red.Chapter 4

And there is much more of the same. Julian describes the deep furrows on his back from the whips, the great wound in his side. She describes his dehydration, likening his mortal body to a sheet flapping in the wind.

Had I read Julian’s showings just a few years ago, I would have stopped right there. Concentrating on Christ’s physical suffering was and is to me a sentimental exercise resulting in guilt and sorrow but no enlightenment. Too much Mel Gibson and not enough N.T. Wright. There has to be more to his passion than mere physical suffering. It has to mean something. Julian is a woman of her time though and contemplating our Savior in pain was part of ordinary faith practice.

But there are surprises. The sight of Christ’s wounds opened in Julian an even greater love for her Savior and brought her sublime happiness. Happiness. In fact, she felt no sadness. She, in the revelations, saw others around the cross in deep distress, but she felt none of it. Her heart knew only bliss and joy. 

She advised her readers:

For it is God’s will that you take it (this showing) with as great joy and delight as if Jesus had shown it to you.

And there is more. Jesus speaks to her and asks if she is happy with his sacrifice!

      Then said our good Lord asking "Art thou well apaid (satisfied) that I suffered for thee?" I said, "Yes good Lord, great thanks. Yes, Lord blessed may thou be." Then said Jesus, our good Lord, "If thou art satisfied, I am satisfied. It is a joy, a bliss, an endless liking to me that ever I suffered my passion for thee, And if I might suffer more, I would suffer more." Chapter 22

      Julian and her fellow Christians are not to feel guilt for Christ's suffering. They are to be glad, joyous. Jesus wants us to rejoice in every aspect of our redemption. This startling development brings us to tomorrow’s topic: Julian and the Church.