Monday, December 28, 2015

Favorite Books of 2015

I read a lot of wonderful books in 2015. Looking back over my list, I could easily name 20 or 25 "best books." I am, nevertheless, limiting myself to six, or nine, depending on how you count. These are the best of the best.

1. The Hungering Dark by Frederick Buechner
2015 was my year of Frederick Buechner! I read one of Buechner's books last year and read more this year. The rest are on my Amazon wish list. Everything this man writes is full of love and truth. His faith is always at risk, but never faltering. He understands his and our humanity. God, for him, is just an arm's length away.

I chose The Hungering Dark to mention here, but I could have easily chosen Wishful ThinkingThe Alphabet of Grace. or The Magnificent Defeat, all of which I read this year; any of which would make this list in a heartbeat. Each chapter of The Hungering Dark begins with a passage from Scripture. Then follows an in-depth reflection; a prayer is given at the end. This one little book could be a year's worth of spiritual practice.

2. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
Never in my life have I read a book about the natural world that so filled me with an actual need to see and know every single created thing. This is a book about what naturally happens in a specific place over a specific time. Dillard is a gifted writer; that is certain, and she has a Pulitzer Prize to prove it. More than a mere describer of life, though, she is a rabble rouser to every reader with one insistent cry: Pay Attention!

3. Every Riven Thing by Christian Wiman
Asking anyone to read poetry has always been, for me, asking way too much. Poetry is something for a class, or when you're dying or when you want to put something catchy and different at the beginning of a post. No more! I determined to read only poetry for a period of time in 2015 and found myself gladly indulging in mere words as opposed to  volumes. I even bought a book of poetry for everyone on my Christmas list.

As to Wiman's collection , I am happy to state that it was the best thing I read all year. You can easily find out (Google) everything about his amazing life and work and Christian faith, all of which feed his writing. His poetry has nothing of ego in it. It has no sentiment, no pretense, no agenda. It is as naked as any written words can be and as fearless. When he writes "May I hold your hand," he has no idea of the answer he will get, and neither do I. Everything is dangling on a string - memory, faith, love, a tree.

4. The Shepherd's Life by James Rebanks
James Rebanks is a shepherd, from a family of shepherds. His life is lived in the Lake District of northern England and his concerns are breeding, haying, weather, dogs and country fairs. In this, he is like most of his neighbors; in this, he is unlike any of mine.

I'm not sure if many people care this much about their work or their responsibilities as Rebanks. I am quite sure, however, that few of us care as much about the world and the living things on it as he does. This is not a religious book. It has no religious underpinnings and I imagine Rebanks would be surprised to find his book on this list, but, if you have ever wondered what the whole shepherd/flock business really means in Scripture, you will get a few answers from The Shepherd's Life.

5. The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel
When I saw that Mantel had published this collection of short stories instead of delivering her hungrily-awaited third Tudor novel, I was not best pleased. Who does she think she is? I didn't read much fiction last year, and I only read this collection because it was on the shelf at my library. No waiting. I took it up without much optimism.

Hilary Mantel is hard to classify. Is she a psychological writer? A historical writer? A feminist? Does she write fantasy? Romance? Where does she fit? In this collection, Mantel gives us a bit of all possibilities, but her strength is in her ability to turn a story on a dime and not make the reader feel she is being manipulated. She can show human struggle with just the right amount of sympathy and just the right amount of distance. These stories are brilliant, surprising and challenging. You're forgiven, Ms Mantel.

6. Christian Households by Thomas Breidenthal The Right Reverend Thomas Breidenthal is the Episcopal bishop of Ohio. His book is brilliant and I hope he writes more when he has the time. Had it not been for a recommendation from my good friend  @TrischaGoodwin, I would never have looked at this book. It sounded to me like instructions to get your children to obey orders and say grace at every meal. It is not!

Breidenthal takes the dictum to "love your neighbor" to include those with whom you live. For me, anyway, this was quite revolutionary. That "nearness" as he calls it contains the Holy Spirit was another concept, not new exactly but newly explained/preached. Understanding our Christian vocation in this way opens us up to brand new ways of being together, of sharing a home. Decades ahead of his time, Breidenthal includes all relationships in his definition of "households."

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The O Antiphons O Emmanuel

December 23

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver, the hope of the nations and their Savior: Come and save us, O Lord our God.
Isaiah 7:14

In this last antiphon, there is no narrative. There is no rationale. There is nothing but the asking, the need. Can we be that basic in our prayer? Can we ask for salvation without conditions? Can we say: Come, God and be with us, whatever that means, whatever that entails? 

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The O Antiphons O King

December 22:

O King of the nations, and their desire, the cornerstone making both one: Come and save the human race, which you fashioned from clay.

Ephesians 2:14 and Isaiah 9:6

Jesus was coy about his kingship during his life on earth. Rejecting every connection with worldly power, Jesus had nothing to say about kings or governments. Render to Caesar and leave me out of it (paraphrasing). So the title "King" seems like a bit of a downgrade for Jesus. But his kingship is beyond anything that we can imagine. It is universal and eternal. 

For me the key word here is "desire." What is our deepest desire? Jesuits repeatedly ask themselves this question and they do so because the answer is so astonishing. Our deepest desire is for the one who made us and, as the antiphon suggests, that one desires us as desperately and as deeply. 

So let's remind God - and ourselves - that God made us from clay and that we belong together. 

Monday, December 21, 2015

The O Antiphons; O Dawn

December 21

O Morning Star, splendor of light eternal and sun of righteousness: Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
Isaiah 9:2

Reams have been written about the word "righteousness." It's a great Biblical word and a wonderful church word. It is hyper-characterized from "right" which should suffice. Making "right" into  "righteousnes," amplifies the meaning of the word. To be right is not necessarily to be righteous. "Righteousness" implies that a legal decision has been made. Judgement has come down and you are in good standing. Sigh of relief!

In today's antiphon, we are asking for the sun of righteousness, the morning star, the original light to come and shine on us, wipe out our darkness, cast out the shadow of death. This righteousness the we seek is a step beyond the mere covenantal righteousness of Hebrew Scripture. This is a brand new sort of righteousness that comes and shines on everyone. Your history, your failings can not blot out this light. A decision has been made, not a legalistic one but one of love. And that is very good news indeed.

You will be righteous before God because of this light. 

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The O Antiphons: O Key of David

O Key of David and scepter of the House of Israel; you open and no one can shut; you shut and no one can open: Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house, those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death.
Isaiah 22:22 and Isaiah 42:7

Christians will tell you that Jesus is the single and exclusive means of salvation. The key of David is the key to the Kingdom. It opens. It shuts. Jesus in this antiphon doesn't HAVE the key; he IS the key. This takes us into "cosmic Christ" territory, but that's where we need to be in order to fathom the freeing of prisoners and the enlightening of those in darkness and in the shadow of death. 

When we pray "Almighty God, to know you is eternal life and to serve you is perfect freedom," we are talking about that eternal life and the freedom that is ours when we surrender to Christ. It is this release that we pray for in this antiphon. 

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The O Antiphons: O Root of Jesse

December 19

O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples; before you kings will shut their mouths, to you the nations will make their prayer: Come and deliver us, and delay no longer.
Isaiah 11:10 and Micah 5:2 and Romans 15:12

Ours is an incarnational faith. How many times have I heard that! Jesus was, and arguably is, present to us in the flesh. He lived and died on this earth, as a human being. Never a wispy, semi-angelic being whose experience of earthly life is, at best, vicarious, Jesus understood everything about this life. Here is a God who has bloodlines, appetites, a neighborhood. If there is any doubt, the art work today shows a plant with a root, piercing the earth, drawing sustenance from it. 

Those of us who enjoy police procedurals on television will understand that Jesus' DNA would have been all over the place in his day and just after. Traces of his physical being existed. The Word made flesh indeed, intentional, knowable, easy to be with. 

In the Hebrew Scriptures, references to the "peoples" and the "nations" are understood as meaning Gentiles, those outside the preferment of God's people Israel. Isaiah is known for drawing these others into the blessing of God. Standing within the tribe of Judah, a descendant of Jesse and Jesse's son David, Jesus shuts the mouths of those in authority and receives the prayers of all humankind. 

Friday, December 18, 2015

The O Antiphons: O Adonai

December 18

O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel, who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush and gave him the law on Sinai: Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm. 
Exodus 3:2 and Isaiah 33:22

When I first began to study Scripture in earnest, I was surprised to find the concept of redemption in the Hebrew Scriptures. Perhaps I wasn't alone in thinking that redemption was a thoroughly New Testament idea. But now, creation and redemption seem to me to fit perfectly and inevitably together. 

Adonai, a Hebrew word meaning Lord, is a word I love to say. It feels ancient and daring, which it is. Asking God for redemption takes courage and faith. Calling Jesus Adonai pulls the redeeming acts of God together: God's call to Abraham, toMoses, the Exodus, the desert wandering and the Law, exile and return, the Incarnation, Crucifixion and Resurrection - many acts or one act? 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

The O Antiphons: O Wisdom

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, reaching from one end to the other, mightily and sweetly ordering all things: Come and teach us the way of prudence.
Isaiah 11:2-3 and Isaiah 28:29

Through Jesus, we are able to partake of the Wisdom of God. This does not make us bright or bold, but small and humble. With Jesus, we rest in the Father who "mightily and sweetly" ordered all things. Notice that we are asking to be shown the way of prudence; this is a wisdom beyond answers, a wisdom beyond even questions.

The only wisdom we can hope to acquire
Is the wisdom of humility: humility is endless.    T.S. Eliot  from "East Coker"

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

The O Antiphons

Present in liturgies from as early as the 5th Century AD, the O Antiphons are so called because they each begin with “O” and a Scriptural name for Jesus. We do not commonly use the “O” in addressing anyone in these modern times. It is reserved for hymns and prayers, and here it is for us.

The O Antiphons are prayed during the last week of Advent, from December 17 to December 23. Traditionally prayed at evening prayer, they can be prayed at any time, at breakfast, on coffee break, when lighting the Advent Wreath, any time at all.

Each antiphon is directly derived from Scripture, mostly from the prophet Isaiah the. References are cited in small print after each antiphon. 

No longer the exclusive province of monasteries, the O Antiphons are used in many Christian denominations, both Catholic and Protestant.

Most of all, they capture the spirit of Advent, voicing our eagerness for the coming of our Savior and for all that he will accomplish in our world. So take a few moments each day in the last week of Advent and pray the O Antiphons. Let their urgency direct your own desire and their charm bless your days. If their words sound familiar, it’s because they are the original texts for the favorite Advent hymn, O Come O Come, Emmanuel.

In the coming days, I will post each antiphon and offer a brief reflection on it. 

If you want to hear the O Antiphons sung by the monks at the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, use this link.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

A Year of Living Julianly

In this, my second year of affiliation with the Order of Julian of Norwich, I decided to up the ante on my commitment to my vows and to the study of Julian's Revelations of Divine Love. Affiliates of the Order of Julian are expected to make a life-long study of Julian's writings. This is both an easy and a hard thing to do.

Julian wrote only one book, the above said Revelations. They are 86 mostly short chapters detailing showings received by Julian after a serious illness over the course of a day and a half. It's not very much.

But it is. There is such a depth and tangle of theology in the showings that it can truly take a life time to master. Moreover, written in the late 14th Century, in late Middle English, Julian's writings, even through a careful, scholarly and loving translation are grammatically, syntactically and stylistically challenging. It is too easy to get bogged down in all the adjectives and the continual citing of God's great love. A reader could think she understands the broad strokes and dismiss the whole thing as "sweet" or "quaint" and never grasp the fierce truth that was revealed to Julian.

So, I decided to stretch out this my fourth reading the the Revelations over an entire year. After some mathematics, I confirmed that about 4+ days for each of the 86 chapters would make it to a year. This allows a day here and there for skipping the reading. It also allows more days to be spent on the very lengthy Chapter 51.

I am also keeping a journal with my commentary on each chapter. My journal is a handsome dark blue leather one with heavy lined pages and a ribbon bookmark. It is itself a commitment. I am currently on Chapter 14, having begun in mid September.

The translation I am using is by Father John-Julian, the founder of our Order. He is a man we love dearly and whose scholarship and intellect are, to me anyway, boundless. His translation is both accessible to the modern reader and observant of Julian's voice. In his The Complete Julian of Norwich, each chapter is annotated as well. Bonus!

Taking so much time over each small bit of writing has been itself a revelation to me. I have the luxury of pausing over a particular sentence or even one word that I passed over in earlier readings. Consider this statement from God to Julian,

See, I am God. See, I am in everything. See, I do everything. See, I never lift my hands from my work, nor ever shall, without end. See I lead everything to the end I ordained for it from without beginning by the same Power, Wisdom and Love with which I made it. How could anything be amiss? Chapter 11

The repeated use of the word "see" is crucial. God asks that Julian see this which it is not easy for her to do. Nor is it easy for us. God never lifts his hand from his work. This is hard to believe, hard to see. It is also easy to believe. God created from Power and Wisdom and Love. Of this we have no doubt. But is God in everything? In terrorist attacks? In terminal illness? In addiction and suicide?

Julian lived through three bouts of the bubonic plague in her town of Norwich. She lived at a time of terrible historic and religious upheaval as well. If we have reason to ask where is God in all this trouble, she had reason as well.

God did not explain himself to Julian. He revealed himself. This was enough. The knowledge of God, the grace that brings that to us in any way, even for a split second, is enough. Julian did not need a rational explanation, not should we. Seeing is believing. May we have eyes to see.

More in the coming weeks and months.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Is Jesus Necessary?

My friend Marta invites Jesus into all her prayers. "I can't get anywhere without Jesus," she says. As Christians, we understand that Jesus is our Redeemer. We declare this regularly in creeds and prayers. If someone reminds us that we must accept Jesus as our personal Savior, we nod automatically. "Woe to me if I do not proclaim the gospel," Paul warned himself. 1 Corinthians 9:16 And at our Baptism, we promise "to proclaim by word and example the good news of God in Christ."

And yet... As a card-carrying universalist (note the lower case "u"), I understand all of creation to be saved. No exceptions. I cannot believe that God created the vast sweep of humanity but planned to save only a portion of us. If God is in each of us through creation, surely that guarantees our salvation. God can't lose. "Thus says the Lord who created you, who formed you. 'Do not fear for I have redeemed you. I have called you by name and you are mine.'" Isaiah 43:1

And yet...Jesus himself states that "No one comes to the Father except through me," John 14:6, and "Very truly I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God unless they are born again of water and the spirit." John 3:5 Both the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament are filled with such statements of election, choice, and exclusion.

So is Jesus actually necessary? Yes, I would say so. Jesus is necessary but, more than that Jesus is unavoidable.

In the Incarnation, God became man - human. What this accomplished for all creation, humanity in particular, is to infuse us even further with the divine presence. God created us from love in his own image and then became like us in Jesus. Though he was born into a specific set of circumstances - first century Palestine, Jewish, poor, under Roman occupation, Jesus was born a human being, and thus transcended his social location. He became man for all of us. The grace of that Incarnation passes to all humanity, past, present and future.

His crucifixion and resurrection were also accomplished for every one of us. Jesus accepted all the wrongs of the world, all the sadness and shame and pain and took it to himself and then took the sting out of death. How could this have happened for only a portion of humanity? Even more, how could anyone be called deserving of this? They couldn't. And, likewise, no one can be called undeserving of it either. God decided once for all to accomplish this great act. It reaches everyone.

In Ezekiel we read "It is not for your sake, O people of Israel, that I am going to do these things, but for the sake of my holy Name." Ezekiel 36:22 God makes God's decisions for God's own reasons. God is not going to let any of us be lost because it is not in God's nature (Name/identity) to do so.

No one can be saved without Jesus, but, as it happens, no one is without Jesus. God sent Jesus for the same reason that God does anything - because it is God's desire. For us, in our judgments, to consign some great or minor sinner to eternal punishment is to deny God, to deny Jesus.

So if our salvation is secured by Jesus, why bother being a Christian? Why follow this Christ?

The answer is this: to follow Jesus is to be full, to be free.

It's not about going to heaven. It's not about pulling yourself up by your spiritual bootstraps and pleasing God by your own lovely behavior. It's about following God's own Son, being part of his life and death and resurrection. Living your life entirely as his possession is absolute, perfect freedom. Nothing you see or hear, nothing you own or love matters except as it is from and of Jesus.

And this is freedom. It is through this freedom that we leave everything and follow him. It is through this freedom that we "hate" our lives, that we lose our lives and then gain them through him. It sounds drastic. It sounds impossible, actually, but his yoke is easy and his burden is light.

The lives that we gain in Jesus are bigger, the love that we feel is sweeter, the treasures that we touch and see are more magnificent because they are first his - every sunset, every child, every act of bravery is his. And we are free.

"O God, the author of peace and lover of concord,
to know you is eternal life and to serve you perfect freedom..."
Book of Common Prayer p. 99

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Spirit, Flesh and A Goldfinch

In our backyard we have a large expanse of ground devoted to native plants. Right now, mid-August, the natives are at their absolute best with most species in full bloom. The garden is home to many creatures, bees, butterflies and birds. There was evidence of a rabbit's nest last year, and we saw a deer walking through early this spring. 

As I sit in my deck chair with my coffee of a morning, I am entertained by a great many goldfinches. The fledglings have fledged and now happy families of finches dance from one eight foot tall cup plant or goldenrod to another. Beautiful little things in the sunlight.

Flesh or spirit? I ask myself. 

As a believing Christian, I have juggled arguments about spirit and flesh over the years. We are flesh, we have "fleshy" needs, but we are spirit as well. We are exhorted to live in spirit and put away the flesh. Our lives, however, require that we meet the needs of flesh in providing for ourselves and our families, for keeping safe and for building communities. The goldfinch seems to have no trouble pursuing these ends and just see how he glorifies God!

Of course, these birds are earthly creatures, are flesh and blood and bone. They live for a while, eat, procreate, see to their business of food, shelter and safety, and then die. So...flesh. But as I consider them in their beauty and in their tireless work, they seem suddenly spirit to me. As creatures of God, there is a God-ness in them,  

When Nicodemus wonders how a person can be reborn in the spirit, Jesus declares that "Spirit is spirit and flesh is flesh." Helpful? Yes, actually, to me it is. It tells me that spirit and flesh are not a dichotomy, are not a choice. Flesh is a given, but spirit is a gift. We live in the flesh, but we can access spirit in any circumstance. 

In as simple an example as a meal, a risotto that I will make for our supper: there is rice, butter, scallions, peas, Parmesan cheese and salmon. All of these derive from the earth, from the same creation from which I have my being. All of these came to me through the agency of some other person(s), growers, fishermen, sellers. I am united to these people and these creatures, first as a creature of the one God, but more immediately in my act of preparing the meal and consuming it. How do I feel about this?

Am I thankful and respectful; do I savor each mouthful with pleasure? Or do I merely consume away? In other words, am I a lover or a user? Flesh uses, spirit loves. That is just my opinion, of course. 

When I look really hard, at the goldfinch and see its God-ness, when I know that God-ness is in everything I might ever see, certainly in every PERSON I might ever see, then I am "in the spirit".

What I must do now is weed out the times when I am merely using. I might use the road I drive on to get to church, but I'd better not be using the people I meet there. I might not love the bag I use to carry groceries home, but I'd better love the people I make meals for. Maybe not everything can be a goldfinch for me, but I know for sure that the more things that are that goldfinch, the happier and more spirit-filled I will be. 

Monday, August 10, 2015

Rot in Hell

For someone like me who doesn't believe in "hell" in the traditional sense, saying that someone should rot in hell has, perhaps, less force than if a Jonathan Edwards or a Dante Alighieri were to say it. Nevertheless, this is an expression I have used in the past --  of course, that was in the very distant past.

Although I have grown out of such expressions, "rot in hell" resonates for me in a special way. This is something I might have muttered when someone took my parking space, or my boyfriend. Perhaps a political rival or a goal scorer on an opposing team should rot in hell. Should Hitler or Pol Pot likewise rot in hell?

It's safe to wish this on someone when you know it won't happen. There is a satisfaction in stating strongly your disgust with a disgusting person, murderer of millions or stealer of parking spots. But it has always seemed either too great a wish or too mild. If Hitler or Stalin should rot in hell, is it fair to send Rosemary Henton (infamous boyfriend stealer) there with him?

Dante solved this matter poetically with his many levels of hell. The poor souls he met suffered according to their sins, and they most definitely did rot. 

And here because of the horrible excess
Of stench thrown upward from the unfathomable pit... canto XI

The poet thus describes the horrendous odors emanating from these condemned ones. Only his poetic resolve enabled him to descend further and further into worse and worse conditions.

Finally, however, we have someone who hits exactly the right note for rotting in hell - in our modern conception, not as Dante would have it. Walter Palmer, trophy hunter and killer of the famous Cecil the Lion can rot in hell. When I saw the sign someone had pasted up on his office door that read "Rot in Hell" in big black letters, I knew that finally this expression had found its true home. At last the trope fit the crime.

The outrage voiced against this person has gone well overboard; people love bandwagons and across the internet people vied with each other for the highest disdain, the most outrageous fury. But that first day, when the sign appeared on our local news, it was perfect.

What do I think Walter deserves? Forgiveness, obviously, as we all do, especially me who laughed out loud at that sign. What do I think will happen to Walter in the afterlife? I think he will rest in the arms of his creator finally. I think he will see whatever it is that makes him want to do what he does for what it is. I believe this is also my final realization.

God has all the time in the world for people like Walter and me to see ourselves and all of creation as God sees us. Even Rosemary will look back at tenth grade and shake her head in dismay. All the villains of history will do likewise. This is what I believe; this is the story that God is telling and enacting.

Meanwhile, Walter, Rosemary, know what you can do.  JK

Friday, July 31, 2015

One Church-y Word I Have Trouble with is "Mercy."

Words can be great stumbling blocks for me. Toward most words, of course, I am entirely neutral. “Mustard,” “lopsided,” brace” (as a noun or verb) elicit no emotions whatsoever. Others like “rodeo” “makeshift” and “bellow” I love to hear or, better yet, say, yet there are some, I cannot bring myself even to think.

As a regular church goer, I hear certain words every week, and I sometimes wonder what effects these repeated words have on other parishioners. Are people driven away by words like “offend,” “blood,” or “power?” What if people love to hear words like “eternal,” and “holy” and return week after week because where else are you going to hear such talk? 

One church-y word that I have had a lot of trouble with over the years is "mercy." The implied relationship between the one who shows mercy and the one who receives it casts me, and all worshipers, in a miserable light; we are despicable sinners who deserve ever-lasting torment. Worse than that is the image it suggests of God. There is a maniacal despot who might bless or curse depending on his whim - sort of a Red Queen type of god. Or the movie gangster who might show mercy to the deadbeat if he does him a favor. Although I was taught something very like that growing up, I no longer see us before God begging to be spared what we richly deserve, nor do I see God as being ever poised to condemn us.  

So when, a few months ago, I became interested in The Jesus Prayer, sometimes called The Prayer of the Heart, I came face to face with “mercy” and had to deal with it. The prayer goes like this: Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of the one true God, have mercy on me, a sinner. 

Variations abound, but “mercy” is always in there. I considered amending my version of the Jesus prayer to omit “mercy” entirely, to say instead “be in my heart” or some other phrase, but I was not at ease with this modern approach. Change something that is 1500 years old just to suit my taste? No and no.
In my research about the Jesus Prayer, I encountered a fascinating piece of information. "Mercy” or “eleison” in Greek, is related to the word “oil.” As much as I might resist the word “mercy” in prayer and scripture, that is how much I am drawn to the word “oil.” There is something abundant and comforting about oil as it’s found in Scripture.
Images of oil abound in our sacred texts, in both the narratives and in the Psalter. In Genesis (28:18-22), after his dream of the ladder and the angels, Jacob pours oil on the stone he had used as a pillow and declares he will make it “God’s house.” Oil was the finishing touch on the tabernacle that Moses built in Exodus (37:29). Samuel anointed both Saul and David for kingship in 1st Samuel (10:1 and 16:12-13 respectively). The practice of anointing rulers continues to this day.

In the Episcopal church, oil is used in Baptism and when the sick are anointed and blessed. The prophet Isaiah (61:1-3) claimed his calling “…because the Lord has anointed me, he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the broken-hearted.” 

Why is oil such a soothing image, while mercy suggests pain and misery? Oil is calming; oil is lavish. When the woman anoints Jesus with expensive oil at Bethany, people are scandalized at the “waste.”

Oil is love. Corpses were anointed with oil at burial, a last generous act of love to the departed. The psalmist rhapsodizes about oil:
Oh how good and pleasant it is 

when brethren live together in unity! 

It is like fine oil upon the head 

that runs down the beard, 

upon the beard of Aaron, 
and runs down upon the collar of his robe.    Psalm 133

Fellowship is like oil! Community. Vocation. Liturgy. All these are like oil.

Like everything in creation, oil comes from God. It is, therefore, good, a sign of God’s loving kindness, generosity, wild abundance ….. in short, everything I like.

You make grass to grow for flocks and herds

and plants to serve mankind

that they may bring forth food from the earth

and wine to gladden our hearts

Oil to make a cheerful countenance
and bread to strengthen the heart.   Psalm 104

So how can mercy be like oil? I worked with this idea for a long time until I was able to see that mercy is God’s generosity to us. His love for us is poured out like oil. When we love and care for each other we are embodying God’s mercy which is extravagant and beautiful - like oil. It is not a sign of his power; it is a sign of his love. When I am willing to see mercy as oil, I can ask for it. A merciful God is a generous God, a loving God. My God. Not the Red Queen. She would have no part of oil.

I thank my merciful God for Lewis Carroll’s Alice through the Looking Glass, for Metropolitan Anthony Bloom and his wonderful article on The Jesus Prayer*, and for the Psalmist who gave us this verse:

You have put gladness in my heart
more than when grain and wine and oil increase.
Psalm 4


Friday, July 17, 2015

"and Judas Iscariot who betrayed him"

Lately, I have felt the urge to ponder a phrase from the daily readings in my Daily Office Book. One day this week it was "new wine skins" from Mark 2. Yesterday it was "honey in the rock" from Psalm 81. I have stayed with these phrases throughout each day and they have given me much in return. 

You may recognize this as a feature of lectio divina, which I do practice often. The difference here is that I am not focusing deliberately on a small passage from the readings. I am not trying for a lesson. The phrase just jumps out at me and I hold it for a day. I do not try to articulate any meaning or develop any prayer from it. Maybe I should. But for now I am just going with the flow.

Today's phrase was "and Judas Iscariot who betrayed him." This is from Mark 3 and recounts the calling of the 12. Mark is not known for pulling his punches. He doesn't respect our sensibilities and there is an warning about mature audiences. He is a maximum-impact-with-minimal-verbiage kind of writer. 

This phrase just smacked me in the face. Jesus called Judas. Jesus calls me. I have something in common with Judas. This phrase puts the calling of Judas level with his betrayal. It says before Judas betrayed Jesus he was chosen. 

So what is so great about being chosen? We know the answer, don't we? Being chosen, being called, as we are, out-weighs everything. It's irreversible. 

Mark could have prettied up his story and placed some conditionality on Judas' call. He could have written it in any number of ways to lessen the call to Judas, to make him an afterthought. But, no. That call stands. As does mine. And yours.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Julian Retreat

For six days in mid June, members and affiliates of the Order of Julian of Norwich, a contemplative order of monks and nuns in the Episcopal Church, met at a Redemptorist retreat center in Wisconsin for prayer and community. In the Order, prayer and community, though not exactly interchangeable, are very connected. Whether we are together, as we were last week, or miles apart as we usually are, our prayer binds us to each other, to the church, and most importantly, to our Savior.

For this post, I am going to let the pictures tell the thousand words that I really don't have about the beauty and power of this event. Above is a peony taken from the garden at Julian House Monastery. 

The first three days of the retreat were spent in silence. Except when our own voices were raised in prayer, only our retreat leader's voice was ever heard.

The labyrinth is a good place for contemplation, and there was one on the grounds. I am not a big fan of labyrinths, but I did walk this one several times. And I noticed some things about it. Here, on a sign just outside it,  are the directions for walking the labyrinth. Notice the bird droppings.

The paths in the labyrinth are laid out with mathematical precision. The stones that line the paths were clearly chosen for their uniform size and shape and color, yet there are many irregularities. Weeds grow in the paths. 

Walking the labyrinth can be challenging. Sometimes the paths are gentle and straight; sometimes there is a sharp turn and you might lose your balance.. Sometimes you feel that you are close to the center and your journey is nearly fulfilled. Then, with the next step, you are heading in the opposite direction. Pretty soon, you have to give up predicting your walk - how soon you will reach the center, or the exit - and just walk. 

The chapel is an important place in the retreat. Here the daily office is said, the Eucharist is celebrated and retreatants go to pray on their own. You can see the chapel empty (but for me) in the early morning and again with people waiting for the start of Eucharist. 

Brother Gerry, a Redemptorist who lives on site, has forty beehives. Here is one of them as well as some of its product. 

There is a tradition at this event to have a used book sale. A flat rate of $2 per book!! All proceeds go to the Order with the remaining books donated to the Cathedral's (Milwaukee) book sale. Maybe next year I'll be able to resist. 

The sisters at Julian House are expert soap makers and not lacking in a sense of humor either. 

The last three days (called Julian Fest) are spent with lots of talking and celebrating. Prayers and Eucharist continue as before but meals are noisy and there is lots of social time. On the penultimate day, we gathered for a group picture.

With this result.

Sunday, May 17, 2015

Peace Sign

I drive into the Twin Cities about once or twice a month. Taking the freeway, I exit on Randolph Avenue in Saint Paul either to have lunch with a friend or keep an appointment with my spiritual director. 

Often there is a person holding up a sign at the off ramp. The person wants money, I suspect actually needs money.

There are lots of reasons not to give such a person money. They might spend it on something unsavory. They might be a scammer and not really in need at all.They ruin the look of the neighborhood nearby. (I have actually heard these last two excuses from a few people.)  They should make use of the many social services available to the poor. Etc. Etc.

I always give them money, as much as I can, in fact. Buddhists will tell you – and have told me – that it is a blessing to have the opportunity to give. It’s a grace. That’s how I see it.

Others will say that what these folks really want is some interaction, a greeting, a conversation, to be seen. It’s hard enough for me to talk to people I know well, much less strangers, much less someone who might view me as somehow other. And I've seen too many Uncle Tom scenarios where the privileged person makes nice with the under-privileged person and is rewarded with jollity and deference. Nope. I won't act that part.

But I always smile and say something: how’re you doing? God bless you. Stay warm. Something quick and superficial. Usually, I have a green light and barely have time for a smile before I have to turn onto my street.  Today I had a red light.

There was the first woman I'd ever seen in that spot. She was late middle age, early fifties, I’d say. Slightly overweight and very shabby looking. Her pink knit pants were dirty as if she’d been sitting on the ground. The sign she held was a piece of bent cardboard with a message on it. The message was so wordy and so long that I’m sure no one could have read it.

But I knew what it said.” I lost my job 18 months ago and have to feed three children. I am alone and any help would be appreciated. “  Or something like that. As she was, no one would be hiring her any time soon, even in our state of full employment. 

I reached out my window and handed her a bill, smiled at her and said God bless you. She asked God to bless me, too and she seemed a bit surprised. Do women not hand out money to other women? To her? Do they not invoke the Lord?

Waiting for the light to change, I wondered if I should roll down the window and ask her a mild question or mention the possibility of rain. Then the light turned green and I looked out my window to wave to her. 

She was waiting for me. Giving me the very biggest smile she had, she flashed me the peace sign. I was just able to manage a quick peace sign back, turn the steering wheel and continue on my now very merry way.

The peace sign is an insider thing. It says we know each other. It says we are compatriots, tribesmen. We share beliefs, experiences. We are in league. I don’t think I've received such a greeting in thirty years. There was a time when it was so common it barely meant anything. Long hair, a string of beads, a flowered shirt - flash the sign. March for peace, Civil Rights, Animal Rights - flash the sign. In line for a Stones concert - flash the sign.

Today, though, it meant a lot. We were not just two people behaving civilly to each other. She was a person to me and I was a person to her. And it was she who broke the barrier, not I.  Just for that second, there was something real between us. She gave me what I was not able to give - a human moment.

Monday, May 4, 2015

A Different Kind of Mother - A Different Kind of Day

Robert Frost famously and rightly said, “Home is where, if you go there, they have to take you in.” The woman and her son dying of thirst in the desert surely knew, if they’d ever doubted it, that the place they recently left was no home and never had been. A slave is property. She can be used just as a piece of crockery is used, fill it with what you want, have it for a while then toss it all out.

Sarah was finished with Hagar and Ishmael. There was no need of either of them once Isaac was born. In fact, it was possible that Abraham, the old romantic, might just decide to let Ishmael share in Isaac’s inheritance. So out the door they went into a desperate and deadly future.

How much of a mother to Ishmael was Hagar? At first, she was simply a vessel to deliver to Abraham some sort of son so that his line and fortune would continue. Did she love Ishmael then? Did she delight in his little-boy antics, or did she withhold that love knowing he would not be hers for much longer? He would have a clear future. She might be allowed a livelihood. Would he cherish her or would she embarrass him when he came into his true place?

We will never know because that story did not play out. What did play out was their exile from the house and land of Abraham. Certainly, wandering there in the desert Hagar loved Ishmael. They shared fear, hunger, thirst, despair. Did she look at him and feel she had failed him? If she’d been just a bit more conciliatory, would they have been allowed to stay? If he’d been just a bit less beautiful, clever, full of himself, would he have been more tolerable to Sarah? Can you possibly ever wish your child to be less than he is?

Unable to bear the sight of his dying, she placed him a ways (a bow shot) off and wept. It was then that an angel of the Lord opened her eyes and showed her where a spring flowed and their thirst was no more. The angel assured Hagar that they would be safe now and that God had heard the voice of the boy. “God was with the boy and he grew up,” we are told in Genesis. Was this a happy ending?

The theme for Lent at our parish this year was “In the Desert”. Our prayer group held a number of sessions on this theme, one of which was a lectio divina prayer on Hagar’s story. As we prayed with the text, the people in the group (even the men) focused on Hagar’s motherhood -- not on her meeting with the Lord, which is what I wanted them to focus on. They could not turn away from this homeless mother and her unwanted child. They said that motherhood was itself a desert. Even in the midst of a loving family, it can be a lonely job with a world of uncertainty.

Our prayers at the close of the session were said for the mothers we know and had and are, for mothers who wonder about their abilities and about their future. We prayed for children who find themselves out on the street. We prayed for the self-righteous, cold-hearted mothers who turn them away.

Earlier in the story Hagar, taking refuge in the desert from Sarah’s mistreatment, was told that Ishmael would be a “wild ass of a man with his hand against everyone and everyone’s against him.” I had always felt this to be of little comfort to poor Hagar, but my friends in prayer group decided that it meant that Ishmael would not be pushed around and owned as his mother was. He would be his own person and if that meant having his hand raised against everyone, then so be it. Before he’d be a slave, he’d be buried in his grave, to paraphrase the song. *

Hagar and Ishmael are not exactly heroes in the Judeo-Christian tradition.They are written out of the narrative early on. But that day, that mother and that child in that desert spoke to us. They told us that God takes care of even the outcast, even the foreigner, even the trouble-makers --- especially the trouble makers.
Happy Mothers Day.

You can find the story of Hagar in Genesis 16. 17. 21.

* “Oh Freedom” a American folk song, associated with the Civil Rights Movement

Monday, April 27, 2015

Hosea - Part 5 - I Will Love Them Freely

Like so many sad stories, the book of Hosea ends happily. The prophet instructs the people to return to the Lord to ask forgiveness and promise faithfulness. He even gives them the exact words to say:

Take away all guilt; 
accept that which is good,
and we will offer
the fruit of our lips.

Without a moment’s hesitation, God embraces the penitent nation.

I will heal their disloyalty;
I will love them freely,
for my anger has turned from them.

Have you nursed a grudge for a few years? Do you remember some harsh words from a neighbor? Does some past injustice at work still rankle? For us, forgiveness is hard. It may take years. It may take forever.  We treasure our hurt like a diamond. It’s no wonder, then, that we have a hard time accepting forgiveness from God. Because we struggle to forgive, we think that God, who has so much more to forgive than we, must struggle also. 

But, no. God forgives easily. The reason this post is short is because God forgives in an instant. In Hosea, it took three verses. It’s almost as if God’s forgiveness is there waiting. 

God can bring us out of the muck of our sin and set us on the right path. Our righteousness, our faithfulness, our desire for God comes from that one pure source of love.

It is I who answer and look after you
I am like an evergreen cypress;
your faithfulness comes from me.

If there is anything that I want to take away from this lectio divina experience with Hosea it is that God’s forgiveness is certain. God cannot wait to forgive me, you, all of us. We have only to ask.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Hosea - Part IV - Hewn by the Prophets

We are saved by faith and not by works of the law; Paul tells us so repeatedly and emphatically. Christians sometimes believe that this is an insight particular to them. Jesus repeatedly bypassed the “law” in favor of acts of love and healing. He put love ahead of rules, people over procedure. Virtue comes from God. Rules and regulations must give way.

Old Testament writers, however, frequently point to God’s relentless care of his people. No matter how far they stray, God cannot abandon them. No matter how fleeting is their faith, God will reform them endlessly to his own purpose. All they need to do is know him, remember him.

Your love is like a morning cloud,
like the dew that goes away early.
Therefore I have hewn them by the prophets
I have killed them by the words of my mouth,
and my judgment goes forth as the light.
For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice
the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.

The dictionary tells us that to “hew” is “to make or shape” but, most interestingly, “to remove a large piece of.” This is what a prophet will do: a prophet will call a spade a spade; a prophet will provoke; a prophet will admonish; a prophet will be used by God to remake God’s people. Prophets unsettle our systems and plague our minds.

We don’t want this. We don’t want large pieces removed from us. We are comfortable as we are, or so we think.

There is a saying: Hate the sin but love the sinner. Our priest pointed out in a recent homily that we tend to love our sins and then hate ourselves for them. Israel loved its sin; it was attached to it. It was so far gone that it identified with its own defilement. Israel was tangled in a web of sin, a morass of wrong-headedness. They were bogged down; their systems imprisoned them in despair.

You have plowed wickedness,
you have reaped injustice,
you have eaten the fruit of lies.

God would force them into exile. Their wealth would disappear. Their hubris would dissolve. Their hearts would break.

I am the Lord your God
from the land of Egypt:
I will make you live in tents again
as in the days of the appointed festival.


Because you have trusted in your power
and in the multitudes of your warriors,
therefore the tumult of war shall rise against your people
and all your fortresses shall be destroyed.

As angry as God sounds in these passages, his words don’t feel angry to me. Certainly, from my place and time of safety, 2700 years later, I can see beyond the wrathful words and hear the love and care in them. God brought prophets to his people. He brought woe and hardship and destruction. Why? For salvation. For the kingdom.

In the later chapters of Hosea, God remembers his love for his people.

Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk,
I took them up in my arms;
but they did not know that I healed them.
I led them with cords of human kindness,
with bands of love.
I was to them like those
who lift infants to their cheeks.
I bent down and fed them.

There is so much pain in these stories of love. The people turn from God and are miserable and weary. God mourns for the loss of the true hearts he fashioned. The people are forced to remember God’s mercy, they are hewn by the prophets, reconciled to their Father.

Does this sound like freedom? Most of us don’t relish the idea of being hewn. We want to make our own decisions, correct our own faults in our own time and way. We aren’t primitive folk like the ancient Israelites.  God’s corrective actions might seem restraining as read in Hosea. Fine for them, but wrong for us. 

The thing about lectio divina is that every word in every text is meant to be taken to heart. Every verse is as if it were written expressly for me, for you. So I can’t dismiss anything. I can’t claim a 21st Century view point. A point of view is meaningless here. When you are reading Scripture, especially when you are praying it, you are in eternity. Time vanishes. You may as well be some sinner in the northern kingdom destined for Babylon. This is what I learned: I am every one of those people. And God taught me to walk.