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.