Tuesday, May 30, 2017

How Shall A Young Man Cleanse His Ways?

Some years ago I spent a lot of time wondering about the Mosaic Law. Specifically, I wondered why the Old Testament Jews seemed to love it so much. A lot of do's and don't's, perhaps immediate to them in their time, important to obey, but to love it, to praise it? Why?

Then a wonderful priest visited out parish (the Reverend Canon John Rettger (for those of you with Google) and gave a talk on the Mosaic Law and its many intricacies. Father Rettger is a learned cleric with a tender pastoral way about him. I asked him my burning question: why did the Jews love the Law so much? After a moment of thought, he directed me to Psalm 119. "Pray that psalm a few times and you might understand," he said.

Most people consider Psalm 119 to be simply tedious and repetitive. It is a one note samba whose message could be given in eight verses, not the 176 that comprise it. It has 22 eight-verse sections, one for every letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Our lectionary offers it only in eight-verse bits a few times each liturgical year.

I did, however, follow the priest's advice and read the psalm through, I can't say I "prayed" it then, but to my astonishment, I almost understood the deep and mysterious hold the Law had on people in the Old Testament times. We know, of course, that the Law was given to the Jews at Mount Sinai and that it is reiterated/paraphrased several times in the Torah. It defined and connected the people through their journey to the promised land and for many centuries after that. It connects them still.

In the Order of Julian of Norwich, it is our custom to pray the psalms each day, morning and evening, according to the schedule in the Book of Common Prayer. In this way the person praying will complete the Psalter each 30 day month. It takes two and a half days to pray through Psalm 119; we begin on the evening of Day 24 and finish on the evening of Day 26. Since my affiliation with the Order of Julian, I have read Psalm 119 more than thirty-six times, and it never fails to move me. At least one verse will stand out and call to me every time. Even as a post-modern, 21st Century, Protestant Christian, I can feel a feeling for the Law.

The Law, which the psalmist sings is the verbal embodiment of the LORD. It is evidence of God's love for God's people and their obligation to God.
You laid down your commandments,
   that we should fully keep them.  v 4

The way of the law is freedom. To obey the Law is a gift and an act of will.
My life is always in my hand,
   yet I do not forget your law. v 109

I will run the way of your commandments,
   for you have set my heart at liberty. v 32

There is no end to the Law. Mastering it is impossible. Its mysteries are deep but one must persist.
I am your servant; grant me understanding,
   that I may know your decrees. 

Oh, how I love your law!
   all the day long it is in my mind. v 97

Psalm 119 does not list the commandments but only sings of them. No time is given to the specific words from Mount Sinai; the difficulty or ease of obeying the Law is not an issue. It is, in fact, not a test but a gift. No specific commandment is mentioned because the Law is, for the psalmist, a single command. It is all one, beautiful and compelling. It is God's hand on our lives.

The Law comforts. It challenges. It teaches. It protects. It is the very bond between God and God's people. The Law reaches into every place and time in a person's life. To obey the Law at all times is to be with God at all times. It is to "pray without ceasing."

Outside the Law there is no freedom, no virtue, no love. The world is a trackless waste. The Law can follow you into any trouble, even the most desolate condition. It is priceless, sheltering, restoring, sanctifying.

Your statutes have been like like songs to me
   wherever I have lived as a stranger. v54

We draw lines. It's how we manage our world. The Law in the Hebrew Scriptures was all about drawing lines, ordering things, keeping categories apart, for safety, for ease, for ritual purity. But some of the lines that we draw are wispy and faint.

The line that supposedly separates Christianity and Judaism is such a line. Jesus was an observant Jew as were his followers. He and they quoted Scripture all the time. His ministry was based on the understanding of the LORD that he was taught and grew up with and experienced himself. How could it be otherwise? His Passion was replete with Passover imagery. Isaiah could have written his birth narrative.

I believe we can draw strength from the same source from which Jesus drew strength and I believe that, as he is the fulfillment of the law, we can view this long psalm from that perspective. Try putting "Jesus" in wherever there is a reference to the Law.

My life is always in my hand,
   yet I do not forget Jesus

I will run the way of your Son, Jesus
   for he has set my heart at liberty

Jesus has been like like a song to me
   wherever I have lived as a stranger

I'm not advocating Christianizing this or any part of the Hebrew Scriptures. We mustn't read the OT as if it couldn't stand on its own. I does stand on its own. But, as Christians, we have double vision. As far as we are able, we read that Scripture from its original perspective and from our own. How could we not? This exercise is just a way to help myself see what the Law might have meant to the Hebrew people, and, in turn, to see anew what Jesus means to me.

Outside the Law Jesus there is no freedom, no virtue, no love. The world is a trackless waste. Jesus The Law can follow you into any trouble, even the most desolate condition. He It is priceless, sheltering, restoring, sanctifying.

Friday, May 19, 2017

What's So Good About The Good Place?

I've been wanting to write about this show for months now. Maybe I'm a frustrated Television Without Pity (RIP) Recapper . Or maybe I can't get over what appears to me as a modern sequel to The Screwtape Letters. Either way, certain aspects of this show have stayed with me and puzzled and delighted me in surprising ways. So if you haven't seen season one of The Good Place and/or don't want any spoilers, stop reading this post immediately.

Here is a show in which a young woman, Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristin Bell) is welcomed to the afterlife by Michael - no last name (Ted Danson). Michael is clearly a bit nervous as he had just had a promotion in which he was allowed to design his own Utopian neighborhood in, select its citizens and keep everything on a heavenly even keel. Eleanor is assured that she is in the good place. "Whew," she seems to say.

How did she make it into the good place, she wonders? Michael assures her that this is a common question. The data of one's life are analyzed with each act given a number of points accorded by level of goodness to be balanced by each bad act and its negative points assigned in a similar manner. Now I don't know about you, but that was how I learned it in Catholic School. It was a bit less data driven, but basically your good had to outweigh your bad. Very transactional. Very bank account, business ledger-ish.

Problem is, of course, that Eleanor knows immediately that she is there by mistake. When she meets her "soul mate, Chidi (William Jackson Harper) and her near neighbors Tahani (Jameela Jamil) and Jianyu (Manny Jacinto), she is terrified that her own lack of virtue will come to light, she will be outed and sent off to perdition.

Eleanor is increasingly frightened about her fate. Chidi, a ponderous ethics scholar undertakes to teach her about ethics in an effort to "save" her after she confesses the mistake to him. She doesn't fit in with Tahani, the wealthy philanthropist and Jianyu a Buddhist monk whose vow of silence has accompanied him into the after life.

To everyone but me apparently, this is a light-hearted comedy, so fluffy, funny things happen. An even keel is not maintained. Michael just about goes bonkers as his perfect neighborhood becomes increasingly chaotic. Our four new residents are increasingly miserable and increasingly turn to each other for comfort with varying degrees of honesty.

Everyone knows that Kristin Bell can figure things out. Three seasons of Veronica Mars have not gone in vain. I had every confidence that she would survive this crisis as she had done so magnificently before. I had also begun to dismiss every bit of religious relevance in the show. Now I didn't care about that; I just hoped that Veronica, I mean Eleanor, would survive and the other three as well.

And I was not disappointed. Eleanor guesses that not only does she not deserve to be in the good place, neither do Chidi or Tahani or Jianyu. Is this a massive error on Michael's part? Nope. They are in The Bad Place. Their torture for all eternity was to be the way they would deceive and annoy each other. If you are Satan, this is a brilliant plot! Let that self deception and self loathing eat away at people for all eternity. Let them project their misery on each other. You can sit back and enjoy the show.

The problem is this: In their time together, these four condemned souls actually grew in every possible virtue known to network television. They became kinder, more honest, wiser, more generous. What Michael, and his many helpers did not reckon on was that divine spark in all humanity. Given a bit of time it will come out and we will turn around. Put us with each other and, if you're Satan, you just might be asking for trouble.

I think C.S. Lewis would have loved this show. Nothing like making Satan look a fool. Nothing like letting his evil plans blow up in his handsome face. Just like Wormwood at the close of The Screwtape Letters, Michael had to see his condemned souls find virtue, grow in love and be lost to him.

Of course, this is television and Season II is on the horizon. Michael has a plan to thwart these newly saved souls. Will it work? Or will Kristin Bell prove herself more than a match for any bad guy once more? I'll be watching.

Monday, April 3, 2017

A Quiz for Lent

Answer each of these five questions and scroll way, way down for the answers. 

1.     In origin the word “Lent” means
a. Sorrow
b. Spring
c. Revival
d. Lost

2.   The 40 days of Lent correspond to
a. the 40 days and nights of rain in the Flood
b. the 40 years that the Israelites wandered in the desert
c. the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness
d. all of the above

        3.    Prayer, fasting and alms giving during Lent are
        a. required for all
        b. required for parish clergy only
        c. voluntary for all
        d. required for bishops only


Lent is officially over

               a. with the first alleluia at the Easter vigil
          b. at sunrise on Easter Sunday
          c. with communion on Maundy Thursday
          d. after the Good Friday service

        5.    The 40 days of Lent do NOT include
        a. Holy Saturday
        b. Ash Wednesday
        c. the Sundays in Lent
        d. St Patrick’s Day

Keep scrolling...

1.  b
2. c  or  d
3. c
4. a
5. c

Saturday, March 25, 2017

Mothering Sunday


This Sunday, the 4th Sunday of Lent, is called Laetare Sunday or “Refreshment Sunday.” It is from an old prayer that begins the service of Eucharist for that day, “Rejoice, with Jerusalem” (in Latin Laetare cum Hierusalem) pointing in hope to the victory about to be won. 

Historically, Lent was observed very strictly and very severely. A bit of refreshment and laetare was called for midway through the season.

But this Sunday has another feature. It was a custom in England, several hundred years ago, to visit one’s “Mother Church” or cathedral on this Sunday.  This practice naturally led to family reunions and celebrations. Another historical element was that young girls and boys in domestic service were allowed to go home one day each year to visit their mothers, (yes, just one day each year!) and it was traditionally on this Sunday that the leave was granted. This became known as "going a-mothering" and the day was called Mothering Sunday.  Tradition has it that a special cake, called a simnel cake, made with marzipan and dried fruit, was part of the occasion.

In England today this Sunday is simply called Mother’s Day; the historical element largely ignored in favor of flowers and sentimental greeting cards.

Here is something pretty for the day -

I’ll to thee a Simnel bring
‘Gainst thou go’st a mothering,
So that, when she blesseth thee,
Half that blessing thou’lt give to me.’ 
Robert Herrick 1648

*This cemetery has particular significance to me as my mother and I used to walk in it in the evening gathering violets that grew wild there.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

What Some People Say About Lent

Every Lent, we ought to be looking at the various ways in which we get involved in manufacturing the gods that suit us.  Every Lent is a time to get that little bit further beyond the idolatry, that constantly keeps us prisoner and draws us back to the old world.  When Jesus has cleared out the temple, when he has thrown out those people involved in manufacturing religion, there he stands with his friends in a great silence and a great space.  And he says: this is the space where all people may feel at home; this is a space large enough for all to come because this is where God lives.
                                               Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury,
                                                                       from a Sermon, March 11, 2012

In this season of Lent, we take some time to focus on what that means for our lives, whether it is as simple as giving up chocolate candy or as profound as taking on a commitment to serve the poor or to serve others in some new way. Whatever it is, let that something be something that helps you participate in the movement of God's love in this world following in the footsteps of Jesus.
                                                                     Presiding Bishop Michael Curry,
                   Lenten message to the Episcopal Church, February 10, 2016

I believe at the heart of our Lenten journey is the opportunity for us to decrease    so that Christ can increase in and through us.
                                                                      Brian Prior, Bishop of Minnesota,
                                                                       Blog Post February 25, 2014

Lent begins not with confession. Lent begins with love. Lent is like a retreat. The first and central point is reclaim, renew and refresh our identity as God’s beloved children.
                                      Brother Luke Ditewig, Society of Saint John the Evangelist
                                                                           Blog Post February 24, 2013

From Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday, Christians are invited to do without some things they are perfectly capable of having -- such as rich food or loud parties with their friends -- and to take on some things that they are just as capable of avoiding -- such as a moral inventory or a lunch date with someone they are mad at.
"Lent," it is called, from an English word meaning "spring"-- not just a reference to the crocuses pushing their ways out of the ground in the season before Easter, but also to the greening of the human soul--pruned with repentance, fertilized with fasting, spritzed with self-appraisal, mulched with prayer. 
                                                                         Barbara Brown Taylor

                                                                 from a Sermon, February 21, 2010

Sunday, March 12, 2017

The “A” Word

The word “Alleluia” translates “Praise the Lord.” It is a statement of unreserved joy and gladness. It speaks of salvation, glory and the goodness of God.

We neither say nor sing this word during Lent. God, of course, still deserves our praise, but we refrain from this one particular word to remind us of the solemn nature of the season. Recalling the Babylonian exile, the psalmist asks, “How shall we sing the Lord’s song upon an alien soil?” (Psalm 137) During Lent, we are effectively living on an alien soil. Mindful in this season of our distance from God, we intentionally work to draw closer. If you feel that you miss the alleluia during Lent, if its absence saddens you just a bit, then the tradition is doing its job.

We put the word away so that we may shout and sing it with abandon at Easter. It rests hidden during Lent. At Easter we give it no rest at all.

Here at my church, Nativity Episcopal, we literally hide the alleluia. With the help of our young faithful, we decorate an alleluia banner, making it as spectacular and gaudy as possible, and then hide it somewhere in the church until, on Easter, it is joyfully found, unfurled and proclaimed.  Suddenly, all those unspoken and unsung alleluias burst forth with renewed meaning.

But for now … shhh!

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Lent Basics

The word “Lent” comes from the Old Anglo-Saxon word, lencton, meaning lengthening, as in the time of the year when the days get longer. Because it always occurs (in the northern hemisphere) at this lengthening time of the year, Lent basically means “Spring.” As with many elements of our Church Year and liturgy, traditions around Lent developed over time.

We know that in the Apostles’ time, people did not actually prepare for Baptism, see the compelling example in Acts 8. But a century or two later, people typically received Baptism at Easter time, and there was a period of preparation imposed. At first, days and then weeks before Easter were spent in preparation. 

In the 4th Century, the Lenten period was regularized to 40 days, beginning on Ash Wednesday and, excluding Sundays, up to the Vigil of Easter, the traditional time for Baptisms.Later all members of the church participated in the Lenten preparation as each year brought a new chance to renew one’s relationship with the Lord.

These days of Lent are tied to the 40 days when Jesus fasted in the desert, but because 40 is such an important number in all Scripture, we can draw a connection to the 40 days of the flood in Genesis as well as the 40 years of the Israelites' wandering in the desert. The number 40 signifies a completion of a task, a reward earned: Jesus’ ministry, the rainbow after the flood, the Promised Land. And, of course, there are 40 weeks in a typical pregnancy.

Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the three traditional disciplines of Lent. As a means of repentance and devotion they are deeply rooted in the Old Testament; Jesus, as an observant Jew, built his ministry around these practices. To “have the mind of Christ” as Paul urges in 1 Corinthians 2:16, we are invited to walk beside Jesus through his life and ministry. But because we are imperfect in this walk, we repeat it year after year.

The color for Lent is purple, a solemn and penitential but also a royal color. There are no flowers in the sanctuary during Lent. In our church, Nativity Episcopal, the fourteen Stations of the Cross are mounted on the side walls. The choir and the altar party process in silence. We neither sing nor say alleluia.  Incidentally, Lent is officially over with the first "alleluia" at the vigil. Scripture readings and hymns reflect the tone of the season. In the Gospel accounts, Jesus is in mounting danger as his ministry intensifies. We are reminded of the very high stakes upon which our salvation is based.

In modern times, some Christians have distanced themselves from what may seem like the harsh and coercive practices of Lent.  We see that Lenten disciplines are inconvenient and burdensome, but perhaps the reward at the end might make it all worthwhile. The Resurrection is Christ’s and ours, too, if we want it.

“Lent is one of those elements of Christian practice that binds the Christian community to one another and to its beginnings.”
Sr Joan Chittister
The Liturgical Year

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Ash Wednesday

“I invite you, therefore, to the observance of a holy Lent.” BCP page 265

Ash Wednesday - Lent Begins  

Ash Wednesday is the first of forty days of walking a path to the glory of Easter. Yet we begin with a reminder of our imperfection, our mortality and God’s forgiveness which awaits us. And we do this physically, outwardly and courageously.

Remember when you were baptized and the priest made a cross on your forehead with holy oil? Today that cross is retraced, but with ashes to form the shape of the cross which is our means of eternal life. It’s the same cross and it’s the same invitation. The ashes that signify mortality today signify the immortality promised to us.

Ashes were also an ancient mark of sorrow and repentance. Job marked himself with ashes when God spoke to him, “Therefore I despise myself and repent in dust and ashes,” he said. Job 42:6.

All the people of Nineveh donned sackcloth and ashes when Jonah warned them about their sinful ways. “The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth. When Jonah’s warning reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, took off his royal robes, covered himself with sackcloth and sat down in the dust.” Jonah 3:5-6

Today we do not go to such extremes, but each year our church invites us into this moment of repentance and forgiveness. Ash Wednesday, Lent, and, in fact, the whole Church Year is a way for us, the faithful, to walk with Jesus through his life and ministry, just as he became man to walk with us.

Ashes to Go
You may come across a news item about a new-ish ministry that offers ashes on Ash Wednesday in very public places such as bus terminals and busy street corners. It may surprise, delight or shock you, but this offering could be the one act of worship some of those people perform all year, and who knows where it might lead?

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Large and Small Favorite Books Read in 2016

Above are pictured the books I most loved reading in the year just passed. Instead of mentioning them in order of preference or order read, I will mention them in order of size. At church, our choir lines up by size; we lined up by size in elementary school. So - size order.

1. The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis
Lewis is not without his mental blocks, prejudices, opinions, and quirks, but I loved this little fantasy about people trying to decide between heaven or hell. It's a short read and it kept me smiling. Warning: Heaven might make you uncomfortable; it's just so darn loving!

2. A Testament of Devotion by Thomas R. Kelly
Thomas Kelly knew how to pray! Few people do and fewer can talk or write about it. His understanding of God is breathtaking and simple. EG "The God-blinded self sees naught of personal degradation or of personal eminence, but only the Holy Will working impersonally through him."

3. Prayer and Contemplation by Robert Llewelyn
I am called out repeatedly in this, as Llewelyn seems to know all my bad habits. But equally I am encouraged and nourished as he seems to know all my highest intentions. "The one great enemy of prayer [is} subjectivity - those sideways glances at ourselves to see how we are getting along." And then. "Offerings [of prayer] were never meant to help or strengthen or do anything except be offered."

4. Secrets in the Dark by Frederick Buechner
This is a collection of some of Buechner's most famous and beloved sermons. Being sermons, they will sound a bit conversational, a bit less formal than you would expect from a writer. There is often a sense of place and time that seem unnecessary as one reads, but....here are some of the most brilliant and moving calls to Christ that I have ever read...or heard. In one chapter he digs so deeply into the story of Jairus' daughter that I thought I could hear the sheets rustle as she got up from her bed.

5. Winter by Adam Gopnik
This is the only "secular" title on my list from 2016. Last Christmas, a wonderful friend gave me this book after I'd confessed to her that I love winter. The author also loves it and we spent a toasty companionable couple of weeks together in such contexts as Christmas, polar explorations, literature and philosophy and, not surprisingly as Gopnik is a Canadian, hockey. Every moment was enjoyable and full of brilliant writing and loads of information.

6. The Complete Julian of Norwich by Father John Julian
Father John Julian, scholar, poet and translator, is the founder of the Order of Julian of Norwich, so it stands to reason that his Complete Julian would be the quintessential translation and commentary about this magnificent work. And it is. Besides the most careful and studied translation of the Revelations of Divine Love, there is a helpful introduction and an engaging appendix. No stone is left un-turned in this exploration of Julian's life and writing. If you are "new" to Julian, this is the way in.

7. God's Funeral by A.N. Wilson
The title derives from a poem by Thomas Hardy in which people sadly acknowledge the death of God, or at least of the worship of God and God's work in our world. One by one, mourners gather to say goodbye to their faith. Lastly, and with profound regret, Hardy joins them.

God's Funeral traces humankind's increasing distance from belief in God, from the Age of Enlightenment onwards. Wilson is no stranger to lost faith, and he is no stranger to a return to faith, but he keeps himself out of the debate for as long as he can. As a work of the history of ideas, this book is informative and readable. As a history of the role faith plays in human endeavor, it is beyond magnificent. Wilson is also a novelist so he can entertain as well as inform. He can keep a reader guessing and can make a reader laugh or cry.

8. Surprised by Hope by N.T. Wright
If your idea of salvation, kingdom of God, or eternal life is simply that you will go to heaven when you die, please read this book. When we pray, "may they rest in peace and rise in glory," do we mean a spiritual glory, a shining soul? Or do we mean that we partake in Christ's same glory when he bodily rose from the dead? Wright seems to imply that he was surprised by the concepts in this book. They certainly surprised me.

9. The David Story by Robert Alter
I admit I am irresistibly drawn to this problem child of the Old Testament. I blame Michelangelo, William Faulkner and Leonard Cohen The hero with the five smooth stones becomes the adulterous predator, becomes the target of an evil "king,"  becomes the wild dancing lover of God, becomes the moody head of a dysfunctional family, becomes the tormented and grieving father, becomes the stately man of God's own heart who gently goes to sleep with his fathers. The Old Testament is a mash up of literary device, holy narrative and God-driven wisdom, and there is no better one to illumine its many dark alleyways than Robert Alter.

In this book, we have the complete text of 1 and 2 Samuel as well as the first 2 Chapters of 1 Kings - word for word, with an exhaustive foot-noted commentary by the author. Alter is a famous scholar of the Hebrew Scriptures and a wonderful writer. David walks right off the page.

10. The Theology of the Old Testament by Walter Brueggeman
Brueggemann takes a very new, for me, approach to the Old Testament. He sees the writings as voices, as rhetoric. Many voices, many points of view come together to describe the One we call God and hint, strongly hint, how we should live as God's people. Brueggemann finds a God that has many roles, many personnae, many ways of reaching us. He takes the term "testament" at face value, presenting these many voices as testimonies, such as are found in courtrooms. Here is a generous, scholarly, and devout way of approaching these writings. Brueggemann, while keeping mostly to an Old Testament point of view, sheds some Christian light on the readings and how they are received by Christians like himself.

 I found my copy at Half Price Books one day and scooped it up. Inside is written the name of its previous owner and the name also of a Divinity School that the owner presumably attended. This is the perfect MDiv book, and I can't help wondering if the individual continued on with the studies, became a minister and, most of all, I wondered why would anyone let this marvelous book get away?