Saturday, July 31, 2010
Actually, I know where it went - it may be true that when one is 22, one can neither get much exercise or regularly eat right and not suffer any ill effects or get really out of shape. This is not true for someone my age, but I keep forgetting my age. I keep forgetting I need to work at it now. And so it comes upon me, suddenly and yet often, that I cannot expect to have stamina and be in shape without working at it. I try to stay out of the heat but still end up doing too much sitting and not enough moving. It's as if the heat seeps into my bones even while I'm inside. I don't know why this keeps surprising me, but it does. I just keep getting out of whack and then remembering that I have to do something to keep from getting out of whack now. Somehow I need to find out how to coordinate my inner young self with my outer old body. I'm sure this is also connected to my issues with sleeping.
As it turns out, great minds think alike. I was awake during the night and finally gave up trying to get back to sleep and got up and turned on the computer, only to find in my inbox a reflection Barbara Crafton sent out just minutes before called Jesus Napped. (You can read it here.) She notes that she has learned to embrace the middle aged insomnia thing and even learned to take naps, even though she was not a napper before. She said she used to think she could trust her body to do anything she wanted it to do. Ah! I know that feeling. She said she learned to embrace napping as a spiritual discipline. She said she now knows her body has needs of its own.
Food for thought.
Friday, July 30, 2010
Thursday, July 29, 2010
Wednesday, July 28, 2010
creation, and whose presence we find wherever we go: Preserve
those who travel; surround them with your loving care; protect them from every danger; and bring them in safety to their journey's end; through
Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Tuesday, July 27, 2010
Monday, July 26, 2010
Water That Does Not Come Bottled
Sunday, July 25, 2010
But one of the duties and responsibilities I see fairly often somewhere on that list is this one: teaching people to pray.
Now these are Episcopal churches, and of course you all know that we pray a lot in church whenever we gather for worship. We pray from the beginning -with the opening collect-to the end, as we offer thanksgiving after receiving communion. We pray through the prayers of the people, the prayer of confession, and the whole of our Eucharist is a prayer, from The Lord be With you to the great Amen. There is even a prayer within a prayer in the Eucharistic prayer - the prayer we heard Jesus teach his disciples today, the Lord’s Prayer. The one that assumes that we are in community with one another and God, that assumes we need forgiveness, that asserts our dependence upon God for all that we need. The prayer that many people know by heart even if they haven’t been to church in forty years.
During the week, those who try to keep the daily rhythm of prayers going in the monastic tradition also pray the offices - morning prayer and evening prayer and maybe also noon prayer and compline.
And that’s just our Prayer Book tradition. Some folks also practice contemplative or centering prayer, which is resting in silence before God, or lectio divina - a way of praying the scriptures. People use prayer beads and rosaries and walk the labyrinth.
Bookstores, including the one at the Cathedral of St Philip, abound with books of prayers for women, Celtic prayers, prayers of the desert fathers and mothers, prayers for just about any group or any occasion. The esteemed Old Testament scholar Walter Brueggemann published a book a couple of years ago called Prayers for a Privileged People.
And yet, many people say they want to be taught how to pray.
I am actually not surprised by this. I’ve often wanted to learn how to pray, too, even though I already do a lot of praying. Some of us - probably all of us - have noticed that our prayers don’t always seem to be answered.
Some of us have even experienced that when we asked for a fish we got a snake.
Some of us may have heard that if God doesn’t answer our prayers, it must be because we aren’t praying the right way. We might have heard that God does not hear the prayers of sinners or the unrighteous. Some of us have had the experience of praying for something fervently - for a loved one to get well, for abuse to stop, for a war to end, for the gift of a child. But the loved one did not get well, the abuse did not end, war goes on endlessly taking lives and shattering families, no child is conceived.
We know that God loves us, we know that we are supposed to pray, and so when we do not see our prayers answered, we figure it must be our fault. We must not have prayed the right way, we must not have prayed hard enough, we must have offended God.
Because we don’t want to wonder, does God even hear our prayers? Or does God hear them but decide to ignore them? Is God not powerful enough to answer our prayers? Which seems like treachery to speak out loud. What kind of God do we have then?
It’s better that it be our fault somehow.
I don’t pretend to know the mind of God. I don’t know why some people are cured and some are not. But it wounds me to the core to hear someone say that they didn’t pray the right way or didn’t pray hard enough and that’s why their daughter died or their husband left them or their mom’s cancer wasn’t cured or their dad didn’t come home from the war. The God I know does not have a plan that includes deliberately taking mothers or fathers away from their children or a plan that this person should suffer while that one does not.
I also believe that Jesus would not have taught us to pray if God doesn’t hear our prayers. We often see Jesus praying in the Gospels, from his baptism, throughout his ministry,and even as he was dying on the cross. Jesus not only teaches us the Lord’s Prayer here in Luke and similarly in Matthew, but also frequently tells his followers in John that if we ask God for anything in Jesus’ name, God will grant our request. How the request is actually granted is sometimes a mystery, I well know. All I know about that is that God brings life out of death.
I also believe that we sometimes have a pretty narrow view of what prayer really is. This goes with the part of us that believes that we have to pray the right way in order for our prayers to be heard, like having to put the correct change into a vending machine to get the product we really want. Or that prayer is just about asking for something: In seminary, a small group of us students gathered in the chapel for good old Prayer Book morning prayer, and some folks from other denominations complained that the “prayer part” of morning prayer only lasted for five minutes. They didn’t have an understanding that the collects from the prayer book, some of which people have been praying for hundreds of years, or the psalms, which people have been praying for thousands of years, counted as prayer.
If I were teaching people how to pray, I think first of all I would want to say that prayer is whatever we say or think or sing - aloud or held in our hearts - that we want to be in conversation with God about, including saying thank you, which we don’t seem to do much.
(Notice during the prayers of the people, we have plenty of intercessions and petitions to offer but there’s a lot of silence when we offer time for thanksgivings.)
Prayer is however we connect to God, both in offering up something to God and also listening for God to offer something to us. When we set aside time to be with God, perhaps in silence, perhaps in community, perhaps with words, for ten seconds or thirty minutes, that’s prayer.
Sometimes I don’t know what to pray for, so I just say a person’s name or name a situation to God, while I’m in the shower or driving down the street or sitting in church or whenever I want to say, again, “God, here is something I think has gone wrong. Here is someone I know who is hurting. Here is someone who is in need.” Sometimes I don’t know the person’s name, but I figure God does. Sometimes I don’t say anything, I just listen.
Sometimes I see people standing over others to pray for them; sometimes we lay hands on one another in prayer. Sometimes we say exactly what we want: healing, love, brokenness repaired, crisis averted. Sometimes we say we don’t know what we should want - can we pray for a good death, is it time for the hurting to stop by way of separation or ending of relationship? Might we pray for the strength to stop doing something that is hurtful to others or to ourselves? We might just say, God, we are confused and hurt and don’t know what to do or what to ask for, but here we are in your presence needing help.
We might even say that we are angry that the world seems so broken and that our loved ones are hurting or that we are in pain ourselves. I am sure God can take those prayers, just as God listened to Job, just as God heard the psalmist cry out for God to hurry up and do something.
The writer Anne Lamott says in her book Traveling Mercies that the two best prayers she knows are “Help me, help me, help me” and “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” She also sends out prayers by way of what she calls God’s inbox, which is the top drawer of her nightstand. She writes a person’s name down on a piece of paper, say a person she doesn’t like but would like to learn to appreciate
and be kind to, and she puts the paper in God’s inbox and waits for something to happen.
Sometimes, if something doesn’t happen for a while or if things seem to be getting worse, she’ll open up the inbox and take the paper out and put an exclamation point after the person’s name and put it back in the drawer for God’s further consideration.
And what she believes about this system is that whatever else is happening, cosmically or otherwise, God is working on her while she is waiting. She knows the name is on the paper in the inbox. She knows she wants - she needs - something to happen, but she is willing to wait and see what fruit is borne of her prayer. And she says that after a while, she often finds herself doing what she hoped she would do, being nicer, understanding someone, forgiving someone.
I like that idea, of God’s inbox. And I know that while being patient and waiting is hard, we who live in the hope of God don’t just wait passively. We wait with the expectation that God is working to bring something forth, something beyond our own imagining. It’s an active waiting, when we tell God our troubles, ask for help, cry out for justice, beg for peace, knowing that even now God is working to bring justice and peace and healing and strength to fruition somehow.
And while we wait, we learn to let anxieties go, to let worries go, to give our troubles over to God to shoulder for a while. Living a life of prayer gives us the opportunity to be worked on by God this way.
Prayer is not tricky. There isn’t a catch. Know that there are many ways to pray and that God hears all of our prayers, the well-written ones, the sung ones, the choked up ones, the ones we cannot bring ourselves to say out loud, the ones for others, the ones for ourselves, the ones where we don’t even know what we are asking for.
Use beads, walk, light a candle, shout hallelujah, sing, cry, sit in silence. If you mean for it to be prayer, then it is.
Saturday, July 24, 2010
Islands are like that. They house both castles and prisons. Some of us need to get off the island - to get out into the world and mix with everyone else - while others need to head over to an island to get away from it all. We need both, of course, and the trick is to know when it's time for refuge and when it's time to get out and about.
I frequently get confused about which is which. I like islands. I like being near the water, away from the beaten path. Islands are definitely a refuge for me. So I like to spend lots of time there, physically and emotionally. And yet I get that sometimes I have kept myself locked up there and need to get out among the people again.
I tried going outside in my yard, outside the island of my air conditioned house complete with internet and books, the last couple of days, to water the parched roses and pull a few weeds, but was attacked by thousands of mosquitoes both times. I used to be one of those people mosquitoes aren't particularly interested in; apparently that has changed and I have bites all over. So I need to go somewhere with fewer mosquitoes.
But I see that I need to get out. And take my camera. God is nudging me.
So for the next month, horrible heat or no, I am going to be getting out and doing different things, farther afield than my mosquito-ridden yard. I'm in a rut, and it's time to shake things up.
(Lesser Feasts and Fasts)
Friday, July 23, 2010
The other day we were going somewhere in the car and my husband and I were reminiscing about summer trips in the family car without air conditioning. (This in response by one of the kids that riding on the interstate with the windows down was annoying.) We talked about what it's like to drive all the way to Florida, getting hotter and hotter all the time, with the windows down to "keep cool." Those of you who remember that kind of trip will no doubt also recall the part about how your legs or arms stuck to the seats even though you were all sweaty and so you ought to have been able to slide right out of there. But somehow your skin stuck to the seats.
My aunt, who did not sweat, had those folding loosely woven (plastic? straw matting? I don't know what it was made of) covers that one plopped on top of the bench seat, which eliminated the sticking part, but it did make funny patterns on your legs. (My aunt's legs were not uncovered, of course.) Also this cover kept you from getting burned by the hot seat when you got back in after your lunch stop or shopping trip.
And we only got AM radio, with limited distance during the daytime (at night you could listen to WLS from Chicago and sometimes WOR in New York City all up and down the East Coast, which was so exotic to a small town Southern girl like me), and with all the windows rolled (and I mean rolled - we hand cranked them) down, the radio was out anyway as far as trips went.
Now most of our travel is in climate controlled transport and we can carry our own music with us via iPod or other MP3 player, although there is still radio in the car and the airlines furnish you with many musical options.
Actually, when I was traveling back in the windows rolled down days, we often sang in the car. My mom liked to sing and she would lead us through a playlist featuring "I've Been Working on the Railroad," "She'll be Comin' Round the Mountain," and "On Top of Old Smokey," among others. You can sing pretty loudly with the windows down, which feels good. (Don't you think it feels better to belt one out than to sing softly?) Or you could stick your head out the window and sing one note with your mouth wide open and listen to the weird sound it makes inside your head. (Is this what dogs are doing when they travel with their heads out the window and tongues hanging out?)
Ah, yes. Travel. I'm looking forward to it!
Thursday, July 22, 2010
Why? Because it's officially too hot for me to think today. I've been out several times and although we've had hotter days, I think the cumulative effect of many hot days (even with some rain but not much) has kind of maxxed things out. My brain is tired, all of me is tired, and I could use a laugh.
I took this picture out of my car window on my trip to the beach last June. It didn't turn out like I expected, but it's interesting nonetheless.
Usually, I do the talking, but today, it's your turn. Give us a short reflection, please and thank you.
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
Tuesday, July 20, 2010
The good thing about them is that I can pull them to the side during the day and still have the feeling of being in the trees; the view is slightly obstructed but not completely. For whatever reason, living in a room with closed curtains makes me feel as if I am in a sick room or something. Our curtains were always open when I was growing up - we lived on seven acres and it wasn't likely people were going to come up and look in (or whatever it is that people worry about so that they draw the curtains whenever they are home). I am used to having the view outside; it makes me feel less hemmed in. I suspect that sometimes people draw the curtains to keep the heat out, but still, I don't like the feeling of being in a room with closed curtains. It seems to signify sickness or hiding or something negative. I suspect that blackout curtains would be better to give me real dark to sleep in, but this is a compromise I'm going to try to live with.
And sure enough, I slept much better last night. Not perfectly, and I still woke earlier than I'd like but later than I have been waking.
I used to sleep so well when I visited my mother at her house. (The one she'll be moving out of within the month.) It's outside of town (and a small town at that) and it gets REALLY dark there. I always sleep so well when it's really dark. Now we have LED displays on clocks, TV or cable box or DVD player; the computer screen sometimes lights up to play a commercial or something. There are street lights that shine into the windows; the outside lights of the house are on at night for security; when the neighbors behind us drives up their driveway, the car's headlights flash into our room, across the floor and up the wall, reflecting in glass of the large picture hung on that wall. And the daylight breaking (which happens very early on summer mornings here) and the skies lightening seeps in through the windows, too. All this happens in our bedroom. Lights tell my eyes, even when I'm asleep, that it's time to wake up. And so I do.
And then I start thinking - my to do list appears in my mind's eye, or details about how to arrange the furniture in my mother's new apartment, or that thing I meant to do today and forgot or the thing I want to do today when I do get up but am not ready to do yet pushes into the forefront to accuse me as I lie there trying to find a cool spot on the pillow.
So I hope the curtains will help.
Monday, July 19, 2010
So far, however, my attempts have not met with great success. I had a movie spree, which is always good to do in the heat, but that's over. Plus I watched most of them at home, which does not count as getting out. Going out to the grocery store and to get gas or otherwise do mundane, routine, repetitive chores also doesn't count. In fact, doing routine mundane stuff makes the doldrums worse. I get tired of buying the same stuff every week. I don't think I am cut out for the whole weekly grocery shopping thing. (In fact, I try to not go every week.)
I will have an adventure soon - driving to my mother's house one last time to bring her here. That will certainly be an adventure but there may be crying involved, and that may not be what the doctor ordered, either.
I remember being young and thinking that summer was so short. I also didn't mind the heat so much. Now I think it drags on forever and am surprised at how much the heat affects me. I suppose people who live in cold climates with not nearly enough sun feel the same way about winter where they live - they become increasingly susceptible to staying indoors too much because the weather is getting the upper hand.
I look forward to a change in the weather and a change in my attitude.
Sunday, July 18, 2010
Our Gospel reading today (Luke 10:38-42) finds Jesus, traveling with a crowd, stopping at the home of the sisters Mary and Martha. There seems to be some problem around the visit, and we experience an exasperated Martha at the end of her rope demanding that the honored guest intervene in a family squabble.
Martha may be demanding that Jesus enforce traditional gender roles; or she may be voicing the often-heard complaint by the “responsible sibling” against a deadbeat one. But Jesus tells Martha that she is distracted by many things and that Mary, who has been sitting at his feet, has chosen the better part.
Many of us, upon hearing this story, stumble into the trap of thinking that the story is about Mary being praised for acting the way a man would act while Martha is belittled for doing the things we all know need to be done, and are often done by women ---- or thinking that this text is about how Jesus values contemplation over action. Frankly, many interpretations of this troubling story have caused hurt. My feeling about the Gospel is that it ought not to be used as a club.
So I don’t think this passage means that Jesus loves my colleague Stuart, who lives out a deep contemplative spirituality, better than Jesus loves me because I have failed centering prayer class three times and took a wrong turn in the labyrinth and got lost. That’s not the Gospel.
Nor does Jesus’ celebration of Mary’s role as disciple demand the denigration of Martha’s role as the one who does mundane chores. That’s not the Gospel either. After all, Jesus sent disciples into Jerusalem to make mundane preparations for the last supper.
So what is going on in this story? To see more clearly, it helps to look at the bigger picture. This scene comes early on in Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. He previously called some people to follow him, but they were focused elsewhere - one wanted to bury his father first, another wanted to say goodbye to his family first, and a third was not ready to give up his life of comfort.
Those who are following him have shown themselves to lack understanding about what discipleship means. Three weeks ago, the brothers James and John wanted to call down fire from heaven to punish people in Samaria. Two weeks ago, the seventy who were commissioned to go out to cure the sick and receive the hospitality of strangers came back bragging about how demons bowed down to them. So we have seen a variety of instances of disciple and would-be disciple failure.
Meanwhile, last week, a lawyer came and asked a crucial question: what do I need to do to inherit eternal life? Jesus asked him what the scriptures say, and the lawyer correctly answered: Love your God with all your heart and soul and strength and mind and love your neighbor as yourself. The two great commandments: Love God, and love your neighbor.
At that point, Jesus told a story about how to love your neighbor. Jesus holds up an unlikely hero - a Samaritan, someone Jews did not associate with - as the one who shows us that our neighbor is the one who is in the ditch, and the way to be a neighbor is to attend to the neighbor’s needs, rather than worry about observing customs. So last week’s story is an illustration of the second part of the lawyer’s question and response: In order to inherit eternal life, one must love one’s neighbor with compassionate action.
Now this week, we hear a story illustrating the first part of the lawyer’s question and response: In order to inherit eternal life, one must also love God. Mary sits at Jesus’ feet and listens to him. She singlemindedly attends to his words. In this story we see another unlikely hero - this time a woman, someone whom convention suggests would not be sitting at the feet of the teacher showing us how to love God.
So, these two stories go together. One is incomplete without the other - Jesus tells the lawyer to go and do, but he indicates that Mary is right to stop and sit. Jesus is not contradicting himself in side-by-side stories. This is a both/and, not an either/or. It was always understood in the Old Testament that it is incumbent on God’s people to both hear and obey. The problem with Martha is that she is not able to hear because she is distracted by what she thinks duty calls for - just like the man who wanted to bury his father before he got around to following Jesus.
Martha got caught in the trap of not being able to discern the urgency of attending to God’s word when it has come near because she was distracted with things that were, in comparison, less important. Jesus is in the house - and so it’s time to listen to Jesus. From the very beginning, Jesus has proclaimed that the Kingdom of God is near, it has come, the time is now, and all the conventional rules are overturned.
So, this story needs to be read along with the Good Samaritan story and in light of the previous stories of disciple failure. The Samaritan and Mary are good disciples, in contrast to the disciples who wanted to call fire down from heaven, who bragged about demons bowing down to them, and would-be disciples who would get around to Jesus when they had finished their other, conventional tasks. The good disciple attends to God’s word AND tends to God’s people but must know which is which and what is required when.
And Martha - well, Martha missed her chance to attend to God’s word because she was distracted by attending to conventions, just as the priest and Levite each missed his chance to be a neighbor by attending to conventions, just as the man who wanted to observe the convention of burying his father missed the chance to follow Jesus when he came near.
The final zinger that would have given the story special power to those who first heard it is that Jesus uses two marginal, unlikely people - a Samaritan and a woman - to be models of appropriate disciple behavior. ... Mary loves God and the Samaritan loves neighbor. These are the two great commandments. We, all disciples, whether male or female or insiders or outsiders, are expected to do both.
As it says in Ecclesiastes, or at least it would say if I had written it, for everything there is a season, a time to cook and wash dishes and a time to sit at Jesus’ feet. We promise in our baptismal vows to seek AND serve Christ in all persons - not that some of us will seek while others (who are second class) serve. Like the last part of the serenity prayer, we need the wisdom to know the difference between the time to hear and the time to do.
We need to cultivate the vision to recognize Christ when Christ appears in our lives so to stop and pay attention, just as we need to cultivate eyes of compassion to recognize a wounded neighbor by the side of the road and so to stop and attend to that neighbor’s needs.
How will we recognize Christ when Christ comes near? How do we know what the important, necessary thing is? How do we know when it’s the time to stop and attend to God right now this very minute no matter what else I’m doing?
How, indeed? Our lives are full of distraction. No wonder so many of us identify with Martha. We have appointments, we have work or school, we have friends, we have family, there are millions of messages coming at us every day from every side. How can we not be distracted? Sometimes I think that looking for Jesus in my every day life is like a live-action version of “Where’s Waldo?”
But it can be done. We can and should develop the eyes and ears to see and listen for God just as we can and should develop the eyes of compassion to see the needs of our neighbors. It takes practice - just as it takes practice to be good at piano or golf or our job or being a parent or friend. We have to learn how to stop everything and rest in God’s presence - a little at a time if that’s all we can do. We have to get used to the feeling of stopping and looking and listening and get used to the realization that the world will not end when we ignore its demands in order attend to God.
We learn this through very intentional practices to help us seek and connect with God in silence, in prayer, in meditation, in directed reading, in quiet conversation with a teacher or pastor or friend.
Some of us, like Stuart, are really good at classical contemplative practices like centering prayer, lectio divina, using prayer beads, silent retreats.
Some of us, like me, are more constitutionally doers and have to find other ways to create space in our lives to look and listen for God. I’m not likely to make it through 20 minutes of silence, but I can take three or four during daily prayers. I can chant Psalms or listen to certain kinds of music that help me feel closer to God.
I can’t walk the labyrinth without drifting into making a grocery list, but I can walk along a forest trail or beside the ocean and wonder at the beauty of creation and just get quiet so I can hear God’s whispers about who God is and who I am and what is important right now in this place and at this time. Such practice allows us to learn to look for God, learn to listen for God, learn to be ready from regular exercise of our looking and listening faculties to recognize when God has come near. Just as the regular exercise of our serving and giving muscles help us to recognize a neighbor in a ditch and give us courage to come to that neighbor’s aid.
Life in God is a beautiful dance of quiet and activity, of music and the pauses between notes, of looking and listening, of doing and rejoicing as well as resting in stillness. Jesus came to free us from the world’s demands, those conventional musts and shoulds that distract us from God and separate us from neighbor.
So, like Mary, love God. Like the Samaritan, love neighbor. See and hear. Listen and do. Love and love.
In the name of God: creator, redeemer, sustainer. Amen.
Saturday, July 17, 2010
In a short conversation with Dr Gatta at the end, I described my life as a supply priest, and she said, simply, "So you are doing the essentials of the priestly calling. You celebrate the Eucharist and you preach the Gospel."
There are issues with being a supply priest - notably the lack of community and pastoral relationships - that are coming more and more into focus for me, but this was a gift. I am providing the essentials. How nice that I know what I am called to do in this role and I do it.
Almighty and everlasting God, you made the universe with all its marvelous order, its atoms, worlds, and galaxies, and the infinite complexity of living creatures: Grant that, as we probe the mysteries of your creation, we may come to know you more truly, and more surely fulfill our role in your eternal purpose; in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Friday, July 16, 2010
There's also a country and western song about how "my whole world lies waiting behind door number three." It's not clear what the song is actually saying, other than it's about the show and that the singer is sure that the object of his dreams is behind one of the doors and he will do everything he has to for the chance to win it.
Probabilities aside, we are often invited to trade in something we have in our lives right now for something that beckons beyond the doors of where we are right now. And just like on the show, sometimes the trade is a good one and sometimes it's not. I suspect that many of us entertain the fantasy that our whole world lies waiting behind a now-closed door and that we have to do everything we can to get that door opened to us. A dream job, a dream house, a dream girl or dream guy, a dream life.
The photo here is from a lovely church where I will attend a workshop tomorrow and serve as the guest preacher on Sunday. Notice there's a baptismal bowl just inside the door. One has to pass it on the way through the door - when both coming into the church and going out. It is there to serve as a reminder of our baptismal vows as we come in and especially as we go out into the world. If we choose to come through that door, either way, we trade our old life for new life, we trade life that leads to death to life that leads to eternal life, life abundant here and now.
Not everyone wants to make the trade. If we take it seriously, we have to let go of a lot of things and take on some new ones. It seems daunting - letting go of striving, of being utterly self-reliant and instead taking on trying to love our neighbors as ourselves and respecting the dignity of every human being. We worry there may be a catch - what if we have to trade in our brains, for instance? (After all, it appears that some people feel that using one's intellect is antithetical to living the Christian life.) Or our common sense, or our belief in evolution, or being able to practice yoga, drink wine, accept gay people....
This is a false choice, though. God wants us to bring our whole selves to the altar, our bodies, our brains, our questions, our real lives. God wants us to know that God is good, creation is good, we are good. What we let go of are the things that truly bind us - crabbed hearts, prejudice, fear, ignorance, being victims, making victims. God's world is big and wonderful and full and we are called to life full lives.
I like to think that a closed door will open to me if I am to walk through it. I don't think God plays Monty Hall in our lives, trying to trick us into trading in what we have for a chance at a fantasy prize. I think God does call us to walk into new places, but not alone, for God walks with us (even through the valley of the shadow of death); I think that God does hope we will lay down our sorrows and our striving in order to receive life abundant. I think that whatever it is that lies behind the doors that now appear closed to me, my job is not to weigh trade-in options and strategies to get behind it, but be open to hearing God's beckoning and to trust that God's call is always into life and not to disappointment.
Thursday, July 15, 2010
This is a book about the Psalms, and he is an esteemed Old Testament scholar, and he also notes that not a lot of great writing comes out of the place of being securely oriented - "While we all yearn for it, it is not very interesting," he says. He may mean not a lot of great Biblical writing comes out of that place or he may mean writing in general. Which reminds me of the Talking Heads song "Heaven [is a place where nothing ever happens]." But I digress.... And I remember that when I was in college, majoring in writing, my best stuff came out of times when I was unhappy or at odds with the world in some way. I ended up feeling that I should not like to have a career in writing because it would require me to be miserable in order to succeed at it. But I digress again....
Anyway, Brueggeman goes on to say that the Psalms are our best collection of humanity's crying out to God about both our painful disorientation and the surprising joy of reorientation. (For OT literature coming from secure orientation, he suggests reading Proverbs or possibly the acrostic Psalms 37 and 145, which are (and are about) being orderly and symmetrical.) This place of disorientation of course is where many of us live at various times in our lives, and despite the discomfort of being in that place, we know (when we think about it) that it is the place where good and needed growth is most likely to be occurring. Change and even destruction is the prequel to the story of growth and even resurrection. We must have periods of disorientation in order to experience true newness of life. And that new life is often surprising in its beauty and joy.
So where are you now? What time is it in your life? I myself am in the middle of profound and painful disorientation. And it's not just me - many things are changing in my life and the lives of my family. Our bodies are not working the way they ought; we are moving houses; we are not doing the work we thought we were supposed to be doing; we are in the throes of growing into adulthood/middle age/advanced age and all the stuff that goes with that. Each all of us in my immediate family going through some significant change. Some of this is welcome and some of it is just what one would expect but some of it is neither expected nor welcome. This is a time of disorientation.
Interestingly, Brueggeman, who is clearly a fan of the BCP and of praying the daily offices, suggests that in times of secure orientation, the Psalms are not so powerful as they are when we are at the edges, when we are in our questioning and raw places. We may try to use the Psalms for equilibrium (singing them certainly brings this out - I still get a giggle when chanting a line like "Like the dull and the stupid they perish" (Ps 49:9)) but when we do that, we miss the point of the Psalms. Which is that they give voice to our grief, our raw emotions of fear and attendant feelings of abandonment and shame, these universal feelings all humans have felt throughout the ages. These feelings, these expressions of pain and grief (and also joy) that are an official and important part of the Bible and of religious life and ceremony/ritual.
I admit often rushing through the Psalm in the offices, sometimes in order to get to the Gospel, or to a prayer I particularly wish to say, an intercession or thanksgiving I want to remember to offer, or just to get through the office so I can move on to something else. I admit that I delight in singing psalms at church. I think I do come to the Psalms from a place of expecting equilibrium and if not finding it, moving on without much thought.
But now I am thinking that I am in the perfect place right now to read and pray them as a way to give voice to my own despair, my own deep and scary and sometimes bleak disorientation, not just as a personal message to God but, as Brueggemann suggests, as a way to see how my journey has been shared by other pilgrims, both the ones who wrote and the ones who have prayed these verses for centuries.
"May the Lord answer you in the day of trouble,
the Name of the God of Jacob defend you;
Send you help from his holy place
and strengthen you out of Zion"
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
But it touches off an uneasy feeling about the church as fortress. Various doings in the Roman Church (including the most recent bizarreness in which ordaining women is newly listed as a sin on the same level as child rape) and the Church of England (in which certain groups are bringing back old writings from the sixties about how women to work is ruining society for everybody - but especially males) and in our own country where battles over the inclusion or exclusion of LBGT people at church (both as lay and ordained ministers) continue to make the church look like it has nothing to do with the spread of the Gospel and much to do with crouching behind heavily guarded walls, armed, swearing at one another and reloading. I am sad for the church and sad for the world.
I know God loves us all. I imagine it must break God's heart to see God's beloved people embroiled in this kind of internecine warfare via the church, which is supposed to be God's church. I wish I could just look away, but it's like a wreck that one can hardly help but watching even as one knows it's best not to.
But I shall try. I've got other stuff to do.
Tuesday, July 13, 2010
Just in time, the New York Times brings us glamour shots of seventeen seashells, from the common quahog (clam) to polka dotted carnivorous volutes. Eye candy for seashellers. See the truly gorgeous slideshow here.
Monday, July 12, 2010
Sunday, July 11, 2010
Even in the Bible, there is this problem about lawyers. They are seldom treated with respect, which is sad, because I am sure there have always been lawyers who are decent people. Of course I am married to one, so maybe I’m prejudiced, but I’m sure you can agree that our Gospel reading is not just another lawyer-bashing story and that we need to look past the labels on each of the characters Luke uses to tell this story that we all know so well.
In fact, our knowing it so well probably makes what was a shocking story to Jesus’ audience into a tame one among us, a story we can easily parse to produce a clear moral. But then, parsing is what lawyers do, isn’t it?
Anyway in the story today, a lawyer stands up to test Jesus. First, he asks Jesus what he is supposed to do to inherit eternal life, and Jesus says, “You read the scriptures yourself, don’t you? How do you interpret the Bible in this matter? What do you think you’re supposed to do?” Which is a response we should pay attention to ourselves. Jesus expects us to know our Bible and also to be able to interpret it.
And the lawyer gives the right answer. He quotes the Torah, the law: Love God and love your neighbor as yourself. Correct.
But then the lawyer wants to justify himself. And so he asks, "but who is my neighbor?"
And Jesus responds to his question with the story about a man who was beaten and left lying half-dead by the road, and how two people crossed to the other side of the road to pass him by, but a third person - a Samaritan who shouldn’t have been there in the first place and who didn’t associate with Jews and vice versa - this Samaritan saw the beaten man and instead of passing him by, was moved by great compassion to help him. The Samaritan stopped on the dangerous road, bound up the beaten man’s wounds, took him to an inn, paid for his continuing care, and promised to return and take care of any outstanding bills. It was an extravagant response.
And so Jesus’ unspoken but obvious answer to the lawyer’s question, “who is my neighbor?” Is this: the man in the ditch is your neighbor. Anyone in need is your neighbor.
Then Jesus asks the lawyer a question: “who was a neighbor to the beaten man?” And the answer must gall the Jewish lawyer. The hated Samaritan is the one who acted like a neighbor. Jesus has turned the question around from “who is my neighbor” to “how am I to be a neighbor.”
We tend to read ourselves into this familiar story in predictable ways. We determine that we are not supposed to be like the priest or the Levite who pass by the beaten man but are supposed to be like the Samaritan who shows the man mercy. Good enough.
But this is more than a moralistic story. This story would have been shocking to those who heard it. The Jews and Samaritans hated one another; their feud went back for hundreds of years. The Samaritans were of mixed heritage, made up of people from God knows where whom the Assyrians had imported into Israel when they conquered it, who then intermarried with what few and unimportant Jews the Assyrians left behind. The Samaritans had their own scriptures and worshiped in a place other than Jerusalem. Each considered themselves the real chosen people. The two groups did not mix and their rivalry was legendary. So it was shocking for Jesus to tell a story in which the hero was Samaritan and the bad actors were Jews.
Now, let’s turn the story around and experience some shock value ourselves. What happens if we put ourselves in the beaten man’s place? Would we even be asking such a question as who is my neighbor? The lawyer is trying to qualify the term neighbor - to narrow it down - to determine to whom he owes attention and by implication whom can he ignore. He is looking for loopholes. But if you’re the man in the ditch, do you care about any of that? Do you think that you’d lie there in gentle understanding if someone were to shout over to you to explain that they can’t or won’t help you because you are not their neighbor? Oh, ok, I’ll just lie here dying and wait until an appropriate neighbor comes along.
Or what about this? Are there people about whom you would say, I’d rather die than let that person help me? I’d rather just lie here and die than experience the compassion of someone I don’t know or don’t like or whose theology or politics differs from mine or who is of the wrong color or class or sexual orientation? Yeah, just go on and pass me by and I’ll wait for a more appropriate person to show me mercy.
The message Jesus is driving home here is this: categories and rules simply don’t matter. Think of the person in need. The person in need is the person who deserves your attention, whoever it might be. Categories and rules do not apply.
And this is so hard. We tend to want people to get what they deserve and deserve what they get. And there are so many people in need, all the time, everywhere. So we look for ways to narrow things down, to make life manageable, to keep from being overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the world’s grief and lack and want and need.
This is where I have compassion for the lawyer. This is where I find myself in the lawyer’s shoes. How on earth can I figure out what to do in the face of unrelenting poverty and brokenness? I am bombarded daily with stories and images and the sight of people who are homeless and hungry and beaten and hopeless and addicted and dying. I am constantly being asked to help here or there, this cause or that situation. Surely there is some way in which I can determine whom I ought to help, who deserves my attention, among so much need, without simply becoming numb to it all.
But again, if I am in the ditch, do I care about any of that? Does any of that matter? Must I position myself as deserving in order to receive mercy? Does God parse us that way, so that only the deserving, the appropriate among us receive grace and mercy and the unfailing and unqualified love of God?
So you see, this is not a straightforward story with good guys, bad guys, and a neat moral at the end. We might try to make it one, and when we do I think it is because we know how difficult this whole concept is to work into one’s real life. We are intelligent, caring people, and what we see out there in the world is overwhelming need. And we know how powerless we often are to help, to make a difference. We are so often captive to our own fears, our uneasiness about strangers, our worries about our own safety. We’ve heard stories about traps and setups and con men and we’ve heard propaganda about how people don’t deserve to be helped anyway and they should pull themselves up by their bootstraps et cetera et cetera.
But I will say again, God does not parse us that way. God does not divide us into deserving and undeserving. Mercy is mercy and we do well to remember that whenever we draw a line, we will find God on the other side of it. God stands with the helpless and the rejected, including those we reject. So if you are in the ditch, God is with you. If you are a Samaritan among Jews, God is with you. If you are in pain, grief, trouble - God is with you.
So how does one respond to the great need of the world? The same as eating an elephant - one bite at a time. We learn to see need when we come upon it. It doesn’t have to be the entire world’s need. It can’t be the entire world’s need - none of us has the capacity for that. The need that’s right in front of our nose, on our particular journey, today, is the need to which we are invited to respond. We know we cannot help everybody, but we can show mercy to somebody. We can put our beliefs into action without being overwhelmed ourselves by focusing on the one whose needs we can see now. It takes practice and we may have to learn from those whom we never expected and do not want to learn. But this is what we vowed at our baptisms: we will seek and serve Christ in all persons and love our neighbors as ourselves, with God’s help.
The Samaritan had the eyes to see the suffering man in the ditch. He did not avert his gaze but allowed himself to feel compassion without applying any rules about it. His focus was on performing the action of a neighbor, rather than discerning the identity of neighbor.
Here is a story I read a year or so ago about neighbors. There is a group in the Middle East called the Parents’ Circle - Families Forum whose members are people whose parents or children or siblings have been killed in the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians. Half of the group is Israeli and the other half Palestinian and they all have had their lives torn apart by violence. And they all have decided that they can and will work together out of their common experience of raw pain to to promote peace among a people caught up in hate and vengeance. The Israelis and Palestinians have developed the eyes to see one another as brothers and sisters who have suffered the same grief as they have: they know that the blood of both tribes is red in their veins and when it runs out on the ground; that all bitter tears are salty. They know that only love will heal some wounds. And so once, after a particularly bloody day in which suicide bombings in Israel were retaliated against with car bombings in Palestine, members of the group decided to give blood. The Palestinians went to the Israeli Red Cross in Jerusalem to donate blood for Israeli victims, and the Israelis slipped behind enemy lines into Ramallah to donate blood at a hospital that would treat wounded Palestinians. I never cease to be inspired by this story.
A neighbor knows no boundaries, forgets categories, and shows mercy to those in need. Jesus said, go and do likewise.
Let us pray:
Living God, for whom no door is closed, no heart is locked, draw us beyond our doubts, till we see your Christ and touch his wounds where they bleed in others. Amen.