I wanted to give a little air time to St. Thomas Aquinas on his feast day, as I have a great deal of admiration for him as a person of "equal parts head and heart." All that I've ever read about him makes me think I might have been molded out of some of the same dirt. He caught a lot of guff for "thinking too much," to the point of even occasionally branded as heretical, but at the same time he was prone to his experiences of "holy ecstacies," which sort of remind me of my own, "Oh, WOW!" moments in my own personal spirituality.
As quoted in Lesser Feasts and Fasts, "Thomas asserted that reason and revelation are in basic harmony," and that "Grace is not the denial of nature." He figured out that one way of looking at God was to know what God was not (the via negativa) and he understood the essence of God as a being was right there in black and white in Exodus 3:14, "I am Who I am." He understood God as Being, itself, and the Ultimate Reality--that all we know as "being" is derived from God as "Ultimate Being, defined." If you want to read his proofs for the existence of God, I've linked them here.
So here's to you, St. Thomas Aquinas, your heart bursting with love for God, and your head bursting with thoughts! I really do think you'd have been the first one on the block with a Kindle...
Thought I would share with you a recent e-mail from Steve Thorngate of Christian Century:
Sent: Fri, January 22, 2010 4:39:33 PM
Subject: Re: Applying to join CCBlogs
Forgive my slow response. I've gotten pretty behind on these.
Yes, your blog looks like a good fit with the community. The first step is for you to embed our logo at or near the top of your menu--high enough that it’s visible without scrolling down. Here’s the code:
Let me know when that is done and we'll get you plugged into our feed system and write you back with more information.
Needless to say, I'm kind of excited about this. They haven't put me in their RSS feed yet, but evidently it is coming. I look forward to this allowing me to meet new readers!
Let me read to you what I learned:
At the same time that I saw the head [Christ's] bleeding,
our good Lord showed a spiritual sight of his familiar love.
I saw that he is to us everything which is good and comforting
for our help. He is our clothing, who wraps and enfolds us for love,
embraces us and shelters us, surrounds us for his love, which is so
tender that he may never desert us. And so in this sight I saw that he
is everything which is good, as I understand. And in this he showed me
something small. no bigger than a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my
hand, as it seemed to me, and it was as round as a ball. I looked at it
with the eye of my understanding and thought: What can this be? I was
amazed that it could last, for I thought that because of its littleness it
would suddenly have fallen into nothing. And I was answered in my
understanding: It lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus
everything has being through the love of God.
--Julian of Norwich
This passage was our Theological Reflection in EFM last night. I'll be the first to tell you that Julian of Norwich is a little hard for me to follow sometimes. Most of us only know her from the often repeated prayer, "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well," but in my most cynical moments I admit I have thought, "Yeah, it's easy to say "all shall be well" when you are an anchoress and never leave the house."
I have also thought in my more cynical moments that being mentally ill in medieval times got you a better deal if you happened to have religious visions and revelations, and you also happened to be within walking distance of a monastery. Julian fills me with wonder sometimes. Was she agoraphobic? Her most famous visions came with physical illness, when she was sick enough to be on her deathbed. I've had hallucinations with a 104 degree fever; I don't find this unbelievable at all. But mine were not anything to write home about. Hers changed her life in many ways. They became the root of her desire to be a mystic, and in those days, society had room for mystics. People knew so little of the world around them or how it works.
But then the other side of my brain muses at times that, in a way, it's too bad we don't have room for a few mystics here and there. Maybe in their own ways, the medieval mystics were able to be productive in a way that worked for their time. People were more or less okay with supporting the lives of mystics and anchorites/anchoresses in a monastic setting. Nowadays, I don't think being a mystic is going to qualify you for disability.
What looking at the great mystics DOES do, though, is give us room to take the time to get in touch with our own mystic. By reading what these historical figures dreamed and visualized, it can jump start our own spiritual imaginations when we have the time to simply sit and contemplate for a bit.
What struck me in this passage was the tail end of it as she was contemplating that little hazelnut in the palm of her hand..."And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and always will, because God loves it; and thus everything has being through the love of God."
It's only human to contemplate our own existence, but contemplating simultaneously our small-ness and our immortality is a tough dichotomy. Our nature is to desire making our place in the universe "bigger"--accumulating wealth and things, prestige in our community, promotion to a bigger and better-paying job, a nice retirement package. We tend not to like the notion that we are very small--almost insignificant--in the presence of the realm of the Almighty.
But this is only because in this world, the messages we receive about "insignificant" are designed to put down, to diminish, to belittle. "Insignificant yet immortal" is not on our radar screen, simply because we experience death in so many ways while in our mortal coil. It doesn't seem possible to be immortal, at least by the rules of the game on this planet.
Yet, when I read that passage over and over, I felt a wave of calm wash over me as I would get to the line, "It lasts and always will." Something calming, reassuring, and totally incongruent to thoughts of Christ's passion and my own death emerged from deep inside of me. I think we tend to forget about our own embedded slice of the Incarnation, and it tends not to speak to us unless absolutely necessary.
We can't possibly understand a love that is immortal, because we can't even understand what "mortal" really is. Our brain cannot wrap itself around ourselves as dead. All thoughts of life beyond death are projections of what life is like for us now. All we are capable of understanding about immortality right now is the feeling we get from the biochemical rush of endorphins as we read or write things that resonate with our own incarnation. If only we, in our busy "normal" lives, could accept it and believe in it as much as a quirky anchoress could, what changes might evolve as a result!
It's an oft-repeated line from a prayer so common, even people who haven't darkened a church door in decades know it...but it is possible it means more than "feed me every day?"
I got to playing with the literal Greek in this line:
"Tou artos hemon tou epiousion didou hemin to kath hemerau"
Literally, "The bread of us the daily give to us these in the day." Two of the words actually have some vagaries to them--Epiousion ("daily") and hemerau (in the day).
Let's start with epiousion. In secular Greek, this word is often used to describe the daily "soldier's rations." (Hence the picture of the MRE at the top of my blog post!) In particular, it described the soldier's rations given the night BEFORE the battle, for the NEXT day (since they would be busy fighting.)
So is it possible this line actually means, "Give us today, the bread we need tomorrow?" Is it a call to be well-provisioned for the battles we may fight in this world tomorrow?
Let's go a little further, and play with the word "hemerau." This is one of those words where it kind of depends on the context. "Hemerau" is used to mean, literally, daylight in one context--a context where evil things happen in the night, in darkness, and are exposed in the light of day. In another context, it means a 24 hour day. Still a third context uses the word as "all the days of our lives," or the last day of this age--which, in the context of the early church, would have been the day of Christ's return. WHOA!
That really expands the line, when you realize what we may be asking for in this line of the Lord's prayer, "Give us today the bread we need for the Day of Christ's Return."
Thinking about this made me all prayerfully poetic.
O God, provider of all things necessary for our lives--
You distribute our portion, whatever our portion is allotted to be.
It looks so big--so big, in fact, I'm not sure I can eat it all.
Why did you put so much on my plate?
But then you remind me that you didn't expect me to eat it all today.
Some of this is for tomorrow, some for the next day,
And some for the next day after that.
Some of it is meant to fortify me for the battles ahead in my life,
And some of it is not meant to be eaten
Until the two of us can share it face to face
In the glory of light perpetual.
It is my portion, Lord,
I will accept it in love and humility,
Grateful that you feed me not just for today,
But for many days ahead
And have provided me enough
That I can share freely
With those who might be hungry
Because they misplaced their portion.
May they do the same for me. Amen.
- 1 On the third day there was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2 Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. 3 When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, "They have no wine." 4 And Jesus said to her, "Woman, what concern is that to you and to me? My hour has not yet come." 5 His mother said to the servants, "Do whatever he tells you." 6 Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. 7 Jesus said to them, "Fill the jars with water." And they filled them up to the brim. 8 He said to them, "Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward." So they took it. 9 When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom 10 and said to him, "Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now." 11 Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.
Mary had known all of Jesus' life (and before) what he was capable of doing. In a lot of ways in the story, she had more or less cornered him into what was about to happen in the way only a mother or grandmother could do. As those water jars were being filled, I imagine there were a lot of glances cast back and forth between Jesus and Mary, and they weren't terribly beatific. I imagine Jesus whispering to his mother in that little hissing whisper of irritation, "Ma! What are you trying to do to me?" and her whispering back in that somewhat smug maternal way, "You mean what am I trying to do FOR you, son." I can see Jesus rolling his eyes, I can imagine his armpits starting to break out into a sweat. What if this all gets blown somehow?
Jesus, who also knows what he's capable of, might even have started doubting himself. Perhaps as each of those jars got closer to being filled, his stomach started doing flip-flops. Perhaps he wanted to disappear. Perhaps he wanted to just bolt--but he knew if he did, he would never hear the end of it from his mother. Her expectations might have felt heavier than God's at that point!
But then, in my imagination, I can see the moment that the jars were filled. They were there and the moment had come. He might have cleared his throat a little and said to the servants, "Ahem...er..er...uh..ok, dip some of that out and take it to the chief steward," knowing the servants were thinking, "What a boob." The rest, of course, is recorded in John.
The more we imagine the parts of this story that John didn't record, well...how are these moments any different than the moments that we hear and fully understand what God wants US to do? Just as many of the prophets did, we ask God, "Are you sure you've got the right person here?" and "Not me, I can't do this, I'm too (fill in the blank)." Yet when the jars have been filled, and there's no turning back, we step up to the plate and do it. Never mind the butterflies and the sweaty armpits and the trepidation in our voices. Something happens where we do what needed to be done, and somehow it all works out.
That's what operating on faith is all about. When we'd rather melt into the wall and disappear, we do what God's asked of us anyway. But it doesn't change that the time that passes before that moment is agonizing, downright painful at times. The good news is we are not alone in those moments. I believe Jesus has gone before us in those very same feelings at the wedding in Cana!
"When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, “Unbind him, and let him go.""
This week, my online EFM class discussed the Lazarus of Bethany story, and what really stuck to me was the last two verses in the story. I sort of imagine Lazarus kind of "mermaid hopping" out of the tomb--very much alive but very much stuck in his burial shroud.
That is why I like this particular artistic rendition of the story--it shows the community unbinding him upon Jesus' command to "Unbind him, and let him go." Lazarus, although alive, needed OTHERS to unbind him. That, to me, is just as key in the story as his resurrection--and isn't that what we most commonly see in our own resurrections? We can read all the "self-help" books we want, and still only get so far. We can ask God to heal us from whatever our affliction is, but even then, His healing generally doesn't come from a beam of light from the sky in Cecil B. DeMille fashion--it usually comes from the hands of other people who were sent to us. Even then, we have to acquiesce to the offer of their help. How many times do we bind ourselves even further by rejecting that help, even when it is smack dab in front of our own noses?
I seriously doubt that, when Lazarus crow-hopped out of that grave, and others rushed up to remove his burial linens, he yelled, "Never mind! I'll do it myself!" I'm betting the faster they unbound him, the better. If anything, patience might have been a problem.
In the world of medicine, we see grateful unbindings all the time--being weaned off the ventilator or extubated, having the cast removed, getting the stitches out. But what is our natural reaction? We, at first, feel total freedom and relief--then turn right around and still "favor" to the bound side. We're more careful on that formerly casted leg. We don't want to leave the ICU yet even if we are breathing on our own, we keep putting our hand over our scar or looking at it all the time. I always wonder what happened after Lazarus' unbinding, after the initial euphoria wore off. What did he "favor" in his recovery?
But most importantly, I wonder what he did differently the rest of his life. Did he become "extra careful?" Or did he run out and live boldly and in gratitude? That part of the story is lost to the ravages of time.
So, in our own "unbindings," ask yourself, "Am I ready to let others unbind me?" If you can answer "yes," then you are well into your own resurrections!
I was thinking the other day about how we are back in Year C of the Revised Common Lectionary again--what I call "the Luke year." I was sort of sorry to see Year B--"the Mark year"--come to an end, because Mark is my favorite Gospel, but I'm grateful that we dovetail Mark with Luke. It seems altogether fitting that we follow Mark's Jesus--a very emotionally human, but somewhat exasperated glimpse of Jesus--with the healing Jesus we encounter in Luke. That sequence reminds me of myself at times--irritated, exasperated, occasionally short-tempered and volcanically cross--but then I so often take a deep breath and see the healing that comes. My own "coming to a point of understanding" moves from someone more like Mark's Jesus to Luke's Jesus.
So in that sense, I am also ready for the Year B to Year C transition again. To spit out my anger and irritation and simply listen and allow healing, for all the various slings and arrows of whatever issues graced my previous year.
It got me to thinking about all the times in any of our lives where we suddenly noticed "healing" occurred. It hardly seems that healing is a "conscious condition." It so often happens under the radar, and when it is noticed, it's a little more like what Sammy Hagar sings in Van Halen's "Love Walks in"...
And then you sense a change
Nothin' feels the same
All your dreams are comes walkin' in
Some kind of alien
Waits for the opening
Simply pulls a string
Love comes walkin' in
Somewhere, sometime, when we weren't looking, Divine Love "came walkin' in." We only discover it in retrospect, when something happened that made us realize "We're handling it differently." Perhaps it is manifested in a moment that previously triggered our chest to tighten with the familiar feel of post-traumatic stress. It might be in a moment when we are re-telling a story that reminded us of how we had been profoundly hurt, and when we have finished the story, we recognize the telling of it was painless. Maybe we enter a physical place where we used to feel our "hackles" rise every time we entered, and we didn't even feel a twinge on the back of our neck.
It's the psychological equivalent of those moments post-surgery when we suddenly realize our scar doesn't hurt anymore, or those times after a virus when the fever breaks and we say, "Wow, I feel pretty good!"
But the fact remains that somewhere, in our healing process, Divine Love came walking in, cleaned up a few odds and ends, and simply sat down in our living rooms to watch TV. Many times, it happens at points where it doesn't feel like any sort of "healing" at all. We generally don't get the luxury of "instant healing" that we see Jesus doing in Luke, but we do often get the moment of "instant recognition" of where Divine Love snuck in on her little cat feet and healed us.
That's the other magical thing about the way Divine Love heals. She doesn't do a hit and run. She remains in the house as our family member, so long as we simply acknowledge her presence and thank her for helping around the house.
Have you ever noticed one of the first places Divine Love walks in, is often at the time we are least capable of consciously manipulating the system--our sleeping habits? When we hurt, whether it's psychological or physical, we don't sleep in our normal patterns. We may not sleep as soundly, or we wake up at odd times. We have trouble falling asleep or back to sleep. Our dream life becomes weird or scary, or just plain shuts down and we become "dream impacted" with sleep becoming a glimpse of the darkness of a death without God.
But often, before we even recognize our own moments of healing, something starts happening in our sleep life. To borrow from the opening two verses of Psalm 126, we become "like those who dream," and our waking mouth becomes filled with laughter, and our tongues become more joyful. Things that had stopped being funny are funny again. Something that normally might not scratch our funny bone suddenly becomes so comical we can't stop laughing. These moments of joy and laughter are reflexive--we are not trying to be happy or make ourselves laugh. But it all was preceded by the ability to dream again, and the ability to daydream.
What I invite you to do in the beginning of Year C in the Lectionary is to simply hear the Gospel stories in Luke with an ear to the healing within them. Take whatever has been damaged over Years A and B, and simply lay it on the altar and let the healing stories of Luke marinate them. Just be sure to notice when Divine Love comes walkin' in.
"Almighty God, to you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name; through Christ our Lord. Amen."
--The Collect for Purity, p. 355, Book of Common Prayer
Every Sunday, this prayer becomes the prologue of that holy drama in the Episcopal Church known as the Holy Eucharist. But did you know it is one of the most ancient prayers in our prayer book?
The prayer we now know as the Collect for Purity was written not for a church service, but for a coronation. It was written in 800 C.E. by noted teacher and religious scholar Alcuin of York, for the purposes of Charlemagne's coronation as emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.
Alcuin's own story is an interesting one. He was asked to join Charlemagne's court several years prior to his assuming the throne of the Holy Roman Empire, an offer that he first resisted. But when promised to be associated in the court with a "cavalcade of stars" in religious scholarship, his love of learning, his life-long intellectual curiousity, and his love of the church persuaded him to take the position. He became "everyone's best friend" among the court, and he wrote prolifically, including a great deal of poetry about his friends and pupils that, well...quite frankly...bordered on the homo-erotic at times. But he also had incredibly intense relationships with the women among the court...just quite not so much as the men.
He penned the collect to remind Charlemagne that, yes, he was a great king, but there was an even greater king. From the very beginning of his association with the new empire, he set the stage by speaking truth to power. His long association with Charlemagne gave him that level of trust with the Emperor. Alcuin was considered a great and holy man, as well as a famous scholar.
This prayer later became incorporated in the Sarum Rite, but not orignally part of the liturgy. It was part of a pre-service preparatory rite for priests. At the time of the Protestant Reformation, as the concept of "the priesthood of all believers" became more widely accepted, the early figures in the English Reformation began moving some private parts of the liturgy to the public celebrations of the liturgy. Thomas Cranmer translated the prayer from its Latin form in the Sarum Rite into English, made it the opening collect for the Eucharist, and it has been in every form of the Book of Common Prayer since 1549. In the United States, its most recent revision is the present 1979 Rite II version that is used in the present Rite II Eucharist.
I think what fascinates me about the Collect for Purity is that it beautifully describes perhaps one of the holiest of mysteries. In its most basic form, it describes the relationship between human beings and God. Yet it is both inviting ("To you all hearts are open") and intrusive ("And from you, no secrets are hid"). It is a request for God to change us ("Cleanse our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit") and a statement of our love for God ("That we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy Name"). Simply reciting the prayer implies a lot of back and forth between us and God.
I've had an interesting relationship with this prayer. It was one of the things that drew me to the Episcopal liturgy when I came back from my two-plus decades of being one of the unchurched. For a time, I fell away from the power of the words of this prayer for reasons totally unrelated to the prayer itself. But I recently started re-visiting the prayer on a daily basis as one of my daily repetitive prayers and as a "stress-related prayer." In this re-visiting, I did my usual "Take it totally apart and look at the pieces" analysis of it, as I tend to do with all things holy. (This sounds strange; almost heretical, in fact, but for something to really, truly become holy to me, I must take it apart down to the itty-bitty pieces and, in staring at the itty-bitty pieces, recognize it is "bigger than the pieces," and therefore "bigger than me.")
In this re-visitation, I have come away with the understanding that this prayer, is, indeed, one of the most concise yet all-encompassing descriptions of a relationship that is almost impossible to decode or totally understand--my personal relationship with God. I love that we recite it corporately on Sunday, and I can recite it privately and it feels just as powerful either way. It is a prayer that tells me to be unafraid of God's love, and willing for Him to call the shots, as a facet of that love. It tells me to accept God's "intrusion" in my life, and that's it's okay to be almost "gooshy" about my love for God.
If I could have a half hour with Alcuin, I'd buy him a beer and thank him!
This past Sunday, we did something at church which the Episcopal Church does every year on the first Sunday after Epiphany, the Sunday designated to commemorate the Baptism of Our Lord--we renewed our Baptismal Covenant. Of course, since it contains several sentences of the Apostle's Creed, it doesn't seem very "different" except for a few sentences, compared to our usual weekly habit of reciting the Nicene Creed. But I like doing it just the same because it reminds me to treat our baptisms as beginnings instead of "be alls and end alls."
It's kind of interesting when you hear Christians of different ilks discuss baptism. First, there are the "baby baptizers" and the "non-baby baptizers." Then there are the sprinklers vs. the dunkers. There are the "you do it to be saved" crowd and the "Naw, it's different than that," crowd. But the bottom line is that one should probably never think of their baptism as anything "final." It's way more a "beginning."
I often think about how the same thing takes us to somewhat different places, whether it is an infant or child who is baptized vs. an adult.
Baptism of infants and small children, in addition to welcoming the child into our church family, reminds us that, yes, we ARE our brother's keeper. When we help recite the Baptismal Covenant, we are saying that "yes, it does take a village to raise a child." We are taking on the responsibility that we will care for and teach this little person what he or she needs to know to grow in Christ. That is an awesome responsibility, and how many times do we really HEAR those words or take them seriously beyond a few mumbled repetitions of "I will, with God's help?"
When we participate in the baptism of an adult, we are affirming a person's conscious decision to turn towards Christ and learn the skills of obedience to God.
I marvel how baptism is "same yet different" for those two groups of people who "come to the waters" in the setting of our church.
When you really get to hearing what we say every year, during the annual renewal of our Baptismal Covenant, we are talking "no small feat." Some really tough questions are posed. Let's look at three of them in particular.
1. "Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?"
We give a lot of lip service to things, but that "proclaiming by example" is a very tricky proposition. It means we might actually have to change our ways in some fashion. That can be a bit scary.
2. "Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?"
Oooo. That can be a double edged sword, there. That vow is so easy when all one thinks about is "seeking and serving Christ among folks who are "our kind." But what about those who are not, in a socioeconomic sense? It also implies we have to do this with people we really don't like, or people who have harmed us, or people who have nothing more to do with us any more, or people who make us uncomfortable. Sigh. It sounds so easy. But human nature being what it is, it's really quite challenging.
3. "Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?
This is another one of those places where the rubber meets the road in terms of, "How willing are we to act upon the two parts of this vow?" What do a lot of us do, really, in terms of this "striving" other than throw money at it? How well do we truly respect the dignity of people we don't understand, or the poor, the homeless, or the truly oppressed in this world?
You know, it's odd. When someone is actually being baptized at the time we repeat these vows, I never think of the depressing aspects of all this. I'm so happy for the person being baptized, I respond joyfully to these questions. I am so incredibly gung-ho about it.
But when we recite them in the annual renewal of these vows, I realize just how woefully, incredibly short I come up on these...and I am reminded these are VOWS, not just helpful suggestions. I realize in an overwhelming way that I have not lived up to my promise to God in so many of these things.
It is at that moment, though, that moment where I am on the brink of despair at just how badly I've made a mess of those three questions that I remind myself, "this is why baptism is just the beginning." If I really saw it as a "heal-all," a cure, a panacea to the sins of the world and my own sins, baptism would be a pointless sacrament. There would be no reason for me to do one thing better or differently. But if I see it as a beginning, there is a reason for me to do better. I can find just one thing within each of those three questions that I can improve upon, and become just an inch or two closer to comprehending the nature of the divine, and my need to be obedient to it.
Reciting these vows during a real baptism reminds us of our own incarnation. Reciting them annually with no one being baptized reminds us of the cross. These vows become the core of the constant interplay between these two entities. What a blessing that a single sacrament can become the link between fear and desire, shame and joy, or a call to action vs. a need to be still and listen.
I have thought often that we don't have the image right when we are told in Gospel accounts of Jesus' baptism that the Holy Spirit descended on him "like a dove." Most artistic renderings of the event show a very timid, passive looking dove. I tend to think more of how doves in the wild almost dive bomb when they see food, or how the doves at my bird feeder tended to gang up and chase away offending blue jays en masse. There's nothing timid about doves in the wild when they see what they want. In my mind, that is how I see the Holy Spirit in that story--more or less "all over their target in a flash." Just as the waters of baptism are all over us in a flash, no matter whether you're sprinkled or immersed. The water is going to get on you one way or another, and you can't put it back, once it's run upon you. There's nothing timid or passive about the way the Holy Spirit grabs our hearts and minds, either!
In that sense, we should almost fear this time of year, simply because if we have been "targeted" by the Holy Spirit to be moved by something that pops up in the repetition of reciting those vows, it will be on us in a flash, like the target of a kamakaze dove! Nothing "passive" about it!
(From Roy Acuff's Great Speckled Bird...)
"What a beautiful thought I am thinking
Concerning a great speckled bird
Remember her name is recorded
On the pages of God's Holy Word.
"All the other birds are flocking 'round her
And she is despised by the squad
But the great speckled bird in the Bible
Is one with the great church of God."
"Ladies and Gentlemen, now for my latest magic trick...I'm going to turn a great speckled bird into a hyena!"
That's what happened in successive translations of the book of Jeremiah, you know.
Here's Jeremiah 12:8-11 from the KJV:
Mine heritage is unto me as a lion in the forest; it crieth out against me: therefore have I hated it. 9 Mine heritage is unto me as a speckled bird, the birds round about are against her; come ye, assemble all the beasts of the field, come to devour. 10 Many pastors have destroyed my vineyard, they have trodden my portion under foot, they have made my pleasant portion a desolate wilderness. 11 They have made it desolate, and being desolate it mourneth unto me; the whole land is made desolate, because no man layeth it to heart.
Here's Jeremiah 12:8-11 in the NRSV:
My heritage has become to me like a lion in the forest; she has lifted up her voice against me— therefore I hate her. 9Is the hyena greedy for my heritage at my command? Are the birds of prey all around her? Go, assemble all the wild animals; bring them to devour her. 10Many shepherds have destroyed my vineyard, they have trampled down my portion, they have made my pleasant portion a desolate wilderness. 11They have made it a desolation; desolate, it mourns to me. The whole land is made desolate, but no one lays it to heart.
Well, that's a bit of a problem. Not only do the animals change, the relationship changes. In the KJV, the Great Speckled Bird is an icon--a symbol of God's perfect beauty, set upon by the other nasty common birds, who are basically trying to knock her off a holy pedestal.
But once we get this all straightened out over a few hundred years and improved Biblical scholarship, the Great Speckled Bird is probably actually a hyena, and she's just another of the nasty predators going after the majestic lion in verse 8. (Not to mention we've knocked Roy Acuff, the King of Country Music, off his throne! Poor Roy didn't know he was singing about a carrion-eating hyena. I sort of have one of those "St. Peter at the Pearly Gates" images about this--"Uh...Roy...we have to talk.")
The conflict comes with the Hebrew words "Tzeboa ayit" which originally was translated as "speckled bird" but more accurately means "striped howling creature," which later scholars identifed as a hyena. The modern Tanakh translation used by synagogues who use JPS translations sort of adds another word, weasel, as in "weasels out of it" by saying "like a bird of prey or a hyena." Another interesting change is in verse 10, where "pastor" becomes "shepherd". This is the Hebrew word "Raw-ah" which can mean either "shepherd" or "ruler" or "teacher".
"So where are you going with this?" you might be wondering at this point....
Well, I'm thinking about those times in our lives when we might have thought we were being "a Great Speckled Bird" when in reality, we were being a hyena. We thought we were acting in the name of God when in reality, we were just another scavenger closing in on a dying carcass.
This kind of thing happens in churches and religious organizations all the time, and the more I understand about it, the more dismaying it can get. I've seen clergy play the role of Great Speckled bird only to turn out to be hyenas, and I've seen the laity wear their Great Speckled Bird suit while they are circling for the kill as only a hyena can do. Then there is the really sad version of this, when a goal, an idea, a chance to really go out and do something good in the name of the church really IS a Great Speckled Bird, and it is killed and devoured by a bunch of people, clergy and parishioners alike, in a hyena-like fashion, all the while donning their Great Speckled Bird suits.
I'm convinced of one thing--the real Great Speckled Birds in this world do not even realize they ARE Great Speckled Birds. The real Great Speckled Birds in a parish are the people who simply do what they do, and credit others. They say, "Aw, it's nothing," and really believe it was nothing in their own minds, yet it was something. When they look in the mirror, they just see light gray, with nary a speckle on them. They are the angels with muddy feet and crooked, rusty halos. They are the lights that shine in the darkness.
May each of us grow speckles that are visible by everyone except us, when we look in the mirror. I have a feeling we could all live our Baptismal Covenant better if only that would happen.
Many of the readers of this blog and many of my Episcopalian Facebook friends seem to engage in a strange unofficial liturgical act on Saturdays--the Saturday Sacrament of the Laundry. This Saturday was no exception at my house. We often ponder great theological laundry mysteries on Facebook, such as, "Why is it, when you put your underwear in the wash right-side-out, they always come out of the dryer inside-out?"
Yesterday, I got to pondering the Holy Mystery of the Clinging Dryer Sheet, and was reminded of it when I was commenting over on Elizabeth's blog. The Holy Mystery of the Clinging Dryer Sheet goes like this:
"How is it that the dryer sheet keeps all your clothes from sticking together from static cling, but it's always stuck to one article of clothing by static?"
Well, and you know, I got to thinking how people are kind of like that sometimes, and we always have a few people in our lives that annoy or irritate us like a clinging dryer sheet...yet we love them...and maybe part of why we love them is it seems the "locking horns" is part of the dance. We have days where we want to throttle them. Yet if they were missing from our lives we would feel the loss. The intensity of our love for them comes out in the intensity of the way we lock horns with them.
My friend who died this past summer was one of those friends. Sometimes she'd call and I'd think, "Uhhhh....don't wanna deal with this....shoo, go away!" Sometimes I was the "dryer sheet" with HER. "You're mad about something, because you are trying to pick a fight with ME. What are you REALLY upset about?" Now that she's gone, I actually MISS that.
I know exactly when I am being the dryer sheet. When something gets me upset, and it's something that for whatever reason I cannot fight directly with what is bothering me, I start looking around, gunning for a scrap...and I don't want someone who will cave in on me, I want someone who will fight back. There has to be intense love under that scrapping. In some ways, the scrap becomes a very effective cloaking device. As Elizabeth pointed out in a recent post, it might even be covering something the two of you both fear if one were to lose the other.
What would life be like without the dryer sheets in our life? I know with my laundry, I would have ALL the clothes sticking together, not just the dryer sheet stuck to one article of clothing. I would have a lot more annoying, maybe unmanageable static. I know my laundry would not smell as good. So it is with the "dryer sheet people" in our lives. We would probably have a lot more general "static" in our lives. We would not appreciate the fresh, renewing moments in our lives. We actually NEED to have them stuck to us now and then in an annoying way, if only to remind us of the capabilities of our intensity of feeling.
Thanks be to God for "dryer sheets!"
The phone rang about 7:45 a.m. this morning. It was one of my anesthesiologist friends at the hospital. "Well," I laughed, I wondered who the first person was going to call me in 2010 would be...congratulations!"
We had a good visit for a minute, as she had been one of the "lurkers" from my Virtual New Years Eve Party on Facebook last night. "Oh, wow, I LOVED all the '80's tracks you found last night, it was great!" We laughed about the party atmosphere of it all and how when you are on call, virtual margaritas, mojitos, and blue Hawaiians are very handy. Then she got down to business.
"We've got an organ donor. The organ harvest team is on their way and they are going to want some frozen sections." For the non-medical, a "frozen section" is when we freeze a little piece of tissue and make a slide of it, stain it, and examine it. In this case, the purpose of the frozen section is to see if selected transplant organs are viable.
I did not know the details of the case, but I did know it was a person far younger than me, and given the timing of it, my assumption is "probable vehicular trauma." The first day of 2010 was starting off for me knowing a young person is brain dead.
As I drove in to the hospital this morning, I thought about how the first day of the year is starting off horribly for some family--they could be losing a child, a spouse, a parent, a sibling, a friend. The first day of the year leaves this family little hope, little promise that 2010 is going to be anything for them but a year of grief. I thought about what a great time I had last night, how...how, well...ALIVE I felt in the center of my "virtual party." Alive and grateful for a past, a present, and a future. Alive and grateful with the love of my live time friends and my cyber-friends. Now my real world didn't just creep in, it barreled through the front door and tracked mud on the carpet. That little twinge of guilt crept in--that tiny feeling that maybe I did not deserve to be so blessed. As a more or less "secular monastic," I realize that if I dropped dead, I don't have immediate family members in the house that would be directly affected, but most other people do. Yes, there would be plenty of folks to grieve for me, but my immediate household, to put it bluntly, consists of two dogs.
The twenty minute drive to the hospital from my house for this purpose is always one of the longest, loneliest drives of my life. In almost twenty years, I fail to avoid sadness for what I am about to do. I know that in a few minutes, the sole purpose of my life is to sit behind my microscope and declare pieces of tissue "viable" or "not viable." It is as close as I get, and as close as I want to come, to sitting at the Judgment Seat of God. Then, a life will end and the work of harvesting of organs will begin. If all goes well, optimally there will be two kidneys, a liver divided into halves, a pancreas, heart, two lungs, two corneas, and possibly even bone marrow and soft tissue/connective tissue harvested from this one person. Of course, it all depends on what was irreparably damaged and what was not, but in short, a lot of pieces and parts will be collected.
Then, without fail, a different set of images creep into my mind. I tend to think about "what happens next." All over the country, phones are ringing. I think about a line of people who have been waiting. Waiting and slowly dying. Waiting for a phone call that might not come in time--and the words "we found a donor."
I think about how something in I just participated in, something I hate to do and think about, has started a chain of events all over the country that is bringing hope and new life to people I don't even know. How the first day of 2010 is a day of "rebirth" for other families. How the prayers of others were answered. How one person's death is another's new life. In those moments, my heart moves from darkness to light. How every time in this scenario, the drive back home seems lighter and freer.
Today, at the stoplight of Potter and Baltimore, I felt compelled to recite the General Thanksgiving in the Book of Common Prayer, and I had to fight to keep the tears from welling up too much. It feels so weird to have tears of simultaneous sadness and joy, and it felt even weirder for it to be happening at a stoplight, but there it was...
Almighty God, father of all mercies,
we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks
for all your goodness and loving kindness
to us and to all whom you have made.
We bless you for our creation, preservation,
and all the blessings of this life;
but above all, for your immeasurable love
in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ;
for the means of grace, and the hope of glory.
And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies
that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise,
not only with our lips, but in our lives,
by giving up our selves to your service,
and by walking before you with holiness and righteousness all our days;
through Jesus Christ our Lord,
to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit,
be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.
Today, on this first day of the year, take a minute to pray for the family and friends of one who was lost so young--someone who will never have the life and memories that you and I have and the blessings of this life we so casually ignore. Take a minute to pray for the recipients of the living gift they are about to receive on this day, for the hope and new life they bring...and yeah, even take a minute to pray for a country pathologist who every now and then has to sit behind a microscope and be both Bearer of Light and Shadow of Death, all at the same time. There's enough prayer to keep us all busy for a spell, here.
"You crown the year with your bounty; your wagon tracks overflow with richness."
When I fell asleep on the couch with the TV on the night of Dec. 30, I had absolutely no plans for New Years Eve. I was figuring I would spend the evening reading and watching TV, and maybe I'd stay up, and if I happened to stay up, fine, and if not, fine. I was on call for the holiday anyway; it wasn't like I was going to be doing much celebrating.
As it turned out, I ended up sleeping on the couch all night, and I awoke to the strains of Doris Day singing "Que Sera, Sera" in the Alfred Hitchcock movie "The Man Who Knew Too Much." I'm going to be up front; I hate that song. It's too cheery and sing-song sounding. I posted on my Facebook page that waking up to that was a little creepy. Within minutes, Fran and Larry had both chimed in how they like Doris Day, and the next thing you know, the conversation sort of morphed into celebrities that were gay icons, and I am commenting that I feel a little like Elizabeth Taylor since it seems a lot of my Facebook friends are of the GLBT persuasion.
Then the next thing you know, Larry announces that I am organizing "a gay New Years party." Suddenly, despite the fact I felt a little like a bunch of people showed up unannounced on my doorstep, on a day I expected to be alone and quiet, well...the thought of a rural redneck organizing a party with divas and queens and RuPaul sounded...well...kinda fun. So I announced in my status update that I was having a virtual New Years Eve party on my Facebook wall, and all were welcome to stop by and post music videos and virtual food and drink. At the time, I expected a little trickle of activity...what an understatement!
By late afternoon, several of my Facebook friends were posting videos and commenting and posting pictures of yummy snacks and exotic foods, and this went clear into midnight! People were free to come and go as they pleased, and we had musical selections ranging from the 1940's to the 1990's. People were reminiscing, they were dragging out music they loved in high school, and it was suddenly a huge virtual party! I mean, HUGE!
Larry described it best--it had the feel of those times in high school when you all went to someone's house with your stack of 45's and played records and danced and snacked. The best part was that I had no mess to clean up after this party, and no one needed to worry about driving home even after several virtual drinks, and no one would be hung over the next day. No leftovers to figure out what to do with, either!
I sat in my living room and imagined what was going on in living rooms from North Carolina to Alaska. I could imagine my friends with family having a good time picking and playing music, and explaining to each other "who's who," just like at a real party. Fran was desperately trying to explain the disco era to her stepdaughter. Deb and Harvey were dragging out track after track of what I now lovingly call "70's stoner music." Larry called me on the phone and was beaming. "Isn't this great?" In short, a good time was had by all!
When midnight arrived, and I was finally done virtual partying for the night, I sat back and realized that I had been shown "the end of a year crowned with bounty." Amazing bounty, in fact.
2009 has been a very strange year for me, mostly because it involved a lot of changes--changes at work, changes in a variety of parts of my life outside of work, changes in relationships both good and bad, and, most disconcerting of all, changes in myself. I moved back to Kirksville to have a life with more "sameness," and in some ways, I DO have a lot of stable "sameness", but in other ways, this has been more of a year of metamorphosis than I had expected. Yet in these changes I find many healthy re-adjustments going on in my life. On my 49th birthday, I asked God to "free me of my slaves"--to start the 50th year, the "jubilee year" of my life--in a more palpable spirit of freedom--even if the "freedom" was to be "free of myself."
But when the virtual party was over, and my virtual living room once again became quiet, I realized that these changes didn't matter so much because I have been blessed with abundance. I don't consider myself a terribly social creature, but I realized how many friends I've made, even among people I have never met other than blogs and Facebook. I realized how the power of internet social networking can connect us in our humanity in ways that were, until recently, pipe dreams. How else could I have a party living in the middle of nowhere that had such a wide variety of people from many different walks of life, and from so many different parts of the country, on a whim, with only a few hours notice?
So in a year where some days I felt things had been taken away from me, I discovered in the last hours of the last day of the year, how much had been GIVEN to me...and I'm incredibly grateful.
May each of you have a blessed and prosperous 2010, and I look forward to blogging with you during the coming year!