(Photo by Beth Felice, from the "Praying the Eucharist" workshop, Christ Church Cathedral, September 25, 2010, courtesy Episcopal Diocese of Missouri Flickr Photostream)
"At the heart of asceticism is body-work. Asceticism works the body in order to improve and to perfect it, at least this was the way it was understood in previous generations. Postmodern conceptions of the body, however, demand a different perspective. There are in fact, a number of bodies that interconnect in the life of a person, and each of these bodies has an impact on the ascetical program of an individual and community."
--Richard Valantasis, "Centuries of Holiness: Ancient Spirituality Refracted for a Postmodern Age"
The photo above was from a workshop I attended where the author was one of the presenters and was the celebrant in the Eucharist going on in this photo. (If you're wondering, I am one of the behinds in the picture. Shades of Moses only getting a glimpse of God's backside!)
What I love about this photo when I get to thinking about it, is the wonderful intersection of the infinitely-sized Venn diagram of all the "bodies" in this picture.
First there are the individual bodies circling the altar. Best as I remember, everyone at the workshop was from the Episcopal Diocese of Missouri, representing a body of Christians within a larger body, the Episcopal Church, which is part of another body, the Anglican Communion, which is a part of a body of all Christians, which is a part of a body of religion.
Earlier in the day, we had broken up in small groups, and what was sort of cute was those of us from "outstate" as opposed to St. Louis naturally gravitated into its own small group, and as luck would have it, we were all from the West Convocation in our diocese. Given the fact no one could remember when the last "official" meeting of the West Convocation was, we joked that it was the first meeting of the West Convocation at any time we could remember.
At the conclusion of the workshop, when we celebrated the Eucharist, we had the Body and Blood of Christ at the center of the circle made by our individual bodies. That sacramental Body went inside of our own individual bodies. At the conclusion of the Eucharist, those bodies and that Body went out into the body of the world, the body of our homes and families, the bodies of our workplaces, and the bodies of our individual parishes.
That's a lot of bodies!
Therein lies the paradox.
We tend to think of ourselves at times as these disconnected objects. When we are hungry, hurt, angry, lonely, or tired, we feel isolated--that no one can possibly quite "get" where we are. In my own case, I think often about the challenge I have, being a "thinker" for the most part, having a natural disconnect with "feelers." It simply takes a while for my feelings to come in line with my thoughts. But what I come to realize looking at that picture, is that even in our most lonely moments, we really shouldn't even begin to be deluded that we are "alone."
Okay. I'm going to say that in a slightly different way. When we consider the complexity of the intersections of all these bodies, what it means is this: Even when we might think or feel we are alone, we are not. In fact, it's impossible to be human and, in the strictest sense, truly be alone. Never. We simply cannot escape being part of not just one, but many bodies.
Now, I have to admit something. For a person who tends to crave solitude, the beginnings of this realization were very irritating. I have, for many, many years, retreated into solitude when I needed to "figure things out." I prefer to hurt or grieve in solitude. The people in my life who have been my closest friends have known that when I'm sick, or hurt, or tired, or grieving, I am okay with one-on-one company...as long as the company doesn't interact much with me. I think back to the last time I truly had the flu. It was a perfect "sitting with a sick me" interaction. My friend sat and knitted and watched TV, and her dog and my dogs played, and once in a while she'd ask me if I could handle eating or drinking something. But mostly, I just wanted other noises, other voices in the room, as long as the others in the room didn't bother me much. I just wanted to be quiet and sick, in the middle of obvious life. It was a comfort to just "be by myself," yet hear life around me.
But in recent months, I've come to realize what that delusion of "alone" was all about in actuality.
Once I realized that there really IS no such thing as "truly alone," that even in solitude I am connected to many bodies, I realized what I was actually doing, was I was craving the company of the healing powers of "the company of Heaven." Oh, we say we are having "alone time with God." But really, we are not doing a one-on-one. We are connecting with all the saints and angels and prophets and martyrs, as well as God. They are in the room just as surely as my friend, my dogs, and her dogs were--but leaving the initiative for "interacting" to me.
That's how our relationship to God feels to me. In a perfect God moment, I know God is in the room--but I'm under no pressure to "interact." My mere presence in the "Space where I can hear God puttering around," when I'm in my daily activities, is what I feel when that relational moment takes place. I don't have to strike up a conversation with him if I don't feel up to it. He might simply let me sleep if sleep is what I need. It's all good in the presence of that body, whether I choose to interact in it or not.
(photo of Massada courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
--Collect for the Third Sunday in Lent, Book of Common Prayer, p. 218
Many of you know my Lenten study disciplines this year include working my way through each of the Lenten collects in our Book of Common Prayer.
The phrase "...which may assault and hurt the soul," jumped out in the forefront of my mind the first time I read this collect through, and never let go of me. For some reason the ancient fort in Masada came with my thoughts.
If you've ever studied the history on this, Masada was a fort made famous in Josephus' historical account of "The Great Revolt," now known as the First Jewish-Roman War, from 66-70 CE. What's interesting is the Romans were not the original instigators in this war. It started because some Greeks were sacrificing birds in front of the synagogue at Caesarea. When the Romans did not intervene to the resulting Greco-Jewish tensions that emerged from this, Rabbi Eliezar ben Hanania ceased prayers and sacrifices to the Roman Emperor at the temple...and, as they say, "...and that's when the fight started." The Jewish citizens there started attacking Roman citizens, and not paying their taxes, and Rome stepped in.
At first, Emperor Nero's attack strategies made sense, but as Nero deteriorated, so did the war. But eventually Jerusalem was under siege by the Romans, and its walls were breached in the summer of 70 CE. Jerusalem had fallen. What remained of the Jewish resistance holed up in several forts in the region, including Masada.
The years 71-73 CE became "mop-up" operations for the Romans as they tried to crush what was left of the resistance. By the year 72 CE, the last remaining Jewish stronghold was the fortress at Masada. The Romans besieged them and offered terms of surrender, but they were rejected. When the fortress was finally breached in the year 73, the Roman army rushed in to discover that 960 of the 967 defenders of Masada had committed suicide. As a result of this, the Roman military leader Titus refused to accept a victory wreath for his merits. He said that there was "no merit in vanquishing people forsaken by their own God."
Now, my take on that story is not so much that the Jewish defenders at Masada were forsaken by God, but that, frankly, their souls had been so repeatedly assaulted, ending it all by their own hands seemed preferable to yet another assault to their already soul-sick existence.
We really don't know what happened inside the walls of Masada. Was this an ancient "Jim Jones-People's Temple" story where they had been brainwashed to "drink the Kool-Aid," so to speak? Or were they simply so collectively weary as a community of defenders they just wanted the pain of defending who they were to stop? Or did something else in between happen? Quite honestly, in situations like this, the other side of the story dies with the victims, and the "winners" are left to write the history. There's no doubt the main account by Josephus is influenced by what he heard from the Romans. Despite the fact Josephus was once the Jewish commander at Galilee, he had been captured and the end result of his captivity was release and Roman citizenship. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realize there was ample reason for him to patronize the Roman point of view.
One thing we know for sure; it wasn't exactly the Alamo.
Once in a while, the story of Masada haunts me. In recent months, it has haunted me in light of the various bullying-related suicides. I have to confess, a collect that should engender hope in me, carries with it an undertone of tearfulness and soul-sadness. Perhaps it's because I don't think any of us make to adulthood without our soul being assaulted at least once. Some pour souls are constantly assaulted, and some of those folks don't even make it to adulthood. Sometimes these remaining assaulted souls live their lives into adulthood and their life situation is such that their souls are assaulted again and again until, frankly, they're not so acutely in pain like people on the brink of suicide, but they simply become "hollow." They become without hope. They become so hollow they can't even feel God filling the void. They are the homeless, the largely ignored poor, the forsaken elements of society. They are the "unemployed, who need not apply," as our economy roller-coaster rides its way into the next decade.
I find myself incredibly troubled by this recent rash of job ads in this decade that are allowed to sport that "unemployed need not apply" clause in the ads. Frankly, it assaults my sense of all that's right about the dream we have for America. It seems to me it's the unemployed who ought to get to be at the front of the line, and they are told to remain in the street. As a person who's been privileged to spend 20 years of my life doing what I have felt called and content to do, and even having the luxury to ponder another calling in my life with a paycheck still in tow, it seems unconscionable and inexcusable that this can happen in America.
I realize that it's "legal" to post such ads, but is it right? In an America where we've come around to recognizing it's wrong to discriminate on the basis of ethnicity, age, disability, and sexual orientation (yet still have some kinks to work out on all of them,) why is it we haven't recognized that ultimately, these all have their roots in "protecting the forlorn?"
The teachings of Jesus tell of a world turned upside down in an economy that is totally opposite of the economy of Adam Smith. The lowly are lifted up. The last shall become first. The poor are blessed, not despised. All of my heart tells me the forlorn, in this economy, have earned a right-hand seat at the head table...the choicest cuts of the meat...the biggest glass of the best wine.
No, they "need not apply." They are allowed to be pulled out of the street and placed at the head of the line, in the employment office of Christ!
As with Masada, it gets to a place where it doesn't matter who started the fight, or as my late grandmother used to say, "I don't care who did what to whose dog for how many 'green stamps'." The fact remains, it is here. The forlorn, when it comes to unemployment, are everywhere. Some are even technically working. They are the ones working three part time jobs with no benefits. Some of their souls have been assaulted just as surely as those of the chronically unemployed--and I am not lily white here.
There was a time in my career as a business owner, I felt I was not in a position to offer health insurance. I tried, once. Tried diligently. But when it was said and done, my employees only desired it if I paid all the premiums, and they wanted the same amount of their profit-sharing. If the choice was something in between, not enough of the employees would opt for the insurance, and I could not reach the minimum number of employees to constitute a "group."
I said "I did the best I could," and called it done. I had to make a decision between the doors of my practice remaining open or not, and I could not keep the doors open if I did as they wished. Every attempt I made at an alternative met resistance from somewhere. Ultimately, I think I made a reasonable business decision. I don't think I did anything "wrong." But I don't think I did "right," either.
But did I do enough?
To this day, I'm not sure. But subsequent decisions--like realizing the era of small private medical practices are pretty much over, and aligning myself with a bigger business entity, finally gave them better choices with their pre-tax money. I had to give up a huge piece of control. I had to go from being "the" boss to "a" boss. I had to give up on my dream of totally owning my own business and being totally in charge. Overall, it's been an "okay trade," but it has not been the easiest or most satisfying trade, frankly.
But it's a trade I can live with for the most part. I've come to learn "getting everything we want" isn't the most important thing in life; it's "being able to live with everything we ultimately do." I could feel the pressure of the weary world of unemployment, under-employment, and under-benefited starting to hollow me out, and I have had to survive that hollow-ness before. I have come so dangerously close a few times, it is but for the grace of God I number myself with the survivors. Ultimately, in middle age, I chose to live in the fullness of a Christ-centered life. But these choices are not always easy; nor do I always sense the fullness and richness of my potential menu of choices right away. I grew up well-schooled in the economy of scarcity. It's taken almost a decade for me to even believe that there was an economy of abundance in the life outlined in our Baptismal Covenant. Once I chose to live in it, all the old roads got washed out behind my back. I could only move forward, like the Israelites into the wilderness, into the desert. When my Red Sea closed back up, all the old roads were gone.
But knowing how these things have assaulted my own soul and my own sense of fair play, I simply pray that some day we don't wake up to a modern-day Masada that we created with the almighty dollar.
In this season of Lent, Lord have mercy on us all.
"This incarnate living for the Christian becomes important because it has radical and important implications for everyday living. It is not that Christians, by virtue of their baptism, ought to exalt themselves over all other people, or to have such a superior self-understanding that they despise all other human beings, especially those who are not baptized. On the contrary, the Christian understands that there is a special mission of manifesting the divine life in the area of worldly existence. Just as Jesus ministered to the sick, the friendless, and the needy, so ought the baptized Christian minister to the entire world as an extension or manifestation of divine life in the world. Incarnate living demands that Christians manifest the divine life of which they are a part in their daily thoughts and life."
--Richard Valantasis, "Centuries of Holiness: Ancient Spirituality Refracted for a Postmodern Age"
It simply is not Northeast Missouri if there isn't at least ONE snowstorm after the calendar decrees it is the first day of spring. We didn't get through the first week of spring until we got it!
I had literally just 48 hours before, taken some wonderful pictures of my crocuses in the yard. Two days later, I snapped this picture. Now, we didn't get much snow, but it certainly was enough to remind us that spring is, indeed, a fickle proposition in these parts.
I have to confess, it really wasn't until I became a part of the Episcopal Church that I ever really thought much about "incarnation." So many of us who come from a different church tradition, are steeped in what is mostly a 19th century distillation of what people came to ponder as "original sin." But what we realize is that in the very beginnings of the church, it was more about incarnation. These traditions carry on in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, mostly, but various forms of catholicism, both Roman and Anglican, still carry threads of it, despite several eras where "penitence" was more important. Other forms of Protestantism carry it too, but at least in my mind it is rather well-hidden.
But it is a fairly new proposition for me to feel my own incarnation and behave as a result of its nudgings, rather than react to my sin and guilt and shame nudgings. What I can say is it turns one's spirituality upside down.
I look at it like this: By virtue of Christ's baptism, all of us are bound to a common incarnate spirit--even those who are not baptized. I say this because of my crocuses here. I have never purposefully watered my crocuses a day in my life. Yet nature finds water for them. I trust in nature to deal with it, (Mother Nature is a bit on the fickle side at the moment about watering them, frankly, but she HAS done her duty) and don't worry myself much about it; yet I get to live in the enjoyment of all their splendor.
As I switch gears and think of my crocuses as little snippets of incarnation in their own world, what I love about them is their "attitude." Crocuses come up when nature's alarm clock says "Wake up!" They really don't vary much in terms of ground temperature or moisture. Oh, maybe a little, but when one lives at the same house for a number of years, one discovers at most, crocuses only vary a week or two in when they bloom. That seems less so for things like daffodils and tulips. I've had tulips take painfully long to come out.
They wake up and push themselves to the great outdoors in a huge variety of weather. Sun, wind, sleet, snow, wet, dry, warm, cool--they just don't care. They are here. They poke their noses through a couple of inches of snow, look around, and say, "What's the problem here?"
That is kind of how I see my temporal self's duty to my incarnate self. So many things in our world touch our incarnation--most of them related to the snow and sleet of a broken world--things like hunger, poverty, sickness, abuse, sanitation, and stewardship of the world's resources. As "spiritual crocuses," we are called to create a spot of beauty in the storms of the world. Crocuses don't look around and say whether or not the ground deserves them. They just bloom and create life and beauty in a tiny spot. They are a corner of light in a dark world.
But if there are enough crocuses, a brown place in the flowerbed becomes a pond of color that can be seen at a distance. More crocuses can turn the pond into a lake. Still more turn a lake into a sea. Yet each crocus is only responsible for a tiny, tiny bit of that whole area.
Our incarnation doesn't demand we fix the whole world. It simply demands we fix the spot where we are rooted.
"The normal routine of the day ought to be interrupted for a period of prayer and meditation. This does not need to be a lengthy session but simply a brief variant that interrupts the normal flow of the day. This will become like the grain of sand in the oyster, which eventually produces the pearl. That small interruption and irritant to the day establishes an anchor to the reality of divinization in the midst of a life otherwise not cognizant of or interested in divinization."
--Richard Valantasis, "Centuries of Holiness: Ancient Spirituality Refracted for a Postmodern Age"
My neighbor always discs his soybean field in the late fall after the harvest. All winter long it lies there, waiting to be planted in spring. When I walk by there on my walks up and down the dirt road, it often seems "anticipatory." It seems almost hungry for growth. Not much happens in that field, really, in terms of human labor. Most of the year, soybean plants sit and grow, with occasional "interruptions." In the spring, there's an interruption to plant. During the growing season, there are occasional interruptions to spray weed killer. As fall settles in, it is interrupted for the harvest, and a final interruption occurs when the field is turned over for the winter. All of those interruptions last only a few days each. The vast majority of the year, the beans just grow and mature and eventually the plants come to the natural end of their season.
Yet without those few days of interruption, the rich growth in the soybean field would not occur. If the beans were just allowed to "do their thing" for a few years, the plants would become fewer and less lush. The weeds would come in and kill them off. Bushes and trees would begin to appear. It would not take long for the field to look like a scrubby pasture rather than a cultivated field. After enough years, there would be no evidence there were ever soybeans in it.
I think that is a good parallel for what a regular spiritual practice does for us. Many of you know my most regular and continued spiritual practice is to do the Daily Office lectionary readings and have my personal prayer time in the morning. This is not a long, drawn out affair. It lasts from the moment I put on my coffee to the moment I finish the last swallow of my first (rather oversized) cup of coffee. I don't even know exactly how long that is, but it's probably like 15 minutes tops.
Now, that's what happens on a "perfect" day with that practice. But that's not always what happens. There's about a one in four or one in five chance that this will be interrupted--I get a phone call about something already falling apart at work, or my mom decided that 6:50 a.m. is the perfect time to catch me at home to tell me some piece of news which may or may not be of interest to me, or a dog throws up from eating too fast, or some such small irritation of a similar vein.
I used to get very irritated about these things, and this usually resulted in me snipping or snarling at someone. I am embarrassed to say I learned this by multiple examples--not just examples about praying, but examples based on all sorts of general ideas about "why someone gets interrupted."
Then I would feel very guilty about "not getting all my prayer time in." I felt like I was going to be in trouble for short-sheeting God. I'm sorry to say I did not feel guilty about snarling at the people who interrupted me.
But in recent months, over time, I found myself being less irked about the interruptions as this practice "matured" in me. What I came to discover is that even if my morning time got shorted, I was finding myself taking 45 seconds in a busy part of my day to briefly pray or meditate, without even thinking about it. It was like my mind knew how much was an appropriate "fix" and it would simply drift off in that place for a few seconds. What was sort of comical was it was often at a time, that, had I been allowed to choose, I would not have chosen that particular time. I would have said I was "too busy." Obviously, I was not. But there was a day I realized I had made a transformation from being a "praying person" to a "prayerful person." My morning spiritual practice had ceased to become a practice, but had been integrated into my life.
As I read the chapter from where the quote above originated, and went for a bit of a walk up my dirt road, I looked over at my neighbor's soybean field. I tried to think back on the prior season--could I remember what days he had planted, sprayed, harvested? Not really. I knew where to guess on the calendar, but not much else beyond that. I couldn't tell you if he did it in the morning or the afternoon.
As I connected it to my own spiritual practices, it affirmed what I was starting to learn about what these practices are all about, and how not just our interrupting our busy day with the practices are important, but that interruptions to our practices are not "deal-breaker" important. Once the practice was ingrained, the natural flow of our minds would gravitate to completing the practice and even going beyond it sometimes. Sometimes I sense an extra need for prayer, or to throw another practice in the mix, and I have learned to hear and be obedient to these callings.
I think about how we do or don't "teach prayer" in a church community. I think in most communities, we more or less "do" prayer but really don't "talk or teach prayer" much. Oh, there might be the workshop here and there, but I really don't think, in most instances, we really expose people to the smorgasbord of prayer practices, and we don't always emphasize what I think is the most important thing "beginning or re-dicscovering pray-ers" should hear.
I think all people interested in prayer practices should hear this: There's no "wrong" way to pray.
I also think we under-emphasize the corporate nature of why this is true. Once we've discovered that a major facet of Christian growth is community, we can accept that for every time we are too tired, too grouchy, or too distracted to pray in the way we desire, there's someone in our community out there picking up the slack.
I think back to a story in our parish. I remember when a group of people briefly organized a Centering Prayer group. (it never took off, but that was for reasons other than my story.) Now, I'm going to be honest--I can't Centering Prayer my way out of a paper bag. I simply can't sit still very well, for starters. I definitely can't sit still well in front of other people (visions of being in trouble in grade school for "wiggling" pop in my head) and finally, I find it absolutely impossible to think of nothing but a single sacred word. I was happy to let them do it and support them in my own forms of prayer.
At any rate, the people in the group were explaining it at coffee hour to other folks in the parish. My heart sank when one of our older parishioners, this absolutely sweet and lovable woman, suddenly looked crestfallen and said, "Oh, my. I guess I've been praying wrong all these years."
Thank God for another member of our parish in close proximity to her. She said, "well, now, before you go thinking that, let me ask you something--do you pray when you are doing the dishes?" Our older parishioner nodded.
"Do you pray when you are cleaning house?" She nodded again.
"Well, you know what? I have tried and tried to pray in those ways and I can't do it. I am so grateful you can, and you help ME when you are able to pray in those ways. We all help each other in our prayer lives. Don't ever think you pray "wrong" or "not well enough." I wish I had half the prayer life that you do!"
The last time I checked, it's not the type of sand in the oyster that makes the pearl. The most important thing in any of our prayer lives, I believe, is that we simply HAVE them.
"Even though the seeker has sinned, or is about to sin, or even engages on sinful activity on a regular basis, still God does not go away. God does not abandon one to sin, but stands present with seekers even when they are not directed toward God. Thus God is present even at seeker's sinning. Seekers' greatest hope is that through the awareness of the presence of God, even when doing things that most offend God's ways, they may gradually separate themselves from sin and come more fully to the knowledge of the presence of God. It becomes difficult to continue to sin when the mind focuses on the reality of the presence of God. It is difficult to continue sinning if God is pesent, active, and engaged with seekers even when they seem most distant from God. This is the sanctification that cleanses from the effects of sinful actions."
--Richard Valantasis, "Centuries of Holiness: Ancient Spirituality Refracted for a Postmodern Age"
One of the definitions in the dictionary of the word "sanctification" is "the act of making something holy." But here's a radical thought--what if all things are already holy, and it is our recognition or perception of their holiness that is actually the thing that changes?
I took a photo of the pine tree I planted near my driveway the year I first moved to my house, 2000. In a way, I considered it a "holy tree" from the get-go: It was grown from a seed that came from Augusta National Golf Course. I had a friend who attended the Masters, and brought it back to me. This friend, over the years, has brought me other "earthy bits and pieces from famous golf courses"--among them, a little container of sand from the Hell Bunker at St. Andrews.
But as I have been touting the "greening of spring" in NE Missouri this time of year, I was reminded of something about my tree. The last few days, as I have been noticing more and more things were turning green, I never bothered to remember that this tree is green all year long.
In fact, I never think much at all of its "evergreen-ness" unless something calls attention to it, like snow creating intricate patterns on the tree. But as the rest of my world around me turns brown for the slumber of winter, it remains green. I never notice it "turning green" because it IS green, and I don't appreciate its green-ness in the same way I do the things that turn brown and re-emerge into green-ness.
Maybe that is how it is with sanctification.
We think of the act of our sinning as "profaning things"--profaning God, profaning others, profaning ourselves--but really, that implies a separation from God. The old saw we use to define sin is "separation from God." But we are created beings. We're taught in Genesis that God's creation is holy. We're taught that it's good. So I'm supposed to believe that God takes a powder when I'm sinning? Or I temporarily left the fold? I've never bought that one.
I have this notion that, instead, what has happened is I have simply failed to notice my always green tree in the middle of my own spiritually dormant brown patch.
Just because I didn't notice the tree in the driveway, that doesn't mean my green tree with the ramrod-straight trunk yanked itself out by the roots. Can I trust God to be rooted at least as well as my tree? I would hope to think so.
What I am realizing is that starting to think this way changes the playing field. It means that the things we ritually do in forms of Christianity where we "sanctify" things (e.g., the priest making the sign of the Cross over the elements) do not, in and of themselves, sanctify things; these acts merely call attention to the sanctification that is already there. It means priests don't have the power to do magical things, but it does mean that they are ordained to obedience in calling attention to these things.
It also reveals uncomfortable propositions. If I want to believe God sees me as "worthy of sanctification" even when I sin, it means I have to extend the same courtesy to Adolf Hitler and Genghis Khan. That's pretty uncomfortable. But if, conversely, I truly do believe "all fall short of the Glory of God," then it means I have to give up the business of comparison. I think we have a habit of rationalizing our "shortness" through comparison. "Yeah, I'm a sinner, but I'm not as big a sinner as that person over there!"
This is where I find the people dissing Rob Bell's book, "Love wins," annoying. Some of them are quick to point out that's it is (in their view) unbiblical to not believe in eternal punishment. But if they believe we all fall short of God's glory, then there is nothing we can do via human action to change that--not even "confessing with our mouth that Jesus is the Christ." (when we back up and read Romans 10:10 in context, we discover Paul is talking more or less in general terms about Israel.) Some people like to use the fear buzz word of creeping "universalism" to steer people away from these thoughts, but frankly, I think pondering the reality that we are all sanctified beings is more fear-inducing!
The problem, of course, is that it is human nature to want people who we judge as "bad," "get what's coming to them." The truth seems to me that WE are the ones who want to put the bad people in "Hell." We're unable to wrap our brains around the notion that we could be sanctified beings who also may have to face a reckoning or accounting for some of our acts. Honestly, I have plenty of things I can look back and know I have done wrong. My shame and guilt for many of them has already been revealed to me in this life.
But working with this notion that all are sanctified already, could actually help the evangelical Christians and the Christians of a more fixed liturgical style make peace with each other. It takes away the magical acts and preserves the mystery, IMO. I think if one can get past the notion one is thinking "heresy" about it, there's a lot to help us grow in it.
This notion, at least for me, does not absolve me from working to build God's kingdom on earth and with each other. Instead, it forces me to think about something other than "magical acts" as what God demands of our work in the Kingdom. It tells me to stop comparing my salvation to others and get to work being grateful for my own, and showing that gratitude in my actions and attitudes everywhere I go.
I keep thinking about one of the most important definitions of "codependency." Codependents spend too much time focusing on how others feel. They spend too much time justifying their goodness in the light of other people's behavior. I get the feeling that the most important shift we can all make to be citizens of God's kingdom on earth is to focus on our own relationship with God. In other words, I need to focus on how I feel about God, rather than how God feels about me. As our own sanctification starts to show, let others "come and see" of their own accord, and trust to God what we can't control. I am starting to learn that if I focus on God's will in the here and now, I can find the "hereafter" right with me in the "here and now," and I can more easily trust that the "hereafter" will take care of itself.
"Conversion begins in this awakening to something more, something impinging, something erupting deep within the self, and deep within society, and deep within the physical environment that is at once irresistible and compelling."
--Richard Valantasis, "Centuries of Holiness: Ancient Spirituality Refracted for a Postmodern Age"
One of my favorite walks is "The Lake Loop"--the road that loops through Thousand Hills State Park in Kirksville. One of the joys of cameras on cell phones is I can sometimes snap a picture of something that enhances what is on my mind.
Many of you know I historically do something "retreat-y" the week prior to my birthday. I am not sure how I fell into that pattern, exactly, but it is probably a combination of the fact my birthday falls during Lent, and something about middle age and getting re-involved in the life of the church made it seem to be a natural time for reflecting on the prior year and the year to come. This historically was a time of "resistance" for me. It used to really annoy me that my birthday often fell during Holy Week (and sometimes on Good Friday!) and the few times it has fallen on Easter, I used to be irritated that I had to share it with a holiday in the church calendar. (It gave me a little glimpse of what it must feel like to have a birthday around Christmas--I have nothing but compassion for folks whose birthdays are near that time of year!) So I guess there was a place where I began to simply let the season take me where it will, instead of resisting it.
What I am doing this year is working through a "stay at home" retreat with the author of this book, who is one of the co-founders of the Institute for Contemplative Living. What's fun is it is a combination of the ancient and the modern for me--engaging in a very ancient form of contemplation but using modern tools. I've been meeting with Richard via Skype, and I've been using my cell phone camera to take pictures that illustrate my thoughts.
One of the joys of walking the Lake Loop on a regular basis is watching the park change as the seasons change. Even if I walked it every day in a given week, I will notice something different than the day before--a change in an individual tree, the sound of frogs that weren't there yesterday, a little group of flowers blooming that weren't there before.
My photo from a recent walk reminded me that we are in the time of year in northeast Missouri that changes almost hour by hour, let alone day by day. The grass is starting to green up, but the tree line is still mostly brown, except for the cedar trees. Over the next few weeks, as the tree line greens up, other colors will emerge like clockwork--the pink candy cotton dots of the redbuds blooming, followed by the white of the dogwoods, and, if I look down by the roadside, I'll be treated to the purple of the spiderworts, the white of Dutchman's breeches, the blues and whites and yellows of the bird's foot violet, the lavender of phlox.
Once the trees green up, the area roadsides become the markers of time as spring stretches into summer--first the prairie roses and multiflora roses, then the blue chicory flowers, that then give way to the whites of the Queen Anne's lace, and as summer winds down, the golds of the goldenrod and the various sunflowers take over.
I have come to realize these patterns of color are ingrained in my heart, as an area native. The colors become streams of thought in my life, and my feelings happily travel with them.
What I have also come to realize is, as I re-entered the church, one of the first things I became re-attuned to is the liturgical calendar. It, and becoming engrossed in our Book of Common Prayer, were the two major things that cemented me back to the life of the church. Now, after several years in this cycle again, I find that things can now feel "Advent-y," or "Epiphanoid" or "Easter-ish."
This is what I've come to discover about "the liturgical way to be a follower of Jesus." Conversion is not a single event. In evangelical Christianity, a "moment of conversion" is essential for the common ground of discussions of faith. Liturgical Christianity can't even wrap around an idea of a single conversion. Every moment we feel aligned with God's presence is a moment of conversion, in our minds!
That, of course, doesn't mean this doesn't happen in evangelical Christianity. It just means it is not perceived in the same way. It doesn't use the same language. There's a breakdown in translation when the two groups dialogue.
Thinking of each of the moments of our lives as multiple episodes of conversion also changes how we look back at things. I have a tendency to think of the moment I first set foot in the door of Trinity-Kirksville as "the day I returned back to the church." But that's not entirely true. That moment was shaped by many, many other moments. It was shaped by eight weeks in 1990 when I was in northern Ontario on a rotation, where the only things entertainment-wise were the hockey rink and the Anglican Parish Hall. It was shaped by four weeks in Washington DC at the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in 1995, where I found myself hanging around the National Cathedral in Washington DC almost every weekend. It was shaped by a mentor who died in 1988, who was a lifelong Episcopalian. All of these moments I once thought were "separate" were, in reality, moments that coalesced into that moment I first walked through the door of Trinity Church.
But what I have come to realize is the seasons and the liturgical calendar, despite their "sameness" year after year, are backdrops for many, many conversions. Each moment of our past shapes us, and from day to day not always in the same way. It's a reminder that change happens all the time in the backdrop of an eternal, unchangeable divine presence.
(USNS Mercy, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
O God, whose glory it is always to have mercy: Be gracious to all who have gone astray from your ways, and bring them again with penitent hearts and steadfast faith to embrace and hold fast the unchangeable truth of your Word, Jesus Christ your Son; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
--Collect, Second Sunday in Lent, Book of Common Prayer, p. 218
Seems like "mercy" is one of those words we use a lot in church but not so much out in the real world, other than as an exclamation. In fact, some might claim it's a little on the obsolete side. When you read in the papers about various and sundry criminals who are are in the process of getting their sentence lessened in some way, the papers tend to now use the word "clemency" instead. In the case of Death Row prisoners, we tend to use words like "stay of execution" or that the sentence was "commuted."
I chose a photo of the USNS Mercy because these days, the Department of Defense tends to think that an oil-tanker-turned-hospital-ship is also obsolete, in an era where we can fly personnel to a brick-and-mortar hospital. Mostly, these days, the USNS Mercy tends to be sent to sea to aid in humanitarian efforts, and more or less does "American public relations."
By the dictionary, the word "mercy" basically means "kindly forbearance," and comes from the Anglo-French merci--"thank you."
But "mercy" is one of those words, I suppose, we all think we know the meaning, but really don't think a whole lot on it. It's kind of interesting to think about it in terms of the famous hospital ship. It expands on what mostly, we have as a very general definition. I think we tend to dismiss the word "mercy" as simply "getting a break," or "being forgiven," or at most, "being forgiven when we have done something wrong."
So I sat for a while and surfed the net a little about the history of the USNS Mercy. It's actually the third ship with that name, although in this most recent version of it, the designation was changed from USS to USNS (more on that in a minute.)
But in modern times, the main function of the USNS Mercy has been pretty much humanitarian, although the Navy crew and civilian staff are trained to be of service in wartime. She's been to several locations in the South Pacific in recent years, particularly after natural disasters. Her sister ship, the USNS Comfort, was in Haiti last year, following the earthquake. I would not find it surprising if she will be dispatched to Japan following this recent earthquake/tsunami.
Thinking about this makes me realize something about "mercy" in a general sense, too. Mercy goes where it is needed; not necessarily because it is wanted or desired. I don't think it's a "cause and effect" thing. Just as the USNS Mercy's next mission is deemed by higher powers in the Navy, "mercy" is pretty much God's business and God's call on where it will be in the lives of humankind. I think the important thing for us is we know of its existence, and we have hope of its deliverance--but not on demand, not on our whims, and with the understanding it actually might show up when we don't want it, or expect it, or even think we need it.
That's certainly been my experience. Many of us are grand champions at beating ourselves over the head. Sometimes we don't think we are deserving of mercy, but there it is. Other times, we desire it in the worst way, but it seems absent. We end up having to walk through a situation to its conclusion--the learning is not in a rescue, but in seeing something out to the end. Then there are the times we are so blinded to the place of unease we are in--it just seems like business as usual--and something happens to make us realize we are the recipient of kindly forbearance that we did not expect, but find ourselves amazingly grateful--a surprise gift.
I mentioned earlier about the ship designation on the USNS Mercy. USNS stands for "United States Naval Ship," which means a ship not technically in the wartime fleet, but under the direction of the Navy. It's a modern designation for support ships. Under the Geneva Convention, hospital ships are not to be war targets and not to be fired upon.
But here's the flip side--hospital ships are not allowed to carry ordinance. That means not even deck guns for self-defense. Should someone want to fire upon the Mercy, she's defenseless. That's a very real vulnerability in this world of terrorism.
Which brings up my other important point about "mercy"--for as grand and wonderful as mercy is, and as comforting as being its recipient can be, we are still free to dismiss it. We actually have the ability to ignore it and reject it, and continue to wallow in our self-imposed muck.
I have spent some of this Lenten season looking back at my own life, and recognizing the many, many times I have been the recipient of God's mercy. I think of all the ways my life could have turned out, and I am grateful beyond belief I have been blessed with the life I have. But in that recognition also comes remembering times I rejected mercy, and chose to continue to be miserable. I am grateful I did that far fewer times than the times I accepted mercy.
But the good news is that I need not have guilt over that. Unlike the USNS Mercy's vulnerability, we can't destroy "mercy." As the collect says, God's truth in Christ is unchangeable. Mercy is a piece of that truth. When God's mercy steams into our port and drops anchor, even if we ignore or reject her,she merely sits offshore until we are ready to climb aboard--thanks be to God!
1 Timothy 6:6-15:
Of course, there is great gain in godliness combined with contentment; for we brought nothing into the world, so that we can take nothing out of it; but if we have food and clothing, we will be content with these. But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains.
This is the book we are reading in our parish Lenten book study. "Money" is a very difficult subject for me, and I am actually having a bit of a hard time with wanting to participate much in this book study. I have sort of distracted myself in a humorous way by thinking of the Beavis and Butthead "Cornholio" skits, when The Great Cornholio goes, "Are you threatening me?" (Especially considering one of the worst fights my parents ever had about money that I remember growing up. It had to do with my dad's insistence that he have Charmin toilet paper despite the fact we were having a hard winter paying the bills with him laid off from work, and drinking his unemployment check away.)
But I'll be honest, as the discussion has progressed, even the most innocuous questions in the introductory first week have felt threatening. I was a little surprised at that, as I thought my decision for the past two years to tithe, and the peace I have gotten from that, and the growth I have experienced from it, would have leavened those feelings somewhat. I have considered bagging the remaining weeks. I doubt I will, though. I feel a stronger need to stick this out.
You see, one of the things I am learning is that the things that are most uncomfortable for me, must also be uncomfortable for at least some other people in the same way, and what hope is there for any of us if each of us doesn't try to grow in this?
No doubt, I have lived on both sides of the coin with money. In the sense of world poverty, I did not grow up "poor." In the local sense of poverty, we were not destitute. My parents were not poor, in terms of the poverty line, but we were probably barely into the middle class and only a couple of jumps past "the working poor." But my dad was laid off in the winter a lot, and we had to live on my mom's paycheck. My dad spent most of his unemployment money on himself, whether it was booze, drugs, dogs, vehicles, whatever. My grandparents were probably in the lower third of "middle class." They were a little better off than my parents--but not a lot.
My first lessons about money were that there were two worlds in my life with it--my parents' world and my grandparents' world--and they didn't really get along with each other. In my parents' world, money was always something we didn't have. Every payday was a juggle. Also, given the seasonal nature of my dad's work, it seemed they alternated between acting like we were flush and acting like we were destitute.
In my grandparents' world, I came to realize "what looked like a lot, wasn't really a lot." When my grandfather emptied the coin box on a jukebox or pinball machine on his route, it looked like a big pile of money on that table. But after it got rolled up into coin rolls and thrown into a bank bag, and he made a ticket out on it for the merchant, I realized it wasn't a lot, usually. Yet, when I picked up the bank bag, it was heavy...very heavy.
That's one of the first things I learned--that money was "heavy." Dealing with it felt heavy. Discussing it felt heavy. Cogitating on it felt heavy.
My grandparents hoarded and paid cash for things; my parents acted like spendthrifts and borrowed on credit. (If I heard my mom say, "But I deserve nice things," once, I heard it a thousand times. I realized she used buying name brand things sometimes as a substitute for being happy.)
To me, all these mixed messages made money feel "heavy" to me, just like that bank bag full of coins from the jukebox.
The other thing I learned about money, was the power that the lack of it had on women.
My mom wanted to buy a very modest camper trailer, since we went camping a lot. However, she wanted to title it in her own name, not her name and my dad's name. She had very good reasons for this. She didn't want it sold out from under her nose to buy booze or hunting dogs, and she didn't want it given away to pay off a poker debt. In the early 1970's, banks in my small town would not loan money to women in their own name--they needed the husband to co-sign. My mom fought tooth and nail to borrow it in her own name. Finally she had to resort to my grandfather to co-sign it.
The world of my parents' friends illustrated this, too. Women stayed with abusive husbands because they had no means of support once they left them. Women who had money could make decisions on their own--although the value of that wasn't clear, either. When my dad was laid off in the winters, there was no doubt my mom was the "breadwinner," but it was obvious that was a source of resentment for him. It became the thing that ignited more drinking and abuse. Time and time again, she would acquiesce her power over the money to try to please him and all it did was make things worse.
In short, I learned for many reasons not to talk about money. I strongly learned it wasn't anyone's business. I learned that although having it meant independence in one way, having it created resentment even if you did nothing wrong with it. I couldn't seem to balance the world of my parents vs. the world of my grandparents. In the world of my grandparents, although there were fears about money, they were manageable fears. In the world of my parents, it was a dangerous poison that was best kept locked up.
What I have come to realize is that the heaviness of all these mixed messages made me incredibly avoidant about money. I am financially comfortable, but the hoarding mentality of my grandparents came at a price--I am über-conservative about my investments. My investment advisor finds me very difficult to deal with at times. But let's be real. I am only two generations away from the stories of "when the banks closed, and there was a run on them." I am one generation away from observing people acting like fools when they had money, who used money as a salve for their internal soul-sicknesses, and felt humiliated when they did not have it, and bit the hands that fed them. Thinking about money is like a powder keg for me. It represents independence for me, but any suggestion by almost anyone over what I am to do with it, makes me want to erupt. I have been manipulated by other people who knew it would make me erupt, to serve their own ends. I'm embarrassed I let myself be controlled like that, much in the same way my mom was controlled by my dad's anger about her being the breadwinner when he was laid off.
I desire not to care about money. I live below my means because it feels incredibly uncomfortable to put on a show with it. To display it garners attention that others will tell me what to do with it. Deep down inside, I realize my truest happiness is not connected to it. But I feel the paradox of control--me controlling it, or it controlling me--is a spiritual stumbling block at times.
But I want to share something that has started to make a difference for me--tithing.
In the late fall and early winter of 2009, I was trying to come out from under some feelings of being resented for what I did or did not do with my money. I was in multiple situations where I had been played up and my ego had been stroked for being a "patron." My motives were good--I felt that my life, as it was, was sufficient in my situation, and since I don't have direct heirs, it felt good to give my abundance away for good causes. Those were entirely new situations in my family. No one in my family ever had enough to even be treated like a patron. I really disliked the stuff that went with "patronage." I hated "donor dinners" where people acted like they were big stuff because they gave away money. I wanted to do good, but I didn't feel good.
I also realized I had to compartmentalize more than I cared to. My relationship with God was evolving into something more open and sharing, but it seemed important not to let any of these people know I gave money in other places. What things some people would find out, they would pressure me to give to their cause, not the other cause. I discovered these people, who I thought were my friends, were not my friends at all. They were parasites, albeit parasites for good causes. In some of the cases, my patronage became an expectation, not a gift. I desired to give in secret, to not call attention to myself. I came to understand the dangers of that. Although giving in secret is a great joy in some ways, too much of it usurps the appropriate power one should exert over his or her money to find balance.
But after a long talk with a priest in my diocese, she suggested something very radical--tithing--and I mean straight up, no frills tithing with no games. She told me the story of how she and her husband came to tithe, and how over time, it led to them embracing the no-frills Biblical notion of tithing--10% of their gross income to the church--no games about "gross vs. net," no games about "other charities vs. church." She talked to me about the freedom it gave her and her husband. She talked about how it would spill over as "abundance" in places I would not imagine.
I drove home thinking she was crazy. But the more I thought about it, the less crazy it felt. I wanted to be free of this mess. I wanted to be free of all the painful feelings and the guilt of buying for myself. I was sick of the heaviness of being a "patron."
It was not an easy decision. It seemed everyone I talked to confirmed my suspicion that this was, indeed, crazy--all except one friend, who embarrassingly looked at me and said, "I tithe, too. But you can't explain this to people. You have to live it and see for yourself."
So that was how I came to tithe.
I discovered two major things in that year.
The first was, I did not miss the money, and I actually found it relatively easy to cut back or eliminate my other forms of patronage. It made hard feelings, and I did lose some connections. But I was free from being "utzed" about money for the most part. I found that I could let go of the money to do God's work and not need to control it--to trust in a power bigger than me that all would (eventually) be well.
But the other thing, I did not expect.
I discovered that, for the first time, I felt invested in the lives that make up our parish. I became free to love them, and for them to love me back. I have never been good at the "being loved back" thing--I'm still not great at it--but people I had previously distrusted, I learned to simply love and let most of their quirks go. I learned to care about their difficulties and struggles. I learned to pray for them more and control them less. I've learned to accept that others' giving up control of me takes time, and, although there is no doubt I'm an impatient person, I've learned to bear things a little better.
I have to admit, the fact that the Episcopal Church is an ecclesiastical and hierarchical church helped with this. I could not have tithed to a solo operation. I could not have trusted in one person to take care of the money. But it was precisely the slowness of an "institution" that made this feel safer. Paradoxically, the thing I sometimes rail against is what made this easier.
So when it was time for me to turn in my pledge card this year, tithing again was easy.
This year, I am finding this ability to give up a little easier. I'm a little kinder to my investment advisor. I have not stressed as much about money things in the office that I cannot control. I used to count the number of surgical path specimens on slow days and fret that I was going under. Maybe I am. But I can't make people who need biopsies appear out of nowhere, you know?
But here's the amazing thing. It's been a year and a few months, and I have not had one single volcanic eruption about money. Oh, sure, a flame or two here and there, but no big blowouts. Not one.
Not that it hasn't been tested, either. I recently got a note card from my priest, thanking me for a particular special donation. I took a big hard gulp, because the AMOUNT of the donation was printed right on it. Admittedly, my first thought was, "What the hell? It's not the priest's business how much I give! She won't treat people all the same if she knows this!" Two years ago, I would have called the church treasurer and ripped her a new one. I constantly gigged our previous two church treasurers that they were not to discuss my donations with clergy. How stupid was that? All anyone would have had to do was do the math in the balance sheet, if they really wanted to know.
But almost as quickly as it flared, it subsided. I took a deep breath and thought, "Oh, get over yourself. You didn't give it with any expectation of control or influence. You gave it because it was money from a windfall and you took your 10% off the top and gave it. You can't control how other people deal with other people. You can't control how other people respond to a gift. You laid it on the altar. Let the altar take care of itself."
It is incredibly freeing to tithe. I can give with no delusions of control, and I can receive with no expectations. I can let things be as they are and find God's will for me in the center of these old tensions. I can even look forward to attending a book study about one of my most difficult stumbling blocks and feel okay about it for the most part--to come with an attitude of wanting to learn rather than needing to protect or compartmentalize!
As for how anyone reading my story about money and tithing goes with their own internal thoughts about money, I have no advice except this: Try it for a year and see, with the understanding that in the beginning there will be tension to rearrange one's finances to cover it. I can't promise happiness, but I can promise you will learn something important about the soul of money as it relates to one's own soul.
("The Temptations in the Desert," by Michael O'Brian)
Then Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished. The tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” But he answered, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’” Then the devil took him to the holy city and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down; for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’” Jesus said to him, “Again it is written, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” Again, the devil took him to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor; and he said to him, “All these I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me.” Jesus said to him, “Away with you, Satan! for it is written, ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’” Then the devil left him, and suddenly angels came and waited on him.
I've been a little surprised that Sunday's Gospel reading keeps sticking to me. It's historically not a text that gets my attention. But several things this week have tied my attention back to it. I got a phone call from one of my friends recently about a job change. It's a change that I am not totally sure this person's spouse is going to like it; it's a change that is all about prestige and money and the amount of money was obviously tempting. I thought about how this person had left to pursue this last "dream job" and now the discussion was how awful this job was and criticized the people that were once the greatest thing since sliced bread. I thought about how I had a really rough day at work yesterday and I sometimes wish I didn't have to put the names on some diseases I have to diagnose, and I sometimes wish that other physicians didn't react to their own frustrations by criticizing me or my department. I was sorely tempted yesterday to rip into some people, but I knew it would not do any good.
The picture above was one of the pictures we used in my online EfM class this week. We ended up using the Lectionary reading for this past Sunday (above) for our Theological Reflection. Some of this artist's works were a portion of an exhibit entitled "From Darkness of Heart to the Heart of Forgiveness--Beyond Sexual Victimhood," where he and two other Canadian artists reflect on the journey of healing beyond sexual abuse.
From O'Brien's web site:
In all my work I seek to contribute to the restoration of Christian culture. I try to express the holiness of existence and the dignity of the human person situated in an incarnational universe. Each visual image and each work of prose is an incarnation of a word, a statement of faith. At the same time, it asks the questions: what is most noble and eternal in man? Who is he? Why does he exist? And what is his eternal destiny?
I have to admit, I was simultaneously intensely drawn to this painting, as well as being viscerally uncomfortable with it, mostly because of the blend of color. Jesus appears trapped in this red "womb-like structure"--red being the color of pain, separated from a beautiful dawn full of healing blues and reconciling purples--purple being the mixture of red and blue.
I found the horizon and its color scheme comforting, but the image of Christ being trapped in pain, surrounded by similarly-trapped icons of his reign--his crown, the temple, etc.--very discomforting. Also adding to the discomfort was the pair of blue dots at about the 3 o'clock position in the painting--which seemed like eyes of evil, peering from the darkness, invading the beautiful dawn. It's also interesting to me that Jesus' back is to the beauty in the picture.
As I looked at it, many "birth" images came to mind, given the womb-shaped vessel of Jesus' confinement.
I thought for some time about that "womb made of pain" in the painting. There's actually a sense of "safety" with familiar pain--it's what we are referring to when we use the old saw, "Better the devil you know than the devil you don't know."
The womb is a nurturing, safe place--until the fetus grows to the point where it's too crowded. That's when the trouble starts. In the ideal setting, there is a place where birth must occur or else both the fetus and the mother will be harmed. Infection can set in. Worse yet, the fetus' head may become too large for the birth canal, and at that point, a Cesarean section will have to be performed, or mother and/or baby will die.
Our old, familiar sins are like that. There's an odd comfort with them. In fact, they might have helped us survive. But as we grow, we don't "fit" in that space. We are waiting to be reborn from them. In some ways, temptation and seduction also creates the boundaries of a "womb." I thought about those times I did not succumb to my own temptations. I stayed in the safe place I was in, and grew. So perhaps without them, we would not grow and change. But yet, until I could be strong enough to leave them behind, and I struggled, my relationship as a child of God feels "trapped" for a spell, too. We are destined to leave this place, this place that is simultaneously a womb when we are still "too small", but a trap when we have grown enough and are ready to be reborn--a place bounded by sin and seduction--to be delivered into new, healing places--perhaps many times over in our life.
This birth is not a sure thing. A lot can happen along the way to mess this up. We might "die in utero" early in the process and experience a stillbirth. We could be born prematurely and not get full benefit of this calm and peace the way we would had we been born at term--it could take longer to acclimate us to this place of light and wellness. We might be born because others ripped us out of that womb of pain like a C-section--born into this realm of healing, but with a new scar with which to contend. We might have a hard, difficult labor and require experienced helpers along the way.
Another striking thing in this painting for me is there is obviously calm water in the background of this painting. It reminds me that this form of spiritual rebirth places us once again in the waters of our baptism. It connects us to everyone.
Finally, the way purple is used in the painting speaks to me--not so much that it is the color of royalty, but in another way. The red of our pain and the blue of God's healing are not just mixed together, the two substances are no longer two separate substances, but one--one where a new color emerges from it.
Utlimately, despite the mixed messages, I find my overall impression of the painting to be one of hopefulness. I like the notion that our sins are not simply erased but transformed into new colors and new horizons. It's a comforting thought that Jesus is an integral piece of this rebirth. I can stand the pain and contractions if I know something about him is reborn along with me. We can be reborn, as in the words of Eucharistic Prayer B, "Out of error into truth; out of sin into righteousness."
I have come to realize that without those sins I've committed over the years, and without those temptations I face on a regular basis, I could not be where I am, every time I feel growth and transformation. It's not a matter of "how good we can be," it's "how we are shaped within the crucible of the tension of the good and evil in the world."
Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan; Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
--Collect, First Sunday in Lent, Book of Common Prayer, p. 218
Those of us "of a certain age" can still remember the Flip Wilson routine similar to the one I've embedded from the old Ed Sullivan Show. Although we all remember in the "Rev and his wife" sketch, how the Reverend's wife always was saying, "The devil made me do it," what I also remember is the end of the skit, when the Rev asks his wife "How come the devil is always doing something for you? When's he gonna get around to doing something for me?" and her reply is...
"He said he already did something for you. Without him, he says you wouldn't have a job."
Our readings in the Lectionary this past Sunday--the first Sunday in Lent--historically talk about something that generally makes Episcopalians cringe--In year "A" in the Revised Common Lectionary coverAdam and Eve's fall, Paul discussing the universal nature of sin, and what we often refer to as "the temptation of Christ." It's a set of readings for those of us of a more progressive form of Christianity don't connect to very well, because, honestly, we don't imagine the devil lurking behind every lamp post looking to trip us up. I think it sells our faith short, frankly, when we use this persona of "the devil" to explain our bad actions.
I have said many times I am pretty convinced "the devil" lives between my own ears, and I am also convinced there are many people in this world who a threat of a literal Hell means nothing to them because they have truly experienced Hell on Earth.
But seduction and temptation, I can identify with THAT.
Last Saturday, I attended a Lenten Quiet Day at a parish in the Diocese of Iowa. Mostly I attended because one of the most knowledgeable people I know in spiritual direction is a priest in that diocese, and I figured any retreat day she was part of the program would be a good one. We had the opportunity to go have supper together and visit following the retreat, and we got to talking about the readings--she had yet to prepare her homily for Sunday.
We got to trying to define "seduction" and "temptation." What we discovered was it was really more difficult to define the terms in a way that focuses on what goes on in our own heads as opposed to an "outside force." It is simply human nature to blame others. But what we sort of came up with corporately was this:
Seduction is the call that an action or behavior will result in a satisfying form of gratification that, in those moments of our weakness, outweighs the negative consequences of that action.
Temptation is the act of settling for less when what we desire is more.
The truth is, we are more tempted by "good" than we are "bad."
I had said something in our conversation about how the "middle" temptation in the Matthew 4 story makes no sense to me. "I get the first temptation--Jesus is hungry and bread would look pretty good. I get the third temptation--"all this can be yours" is about power and control. But the second one--the "throw yourself off the cliff" one--makes no sense to me. Why throw myself off a cliff? There's no gain in that. "Woo hoo--The angels can catch me." Big deal." (In an interesting coincidence, the next day, in a parallel universe, my priest had gone through a bit of that consternation about the second temptation also, as evidenced in the homily!)
But back to the thoughts I had with my friend on Saturday. The pondering out loud got us to talking about how so many of the things that tempt us--so many of the seductive calls we hear--often have a promise of good behind them. For instance, we might be tempted to walk all over a co-worker to get a $2.00/hour raise. We say, "I can provide better for my family with that money." We might choose to manipulate the lives of those close to us, or try to force certain behaviors out of them, with the full intent of helping them. We might choose to interact with people a certain way to get them to "behave better." Not all temptations are to chase "forbidden fruit."
We so often have good intentions with our temptations, and the seductive voice we hear emphasizes that.
When we are tempted, I don't think it's some outside force of evil calling to us. The cartoon image of the little devil on one shoulder and the little angel on the other is cute, but probably not very accurate. I think what is actually happening is our own weaknesses are calling to us. After all, who knows our weaknesses better than ourselves?
(Song: "Happily Ever After" by He is We)
2 Corinthians 21b-33:
But whatever anyone dares to boast of—I am speaking as a fool—I also dare to boast of that. Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they descendants of Abraham? So am I. Are they ministers of Christ? I am talking like a madman—I am a better one: with far greater labors, far more imprisonments, with countless floggings, and often near death. Five times I have received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I received a stoning. Three times I was shipwrecked; for a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from bandits, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers and sisters; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, hungry and thirsty, often without food, cold and naked. And, besides other things, I am under daily pressure because of my anxiety for all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? Who is made to stumble, and I am not indignant? If I must boast, I will boast of the things that show my weakness. The God and Father of the Lord Jesus (blessed be he forever!) knows that I do not lie. In Damascus, the governor under King Aretas guarded the city of Damascus in order to seize me, but I was let down in a basket through a window in the wall, and escaped from his hands.
This was one of the Daily Office readings a while back. Several things popped in my head while I was driving on my monthly trip to two of my "country hospitals."
You know, back at the time the Epistles were written, "letters" were just a lot different sort of thing than they are now.
Electronic communication has made it so we can literally have "conversations" across the world that are very close to approximating real conversations--at least, in most cases, "close enough for government work."
But 2000 years ago, a letter was a very big deal.
Think about this one along with me. People of that era had to accept that we might meet people once. They might stay with us for a time that would now be excruciating (weeks to months!) But when they went on their way, it was a very real possibility the guest would never be seen again in the host's lifetime. Disease, robbers, wars, the Roman way of doing business, and short life expectancies were very closely held realities--especially if one belonged to a new religious sect whom the Roman Empire didn't like very much.
So for them to care enough to write a letter, that really meant something.
Also, it wasn't like these letters could be dropped in a mail slot and be guaranteed delivery. The Epistles were carried by messengers. People had time on their hands. They could be copied. They could be copied badly. The originals could get damaged and the copies used as "the" letter. Education wasn't standardized. People who could not read or write had to depend on other people to translate sentiments correctly. Language varied from region to region.
In short, a lot could go wrong--much as how it goes when we played "telephone" or "gossip" as a child. The message could get pretty garbled. These facts alone are why I am not a Biblical literalist. At best, when we read the Epistles (or any other book in the Bible, for that matter,) we are given a glimpse of the author's sentiments but anything beyond that, can't always be taken at face value. People also circulated the news by circulating a copy of the letter. More chances for poor copy quality.
It also meant the letter writer had a lot to say...and that since the possibility always existed they would never see each other again, the writers tended to be a lot more "emo" than we are used to seeing in letters. Sometimes the writer's emotions got the best of him or her, and we find situations where the writer might be ranting about something that happened months to years ago, and any response to that rant would have a similar delay--so misunderstandings could fester and brew in a way different than the way you and I would nurse grudges or have spats or feuds.
I used to be upset about all the stuff in Paul's letters that dissed women, and I still get mad at how fundamentalists use parts of it to bash gays and lesbians in committed relationships. But the more I understand the nature of these letters, the more I come to believe Paul was simply a dedicated, passionate guy, and all of us, when we truly love what we are called to do or be, can be overcome now and then by "temporary madness." I've come to give Paul the benefit of the doubt for all the things he said that irritate or inflame me, and not even engage in fights with fundamentalists about it, other than to state my above premise about temporary madness.
Reading this passage in 2nd Corinthians reminds me of one of the Desert Fathers who was also prone to whipping people with the "Look what all I've done for YOU," stick--St. Jerome.
St. Jerome was notorious for writing very angst-filled letters to his friends in this vein. But both men had a real habit of going, "Look what all I have put up with for your sake, dammit! Then you all act like you don't even care!"
One wonders if St. Jerome's friends, and in Paul's case, the church in Corinth, didn't scratch their heads over these sorts of letters, knowing it was not months later and barely remembering what someone was upset about to begin with. Nowadays, we'd pick up the phone and try to hash it out, or meet for coffee, and we could at least work on what's ailing the relationship within minutes to hours, not months to years.
One wonders if, as these letters got circulated, what the different churches said to each other. "I don't get it! He likes the church in Rome! But he chewed us a new one!"
Or maybe the reverse happened. "Ha, ha ha! He likes us better'n you!"
But the Epistles are wonderful windows into a facet of human nature--what really affects people. What hurts them. What grieves them. What gives them joy. What gives them hope. We see Paul lay himself bare because of the times he lived and the nature of communication then, in a way we would not do in the 21st century. Oh, we might have those kind of conversations. But we would probably not put them in the format of a lengthy letter.
It serves two purposes.
One purpose is to be reminded of our own rawness when we truly love something but don't always understand our own emotions in it. I think about all the consternation that can happen in families, even families in which the members love each other very much. I think back to the tales that get told at everyone's family reunions, where family members ended up never speaking again over some totally little, ultimately stupid thing. The rawest splits in families sometimes occur over the tiniest details. Not to mention we carry our family baggage everywhere we go in our non-family world.
So it's not surprising that the early Church had problems the minute it switched from being a group of disaffected Jews to a hodge-podge of Jews and Gentiles. It's not surprising that the cultural milieu of Galatia was different than the one in Corinth.
That brings up the other purpose. It teaches us that it's easy to feel victimized when we are passionate about something.
I think about my own diocese.
The Diocese of Missouri is long but not very wide. It is the entire eastern half of Missouri. It is headquartered in St. Louis. It stretches from St. Louis to Columbia/Jefferson City/Rolla in the "short" direction, and from Kirksville to Poplar Bluff in the "long" direction.
Now, truthfully, our diocese is a relatively calm, happy diocese in the Episcopal Church. I am very fond of our Bishop. I am convinced he takes his role as Chief Pastor of the Diocese very seriously.
The geography of our diocese is big enough, though, that it is very easy for one part of the diocese to feel "disconnected" from another. Up here in Kirksville, I can barely imagine Poplar Bluff even being in our diocese. I can't imagine what is the same about us or different about us, and of course my tendency is to think "Oh, they're much different than us, and they can't possibly have much in common with us." The same goes for when I imagine the parishes in the Ladue/Clayton area as opposed to us. They're in a well-heeled part of St. Louis. We're out in the sticks. How can they possibly care about us and us about them?
Then of course, there's the most convenient way to feel disconnected from the diocese--we can play the "outstate Missouri vs. St. Louis" card. All of us outstaters are prone to that one, simply because it seems the bulk of the "action" in the diocese is in the St. Louis area--most of the cool discussions, workshops, retreats, etc.
But you know, in so many ways, we really can't play those cards in good conscience like we used to, and maybe we shouldn't be so quick to do that (myself included.) I certainly agree there are times they should be played. Just not as much as we historically played them.
For one thing, even with a small budget, our diocese has been able to offer online book discussion and study groups through the Episcopal School for Ministry, even with a distinct lack of funding. They've been resourceful in using available free/inexpensive technology for that. No, it's not the same as the real thing. It's not Blackboard. But it is good enough to plant the seeds of more communication among the faithful for purposes of sharing and participating.
Another ace in the hole is that we have a wonderful diocesan communication director. I just got my iSeek in my e-mail yesterday, and I am always amazed at how much I learn about what's going on in the diocese from it. I can honestly say that iSeek has been a major player in my life for feeling "connected to the diocese."
Finally, we have social networking. Probably the #1 thing that has connected me to the diocese is Facebook. I think about how I know so many more people in my own diocese than I used to as late as two years ago. It started when I got brave enough to befriend "friends of friends" in the diocese.
But what I am seeing is a way of building the church in a healthy way--without episodes of "temporary madness" like Paul was prone to--that connects this diocese together in a way the early Church could not even dare to dream. It puts us poised to create real relationships and do real live mission in the diocese in a way that could not be done in traditional models of mission.
It's exciting to me, frankly, and I find myself wanting to learn more and more from those who are pioneers in it.
Like the "He is We" vid I posted with the song "Happily Ever After" says--we all have a story to tell. Why aren't we telling it to each other more than we are?
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
--Collect for Ash Wednesday, p. 217, Book of Common Prayer
As many of you know, I always do a study project for Lent. This year, I decided to meditate and study upon each of the collects for each week of Lent in the Book of Common Prayer. Since we start off the season on Ash Wednesday, I pasted the collect for Ash Wednesday above.
This is a collect that certainly reflects the penitential theology of earlier versions of the Book of Common Prayer. We have a delicate balance in our Anglican heritage with some of the words that carry over from the original Elizabethan-era language in the first prayer books. Many of us struggle with some of the older language in it--words like "wickedness" and "wretchedness." Many people don't realize that the 1979 Prayer Book--the one we presently use--created major shifts in our theology. It was a major outward sign that we were moving from being more "penitential" to being more "incarnational" in our theology. Eucharist moved from being once a month in most parishes (with Morning Prayer being the worship form for most Sundays) to weekly.
One of the hardest things for folks when they start or renew a journey of faith, and start to participate in a worship community, is when a word or phrase or symbol leaves them cold, or becomes a stumbling block in that journey. I remember when I first returned to a church community, I was stumbling over words and challenging them left and right. It was almost like "them's fightin' words."
"Wretched" was one of those words.
"Wretched" is one of those words that I want to yell back at--"I'm NOT wretched! Don't throw that 'sinner' stuff at me! I KNOW I'm a sinner already! I came back here because I wanted to feel BETTER than that!"
Also, Ash Wednesday is a piece of our church where people tend to very strongly "choose up sides." Folks tend to either be "all about it" or "want nothing to do with it"--especially that "imposing ashes" part. The ones that are okay about it, it's more or less about "an acceptance of our mortality." The ones that are not, it feels very personal--"I don't need dirty ashes put on me to be told I'm a dirty person." I find it interesting that people okay with it, it tends to be seen as "outside of a view of self," and the ones not okay with it, it is strongly connected to "self" and much more visceral.
I've always found it a little paradoxical that even though I can be very prone to visceral dislikes of things, I have always been okay with the "ashes" thing but it is some of the words in the Prayer Book that viscerally eat on me in the Ash Wednesday liturgy--more so when I first came to the Episcopal Church than of late. The word "wretchedness" was one of those words.
Words are awful triggers for me. Any time I've been in a situation where I've been on the short end of it, I have had to struggle with certain collections of words that became strongly hooked in my mind to "the abuser(s)." If I were to tell you my most common trigger in situations prone to re-ignite an old stress in me, most of them are words. The kicker is that the words can be uttered by someone who had absolutely nothing to do with the abusive situation, and would never imagine they "did" something that causes me stress. A very key feature in relieving my own anxieties is to "take words back for my own use." I have learned a part of my healing is taking ownership of those words again for a better use--and to no longer acquiesce power to the abuser for the use of the word or words. But that also means it is not helpful for me to school others "not to use that word." When I teach others to avoid my "trigger words," they are just perpetuating the power the abuser had on me, and transferring power to themselves over me.
One of my growing edges is to simply accept that words are just words.
In the case of the word "wretch," It is a huge trigger for me with "Bad religion I've experienced."
It reeks of every tent revival I've ever peeked under the tent at, when I was a kid. It reminds me of a traumatic time I was caught peeking under the tent at a revival in my home town and dragged to the front and told I was going to hell. It stinks of every hellfire and brimstone street preacher that ever accosted me. Those experiences left me feeling very violated, in a psychological sort of way.
For years, I broke out in a sweat over the song "Amazing Grace." Seriously. A song that was beloved by so many was like fingernails on the chalkboard for me. When I began to be part of a faith community again, the first time I did Ash Wednesday upon my return, I literally felt the breath knocked out of me over the word "wretchedness."
But one of the things I've learned to do with words, to reduce their power in my psyche, is to study them and take them apart. I often discover how we think of them in our present vernacular is not how they started out. "Wretch" is one of those words.
"Wretch" comes from the Old English word "wrecche/wrecca." It originally meant to be exiled or driven out--a person exiled, or a stranger.
That knowledge was a light bulb for me.
It wasn't about me, it was about where I was.
That makes sense, really.
When I don't feel right about myself, or don't feel right about my actions, or have that soul-sickness from not being within the place my Baptismal Covenant demands of me, I do feel exiled--self-exiled. God didn't drive me out. I drove myself out.
The word "wretch" wasn't about me, it was simply about a spiritual GPS point.
For the first time this year in the liturgy, the word "wretch" didn't take the breath out of me--it didn't even blip my radar.
What I noticed this year was, instead, I heard the line "you hate nothing you have made," loud and clear. I heard the messages of God's infinite love for me--and that my waypoint on the spiritual GPS map had nothing to do with it.
I'm going to let you all in on a little secret--Lent feels very, very different for me this year.
This year, I feel literally held in the balance of mortality and immortality--the recognition of only having a finite time in this world in which I can ripple it, while at the same time feeling like we are allowed multiple do-overs in it.
I feel hope and faith in this season like I've never felt it before. I feel very intentional about being in the "now."
But it really is feeling like I'm being held in this balance, rather than the old feeling of having a foot in each world and them pulling against each other until I am doing the splits.
I can't really describe it yet, other than that. At the end of the 40 days, perhaps I can--and I hope some of you all can travel alongside of me and feel it in yourselves along with me.