("At the Deathbed, Sámal Joensen Mikines, 1940, from the Pioneers of Art website)
I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord.
Whoever has faith in me shall have life,
even though he die.
And everyone who has life,
and has committed himself to me in faith,
shall not die for ever.
As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.
After my awaking, he will raise me up;
and in my body I shall see God.
I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him
who is my friend and not a stranger.
For none of us has life in himself,
and none becomes his own master when he dies.
For if we have life, we are alive in the Lord,
and if we die, we die in the Lord.
So, then, whether we live or die,
we are the Lord's possession.
--Opening anthem for Burial, Rite II, from the Book of Common Prayer, p. 491
I have known John since I was about 14 years old and he was 23. He substitute taught a little before taking on full time teaching jobs first in New Cambria, MO, and later, Macon, MO, where he taught for 21 years. I first met him as a substitute teacher and I think my earliest thought was, "I'm gonna run this guy ragged." He looked like a real pushover, as student teachers went.
But then I discovered that he was incredibly, incredibly smart, and decided to respect him instead.
Over the next roughly 35 years, I think our friendship spanned many roles and lives. The older I got, and once I left Macon, we spent less face to face time in our friendship--my lives as medical student, intern/resident, and physician put my time at a premium--but we retained close connections via phone and various modes of Internet communication, along with the occasional face-to-face. I respected his intelligence as an amateur ornithologist and self-taught meteorologist, and he respected mine in medicine. (He did, however, seem to delight in telling me all of his medical maladies regarding parts of his body I'd rather not discuss in casual conversation.)
We didn't always see eye to eye on any given day and occasionally exasperated each other--we had occasional go-rounds, as long time friends sometimes do--he couldn't handle my pig-headedness and stiff-necked behavior on some days, and I used to berate him for being a bad manager of his money and not taking good control of the diabetes he developed later in life--but we always managed to make up somehow, and there was just a point where both of us knew we were unconditionally friends simply because we'd been friends this long, and it was just silly to ever be THAT mad about anything. There's truly a precious gemstone-like quality to enduring friendships that turns some people from friends to "family."
He had long been orphaned in the world. His mother died when he was twelve years old. His father sort of disappeared for years from his life then mysteriously resurfaced when he became too old and ill to care for himself. His aunt and uncle--never married brother and sister who lived in the same house for decades--many people in town thought they were married, but they were brother and sister--who raised him and his brother in their teens were also long dead. His brother died in his young adulthood under troubling circumstances--he died of carbon monoxide poisoning in his garage, but was most likely not a suicide. His brother had merely come home late after a double shift at work and, as best as anyone could tell, had fallen asleep at the wheel in the garage with the garage door down and the motor running.
As a result of this, John began to collect a family--and what an amazing family it was. Teachers, former students, birders, ham radio operators, and civil defense personnel. Firefighters and rescue squad workers and storm chasers. He became a doting uncle to many of his friends' children. He retired early as his health began to decline and he started having to face a different kind of "disciplinary problem" in the classroom. In the early days of his retirement, he traveled extensively (as I fussed at him that he wasn't managing his money well) and took a couple of part-time positions. One of those travels took him to England, where he became enamored with many Anglican churches, but mostly, Anglican liturgy and theology.
...and that is where the next and probably best intersections of our long-time friendship began. It was a good thing he did not listen to me about how to spend his money. (I still remember telling him, "John, I HAVE an expendable income, and I can't even afford to go to England--are you nuts?" His reply was, "Yeah--but you're so cheap you squeak when you walk!")
John, on his own, had bought a Book of Common Prayer, and begin to study it and use it in his own personal spiritual life. He began to gain a new comfort in its words that was far different than the more fundamentalist forms of Christianity he practiced as a young adult. As his health continued to deteriorate, and he become more homebound and more frequently hospitalized, he began to develop a very regular and disciplined prayer practice around the Book of Common Prayer. I am sure he prayed regularly for all of us in his collected family. He prayed with a simple faith that I have never quite been able to emulate--I over-think my faith too much. I was always amazed at how he worried about all of us, when he was in pretty dire physical shape himself.
When I joined the Episcopal Church, he began to pepper me with all kinds of questions about worship and theology. I always answered them as best as I could, but finally, one day, I said, "John, I didn't go to seminary. I don't really know the "book" answers on this stuff. Would you like to visit sometime with a priest about that?" That led to his being connected to Trinity's Priest Associate. When her trips as a Hospice chaplain took her near or to Macon, she'd go "off the clock" to visit with him. Although John never was able to attend Trinity, we certainly brought the Episcopal church to him. I even did one of my required sermons for my lay preaching license for him on a home visit.
I always knew that some day, John's health was going to play out at a relatively premature age.
But I did not expect it to play out on Saturday, April 23--Holy Saturday.
I had gotten calls from two of his closest friends. I had been planning to visit him on the following Tuesday, my day off, but John's health had declined to the point that he wished no further therapeutic treatment and wanted comfort care only.
The die for how I'd spend this Saturday was cast.
I had planned on spending a nice, quiet, reflective Holy Saturday. Instead, I was sitting vigil at University Hospital in Columbia. When I got there, John was in pretty bad shape, but he was lucid enough to know I had arrived and recognized me. He could talk just a little. I could tell he was a little agitated because his room was hot and he did not like the mask on the bi-pap.
I asked him if he'd like me to read from him from the BCP a bit. He said yes.
I flipped over to Evening Prayer, and as I read through it, I saw a very amazing thing happen.
Even full of morphine, he was mouthing the words to the often-heard prayers and canticles. After each prayer, he would say, "Amen," repeatedly.
It reminded me that prayers reside in the deepest parts of our brains, and touch more than our frontal lobes. There was a comfort in that for me, as well as for him. I realized if it were me in that bed, something very holy and powerful is present, and I would not be "alone in my bed."
Over the course of the day, roughly 15 people made it to his room. We all took turns being in and out, being near his bed and sharing that spot with others, talking to him, holding his hand. As more and more morphine got on board, speaking became more difficult, but the look on his face was peaceful, although I could tell he seemed to still want to speak.
Our Priest Associate was going to be in town anyway to supply for one of the churches in town, so she came by, along with the deacon from that parish, to bring the Eucharist one last time to him and perform the Ministration at the Time of Death rite. I had to chuckle--John always avoided "real wine" because he was allergic to it because he feared its effects on one of his medications--when he asked me if it was okay for him to have some of the wine. "Sure it is, John--doctor's orders!"
It was an awesome sight to behold, all those people jammed in his room, reading not just from the three BCP's we had available, but also the iBCP applications on my iPad and my smart phone. John would have appreciated the mix of "real prayer books" and electronic ones in the room, I think!
After that, people spontaneously did an "offertory"--everyone in the room came up to him and told him goodbye. Many tears were shed. Some of them were mine, even though I'm not much of a crier in groups.
After the bulk of the crowd had left for either home or supper, I simply sat with him a while and held his hand, and our Priest Associate stayed a while with the both of us. I have sat beside a fair number of deathbeds in my life, and the comfort for me was that I could tell having the service was helping him let go. She and I talked a bit, and I thought about how I had helped bring the church to him, and how bringing the church to him had brought comfort to him in his life, and helped bring meaning and purpose to his dying. It felt very "full circle." As much as I hated to see him go, I also knew it was okay for him to go.
In those moments sitting with him, it felt like I was in a very holy spot--a window between heaven and earth--with the window partially cracked open, and the breeze of the Holy Spirit in the room. It was a place of anamnesis--where the memories of past, present, and future all collapsed in on each other.
I stayed till the end of visiting hours. Then, I kissed him on the forehead, squeezed his hand, and told him, "John, it's okay for you to go. We've been a long way together, buddy, but it's okay for you to take this fork in the road without me. Jesus is waiting for you on that other fork. It's okay for you to run to him now." As I walked out of his room, I was pretty sure it would be the last time I saw him alive.
As I drove home, I heard the opening anthem to the burial rite in my head, over and over.
After I got home, his two dearest friends called me and told me John had passed right around midnight--on Easter. I found myself crying, not in grief, but in his passing away on the same day we celebrate the Resurrection.
But this isn't the end of the story. We have Easter yet to talk about. I'll do that in a subsequent post.
("At the Deathbed, Sámal Joensen Mikines, 1940, from the Pioneers of Art website)
(Angel of Grief, statuary for the memorial for Henry Lathrop, brother of Jane Lathrop Stanford, co-founder of Stanford University, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
"...keep death daily before one's eyes."
--#47 in the Rule of St. Benedict
If you've ever been to the Stanford University campus, you might have seen this statue. There's an interesting story behind it. This memorial was erected in 1901 in honor of the brother of one of the co-founders of the university, and is based on an original in Rome, created by William Wetmore Story. It was severely damaged in the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and replaced in 1908. Over the years, it suffered a great deal of neglect and was restored in 2001.
Many of you know that one of the components of my spirituality is to learn about the ancient practices and try to apply them to my modern life. Several aspects of Benedictine spirituality are key features of my own spiritual life, because I desire balance, and St. Benedict seemed to understand balance very well in his concept of "stability." But if you read the rule of St. Benedict, some of what he talks about seems very oppressive, or at the very least, a little creepy and icky, in terms of modern thought. The business of "keeping death before our eyes daily" is one of them. At first glance, at the very least, our reaction is very likely, "Ooooo. Ick. Morbid."
But on one level, that is very, very pervasive in my world, given the fact I put names on diseases for a living--some of which will eventually lead to a premature death. On one level, it's always in my day, and I barely think about it, interestingly enough. It's just there. I didn't cause it, I can't control it, and I can't fix it--my job is to name it.
Death is an unusual elephant in the room for me. I've known about death almost all my life--even as a child--because probably as soon as I was old enough to be conscious of things, I knew people die and it makes people sad. Many of you have read tales elsewhere on my blog about my uncle, Richard, who was killed in a hunting accident when he was eleven years old and I was eight months old. I've known all my life something was "off" in my family because "Richard died."
My grandpa's best friend owned one of the funeral homes in town. They used to swap finds from coin sales back and forth with each other. I would entertain myself by looking at the dead people who were out for viewing now and then and try to figure out just what "dead" was, exactly. I always thought the fact they were room temperature when I touched them was interesting. They weren't supposed to be room temperature in one way, but of course they were supposed to be room temperature.
We lived near a cemetery. I saw funerals come and go all the time.
In my training years, I never shied away from the dying in hospitals. For young doctors-in-training, the dying are a mixed bag. Many of my young peers at the time intensely disliked dealing with those who dying as imminent--they represented "failure" to them personally in so many ways. I've always been intrigued with the word choices we use in medicine when we no longer have any hope of medical healing to offer. We put the onus on the dying person. We say things like "He abandoned medical therapy," or "He refused further treatment." I always thought those were phrases designed to make US feel better. It makes it sound like the patient "did something to get away from us," rather than the patient simply made a choice about his or her control of exiting the world.
So why am I thinking about the Angel of Grief in the Season of Resurrection?
Well, it's because I recently sat vigil during the death of an old friend. I am struggling with the words to tell a story of Resurrection, that I know I will blog about soon--it is a story of sitting at the foot of the cross--my friend's hospital bed--during his dying process, and turning around the very next day and finding myself the very next day at the mouth of the empty tomb--in the middle of the most joyous Easter Sunday I've ever experienced at Trinity.
I don't really have all the words to describe it yet, but the short version is it feels like I have personally experienced the passionate feelings of Holy Week and Easter in the most intimate way I have ever felt. These total up to a LOT of feelings--and I really don't yet have the words.
Oh, I have tried. I've sent out several e-mails. I have some phrases I like. But they do not connote the intimacy I have felt with this.
What's spooky is that on the morning before this roller coaster ride even started, I had two very intense conversations with two of my best friends about this process of discerning my call--a possible call to ordination in the church--and then I had all this happen. I think the entire sequence of events is meant to be what it is, as it is.
The first friend keeps asking me the very deep and pointed questions, that keep revealing to me that this call was deeper and goes further back than I ever imagined. I met with her for breakfast Sat. morning. I am incredibly early in this process, and there have been many frustrations associated with it. She keeps my heart in the game. She reaches into some of the most painful stories of my life and at times, it feels like she's reached into my chest, extracted my heart, held it in front of my face, and said, "Now tell me about this." She is teaching me fearlessness about telling stories I've never had the courage to tell. You see, I grew up in an environment that everything dear to me was always at risk of being destroyed in a drunken rage. I learned never to throw off signals that a certain toy was a "favorite"--it would be first on the hit list. I was trained never to look like I really wanted something. Almost everything dear to me was at risk of being used against me. Giving these stories up is hard. But she teaches me to do it.
The second friend and I had a long visit on the phone. She has a different role in my life. She is the friend who tells me the good person she sees looking back at her, and doesn't let me ever wallow in my own self-condemnation. She keeps telling me, "Well, that's just not a reasonable impression on your part." She's the friend who fearlessly says things like, "For a smart person, sometimes you're just really dumb," and proceeds to tell me the good I seldom commend in myself. She's also just as good at pointing out things that are my "growing edges." She encourages me to challenge myself.
The trade-off in these friendships is I am "the wise friend who studies their problems from all the angles and points out all the possibilities and options." I get teased that I would say my favorite color is "plaid," but they also both value my ability to perceive things.
So I went straight from the intensity of that to the intensity of a friend's deathbed.
I was feeling pretty raw and vulnerable from those two conversations, but I think "raw and vulnerable" was where I needed to be to fully be present in this deathbed vigil.
I've never feared the Angel of Death, but I've been mighty "tweaky" about the Angel of Grief.
The Angel of Grief demands vulnerability to enter into her presence. The Angel of Death, he comes and gets you, ready or not, and you have the rest of eternity to work that one out. The Angel of Grief never enters in but merely hovers, if one is "not ready."
A few months ago, I entered into a session with the Angel of Grief where she literally sat with me for weeks, as I cried myself dry over and over again over "deaths"--literal and emotional and historical--some of them four decades old.
What I discovered is she cries with us--just as the statue in the picture depicts.
So this time, this death has been different for me. Maybe it was because I was primed to be vulnerable already as my friend's death commenced, but I just know this time I am welcoming her rather than standing with my back to her as she perches from a distance, eyeing me...and it's all okay.
(Entombment of Christ, detail, Rogier Van der Weyden, 1450, from The Edge of the Enclosure)
Jesus' Body is Prepared for Burial
Then Joseph bought a linen cloth, and taking down the body, wrapped it in the linen cloth, and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock. He then rolled a stone against the door of the tomb. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where the body was laid.
God of eternal peace,
In this world of instantaneous communication, we also have the power to not only instantly respond and comfort the afflicted, we have the power to sustain our afflictions upon others. E-mails can go viral, bullies can stalk and continually threaten, and insecure people can pile on the backs of the victimized via social networking. Open our hearts to the value of waiting, the thrift of restraint, and the gift of silent compassion. Close our minds to the trap of snap judgments, the spear of verbal retaliation, and the festering ulcer of backbiting. Let the dead bury the dead in online arguments and controversies. In those times we transgress and respond prematurely in anger or fear, give us hope of the resurrection of broken relationships as time passes and hearts mold to hear your Son’s words and teachings. Amen.
Almighty and ever-living God,
We thank you for the power of the Internet
And the marvelous ways we can connect to one another through it.
As we follow Christ’s road to the cross on this Holy Week,
Help us to keep the Cross ever before us
In all our human interactions,
Both physical and virtual.
In your son Jesus’ name we pray.
(Lamentation, detail, Matthias Grunewald, 1523, from The Edge of the Enclosure)
The Two Marys and Joseph of Arimathea
Take Disposition of Jesus' Body
When evening had come, and since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the sabbath, Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the council, who was also himself waiting expectantly for the kingdom of God, went boldly to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate wondered if he were already dead; and summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he had been dead for some time. When he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the body to Joseph.
rather than from a comfortable distance.
It’s too convenient, Lord,
to send a virtual card, sign an online guestbook,
drop a consoling e-mail,
or post an expression of grief on someone’s wall.
These are all wonderful substitutes
for when we cannot be there in person,
but they are not the same as shared hugs and tears.
Strengthen our knees as we stand on their porch
holding a casserole in a dish we don’t need back.
(Deposition, detail, Rogier Van der Weyden, c1435, from The Edge of the Enclosure)
Jesus Dies on the Cross
When it was noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon.
At three o'clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, "Listen, he is calling for Elijah." And someone ran, filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink, saying, "Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down."
Then Jesus gave a loud cry and breathed his last.
And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.
Now when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, "Truly this man was God's Son!"
“The tumor has metastasized to my brain,” she posted. “Tell me who I am to you, in case I can no longer remember it.”
Merciful God, I’ve never met her. But I feel like I know her through her blog and through social networking. I can’t even remember if she showed up on my blog first, or whether she showed up on mine. I know she loves and trusts you, God. Help her to feel your presence.
This “virtual person,” God, is as real to me as real can be…she is 30 years old…and she is dying. Oh, not right this minute, mind you. But barring a miracle, she will not come down from that cross upon which she has been placed.
Friend, I will tell you who you are. You are a real presence in my life, albeit a real presence I have never physically met. I do not share much of your past. But I have traveled part of the spiritual journey you have openly shared on the Internet with many of us, and I will, God willing, travel with you until you can no longer type. I will share as much of your future with you as I am allowed. I will stay at the foot of your cross with you.
Dearest God, as I think about my relationship with this dying woman, I realize it is the same relationship I have with your Son—a very real presence I’ve never physically met. Teach me the beauty of his presence through her presence. Amen.
(Crucifixion, detail, Matthias Grunewald, c 1515, from The Edge of the Enclosure)
Jesus is Nailed to the Cross
Then they brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull). And they offered him wine mixed with myrrh; but he did not take it. And they crucified him, and divided his clothes among them, casting lots to decide what each should take. It was nine o'clock in the morning when they crucified him. The inscription of the charge against him read, "The King of the Jews." And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by derided him, shaking their heads and saying, "Aha! You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself, and come down from the cross!" In the same way the chief priests, along with the scribes, were also mocking him among themselves and saying, "He saved others; he cannot save himself. Let the Messiah, the King of Israel, come down from the cross now, so that we may see and believe." Those who were crucified with him also taunted him.
(Crucifixion, detail, Matthias Grunewald, c 1515, from The Edge of the Enclosure)
Tell me, God of all understanding,
Whose hands and feet did I nail down today,
Not with iron spikes, but with computer keys?
What flip comment did I make
That caused someone’s online voice to go silent?
Who did I taunt?
How did I cross the line from teasing to mocking?
When did I become one of the crowd, piling on?
Who did I distance because I answered my cell phone?
Train my hands, O Lord,
To be as swift to cradle the hands of others
As I am at whipping out my cell phone.
Train my feet, O Lord,
To walk far and near with the Good News in Christ
As fast as I walk to a better cell phone connection.
(Carrying the Cross, detail, Matthias Grunewald, 1523, from The Edge of the Enclosure)
Simon of Cyrene Carries Jesus' Cross
They compelled a passer-by, who was coming in from the country, to carry his cross; it was Simon of Cyrene, the father of Alexander and Rufus.
Keep me mindful, dear Lord,
That the one whose online presence I envy,
May be carrying burdens I can’t imagine.
Keep me awake, dear Lord,
To the possibility that the one
Whose online presence is eternally cheerful,
May be masking deep untold sadness.
Keep me conscious, dear Lord,
That the nauseatingly perfect online persona
May have imperfections I would not want.
Open my arms, dear Lord,
To be willing to embrace the real person
Who might live behind a profile.
(The Mocking of Christ, detail, Matthias Grunewald, 1503, from The Edge of the Enclosure)
Jesus is Mocked and Scorned
Then the soldiers led him into the courtyard of the palace (that is, the governor's headquarters ); and they called together the whole cohort.
And they clothed him in a purple cloak; and after twisting some thorns into a crown, they put it on him.
And they began saluting him, "Hail, King of the Jews!"
They struck his head with a reed, spat upon him, and knelt down in homage to him.
After mocking him, they stripped him of the purple cloak and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him out to crucify him.
You love us equally, yet you love us uniquely.
Why, then, is it so easy to make fun
of celebrities and politicians we don’t even know, or never have met?
I would not tell one of my female friends, “You look like a man.”
I would not tell one of my obese friends that they are fat and sloppy.
I would not call my gay and lesbian friends “faggots” or “dykes.”
I would not belittle my friends over their respective religions or lack thereof.
But for some reason, because they are “virtual people” I feel vindicated for being ugly.
For some reason, it makes me feel important when I can bash people not in the room.
Remind me, Creator God, you created them, too, and you love them just as much as me.
(Christ at the Column, detail, Hans Memling, 1485, from The Edge of the Enclosure)
Jesus is Handed Over to be Crucified
And Barabbas is Released
As soon as it was morning, the chief priests held a consultation with the elders and scribes and the whole council. They bound Jesus, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate. Pilate asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" He answered him, "You say so." Then the chief priests accused him of many things. Pilate asked him again, "Have you no answer? See how many charges they bring against you." But Jesus made no further reply, so that Pilate was amazed.
Now at the festival he used to release a prisoner for them, anyone for whom they asked. Now a man called Barabbas was in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection. So the crowd came and began to ask Pilate to do for them according to his custom. Then he answered them, "Do you want me to release for you the King of the Jews?" For he realized that it was out of jealousy that the chief priests had handed him over. But the chief priests stirred up the crowd to have him release Barabbas for them instead. Pilate spoke to them again, "Then what do you wish me to do with the man you call the King of the Jews?" They shouted back, "Crucify him!" Pilate asked them, "Why, what evil has he done?" But they shouted all the more, "Crucify him!"
So Pilate, wishing to satisfy the crowd, released Barabbas for them; and after flogging Jesus, he handed him over to be crucified.
Lord, I’ve been thinking
about the folks that I have blocked lately.
One of them, she was always posting pictures
of homeless dogs, and I just got tired of it.
Another kept sending me requests for causes.
I don’t have time for all his causes.
I’d rather let people see
the me I’d like to be;
cool and clever and snarky.
A celebrity of sorts, with over 1000 friends.
I have an image to uphold, you know.
Lord, I’ve been thinking
about the folks I’d never friend—
no one really expects me to befriend
the kid who peed on the trampoline
In 2nd grade—
Lord, I’ve been thinking. A lot.
I’ve been thinking that this “me I’d like to be”
isn’t really the me I’d like to be.
Maybe I could start by changing my profile
To reflect a me I really could be—A me
you’ve longed to turn loose on the world.
(Poultry, detail, Gijsbert Gillisz de Hondecoeter, 1604-1653, from The Edge of the Enclosure)
Peter Denies Jesus Three Times
While Peter was below in the courtyard, one of the servant-girls of the high priest came by. When she saw Peter warming himself, she stared at him and said, "You also were with Jesus, the man from Nazareth." But he denied it, saying, "I do not know or understand what you are talking about." And he went out into the forecourt. Then the cock crowed. And the servant-girl, on seeing him, began again to say to the bystanders, "This man is one of them." But again he denied it. Then after a little while the bystanders again said to Peter, "Certainly you are one of them; for you are a Galilean." But he began to curse, and he swore an oath, "I do not know this man you are talking about." At that moment the cock crowed for the second time. Then Peter remembered that Jesus had said to him, "Before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times." And he broke down and wept.
Something feels missing, Lord, and I’d like to talk to you about it.
I’ve just felt very disconnected lately, for lack of a better word.
But how can I feel disconnected when it seems I’m never alone? People are always in touch with me.
I even got a smart phone so I can always check my e-mail and my social networking pages.
But for several nights now, I’d rather sit in my living room and play role-playing games,
as opposed to living the real roles in my life.
I’d rather sit and tend an imaginary farm, rather than step outside and see the stars or a sunset.
I’d rather chat virtually with my friends rather than meet them for coffee or a meal.
What would happen, God, if I unplugged myself from it all—for even a day—for even a few hours?
How would I know you are there, if no one can text me?
(Crucifixion, detail, Jan Van Eyck, 1420-25, from The Edge of the Enclosure)
Jesus is Brought Before the Priests, Elders, and Scribes
They took Jesus to the high priest; and all the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes were assembled. Peter had followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the high priest; and he was sitting with the guards, warming himself at the fire. Now the chief priests and the whole council were looking for testimony against Jesus to put him to death; but they found none. For many gave false testimony against him, and their testimony did not agree. Some stood up and gave false testimony against him, saying, "We heard him say, 'I will destroy this temple that is made with hands, and in three days I will build another, not made with hands.'" But even on this point their testimony did not agree. Then the high priest stood up before them and asked Jesus, "Have you no answer? What is it that they testify against you?" But he was silent and did not answer. Again the high priest asked him, "Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?" Jesus said, "I am; and 'you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,' and 'coming with the clouds of heaven.'" Then the high priest tore his clothes and said, "Why do we still need witnesses? You have heard his blasphemy! What is your decision?" All of them condemned him as deserving death. Some began to spit on him, to blindfold him, and to strike him, saying to him, "Prophesy!" The guards also took him over and beat him.
They’re picking on Jeremy again, God.
Why don’t you do something?
Yeah, I know he’s kind of effeminate.
He doesn’t really help himself much, either, you know.
He told me once they text message him at all hours of the night. Mean things. Nasty things.
If they aren’t picking on him, they’re picking on Jasmine.
She told me once they used to make her cry herself to sleep over their vicious postings and texts.
But then one day, she said, she just stopped crying. But she stopped being online, too.
Why do you let this happen, God? Why do you let people be bullied?
But mostly, why am I afraid to challenge their vile behavior? Change me, God. Please change me.
(The Mocking of Christ, detail, Matthias Grunewald, 1503, from The Edge of the Enclosure)
Jesus is Arrested
Immediately, while he was still speaking, Judas, one of the twelve, arrived; and with him there was a crowd with swords and clubs, from the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders. Now the betrayer had given them a sign, saying, "The one I will kiss is the man; arrest him and lead him away under guard." So when he came, he went up to him at once and said, "Rabbi!" and kissed him. Then they laid hands on him and arrested him. But one of those who stood near drew his sword and struck the slave of the high priest, cutting off his ear. Then Jesus said to them, "Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as though I were a bandit? Day after day I was with you in the temple teaching, and you did not arrest me. But let the scriptures be fulfilled." All of them deserted him and fled. A certain young man was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked.
Oh, Lord…I’ve done it again. I’ve gone and shot my mouth off.
He makes me so angry. His politics are nothing like mine. He pontificates and runs off at the mouth.
He just doesn’t get it, you know?
He puts stuff on my wall that is the exact opposite of what I believe.
I get irritated every time I have to delete his garbage from my wall.
So why am I hurt that he un-friended me?
This should not hurt—he never really was my “friend”—we are not alike at all.
I get it, God…I really do. My heart is heavy because I’ve failed to commend the good that is in him.
Well, I can message him on a mutual friend’s wall. I can offer to make amends.
Imbue me with the courage to try again, Lord, and grant us both peace if he chooses to block me.
(Triptych detail, Rogier Van der Weyden 1445, from The Edge of the Enclosure)
Jesus Prays at Night in Gethsemane
They went to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, "Sit here while I pray." He took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be distressed and agitated. And he said to them, "I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and keep awake." And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. He said, "Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want." He came and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, "Simon, are you asleep? Could you not keep awake one hour? Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak." And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. And once more he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy; and they did not know what to say to him. He came a third time and said to them, "Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Enough! The hour has come; the Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. Get up, let us be going. See, my betrayer is at hand."
Out of the depths of this heavy dark night, Lord, I cry out to you.
I cry out from a netherworld between today and tomorrow—between late night and wee morning.
I cannot sleep. I tried, but the fear awakened me. I feel a burial cloth on my face.
I do not know what tomorrow brings, Lord, but it can’t be good.
My laptop is beside me; I reach for it and I open it. Its battery feels warm and comforting on my thighs.
I see one of my friends is still up. She is on call at the hospital. She just updated her status.
She has much on her mind, too—she lost a favorite patient in the night.
She’s happy I’m still up. We chat. We share. Our fingers race over the keyboard.
The glow of the screen cuts through the darkness—not just the dark in the room, but in my soul, too.
I will try again, Lord. I will try to sleep. I will try to let go of yesterday and let tomorrow be itself.
I can now lie down in peace, O God, because at least I know there is no “alone” in your presence.
(Joos Van Cleve, Altarpiece of Lamentation, 1485-1515, from The Edge of the Enclosure)
The Last Supper
While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, "Take; this is my body." Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God." When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. And Jesus said to them, "You will all become deserters; for it is written, 'I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.' But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee."
Peter said to him, "Even though all become deserters, I will not." Jesus said to him, "Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times." But he said vehemently, "Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you." And all of them said the same.
Mark 14: 22-31
Dearest Lord, it is good to be here. Right here. Right now. Right here, right now, in this moment.
I am with people who care about me. I am with people whom I care about and love.
I love them as they are, right here, right now, in this moment, in this space.
I am grateful for all these moments in our lives.
We share meals at our homes. We share meals in restaurants. We share meals on tailgates.
Our cell phone cameras are out, and we are snapping pictures like crazy.
We will share the pictures, both to people who care, and people who won’t care,
And to people who will be irritated we took so many pictures of the same thing.
But some day, Lord, this moment becomes memory. We will be gray and bald; the kids will be adults.
Our lives will change; some of us will drift apart. But thank you for the memory of today. This day.
(Deposition, Rogier Van der Weyden, C1435, detail, from The Edge of the Enclosure)
Judas Betrays Jesus
Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went to the chief priests in order to betray him to them. When they heard it, they were greatly pleased, and promised to give him money. So he began to look for an opportunity to betray him.
On the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed, his disciples said to him, "Where do you want us to go and make the preparations for you to eat the Passover?" So he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, "Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the owner of the house, 'The Teacher asks, Where is my guest room where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?' He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there." So the disciples set out and went to the city, and found everything as he had told them; and they prepared the Passover meal. When it was evening, he came with the twelve. And when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said, "Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me." They began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, "Surely, not I?" He said to them, "It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me. For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born."
Why, oh why, God, would someone who’s supposed to be my friend treat me like this?
Why did they post that remark? Why did they send that embarrassing picture of me to everybody?
Why are they trash-talking me, making sport of my plight, or turning my friends against me?
My heart is heavy…not just because of how I’ve been betrayed…
But when have I done it to others? Did I even realize it at the time?
Was I acting out in anger? Was I trying to be clever, witty, or “one-up?”
Teach me, oh, God, to forgive my betrayers…but mostly not to betray others.
(Rogier Van der Weyden 1445, detail--from The Edge of the Enclosure)
For Holy Week, I'm putting together a set of meditations based on an absolutely wonderful set of prayers, Scripture, and art put together on Suzanne Guthrie's The Edge of the Enclosure website. The Scripture texts are out of Mark's Gospel. She has added some wonderful hymns and collects to them on her site. She then asks that you consider your own responses to them.
What I've done on my site is focus my responses on a phenomenon that has certainly enriched my life in the past few years--my discovery of new friends and an expanded community via the Internet, blogging, and social networking. What I ask you to do, in your reflection on these texts and my response, is consider your own community in the world of your own virtual connections. I ask that God opens all of our hearts to allow virtual presence to call us to real presence.
So here we go!
A woman of Bethany Anoints Jesus
It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him; for they said, "Not during the festival, or there may be a riot among the people."
While he was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of very costly ointment of nard, and she broke open the jar and poured the ointment on his head. But some were there who said to one another in anger, "Why was the ointment wasted in this way? For this ointment could have been sold for more than three hundred denarii, and the money given to the poor." And they scolded her. But Jesus said, "Let her alone; why do you trouble her? She has performed a good service for me. For you always have the poor with you, and you can show kindness to them whenever you wish; but you will not always have me. She has done what she could; she has anointed my body beforehand for its burial. Truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her."
Why did she spend her money on that?
I know she can’t afford it.
Day after day, her status updates talk about how hard her life is—
How hard it is to make ends meet…
How hard it is to rear her kids as a single parent…
How difficult the other people in her life are.
Oh, I think I know her. But really, when you come right down to it, I don’t.
I only know what she tells me of her.
I don’t know of her past wounds. I don’t know of the journey she has taken already in this life.
Oh, Lord, and you know…I’ve never asked. I’ve judged her at face value.
I’ve ignored even bothering to explore behind her words, because she annoys me.
Immortal God, grant me the courage to merely ask if there is something I can do for her.
(Detail from "Crucifixion, Matthias Grunewald, c 1515. Reprinted as an illustration from a set of Passion Prayers found at The Edge of the Enclosure website.)
"It is not easy to tend wounds that heal more slowly than we can observe, to accompany the friend whose life careens from one crisis to another or to work with the powerless crushed in a system stacked against them. Myths of progress and success infect our imaginations. The endless enthusiasm for healing and self-help programs on daytime talk shows, business training seminars and the like are shiny glosses over our deep anxiety about finitude. Our everyday language betrays our denial. We exhort the sick to “get well soon” but have little to say to those who will not."
--Vincent J. Miller, from "Holding On," America Magazine, April 25, 2011
I met the intersection of two very deep and reflective pieces in the past 48 hours. One was a very magnificently illustrated set of Passion Prayers that I got from being a regular subscriber to The Edge of the Enclosure website. The other was in the quote above, from an article in a Jesuit magazine. (My spiritual director's background is Jesuit; he's a great spiritual director because I think Jesuits and Episcopalians are a fairly complementary match, and Ignatian spirituality is a good counterbalance for my tendency to be more Benedictine about my own spirituality. Benedictine spirituality feeds the obsessive-compulsive half of me, and Ignatian spirituality jump starts my spiritual imagination. It's a good balance!)
Out of all the pictures in the Passion Prayers set, this is the one I drew back to, time and time again. My plan is to read this set of prayers off and on over Holy Week, (and probably blog about them) but I can already see that, out of all the illustrations in the set, this is the one I will go back to, again and again and again.
One of the things I keep going back to, as I reflect on both the picture and the words above, is that there was more than one set of wounded hands that created this picture. The picture obviously represents the Eleventh Station of the Cross--"Jesus is nailed to the cross." There's simply something quite jarring and awakening about imagining these hands--hands that healed, hands that taught divine mysteries and, because he was fully human--hands that scratched his armpits and wiped his own butt--pinned down and brutally violated with spikes.
But the more I reflect on it, I have come to accept that this act was committed by individuals with wounded hands themselves, within the hands of a wounded, broken world. Even Pilate's symbolic washing of his hands do not make his own wounds go away.
In a few weeks, we will talk of resurrection--and one of the more poignant stories in that is Thomas' recognition of "Jesus, resurrected." How does he come to that conclusion? He feels for himself the nail holes in Jesus' hands.
That image--that striking image of the violation of flesh by metal nails into a cross of wood--signify three things universally common in the human condition, to me--the vulnerability of our humanity, our powerlessness to the outside "wounding forces" of a broken world, and the binding of each of us, in our own personal suffering, to be bound to all suffering in the human condition. When Christ willingly allowed himself to suffer, he bound all that is divine and holy to all that is human. In that moment, he bound me to thirsty people in our companion diocese of Lui, Sudan, who have insufficient clean water to drink. He bound me to homeless people in the streets of Calcutta. He bound me to children in rural northeast Missouri who only get one decent meal a day in the federal school lunch.
In a Jesus who can submit to the violation of his own hands, I am bound to every single person in the world whose hands are figuratively and literally "tied" through hunger, thirst, homelessness, abuse, disease, and addiction.
It begs the question--what are my hands doing about it?
As I think about this picture in a different light--the light of Miller's quote--I am reminded of our own abilities and inabilities when it comes to observe uncomfortable things. To be a witness to the nailing of Jesus on the cross had to be a real queasy-fest, to say the least. Oh, I imagine people of that day had some degree of desensitization about it--after all, the Romans did this quite a bit, and there is a place where observing a violent act over and over desensitizes us as a self-protective mechanism--but I imagine watching this happen without a struggle from the about-to-be-crucified person was a real attention-getter. I imagine most people fought their tormentors as vigorously as they could, even if it was futile. To have someone willingly stretch their arms and legs out for this, to say the least, had to be an unusual occurrence, barring the about-to-be-crucified was too physically weakened to fight.
What this scene reminds me of, is that we are often uncomfortable with our own powerlessness when others are being injured.
The flip side of that, though, is we are also uncomfortable with the speed (or lack thereof) of "other people's healing," and others are sometimes uncomfortable with ours.
There have been lots of times I have thought about others, "Wow. You oughta be past this one by now," and I am sure there are times others have thought it about me. We all have this little clock in our heads that say someone should be "over" a situation (or at least past it where it doesn't appear to bother them in the presence of polite company) and when they don't live up to our expectations, we find a way to "blame" them, or sometimes even blame God about it. Sometimes we retain our anger at forces or people we see as the perpetrators of it. Sometimes we simply go into denial about such things.
The fact of the matter is, all of us carry nail holes in our hands of various stages of healing. The mystery to me is that God--whom I envision with the most perfect, wonderful hands--uses all of us in the glory of the woundedness of our own hands--nail holes and all--to tend the wounded hands of others.
I'm not always sure how I feel about that.
At one level, I can find myself miffed that folks with hands no better off than mine think they can help me. I can be a little self-righteous about that at times. I long to be tended by perfect hands. But at another level, that means if I get my wish, it means my hands are not good enough to tend the wounds of others--and I honestly think God has used me now and then to be a "good enough" set of hands. So insisting on perfection is ultimately a destructive attitude.
I am reminded, though, that Jesus--who accepted the role of being a bridge between the divine and the human--carries those same defects in his hands. In that reminder is my hope and the hope of the world.
("The Raising of Lazarus," Vincent Van Gogh (1890), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)
Jesus said, “Take away the stone.” Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, “Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead four days.”
The Lazarus story is one of the most powerful and richest stories of the Gospel, and a favorite of many. It's one of my favorites, too, but for a reason not everyone can "get."
I'm intimately and exquisitely acquainted with "that stench."
Several rotations in my residency through the regional Medical Examiner's office got me very, very, acquainted with that stench. That's why I never had any desire to do forensic pathology and no desire to be subspecialty boarded in Forensic Pathology. With surgical pathology, and clinical pathology, I get to help live people in a more direct way. I've never understood the fascination with shows like CSI, because, as I've said many times, "Television ain't smellovision."
But I remember that stench. It usually came from the cases we affectionately called the "floaters" and "stinkers"--people fished out of the Lake of the Ozarks or the Missouri River after a few days "under," who floated to the top when they started to putrify and make gas bubbles, or people who did themselves in out in the woods and weren't found for a few days or weeks.
Van Gogh made Lazarus a very nice artistic shade of green, but he's a little on the scrawny side. What I remember are bright shamrock greens and violaceous purples and nasty dried jet blacks where the 95 degree sun beat down on the deceased for a few days, and bloating that made a "punt possum" by the side of the road look "normal."
The stench. Lord have mercy, the stench. No amount of wintergreen oil under the nose, no amount of stogie or pipe smoke (the old timer forensics boys used to smoke a pipe or a cigar during a post--Hepatitis B be damned) could even begin to touch the level of reeking in the room. I even got to the place where I could discern dead bowel vs. dead brain vs. dead muscle meat. The stench went home with me. It was in my hair, on my skin, in my truck, and definitely in my nostrils. I felt sometimes like I could smell it for days. I'm sure part of it was my imagination, but it was that vivid.
So every time I hear this story read in church, or read it in my personal prayer time, the first--the VERY first thing my brain does is remind me of "that stench." My nostrils literally smell it again. When I imagine this story, I doubt there were too many onlookers very close. I imagine as they approached the tomb, even the big rock wasn't holding it back...and for Jesus to ask it to be opened? I doubt there were many people jumping up to help with that one!
Not to mention, I am pretty sure in my own mind Jesus himself was gagging all through his soliloquy and on the verge of retching himself, if he hadn't thrown his socks up already. I think every artistic rendition of this has omitted the vomit that must certainly have been at the scene.
Ok, everyone take a deep breath from this incredibly graphic gross moment.
I went into vivid detail, because for me, it speaks to the power of what happens in this story. You see, we are talking about resurrection to a degree that can barely be imagined. All of the art I've ever seen about this story, frankly, is too understated and "nice." We are talking about rawness of logarithmic magnitude here--not just in Lazarus' resurrection itself, but in the anger Martha displays at Jesus ("If you'd have been here, my brother wouldn't have died!")...the angst of Jesus himself in his tears...the mixture of scorning, mocking, disbelief, and hope in the crowd of onlookers, and the sheer incredulous-ness and confusion Lazarus must have had himself, awakening to the residual stench, and the fear he must have had waking up and realizing he is in a shroud. Burial clothes. He may have bound the dead for burial in his own community at one time or another and could have been rather intimately acquainted with the trappings of a Jewish burial.
Everything about this story is vivid, and loud, and raw, and pungent.
But really, that's what resurrection is.
Resurrection, as much as we imagine it, and as much as art renders it, is not gentle, shiny, happy stuff, with "magic wand" riffs of music in the background, and Tinkerbell flitting around. It is a dirty, smelly business, with the odor of death in the air and sticky, icky, leaky body fluids spilling out of it.
When I sit and ponder the life changing events in my own life and the lives of those I love, so many of them have an aspect of "recovery" to them. The word "recovery" these days doesn't get to carry its full value--we tend to think of it solely in terms of addictions. Granted, some of the stories I am recalling are stories of those close to me who have recovered from various addictions, but "recovery" can also mean adjusting to a death in the family, leaving an abuser, surviving a job loss and re-entering the work force, or a whole host of things.
Everyone I know has a recovery story. In fact, the closer I am to someone, the more recovery stories I know about them.
We have a tendency not to tell our recovery stories--mostly, I suppose, because to tell the story, we have to admit some aspect of our own human failings. But I can't remember a single recovery story anyone has told me, that their failings in it were much of a concern of mine. It was the "resurrection" part of their story that hooks me. I see them transform as the tell it--their eyes light up and their face glows, and I almost want to cry because you can see the love of Christ in them so brightly.
But when I think back to my own recovery stories, the beginnings of them did not seem a bit "transformative." They are a lot like being Lazarus awakening in his tomb. I could still smell the stench of where I'd been, both from my part of wrongdoing in it, and how others might have treated me poorly in it. The beginnings were claustrophobic and fearful. There's a fear of feeling that burial cloth on one's face, one's hands and feet bound--that "resurrection" part isn't even in the picture yet. It's only when I responded to others calling me out of that tomb, and letting others unbind my hands and feet that I could pull the shroud off my own face.
But for me, the last one to go was to get the stench of my own decomposition out of my nose--and when I occasionally fall into doubt about my own recovery stories, it's the first one to return. It's just human nature, I think.
It's why I also need to be mindful to the joy in the recovery stories of others. I don't always know when their own nostrils are being a little stench-ridden, and being part of a community that shares these stories, whether it's home, work, church, or our other social groups, is to see the joy in the resurrections of others and be vicariously happy in it. I can help call others out of the tomb, and I can help unbind the hands and feet of others. Ultimately, though, I think it's up to each of us to pull the shroud off of our own faces, with God's help.
Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
--Collect for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, Book of Common Prayer, page 219
This video is still an oldie, but I do loves me some Annie Lennox once in a while--and particularly this song.
Oddly enough, what triggered me this morning was an article in one of the Roman Catholic e-zines, about a Jesuit priest had written in a Vatican-vetted publication. He described some aspects of the emerging church in the language of computer geeks, making a big distinction between "hackers" and "crackers."
Here's the short version: Hackers create things; crackers destroy them. Hackers are playful sorts and enjoy exposing the "revealed truth," and are usually more than happy to share it in an open forum. (I take mild issue at his assessment they "distrust authority," but I'll get into that later.) Crackers desire to make things unusable or create havoc in an open forum; they're more or less the anarchists of the computer world.
I've been thinking about this in terms of the collect with regard to that phrase "unruly wills." Sometimes this distinction between "unruly" and "not unruly" lies in the eye of the beholder. Many things have crossed my mind in scanning my Facebook page this morning...Episcopalian friends who lament their bishops don't allow lay preachers, Roman Catholic friends asking, "But what's wrong with women's ordination?" and my continuing observation that my clergy Facebook friends display a huge spectrum of how they choose to display their personal Facebook persona.
What I've suddenly come to realize is that the "emerging church blogosphere," of which I am now a seasoned citizen, is...well...a community of theological "hackers." We are more or less of two flavors--either lay folks with a heavy desire to uncover "revealed truth" on our own despite varying degrees of theological education/lack of formal seminary training, or the "collared set" who has experienced some degree of discovery that "this is not our grandparents' church," and yearns for their ministry to be more than that--so they divulge not-so-secret-secrets to the rest of the community.
I kinda like it.
As the author pointed out, there is an ethics to hacking, as opposed to cracking--which is why I disagree with the "distrust of authority" label. No doubt, there are certain types of authority I instinctly distrust, but that's not true of all authority. It also doesn't change my obedience to something bigger than myself. For instance, I don't trust the motive behind the rules of Medicare billing, but I don't disobey the rules as a result. But when I signed on the dotted line to be a provider, I agreed to live by the rules. As best as I can tell, I've done that to the best of my knowledge. When I didn't know, I've tried to find out.
I like to think I do that theologically, too. I have read and re-read and re-read some more the Baptismal Covenant in our Book of Common Prayer. I re-visit it on a regular basis as a "conscience check." I try to be as serious and diligent about that as I do Medicare billing rules. Frankly, Medicare billing rules are easier.
Therein lies the two pronged conflict.
On one prong is simply that "the theological hacker" is in a realm where some of the rules and boundaries have yet to be determined, but are there for a perfectly benign reason. Theological hackers simply wish to uncover more spiritual truths, not just for themselves but to share with their world, in the hopes that others' "hacking efforts" add to that knowledge. That can appear to be "disobedient" or "willful" at times--particularly to insecure authority figures or if the discovery is not popular in the historical theological sense. Theological hackers simply both love to learn and love to share, and in their mind it is part of how to tell the Good News in Christ.
The other is the sometimes imperceptively fine line between being a theological "hacker" and a theological "cracker."
Personally, I find that my obsessive-compulsive tendencies can get me in sticky places at times. I can hyperfocus to such a degree that I can totally block out my surroundings, and many times in my life I suddenly find I have crossed a line with people and don't realize it until it's too late. I sometimes need to constantly ask myself, "Is what I'm saying building up the Body of Christ, or is it tearing it down?" and no two people may get the same answer on that one.
It is, simply, a new twist on the age-old "Preacher's dilemma." In preaching, there's a fine line about the little word "I" in sermons. I've seen some authors say one should NEVER use the word "I" in a sermon--that it always has the potential of alienating someone. Yet, where would we be if Martin Luther King hadn't preached "I have a dream?"
It's a tough paradox, and it really pushes constant back checking of "ego vs. humility." As we know, not all attention over what one writes is ego, and not all deflection from self is humility. But I do know this: it will continue to be something that all of us in the spiritual blogosphere will constantly have to address in ourselves, in our own faults. In those times, we are victims to our "unruly wills."
I'm reminded of a (now-funny) story from my childhood. As many of you know, my grandpa had a route of coin-operated machines--pinball machines, jukeboxes and such. In the old days, there were not pre-cut glass tops available for pinball machines--my grandpa would order some large panes of glass, and cut them to fit.
One day, when I was about eight years old, he was using the glass cutter. I was fascinated how this dull tool could cut glass. When he was finished, he gave me some of the scrap glass and told me I could practice on it, but be careful not to cut myself. He got called out on a service call. I said to him, "Can I play with the glass cutter till you get back?" His answer was, "Okay, but don't cut yourself or I'll never hear the end of it from your grandmother."
When he returned from his service call, I had not cut myself, just as I promised--but I had taken a six by eight foot pane of glass and managed to cut it into six to eight inch square pieces.
Obviously, he was furious. That pane of glass was not cheap. As he was whipping my behind, I cried, "But you didn't tell me not to cut up that piece!"
Suddenly, he stopped punishing me. What had resulted was just as obvious. I was so enamored with the details of cutting the glass that I had no thought whatsoever that I had destroyed an expensive pane of glass. I knew it was expensive, but the thought of that never crossed my mind. I just got obsessed with cutting up the glass into even squares. I knew in my heart I had done wrong by being thoughtless, and my exhortation was the only chance for a reprieve I had. My obsession of "making little glass squares" overtook a more nebulous sense of a vague rule: Don't tear up expensive stuff.
"You're right," he said. "I didn't. But you know now, and don't ever do it again." I never did. Once the line was drawn, once the boundary was firm, it was understood.
But in that story, I am reminded that in this swift and varied world of ever changing ways of communicating with one another, for all of us in the blogosphere and the spiritual social networking community, to be ever mindful of our individual willfulnesses--and to strive to ever keep the cross before us. As for me, I desire to be a hacker, not a cracker. My prayer is this, "Lord, help me to cut the glass that needs cutting, but make me ever mindful not to make others walk on broken glass as a result of it."
"...our task as humans is to remember that God exists and that God is present in the course of daily living. This means that, since Christians know that God exists and that God is forever present to them, they must bring the remembrance of that reality to bear in every moment."
--Richard Valantasis, from "Centuries of Holiness: Ancient Spirituality Refracted for a Postmodern Age"
A few days ago, I was driving home from work right after some rain, and was treated to a double rainbow. I got a good chuckle arranging setting up this photo so that the rainbow looked like it ended at my house. Of course, as a kid, I was always told there was a pot of gold and some leprechauns at the end of the rainbow. These days, I'd say my peaceful little parcel of pasture land is my pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. How many times do we look elsewhere for happiness and it's right in front of our noses, all along?
The passage above refers to a similar shift in attitude. One of the ways spiritual growth occurs is when we begin to find God in the ordinary, the mundane, and in the things we once thought were common and uninteresting.
It's daunting to start thinking of the possibility that the memory of God resides in everything, and that God is present with us in every moment. My immediate response was one of those junior high-mentality notions--of God watching me in the john. But, really, it's a perfect example. One of the miracles of "us" is that we take food and our gastrointestinal tract turns it into nutrients that our body absorbs. So the removal of the waste of that, the "chaff" of the things we eat, so to speak, is part of that biological miracle. In that light, it makes perfect sense that God is also just as present in the end of that process, as the beginning or the middle. It changes my attitude, to some degree, in terms of my eating in a healthy fashion. When I think about digestion being a miracle, it makes me want to contribute to that in a "good" way, by eating things that are better for me, health-wise.
Considering "the memory of God in all things" also reaches in and comforts one of my personal bugaboos--the sense of abandonment. I have always had to struggle, for whatever reason, with "fear of abandonment" issues. I have often self-separated to avoid feeling like I was being abandoned. I often deluded myself that, if I was the one doing the walking away, I had control of the situation. I even walked away from God for 20 plus years to feed that delusion. I spent two decades of my life engaging God only on "my terms," thinking I was controlling my relationship with God. I have come to believe God found this a great source of amusement; God was there all along.
Again, this makes sense. It's not much of a supreme being who would abandon me when I've been unintentionally walking around with a shart stain on my underwear. A God who faints at the sight of my own blood, or runs screaming from the room when I've vomited, isn't much use to anyone. I don't care to have a relationship with a divine being who takes a powder every time I've cussed someone out in anger. But this knowledge also forces me to consider that God also is present in the lives of some people I consider, for the most part, "evil." To begin to have compassion for abusers and perpetrators of bad things--to consider they have had something go wrong in their lives that caused them to succumb to their own broken-ness, or were simply "just not wired right" at birth--is new for me, and frankly, it's hard. But my own sense of "God beside me, in all things, at all times," demands it.
The other big revelation is that this memory presents itself beyond any of our attempts to control or suppress it. I thought about how in our parish, we don't do flowers in the sanctuary in Lent. (In fact, the thought conjures up the memory of my late friend Debby, the undisputed Queen of the Altar Guild," and her unmistakable voice in my ear, going, "We don't do flowers in Lent.") We do that as an outward sign of our respect for the preparatory parts of Easter, and to consider what our lives would be like without Christ in the world. We do it to preserve The Memory of God in our minds in a certain way.
But all I have to do is step outside, and see how badly God laughs in my face at that one. Before my eyes, my yard, day by day, is transforming into a world of bright, bold seasonal color--emerald green grass, yellow forsythia bushes, purple grape hyacinths--and that's just the start. Soon will be irises of many colors, purple lilacs, candy-cotton pink redbud trees, and white dogwoods, blue and white bird's foot violets, and pink dutchman's breeches.
God certainly does flowers in Lent, even if we don't.
God's memory is preserved whether we want it to or not. It's simply not our choice that does it nor can any human control suppress it. In that, to choose to go along for the ride is way easier!
"The postmodern context forces a kind of continual fragmentation and spinning out from a center. It is indeed a decentering experience. In this context, restoration, or the exercise of baptismal and chrismal sacramentality, demands not so much a removal from the fallen and decentered world, but an attentiveness to the larger picture, the wider context, the metanarrative that holds all the disparate parts together."
--Richard Valantasis, from "Centuries of Holiness: Ancient Spirituality Refracted for a Postmodern Age"
One of the funny sidelights of owning a chiminea (and Facebooking about making fires in it on a frequent basis) is that I have kind of become the "Parish incinerator for holy objects." Things like slightly "off-smelling" chrism, leftover blessed palm fronds, or worn out corporals or altar linens seem to find their way into my chiminea to be burned. I think part of it is folks in my parish know I love to burn stuff, and they also know my fire-sitting spot is, at least to me, a holy space. I have often used liturgies from the Book of Occasional Services when burning these objects. They are holy objects that deserve holy space and holy treatment of their being taken out of service. They are items that served their purpose and their season of use is over.
But I have come to realize I don't see this activity as "destroying" these things, but rather, restoring them. Somehow, in my mind, as they are reduced to ashes, they become unleashed prayers, unspoken hopes now set free, and doors opened to new possibilities as we close the doors on the old ones. They are restored to the sum total of their spiritual glory by releasing them from their physical disrepair.
Recently, I have been in a position to consider some other "old worn out holy objects"--some of the traits that brought me to a place of relative security and comfort in my world. After all, it is Lent. It's a time to assess what within me is still "in season" and what is now "out of season." What's viable, what's dead, what's worn and repairable, and what's worn and probably not worth repairing.
Over the years, I developed many traits that were, frankly, necessary for survival. There were times in my life these traits literally kept me alive, or kept me from going crazy. But since there's no such thing as a free lunch, those things also created spiritual blind spots in me. They cultivated "resigned hopelessness" to things I simply considered "my fate." They stopped me from drawing close to others, or letting them close to me. They were once a holy thing, and now they are past their season. It's time to retire them in holiness, and allow them to be transformed into other things.
Oh, don't get me wrong--I know there are basic aspects of my personality that will never change--nor, probably, should they. I think some of those things, I was just born with them, and there they are. As we say around here, "leopards don't change their spots." But that doesn't mean there aren't vast and infinite ways we can be transformed wearing the same spots. That doesn't mean we can't be restored. But what it does mean is we're not allowed to pick the forms of restoration.
An old altar corporal, once thrown in my chiminea, will never be an altar corporal again. But it can be transformed into ash that can be put anywhere that a living, growing thing needs a bit of a pH change--a patch of perennials near my house, my asparagus bed, or the base of one of my trees. For that matter, even dumping it in the yard and letting the wind take it where it may is perfectly fine. There are no guarantees, but something already starting to grow is liable to benefit from this transformation, and although the odds are unpredictable, there is still a great deal of hope that something will be restored as a result of it. I just can't force or predict the "what" in it.
It's possible that corporal no longer needs to be a corporal. After all, someone bought replacements. It's free to be part of an infinite number of things once it becomes ash. It can travel several states away. I remember when Mount St. Helens blew in 1980. A few days later, the cars in our driveway in Missouri were covered with volcanic ash. I remember being in awe of "how far it had come."
When I think about each of the people in my world, myself included, I often marvel at how far each of us has come in some journey. Being able to share those stories and observations takes the fear away for me about the realization that things within me are being torn down and unpredictable new things are being built up. Sometimes I grieve too much over the things coming apart and sometimes not enough, but when I can feel the growth, it feels powerful and so much bigger than me, than just "me." In that, I can understand better the true meaning of "restoration"--not just for my own restoration but for the idea that all of us are being restored--even people I don't "get" or people I don't particularly like or understand. I'm learning that everything in the whole world doesn't require me to get into a fight to "make it happen" and everything that seems unattainable doesn't require beating it to shreds with a fire axe to create a hole in which I can slip through. I can let things burn and trust to the power of the ashes to create growth. I can let things stand and look for open doors and windows. I can keep walking and see new and better realities that I would have missed, had I become fixated on something seemingly unattainable.
But what's exiting is that all doesn't happen alone, and it's happening to others at the same time it is happening to me. That's restoration.