Monday, May 30, 2011

Memorial Day

O Judge of the nations, we remember before you with grateful hearts the men and women of our country who in the day of decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy. Grant that we may not rest until all the people of this land share the benefits of true freedom and gladly accept its disciplines. This we ask in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year 1

Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 43:1-12, 27-32; Matthew 13:24-34

We could say more but could never say enough;
let the final word be: ‘He is the all.’

I love the 'wisdom' books, especially Ecclesiasticus and the Wisdom of Solomon from the apocrypha. When people have shallow arguments over whether the Bible is "true," they usually reduce it to banal carping over whether the Earth was created in six days or pointing out or defending chronological inconsistencies in the gospels. Rarely does anyone seem to ask, or care, whether the Bible contains truth. That there can be truth in something that is not necessarily true from a historical or scientific standpoint is lost on a lot of people.

* * * * *

I really need to read Rob Bell's new book Love Wins. The gist of it, as I understand it, is that none of us goes to hell. I think I can understand theologically and scripturally how one gets there, but I'm not sure you can do it without disregarding a lot of other important passages that seem to make it very clear that some will be shut out of the Kingdom, especially from the Gospel of Matthew.

Today's lesson is an interesting one with a series of three parables; the last one is so brief, it's only one sentence, but it is notable that Jesus says "the kingdom of heaven is like a woman." The second parable is a famous favorite trope for the "is the Bible true" crowd, because it refers to a mustard seed as "the smallest of all seeds," which scientifically we know today is not correct. Again, we miss the forest for the trees, or the mustard shrubs, as it were. Why ignore the wisdom of the saying over a technical irrelevance?

It's the first and longest of the three stories for today that is best known and what I wish to ponder.

The parable of the tares is one of many apocalyptic passages in Matthew that seem to refer to Judgment Day, when the good will be separated from the bad, which in this tale are bound into bundles and burned.

But a closer reading does not support the notion that the meaning of this parable is that some people will be separated out. The kingdom of heaven is compared to "someone who sowed good seed in his field." Then an enemy comes overnight and sows weeds in among the wheat. This is interesting; it's not good wheat and bad wheat, it's two different kinds of plants. One kind came from the farmer, the other kind came from an enemy. Maybe it doesn't refer at all to "good" people and "bad" people and judgment, but rather God's wisdom in letting us grow, even with bad things in and among us, content in the knowledge that at the harvest time everything will work out the way it was meant to, and the enemy's efforts were in vain.

Sorry this post is late, I was working later than anticipated last night and then when I went back and re-read what I had written, I hated it and deleted it and started over.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Saturday in Week 5 of Easter, Year 1

Psalm 27; Luke 9:1-17

The calendar notes that the General Convention of The Episcopal Church in 2009 proposed that this day be set aside for the regular liturgical commemoration of John Calvin, which suggestion will be presented for ratification in 2012. I have to say: I don't get it. Admittedly any student of theology and Christian history ought to know who he is and generally what he was about, but I find this a very odd celebration for Episcopalians. His focus on predestination and the quasi-Augustinian notion of the complete and total depravity of humankind is somewhat alien to the usual Episcopalian view of things.

* * * * *

I had originally written a much longer introduction here, and decided to file that under "TMI."

CliffsNotes version: I am the diocesan organizer in Oregon for Integrity, the national advocacy and outreach organization for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender Episcopalians. Three weeks from tomorrow is the Portland Pride Parade, and for the first time in history, our diocesan bishop will be marching with us. We have also (I think...) successfully coordinated the participation of all the gay-friendly parishes in the metro area so that we march as one group.

By themselves, these should be sufficient cause for jubilation. But that's not how my mind works.

For one thing, though the bishop will be just a few blocks away, celebrating the mass at Trinity Cathedral in NW Portland (Pride is on Trinity Sunday this year), the parade starts at noon. We strategically registered late, hoping for a spot toward the back to give the bishop reasonable travel time after the Eucharist, but it's still going to be a close call. I'm already hyperventilating about that.

Second, last year's turnout (I blame the weather) was not inspirational. But this year we have the bishop. (Assuming he gets there.)

Third, we don't have a booth at the waterfront festival this time, and that's my fault. I assumed the registration deadline was a lot later than it was. Oooops. We're on the waiting list, but I think it's too late. Even if a spot opened up, how would we coordinate two days' worth of volunteer shifts on such short notice?

Fourth, I'm struggling to feel like our work is generating much if any interest beyond a tiny dedicated core, and even that has recently fractured somewhat, with the sudden resignation of one of our board members. Given that and various other scheduling conflicts that have arisen, only one other board member can attend our June meeting. Arrrghghgh.

Ooooookay. Breathe in. Breathe out. Repeat.

Recently - I forget exactly where, alas - I read that when you reach a point where you can't do anything else, you should rejoice, because that means God has taken the matter out of your hands. There's a part of me that believes that, part of me that wants to trust that, and another part that wants to dismiss it as cheap Hallmarky quasi-religious schlock for the hopelessly naive.

So then we come to tonight's readings for the office. Maybe they haven't anything really to say about the underlying issues of sexuality and inclusion and equality and all that, but they do speak to the question of anxiety.

Psalm 27 is all about anxiety.

There's tons to say here about the various forms of cheap grace, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer termed it, that people ascribe to the Bible and Christianity, about the ways in which faith protects us. But this can be very dangerous thinking, leading to arrogance if our lives are presently comfortable and blessed, thinking we have earned it; leading to contempt, if we similarly look on the unfortunate and imagine if they only had our faith and our virtues they wouldn't be in that mess; or leading to guilt in thinking we have deserved our adversity. The Bible doesn't teach or promise that nothing bad will ever happen to you if you just believe the right things; the right thing to believe is that you needn't fear the bad things that may happen to you. All shall be well.

The psalmist here spends a lot of time thinking about unpleasant possibilities. Maybe evildoers will assemble against me and devour my flesh. False witnesses arise and "breathe out" violence. None of that sounds good. But in the end he advises, "Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord!"

Well, easier said than done. But faith is an active thing. Being strong is not about never being afraid. Being faithful is not about never doubting. From fear and doubt come strength and faith. And what's this about waiting? I want my resolution now! I want to know that everything is going to work out!

Well, it is going to work out. Maybe not in the way you'd imagined or hoped; and that's not to say there will never be pain or heartbreak. But so, so many times I look back on worries that I had or fears that I nurtured and see that they were wasted time and energy. Of course, in the moment, it's difficult. Faith isn't about being dismissive of negative possibilities, it's about hanging in there when the outcome appears bleakest. Think of the Israelites backed up against the Red Sea with Pharaoh's host charging them; all the signs and miracles that they had already witnessed didn't even come to mind, they just thought they were going to die, and this pattern repeats itself throughout the story of the Exodus. No matter how many times and how spectacularly God comes to our rescue, the next time we worry.

The Gospel passage for today is relatively long and tells two stories; one about Jesus sending the apostles out on a mission of healing (with a kind of odd interjection about King Herod), and concluding with one of the great miracle stories, the feeding of the five thousand.

I once heard in a sermon the interesting idea that the miracle Luke is talking about here isn't that two fish and five loaves of bread were somehow enough to feed five thousand with leftovers. One way of looking at the story is seeing it as a parable of anxiety: there isn't enough. Imagine everyone there has a fish, or two fish, and a loaf of bread or two. But they look around and they see all these hungry people, and they think to themselves that, as much as they might wish to help, they can't, because then there won't be enough to meet their own needs, let alone those of their 4,999 neighbors. But as soon as someone has the courage to share something from their meager lot, it inspires similar acts of confidence and generosity. And before you know it, not only was there enough, it turned out to have been this tremendous feast, and there wasn't any reason for anyone to have worried in the first place. It's a miracle of trust, not of multiplication.

Breathe in, breathe out. Repeat.

So now I look back on my worries about the parade challenges. I will wait, and I will trust in the Lord. I will not think about the time and the money and the things and the people and the resources I wish I had, I will trust that not only do I already have them, I have more than I need.


Starting Again?

It's been over two years since I wrote anything for this blog; it's kind of amazing I even remembered the password!

So, why am I here? What brings me back?

I have gotten into a fairly regular discipline of keeping the "Daily Office," the practice of setting aside regular times for prayer and contemplation, using the liturgies and lectionary (a two-year cycle of daily Bible readings) of The Book of Common Prayer (BCP) of The Episcopal Church. It's a tradition that has its origins in the monastic life of the ancient church, also known as the "liturgy of the hours."

Of course, the monks said prayers about every three hours, beginning at midnight with matins, then at 3 a.m. with lauds, 6 a.m. for prime, 9 a.m. for terce, noon for sext, 3 p.m. for none, 6 p.m. for vespers and concluding at 9 p.m. for compline. Obviously this is not really practical in the context of a modern, secular life, but the BCP simplifies and consolidates it into Morning Prayer, Noontime Prayer (which is very brief), Evening Prayer and Compline.

Often, given the realities of daily life, I only manage to fit in one session, usually Evening Prayer, because that seems to be the time of day I feel at my most contemplative, and as I grow older I'm less and less of a "morning person." It is a rare day when I don't get around to it at all, and I make it a point to keep Morning and Evening Prayer and Compline (right before bedtime) during Advent and Lent.

Why do I do this?

There are many reasons, actually, and it's kind of hard to articulate some of them. For one thing, I have just fallen in love with liturgy; it appeals to my passion for structure, and I feel a deep resonance with the wisdom of the ancient church. I love that I open to the lectionary pages at the back and see, "Okay, here are the psalms appointed for this morning, and here are the lessons." I like that the lectionary forces me to read parts of the Bible I might otherwise ignore, and I like the way it is organized thematically by the seasons of the church year. I like that there's even a recommended schedule for canticles ("songs" or poems from scripture, especially Isaiah, Revelation and Luke) that are said or sung or chanted after the lessons. Thursday evening? Okay, the canticle after Old Testament lesson is the Surge illuminare. (And yeah, I like that canticles and psalms are still often identified by their Latin titles.) Sunday morning? The Benedictus Dominus...unless it's Lent, in which case it's the Kyrie Pantokrator, or Easter, when it's the Cantemus domino. I like these "rules" -- I like in such and such a season, you "must" do or say this, or in such and such a season, you "must" not.

I put "must" in quotes because I'm not under any illusion that God gives a flying one if we say "alleluia" during Lent. Still, I believe that the Holy Spirit has spoken powerfully to the church over the centuries, inspiring the development of these practices, and that following them carefully teaches us many important things that God wants us to know.

I've even created my own rules to complicate things further; at certain times I light candles and burn incense; at other times, I do not. Some days I use recordings I have collected of the psalms, canticles and ancient chants of the church; some days I do not. Most of the time I just read the Office, but sometimes I chant the whole thing, and sometimes I read it silently. Sometimes it's hard to concentrate (especially on those "silent" days), sometimes I don't feel like chanting, sometimes my mind wanders somewhere very far afield while listening to a hymn...and sometimes the experience is completely transcendent. The lectionary has this effect on me, too: some passages I read and think, "Oh, that's nice," and sometimes my honest reaction is, "What the fuck?" (You have to be honest with God, and frankly, putting the Bible down in exasperation and saying in a loud voice, "WHAT???!?!?" is a good discipline.) And still other times, I am amazed that the given passage for the day seems to speak directly to present matters; sometimes I am reassured and comforted, sometimes I am inspired, and sometimes severely chastised. This is what keeps me coming back, those hoped for but often unanticipated moments of wonder and illumination. In a way I am glad they only happen occasionally, because otherwise they might not be so special. One has to keep that in mind on the days when keeping the Office feels like a chore.

OK. So...why go back to the blog?

Well, the Office should be the means to an end (prayer), not the end itself. It should help you get started in this conversation with God. There are many beautiful prayers in the BCP: thumb through the collects or the list in the back and be reminded of all the many things we can and should be praying for, articulated in language that is more eloquent than most of us could hope to come up with. And yet, too often, I let the BCP speak for me. Too often I search the pages for a prayer that seems to encapsulate what I'm trying to say. Now, that's not all bad; in fact, that's what it's for. But at the same time, I feel a need to work harder to discern what I need to say to God and, thereby, open myself to what God has to say back.

I also want to go deeper into my contemplation of scripture. I want to force myself to address those "wtf" passages and see if I can't find something there; I want to explore the things that leap off the page and excite me.

What I am not here to do is "preach." This isn't a sermon blog, though perhaps it will sometimes read that way. My goal here is not to tell you what you should be praying for, or what a passage of scripture should mean for you. It won't help me much to be reading the Bible in the light of what I imagine you need to hear.

So why blog? Why not just keep a private journal?

Well, again: discipline. Writing for an "audience" will force me to be as concise and accurate in my meditations as possible, and will discourage intellectual laziness (I hope). I want to be open, also, to the opportunity for various readers, such as may exist, to share their own insights or offer suggestions for alternative understandings. And maybe I can form a sort of online "monastic community," where a few of us can share our meditations together, and pray for each other.

This will be a different way of blogging for me. I won't be posting much about things going on in my life, except from a spiritual perspective. I think Facebook takes care of that particular need now. I also will not be focusing on politics; I think our political culture today is positively toxic, and it is physically unhealthy for me to spend much energy there. However, I may be unable to resist the temptation to address certain political events or questions as they arise in the context of spiritual contemplation, especially in the case of political figures who play the Bible card to advance an un-Biblical argument.

I used to have a nice core of regular readers; I imagine they are all gone now. I've probably been deleted from their blogrolls and RSS feeds due to my inactivity, and that's okay. If any of you happen to still be around, say "Hi." : )