Monday, June 13, 2011

Late Pentecost

Man, I just don't have as much free time as I used to. I guess that's good, in most ways.

Anyway. Lots I could say about Pentecost, which was yesterday, but no time and no energy. I'll just say that the Spirit came through in a couple of huge ways today and I am embarrassed that I didn't have more faith in a positive outcome.

"Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!" That's from somewhere in Mark. I'm too tired to look it up. But it's one of my favorite verses and it's totally applicable right now.


Saturday, June 11, 2011

St Barnabas

Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 3:31-11; Acts 4:32-27

I suddenly dig St Barnabas. If you'd asked me yesterday who St Barnabas was, I couldn't have given you a very good answer. It's not that I've never kept his feast before, it just never stuck. I wish I had looked him up before I visited a parish of St Barnabas last week.

Reading the lessons appointed for morning prayer on this feast, one wonders just which Bible, exactly, a lot of Americans are reading. (Okay, fair enough: they are in fact probably reading one that does not contain Ecclesiasticus, found in the apocrypha.)

It's hard for me to resist the temptation of pointing out what I think other people should take away from these readings, instead of concentrating solely on what they say to me, but I just get so angry at the way our faith is misrepresented, distorted, even, yea, perverted by those who have appointed themselves its greatest advocates and true believers. Today's reading from Sirach is exemplary, but not unique. How is it, exactly, that so much of America's Christian culture aligns itself with a political system that serves Mammon? I get equally despondent over many liberals, the self-appointed guardians of objectivity and education, who are satisfied that all they need to know about the Bible or Christianity they have heard on television from crackpots, and dismiss Christians as ideological zealous bigots, or, at best, sad, deluded people clinging to some bizarre ancient myth to bring rays of hope into their pathetic little lives, and think of the Bible as an archaic manifesto for every kind of small-mindedness and oppression known to history.

The rich person toils to amass a fortune,
and when he rests he fills himself with his dainties.
The poor person toils to make a meagre living,
and if ever he rests he becomes needy.

Bam! That's about as succinct a summation of the progressive view of the shortcomings of capitalism as you could find. We hear a lot, especially from the "libertarian" crowd, about how the rich are the products of their own success and hard work and, ergo, the poor must be so because they chose not to work as hard. Assuredly, there probably are some underachievers out there who ought to take more responsibility and show some initiative, but a general philosophy that the poor don't work as hard as the rich when more often than not it's the poor who end up working the physically exhausting or the dangerous or the smelly or unpleasant or unrespected tasks is delusion. Some wealthy people definitely work very hard, but usually in a comfortable and safe way, and they are able to rest from time to time in comfort, if and when they choose. And, of course, some rich people don't work at all. We live in a celebrity culture, where some people are famous for being famous.

One who loves gold will not be justified;
one who pursues money will be led astray by it.
Many have come to ruin because of gold,
and their destruction has met them face to face.

Okay, enough shooting fish in a barrel. I certainly am no saint in this regard; perhaps I sin even more egregiously, because I read things like this, and I feel their truth, and while I desire to live a comparatively simple and modest life, the plain truth of the matter is that I am stinking, filthy rich. I don't think most Americans would agree with that assessment -- I drive a Honda, I live in a suburban apartment, I don't have a butler or a maid or take fancy vacations; in fact, I think a lot of Americans would say my life is kind of lame. I don't even have cable. And yet, given my income, I am in the top 1% of earners worldwide. More than 99% of humanity has less money than I do, so I don't know how I could define myself as anything other than loaded.

Sure, I work pretty hard (by "middle class" standards). But I'm not pursuing any particular passion; it's just a job. I want to have my modest but comfortable life, pay off my student loans, and put some money away for retirement. In our culture, that's not bad. It's considered normal and responsible. But there's the serious disconnect between a real Christian life and a generic American life. The stories of the saints are filled with people who walked away from comfort for the sake of the Gospel; in America, we tend to think that following the Gospel entitles us to comfort.

St Barnabas is one of these heroes. He was a landowner who sold his property and gave the money to the church. Now, maybe that doesn't sound so extraordinary to us. Wealthy folk - even the non-religious - commit acts of generosity and philanthropy all the time. But this information about Barnabas comes to us immediately following the controversial section of Acts that appears to claim that the early Christians were essentially socialists. "No one claimed private ownership of any possession, but everything they owned was held in common....There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold...and it was distributed to each as any had need." Barnabas didn't donate a fortune in exchange for getting the new wing of the hospital named after him. He simply gave away everything he had so that those who had nothing might have something, trusting that the community would be there to meet his needs, too. He didn't decide there was a certain fraction of his income he could do without; he laid his money at the apostles' feet.

Note how at odds this is with the political wing of our country that most loudly claims to be the paragons of Christian virtue. They abhor the notion of living like this, and rail against anything that might benefit the poor at the inconvenience of the wealthy. Of course, they defend this by noting that all this charity was voluntary, not compelled by the government. But we have a totally different system; we are not run by hereditary monarchs (hereditary oligarchs, maybe...), or puppet princes in the service of a foreign empire. We govern ourselves; it's not like Caesar taxing the poor to pay for his own excesses. Instead, we, like the apostles, are supposed to be sitting down together, adding up our resources, and using them to address our needs and problems.

I still have such trouble with the hypocrisy of these "conservatives" who claim the authority of Scripture, but only when it's not inconvenient or at odds with their personal political views. Somehow we end up with "Christians" who want to cut off unemployment assistance in a time when there are vastly more people looking for work than there are jobs to be filled, arguing that unemployment insurance just encourages people to be lazy. We get "Christians" who deny global climate change, even as poor communities in coastal areas around the world continue to be inundated by rising seas, as icecaps and glaciers disappear and deserts expand, because making a meaningful effort to combat these problems would necessarily mean making major changes in the comforts and conveniences to which Americans (especially, but not exclusively) have grown accustomed. We get "Christians" who argue that there is no "right" to health care, as though our capacity to prevent and cure disease and eliminate or ameliorate suffering is a special privilege of the wealthy, rather than a moral obligation.

Blessed is the rich person who is found blameless,
and who does not go after gold.
Who is he, that we may praise him?

Good question.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Friday in Week 7 of Easter, Year 1 - Ephrem of Edessa

Luke 10:38-42

The video here doesn't really have anything specifically to do with today's lectionary, but it's a good example of the stuff I love to listen to.

I've always been very uncomfortable with Luke's story of Jesus' visit to the home of Mary and Martha; as a perfectionist and control freak myself, I relate to Martha. I can only imagine the emotional state I'd be in if freakin' Jesus were coming to my house. I would be frantically trying to make sure that everything was absolutely perfect, and I, too, would be very annoyed if someone I thought should be helping abandoned me altogether and went to the party, as it were.

Maybe it seems a little juvenile of Martha to go to Jesus and say, "Can you tell her to help me, please?" instead of talking to Mary directly and saying, "I really need your help for a little bit."

Perhaps there's a lesson in that, too: how often when difficulties in our various relationships arise, do we turn to God in prayer and ask, "Can you please tell her to help me?" or "Can you please help him understand what I'm going through right now?" If you are conflict-averse, like me, that's probably your preferred strategy, rather than confronting the person.

Now, Martha's request frankly doesn't seem all that extraordinary. Really, why should Martha do all the work by herself while Mary's off having a grand time? So I'm always really bothered by Jesus' response: "Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her."

What's that about? Mary called dibs on hanging out with Jesus so Martha has to suck it up and do all the work by herself?

Well, let's back up, here. So Martha complains, but first Jesus says to her, "Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things." This is a very comforting statement; there is compassion here. Imagine Jesus saying this to you: "You are worried and distracted by many things." How would you respond? I would probably say, "Totally." And Jesus continues, "There is need of only one thing."

This is one of those "lilies of the field" moments, a speech that Jesus is working toward in chapter 12 of the same Gospel; "Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?" Oh...busted.

I think what has troubled me is the language of the NRSV, "Mary has chosen the better part." I'm no Greek scholar (understatement...) so for all I know, Luke's original text is best translated "better." But again, this year I am reading the KJV, which instead renders it, "But one thing is needful: and Mary hath chosen that good part, which shall not be taken away from her."

Maybe what Jesus is really saying here is not so much, "Sorry, Martha" but rather, "Stop putzing around in the kitchen and trying to do too many things and come sit by me and listen for a while." Stop being resentful of Mary and realize that she has chosen well: to not worry so much about this that and the other thing and just go and sit quietly at the foot of the Lord. I like this wording, "that good part," because it implies that Martha (and the rest of us) can choose it, too, that those of us who are busy working hard behind the scenes to make sure everything is right and perfect need to trust more that a) that is not the most important thing and b) that our needs will be met, and scurrying around trying to make perfect what God has already made perfect is wasted energy.

I don't know. Maybe that's not the point of this passage, at all. But it's always been one of my least favorite readings, as I had this notion that Jesus was condescending and dismissive of Martha. Now I have an avenue toward understanding it differently.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

Thursday in Week 7 of Easter, Year 1 - St Columba

Ezekiel 18:1-4, 19-32

I was first exposed to Celtic spirituality about four years ago, and I was deeply and immediately attracted to a way of relating to the goodness of God by seeing it reflected in all of creation, even and especially in simple things, and in discovering "thin" places, those locations or moments when, for whatever reason, the immanence of the divine is palpable. Many Christians give a lot of lip service to how good God is, but focus more on the darkness of the world and the human heart.

The darkness is real; but light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it. It is perhaps good for us now and again to spend some time in the darkness, to be reminded of the healing and comforting powers of the Holy Spirit, and to help us empathize with those whose lives are very dark, indeed.

Earlier this week I was very much in that darkness; not only did I not blog, I wasn't even interested in intentional prayer, at all. I was overcome by negative thoughts and emotions, and instead of engaging with them, discerning their source and praying for wisdom, guidance and hope, I gave in to them. Last night I began to emerge from my funk, realizing that part of my problem was tremendous anxiety about all the many things I need to do in the next week or so, and deciding that the best way to combat that was to, you know, actually get some of that stuff done, and was up late crossing things off the list. By the time I woke up this morning and realized it was St Columba's day, it was too late for me to have morning prayer and still make it to work at a respectable time. However I am very glad I set aside time tonight for prayer; I feel very different now than I did an hour or so ago.

A lot of the fears and frustrations from earlier in the week are still with me. There was great temptation not to pray tonight, either, and go out and have fun instead (or at least look for it). But somehow I knew this restlessness I felt would be best addressed by some time of focused stillness; there's time this weekend for fun and certainly many opportunities in the coming week. It took some mental and spiritual effort to calm myself and enter into prayer, but the result is undeniable. With Celtic spirituality's emphasis on nature I took advantage of this warm, light and quiet evening and threw the windows wide open and listened to the birds and felt a gentle breeze as I settled in.

Today's lesson from the Hebrew scriptures is from the prophet Ezekiel. "But when the righteous turn away from their righteousness and commit iniquity and do the same abominable things that the wicked do, shall they live? None of the righteous deeds that they have done shall be remembered; for the treachery of which they are guilty and the sin they have committed, they shall die." [18:24]

Oh, yeah...that's where I am. Okay, I'm not saying I want to run out and commit "abominable" actions; although I suppose the normal social life of any single gay man qualifies as "abominable" in some circles. But I have been feeling the occasional desire to give the church stuff a rest, and go be a normal gay guy and date and maybe find a boyfriend and go to parties and events and wear nicer clothes, instead of always being so freaking responsible and cautious. I found myself tonight praying for help finding a balance between a healthy faith life and a healthy social life, when suddenly I realized that the seeking of a balance is the problem, because it implies that faith and social life are separate, competing needs that need to be figured out. So I stopped in mid-thought and decided instead to ask for help in integrating them.

Somewhere along the way I picked up an unhealthy dose of Calvinist fundamentalism, this notion that fun = iniquity = death. This is where the important lessons of Celtic thinking can help; there is beauty in life, there are good, divine things to be found in laughter and the company of others, alcohol (used responsibly) is a wonderful gift, dancing is one of humanity's most ancient expressions of joy (and clearly approved of by the psalmists), and there are good, healthy, divine gifts in our sexuality. That's not a carte-blanche license for debauchery, but it is an invitation to think outside of the Augustinian box, as it were.

The chapters of the book I use for my reflections on the great Celtic saints (Holy Companions) always include a short snippet of actual quotes (or at least attributions) of the saint in question; tonight I was struck by Columba's own words, "Let me study sacred books to calm my soul....let me say my daily prayers, sometimes chanting, sometimes quiet, always thanking God," and how closely that articulation resembles my own practice.

I always say this prayer in the evening: "Most holy God, the source of all good desires, all right judgments, and all just works: give to us your servants that peace which the world cannot give, so that our minds may be fixed on the doing of your will, and that we being delivered from the fear of all enemies, may live in peace and quietness, through the mercies of Jesus Christ our Lord." Tonight I really felt that peace.

Monday, June 06, 2011

Monday in Week 7 of Easter, Year 1

Luke 9:51-62

Today's Gospel passage contains a fascinating episode highlighting the importance of understanding what you're reading by knowing something about historical and cultural contexts and the history of biblical texts themselves.

The lesson opens with the beautiful phrase, "When the days drew near for [Jesus] to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem," a unique Semitic idiom expressing resolve. Jesus spent the majority of his ministry in rural areas around the Sea of Galilee, and so from this point the story proceeds both geographically and spiritually toward his destiny in Jerusalem, marking a significant shift in the narrative.

In order to reach Jerusalem from Galilee one had to pass through Samaria; Samaritans revered a version of the Torah and considered themselves the true descendants of the ancient Israelites, objecting to the temple worship in Jerusalem as a fabrication invented after the Babylonian exile. Naturally, tremendous tension existed between Jews and Samaritans (a recurring theme in the gospels), and the Samaritans were not inclined to be hospitable to Jews traveling to Jerusalem.

That, then, is the important background for understanding why Jesus was not "received" by the Samaritans. The brothers James and John - the Gospel of Mark tells us Jesus referred to them as boanerges, or "sons of thunder" in Aramaic - react to this affront by asking if they should "command fire to come down from heaven and consume them," referencing one of the tales of Elijah told in 2 Kings. In the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), the preferred text of the Episcopal Church, Jesus "turned and rebuked them."

However, for this lectionary cycle I am reading from the Authorized, or "King James" version (KJV), in honor of the 400th anniversary of its publication. Whatever its scholarly or linguistic shortcomings compared to modern translations, it remains one of the greatest achievements in the English language and, for better or worse, is the source of the Biblical texts that most people recognize or can quote.

This is one of those occasions for which it is instructive to read multiple translations. Whereas Jesus "rebuked them," full stop, in the NRSV, the KJV says Jesus "turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of. For the Son of man is not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them." (The NRSV puts this language in a footnote, "Other ancient authorities read...".) I would be interested to know why the editors feel the shorter text is the more authentic; presumably it has to do with the preponderance of manuscripts deemed more reliable.

We could wade deep into the weeds beating our heads against the proverbial wall at the idiotic intransigence of the folk who insist the Bible is the inerrant "Word of God," period, when the simple truth is that we have none of the original texts and the surviving manuscripts - case in point - do not always agree. Alas, it's a tired and unoriginal complaint, and one not remotely compelling or successful with the "inerrant" crowd. Criticizing fundamentalists for their lack of academic rigor is truly shooting fish in a barrel. Hooray for us contemplative eggheads who are interested in these sorts of complexities.

What caught my attention here is that the KJV is oft betimes the preferred translation of the fundamentalists, kind of in the same way that for centuries the Vulgate was the only permissible version of the Bible, even though not a single word of the original texts was in Latin. The NRSV indicates that Jesus rejected James and John's suggestion, but does not provide any further explanation. The KJV, on the other hand, has Jesus dismissing the invocation of divine violence against sinners and saying, "Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of," implying that what James and John think is righteous is actually demonic. This is, sadly, one of the things that is least understood about the Devil; we are not enticed to do "evil" things, we just become confused. Little wonder that the serpent tempted us with the fruit of the tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, that we might become like God. One of the Enemy's most successful strategies - sadly illustrated by centuries of church history - is suggesting to us and thereby convincing us that acts of dire evil are actually God's will. And this power of darkness is not merely aimed at those who are weak in faith or poor in theology; this is James and John, for goodness' sake. That should be a warning to us all.

What makes the story even more interesting is that this is not some random idea the brothers came up with; they are inspired by the story of Elijah, who in fact did successfully call down fire from heaven against a hostile army. There is, so to speak, biblical precedent for their suggestion.

Jesus then goes on to say that he did not come to destroy men's lives, but to save them.

Do you ever get the feeling that folks like Pat Robertson would just love to call down divine fire on people who believe different things than he does? Bible, Bible, Bible...that's all a lot of these "Christian" extremists can talk about, and yet their referencing of it is so selective as to be comical, if it weren't so painfully serious. You can, like James and John, find plenty of Biblical support for praying for violence against sinners or enemies; the psalms are full of imprecations. But here's Jesus saying bluntly, "That's not what I'm about." And still we get "Christians" referencing Psalm 109 - "Let his days be few; and let another take his office. Let his children be fatherless and his wife a widow" - on anti-Obama t-shirts and bumper stickers. In fact, much of the Evangelical culture is built around this heretical and unbiblical notion that Jesus is coming back precisely in order to rain fire down upon the unorthodox and the unbelievers.

The only way to arrive at such a sick notion is to rip various verses from the Bible free of their important contexts, and string them together in a way in which they were not intended to be associated, and you have to completely ignore or deny a bunch of other passages.

As the saying goes, you can take the Bible literally, or you can take it seriously. You can't do both.

Sunday, June 05, 2011

The Seventh Sunday of Easter - Sunday after the Ascension

I'm not a particular fan of Salvador Dali, but I do love this vision of the Ascension. There are certain paradoxical qualities about it; Christ's arms are outstretched in a gesture of triumph, like Pavarotti after a climactic high note, and yet of course we are to notice that he is ascending in cruciform, that wonderful juxtaposition of triumph and tragedy at the intersection of the cross. Note how his body appears healthy, whole and strong, but the hands are tensed and the fingers are curled, as if in agony. And we mostly see the bottom of his feet, just what the "men of Galilee" who stood there gaping slack-jawed would have seen, but they do not bear the wounds of his execution. The world he leaves behind is a landscape of death; dark and dry. No trees, no lush green spaces, just a few brown buildings in a dark grey world under gathering black clouds. It's just an astonishing painting.

This morning I visited St Barnabas parish in McMinnville, a good hour from home -- but a very pleasant drive through the most lush and green pastoral landscape imaginable, dotted with beautiful farm houses, fields and orchards -- because a close friend of mine, an aspirant for holy orders, was preaching. He had the unenviable task of not only addressing the Ascension but also the mission and ministry of Integrity, the Episcopal Church's gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender outreach and advocacy organization, in a rural congregation (which it appears was very well received).

He had an interesting metaphor for the Ascension, comparing it to being a child and learning to ride a bicycle with training wheels. One day the father decides that it's time for the training wheels to come off. The child may not be ready; indeed, it may be very frightening, but the father knows this push has to be made. The father also does not turn his back and leave the child to chance, but walks or runs alongside, there to tip us back to center or pick us up if we fall over all together, until we are really ready to ride off on our own. Ascension Day is the training wheels coming off. We're still a little wobbly, but the time has come. Jesus taught us what we need to know, it's our job now to develop the skills and the confidence to ride out into the world. But we haven't been abandoned; the Holy Spirit is right there, running alongside us, encouraging us, teaching us, and ready if we fall.

I enjoyed the visit to St Barnabas very much. It was very different than my home parish in some ways, and I thought maybe I ought to make more of an effort to visit other churches. Not because I am unhappy where I am, but because I think for my own prayer disciplines it's good to expose myself to different ways of approaching worship. I am grateful that the Episcopal Church accommodates so many styles.

Recently I've been in one of those places where keeping the Daily Office has seemed more of a chore than a joy, and while I'm supposed to be focusing on my devotion, my mind wanders off to all manner of things. Last night's study of St Kevin, however, sparked my imagination and I have continued to ponder him today. I am drawn to his passion for and friendship with all kinds of animals, and his frequent desire to retire in solitude to the wilderness to pray. I wish I could find a nice place in the woods somewhere where I could go on regular, affordable retreats.

I am a big fan of the Portland-based women's vocal ensemble In Mulieribus, who specialize in medieval and renaissance polyphony. Tonight they gave a concert at St Stephen's RC church in SE Portland called Legenda Aurea, based on the medieval book of that name about the lives and legends of the saints. I almost didn't make it; I woke up from my nap late and hadn't eaten, but I managed to cook dinner, shower and get dressed all in about 45 minutes and flew out the door, arriving with about five minutes to spare at the concert. I am glad I made the effort. The music was so transcendant, I could not wait to come home and have my own private evening devotions with recordings of sacred music. I had originally planned to stop at a bar on the way home and see what was going on, but decided to go straight back, light some candles and incense and pray.

For the evening hymn, I just put my playlist on shuffle until I landed on something that was appropriate, which rather ironically/coincidentally turned out to be Hildegard von Bingen's "Cum vox sanguinis," from her body of work meant for the Feast of St Ursula, which had been on tonight's program.

Saturday, June 04, 2011

Saturday in Week 6 of Easter, Year 1

I have been too busy to do much about this discipline this week. Yesterday in the calendar of the Episcopal Church we celebrated the Feast of the Martyrs of Uganda, an observation that has added import given the ongoing anti-gay insanity in that country, which recently resulted in the new martyrdom of civil rights advocate David Kato.

June 3 is also the traditional date of the Feast of St Kevin, one of the great Celtic saints, who has been proposed for inclusion in the Episcopal calendar; I decided to "transfer" his feast to this evening, and am glad I did. I am exhausted and can't say much beyond the fact that I just felt a powerful resonance with his story. I hope I find the time, opportunity and energy to learn more.