Saturday, July 23, 2011

Proper 11, Saturday, Year 1

The image above was taken tonight with my iPhone as the brilliant mid-summer sunset light streamed through the blinds in the kitchen and struck this icon in this rather unique way...what comes to mind is the Phos hilaron, one of the most ancient hymns of the church, traditionally sung/recited at the beginning of vespers or evening prayer:

O gracious Light,
pure brightness of the everliving Father in heaven,
O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed!

Now as we come to the setting of the sun,
and our eyes behold the vesper light,
we sing your praises, O God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

You are worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices,
O Son of God, O Giver of life,
and to be glorified through all the worlds.

Today was interesting. I am the chair of the board of directors of the Oregon chapter of the Episcopal Church's outreach ministry to GLBT people, and today we had a much needed, long overdue board retreat. It wasn't a full-on retreat in the best sense of the word, but we spent a good six hours sequestered away in the basement of a suburban parish working out together what we think our mission is going to be in the coming year and some concrete strategies for doing that. It was a very inspiring afternoon. It's a really incredible, interesting, diverse group of people that God has brought together for this special ministry in this time and place. O God, you manifest in your servants the signs of your presence, says the BCP in one of the collects for mission at evening prayer.

The lectionary for today was interesting, as well.

The Saul-David-Solomon saga is only read during the season after Pentecost in Year 1, so once every other year. Yesterday's lesson, the last chapter of 1 Samuel, told of the deaths of Saul and his sons. Today, with the beginning of 2 Samuel, David is given the tragic news, and tomorrow he will sing "The Song of the Bow," his epic lament, in which he proclaims that his love for Jonathan surpassed his love for women. I find that a hard verse for the fundies to explain away; try as they might to dismiss it as poetic hyperbole, don't you agree that it's a very strange choice of words, of all the possible ways he might find to describe his friendship with Jonathan? "I love you more than I love homo!" just doesn't seem to be credible...

Sigh...there's more I could say, but it was a long day with full on mental investment, and I'm fried. So I'll just leave it there. : )

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Proper 11, Thursday, Year 1

Mark 5:1-20

I have vague memories from Sunday school at the Lutheran Church where I was brought up of a video of the story of the demons that were cast into the herd of swine; I remember the image of pigs tumbling down an embankment into water, and I remember thinking that was pretty hilarious and strange.

Today, however, I find this story one of the most beautiful, moving, compassionate and terrifying segments in all of the Gospels.

So, last we talked about Jesus, he and the disciples were crossing the Sea of Galilee when a terrible storm arose and threatened to sink the boat and drown the passengers. Jesus calmed the winds and the waves, and the disciples were terrified.

Now they come at last to the far shore, and immediately they encounter a naked lunatic. This has to be one of the scariest images in the Bible, especially in the New Testament (outside of the Revelation): a naked man who lives in the hills among the tombs, howling incoherently, so violent and strong that he cannot even be chained down, for he rips the fetters apart, and he cuts himself with stones.

Do you believe in demonic possession?

For my part...yes, at least I think so. But there is also the reality of mental illness, and I think it's entirely possible that conditions which are diagnosable today would have been inscrutable in the first century and, not unreasonably, attributed to demons. Today I think maybe the opposite is true, that possession is often considered merely mental illness. I do not think they are the same thing, but they probably share many external characteristics.

My heart breaks reading about this man. For some reason, the image I have is of a young, strong adult who, if he weren't filthy and deranged, would be considered exceedingly attractive. He's bright, he's sensitive, and he's deeply troubled. He cuts himself with stones! And people are frightened by him.

I certainly get that. Having lived in Manhattan for many years, and now back in Portland which has a famously large street population, I've certainly beheld many people suffering from mental illness, and it can be very scary; it's that level of unpredictability and the knowledge/fear that you can't necessarily reason with them.

For me, the most terrifying part is when Jesus asks "the unclean spirit" what his name is, and the response comes, "My name is Legion; for we are many." It's the stuff of cheap horror movies, and yet I just...I can't quite articulate it. I really believe it. It raises the hair on my neck.

There is also a very deliberate political subversion happening here. A "legion," of course, was the basic unit of the Roman military; Rome was the violent occupier of Palestine and the empire that murdered the Christ. Scholars tend to think that the author of "Mark," whatever his (her?) name really was, was a follower of Peter (also murdered by Romans, in Rome), and the Gospel may even have been written in Rome. This is loaded and rich language, associating the demonic possession of a human with political and military occupation.

So, the demons negotiate a deal with Jesus to be cast into the swine, the herd of pigs leap into the sea and drown, and the man becomes his old self again.

Then what happens? Then people came to see what it was that had happened....and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion; and they were afraid.

Once again, we are shown how people witness the healing and saving power of God in spectacular fashion, and their response is not joy or comfort, but fear.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Proper 11, Wednesday, Year 1 - Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Amelia Bloomer, Sojourner Truth & Harriet Ross Tubman

Mark 4:35-41

Alas, I don't have much to say about the amazing women who are remembered in the calendar today, other than just how proud I am to be part of a church that recognizes their contributions to our modern world and honors them with a regular religious observance.

Instead, I have another reflection on the value of reading multiple translations of the Bible. Today's Gospel passage is the familiar story, found in all three synoptic Gospels, of Jesus and the disciples crossing the Sea of Galilee in a boat, only to have a terrible storm arise, threatening to swamp the boat and drown them. Jesus is asleep in the back of the boat, and the apostles wake him in terror and cry, "Do you not care that we are perishing?"

Jesus "rebukes" the wind and says to the sea, "Peace, be still." The wind dies down and the sea becomes calm, and Jesus says, "Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?"

The reader, of course, has the benefit of knowing who it is in the boat with them and, also, of not being in a small, fragile craft in the middle of a tempest. It's easy for us to scoff and think, "Pfft, they were with Jesus, really...what did they think could happen?"

But from their perspective, they were on the verge of imminent and unpleasant death, and their leader was not only not concerned or trying to help, he was asleep. It's not so strange that they were panicking.

The lesson for us is that Jesus asks us to trust that even now, right now, Jesus is in that boat with us. And yet, do we live our lives like that? How many of us have confidence to weather the storms, as the metaphor goes, without anxiety? That's hard, because to us it often does seem that perhaps Jesus is asleep or not paying attention; we need help, we want assurance of safety, and we want it right now. The Bible asks us to believe that we do have it, right now and always. "Have you still no faith?"

Note, however, the disciples' collective response to this miracle.

The King James Version has Jesus ask, "Why are ye so fearful? how is it that ye have no faith?"

And they feared exceedingly, and said one to another, What manner of man is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?

Beautiful. Why are ye so fearful?....And they feared exceedingly. So typical, right? It doesn't seem to matter how often God comes to our rescue in life, or how spectacularly obvious the intervention is, we cling to our fear. In this case, the miracle not only didn't inspire faith and confidence in the disciples, they became more afraid.

The language here matters, and this seems to be yet another occasion when the KJV, for all its shortcomings, strikes closer to the original Greek, which can be translated, "And they feared a great fear." "Fear" is the important word, we are to note that "fear" is the response to "why are you afraid"?

The NRSV, however, phrases it, "And they were filled with great awe." No!

I understand the editors' desire in many places to use "awe" instead of "fear" because this common phrase "fear of the Lord" doesn't make much sense in the context of God's repeated invitation, "Fear not." Awe, not fear, is the appropriate response in the presence of the Divine.

But the disciples do not respond appropriately; they are not filled with holy awe at the miracle they have just seen, they are filled with fear. That matters for the meaning of the story.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Proper 11, Tuesday, Year 1 - St Macrina

1 Samuel 25:1-22

I have mentioned before that for this two-year lectionary cycle I am studying with the King James Version. This evening I was reading along, following a typically awful Old Testament-style story of betrayal and bloodshed in 1 Samuel (the chapter which begins, by the way, with the death of Samuel...even though there are five more chapters to go, plus 2nd Samuel) but was taken aback when I got to the last verse of the lesson where David is praying to God for assistance in avenging an insult by slaughtering a bunch of innocent people, vowing by morning to have killed "any that pisseth against the wall."

Come again? LOL.

Curious, I turned to the other translations on my shelf (the NRSV, the NIV and the NKJV), all of which instead simply (and preferably...) refer to "men" or "males."

I Googled the phrase, and while admitting it's not like I spent hours of research on this, it does appear that in fact the King James has the more literal rendering of a Hebrew idiom for "men." (The phrase "that pisseth against the wall" appears in the KJV a second time in 1 Samuel 25, and in four verses of 1 & 2 Kings.)

But what really blew my mind was a video that came up of a Baptist pastor citing these verses to insist that God wants men to pee standing up. I won't link to it, you can find it yourself, if you're of a mind.

He relates a story about visiting Germany and seeing signs over toilets asking men not to pee standing up, and, explaining that his wife is German, he asked her, "Is this a joke?" and she apparently said, "No man in Germany pees standing up." "That's where we're headed in this country," says Pastor Steven L. Anderson.

Where to start?

I lived in Switzerland for a year and have visited Germany a couple of times. I lived in a university dorm in Zurich and, yes, there were signs over the toilets in the restrooms saying that peeing standing up was verboten. Now, this isn't because Switzerland has been taken over by anti-Christian feminist zealots, it's because, well, some men have really terrible aim, and no one likes to have to wipe someone else's pee off a toilet seat before using it. Duh. It's called etiquette.

But the idea that there is some sort of Teutonic cultural prohibition against urinating in a vertical position on principle is ridiculous. Any public restroom -- especially in train stations, etc -- will have urinals. In fact, in Switzerland, where the German dialects are sprinkled with French words, the common name for a men's restroom is a pissoir, where there's not a toilet in sight, and not even individual urinals, but just one long porcelain wall (!!!) with a drain at the bottom.

Moreover, "Sitzpinkler" -- which literally means "one who sits to pee" -- is a very common German derogatory word for a less-than-manly man, specifically one who can't stand up for himself.

Anyway, this has nothing to do with poor St Macrina, whose feast unhappily coincides this year with this particular lesson, and who deserves a better post.

Pastor Anderson goes on to caution his listeners against judging him for using bad language by arguing that this word "pisseth" comes directly from the mouth of God, via the Bible. He rails against other translations, including the New King James, for rendering the euphemism as "males" instead of keeping the word-for-word idiom, and cites this as evidence of the extent to which anti-Christian feminizing political correctness has infested even the church itself, in what basically amounts to a xenophobic, sexist, homophobic rant where a holy concept of "masculinity" can be so narrowly defined as to require certain orthodox, patriotic postures for peeing.

I lament that this is the sort of sermon that gets regularly posted to YouTube, and this is what has the potential to go viral. When I think of the hundreds or even thousands of thoughtful sermons that must be given in all kinds of churches every Sunday, to think this is the sort of pathetic nonsense that will form or reaffirm some people's ideas about Christianity and the Bible, I am filled with anger and despair.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Ezekiel Goes to a Funeral

So that post on Psalm 51 I've been kicking around in my head never got written. Another time, maybe.

The Gospel lesson appointed for the Office today (Matthew 25:14-30, Proper 11, Year 1) is the Parable of the Talents, where the guy goes off and leaves three of his servants with various amounts of money, each according to their abilities, and when he comes back he is full of praise for the two who invested the money and made interest, and furious with the one who buried it in the dirt and returned the original amount. That's another passage I just don't really get. Something really troubles me about the third servant, who accuses the lord of being 'harsh' and reaping what he hadn't sown and gathering what he had not planted, and the vitriolic response of the master -- "You wicked and lazy slave" -- seems to indicate that maybe he was on to something. I Googled the parable and looked for commentaries to help, but it seems the consensus really is that the traveling master is understood to represent Christ and that the third servant is duly punished for not doing something with the gift he was given. It still doesn't sit right with me, though, and I am unsatisfied. So that's all I can say about that.

This afternoon I went to the funeral of a beloved teacher from high school, who had also been a good friend and colleague of my parents. The funeral was at a Foursquare church, where apparently he was very active, and within the confines of my own ignorance and prejudice and snobbishness I am still trying to reconcile the memories I have of this very free-thinking, well-educated, objective, progressive person (who gave no hint that I ever picked up on that he was remotely spiritual) with the discovery that he was active in a Pentecostal community.

I confess to some ambivalence about going, not really sure what the worship experience would be like there, and wondering what kind of strange ideas, cheap theology and corny music I might hear. I thought fondly of Ouiser in Steel Magnolias, who declines to visit Annelle's church because "they'd probably make me eat a live chicken," to which Annelle responds, "Not on your first visit." But my mother needed to go, and I was more than willing, out of respect for this great man.

Well, it definitely wasn't an Anglican rite. But as the pastor got up to speak about the importance of community and God's healing power even and especially in times of great pain and bewilderment, I just had this sense that we really were talking about the same God. And then, suddenly, I heard that "still, small voice," and what came into my mind was a phrase from Ezekiel: "I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh," and I cried through the rest of the service.

Friday, July 08, 2011

St Elizabeth of Portugal

OK, so here's another observance not in the Episcopalians' calendar.

However, unlike Thomas More, I had never before heard of St Elizabeth. How did she make it on to my blog?

This evening I felt a real desire to have evening prayer; whereas I have been feeling fairly disinterested and passionless, even sometimes thinking of the office as a chore, tonight I really felt called to enter into intentional meditation. We are right in the middle of a two-week period nearly unbroken by the observance of any special feast, with the exception of St Benedict of Nursia coming up on Monday. My own made-up discipline calls for music and incense only on feast days, and I was missing that particular vehicle for creating a sense of the immanence of the divine. So I decided to look to the list of proposed new feasts for the calendar (to be approved next year), but nothing for today.

Then I turned to my copy of the 1962 Roman Missal (one of my favorite resources), and saw that the appointed feast in the Catholic tradition is St Elizabeth. "Well, that's odd," I thought, since I was pretty sure that St Elizabeth is in our calendar, too. I turned to Lesser Feasts & Fasts and saw that, yes, St Elizabeth of Hungary is venerated on November 21. So I went back to the Missal for a closer look: ah, this is Elizabeth of Portugal, who was named for her great aunt, Elizabeth of Hungary. "Neat," I thought. As I read further, I saw that, after she was widowed, the queen took the veil and entered the order of the Poor Clares, the Franciscan order for women founded by St Clare of Assisi. That would be the same St Clare of Assisi whose prayer book I am using this week. Whoa.

After all this, I decided I didn't really want to bother with music and incense, so I just settled in and began. The texts were wonderful; I'll touch on them below. But the really weird thing? The "prayer of the saints" in the St Clare Prayer Book for Friday evening was written by...Elizabeth of Hungary. (Cue Twilight Zone music.) Chills.

I have had similar experiences before, when saints just sort of randomly decided to reach out of the ether and catch my attention. I will spend some more time this evening meditating on why I think this happened tonight. It is interesting; before I began evening prayer I remember thinking, I'm so tired of my prayer discipline becoming so rote, I need one of those rare spiritual experiences that keep me coming back. And, voila.

So let's talk about those texts. One of the interesting things about this St Clare Prayer Book is that each section of morning and evening prayer for a seven-day week opens with a form of confession using a portion of Psalm 51, the first half of the psalm for the morning, and the first verse followed by the second half in the evening. I had thought maybe this would be the focus for tonight's meditation, but then the whole double-Elizabeth thing came up and so I've put that off, maybe for tomorrow.

Each section also opens with a brief Gospel sentence, to help us focus our intentions on the given theme for the day. This morning's Gospel sentence ("No one can be the slave of two masters; he will either hate the first and love the second, or be attached to the first and despise the second," Matthew 6:24) was actually taken from the selected Gospel passage for tonight (Matthew 6:22-27), which I don't think happens anywhere else in the book.

The Franciscans, of course, were devoted to holy vocational poverty; that is, they chose it. They rejected the idea of possessions (Francis himself is said to have asked to be allowed to die naked so that he could leave this world possessing absolutely nothing at all, but the brothers persuaded him instead, for modesty's sake, to borrow a brother's habit, and St Clare's rules for her order were initially rejected by the pope for being too severe), and so this theme of the corrupting power of wealth and materialism is naturally recurring in this prayer book.

The idea is not so much to suffer poverty for God's sake, but to embrace poverty in an exercise of trust that God will provide all you really need. In the context of tonight's Gospel reading, that opening sentence from this morning is immediately followed by, "Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?" This is a core principle of Franciscan life.

Of course, Christians throughout history have found this a difficult, even impossible challenge to accept. Fear and doubt keep us worrying about all kinds of things, and hold us hostage. One of the most salient critiques of the biblical literalists is that hardly any of them even acknowledge, let alone obey, Christ's requirement that to follow him we must sell everything we own and give the money to the poor. I freely acknowledge my own fears on this point, which is why I feel it is important for me to come back frequently to St Francis, and confess my failures.

Where I have come in this process is a belief that truthfully I possess nothing. Everything belongs to God, but some things have been entrusted to me, for my benefit and use. However, I should always be mindful that nothing is mine and I should always be willing to part with anything I have for the sake of someone else who needs it. It's not quite living fully into the Gospel life, but it's as far as my fears allow me to go right now.

And so, back to Elizabeth of Portugal. She had an illustrious pedigree, great-great-granddaughter of the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I (also known as Red-Beard or "Barbarossa"), and became Queen of Portugal at the tender age of 12. Widowed at 54, she left the royal life and entered a convent, where she lived in voluntary poverty for eleven years, until her death.

This really speaks to me. I am always thinking about money, how my life might be easier or better or more interesting if I had more money. I think God asks us to accept that this is an illusion. A while back I was told I was being promoted and given a significant raise, but then one thing led to another and it all fell through the cracks. For many months I was just angry thinking about the money I should have been making. Eventually it worked itself out and I got my raise and, well, truthfully, I am no happier or less fearful than I was before the raise.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Maybe Less Discipline is Good Discipline

Oh, dear, I have really fallen off the disciplinary wagon.

I attempted to write something last week for the Feast of Saints Peter & Paul, one of my favorites, but it was rambling and obvious, so it has been condemned to the purgatory of "drafts" and will no doubt remain there.

I might have had something to say yesterday commemorating the death of Thomas More, who was executed by Henry VIII for exercising his conscience and refusing to support the political separation of the Church of England from Rome. He is venerated as a martyr by the Roman church on June 22 (unclear why) and by the Church of England on July 6, the anniversary of his execution. Though the Episcopal Church in the United States is busily adding to the calendar what seems to be hundreds of people small and great who in some noteworthy way or other played a role in church history, Sir Thomas has yet to be nominated, an omission I find very strange in the context of new additions such as John Calvin. So although there is no official Episcopalian observance for Thomas More, I write him into the calendar myself and keep the day by watching the classic film A Man for All Seasons. (One week earlier I kept Saints Peter & Paul by watching the extraordinary Quo Vadis, which is campy and overwrought but magnificent). (For the record, I also write in my own observances for Gandhi and the Buddha, whom I am certain were saints who in fact preached the Gospel, even if not in the name of Christ.)

In general, my "daily office" discipline has been pretty weak. I think it's less about the health of my faith life than it is a symptom or symbol of my general state lately: I'm tired. I've worked incredibly hard the last few months both professionally and on volunteer projects, and I am needing a break from responsibility and commitments, more flexibility, more fun and more me-centered time.

For these two weeks in July, I have even set aside the BCP completely as there are no feasts in the calendar to observe. Instead, I have two Franciscan prayer books, one focusing on St Clare and another on Francis himself, which each contain a week's worth of morning and evening prayer liturgies. They are shorter and simpler than what I normally do, but I think that's a good boundary to stretch, as well. I use the readings provided therein, which are chosen for thematic relevance, rather than keeping the lectionary.

Even though the simplified liturgy means I can get through the office in 10 or 15 minutes, rather then 30-45, I'm still finding the structure burdensome, though I trust it is beneficial. My mind seems permanently elsewhere. I am reading, but not comprehending, looking, but not seeing.

This isn't to say that I'm not thinking about God these days. I am, and quite frequently. I am feeling rather unsettled -- or, perhaps, too settled -- and it reminds me of how I was feeling about five years ago back in New York when I had this great sense that what I was doing wasn't working and that a big change was needed. That change ended up being leaving everything behind in New York and starting over from scratch with a new life, new friends, new job and new community in Portland.

In hindsight, the change was absolutely the right one, for many reasons. I do truly feel that I had opened myself up to discernment, to listening to that 'still, small voice,' and was called back to Portland at an important time. Now I feel restless. I don't know whether this is leading me on to yet another city and another life, or whether it's change on a less dramatic scale. I think frequently about moving to another part of town, but the pro/con analysis always keeps me where I am. (For now.)

The other thing that is going on seems to be that I am possibly emerging from many years of emotional and romantic isolation. The Christian ethos I have been raised with trains me to seek one partner with which to make a committed relationship and to be abstinent otherwise, and so, in the absence of a partner all these long years, I have been...lonely, shall we say. But in my meditations in recent months (especially in Lent) I have had a great deal of focus on sex and sensuality and relationship, and as I enter tentatively back into the "dating world," part of me remains unclear whether I even want a relationship. I am sensing that the church's historic sexophobia is wrong and damaging, and yet also feel certain that there is a higher standard to which Christians are called for their intimate behavior.

The Bible doesn't anywhere condemn sex, or sexual pleasure, or sex for the sake of pleasure. That thinking is a product of the middle ages, a legacy of St Augustine's over-compensation for his own admitted debauchery and a mistaken assumption that "original sin" has something to do with sex. This got codified in Aquinas' ideas about natural law, and got us to the persisting religious argument that sex is for procreation, and only within the bonds of male/female Christian marriage; any sex that is not procreative in intent or capacity is sinful, and even procreative sex is understood to be sinful if the participants enjoy themselves. This cannot be what God intended.

Obviously this is the subject for a post of its own...many posts, probably. I concede the Bible repeatedly condemns fornication and adultery, but I think those are specific abuses of sexual behavior, not sex in general that is being condemned. Somehow I was raised with a very traditional, sex-negative religious outlook, and I think that has kept me emotionally and spiritually retarded in many ways. I have a sense that God is calling me to a healthier physical life. We'll have to see.