Sing a New Song

My husband has pointed out on more than one occasion that for somebody who says she doesn’t like to travel, and who enjoys being home more than anything, I seem to travel a lot.  I actually do really dislike traveling, but am always glad once I’ve arrived, and have never looked back with any regret at an experience involving travel.  Life has presented me with some incredible travel opportunities, especially now that tuition payments are a thing of the past for my family, and I’m able to cross a few things off the list of Places One Should Visit.  Yet, each and every trip begins with me looking at an empty suitcase and asking myself why I ever thought this particular trip was a good idea.  And wondering why going to South Africa for the month of August seemed like a good idea is precisely the question I am asking myself today as I write these words.  As you read them I will be midway there, no turning back.

I think we can all list several reasons why visiting and absorbing another culture are good ideas, but one in particular is ringing through my head these past few days.  Sing a new song is a phrase that keeps returning to me.  Where it’s coming from I don’t know (well, from the psalms of course), but it sounds like good advice.  I’ve spent much of the summer helping others learn to sing new songs it seems – at conferences and gatherings of various kinds.  Not that the old songs are bad, but there is joy in opening up minds and hearts to new songs, so I’ve always preached!  And perhaps it’s time for me to learn some new songs as well.  I will be visiting the continent of Africa for the first time, and I’ve yet to meet someone who wasn’t changed by their experiences in cultures so very different from our own.  I don’t know how I might be re-shaped, but it’s sure to happen.  I’m being asked to bring some American music with me – programs of organ and piano music, traditional church music by American composers – and that will be fun, but I know that I’ll learn far more than I’ll teach, and I simply pray that my heart and mind are open to all the new songs ahead of me in the coming weeks in Cape Town and beyond.

Stay tuned!

SonyaFirst004

 

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Unbelievable! (Two)

Monday, I started a series on Things the Church Has Decided Not to Believe. I’m not going to recapitulate the entire introduction here; if you really want to find it, you can look up my post of July 28th. The big idea, however, is that knowing what we don’t believe — and why — can help us understand what we do believe — and why we believe it. So, here we go:

1) The church does not believe that God is an old white man with a long beard who spends his days sitting on a cloud. (We also do not believe that God is an old black man or an old brown man who sitsUnknown on a cloud, but the white man is more prevalent in paintings.)

I was raised in Judaism, which prohibits all images of God. When I went to synagogue, the walls were covered with abstract patterns and the windows were blocks of colored light. The only images were on the Torah scrolls: little silver caps and shields with etchings of the Ten Commandments. So you can imagine my surprise over the years when, in Christian gatherings, person after person has told me that he or she has rejected the faith because he or she just can’t believe that God is an old white man.

It turns out that most of them had encountered this image at some Unknown-1point in Sunday school or in a children’s Bible. Once you start to look for it, it’s everywhere. Which begs the question: why?

Actually, this one is pretty obvious: Jesus called God “Daddy,” and the old man with the beard is the idealization of Fatherhood. The images are meant to suggest a kindly old man, wise with years, who gently and effectively governs his household (the earth) as the ideal Roman or Medieval or Victorian father governed his household. Because much of human history has been characterized by patriarchal forms of social organization, the Good Father became the image of order, calm, reason, and benevolence.

There’s more to it, of course. The specific details of the image actually come from the Book of Daniel, in which the prophet has a 2036441131_572f82a1a2dream and sees “an Ancient of Days” who “took his throne, his clothing was white as snow and the air of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, and its wheels were burning fire….A thousand thousands served him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood attending him.” (Daniel 7:9-10) St. John of Patmos repeats this image in the first book of Revelation, with embellishments (1:13-16).  So the white hair and white clothing and beard actually derive from Scripture.

If the image has a Biblical basis, how can I say that the Church does not believe it is true? Because the Bible provides more than one visual image of God, and they conflict with one another.  All you need to do is read the image in Ezekiel (1:4-28) or the images in Jesus’ parables (shepherd, vine, door….) or the disembodied voice that address Moses and Elijah and Jeremiah and Haggai to understand that these image are gestures toward the ineffable, attempts to depict in terms accessible to human beings what is truly beyond our comprehension and our sight. They are like butterflies in our stomach: a metaphor that help us understand what is true, without, itself, being tangibly real.

What is true is that God is eternal (which, in our limited comprehension, we most easily understand as really, really old). What is true is that God is utterly good and is the giver of all that we need (a benevolence that many of us experienced most clearly in childhood — although some of us acutely did not).  What is true is that God did not create the world a chaos, but imbued it with order and grace. What is true is that God is sovereign over all things, and that God is humble enough to hold a small child in God’s heart.

What is not true is that God is a man. God is neither male nor female, but the creator of all things. God is not old, in the way we usually think of it; God exists beyond time. God does not really sit on a cloud; we just think of it that way because we tend to think of heaven as being “above” us. (Jesus, by contrast, spoke of the Kingdom of God as being within us, and spoke in his prayer of things on Earth becoming so perfectly aligned with the good will of God that they become indistinguishable from the things of Heaven.)

The truth is that there is no image of God that can do more than gesture at God’s fullness of being. Right now, there is a fashion in Unknown-2jewelry: people are making pendants out of little clay tablets with images of the Buddha.  It think that most of us who try to follow Jesus have something very much like those little tablets in our minds: we make our own images of Jesus or of God, and then we allow them to harden and take on a life of their own, using them to judge and reject all additional images of God until our image becomes a mental idol.

God loves to break those idols. God, who is living and active, who refuses to be confined to any one idea (no matter how good it is in itself), reaches into our lives and shakes us and turns us upside down until we let go of our idols and confront the reality of God as beyond all that we can understand. This process is painful and awful and depressing, and exhilarating and enlivening and fascinating, and it is how we grow.

But it is also true that images are of great usefulness, at least if we don’t let them imagesensnare us. When you think of God, what images do you find useful to you? Do you like God as Mother, as Spirit, as rushing-stream, as beam of light, as lamb, as Father, as an old man sitting on a cloud? If so, embrace that image — but hold it lightly. It will bring you toward the truth — but it will take you only partway there. In the end, it is only in the place beyond sight that we can see clearly the Author of Beauty, the Giver of Form, the Maker of All that Is.

 

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Rolling home.

Lines composed while rolling home on Amtrak from a few days in New York and Boston and a week at our daughter’s in Maine.

Just some brief reflections on a few experiences.

Solemn high mass on Sunday at St. Mary the Virgin, also known as Smokey Mary. Just a half block off Broadway near Times Square. High church at its best. Pity the crowds roaming the streets outside seeking – what? When sublime beauty is just inside these doors. Don’t they know? Obviously not. Our failure to reach them? Or theirs? You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink, so said my dad.

We strolled through Times Square. It is always amazing and often astonishing. In the Hershey store, we bought a large chocolate bar with a personalized wrapper with our picture on it. Then we were surprised to see it on display on one of those high-up giant screens in Times Square, cycling every few minutes with those of others who had done the same. I took a picture of it with my cell phone and emailed it to the office and the kids. What fun. But it did remind us of an old saying: “Fools names and fools faces are always seen in public places.”

Saw “Chicago” at the Amsterdam Theatre; a Sunday matinee performance after mass. Very creative staging; the orchestra took up 80% of the stage, and the players acted out the drama with song and dance in the space between them and the footlights. Fresh and energetic. How do they maintain that, performance after performance, year after year? That alone should be an inspiration to everyone who sees that or any other play and who feels bored with a job that once was captivating or with life itself.

In Thomaston, Maine, a kind of busman’s holiday for a day, since one thing I do on visits there is some routine maintenance on the church computers. This time the issue was spam and popups. Over 3000 pieces of malware were removed, mostly just tracking cookies, but a few real baddies. It took all day.

We attended a string quartet recital by the Daponte String Quartet in the library in Tenants Harbor, a small town near Thomaston. Very intimate space. I sat in the fourth row. It was amazing to watch so close. Such focus; such concentration; such subtle communication among the members, eyes darting between the music and each other. Afterwards, over refreshments, chatting with one of the players – the violist – the subject came up of their desire to do a series of recitals in the DC area and, since I was from there, did I know any place where they might play? Well, as it happens I just might. We exchanged contact information and so forth.

I read some, of course. That’s a vacation must, and my daughter has a trove of interesting books. This trip it was something light, “We Are Still Married” by Garrison Keillor. Laugh out loud amusing in places. Also, read the Gospel of Mark straight through. I’ve read and heard all of it, many times, but in the bits and pieces as one gets it at mass or reading the Office. Interesting thoughts formed from a straight through read; I found myself looking after a few chapters for something that ultimately wasn’t there. I’ll elaborate in another Cup someday. Maybe.

We spent a few late afternoons relaxing in the yard watching the chickens after we let them out of their yard to forage in the area outside their pen. They are so interesting to watch. “Chicken TV” we call it.

I wish to thank Rich Jensen, Laura Ingersoll, Jim Quigley, Armando, Pete Raynor, and Sophie, who to varying degrees made it possible for me to be away and who dealt with a couple of emergencies that came up. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Whenever I go away, or go anywhere, for that matter, I am attentive to incidents which might be the reason that I am there. On this trip, I think there were two: one, the most obvious and somewhat routine by now, is the computer maintenance work at the church in Thomaston. The other I think was the encounter with the violist after the string quarter recital. It could lead to some performances in the DC area for them. I hope so. We’ll see.

I close with the Collect “For the Good Use of Leisure.” “O God, in the course of this busy life, give us times of refreshment and peace; and grant that we may so use our leisure to rebuild our bodies and renew our minds, that our spirits may be opened to the goodness of your creation; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC, 29-July-2014.

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Sometimes It’s The Little Things

“Little things matter,” my Mom used to say.  In the house that I was raised in things like table manners and being polite and respectful were non-negotiable expectations.  One of my mother’s other favorite sayings was, “If you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say it at all.”

I remember an occasion when my Mom took my brother and I to “the mall.” Given the fact that most of the time we shopped for our clothes at the Salvation Army or Thrift Shops a trip to the mall was pretty exciting.  After finding a parking space and making our way toward the mall entrance the four giant sets of glass doors and what we might find inside pulled on me and Tom like a magnet.  After crossing the last part of the parking lot and stepping onto the sidewalk at the mall’s entrance we walked as fast as we could without running.  We burst through the doors.   After getting about half way down the corridor leading to the atrium we realized that we were alone.  I turned around and could see my Mom, standing outside the mall doors, arms crossed and tapping her foot. Embarrassed, I sullenly made way back to the entrance to open the door for her.  “Why thank you,” said the one with the pocketbook.

We had a pretty heavy day at church yesterday.  I had composed a sermon on 1 Kings 3.5-12 that I admitted before preaching took me to a place that felt “edgier” than usual but also that I felt called to be faithful to my thoughts and delivered the sermon just as it was written.  Later in the day I got a couple of e-mails from parishioners agreeing that the sermon had challenged them, too.  We live a faith that demands a lot of us; a faith where challenge is non-negotiable.

While struggling with our broken world and how to live faithfully within it, and accepting the challenges this brings, a friend of mine recently reminded me of the passage in chapter 16 of Luke’s Gospel that ends with Jesus’ admonition that “Whoever is faithful in a very little is faithful also in much; and whoever is dishonest in a very little is dishonest even in much.”  The reminder helped me to realize that when I find myself at a loss as to understand how my local (and seemingly little) interactions or behaviors can help to heal this hurting world, just how important the little things might be.

Today I’m trying to be faithful with a little.

Happy Monday,

Jim+

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Unbelievable!

UnknownEvery few weeks, a scholar of religion named T.M. Luhrmann writes an op ed column in the New York Times. This week, she is examining the line between belief and unbelief, specifically, what she calls the “boggle line” between things we are willing to take on faith and things that each of us considers utterly impossible. She writes, “Gods are invisible, the future is inscrutable, and much of life is bushwhacking over uncertain terrain. In the face of your own uncertainty, being precise about what you don’t believe in can shore up your confidence in what you do.”*

Her words have inspired me to spend my next few weeks’ worth of Daily Cups discussing things that orthodox Christianity does not believe. I do not mean to say that no Christians believe these things; I know for a fact that many do. For each of us, our faith tends to be a distillation of what we are taught in the doctrines of our faith, run through the crucible of our own lived experience — of what seems credible based on the evidence of our lives. For example, a person who grew up in an abusive family is likely to have a strong reaction to the image of an angry God, either accepting or rejecting it from a very deep place in his or her being.

Indeed, the Anglican tradition even enshrines this into its teachings: our church is to be guided by Scripture (the Word of God as recorded by the human beings who have encountered God in various ways), Reason (the lived and thought-through experience of  the faithful, informed by the best intellectual traditions of our time and of human history), and Tradition (what Christians in previous ages have found to be of lasting spiritual value).

However (and this is a big “however”), the teachings of the church must be able to transcend and correct the distortions and damage that necessarily characterize the life of any one individual; that’s the only way our faith can help us to reach a state of greater spiritualdancing-saints1 health. (In the case above, a person who grew up in a loving and supportive home may have an easier time perceiving the transcendent love of God, while the person raised in an abusive home may have a deeper understanding of the truly corrosive effects of sin). Thus, the Scripture, Reason, and Tradition I mentioned above are always to be interpreted as the consensus of the faithful, not as the opinion of one individual. Most of us have areas in which we find ourselves believing something different than that consensus; in such cases, we have to think and pray hard about whether we have been given an insight that needs to be shared widely (ie, Martin Luther) or whether we are just asserting  the claims of our own ego when, really, what we need is some humility.

So, over the next few weeks, we are going to look at what the Church has chosen not to believe — and why. Doctrines are not arbitrary, and understanding the reasons that we reject what we have weeded out can help us to understand the holiness that we seek. Even if, after considering the reasons not to accept an idea as true, you still believe it is true for you, you will at least have gained insight into what your own spiritual commitments are at this present time. (I write “at this present time” because, in a healthy faith, those commitments will deepen, grow, or change. There is no one so spiritually perfect that they do not need to reject some of what they currently believe to be true.)

Gregory of Nyssa, one of the great saints of the church, defined “sin” as the failure or refusal to grow. My hope is that, over the next few weeks, we will grow. Together.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

* “Where Reason Ends and Faith Begins,” July 26 2014.

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Only One Thing

“…you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing.”

I am a list maker, which goes against every fiber of my being.  I think of myself as able to accomplish every task that comes my way efficiently…taking things as they happen, working on projects that I find interesting and challenging.  The reality is that sometimes I manage to find a whole lot of ways to not work on those projects that need to be accomplished.  To a degree I enjoy crossing things off of my daily list, but often at the end of the day I find that the list which started off being 12 items long somehow exploded to include 21 things to accomplish (usually with four or five of the original tasks still not crossed off).  How very Martha of me.

The words above come from a portion of the gospel text (Luke 10:38-24) assigned to the feast day of Mary and Martha of Bethany which we celebrate on July 29.  For centuries theologians have argued and theorized over the meaning of these words Jesus speaks to Martha.  My guess is that like Martha we too are worried and distracted, “by many things.”

Christ tells us that we need only one thing.  Given that we are into late July, my guess is that at the top of most lists is: “Vacation!”   However, I’m pretty sure that wasn’t what Jesus was thinking when he tells Martha that, “there is need of only one thing.”  For Jesus, our list is only one item long.

That, “one thing,” in which we have that singular need, I believe, is deepening our relationship with God in Christ.

That relationship may happen and be strengthened as we sit at the feet of Jesus, learning from the living Word of God as Martha’s sister Mary does. That relationship might also be strengthened by the Martha-like “doing” of hospitality for the stranger, the poor and the needy.  If we enter into those moments intentionally seeking to be in closer relationship with God, we will be on our way to accomplishing that “one thing.”

I think if we examine our lives we’ll see that there are moments when we feel that closeness and presence of God in the stillness of quiet, silent prayer, or in taking some time from our busy, rushed day to contemplate a passage from Holy Scripture.  At another time we may see and feel the nearness of God in the work that we do in service to others putting to good use the talents and skills that God has graciously given us.

The point is that as followers of Christ we can continually build and strengthen our relationship with God all of the time…in Martha moments and Mary moments.  Knowing THAT makes our daily to-do lists a little more holy.

In Christ’s Name,

Matthewfirst

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Ordinary Gifts

I love summer. I love the feeling of warm – yes, even humid – air on my skin. I love the sounds of summer – crickets and cicadas and all the surprising creatures in my neighborhood that call to each other in the evening. And most of all I love summer reading. Iced tea and a hammock are the necessary accompaniments, and far from being a guilty pleasure, summer reading is one of the simple gifts of summer. So enjoy it while you can.

Here are two recommendations for your summer reading list, and ones that come from genres I would usually not consider. One, a mystery, is William Kent Krueger’s Ordinary Grace. As the title implies, ordinary lives in an ordinary time and place trying to deal with an extraordinary set of circumstances, as any of us might be called to do. I especially appreciated that every single character was fully drawn in a way that allowed us to know the good and bad in each. An unexpected ending (but perfect, in my estimation) lets us see even the killer through compassionate eyes. Like all of life, there really aren’t any clear lines of black and white. Ordinary life can be complicated.

My second recommendation is The Humans by Matt Haig. Clad in a science fiction exterior – something I would never normally look at twice – it is a novel that probes what it means to be human through the eyes of an alien. And it is ordinary things that become the strongest pull on the alien narrator. Peanut butter sandwiches and friendship and poetry. He came to earth seeing only flaws and fallacies and remained because he realized no amount of rational thought could replace the beauty of love. As with Ordinary Grace, ordinary life is messy, scary, precious and wonderful all at the same time.

There is a hymn being sung at St. Alban’s this Sunday, #9 in The Hymnal 1982. The text marvels at the wonders of “the common things of earth… the purple pageantry of dawning and of dying days, the royal robes of autumn moors, the golden gates of spring, the velvet of soft summer nights, “ and then suggests that because of these many ordinary gifts, we are now called “to give and give and give again, what God hath given thee; to spend thyself nor count the cost; to serve right gloriously the God who gave all worlds that are, and all that are to be.”

See where the ordinary pleasure of summer reading might lead!

SonyaFirst004

 

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