Friday, March 30, 2012

Frogs and gnats

FROG AND GNATS become the instruments of God’s righteous purpose, or so the 8th Chapter of Exodus would have us believe. Determined to get Pharaoh’s permission for a festival to be held “three days journey into the wilderness,” Moses and Aaron engage in a Miracle Contest with the Egyptian monarch’s chaplains. When the God of Israel sends a plague of frogs hopping into their beds and ovens and mixing bowls, “the magicians did the same by their secret arts.” Talk about self-defeating behavior! What would have happened if the Egyptian magicians had used their “secret arts” to get rid of the frogs? But oh no, they had to use their powers to show how they could afflict their own people just as efficiently as anyone else.

Then came the gnats. I’m glad my wife wasn’t at Morning Prayer the day this passage was read. She hates gnats! But then again, I can’t think of anyone who likes them. This miracle the Egyptian court-clergy could not replicate. “This is the finger of God,” they acknowledged. But Pharaoh’s heart was hardened, and he would not let the people go.

Furthermore, the Bible says that God knows perfectly well that frog and gnat tricks are not going to work with Pharaoh. So why bother with the whole charade?

I think this represents more than 20th Century head-scratching over the antics of primitive religionists. I think it poses a fundamental theological issue, one that is as valid today as it was for ancient Hebrews and Egyptians, namely, why does God bother with human events, miraculous or otherwise? If God wants to save Hebrew slaves (or Michigan Episcopalians), why bother with inconclusive debates and conflicts and contests and collusions? Why not just fix it all with a snap of the divine fingers?

Apparently God likes a good story. Apparently God has a fondness for human beings and their clumsy way of blundering into the future. Apparently that is just the way God is.

I hope God has a fondness for us, as we engage in a “Miracle Contest” with the “Magicians” of Wealth, Weaponry, and Technology, because they can one-up us easily: we say, “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven,” and they say, “This is the new I-Pad.” But the Real “Miracle” had little to do with frogs and gnats (or with I-Pads), but with the persistence with which Moses and Aaron pursued the goal of freedom. As it is written in Hebrews 11:7: “By faith Moses…refused to be called a son of Pharaoh’s daughter, choosing rather to share ill-treatment with the people of God rather than enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. He considered abuse suffered for the Christ to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt…”

If there is to be any escape from slavery, any salvation from sin, any fulfillment of the divine promises, it will be because here and there people and communities have persisted in the struggle for freedom and justice, and in their love for the people and for all of creation. That such people and such communities have indeed persisted, and been sustained in their persistence, is more significant a miracle than anything involving frogs and gnats.


Friday, March 23, 2012

SHIPRAH & PUAH: The Egyptian Midwives

On Thursday at Morning Prayer we read from the first chapter of Exodus, where the story is told of how the Hebrew people were saved from extinction by the ingenuity of two Egyptian midwives, Shiprah and Puah. These two women were charged by Pharaoh to kill any male Jewish baby that they helped deliver. Powerless to resist Pharaoh’s ruthless command, they resisted its implementation simply by going very slowly to whatever Hebrew household to which they had been summoned. When interrogated by Pharaoh, they blamed the whole problem on the friskiness of the Hebrew mothers: “…the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women,” they explained, “for they are vigorous and give birth before the midwife gets to them.” (Exodus 1:19)

These two heroic women are rarely mentioned from Christian pulpits, but to me they are prototypes for the kind of nonviolent resistance God uses to accomplish the divine agenda in the world. When I first discovered them several years ago, my admiration inspired me to compose the following “psalmic verses”.


O how strange is your wisdom, O God, * how subtle your judgments, how masterful your

process of indirection!

Surely, Coyote is your emissary, * and Raven your plenipotentiary.

When Israel was enslaved in Egypt, Pharaoh commanded the midwives to kill the

little Jewish boys, * as soon as they were born.

Pharaoh commanded Shiphrah and Puah; * he commanded, and they had no choice but to


But they hastened very slowly, * whenever they were called for.

They explained themselves to Pharaoh, * they offered this excuse:

“The Hebrew women are too fast for us; * by the time we reach the birthing-place, they

have already delivered, and their new-born boys are hid from you.”

Thus were Pharaoh’s plans subverted, * and Israel preserved.

Pharaoh raged and cursed, * but the midwives rolled their eyes and said, “tee-hee.”

How ridiculous are the mighty, O God, * when they set themselves against you!

In vain do they wage war against infants, * and command the merciful to commit acts of


For awhile, they seem invincible, * but history soon forgets them, and robbers

desecrate their tombs.

But let Shiphrah and Puah be remembered, * and their names be praised in Israel.

Wherever childbirth is respected, * and midwives held in high esteem.

Wherever slaves move slowly, * to follow ruthless orders given by the strong.

God’s praise is sung among the lowly, * among those who act with kindness, even

when it places them at risk.

While the cities of the ruthless fall into ruin, * and sand blows over them.

Coyote howls among the fallen pyramids, * and Raven cackles at their tombs.

Friday, March 16, 2012

WE READ Psalms 42 and 43 Thursday morning. They are definitely among my personal Top Ten Hits when it comes to psalms.

“As the deer longs for the water-brooks, * so longs my soul for you, O God.” (Psalm 42:1)

These are pilgrimage-psalms, songs composed for and by Jewish travelers on their way to Jerusalem, a sacred equivalent, I suppose, to “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” sung on the bus by 4th Graders as they make their way on some hyper-secular field trip.

“My soul is athirst for God, athirst for the living God…”, sings the psalmist, yet goes on to complain, “Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul? * and why are you so disquieted within me?”

This Jerusalem pilgrimage is no field trip to Greenfield Village: this was a perilous exploration of the spiritual universe, a rock-climbing expedition to “the peak of Mizar among the heights of Hermon,” (Psalm 42:8), and a descent into the depths of oblivion, where “all your rapids and floods have gone over me.” (Psalm 42:9)

“My soul is heavy within me,” laments the pilgrim-author of this psalm, and we might well begin to resent the ponderous weightiness of these verses. But the Hebrew word for “heavy” is also the word for “glory” when applied to God. There is a density, a thickness that, paradoxically, enshrouds the thin places where we seem to be closest to God. The “thinner” the “place,” the “heavier” the “shroud”.

How’s that for a paradox? No wonder some people opt for “99 Bottles of Beer.” Yet I would not miss this ponderous pilgrimage for all the field-trips in the world.

“Put your trust in God;* for I will yet give thanks to the One who is the help of my countenance, and my God.” (Psalm 42:15)

Friday, March 9, 2012

Saints of the Week

SAINTS OF THE WEEK were “Perpetua and her companions” and “Geoffrey A. Studdert Kennedy.” Perpetua was among a group of new converts who lost their lives in a purge of Christians around 203 C.E. I confess to feeling embarrassed by the legendary account of Perpetua’s martyrdom, according to which she “guided the executioner’s sword” to her own throat.” Her eagerness to embrace a martyr’s death strikes me as less exemplary than pathological. But it was the passionate faith of the martyrs that got the world’s attention in those cynical times. If Perpetua were more moderate and conciliatory (like me), Christianity would most likely have joined other mild-mannered religious movements on the ash heap of history.

A Saint closer to my own mentality is Geoffrey A. Studdert Kennedy, whose experiences as a chaplain in the British army during WW I inspired him to produce volumes of religious poetry, as well as to become an activist for peace and justice until his death in 1929. Studdert Kennedy’s poetry is deeply “incarnational”, meaning that he struggled to see God present in the human misery and shared suffering of trench warfare. The act of putting himself in harm’s way, in solidarity with others, is a kind of “martyrdom” I can whole heartedly admire, and seek (however moderately) to emulate. When such an act gives rise to poems of great sensitivity and ironic humor, it becomes even more authoritative in my eyes. Below are some examples of his work…

Missing -- Believed Killed: On reading a Mother's letter

1'Twere heaven enough to fill my heart

2 If only one would stay,

3Just one of all the million joys

4 God gives to take away.

5If I could keep one golden dawn,

6 The splendour of one star,

7One silver glint of yon bird's wing

8 That flashes from afar;

9If I could keep the least of things

10 That make me catch my breath

11To gasp with wonder at God's world

12 And hold it back from death,

13It were enough; but death forbids.

14 The sunset flames to fade,

15The velvet petals of this rose

16 Fall withered -- brown -- decayed.

17She only asked to keep one thing,

18 The joy light in his eyes:

19God has not even let her know

20 Where his dead body lies.

21O grave, where is Thy victory?

22 O death, where is Thy sting?

23Thy victory is ev'rywhere,

24 Thy sting's in ev'rything.


When Jesus came to Birmingham they simply passed Him by,

6They never hurt a hair of Him, they only let Him die;

7For men had grown more tender, and they would not give Him pain,

8They only just passed down the street, and left Him in the rain.

9Still Jesus cried, "Forgive them, for they know not what they do,"

10And still it rained the wintry rain that drenched Him through and through;

11The crowds went home and left the streets without a soul to see,

12And Jesus crouched against a wall and cried for Calvary.


22] See 1 Corinthians 15: 51-57.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Reflections on Morning Prayer: First Week of Lent

IT IS MOST GRATIFYING, and interesting, to find people coming to Morning Prayer who have no previous connection to Christ Church Cranbrook, or even the Episcopal Church. Could it be that our modest experiment in Benedictine behavior has struck a chord in the hectic lives of people living around us? Could it be that our ultra-suburban life style might generate in us a yearning similar to that felt by the rural parishioners who comprised George Herbert’s flock in the 1630’s who, according to Isaac Walton, biographer of that saintly parson/poet, “let their plow rest when Mr. Herbert’s saints-bell rung to prayers, that they might also offer their devotion to God with him.” *

Christopher Jamison, an English Benedictine Monk, says that “Many of the world’s religions believe there is one simple path that leads us towards God. It’s called silence.”** To most people, silence is nothing more than an interval between noises. Are we discovering, along with Benedictine monks and country parsons of the past, that silence can be “a simple path that leads us toward God?” Or, even more surprising, can the silence call out to passers-by from the spaces between psalm verses?


*Holy Women, Holy Men, p. 170 **Worth Abbey website