Friday, June 29, 2012

Excerpt from a letter written by old friend and parishioner in 1985 after he and his wife retired and moved to western North Carolina.
"St. James near downtown Hendersonville... built of stone, very things that tickles me, they have cushions in the pews...I never saw so many workers on an altar...the priest is wired for sound. The pulpit is raised some ten feet above the congregation.
     Talk about a parade coming and going. It is led by a little old man in black who carries a one-inch cross on a short stick. He is very bald, very short, very serious, and wears a black robe. He is followed by three acolytes, one carrying a cross, after an acolyte carrying a banner. Then comes the choir of about thirty...then comes some acolytes carrying another cross followed by the deacons, assistant priests, the lectors, and the priest. Man do you have to be on your toes.
     I have thought about you-what would you feel like to face some two hundred people at one service week after week and try to remember faces and names...there is a greeter doing what I so liked to do. He has learned our names and he greets everyone, makes sure the priest knows the new people. etc. Makes you feel good...but they lack the closeness of St. Timothy's...there seems to be four people to do every job. There is something about a large church-they really don't need me and though I sort of like that I also tend to resent it. Selfish I guess."
   Thanks for the letter, Mac, and for your friendship. Wherever you are, I hope you will pray for me, for "the prayer of a righteous man availeth much."It is interesting how the church you described resembles the one I presently serve in retirement... may God send us more greeters like the one you describe! May God send us more people like you...

                                           Near Ashville, NC

Sunday, June 24, 2012

So, Katie has come home from the hospital. She has an ulcer, a painful but treatable condition, plus her usual hiatal hernia. This diagnosis comes as a HUGE relief, since an original CT Scan had suggested the possibility of something far more grave. 
How do we acknowledge the huge-ness of this relief? How many times have I been excused from walking down a certain dark road, and marked the occasion merely by resuming whatever mediocre pastime I had been engaged in before the crises arose?
U, God, are most “with” us at such times, U the Prodigal Father of an Impossible Son, whose death sentence was not commuted, whose execution proceeded without divine intervention. U carry all our possibilities within yourself, like a pregnant teenager in a Galilean village. U are the One who, having shared our tears, bids us join in delirious rejoicing.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Thank you, Brent, for creating this new persona for me. As Abba Jonathan of the Desert I can engage in all manner of random whimsy while preserving a measure of deniability. "Deny the consubstantiality of the Trinity I did not," cried Abba Jonathan, "that would have to have been John the Dwarf, or his cousin Alfred." Things like that.
    The following (100% legitimate) quote was shared at the Mini-Retreat last Monday (June 11...thanks to all who attended!)from the writings of Brother David Steindl-Rast...

“I remember Soen Roshi saying to us young monks, who thought of sweeping as something to get over and done with: ’That’s no way to treat the dust. Your hands are to make the broom say to the dust, ‘Sorry, you happen to be in a place where you don’t belong, let me help you out.’ “ Brother David Steindl-Rast, A Listening Heart  p. 75

    Sort of like, "Use the force, Luke." Right? Except "use" is not quite appropriate, and "force" is almost as misleading as "consubstantiality."Abba Jonathan says, "So stop talking and sweep out the cabin."

Thursday, June 7, 2012


Brainwashed by the Psalms

    Anyone who follows the Book of Common Prayer system of daily worship reads through the Book of Psalms much more often than any other biblical book. We recite them in unison, ponder them in meditation, chant them in monasteries, elaborate upon them in choral anthems, weep during them at funerals, regret their frequent blood-thirstiness in inquirers classes, and edit out objectionable passages when revising lectionaries. The poetic merit and spiritual depth of the Psalms have been celebrated over the centuries, but I wonder if their influence upon our deepest spiritual and theological attitudes is fully appreciated.
       Here are some thoughts:

  1. Anyone who uses the psalms in any systematic fashion must come to terms with the obvious contradictions between what the text says and what actually happens in life. When Psalm 91:10 says “There shall no evil happen to you, * neither shall any plague come near your dwelling,” the reader must either regard it as an over-simplification (if not an outright delusion) or simply close their eyes to the fact that “bad things happen to good people.” I believe, along with this Psalmist, that “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, * abides under the shadow of the Almighty,” but I also agree with Jesus that “the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike.”  Using the Psalms in prayer requires us to think, and to accept that the Bible does not provide simple answers.
  2. The Psalms as a whole make it obvious that religion changes over time. The nationalistic God who “will heap high the corpses; * [and] will smash heads over the wide earth” (Ps. 110:6), is not the God most of us worship. We can understand why the Psalmist may have seen things in this way, but our understanding of God has changed.
  3. There is a passionate longing in the Psalms that inveighs against mediocrity and intellectualization. Psalm 142:6 is typical in its sense of desperation: “Listen to my cry for help, for I am brought very low; * save me from those who pursue me, for they are too strong for me.” Only someone who has been in some way imprisoned themselves can appreciate the intensity of verse 7 in the same Psalm: “Bring me out of prison, that I may give thanks to your Name; * when you have dealt bountifully with me, the righteous will gather around me.” 
  4. The religion of the Psalms is implicitly sacramental. That is, some of the most beautiful psalms regard inanimate objects as choir members that join with the psalmists in praising God. Psalm 148:7-113 calls upon weather, geological formations, trees, reptiles, politicians, and all generations of human beings to praise God. Events and objects of many kinds can be instruments of grace.
  5. Along with this comes a theological ecology, a perception of the world as an interdependent network of created beings, each carrying out their necessary function. Psalm 104 celebrates how God has made the earth habitable for human beings: “You make grass grow for flocks and herds * and plants to serve mankind; that they may bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden our hearts.” (vv 14/15)  But God has provided for all the species, not just humans: “You make darkness that it may be night, * in which all the beasts of the forest prowl.” Even the lions have their part to play as “they roar after their prey * and seek their food from God.” (vv 21/22).
  6. Many Psalms do not hesitate to express anger with God. Psalm 44:23 scolds God: “Awake, O Lord! Why are you sleeping?” Few people are prepared for such drastic intimacy with God. We prefer a more polite approach, but the psalms recall us to a less refined relationship with God. “You are selling your people for a trifle,” complains Psalm 44:12, “and are making no profit on the sale of them.” And, of course, the most troubling psalm verse of all may be Psalm 22:1, the last words uttered by Christ on the cross, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If these words are taken at face value, they could be understood as a rejection of everything Jesus’ life and teaching had been about. Taken in the context of the psalms, this verse can be understood as an expression of radical intimacy with God, of total trust and surrender, and of hope, as well as desperation.

    How could a church immersed in such diverse imagery fail to be more humble, more sympathetic to human frailty, more attune to the many voices of God? How could such a church fail to be less dogmatic, less arrogant, less triumphalist? That a church could indeed fail to be these things is evidence of how little attention we pay to the words we routinely pray, and suggests that we could do worse than devote ourselves to frequent, reflective, and shared recitation of the psalms. In doing so we can hope to equip ourselves for the rigorous work of analysis and apologetics, not to mention works of compassion, justice, and peace. We will also be joining with all creation in a living dialogue with God, joining with
               “…sea-monsters and all deeps;
               Fire and hail, snow and fog, * tempestuous wind, doing his will;
               Mountains and all hills, * fruit trees and all cedars;
               Wild beasts and all cattle, * creeping things and winged birds;
               Kings of the earth and all peoples, * princes and all rulers of the world;
                Young men and maidens, * old and young together.”   Psalm 148

Are there more appropriate companions for prayer?