Monday, June 30, 2014

Psalmic Verses Regarding Islands

                                           Shawnee Island, Delaware River, Pennsylvania

“Let the sea make a noise, and all that lives in it; * let the multitude of the isles be glad.”

1)      Blessed are the people who get to live on Islands, o Lord God of hosts; * because they know they are always surrounded.
2)      Blessed are those who know they have to make it work;  * because they know there is no place else to go.
3)      Blessed are the shipwrecked sailors who find their way to island shores * and discover there a place of refuge.
4)      Blessed are the waters that surround an island; * they are a fortress, a highway, and a source of food, and we stand in awe of them.
5)      For the earth is full of wondrous shapes and landforms, * and with them we give our thanks and praise.

                                                                           St. Cuthbert’s island, Lindisfarne


6)      Indeed, the church is something like an island, * and this fragile earth an island home.

7)      In both cases we are to act as stewards, * as well as passengers and friends.

8)      Praise to the Holy and Undivided Trinity, One God; * as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever. Amen.

Let the sea make a noise, and all that lives in it; * let the multitude of the isles be glad.

                                                Beaver Island

Sunday, June 29, 2014

reflections on a sermon by Ron Pogue on one of those Sundays every preacher dreads

Today I heard Ron Pogue, my colleague at CCC, preach on the problematic story of the "binding of Isaac." I was impressed with the sympathetic way he described the problems many people have with this bizarre episode. "What kind of a God would devise such a test for a faithful adherent?" The fact that Abraham is excused at the last minute from having to sacrifice his son is of little comfort. Why mess with the man's head?
    The preacher acknowledged the scholarly view that this episode "served as a proof text for why the ancient Hebrews, unlike their Canaanite neighbors, did not practice human sacrifice as part of their religion." Ron observed that, if this was indeed the original intent of the story, subsequent commentators, whether Christian or Jewish, failed to mention it.
      The "classic" Christian interpretation of this event has Isaac as a prototype of Christ, and Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his only son as a paradigm for authentic faith. God may SEEM capricious, indifferent, or even crazy, but an unwavering trust in the God of Abraham will eventually lead to a place where "God will provide."
       I appreciate Father Ron's admission that the"classical" treatment of this episode is less than satisfactory for him. "What kind of a God...?" is a perennial and subversive question that a smug or tidy theology cannot explain away.
     The reality is that we are stuck with a God who both TESTS and PROVIDES, and not often in a consistent or predictable manner.
       Ron also pointed out that Islam also regards this story as having great importance, except that they think it was ISHMAEL and not Isaac whose life was spared at the last second. Perhaps, Ron wondered from the pulpit, it is the need to have the only correct version of the story that we are being called upon to sacrifice. (My version of his words). Perhaps what we ought to be prepared to sacrifice is the desire to prove our faith to God, to earn God's approval by surrendering more and more of what we treasure most, until finally God is satisfied.
     Perhaps we have to sacrifice the impulse to sacrifice. (I said that, not Ron Pogue). Perhaps it has already been done, accomplished by Christ, and shown to be, not the satisfaction of a debt (a la St. Anselm), but rather the expression of God's solidarity with anyone who struggles to make authentic choices in a crazy world.
       A final comment of my own: it doesn't bother me, or diminish my reverence for our father Abraham, to think that he was WRONG in supposing that God wanted him to sacrifice Isaac. When it comes to God, we are always at least somewhat wrong. His understanding of God took a Great Leap Forward when he understood God's messenger to say, "leave that boy alone!" In the same fashion, our own understanding ought to be greatly enhanced when we presume to say, "The God of Abraham and Sarah, Hagar and Ishmael does NOT command people to commit acts of random terror " (or, for that matter, to send unmanned drone missiles to kill suspected enemies and anyone else in the vicinity). The God of Isaac and Ishmael is the God and abba of Jesus the Christ, the one "provided by God" as sacrificial lamb , shepherd, Child Protective Services Worker, and judge of the future and the past.

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Beaver Island Commentary

One does not visit Beaver Island casually. It lies 32 miles off the northwest coast of Michigan, and the ferry, which costs $31 each way for an adult, takes more than two hours to make the crossing. At these prices and distances, Beaver Island is not for the uncommitted.
This was especially true in June of 2014, when the aftereffects of an unusually harsh winter included a population explosion among mosquitos. Anyone venturing outside could expect to be met by a literal cloud of aggressive insects. If a strong wind from the west caused their numbers to dissipate, the return of calm would include the clearly audible hum of a million tiny wings vibrating in concert in the still air.
The mosquito onslaught begets a siege mentality, and with it a feeling of solidarity among humans, dogs, and any other warm blooded creatures.  Even the briefest excursion required the donning of protective clothing and dosing with DEET, which evoked a kind of “walking dead” sense of apocalyptic menace to one’s normal activities.
“Normal” on Beaver Island is different, and not only because of the bugs. “Normal” on Beaver Island includes the unearthly cries of loons, mingled with the more familiar sounds of foraging gulls. Here, “normal” includes the heavy splashing of giant carp as they cavort in 3 inches of water along the Lake Michigan shore, as well as the very un-Michigan-like behavior of the Islanders who, without exception, wave and smile at any person or vehicle they encounter. And where else does one encounter signs warning against any interference with the nesting habits of certain birds, posted by “The Loon Ranger”? Finally, on my second day on the Island, the man at the ice cream store, perceiving correctly that Nancy and I were to become regulars, offered to run a tab for me! But such trust is normal for islanders… .

On an island, you have no choice but to make it work. On an island, the inhabitants are stuck with each other.
We had ample opportunity to test these observations whilst on Beaver Island. Our sturdy Buick Rendezvous, normally reliable, developed multiple malfunctions, which led to our forming a bond with Adam at Beaver Island Marine in the Village, where one may take a lawn mower or a 60 foot marine crane to be repaired, rent a vintage minivan or tiny Geo, and buy live bait. Although ours was a labor intensive job, Adam accomplished it, like the Resurrection of Christ, in three days’ time.  

There are at least five inland lakes on Beaver Island, and I fished in three of them. On Barney’s Lake I managed to entice five lunging strikes from the same large bass nesting in the reeds along the shore, but came home with nothing to show for it but a long line of swollen mosquito bites right along my belt-line… apparently I had neglected to tuck in my shirt. “The wages of sin…”! Actually, under no circumstances would we have kept a bass caught at this time of year, as this remains a “catch-and-release” species until the end of June. Perhaps the fish on Fox Lake knew of this regulation, for when we fished there we were graced with some amazing large fish, each displaying the blackest coloration I have ever seen on a bass from any lake or stream.
We also had excellent results on Font Lake, although the fish from that larger, shallower lake were of a more typical coloration.
It was on Font Lake that I encountered a large beaver that went serenely about its watery business until something startled it, leading to the typical tail-swat on the surface of the water. Having witnessed such beaver-behavior before did not prevent my jumping nearly out of my DEET-coated skin when this occurred, and had I possessed a large flat tail myself, this would have been an occasion for its employment. 
It is at Font Lake that the Loon Ranger is most active, and, if the numbers  of loons present are an indication, his efforts have not been in vain. I am referring here, of course, to the numbers of endangered   waterfowl, not to my fishing companions and myself.
In many years of fishing in waters of every sort, I have had a snake in my boat only once or twice. At Beaver Island, every time I went out in a boat, there was at least one snake that eventually emerged from its hiding place to see what all the commotion was about. None of them was dangerous, but I prefer to fish from boats that are snakeless, thank you.
The Episcopal Church at Beaver Island is a congenial place, nicely laid-out and tended-to. On the walkway leading up to the front door, it has rows of small, gaily-painted stones laid out, a feature I had not witnessed anywhere else. This display prompted my friend John Dickison to write a comment: “On this church I will put my rocks.”
                                               (St. James' Church does not normally lie upon its side)
On the Sundays I was present, the congregation at St. James’ included a high percentage of intellectuals: a priest on sabbatical; a lay person studying for a theology degree at the University of the South; and a law professor from Wake Forest University in North Carolina. All of them expressed appreciation for the unique environment of the Island, and all contributed to enthusiastic singing to familiar hymns played by the ELCA organist. If the mosquito problem persists in such magnitude into the future, I would recommend that this congregation make use of the ceremonial fans on long poles that are a regular feature of worship among the Ethiopian Orthodox. Otherwise, the ceremonial swat will become as much a liturgical fixture  as the sign of the cross, and the theological implications of killing God’s creatures in the context of worship will have to be explored.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Longest Nap

Iconic dozing on an afternoon
As on so many
other days in June

When drowsy birds chirp around
The cat-bird seat
And insects keep percussive beat
And loud dogs sleep.
Always by water: lake, surf, or stream,
Flowing together
In a river's dream.

Beaver Island 2014

Monday, June 9, 2014

June 9, 2014.   Beaver Island

I have changed my strategy for dealing with these bugs. Mosquitos, that is. The Fell Winter of 2014 has produced a plethora of them. Clouds of Mosquitos. Hungry hordes. An unending renewable resource. A plague.
I have renounced defensive measures. I sit in the yard in shorts, legs unanointed with DEET and gleaming white in the bright sun. The legs are intended as bait, daring the bugs to attack. And so they do, coming in flights, echelons, squadrons, and pairs. They land on my legs and I smash them with calculated blows. I snatch them in mid-air, sometimes several at once. I stomp them with my feet. I clap my hands together in a murderous vice, mutilating many. I leave the smashed carcasses on my blood-smeared legs as further enticement to their kin. Every so often there is a lull, as if word were being sent to mosquito headquarters that reinforcements were needed, and then the horde descends again with redoubled strength.
Is this war a metaphor for life in the world? How can they sustain themselves in such excessive numbers? There are not enough warm blooded creatures on this island to feed a tenth of them. Such excess in nature is, I believe, a prelude to a catastrophic crash. Or is that only true of "desirable" species, like Ruffed Grouse?Are these voracious creatures the messengers of a planet that has lost its patience with the human race?
It is clear that, in a war of this kind, I will lose. Such bellicosity cannot be sustained for long. An accommodation must be found. Reconciliation must eventually occur, or all must perish. That is true of all wars.
Man, are we in trouble. "Only a power greater than ourselves..."

Friday, June 6, 2014

At the daily office, even as we plod methodically through the psalms, sometimes the words begin to throb with a strange intensity, and to dance in the air like overcharged particles of light. Around us the  air seems to ring with the anticipation of bells and birds. What can we do in response to this unexpected surge of incipient light? In fact, all do is proceed  with our psalmody, for we are a battered and weary church, wearing our ancient vocation like a salvation army coat, wearing it in full knowledge that in so doing we have made ourselves a target for God’s alarming emptiness, and that aliens and strangers will teach our own truths to us as if we had never heard of them.