Sunday, January 30, 2005

A Laywoman's Lectionary: Poor In Spirit: For the Fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time (1/30/05)

When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying:

"Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness' sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.

Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you." (Matthew 5:1-12) [NRSV]

That was quick. Last week Jesus was calling his disciples, and already he is immersed in his ministry of teaching. As far as the church year is concerned, there's no time to waste between his search for companions and his plunge into the substance of his work.

The first one is the hardest, and that's what I've been thinking about this week, as I tried to plan what to write here. For many years, I found the Luke version, the concrete "Blessed are the poor," was much easier to comprehend. Not that it's easy to understand why literal, monetary, material poverty should exist, either in God's plan or on a planet so rich in resources. But it is easier to talk about poverty as a concrete concept than poverty as a spiritual concept.

It does seem to seep into our consciousness though. I think that now, in my fifties, I can comprehend spiritual poverty in ways that were outside my grasp a decade ago. I can't claim advancing maturity or depth of understanding as the reason; I can only say that circumstances have required me to abandon certain goals and ideals that I thought were unshakable, as necessary to my existence as breathing. All gone now. Things that most other people in my small world have been able to take for granted evaporated for me, suddenly and with no warning. All gone now.

When hopes and dreams that you have worked for fall away, you get two choices. You can stand there, screaming and crying and begging to get them back, resisting with all your being the new path laid before you. Or you can wipe your eyes and set your shoulders straight and let the past go. We usually talk about this process as one of "detachment," although one of my sons, who has studied a bit of East Asian thought and history, tells me that "un-attachment" would be a more appropriate phraseology.

I'm not there yet. I can't talk about spiritual poverty with more than the most glancing acquaintance with the consequences it might bring. But even that glancing acquaintance is an expereince that we resist, as individuals who want what we want, and as a culture that wants more all the time. Perhaps most of us experience it only when it is thrust upon us, unwanted and despised.

When I realized that this passage was one that I wanted to explore but could barely understand, I started looking for what some other people have had to say. Sometimes, I just have no hope of conveying what I would like to, so I'm going to let them do the talking today:
And you must know that to be empty of all created things is to be full of God, and to be full of created things is to be empty of God. (Meister Eckhart)

The creative individual is particularly gifted in seeing thegap between what is and what could be (which means, of course, that he has achoeved a certain measure of detachment from what is. (John W. Gardner)

Can you cleanse your inner vision until you see heaven in every direction? (Laotzu)

The test of Christian leadership: What are we giving away? (Our pastor in a sermon this morning, on this very passage)

When one sees eternity in things that pass away and infinity in finite things, then one has pure knowledge. (Bhagavad Gita)

The desert is a place for learning to lower one's expectations almost to the point of absurdity, being content increasingly with less and less, giving up living ambitiously for lofty ends of any sort. One discovers there the importance of the simplest of means, ignoring everything else that doesn't serve the ordinary. That's how one comes, at last, to find strange comfort in the desert waste, only by embracing indifference, learning to delight in nothing so much as simplicity. Solace likes at the still point of emptiness-beyond hope, beyond proof, beyond consolation. Deliberately aiming the exercise of indifference(apatheia)at oneself, one releases little by little the anxious thoughts of the distracted ego. The false self is gradually starved by inattention. One learns also to be indifferent to others, ignoring surface impressions so as to open oneself to radically different people on the clean, level ground of unspoken humanity. No longer driven by short-lived feelings of sympathy or pity, one consistently, doggedly works for justice without thought of reward. (Beldon Lane)

He who would be serene and pure needs but one thing, detachment. (Meister Eckhart)

Serenity and purity do sound like blessedness, don't they?

Sunday, January 23, 2005

A Laywman's Lectionary: Immediately? For the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time (1/23/05)

Immediately? - For The Third Sunday In Ordinary Time (1/23/05)

Now when Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he withdrew to Galilee. He left Nazareth and made his home in Capernaum by the sea, in the territory of Zebulun and Naphtali, so that what had been spoken through the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled:

"Land of Zebulun, land of Naphtali, on the road by the sea, across the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, the people who sat in darkness have seen a great light, and for those who sat in the region and shadow of death light has dawned."

From that time Jesus began to proclaim, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near."

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, he saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea for they were fishermen. And he said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people."

Immediately they left their nets and followed him.

As he went from there, he saw two other brothers, James son of Zebedee and his brother John, in the boat with their father Zebedee, mending their nets, and he called them.

Immediately they left the boat and their father, and followed him.

Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people. (Matthew 4:12-23)[NRSV]


Do you do anything immediately? I don't even hit the off button on the clock radio immediately; I burrow under the comforter and wait for my husband to do it.

This passage has intrigued me for a long time. Did the disciples "immediately" leave their boats and their nets and follow Jesus? What about their wives, children, mortgages? Didn't they think about storing their nets, or selling the business? What were they going to do about their health insurance and 401(k)s?

A couple of years ago I served on a church committee to call a new associate pastor to our church. We began our meetings with prayers, readings, and discussion, and one night we spent quite some time on this passage. What did "immediately" really mean?" Did these disciples respond just as the story tells it? Any embellishment here? Or forgotten details? We knew that we wanted someone who would respond to our church's call wholeheartedly and without reservation, who would see it as Christ's call on his or her life -- but we didn't expect the response to come immediately, or overnight. In our church we talk a lot about discernment, and about the importance of understanding whether we are really called to a next step. What does "immediateness" have to do with it?

My best guess, taking the life of Jesus as a whole, is that circumstances, both external and internal, dictate our reactions. At times we are called to respond "immediately" and at other times we know that we need to wait and take stock. Certainly Jesus himself often took take away to pray before acting, and at times his own actions or words seem strangely delayed. The family of Lazurus criticizes him for not making haste to his friend's deathbed. He frequently tells his followers not to reveal what he has been up to. The events of his life unfold over time, as do ours, and the revelation of his reality continues to unfold, two thousand years later. Most things take time, at least in the universe as we humans experience it.

So what about the disiples and the immediacy of their response? For me, this year, that word, repeated twice, has to do with the attentiveness and awareness that is emphasized so strongly in the Bible. During Advent, the texts called for attentiveness to what was about to happen in the world. As Jesus' ministry begins, the same call is apparent, but the ominous tone of Advent is missing. No Jesus railing about end times to his followers,no angels appearing to young people who had thought they were just going about their daily business, no prophets ranting in the wilderness. Just a young man with an extraordinary charisma, standing on the beach and calling fishermen to a new task and a new life. I imagine the day as a sunny one, the water quietly lapping at the shore, the workers talking and laughing as the day is getting underway -- until they decide to respond to the young man on the beach.

What did they feel? A sense of urgency? A seriousness of purpose? An overwhelming internal insistence that they follow? A realization that new lives and new ends lay before them? Or were they relaxed and cheerful, thinking that they were going to pass a day or two with this new fellow and would be back at work by the end of the week? Who knows?

Perhaps it is only in retrospect that the emphasis falls on the word "immediately." Perhaps it was decades later, when the stories were finally written down, that the writers chose to emphasize the speed and completeness with which the disiples embraced their new lives, because they as writers saw what had come to pass as so dramatically distinct from all that had gone before or since. Perhaps it was only much later that the change in the circumstances of the human world was so vivid that it could only be relayed as a great drama -- because that's what it was, whether the disiples knew it at the time or not. And the call to us, with its immediacy and directness emphasized, is to be alert and aware, at all times. Regardless of what we are doing -- washing dishes, typing, writing on a blackboard, checking a heartbeat, washing down an animal -- and what we know, or don't know, we could be called elsewhere, to a new life, just like that.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

A Laywoman's Lectionary: Come and See - For the Second Sunday in Ordinary Time (1/16/05)

The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him and declared, "Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, 'After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.' I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel."

And John testified, "I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, 'He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.' And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God."

The next day John again was standing with two of his disciples, and as he watched Jesus walk by, he exclaimed, "Look, here is the Lamb of God!" The two disciples heard him say this, and they followed Jesus.

When Jesus turned and saw them following, he said to them, "What are you looking for?" They said to him, "Rabbi" (which translated means Teacher), "where are you staying?" He said to them, "Come and see." They came and saw where he was staying, and they remained with him that day. It was about four o'clock in the afternoon.

One of the two who heard John speak and followed him was Andrew, Simon Peter's brother. He first found his brother Simon and said to him, "We have found the Messiah" (which is translated Anointed). He brought Simon to Jesus, who looked at him and said, "You are Simon son of John. You are to be called Cephas" (which is translated Peter). (John 1:29-42) [NRSV]

Come and see.

We have to move, at least mentally, if not physically, to where Jesus is. Come.

We have to pay attention. And see.

Action and discernment.

I wish I had read this passage when I first joined my first church. As I've written before, I took that step without much forethought or understanding. Something moved me to suggest to my husband that we start attending a church, we chose one and went, and a month later were full-fledged members. It was kind of like joining a social club or organization. Nothing much was demanded, or even expected, of us.

Later, I felt critical of both myself and the church for that situation. As we were drawn into the life of the church, became part of a small group of like-minded church neighbors, served on committees and pursued educational offerings, I began to see that we were part of something huge. Something well beyond our understanding. Something to which nothing, so far as I could remember, in our brief membership classes, had even alluded. And so I was critical of myself for jumping in with both feet, and of the church for welcoming people with little knowledge of who they were or preparation for whom they were to become.
I took a long break from church. A really long break. Years. And when I returned, it was to a different church in a different denomination and, in reality, I was still taking a long break. I saw myself as engaged in a process of discernment, of spiritual awakening -- reading and writing and listening but not acting. I sat in the back, volunteered a little here and there, but mostly kept my own counsel and shied away from committment.

And then, one day, I had had enough of that and started taking the steps necessary to transfer my membership and become an active and engaged participant once again. And sure enough, as I realized to my chagrin somewhat later, I did exactly what I had done before: jumped in up to my waist without really paying attention.

In fact, I had paid so little attention to what I was doing that last fall I became highly critical of someone who had done the same thing. I was taking a graduate class on Spiritual Autobiography and one of our texts was Dorotny Day's The Long Loneliness. Dorothy Day is famous for her service to society's poor and discarded and her implacable pacifism. I didn't find much to like in Dorothy Day -- she struck me as a great lady, but not a friendly one. And I especially didn't like the way in which she converted to Catholicism, throwing herself blindly into it on the basis of a few masses and some tutoring by a nun, becoming confirmed in the church before she knew even a single Catholic layperson. My reasoning and lawyerly mind stiffened against the idea of an intelligent and insightful woman making such an impulsive and ill-informed leap into a life of faith.

Until I realized that I had done exactly the same thing.

(Not, I hasten to add, that I am comparing myself in any other way to Dorothy Day. I recognize genius when I see it and I'm not too worried that I have any hope of measuring up to hers.)
"Come," says Jesus. He doesn't "Think about it" or "Figure it out" or "Get a doctorate in theology first." He just says, "Come."

Quite and entirely by accident, both times I ahd joined a church, I had done exactly that. I had just come along, no differently than any of Jesus' orginal disciples. I had just come to where he seemed to be.

"And see." Once you get there, you have to be attentive to what you find.

And what is that, exactly? I'm stumped -- I don't know how to explain this. But when you begin to see with the eyes of Christ, things start to take on a different hue.

Don't get me wrong. I am no saint. In Catholic school we used to gossip about who was "holy" -- and I'm a realist, so I never had to contemplate being included in that group. As an adult church member, I know a lot of people who do a lot of good things for religious reasons, helping the poor, school children, the homeless. I know people who give away a lot of money. I know people who are active in politics -- in protests against the war, in the election, on behalf of gay rights -- as a result of their religious beliefs. I'm not any of those people. I am a totally average, overscheduled and overwhelmed suburban mom and teacher who can't manage to get either the Mastercard bill paid off or the kitchen floor washed. I have my fantasies about joing the Peace Corps when my children's college degrees are completed and their bills are paid, but I don't harbor illusions about experiencing a sudden infusion of energy and efficiency ten years from now any more than I expect it to happen this afternoon. So I can't talk about "doing" or "achieving." But I can talk a little bit about seeing.

Many years ago, I was out on a Christmas shopping marathon, charging down the aisles of a big-box chain toy store looking for gifts for unknown children, soon-to-be recipients of church largesse. Aisle after aisle of toy guns, military action figures, enough gear to outfit an entire National Guard Unit in plastic camoflauge and weaponry. That store looked very different to me as I contemplated celebrating the birthday of the Prince of Peace than it would have a few years earlier when Christmas was simply a major secular holiday for me. It felt like a poor place for me to be spending my money.

I have had to dig deep down into unknown territories to find a place of peace and forgiveness with respect to certain matters. (Actually, I'm lying. I'm not there yet. But I'm working on it.) Yesterday I was in a workshop in which we participants were asked to identify our favorite New Testament passage. I had no idea what mine might be and I was flipping through a Bible when it practically leaped from the page. "And Jesus said, 'There was a man who had two sons.' " The story of the Prodigal Son, the ultimate story of human forgiveness. Of course. When that story, or one like it, has come completely alive for you and you begin to understand what Jesus really meant by by mercy and forgiveness, you see things differently. Not comfortably, but differently.

As anyone who reads my other journal knows, my stepmother is very ill. Her battle against cancer has raised questions not uncommon in our society, questions having to do with quality of life, technology, and choice. Almost every person with whom I have discussed those issues describes one set of choices as "giving up." I don't see the decision to forego treatment that way at all. And I don't think that you have to have a specific religion or spirituality to conclude that the end of life, wherever it may lead, is a transition and that you are not "giving up" by coming to terms with that. You just need to see things differently. Not, perhaps, comfortably, but differently.

So, as it turns out, I was wrong to be critical of my former church for welcoming the delusionally innocent. I was wrong to think that Dorothy Day had moved too fast. I was wrong to think that you need to work out your faith before you get moving on it. You do not begin to see differently until you are in the midst of texts and preachers and friends who share that vision, until you are in a place where you can begin to practice it for yourself. Jesus know that; that's why he issued the invitation to follow him before offering a college course on exactly what that would entail. We begin simply by responding to the invitation.

Come. And see.

Sunday, January 09, 2005

A Laywoman's Lectionary: Baptism - For the First Sunday in Ordinary Time (1/9/05)

Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him.
John would have prevented him, saying, "I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?"
But Jesus answered him, "Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness." Then he consented.
And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him.
And a voice from heaven said, "This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." (Matthew 3:13-17)[NRSV]

What does it mean ~ baptism?

In my family, my nonreligious family, it apparently meant something of unvoiced significance, because we children were not baptized as babies in accordance with the usual practice of the Methodist Church. My father felt that people shouldn't get entangled with the church until they were old enough to know what they were doing, and babies weren't old enough. Young teens weren't either, as I discovered when I went through a period of wanting to convert to Catholicism while I was a junior high school student in a Catholic boarding school.

So I wasn't baptized until I was an adult, and had decided to become an official member of the Methodist church. Baptism was a prerequisite, so there I was, still pretty clueless, but doing it anyway. I can't say that I thought I was "saved" or "cleansed of my sins" or anything else approximating what people often say about baptism. I just thought I was taking the first step in a journey that was going to have a public as well as a private side to it.

One of our pastors articulated it well a couple of weeks ago when she said that baptism was an occasion for welcoming someone into the church family. I wish I had had that language on the tip of my tongue a couple of years after my own baptism, when we arranged for the baptisms of our first babies. I had hoped that my family would join us but circumstances got in the way. Months later one of my younger stepsisters, as cyncial and caustic as I had been as a teenager, asked icily, "Why would you have them baptized, anyway?" It was hard to respond in the face of her adolescent certitude that religion was for idiots, and I wish I could have just said something along the lines of what our pastor had said to me: I wanted them to be part of a church family, and baptism was the doorway. Jesus says as much, when he says that "it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness."

No doves, of course, for the rest of us. And no voice of God from the heavens, either. Or am I wrong about that? Jesus' baptism is apparently one of the few moments in the Bible when God as Creator, Christ, and Holy Spirit are simultaneously present. Their concurrent appearance would seem to portend a momentous occasion, and maybe that is indeed what baptism is, even for those of us who don't recognize it at the time. Maybe it's a time when God in all of God's vastness drives a wedge into our lives and begins to take up permanent residence there -- quietly and unobtrusively, perhaps, but definitively there. Even defiantly there. God perhaps saying, "I am pleased with your existence, whether you like it or not, and whether you even know it or not ~ and this is your first step toward undertanding that."

In our church, our pastors emphasize, week after week, over and over, God's all-encompassing love for all of us. At Jesus' baptsim, at the outset of his ministry, we see God call Jesus "the beloved, with whom I am well pleased." At a baby's baptism, it's easy to see that love, too -- what could be more lovely than an innocent newborn in the arms of a parent?. But even those of us who are adults -- adults with long histories behind us -- even for us, God's love is there at baptism. Recognized or not.

Sunday, January 02, 2005

A Laywoman's Lectionary: Exploring Wisdom - For the Second Sunday of Christmas (1/2/05)

Wisdom praises herself, and tells of her glory in the midst of her people. In the assembly of the Most High she opens her mouth, and in the presence of his hosts she tells of her glory:
"I came forth from the mouth of the Most High, and covered the earth like a mist. I dwelt in the highest heavens, and my throne was in a pillar of cloud. Alone I compassed the vault of heaven and traversed the depths of the abyss. Over waves of the sea, over all the earth, and over every people and nation I have held sway. Among all these I sought a resting place; in whose territory should I abide?
Then the Creator of all things gave me a command, and my Creator chose the place for my tent. He said, 'Make your dwelling in Jacob, and in Israel receive your inheritance.'
Before the ages, in the beginning, he created me, and for all the ages I shall not cease to be. In the holy tent I ministered before him, and so I was established in Zion. Thus in the beloved city he gave me a resting place, and in Jerusalem was my domain. I took root in an honored people, in the portion of the Lord, his heritage." (Sirach 24:1-12)

I'm in new territory, at least for me, this week. The book of Sirach hasn't been included in the Jewish scriptures since the first century CE and didn't make it into the Protestant Bible, so I doubt that it's ever had a public reading in my church. But it's part of the Catholic canon, one of the wisdom books of the Catholic Bible, and apparently is utilized frequently in Catholic worship. This reading appealed to me because, like the one I chose last week, it takes our focus away from the nativity stories and into to the broader world into which Christ arrived.

I recognized the figure of Wisdom, which we Protestants usually hear of only through the Book of Proverbs, But, even in readings from Proverbs, our attention is seldom directed to the fact that Wisdom, in the Bible, is characterized as a feminine figure and presence. Most Christians, despite the popularity of The DaVinci Code, are unfamiliar with feminine imagery for the Divine, and struggle to meld it with our familiar masculine conceptions of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. It's out there, but we don't know the history, don't have access to the writings, and seldom hear about it from our clergy. You have to be pretty determined to dig deeply behind popular fiction in search of the feminine underpinnings of Holy Wisdom. And that's not somehting I've had the time to do.

I wanted to know more, though, so I turned to the two chapters on Wisdom in Marcus Borg's book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time (1994). Borg writes about Wisdom in two ways: first, about Jesus as a teacher of alternative wisdom and then about Jesus AS wisdom.
In his chapter on Jesus as teacher, Borg distingishes between conventional wisdom and alternative, or subversive wisdom. I suppose that, whether we articulate it or not, this distinction is one of the first things that becomes apparent to us when we become serious students of the Bible. The conventional wisdom, the wisdom of our culture, the "this is how it's done" wisdom that tells us what to think and believe and do because that's what members of our culture think and believe and do, is what we expect to find, in church and in the Bible. What could be a more definitive and upstanding purveyor of how things "ought to be" than the local church?

And we have good reason to expect to find conventional wisdom in the church -- churches tend to reek of it. How well I remember the Valentine's Sunday when some friends of mine, mostly mothers in their thirties and in charge of the coffee hour after the service that week, decided to brighten things up with bright red tablecloths. Just before the service ended, one of the older women glanced into the parlor and reacted with horror. "What will the ladies of the church think?" she exclaimed, and within a matter of minutes had whisked china, silver, and coffeee pots off the tables so that she could replace the offending red tablecloths with the standard white ones.

Now that's conventional wisdom at work. My friends were so dazed by her dismay and speed that it was some time before one of them asked, "But aren't WE the ladies of the church, too?"
As Marcus Borg points out, Jesus stands as the purveyor of alternative wisdom. One of the first things that we notice, upon reading the Bible carefully, is how often things turn out differently from how we expect them to. And in case we don't figure out how things work, Jesus hammers it home repeatedly. The first are always last; the last are always first. The disdained and trampeled upon turn out to be the heroes. The learned are dense; the holy are, at best, confused. The right way is the way that we don't follow. Borg says that the cheif values of our culture are "achievement, affluence, and appearance," and I doubt that anyone would challenge his assessment. But those are never the values of Jesus.

And why not? Who, exactly, is Jesus? Borg offers one answer in the next chapter of his book, entitled "Jesus, the Wisdom of God: Sophia Become Flesh." Jesus is not just the purveyor of alternative wisdom; Jesus IS Wisdom herself.

I won't detail Borg's entire argument, but it's well worth reading for a better understanding of the early chuch's ideas about Jesus and of Jesus as understood by Paul and by the gospel writers. In a nutshell, Borg notes that in the Jewish wisdom writings, we often see the Wisdom Woman, or Sophia as she is known in Greek (and English). Sophia is the first of God's creations and is present with God for the rest (Proverbs). She is a creator herself, a source of life and of all good attributes of life (Wisdom of Solomon). In the gospels and in Paul's letters, Jesus is specifically connected with Sophia. Borg concludes, finally, that Jeses was "the Son of God, the logos of God, and the Sophia of God."

I'm sure, without knowing much about it, that Borg's reading is controversial. I've heard Borg speak several times, but I am sure that I have never heard a sermon on Jesus as Wisdom, or Jesus as somehow encompassing both the masculine logos and the feminine Sophia. It's interesting, though, isn't it, that a reading early in the Christian year, gives us Wisdom as God's first creation, commanded to dwell in Israel among God's honored people and heritage? The reading stands as a bridge between the nativity stories, providing an alternative view as to the identity of Jesus, and the stories of Jesus' teachings that are soon to come, in which Jesus himself will provide his alternative, subversive understanding of Wisdom. Something to think about.