Thursday, September 15, 2016

Images and Idols: Forward Day by Day
Highlights Feb-Apr 2016

Every three months for many years, Forward Day by Day has published short reflections on the scripture assigned each day in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.  Once again, I'm noting those reflections that particularly struck me.  This time, selections come from Feb-Mar-Apr 2016.

The image on its cover is a detail of the Deesis mosaic in Istanbul's Hagia Sophia [see photo].  The editor comments, "Each piece of glass, stone, and tile was individually placed -- each an important part of the whole.  In this way, mosaics offer an important metaphor for our life in Christ."

Reflections on scripture for February 2016 were by Elizabeth Brignac, "cradle Episcopalian" and editor for a church-based education company.

Genesis 22.2  Offer him there as a burnt offering.  Brignac's awe of Abraham's response to this test of his faith vies with her horror at what he was ready to do.  She concludes, "Overreliance on reason can hold us back; rejecting reason can lead us into ignorance and sin.  It's an awfully narrow line to walk."

John 6.64 But among you there are some who do not believe.  For Brignac, the report that brothers (perhaps, cousins) of Jesus couldn't accept his preaching humanizes him: "He was one of us, God incarnate... with brothers who messed with him, whose parents were proud when he took his first steps."

Luke 9.35 This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him.  On the mountain top, Peter chatters about building booths, when this voice tells him to shut up and listen.  "We should listen to holy words... and to holy silence," Brignac writes.  "Words are great tools, but they keep us limited to concepts that words can express."  I like that one.  I've also found that words can edit reality; what I've left unsaid or ill-expressed is lost, not just to my friend, but to me.

Genesis 37.9 Look, I have had another dream: the sun, the moon, and eleven stars were bowing down to me.  Brignac points out what a twerp Joseph was, yet, he had this gift of true dreams.  "God does not require perfect servants."

1 Corinthians 6.20 Therefore glorify God in your body.  Brignac takes comfort from a priest's reassurance that God could resurrect her father's body to be as it was in his prime, when he could "bicycle and run and climb trees."  But then she thinks, why wait?  Why wait for resurrection to be "strong and free, experiencing eating as a healthy uncomplicated celebration, dancing and running and singing to the Lord."

Reflections for March 2016 were by Rev. Scott Gunn, executive director of the Forward movement.

John 12.10  So the chief priests planned to put Lazarus to death as well.  Why?  "Every time Lazarus spoke, no matter what he said, he was testifying to a different reality of hope, life, and love." So some could not stand to hear Martin Luther King, Jr., and so  some today commit hate crimes because of race or sexual orientation, to silence those whose thriving is threatening to the hater's assumed superior position.

Reflections for April 2016 were by the Rev. J. James Derkits, artist and priest.

John 16.16 A little while, and you will no longer see me.  Derkits credits St. John of the Cross and Carl Jung for helping him to find renewal in the darkest times of his life, when he couldn't "see" Jesus in his own life.  "When I become overly familiar with the God image I carry around, I am becoming idolatrous.  In those times, God may seem to vanish..." only to reappear in a "fuller experience of God's presence."

Exodus 20:3 You shall have no other gods before me. Seems like an easy one, these days, Derkits tells us.  But he has a god in his pocket, the smart phone.  Others are "Career, Wealth, or Industry -- and that sneaky god called 'I'm right.'"

1 Thessalonians 2.20 Yes, you are our glory and joy.  Derkits tells of his young son whose pretend game at the pool with a friend had grown too complicated: "Let's just joy out!" They jumped in.  Good lesson for other times when things are getting just too complicated.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

A New Parable at St. James' Marietta: The Farmer's Third Wish

Our readings for Sunday included the fearful Hebrews' reverting to idol-worship and God's change of mind when Moses begs Him to be patient; Paul's confessing how vicious he'd been against Christians until God, in His patience, converted him; and the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin.  Father Roger Allen focused in all three on fear and loathing of "the other," asking if we all think of ourselves as the precious lost lamb?  He got a laugh when he spoke for the other ninety-nine.  "Why is the shepherd putting so much care into that one lamb?  The lamb was out of place, never followed the herd, and deserves to be lost."

But in his conclusion, Fr. Roger repeated a story worth repeating.  God visits a faithful farmer and promises him three wishes, adding, "Whatever I give to you, I'll double for your neighbor."  At first, the farmer is delighted to have his wishes for 100 cattle and 100 acres more land granted; but he is consumed with jealousy when the neighbor across the fence, who wasn't even involved with God, received 200 cattle and 200 more acres.  So, for his third wish, the farmer says, "Strike me blind in one eye." 

Fr. Roger concluded, "And God wept."

Thursday, September 01, 2016

Laws Manifest Love: More from
Forward Day by Day

Jonathan Erdman wrote daily reflections on scripture assigned in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer for the month of June 2016, published in the periodical Forward Day by Day.  He's described as a graduate of seminary who divides his time between Alaska and California.  I noticed that he also contributes to a web site called Cinema Faith (link to his page) where he writes about love over lust in Carol, tradition behind George Lucas's invented "Force" mythology in Star Wars, and empathy awakened by Brokeback Mountain that carries over into his life and relationships with gay friends and family, causing him to rethink traditional taboos.

[Photo: Haines, Alaska]

So, he's is a young man with commitment both to Christian tradition and to keeping an open mind.  While I found good things in writings by other authors for May and July, I'm going to focus first on Erdman's work for June.

Erdman combines a particular interest in Ecclesiastes with his love of Alaska.

June 1st's reading, Eccl. 3.1 For everything there is a season and a time for every matter under heaven, calls to Erdman's mind Alaska's extreme seasons, as in June, when the sun is as high at 10pm as it was at 5pm.  Naturally, activities that suit June don't fit the other seasons. Instead of asking "What is best for us to do?" ask what's suitable to the time.  He concludes,  "What appears to us as opposites in truth are intimately connected, like siblings who quarrel." That's a great analogy.

When the author of Ecclesiastes asks, "Who can make straight what He has made crooked?" Erdman tells how a road between two Alaska towns that appear close on a map may be a journey of many miles around the base of a mountain.  In our lives, and the lives of characters in Scripture, there's rarely a straight and easy path: "we meander in crooked ways," something we should accept as God's way.

Ecclesiastes 8.17 Then I saw all the work of God, that no one can find out what is happening under the sun.  Erdman observes that our "sense of self-worth and identity" depend on things beyond our control, yet

...we keep getting drawn back, trying to master our little place in the world.  If only we could solve these last few problems.  But here's the secret: Our problems are never the problem. ...The only truth we have is our life in God in this present moment.

Readings from Galatians get Erdman to thinking about America. In Gal. 5.13-14, Paul cautions, Do not use freedom ... for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.  Erdman observes that so much freedom comes with pressure to figure out "what we really want to do in life," a pressure that he implies is undue.  Eight verses later in Galatians, we read about the fruits of the spirit, calling to Erdman's mind a "buffet of choices" we have in our "lives of the flesh."  The buffet metaphor implies a caution not to weigh down our plates with "many layers of fear, anger, and pride."
Responding to Gal. 2.20 (the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith...) he gives us the image of the a monkey trapped when he puts his hand through a hole to grab a banana that's too wide for the hole: "Letting go is the work of a lifetime... the joy of the journey, the secret of the saints, and essence of spiritual experience."

Erdman reaches a similar place from the starting point of forgiveness in Mt 18.21-22.  Erdman writes how it would be tough work for him to forgive someone who'd borrow his bike and wreck it, and reaches the realization, "Forgive someone seven times, and you are a saint among fellow humans.  Do it seventy-seven times, and it isn't about work at all.  At that point, you are operating on a whole other level, where you have let go of everything."  He adds, "When Jesus resorts to the impossible and the absurd, everything changes."

For Matthew 17:20, Erdman tells of seeing how mountainous glaciers move, "massive energy hidden in plain view," "patient," moving inches a year, leaving behind the "stunning" mountains and valleys of Alaska.  Then he turns the familiar phrase around.  "Sometimes," he writes, "it takes mountain-sized faith to move a mustard seed."  He leaves it to us to think of examples.  I can think of times in my own life when I felt a mountain-sized burden lift when I dialed the phone number, or put the bottle down, or said the word "yes."

Psalm 78.2,  I will open my mouth in a parable reminds Erdman of many badly behaved figures in the Bible, and the modern readers who have "attempted a  neat and systematic understanding" of all these bits, "tied in a neat bow."  Erdman sees the attempt as a square-peg-round-hole proposition.  What makes it all relevant, he concludes, "is not that [scriptures] provide all the answer but that they raise authentic and genuine questions."

Law is "an attempt to manifest love." I wonder what would happen if partisans in this year's hateful, childish presidential race were asked to respond to this claim of Erdman's?  He's riffing off Psalm 119.142, Your justice is an everlasting justice and your law is truth, and Jesus's saying that all the laws are summed up in the commandments to love God and neighbor.   The Center for Public Justice, a Christian think tank in Washington, builds on the same idea, that "justice" is to society what "love" is to the individual. 

Erdman singled out a line from Mt. 21:31 from which my old favorite Flannery O'Connor spun a memorable story, The tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.  Erdman tells us, "Only those with the mind and heart of a beginner can learn something new [about the spiritual life].  Experts need not apply."

In his last two reflections, Erdman leaves us with a couple of challenges.  Hearing God's promises to shepherd us, seek the lost, bind up the wounded, and strengthen the weak, Erdman thinks of healing in other contexts:  friends, but also societies and economic systems.  "You are a healer in every context of your existence," he writes.  "See yourself in this way , and let that truth change you and transform our world."

At the end of June, Erdman gives us Psalm 131-2-3, I will still my soul and make it quiet, like a child upon its mother's breast; my soul is quieted within me.  To "access our silent inner spaces" is "the great work of our lives."

And in May ...
Episcopal rector and author Laurie Brock derives comfort from the least comfortable words in the Bible, Psalm 22:1, My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?   "It is the psalm of rock bottom," she says, when we realize that "one more tweak" won't help us to regain control. "Rock bottom is a messy, holy place.  When we arrive there, we lie down, weep, and lament.  We doubt, we rage, and we rest.  We are on holy ground, and God is here."   I spent sleepless nights last year trying to figure out the tweaks I could make to myself in my work to deal with some frustrations in one class, and felt all that Laurie Brock says.  That was rock bottom: Nowhere to go but up!

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins:
The Joy of Singing Badly

"She felt such joy in music," Meryl Streep said about the title character in her latest movie Florence Foster Jenkins. "And she was so determined to get -- it -- right" -- Streep's voice slipping into character -- "and she's so thrilled when she does, she goes completely off the rails."

Writer Nicholas Martin and director Stephen Frears make sure we see the aging heiress's whole-hearted enthusiasm for music and her generosity to others before we hear her sing a note.   Jenkins performs, misty-eyed, in pantomime tableaux for adoring members of the "Verdi Society."  Weeping at a recital, she is moved to renew her voice lessons, hoping to emulate the soprano's pure expressive voice.

Only after all that, and after mild-mannered pianist Cozme McMoon (played by Simon Helberg) vanquishes a roomful of aggressive musicians for the job of accompanying her lessons, do Martin and Frears let Jenkins sing.  When it happens, we and McMoon are hearing her for the first time: something like the howling of a cat, turning sometimes into a screech, a bark, or a moan sliding up just shy of the right note.  On Helberg's face, we see his polite, confident smile vie with shock, shading into dismay as he hears the vocal coach praise the sound, and sees Jenkins' husband-agent St. Clair Bayfield (Hugh Grant) nod and smile encouragement to his adored wife.  Bayfield's eyes catch McMoon's with a look that says, "Isn't she marvelous? And if you don't think so, you wouldn't dare say otherwise, right?"  For her part, Streep as Jenkins sings, wide-eyed with terror and excitement, as she hurls herself at challenges of the song.  She looks like an old girl exhilarated in her first time riding a horse at gallop.  

It's a great scene that gets us laughing, cringing, and crying all at the same time. 

The rest of the movie enriches that situation with back story, and carries us forward to a crisis when Jenkins is moved by gratitude to perform for 1000 young servicemen in a free concert at Carnegie Hall.  Bayfield's efforts to bribe and threaten critics won't be enough to protect the vulnerable diva, and McMoon fears that his reputation will never recover from the debacle-to-come. 

As a middle school teacher in the arts, I know what it's like to sit with a hundred parents who overlook the mistakes to encourage children who are living a dream. I've been that child on stage, singing flat but loud -- in tights!  Besides, as Streep observed to interviewer Terry Gross on Fresh Air, we all sound good to ourselves in the shower. It's a unique movie about a special woman in a time long-gone, but we can all find ourselves in this story.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Theology with Martini and Ice Cream

Our rector at St. James' Episcopal Church, Marietta, told us of his days as a young lawyer in New Orleans, when the revered senior partner took him to lunch.  The elder man explained how his doctor forbade his usual lunch of martini, favorite salad, favorite entree, and ice cream with chocolate sauce. The old man told the waiter, "Just bring me a martini and ice cream with chocolate sauce."

The rector, Fr. Roger Allen, told us not to read Scripture that way.  We can't have just the parts that make us feel good and skip all the protein and vegetables. 

Monday, August 15, 2016

Peace > Tranquillity: Wisdom
from Forward Day by Day

The tri-monthly publication Forward Day by Day provides readers with responses to quotations from the Episcopal Church's daily schedule of assigned readings from Scripture.  These are helpful for me every morning, but some I mark for future reference. Here are some of those from the issue that started with a reading for November 1, 2015.

[Photo: from]

The reflections for November are by Kathleen Clark, who has worked in missions and ministries as far away as Hong Kong.  She is a graduate of the Education for Ministry program (EfM), as am I, and her work there shows in the ways she gets "into the world" of the scriptures.

Mt 13:40 Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age.  Clark is reminded of her time weeding a community garden and burning the refuse. Where others see this passage as a frightful image of punishment, she sees God weeding out the causes of sin, as we can do ourselves, "weeding" our spiritual lives.

Mt 13:44 The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.  Clark asks the EfM question, who am I in this story?  "Am I like the previous owner of the field, oblivious to what I already own, ignorant of my neglect?"

Mt. 16:15. [Jesus] said to them, "But who do you say that I am?"  Clark imagines someone asking us to explain Jesus, "Who do YOU say Jesus is?"  This called to mind a time when that did happen to me, at a T.G.I.F. with a grown Hindu man, formerly a middle school student in my class.  My own answer centered on "the Word," the best  or fullest expression yet of a God who also expresses Himself daily in our lives, and historically in other religious traditions and wisdom.

Mt. 16:25 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.  Clark refers to Samuel Coleridge's poem "The Good, Great Man," a dialogue in which one friend observes that "good, great men" seldom get the reward heaped on less honorable ones.  But the second friend responds, in Clark's words, "that goodness and greatness are not means, but ends."  The good, great man does have three treasures: love, light, and calm thoughts.  Clark asks, "That sounds like something Jesus might agree with, don't you think?"

The reflections for the month of December were written by Lelanda Lee, a speaker and community organizer on behalf of human rights.

Mt. 21:22 Whatever you ask for in prayer with faith, you will receive.  Lee reminds us that prayer is a conversation, that "God expects us to listen, too."  So it's not a magical incantation.  "When we pray with faith, we are asking that God's will be done, not ours."  I guess she would agree that we don't pray to get what we want from God; we pray for God to get what He wants from us.

Mt. 25:36 I was in prison and you visited me.  This struck me because I visited Parchman Prison in Mississippi with 8th graders back in the 1980s and came away feeling that both the inmates and the staff were imprisoned there.  I thought then that I might one day be able to bring something else to the table, there.  Lee urges us to do just that, but points out that "prison" doesn't necessarily refer to a "correctional facility."  It's a metaphor as well for "physical limitations, despair, depression, or mental illness."

Jeremy Sierra, author of January's reflections, edits publications for Trinity Church, Wall Street, famous for its role as a haven for first responders in the weeks after 9/11/2001.

Ephesians 6:15 As shoes for your feet put on whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.  Sierra conjures the "quiet, still lake" that comes to his mind when he thinks of "peace," before he recalls that nature is not always tranquil, and neither is peace. We mustn't confuse peace with stillness.  "Peace does indeed encompass (and actually requires) movement and change."  Segregation in our communities by race, income, or party may be "stillness" but not "peace," which requires breaking barriers and movement.  "We better put some shoes on our feet because we have a gospel of peace to proclaim."

Psalm 23:1 The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.  After observing how un-glamorous sheepdom is, Sierra has to acknowledge that, even at his most active moments when he appears to be a leader, he can't take credit. "Other people -- my parents, friends, or the men and women throughout history who have learned, studied, served, and loved -- make my life possible."  So even when he's a tiger, he's "one sheep in the flock of humanity," defined by connections to others.

Mt 10:19 Do not worry about how you are to speak or what you are to say....  Sierra takes this passage as a reminder of what he has learned from experience:  "when we speak out of love, saying something is better than remaining silent."   Just this morning, as I got red-faced thinking what I might say, not out of love, but out of exasperation, I reminded myself that it's better to stay silent.  But Sierra's observation applies when we "speak to power" or when others need comfort.  There may not be right or effective words to say, "but the fact that we have the courage to speak (and that we do so out of love) is often enough to make a difference."

John 5:17  My Father is still working, and I also am working.  Sierra admits that he used to be disturbed by the Jesus of the Synoptic Gospels, confirmed by the Jesus in John.  Now, it's the other way around.  His point is that faith is a work in progress, and understanding will change.  When I was a college-aged fundamentalist, Professor John DiCorcia shook me up by saying just that, in secular terms:  "If you still believe in five years what you believe now, your brain is dead."  I could see the truth in that; but I'd been taught that deviation or error in any part of my belief system meant a fall from grace.  What a perversion of the Gospel that is!

While I'm at it, this is also a good verse to remember when a church tries to just hold on to what it's always done.  Pope Benedict has just announced a panel to look into accepting women as deacons, but, as for ordination to priesthood, he says, "That door is closed."  Well, as the Pope once said of gays, "Who am I to judge?"

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Glenn Beck Speaks My Mind

Turning NPR on my radio during Weekend Edition Saturday yesterday, I heard a calm voice expressing things that I've been yelling at my dashboard for months.  Only at the end, I learned that it was Glenn Beck, a conservative media performer who rubbed me the wrong way so long ago that I forget why. 

[Link to a transcript and podcast here.  Photo: Glenn Beck at Salon.Com]

About Donald Trump, Beck says he knows little except that he's "self-absorbed" and "driven by himself," and not a "constitutionalist."  Check, check, and check.  Trump has "deep socialist leanings" while being a nationalist and populist, a combination that "never ends well" in history.   

Asked if it's time for a new party, Beck said what I've been feeling for fifteen years or so: "I don't even know who the Republican party is anymore."

On another hot-button issue of today, Beck posited a situation where everyone at the table gets a slice of pie but you.  When you object, "My pie matters," the others who answer "all pie matters" just haven't listened.  While Beck disagrees with an anti-capitalist agenda among some who speak under the name "Black Lives Matter," he supports the basic idea.

I'm reminded of when I heard conservative commentator Neil Boortz shut down a fan who pressed him to run for public office.  Boortz said with astounding frankness that he was an entertainer, paid for saying provocative things; he was in no way interested in public office.  So Glenn Beck may be speaking his true mind on NPR, and playing a part in his other public venues.