Monday, January 09, 2012

Father Roger and Water

The Baptism of Christ was the theme of yesterday's readings in the Episcopal church, and our new rector Father Roger D Allen meditated on "water."  From water that cleanses in John's Baptism to water that makes a new creation in the Holy Spirit, which parallels the water over which the Spirit of God moves in Genesis I, Father Roger led us to see church itself as a source of that kind of water.

"What are we doing here?" he asked a full house of parishioners.   He ticked off a list of things that church does not do, or does not do primarily:  produce anything that could be measured by people on the street, solve problems, connect people to a club of like-minded people, or administer aid the way Red Cross and United Way do. 

It reminded me of a core chapter in Ronald Rolheiser's book The Holy Longing, which parishioners of St. James' Marietta discussed in a book group some ten years ago.  Glancing again through notes I made in that book, I see some startling correlaries to Father Roger's list of what church is not. It's not a self-help center where individual spiritual growth is the aim, but a merging with God in community (Rolheiser 137).  Rolheiser relates the oil applied to the forehead in baptism to oil used in Hebrew burial rites and observes that "we go to church to help ready each other for death" (134).  Rolheiser takes literally the idea that the church is the body of Christ in the world, the Holy Spirit "with skin on."  He also observes, incidentally, that our desire to "distinguish ourselves" is a sign of immaturity, holding on to the early stage of "individuation" (136).  His emphasis throughout is on commitment, of which Paul is his prime example, when Paul stands up, goes forward, eyes open, seeing nothing (125).

Father Kirk and Father Roger went on to baptize an adult, whose children watched from the front row, and an infant who charmingly went to sleep between the dribbling of water and the consecration by oil.  Children of the congregation came up into the choir area to watch, so that all parishioners could watch the children watching the ceremony.  It was sweet, and, thanks to the preparation, it was an outward and visible sign of something we had been provoked to think about.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Silence

(a short homily for middle school assembly, responding to a reading from I Kings.)

I want you all to listen to something.   You probably haven't heard it in a long time.  Someone of your generation may never have heard it.  In fact, I'm afraid that it may make you feel uncomfortable.  It may strike you as awkward. . .
(silence)
Silence.   We don't like it.  I have music or news playing at my home from the moment I wake up until I'm asleep.  I turn on the radio in my car before I fasten my seat belt.  Thanks to my Android, I'm listening to news or music when I walk in the forest or ride my bike.  My students want to plug into their devices when we have silent writing time.
If you are like me, then we don't even have to care about what we're hearing, much.  Thinking about this message on the way to school this morning, I was half-listening to some guy who says he has "mo-oo-oo-ooves like Jagger."  How annoying is that?
So it's our own responsibility if we cram our own heads non-stop with messages from pop stars and politicians and comics and commercial announcers who are all trying to distract us from what we have to do, and what we want to do, and what we ought to do.
Why do we do this to ourselves?    Four centuries ago, a French mathematician named Pascal observed something new among the sophisticated city dwellers of his day:  they hated silence.  They needed other people to provide some kind of distraction at all times.  His theory  was that their belief in a God was just something they had because they were supposed to.  With no real belief in God, he says that a modern man feels alone.   Worse, the modern man alone, in silence, feels like nobody, with no real value or purpose, only to consume what others offer.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, the prophet Elijah, on the run from the evil queen Jezebel, hides in a cave on Mt. Horeb.  He is drawn out of the cave by the promise that God will speak to him.  Suddenly, a great wind rips the mountain.  But Elijah doesn't hear God in the wind.  Then an earthquake shakes the mountain.  But Elijah doesn't hear God in the earthquake.  Then a fire sweeps across the face of the mountain.  But Elijah doesn't hear God in the roaring of the fire.  Then all becomes quiet, and that's when Elijah hears what he calls a "still, small voice" that tells him what to do next in his life.
It's an interesting scene repeated in all the major religions.  Buddha, Jesus, and Mohammed all began their careers after long periods alone in silence, far away from the distractions of their hometowns.   
(silence)

When we find ourselves anxious to plug in, to seek out noise and distraction, let's consider the possibility that it might be better for us to listen to silence.