Sunday, August 25, 2013

"What's Necessary to Salvation?": Wrong Question!

At St. James' Episcopal Church, Marietta GA, our associate rector Fr. Daron Vroon hit a grand slam with his sermon this morning, and here's my instant replay:

He took off with a line from today's reading in Isaiah 58: If you call the Sabbath a delight... then you shall take delight in the Lord.  He was commenting more directly on the story in Luke 13, in which authorities chide Jesus for healing a woman on the Sabbath, and Jesus retorts, "Which of you on the Sabbath does not untie his ox or his donkey... and lead him to water? And ought not this daughter of Abraham be set free from bondage on the Sabbath?"

Fr. Daron quickly summarized the usual take on this story:  It demonstrates that the old laws are not necessary to salvation.  Problems arise because Jesus doesn't speak here of faith v. works. and he says elsewhere (in Matthew, for example) that he comes to fulfill the law, not to eliminate even one letter of it.  Jesus certainly says nothing here about not honoring the Sabbath.  So,  "Is honoring the Sabbath necessary for Salvation?" Fr. Daron asked.  With a smile, he said, "Wrong question!"

Fr. Daron says that we Protestants are reading our old debates into Jesus' remarks. That would be "Isogesis."  Instead we should look for what to take away from them  - "exegesis."  (I'm reminded of my old pal Brad Mullis, now a rector in North Carolina, who used to claim that this terminology was confusing: "I looked in the Bible and I can't find this extra Jesus!") 

When we don't limit our reading to just that issue of salvation, what we see is a story of how the Sabbath means much more than the legalists saw.  "It's not an obligation," Fr. Daron said, "it's an opportunity for refreshment, healing, and worship."

He moved on to discuss how our prayer book, our liturgical calendar, and our own parish provides a lot more opportunities for refreshment, healing, and worship than just the Sunday service.  Instead of focusing on what's needed to "scrape by" into Heaven, our Anglican tradition is much more positive and rich.

I'd say that's a grand slam that rounded all the bases:   A reminder that Anglican theology has long emphasized the goodness of God's creation (including the Sabbath), a caution against the neo-legalistic focus on what's necessary for individual salvation, and a clear explanation of our numerous prayer and singing services for our many members and guests who come from other traditions.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Inspirational Vignette: Little Old Boy in Pool

This year, my first assignment for the seventh graders has been to write for their classmates an inspirational essay, 300 words, based on an anecdote.   The assignment purposefully blurs the lines between "story" and "essay," because the best parts of essays (and speeches, sermons, etc.) are always the narrative parts.  Also, the anecdote is best when there's strong sensory detail that encapsulates the whole scene for the reader.

One of my students has written of rescuing his little brother from the deep end of a pool.  The kicker of his essay is that his little brother got in the water again, and again tried for the deep end.

This reminded me of a unique experience that I'd like to share:

For one summer, I was Associate Director of a pre-school summer camp in Mississippi.  One of my charges was known by his initials as "R.A.," born with some condition that had kept him indoors, tied by feeding tubes to a machine.   At age four, he was finally weaned from the machine. But he looked like an old man:  bony, bald, wizened, bags under his eyes.  He had never run outside or gone swimming.  He'd had no playmates.

His first time at a swimming pool, he begged me to take him in.  He clung to me, and I recall not only the sharpness of his fingernails digging into my neck, but the hot tears that rolled from his eyes, down my cheek, because he was that close.  He trembled.  He was terrified as I waded with him through the water.  I offered to take him back to land, but he insisted:  he wanted more.

There's a lesson in how he felt such fear and, at the same time, such strong desire to live.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Looking Backward at Forward

Luis, who loves morning "quiet time"
Many mornings, once the coffee is brewing in the kitchen, I sit at an antique roll-top desk in a corner of my den, surrounded by photos of family and friends,  Luis the 13 - year - old dog at my side, and I read the day's meditation in Forward Day By Day.  This pamphlet is published quarterly and distributed through churches across the world (   The jumping - off - point for each meditation is the scripture assigned for each day in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer.  This week, at the end of this quarter, before retiring the old pamphlet, I'll record insights that I underlined and starred with my right hand while Luis nudged my left to stimulate his morning massage between the ears.

June 5, Luke 17:20-37, "those who lose their life will keep it." Author Daniel Simons in boyhood "lived with low-grade anxiety" about the idea of the rapture.  "The irony is that Jesus was hoping for the opposite behavior.  ...Trying to make life secure is a sure way to anxiety: 'Is it secure enough yet? How about now?'  And conversely, when we invest deeply in what is now, where God is always present, we find that fear falls away."   A perpetual worrier myself, who has worried since June 5 about preparing for the upcoming school year, I'm grateful for a reminder to enjoy the sunshine and old Luis while I may.

June 6, 2 Corinthians 8:1-16.  Simons, an Episcopal priest who serves at Trinity Church, Wall Street, NY, NY, knows about poverty and homelessness.  Why, he wonders, do people with the least among us also show joy and generosity?  Simons rejects the folk notion that poverty produces joy, but "generosity in any situation creates more of itself," and the poor more quickly take the risk of sharing their little.  "Generosity is a gift that keeps on giving," he writes, and adds, "there are not too many times a day to say 'I love you.'"

June 10, Deuteronomy 30:1-10, "For the Lord will again take delight in prospering you....when you obey...."   Simons writes, "God's promise of blessing for good behavior is a comforting feature of religion, but it's only one end of a spectrum of God's relationship with us."  Jesus is at the other end, "God's presence in the midst of -- and not just in spite of -- catastrophe" for the innocent. 

June 12, 2 Corinthians 11:21 ff.  "I will boast of the things that show my weakness."  Simons points out that Paul, "in an inverted way, is bragging."  But "he is trying to point people beyond a sense of earned accomplishment... to something more radical: identifying with our weaknesses.  Why would anyone do that?"  Simons takes an idea from Buddhists, the "beginner's mind."  In meditation, they say, "see yourself as always beginning" instead of thinking how long you've been at it. 

My own worries and also new ideas for teaching after 33 years' experience reminds me that I'm always beginning.  Writing is the same way; as a teacher of writing, I should show kids that it isn't something that gets easier with experience; you only have more options to choose from.

June 15,  Luke 20:1-8, "Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things."  Simons remembers as a young deacon being advised, "the deacon's primary work is to give the work away." In education as in church work, giving away responsibility "increases the collective power" of the group  "When authority is about control it often ends in death; when it is about invitation it leads towards life."

June 17, Acts 1: 1-14, "It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set...."  Simons likes to know how things work, and the apostles want to know God's plans for them before they "dive in and live in" their lives of faith.  "That, in the end, might be the leap of faith:  not believing the unbelievable, but stepping into an experience without the answer."

June 22, Acts 4:32-5:11, the story of Ananias and Sapphira, who kept back some of the proceeds from a land sale when they said they were giving all to the Church.  When Peter calls them on their lie, they fall dead at his feet.  "Their sin is solely their self-inflation -- saying that their gift was the entire sale price.  This was a version of 'keeping up with the Joneses,' since other believers were also selling their possessions to contribute to the new church."   Peter says they were deceiving God,
And since this is impossible, it is really about deceiving the self.  And what is so damaging about self-deception is that when we do it, we cut ourselves off from ourselves.  Conscience gets dull; we can't orient to truth, to the greater good of the community. It happens imperceptibly.  ...[Let's reflect on] where our own integrity might need a tune up.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Beyond Belief in My Bright Abyss by Poet Christian Wiman

Reflection on My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer by Christian Wiman (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013).

Wiman during interview with Bill Moyers. See
Christian Wiman's slender but rich book My Bright Abyss is the author's attempt to complete a poem he started years ago:

My God my bright abyss
into which all my longing will not go
once more I come to the edge of all I know
and believing nothing believe in this:

He tells us that he'd hoped to distill his theology into a single rhymed stanza.  Now it takes him 182 pages of prose to reach some tentative conclusions.  But why should we pay attention to what a poet believes?   Neither theologian nor clergyman, Christian Wiman writes with authority, stemming both from his years in extreme pain at the edge of death, and from a poet's disciplined habit of weighing alternatives to every word or image he chooses, to find just the one that hits the truth.  (read my article about some of his poems here)

He anchors many of his theological meditations to the world of things with some strong anecdotes.  At age 12, he alarmed and awed the congregation at his small Texas town's fundamentalist church when he fled the altar call crying; he does not understand what happened to him.  He tells us how his unexamined belief system (my words, not his) melted when he went away to college, and how he transferred "that entire searching intensity onto literature" (34).  He pays tribute to his Grandmother, with her intuitive and deep appreciation for the world of her senses, and to her mentally challenged sister, his "Aunt Sissy," waitress in a roadside cafĂ© (36), and wonders at the difference between their final moments in hospital.  There's a period of travel and short-lived love affairs encapsulated in a poem set in a Prague apartment, where a falcon alights outside the window (44). 

Most of the book draws on Wiman's overarching story of the turnaround in his own life:  poet, editor of Poetry magazine, he found the love of his life, rediscovered faith with her (they step into a church on a whim, 68), and, shortly after, was diagnosed with a rare incurable cancer.  A remarkable set of pages were written years apart: He writes that the "still small voice" of God in Isaiah is both "more powerful" than whirlwinds and earthquakes, but also "not altogether apart from them" (146), concluding that one may need to experience "terror and pain" to hear that voice. After a small space on the paper, he writes of how years have passed since he wrote the previous sentence, during which he has experienced great pain, but also the joy of twin daughters.  People wonder how he could "bring children into a situation so precarious," and he understands the question. "But then we see them offering each other flowers they've picked from the backyard ... or stopping amid their madcap play to kiss each other," and he asks, "How could we not have had them?  How could they not be?   How could such life, such love, ever have remained latent and dormant within us" (147)?

In a way, the whole book is an argument that Wiman has with himself over theology.  He sometimes thinks, "I'm simply wandering through a discount shopping mall of myth, trying to convince myself there's something worth buying" (117).  About dogma, he writes that it provides...
the ropes, clips, and toes spikes whereby one descends into the abyss [of knowledge of God].  But I am also a poet, and I feel the falseness -- or no, not even that, a certain inaccuracy and slippage, as if the equipment were worn and inadequate -- at every step.  (117)
As often happens with Wiman, he takes back the word "falseness" to find the more accurate word and image. Elsewhere, the whole passage is contradicted by a diarist who gives up on finding modern substitutes for "annoying" words such as "humility" and "grace," because "these are word-vessels ... saturated with content through ages of thought and use...." (Anna Kamienska, 141).  For another example, no sooner has Wiman developed the appealing idea,"Silence is the language of faith. Action -- be it church or charity, politics or poetry -- is the translation," weak in the ways of all translations, than he qualifies his own analogy, reminding himself that silence loses its power without those actions (107).  Similarly, faith that isn't held in common, i.e., with a church community, is only ego (127).  He has no truck with vague new age spirituality, either, quoting George Lindbeck: "You can no more be religious in general than you can speak language in general" (141).

Wiman's central tenet comes to us in opposites.  When he makes his striking observation that "pain islands you" (148), he writes with the authority of one whose bones have cracked from cancer growing inside the marrow.  With the same authority, he turns that around, telling us that pain actually joins us to each other and to God through Christ's suffering at the moment that he cried out My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?   He is a Christian for this, not for the hope of resurrection or the truth of Christianity compared to other religions, or because of his childhood in the church:
  • I am a Christian because I understand that moment of Christ's passion to have meaning in my own life, and what it means is that the absolutely solitary and singular nature of extreme human pain is an illusion.  [Not suggesting that "ministering angels" will comfort you, but] that Christ's suffering shatters the iron walls around individual human suffering, that Christ's compassion makes extreme compassion -- to the point of death, even -- possible. (155)
Wiman's faith and literary tastes meet where "insight is still sight" (119), between opposites of mere matter and abstract ideas.  Among poets at these poles are William Carlos Williams, whose verse focuses on things, and Robert Lowell "who had such a tremendous imagination for language but so little for other people" (46).  In between, Wiman gives us Richard Wilbur's "Hamlen Brook": drinking from a stream, the speaker pauses to notice the life under the surface, shadows deeper, the reflections on the surface, and finally, the satisfaction of the drink that comes with "an ache / Nothing can satisfy" (120).  Wiman reprints this to illustrate how "some singular aspect of reality... seems to acquire a life in excess of itself" giving us a feeling "more complicated than joy," because that "excess" keeps going while the perception of the thing is instantly lost in time: "to name is to praise and lose in one instant.  So many ways of saying God" (119). 

He writes admiringly of the "devotional poets of death" among the modernists, especially Emily Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Samuel Beckett, and Camus, and dismisses the postmodernists who value "nothing more than anything else" (50).  But while he once believed that "concentration on death concentrates life" and "Death is the mother of beauty," his ideas changed when death stopped being an abstraction (57-58). 

But he doesn't go for the conventional idea of afterlife, either, for a beautifully simple reason: "Death is here to teach us something, or to make us fit for something" (105).  It has to be final.  He makes a strong case that life is change, and the popular idea of "life" eternal, self intact, but without choices, without suffering, without anything left to complete -- is a contradiction in terms.   

Two chapters struck me strongly, and I'll take another blog post or two just to deal with those, "Hive of Nerves" and "God is Not Beyond."