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!

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