Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Poets and puppies

Wisdom 7:24-8:1; Psalm 27:5-11; 1 Corinthians 12:4-11

For a while there last week, I wondered if we ought to have built an ark. It seemed we might float away from all the rain, or blow away from the wind. Every time the lightening crackled and the thunder rumbled, our whole house – and our dog – shook. In fact, no one was happier than our storm-phobic dog when Saturday morning dawned bright and beautiful.

We took her on a walk through the neighborhood, and as she splashed through puddles and sniffed each blade of grass, we smiled at the sun and were grateful for its warmth. We might have even said a little prayer of thanks for the beautiful day. It made me think of one of the few poems I know by heart, another prayer of thanks written by 20th century American poet, ee cummings:

i thank you God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes…

Isn’t it incredible how a poem can paint a picture, but not a still-life – the picture made by a poem has motion in it. It helps us imagine things we might not be able to see with our eyes, but that are real nonetheless. Thinking about that walk on Saturday, I can imagine the
leaping greenly spirits of trees and the blue true dream of sky.

Tomorrow is the feast day of John Donne, an English poet and preacher who lived four hundred years ago. He is one of the saints in the Episcopal church, because of his ability to use words to paint pictures, to turn faith from a still-life into something with motion, something with meaning. In his time, people flocked to church to hear him preach, and in our time his poems and sermons and letters are still read in English classes.

Over the course of this school year, we’ve heard the stories of all kinds of saints, all kinds of people of God. Some, like Andrew and Francis, lived many centuries before Donne. Others are living now, like Governor Winter and the campers at special session, the Most Reverend Katharine Jefferts Schori and Rukhsana Khan, and our own St. Andrew's saints, Miss Saddler and Dr. Taylor. Looking back over all their stories and the pictures they’ve painted with their lives, we’ve seen in them an amazing variety of gifts and abilities used in the service of others, in the service of God.

Now, John Donne, of course, never met Andrew or Francis, and he certainly never met Governor Winter. Rukhsana Khan hasn’t ever been to special session, and I don’t think Dr. Taylor knows Bishop Schori. But they are all connected, and not just because they’ve all been speakers, or the subject of speakers, in chapel this year. John Donne wrote, “No one is an island, entirely alone; everyone is a piece of the continent, everyone is a piece of the main.”

All the saints – past and present, and those still to come – all the saints, all of God’s people, including ourselves, are connected. We are all part of the continent, all part of the main, all part of the big picture that is always full of motion, full of life. And we bring an amazing variety of gifts and abilities. Some of us are poets, and some of us are preachers. Some of us are artists, musicians, teachers, athletes. All of us are scholars. We possess so many different talents and interests – perhaps one of us will find a cure for dogs who are terrified of storms. I hope so, for my dog’s sake. It is breathtaking to imagine the infinite possibilities in this room right now, the infinite ways our particular constellations of gifts and abilities can be put to use by us in the service of others, in the service of God.

Perhaps, one day, someone here will be honored on some calendar of saints, counted among God’s people whose lives have reflected God’s light. But Andrew and Francis and Donne and all the rest have understood that god’s purpose in blessing each of us with something unique is not so that we might be honored. Instead, as we heard a moment ago, the presence of God’s Spirit is
shown in some way in each person for the good of all. Our gifts and abilities are given to us so that we might use them to imagine a better and brighter and more beautiful world – not a still-life, but a world filled with the motions of love and generosity and welcome.

It’s supposed to rain again later this week, I think. But even if it storms, I won’t forget Saturday’s
leaping greenly spirits of trees and blue true dream of sky. i thank you God for each and every amazing day, for each and every one of the amazing gifts we are given…for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes. Amen.

i thank You God, by ee cummings

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday;
this is the birthday of life and love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any-lifted from the no of all nothing-human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

Friday, March 27, 2009

Getting the point

John 12:20-33

Lately Little Charlie’s class has been learning to identify the main point of things that they read.  Sometimes his homework has him practice writing paragraphs with a main point.  Other times he brings home reading worksheets with a series of short paragraphs about all kinds of different things, and after each one is a multiple choice question that asks, “What is this paragraph mostly about?”

After looking over the paragraph or so that make up the gospel reading for the fifth Sunday in the season of Lent, I began to wonder if Jesus had forgotten everything he learned in 2nd grade about main points!  What on earth is this paragraph mostly about?  Andrew and Philip expect it’s going to be something about when he can make time for the Greeks who want to meet him.  Instead, Jesus starts talking about the hour of his glorification, the growth cycle of grains of wheat, the servants of God, and the state of his soul.  A voice from heaven interrupts for a moment, after which Jesus continues his paragraph, now talking about the ruler of the world, his own magnetism - I will draw all people to myself - and being lifted up, which John helpfully tells us is in reference to the kind of death Jesus was to die.

So, what is this paragraph mostly about?

Preachers the world over will do their best to answer this question, and I suspect some congregations will hear how the church is the fruit that grows from the grain of wheat that has died and yet lives.  Others may hear that Jesus died not just for a chosen few but for the whole world.  Still other preachers will ponder how Jesus is glorified in those who are his servants.  My husband will describe this paragraph as a pivotal point in John's gospel, before which Jesus has repeatedly told those seeking messages and miracles that his time had not yet come.  But now, the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.  Why do we seek Jesus, Charlie will ask his congregation?  Why do we want to meet him, as the Greeks in the gospel reading do?  Do we want to see miracles and hear powerful messages?  Or do we want to see a life lived entirely and unreservedly out of love, so unreservedly that not even death can deter it?

What is this paragraph mostly about?

On Wednesday night, I attended a dinner hosted by Muslim families whose children attend St. Andrew’s.  Rukhsana Khan, our storyteller at school this week, was guest of honor, but much of the evening was devoted to sharing with those of us who were Christian what it means to be Muslim.  It was a beautiful, intimate evening...right up until the moment I was asked to provide a paragraph with a main point.  Would you explain Christianity to us, one of our hosts asked me.  I’m afraid the paragraph I spoke in front of that gathering was as full of main ideas as Jesus’ words in John’s gospel.

I’ve thought a lot about that experience, and now find myself wondering, what if I had simply tried to answer the question, What is my faith mostly about?  What would I say then?

If the season of Lent is mostly about clearing away those things in our lives that come between us and God; if this is the season when we await the fulfillment of the promise, Where I am, there will my servant be also, when we will fall into the dirt as grains of wheat with Christ and rise again fruitful and life-filled, then perhaps the hour has come - perhaps this is the right time for us all to ask ourselves, What is my faith mostly about?  Amen.

Artwork: Lenten altar frontal, by Connie Backus-Yoder

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Lent 4B

Numbers 21:4-9; Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22; Ephesians 2:1-10; John 3:14-21

From Mount Hor the Israelites set out by the way to the Red Sea, to go around the land of Edom; but the people became impatient on the way.  I know just how they feel.  The Israelites had no way of knowing, of course, that their 40-year sojourn through the wilderness was nearly done.  For generations they had been wandering, winding a weary way through seas, over mountains, and across deserts, and it must have seemed to them by now that they had gotten nowhere.  Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness, they complained bitterly to Moses, and through Moses, to God.  Why?

I know just how they feel.  Not because I have ever been so desperately lost or hungry or thirsty or tired of wandering out in the wilderness.  But I know how it feels to grow impatient because it seems, no matter how much winding this way and that, no matter how long the journey, that I am getting nowhere.

I knit and knit and knit, and the blanket simply isn’t growing.  Nor is the skein of yarn shrinking.  Surely I should have finished by now.  Why did I even start this project in the first place, I complain bitterly to whoever is unfortunate enough to be sitting nearby as I wearily knit on.  Why?    

Maybe that’s not exactly how the Israelites felt.  Getting lost in a stitch pattern, now matter how wild and strange the pattern is, is nothing like getting lost in a wild and strange land.  I can put my knitting down and do something else, but there was nothing else for the Israelites to do except wander and wonder when the wandering would end.


Perhaps as wanderers through the season of Lent we can say we know just how they feel.  Nearly four weeks ago, now, we entered a spiritual wilderness of ashes and penitence and prayer.  Over and again, in our readings from scripture, in the language of our prayers, in the absence of whatever we might have given up, in the presence of whatever we might have taken on, we are reminded of how quickly we become impatient, how bitterly we complain when things don’t go as we have planned, how often we forget to let God be God.  We are reminded of our sinfulness, our willfulness, our brokenness.  

But this fourth Sunday of Lent is different than the others.  An ancient liturgy of the church contained as a response said by the people the Latin word Laetare, which means “rejoice”.  This Sunday came to be known as Laetare Sunday, when the readings and the prayers turn in a more Easter-ly direction.  The sinfulness and willfulness and brokenness are still there - even snakes and darkness and death - but there is also hope and light and life.  In the part of our Eucharistic prayer that comes right before the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, we have been urged for three weeks to triumph over evil and to live no longer for ourselves; today that prayer bids us prepare with joy for the Paschal feast at which we will receive fullness of grace.    

That’s not how the Israelites felt at all, for whom manna had ceased to be a feast.  We know that Easter is coming, and soon.  They didn’t know when they would arrive in the land promised to them so many miles and years before.  And while the effect of sin on our spirits is every bit as poisonous as a snake bite to the body, the Lenten wilderness does not frighten us nearly as much as a wilderness of rock and brush and beasts.  If we are impatient on this fourth Sunday of the season of Lent, it is likely that we are simply tired of going without chocolate, or getting up an hour earlier to exercise, or forgetting to leave out the alleluia (shhhh!) when we pray.

One look at the day’s headlines, through, and I think we can say that we do know just how the Israelites felt - the impatience, the uncertainty, the fear, the anger, the bitterness, the futility, the wilderness that seems to go on and on and on.  The crisis of the world’s economy grows more desperate each day as more and more people lose homes and jobs.  Violence threatens both nations and neighborhoods.  Disease devours lives of women, men and children.  And even if we ourselves are sheltered from these concerns (which is increasingly unlikely), we worry about friends and loved ones who are navigating some wilderness or another.  Why bother with Easter at all, why bother with saving us, if sin and suffering and sadness are still going to consume us in the end?  Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the wilderness, we complain bitterly to God.  Why?  How can we rejoice, even on this Laetare Sunday?

We can rejoice because of the words Jesus speaks to us this day, words that even Episcopalians can quote with chapter and verse.  For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.  The words are beautiful and compelling, and have comforted many on the long and winding way through life.  Others hear the words and despair, or glare at them across a ballfield or painted on an overpass, filled with sorrow or rage that they feel they are still perishing, despite all that Jesus did.  

There is more, though, to John 3:16, which Martin Luther once called “the gospel in miniature.”  As John tells the story, Jesus spoke these words to Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish council who had come to Jesus under cover of night.  We know that you are a teacher who has come from God, Nicodemus said in hushed tones, for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.  His world became a wilderness, though, as Jesus began to describe the work of God in making things new - even making life new.  How can these things be, Nicodemus asked, and we do not know if his question was a bitter complaint or wonder-filled.  We do know that in broad daylight on the day of Jesus’ crucifixion, Nicodemus would again come forward and ask in bold tones for the body of the one who was not apart from the presence of God.  

But back to the middle of the night... Although he didn’t understand Jesus’ words about new life, Nicodemus would have recognized immediately Jesus’ reference to the serpent in the wilderness, the bronze image of a snake which God gave Moses as the means for saving the lives of those who would gaze upon it.  Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.  

Nicodemus would have known well the story we heard about the Israelites, impatient, unhappy, and bitterly complaining that neither Moses nor God cared about them, having apparently led them into the wilderness to die.  At least life in Egypt had been predictable.  Out here, there were no guarantees, and they were beginning to believe they would have been better off without God.  They had lost sight of the power of God to save, so focused in upon themselves that they could not see how God had over and again saved them, body and spirit.

The consequence for their sin of short-sightedness was a plague of poisonous, death-dealing snakes, immediately provoking their penitence and prayer that God would remove the snakes from them.  God didn’t.  But before we bitterly complain, listen to what God did do: Make a poisonous serpent and set it on a pole; and everyone who is bitten shall look at it and live.  God did not remove the snakes; God removed death as a consequence of sin.  Everyone who looked upon that which God had given, everyone who looked upon God’s desire to save, everyone who looked upon God’s offer of healing grace, would live even though by all rights their sin should have done them in.  It was a most unpredictable thing, God’s grace.  And it was more reliable than the rising of the sun with each new day.

So it is with me, Jesus wanted Nicodemus and all of us who walk in darkness to know.  You are so focused on yourselves, your fears, your doubts, your impatience, your anger, your pain, your despair.  You are short-sighted.  You do not see me.  Look at me, and live.  Scholars and theologians teach us that Jesus is comparing the lifting up of the bronze serpent to his own being lifted up on the cross and ultimately being lifted up in resurrection.  But all throughout John’s gospel, Jesus says to those he encounters, come and see, inviting them to watch how he lives each day, how he loves each day, how he heals and how he saves each and every day.  

Here and now, in the wilderness, in our short-sightedness, in our sin, in our darkness, here and now is where precisely where God so loves us that God sent Jesus to walk here and now with us.  This is why we can rejoice.  

The course of this world, Paul wrote in his letter to the Ephesians, the course of this world turns us inward upon ourselves, teaches us that we can make life predictable, that if we follow the desires of our flesh and senses, we can make our own way through the wilderness.  In this concave posture, though, it is nearly impossible to see God standing by to save.  For God, Paul writes, God, who is rich in mercy, out of great love has loved us even though we are dead through our sins, our short-sightedness, and God makes us alive together with Christ.  By grace we have been saved.

What, though, of the snakes?  What of the sin that so clearly remains?  What of the darkness that still hovers round?  What of the impatience we still feel?  Looking at Christ lifted up for us heals us, but perhaps in a way we hadn’t predicted.  Looking at Christ lifted up for us heals our sight, our ability to see Christ here and now, saving us moment by moment, step by step through whatever wilderness it is that we travel.  Looking at Christ lifted up for us heals our sight, so that even as our eyes behold the sin and suffering that continue to sink their poison into our own lives, the lives of loved ones, and the life of the world all around us, we glimpse also the grace by which we are saved from believing that sin and suffering are the only way to live, the only way to survive.  Looking at Christ lifted up for us heals our sight, allowing us to focus on God, whose rich mercy and great love and immeasurable kindness and saving grace await not just at the end of the journey but around every turn and in the most unpredictable places.

Let us pray as we continue on our way through Lent and in every wilderness where we walk, a prayer written by my seminary class as we wandered through the wilderness of our senior year...Let us pray.  Oh God of good graces, to you we turn faces as we now stand in this space between places.  Amen.

Artwork: "Red Sea High Tide", by Ingrid Nickelson; "Study for Moses and the Brazen Serpent", by Augustus John.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Life is de bubbles...

Under de sea!!  We could very well have floated all the way to New Orleans on Tuesday, propelled only by Little Charlie's bubbling excitement for our trip to the Aquarium of the Americas.  

Just a few steps inside, and we were all under the sea, surrounded by rays and eels and sharks and fish of all shapes and sizes and colors.  Such tranquility, such fluid grace, such effortless motion through the blue-gold water.  Everyone under the sea - sea creatures and human creatures alike - seemed delighted to be there, and those of us without fins felt something of the freedom of those with fins and gentle gills and sparkling scales.  

We went to the aquarium because of Little Charlie's love of ocean life, a love instilled by his second grade teacher whose classroom has been decorated all year with whales and jellyfish and dolphins and octopuses.  But Big Charlie and I were equally as entranced as we moved from tank to tank, soaking in the sights of world's seas.  

Under de sea, under de sea,
darling it's better down where it's wetter,
take it from me!

Up on the shore dey work all day,
out in the sun dey slave away,
while we devoting full time to floating
under de sea!

Hidden in a corner was a marvelous piece of art, entitled "Sharks Bite" (I'm afraid I didn't write down the artist's name).  The cat's name is Charlie, according to the marker on the wall beside the painting.  That alone made it special, but added to the sentiment was the memory of several pieces of artwork depicting cats that we purchased in New Orleans years ago - Big Charlie had just chosen "Happy Cat" as the name of his informal recording studio.

I knew that sharks were notorious biters, but had never seen the razor sharp teeth of eels up close.  Little Charlie made friends with a pair of moray eels who looked for all the world like they had been pulled straight out of Ursula's employ.  We saw other more colorful eels and biting things as well...

Sharks bite.  Moray eels bite.  Lots of critters and creatures we saw either bite or sting or strangle as part of the circle of life under the sea.  Such tranquility, such fluid grace, such effortless motion...and so much of it, in the wild open sea, devoted to eating or being eaten!  Perhaps if they would take up knitting...

I worked on this scarf all the way down to New Orleans and back.  The yarn is Rowan Damask, a lovely linen blend (not on the Rowan Yarns website for some reason, but Knit Studio does carry it), and the pattern is a simple feather and fan to make a scarf light as a bubble and blue as the sea.  Unfortunately, it has already been frogged because I ran out of yarn before the scarf was long enough.  A larger needle, fewer stitches, and the addition of some Rowan Kidsilk Haze (in the shark's mouth) should fix that, and as I knit I'll imagine myself back under the sea...

Under de sea, under de sea,
since life is sweet here,
we got to knit here, naturally...     

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Tables Upturned

John 2:13-22

I should have taken a picture of my kitchen Friday night, with our overturned dining room table in the middle of the floor... We had been talking about a major furniture shift involving four rooms in the house but mostly for the purpose of turning our dining room (which, let's be honest, is really used mostly as a homework and storage room) into a music room. 

High on the excitement of having a whole week off to work on long-overdue house projects, and hoping to surprise Big Charlie, whose back isn't up to hauling heavy objects, I thought I would start the transformation of rooms myself.  Surely I could slide furniture where I needed it to go...

So off came the piles of papers and books and jackets and other non-dining things that cover our dining room table, and over the table turned as I prepared to slide it on its side into the kitchen.  The table and I made it to the kitchen just fine, and all I needed to do was turn it back upright.  

I pulled from one side, pushed from another, thought about sliding my fingers underneath to lift from below, thought again... I tried leverage, deep breaths, bending at the knees. even a little sweet talk and finally a prayer - nothing worked.  So there the table stayed, in the kitchen, on its side.

In the temple, Jesus found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables.  Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle.  He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables.  He told those who were selling the doves, "Take these things out of here!  Stop making my Father's house a marketplace!" 

We read these words from John's gospel early Friday morning at the Lower School, those of us gathered in the small chapel for the weekly faculty Eucharist.  The start of Spring Break was just a few hours away, and though we could each claim our work was a calling, we could also each use some time off.  The school year consists of long days, short nights, overfilled calendars, overstacked desks and overcommitted schedules.  Faculty, staff and students alike arrive at this time of year weary, as much from all the joys and accomplishments as from the challenges.

In the midst of it all, I wondered, how have we been treating God's temple?  Not the little brick chapel with its stained glass angels and stone altar, but the temple of our selves, our souls and bodies?  

"Destroy this temple," Jesus said, "and in three days I will raise it up."  The Jews then said, "This temple has been under construction for forty-six years, and will you raise it up in three days?"  But he was speaking of the temple of his body...

How have we been treating God's temple?  How many things occupy our lives?  How many things consume us?  How many things distract us?  How many things make demands of us, have expectations of us, have a share in us?

How big is God's share?

Spring break is our opportunity to turn all those tables over, to drive out the distractions and expectations and obligations and making in their places a sacred space.  Or, in my case, a conservatory.  I think it will be sacred, though - a peaceful place I can return to at the end of long school days to come...

So it is with the season of Lent, a season of opening ourselves up to Jesus and his passion for returning God's temple to its proper, intended state, making it a dwelling place for God instead of crowded, noisy, holding place for everything but God.  There are tables to be turned over, rooms to be rearranged, and demons to be driven out in order to make space for Christ and all his passion.  I am speaking of the temples of our bodies, our hearts and minds and spirits and hands and feet and bones and all of who we are, made to contain and convey the presence of God...

Our dining room table is upright again, but perhaps I need to leave the rest of life's tables overturned for now and invite Jesus to help me rearrange...

Artwork: "Nummularii de templo eiecti", by Salvador Dali; "The Dance of Life I", by Wendy West.