HOMILY: The Guiding Spirit, by D. W. Cleverley Ford

The Spirit said to Philip, “Go and join the carriage.” (Acts 8:29)

Some time ago a clergy man came to see me because he did not know whether to accept the offer made to him of a certain parish.  He described the place to me, on the strength of which, and of what I knew of the man himself, I advised him to turn it down.  Wisely enough he consulted someone else who also advised him to turn down the offer.  Next morning, the clergyman sought me out again, “I heard what you said,” he began, “but I felt strongly during the night guided to accept the parish.”  I was taken aback but commented, “Then there is no more to be said, you must accept it.”  To make sure, he went off to the other consultant with the same result.  Later in the day we two consultants met privately and agreed, that think what we might about the parish, if the man felt guided by God there was nothing more to be said.  So in due course he was appointed.  That was some years ago.  He is still there in that parish and doing well.

I.  A guiding inner voice

One of the most arresting stories in the New Testament concerning guidance is that of Philip the deacon.  Not that he was a deacon as in the Catholic structure of the ordained ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons, but he had been appointed with six other men to administer the early church’s relief funds.  So he must have been known as level-headed, down-to-Earth, and business-like, the sort of sane person looked for as a treasurer.  And Philip in particular would need to be judicious because of a complaint going the rounds in the church that Greek-speaking widows were being overlooked in favor of Hebrew-speaking.  So a language and a racial problem was on his hands, a touchy subject at any time.  Fortunate then that Philip possessed a Greek name, as did all seven administrators.  Clearly their appointment was tactful.  They were also said to be “of good reputation, full of the Spirit (note that!) and of wisdom.”

The administration was successful but another trouble arose.  One of the deacons, Stephen, the most able of them all, in a daring speech so provoked the religious establishment in Jerusalem that a violent persecution was pursued.  As a result, men, women, and children could be seen taking to the roads to escape arrest and imprisonment.  Thus Philip found himself across the frontier in Samaria.  So no more office work for him, no more allocating of funds, no more placating of disgruntled Greek-speaking widows.  But being “full of the Spirit and of wisdom” (the two are almost synonymous in the Bible) he, completely free of racial prejudice, began proclaiming Christ to the Samaritans.  What is more, the power of the Holy Spirit was clearly with him.  As the New English Bible expresses the event (Acts 8:6), “the crowds, to a man, listened eagerly to what Philip said,” and remarkable cases of physical and psychological healing ensued.  All this by Philip, a layman, conspicuous in the first place for his down-to-Earth administrative talents.  Yet there never was such an evangelistic mission as Philip found himself conducting in Samaria.  The unmolested apostles back in Jerusalem were uneasy when they heard.  Samaritans accepting the gospel of Jesus Christ!  What next?  So in their uncertainty they dispatched Peter and John, the chiefest among them, to investigate.  And when they saw for themselves they were convinced of the genuineness of all that was taking place and took back the good news to Jerusalem.

And then it happened, or didn’t it?  An extraordinary experience of guidance.  Philip heard himself guided by God, as by a voice within, to break off his successful mission in Samaria to journey down to the dreary road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza, a desert of a place.  The action seemed crazy.  No one can evangelize in a desert, not even Philip, not even a man full of the Holy Spirit and of wisdom.  See him there squatting by the side of that apparently God-forsaken desert track wondering what on Earth he was supposed to be doing in such a place.  Would not wisdom counsel him to hurry back to Samaria to the eager crowds hanging on his words?  But then, in the distance, there appeared a swirl of dust, stirred up by a carriage.  Inside sat an official returning from a visit to Jerusalem to his court in Ethiopia and reading, mystified, the book of the prophet Isaiah.  In a flash Philip knew why he was there.  He had to join that Ethiopian in his carriage and feed into his inquiring mind the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ.  And wonder of wonders, the man accepted.  What is more, he asked for immediate baptism which Philip administered.  Then he went his way.  So did the Ethiopian carrying the gospel to his own black people back in Africa.  And Philip – this level-headed man – as he watched the dust envelop the chariot on its homeward way, knew that the guidance he had received was not nonsense after all.  There was a strategy behind it.

So does God the Holy Spirit guide those who put themselves in his hands?  Can we really trust him?

II.  Guidance by opportunities

I want to answer Yes to these questions, not only on the basis of this scriptural story and others like it but from my own experience, pedestrian as it is in comparison.  God does guide us as by a voice within telling us what to do, but such occasions are few and far between, and we must not trade on them lest we fall victims to spiritual pride if not fanaticism.  There are however other ways by which God guides, and it is the work of the Holy Spirit to assist us to recognize them.

So I come to guidance by opportunities.  Here is a man unfortunately out of work for some months, a most disheartening, perhaps even personality-disintegrating experience.  But there comes on to his horizon a job training scheme.  Maybe it is not what he would have liked but he is exercised whether or not to apply.  What I want to say is this – that opportunity could be, I said, “could be,” God guiding that man by an opportunity, and he is more likely to accept if he is open to the concept of God’s guidance in life.

Here is a teenager with a year to spare between school-leaving and university entrance.  How shall she spend it?  Just at the very time she is free a terrible famine smites East Africa and there is an appeal for help in relief work.  She could offer at the cost of abandoning a comfortable life at home.  That opportunity could be God’s guidance, I said, “could be,” for her.  But will she recognize guidance in that form?

I admit that to accept such an understanding of divine guidance – guidance by opportunities – requires also a belief in providence.  That is to say a recognition that words like “chance,” “coincidence,” and “fate,” are not the only explanations of why events happen as they do, if indeed they are ever the proper explanation.  If, however, there is a providential ordering of this world, and God really is the Lord of life, is it all that surprising that he sometimes guides us by the opportunities he has made to open up before us?  We may not recognize them, more is the pity but we probably will if our lives are led consciously or unconsciously by the Holy Spirit of God; for it is his work to make us sensitive to God’s ways.

III.  Guidance by Spirit-filled people

God guides then by an inner voice, he guides by opportunities providentially provided.  Thirdly – and to this now we come – he also shows us the way we should go by providing guides to whom we may, or may not, pay attention.

The Bible, not least the Old Testament, is full of illustrations of this principle.  To begin with there are the patriarchs in the book of Genesis.  Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, four men of faith calling us to observe faith in God as the way of successful living; then there was Moses providing for the nation of Israel laws to govern conduct and keep it safe; then there were the prophets standing by the kings and by the common people, never ceasing to encourage them, and to warn them to keep hold of the life-style entrusted to them.  All these, especially the prophets were Spirit-filled men and as such were called out by God to be his guides.  And Jesus was, is, the Spirit-filled guide uniquely.  His Sermon on the Mount, his parables, indeed all his teaching is meant for our guidance.

And all this, written down in the Bible, makes the Bible God’s guide for us.  Not that the words of the Bible are inspired as words; but the people of whom it tells were inspired by the Holy Spirit of God to be what they were, and do what they did and to say what they said.  The Bible is in a class by itself as our guide; and whatever guidance may come to us from other men and women, even our own contemporaries, for God still guides by calling out Spirit-filled men and women for this ministry, what they provide cannot be God’s guidance if it is in flat contradiction to the revelation of the mind and will of God made known to us in Jesus Christ.

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God guides then; sometimes by an inner voice (as it were) in our spirits, sometimes by means of opportunities occurring just at the right moment, sometimes by Spirit-filled people who act as God’s guides.  All this is true but we may write off the inner voice as wishful thinking, the sudden opportunity as mere coincidence, and the Bible as an outdated religious classic.  But the man or woman in whom God the Holy Spirit dwells through faith in the risen Christ will recognize the finger of God pointing the way.  Philip the deacon did this when the Spirit said to him, “Go and join the carriage.”  The results were impressive.  They usually are when we allow ourselves to be guided by God the Holy Spirit.

REFLECTION: Resisting Life, Rejecting Love

A number of years ago now I was having a bad reaction to a chemotherapy drug.  I had begun to walk bent over from the pain it was causing me.  So I was ordered to stop taking it.  Not surprisingly, I stood up again and walked around pain free.

Two weeks later, to the day, I was upstairs on the first floor, having my breakfast while reading a book, still in my flannel nightie (it was a slow day, I was still celebrating the release from the pain).  And I began to vomit.  Huge, full-body releases of everything solid and every drop of fluids I never knew my body could hold.

On the half hour, exactly.

For ten hours straight.

I knew that I should be getting myself to the hospital, but I had stayed on that floor (it was only a few steps between the couch and the bathroom), and so was still in my nightie (a wise choice for the day in its ability to absorb the splashback from the force of the vomits.  And I didn’t want to call people in who would see me in this state of soggy dishevelment.

I had called others who lived in the house and requested their quick return home so they could assist me in changing clothes and driving me to the hospital, but what with the nature of life, work, and where I live, no one showed up until much after I needed their kindness.

After the siege had stopped, I managed, weakly, to walk down the flight of stairs to my floor.  And I replaced the blessed hard-used flannel with something fresher.

I knew, then, that I should be calling the hospital.

But my bed beckoned.  I can lie in it and look out the window to the trees and bushes in the backyard, and watch birds flitter over to the neighbor’s feeder.  So I lay down.

And it felt so good.  I don’t think I had ever had a more pleasurable sensation than when my aching, exhausted body felt the cool sheets and the soft support of the pillows underneath my head.

I was so weak.  Weaker than I had ever felt before.  Which is quite a statement given the battles with death that I have waged over my lifetime.

So much had thrown itself out of me that it felt like very little was left.  I was a just a thin leaf resting there.

And that was all I was going to do: rest for a moment or two, and then call for help.

But it was so nice.  So complete.  So reassuring.

And then I thought, I am going to die.  

The thought didn’t bother me in the least.  I no longer have anyone depending on me.  I didn’t really know where I was in my studies with God, what purpose they had other than to fill my time on Earth.

Dying was just fine with me.

So I closed my eyes.

If I was dead in the morning, so be it.

The only thing I regretted was having unreturned library books in my room.

But the next morning, I knew I was still alive.  I could see the sunshine sweeping over me.  I could hear the cats at the food bowl, beginning their day of eating, sleeping, and chasing bugs.

I knew I was still alive.

And while contented with the sweet sensations that were gently caressing me, I realized that I had something new: resistance to life.

I could feel a solidness infusing my soul.

Not that I’ve ever been a person easily influenced.  As a young woman I was once described as having the outer appearance of a weeping willow with the reality of a firm core of an oak tree.  With age, children, and, well, God, the ease and sweetness of the weeping willow has given place to a gnarly bristlecone pine.  But the assuredness of the heart of oak has always been there inside me.

What became really difficult in the days and months after the full-body cleansing was that I didn’t want to get going any longer.  I didn’t want to assume any responsibilities, like finding a new car.  I didn’t want to think about what-I-was-going-to-be-when-I-grew-up.

I didn’t want to do anything.

I just wanted to be dead.

As much as I enjoyed being alive and feeling happy at seeing the sun come up, I just wanted my life to be over.

I suppose, in a way, I’m like a person who has been in a severe car accident and has been seriously injured.  How much do I want to work on my physical therapy so that I can walk again?  Not at all.  I suppose there are people like that.

It’s not depression.

It’s resistance.

It is, I feel, the fact that I’ve lost trust in life.  With God in some way.  If I begin again, I thought, what happens when it stops again?  There will be all that doing and having left hanging out there with no one to take it in again.

And I didn’t like that feeling.

Leaving things incomplete.

I’d never thought of life (or death) that way.  Of being interrupted.  Stopped.

But back then it was all I could see of life.  That actions started could be left. . . .

A part of my noon prayer program includes the three-minute meditation sent via email from Loyola Press.  They are a PowerPoint presentation of pretty pictures with words imposed on the images, with a swooning, swaying, intended-to-soothe-you music playing gently in the background.

Each and every meditation begins with the instruction to become aware of God’s love for me.

Every single one.

For years this command has choked me.  When I’ve mentioned my difficulty with it to others I’ve been advised variously to stop doing these meditations if they upset me or just let myself feel God’s love for me, you do know that he loves you, don’t you, Julia? or some other you-haven’t-heard-me-you’re-not-helping kind of suggestion.

But what suggestion could there be for me?  I didn’t know the problem.

I remember feeling God’s love for me intensely as a child.  And then, I don’t know when, that feeling stopped.  When I first brought this up with my then spiritual director, he related to that.  Feeling loved by God as a child.  And then somewhere along the line no longer having that feeling.  No big happening to mark the spot.  Here!

Just a forgetting on our parts that that was once a constant in our lives and now is not.

Not even a twinkling.  A drip of a reminder of that feeling.

Just me.  God.  And life.

I actually did put effort into trying to feel God’s love for me.  Every noontime I would take the time to breathe deeply, settle my body down, and try to know that God’s love for me was there with me, enveloping me, enfolding me, encompassing me.

But nothing.

Just an acceptance of the fact that he loved me.  Like a teenager being told, I love you, by a parent just before he runs out the door: Yeah, yeah.  I know.  

Don’t bother me with your love, will you?

I’m busy.

I’ve got other things on my mind.

But then while sitting there waiting for a thunderbolt of God’s love to fry me, I began thinking about this realized resistance to life that has been on my mind lately.

And I saw it there with God.

The resistance.  The rejection.

The reason.

I don’t want to be swept up in the love of God and be thrown around again.

It’s hard on the body, for one thing.

Even harder on the soul.

Earlier this year I remember feeling that I was just going to relate to John of the Cross after he escaped from his imprisonment, limping around the country, sick and bent over.

I wasn’t going to hope for anything grand or sparkling.

Just a peaceful existence.

It seems that I’ve become a cower-er.

I want to be shielded from life and its current, and God and his hurricane winds.

But, ultimately, I just don’t want to trust.

Trust that I’ll handle either.

So, in the end, I seem to have lost trust in me.

So now I get to look out my window and into my soul and find it again.

Oh well.

Amen.

THE HOLY SPIRIT: Breath, Bread, and Beards, by Phyllis Tickle

From The Age of the Spirit

One of the central and more fundamental of the differences between West and East was what we today might simply call a variance of the imagination.  We have already seen several examples of how the Greek mind and language differ from that of the latinized West.  One of those, in particular, is worthy of being re-mentioned just here.

The Hebrew word ruach (meaning both “breath” and “spirit”), which occurs throughout the Hebrew Scriptures for God, was translated into the Greek of the New Testament as pneuma, which also means “breath” and sometimes “spirit” or sometimes as hagion pneuma, “holy breath” or “holy spirit.”  Greek Christians, as a result, speaking the very language of the New Testament throughout the ages, knew and have known God not as the “Holy Spirit” of Latin (and later of Germanic) construction, but quite literally, as the “Holy Breath.”  How much easier it was, then for the Greek imagination to grasp the third person of the Trinity as distinct from and indistinguishable from the other two than it was – or ever would be – for the Western imagination!  This “breath” is the person of the One who gives to all living things their life, their breath.

One of the more telling characteristics of Emergence Christianity in almost all of its components is a growing rapprochement with – or perhaps, better said, an increasingly sympathetic affinity for – portions of the theology and praxis of both Judaism and Orthodoxy.  Predictably enough, then, this non-Western and/or Jewish way of conceiving of or perceiving the Holy Spirit as breath has deep resonance for many Emergence Christians.  Seen from that point of view, the nuances of the metaphor are most beautifully and perhaps most accessibly articulated in one of the footnotes in the siddur, or prayer book, of the Reconstructionist movement within contemporary Judaism.  There a commentator reflects on how three words in Hebrew, nefesh, ruach, and neshamah, often translate as “soul” or “spirit” and yet also mean “human breath”:

Breath is the prerequisite of life and speech, of existence and communication, and it is a gift requiring no conscious attention except in cases of illness.  If each inhalation required a direct order, each exhalation a conscious command, how should we find energy or attention for anything else?  How should we sleep?  In truth, we do not breathe; we are breathed. (Everett Gendler, Kol Haneshaman: Shabbat Vegagim)

Be all of that as it may, the truth still is that our worlds are defined by our language and that our worlds are only as conceivable to others as the words that we are able to give to our imaginings.  What sort of world did filioque in its day create – or reflect – for the Greek mind?  What for that of the Roman?  We will never know, of course, for we cannot even imagine what we cannot imagine how to speak aloud.

Well beyond the very foundational limitation of the power of the human imagination to expand and restrict the scope of operative truth, there were, and still are, other points of difference, of course, between the two great cultures of the Mediterranean world.  While those differences of theology and praxis are too numerous to name here and while not all of them are even germane to our discussion, a brief look at two or three of them might be of help in understanding the fierceness and animosity of the Great Schism.

Rome of Constantinople?  That, ultimately, was the Great Question.  The church began in Jerusalem in Jesus’s day and was led, after his resurrection, by the ethnically and religiously Jewish; but soon thereafter it would find its locus in the Rome of Saint Paul, of Saint Peter, and of the other early martyrs who gave their lives to the faith there in that place.  The church was built upon the blood of the martyrs – built upon blood shed in Rome.  Thus, Rome would continue for centuries, and even to this day, to consider herself the locus of universal Christianity, based on her historical primacy.

But with the coming of Constantine as emperor in the fourth century, what was the epicenter of the universe was no longer always Rome.  The epicenter, from time-to-time and increasingly, would be in Constantinople.  And ultimately, of course, it was Constantinople that became the primary seat of the new Byzantine Empire.  Thus began the West-East tug that would lead – albeit gradually and circuitously – to secession and separation and schism.

In time, the bishop of Rome came to be not a mere bishop but the pope and, by his own assertion, the spiritual and ecclesial leader of “true” Christianity. By the same kind of alienating process, the “true” spiritual leader of the East became the ecumenical patriarch, at least in his mind and that of the eastern end of the Mediterranean and those countries adjacent to it.  Those two opposing positions and their succession of intractable primates would do much of their developing separately and independently from the fourth century onwards, the West continuing to hold to its authority de jure (rather than de facto), and the East eschewing the notion of a church organized on a single, universal plane.

Latin or Greek?  This was a far trickier question.  At least it was a trickier one than might, at first blush, seem to have been the case.  After the Aramaic-speaking, Hebrew-speaking Jewish-Christians of the first generation of Jesus-followers were dead, the next two centuries of Christians shared one language: Greek.  But almost unconsciously and without premeditation, in the decades before First Nicaea (325 CE), Christians in the West began increasingly to employ the more familiar Latin of their public affairs for conveying their ecclesiastical ones.  As a result, the influence and nuances and subtleties of Greek would continue to be dominant in the East, though they had begun their slow fade in the West.

So it is that to this day, the legacy of the classical era of Western civilization is Greek (or “Hellenic,” and later, “Byzantine”) east of the Adriatic Sea, and Latin to the west of it.  The language of philosophy, sculpture, athletics, educational theory, religion and mythology, and literature was born in the Greek East, while the Latin of Saint Jerome’s Vulgate Bible would come to dominate in the West.  Greeks were understandably proud of their rich heritage of history and mythology and of themselves as the people who gave birth to philosophy, the queen of the sciences.  Their Latin counterparts in the West emphasized instead their political prowess, empire, and worldwide reach, in opposition to such ethereal and headier pursuits.  These distinctions still play out again and again in our own day as, whether consciously or not and almost by gut-level instinct, the West values most unity and strength among Christians while the East grants overarching and prime value to tradition and reason.

The ultimate truth in all of this, though, is that no theological dispute is ever about theology alone.  Most certainly, the Great Schism was not just about the filioque.  Just as surely, of course, the filioque was not the sum total of all there was to know about the nature and Christian understanding of Holy Trinity.

POETRY: Dynamic Love, by Evelyn Underhill

Not to me
Unmoved Mover of philosophy
And absolute still sum of all that is,
The God whom I adore—not this!
Nay, rather a great moving wave of bliss,
A surging torrent of dynamic love
In passionate swift career,
That down the sheer
And fathomless abyss
Of Being ever pours, his ecstasy to prove.

As the glad river’s life
More glad becomes in music of much strife,
So does that spiritual flood
Dashed in full song,
In quick stupendous majesty of joy
The oppositions of the world among,
Come to fair crest in every breaking bud:
Yea, can the very conflict’s self employ
A colored spray of loveliness to fling
Athwart the world-wide landscape on the wing
Of every flying thing.

Dynamic love glints gay on the plume’s tip
Of fat and restless wrens, tears at the heart
From the divine and vibrant bramble wreathes
That mesh the hedge with beauty. It out-breathes
I am rooted and grounded in him,
The small leaves of my soul
Thrust up from his will

I know not the terrible peak,
The white and ineffable Thought,
When the hill-torrents flow
And my nurture is brought.
I am little and meek;
I dare not to lift
My look to his snow,
But drink, drop by drop, of its gift.

Some say, on the face
Of that ultimate height
Small plants have their place:
Rapt far from our sight
In the solitude strange
Where the infinite dream mounts range beyond range
To the infinite sky, there they grow.

Where the intellect faints
In the silence and cold,
There, humble and glad, their petals unfold.
As the innocent bell
Of the Least Soldanella thrusts up through the snow,
So the hearts of the saints
On the terrible height of the Godhead may dwell;
Held safe by the Will
As we, on the smooth of the hill.

Fragrance of pure surrender in the smart
Of sacrificial hay-fields. On the lip
Of frail ecstatic poppies it brims up,
As flaming meditations in the soul
Drowsed with deep passion. E’en the narrow cup
Of inconspicuous vervein still the strange
And awful tincture to fulfillment brings:
There doth my Dear pursue his chemic art,
And thence distills the magic of the whole.
For Love is time, succession, ardor, change;
It is the holy thrust of living things
That seek a consummation and enlace
Some fragment of the All in each fecund embrace
Whence life again flows forth upon its endless chase.

Love ever moves, yet love eternal is;
Love ever seeks, yet seeks itself to find;
And, all-surrendered to the leman’s kiss,
Doth but itself with its own passion bind.
O sacred, ceaseless flow!
O wondrous meeting
Of the unchanging and the ever-fleeting,
That still by the sad way of sorriest lust
Confers a secret glory on the teeming dust.
See! by love’s loss we find ourselves indeed,
See! the world’s death the world’s true life doth feed,
And Love dynamic to Love’s rest doth go.

THE CHURCH: Sanitizing Christ

I wonder sometimes – albeit when I’m not in church – about all the colored threads that are so carefully woven into the fabric of the church.  Or the lace that at times borders the altar cloths, the priests garb, the towel.

We really are quite fancy, aren’t we?

If one really wants to overdose on grandiosity all one has to do is visit the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC.  Marble columns bunched like grapes throughout the floors of places to worship, gold highlighting the mosaics in the chapels, papal thrones from various visits.

Jesus was born somewhere in a rejected space.  A place that no one else wanted.

We are big into trinkets.  Little flashes of gold.  Pieces of color that filter the sun’s light.

You’d think that we were a bunch of birds who found these things somewhere in our flight and brought them back to make our nest a fine one.

Or is the reason for such decoration in church a darker one?

Are we trying to send out the message to people that you – yes, you – should be in here with us and the rest of all this stuff because you deserve this.  You want to be here because you want the best for yourself and your family, don’t you?

Only the best.

We provide you with only the best.

Of course, Jesus, that man Jesus, was the one who told his disciples to go and take nothing with them.  Well, they could take a tunic.

He’s also the man who told the young rich man to sell all his possessions.

Churches don’t seem to want to follow this advice.

Instead, we want to proudfully boast of our possessions.  Even our charitable work can become a practice of one-upmanship.

Or, worse, an act of condescension and judgment.

When I get on a when-will-they-give-us-a-Real-Mary kick, which is quite often these days, I wonder why I have never seen a picture of her at the birth of Jesus with her hair tangled and dirty, as it would be after a long trip on a donkey and then having to find a spot to give birth.

And giving birth is not a clean process.  Far from it.

I want a picture of Mary that makes me sense even her body odor, mingled with that of Joseph.  The blood from the afterbirth.  The sweat from the effort of getting to the birthplace and then having to endure the birth itself that has saturated their clothes.

How many hours was Mary in labor?

In the pictures we are shown of her, she does have a glow.  It’s just not the glow that most women refer to when they say, women glow.

No.  Instead of a family camping out with all its potential disarray and stench, we have a scene where clearly someone has come in, cleaned up the mess (which takes buckets and buckets of water to accomplish), not only washed and dried Mary’s and Joseph’s clothes, but ironed them, too.  Fed them.  Obviously.  They’re always smiling.  Contented.

And they’ve slept soundly.  Only fully refreshed humans have such smooth and shining skin.

Or are we supposed to believe that they actually got their baby-genie Jesus out of a magic lamp who then immediately granted their first wish to become beatifically photogenic?

Today there is a great noise about the appropriateness of posting in Christian forums the pictures of Christians who have been killed for their faith.

Decapitated heads sway on lines overhead like darkly-colored balls warning aircraft not to fly this low.

We’re here.  Just handing out.  Literally.

Then there are the pictures of the crucified Christians.  Some laid out after their deaths, looking more like boys after a particularly hard night’s drinking.  Arms and legs askew.  Heads failing to get it straight.

Death.

And we are NOT, I repeat NOT, supposed to post these where actual people can see them.

Oh, yeah, it’s all about the children.  These pictures are too horrific.

They’re referring to the same human beings who watch The Texas Chain Saw Massacre on Saturday night, and play Grand Theft Auto.

Poor sweet, innocent things.

I’ll deal with it in prayer, these protective parents argue.  I’ll pray for these people.

I just won’t look at them.

Yeah.

Who would want to look at someone covered with blood, his body profoundly broken?

Someone like Jesus, say.  Before he was entombed.

Our culture has disinfected death right out of our consciousnesses.  Unless it is there for entertainment purposes, we want nothing to do with it.

We don’t even care that the number of unborn children slaughtered is almost that of people killed during World War II.

We forget that this –painful, bloody suffering – is the eye of the hurricane of our faith.

We forget, even, that our faith is a hurricane.

I know someone who refuses to attend a Maundy Thursday service because he won’t admit that Jesus washed the feet of people.

Jesus was the King.  Kings don’t wash the feet of other people.

So Popes sit on thrones, like King Jesus.  And the more pomp and circumstance we offer God and Jesus during a church service, the better.

Except Jesus’s pomp was when he spit on someone to heal him.

His circumstance was rubbing mud in someone’s eyes.

He spoke of kicking dirt off our sandals.

He allowed his men to steal fruit when they were hungry.

He, himself, sat in a desert for more days than we can count comfortably while simultaneously not eating.

Am I overstating my point here?

My response to the argument over these pictures is this:

Instead of turning our eyes away from such images, we should frame them and hang them in our homes and in our churches so that Jesus will get the message that he is truly, and once and for all, welcome.

Amen.

THE HOLY SPIRIT: Human Existence In The Spirit, by Sallie McFague

From Collected Readings

“Christians believe the world is hidden in God.”  This is the same as saying that human existence takes place within God’s Spirit.  The world does not have a separate existence for Christians.  Ontologically, we live from, toward, and with God.  I did not used to believe this; in fact, I fought it.  I wanted the world to stand on its own; I feared that otherwise it would be sucked up into God – shades of Hegel and Barth!  But believers are always mystics (even if they are not philosophical idealists).  One (or, at least I) cannot believe in God as a being, no matter how infinite, eternal, ubiquitous, good, powerful, or supernatural.  God is either everything or nothing, or to phrase it more carefully, God is reality (or being-itself) – if not, there would be something “beyond God” or “more than God” that would be God.

So, how are the world and we human beings differentiated from God?  In this story, we are the body of God, we are God “spread out,” we are God incarnate.  We (the universe) come from God and return to God, and in the “interim” we live in the presence of God – even when we do not know or acknowledge it.  We are created in the image of God (the entire universe reflects God’s glory, each and every creature and thing in its particular, concrete, unique way).  Creation is a panoply of mind-boggling diversity, a myriad of outrageously extravagant species and individuals who all together make up the body of God – God going out, God enfleshed, God become matter.  Each creature – except us, it appears – praises God by simply being itself, by being fully alive.  The whole universe, in this story, desires to grow back into God: the beloved longs to return to the lover.  It is the deepest desire of creation to do so: eternal life, as Julian of Norwich says, is being “oned” with God, being “knitted up with God.”

In this story there is nothing but God: God in God’s self (the Spirit) and God going out from God’s self (God embodied).  God incarnate means God going out from the divine self to create “another,” the world, which in a sense is over against God: the billions of particular, different creatures and entities that constitute it.  But the world’s “being” and its “well-being” and even its “reason for being” is to live in intimate relationship with God, which, of course, means living in intimate relationship with all other parts of divine embodiment as well.

What, then, of sin and evil?  Sin and evil are pretending that we can live outside reality, this reality of interrelationship and interdependence of all things with one another and with God.  Sin is refusing to grow into the image of God in which we (and everything else) is made.  Sin is refusing to reflect God, become like God, by imagining that we can exist outside of relationship with God and others, living as if one’s life came from oneself.  Sin is living a lie.  If God is reality and if reality is good, then sin and evil are a turning away from the ground of our being and our hope for happiness; sin and evil, as Augustine claimed, are not.  They are a turning away from reality, from the radical, intimate relationships that constitute life and its goodness.  Sin and evil are a denial of reality in their false belief that we can live from and for ourselves.

My exegesis of the statement, “Christians believe the world is hidden in God” is, I have suggested, a “likely story” of God and the world for our time.  It is not a description, but neither were the medieval or deist stories of how God and the world are related.  Rather, all three are Christian retellings of the relation of God and the world in terms commensurate with, appropriate to, different times.  The story of God’s embodiment and return, of all things evolving from one source that is reality, is congruous with the Big Bang of contemporary cosmology and the resulting unimaginable diversity and interdependence of matter – from the billions of galaxies to the DNA in bacteria, and everything in between.  It is a creation story that gives God greater glory than any other that human beings have ever told.  It is a retelling of the creation story that underscores God’s awesome magnificence and power (God is reality) and our total dependence on God (as God’s body created to reflect God’s glory, each in our own way).  It is story that can be imagined without sacrificing one’s intellect, although contemporary cosmology and evolution do not give special support to this religious tale.  But this tale can “accompany” the contemporary worldview with minimum strain.

At an important point, however, this story makes a claim that the cosmological, ecological worldview does not: it makes a claim concerning the direction of the universe.  This claim, for Christians, is focused on Jesus of Nazareth as the lens or model of God.  His life, ministry, death, and appearances are the way that Christians look Godward, the way they dare to speak of the world not as a tragedy, but as a “divine comedy.”  All of creation, this story says, reflects God, but at one place that reflection is seen (by Christians) in an especially illuminating way.  In Jesus of Nazareth, Christians believe they see what we are meant to be, and by implication, what we are not meant to be.  If the purpose of all of creation is to reflect God, then the story of Jesus is the message and the means for how human beings can do so.

Life as it should be – salvation – is then, for Christians, christomorphic.  It is becoming like God by following Jesus.  “Following Jesus” is not principally a moral imperative, but a statement of who we are.  We learn what it means to say human beings are created in God’s image for God’s glory by looking at Jesus Christ.  “The importance of the confession ‘Jesus is the Lord’ is not only that Jesus is divine but that God is Christlike.”  The focus of salvation, then, becomes living in a new way, the way of God’s abundance.

This is a deification, not an atonement understanding of salvation.  It is an incarnation rather than a cross emphasis, a creation rather than a redemption focus, from the Eastern Christian tradition rather than the Western.  It claims that we were created to be with God: creation is the pouring out of divine love toward that end; the incarnation in Christ is the reaffirmation and deepening of that love; the cross is the manifestation of the suffering that will occur, given sin and evil, if all creatures, especially the most vulnerable, are to flourish; and the resurrection is God’s Yes that, in spite of the overwhelming forces of sin and evil, this shall be so.  We will, all of us, be one with God and with each other.  It is an understanding of salvation, of the good life, that reflects and deepens the ecological, economic worldview, for it is communal, physical, and inclusive.  It imagines God’s work for and with us as the enrichment and fulfillment of all forms of life, with special emphasis on the basics that creatures need for survival and well-being.

This is a different notion of salvation than is typical in most Western theologies.  In the West salvation has usually been seen as redemption – God in Christ paying a price for our sins, or ransoming us from the forces of evil, or sacrificing the Son as a substitutionary atonement for us.  The focus of these theologies is on redemption from our sin, not on our creation for the abundant life in union with God and others.  The focus is on human individuals who are saved from evil (which is often equated with the world), rather than on the whole creation being invited into fuller communion with God and all others.  The focus is on “Jesus doing it all” rather than on us, in partnership with God by following Christ, working toward a different way for all of us to live together on the Earth.

While the deification view may at first glance appear to take sin and evil less seriously than the atonement view, it actually takes them more seriously.  It views them not simply as individual failings for which human beings need forgiveness, but rather as all the forces – individual, systemic, institutional – that thwart the flourishing of God’s creation.  “Sin” is not mainly or only a personal problem, the solution for which is divine forgiveness.  Rather, sin is living a life, living contrary to the way the christic lens tells us is God’s desire for all of us.  “Evil,” in this understanding, is the collective term for the ancient, intricate, and pervasive networks of false living that have accumulated during human history.  In the atonement model sin and evil are mainly individual, personal matters; in the deification view they are principally communal, worldly matters: one focuses on individual redemption from sin, the other on the forces, whether individual or institutional, that keep creation from flourishing.

This means, then, that the point of Christology for the deification view is not personal redemption but a “a conversion to the struggle for justice.”  It means becoming “conformed to Christ” since he is, for Christians, the lens by which we know God.  If, however, the goal of salvation is God’s glory – every creature fully alive – then becoming christomorphic will involve very mundane work.  “Work, land, housing, health, food, and education become the very expression of the glory of God.  Likewise, the glory of God is trampled underfoot in any person who suffers hunger, destitution, and oppression.”  Deification, becoming like God or following Christ, means, then, becoming involved in such matters as ecological economics, the just distribution of resources on a sustainable basis.  Deification, becoming like the incarnate God, means making the body of God healthier and more fulfilled.  Salvation is worldly work.  Human existence “in the Spirit” means working “in the body” so that it may flourish.

Do we do this?  Can we do this?  Some do, and they can do so only by being deeply, personally, profoundly grounded in God.  The “saints” who work tirelessly for justice are spiritually alive.  Persistent, lifelong cruciform living appears possible only through immersing oneself in God’s presence.  Justice work and mysticism seem to be companions.  To live this way is very difficult; it is, however, what I believe we middle-class North American Christians are called to.

THE HOLY SPIRIT: Experiencing The Spirit, by Karl Rahner

From The Spirit in the Church

Is there such a thing as experiencing the Spirit?

Is there such a thing as experience of the Spirit which on the one hand enables us to understand and legitimate the testimony of scripture to the indwelling of the Spirit in us, and on the other hand is confirmed and affirmed by scripture as the true word?  Indeed there is.

That assertion is not contradicted by the fact that we can and must ask in an inquiring and even doubting spirit about the possibility of such an experience; that it is not a question of an unquestioning experience, such as we have of the external world, without (apart from the belief of philosophers of the sublime) any need or necessity to feel or ask whether there really is such an experience of the human and material environment of man.  There are other genuine experiences which are given and which we nevertheless have to inquire into and about beforehand.  If, for example, a German idealist philosopher or a modern Christian philosopher inquires into the transcendental subject of knowledge and freedom, and asks about its structures, and if a modern depth psychologist tries to dredge up ultimate repressions and hidden attitudes, in both cases it is right to say that a human being can exhibit real experiences which are made in an unthematic way, are not verbalized and are perhaps repressed and not accepted by the free attention of a human being.  Experience and objectified, material and verbalized experience are not simply one and the same thing, as the human consciousness lost and involved in the objectivity of everyday happenings might think.  It is possible to have a kind of experience which is also an authentic quest and question.

The quest for the experience of the Spirit cannot be rejected from the start as contradictory.  But how are we to go about it?

The testimony of the mystics

Today as so often in the church’s past it is probably appropriate to our quest to remember that there have always been mystics and enthusiastic or “charismatic” experiences and movement in the church which, in spite of their extremely diverse forms and interpretations, have been taken as experience of the Holy Spirit.

Mysticism has existed and still exists.  Those graced with such an experience have reported and continue to report that (either in a sudden breakthrough or in an extended series) they experience grace, the direct presence of God, and union with him in the Spirit, in the sacred night, or in a blessed illumination, in a void silently filled by God.  They say that, at least within the mystical occurrence itself, they do not doubt that they experience the direct presence of the self-communicating God as the action and actuality of God’s saving grace in the depths of their existence, and that that experience is the “experience of the Holy Spirit.”

But the ordinary and theological ways in which this experience has been described are most various in the history of mysticism, and this objective and verbal interpretation (dependent on ideological, cultural, and philosophical and theological modes, and patterns of understanding) has been offered in very different ways.

How the question is to be answered in accordance with the elation of this Christian mysticism and its Christian interpretation of similar non-Christian mystical phenomena, especially in the East and above all in Islam and in Buddhism, and how such experience can co-exist with socio-ecclesial and sacramental-ritual piety – are questions which do not concern us here and now.

The mystics bear witness to experience of the Spirit, and in principle there is nothing to stop us accepting all their testimonies as credible.  That is the case especially when we remember that the original experience and the philosophical and theological interpretation of it are two different things, and that for that reason variety and contradiction in explanations do not discredit the original experience.  On the other hand, these mystics included men of extreme sobriety and the finest observation, right up to Carl Albrecht in our own era – a mystic who was also a prominent doctor, psychologist, philosopher, and scientist.  There certainly are people who have the courage to offer credible testimony of their experience of the Spirit.

Of course theologians of Christian mysticism have stressed the extraordinary, reserved nature of these mystical phenomena.  They have done so on the one hand because they wanted (quite rightly) to emphasize the origin of these phenomena in grace, and were guided by the implicit opinion that the work of grace and that which was free from all guilt must by definition occur but seldom; and on the other hand because such unmistakable mystical phenomena usually occur with accompanying ecstatic (indeed almost para-psychological) circumstances, which can of course be very rare.  It is to some extent understandable that a normal Christian should treat such mystical occurrences as something that does not concern him and that he can safely ignore.

But if we isolated the mystical core-experience more exactly from such unusual peripheral phenomena as ecstasy, trance, and so on (something not possible in the present context), then it would certainly be easier to see that such mystical experiences are not events that are sadly beyond the experience of an ordinary Christian, but that the testimony that mystics offer of their experiences indicates an experience which every Christian (and in fact every human being) can make and evoke but which he or she too easily overlooks or represses.  In any case it is true to say that there is such a thing as mysticism, and that it is not so very distant from us as at first we are inclined to think.

PRAYER: Ten Meditations, by Francis de Sales

From Introduction to the Devout Life
(A modern rewriting, making these meditations easier to read and understand, can be found at the website for the Oblates of St. Francis de Sales.)

The whole Earth is laid waste with desolation, because there is no one that thinks in his heart. (Jeremiah 12:2)

The First Meditation

On our creation

Preparation

1.  Place yourself in the presence of God.  Beseech him to inspire you.

Considerations

1.  Consider that so many years ago that your being was a mere nothing.  Where were we, O my soul, at that time?  The world had lasted so many ages, and yet there was no news of us.

2.  God has framed you out of this nothing to make you what you are, merely of his own goodness; having no need at all of you.

3.  Consider the being that God has given you; for it is the highest in this visible world, capable of eternal life, and of being perfectly united with his divine majesty.

Affections and Resolutions

1.  Humble yourself exceedingly in the presence of God, saying in your heart with the psalmist: O Lord, I am in thy sight a mere nothing; and how hadst thou remembrance of me to create me?  Alas, my soul, thou wert engulfed in that ancient nothing, and hast yet been there had not God drawn thee thence.  And what couldst thou have done remaining there?

2.  Give thanks to God.  O my great and good creator, how am I obliged to thee, since thou hast vouchsafed to take me out of this nothing, and by thy great mercy to make me what I am!  What can I do to bless thy holy name as I ought, and to render due thanks to thy inestimable goodness?

3.  Confound yourself.  But, alas! my creator, instead of uniting myself to thee by love and service, I have been a rebel to thee by my inordinate affections, wandering and straying away from thee, to unite myself to sin; valuing thy goodness no more than if thou hadst not been my creator.

4.  Prostrate yourself before God.  O my soul, know that the Lord is thy God: It is he that has made thee, and not thou thyself.  O God, I am the work of thy hands.

5.  I will then no more henceforth take pleasure in myself, since of myself I am nothing.  Why dost thou magnify thyself, O dust and ashes?  Yea, rather, O very nothing, why dost thou exalt thyself?  To humble therefore myself, I resolve to do such and such things; to suffer such and such disgraces: I will change my life, and henceforth follow my creator and esteem myself honored with that condition and being which he has given me, employing it entirely in obedience to his will, by such means as shall be taught me, and as I shall learn from my ghostly Father.

Conclusion

1.  Give thanks to God.  Bless thy God, O my soul, and let all that is within me praise his holy name; for his goodness has drawn me, and his mercy has created me out of nothing.  2.  Offer.  O my God, I offer to thee the being which thou hast given me: from my heart I dedicate and consecrate it to thee.  3.  Pray.  O God, strengthen me in these affections and resolutions.  O blessed Virgin, recommend them to the mercy of thy Son, with all for whom I ought to pray.  Pater.  Ave.  Credo.

After your prayer, out of these considerations which you have made, gather a little nosegay of devotion, to smell to all the rest of the day.

The Second Meditation

On the end for which we were created

Preparation

1.  Place yourself in the presence of God.  2.  Beseech him to inspire you.

Considerations

1.  God has not placed you in this world for any need that he has of you, who are altogether unprofitable to him, but only to exercise his goodness in you, by giving you his grace and glory.  And to this end he hath enriched you with an understanding to know him; with a memory to be mindful of him; with a will to love him; an imagination to represent to yourself his benefits; eyes to behold his wondrous works; a tongue to praise him; and so of the other faculties.

2.  Being created and put into the world for this intent, all actions contrary to it are to be avoided and rejected; and whatever conduceth not to this end ought to be contemned as vain and superfluous.

3.  Consider the wretchedness of worldlings, who never think of this, but live as though they believed themselves created for no other end than to build houses, plant trees, heap up riches, and such like fooleries.

Affections and Resolutions

1.  Confound yourself, reproaching your soul with her misery, which has hitherto been so great, as that she hath seldom or never considered this.  Alas! shall you say, how did I employ my thoughts, O God, when I placed them not upon thee?  What did I remember when I forgot thee?  What did I love when I loved not thee?  Alas!  I ought to have fed upon truth, and I have gutted myself with vanity; I have served the world, which was created but to serve me.

2.  Detest your past life.  I renounce you, O vain thoughts and unprofitable fancies: I abjure you, O frivolous and hateful remembrances: O unfaithful and disloyal friendships, lewd and wretched slaveries, ungrateful contentments, and irksome pleasures, I abhor you.

3.  Return to God.  And then, O my God, my Savior, thou shalt be from henceforth the sole object of my thoughts; I will no more apply my mind to objects that may be displeasing to thee.  My memory shall entertain itself all the days of my life with the greatness of thy clemency so mercifully exercised on me: thou shalt be the delight of my heart, and the sweetness of my affections.

4.  Ah! such and such, trash and trifles to which I applied myself, such and such unprofitable employments, in which I have foolishly squandered away my days, such and such affections which have captivated my heart, shall henceforth be a horror to my thoughts, and to this end I will use such and such good remedies.

Conclusion

1.  Thank God who made you for so excellent an end.  Thou hast created me, O Lord, for thyself, and for the everlasting enjoyment of thy incomprehensible glory: O when shall I be worthy of it?  When shall I praise thee and bless thee as I ought?  2.  Offer.  I offer to thee, O my dear creator, all these affections and resolutions, with all my heart and soul.  3.  Pray.  I beseech thee, O God, to accept my desires and purposes, and give thy holy benediction to my soul, to the end that it may accomplish them, through the merits of thy blessed Son’s blood shed for me upon the cross, etc.  Pater.  Ave.  Credo.  Make your little nosegay of devotion, as aforesaid.

REFLECTION: Total Eclipse, by Annie Dillard

From Teaching a Stone to Talk: Expeditions and Encounters

I

It had been like dying, that sliding down the mountain pass.  It had been like the death of someone, irrational, that sliding down the mountain pass and into the region of dread.  It was like slipping into fever, or falling down that hole in sleep from which you wake yourself whimpering.  We had crossed the mountains that day, and now we were in a strange place – a hotel in central Washington, in a town near Yakima.  The eclipse we had traveled here to see would occur early the next morning.

§

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SATURDAY READING: The Art Of Seeing Things, by John Burroughs

From American Earth, edited by Bill McKibben

I

I do not purpose to attempt to tell my reader how to see things, but only to talk about the art of seeing things, as one might talk of any other art.  One might discourse about the art of poetry, or of painting, or of oratory, without any hope of making one’s readers or hearers poets or painters or orators.

The science of anything may be taught or acquired by study; the art of it comes by practice or inspiration.  The art of seeing things is not something that may be conveyed in rules and precepts; it is a matter vital in the eye and ear, yea, in the mind and soul, of which these are the organs.  I have as little hope of being able to tell the reader how to see things as I would have in trying to tell him how to fall in love or to enjoy his dinner.  Either he does or he does not, and that is about all there is of it.  Some people seem born with eyes in their heads, and others with buttons or painted marbles, and no amount of science can make the one equal to the other in the art of seeing things.  The great mass of mankind are, in this respect, like the rank and file of an army: they fire vaguely in the direction of the enemy, and if they hit, it is more a matter of chance than of accurate aim.  But here and there is the keen-eyed observer; he is the sharpshooter; his eye selects and discriminates, his purpose goes to the mark.
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NATURE: The Language Of Animals, by Barry Lopez

From Wild Earth

The steep riverine valley I live within, on the west slope of the Cascades in Oregon, has a particular human and natural history.  Though I’ve been here for thirty years, I am able to convey almost none of it.  It is not out of inattentiveness.  I’ve wandered widely within the drainages of its eponymous river, the McKenzie; and I could offer you a reasonably complete sketch of its immigrant history, going back to the 1840s.  Before then, Tsanchifin Kalapuya, a Penutian-speaking people, camped in these mountains, but they came up the sixty-mile-long valley apparently only in summer to pick berries and to trade with a people living on the far side of the Cascades, the Molala.  In the fall, the Tsanchifin returned down valley to winter near present-day Eugene, Oregon, where the McKenzie joins the Willamette River.  The Willamette flows a hundred miles north to the Columbia, the Columbia another hundred miles to the Pacific.

The history that preoccupies me, however, in this temperate rain forest is not human history, not even that of the highly integrated Tsanchifin.  Native peoples seem to have left scant trace of their comings and goings in the McKenzie valley.  Only rarely, as I hear it, does someone stumble upon an old, or very old, campsite, where glistening black flakes of a volcanic glass called obsidian, the debitage from tool-making work, turn up in soil scuffed by a boot heel.
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NATURE: Earth Music, by David James Duncan

From Portland Magazine

I hold the thing we call “nature” to be the divine manuscript.  I hold the infinite wilds to be the only unbowdlerized book we possess of the Authorship that gives and sustains life.  Human industry is shredding this book like an Enron document.  Some call this shredding “economics” and “freedom.”  It’s not quite a lie.  But the freedom to shred the divine manuscript is not an economics any lover of neighbor, self, or Earth wishes to practice.

A spiritual hero told me when I was young that “true happiness lies in making others happy.”  Having found no happiness seeking it for myself, I tried seeking the happiness of others, and found this unlikely statement to be true.  The formula was not without side-effects, however, once self-giving starts to give you joy, you grow bewildered by the specter of selfishness, fall out of the nationalist/capitalist loop, and limp about in search of healthier hopes.  A new source of hope for me: the growing reverence for nature and its mysteries among scientists.
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POETRY: the earth is a living thing, by Lucille Clifton

is a black shambling bear
ruffling its wild back and tossing
mountains into the sea

is a black hawk circling
the burying ground circling the bones
picked clean and discarded

is a fish black blind in the belly of water
is a diamond blind in the black belly of coal

is a black and living thing
is a favorite child
of the universe
feel her rolling her hand
in its kinky hair
feel her brushing it clean

POETRY: Black Snake, by Margaret Gibson

1.

When, in the darkened room, I hear a clatter from the mantel
of the central chimney with its many chinks,
and turn to see why a plate has leapt to the floor on its own,
I freeze
as a sleek thick ribbon of snake
slides like rain
over the rough stones of the chimney and into an opening
I swear is no wider
than the eye of my wedding ring.
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POETRY: Microcosmos, by Wisława Szymborska

Translated from the Polish by Clare Cavanagh and Stanisław Barańczak

When they first started looking through microscopes
a cold fear blew and it is still blowing.
Life hitherto had been frantic enough
in all its shapes and dimensions.
Which is why it created small-scale creatures,
assorted tiny worms and flies,
but at least the naked human eye
could see them.
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REFLECTION: The Nature Of Nature

My high school is situated on a hill above the business districts of Newcastle and Damariscotta, Maine.  As you come out of the driveway and head toward town, you take a big curve to the left and then glide down the hill to the stop sign.

I learned to drive and got my license without ever having encountered a light signal.  The screams in the car were not for joy when we visited nearby cities with these strange lights that kept blinking at me.

Now there’s a traffic light at the crossroads where the McDonald’s sells lobster rolls.  I think the McDonald’s was there before the streetlight came.  But I’m not sure.

We all grow up in such different ways.

Anyway.
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NATURE: Wuthering Heights, by Peter Milward

From A Poetic Approach to Ecology

There is something innately spiritual about the wind.  It is something we cannot see.  It is without shape or color, by which it might affect our eyes.  It is only to be seen in its effects, as when it moves the trees and makes their branches sway to and fro.

In the same way, it cannot be heard.  It has no sound of its own which might affect our ears.  It is only to be heard in its effects, as when it creates a singing or rustling noise in the trees and thus uses them as its lyre – just as the breath from our lungs passes through our throat and mouth in the formation of words.

But now, I ask, is what I have just said of the wind really true?  Does the wind really make no sound of its own?  Then what of the phenomenon of “wuthering,” as used in the title of Emily Bronte’s famous novel, Wuthering Heights?  This is a word not to be found in the average English dictionary, coming as it does from the northern dialect where it means the noise and rush of the wind.  In this case, it can hardly refer to the sound made by the wind through the trees, as the whole point of the heights, or Yorkshire moors, where the novel has its setting, is that there are no trees or very few of them.  In this case, it seems, the wind makes a sound of its own, a commotion or disturbance in the air that is audible to men on Earth.
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WRITING: The Greatest Nature Essay Ever, by Brian Doyle

From Orion

. . . would begin with an image so startling and lovely and wondrous that you would stop riffling through the rest of the mail, take your jacket off, sit down at the table, adjust your spectacles, tell the dog to lie down, tell the kids to make their own sandwiches for heavenssake, that’s why God gave you hands, and read straight through the piece, marveling that you had indeed seen or smelled or heard it articulated that way, and you think, Man, this is why I read nature essays, to be startled and moved like that, wow.
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PRAYER: Prayers To Mother Earth

Prayer to Earth Mother
Gaël Razière

Earth Mother
receive in your great bounty
all the blood that has poured over me,
the sorrow that has mired me down.
Let me be free,
so flowers and trees may sprout from me to the heavens,
so birds may come and perch on my wings
and sing their eternal song of gratitude.
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SERMON: Going To Church In The Psalms, by Mark Love

My assignment tonight is “The Character of God in the Psalms.”  Which is a little like speaking on the subject, “Everything That’s Wrong with the Detroit Tigers.”  Where would you start?  Where would you end?  Pitching, defense, hitting, minor leagues, coaching?  This assignment is daunting.

Still, I’m up to the challenge.  Ready?  God is Yahweh, El Shaddai, Elohim, a mighty tower, a rock, a fortress.  Our God is a stronghold, a sure defense.  The Lord of Hosts is a horn of salvation.  The Lord is our light, a warrior, a king, a shepherd, a mother, a vinedresser.  God is an avenger and a healer.  A protector, creator, destroyer.  The Lord is lawgiver and judge, a forger of weapons and their destroyer.  Our God is a shelter in the storm.  God is the storm.  God is a place of peace and rest, and God is the disorienting whirlwind.  Any questions?

I hope you noticed two things from this quick tour of images of God in the Psalms.  The picture we have is rich and diverse.  Simply listing images, however, leaves us still a long way from knowing the nature of God in the Psalms.  But I also want you to notice that the images are so varied, and sometimes so at odds with one another, that it makes you wonder if the psalmists are speaking of the same God.  We have a very difficult task tonight, defining the nature of God in the Psalms.
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SATURDAY READING: Praying In The World, A Case History, by Marvin Barrett

From Parabola

This is an account of the circumstances in my life that led me away and back again to prayer.  Twice

I

If I divided my prayer life into three stages – petitions, intercession, and what came after – petitions stand first.  They were the gut prayers of childhood – praying for a toy, for a pal to play with, to win at ball, for good weather, good health.

Next came childish intercessions introduced by the chilling quatrain of ancient and unknown origin:

Now I lay me down to sleep.
I pray the Lord my soul to keep.
If I should die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take.

This was followed by “God bless mother and father, grandmother and grandfather, and all the other grown-ups.  God bless brother Dirk and all the other children.”  This list was soon augmented by those I grew up among in the Midwestern city that was my home, cousins, uncles and aunts, teachers, neighborhood and schoolyard favorites, and in my case, perhaps not so enthusiastically, my younger brother, Eddie, a recent arrival.  I began my prayers at age three.  Petitions and intercessions flourished, and if I didn’t always get what I asked for, those on my prayer list seemed preserved from serious misadventure.
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POETRY: The Waltz We Were Born For, by Walt McDonald

Wind chimes ping and tangle on the patio.
In gusty winds this wild, sparrow harks hover
and bob—always the crash of indigo
hosannas dangling on strings. My wife tries copper
to turquoise from deserts, and bits of steel
from engines I tear down. She strings them all
like laces of babies’ shoes when the squeal
of their play made joyful noise in the hall.

Her voice is more modest than moonlight,
like pearl drops she wears in her lobes.
My hands find the face of my bride.
I stretch her skin smooth and see bone.
Our children bring children to bless her, her face
more weathered than mine. What matters
is timeless, dazzling devotion—not rain,
not Eden gardenias, but cactus in drought,
not just moons of deep sleep, not sunlight or stars,
not the blue, but the darkness beyond.

THE MECHANICS OF PRAYER: The Elements Of An Answered Prayer

Perhaps I haven’t covered this before.  I can’t remember.  And while having the intention to thumb through past writings, I tend to get distracted by other concerns. (This is known in the English major circle as foreshadowing.)

But even if I’ve covered it, I’m fairly sure I haven’t written this.

(If I have, then here you have it again.)

One of the most incomprehensible things about God, I have found, is his simplicity.  We imagine that the “rules” of God are so complex and vast that just witnessing one would overwhelm us.  Perhaps even to death.

We equate God with infinity.  And with all those “omni’s.”

But the more I have studied God, the more I have come to understand that it is, in general, a study in reduction.  Of taking a lot away.  It’s we, the humans, who complicate things.  Almost to the point of making things unworkable.
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THE CALL: Listening, by Robert Benson

From The Echo Within

My life is a listening.  His is a speaking.
My salvation is to hear and respond.
(Thomas Merton)

It was early fall, and it was late afternoon, and I was walking through old Carolina pines with a new friend.  We were near the ocean, near enough to hear the surf as we walked along a broad path through the forest.

I saw I was with a new friend.  I only spent five days with him, and I had never seen him before and have not seen him since.  He and I were two of about sixty people at a retreat, and I was the speaker.

“I think I am being called to go to seminary,” my new friend said.  “Do you think I am?”

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POETRY: Yard Sale, by Jane Kenyon

Under the stupefying sun
my family’s belongings lie on the lawn
or heaped on borrowed card tables
in the gloom of the garage. Platters,
frying pans, our dead dog’s
dish, box upon box of sheet music,
a wad of my father’s pure linen
hand-rolled handkerchiefs, and his books
on the subsistence farm, a dream
for which his constitution ill suited him.
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POETRY: Washing Sheets in July, by Jane Gentry

Thin clouds work the sheet of sky—
jays cry, flat and starchy.
Against the white garage
hollyhocks flicker.
The sheets, wet, adhesive
as I hang them, smell
of soap and bee-filled air.

Flags of order in the palpable sun,
how they snap in the new breeze!
Watching them balloon on the line,
I swell with an old satisfaction:
I beat them clean in the Euphrates.
Poems half-conceived drift off—
unwritten essays muddle, fade.
The white sheets crack in the wind,
fat bellies of sails,
sweet as round stomachs of children.

Tonight they’ll carry me to sleep
in joy, in peace,
muscles unknotting, tired eyes clearing
in the dark under their lids.
The sheets, fragrant as summer,
carry me into realms of cleanliness,
deep dreams of order.