Sunday, July 31, 2016

2016.07.31 Apple Tree Spirituality

How could Jesus Christ be an apple tree?  Why not? It is written—and sung and poetized.

 “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree”  is a carol I love. The lyrics were written by an unknown person in the 18th century. Many composers have set it to music, and interpretations abound. Here are the first and last verses.

 Jesus Christ the Apple Tree

The tree of life my soul hath seen
Laden with fruit and always green
The tree of life my soul hath seen
Laden with fruit and always green
The trees of nature fruitless be
Compared with Christ the apple tree

This fruit does make my soul to thrive
It keeps my dying faith alive
This fruit does make my soul to thrive
It keeps my dying faith alive
Which makes my soul in haste to be
With Jesus Christ the apple tree.

I know this is a metaphor, possibly designed to reverse the biblical myth of Eden in which the apple became identified as a forbidden fruit—source of death and evil. Yet, there is actually no apple mentioned in the story, no apple at all—just a fruit. I'm guessing peach. 

Forbidden or not, Jesus Christ or not, I love apples and their trees.

In the back yard of one of my growing-up homes in Connecticut we had an apple tree. My mother thought it was very special. She had a white wrought iron bench fashioned to go around its trunk like a skirt. It became the scene for her youngest daughter’s portrait. The portrait went with my mother when she moved into a nursing home. Gazing at it from her bed was, I’m sure, my mom’s way of grieving her beautiful daughter who had predeceased her by nineteen years.

In my teen years, I loved our backyard apple tree for my own reasons. It had a different shape, smaller and more gnarly-snarly than other apple trees. It was a crab apple tree, yielding small green apples, wholly inedible—sour. Whenever I felt small and green, snarly and surly—altogether crabby—I had a friend.

Poet Carole-Jean Smith also had an apple tree companion. Here is a poem from her latest poetry collection News From The World.


Oh, apple tree. Oh overgrown
lichen laden apple tree. Thank you
for your explosion of perfumy
white blossoms every spring.
Thank you for your thick awning
of chlorophyl in summer. Thank you
for your manna dropped
onto the grass every fall; the birds,
the squirrels, the wasps, and I
dig in. Thank you for your lattice
of knobby branches that map
the sky outside my window.
Every winter they hold aloft
a tonnage of settled snow.
Oh apple tree. Have I ever told you

how much you mean to me?

More than a poem, this is a prayer of gratitude for things we receive from the world around us. It completes my understanding of the mysticism of apples and their trees.

One doesn’t need to mention God Creator or Jesus Christ or one’s inner secrets to wake up and notice the world around us—and to praise.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

2016.07.24 What Do You Do With An Idea?

My son John is a librarian at an elementary school. He reads lots of kids' books and recommends them to me, telling me that his spirituality is always enhanced by the children’s books he reads.

The late great storyteller Madeleine L’Engle would agree. She has written many books, some of them on the shelves as children’s books. Madeleine said many times that there is no such thing as children’s literature. There is simply good literature.

Good literature includes picture books in which word and visual image come together to move the hearts of children and adults.

One such book is What Do You Do With An Idea? by Kobi Yamada, illustrated by Mae Besom. It’s a charming tale about a small boy who gets an idea. He loves his idea even though it feels strange as if it isn’t really his. He doesn’t want to share his idea for fear others will make fun of  it—and him. But his idea simply won’t die. It follows him around, hounds him you might say. In time he grows to love it, nourish it, embrace it as one might a great love, play with it, and follow it. Then you see what becomes of his idea—and you are transformed.

I’m someone who loves ideas, especially new ones, ones that almost force me to think differently, do things differently—change. My best ideas burrow under my skin—affix themselves. They challenge my assumptions and refresh me. I love ideas that fill me with laughing delight and won’t go away. I share them with people who want to try new things, to consider new ways of thinking and understanding. "Let’s" is my favorite word.

My very best beloved ideas I share with God—not to get an elevated opinion but to submit them to my inner spiritual barometer test. It measures my deepest feelings, ranging from enlivening to stifling. That’s how the Holy Spirit helps me discern whether an idea is godly, a little godly, devilish, or just plain me showing off.  There’s nothing fail-safe about this process but for me it’s how I pray.

For instance, I’ve assumed that a good sermon was generally, though not always, delivered by one person, an ordained person, skilled, trained and practiced at preaching from Holy Scriptures. Clergy, rightly, do try to live up to such expectations. It’s a vow! But is there more? Is this all that God expects for the holy Word in a sermon?

An idea churned inside me— not a totally new idea, but one I hadn’t revisited for a long time and one possibly new to my context. It used to be called dialogue sermon. Boring  title.

Let’s try group-preach. Barometer measured a little godly.

So with God’s help I tried it out and wrote about it on my blog post of 7/17/2016. The response was bright and exciting. I believe we gave the Holy Spirit a grand workout. Let’s try this again, God—when the time seems right and the text lends itself to it.

What do you do with an idea? Love it, test it, run with it, let it change you.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

2016.07.17 Wake Up!

A funny thing happened in church today. I was the preacher but I didn’t preach. I identified a stand-out theme in the biblical readings, which I called WAKE UP!  Briefly I outlined it: 
         Old Abraham woke up fast when three strangers with angelic credentials showed up to let          him know he and Sarah would have a new son at age 100++ And Sarah split her sides. They woke up.
    The author of Collisions, (that’s Colossians!) burst onto the scene with an amazing proclamation, “Jesus is the image of the invisible God.” This was hardly a new idea to this author. He’d heard it all before, yet this idea woke this writer up for the first time.
    And what about the old familiar, tried and true story of Mary and Martha in Bethany with Jesus? Sigh. Nothing gets old or dull save we make it so, yet this one was drying up. Was there a wake-up call in this story? What was new here? I wondered.

You know when you read to a small child you can see God. They love this story and beg you to read it again—and again—and again—until you want to throw up. But you read it over and over, because you love this child, and because you get to share in the wake-up face: eyes lit up, delight spread all over the face—every single time. It's contagious.The child eventually knows the story enough to turn pages at the right places and says all the words even though they can’t read. The story becomes the child’s own story. It’s gospel—incarnate, a scriptural process.

I imagine this is how the Holy Spirit works the biblical texts into our flesh in a way that wakes us up. So what about the Martha/Mary/Jesus story in Luke? Could we wake it up together?

I invited the congregation (about 25 people spread out all over the big sanctuary, Anglican-like,)  re-read the brief clip of story I affectionately call the M& M story, then paused. So? What do you think? Silence. Was anyone awake? I waited and asked again: What wakes you up in this story? There’s no right or wrong here. What do you notice? I gestured. Then slowly, slowly the sermon began to happen.

The women busted out from their containment and found the "preacher" inside them. I didn’t dare imagine how they had held back for so long. Most of them were Marthas who had always held resentment about this story. One of them even received applause for her bold declamation of Jesus’ bad attitude. Men chimed in with their own feelings. One said he “got the spiritual idea.” The place was vibrating with energy. Faces lit up; eyes brightened. Nothing got out of hand. I was not tempted to explain, take back control or defend Jesus—or Luke.

Together we created the most magnificent thing—gave the Holy Spirit a workout and Her own wake-up call.

A man who is nearly deaf and rarely speaks, suddenly offered a prayer of thanksgiving aloud in just the right place, even though he couldn’t hear. “I knew something was going on here. I didn’t hear it but the women were talking. I don’t agree with any sermons but last night a man in my writing group for homeless people at the cathedral rummaged through his collection of street pick-ups, found a window fan and gave it to me. I slept so well last night. Thank you.”

The buzz kept on through coffee hour and outside as people left for their homes. The best news?  No one said, “Good sermon, Lyn.”

Sunday, July 10, 2016

2016.07.10 Pray, Pray, Pray, and So?

All over the internet, on social media, and in all our email boxes there are calls for prayer. Our Episcopal Presiding Bishop has issued a particularly elegant call and prayer for our common humanity from the Book of Common Prayer. It is beautiful. Every person and all prayers are earnest and honest in their spiritual desiring. How they get winnowed is not my business.

So why do I feel uninspired? I feel frankly impotent, though I do pray for peace and an end to the escalation of violence. I even feel a little ashamed because I’m not on board somehow or I’m privileged not to be afraid. I’m not beseeching, not weeping, not agonizing. Am I cold-hearted? Is God dead? What does God do? Anything?  

I learned prayer as a child when I talked endlessly to God, instructing God that many things should change for the betterment of my little world, and specifically that God should end the dominance of the martini glass in our house. God did nothing, didn't change a damn thing outside me. I prayed anyway. It made me feel better inside, more able to seize life as it was and  never stop praying anyway—just to know my heart’s desires and to feel God’s listening. That formed my image of God: omnipresent but certainly not omnipotent.

I wonder if God is who we think God is—eternal almighty-ness?  Or is this a stereotype to whom we too often bow?

I am inspired by this prayer, written in the diaries of Etty Hillesum. She died at Auschwitz at 29.

Tonight for the first time I lay in the dark with burning eyes as scene after scene of human suffering passed before me. I shall promise You one thing, God, just one very small thing: I shall never burden my today with cares about tomorrow, although that takes some practice. Each day is sufficient unto itself. But one thing is becoming increasingly clear to me: that You cannot help us, that we help You to help ourselves. And that is all we can manage these days and also all that really matters: that we safeguard that little You, God in ourselves. And perhaps in others as well. Alas, there doesn’t seem to be much You Yourself can do about our circumstances, about our lives. Neither do I hold you responsible. You cannot help us, but we must help You and defend your dwelling place inside us to the last.   (Etty Hillesum, Essential Writings Maryknoll: Orbis Books 2009 p. 59)

To this kind of prayer I say Amen, and to this God I pray without ceasing.

Sunday, July 3, 2016

2016.07.03 All Things New

It seems fitting that on this weekend when we celebrate the anniversary of the birth of our nation, we should celebrate all things new–and the possibility thereof. Our country calls for e pluribus unum. We keep losing sight of either the unum or the pluribus. Does our religion?

In our present world we are challenged to integrate the pluribus as we adjust to pluralism, now the  norm of oneness—for both cultures and religions. How to keep the old and integrate the new to make a new whole? 

Change is upon us, nation and church. So is fear. Still, what sets us free will also make us whole—especially if it hurts everyone along the way.

There’s nothing wrong with Christianity’s essential vision of goodness in the whole. Do you need to go to church to live good and loving lives, to see divinity in everything? Do you need to believe in God to live these values? Apparently not. Apparently.
Some things I know from experience about change and making things new:
      It hurts. You can’t change without contention, conflict.
      You can’t change by staying within a rigid status, or by silent striving in prayer.
      Change doesn’t happen by staring at our own reflection, like Narcissus. Outside perspectives are necessary, even if it means  systemic stress.That’s how the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team found new energy to expose the deeply-rooted scandal of sexual abuse in the Roman Catholic Church. The team was embedded in that culture and couldn’t see far enough beyond it to question it enough. A new editor could see the whole. They followed his lead. Jesus wasn’t new to his culture and religion; nor were the prophets of Israel. They just sounded new because they issued a recall which led them back to the basics: what you hate do not do to your neighbor—any neighbor.    
      Change requires new thinking, deep reflection by a core group who work together to make plans, get honest, and listen to outside voices.
      Change requires patience, hope, humor, prayer, true grit, and the grace of God.
      Change requires recognition that what we believe reflects what we pray as much as what we pray reflects what we believe.
      Change awakens minds, hearts and actions. Why change? To live.
      Change requires a mantra of encouragement, such as that spoken about the biblical Esther by Massachusetts Bishop Barbara C. Harris:
                           She used what she had to do what she had to do.

I was recently inspired by an approach to change and making things new from the secular world. Matthew Teitelbaum, the new director of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, offers a vision for the future and a practice of quiet innovation—gradual change without operatic drama. Teitelbaum is a Canadian art historian, born in 1956 in Toronto. His vision for the MFA is one of diversification in funding and audience. (See “The Art of Innovating Quietly” by Malcolm Gay, Boston Globe, June 26, 2016.)
Many Christian churches are facing change and innovation for the sake of a lively future. Survival is not enough. Here are a few things to consider from Teitelbaum’s approach.
    Experiment. Just try something new. For example Teitelbaum, instructed his curator to “Put the Monet here.” Usually the most famous of impressionist painters would get his own gallery, be showcased as the prize. The newly installed Monet gallery is a “preposterously gorgeous space that radiates with the collective glow of some 20 freshly hung works.” It covers the artist’s whole career in its historical context. Works are installed in a gallery with other artifacts of the era, furniture, other impressionist paintings and sculptures on pedestals that make them all at eye level. All of it together tells the story of one artist’s evolution and an era. We knew something was different; some things had been put together that would not traditionally be juxtaposed. The expansive effect was praiseworthy.
This is what diversity accomplishes. It’s also what divinity accomplishes as we evolve.
    Look, no, examine, everything the museum does: admissions, hours, cafĂ© menu prices, food served, exhibits, permanent collection and passing exhibits and their interface.  EVERYTHING.  Why? To discern what makes all kinds of people feel welcome. The church must do the same. What can be done differently? What will we vary in our liturgy? Our theology? Do we tell the whole story? Jesus didn’t just die for us.There’s more to the story.
    Diversify.  The demographic of the MFA is diverse, but its audience is mostly educated white people. In our recent visit we observed this truth. But this is a museum for ALL Boston people and beyond. There is the art of the world here! Whom do we serve? It’s a crucial question. Can world and local demographic be served at once?        
   Afford.  “We have to diversify our revenue and our audience—the two are connected,” Teitelbaum said. Financial health and audience growth are primary.
    Ask. Do we retire debt quickly or fund it over a longer time? Debt must not be crippling or a balanced budget an idol.
    Risk. Discern what and why and how. The two most besetting problems for small churches now are stewardship and welcoming/attracting new people. Is a church too homogeneous? Who feels welcome here, as if they belong?—more than a smile and some food.  Is there something that speaks to the experience of diverse groups? Many churches are about as diverse as the museum, which is not diverse at all.
    Go beyond. Who lives beyond our doors? What do they value? What do they need? What do we have to give? In the church, deacons are ordained to help make these connections.
    Ask. Think. What MUST change? What must NOT change? And why?
    Refrain from rank-ordering gifts.  “  . . .the European work is not higher than the African work.”  Is that not a gospel value? Teitelbaum takes advantage of the museum’s whole collection, sparing none. His motto is: Bring it all on. Is it too much? Is it junky? Go see for yourself.
I return to the Monet collection. I love impressionist art, because the farther away you stand from the paintings the clearer the images become. It gives perspective. The same is true of an era, or a religion. Monet is the prize, showcasing depth in the midst of what is temporary. Is that not what we want to do with the unconditional grace Jesus embodied?—permanence, eternality in the midst of what is passing—and all of it lives together in the one gallery, just as all living things thrive in one cosmos. Is that not what makes scripture holy: that the divine Word is embedded in the many human words and voices, so the whole reflects the divine image? Does God not love it all deeply and equally? It’s humanity that labels things good and bad, of God and not of God.

Teitelbaum is helping the MFA create a brilliant and engaging mix. Can the church of Jesus Christ do the same? Put Christ here and here and here. How many stories are in Christ’s? Everywhere you turn there is the face of Christ when we make all things new within the old.