Sunday, September 24, 2017

2017.09.24 I'M THE FAVORITE!

With the innocent arrogance of a small child chatting away to God under a table I imagined myself to be God’s favorite, then spent much of my life trying to undo my shameful fantasy.

According to everything I heard in church about Jesus Christ being, not only the single favorite but the most beloved favorite of God, my inflated spirituality was errant, impious—and worse misgendered. I was proud, sinful, and a girl!!

Over time of course I’ve forgiven myself, know God forgives me, and have fallen in love with this Christ. Still, the melody of my original “sin” lingers on.

However, today in tiny Christ Episcopal Church, Bethel, Vermont, I heard this Word in a sermon delivered by my cousin, the Rev’d David Gillespie who boomed:

                            WE ARE ALL GOD’S FAVORITES!!

This message was, for me, the punch line in the sermon on one of Jesus’s most difficult and contrary parables—the laborers in the vineyard. The owner of the vineyard, meant to be an image of God, paid ALL the laborers the exact same wage. Fine and fair, right? Here’s the hitch, as there usually is in Jesus’s parables: some laborers worked the whole darn day and some only labored for the last half hour of the day—ALL for the same wage. So much for the equal pay for equal work ethic I so love, given my feminism. God in this story, however, is unjust and appears to play favorites.

But  Lo! I recognized the God I’d met as a child, the God who’d let me know I mattered. Me, a girl!  I felt as if I were right back under that table as God’s favorite. But this time I wasn’t
God’s one and only favorite. I had to share that status with everyone, just as Jesus did. This was not my idea, but God’s.

                            WE ARE ALL GOD’S FAVORITES!!

David opened with distress at all the crises of human suffering affecting our nation, some caused by humans. “It shocks me that we humans adapt to dangerous environments, both natural and political. This has us accepting hateful standards for living. The slow creep of hate is enveloping us. We are lulled into complacency.”

Then, with great skill David unpacked all the usual protestations about the world’s ills and sufferings being God’s fault or idea or desire. He left all these platitudes empty of their force. God does not desire, cause, or prevent the world’s sufferings. God only responds to them with compassion. This was my experience as a child and continues to be my faith, as I am able.

Yet today this message meant more to me, because it was delivered by my first cousin David Gillespie—not just any old preacher, but my very own cousin, only once removed. The personal connection made the gospel message intimate—not more true but more intimate.

Thanks to the ministrations of a good friend with a home in Vermont, I connected  years ago with David  and his beautifully feminist wife Jo. David is dear because he is my dad’s first cousin, but just being a relative isn’t enough. David is a Gillespie. I too am a Gillespie. Not all of us are extroverts like David—myself and his wife Jo, for example. But we share the family charism—vainglory charged by big-heartedness. And we marry in kind. 

This photo is David and Jo with my extroverted spouse Dick Simeone and me behind, all of us in front of the Restrooms sign. No messages at all in that!


                                 WE ALL ARE GOD’S FAVORITES!!


Sunday, September 17, 2017

2017.09.17 Holy Cross Monastery Retreat

A lot of funny stuff can happen under the sign of the Cross.

We, Dick and I, have just spent six days on retreat—and on the seventh day we do not rest, but drive home, chatting and full of unquiet zeal. 

The rhythm of retreat is sturdy and steady: eat, pray, sleep, pray, love, pray, laugh, pray, eat some more. There were three groups meeting with different focuses. Ours was on theological language, my pet peeve and passion. We all, monks and guests alike, are our prayer to God.

 Communal prayer is so regular it heals spiritual atrial fibrillation and provides rhythm—a beat to match each heart’s, no matter how erratic, unsteady, or broken. It’s astounding how the regular marking of time makes time seem shorter. I always plan to catch up on my reading, yet— mysteriously— there’s so much time there’s not enough time.

Prayers in the chapel are not compulsory for guests. No one has to go to prayer or pray. It is, however, a bit hard to abstain, because the chapel bell gongs—more than once— ten minutes before each prayer time: Matins, 7 am, Eucharist, 9 am, Diurnum, noon, Vespers, 5pm, Compline, 8.  The bell tones are beautiful and dutiful. The bell tolls for me and thee. So I go.

You’d think that, being drenched in so much piety, these brothers would be stern and boring and stiff. You’d think that so many aging voices would be off key or cracked. You’d think you’d fall asleep to the lull of so much chanting. But these monks are alive, happy monks—ready and able to grin, crack jokes, laugh, and sing with gusto for deep joy, even in silence—even in prayer. 

Everything here, including the majestic strip of the Hudson River at the foot of the long green hill on which the monastery is perched, is an invitation to love God more deeply— and yourself in God.

Here’s how they let you know there’s no smoking:
   


Then there’s always plenty of another substance available on tap as advertised:

These signs are calligraphed by the Rev. Roy Parker, OHC. Each is framed and hung on the wall heading toward the chapel. They are funny. My heart can’t help but be lifted, my cup filled to the brim, my soul drenched in the generous faithfulness of God.

As we prepared to leave we felt a gentle sadness. While waiting for the vintage monastery elevator, really a single person lift, we chatted with a black woman here for a visit with a group from the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City.  She said: “I'm always a bit sad when I leave. I love this place. I’ve told the brothers that I want to be one of them. That’s been my prayer for years. So far though, they haven't figured it out, and I’m running out of time.”  

A retreatant in our group summed up the charism of this community, using ancient words of St. Irenaeus of Lyons, second-century bishop in the early Church. “Long ago someone, even a bishop or other, was saying just what we are doing today."

The oft forgotten second half of Irenaeus's famous quote is: "and the glory of the person is the contemplation of God."

In cas you think that being drenched in holy prayer is easy, it is. 












Sunday, September 10, 2017

2017.09.10 On Change—A Wee Parable

In between aimless transportations of soul— letting myself get lost in the vast expanse of sea, sky, and white sparkling sand of summer— I ground myself in reading. I’ve been reading Richard Holloway’s A Little History of Religion. It is structured in short chapters organized to present, one by one, the story of all the world's religions in historical order. How little I knew. My favorite chapter is our Anglican one of course, “The Middle Way”—how England’s church reorganized itself after the Reformation.

Holloway, former primus of the Church of Scotland now retired and admittedly disillusioned with religion, offers some wisdom, gleaned as a young student from a church history lecturer who began his course with a parable. 

“You have a wee son and he’s been out playing with his pals. When he comes home at bedtime his face is filthy, covered in mud from the fields he’s seen playing in all day. When you see the state he’s in, what should you do? You have three options. You can send him to bed as he is and lay his dirty wee head down on your clean pillow case. You can chop off his head. This would get rid of the mud certainly, but you’d kill him in the process and no longer have a son. Or you could give him a bath and clean him up before tucking him in for the night.”

These three choices signal: continuity with no change; change with no continuity; or continuity with some change. The16th century English church chose option three— not to get rid of the established Church altogether, but simply to wash its face, clean up the grime, and go forward with a new Book of Common Prayer and a broader view of authority i.e. no Pope.

In the wake of a successful effort to raise capital in our local parish, there is money, and with money comes opportunity and many decisions—all meaning change. Change could mean change in attitude, change in priorities, change in traditional ways of making decisions, both personal and communal, change in personnel as needed, change of heart, and God forbid, a change in theology, the way we understand God, including words we use to speak about God.  Shivers!

No wonder most of us fear change. Today many of us fear continuity about as much as change.

I have chosen to be an Episcopalian, choosing the "middle way" as much as I can and embracing brave change with some continuity. It’s always messy and always a blessing at once. But this kind of change, ironically, grounds me more deeply in continuity.

Raimundo Panikar ( 1918-2010) Spanish Roman Catholic priest, scholar of comparative religion, and proponent of inter-religious dialogue, puts it the way:  “I left Europe for India as a Christian, and I discovered I was a Hindu and returned as a Buddhist without ever having ceased to be Christian.”


Sunday, September 3, 2017

Psalm 23, Beloved Prayer Song Re-potentiated

A word is dead when it is said
Some say
I say it just begins to live
That day

        Emily Dickinson, 1924

Hear an old favorite psalm with just a few fresh words that change its complexion. 

Psalm 23 translation, Pamela Greenberg The Complete Psalms

God is my shepherd; there is nothing I lack.
You lay me down in lush meadows.

You guide me toward tranquil waters,
reviving my soul.

You lead me down paths of righteousness,
for that is your way.

And when I walk through the valley, overshadowed by death,
I will fear no harm, for you are with me

Your rod and your staff—they comfort me,
You spread a table before me
in face of my greatest fears.

You drench my head with oil;
my cup overflows the brim.

Surely goodness and kindness
will accompany me all the days of my life

and I will dwell in the house of the Holy
for the length of my days.


The psalms are prayers—startlingly honest emotionally. No feelings are absent from these prayers, even violent ones, the ones that let us know where and how we are hurt and want to hurt back. Yet psalms are also poetry and we chant them. Pamela Greenberg has translated the psalms in creative new ways without allowing them to lose their poetic power and spirituality.

I love familiar words that lull me; I love fresh words to awaken me even more. These latter force me to pay attention, to tune in. That’s how I grow. Even in discomfort, there is soul. Besides, who says scripture must always comfort or edify?  Poetic words soothe and disturb in equal proportion, and psalms are poetry.
                                         *  *  * *

The Rev. Dr. Judith Fentress Williams, Old Testament professor at Virginia Theological Seminary, spoke to the Massachusetts clergy recently about the Old Testament—its value and its power, its connectedness with the fullness of earthly expression and experience. “Don’t be afraid of it. Preach from it,” she said.
I’ve always loved Old Testament. It was required in seminary, and the very first course I took at Yale Divinity School. The instructor began in solemn tones; “In the beginning, God potentiated……….. 

I wrote that down and tried to still my heart. Potentiated felt more powerful than created. It signaled the spiritual power behind/within everything that lives breathes and has being. It spoke to me of God’s agenda: ongoing potentiation. Whenever you are potentiated, by anything at all, you awaken. You feel suddenly lifted….in a word, resurrected. It’s a scary and a wonderful feeling.

The Spirit of God potentiates Life in the beginning, at the end, and in every second in between.
                                               *  * *  *


What do you notice in Greenberg’s translation of Psalm 23 that is different from what your ears are used to hearing? Say it aloud.

This translation is familiar —and brand new. The first thing I notice is: “God is my shepherd”— not the Lord. God is a name not a noun. God is free of royal role and all its accoutrements.

Then I notice is “there is nothing I lack.” It sounds different from: “I shall not want” or “I shall not be in want.”  “Nothing I lack” means I have everything I need. Do I? Even as I age and feel lacking in many joints, every sag of skin, every short-term memory lapse: what did I have for breakfast today? But with God I lack nothing.

This 23rd psalm hums along, and all of a sudden your mind is jarred. You expect: “You lead me in green pastures” And you hear: “You lead me in lush meadows.” The words mean the same and yet have different tonality, sensuality. Lush!

“You spread a table before me in the face of my (fill in the blank)—enemies, we all say. But we hear: “my greatest fears.”  What is potentiated by these new words? Are your fears like enemies? Do they not make you skulk, cringe, cower and hide? Are they at war with your aspirations? Do they help you sin against goodness? Is this translation as accurate as the idea of having real enfleshed enemies out to get you?

And “I will dwell in the house of (fill in the blank)…the Lord, we shout?  We hear instead: “the Holy.” Lord implies ruler; Holy suggests a quality of Being, a Presence within and without. This Holy Presence  “drenches” our heads with the oil of healing. “Drench” is more literal and stronger than “anoints.”

What do these new words potentiate in you? Maybe contempt or distaste? For me, it’s the knowledge that great words I love do not die when they are altered, but they do acquire a different flavor; they inspire me to think—again and again. As the poet says, these newly spoken and heard words live.

What am I saying? What am I thinking? What am I meaning? What words do I use?

Lastly, the image of the shepherd is softened by these new words. Real shepherds are rough and tumble, not so gentle with sheep. The divine shepherd accompanies yet neither drives not coddles. This shepherd is just be a little more, well, divine.