Monday, May 28, 2018

The World between the Living and the Dead

It’s not uncommon for Trinity Sunday and Memorial Day weekend to intersect. It’s tempting for the preacher to focus either on the Trinity or Memorial Day. To tie these two days together, would seem, at best, a rather strained attempt to cover too much unconnected territory. But, I think these two are linked together for reasons we often want to avoid—that of the mystical connections between the living and the dead.

I’ve watched preachers attempt to explain the mystery of the Trinity by using rational ideas. But the Trinity is an experience, a relationship, a feeling that defies the rational. The Trinity is our webbed connection with the divine, the Other. The Trinity can be our path to become One with God. A path that demands the suspension of reality—it requires our willingness to delve into the unknown, the non-rational, the non-linear, the world in-between the living and the dead. The in-between world where God, the angels, and the dead work together. The world of the unseen—a world the living can enter only through active and creative imagination.

There is a mystical otherness of living into the relationship found within the Trinity. The irrational world of the in-between, where the intersection of celebrating the mysteries of the Trinity and honoring the war dead become possible.

On Memorial Day we remember our relationships with the dead. On this day, we turn our minds to honoring those who have died serving their country. Yet today, we live in a constant sea of violence and war. And still, we ache to experience a lasting peace

Forty-two years ago, my mother woke up from a deep sleep to see her younger brother standing at the foot of her bed. She thought she was dreaming, but he spoke audibly to her. “I love you.” She felt warm and comforted, while at the same time, alarmed. She spent the rest of the night dropping in and out of a dreamy, disturbing, and exhausting sleep. In the morning she received a phone call from her sister with the news that their brother had been killed in a helicopter crash.

Captain Eular M. Young had survived an extended tour of duty in Vietnam, which had caused a lot of anxiety in our family. When he returned, all seemed well because we thought he was out of danger. Then one stormy night at Fort Hood, Texas, he was sent out on maneuvers. Something went wrong during the storm and the helicopter he was piloting crashed, killing him and two other soldiers. To this day, no one knows what caused the tragedy.

My family, like yours, has had men and women serve in the military. To the best of my knowledge, my family members have served during the Civil War, World War I and II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and Desert Storm—and family lives have been lost along the way.

But the one person I want to remember today, the one I want to connect with to today, is my uncle Eular. We were close, he was the older brother I didn’t have—a confidant, a friend, a mentor. Like many relationships, ours was beautiful, complex, and hard to explain. And, the relationship seems to continue now as he lives in the world of the dead.

A relationship with the Trinity, the One Holy Living God—God the Parent, God the Child, and God the Spirit—can only be imagined in the world of the unseen, the unknown, the in-between. Except for the relationship with Jesus the Christ, the child. His experience transcends this world and the other. He lived as one of us and he died as one of us. It is through Jesus the Christ where our relationships with the living and the dead intersect.

We hear Jesus speak of these mysteries when he says to Nicodemus, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter of the Spirit World, without being born of water and the Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, what is born of the Spirit is spirit.” (John 3:1-17).

Nicodemus, was himself a teacher, a spiritual guide for his people. But even in his own wisdom, he went to Jesus, a younger man, to learn more about the ways of wisdom and the mysteries of the Spirt. As we know so well, Jesus rarely told cute stories with a simple moral. Jesus’ teachings were more often complicated and confusing, even for the wise. And Nicodemus, even in his wisdom, wrestled with Jesus’ complex mysteries of the seen and the unseen, the world of the Spirit.

To live in the world of the Spirit, Jesus told Nicodemus, he would have to become like Jesus himself—Nicodemus would have to be reborn into a life of the Spirit. This life of the Spirit would require following the teachings of Jesus about selfless love and sacrifice. This life of the Spirit meant that Nicodemus would forever be striving to be at One with God the parent. The life of the Spirit would demand that Nicodemus had to walk the path of wisdom. He would have to learn how to become a healer. He would have to be a servant leader for his people, teaching them that in the violent world in which they lived, they would have to be peacemakers.

If Nicodemus wanted to live in the world of the Spirit, he could no longer live in the world that others called “reality.” Instead, Nicodemus would have to become a Christ for others by living a life that would be lifted up for the sake of a peace that passes all understanding—a world that seems impossible to imagine.

For years, I’ve wondered what life would have been like for my uncle if he hadn’t been killed that stormy night. I’ve wondered what life would have been for his wife and his four young children. I’ve wondered how best to remember him and his service to his country on this Memorial Day. I struggle with the impossible complexity of it all—it seems beyond imagination.

I feel like the prophet Isaiah (6:1-8). “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

I have seen the work of the One Holy Living God; the One we call the Trinity. I hear Jesus’ teaching about how to live into the wisdom and peace of God. And I still find myself saying, “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips.”

The only place I can find peace, is the in-between world; the world of visions, imagination, and prayer. The world in-between the living and the dead—Isaiah’s visional world.

“Then of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”

I find myself praying, O God, send me into the world where the dead speak to us in visions and imaginations. The world where I can hear the lament of the dead. Where the sacramental bread and wine feel like burning coals in my mouth. A world where the Eucharist transmutes me into a living Christ for others. Take me into that world where I can imagine a different reality—a world where my response to fear and violence are words of peace and love.

For my uncle Eular, for all of your loved ones, and for all who have died while serving the in the military, I offer this visional prayer for peace written by Leslie D. Weatherhead (with my adaptation).

We give you thanks, O God, for all who have died that we may live; for all who endured pain that we might know joy; for all who made sacrifices that we might have plenty; for all who suffered imprisonment that we may know freedom. Now, O God, turn our deep feelings into determination, and our determination into action. That as we honor the men and women of our country who died for peace—help us, O God, that we may live for peace, for the sake of the Prince of Peace, Jesus the Christ. Amen.

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

A Four-Fold Method of Bible Study

A review of Alexander John Shaia's Heart and Mind: The Four Gospel Journey for Radical Transformation

Alexander John Shaia has been interviewed several times on Rob Bell’s podcast. On each occasion, he spoken about his brainchild, “Quadratos, a poetic word referring to the sequential fourfold journey of growth and radical transformation.” For Shaia, Quadratos is a psychological map for understanding life as a follower of “The Way of Jesus the Christ.” Indeed, every facet of life could be understood and mysteries revealed through a four-fold alchemical psychology.

“Heart and Mind” takes on the formidable task of pilgrimaging through the gospels of the New Testament looking through the Quadratos lens. Shaia sees the journey of the early church’s cycle of reading the gospels as transformative. His method attempts to take us back to the original intent of the gospel writers and the cycle through which the early church read those texts. He presents the possibility of living the Christian life with this ancient/future perspective. Even deeper, though, he presents a method in which to imagine the gospels as an integrated story. Keep in mind, this is not an attempt to bring synthesis to the four stories of Jesus; much less bring a unified version of the three synoptic texts with the disparate nature of the Gospel of John. Shaia uses the church lectionary as the method of integrating the four-fold natures of each story in a wholistic vision. In a sense, he is studying the text through the lens of God’s passionate love for Israel/Church in such a way as to be personally transformative. This method does not dismiss the historical context. It, however, does not give it primacy either.

The focus of “Heart and Mind” is an in-depth exploration of each gospel, through the lectionary cycle—a cycle which brings the story of Jesus the Christ into an integrated thread. Each chapter would make an excellent standalone Bible study, possibly for six to eight weeks. I would imagine studying the entire book would be on a yearlong project. (As suggested by Bishop Mark Andrus in the Foreword.) Shaia’s work would be an excellent follow up material for those who found Rob Bell’s “What is the Bible?” helpful in their understanding of Christian’s scripture. Shaia’s book provides approachable resources and expands possible practices in his final chapter.

Readers who come from a Christian tradition who do not use the lectionary cycle or follow the seasons of the church, however, may find Shaia’s premise a bit challenging. Especially those traditions that are steeped in Pauline theology, who might question Shaia’s statement that, “Paul’s impact is the most significantly unrecognized factor in gospel interpretation.”

I found Shaia’s book an excellent resource to consider for congregational Bible study. Particularly those churches who use the lectionary as their labyrinthine reading of the story of Jesus the Christ.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Jesus, Go to Hell, Please

Several years ago, I created a program entitled, “Resurrection, So What?” I invited guest speakers to make a case for the various theories about Jesus’ resurrection. Was it bodily resurrection? Was it a spiritual resurrection? A resurrection of the soul? A metaphoric resurrection? And more importantly, I asked each speaker to address The Book of Common Prayer’s question, “What is the significance of Jesus’ resurrection?”

Of course, the Prayer Book has an answer to its own question. “By his resurrection, Jesus overcame death and opened for us the way of eternal life.” That sounds traditional and comforting, while somewhat vague, which was probably the intention of the writers. But, honestly, what does that statement really mean?

We could look to the Bible for answers to questions about Jesus’ resurrection. The Gospel of Mark leaves the tomb empty with no sighting of Jesus. Matthew reports that Jesus’ appearance was “like lightening, and his clothes white as snow.” Luke tells us Jesus appeared like a ghost. John tells us that Mary Magdalene did not recognize him. St Paul and St Peter both write that Christ “died in the flesh and was raised in the spirit.”

Personally, I’m pretty comfortable with former Anglican Archbishop Rowan William’s answer from his book, “Resurrection.” He says simply that “Something happened.” (Resurrection: Interpreting the Easter Gospel) I don’t know what happened, but something pretty spectacular and even unbelievable must have happened at Jesus’ resurrection.

But I’m still left with the more important question, “So what does Jesus’ resurrection really mean for us, today?”

That is the question I’m often confronted with when someone faces the end of their life and then as the family grieves their death. And the two most popular scriptural texts chosen for funeral services are the 23rd Psalm and John 10:11-18 (which are the readings for the fourth week of Easter).

The 23rd Psalm is the poetic version of John’s mystical text about the good shepherd; the one who protects and guides his flock. “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death (better translated “the dark shadows”), I shall fear no evil; for you are with me; your rod (symbol of the shepherd’s protection) and your staff (symbol of the shepherd’s guidance), they comfort me. Surely your goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever (better translated, “as long as I live.)”

Both the psalmist and the writer of John were using symbolic, metaphoric, mystical language to talk about the earthly experience of living in the emotional dark shadows—depression, fear, anxiety, paranoia. Most mystics, like Jesus, have suffered their share of the dark shadows of life. And like most mystics, some of Jesus’ followers thought he was out of his mind. (John 10:19)

But because Jesus had experienced the shadows of life he promised his followers he would be there with them in their times of darkness. He said he loved them and that he would search all of creation to find them, even into the darkest hell of their lives. And Jesus made those same promises to us.
The apostle Peter wrote that, “(Christ) was put to death in the flesh, but was resurrected in the spirit, (where) he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison (the dead in hell.) (I Peter 3:18-20, 4:6) In other words, Christ in the spirit will be present with us in the very hell of our life.

But what about life after death? Is there is a spiritual life after our physical death. Is there a resurrection into an afterlife?

One idea that some early Christians, like the theologian Origen, wrote about was the idea of the transmigration of souls (metempsychosis or reincarnation). Transmigration of souls is the eternal spiritual formation, or maturation, of the soul. You’ve probably heard of the term, “old soul.” That comes from the idea that the soul spiritually migrates through timelessness, constantly in a state of being molded, formed, into its true divine nature. Metaphorically, we could think of the soul as a drop of water in the ocean. The drop of salty water evaporates, rises into the sky to become part of a cloud. It travels over dry land and rains as fresh water on the earth. The drop evaporates again, rises into the clouds, and continues the cycle. We know that our bodies are made of star dust from eons past. That’s a nice idea to consider. And we know we are breathing the air dinosaur’s exhaled millennia ago. We are the sum of the spirits of ancient past. We are the dead. While the philosophy of the migration of souls was not popularized in later Christianity, it has continued through the ages. Seventeenth century Anglican priest, John Donne wrote poems about the transmigration of souls. And today, these ideas are still maintained in some corners of Christianity.

Still, we’re still left with the haunting question, “So what does this all mean? Here’s something to consider. Are your beliefs about life, death, and the afterlife congruent with the way you live your life? For example, if you believe that your beloved dog will be in heaven, why did you have a hamburger for dinner last night? Do you believe that there’s an afterlife? Then, where are the dead? And can you talk to them? Charting our religious beliefs against how we live can be a challenging but worthwhile exercise. And it could lead to some answers to the question, “Resurrection, So What?”

Try this experiment: make four columns on a piece of paper. In column one, make a list of the top ten things you believe are most important to your faith. In column two write why think each of these items are so important. In column three, write about how you came to believe these things. In the fourth column, answer these two questions: Is this one belief I hold congruent with the other nine on this list? Is this belief I hold so dear, congruent with how I live my life?

I tried this exercise and it was challenging. I won’t share my entire list, but here’s one of my top ten tenets.

There is a God.
Why? For me, this tenet is existentially more satisfying than true atheism.
Where? I have experienced God in the dark hell of my life.
Congruent? Indeed, the experience transmuted my life.

Saturday, April 07, 2018

"Living Revision" on the Page and the Soul

"Living Revision: A Writer’s Craft as Spiritual Practice" by Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew is on par with Anne Lamott’s "Bird by Bird" and Stephen King’s, "On Writing." This book was provided gratis by a third party to write an objective review. Yet, I’ve gained such a great deal from "Living Revision" I feel compelled to send Andrew a check. Reading this book was the equivalent of attending a week-long writing conference.

As the title makes clear, this is not just another book on the skills needed to be a writer. Andrew takes her readers into the demanding work of becoming an artisan of the craft. “Revision is an inner work and thus a spiritual practice…Revision is the work of learning to love. Love takes time. Love is what brings us and our writing to fruition.” Andrew loved Living Revision tenderly for six years. My copy is now dog eared and marked thoroughly and a few weeks.

Andrew has taught the art of writing to all ages for over almost three decades. Her ability to speak to the beginner as well as the published author shines. Every detail of Living Revision has been carefully crafted. Even the shape of the piece mirrors a writer’s notebook. Each chapter is filled with wisdom from the library of literary queens and kings. She offers practical tips that have been matured on her own desk. Throughout the pages she gently suggests writing prompts that become progressively more challenging. I began to anticipate them with great joy. To become a better writer, one must write and it can be helpful to do so at the behest of a master.

As valuable as the practical application must be, it’s the inner work where Andrew drove me, sometimes in my reluctance. Her insistence that the art and craft of revision has both a contemplative and violent nature, reminded me of rejected drafts that are begging my return. To revise is to sacrifice the ego and the beautiful words no one else could scribe, yet for the sake of finding one’s true voice. “Voice, is relational.” At times, Andrew tells us, we must trust that our unconscious voice will speak to the unconscious of the reader. Such is the power of words that are birthed from love onto the page.

Andrew is forthright in her vulnerability. She reveals her truth in full display in order to model the writer’s demand to become authentically present to the page. The writer must do more than simply show up. The one who dares to write must expose to the reader what is at stake for the author. The writer must know and experience the “heartbeat” of both the inner and outer purpose of the project. “Why you write shapes how you write,” which is “usually born of some discomfort.” The more the writer is willing and capable of settling into this discomfort, “the better we can harness its energy.” Here, Andrew is revealing the psychic dark work of the writer in solitude. To write is to be alone with one’s life and recognize that “Perfection punishes the soul; it is an elusive and damaging goal.”

Typically, when I review a book, the critic in me rises easily to the page. For Living Revision, I have none. And now my critique of any future work, my own included, will be based on how much love is evidenced in the revision of the work. I need to find Andrew’s address so I can mail her my check.

Monday, April 02, 2018

Pink Jesus in a Wyrd World

Sometimes things are so weird, they can’t be ignored. This year, Ash Wednesday fell on Valentine’s Day and now Easter falls on April Fools’ Day. What an odd circumstance of synchronicity for two holy days in the same year. While it’s not the only time this has happened, it does me make me wonder about the confluence of the sacred and secular in our culture. There is a very murky space between the holy and the profane, but it’s often in this peculiar spiritual dream space where we can find illumination.

Illumination is not about receiving rational answers to unanswerable mysteries. Illumination is becoming comfortable living in a world of dream logic. (When dreaming the scene makes total sense, and then we wake up, the experience is difficult to explain.)

I’ve found in most forms of Christianity, people want Jesus and God to be something like the Magic 8 Ball, or an oracle who answers our questions. Let me introduce you to Pink Jesus. He was given to me by a young adult from St Brigid’s Community. He’s a very beautiful figurine of the Resurrected Jesus, a 12-inch, molded plastic that has a ceramic feel and a nice weight. The figurine has long flowing hair and robes. His right hand has two fingers extended in the sign of blessing. His left-hand rests upon the sash draped across his shoulders, representing the loving Sacred Heart of Jesus. And pink represents God’s love and forgiveness.

The most fascinating part of Pink Jesus is you can ask him questions. Inside the figure, floats a multisided dice. Anyone have a question for Pink Jesus?

Some of the answers are: Wait for a sign. The holy water will sting. Watch out for the lightening. Pray harder. I still love you. Let me ask dad.

Need an answer? Consult the Pink Jesus. Sounds funny, odd, maybe a little sacrilegious, I guess that’s why I like it. You kind of have to be willing to accept the idea of dream logic in order to imagine such oddities. The idea of resurrection lives in the world of dream logic.

Mary Magdalene was living in the world of dream logic on that dark morning when she went to visit Jesus’ tomb. She had gone there looking for the dead body of Jesus. The tomb was empty. Her grief of losing Jesus was compounded by believing that his body had been stolen.

In her despair, two angels appeared, asking her “Why are you crying?” She was not comforted. But then, she encountered a man she believed to be the keeper of the cemetery. He asked her why she was sobbing.

Then the man called her by name. Jesus the Christ, the resurrected one, whispered her name. Mary Magdalene herself was resurrected into the experience of Jesus’ resurrection. She had an unexplainable mystical experience. Hearing Jesus the Christ call her name was so powerful it transformed her life. So much so that Mary was eventually able to mystically translate her dream logic into a way of living her life. She lived in a perpetual state of being resurrected.

Her mystical experience gave her the power to become the disciple to the disciples. A woman, a mystic, would be the first evangelist, not Peter, not John, not Paul, but Mary Magdalene. She would use her mystical experience to hold the frightened community of Jesus’ followers together. Her mystical relationship with Jesus and her understanding of his teachings fueled the fire needed to inspire the followers of Jesus to move out of the prison of their fear into a life of discipleship.

Times I wish I could have an experience like Mary Magdalene.
A wise Irishman once asked me, “You wouldn’t be insulting God by looking for him, now would you?” My natural instinct is to search for God, to ache for a mystical experience. Yet, the more I look, the less likely it will be discovered. I search for answers and only find more questions. The more I cling to a dream, the more likely I am to choke it to death.

The story of Easter teaches us that Jesus the Christ will find us in the space between the sacred and the secular, between the holy and the profane. He will find us in our grief and in our despair. He will find us in our dark journey through the shadowlands of dusk and dawn. And in those in between places, he will teach us how to live with endless questions. He will teach us how to live in the world of dream logic. He will give us wisdom. And he will call us by our name. Amen.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Get on that Donkey and Ride

One of the great joys of St Peter’s Episcopal Church is their labyrinth. Many mornings after we drop off our six-year-old grandson for school at St Peter’s, our three-year-old grandson will want to walk the labyrinth. Actually, he runs it. But he’s careful to stay on the path. And when we pick up the six-year-old after school, he also wants to walk the labyrinth. He walks it carefully and with intention.

Often, during the service at St. Peter’s, I can see people walking the labyrinth. People walk and pray the labyrinth for countless reasons: to ask God for guidance, to discern important decisions, to deal with grief, to seek calm in the solitude of the labyrinth.

To walk the labyrinth is to go on a spiritual pilgrimage. You don’t have to go to an exotic land to go on pilgrimage. Life itself is a pilgrimage. Our life is a series of daily pilgrimage experiences that comprise one continuous pilgrimage. We can either live our life intentionally while we’re on our pilgrimage, or we can walk through life unconscious, just stumbling from day to day.

Sometimes we plan our pilgrimage—other times it just comes at us, unexpected, with devastating potential. It’s at those moments we must decide to walk the journey with intention and purpose. Palm Sunday is a metaphor for living life as an intentional pilgrimage, even when we know it will not end well. The story of Jesus at the end of his life, models for us how to live through life’s worse circumstances, with purpose.

A pilgrimage, like walking the labyrinth, is a four-fold journey—a four-step process.

First, we must decide to walk.
Second, we walk the circuitous path.
Third, we stop in the center at the stone.
Fourth, we make our journey home to a new normal— being one with God; there we are putting on the mind of Christ.

In the first phase, we must decide to live our life intentionally with purpose. Especially at the darkest moments of our life. The moment when we realize our dreams are dashed, we lose our job, our soul mate walks out on us, cancer appears, our loved one dies. These situations almost defy us to live with purpose and intention. But, that’s what Jesus did. He pretty much knew where he was headed and knew it wouldn’t end well. But, he got on the donkey and rode into Jerusalem.

And what about all those people shouting Hosanna? You know those people. The ones who tell you, “this is God’s will for your life.” Or, “God only gives what you can handle.” Or, “While we don’t know why this is happening, one day we’ll see the purpose in it all.” Frankly, that’s theological bullshit. People say those things to make themselves feel better. Simply listen, pray, and sit with those who are suffering. Instead of singing Hosanna, Jesus’ cheerleaders could have walked with him and stayed by his side during the most difficult time of his life.

Second, we must accept the reality that the path of our life will never be a straight line. We will always be walking a circuitous path. We will constantly be feeling that we’re experiencing déjà vu. Jesus had walked into Jerusalem countless times. He knew the road, he knew the way. Yet, this time everything was different. The road was muddier. The sky was darker. The path seemed to be going in circles. He was light-headed when he stepped off that donkey and walked in the Temple. And when the tables went flying, his supporters scattered. But Jesus would not be deterred. He was intent on walking his pilgrimage no matter how risky the future.

Third, every pilgrimage has a moment, if we look for it, when we must stop and reflect—those moments when we can stand still and feel the presence of the divine. In those moments, we reach out and grab hold of God, the solid stone in our life. In those moments, we are in the center of stillness, held in God’s love—even if only for a second. We get a glimpse of those moments in Jesus’ life; they appear when we witness his calmness in the face of an unjust attack. And we see it again in his resolve to stay faithful to his calling even when his friends deserted him.

The last stage of the pilgrimage, is to return home to a new normal—being at one with God. We have been changed as the result of the pilgrimage. We have died and been resurrected and no one has noticed. I was in Florence, Italy at the museum where Michelangelo’s famous sculpture of David stands in all his beautiful majesty. In the small gallery before entering the long hallway where David is displayed, there hangs three paintings. One being a life size depiction of the resurrected Jesus. He is sitting in the tomb, slumped over, like he just woke up. His wounds are raw and the dried blood stains his skin. He appears like any other human being, having survived the most brutal experience of his life.

I believe, that though Jesus thought he would be crucified, he was not counting on any form of resurrection. To be human, he had to live with the same uncertainty and fear of death that we all must live with each day.

In this phase of the pilgrimage, we’re not sure if we’re living in the afterglow of resurrection or living with the worst hangover of our life. Sometimes the new normal of resurrection makes our head spin with a dizzying nausea.

Resurrection is a risky potential that we have to die to experience. Sometimes the death is metaphoric. Sometimes, it’s real in its finality. But to experience resurrection, we must fully lean into the confusing complexity of life and death—for it is there that we will know the vast capacity of God’s love—there we will be at one with the Divine, there we will put on the mind of Christ.

Three years ago, I planted some marigolds in two large pots on our front porch. They grew very nicely. Someone told me that when the flowers withered to pinch them off in order to stimulate new growth. When I pinched off the dead flowers, I just dropped them in the pot. Then the next year, I planted some different flowers in those pots. But, the marigolds returned with abandon and took over the pots from the new flowers. In fact, the marigolds popped up wild in some beds on the ground. Wherever there was water those marigolds sprout.

We are planted in the dark moist earth of God’s soul. The mystery within us stirs and growth happens below the surface. In the warmth of the sun, we emerge and grow. As the season changes, we die some form of death. To live, is to die. And to die, is to live. When we decide to walk again, the process of resurrection begins.

Saturday, March 17, 2018

I've Been Bitten by a Snake

I’ve been a writer for the devotional book, “Forward, Day by Day” as well as their annuals The idea is to write a profoundly moving devotion in 300 words or less. People want to read good stories that are inspiring, yet not controversial. Basically, the writer has to think of thirty different ways of saying that God loves you, while being happy, sweet, joyful, and emotionally poignant.

Writing these devotionals are much like writing a sermon for an Episcopal congregation. The preacher is given a prescribed scripture from which they must tell an entertaining story; best if it’s funny; provide some important theological insight; be sure and not offend anyone; all in less than ten minutes.

The most recent survey by the Pew Foundation cited that the number one reason for attending church was good preaching. In most churches, there is only one preacher who is left with an impossible task; deliver a sermon that keeps the congregation begging for more.

I’ve now wasted ninety seconds explaining why it is impossible to write a funny and inspiring sermon on the readings from Numbers 21:4-9 and John 3:14-21. Sometimes, though, you just have to go for it.

St Paul said, that spiritual infants need milk, but the mature must eat solid spiritual food. (I Cor. 3:2 and Hebrews 5:12) And Jesus said, let those who have ears, hear.

These readings require mature spiritual ears to hear and understand what the Spirit is saying to the Church. Both texts reference serpents as agents of poison and healing, similar to the caduceus. To the uninitiated these strange stories defy meaning. To the mature Christian, however, these texts lie at the root of how we can become one with God through Christ. They are also windows into the mystical Anglican theology regarding the celebration of the Holy Eucharist.

In medieval art there are at least two paintings that depict St John holding a chalice with either a serpent or a dragon coming out of the wine. (Alonso Cano 17th century; see the Ashmolean Museum). The serpent and dragon represent the mystical power found in the Eucharist; which is both poisonous and healing.

Poisonous, in that becoming one with God through Christ has a price. That price is participation in God’s creative work. The individual must accept their responsibility in becoming one with God. There’s no free ticket. A person can’t just say, I’ve accepted Jesus Christ as my personal savior and I’m good to go, I’m saved. That is infant’s milk. Collectively, we are already saved by the grace of God, that’s universal. God’s salvific work has been completed. That, however, is not the end goal of being a Christian; the work of eating solid food must continue in order to mature the Christian.

To become one with God is the spiritual goal of being an Anglican. Anglicanism teaches that becoming one with God requires God’s grace plus the individual and the community’s spiritual practices. These practices are the way Anglicans work out their salvation. Anglican theology follows the admonition of St Paul, who said, work out your own salvation by putting on the mind of Christ (Philippians 2) and of St James, who said that faith without works is dead (James 2:17). These spiritual practices are spelled out very clearly in the baptismal covenant (found in the Book of Common Prayer): follow the teaching of the apostles, receive the Eucharist, pray, resist evil, repent when necessary, proclaim the Good News, serve the Christ that is in all persons, love your neighbor as yourself, and strive for justice and peace by respecting the dignity of every human being. That is the work of becoming a mature spiritual Christian. It’s not optional. The individual relationship with God and the church’s relationship with God depend on doing this work.

The process of maturation also has a mystical component as spelled out in the prayers of the Holy Eucharist. There are at least three mystical parts to the efficacy of the Eucharist. Today (at St Peter’s Episcopal Church) we are using Rite II, Prayer B. This prayer is the most Incarnational of the six prayers used in the Book of Common Prayer. Incarnation means that God is present in Christ, in all of creation, and in every human being. The prayer states that God’s goodness and love have been made known to us in creation, in humanity, and in Jesus.

The first mystical effect happens to us individually. In this prayer, we ask that by the act of eating the bread and drinking the wine we will be united with Christ in his sacrifice. In other words, by consuming the bread and wine, we are being turned into Christ crucified. That statement brings with it a lot of poison; the expectation is that as individuals we will be doing our work, our sacrifice, which, thereby, brings us healing, as well as creation.

The second mystical effect is universal, touching all of creation. The Eucharistic prayer says “In the fullness of time, put all things in subjection under your Christ.” Those words mean that the act of celebrating the Holy Eucharist has an effect on all of God’s creation. Whether one receives the Eucharist or not, the efficacy of the prayers have a cosmic impact. The world can be affected unconsciously by our work through the Eucharist, as well as our prayers, and our practices. (See Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, especially “Divine Milieu” and “Hymn of the Universe.”)

The third effect of the Eucharist is on God. Because the Eucharist effects creation, and God is incarnated in creation, therefore, the divine is altered by the work of the Eucharist. We are participating with God in the continual creative act of renewal. We are responsible to God and all of creation for our participation in God’s work. By our sanctifying, making holy, all of creation, we recognize that God is present in all of creation and any good or damage we bring to creation is equally done to God. That’s some serious poison, but that work can also have a deep healing effect.

To understand these concepts requires much more than a ten-minute sermon. That’s why The Book of Common Prayer admonishes the people to read, learn, mark, and inwardly digest the scripture. Anglicans also hold that their prayer shapes their belief. And this is the work of the mature Christian who will be able to hear what the Spirit is saying to the Church.