Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Upside Down Thinking

Recently I was invited to attend a writing workshop at Collegeville Institute, which resides on the campus of Saint John’s University, northwest of Minneapolis-St. Paul. The workshop was a transformative experience for me, much of which I am still processing. I’m trying to write about what happened through the workshop experience, but putting those thoughts out in the open air will take some time.

Besides being at the writing workshop, the campus of Saint John’s had many benefits; one being that our workshop group of twelve members was given a private viewing of the Saint John’s Illuminated Bible.

The bible is kept in an environmentally controlled vault. Tim Ternes, the Director of the Saint John’s Bible, met us outside the building where the bible is kept below ground level. He laughingly told us he was going to treat us like first graders and asked us to wash our hands; we were going to be able to touch the Saint John’s Bible. After we washed our hands thoroughly, we entered the vault through a security door that had a 60-second timer before it automatically closed. Once inside, we had to remove our jackets, sweaters, and handbags and back packs. All these precautions were required because we were going to be within inches of this priceless bible.

The Saint John’s Illuminated Bible is the first handwritten and illuminated bible that has been created in last 500 years. The project began in 1998, taking fifteen years it was finished in 2011, at an estimated cost of $8 million dollars. Artist Donald Jackson created a new script for use on the bible (using the New Revised Standard Version in English) and oversaw the work of seven calligraphers and artists. The bible is not illustrated, as in pictures designed to re-create a scene, but instead the bible is illuminated, meaning the artwork enhances the symbolic expressions of the written word.

The book is two feet high and three feet wide. That’s the standard size of an easel pad of paper. The bible was written on over three hundred pieces of vellum. Vellum was used for its historic and artistic value. Each side of vellum contains two pages, four pages per piece of vellum for a total of 1150 bible pages. Each piece of vellum weighs approximately two-three pounds. The artists used a unique 19th century Chinese ink for the calligraphy and the artwork pieces are combinations of vibrant colored ink and 24-karat gold.

The bible is currently unbound. If it were bound, the bible would easily weigh over 500 pounds. The book was made so large to emphasize that the bible was never intended for one individual but instead for the entire community.

The theologian’s and the artist’s intent of using calligraphy and illumination is to bring the word of God alive on the page. I’ve seen the Book of Kells in Ireland. I’ve seen famous art and artifacts in some of the best museums in the world, but there was always glass or space between the artwork and me. But, when we had this rare opportunity to view Saint John’s Bible, nothing stood between the art and us. The colors were brilliant, the art gave depth and new meaning to the scriptural stories—the illuminated bible is a living thing that gives the ancient words a twenty-first century understanding. The illuminations offer us new words to describe our experience of the divine.

For me, there are two illuminations in the Saint John’s bible that provide a symbolic representation of the central images of Christianity—the crucifixion and the resurrection. The illumination is found in the Gospel of Luke and the resurrection in the Gospel of John (The Saint John’s Bible: Gospels and Acts). https://www.saintjohnsbible.org/Explore.aspx?VID=1&ID=9

Set against one another, these pieces of art disrupt our commonly held views of the events of crucifixion and resurrection. Typically, we think of the crucifixion being the darkest moment in the Christian story. We often think of this scene in the dark hues of a terrible storm at its apex. The crucifixion is when Jesus died on the cross and the writers of the gospels put the psalmist’s words into his mouth. “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” The scene is filled with storms, abandonment, and death.

In contrast, we have imagined the resurrection to be the moment when the shining light of Christ bursts forth in a moment of victory over death. In the Episcopal Church our vestments on Easter are filled with gold in order to give us that feeling.

The illuminations of the Saint John’s Bible, however, do their best to disturb these commonly held views of the crucifixion and the resurrection.

In the Saint John’s Bible, the crucifixion, instead of being dark and foreboding, is depicted in the brilliant light of pure gold. The gold is thick, raised off the page, bringing the crucified Christ into three dimensions. This scene is the most brilliant of any page in the Saint John’s Bible.

In contrast to the brilliant light of the crucifixion scene, the resurrection is depicted in dark blues. Here, we only see the hooded Christ figure from the back. We do see the face of Mary Magdalene, who is clad in a deep red robe. The only gold we see in this scene is on the hands of Mary Magdalene.

Why are these scenes depicted in such paradoxical contrast? I think what we are seeing is what Jesus has taught us. At the moment of the cross, God became human in order to experience pain and death. God is present in the poor, the marginalized, the weak, the sick, those who are imprisoned, the alien among us—God is present in the suffering of the cross. God is present in the humiliation of the cross. God is present in the death of the cross. Through God’s experience of human suffering and death—God can then fully experience our pain and suffering. God is not absent in our pain and suffering—actually that is when God is most present.

And what about the resurrection, where is God in that scene? God is present now in the hands Mary—the one who will carry the good news that God is among us in our suffering and pain—and God is present in us as we live out this good news in the twenty-first century. We are now the twenty-first century Mary Magdalene. Now our hands are covered with the gold of the presence of God, the God who has been present to us in our own crucifixion is the God that we carry as a healing agent into the world’s suffering.

Sisters and brothers do not shy aware from the suffering of the cross. Instead, lean into the soul gold we find from God’s presence at the margins of life, because at those times we experience loss, suffering, pain, abandonment, death—there we will discover a true golden resurrection moment.

Monday, August 01, 2016

Fear: A Weapon

Tuesday I was on my way to Tucson very early in the morning. I stopped at the rest area just north of Casa Grande. There weren’t any cars there when I pulled in. When I came out of the restroom, I noticed there was another vehicle in the parking lot. There was a man about my age walking down the sidewalk towards me. He was wearing a gun on his hip. I didn’t think too much about it—I’ve seen people wearing guns before. But, as I got within about ten feet of the guy, he turned and looked right me—he put his hand on his gun. I’m not sure what look I gave him, but I just kept on walking towards my car. I really don’t like wearing my clerical collar, but that’s one time I thought it might have been a good idea—or not? When I got in my car, I wondered why he put his hand on his gun? If he knew me he’d know I the last person to be afraid of. What was he afraid of? Seems like everywhere I turn I feel like fear is surrounding me.

The last two weeks I’ve watched bits and pieces of the Republican and Democratic Conventions. I’ve listened to speeches by the candidates and key players. And I’ve subjected myself to the subsequent rhetoric from the pundits as well as Facebook friends. The only common theme I can gather from this presidential election is that it is like none other. Even the oldest of commentators, and those who study the history of presidential elections have declared that this election season stands alone in its uniqueness.

I’ve spent probably too much time wondering why? What is the one thing that has created this kind of political atmosphere in our country? I think the common factor among all the political voices that keep turning up the volume is, “fear.” Fear is in the driver’s seat of our country. Fear has control over America. Fear has become the doomsday weapon of mass destruction that looms over our heads like never before.

I hear people tell me that they’re afraid of Donald Trump being elected president. Then I hear other people say that they’re afraid of Hillary Clinton being elected president. So, what’s underneath all this fear? What are people really afraid of? I think it’s the fear of death.

Death comes in many forms, but all forms are manifested in the fear of “change.” From the moment we’re born, we are destined to experience a lifetime of daily change that eventually leads to death. We experience change from the moment we get up in the morning until we lay our weary heads down at night. We experience so much change on a daily basis that you’d think we would get used to change—that we would be able to embrace change and death with ease. But that’s not what happens. Actually, the thing we resist the most in life is change and the thing we fear the most is death. Does it have to be that way? I don’t think so.

George Morrell was one of the founders of Saint Augustine’s Episcopal Church in Tempe, Arizona. He was one of the first person’s I met when I started as vicar there in 2006. He was an alum of ASU when it was Arizona State Teacher’s College. George was a fighter pilot during World War II and served active duty during the Korean War. Before and after his stints in the military, he worked in the administration at ASU for forty years.

Near the end of George’s life, I had the privilege of listening to his stories and pondering with him about the big questions of life. He told me that he had had four specific moments in his life when he experienced the divine. It was at those instances, he said, that he knew for sure that God was fully present.

George had been very active in politics and during the last few weeks of his life he talked a lot about the primary elections. He had definite opinions and expectations. He we invested in the outcome of the election, but he didn’t live in fear of the outcome. Nor did he live his life in fear of the outcome. As he came to the last days of his life, I marveled at how he was dying with dignity and grace. George Morrell died well. At his funeral in February of 2008, Saint Augustine’s was packed with many well-known ASU administrators, coaches, and academic figures. He was loved and respected.

These last two weeks I can’t stop thinking about George, how he lived his life and how he died with dignity. He definitely had ideas and opinions and he wasn’t afraid to tell me, in a gracious way, what he believed. He had the presence and the confidence that allowed him to speak truth to power without ever raising his voice or using anger to express his views. Indeed, George had politic opinions, but he wasn’t afraid of the outcome no more than he was afraid of death. George Morrell trusted his family, his church, his country, and God. He relied on the faith he placed in each of them. During these very bizarre days we are living in, I’ve been relying on the voice of George Morrell to guide me.

Listen to words of Psalm 49 as interpreted by Eugene Peterson in The Message. These are words of wisdom about how to approach life and death without fear.

Listen, everyone, listen - earth-dwellers, don't miss this.
All you haves and have-nots,
All together now: listen.

I set plainspoken wisdom before you, my heart-seasoned understandings of life.
I fine-tuned my ear to the sayings of the wise,
I solve life's riddle with the help of a harp.

So why should I fear in bad times, hemmed in by enemy malice,
Shoved around by bullies, demeaned by the arrogant rich?

Really! There's no such thing as self-rescue, pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.
The cost of rescue is beyond our means, and even then it doesn't guarantee Life forever, or insurance against the Black Hole.

Anyone can see that the brightest and best die, wiped out right along with fools and dunces. They leave all their prowess behind, move into their new home, The Coffin,
The cemetery their permanent address.
And to think they named counties after themselves!

We aren't immortal. We don't last long. Like our (beloved pets), we age and weaken. And die.

This is what happens to those who live for the moment, who only look out for themselves:
Death herds them like sheep straight to (the pit); they disappear down the gullet of the grave; They waste away to nothing - nothing left but a marker in a cemetery.

But me? God snatches me from the clutch of death, he reaches down and grabs me.

So don't be impressed with those who get rich and pile up fame and fortune. They can't take it with them; fame and fortune all get left behind.

Just when they think they've arrived and folks praise them because they've made good,
They enter the family burial plot where they'll never see sunshine again.

We aren't immortal. We don't last long. Like our (beloved pets), we age and weaken. And die.

The Psalmist is trying to teach us that to live in fear is to deny the existence of God’s power in our lives. George Morrell didn’t base his opinions on fear. And I don’t want to base my opinions on fear. I don’t want to live in fear—I want to live in the confidence that God will be always be with me, walking with me, talking to me, guiding me away from the Black Hole of fear.

If I live to be as old as my mom did, I have twenty years left and that’s optimistic. But if I’m fortunate to live that long—after this presidential election I’ll watch four more. And, if I’m able, I’ll vote in every one of them. I’ll express my opinions openly. But the one thing I will not do is live in fear of the outcome, nor the fear of life, nor the fear of death. For me, to live in fear is to deny the existence of God’s power in my life and indeed, to squander life itself.

Please hear me, I’m not trying to tell you how to vote. Actually, I’m telling you something much more important—I’m telling you how to live in the presence of a loving God who will snatch each and every one of us out of the Black Hole of fear so that we can breathe deep and live freely.