Sunday, March 30, 2014

A Course on Christians and the Common Good

As I've posted on this blog previously, a few years ago I was the principal author of the curriculum Faithful Citizen, conceived, designed, and published by the Center for the Congregation in Public Life and available from Logos Publications.

I designed a seminary course (for awesome students!) on the subject of Christians and the common good. I decided to share on this blog in case some of my ideas could be helpful to other teachers interested in this theme. There are different ways to design such a course, and different potential books on the subject (although students liked these texts). For another version of this course I could recommend additional readings in texts like Eric Mount's Covenant, Community, and the Common Good: An Interpretation of Christian Ethics (United Church Press, 1999), which was a key text for the Faithful Citizen curriculum.

If the possibility of such a course interests you, let my ideas spark your own creativity! See my syllabus here:

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Small, Heartwarming Things

A while back, I found this small, heavy plaque for sale on ebay. As you drive two-lane highways, you can spot plaques of this sort on bridges across streams, etc. I love to see them and, if it's safe to pull off the road and walk, I take time to photograph some of these plaques. If the stretch of highway is abandoned, walking out and getting a picture is of course easier. North of my hometown, Vandalia, IL, an old alignment of U.S. 51 still lies on the east side of the modern road, and the plaque on the bridge identifies the route with its old name, State Route 2.

This plaque indicates that its bridge was built in 1928, and that the bridge carried State Route 129. The words "Bond Issue" means that the route was one of the "state bond issue" routes undertaken in Illinois in 1918 and afterward. (My own favorite highway, IL 185, was the last of those original SBI routes.) I looked on and discovered that there is no longer a Route 129 in Illinois, but the route had connected Effingham and Windsor, Illinois. It was renumbered as State Route 32 in 1936, thus lengthening the road that already existed between Decatur and Windsor. I've visited Effingham all my life and have always seen the signs for routes 32 and 33 along I-57/70.
Unusual plaque on an early
U.S. 51 bridge north of Sandoval, IL.

All this made me think of things that we enjoy when we're out driving. Small plaques on highway bridges give me a sense of pleasure, but so do willow trees, streams, cattails and day lilies in ditches, signs for churches down a country road, billboards for upcoming restaurants and motels (like those in Effingham), and other things. The (hopefully) soon arrival of nice weather will have me out driving through familiar and new countrysides.

Old alignment of U.S. 40, disappearing into
the woods, east of Pocahontas, IL

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Travels of Yale's Timothy Dwight

This website tugs at my heart strings. It provides a brief history of Yale Divinity School, where I earned my masters degree in 1982, and includes two of my teachers, Robert Clyde Johnson and Colin W. Williams, and faculty I knew, Harry Adams and Aiden Kavanaugh, and Dean Leander Keck. I’ll always be grateful for my studies and friendships at YDS!

At the moment, though, I’m interested in the section that credits the eighth Yale president, Timothy Dwight IV (1752-1817), for getting the momentum going for the eventual establishment of Yale Divinity School.

I’ve a collection of early 1800s travel books. They’re related to the history of my hometown, Vandalia, IL, when it was state capital in 1819-1839. I love the old writing style of travel authors of the era (including, to me, an abundant use of commas), and the interesting things the authors' observed and preserved. These records of people, places, economy, and landscape are now indispensable to historians.

Knowing Timothy Dwight's connection to my beloved school, last fall on a whim I purchased Dwight's Travels in New England and New York. It’s a four-volume set, the first edition printed in New Haven by S. Converse in 1821, and includes all the maps. The books record economic and social aspects of New York and New England during the 1796-1817 period. Leafing through Dwight's volumes provides a wonderful sense of northeastern life at that time.

My wife is a university president, and I love Dwight’s preface about the rigors of his work.

“In the year 1795 I was chosen President of Yale College. The business of this office is chiefly of a sedentary nature, and requires exertions of the mind almost without interruption. In 1774, when a tutor in the same Seminary, I was very near losing my life by inaction, and too intense application to study. A long course of unremitted exercise restored my health. These facts, together with subsequent experience, had taught me, that it could not be preserved by any other means. I determined, therefore, to devote the vacations, particularly in that autumn, which includes six weeks, to a regular course of traveling. In September 1796, the execution of my design was commenced; and the first journey mentioned in these letters, was accomplished. Before its commencement, it occurred to me, that a description of such interesting things, as I might meet with in my excursions, would probably furnish amusement to my family. I therefore put a note book into my pocket, with an intention to set down in it whatever should
suit my inclination...”

He goes on to say that the note book was substituted with a regular journal, and he resolved to observe the rapidly changing area of New England (and later he added New York), to preserve its aspects for posterity and to address misrepresentations of New England about the region by other writers.

In his “Journey to Province Town,” page 79 of Volume III, we read:

“The houses in Yarmouth are inferiour to those in Barnstable, and much more generally of the class, which may be called, with propriety, Cape Cod Houses. These have one story, and four rooms on the lower floor; and are covered on the sides, as well as the roofs, with pine shingles, eighteen inches in length. The chimney is in the middle, immediately behind the front door; and on each side of the door are two windows. The roof is straight. Under it are two chambers; and there are two larger, and two smaller, windows in the gable end. This is the general structure, and appearance, of the great body of houses from Yarmouth to Race Point. There are, however, several varieties, but of too little importance to be described.”...

Why quote this paragraph?  It's the first use of that term “Cape Cod house.”

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Beautiful the Morning Star: Bach's Cantatas for Annunciation and Oculi Sunday

Last fall I purchased the box set of all of Bach’s sacred cantatas, performed by the English Baroque Soloists and the Monteverdi Choir under the direction of John Eliot Gardiner. (They're available at this link.) Beginning with the First Sunday of Advent, I’ve been listening to these cantatas on the appropriate days, as a year-long “spiritual journey.”

Over three weeks ago, when I listened to CD 11 for the last Sunday before Lent, I looked at CD 12, saw “Palm Sunday,” and thought the next installment of my listening would be in April. But today I realized that the same disc contained a cantata for the Third Sunday of Lent (Oculi Sunday), which was this past Sunday, and also two cantatas for the Feast of the Annunciation (yesterday, March 25), although the Annunciation cantatas are also Palm Sunday pieces. (Oculi Sunday is so named because the first Latin word of the day’s introit from Psalm 24:15 is oculi, or “eyes”.)

Just a little late, I listened to Disc 12 on this day after Annunciation. The two cantatas for that day are “Himmelskönig sei willkommen” (BWV 182, “King of Heaven, Thou art welcome”) and “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern” (BWV 1, “How beautifully gleams the morning star”). The cantata for this past Sunday is “Widerstehe doch der Sünde” (BWV 54, “Stand firm against all sinning”). The cover photo (always international people, symbolizing the universality of Bach’s music) is of a turbaned man in Allahabad, India.

The next cantatas in the set are for Easter Sunday, so I’ll be back with Bach in a few weeks.

In the notes, Gardiner writes that in 1714, when BWV 182 premiered, Palm Sunday coincided with Annunciation. The cantata opens with a pretty overture for violin and recorder with pizzicato accompaniment, perhaps invoking Jesus’ donkey ride, while the songs invoke the crowd’s happy greeting of Christ---and our own greeting of our Savior who, we know, will shortly suffer on our behalf.

Let us thus enter joyful Salem,
attend the King in love and sorrow.
He leads the way
and prepares the path.

But Mary's sorrow is also suggested in the sad alto solo, accompanied by a recorder, beseeching us to give ourselves to Christ.

“Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern” is also a cantata for a year (1725) in which Annunciation and Palm Sunday coincided. Gardiner calls this a “jubliant spring-time cantata... opulent, regal and ‘eastern’, redolent of te Ephipany cantata BWV 65. He writes that the whole cantata is filled with dance rhythms and good spirits as the son of Mary and Son of God is “a joyous ray that has come to me from God... a perfect treasure, the Saviour’s Body and Blood... destined for us since eternity...”

BWV 54 for Oculi Sunday reminds us from the outset to “Stand firm against all sinning, or its poison will possess you.. Those who commit sin are of the devil, for he has invented sin, but if one resists his vile shackles with true devotion, sin will straightaway take flight.” Gardiner writes that Bach opens the first aria in a startling way “with a harsh dissonance, a dominant seventh chord over a tonic pedal point” which may have meant to jar listeners to do as the title says. In contrast to the cheerful “Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern,” the cantata is appropriate for its Lenten location as an urgent reminder to renounce the devil’s ways.

Annunciation is a fixed rather than moveable feast and will, most years, fall within the Lenten season. It is interesting that Bach twice had the chance to write for both Palm Sunday and Annunciation as the same day. My own Lent has been so busy with school responsibilities that I've sagged a bit on devotional reading and the like. So I felt happy I could return to the Bach cantatas sooner than I'd anticipated---to get a gentle push back into the penitential, introspective time. I was also happy to be reminded of the joyous announcement to Mary: the Savior will be born to the favored young woman. To put it foolishly, it feels like a reminder of Christmas cheer (the promised birth of Jesus) within Lenten solemnity. (And it did snow a little yesterday….)

As each set of CD notes indicate, the English translations of Bach's texts by Richard Stokes.

Hump Day Prayers

Dear Lord, one of my professors used to tell students, "Anticipate your regrets." He wasn't talking about a "YOLO" attitude but rather a mature and sensible way to have a life with service that we, in hindsight, can be proud of, that we can offer to you. You know that I have tried to live my life that way and have continually examined my priorities, goals, and family needs, ever since I was young. Help us all do do this kind of soul searching. Help us realize NOW what we'd be sorry we didn't do, especially in the ways we care for others. None of us can see every eventuality, and many of our regrets are the result of trying to do our best but not always succeeding. But please guide us in all our ways. Help us to put ourselves in the place of a person looking back on his or her life, so that we can clarify---and possibly change---the things in which we're engaged and the attitudes by which we feel and perceive. In the words of Psalm 36, create "wide places" in our lives. Help us remember the words of the philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset: "Tell me what you pay attention to and I will tell you who you are." In Christ's name. Amen.

(The idea of "Hump Day Prayers" came from my college friend's blog "Le Padre Ver Livre,"

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Feast of the Annunciation

Today is the Feast of the Annunciation in many churches. A Catholic site explains some of the day's aspects.

This day reminds me how many of us Protestants bring out Mary in Advent and Christmas, and we consider her sorrows at Good Friday, but we don’t think so much about her the rest of the Christian year.

Reminded of this holiday by the Facebook post of a former student, now a rasophore nun at a Byzantine Catholic monastery, I turned to the prayer book she once recommended to me(1). I enjoy the rich use of scriptural images as well as the meditations upon the mystery of the Trinity. These are from the service “Annunciation of the Most Holy Theotokos and Ever Virgin Mary,” pages 435-467.

“Gabriel, leader of the powers above, flew down and greeted the Virgin, saying: ‘Hail, thou pure chariot of the divinity: God has loved thee from eternity, and He has chosen thee to be his dwelling...

“Revealing to thee the pre-eternal counsel, Gabriel came and stood before thee, O Maid; and greeting thee, he said, ‘Hail, thou earth that has not been sown; hail, thou burning bush that remains unconsumed; hail, thou unsearchable depth; hail, thou bridge that leads to heaven, and ladder, raised on high that Jacob saw; hail, thou divine jar of manna; hail, thou deliverance from the curse; hail, thou restoration of Adam, the Lord is with thee...

“How shall He whose throne is heaven and whose footstool is the earth be held in the womb of a woman? He upon whom the six-winged seraphim and the many-eyed cherubim cannot gaze has been pleased at a single word to be made flesh of this His creature. It is the Word of God who dwells within her....

“Let the heavens be glad and the earth rejoice; for the Son who is coeternal with the Father, sharing His throne and like Him without beginning, in His compassion and merciful love for mankind has submitted Himself to emptying, according to the good pleasure and counsel of the Father; and he has gone to dwell in a virgin’s womb that was sanctified beforehand by the Spirit. O marvel! God is come among men; He who cannot be contained is contained in a womb; the Timeless enters time; and, strange wonder! His conception is without seed, His emptying is past telling: so great is this mystery! For God empties Himself, takes flesh, and is fashioned as a creature, when the angel tells the pure Virgin of her conception: ‘Hail, thou who are full of grace: the Lord who has great mercy is with thee.’ …”

1. The Festal Menaion, translated by Mother Mary of the Orthodox Monastery of the Veil of the Mother of God, Bussy-en-Othe, France, and Archimandrite Kallistos Ware of the University of Oxford. Published in South Canaan, PA by St. Tikhon’s Seminary Press, 1998.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Bunny Redux

Last summer, we watched a baby rabbit grow and explore our backyard, as I describe in this post. I took that picture as it sat beside our pink granite garden rock, and then I became accustomed to glancing at the stone to see if it was there. As fall approached, we only saw the bunny in the dark of early morning or after dusk, as is typical of rabbits. Then we had our snowy, cold winter and saw no animals at all.

This week, we've seen two fat rabbits playing in the yard. Is one of them last summer's baby? It's fun to think so. It's also wonderful to greet a new, warmer season which, by Easter, should be here more reliably.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Tavener's "The Veil of the Temple"

I'm finally finished with grading tests and papers for three classes, so I feel more free to blog again….

When the composer John Tavener died late last year, I read his obituary and tributes in Gramophone magazine, and I was intrigued by the mention of a 7-hour piece called The Veil of the Temple. The piece was commissioned by, and premiered at the 12th-century Temple Church in London, the portion of which called the Round Church evokes (architecturally and spiritually) the round Holy Sepulchre Church in Jerusalem.

I haven’t listened to Tavener’s music as much as I should, but I’ve enjoyed what I’ve heard, like his Ex Maria Virgine and Lament for Jerusalem and the well-known "Song for Athene." So I ordered the recording of The Veil (an 2+ hour portion of the whole) and have been playing it a lot this month. In fact, I’ve not even gotten to Disc 2 yet because I’ve played Disc 1 over and over.

At the site, Tavener himself writes, “I regard The Veil of the Temple as the supreme achievement of my life and the most important work that I have ever composed. … It is composed in eight cycles like a gigantic prayer wheel with each cycle ascending in pitch and in cycles 1 to 7 using verses from St. John’s Gospel at the centre.

“The music was deeply influenced by orthodox vigil services, but I wanted to go beyond Christianity and embrace Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Judaism and the religion of the American Indians. The soprano solo represents both the Self, Atma, and Mary Magdalene as apostolorum. She journeys through the eight cycles, reaching a total realisation of Self at the end of the last cycle where she recognises Christ’ s divinity.”

How interesting to think of Mary Magdalene experiencing darśana (the Hindu word for the epiphany of encountering the divine) in recognizing Christ at the tomb---and of her thereby achieving liberation of her atman, her inner essence, from the duality of maya, illusion. This is an intriguing (or some would say, outrageous and inappropriate) blending of the spiritual goals of Hinduism and Christianity.

The liner notes of The Veil of the Temple quotes the Jewish philosopher Philo, who writes Platonically of the Temple, “The highest, and in the truest sense the holy Temple of God is, as we must believe, the whole universe. its sanctuary is the most sacred part of all existence: heaven itself. its votive ornaments are the stars, its priest the angels... Things in the Holy of Holies beyond the second veil, in heaven itself, are invisible, they are accessible to the mind alone.” In The Veil, Tavener similarly thinks of the Gospel narratives of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection: what are the meanings of the Christian gospel if we open them to philosophical and inter-religious understandings? He writes at the website above: “By the act of writing The Veil I understood that no single religion could be exclusive. The Veil has become light – there is no longer any veil. This tearing away of the Veil shows that all religions are in the transcendent way inwardly united beneath their outward form.” Thus he also incorporates Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, and Native American elements.

Again, this is a very different way of understanding the Gospel, and to me intriguing. As I've written elsewhere: although I’ve committed my life to the uniqueness and power of Jesus Christ, I dearly hope God provides ways by which persons outside the circle of Christian witness can experience that power and grace. I strongly believe that if we are not kind and humble in our faith—if we are unwilling to allow God to know more than we do about the mysteries of grace—then we risk becoming closed to God and one another.

At the website, Tavener goes on to say that each of the eight cycles grows in length and intensity, and each has a characteristic like that of Hindu ragas or of Byzantine tones. The respective gospel selections---from Jesus’ farewell discourses in the Gospel of John---also have different characteristics as the cycles progress: the first portion is serene and contemplative while the seventh is very Hindu and characterized by Hindu chanting.

Tavener comments that he hopes the cycles lead the listener to a “spiritual peak of intensity. The awesome sound of the tam tam, temple bowls, Tibetan horn, bells, simatron and organ announce the end of the beginning. ‘The sun hid its rays and the veil of the temple was rent from the top unto the bottom’. This breaks the husk represented by the [M]osaic law. By breaking the husk we are introduced to the Hindu world as Mary Magdalene representing the Self sings in Sanskrit the words Maya Atma, a musical seesaw of reality and illusion.” (Again, this material comes from the website

As another personal aside: I do disagree with Christian supersessionist theology: the belief that Christianity has superseded and replaced Judaism, rendering precious things in Jewish belief (the Torah mitzvot, the Temple) as mere "husks" for a more full religion to come. There are many resources in Jewish theology, such as the concept of tikkun olam and others, which can contribute to a sense of God's worldwide sovereignty, without diminishing Jewish heritage in the way we Christians so often do. That New Testament theology of Christ's opening of the holy places, breaking the "curse" of the Torah law, is very strong in Christian thinking---and difficult to express in ways that are not at least implicitly anti-Jewish. I fall back on the fact that the Gospel authors were themselves Jews who believed the rending of the veil as a continuation rather than a repudiation of Jewish heritage.

Apart from that aside, I find this music's intermingling of religious traditions (both theological and musical) fascinating and worthy to contemplate. Something in me loves this kind of connections-making and interrelated, meaningful structure, plus I've taught World Religions for over twenty-five years.

The liner notes of this two-CD set provide interesting facts about this piece. The very beginning of The Veil features a soprano singing a song to God by the Sufi mystic Rumi. Each cycle also begin with the words (translated) “Without form, void, chaos, Word.” A Tibetan temple horn makes the division of the first seven sycles. Each cycle rises a note in pitch so that the whole work ascends. harkening to the rising of Christ whose death ripped the Temple veil.

The lesson in Cycle VII, from Romans, concerns Christ’s death and resurrection, leading us to Cycle VIII, representing the eighth day of the week (the day of new creation and of Easter). In this final cycle, Mary Magdalene meets the risen Christ. But there Mary Magdalene also represents the Hindu Self who sings Maya Atma, illusion and soul. Cycle VIII even quotes from Tristan und Isolde, the themes of death and love together. When Mary recognizes Christ and cries Ravouni (Master), she has (in the cycle) realized the Atman (self) within her, and the music leads into a Hindu sound- and thought-world as the singers sing the sacred sound Aum, the Upanishad benediction “shantih, shantih, shantih,” and finally the promise of Isaiah 60:1, invoking the new Jerusalem and the Lord’s glory.

A informative obituary of Tavener can be found here:  Concerning The Veil, this author writes, “Tavener himself likened it to a ‘gigantic prayer wheel’, but … it is a kind of oratorio, telling the story from the rending of the veil in the temple in Jerusalem as Jesus died on the cross to Mary Magdalene discovering the empty tomb, seeing the risen Christ, and perceiving that the veil between death and life has been lifted. It's also a piece inspired by a particular building – the Temple Church in London, where it was first performed. As Tavener wrote in the sleeve notes when the recording was released, when the Knights Templar built their beautiful round church, they were seeking to recreate something of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem for their own place of worship and burial. The Veil of the Temple imports this, giving the Knights a theme in Cycle 8 of surpassing beauty that evokes a great feeling of peace and permanence. Occasionally interspersed between the vocal harmonies, though, are discordant organ phrases and the melancholy tolling of bells, which is Tavener's reminder that all is not at peace in the place the Knights sought to found anew with their church – Jerusalem itself.”

That author also notes that the piece also provides “brilliant music to get lost in,” which is what I’ve been doing for the past few weeks.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Hump Day Prayer

Dear Lord, we offer a particular prayer today for sufferers of allergies and other ailments related to the change of seasons. Pollen, mold, and other airborne allergens are and will be vexing many of us in the days and weeks ahead. Some of us also have lung-related issues that manifest themselves in the seasonal change. Give healing, comfort, and help to us as we deal with headaches, mental "fog," nasal drainage, coughs, and other symptoms as we go about our daily routine, for which we also ask your guidance and blessing. In Christ's name. Amen.

 (The idea of "Hump Day Prayers" came from my college friend's blog "Le Padre Ver Livre,"

Friday, March 14, 2014

Birds' Springtime Chorus

This week, the birds have seemed particularly loud as they sing in our yard. Perhaps they're bringing along spring, which would be just fine after this very cold winter.

Years ago, I read a book called And Not One Bird Stopped Singing. The book was about grief, and the title came from a comment in a sermon the author had once heard: we may be hurting, but outside ourselves and our cares, things are still moving along as they always do.

That's one way to interpret God's long response to Job (chapters 38-41). God never really answers Job's questions as to the reasons for his suffering. But God's message seems to be: though our personal sources of distress seem urgent, the universe in its vastness and intricacy does not pause, nor does God's providential care of all things.

With me, music is a powerful reminder of life-beyond-my-problems. How nice that the "featured" music of this week has been the birds.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Hump Day Prayers

Hump Day prayers this week are for several international, interfaith situations. Let's remember in our prayers:

* the ongoing case of the missing plane off the coast of Malaysia.

* the ongoing situation in Ukraine, where Russian forces have seized control of the Crimean peninsula and are amassing troops near Ukraine's eastern frontier.

* the violence this week near Ramallah, where a Palestinian youth was killed by Israeli soldiers and Palestinians have fired on an Israeli settlement near that community.

* the crisis in Syria, entering its fourth year.

* the continuing crisis situation with ethnic Rohingya in Myanmar.

* the anti-government protests and violence continue in Venezuela.

* the continuing relief and rebuilding efforts in the Philippines, in the aftermath of November's typhoon.

* In happier news, the colorful festival of Holi is ongoing in India this week.

(The idea of "Hump Day Prayers" came from my college friend's blog "Le Padre Ver Livre,"

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

"A Many-Storied Monastic"

Today I wanted to share a fascinating article concerning Thomas Merton. If you're like me and have read the Furlong and Mott biographies of Merton, as well as reminiscences by Griffin, Forest, and others, you'll enjoy this article, which also gives a much more sympathetic picture of Merton's busy, devoted abbot:

Monday, March 10, 2014

A Buddhist Idea for Lent

The Buddhist concept of attachment has for a long time been helpful to me, especially the idea that we become attached to certain expectations, hopes, and dreams, and images of who we are or should be. (A while back I purchased but still haven’t read Paul F. Knitter’s book, Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian, published by Oneworld, 2009. It’s on my to-read stack.)

For instance, all of us experience disappointment. To think of one example, at one point in my life I was recruited to serve in a local organization, and I was flattered and thrilled by the invitation. I waited and waited and finally the opportunity petered out.

This made me upset, but I asked myself why. Other opportunities had meanwhile presented themselves and I was very happy (probably happier) making a difference via those areas of service. Was my ego hurt by the fact that the first opportunity didn't work out? Yes---but who cares? I needed to feel less sensitive and less prone to root my sense of inner well-being to temporary expectations.

We do this kind of thing to ourselves. We may not be egotistical people in the sense of feeling superior to others, but we become sad if we’re not noticed or called upon or needed, all of which points to a certain kind of ego-centeredness. Buddhism speaks to the suffering that we cause ourselves when the self is fragile or needful of being bolstered.

The grieving process is a deeper expression of acceptance of the way things are. Our sense of self is tied in with people (and pets) whom we love---which is as it should be, because we’re human in our loving relationships with one another. But then our loved one is gone, our situation has changed, and it may take us a long time to “process” that change. To base our well-being on the way things have been causes suffering for us. But the process is good to engage in a healthy way.

You might think, why use a concept like attachment when one can simply trust God to be with us and to guide us (Prov. 3:5-6, for instance)? I do trust God (very imperfectly, but persistently). But the idea of attachment gives me a certain way to look at trusting God. After all, we can say we trust God but we still remain in disappointment because we had, indeed, trusted God and things turned out differently. Then we suffer a double distress: both the situation and God let us down!

As a time of introspection and repentance/reorientation, Lent can be an excellent time to think about ways we trust God and to adopt mental techniques to help. Picturing my sense of self “unattaching” from expectations and anticipations helps me calm my mind, feel happy about my life (which really is awesome), and look forward to God’s adventures without second-guessing what God is up to.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

“The Chesed Personality”

I’ve been reading a book called Everyday Holiness: The Jewish Spiritual Path of Mussar by Alan Morinis (Boston: Trumpeter Books, 2007). In a section on hesed (or chesed,  חֶסֶד , loving-kindness) on pages 189-190, he discusses “the chesed personality.” “The Mussar tradition points out that some people are moved to acts of chesed whenever they are confronted by someone who is in need of their help. Others, however, don’t wait for that sort of opportunity to arrive on their doorstep, but rather search out any chance to act generously in ways that sustain others” (p. 189). Those who do loving-kindness “run after the poor,” as the Sages put it.

Morinis notes that Abraham is the paragon of chesed, illustrated by his hospitality for the three strangers. Morinis points out that the words “run” and “hurry” are used four times in the short story as Abraham rushed to get food for the strangers. He was “infused with the spirit of chesed” so that “this quality defined his very outlook on the world” (p. 189). He also cites the example of a certain rabbi’s students who sought to do three acts of loving-kindness each day---which meant that they often had to go off and look for people to help (p. 190).

Another example is the well-known passage Micah 6:8, where God commands us to “love chesed”---to love loving-kindness. Morinis writes that we can look at our religious life as a kind of score-card wherein we check off good things we’ve done. But the way of Micah is “to stretch ourselves to sustain one another, and the most important dimension of that behavior is to awaken your heart to love the very act of caring for the other” (p. 190).

Respectfully using Morinis’ words for Christian practice, I can think how this active form of loving-kindness, wherein we really love loving-kindness, would be an excellent goal for this Lenten season. Perhaps we could search our hearts for the ways we aren't very loving, even as we meanwhile extol the beauties of agape. Perhaps we could set personal goals of helping sustain a certain number of people each day or each week, even if our good deeds are never acknowledged, and develop this kind of personality.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Finding Love in Lent

I always wonder how many of us, deep down, worry whether we are lovable---even in the presence of love, perhaps even in the presence of a lifetime of love. Feeling unlovable can be impervious to contrary evidence. Unfortunately, feeling unlovable leads to harmful things: anger, depression, neediness, insensitivity, perfectionism (directed toward ourselves and/or toward others), and so on. We act unlovingly toward others---and that in turn hurts their ability to love.

If you feel unlovable amid other people, can you feel loved by God? I wonder if it’s possible to feel loved by God if your inner self is in pain so that you can’t quite believe others love you. 1 John 4:20 is easy to paraphrase in this regard: how can you receive the love of the God whom you haven’t seen, if you feel too wounded or guarded to receive the love of people whom you do see and know?  

John Wesley is the well-known founder of the Methodist movement, and in 1766, when he was 63, he wrote the following candid thoughts to his brother Charles. The brackets indicate places where historian Richard Heitzenrater translates Wesley’s Greek terms.

"In one of my last, I was saying I do not feel the wrath of God abiding on me; nor can I believe it does. And yet (this is the mystery), I do not love God. I never did. Therefore I never believed, in the Christian sense of the word. Therefore I am only an honest heathen, a proselyte of the Temple, one of the [God-fearers]. And yet, to be so employed of God! And so hedged in that I can neither get forward or backward! Surely there never was such an instance before, from the beginning of the world! If I ever have had that faith, it would not be so strange. But I never had any other [evidence] of the eternal or invisible world than I have now; and that is none at all, unless such as faintly shines from reason’s glimmering ray. I have no direct witness (I do not say, that I am a child of God, but) of anything invisible or eternal." [1]

What a remarkable admission! This is nearly thirty years after Wesley’s famous experience of the “warmed heart” which had been such a profound event for his Christian pilgrimage, and many years into his overall ministry. As Heitzenrater notes, other people had told him similar things about their own capacity for love. Was Wesley a fraud, or was he trusting God amid his own limitations?

Of course we love God with our emotional feelings, but feelings are notoriously changeable and inaccurate. I remember times in my life, for instance, when I felt very lonely and believed I was not a good person. Looking back, I think: what about all the people who loved me? Were they irrelevant? I wouldn’t have thought them irrelevant, but my sad feelings were so strong. Of course, I thought God didn’t think much of me, either--what a “pitiful” kind of spirituality, completely different from the liberating, empowering Gospel! I had the love of God but I didn't feel it.

Because of our feelings, we can also feel condemned by God when, in fact, we are not. I love this Martin Luther quote: “Troubled consciences are like geese. When hawks pursue them, they try to escape by flying, though they could do it better by running. On the other hand, when the wolves threaten them, they try to escape by running, though they could do it safely by flying. So when their consciences are oppressed, men run first here, then there; they try first this, then that work … the one true and sure way of healing the conscience is what David [in Psalm 51:8] calls 'sprinkling,' by which the Word [that is, the free justification of sinners through God’s grace alone, not our good deeds] is heard and received.” [2] We need to hold to God’s promises in God’s word when our feelings and faith aren’t “meshing” very well. (The converse is also true: we could feel very smug in our faith, or full of sufficient self-love, but we're actually drifting from God).

Unfortunately, I also associate the love of God (in any religion) with an touchy or angry defensiveness when one’s religion seems persecuted. I’ve felt frustrated when friends were up in arms about a political issue which, to them, makes them feel angry and persecuted in their faith. (That's a big reason why I stopped posting political things on social media, because I also felt that anger which is the opposite of biblical hesed.) Somehow, a fervent love of God translates into often knee-jerk political outrage which, to me anyway, never sounds very loving. In this case, a person might feel emotionally filled with God's love but also filled with some very negative feelings.

Loving God is indivisible with loving others, including people whom we might otherwise despise. Oops! That makes love of God a much more difficult prospect than having loving emotional feelings toward God. But the prospect of loving others can also give us an excellent guide to our progress in loving God.

Read Romans 12:9-21. Although the Greek biblical word agape is well-known and means a Christian kind of love, I actually prefer the Hebrew word hesed, which can be translated “steadfast love” or “loving kindness.“ “Love” is easy to say and to declare, but loving-kindness (hesed) implies something active. This Romans passage describes so well aspects of an active, self-giving love: you treat your persecutors with kindness and benevolence, you try to abandon your feelings of pride and stubbornness, you refrain from cultivating your inner, vengeful feelings and from taking revenge, you work together with people without competing for praise and credit.

These are difficult things, emotionally and practically. Haven’t you met Christians who had a “don’t mess with me” approach to life? Haven't you met Christians who were gossips (or you spread gossip, too)? It's difficult to bring negative feelings and habits in line with God's love. We'd rather not pray for blessings for people who are jerks and worse; we'd rather get back at them. Forgiveness is difficult; bitter feelings lodge in our souls and resist healing. Love requires prayer, strength, common sense, and advice from friends. Love is not just an emotion but always entails doing good for others, as God does good for us (1 John 3:17-18, 4:7-8).

And yet ... how happy we can become, when we can grow past difficult, bitter, or selfish feelings and love others as God loves us! The Gospel is good news because God loves us undeservedly, no matter how we feel. In turn, God does not expect us to love others through our own psychological efforts, but instead gives us power, grace, and an indefinite number of new chances to love.

Loving and serving others seems to have been Wesley’s secret for dealing with his faith-struggles. Wesley had a busy career of preaching and administration but also writing and hands-on service. Heitzenrater notes that “Wesley always seems to have had the ability to preach beyond the limits of his own faith… Since the first days of his field preaching, John Wesley’s own sense of assurance had been buoyed up by the gospel. He considered this evidence of God’s activity in to other persons as an important means of his perceiving God’s providence and of knowing God’s will. And he was becoming more aware that God’s presence in his life did not always depend upon his perception of it” (pp. 224-225).

If someone like Wesley had struggles with his faith, then you and I can use his example amid our own longings for God during this Lenten season and beyond.

1. Richard P. Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodists (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), p. 224.

2. Luther’s Works, Selected Psalms 1 (St Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1955), Volume 12, page 368.

(Thoughts from an earlier post, reposted for Lent.)

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Ash Wednesday Prayer

Dear Lord, on Ash Wednesday we hear the familiar words "remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

You'd think that we would remember more consistently. But we never get "used" to death as we get used to other things.

On this Ash Wednesday, help us not just to "remember we are dust," but to remember it among other people who are also seeking God who is alive, greater than life and death, and the source of our hope.

Help us, when we are emotionally reliant upon ephemeral things, to know how to put those things in perspective (or given them up for this season), in the spirit of turning to you and your life more deeply.

Give us a sense of repentance not just of our "big" sins but also our subtle sins and our respectable sins.

Provide for us a deeper compassion and sensitivity for the struggles of others. Alert us to the fact that everyone, indeed, carries a heavy burden unknown to us.  

Let this upcoming seasons of repentance and reflection become a time of new beginnings, that we might become a blessing for others. In Christ's name we pray. Amen.  

In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of every human being (Job. 12:10).

If he should take back his spirit to himself, and gather to himself his breath, all flesh would perish together, and all mortals return to dust (Job 34:14-15).

For with you is the fountain of life; in your light we see light (Ps. 36:9).

You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart (Ps. 51:6).

So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us (2 Cor. 5:17-19)

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Lent as a Place

A few years ago I wrote a book, You Gave Me a Wide Place: Holy Places of Our Lives, published by Upper Room Books (2006). The following is a paraphrase of some material in chapters 1 and 4 and also new thoughts that have to do with Lent. I was thinking about Lent, and also the theme of “place,“ which is one of my favorite subjects. I wondered: Lent is a period of time, but can you think of Lent as a place?

We can connect the temporal season of Lent to particular places in our lives, and also we can think metaphorically about the place of Lent.

One place is the wilderness. As I wrote in my little book, we tend to have a positive feeling about natural wilderness in our own time, more so than the Bible in which wilderness is either neutral or threatening: for instance, the different kinds of geographical regions, or specially the area of the Dead Sea, or the Sinai region that was the scene of the Israelite wondering.

“Wilderness” is an apt spiritual metaphor. In Exodus 15-17, for instance, the Israelites moved among dry places where no drinkable water was available, and they grumbled with sufficient seriousness that Moses sought God’s help. Many of us can think of times when we felt discouraged and tested; we couldn’t see the nature of God’s provision and wondered what was going on. Perhaps other people had let us down; perhaps we messed up our own lives; perhaps life was filled with stress through no one’s particular fault. Anxiety, distress, “what if” thoughts, difficult periods of waiting, and other things fill wilderness times. In turn, we associate particular places in our lives with feeling lost and discouraged. What are the places of your own life that you connect with "wilderness" and an apparent lack of fulfillment of God’s promises?

Waiting on God is actually a positive thing, though it may not feel very positive! Read scriptures like Isaiah 40:31, Psalm 25:5, and Psalm 33:20-21. But even Bible people struggle with a sense of God’s absence, for instance, the author of Psalm 42 and 43 which expresses emptiness and disappointment. The psalmist wants God, wants to be with God, and knows that he will eventually praise God again, but for now, God seems missing. I love this psalm because here, in God’s Word, are words about a person who is having a faith crisis! The psalm’s sick bed is, because of its immobility, also a place of “wandering” amid a feeling of God’s absence. What are some of your places of waiting on God?

Along those same lines, another place of Lent is the familiar place that has been changed in such a way that our comfort is disrupted. As I wrote in my little book, the telephone or the mailbox are innocuous places--until we are waiting on news of, for instance, medical results, or the safety of a loved one. In those times, everyday places can become foci of fervent prayer, waiting, and dependence upon God.

I'm also thinking about how our worship experiences can become focused during the Lenten season. For instance, a pastor might change the nature of the congregation’s worship space in order to help people understand God and faith in different ways. I found a blog that described ways this congregation has experimenting with worship space and styles.

How wonderful! I pray fervently for any pastor who attempts such a thing. It’s not good when a pastor takes a “This is good for you” attitude with the congregation. On the other hand, a pastor needs to find helpful ways to challenge people that does not elicit so much frustration from the congregation that the purpose is defeated. Some church folk are stuck in their ways--and punitive if you upset them--the pastor has to use patience, discernment, and prayer in order to challenge folk in their worship. A pastor can make Lent-oriented worship changes that are both interesting and spiritually helpful so that people can experience God in fresh ways that, in turn, can build upon their previous experiences of God.

The main “place” of Lent is God! You can think of God as a place. It’s a venerable tradition. I noted in my book that the Bible sometimes “localizes” God’s presence, as on the mountains of Exodus 19 and 1 Kings 19, and verses like Deut. 16:16 and Isaiah 8:18. But these have to do with God’s desire to be present in certain places rather than a limitation to which God is obliged. Even the holy Temple is not the special place of God apart from his will (e.g., Jer. 7:1-7; 22:16, Isaiah 66:1-2, Acts 7:48-50).

The Bible refers metaphorically to God in place-terms. God is our machseh, that is, “dwelling place” (Deut. 33:27, RSV), or “refuge” (KJV and NIV). Psalm 46:1 calls God “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.” In Genesis 28:17, God is maqom, “How awesome is this place!” During the rabbinical period the word maqom became a metaphorical name for God, as in Philo writes, “God … is called place, for He encompasses all things, but is not encompassed by anything.” Also, a midrash refers to God as "place" because God is “the place of the world.”A scripture like Psalm 139:7-10 shows how God comes to every place where we are and is not limited to our circumstances.

As I write in my book (p. 26): “Christians, like Jews, honored God who is unbounded by time and space, the God who is a dwelling and refuge for all who call upon him. Jesus becomes the “place to go” to know God in spirit and truth (Matt. 7:25, John 4:21-24), the “new thing” that God has done by which we might know God (Isa. 43:19, Heb. 1:1-2). Jesus is the place that encompasses all places, because in and through him all things came to be (Col 1:15-20). Not only that, but through Jesus Christ God has broken down all barriers and has accomplished all that is necessary for peace, reconciliation, and salvation (Eph. 1:5-14, 3:8-14). He is present for us in whatever place we are, until the close of time (Matt. 28:20, Rev. 22:13).”

I’ve written in my other Lenten posts that we need to be careful: we need to center Lent around God and let our practices clarify God's providence and will. If we think of God our maqom and machseh, our Lenten observance is focused upon our true place and true home.

(A post from four years ago.)

Sunday, March 2, 2014

A Snowy Transfiguration Sunday

Reading devotionals this morning, I thought about Transfiguration Sunday (observed today in some denominations but observed in August in other churches). Where I live, this is a very quiet Sunday morning, because a snow and ice storm has closed most area churches and many other places. So I thought about the contrast between the disciples' profound, literally mountaintop experience, and the wintry, earth- and home-bound quality of this particular morning.

I turned back to this lovely piece that I posted here last August. The Facebook page of Christ the Bridegroom Monastery in Burton, Ohio, had quoted the passage for the August 6 commemoration of the Feast of the Transfiguration:

"The disciple must see 'Jesus only', Jesus in his humility. If, at rare moments, his image does seem to us to be clothed in light, and if we seen to hear the voice of the Father commending the Son to our love, these lightning flashes do not last; and we must immediately find Jesus again where he is normally to be found, in the midst of our humble and sometimes difficult everyday duties. To see 'Jesus only' also means: to concentrate our attention and our gaze on Jesus alone, and not to allow ourselves to be distracted either by the things of this world or by the men and women we meet, in short, to make Jesus supreme and unique in our lives.

"Does this mean that we must shut our eyes to the world that surrounds us and often needs us? Some of us are called to be absolutely alone with the Master: let them be faithful to this vocation. But most of Jesus' disciples, who live in the midst of the world, can give another interpretation to the words 'Jesus only'. Without renouncing a grateful contact with created things, and a loving and devoted contact with [other people], they can attain a degree of faith and love which will allow Jesus to become transparent through both [other people] and things; all natural beauty, all human beauty will become the fringe of the beauty that is itself Christ's; we will see its reflection in everything which attracts and merits our sympathy in others; in short, we shall have 'transfigured' the world, and we shall find 'Jesus only' in all those on whom we open our eyes."

--- from "The Year of Grace of Our Lord: A Scriptural and Liturgical Commentary on the Calendar of the Orthodox Church" by a Monk of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1992), 241-242.