Monday, August 25, 2008

The Golden Grove

I stumbled upon a lovely litany written by the Anglican cleric Jeremy Taylor. I will try for the next few days to discuss the various petitions of the litany. Taylor's feast day was the thirteenth of this month. The full text of the litany is available here: Letanies for All Things and Persons

The first section (I think in this case it would be called the invocation) is as follows:

O God the Father of Mercies, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon thy servants, and hear the prayers of us miserable sinners.

O blessed Jesus, the Fountain of Peace and Pardon, our Wisdome and our Righteousness, our Sanctification and Redemption, have mercy upon thy servants, refuse not to hear the prayers of us miserable, sorrowful, and returning sinners.

O holy and divinest Spirit of the Father, help our infirmities, for of our selves we know not what to ask, nor how to pray, but do thou assist and be present in the desires of us miserable sinners.
This invocation of the Trinity grounds us in an essential quality of God: mercy. God the Father is the Father of Mercies. God the Son, who is the source of both our repentance and redemption, graciously hears us even though we turn to him again and again as sinners. God the Spirit strengthens us and helps us pray to God.

Note that both God the Father and God the Son are implored to have mercy upon us, but God the Spirit is asked to help us implore both the Father and the Son for mercy. Our relationship with the Spirit has never been characterized by judgment. The Son may come down to judge the quick and the dead and the Father may sit in heaven on his throne, judging us, but the Spirit does not sit in judgment. The Spirit, sent to the Church on Pentecost, does not live on in popular imagination as a wrathful, judgmental God.

Perhaps this is due to the Spirit's lack of imagery. We show the Spirit by a dove or fire, but those aren't nice, human images. We can imagine Christ coming down from heaven as a terrifying human figure, and we have painted pictures of a bearded man upon a throne in heaven striking terror in the hearts of sinners.

A dove or flame can't inspire that kind of fear or awe. Doves aren't all that terrifying (imagine a dove cooing and telling us each and every one of our sins!). Fire, while destructive, is wild and indiscriminate. It will destroy everything just and unjust.

Perhaps this is for the best. We already imagine judgment from two persons of the Holy Trinity; the Paraclete, our Advocate and Guide, is with us without judgment.

But before we get carried away about the judgment of the other two persons, let us return to Taylor's litany. The terrible images I described are not present here; our merciful Father and the Fountain of Peace and Pardon are the images used for the God the Father and God the Son.

I think at times when we confess we have in mind the judgmental imagery too much. From my experience it is very easy to feel the burden of God the Father shaking his mighty head in fury and disappointment. Christ's fiery eyes can easily pierce my soul. If we think of the final judgment as a courtroom, we can easily imagine God the Father as the hanging judge, Christ as the prosecutor demanding to know why we haven't accepted him into our hearts and why we have continued to sin, and we're left with a little bird for our defense.

But that courtroom is not how God works in our lives. From Taylor's litany we see God's merciful nature which builds us up. Mercy is not restrained judgment or a lighter sentence in this case but encouragement to grow in God's love and grace.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The blind reading to the deaf.

This morning a blind gentleman read the Tanakh lesson from a braille copy.

I finally realized that there's a problem with the bulletins that list the lectionary readings for the day. Instead of listening to it, people read it instead! What was the point of reading it aloud if people were going to read it instead of listening?

Of course, people who are hard of hearing or deaf need to read it to understand it. This post isn't addressing that. I also don't think congregations should stop giving the lectionary readings, either. I read them before the service to know what stories we'll be learning about in the sermon.

The ritual act of reading aloud seems to be losing its importance, and that is what I'm concerned about. Certainly when people were illiterate (though many still are in different degrees and dimensions) it made sense to read Scripture aloud. It was sometimes the only chance some people got to understand the Bible. Now that people are, by and large, literate, listening doesn't seem to have that same appeal.

"Why listen to it when I can read it faster?"
"It's there to read, so why not read it then?"

While people may certainly be listening as well as reading the passages during the service, I think people are forgetting the importance of the lectionary readings.

The lectionary readings aren't just to prepare us for the sermon. The sermons serve the readings, not the readings the sermon. We listen for God's voice in the readings, then we have a sermon to help us understand the readings better.

Reading the scriptures is one thing. We Christians should be more conscientious about studying the Bible; however, reading is only one way of being open to the Spirit. Listening offers us another opportunity to be open. We hear the rhythm of the words. Our reader may emphasize a word or phrase which we would've skipped in reading.

I'll admit my own difficult in actually listening to the readings. My mind wanders. I speculate about the sermon's topic. I worry about the future. I wonder whether I'll ever find a husband. In other words, I do everything I'm not supposed to do during the Holy Eucharist. In all the prayers I'm present, lifting my voice with others to praise and petition God. I listen intently to the words of the priest while he raises the chalice and the paten. I sing with the congregation to our God. But in the readings I feel free mentally to wander away from God's worship.

But just as we receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the bread and wine, so too do we receive God through Holy Scripture. The readings help us to know God and to unite with Him just like the prayers help us to abide in God and to trust in Him.

While the mass is the work of the people for God, it is also a means by which God comes among us. Why pass it up? Listening to the readings is a chance to set aside ourselves and our distractions in order to open ourselves to God's presence in history.

I kind of envied that blind man reading to us today. Does he have similar distractions during the readings? I'm sure he does. But I can hope that he knows just how beautiful and important listening to the readings is.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

Luke 6:32 "For if ye love them which love you, what thank have ye? for sinners also love those that love them."

We all know that loving our enemies is crucially important. It is hard to love those who annoy us whenever we see them, or those who have a lot of needs they want us to meet, or those who are for all practical purposes unlovable. Yes, for us humans the unlovable exist.

Probably we all feel that twinge of guilt when we're unfriendly to a stranger or to that needy neighbor. "I shouldn't have done that..." we all say to ourselves. Sometimes we're given the chance to remedy that by keeping love at the forefront of our minds when we see them again, or, as is the case with the stranger, we try to make a conscious effort the next time to care.

Putting aside all discussion of love and like (we can love those we don't like), another thought came to me.

Do we really love those who love us?

At times being near someone makes us feel we have license to be cruel or to ignore them. A joke that goes too far or maybe an angry word when they interrupt our "me" time. Rolling our eyes when they come to us with the same problem again and we can't muster up the ability to even pretend to listen. Or maybe they need a word of encouragement or admonishment and we don't want to give it because they're being needy, annoying or dramatic like a soap opera character.

At times even those who love us drive us batty, and sometimes it's even worse than those we dislike.

It could be that those we love and to whom we are close know how --exactly how-- to press our buttons. Or maybe we don't have boundaries with them because, well, we love them, too and want them to share their feelings with us.

It's those who love us that sometimes we hate or ignore more. They can do more to hurt us, and they can demand more of us. We're their friends, family, housemates, close colleagues.

While certainly we need to love those who don't love us, we also need to make sure we're loving those who love us.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Why do we minister?

In a dream last night I got into an argument with a woman who insisted that, at times, we get into ministry for ourselves instead of for others. I fiercely insisted that ministry was all about others and not about ourselves.

So why do we minister, especially those ordained to ministry? Is there always a little hint of hubris and egotism that goes into the process of donning a little white collar? Is there any way to ensure that we are seeking God's will and not our own when it comes to ordination?

I can't really say anything as I'm not ordained and not even close to it, but I think it's a good question to ask. At some level, do we have to think we are special and are worthy to be an ordained minister?

The question also comes from the experience of the diocese searching for a new bishop. Listening to speeches about why they'd make a good bishop feels, well, egotistical. Not humble at all.

I don't think we have laity anymore pushing people into ordination like in "the old days" (I'm thinking about St. Ambrose... I think).

Is it true humility to resist ordination, fretting about our worthiness, or is it false humility? Can someone seek ordination and be humble at the same time?

Monday, August 4, 2008

Spiritual consumerism

Buying is such an American pastime. Where else can going to the mall be an actual activity instead of a simple necessity when we actually need a new shirt or pants?

But the buying impulse can include more things than the latest gadget or clothes. It can take such the form of buying too many books or spiritual items, and that is the problem I struggle with frequently.

As my previous post indicated, I was much into pick-and-choose religion during my teenage years. If I thought the book was interesting, I'd buy it. If it looked "deep" or thoughtful, I'd buy it. Most of these books were related to some kind of spiritual idea like the I-Ching or the book was written by a beloved writer such as the Dalai Lama. Each new book promised that I'd find a beautiful spiritual gem inside or some new way of thinking about the world.

Two problems arose: one, frequently I wouldn't actually read the book; second, I'd get nothing of lasting value out of it.

The first problem, not actually reading the book, seems really silly. Why buy a book and not read it? We buy a lot of things we don't actually use, though. The latest gadgets which boast all these features we don't really know how to use or that one exercise machine which will finally get us in shape... we buy those with great frequency, so why isn't it that strange that someone would buy books and not read them? At least with books I can pretend I'm a great reader and be able to point to the bookshelf as proof.

This problem is rooted deeply in sloth. I'll admit it: I can be horribly lazy, and there's a lot of other stuff I'd frequently rather be doing. Sitting and reading a book sometimes is less appealing than watching yet another episode of Law and Order: SVU. It's true.

The second problem, getting nothing of value, shows that not all things are necessary, good or beneficial. There are good, useful books and there are silly, nearly worthless ones. I've bought "New Age" books filled with pop spirituality and with the lingering odor of a scam or cult. There are lots of books which promise a more fulfilling life but which give us little in the way of new or truly inspiring thoughts (a lot of stuff which passes for 'inspiration' is much, much too saccharine to be truly inspirational).

This problem is really about being a smart consumer. Instead of buying right into the promises which any product gives, we should look for a few things.

One is good word of mouth. For books and spiritual items, we should see how tradition has treated them. If it is strongly rooted in our Christian tradition, then it might be something of value. If it's a "fly by night" project or a spiritual fad, it might not be of great value even if it has good word of mouth right now. It's sort of like the admonition in Acts: if it lasts, it's of God. Such a good rule of thumb!

The second is to read what people you agree with and people you disagree with say about the book or spiritual item. Find the pros and cons from a variety of perspectives. If you're Anglo-Catholic, read what an evangelical has to say about it. Or a charismatic. Of course, just because they disagree with you doesn't make them or you automatically right. Someone could be seriously misled, so do some research and fact-finding to verify claims.

The third is to not buy it. I'm serious! For example, instead of buying a book on the rosary with the intent to integrate it into your spiritual practice, find free resources on the internet and try out the rosary first. If it becomes a strong part of your spiritual practice, then buy the book if you still need it. Or if it's a rosary itself you have your eye on, don't buy it right then. It might be a simple case of "Ooh, pretty, I want it!"

A lot of these would've saved my pocketbook. I myself have a lot of books I have yet to read, even after I converted to Christianity. The rest of Tillich's Systematic Theology goes unread while I buy a book on Aelred of Rievaulx.

Now I try to buy only as much as I need. I want to finish my birthday books before I even think of buying new books, and even then I want to work on some other books I own but have yet to read.

Do you have any experiences in spiritual consumerism?