Monday, August 10, 2009

My Religion

It is my belief that we are each responsible for developing our own religion - our own approach to a transcendent or ultimate truth. I choose a religion constantly in development, with stories and symbols and practices that seem meaningful and can create for me, at times, "religious experience." Sometimes my religion has led me into community. At other times it has led me away, into solitude.

It is a religion I follow, like a cat might follow a person who smells of food. The more I follow, the more it moves. The closer I get, the more it expands.

I used to abhor Christianity because of its meanness - not just the small and narrow self-righteousness of some of its followers but the meanness of its God, who required a bloody sacrifice to make up for "original sin." Such ideas remain abhorent to me and I reject them. I also reject the notion of two domains, one sacred and invisible, the other profane and at hand.

This is it. I do not claim to know what "this" actually is, or why there is an "it" at all, but "it" is holy and I am part of it. I notice also that we are impermanent, coming into being mainly as food. Life feeds on life. If the universe and all existance is itself holy, then its processes, including the recycling of its energies, are holy. Where can I find stories and symbols that make meaning of this distressing idea?

I find them, if I look with care, in the Christian Eucharist. A man (or a god, take your pick) is broken and fed to those who follow. He suffers and dies, as we all must, for the rest of us. His blood, the Blood of Life, is spilled and drunk in a Holy Communion - a communion shared everywhere by all things. We come and we go, broken and fed to each other as one body, the body of Christ, the Universal Embodiment in which we live and move and have our being.

Where are we, hurtling through a curved space on an outward arm of a spiral galaxy with a "singularity" at its heart, flying away from all other known things in a miracle of light, color, form, and forces we only begin to comprehend? We are in a miracle, the only miracle, and enough.

I am a result of, and a part of, and a partaker in this miracle. I belong to it, am given to it, and participate in it literally and symbolically as I eat the body and drink the blood of life. For mine, too, will be given. My religion teaches me to give my life gladly, to find the gift meaningful, and to receive the gifts of Life with thanksgiving and celebration.

How Long?

Franny the cat did recover, mainly because I was willing to give $450 to the vet. Her brother Zooey got sick and recovered too, free of charge, because I gave him some of Franny's medicine.
So we are all around a bit longer, and we assume this is a good thing. We continue to stoke the metabolic fires, all the while feeling the press of time and the shortening of our days.

Life moves anyway, with or without the substance I call "me." My family, whom I moved to Florida to be near in my old age, is moving to London in a few days. So much for my plans. They matter only to me. Once again I am reminded that the future, as well as the past, is only a story we tell ourselves - how we wish it was or will be. This moment, though also fleet, is at least holy. "What God hath to give he continueth to give." Why die of grief? The world goes on, offering itself each moment to my imagination if I will but see.

If I jump into the chasm before me, will I fly? The answer is yes, but not forever. How long depends partly on the depth of the chasm, partly on my own buoyancy. But ultimately, how long is not the right question. The right question, for me, is "Can I unbind myself from fear and self-interest and fly freely like a kite, or a leaf, or a helium-filled balloon, or a star?"

Someday I will. Why not start now?

Monday, April 27, 2009

God as Partner

There are differences between prayer and meditation and contemplation, and no one seems to agree on exactly what they are.  We all seem to agree that prayer is talking to God and that meditation and contemplation involve listening, but beyond that there is little common ground. The opinion that calls to me this morning is that meditation is something we do, like an active verb, and contemplation is something that is done to us – a passive verb.  As in passion.

Sometimes I sit and pray and wish for some answer or some sense of the presence of a God who seems to be out to lunch.  Other times, I am flooded with ideas, mysterious as dreams, flickering like schools of silver fish that disappear as quickly as they come.  Rarely, I do not pray.  I am instead “prayed.”  

I just finished The Shack, a book I didn’t want to read and didn’t like at first but read anyway because I enjoy my book club and wanted to be part of the discussion.  By the time I was half way through, I was caught up in the story enough to forgive the author for what I considered to be his sins of style, and by the time I was done, I felt differently about God and me.  The book is not the only cause of this shift in perspective.  I have also been participating in a retreat program for the past eight months, taken generous daily doses of prayer, meditation, and contemplation, and forced myself to write things down.  I have also spent my life wondering.  It all adds up.

Whether or not God can be thought of as an actual person, or three persons, or thirty persons, or anthropomorphized in any way at all, there is a relational way of being with God that feels more like a partnership than like being with a parent.  There is a way in which God suffers with me, God hopes with me, God works with me.  I don’t have to protect this God from the worst in me like I would protect a parent.  And there is also a way also that I suffer with God, hope with God, work with God.  

I have been fumbling with this idea awkwardly for years, struggling against my own idea that God had to be King of The Universe, thinking I was struggling with God.  As late as January of this year, I wrote in response to a reading for my retreat, “My God remains stubbornly enthroned, all-knowing and all-powerful, ever-active although infinitely complex.”  Something has happened to me, though, in working through our readings, in striving for intimacy with the very human Jesus and what happened to him, in writing about this struggle, in reading aloud what I have written.  In going back over my own words, I find my reference to that Bible passage I can seldom read without weeping:  “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often have I desired to gather you as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not.”  I realize I think of these as God’s words, and that they do not sound particularly kingly.

Yesterday I stumbled across the term, process theology.  In reading about it, I came upon the articulated idea that God does not have to be experienced as omnipotent in the sense of being coercive.  Instead, God can be said to have the power of persuasion.  I’m sure I heard the click of tiny tumblers falling into place.  “Therefore I will now allure her,” God says, “and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.”  I have always known this.  I have simply failed to see what it means.  God is that which wants to gather me under her wing.  God is that which calls to me, draws me, lures me out into the wilderness, or into relationship, or up from the bottom of the boat.  God is a push of wind, and I have only to learn how to trim my sails.

Easier said than done, of course, this trimming of sails.  It’s a changing universe, and the wind is the most changeable thing of all.  But maybe we’re all in this together, God and us, God filling our sails with possibilities and all of creation setting sail to follow what lures it, and God also in the boat with us, enjoying a good sail.  Maybe that’s how it is.  

I wonder if we are alluring to God also.  I wonder if God finds us utterly adorable beyond all reason and against all better judgment and works in us all, and as us all, and alongside us all as we suffer and love and live and die.  Maybe, too, God looks out from our eyes at the starry heavens and swoons, along with us, at his jeweled net of creation, flung out so generously everywhere.

Physicists tell us the universe is not made of things, but of events.  That not just God, but the whole universe is a verb, unfolding in fractals of recycled energy – raindrops depending from ferns depending from trees, shining.  Of sons, lovers, husbands, friends – their bodies and mine – all of it given back, generous as perfume, each bit like dandelion fluff in a stiff breeze, carried away beyond imagining.  Life, surprising.  Death, terrifying.  God absolutely not supporting the status quo, and not kingly at all.

Maybe God is calling, calling like a song, a song that if you once hear it you can sing, and God will sing it too.  Maybe God is a lover asking over and over, “Do you love me?”  Asking us to touch his wounds.  Asking us to feed his sheep.  Sending us sheep we’ll find utterly adorable beyond all reason and against all better judgment, so that feeding them becomes a deep and fulfilling act of love.  So that the sacrifice we make for each other is not weighed against the benefits received.  So that the benefit we receive is to be broken open and shared, and to become part of a universe that is made of love.

Today (I am almost embarrassed to say this) I felt the presence of the risen Christ, who stepped quite easily into the space in front of me.  This presence came at a hard time and took from me some of the burden I had been carrying all day, and I understood that the pain I bear is not born alone.  The risen Christ joins me and those I love in our suffering and work just as Jesus of Nazareth did, and is just as vulnerable to this world as we are.

For me, this sense of God as intimate, imminent partner and friend is new.  It comes as an unexpectedly passive way of being with a passionate God, a God who is drawn to me, who seeks me out even in my sorrow.  God experiences me in a way I could not have imagined yesterday morning.  Whatever we choose to name it, God draws closer to me because he wants to.  It’s a comfort and a consolation and a passion.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

There Comes an End, And There Comes a Beginning

In the early 1980s I attended one of Buckminster Fuller's last lectures, in which he reiterated, "God is a verb."  Moves.  Lives.  Loves.  Changes.  I could almost get it.  Fuller also introduced the concept of synergy - the unpredictable behavior of a new entity created by the joining of formerly separate things.  His geodesic domes, for example, combined parts in such a way that new kinds of behavior emerged.  Moves.  Lives.  Loves.  Changes.  It's not a fixed and certain world.  The world is moving, living, changing, and we are in the midst of an unfinished story, always emerging in surprising and challenging ways.

Just yesterday I read about a common type of amoeba which normally spends its life wandering ponds and backwaters, going about its business in a solitary fashion.  In an emergency though, say in a drought, the amoebas seek each other out and begin a process of shedding their individual identities.  When a tipping point is reached, a new, higher functioning creature emerges from those formerly solitary cells.  This wonderful new being eventually becomes something like a tiny tree, with branches and roots.  Moves. Lives. Loves. Changes.  I wonder, though, about the thousands of individuals who gave up their rather complete little lives to become part of this new adventure.  Surely the time between being an individual and, say, a digestive cell in a much larger creature had its moments of deep mystery and uncertainty. What would it feel like?  

Anyone who has undergone any sort of deep change knows:  There comes a time when the old order has died, and the new order, if there is to be any, is not yet apparent.  We have, in effect, died to what we were, and we are not yet what we will become.  This is a shadowy threshold space, a border country, a gap between solid ends through which the wind whistles, and where we might, if we're lucky, catch a glimpse of the back end of God.   It is the place from which our deepest creativity springs.  It is also a place of slippery footing and unstable ground where the numinous can enter if we allow it.

I think of Jesus' time with his disciples after his resurrection as a kind of liminal space.  He was not the same man they had known.  They could barely recognize him, physically or psychically. And he was not yet "ascended to the Father."  He was, perhaps, making the very most of a powerful threshold we all must cross - the threshold from death to life.  Anything can happen on this threshold, and anything has.  Can we companion Jesus through this time?  This is the time when old assumptions have been shattered and we are left without the safety of a mutually perceived "reality."  It is a time that blows out our walls, then and now.

I wonder if I am ready, tonight, for the risen Christ to pass through the walls and locked doors of my cherished self.  Christ offers newness of life, but the price is high.  Jesus holds out his hand to me, but I am hesitant to take it.  I do not fear death.  I do not even fear suffering.  I fear instead the loss of myself, of the walls around all that I think I am, and of the sweetness of the solid footing I enjoy, even if that loss might mean newness of life.  I cling to the comfortable constructs I share with friends, the familiarity of my own body, the comfort of my daily routine. Do I really want a Christ risen, and to be part of a new, larger body of Christ?  No.  I really want the old, familiar Jesus, and the old, familiar me.  Give me more of the same.  Much more.

Alas, Jesus never promises more of the same.  I understand Mary's desire to hold on to him.  I also want to hold on to him as a rock in a storm.  A firm, unchanging rock I can count on, with rules I can follow that will lead me to an expected and comfortable end. What bitter lessons we all learn about rocks in storms, as our little boats are broken and we struggle for our lives. Rather than tying ourselves to rocks, we should have been learning to sail in deep waters, or to swim.  Christ is not the rock.  Christ is the storm.

What happens at the intersection of God and man?  Surely something as radical as the shift from noun to verb, from simple to complex, or from death to life.  For me, the risen Christ is exactly that intersection, a new emergence likely to behave in unexpected ways, shattering my expectations, throwing open doors, blowing out walls, revealing new truths, and if I can allow it, a new beauty I could not have imagined.  An emergence sprung, as is so often true, from emergency - a dire and unexpected set of circumstances that shakes our world in ways we cannot resist.

Let us then be shaken.  Let us grieve the old order, if necessary.  But let us also be joyful, and let our hearts burn within us.  Let us be deeply moved, even tossed about, even shattered by joy, as Mary was.  But do not hold on to him.  He is risen, but this is not the end of his journey or ours. He is here with us on our journey, on our road from one place to the next, as a stranger whom we might recognize and invite to dinner, even if it shatters our world.  And it will.  

We are in the middle of an unfinished story where former things have passed away.  This is our emergency.  There is no way to hold on to a center that dissolves even as we reach for it.  We must lose our footing for the Holy Spirit, the wind itself, to take hold of us.  We also make our way from death to life, here in this threshold space.  God is here, emerging.  We are emerging too, risen with Christ, about to begin.

Friday, April 10, 2009

The One You Seek Is Not Here

Wednesday morning before I was awake, my cat made her bed on my chest.  I woke to her large green eyes that seem to be marked with Egyptian kohl looking directly into mine.  This cat has an expressive face with an extensive repertoire of pleading, angry, dreamy, playful, fearful, or curious looks.  Wednesday morning her look was loving  She was smiling, happy to see me open my eyes.  I smiled back.  Here we are, it occurred to me, two little hunks of stuff, whirling around our sun that's also hurtling through space in a vast, curved, and expanding universe, inhabiting a kind of temporarily quickened stuff we call "living matter," carbon based, made of and for this planet.

We gaze at each other across a species divide in mutual admiration on this morning, a moment of pause between night and day, full of welcome for the returning pleasures of sight and sound and touch, one of us, at least, grateful to be made of living stuff, the other simply purring.  By virtue of being alive, we keep entropy at a standoff, continually reorganizing other life forms into us as fast as our cells get old and die.  I assume that I alone, of the two of us, am aware of our temporality.  Living stuff -- that is, the cat and me -- is as grass which today lives and tomorrow is cast into the oven, and I know it.  I know the cat is given less time than me.  She is young for a cat and I am old for a human, yet I will probably outlive her.  Unfair only if I forget the great leveler that awaits all living things.

In the meantime we maintain a fantastic organization:  specialized organs for the processing of food, the exchange of gasses, for learning and memory, for locomotion and reproduction.  There is also that for which no organ has yet been found.  We smile at each other across a species divide.  We seek each other out, pressing our hearts together in mutual contentment.  We enjoy a proximity to certain other living things.  We grieve when a creature that has been dear to us is no longer living.  What has happened?  What was warm with life now cools, though no change in chemistry has occurred.  Activity stops and cannot be coaxed back.  Where did it go?

One morning in the early fall of 1975 while my children were in school I set out to explore the Ohio State campus.  By the time I made the half-hour trip from my house, sunshine had turned to rain.  Nevertheless, I set off across The Oval under my umbrella.  It was the first time I had been there, so it was unremarkable to me that I was the only human crossing the oldest part of the campus at that moment.  Everything about Central Ohio was new to me, from buckeye trees to bluegrass, and I was eager to experience it all.  

I walked one of the small paths that criss-cross the broad expanse of lawn between the old, steep-roofed stone buildings surrounding The Oval, mostly looking down because of my umbrella, not up into the spreading beeches and buckeyes as I might have on another day.  On another day I might have missed the tiny mystery that planted itself deep in a place for which no organ has yet been found and became a part of the metaphysical stuff that is me.  On another day, the little play might not have been enacted at all.

Ahead of me about 20 feet on the path I was taking were two squirrels, both drenched with rain, their coats showing streaks of pink where the rain had parted wet fur.  They were still.  One of the squirrels was looking directly at me.  Her look seemed to challenge me.  I stopped and stood still.  Water dripped from her nose onto the other squirrel, lying dead in her arms.  She licked the rain from the dead squirrel's face and chest, which she had lifted and held to her in a little lamentation equal to Michelangelo.  She continued to lick the dead squirrel's face, occasionally stopping to hold my gaze with a look that seemed to say, "Can't you do something, you who are so smart?"

I was utterly dumbfounded.  No, I could do nothing.  the rain came faster than it could be licked away.  The little dead squirrel, which had seemed so cherished, began to stiffen and change.  The squirrel who held and washed it dropped it and moved away.  The tiny body, once quickened with life, became a lump of garbage, no longer calling to others or evoking their interest.  The transformation of entity into nonentity happened before my eyes.  It did not happen at death.  It happened when the living squirrel let it go.

Twenty-four years later I would re-enact this little drama, holding to my chest a body so recently inhabited, washing a familiar face until it began to stiffen and change.  I too eventually got up and left.  What just happened?  I can create protoplasm, but I can't make it live.  I can hold a living body close and dear, and yet its activity stops and cannot be coaxed back.  For a few more moments I may speak to it, address it as though it were still inhabited, but nothing can be done.  This change is permanent.  When I get up from this lamentation, I will arrange for this body to be taken away for burial or burning.

Death is the second greatest mystery I know.  The first is love.  Love that holds an expectation beyond death.  Love that recreates or goes on relating to a presence after its carbon-based, living stuff has been cast into the oven.  Love that goes on seeking out its object in the face of death and in spite of it, the same love that resurrected Jesus, that we celebrate on Easter.

But today we mark the crucifixion.  Today Jesus' mother held her dead son in her arms, wiping his face, holding him to her breast for the last time until his body, so cherished, began its final change.  Perhaps she looked up to God saying, "Can't you do something?"  Eventually, I know, she got up from her lamentation and arranged his body for burial.  Today my attention is caught by the mystery of death -- exactly to the moments of pause between life and death when the living, at least, are reluctant to let go of the pleasures of sight and sound and touch, still holding to those beloved bodies, still believing the one we love is made of the flesh we hold right here in our arms.

This morning I am keeping watch in our church's columbarium, the Nepenthe Garden.  I relieved a good friend, who had relieved another good friend, and so on, throughout the night.  The sun has risen over the church roof and rests on the palms over the Altar of Repose.  A red-headed woodpecker is breakfasting on a few hapless insects who were minding their business deep in the palm's heart.  White flowers have been stripped from their bushes to decorate our altar.  Weeds have been lifted from the ground by their roots.  I squash a mosquito, full of my blood.  Life and death proceed, hand in hand -- my hand in God's hand, his terrible, beautiful hand, pulling me forward.

I remember my cat, who so often wakes me inches from my face, who has now refused food and solace for two days.  Early this morning she spent a few minutes on my lap, purring but obviously feeling poorly.  From a lifetime of cats, I know they can sicken and die in a few days, shots or not.  I hope this one will remain in her little hunk of living stuff a bit longer, and that I will too.  But ultimately, even with all our specialized organs in fine fettle, we are as grass, she and I, along with mosquitoes and woodpeckers and weeds.

My faith is that in life's tomb, in that very process of letting go and moving on, creation is redeemed and renewed.  I hope that death, too, looses us and lets us go.  That we will be able to leave our little hunks of dead protoplasm behind us and move forward.   The Angel of the Tomb says, "The one you seek is not here."  Jesus himself says, "Do not hold on to me."  There is a time when, for life to proceed, bodies -- all that is organized and keeping entropy at bay -- must be abandoned.  My faith is that this is not the end of the story.  

Saturday, April 4, 2009

He Gave No Answer

The Sanhedren accuse Jesus of three things: subverting the nation (turning the Jews away from their accepted standard of values), opposing the payment of taxes (a distortion of what he actually had said), and claiming to be Christ and a king (a re-framing of Jesus' spiritual claim into a political one).

Herod, seeking entertainment from Jesus' response to these accusations, was not going to get it.  I picture Jesus facing our entertainment-oriented media interviewers or commentators - Keith Olberman, say, or Rush Limbaugh - and saying nothing at all.  What fun is that?  Jesus could have provided high entertainment by a profound or pithy answer, but his story, though gripping, is not about entertainment.  It is not about answers, pithy or otherwise.  Jesus leaves us to ponder things.

The question of the relationship between spiritual and political power is always before us and has not yet been answered. Does a change of values subvert the nation or raise it to a new level of responsibility and performance? How can this question ever be answered once and for all? Even if refusing to answer questions like this raises more difficult questions, gets us fired, lands us in jail, or even delivers us into the hands of our killers, there are some questions that should not be answered.  They are meant to challenge us each time they arise. Thinking we have these answers tucked neatly under our belts will not lead us to wise and just decisions or keep us from criticism, loss, or death - and they just keep coming up.

Jesus' followers were both Christian and Jewish, probably subverting the nation of Israel while at the same time expanding it.  In Seattle, of all places, we just defrocked a priest for being both Christian and Muslim. And in Michigan we await the disposal of a bishop who is also a Zen Buddhist.  Do these people subvert our nation or expand it? Unite or divide it? It's always an appropriate question, worthy of deep thought, meant for opening our hearts, but not meant for pat or entertaining answers. Jesus gave up his life without answering these questions, and so will we.  We will always have to decide which rules to break and when to break them, what tribute goes to Caesar and what to God, and how our religious values inform (or are informed by) our cultural ones.

Jesus didn't bother, at the point of his trial and imprisonment, to answer Herod's questions.  Instead he gave himself to his captors and tormentors, to all of us enraged by being shaken, frustrated by challenges to the status quo, or simply swept up in mob hysteria and willing to let others think and feel for us.  He gave himself to the worst in us.  Did he think, "These people are misunderstood, basically deserving, and therefore I will give them a hand up, after which they will get themselves together and make something of themselves?  No.  He simply gave himself completely to whoever was there - whoever was born in that part of the world in those days, whoever chose to come out of their house and could make their way into Herod's court, self-selected by love or hate or curiosity or boredom or a chance to do some mischief.  We have some evidence that he loved these people, that he was drawn to them for what we would call no good reason.  In any case, he made himself vulnerable to them, exposed his nakedness and weakness to them , while at the same time trusting them to be human and mistaken.  

"How does this help?," I might have thought, had I been one of Jesus' followers that day. "We have lost everything: our teacher and our faith, and probably next, our lives. And he didn't even answer them." In a success-oriented world, we turn away easily from such abject failure. We turn away too soon.

One of the advantages of living into old age is seeing how stories begun long ago turn out. Early in life I was rankled, like almost everyone, by the easy lives of people who I knew were rule-breakers.  That was before I broke the rules myself and also had an easy life. In fact it was before I learned what the rules actually are.  It was before I learned that true laws cannot be enforced from the outside, but that they will inexorably enforce themselves, and that when you are in the way of one of these "adjustments," nothing you say or do will assuage your pain or alter the landscape your path must cross.  If you have lost the art of receiving the truth as a friend, as Tagore also noticed, it will come as a conqueror.

It was also before I saw that we are in each other's way.  That we sometimes pay each other's debts, and that this serves us all.  In fact, we are all in this together, and forgiving and paying another's debt is a very sturdy and dependable way to move us all forward, if only an inch or two, in the right direction.  Jesus certainly demonstrated that.  He was in the way of a great truth, asserting itself through him and the story he was in. Nothing he said could have stopped the wheel of a great justice, far greater than the justice his disciples wanted.

How did he bear it? The only experience in my life that could have come close to motivating me to such suffering is love.  Love draws us in, pulls us forward, and fortifies us for suffering. We will follow our hearts past all reason, right into the jaws of death in some cases.  In the depths of Jesus' suffering, as he cried out in pain and loneliness, love still gushed from him in forgiveness and blessing. I am not yet capable of such a thing, but I have lived long enough to see that it is possible.

Sometimes we are in the grip of a Great Truth, its hour come round at last, to which our words, no matter how profound or entertaining or pithy, add nothing.  In those times, we are required to act, to be a pivot point and instrument of God's rescuing action, even at great cost to ourselves, without explanation or justification.  As Christians, we are invited to accept, as Jesus accepted, the worst of this world.  We expose our vulnerabilities and our nakedness to it, and we are asked to wordlessly bring our small humiliations and wounds to the altar of Love.  God's saving power will be exercised through us, and we will pay for it dearly.  But sacrifice that is thoroughly explained is explained away.  Packaged Christianity that is not as vulnerable to the world as Christ was is not worthy of the name.  And safety-first Love, defined and defended by words, is worthless. 

I acknowledge a God who is complex, mysteriously folded, and deeply, wordlessly vulnerable to the world.  As was Jesus.  As are we.

Sunday, March 29, 2009


March 29, 2009

When it comes to the story of Jesus’ terrible agony at Gethsemane, I like the careful rendition of Luke, the highly educated physician, who cared for bodies and understood them.  He knew what happens to bodies undergoing profound stress.  He probably would not have known that tiny blood vessels near the surface of the skin contract while blood pressure rises dangerously, that epinephrine causes adrenaline to wash the brain, stop the digestion, speed up the heart, and engorge the large muscles with blood, and that  norepinephrine causes dramatic changes in perception.  But he would have seen and been sensitive to the results.  Jesus, in this state of extreme anxiety the Gospel writers called agitation and agony, was falling-down fearful.
An opposite state afflicted his disciples.  In spite of Jesus asking them to pray for themselves, they were heavy-lidded, and they slept.  I can only think that these three good men did pray for themselves just before falling asleep, as I do on many occasions.  And perhaps like me, they were accustomed to praying until they felt better.  They believed, in the end, that all would be well.  “All will be well,” they crooned to themselves.  “God loves his son, and God loves us.  All will be well.”  Yes, but on a vast timetable that overreaches us yet today.

A mere stone’s throw away, Jesus prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me.”  For me, this doesn’t begin to describe Jesus’ physical and emotional anguish, a son pleading with his father against the pain of the next few hours and days.  But then Jesus gives himself back to God’s care, no matter what.  “Nevertheless, not my will, but yours be done.”  I too would like to escape the pain of betrayal and the loneliness of abandonment.  I especially would like to escape the insults to my body of scourging, the degradation of suffering in public, and an unjust, untimely, prolonged and hideously painful death.  I am sure that I would abandon Jesus given these consequences of standing by him.  What makes a person willing to suffer and die for the very frail and imperfect friends who abandon and betray him?  That is, for me?

Luke continues.  “Then,” he says, right after Jesus gives himself to God’s care, “an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength.”  It was then, right after the angel from heaven gave him strength, that Jesus began to sweat drops of blood.  This condition has a name – hematidrosis – and is actually sweat mixed with blood.  It happens, and perhaps Luke would have known this, after a huge amount of stress is rather suddenly removed.  All those tiny restricted blood vessels suddenly relax faster than the pressure of blood can be withdrawn, and they burst, releasing blood into the overactive sweat glands which bring it to the surface of the skin.  Perhaps Luke the Physician uses Jesus’ bloody sweat to tell us something we need to know:  Something happened when Jesus admitted his human fear and abandoned himself to God.    An angel?  From heaven?  I try to imagine this presence, this intuition, this strong and comforting grace that took away human weakness and replaced it with heavenly strength. 

I read this online the other day:  “If God never gives us more than we can handle, he must think an awful lot of us.”  Indeed.  I believe God thought enough of Jesus to give him both extreme suffering and extreme strength.  I picture him returning to where his disciples were sleeping (possibly God did not think quite so much of them) and waking them with this question:  Why are you sleeping?  Not, “Wake up, you faithless fools!” or “Curse you and your sons forever.” Why are you sleeping?  

It’s a good question, one to which he surely knew the answer.  The disciples had prayed too, just like I do almost every night:  “God, take care of us.  God, assure us once again that all will be well.  God protect us and shelter us under your wing, and bring us peace.  All will be well.  All will be well.”  And so they were sleeping.  Luke knew that this kind of sleep can overtake those in denial, a kind of soporific sleep  sometimes available to the hopelessly bereft.  He says they were sleeping because of grief.

But Jesus had prayed differently.  He did not deny his fear.  In fact, it overtook him to a point I find hard to imagine.  He fell down on the ground and prayed, “Please take this away.”  Surely he knew what was waiting for him, and he allowed his imagination to take him there.  What person, condemned to die, can allow their imagination to go full-forward to their own excruciating death?  All of humanity, condemned to die, yet sleeps on under the spell of distraction and denial.  All, that is, but Jesus.

I am sure that somewhere deep within me fear lies buried, and that’s where I like to keep it.  But what if I, like Jesus, could recognize my deepest fear, express it, experience it, and then, also, turn fully to God?  Might I not, too, be sent an angel from heaven?  Might I not then step up from a childish dream of comfort into a fully awake, fully suffering, fully capacious humanity, full of strength and purpose, capable of facing the hour of darkness, capable of saying to violence, “No more,” and healing it?  It’s a steep climb, that path, but it’s the path I believe we’re on.  God thinks a lot of us.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Christ as Food

My childhood, though rich in spiritual ideas and discipline, was deliberately lacking in the usual religious symbols, those objects or pictures or rituals that can stand for some inexact or mysterious truth.  No crucifix, no communion ceremony (no bread, no wine), no ashes, no genuflection, no baptism, no Eucharist, no reconciliation, no last rites, no icons, no Lent, no Palm Sunday or Good Friday, no stations of the cross, no vespers, and no liturgy whatsoever.

It is entirely possible to be Christian without these things, and a good many fine, practicing Christians feel no need, say, for broken bread and shared wine every Sunday.  This was not the case for me, however.  There was simply nothing to keep me coming to church.  For 30 years I was quite happy spending Sunday mornings reading the paper or sitting outside in the sun, or painting, painting.

About five years ago the Christian symbols themselves began to call me in ways that caught my attention.  They appeared in my dreams.  I was painting in a choir loft, looking down on a Mass.  I was searching for a seat in a church full of icons.  I was joining the activity of the Holy Family.  These and other dreams came on the heels of events that had shaken me, to be sure.  But they also felt like something new working its way to the surface.  I thought of it in artistic terms – a new beauty asking for my response.

I went to New Orleans, then a city of hot religion, jam-packed with the same religious symbols available in Voodoo shops as in the cathedral book store.  I was revolted by Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ.  I sought out a Jungian analysis with a priest who provided space for the laying out of these symbols.  We talked.  I began this journal, strangely I thought, with a symbol I barely understood – the Annunciation.  I still don’t understand, and the symbols are still having their way with me.

Then my mother died.  She was the strongest religious influence in my life.  Deeply spiritual, she was a natural and talented religious iconoclast.  In the end she threw out even her own conventions and abandoned herself to her God without any religious mediation at all.  It was a natural progression for her, but it was stunning to see.  I was going in the other direction, and her death, in a way, set me free.  Within a year I was gone.

I was here, in Miami.  I spent that first summer praying.  I wrote the prayers down.  By September I had found my church, rich in symbols and smells, full of liturgy and exotic ritual.  I was delighted to dress in what I could only call costume with my friends, to abandon our usual banter and join in performance of sacred ritual, and to be urged to take it seriously.  I have.

This brings me to my point, which is the Last Supper.  For me, this is the primary Christian symbol, which we ritualize every Sunday in our Mass and participation in Communion.  We eat Christ’s body and drink Christ’s blood, and we do this in all seriousness, with the greatest possible respect.

Most liturgical Christians participate in this ritual as a matter of course.  I do not.  For me it is counter-intuitive and miraculous.  Every Sunday it catches me off-guard, as it must have caught Jesus’ companions 2000 years ago.  Here we are, my friends and I, who two days ago were working together, gossiping, laughing, working out day-to-day concerns, now eating the broken body and spilled blood of Christ together.  What does it mean?  I t can only mean that we are all broken and shared, and that we are meant to know it.

Mangoes and palms drop ripened fruit.  Seeds break open and sprout.  Mosquitoes give their lives to lizards every day in my back yard.  But to my knowledge their sacrifice is completely unselfconscious.  What this symbol of Christianity says to me is, “Become fully conscious of the sacrifice you accept and the sacrifice you must make in return.  Take in and digest this life that is given for your sake, and become that sacrifice yourself.”

This awareness and conscious activity is what it means to be fully human – that is, to give expression to the Christ from a place deep within.  This awareness is painful.  Betrayal is a fact.  And yet we are asked to stay conscious, to give deliberately all that we have, all that we are, for each other.  It will happen anyway, as surely as ripe mangoes fall.  We are asked to make this sacrifice a conscious and constant testament, and to withstand its consequences, and to know we are made of Love.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Morning Meal

When any of us say the words, "my death," out loud, we are immediately shushed by our relatives and friends.  My husband wanted to talk about his death for years and we wouldn't let him.  My sons actually rolled their eyes as he tried to prepare us.  None of us had any idea he was actually dying.  Not until the last few hours could I let that knowledge up from the dark where it had lived, manacled and starved, for some time.

I suspect it may have been the same for Jesus.  His disciples wouldn't hear of his death.  Maybe they even rolled their eyes.  No wonder he wept.  Had they been able to receive it, he could have not only explained to them the central point of his ministry but given them the comfort they so needed:  Death is swallowed up in Life.

Now, in this season of Lent, I think it is important to listen without denial or anger or impatience as Jesus once again tries to tell us about death -- his and ours -- and give us comfort.  What can I hear of that Easter story?  Sadness and tears, surely.  But there is also this:  God is ready at the very point of death, in the depths of our despair, in spite of our dire predictions, to astonish us with the radiance of a rising sun.  A new life.  A new world.

Death is a passage, that we know, and also a passing, in which a door seems to close behind us.  Beyond that it is not given to us to know.  Except this:  We believe in a God of surprise.  A God of empty tombs.  A God whose last meal shared with us was not a sad supper, but a morning meal prepared for us, waiting for us on the shore of a great sea.

What do I make of the various accounts of resurrections throughout literature, including the Bible?  Do I think Lazarus' body, already decomposing, was made whole and immortal so that Jesus' band of followers might believe?  Or was it only temporarily revived to make a point?  I guess if I can conceive of quarks popping in and out of existence, I can conceive of whole organisms doing the same, although I don't expect to see such an event in my lifetime.  And yet, Jesus' resurrection remains for me the central point of his life and work.  Taken literally or figuratively, it tells me that death is not the victor.  That what God has to give, he continues to give.  That there is no reason to die of grief.

Jesus' resurrection leaves me with more questions than it answers.  It is not a trick I can learn.  Instead, it teaches me that I do not have all the answers, that I do not know the end of the story I am in, and that perhaps it does not have an end.  I expect that I, too, will not be in the tomb where I have been laid, but that I will be somewhere else: at breakfast by the Galillean Sea, or swaying with the breeze in the treetops, or sitting at the feet of my Teacher, continuing to grow in knowledge and grace as creation unfurls and arches out forever.  I hope there will be someone to say, as Jesus said about Lazarus, "Loose her and let her go."

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