Thursday, May 3, 2007

Seeker II

I have to confess that I was one of those who, at an early age, suffered post-Easter hangovers after having attended my local Methodist church virtually every Sunday from the first few weeks of my life until the day I left for college. During my youth in the ever-so-polite 1950’s and 1960’s, Easter mysteriously followed the hosannas of Palm Sunday with few if any glimpses of the events in between, mostly implied from the empty tomb. In fact, it was that empty tomb that was central to my feelings about Easter – bolstered by the memories of the many rainy, sleeting Easter Sundays with a brisk wind from Lake Michigan piercing through my thin, new springtime dress, latticed hat, and lace gloves. It was all cold and empty with loud music, inexplicable reiterations of joy, and the dull ache from sugar on an empty stomach (from the poor beheaded chocolate bunnies I left in my Easter basket before rushing off to church).

Although I dropped in and out of church services in the years that followed, mostly for the music, my queasiness about Easter turned into a large stone planted squarely in front of the tomb. The stone had begun to edge across the entrance back in elementary school when the wife of the new director of Christian Education informed my brother and me that our best friends, brother and sister from a Jewish family, were destined for hell; it edged further during the pastoral prayers of sermon length that prayed for victory in war; and it finally rolled all the way shut from years of academic study of history, anthropology, and law. God, in my mind, was always present, but that Jesus dude was… well, totally beyond my comprehension. He was a man and, like my brother, the only Son, and, while he may have been a very nice guy, helpful to many (though not so nice to his mother, sometimes), he just wasn’t someone I could embrace as my Friend.

How I eventually came to find Him through the Eucharist is a story I may tell someday. For now, let me share something that is very dear to me, a passage from Kathleen Norris’s book Dakota. It vividly describes what I experienced when I first worked up the courage to return to churchgoing after years of absence:

“When some ten years later I began going to church again because I felt I needed to, I wasn’t prepared for the pain. The services felt like word bombardment – agony for a poet – and often exhausted me so much I’d have to sleep for three or more hours afterward. Doctrinal language slammed many a door in my face, and I became frustrated when I couldn’t glimpse the Word behind the words. Ironically, it was the language about Jesus Christ, meant to be most inviting, that made me feel most left out. Sometimes I’d give up, deciding that I just wasn’t religious. This elicited an interesting comment from a pastor friend who said, ‘I don’t know too many people who are so serious about religion that they can’t even go to church.’”

“Even as I exemplified the pain and anger of a feminist looking warily at a religion that has so often used a male savior to keep women in their place, I was drawn to the strong old women in the congregation. Their well-worn Bibles said to me, ‘there is more here than you know,’ and made me take more seriously the religion that caused by grandmother Totten’s Bible to be so well used that its spine broke. I also began, slowly, to make sense of our gathering together on Sunday morning, recognizing, however dimly, that church is to be participated in, not consumed. The point is not what one gets out of it, but the worship of God; the service takes place both because of and despite the needs, strengths, and frailties of the people present. How else could it be? Now, on the occasions when I am able to actually worship in church, I am deeply grateful.”

-- Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography
(Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1993) (pp. 94-95)

Like Norris, I struggled mightily with all the church words, which in my youth used to go over the top of my head, but as an adult filled my eyes and ears and seemed to threaten the safety of my over-educated reason. For me it was an old Lutheran pastor who told me with some amusement that I was first person he had ever received into the church who had asked to read both Luther’s Small and Large Catechisms. Of course I never read them all, and finally just let go of my all too reluctant will to understand. Over time, I, too, learned by doing and spending time with those women and their well-worn Bibles. Thank God for their patience with me and the mysteries of Word and sacrament that later came to me as an Episcopalian.

Seeker I

“Seeker” seems to have recently acquired a negative meaning. Instead of “one that seeks: a seeker of the truth,” it has turned into something like “someone who hasn’t found, won’t ever find, my truth” or, more charitably, “someone lost and distracted, going nowhere, or nowhere in the right direction.” At least that’s my take on Stand Firm's editorial decision to lift Mystical Seeker’s “Post-Easter Hangover” essay from his blog and to critique his thoughts and feelings (while, at the same time, sneering that such thoughts and feelings would be very much at home among liberal Episcopalians).

While it is tempting to simply chalk up this episode as another example of how rude and uncharitable so-called Christians can be, I think it goes deeper than the dark humours that permeate the atmosphere at SF. It’s getting to the point where even mention of words and phrases like “metaphor” and “metaphorical truth” – let alone the offending “Christian mythologies” – is enough to bring rampant cries of idolatry and predictions of the end of Christianity. While I commend the efforts of people like Sarah Dylan Breuer to find common ground among liberals and conservatives, an unfortunate consequence may be to silence or at least trigger self-censorship among those who seek, quest, and doubt, those who want to talk to those who do, or simply those who recall the days when they, too, faced Easter Sundays as days of trumpets, pageantry, and hoopla that caused their heads to ache. Those who consider themselves to be “liberal orthodox” have to keep hitting all the “orthodox” words and phrases over and over again in often futile attempts to persuade others that they “mean” what they say.

It’s not that there is discomfort or dishonesty in uttering those words of orthodoxy. It does, however, raise the question of where does the conversation (not to mention the flame wars) leave the seekers and the outsiders looking in? Has it seriously crossed anyone’s radar screen that the numbers of people who don’t know any of the words in the context of any kind of faith are rising, right here in the midst of Western culture founded on the Judeo-Christian tradition? How does one proclaim the Gospel (if necessary, with words) by suggesting that those who do not already “know” that they are seeking the “Risen Christ” bodily resurrected from the dead cannot really be seeking spiritual truth? that those who shudder or are repelled by traditional Christian words and images must be “lazy” or “self-centered” if they think twice about walking through the doors of a local church?

Fortunately, PB ++ Katharine Jefferts Schori, has not risen to the bait. She consistently uses the words she knows and trusts will reach people outside institutional Christianity, never mind the slings and arrows shot her way. No doubt she recalls her earlier years of doubts and questions and those of her colleagues in the scientific community. Why should she or any of us be ashamed of our past or supremely confident that we’ve now got it “right”? Why can’t we shout to the high heavens in thanks for the words, knowledge, and understandings we found in the lab, the classroom, in books of poetry, history, and philosophy, as well as the people and places, both within and without the confines of churches, mosques, synagogues, and temples, who have brought us closer to God?

Monday, April 30, 2007

The Good Shepherd

Many have shared sermons and stories inspired by this past Sunday’s gospel lesson. While I think that Mad Priest’s wins the prize (not sure what the contest is, but surely he should be treated to one of those fruit-glazed dessert things for best ending) and PaulW’s (found in the comments at MP’s) deserves at least a second, I offer the following:
And here is the scene. Over here is a mother sheep who has lost her baby at birth. Over there is a lamb that has lost his mother in the process of being given life. But sheep are difficult animals. A sheep will not take a lamb that is not its own. And so we have the case of a mother sheep full of the milk that will not nourish her baby and no baby to feed. And we have a lamb, hungry for life-giving nourishment and no milk to drink. Soon the motherless baby will starve to death.

It is a scene of abundance and scarcity all at once.

And this is what the good shepherd must do. Now this is going to be a bit graphic but it is the truth. To reconcile this moment of tragedy, the shepherd takes the lamb that has died and slits its throat. Then the good shepherd washed the living lamb in the blood who died. Out of death will come life. The lamb who died gives life to the lamb that is motherless. Now the mother sheep will accept this new baby, this baby washed in the blood of her own.

The shepherd then said, "That is what I know about the Lamb of God and the Good Shepherd as well."

For us who are washed in the blood of the lamb and who are part of the flock of the Good Shepherd, that is all we need to know. We, who were separated from God by sin and death, have now been given new life. The Good Shepherd and the Lamb of God are one and the same - the one who saves, Jesus the Christ.

When I recently heard this story, I paused at “And we have a lamb, hungry for life-giving nourishment and no milk to drink.” I expected but heard no mention of the need of the mother sheep, who must have been full of the void of no longer hearing, feeling, and touching the life of her newborn lamb and, at the same time, must have been bursting with the fullness and pain of tender teats swollen with milk. If you will pardon the crossing of gender roles, this story made me think of a couple of male priests. One is the person I know only in cyberspace as Father Jake, who recently wrote movingly about the death of Mike Crew and presiding at his funeral in Boys of Hall. The other is J’s brother (see The 33rd Stone below), with whom I recently made the long journey to visit the graves of J and his mother, who has his own stories to tell of funerals and lost souls.

It seems to me that many priests and other ministers -- ordained or not, male or female -- sometimes recognize and minister to lost sheep as a result of the blood of their own losses which the Good Shepherd sprinkles on those who most need to be nurtured by their compassion and love.
It’s a miracle how this happens, including how any of us survive to breathe and smell and ache for the needs of others or to be fed ourselves while others seem to perish. Thanks be to the priests and ministers, all who mourn, and those who live again.

The 33rd Stone

Elizabeth Kaeton recently brought us the story of the 33rd stone. Katelynn Johnson, a student at Virginia Tech, decided to place a stone in memory of Seung-Hui Cho in addition to the 32 memorial stones set up in memory of his victims. Katelynn was quoted as saying “You don’t get to pick who’s in your family.”

What is even more remarkable is that Katelynn was not alone in thinking of Cho as someone who was or could have been a family member. Many have been flooded with memories of family members lost and broken by mental illness, drug or alcohol addiction, and relentless behaviors destructive to self and others that were beyond the comprehension and control of those who loved them.

It brought to mind a memorial stone I recently visited. My brother-in-law J, whom I never met, is buried under a beautiful white, marble stone in a Veterans’ cemetery. He served in Viet Nam. Before and after his tour of duty, he suffered from mental illness and substance abuse. I’m told that before he left for Viet Nam, he said he hoped he would die there. When he returned, very much alive, he made numerous suicide threats and attempts. Finally, he hung himself. Just before he died, he telephoned his mother and told her what he was doing. He left a wife and thirteen-old daughter, as well as grief-stricken parents and brothers and sisters. His oldest brother, recently ordained as an Episcopal priest, presided over the funeral. He didn’t know which was worse – the horror of seeing his brother, dead on a slab, with a deep rope burn on his neck – or the realization that even in life, this was a person he scarcely knew. He did not know how he would find words to speak to the family, but somehow he did. His brother was buried in the VA cemetery.

Decades later, the same family was gathered together to bury the mother in the same cemetery where the father, a WWII veteran, was also buried. J’s widow and daughter were present, along with the priest and the other brothers and sisters. The memory of J and his death was still very much with everyone. Some of those present had led lives on the edge, themselves broken in various ways. Yet, miraculously, the strongest of the lot seemed to be J’s widow and child and one of her children, who attended. After the last burial rites for Grandma, we all went to see J’s grave, which we only found after checking out the map at the office. J’s stone was in the front row of a sea of stones of veterans from many wars. He may not have been anyone’s hero, but his widow and daughter could speak of him easily and with affection, as well as with some pain. He was part of their family, our family, loved and forgiven, despite all the terrible things he had done.