Category Archives: Spiritual Formation

So, A Couple Arrives at the Gates of Heaven, and–

Light and Salt

Last week I re-posted a joke on Facebook about a couple arriving in heaven after a fatal car crash.  They wonder whether they can get married in heaven, and ask  St. Peter.  St. Peter says  he doesn’t  know, but he’ll go find out.  The couple at the gate waits a long time (maybe an eternity), and while they pass the time, they begin to wonder if it’s possible to get a divorce in heaven.  When St. Peter finally returns, they ask him, but he blows his stack on hearing their second question.  Turns out it took him all that time to find even one priest of whom to ask the first, and he wasn’t about to go haring off all over heaven to find yet another priest to answer the couple’s second question.

I hesitated before re-posting this joke, because I have a number of clergy friends on Facebook, and I’m not sure how seriously most of them take themselves, secretly or not.

The joke is probably lost on anyone who, in response,  wants to quote the Gospel of Matthew, in which Jesus is said to have said that after the resurrection of all souls, people will not marry, but be like the angels in heaven.  And the joke is likely a puzzlement to anyone who has grown up without the cultural lore about St. Peter.  Who he?

But for anyone who has been disappointed in a church community, or anyone who has been betrayed by clergy, or anyone who suffers  from the habitual judgmental stance of church people across the board of denominations, this is a bitter joke and meant to be so.

You can bet the joke didn’t originate with clergy.  And I bet the joke didn’t start from a conversation of two people in the church, clergy or not.   Probably,  the joke started with people who once were church people and have walked away, perhaps for reasons of sanity.   Heck–even clergy have left on that score.  And of course this isn’t the only joke of its kind.

I think the joke is as full of pins and needles as the Scarecrow’s head before he met the Wizard.  Heaven.  Really?  When is that, and what?  Marriage? Why? And what’s with a gate that shuts people out after death?   Not to be too literal about it, but has anyone taken stock of the layers of insider knowledge required to make sense of this joke, let alone provide laughter?

So, ok, lighten up, it’s a Christian insiders’ joke.  Aren’t Christians allowed to have insider jokes?

Well, I rather think not.  Churchy people can claim insider status and they regularly do, using language that outsiders don’t understand, but since Christians are supposed to be salt and light in the world, I don’t believe their identity should lodge in any exclusivity at all.  Christians who are drawn to defending some or all aspects of the institution have, in effect, accomplished a very strange thing, actually unheard of–they have become salt that has lost its taste.  They are circling the wagons of tradition to hold the light in, defending their peculiarities from the world’s observation or hoping to justify themselves in the world’s eyes.

There’s  another thing about Christian insider jokes.  Understanding them depends on learning a vast amount of  complicated knowledge, much of it interesting history, but nearly all of it completely unnecessary to daily life anywhere in the world.  To make that irrelevant knowledge requisite for true Christian living and leadership is to forfeit the patience and good will of people in the world.

Christians can’t fix the way the world sees the church–any part of it.  It’s not their job to fix anyone, anyhow.  When you are salt, you don’t get to tell the person whose food is on the table whether or not to use you, or how much salt works in a dish of chili.  If you are salt, that’s all you are.  The person who needs salt and finds what is needed, takes as much as is necessary, or as little as the blood pressure can stand.  Salt has no say.  When you are light, if you mistake yourself for being the lamp, you think a lot about being turned off and on, or about the kind of light bulb  you believe would work best.  Christians aren’t the source of light–ever.  It’s too bad so many of them regularly  understand themselves as conducting light, leading them to think they are closer to the power source than people who are seeing by the light.   Light does not dictate what I can see, whether I am reading People Magazine or looking at a man at an intersection holding a piece of cardboard saying “Homeless. Anything will help.”

The thing about salt and light that is difficult for anyone invested in church itself, is the diffuse nature of either one when effective.  The sad thing about Christian insider jokes that isn’t often articulated is the fact that we think we can still remember when most people in our society shared our cultural awareness of Christian beliefs, standards, behaviors, and furthermore, shared our sense of value in all those cultural markers.  ‘Everybody knew’  Roman Catholics focused on guilt, and Reformed Protestants wouldn’t dance or smoke, and Episcopalians drank, and hats and white gloves were tickets to respectability in every congregation.  If many in the world now consider Christians to be irrelevant (at best), might not that be due to the totally irrelevant things that church people said were essential?

These days, much is being made among people doing the heavy, cutting edge thinking and speaking for everybody else in the church, about ‘being missional.’  That’s a churchy term for figuring out how to be relevant again as Christians,  in larger society.  I am interested in the fact that bitter jokes like this one about priests in heaven, appear in social media at the same time that prominent Christian clergy, like Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, are focusing Christians on joining a Jesus Movement.  Maybe the joke is a slant kind of question.  Will the church make the same mistakes in this century that she has made in all the centuries previous?

What’s an example of a church mistake? Going beyond all the ready accusations,  I’d say it’s a mistake to expect being missional to be about the lamp, the light bulb and whether or not Celtic gray salt is as acceptable as French flake or Himalayan pink.   There are better questions.  How is it you are salt when you go to your job as grocery market cashier?  How are you light in your work of business-to-business marketing?  How are you light as you cut hair, salt as you teach biology to 8th graders, light while you repair air conditioners, salt as you sell used cars, rent apartments, make bank loans, inspect elevators?  Can prison guards and state police be salt or light? Can politicians?  How?  The answer is most likely not, “Go to church.”   The question remains.  Ignore it at missional peril.

I can think of an insider-outsider revision to the joke on St. Peter.  Of course it’s next to impossible to find a priest in heaven.  Where are they, who are they? Poor St. Peter will have to run the length and breadth of the world instead, looking in dementia wards and at border crossings, going into refugee camps,  nursery schools and advertising agencies, knocking at the doors of roofing companies, asking in department stores and coffee shops, talking to chamber maids, public restroom cleaners and truck drivers,bar tenders,  astronomers and physicists.  And when he finds people being salt or light, they won’t have time to answer his question anyway.  That’s the rest of the joke.  There are lots of things that don’t matter in heaven, after all.



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Why Rush?

In 1847, Ebenezer Davies, a visiting Englishman, was invited to preach while in Cincinnati.  Later he wrote, “At the close of the sermon, having pronounced the benediction, I engaged, according to English custom, in a short act of private devotion.  When I raised my head and opened my eyes, the very last man of the congregation was actually making his exit through the doorway; and it was quite as much as I could manage to put on my top-coat and gloves and reach the door before the sexton closed it.”  Ebenezer Davies, American Scenes and Christian Slavery; A Recent Tour of Four Thousand Miles in the United States.  (London; John Snow, 1849)

Americans have always been in a rush.  Sometimes we notice ourselves hurrying through time; sometimes we are astonished to find time has gone past faster than we expected; somehow we are always surprised to discover that rush and hurry don’t make us more efficient, that speed affords less profit than we imagined, that we get a hint of some other value we might want, when suddenly we are forced to stop a moment.

I’d bet that most intentional Christians in their own places of worship have had a hard half year–hard years are a norm, even with joy and gladness interspersed.  Congregational leaders have certainly had a hard half year so far—most are working for most of the time with fewer members than usual; at any given moment some were surprised by the former music director’s taking a new job in mid-year; some have not been able to raise up new leaders for essential ministries yet; all have kept up with hard work of getting their congregational house in order—learning how to plan for building maintenance rather than letting the building reach emergency needs first; learning how to become good stewards of the members’ trust in them; getting  finances from a state of savings and funds in many coffee cans to a gathered, intentionally ordered unity of giving and resources, planning how stewardship and giving will reflect the whole church and provide for the whole church’s work in mission and ministry.   The heaviness of the half year thus far might have made some feel anxious or pressed on them a sense of falling behind, but I’d be surprised if most meet and work in this way every month.  Some leaders have been changed by taking up the habit of praying together at the close of each meeting; some leadership groups  have taken on praying each for the members they represent and care for, in some order of grouped names each month.  Praying for their work and the people they are keeping house for, changes leaders, gives them a vibrancy in the Presence.

Bishop Ronald H. Haines has proved one of the five most influential people in my life.  He was an extraordinarily busy leader, working steadfastly while under rather constant attack from many of his peers for his decisions, including his decision to ordain the first openly lesbian priest in the Episcopal Church while he was Bishop of Washington, D.C.  He never sounded rushed or hurried, anxious or angry as he went about his work.  I knew him in retirement.  I asked him once why all these pressures did not affect him in that usual way.  “You should ask yourself:  what’s the good in that?” he said.  “Remember: it took a long time for things to get into the state they’re in; it’ll take a long time to make them better.  You can’t get to the end before you start, and you’ll never begin if you rush.  Nobody can really think in a hurry.  When I drop things and I get angry, I know I’m going too fast.”

Here’s an interesting thing:  It’s hard to hurry through evening prayer, especially if one is using a liturgical service like Compline.  The rhythm and language of the liturgy opens time to reveal us as we are, where we are, when we are:  always moving and breathing in God’s presence, in whom there is no rush or hurry that overlooks details, drops things, inclines to forgetfulness or defensive anger.  True:  we can’t keep from being American, from holding an almost instinctive impatience with whatever it is that holds us back from going fast and even faster.   But we can grow more mature as Christians by practicing the virtue of patience until we find ourselves formed more closely as the people God can call and into whom God can pour increasing energy  for worship, witness and service.

Your session, vestry, consistory, council, meets on a regular day of the month.  Why not take time at the end of the evening on those days, throughout the rest of this coming year, and read Compline yourself, or some other service of evening or night prayer, wherever you are, joining your leaders in prayer and praying for them by name, once a month, as they do the work of leadership you have laid on them for 2013?

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Madeleine l’Engle’s Birthday and Irrational Meaning in Advent

November 29th is Madeleine l’Engle’s birthday.  She’d have been 92 this year.   She made a big deal of her birthday, she said, because it was so easy for her own day of celebration to get lost between the communal celebrations of Thanksgiving and the start of Advent.  “I may be a grain of sand on the shore but I am a named grain!  And my name is known!”    Madeleine’s assertions of the reality of self against the general and inevitable cultural juggernauts cruising through November into December were sign posts for me:  “This way to a seat on the side of the road.  This way to get out of the way and off the road and look over the terrain and get some perspective.”

The week before Advent, my husband’s family had a week of gathering together over Thanksgiving in a lovely big, rented house midway down the Outer Banks, and we drove 9 hours to get home again afterwards.  When I woke up on Sunday morning I had trouble remembering it was the first Sunday of Advent.  I really didn’t want to haul myself out of bed and go to church, but I felt I was quite close to making a mistake if I didn’t stick with my interior discipline of starting the new church year in community.  So I prepared myself and went to church. 

The sermon made it into the exclusive category of the top ten worst I’ve ever heard (a list that currently has four empty slots at the bottom, since I can only remember five other worst sermons right now.  When I forget the sermon it drops off the list.  And yes–I have a list of the top ten best sermons I’ve ever heard, and that one currently has seven empty slots.)  The service felt like a set of discrete actions trying to get organized.  But more distressing to me than the poor execution of liturgy and the very bad sermon was the sudden feeling of isolation and loneliness that overtook me somewhere between the sermon and reciting the Creed.   As I began to say the ancient words–“We believe–” a door blew open in my heart and a strong, cold, winter’s wind blew across my mind, altering my inner landscape from indoors comfortable to the out-of-doors unknown.

Not even in Advent am I immune to the problems of going to church.  Every Sunday I encounter the 21st Century cultural problem of balancing between my individually named self and merging into a communal body of believers.  I find the balance is not gained by giving more attention to one than the other.  So, feeling exceedingly lonely, I stopped speaking, sat still in the service, watching and listening, letting my feelings rise and then recede.    During the Offertory,  I suddenly  remembered Madeleine and thought of her birthday perspective, her insistence on drawing aside from the crowd (or congregation) to feel and assert the value of her own name.  The preparations of Advent draw me away from my solitude at home and into communal rhythms, but unless I find my balance in going between one and the other, I get none of the expected comfort of family and I have no shared pleasure in anticipation or religious ritual that seems to be culturally expected in church, of church-goers.  The shared rhythms of Advent and Christmas  point up for me the seeming contradiction of isolation, self separated from other selves, even as we all say or sing the same words and move in unison.

In the late 1970s, for several years I lived close enough to NYC to go in for a day.  In those years, I always went in to visit Madeleine during Advent.  I would go on a Wednesday, and Madeleine and I would first share the Wednesday noon healing service in the Cathedral, and then share lunch at the Green Tree restaurant across from the Cathedral close on Amsterdam Avenue.  The first year we did this, while we were waiting for our food to be served, some frustration or concern of hers made her say with vigorous and cheerful irritation, “Right now I think it would be best for Christians if all the churches in the world burned down at once!”  I had felt that way before, and understood her without needing to ask why she felt that way just then.  We shared a perspective from our different places without the distraction of personal details.

This past Sunday, as I sat through what I hope will be the worst sermon I’ll hear in the new church year, and then sat through an unexpected heart-freezing chill of isolation in the midst of communal joy in the signs and songs of the new Advent season, I was blessed with a clear (unexpected) focus on the sight and smell of the Green Tree’s rich Hungarian goulash and then the blunt, energetic sound of Madeleine voicing her frustration with some systemic ecclesial (read: clergy) self-centeredness.  The memory made me laugh quietly, right there during the service; Madeleine had repented somewhat of her drastic judgment,  even before lunch was over.   “Well, that’s not a practical approach,” she said.  “Think of the mess we’d have in cleaning up before we could begin over again,” she said.  “We’re never free just to walk away and start something new somewhere else.  No one ever made a clean break and a new religious approach at the same time.  Trying it only amounts to littering the religious and cultural landscape as you drive on your merry way.” 

Being Christian today involves even fewer assumptions to be taken for granted than Madeleine and I were willing to make thirty years ago, about the church and the life of faith.  The frustrations for everyone involved are probably no greater, but I notice today that ecclesial types feel a greater risk in acknowledging real problems in the church and doing anything real about them.   Naming difficulties in being Christian, or being the church anywhere, seems too close to giving ammunition to the parascientists and other aggressive, antagonistic atheists.  This, I think, is to define ourselves by their beliefs and complaints.  When Madeleine l’Engle claimed the distinction of being named and known by name, she was asserting the power of creation, not just the fact of individual value. 

Churches in general don’t trust the power of creation–it’s too wild and unexpected if it’s really creative power at work, after all.  But creative power can’t be completely denied or controlled.  The wildness of Advent is more real than all the propriety of its liturgy and symbolism.  When I was overcome by loneliness in the midst of the congregation, I knew longing for an awareness of the sort Madeleine proclaimed–that my name mattered among all the other names, not more than all the other names.   Being in a congregation lets one  feel the difference as real and abiding and transformative.    I don’t have to fix things.  The best of being in the presence of God is being in the presence of God.  When I hold myself apart and separate as a church member–not feeling belonging or wanting to belong–I miss this experience of inner transformation entirely. This doesn’t make sense to me, but the surge of creativity and Life happen ahead of–and in spite of– the rational stuff in church.

I notice that I came to this intuitive sense of reality and Presence during a church service with a terrible sermon, and emptiness in the liturgy and disconnection between ritual, symbol and voiced expression of belief.    What came before clergy, theology and tradition, and exists before and without our choice, is the Wholeness that is both wild and provided for all of us, when we come together.  That Wholeness is still available to us,  coming as we move between our individual lives and our shared life in congregation.

Madeleine l’Engle emphasized celebrating her name and her birth day within the larger celebrations of Thanksgiving and Advent, illustrating how the particular gives meaning to the general, and the general sustains and cultivates meaning for the particular.  This amounts to knowing and celebrating one’s own life in the context of gratitude and the goodness of the future.    “The irrational season,” is her description of Advent.    I can sit and wait with that for four weeks.

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Haiti Singing

The first psalm for Saturday’s daily office of Morning Prayer, is #22.   The Psalm begins, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? and are so far from my cry and from the words of my distress?”

Apt indeed  for today’s daily news.  I get mine reading the Guardian online. 

In Tim Livesay’s blog from Haiti on Saturday, he filmed his walk through a part of Port au Prince towards an open space (perhaps a park, perhaps a park in front of a school or a church, hard to tell from the video).  In the beginning the sounds are of his feet crunching and stumbling over the concrete rubble in his way, but soon we hear singing in the distance.  All around are the sounds of people walking, calling, and standing over parts of buildings they are dislodging in efforts to find the trapped or the dead.  As the camera shows the wrecked street ahead, the singing grows louder, but no explanation is offered.  It becomes clear as the astonishing sound of children singing what many of us learned in Sunday School or vacation Bible School– “Allelu, allelu, allelu, alleuia, praise ye the LORD!”  Only, of course, this singing is in Creole.

 The camera turns a corner and reveals a small group of tents and cloth lean-tos in what is left of a park.  “They sing, here, the people sing, the people of Haiti are like no other,” says the photographer, before the filming moves on to other scenes.  By then, we have learned those singing children and their parents have no water, no electricity, no food, no medical help, and many have no knowledge of their parents or children lost in the devastation.

I read several other accounts of Haitians singing.  I wondered why the media hadn’t reported on this, which Tim Livesay described as normal and going on in daily life, whether normal  or disaster.  This morning’s Washington Post does have an article on the singing, but the writer interprets the singing as a questionably unified response.  The singing is questionable because the writer wonders how long Roman Catholics, Protestants and vodun practitioners can hold their views in common, and wonders just what the singing might represent.  Perhaps reports of Haitians singing are too soft to make interesting news, perhaps such reports might even reduce sympathy of Americans paying attention to the disaster.  Perhaps to the sophisticated American mind, the singing of praise and thanksgiving in such a devastating context feels like magical thinking, or like denial.  Perhaps reporting on it implies an outrageously inappropriate sense of complacency.

Madeleine l’Engle once said to me (and said it more than once in her books) that one  single act of gratitude in time of trouble is worth a thousand songs of praise in times of content and ease.  She said this when one of her grandchildren was in hospital after a hit-and-run accident.  I have learned the truth of this in my own darkest times.  Giving thanks for 10 things, first thing, every day in time of trouble, aligns the spirit and mind with God’s providence and love.  Such alignment increases awareness of God’s presence.The last 8 verses of Psalm 22 start a song of praise, in direct opposition to the earlier great, enduring cry of despair:  “Praise the LORD, you that fear him, stand in awe of him, o offspring of Israel; all you of Jacob’s line, give glory.  For he does not despise or abhor the poor in their poverty, neither does he  hide his face from them, but when they cry to him he hears them.  My praise is of him in the great assembly; I will perform my vows in the presence of those who worship him.”

The Psalmist is witness as the Haitians are, to some mysterious, powerful access to God’s presence granted in poverty, destitution, misery, disaster, terrible trouble.  This is not to say the Haitians will escape suffering all the psychological stresses of the terrible trouble they are in now; this is not to say the effects will not linger in the coming years.  I find myself paying attention here to the attitude created by the  singing praise and gratitude  in dreadful conditions of trouble and loss.   I do not minimize  the Haitians’ needs or dismiss our communal responsibility to the people in need.   I find myself thinking about the great strength of faith the Haitians have.

The ability to give  habitual praise in time of trouble requires practicing praise in all circumstances, long before trouble comes.  A  spiritual practice of this sort could open our eyes wider to the light of the great mercy of God.  We would become more aware of God’s presence in fact instead of theory.   We ‘d be less likely to cling to our own self-sufficiency, and fear our own losses and troubles less, if we learned this habit of giving thanks in times of trouble. 

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? and are so far from my cry and my words of distress?…” and 2o verses later,  in the same context,  “My soul shall live for him; my descendants shall serve him, they shall be known as the LORD’s forever.  They shall come and make known to a people yet unborn, the saving deeds that he has done.”  (Ps. 22, vs. 29)

Several summers ago, I heard the Rev. Ken Bailey, New Testament scholar, preach on this Psalm.  Jesus, he said, would  have known the entire Psalm when, on the cross, he cried out the first verse.  He and all his listeners would have known the entire Psalm, and would have heard those last verses of thanksgiving in direct connection with the first ones of despair.   In fact, many psalms do this odd thing–looping a paen of praise into the cry of despair and anger.  

Then there comes a time of silence.   Silence, when cries of despair and songs of praise are not enough. Slogging on in horror, through  unimaginable evidence of death, unending misery, terrible loneliness, the soul’s shocked silence is all that has the power to speak heart’s truth to God. 

The more disciplined we Christians are in prayer, the more we will learn how much of life is encompassed between the two cries of  Psalm 22.  The more open we are to giving authentic  praise in time of trouble, the more open we are to mourning with those who mourn.   Let us be steadfast in giving help to Haitians, and let us be steadfast in prayer as they are.

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