Saturday, April 30, 2005

Serve the Lord with awe

Psalm Two
Journal entry dated February 19, 2005

"Serve the Lord with awe; with with trembling pay homage to him."

Psalm Two is a song of the great messianic king. God is portrayed as the powerful ruler who puts the allied nations to flight. In the worldview of this psalm, one serves God primarily out of fear, out of the recognition that God is the superior force. God strikes the nations with terror; they pay homage to him because the only alternative is wrath and destruction.

Whether we like it or not, this conception of God as the one to be feared is with us; its roots go down deep into our conscious and unconscious being. Fear is the basis of much of our motivation, the only thing that keeps us in line. In a society that is structured upon relationships of power, perhaps no other conception of God is available than that of the great King, the superlative power, the pinnacle of the pyramid. The family, the community, the state, relationships between states: all are founded upon dominance, with God as the chief dominator.

The question then becomes, if we reenvision and realign our human relationships, can we learn to relate to God in terms other than power and fear? "Serve the Lord with... what?"

Dignity. Wholeness. Joy.

Joy and fear cannot coexist.

All that he does succeeds

Psalm One
Journal entry dated February 18, 2005

"He is like a tree planted near flowing waters,yielding fruit in due season. All that he does succeeds."

What does a successful life look like? This is the question with which we are confronted in this "gateway to the Psalms." A successful life is a rooted life, a thriving life, an abundant life. It contrasts with the life of the wicked, which is like "chaff blown about on the ground like the wind;" empty and rootless, scattered hither and yon, rushing frantically from one place to another with every gust of wind. One would be hard pressed to find a better image of the modern consciousness with its anxieties and neuroses.

Somehow, this question of the successful life is connected to the threefold negative at the beginning of the psalm: "Happy indeed is the man who follows not the counsel of the wicked, lingers not along the path of sinners, sits not among the cynics." Perhaps these can be said to represent three levels of failure: listening to the words of those who have rejected abundant life, walking along their paths, and finally succumbing to cynicism. If this is so, then it is cynicism, the failure of hope, that is the greatest failure of all, the greatest obstacle to the successful life.

The Selah Project

Over the next month or so, I am going to be posting a series of reflections on the Psalms from my journal. I have been meditating on the Psalms for the past several months, using the practice of Lectio Divina (sacred reading) recommended by the Monks of New Skete in their book In the Spirit of Happiness, and also using the New Skete translation of the Psalter.

I'm not quite sure where this is leading, but I am feeling a need to write these reflections out, seeking patterns and convergences, trying to define the path that is being delineated. I will be very interested in your input in this process of "reflecting on reflections."

Friday, April 22, 2005

The Spirituality of Gilligan's Island

So I got to thinking about Gilligan's Island (or "Gilligan's Isle," according to the song about the "three hour tour" etc.) this morning while reading the Psalms, specifically Psalm 49, "Why should I fear troubled times?" I got to pondering the underlying meaning of the place.

Don't laugh; I'm serious.

Here we have an extremely wealthy couple (the Howells), a famous movie star (Ginger), a highly intelligent person (the Professor), a person who is none of these things but who is nonetheless very sweet and kind (Mary Ann), together with the Skipper and the lovably clueless Gilligan. When they are shipwrecked on the island, what happens? Suddenly, all the things that separate them from each other, all the things that would have ensured that under ordinary circumstances they would never have spent five minutes in each other's company, are gone. Or not so much gone as rendered irrelevant. The Howells still have trunks full of money, Ginger still has her slinky gowns and drop dead good looks, the professor still has his intelligence, but they cease to mean anything. And people like Mary Ann and Gilligan, who are meek and gentle and kind, qualities that the world neither values nor has any place for, have a contribution to make, a place in this new, accidental community.

The show was a laugh a minute, funny as anything, but underneath the laughter was an incredibly serious message, that can be summed up in the verse from the Psalms, "Why should I fear troubled times?" That is to say, if you take away everything that can be taken from us, what remains? Who are we underneath all that stuff? If you remove all the things that separate us from each other--money, fame, intelligence--or otherwise render them meaningless, what is left?

Kindness. Gentleness. Meekness.

When Christ says in the Beatitudes, "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth," maybe this is just a way of saying that in the Kingdom of God, the meek will finally have a place. God knows there is no place for the meek or meekness in this world. In this sense, maybe Gilligan's Island is an image of the Kingdom, of a community without class, without wealth, without power.

I suppose this has particular interest for me given a major new development in my own life. A couple of months ago, my father called me to tell me that he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. He goes in for surgery on Monday. Troubled times, indeed. And suddenly, I find myself in the middle of a process of sorting, like a castaway sifting through the wreckage, discovering many formerly valuable things to be worthless, and many things not previously considered valuable to suddenly be precious.

So if you think about it, say a prayer for Norman this weekend. And ask yourself the question: if you were stranded on a desert island with a motley band of castaways, what would be your contribution? Who are you under all that stuff? When everything that can be taken away has been taken, what is left?

And love is not the easy thing...
The only baggage you can bring
Is all that you can't leave behind


Sunday, April 17, 2005

The Life of Mary of Egypt - An Alternative Retelling

A recent article about religious leaders in Jerusalem uniting to call for a crack down on an "immoral" display of homosexual behavior led to this reflection on the Sunday of St. Mary of Egypt.

Who knew the Jerusalem Post had archives going back to the fifth century?


The Jerusalem Post
September 3, 487 AD

JERUSALEM - In a rare show of unity, religious leaders from the Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian churches came together today to oppose what they called a "spectacle of immorality" that occurs in Jerusalem each year in conjunction with the Feast of the Veneration of the Holy Cross. It is a well-known fact that, together with the waves of pilgrims that sweep over the Holy City for the annual festival, comes a stream of more unsavory characters:actors, jugglers, magicians, and prostitutes, who come to entertain those who transport and feed the pilgrims, and occasionally, even some of the pilgrims themselves. In a coordinated effort, both churches announced a general embargo on prostitutes, troubadours, and "other funny-looking people" throughout the period leading up to the festival, which draws tens of thousands of travelers from all over the world. Those suspected of engaging in "immoral" behavior will be immediately arrested and deported from the city.

"This is the Holy Land, not the harlot land!" exclaimed His Beatitude Gregorios the non-Chalcedonian Patriarch of Jerusalem. "If we let people who follow the wrong way come here, we will lose this city... and there'll be no holiness left here. We will stop it!"

"Every year, we are overrun with these immoral people, both female and male prostitutes," agreed His Beatitude Georgios, the Chacedonian patriarch of Jerusalem. "We know from the Holy Scriptures that God created Adam and Eva, not Adam and Stephanos!" He paused for a moment, looking confused, then said, "Where did that come from?"

The Jerusalem Post conducted an exclusive interview with a young woman who was arrested on suspicion of prostitution in Gaza when her boat came into port, and who was scheduled to be deported the following day. The woman's name was Maria, and she had arrived with a ship from Alexandria; she herself admitted her behavior with the sailors at sea, "There was no kind of perverted and unspeakable lust that I did not perform with them."

JP: "Why did you come to Jerusalem?"

M: "I came for the good time, you know?

JP: "Is that all?"

M: "I... well, I wanted to see it. I've heard so much about it and, I don't know. I felt... called, somehow."

JP: "Do you think you'll ever be back?"

M: "Me? No! No, I've had enough of these bigots. I'm going back to Alexandria, where I belong."

JP: "And what will you do there?"

M: "Live hard, drink up, die young! What else is there?"

In other news, a riot in Jerusalem yesterday left three people dead and scores of others injured when an argument broke out among religious factions over whether "who was crucified for us" should be added after the words "Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal" during a public prayer service for the cleansing of the Holy Land from immorality. Spokesmen from both the Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian churches declined comment on the incident.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Why I distrust the idea of a "religious left"

So for anyone who hasn't yet figured this out, I am an Orthodox Christian who lives and writes from a socially liberal perspective. One of the first people to stumble across this blog, Alana at morningcoffee, pegged me as a "Sojourner Magazine" type, by which I suppose she meant a lefty in the nicest possible way. The fact is, however, that although I have read an issue or two of Sojourner Magazine, and have even gone to hear Jim Wallis speak, I am profoundly uneasy about the whole emerging "Christian Left" movement with which Sojourners has recently become associated.

I suppose my reservations go, at least in part, to the track record of the religious right in this regard. The religious right, in my view, has been cynically commodified by the pro-business, big corporate lobby. People of deep faith, many from lower income brackets, are having their genuine religious impulses exploited for the gain of others who care little for their values. They are being encouraged to vote against their own economic interests by politicians who talk blithely about "morality," "the family," and the "sanctity of life," as if they were really concerned about these issues (although anyone who looks at their way of life would quickly conclude otherwise). The reality is that their true consituents are the ones who get invited to the gala banquets and white tie fund-raisers: the rich, big business moguls. This harnessing of religion to political expediency is an incredibly ugly thing, and I don't think it gets any prettier if it is done by people on the left.

And yet there is another, deeper reason that I am wary of this "Christian Left" rhetoric: I think it has a profound tendency to degenerate into a kind of "liberal chic." It is far too easy to become a "Rolex liberal," to set oneself up as an "outsider," while still reaping all the benefits of being on the inside. We can be quite well off financially, have nice homes and nice cars, take far more than our share of the world's resources, all the while protesting that we support fair trade, that we opposed the war in Iraq, that we really are good people after all. Isn't that great? We get all the benefits of an oppressive structure, all the bonuses of the three Ws (wealthy, white, western) with none of the guilt! We can have our cake and eat it too! As for those others, well, let them eat cake too!

Just not our cake.

In this abusive system of relationships of which we are a part, no one can claim to be an outsider, no one can claim to be innocent. We are all responsible, every last one of us. Maybe we don't own the sweatshops, maybe we didn't exploit the workers ourselves, but we were all too happy to take advantage of the bargain prices while ignoring the surcharge of human misery. Maybe we didn't drop the bombs or pull the triggers, but we paid others, kids from poor Southern ghettos and bankrupt Midwestern farms, to do it for us.

"Oh," some part of me says, "but I am a pacifist. I opposed the war." Did I tear my clothes into pieces and run naked and screaming through the streets crying "Stop it! Stop it!" like the prophet Jeremiah? Did I do anything at all?

No. I shook my head and clucked my tongue, and turned to the comics.

Dr. Paul Farmer, an MD working in Haiti who speaks to issues of global inequity from a liberation theology perspective, once said that the problem with "WLs" ("White Liberals") is that we believe that we can have it all, that we can create a better world without giving up the privileges to which we have become accustomed. We don't understand that there is a place for sacrifice, and even for shame.

I was reflecting this morning on the fact that, in the Psalms, shame is part of the cycle of violence: first we defeat our enemies and "cover them with shame," then they rout us and put us to shame, so we pray that God will give us strength to put them to shame again, and on and on it goes. Shame waters the seeds of violence that lie dormant within us. But is there a place for shame in creating a more compassionate structure of relationships? Put in another way, have we become so shameless, so utterly brazen, that we can "take almost everything, and then come back for the rest," as one Ani DiFranco song puts it, while still believing ourselves to be liberal, progressive, and perhaps even morally superior?

Tuesday, April 12, 2005


A poem I wrote a long time ago, about hearing and almost understanding...

A sudden wind blows, shattering
The morning stillness, scattering
The desiccated leaves that lie
Like gravemounds, neatly raked.

They hiss, insistent, clattering
Across the pavement, chattering
With whispered sibilances
In some long-forgotten tongue.

And I, straining to hear
Feel that I could almost catch a word or two

But then,

The wind shifts
The spell breaks
The leaves scurry away
With a dry and mirthless chuckle.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

What is my responsibility?

Today, as I walked out of the church parking lot on my way to catch the train home, I noticed a kind of scruffy looking guy coming towards me, pushing a bike. He didn't ask me for anything as I passed him, so I didn't stop. I've offered help to people in the past, only to discover that they weren't really homeless or in need at all, just scruffy looking; that can be kind of embarrasing for everybody involved. I looked back as I reached the corner and waited for the light to change; he had stopped next to a trash can on the street and started poking around in it, like he was looking for recycling. As I crossed the street, I was thinking to myself, "What is my responsibility? He didn't ask for help. Should I go back and offer?"

When I looked back at him from across the street, he was still fishing in the trash, but now he was chewing on something.

Now, fishing for recycling in the trash is one thing; fishing for food is something else. So I went back and asked him if he was OK, if he needed something to eat. He told me he hadn't eaten in a day or so. I looked around on the street, but there was just a liquor store on the corner, nowhere nearby to buy him any decent food. So I told him to wait a minute and walked back to the church.

When I walk onto the grounds of the church, the thought that always comes to mind is "welcome to the Green Zone." My church is in a low-income, inner city environment. It has nice grounds and a pretty little courtyard with a a fountain, facilities that stand in sharp contrast to the rest of the neighborhood. It is surrounded by a a high, wought iron fence that bends out at the top, with sharp iron points. Everything about it says "keep out--you don't belong here."

In the kitchen, they were getting ready for a luncheon after a 1 PM baptism, a real high-end affair, it looked like. So I asked Jack, the caterer, if the food was ready yet.

"No," he said. He was a little bit harried, rushing around to pull stuff together for the luncheon.

So I told him there a guy outside who hadn't eaten in a awhile.

He paused a second. "I meant yeah," he said, "just gimme two minutes."

In two minutes, I had a paper plate with crab cakes, a spinach and arugula salad with marinated pears, and a big dinner roll. Quite the haul. I took it out to the guy, who started eating as soon as I handed it to him. "Sorry to be rude," he said around a mouthful. He told me his name was Kevin. He talked with some kind of Irish or Welsh accent, although he told me he was from Maryland.

I don't know what Kevin's story is. He was hungrier than many people I meet on the street. People who panhandle often get a fair amount of food, although most of it is fast food with lots of fat and salt and little nutritive value. Others are getting their caloric intake from alcohol, or are strung out and aren't really all that interested in eating. Maybe he's new to the street. Maybe he's still embarassed about his situation. Maybe he's trying to cling to some shred of dignity.

I told Kevin we'd be having lunch at the church for a community outreach project on Saturday; maybe he could join us for lunch. He said he would.

I hope he does.