Extreme Scripture

ApostlePaulWikimediaCommonsI have to admit that I find it hard to agree with the writer of the second letter to Timothy that all scripture is inspired by God and useful for a variety of pious purposes, so when a couple of years ago one of the clergy at our cathedral came up with the phrase “extreme scripture” I was instantly intrigued. It’s the sort of passage, he said, that makes you look across at a colleague and roll your eyes when you have to read it in church. There are a lot of such passages in the lectionary, and since at the cathedral the morning and evening offices are said or sung publicly every day, there are plenty of opportunities for reading some of the less edifying passages of holy writ.

There’s plenty of the violent, the disturbing, and the plain weird (what on earth is going on in Exodus 4:24-6?) in the Old Testament. What Phyllis Trible calls ”the texts of terror” confront us with some very strange aspects of God and his chosen people. But there are things which give us pause in the New Testament too. OK, if we want we can leave the Book of Revelation strictly to the fundamentalists to play with, but even the gospels have their strange moments. The other Sunday the gospel reading at the Eucharist was the passage in John 6 where Jesus speaks about his followers eating his flesh and drinking his blood. We’re used to thinking of it figuratively as eucharistic, but it must have sounded utterly bizarre to Jesus’ first followers, as if he were inviting them to cannibalism. No wonder some of them walked away.

And then of course there are the passages in the letters of Paul and the other New Testament writers which make perfect sense as part of the worldview of devout Jews of the first century, but which for so many of us invite eye-rolling when we read them as Christians of the twenty-first century. These letters may indeed have been inspired by God, but they’ve certainly been coloured by the assumptions of the people who wrote them down, assumptions which are no longer valid for us.

But then perhaps this is what really does make scripture useful for studying and making our own; not just the passages which comfort or encourage or inspire, but the ones we have to wrestle with, the ones where we have to decide what on earth is going on: Is this divine or human? Extreme scripture may help us to open our eyes, as well as making us roll them.

  • Margaret Wilkins

The Trinity (Heresy optional)

Creed_icon_(Russia,_17_c.)_wikiHappy Trinity Sunday, when we sing one of my all-time favorite hymns, “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” (aka “I bind unto myself today”), albeit too often without all the verses.

The Trinity is one of those hard-to-explain, much-dreaded-by-preachers, oft-handed-to-the-person-on-the-bottom-of-the-totem-pole subjects for Sunday sermonizers.

This could have something to do with the fact that the Trinity is extremely difficult to explain. As the Donall and Conall video “St Patrick’s Bad Analogies” proves, even St. Patrick fell into heresy in the attempt.

I’m comfortable with the idea of the Trinity. I don’t mean to say that I could explain it theologically without (almost certainly) lapsing into egregious heresy, but I do think that it’s the only logical way to explain the different faces and facets and characteristics that God presents to the world, without either going all polytheistic and full-bore heretical or denying that Jesus is a part of the Godhead.

I’m comfortable with the concept of the Spirit, of Wisdom, demonstrating the feminine side of the Godhead, a counterpoint to the oft-cranky God the Father, so swift to smite in the Hebrew Bible. I’m comfortable with Jesus, our brother, our friend, the approachable God in man made manifest. I’m quite comfortable with offering prayers to all three Persons of the Trinity.

With the three Persons of the Trinity, to pray without ceasing becomes as seamless as shifting gears on an old Toyota. The Spirit guides us into truth, and we pray (if we have any sense at all) for wisdom. Jesus joins us on the road, a companion and helper. God the Creator is all around us. I don’t worry too much about the specific address. I just offer my prayer to God, and know that it is heard.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

 The Nicene Creed explains it for us; so, in much greater detail, does the Athanasian Creed.

On Melissa, on Mother’s Day

MaryCassattBoatingParty

Today is Mother’s Day, celebrated in much of the world. Ideally, it is a day based upon love of the type spoken of in today’s Gospel; in reality it is much more firmly-rooted in the confection, floral, and greeting card industries. These substitutions are of the sort that can occur when we are not paying attention, and after awhile we don’t seem to notice that something wonderful has been lost, especially since there are so many dazzling things filling up the space.
Most of us have days throughout the year set aside on our calendars to honor and remember particular people who have meant much to us, some of them for our entire lives and some for less time, but of no less importance. Some are still with us, and sadly, some are not, though we can pause and acknowledge their importance and be thankful for the blessings they brought to this life.  We can also thank God for them, since the love they brought to us was his gift in the first place.
In my life there is no longer any mother, grandmother, or aunt to honor in person on this day, so I would like instead to speak to and about my granddaughter Melissa, who is 25 years old today.  It is very easy to remember the day she came into this world and the birthdays that have come and gone since then.  But there is one little piece of all that chain of days and years I would like to share, and it came to mind as I read the lessons appointed for this day, in particular the words of the Gospel about the love that comes from God.
When Melissa was a very little girl her parents were separated, having found the world too much interfering in their lives as a couple. Happily, many things worked together as they so often do, and they were eventually reunited stronger and more deeply than ever before. As I saw and felt the heartbreak over those terrible years, one thing stood out and does still, something so profound I cannot forget it.  Though I did not see it, my heart did, and these are the pictures that last forever.  On a brief visit between Melissa and her parents when she was perhaps three years old, she took each parent by a hand and then gently placed one hand on top of the other, very quietly and deliberately. There can be no explaining how this little one would have the wisdom and sensitivity to give a lesson in perfect love unless guided by its author.
Since their reconciliation as family, Melissa and her parents have lived very close to God, and this exercise in love is being passed down to Melissa’s younger brother and sister. Melissa has been more than a big sister, she has been another mother to them, and love is what you see and feel when you are in their home. Happy birthday, Melissa; what a beautiful day it was when you came to live in this world, giving a little glimpse of the beauty of the world from which you came.
Thanks be to God. Amen and amen.
– Susan Leach

A chair with a view

WindowI lucked out the other day at the Infusion Center.

Jeannette found me a chair in a quiet corner, with no loud TV viewers in close proximity, and on an end with a window. To make things even better, it was in the realm of Barb, one of the compassionate veteran oncology nurses who always get the needle in the vein on the first try. Jeannette, the nurse in charge of the center, remembers me from the original cancer, and is unaccountably fond of me.

The first time I saw the center, it was after hours. Deserted in the late afternoon, unlit in the slanting sunlight, it was a little eerie. I walked in, looked around, and shuddered, the kind of shudder old-timers explain as the result of someone walking over your grave. The first time I had a treatment there, I entered feeling fine, but had to be helped out of my chair, thanks to the cherry-Kool-Aid-colored drug cocktail the nurses call “the Red Devil.” Inflammatory Breast Carcinoma is a particularly nasty and aggressive cancer, and requires a treatment to match.

This one is, in comparison, a piece of cake with extra frosting. The cancer is Stage 4 – the IBC decided on a return engagement in my sacrum – but the treatment is relatively easy. I take a pill every morning with my breakfast; once a week I take a Mystery Pill, part of a clinical study. Is it the real deal, or a placebo? I suspect the former, but even my oncologist doesn’t know. Once a quarter, I have scans to be sure that the cancer is behaving itself. Once a month, I get an infusion, a bone-building drug, delivered via IV. It leaves me feeling a little flu-ish for a couple of days.

I would doubtless have bitched and moaned at length about something like this Before Cancer; now, a veteran of much harsher treatments, I shrug it off. It’s not chemo; I’m not sick; I have hair; my brain is unfogged. How can I complain?

Now I focus on gratitude: gratitude for the researchers who have made it possible for me to survive this long with such a good quality of life, gratitude for my caring doctors, gratitude for the best phlebotomist I have ever had the pleasure to encounter, gratitude for the careful, caring nurses who even laugh at my jokes. I’m grateful for the friendly volunteer, a retired EEOC lawyer, who passed around the Girl Scout cookies (Thin Mints!) she discovered in a cabinet, and for all those who smile back when I smile at them. I’m grateful for a window to see a blooming garden on a sunny day in May. I’m grateful for the boss who gives me the time I need for my treatments. I’m grateful to God for giving me more time, however long that turns out to be.

The cancer has changed me, in more than physical ways, in good and caring ways. In that sense, even a deadly cancer can contain a blessing. I savor the view through the window, and say a prayer of thanks.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

“Have you anything here to eat?

WhyAreYouFrightenedWiki“Have you anything here to eat?

This is a meditation which centres on food. It owes more to Martha than to Mary, as I’m writing it in the throes of preparing lunch for friends. And these are not just any friends; the husband used to be a professional chef, and is a very good and imaginative cook indeed. I’m perfectly sure that he’ll eat whatever I set before him and be positive about it, but all the same, I want to get things right.

And this isn’t just because I want to try to impress him. I really want both of them to enjoy the meal, and to be able to sit there and eat it with them and relax while we talk over the food. Eating together is such an important thing; it draws us together and cements friendships, lays down memories of good times together and promises more good times to come. Eating with other people is powerful and significant.

The disciples must have spent so much of their lives with Jesus eating with him, feasting with him at the wedding with Cana, sharing whatever they could find while tramping along dusty roads from one town to another, gazing with astonishment at the never-ending supply of loaves and fishes by the lakeshore. This Sunday’s Gospel gives us an unexpected insight into the bonds that held them together.

There they are, not quite daring to believe that it’s their real, solid Lord, back from the dead, standing among them in the old familiar way. So Jesus does the most practical thing imaginable; he asks them for something to eat. What could be more normal and ordinary and completely human? Here he is, returned from the other side of death, eating with them as he’d done so many times before. Then they really believe at last, and he can talk to them freely.

I’d better get back to the kitchen, and get my tagine into the oven; it won’t be long before our guests arrive. Thanks be to God, who gives us food to enjoy and friends to enjoy it with – and his own Son, who died for our sake and rose again to be our friend as well as our Saviour.

– Margaret Z. Wilkins

Green-Up Time

Daffodil, close up“Lo, the fair beauty of earth, from the death of the winter arising! Every good gift of the year now with its Master returns!”

– Venantius Honorius Fortunatus (540?-600?)

This year, spring (the Midwestern variety, not just the precession of the equinoxes) arrived in remarkable synchronicity with Easter. The season of Easter, of course, continues for the Great 50 Days. So, if the weather smiles upon us, does spring.

Both seasons are now past their first blush. A few lonely blossoms cling to the half-leafed-out flowering crab outside my bedroom window, and the last of the narcissi have been clipped from the cutting bed out back. But even as a storm front knocks the fragile blossoms from one set of trees, the buds ready themselves to burst on another.

My father calls this “green-up time,” when leaves are new and grass re-grows, and that bright fresh green seen only in early spring is everywhere as the days lengthen recklessly on their way to summer. It’s the season for planting, whether crops, trees, or something in between in terms of permanence. So plant I did.

In fact, the only retail establishments to which I can easily walk from home are nurseries. In fact, there are four of them, three in a row just to the north of me, and one an outlier to the south. I headed out to buy pansies; their cheerful faces always brighten the pots outside my front door, to say nothing of my mood when I see them smiling back at me. On my way to Nursery #2, I noticed a sign at Nursery #1: “$99 trees.”

When this development was in its final stages of construction, someone found cheap white pines and planted them behind the houses. Unfortunately, the white pine doesn’t like our thick clay soil, and it doesn’t care for damp. Ours are planted on the low ground, and soggy roots are an issue. While one of my pines has done all right, the kindest word for the other one was “puny.” It was sick and sad, and largely bereft of needles.

I thought about it as I headed home with my plants and deposited them on my doorstep. Then I headed back to seek a tree, one that wouldn’t mind getting its feet wet.

The nursery man looked for an oak variety he thought would suit, but they were sold out, and the new ones wouldn’t be $99. Then he hit on the river birch, a native of southern Missouri, a practical tree that can deal with flooding. I bought it, and called Jim the Landscaper to take out the old and put in the new.

For a couple of weeks, the birch looked decidedly dead. Last week I saw the first signs of buds, cautious signs, not-quite-sure signs. This week, suddenly, there are thousands of tiny grass-green leaves, each expanding almost as I look.

Planting anything is an act of faith, whether it’s burying bulbs in the late-fall chill or trees by the pale light of early spring. For those of us with short life expectancies, bulbs are the safer bet. I expect to see mine come up several times.

But trees are for the long haul. It may not grow tall enough fast enough for me ever to enjoy its shade, but that’s all right; others will appreciate it in years to come. It is a connection to the future, a bond with God’s earth, and a promise for springs to come.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

Doubting Thomas on Low Sunday

caravaggio-thomasThis Sunday is formally known as the Second Sunday of Easter. It’s also known as “Low Sunday,” a name enshrined even in the Churchman’s Ordo Kalendar on my wall, the handy ecclesiastical authority on saints’ days and holy days and what lessons get read when.

Some of the “Low” is about the notable contrast in ritual and liturgy between the the most important feast of the year, Easter Day, and the Sunday that follows it. Some of it concerns attendance; most Christians try to make it to church for the Feast of the Resurrection, but relatively few feel obliged to show up again so soon after it.

That is a shame, because the gospel reading for Low Sunday concerns an apostle with whom many of us can sympathize, Thomas.

The name Thomas means “twin” in Aramaic; he’s also called Didymus, the Greek equivalent. (We don’t know his given name; we also have no word on whether or not his closest relative was also a disciple.) He seems to have been a practical man, as well as a faithful follower. When Jesus announced his plans to go to Jerusalem after the raising of Lazarus from the dead, an act which certainly put him into the Temple authorities’ crosshairs, Thomas said, “Let’s go too, so that we can die with him.” You can practically hear the eyeroll.

Later, when Jesus says that he’s going to prepare a place for his followers, Thomas points out, “Lord, we don’t know where you’re going, so just how do you expect us to find our way there?”

It’s not exactly surprising, then, that Thomas, who wasn’t there when the risen Christ appeared to the other apostles, loudly expresses his skepticism. Maybe he even got a little snarky, the way he did in Bethany after the raising of Lazarus. He wanted to be perfectly clear on this: “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger there, and put my hand into the wound in his side, I’m not going to believe it.”

Jesus called him on it, appearing in the closed room where the disciples were meeting, and saying, “All right, Thomas, here you go!” Then Thomas did believe, responding “My Lord and my God!”

Jesus answered with a question and answer for the ages: “Do you believe now that you’ve seen me? Blessed are they who have not seen, and still believe.”

We were born much too late, and in much the wrong place, to have experienced Jesus up close, as his first disciples did. We have to take him on faith. We may feel Christ’s saving presence in our lives and be assured of his love for us, but short of a mystical experience along the lines of a Francis of Assisi or Teresa of Avila, we can’t touch the stigmata of his crucifixion.

Fortunately, it’s all right to have doubts; it’s perfectly acceptable to ask questions. It’s okay to believe in the truth of Jesus’s resurrection more on one day than another. If we ask, Christ will give us the answer we need, just as he did for Thomas, and for many more who have come to question in the centuries since then.

Some of us will always be Thomases by nature; what matters is how we respond to the answers that we’re given. Any day can hold the joy of Easter when our hearts are open; Low Sunday can come more than once a year when they’re closed.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

 

 

 

Easter gladness, Easter joy

HappyBabybyWeirdBeardIt was one of those bright moments that sweetly sums it up, bringing our attention to what’s really important.

At the start of the 9 o’clock service on Easter Day –  after a heroic prelude, the introit responses (“The Lord God omnipotent reigneth. Let us rejoice and be glad!”), and one of the great hymns of the Church, “Easter Hymn” (non-musicians know it as “Jesus Christ is Risen Today”), sung and played full out by the choir and congregation, brass and organ – there came an unexpected affirmation.

Just as the music began to die away, just as priests and people caught their breath and began to move on to the next (spoken) thing, a tiny girl in the back of the nave shouted out a spontaneous “Yay!” Her joy was palpable and contagious, a perfect non-liturgical reaction for someone experiencing that particular joy for the first time. The congregation laughed in appreciation. The rector said, “We’re going home now,” because, in a sense, it had all been said.

We didn’t, of course, and (without the sermon, anthem, and communion, just for starters) it hadn’t, of course. But it was a useful reminder. After all, we already know the story, how Jesus died and rose again, of his followers’ grief and elation. In that moment, she reminded us that the story is always new.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

 

 

 

 

 

The end of Lent

PaschaFIreRicardo77WikiIt’s almost here, the final darkness before the coming of the light, the brightness of the morning when the empty tomb was discovered. This evening, the new fire will be kindled, and bells will ring out in gladness.

That means that it’s almost two months since we decided on our Lenten disciplines, what to take on and what to give up. It’s time to consider how well I’ve done with mine.

There have been some successes in the first category. You’re reading the most public one. The Grace Prayer Network has been successfully revived, and in the originally intended form: Three former contributors besides me have returned, and a new one has been added. (If you’re interested, I invite you to contribute GPN meditations as well. Now that we’re going again, we want to continue, and having a variety of voices keeps things interesting.)

Giving up is harder for me; fighting ingrained habits takes more effort. It’s a small thing, and just one of several, but I’ve tried, for instance, to stop getting annoyed with other drivers, those who cut in front of me or poke along in the left lane. Getting angry over such small things hurts only me; let it go. That’s been a partial success, at least. Patience.

Now comes the greater challenge, keeping those small flames going and growing, and continuing all the disciplines I’ve begun. This isn’t like temporarily giving up chocolate or wine, and then plunging back into old habits (cheers!) on Easter Day. This involves a change in the way I live. It requires the discipline to continue to sit down and find thoughts and words worth sharing, even when the numberless distractions of modern life attack. It requires the calm to put aside annoyances and focus on what’s important.

Keeping the fires fed can be difficult at times, but the light and warmth will be worth it. Thanks be to God.

– Sarah Bryan Miller

 

 

 

 

 

The Collect for the Day

Today’s  meditation marks the welcome return of contributor Susan Leach to GPN.JesusWithBook

Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly
wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to
love what you command and desire what you promise; that,
among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts
may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with
you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

– Collect for the Fifth Sunday in Lent, the Book of Common Prayer

Because I might be best described as a casual Christian, I am frequently surprised by the sheer transcendency of the readings served up each day in the Lectionary. As I began preparing to write this day’s meditation, the Collect for the day made my heart beat faster and I abandoned my plan to try to encapsulate all of the lessons. The Psalms, especially Psalm 51, and the Lessons old and new were all familiar and well-loved and I have written about them many times in years past. I don’t recall, though, ever being quite so fixated upon the Collect; so perhaps the time has come.

Calling out to God that “you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners” and asking that he “Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise” could scarcely be better-stated to restore order to our chaotic planet. The words “swift and varied changes of the world” seem rather mild until examples begin running through the mind. Trying to imagine any latest and greatest improvement being sufficient for more than a moment is futile, and so asking that “our hearts may surely be fixed where true joys are to be found” has seldom if ever been more appropriate.

If it is your custom to look up and consider the readings in preparation for Sundays that is a good thing; there is so much more to consider than you can immediately absorb. If not, listen for the wisdom in our insightful Collects and allow the words space in your thoughts. They can open the way to a better understanding of the Lessons and perhaps a better path to travel as you leave Sunday worship.

Thanks be to God.

– Susan Leach