Friday, March 30, 2007

At Onement

The "why" of Jesus' death on the Cross is very frequently answered with a theory about atonement, and specifically, substitutionary atonement. Those are big theological words for the simple idea that humankind sinned mightily and had not made things right with God, but Jesus took all that sin upon himself and made things right with God. Because he was God and sinless, his sacrifice was immense enough to be enough for all of us. "Jesus paid the price" is the song and story. It's not the only reason based in Scripture, but it is a powerful one, made clear in Isaiah (before Christ) and the letter of Paul to the Hebrews (after Christ), and supported by references to Jesus as the lamb (that is, the best creature to sacrifice on the ancient altars).

I've never been a big fan of this theory. I have lots of reasons, some of them pure gut reactions to Jesus' having paid my debt. But it always comes down to this: substitutionary atonement lets us too far off the hook. From Deuteronomy onward, God makes it quite clear that though physical sacrifices are good, they're not the point. And they are not enough. God demands our whole heart, soul, mind and strength. God asserts God's ownership of everything. God requires justice, mercy, and humility toward others and toward God's creation. No priest can made those sacrifices on our behalf, because those sacrifices are of our entire being, and no priest has that to give.

Even the Eternal High Priest. It's not like a monetary debt, where a friend can pay for another friend, because there is no single coin of the realm. Jesus does not own our heart, soul, mind and strength to give unless we have given them to Him (which then means no substitution is present, if Jesus is God). God demands each one of us, singularly and wholly.

When I gaze at the Cross, and at the Covenant in blood and flesh that preceded it, I am reminded that the meaning of atonement is, literally, at-one-ment. To be at one with. Communion. Our word "reconciliation" is close, but lacks metaphysical precision. When we pay our debts, we are at one with our debtor. When we give our whole selves to God, as Jesus could not help but do, we are at one with God.

The Cross reminds us that at-one-ment with God will bring pain. It will bring death and vulnerability. To be open to God and to let in the pain (and joy!) of the world is hard. The road to God leads through the Cross, certainly, but also through crosses of our own and the crosses of the world.
Loving reconciliation with God and with the creation -- true shalom -- is risky business. It will mean loss. To be at one with God is to be at odds with that which is not-God. But the joy of it, the wholeness of it, the eternity of it, is what we gain.

Resurrection is the gain.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Do we measure up?

Jesus was clear: those who enter the Kingdom are those who cared for others. "Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me." (Matthew 25:34-36)
2,000 years later, in this "Christian" society, we measure gross national product, rather than poverty relief. We count battles won, rather than prisoners reformed. We idolize those with loud voices or fast feet, rather than the steady comforters of the lost and broken. As churches we count members and tithes, and not lives resurrected. How far we remain from the Kingdom!
Poet T.S. Eliot offers us this Lenten reflection:
When the Stranger says:
"What is the meaning of this city?"
Do you huddle close together because you love each other?
What will you answer? "We all dwell together
to make money from each other"? or "This is community"?
O my soul, be prepared for the coming of the Stranger,
Be prepared for him who knows how to ask questions.
O weariness of those who turn from God
To the grandeur of your mind and the glory of your action
To arts and inventions and daring enterprises,
To schemes of human greatness thoroughly discredited,
Binding the earth and the water to your service,
Exploiting the seas and developing the mountains,
Dividing the stars into common and preferred,
Engaged in developing the perfect refrigerator,
Engaged in working out a rational morality,
Engaged in printing as many books as possible,
Plotting of happiness and flinging empty bottles,
Turning from your vacancy to fevered enthusiasm
For nation or race or what you call humanity;
Though you forget your way to the Temple,
There is one who remembers the way to your door:
Life you may evade, but Death you shall not.
You shall not deny the Stranger.

As we approach the Cross, let us pray for our own redemption, the conversion of our hearts and lives.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Body prayer

Many goods came out of the Protestant Reformation: focus on Scripture, community and individual access to God, the strengthening of science.  But one of the great losses of the Reformation was acknowledgement and awareness of our bodies. The more we allowed that all people had minds and souls, the less we saw that those minds and souls were attached to bodies, and that those bodies are as much a part of God's design as the mind and soul.  So spiritual practices that were body-focused fell away, or were specifically condemned as "papist" or "pagan".  We lost fasting, though it is Biblical. We lost prostration and kneeling before the altar, those our ancestors in faith practiced it. We lost icons and beads, though using one's eyes and hands to pray moves one's heart to contemplation. 
Where our bodies are involved, our hearts will follow.  Perhaps it is time for Prostestant Christians to reclaim ancient body practices.  Thanks to the Pentecostals, many of us now raise our hands in praise during singing. Some traditions retained kneeling as an expression of humility, and so some of us fall to our knees in prayer. Others used the sign of the cross when baptizing on the forehead.  From an Anglo-Catholic church my husband and I attended, I learned to bow at the name of Jesus Christ spoken during Worship.  That bow, that inclination of my head and body toward my Lord, reminds me that I am His servant.
Using one's body to make the sign of the cross can be traced back to at least the third century.  Using your hand to mark out head, heart, and shoulders in a single (or triple) large cross embraces your whole person.  Your body becomes the Cross; your head and heart -- mind and soul -- are made part of your body, and your body part of the Body of Christ.  With the sign, you say to yourself, "Christ is my Lord. I belong to Christ. I am Christ's body in this world."
What more fitting tribute to the God-in-flesh than to be his body in the world? Far better to be owned by him body mind and soul, than to commit the body to the ground even in life, and to wait for the mind and soul to follow. 
Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.  (I Corinthians 6:19-20)

Thursday, March 22, 2007

On silence

Whether we live alone or with others, work in a crowded room or in isolation, whether we are naturally quiet or boisterous, silence terrifies. Why else would we fill our auditory spaces with the clutter of whirs, clicks, and broadcast chatter? Why do our minds and hearts roar with words? We may cherish momentary quiet after a busy day, but soon we are filling it up with words on a printed page, or with imagined conversations with our bosses.
Silence terrifies because it demands our attention. The steady drone of bass lines and mechanical hums becomes part of the atmosphere, but let a room fall silent and all eyes (and ears) become alert. In extended silence, we cannot drown out the voices in our heads, usually our own, telling us what is wrong and right with us. What we ought have done; where we have failed; all we must do to occupy the space with sound and activity again.
But it takes an extended silence to hear God. When, after time, our own internal voices grow hoarse and we are simply present to the air, we are able to hear beyond the worry and the daily. We are able to hear The Eternal. God speaks in the whirlwind, of course. God plucks us out of regular to show us the lights of the Kin-dom.  But in silence, God speaks in extended sentences: God speaks God's dreams. Only then we are able to pay attention and hear.
Maybe we are not only afraid of silence, but afraid of finally hearing God? Where might we be compelled to go -- who might we become -- if we had the room to listen?

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

On prophets

On the fourth anniversary of our invasion of Iraq
Scripture -- Jeremiah 38:4-6
The officials said to the king, "This man [Jeremiah] ought to be put to death, because he is discouraging the soldiers who are left in this city, and all the people, by speaking such words to them. For this man is not seeking the welfare of the people, but their harm." King Zedekiah said, "Here he is; he is in your hands; for the king is powerless against you." So they took Jeremiah and threw him into the cistern of Malchiah. Now there was no water in the cistern, but only mud, and Jeremiah sank in the mud.
Meditation -- from Archbishop Oscar Arnullo Romero (murdered just before consecrating the Eucharist, March 24 1980. His homily had called for soldiers to stop violating human rights of their own people and obey God's higher law )
You heard today in the first reading the accusations: "Death to that Jeremiah! He's demoralizing the soliders and all of the people with those speeches. That man doesn't promote the people's good, but their harm."
See how the accusation against the prophets of all times are the same. When the prophet bothers the consciences of the selfish, or of those who are not building with God's plans, the prophet is a nuisance and must be eliminated, murdered, thrown into a pit, persecued, not allowed to speak the word that annoys.
But the prophet could not tell them anything else. Read in the Bible how Jeremiah often prays to God, "Lord, take this cross away from me. I don't want to be a prophet. I feel my insides burning because I have to say things even I don't like."
It's always the same. The prophet has to speak of society's sin and call to conversion, as the church is doing today in San Salvador: pointing out whatever would enthrone sin in El Salvador's history and calling sinners to be converted, just as Jeremiah did.
Lord of justice and mercy, restrain my heart from its fear of others' anger, and retrain it to listen only to you.  If my tongue remains silent, pour your words out over it so that you may be heard in the city streets. If my hands grip my comfortable chair, propel me into the halls of power to speak your truth and to call your people to repentence. If my life remains quiet while the world is in anguish, take my life and do it over, for your vision for the world is more worthy than my wants.  Use me fully, so that at the end of my days I may stand before you, your faithful servant. In the name of Jesus my Christ, and in the names of those who heeded your call, I pray: Amen.

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Losing out by envy

In the gospel of Luke, Jesus tells the powerful parable of the younger son, who, having demanded and been given his inheritance, squanders it.  The young man indulges in dissolute behavior and ignores his father and his family. When the gift has long been spent and gone, he is caught up in a famine in the countryside, and in order to live must do things repugnant to him, including feeding pigs.  Finally, he is broken and repentent, and returns to his father's house. He asks for forgiveness; his father forgives and welcomes him with a celebration.
It's a very familiar story. And for many of us, the next lines are just as familiar: "Now the man's elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. He replied, 'Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.' Then [the elder brother] becamse angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. But he answered his father, 'Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends.'"  (Luke 15:25-30)
With whom do you identify: the elder or younger son? We who have been nominally faithful -- baptized young, biweekly or weekly church attenders, givers of a portion of our income -- often find ourselves siding with the elder brother. The dutiful one. The one who has never left his father's side.  The one who does everything and receives nothing.
What cheek! What utter gall!  From our Father's perspective, we too may be said to have squandered our inheritance and chosen to live with pigs.  Have we used our gifts, fully and to God's glory? Is the earth unspoiled and clean? Are our brothers and sisters cared for? Are any in prison whom we have not visited? 
The envy we feel is a denial of our own sorry state of sinfulness.  How much better it would be for us if we identified with the younger brother, who was humble enough to return and ask for forgiveness, rather than the elder, who through his own envy nearly missed out on the party!

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Wanting to be great

The gospel of Matthew says it at 20:26: Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant. Mark, at 10:43. Luke says it at 22:26, like this:  But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.  And John, the mystic theologian, writes at 21:18: Feed my sheep.
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote it this way:
Jesus gave us a new norm of greatness. If you want to be important -- wonderful. If you want to be recognized -- wonderful. If you want to be great -- wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That's your new definition of greatness. And this morning, the thing that I like about it ... by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great. Because everybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don't have to know Eintein's theory of relativity to serve. You don't have to know the second theory of thermo-dynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.
You can be that servant. You can be great.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Being a new song

Throughout the Psalms, we are directed to "sing to the Lord a new song."  Why a "new song"? Why not an old, comforting song that God already knows and may like well? The Psalmist doesn't say.
Perhaps we are to sing a new song as a new song comes alive in us.  Perhaps the new song is the life that shoots up when we are in joy in God.  Perhaps we ourselves are to be a new song, our lives and our words a hymn to God's glory, majesty, and radiant love.
St. Gregory of Nazianzus (4th century) describes the Christian as "an instrument played by the Holy Spirit."  Mechthild of Helfta (13th century) wrote "God plays upon the harp of the Spirit, sounding the strings strongest in love: and to this mystical music, humanity is beckoned to sing."
Imagine that you are the instrument for the Holy Spirit's creative musical power.  How would you need to be prepared for that holy song? What tuning might you want to do, in order for Her to make beautiful music through you?  Would today's song be a lament or a praise? And how might humanity be beckoned to sing, through the new song that can only be created through you?
Today's prayer is Psalm 33. May you be a new song to the Lord today:
Sing joyfully to the LORD, you righteous; it is fitting for the upright to praise him.

Praise the LORD with the harp; make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre. Sing to the Lord a new song; play skillfully, and shout for joy.


For the word of the LORD is right and true; God is faithful in all God does. The LORD loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of God’s unfailing love.


By the word of the LORD were the heavens made, their starry host by the breath of God’s mouth. God gathers the waters of the sea into jars and puts the deep into storehouses.


Let all the earth fear the LORD; let all the people of the world revere the Lord. For God spoke, and it came to be; God commanded, and it stood firm.


The LORD foils the plans of the nations; God thwarts the purposes of the peoples. But the plans of the LORD stand firm forever, the purposes of God’s heart through all generations. Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD, the people chosen for God’s inheritance. From heaven the LORD looks down and sees all mankind; from God’s dwelling place God watches all who live on earth -- God who forms the hearts of all, who considers everything they do. No king is saved by the size of his army; no warrior escapes by his great strength. A horse is a vain hope for deliverance; despite all its great strength it cannot save. But the eyes of the LORD are on those who fear God, on those whose hope is in God’s unfailing love, to deliver them from death and keep them alive in famine.


We wait in hope for the LORD; God is our help and our shield. In the Lord our hearts rejoice, for we trust in God’s holy name.


May your unfailing love rest upon us, O LORD, even as we put our hope in you.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Jesus nature

I've never known quite what to make of Jesus Christ.  I understand Jesus, the man of Nazareth who trusted God completely, conformed himself to holiness, was vulnerable and loving and righteous in his humanity. Who laughed and cried.   I also understand the holy Word of God present from the beginning, that manifests in creation and human soul-intelligence.  And I understand the title "Christ", simply Greek for Messiah and savior, but haunted with overtones of the Word.  And I fully accept that all these things were (and are) present in that one being, Jesus whom we call Christ.
But precisely how, I haven't a clue.  And no amount of theological pondering or metaphysical sleight-of-hand has made it make any more logical sense.  Fortunately, I know I am not alone. The gospels do not agree on their understanding of the metaphysics of Jesus. The Council at Nicaea wrestled out a formulation that is more poetry than physics.
It's the God part that mucks it all up.  God is beyond me, beyond us. And whenever God puts a hand to something, it is by its having been touched utterly unfamiliar.  Evolution is easy. Pre-big-bang is not.
Cyril of Alexandria, in the 5th century, wrote, "The inexpressible glory of the supreme Being could not be seen pure and unveiled by bodily eyes, for Scripture says, No one can see my face and live. The only-begotten Word of God had therefore to become like us in our weakness by clothing himself in a human body."
God wanted to be seen. Hence Jesus. That's enough for me, today.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

God hides

How long, O LORD ? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? 

Look on me and answer, O LORD my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death; my enemy will say, "I have overcome him," and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the LORD, for he has been good to me.  (Psalm 13)

Teresa of Avila, the 16th century mystic, wrote, "How is it that, when there is so little time to enjoy your presence, you hide from me?"  She meant that earthly life is short, and so every living momnet with God is precious.  But reading her question now, I can't help but think about our busy schedules, and how everything we do requires use of our minds.  Even our leisure time is spent trying to "fill time", as if time were an enemy to be conquered.

But openness to God requires an uncluttered mind -- a mind that has some space to receive God. Even a moment here and there that is not addled by the crush of doing is a space for God to enter.  But while we are "wrestling with our thoughts", God hides.

During this time of attention and assessment, set aside some uncluttered time for God. Sit still, even for a few minutes. Take a walk (which is good for your body as well as your soul). Have a bath instead of a shower. Let God appear from out of the absence, and give light to your eyes.


Unhide yourself, O God, from behind the obstructions of my thoughts. There is so little time, in life and in my day, to enjoy your presence: I cannot risk losing a moment of it.  Come out where I can see you; let me heart serenade you. And give your light to my day, that each moment and morsel might shine in your glory. Amen.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Kingdom of Heaven

I love this on the Kingdom of Heaven. It is from A Matter of Eternity, Selections from the Writings of Dorothy L. Sayers (Eerdsmans Publishing Co. 1973)
"The Kingdom of Heaven," said the Lord God, "is among you." But what, precisely, is the Kingdom of Heaven? You cannot point to existing specimens, saying "Lo, here!" or "Lo, there!" You can only experience it. But what is it like, so that when we experience it we may recognize it?
Well, it is a change, like being born again and re-learning everything from the start.
It is secret, living power -- like yeast. It is something that grows, like seed.
It is precious like buried treasure, like a rich pearl, and you have to pay for it.
It is a sharp cleavage through the rich jumble of things which life presents: like fish and rubbish in a draw-net, like wheat and tares, like wisdom and folly; and it carries with it a kind of menacing finality;
it is new, yet in a sense it was always there -- like turning out a cupboard and finding there your own childhood as well as your present self;
it makes demands;
it is like an invitation to a royal banquet -- gratifying, but not to be disregarded, and you have to live up to it;
where it is equal, it seems unjust; where it is just, it is clearly not equal -- as with the single pound, the diverse talents, the laborers in the vineyard, you have what you bargained for;
it knows no compromise between an uncalculating mercy and a terrible justice -- like the unmerciful servant, you get what you give;
it is helpless in your hands like the King's Son, but if you slay it, it will judge you;
it was from the foundations of the world; it is to come; it is here and now; it is within you.
It is recorded that the multitude sometimes failed to understand.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

All creatures pray

What a glorious day to be in love with the Lord!  Orange blossoms of light emerge over the mountains into a clear sapphire sky. Crisp air. Quiet.
Have you spoken with God this morning? Said your thank-you for the gift of awakening, asked for help with your fasts? Have you prayed? 
"Every creature prays. Cattle and wild beasts pray and bend the knee. As they come from thei barns and caves they look up to heaven and call out, lifting up their spirits in their own fashion. The birds, too, rise and lift themselves up to heaven: They opn out their wings, instead of hands, in the form of a cross, and give voice to what seems to be a prayer.  What more need be said on the duty of prayer? Even the Lord himself prayed."  (Tertullian, 3rd century)
Like the birds, raise your hands now. Stretch out your arms in adoration, reaching for God. If you have no words in your mind, let your heart sing "Thank you, Lord, for another day. I love you."  If you have a song, sing it loudly with your hands lifted and your eyes raised.  And then bring your arms in, putting your hands in the classic prayer position, and tell God what you need today. Just today.
All creatures pray and praise their God. Let us be among them.