Thursday, March 31, 2011

jeremiah, john donne, and my lenten koan

be careful what you ask for. never send to know for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee.

when i started lent with the koan of how i might find the place where i live to be holy ground, i had no idea how much help i would have. and again and again the help says the same thing: "be obedient."

now obedience is one of my vows: poverty, stability, chastity, obedience. poverty, at least by american standards, is pretty easy on social security. i find i have enough money to be mildly generous. stability is also pretty easy, because of my poverty. sometimes i think i would like to move back to the ocean, but i don't think i can afford it. and i find that my lot has fallen in a goodly place. chastity was actually not one of my vows at first, but i have come to understand how important it is, and don't find it so much trouble. but obedience: that's the hard one.

i like to blame my objections to obedience to the general american rebelliousness that started when the trouble-making bostonians dumped tea in the boston harbor and blamed it on the indians. but it is really of course mostly my own pride.

one of the things the rule of st. chad emphasises is obedience as listening. but listen to what? it is so easy to listen to entertainments. even as i type this i am listening to psalm 72 on youtube. and if i listen to the readings of lent (psalm 72 was this morning's prime reading), i am caught short again and again. walking, one can hear. the epistle for the second sunday of lent says, "we beseech you, and exhort you by the lord jesus, that as ye have received of us how ye ought to walk and to please god, so you abound more and more." it is easy to think of walking as a way of hearing bird-song, and so it is. but is also a way to hear the motorcyclist's motor-screaming as they try desperately to find happiness.

this past sunday, the third in lent, came the epistle that is the motto of the order of st. chad: "walk in love, as christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to god for a sweetsmelling savour." again, walking is more than only enjoyable. (the old testamnt reading that sunday is deuteronomy 6: it's hard to find a stronger encouragement to listen and obey than that.

and now this morning, jeremiah: ". . . if ye throughly amend you ways and your doings; if ye oppress not the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow, and shed not innocent blood in this place, neither walk after other gods to your hurt; then i will cause you to swell in this place, in the land that i gave to your fathers, for ever and ever, saith the lord almight."

so: i must listen much more carefully, not just to the wonders of creation but to all the parts of it which, as the anglican collect for ash wednesday reminds us, god does not hate, but which i all so easily "tune out."

Saturday, March 19, 2011

psalm 51 and the grace of lent

the psalms are the heart of christian prayer, and no where and at no time has this been more true than in celtic devotion. often the celtic saints would pray the psalter with their arms held out in a cross, sometimes for so long, as in the case of s. kevin, that a bird built her nest in his outstretched hand. others would pray standing in cold water. s. cuthbert's feet are shown in the window above, being warmed by otters after a night praying in the cold waters of the ocean.

celtic christianity is notoriously physical, involving the body in ways we in our more cerebral or "spiritual" times might find a bit silly or even repugnant. even though we do sometimes pride ourselves on an "incarnational" theology, our understanding of incarnation often means we give money to the food bank.

but i suspect our celtic forebears in the faith would not have recognized the differences we make between the spirit and the body. they were not at all "spiritual" in the way that is so popular today. their lives, all of the many trinities that made up their world, were one. and they recognized, i suspect, the nature of sacramental living, outward and visible, as developing inward grace.

it is in that context that i find the centrality of psalm 51 to our lenten devotions so intriguing. often lent is a time when we "give up" something: chocolate, perhaps, or wine. then at easter we "get it back." what a waste! lent is better a time when we open ourselves to receive more, to recognize that our sins are not nearly so often overindulgence in chocolate or alcohol, but aiming at the wrong things in life. (the greek word for sin so often explained as "missing the mark" really means more to "aim away from the mark.")

so, i want to consider some of the lines at the heart of psalm 51:

. . . lo, thou requirest truth in the inward parts,
and shalt make me understand wisdom secretly.
thou shalt purge me with hyssop and i shall be clean;
thou shalt wash me, and i shall be whiter than snow.
thou shalt make me hear of joy and gladness,
that the bones which thou hast broken may rejoice.
turn thy face from my sins,
and put out all my misdeeds.
make me a clean heart, o god,
and renew a right spirit within me.
(italics added)

the goal of being purged with hyssop is not to make us, as jesus in the gospels is recorded to have described some of the spiritual people of his day, as white-washed tombs. it is to have a right spirit within. this is the grace of lent. again and again the collects of the season pray that the outward activities will result in our entering the kingdom. and, the kingdom is within, a gift waiting to be received, and worth making room for.

Friday, March 11, 2011

lenten koan a.d. 2011

a few years ago, when i was worshipping with a congregation that uses the new three-year lectionary, the secretary, who was some kind of "charismatic" protestant, accidentally printed the wrong propers for the first sunday of lent. the rector was too kind to correct her, and so we heard and he got to preach, from a seldom heard part of the writings of s. paul. and, i began something which has become a lenten practice for me long enough to consider it a tradition: my lenten koan.

my lenten koan is some piece of scripture that i find particularly challenging, which is try to "solve" during lent in the sense of figuring out what it means in my life now. usually they have been from the new testament, and they have become part of the lenten discipline of prayer for me. i don't so much choose them as notice them as they are given to me.

but this year i cheated a bit. my reading about various sacred sites in britain or ireland, and the saints connected to them, often makes me want to go to wales, or sussex, or cornwall, or scotland, or . . . . you get the idea. so i was wondering how the land in which i live could come to have the same feeling of sacredness, and hoping for a koan related to that desire.

at the same time, i have been reading genesis, and at the thursday night soup and scripture, we have been reading joshua. so i thought i would cheat and choose one of the readings which occur so often in these books, and in exodus and in deuteronomy along the line of "when you come into the land." i decided i would just take the one from the beginnings of joshua, before i looked to see what it really says; wherefore wast i hoist by my own petard:

"every place you shall tread with the souls of your feet i shall give you as i declared to moses that i would. . . . have the book of this law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may keep everything that is written in it." (1: 3, 8, jb i am afraid to include v. 6: "be strong and stand firm, for you are the man to give the people posession of the land . . . ."

of course! the land is "given to us" as, and only as, we tread it with the souls of my feet. this is of course one of the big lessons from my patron st. chad, one that is ignored almost entirely by contemporary society, but one which is necessary if we are to reclaim our proper place in creation.

i will try to see how this koan is "solved" and post the solution.