So… I wrote a sermon…

* waves *

It’s been a while. I seem to have some writer’s block, and I’ve been extra busy at work and home. But I did, in fact, write something, and it (sort of) relates. Ish. Very tangentially. Also, some very kind folks on Twitter expressed an interest in reading this (after, I should note, I asked if anyone would be interested. I’m not pretending to unsolicited interest, here.)

In late August, I gave a sermon at my church. I’m of the Episcopal persuasion, so I was assigned a set a readings on which to write a reflection. I don’t talk about my faith all that often — there never seems to be much point, and the risk of getting into an argument with someone who feels very passionately that I Am Wrong is just too high — but I’m hoping that sharing my homily will help me push past my lame writer’s block, so I can get back to talking about awesome romance novels. Fingers crossed.

Anyway, read on if you’re interested in what I said to a bunch of people at my church. (I managed to do it mostly without cursing… a miracle.)

A few weeks ago, Deacon Ann preached about the power of names and identity. I’d like to share one of the (many) names that identifies me: I am a reader.

I read a lot. While 24% of American adults surveyed by the Pew Resource Center earlier this year reported not having read a book in all of 2013, I read well over 150 books. I don’t just read, either. I write about books online, I talk about books to anyone foolish enough to ask, and I edit. Words, stories, and narratives are a huge part of my life, and I devote a considerable amount of my attention span to thinking about the stories I encounter from a personal and political perspective.

Let’s talk about story for a bit. Stories and humanity go hand in hand. They help us relate to each other and to make sense of our world. You know how it is: The world is huge and full of information, but stories allow us to organize and prioritize all the data in our lives to make quicker, theoretically better, decisions and to feel more in control of our lives. Data points — information — without stories to explain them are bewildering. Stories can be as simple as causal relationships — for example I might witness my daughter Allie attempt to be a bossy pants to her sister, and I might see Sophia pull her hair, and I can safely assume the two events are connected — or stories can be elaborate retellings of past events or fictional ones. The important thing to consider is that no story — even a simple one — is strictly true, in an absolute sense. All are influenced by the storyteller, by what she found important enough to tell or by what he hoped to accomplish with the story.

I am concerned about the messages that lurk in stories, in the truths those stories reveal, whether or not those truths are the intent of the narrative.

Christ with Mary and Martha, oil on wood, 125 x 118 cm Kunsthistorisches Museum

Christ with Mary and Martha, oil on wood, 125 x 118 cm Kunsthistorisches Museum

It’s time for full disclosure: I have a hard time with the Bible. As a woman, I feel like it is full of negative messaging. “Hey women,” it seems to say, “here’s a whole chapter on what it takes to be a perfect, virtuous wife: be quiet, keep a good house, and work on your embroidery.” (There is not, to my knowledge, a corresponding chapter on how to be a perfect, virtuous husband, and that’s unfortunate.) Don’t get me started on Esther, Ruth, and, especially, Bathsheba. And you might not want to know what I think about the ending of Miriam’s story. And that’s all in the Old Testament. In the New Testament, sure, we have all the faithful (but mostly unnamed) women who stuck by Christ to the bitter end; we have Jesus’ at the time radical views toward women — that we’re fun to be around and that maybe uncleanliness isn’t such a big deal — but we also have some of Paul’s more vitriolic writing and lots of fun gems from the gospels like the hypothetical woman who has to marry seven brothers.

I do not think the Bible is actually anti-woman, nor do I think that God is opposed to lady folks — quite the opposite — but I do believe that Biblical scholars throughout the centuries have tended to focus on some of the more troubling narratives (or have obscured and conflated some narratives about women to make them more troubling) and have tended to use the Bible to support their own narrow views toward women. Sometimes I wonder if we’re all caught in an elaborate and rather ironic (in a dramatic sense) game of telephone involving the messages God actually wants us to receive, the way those messages appear in writing, and the way they’ve been interpreted throughout the centuries.

Consider the story we heard this morning from Exodus. It’s a familiar story, right? It’s also a clear example of dramatic irony. The Pharaoh’s adoptive grandson ends up — with some significant woo-woo courtesy of the great I AM — overthrowing the status quo and leading the Israelites to freedom (via 40 years in the desert, but who’s counting?). I see a bit more more dramatic irony when I look at the story from another angle: The Pharaoh’s entire plan for maintaining the status quo — once forced labor proved ineffective — hinged on removing all the young males of Israel from the equation, but his downfall was ultimately orchestrated by a bunch of women. That’s funny.

I watched the Charlton Heston version of The Ten Commandments a lot when I was a kid. So when I think about the story of the Exodus, I think about it from the context of Moses as the main character. After all, in this passage, he is the only — other than the super awesome midwives — the only character who is actually given a name (rather than just a title; and Wikipedia suggested that even the midwives’ names are titles.). You have the Pharaoh, his daughter, the Levite man, the Levite woman, but Moses gets a name, so obviously he’s the main character.

In this passage, Moses is the least interesting character in the story, and not just because he’s a baby. Yet he’s the character that we always think of. He’s the central figure, the one who was raised apart from his family and his people and eventually is sort of like a spy, right? He’s sent to be raised among the very people that he’s going to end up vanquishing. And that is an interesting narrative in a lot of ways… it plays into our concepts of what are compelling characters and stories, the types of narratives that we want to hear about.

Anselm Feuerbach - http://www.bildindex.de

Anselm Feuerbach – http://www.bildindex.de

But I want to hear about Miriam, his sister, who was older than her brother and was already born, maybe, at a time when Hebrew boy babies were to be killed, and she was allowed to live, essentially because she is unimportant. And to grow up with that knowledge, to grow up knowing that the only reason you’re alive is because you’re so far beneath the notice of the ruling elites, because nobody expects you do anything… that… that is interesting to me, and that’s what I want to hear about. And of course that’s not the story that we get, but in the narrative of this passage from Exodus, she’s one of the most important characters. Pharaoh’s daughter finds the baby, sure, but it’s Miriam who comes forward and is sort of sly and tricksey, saying, “Hey, I see you found a baby… I know a wetnurse,” and then taking Moses back to his own mother to be nursed. And no one knows, right? It’s very sneaky. And that from somebody whom nobody expected to upset the status quo. The narrative does not name her; she’s not considered important; but she’s as crucial as her mother and the Pharaoh’s daughter in enabling the disruption that is to come.

Sometimes we get stuck in the perspectives we bring to bear on a narrative, on whatever we expect that story to tell.  If we are stuck thinking that Moses is the main character, the important one, even as a baby, so fortunate and lucky to be found in those circumstances, or perhaps that God was looking over him and graced him as the central figure of the story; if we get locked up in that, then we are missing another part of the story. God can use unlikely characters to bring about disruption. But I want to add a caution: while it behooves all of us as a society to give some attention to stories about unlikely characters, maybe we should stop thinking of them that way, as “unlikely.” After all, it shouldn’t be in any way shocking or surprising that it’s the women in this story that brought about so much change… the midwives, who defied the Pharaoh’s orders; the Levite woman, who hid her child; the sister who made it so that Moses didn’t starve; the Pharaoh’s daughter, who defied her father by harboring and raising the instrument that would bring about his downfall; all of these women…  it should not be surprising. We should not go, “Oh my God, that’s surprising!” because, well… of course they were able to do it, and I don’t think it was in any way surprising to God… but as long as we continue to be surprised by it, we buy into the casual sexism — that elaborate game of telephone — that exists both in the narrative and in our culture, and it’s time for us to move beyond that.

Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter by Pietro Perugino (1481-82) Fresco, 335 x 550 cm Cappella Sistina, Vatican.

Christ Handing the Keys to St. Peter by Pietro Perugino (1481-82) Fresco, 335 x 550 cm Cappella Sistina, Vatican.

Today’s Gospel lesson is also an example of dramatic irony. In that passage, Jesus declares Peter, the same dude that will later deny him thrice, “the rock” on which the church will be built. That’s hilarious, when seen from one view. Modern readers of the scripture can approach that passage the same way we would Romeo and Juliet. You know, the entire time, that these two crazy kids are going to off themselves, but you still get caught up in the action. (That’s dramatic irony for you.) So Peter being called “the rock” can, if you’re cynical enough, be a bit of comedy when you consider what’s to come. (Also when you consider that Peter is “the rock,” but all the faithful women are unnamed and largely ignored by history… Ha.) But that’s if you focus only on Peter’s failure and neglect to remember what he does with failure once he reaches it and repents of it.

I’m cynical, sure, but I also believe to the depths of my soul in the redemptive power of Christ’s love. So here’s how I view that passage: I think Jesus is showing us just how deep his forgiveness goes, and he’s giving Peter the means to get past his eventual failure. I don’t know if Jesus knew the future or just knew human nature — I’m no authority on that kind of musing — but I like to believe that Jesus knew the possibility of Peter’s human frailty and chose to bolster his spirit with a glimpse of some of the better things Peter was capable of. I mean, yes. Peter, like all of us, was capable of acting through fear and littleness of spirit, but he was also — like all of us — capable of great things, of courage and love and resolute action. And maybe Jesus knew that Peter, once he had failed, might — like all of us — despair and worry that he was good for nothing. And maybe his words, that label, “the rock,” are what helped Peter climb out of it, find his courage and hope, and Act.

Maybe.

And maybe that’s the real dramatic irony, that God can take a scene that would set a cynic’s heart aflame with bitter mirth and make it — seen from another view — an example of unending redemption, acceptance, and limitless love.

That’s my perspective, and it definitely impacts my interpretation of various stories. I have to admit that it’s terrifying to put it all out there for you. Thanks to my background, cynicism and general irreverence, I make an odd biblical scholar. (In fact, I’m not one.) But that doesn’t make my perspective less valid or even less interesting. It is good for us to listen to one another, to learn slightly different versions of the well-known stories. And the more we all — even those of you who are like, “Wait… what did she mean by that reference to the end of Miriam’s story?” — the more we all share with each other what we think about the stories collected in the Bible (or the stories omitted from it), the more we’ll learn about each other, ourselves, and our relationships with God, and we’ll break free of that game of telephone. The truth lies in there somewhere.

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From deepest woe I cry to thee… Oh Lent, I miss you.

In a recent email to a friend, I mentioned that I vastly prefer the music of Lent to the music of Eastertide.  Obviously, I’m just going to have to shore up all of that lamentation and penitence for next year.  To tide me over, however, I will here present a sampling of some of my favorite Lenten music.  If you play the videos embedded below, you’ll notice a certain trend.  My favorite Lenten music is full of drama and honesty.  Lent is not a time for smugness, and I have to admit that I revel in all that honest soul-searching.  However odd it is, Lent is the one time of year that I feel almost normal.

As an example, here’s the text of verse three of “Creator of the Earth and Skies”: “We have not loved you: far and wide, the wreckage of our hatred spreads, and evils wrought by human pride recoil on unrepentant heads.”  I couldn’t find a performance of the hymn to post, but it’s Hymn 148 from the Episcopal Hymnal 1982, words by David W. Hughes (1911-1967), Uffingham tune.  Anyway, what I like about this hymn, along with many of my favorites from the Lent section of the hymnal, is that it strips away the veneer that we use to cover our humanity, that lovely fig leaf of self-delusion that we use to convince ourselves that we are naturally good.  I’m not entirely certain why I get so annoyed by this veneer, but I do.  When I encounter it in life or in hymns, my fingers itch to point it out as folly, to tear it away.

Not sure what I mean? Here’s verse 3 from “Onward Christian Soldiers”: “Like a mighty army moves the church of God; brothers we are treading where the saints have trod. We are not divided, all one body we, one in hope in doctrine, one in charity.”  (Words by Sabine Baring-Gould (1834-1924), music by Arthur S. Sullivan (1842-1900), St. Gertrude)  I infinitely prefer the version of humanity and Christianity offered by Hughes, because that’s what I see on a daily basis.  I can’t recall ever looking at the whole picture of humanity and supposing that we were united in charity.

I’ve divided these music selections into three groups: (1) hymns that focus on individual penitence, (2) hymns that focus on how much it sucks to be Jesus, and (3) choral anthems that carry the themes of Lent.

1.

“Aus tiefer Not schrei ich zu dir” – BWV38.

It’s hard for me to choose a favorite from among the two hymns featured in this section.  This hymn, whose German title is shown above (from the original words by Martin Luther in 1524) is styled as “From deepest woe I cry to thee” in the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 from an English translation by Catherine Winkworth (1863) that was slightly altered for the hymnal.  The words beautifully encapsulate the themes of Lent: penitence and the acknowledgement both of God’s grace and mercy and of our own unworthiness. My favorite verse is the second:

Thou grantest pardon through thy love;
thy grace alone availeth.
Our works could ne’er our guilt remove;
yea, e’en the best life faileth.
For none may boast themselves of aught,
but must confess thy grace hath wrought
whate’er in them is worthy.

 Perhaps I should explain a bit of my theological background in order to shed some light on this reflection.  I grew up in a funky church that emphasized works and glossed over that whole faith/grace/all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God bit.  As an early teen, I switched to a somewhat evangelical church that comprehended a better balance between works and faith, but, both because of my earlier background and because of the twisty ways teenage minds shape and bend theological messages, I began to view God as implacable–no matter how much I repented, I still felt condemned for my sins, unable to accept the grace of God.  Now, I could spend an awful lot of time attempting to work out all of the intricacies of that one sentence, and maybe I will at a later time.  For now, suffice it to say that I was still attempting to earn my salvation through good works, and I was never able to be quite good enough to attain it.  After I switched to the Episcopal Church, I had the good fortune to interact with a priest who felt strongly about grace, and I began to understand just why it’s so difficult to accept it.

We human beings hate feeling grateful or obliged to someone else.  It is an extremely difficult emotion for us to manage.  From early childhood, we want to be independent, to do things all by ourselves, to feel a sense of pride in what we’ve accomplished.  My elder daughter is almost three, and she has reached the independent stage with a vengeance.  She wants to climb the stairs all by herself and put her shoes on all by herself, and she becomes incredibly frustrated when she is not able to do so.  As we grow into adulthood, we like to think that we cast off all of the quirks of childhood, but we do not.  We yearn to be acknowledged for the things we have done, to have others recognize that we did them “all by myself,” and it is almost shameful for us to have to admit those occasions when we have received timely assistance from others.  It is as though we are convinced that there is no value in accomplishing some task if one does not do it entirely by oneself.  But how foolish is that?  When was the last time you accomplished anything entirely by yourself?  I would be nothing without the assistance of my husband, my children, my parents, my friends, my coworkers, etc.  Even the very few things that I do well I cannot really claim: I write well, but isn’t that largely because of the efforts of one Frank Jansson (my high school English teacher)?

If it is difficult for us to acknowledge an obligation or gratefulness to another person for assistance in our day to day lives, how much more difficult is it for us to acknowledge that our salvation (however we comprehend it) is entirely outside our control.  I still struggle with it.  At the evangelical church I attended, we teens in the youth group were taught that each sin we committed was another nail piercing Jesus’ flesh–that if we could stop sinning, he could stop suffering.  As an adult, I view that teaching as patently ridiculous.  First, we really can’t stop sinning because it’s in our nature to be schmucks sometimes.  Second, Christ died once–it isn’t a continual sacrifice, it’s a continual redemption.  When we repent, God doesn’t say, “Um, let me think about it… I’ll get back to you later when I decide whether or not you deserve to be forgiven for that one.”  Instead, our forgiveness and atonement is already there, just waiting for us to accept the gift, because we never deserve to be forgiven, but we are forgiven regardless.

During Lent, we are encouraged to take an honest look at our lives and to reflect with penitence on the need for redemption and the beautiful gift of mercy God gives us.  This season of reflection prepares us for the yearly celebration of this gift at Easter.  I have a tendency to live in Lenten ways all the year through, because I find such comfort in the idea that God loved me enough to make such a sacrifice that no matter how much of a schmuck I will ever be, that unconditional love will never fail.  I no longer believe that God is implacable, unwilling or unable to forgive my great transgressions.  Instead, I happily believe that no matter how much nonsense I dish out, God is more than capable of forgiving it.

“Wilt thou forgive that sin where I begun” – John Donne (1631-1673), Dresden, arr. John Ness Beck (1930-1987).

I expended all of my theological mumbo-jumbo in discussing the first hymn of this section, so I’ll just highlight my favorite verse from this hymn, from a poem by John Donne.  Verse 3:

I have a sin of fear that when I’ve spun
my last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
shall shine as He shines now, and heretofore.
and having done that, thou hast done, I fear no more.

2.

“Ah, holy Jesus, how hast thou offended?” – Johann Heermann (1585-1647), tr. Robert Bridges (1844-1930), Herzliebster Jesu, arr. J. S. Bach (1685-1750).

I’m not quite as fond of the ‘boy, it sucks to be Jesus’ hymns as the hymns from the first section.  Honestly, I think a meditation on the sufferings of Christ can be overdone.  However, I truly love the two hymns I’m posting here.  My favorite verse from “Ah, holy Jesus” is verse 5:

Therefore, kind Jesus, since I cannot pay thee,
I do adore thee, and will ever pray thee;
think on thy pity and thy love unswerving,
not my deserving.

“O sacred head, sore wounded” – Robert Bridges (1899), Passion Chorale

For true Lenten drama, you can’t really outdo “O sacred head, sore wounded.”  My favorite verse is verse 4, which is starred in the Episcopal Hymnal 1982 (meaning it can be omitted).  Thankfully, we sing all 5 verses at my church.

What language shall I borrow to thank thee, dearest friend,
for this thy dying sorrow, thy pity without end?
Oh, make me thine forever! and should I fainting be,
Lord, let me never, never, outlive my love for thee.

3.

I sing in the choir at my church, and I just adore the music we do during Lent.  I find that I cannot get sick of renaissance motets.  Anyway, here are two of my favorite Lenten anthems.

“Call to Remembrance” – Richard Farrant (c. 1530-1580)

“God So Loved the World” – John Stainer (1840-1901)

If you made it through all of this giant post (and watched all those videos), cheers, and thank you for your patience!

I am going to talk about religion (even though God don’t think stuff’s funny)

I like writing and thinking about religion, but I really hate talking about it.  You know how it is–you’re talking with a friend or a stranger about some random, innocuous subject, and all of a sudden Jesus joins the conversation.  And it isn’t even Jesus, really, it’s your version or her version of Jesus, and maybe those versions don’t match up.  All of a sudden, instead of being able to listen to one another and continue your formerly give-and-take conversation, you’re caught up in a battle of right and wrong (your opinion invariably representing the side of Right and your interlocutor’s opinion invariably representing the side of Wrong).  Ugh–I hate it!

I so hate talking about religion with people whom I do not yet trust to control that oh-so-human instinct to do religious battle at the drop of a hat, that I often hide my participation with my church until it seems safe to give it a casual mention.  After a year of knowing someone, if the topic of music comes up, I might mention that I sing in my church’s choir.  If a conversation happens to veer towards leadership or service, I might mention that I serve on my church’s vestry (as an aside, I didn’t know what a vestry was until I joined mine, so this mention tends to be safe due to general obscurity).  For the most part, however, I hold to a scrupulous silence about everything even remotely connected to religion.

Why?  Well, the fault is mine, really.  Religion tends to be viewed as a Serious Subject about which one should not joke, and I just can’t help but find parts of it funny, even while I believe in it.  I have offended more than a few people with my manner, an odd mix of irreverence and sincerity.  When I am glib about Serious Subjects (like the Eucharist, the Bible, God the Father, the Apostles, the Holy Ghost, etc.), folks who feel strongly about those subjects tend to reason, unsurprisingly, that my mortal soul might be in peril.  I don’t particularly like it when other people try to save my soul, so I tend to get even more snarky and glib, and it may be that I hold grudges.

This year, though, I have challenged myself to stop doing things just because I’ve always done them.  So I’ve had a problem in the past with people misunderstanding me… Since when do I have the right to control how other people view me?  Why in the world should I allow the potential for misunderstanding to justify my not being myself at all times?  Do I really have to be so damn neurotic all the time?  (Answer key: since never; I shouldn’t; no, ideally.)

On Saturday, I attended the Diocesan Ministry Fair for the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles, along with a host of clergy and old people.  (Seriously, out of a few hundred, there were probably fewer than 20 under the age of 35.)  It isn’t exactly accurate to say that I learned a lot–most of the plenary session seemed to be pitched towards the clergy and other folk who keep up on their modern theology (I don’t), so I spent at least the first half hour trying to figure out what the speaker’s topic was, what she meant by “Emergence Christianity” or “The Great Emergence”.  She seemed to presuppose that we would have a passing understanding of those terms, and it was my first time hearing them.

Once I caught on, I learned that we are on the cusp of a great cultural shift between the before and the after.  Advances in science and information technology have created a new world and a new culture, and people who are 45 and younger tend to accept these changes as a fact of life, while people who are 46 and older view them as scary change that is best resisted.  Quite aside from (or perhaps in concert with) these cultural changes, Christianity is changing as well.  The Emerging Church (which is apparently not the same thing as the Emergent Church, but hell if I know what the difference is) focuses on narrative and the power of story and will not be content with the simple sales pitch of traditional Christianity (believe in Christ or go to hell).  The Emerging Church wants to know about the Holy Spirit.  The Emerging Church believes in many paths to God.  The Emerging Church believes in mission, outreach, social justice, doing good in the world, and serving the Kingdom of God in all its many forms.  That last is, perhaps, the most important point about the Emerging Church: rather than believe that the Kingdom of God is encapsulated in the universal Church (the small-c catholic church), the Emerging Christians believe that all churches (all religions, perhaps?) are encapsulated within the overarching and universal Kingdom of God.

These are big thoughts, and I would never have expected to encounter them at a Diocese-wide event for an established Church.  Honestly, it was amazing (awesome, almost, in the real sense of the word… not awesome like hot dogs) sitting there hearing my secret thoughts about religion amplified around the room by a voice with a charming Tennessee accent (Phyllis Tickle.  You can look her up here: http://www.phyllistickle.com/index.html).

I have always felt vaguely heretical for believing that there are many ways to reach and serve God, for refusing to believe that I have magically stumbled across the right answer to the big questions of life.  What are we doing here?  What’s the point?  Those are big questions, and I really don’t believe that any human being has the ability to even comprehend the answers.  Maybe we aren’t even asking the right questions.  So it turns out that I’m a quasi-Emerging Christian–decidedly un-evangelical–and that there are millions worldwide who entertain similar thoughts about religion.  Goodness!

As an aside: for a blog about reading, I haven’t talked about books in a while.  I’ll have to fix that.