Category Archives: Marsue

Beauty for Ashes, or Why Lent is a Bad Idea

My Ash Wednesday for each of the past three years has been to share my reservations about Lent in general–is this a good idea?

images[1]One sunny morning in September 1983, when I was struggling in my late twenties with serious financial problems, a failing marriage, and a general malaise both spiritual and physical, I wandered into a Sunday morning service at Saint Matthew’s Episcopal Cathedral in Laramie, Wyoming. In a rush of emotional response to the beautiful organ, the stately procession of choir, crucifer, deacon and priest from back to front, and the overwhelming expressions of welcome from dozens of strangers, I felt that I had stumbled into a home whose existence I had not been aware of but for which I had been longing my whole life.

Over the succeeding weeks and months Saint Matthew’s became a life-preserver in more ways than oneseason1_scale[1]—no wonder I jumped into the strange and wonderful world of all things Episcopalian and the liturgical calendar with the enthusiasm and abandon of a true convert. My enthusiasm and commitment deepened as I experienced Advent for the first time, as Christmas liturgies framed the holidays, and as Epiphany revealed Jesus’ coming out party and early ministry in new ways. ash-wednesday11[1]Then Ash Wednesday happened. I remember it well. I regularly attended the 7:00 AM morning prayer run by lay people, but this morning the Dean was there. We went to a place in the prayer-book I had never seen before and proceeded through the most depressing liturgy ever. I found myself in the aisle queuing up to receive ashes. As Dean Mobley traced a cross with his ash-covered finger on my forehead and said “Vance, remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return,” I thought “This time you’ve gone too far, Morgan. This is just too weird.” I washed the ashes off my forehead as soon as I got home, convinced that I was never going to do that again.

Marsue-hed-shot[1]I related this thirty-plus-year-old story two years ago just before the evening Ash Wednesday service to Marsue, rector of the Episcopal church Jeanne and I are involved with, one of my best friends, and the closest thing I have to a spiritual adviser. I had not planned to go—just observing dozens of people walking around with ashes on their foreheads on my Catholic college campus was sufficient Ash Wednesday experience for me. But as I was settling in after yet another eleven-hour workday to eat dinner while watching first Chris Matthews, then a Netflix video before going to bed, Jeanne reminded me that she had been scheduled as chalice bearer at the 7:00 PM Ash Wednesday service. “You don’t have to go,” she said, but it was clear that she wanted me to. So I agreed to go, after making it very clear that I did not intend to get any ashes. In response to my story, Marsue laughed and asked “weren’t you jealous of the Catholic kids in the neighborhood when you were growing up who got ashes on Ash Wednesday? I was!” My response was that there were no Catholic kids in my neighborhood growing up. And there certainly weren’t any within range of our Baptist church. Marsue headed to the back of the church to process to the front with the choir and with Jeanne, looking angelic in her white robe. After the procession, it was clear that the folks up front significantly outnumbered us regular folks in the pews.

collegeville-inst[1]My most memorable Lent occurred in 2009 during the first half of my four-month sabbatical stay at an ecumenical institute in Collegeville, Minnesota. I had arrived in the middle of January; by the time Lent began I was joining the monks at St. John’s Abbey every day for noon prayer; by the time it ended I was reading and praying with them three times a day.003 (2) The internal adjustments, changes and growth that began during those weeks were unexpected and appear to be permanent. And they had nothing to do with it being Lent—that just was the part of the calendar in which we happened to be. I don’t remember the monks doing anything particularly different during Lent or the Abbey being decorated (or not) with Lent in mind. I’m sure there were weekly or daily Stations of the Cross events, but I did not participate, having decided many years earlier that this was another practice that was “too weird” and “going too far.” The internal work and change was so slow as to be almost imperceptible, only noticeable when other people told me that I was different than when I had arrived a few weeks earlier. It literally only occurs to me now that this began during a Lenten season.primary-merton[1]

The idea of Lent—a time in which persons of faith are challenged to give something up or take something on as a sign of renewed or deeper commitment to God—bothers me. I agree with Thomas Merton, who wrote that “The only trouble is that in the spiritual life there are no tricks and there are no shortcuts. Those who imagine that they can discover spiritual gimmicks and put them to work for themselves usually ignore God’s will and his grace.” And Lent—a time set aside to “get serious” about faith in practice—can easily turn into such a gimmick. lent_card[1]I can give up anything for forty days, but whatever I choose to sacrifice, unless it is simply frivolous (I know someone once who claimed he was going to give up celibacy for Lent), is something that I should probably consider giving up for good. Whatever I choose to take on for forty days with the intent of becoming a temporarily better person is, if I choose to be serious about my choice, something that I should undoubtedly seek to establish as a permanent part of my life.

Of all the things that have remained with me from that Collegeville Lent, the most important is that the life of faith, the life of seeking God, is incremental and daily. The liturgical calendar provides a different color and atmosphere for this daily process: hope and expectation for Advent, self-reflection for Lent, joy for Easter and so on. But hope, reflection and joy (and a whole bunch of other things) need to be part of my daily travels with the divine. Dropping bad habits and attitudes cannot wait until Lent, and neither can the addition of new habits and attitudes that my commitment to the life of faith calls for.

And oh yeah, I did get in line and receive ashes from Marsue two years ago, partly becausebeautyforashes[1] I did not want to be the only person in the building who didn’t. But more than thirty years after my first Ash Wednesday experience, with birthday number fifty-nine coming in a couple of weeks, a reminder that I am dust and will return to dust before long is not a bad thing. The brevity and fragility of it all makes God’s presence in the world and in us all the more remarkable. There is beauty in these ashes, a beauty to be embraced anew every morning.

What I Would Love to Find

bird by bifdIn Bird by Bird, the best book on writing that I have read, Anne Lamott tells the writing wannabe to “write what you would love to find.” That’s great advice—but of course that means the prospective writer has to do a lot of reading. At least I do, since I often don’t know what I would “love to find” until I find it. When things get busy, when I tell myself that I don’t have the time to read anything other than what I’ve assigned my students for the week (since it’s always a good idea to be a class or two ahead of them), my blog writing begins to resonate like vibrations in an echo chamber or the sound of one hand clapping. one handWhen I tack a new paragraph at the beginning of an essay I wrote a year ago and call it a new essay, I know it’s time to find another hand to clap with.

In my current state of affairs, this happens during semester or summer break. Last summer was filled with reading multiple volumes of Scandinavian noir mysteries which provided me with new ways to consider the familiar. What would I discover during the all-too-short Christmas break between semesters that just ended? I have learned to trust the apparently random suggestions of friends and colleagues for new reading material over the years, and once again they delivered. Thanks to two friends, I have discovered two more authors to love and to use as new sparks of writing energy.

The first suggestion came from my friend and colleague Bill, who occupies the office directly across the hall from mine in our still-new cathedral to the humanities. Bill and I know each other well; we have taught on an interdisciplinary faculty team together, have frequently talked about pedagogical issues, and share the privilege (?) of having directed the program I currently run (he was the director before I was). abyssBill brings his sons to his office on occasion—they like to peek into my office to see the penguins. And Bill reads my blog. One morning not long ago he said “I’m reading a book you would like. It’s called My Bright Abyss; Christian Wiman is a poet, but this is sort of a spiritual memoir. It’s tough reading at times, but he writes about the sort of things you write about.” On Bill’s recommendation I ordered it from Amazon, despite Wiman’s being a poet (I have frequently described myself as “poetry challenged”).

Boy was Bill right. One of the many things I love to find is well-trampled territory described as if the author just discovered it for the first time.

Faith steals upon you like dew: some days you wake and it is there. And like dew, it gets burned off in the rising sun of anxieties, ambitions, distractions.

Ain’t it the truth? I call myself a “person of faith” regularly, but that makes faith sound like something that—once the decision is made—is a regular part of one’s daily apparel like shoes or underwear. But faith is much more ephemeral than that, something that Wiman captures perfectly. When Jesus asks Peter, whom he has just rescued from drowning at the end of Peter’s ill-fated effort to walk on water, doubt“Oh you of little faith, why did you doubt?” I’m hoping Peter answered (or at least thought) “Because I’m a human being and this faith thing is like a magic trick: Now you see it, now you don’t.”

Wiman also has little resonance with the notion of finding comfort in religious belief. My students often suggest that “comfort” is the main attraction of faith commitment: comfort that “all things work together for good” and comfort that in an afterlife “everything will work out.” The next time I hear that in a classroom discussion (or anywhere else), I’ll introduce this from My Bright Abyss:

shardChrist is a shard of glass in your gut. Christ is God crying I am here, and here not only in what exalts and completes and uplifts you, but here in what appalls, offends, and degrades you, here in what activates and exacerbates all that you would call not-God. To walk through the fog of God toward the clarity of Christ is difficult because of how unlovely, how “ungodly” that clarity often turns out to be.

Imagine if Jesus had said that “following me will be like a shard of glass in your gut.” How many followers would that have attracted? Come to think of it, though, the gospels claim that Jesus said many things like that. We just tend to ignore them.

My other Christmas break discovery came to me when my good friend Marsue asked if I had ever read in the darkLearning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor. “I want to get it for you,” she said, “but the last time I got you a book you already had it.” I had not read any of Taylor’s work, but her books have showed up frequently enough in the “Suggested Reading” on my Amazon Prime site (which I guess is generated based on what I have purchased in the past) that I have had this very book on my “Wish List” for a few months. Not wanting to undermine Marsue’s intended generosity, but taking this suggestion from a trusted friend seriously, I read three of Taylor’s other books over break. Not only have I found another literary soul mate, Jeanne is reading these books as well.

Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church is her memoir of how tending for her own spiritual health and growth required her leaving the active Episcopal priesthood, a story that I resonated with at many points. Her treatment of suffering and the book of Job in altarAn Altar in the World, however, was unforgettable, beginning with her memorable description of why pain and suffering are not logical puzzles to be solved or abstract challenges to faith to be overcome.

Pain is so real that less-real things like who you thought you were and how you meant to act can vanish like drops of water flung on a hot stove. Your virtues can become as abstract as algebra, your beliefs as porous as clouds.

I have for the most part been mercifully free in my life thus far from the sort of paralyzing pain that she is describing. I also have no reason to believe that the faith I care about and profess would mean much of anything in the face of such pain. But her directness and honesty is unusual and much appreciated from a priest and theologian. She’s excellent at “making it real”—something I continue to strive for both in my writing and in my life.

What would I like to find (and what am I interested in writing)? Anne Lamott is right—the answer is often the same to both questions. A friend and colleague the other day asked who the audience is for what I write. I couldn’t believe it when I answered “I guess my audience is people like me.” I’m writing in the hope that once in a while something I write will be what someone else will love to find. I write for people who might resonate, as I do, with Christian Wiman’s analogy for the life of faith:

To live in faith is to live like the Jesus lizard, quick and nimble on the water into which a moment’s pause would make it sink.the jesus lizard

Moving On

“Get a picture of yourself ten years from now in your mind,” I said to my eighteen-year old freshmen. “Your job, whether you’ll be in a permanent relationship, whether you will have kids or have considered having them, where you’ll be living, graduate school or not. The works.” Most of them had smiles on their faces as they constructed their future selves in their imaginations. We were studying the Stoics, so I suspect they were wondering what this exercise had to do with the day’s material. “Got the picture?” I asked—they all nodded. “None of it is going to happen, or at least not at all in the way you think.” life is what happensThis appeared to be a surprise to some of them—at eighteen it is still easy to believe that much of your future is within your control.

We have all heard the related truisms: “Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans,” “If you want to give God a good laugh, tell her your plans” and so on. Anyone past a certain age—say thirty—nods bemusedly when hearing them because unlike many bumper sticker summaries of the complexities of human life, these sound bites are completely true. Sometimes the unexpected changes are welcome, other times we are surprised by events so challenging and disturbing that we doubt we’ll survive them. under constructionBut we do. The persons we are and will become have been and will be constructed out of what we never saw and won’t see coming.

I’m fifty-eight, well established in a profession that I deeply love, happily in love with and married to my best friend, living in my favorite part of the country—Jeanne and I have carved out a life that seems comfortable, predictable, and stable. She observed positively upon returning from visiting her family and the latest drama in New York a couple of weeks ago that “we really live a peaceful life.” Exactly as we want it. But on this New Year’s Eve I am on the brink of a year of significant change and am reminded that even within the boundaries of apparent stability, things never stay the same for long.

I am entering my final semester of directing a large academic program on my campus, a task that has consumed and defined my life both on campus and off for the past four years. When July 1 of next year arrives and I hand the reins over to my successor, I DWCwill have spent eight of my last eleven professional years as both an administrator and teacher (four years as department chair, four years as program director). I did not go into the teaching profession to be an administrator; although it’s part of the academic life to play administrator on occasion, I’m looking forward to finding out what it’s like to be just a full-time teacher. And yet . . . in a strange way I’m going to miss being a program director. I’ve learned a lot about myself as I juggle scheduling, faculty herding and student management on a daily basis. There are many indications that the program has become better over the past few years—and I sort of like being in charge. But all things come to an end, including this.

The timing of my stepping down from directing this program is intentionally coordinated with the beginning of my next sabbatical next July 1. sabbaticalThis will be my third sabbatical. I wrote a book during my first one, my life was changed during my second one, so who knows what this one will bring? It will be my first full-year sabbatical—I’ve told everyone that I wanted to have one full-year sabbatical during my career, and this is the time. By the time my next one comes around, I may be too decrepit and crotchety to appreciate it. I have a plan for what I want to do, but where it will happen and how is totally up in the air. Proposals have been sent, contacts have been made, feelers have been extended—and I won’t know how things will be shaping up for at least two or three months.

Outside of work things are also in flux. Jeanne’s job was eliminated a couple of months ago—who knows when or if someone will be smart enough to recognize what an asset she will be for them?Trinity Everything is moving on at the church we have attended and been involved with for the past four years. Our good friend Marsue, who is the reason why we started going to the church has retired (at least for a couple of weeks) and a new rector has been hired. Marsue used to turn the pulpit over to me about once every three or four months to give the sermon—I’ve probably given my last sermon at Trinity. A couple of months before Marsue’s retirement a full-time music minister was hired, which means three years of frequent, interim organ playing—one of the loveliest surprises that has come my way in many years—are at an end. Everyone at Trinity knows we started attending because of Marsue—will we be staying? Jeanne and I have answered regularly that it depends on what Big Bird is doing. The wind blows where it will, and no one can tell where it’s coming from or where it is going—so it is with all things Big Bird.

A couple of Sundays ago I was lector at church and read the Old Testament lesson from Second Samuel. After cementing his rise from shepherd to king through a series of struggles over many years against challenges both internal and external, David is ready to enjoy his middle-age years as monarch and to turn his attention toward God. arkHe tells his prophet advisor and sidekick Nathan of his plans to build a temple to house the Ark of the Covenant, a place for God to settle down and enjoy himself just as David plans to. Given that God’s dwelling has been a tent or movable tabernacle for centuries, Nathan approves of David’s plans. Until God sets Nathan straight in a dream, that is. When did I ever say I wanted a permanent place to live? God asks. Do I look like someone who want to settle down? I haven’t stopped being a nomad since I delivered Israel from bondage in Egypt and don’t plan to stop now. If you want to hang out with me, don’t get too comfortable and be ready to move. Then this wonderful promise passed on to David through Nathan: “The Lord declares to you that the Lord will make you a house.”

WimanIn other words, God already has a house—Us. You and me. That restless spirit of change that permeates everyone’s life? That’s God. As Christian Wiman writes in his wonderful My Bright Abyss,

To say that one must live in uncertainty doesn’t begin to get at the tenuous, precarious nature of faith. The minute you begin to speak with certitude about God, he is gone. We praise people for having strong faith, but strength is only one part of that physical metaphor: one also needs flexibility.

This, Richard Rodriguez suggests, is what monotheists get for believing in a desert God.rodriquez

The desert’s uninhabitability convinces Jew and Christian and Muslim that we are meant for another place.

Which means that trying to confine this restless deity in buildings, dogma, or certainty is a mistake of cosmic proportions.

Desert is the fossil of water. Is dogma a fossil of the living God—the shell of God’s passage—but God is otherwise or opposite?

For those not inclined toward religious belief, feel free to come up with your own explanation for the contingency and uncertainty of human existence. You don’t need a pillar of fire to convince you that it’s all about moving on.moving on

An Exploding Heart

            One of the unexpected pleasures that has come my way over the past four years is the opportunity to step behind the pulpit at the Episcopal church Jeanne and I attend and give the Sunday sermon. Thanks to my good friend Marsue’s generosity (she was the rector of the church until her retirement a couple of weeks ago), Trinitythis provided me with the opportunity to channel my Baptist preacher dad (something I never thought I would want to do). Although I’ve been a college professor for close to twenty-five years, sermonizing is a different animal altogether than teaching. It’s a bit intimidating. The most challenging sermon was when Marsue asked me to give the sermon on an October Sunday two years ago to kick off the annual stewardship drive. “Stewardship?? Me??” I was confused. Here’s what I said.

Some of you know that a couple of months ago I entered, with trepidation, into the world of blogging. So for the first time in my life I exchanged blog addresses with someone. A few weeks ago I was having a beer at the local watering hole on a Friday afternoon with a new colleague in the philosophy department. The next day I sent him the link to my new blog, which has become a venue for the types of essays I’ve been using as the basis of conversation with a regular group of you folks every three weeks or so after church here at Trinity for almost two years. He commented favorably on one of my posts; I’ve learned that blog etiquette required that I now ask him if he has a blog and if he does to go take a look. He does and I did. His latest post was about a recent distasteful experience during mass at the Catholic Church in his neighborhood that many of my Catholic friends and colleagues attend. Here’s an excerpt:.

I had a horrible experience at mass today, and many of you have heard me speak about these issues before, but just to emphasize — Preach the Word, not the dollar.

Growing up, many of my Protestant friends would say that they didn’t like to go to church because the preacher was always asking for money. I was very proud that Catholic priests never asked for money at mass. Then one Sunday several years ago, I had my first experience of a priest asking for money during the homily. I just could not receive communion after being so offended by the mass.stewardship Sunday

Over the following years, I watched carefully for “mission” or “stewardship” Sunday and would not attend mass on those days.

Today, I attended mass at a parish close to where I work. Today’s readings were beautiful, but the pastor delivered a lackluster “homily” about how important faith is. He then went on for at least ten minutes — much longer than his homily — to talk about a new program the church has signed up for. Now, individuals and families can use this on-line system to have automatic deposits of their weekly donations into the church account instead of using paper envelopes each week. offering envelopesThe man was inspiring almost.

And it took everything I had not to walk up to him during his homily to denounce it!

I should have perhaps, but I was, in the end, not courageous enough because so many of my new colleagues attend this mass.

And there you have it. Stewardship, pledge-drives—the closest things to a four-letter words you are likely to hear in church.

I come from the Protestant world my colleague is talking about, where pleas for money came in various forms from the pulpit on an almost weekly basis. My father, an itinerant Baptist minister, was embarrassingly shameless in his appeals for money. As preacher’s kids, my brother and I often wore clothes that came out of a missionary barrel. Money and God have had a negatively mysterious relationship in my imagination for most of my life. MarsueSo imagine my surprise when Marsue let me know that my name had come up in a stewardship committee meeting, of all places. Would I write something on the topic for the online newspaper, on my blog, for an after-service seminar? Imagine my even greater surprise when I found myself writing back suggesting that maybe I could do a sermon followed by a discussion seminar after church? Trust me; there is no person in this room less likely to have anything constructive to say about stewardship than I. But here we are—so let’s talk.

Recently while on one of the many business trips she takes every fall, Jeanne picked up a book in an airport shop to read on the coast-to-coast flight. She was so taken by the book that she passed it on to me as a “must read” when she returned home. At first glance, it looked to be much more her sort of book than mine. Kisses from katieThe book is Kisses from Katie: A Story of Relentless Love and Redemption, by Katie Davis. During Christmas break of her senior year in high school, Katie went for a short missionary trip to Uganda, and her life was turned upside down. Upon graduating from high school, Katie chose—instead of going to college or marrying her boyfriend—to go back to Uganda. She was so moved by the needs she saw there, particularly among orphaned children, that she knew she had found her vocation and calling. Now, at the ripe old age of 22, she is in the process of adopting thirteen children and has established a non-profit ministry that feeds and sends hundreds more children to school. To be honest, this is more Jeanne’s sort of book than mine, because Katie is the sort of person who has always driven me crazy, causing me to feel guilty and to feel like a spiritual midget because there’s nothing in my life even remotely resembling her spectacular commitment to faith and Jesus.

Katies kidsThe children she is fostering call her Mommy; Katie reports that they ask the never-ending questions that all children ask.

“Mommy, where does the sun go when I am sleeping?”

“Mommy, are all ladybugs girls?”

“Mommy, where do I go when I die? Do fish go there too?”

“Mommy, why don’t fish breathe air?”

“Mommy, what makes the sky blue?”

“Mommy, why is your skin different from mine?”

My guess is that any of you who have had children have heard hundreds of such questions. But the question that most surprised Katie Davis is one that I, at least, never heard from either of my sons:

“Mommy, if Jesus comes to live inside my heart, will I explode?”Exploding heart

Katie’s quick response was “No!” But after a bit of thought, she changed her answer.

“Yes, if Jesus comes to live in your heart, you will explode. You will explode with love, with compassion, with hurt for those who are hurting, and with joy for those who rejoice. You will explode with a desire to be more, to be better, to be Jesus in this world.” 

Not only do I think she is right, I think her insight is the key to understanding what stewardship really is. That’s the point of today’s gospel reading.

James and John are looking for a little payback for all of their efforts, and in the process are doing a brotherly end run on the other disciples. “Jesus, can we reserve the two best seats next to you in heaven?” The other disciples get angry, not because James and John asked, but because the brothers thought of it first. Jesus’ response is both cryptic and powerful. “Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all.” last firstI suppose the disciples (and we) should get used to this backwards and upside-down perspective from Jesus, since it’s the sort of thing that He consistently says. But it’s jarring every time. At its heart, everything about following Christ is backwards. “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.” And we here this morning are called to be the Son of Man, Jesus, in the world. We are called to be stewards of the divine in us, bringing it into the world in ways unique and special to each of us.

So what does lived stewardship look like? It begins with each of us asking “What are the unique ways Christ can enter the world through me?” The easiest thing in the world to do is write a check and pledge to write fifty-one more checks over the next year. And Marsue, Stephan, Bill [the Senior and Junior Wardens] and the vestry will tell you that this place cannot run without those checks and pledges. But simply writing a check is not stewardship—writing a check to Trinity is no more unusual or praiseworthy than paying the bill at the restaurant or supermarket where you get your food. Stewardship requires a great deal more, the sorts of things that the rich young man in last week’s gospel could not do. Stewardship is another name for the holy explosion that takes place when we decide to let the divine within us out.

All of that awesome divine power we heard about from Job this morning . . .

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements–surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?

And in Psalm 104?

You are very great. You are clothed with honor and majesty,clothed in majesty

wrapped in light as with a garment. You stretch out the heavens like a tent,

you set the beams of your chambers on the waters, you make the clouds your chariot,

you ride on the wings of the wind,

you make the winds your messengers, fire and flame your ministers.

That divine power in us. It is up to us to be Christ in the world. We may not all be called to be saints or missionaries or priests or even go to Uganda. But each of us is called to be stewards of the gift that is in us, letting it explode into the world around us in uniquely creative ways.

The most memorable line from the person who led the retreat/workshop that I attended in Minnesota two months ago is a simple one: On several occasions she said, “Be where you are.” Be present now, rather than regretting the past or anticipating the future. Stewardship asks us to do the same thing. Be Christ where you are. Right now.be where you are

Bagpipes and Cats

Today is Saint Andrew’s Sunday (which happens to fall this year on the actual Saint Andrew’s Day). This essay is in honor of the patron saint of Scotland, as well as my friend Marsue, who today will celebrate her last day of five years as priest at Trinity Episcopal Church before beginning a well-deserved retirement.

Although I am a philosophy professor by trade, I believe William Shakespeare’s body of work is more insightful about my favorite philosophical topic—human nature—than anything the Western tradition in philosophy has to offer. imagesThe Merchant of Venice is a case in point. Greed, money, love, friendship, ambition, honor, racism, forgiveness—all are on display in this masterpiece. In the dramatic Act Four court scene, Shylock insists that he be allowed to take a pound of flesh from the merchant Antonio, as the contract that Antonio freely agreed to guarantees if Antonio is unable to repay the loan he has taken from Shylock. Antonio’s friends have gathered sufficient money to pay Shylock three, four, even ten times the amount that Antonio borrowed, but Shylock insists on the pound of flesh. When the defense demands to know why Shylock (who everyone knows is a money-grubbing Jew, after all) insists on the peculiar letter of the contract rather than more money than he could have expected, Sbagpipe-1hylock’s response is both cryptic and illuminating.

Some men there are love not a gaping pig; some that are mad if they behold a cat; and others, when the bagpipe sings…cannot contain their urine.

People have strange preferences and dislikes. In other words, Shylock says, I don’t need to explain why I want the pound of flesh rather than the money. I just want it, and the law says I can have it. People are like that—we like some things, dislike others, and no further explanation is necessary. End of story. Not really—a loophole discovered at the last moment leaves Antonio with his skin and Shylock in disgrace,

But Shylock’s point stands. Our personal likes and dislikes frequently are indefensible—yet they define who we are. I’ve written in a previous post about my obsession with penguins

http://freelancechristianity.com/2013/09/25/well-dressed-birds/

and my inability to explain this obsession other than to say “I like penguins.”Penguins in love Jeanne has a similarly intense obsession with Holstein cows. Shakespeare’s choice of example in Shylock’s observation is inspired—he chooses a couple of things about which no one is neutral. It’s possible that someone might not care one way or the other about penguins or cows, but no one is neutral about bagpipes or cats. You either love them or hate them.

Bagpipes: Over the past couple of years I have had the opportunity to scrape two decades worth of rust off my organ skills and play at services, weddings and funerals on occasion. noackorgan8-2013One afternoon while practicing for an upcoming service that included “Amazing Grace,” I experimented with various settings on the pipe organ until I achieved a sound somewhat similar to bagpipes, without the grinding, scary elements–call it “Bagpipes Lite.” I used it at the service and received so  many positive comments that I’ve found a reason to use that setting just about every time I’ve played since.

Hitchcock,_Alfred_02I understand the inventor of the bagpipes was inspired when he saw a man carrying an indignant, asthmatic pig under his arm. Unfortunately, the man-made sound never equaled the purity of the sound achieved by the pig. Alfred Hitchcock

 

In the calendar of saints, November 30 is St. Andrew’s Day. Marsue, the rector of my Episcopal church chooses to celebrate St. Andrew’s Dayimages 2 every year on the First Sunday of Advent (the first Sunday after Thanksgiving), even if November 30 doesn’t fall on a Sunday. This is her prerogative, but St. Andrew is not a top drawer saint and Marsue doesn’t similarly celebrate St. Peter or St. John or St. Anybody Else yearly on Sunday. Marsue does this because St. Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland and she is a lover of bagpipes. St. Andrew’s Day gives Marsue the opportunity every year to import bagpipe_pda bagpipe player to start the service by scaring the shit out of everybody as she winds the best up in the back of the church and then processes. I heard once that when a new, very loud trumpet stop on the organ at St. John the Divine Episcopal Cathedral in Manhattan was used at a Sunday service for the first time many years ago, a woman in the congregation was so shocked by the unexpected noise that she had a heart attack and died. I hope this does not happen on some future St. Andrew’s Sunday at Trinity Episcopal in Pawtuxet.

Some are inspired by the otherworldly sound of the bagpipe—others think something else is going on, as 2013735-59654_bugs_bunnyBugs Bunny does when he ends up unexpectedly in Scotland.

http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xo1q1_my-bunny-lies-over-the-sea-scene_fun

“How many of you like bagpipes?” I asked my after-church Adult Christian Education seminar after the St. Andrew’s Day service? Half enthusiastically raised their hands.” How many hate bagpipes?” The other half expressed their opinion just as vigorously; one of them commented “I always vow that I will never again come to church on St. Andrew’s Sunday, but I always forget!”

Bagpipes—you love them or you hate them. images.3A regiment of Scottish soldiers became known as the “Ladies from Hell” or the “Devils in Skirts” during World War I, not just because of their enormous bravery and fighting spirit, nor just because they wore kilts into battle. They were led into battle by soldiers playing an instrument that both looked and sounded as if it had been dreamed up and constructed in some deep, dark circle of Hell that Dante forgot to tell us about. I’m sure that many soldiers on the enemy side were unable to “contain their urine.”

The Irish gave bagpipes to the Scots as a joke. The Scots still haven’t gotten the joke.

Cats: I learned something very interesting the other day on NPR’s “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me”04brenn_CA0 (a Saturday noon tradition and the source of much of my current events information). Recent research indicates that domestic cats believe that their owners (people, fellow inhabitants of the house) are large, mostly hairless cats who are useful primarily because they have somehow figured out how to use a can opener. For those who have or have had cats in their lives, this is not a surprise.

In any group of more than five people, ask “How many of you like cats?” Half will raise their hands. “How many of you hate cats?” The other half will raise their hands. And cats know the difference instinctively. cat rubbing legA cat will pick the most dedicated cat-hater out of any room, go directly to her, and immediately start rubbing against her legs. To the cat hater the cat says “You don’t like me? Fuck you—I don’t give a shit. Let me leave a bunch of cat hairs on your pant leg to remember me by.” To the cat fans the cat says “Whatever. Do you think I’m here for your amusement?” Cat haters want to know why the hell cats think that 4:00 AM is a great time to run back and forth in the house as loudly as possible for no apparent reason. Cat lovers find it amusing and cute when cats decide that 4:00 AM is a great time to run back and forth in the house as loudly as possible for no apparent reason

Cats are low maintenance. Whenever Jeanne and I leave for a day or two, extensive coverage for our three dogs has to be arranged. The safe window for leaving the dogs alone and unsupervised is about five hours. AtmpphpfkKNbwfter five hours, all three of them think “I guess nobody’s ever returning” and all hell breaks loose, beginning with tipping over wastebaskets and relieving themselves in inappropriate locations. Cats are different. With sufficient cat litter, food and water, a cat can be left for a month with no problem. Upon return, the cat will look at its people and say “Oh, were you gone?”

There’s something edgy about even the most domesticated of cats, as if it just crossed the line from its wild ancestors and might cross back at a moment’s notice. Their habits are random and individual. tumblr_m7mfonbU481qz582yo1_500My last cat, Spooky, was an introvert extraordinaire but would at least once per evening make a royal appearance in whatever room people were gathered to make a slow, always counter-clockwise stroll through the room, then leave without comment. Dogs are obsequious—cats are not. Dogs need human affection and approval to assuage their natural canine insecurity—cats have no such insecurities. Whether a person loves or hates cats reveals a great deal about the person. I was pleased to find out on yet another Facebook personality quiz the other day that liberals prefer cats and conservatives prefer dogs.

I am a cat loving hater of bagpipes. So sue me.

The Peaceable Kingdom

Bleary-eyed at the 8;00 service yesterday morning, I noticed that a reproduction of the above familiar yet peculiar painting was propped up on a stand at the base of the reader’s lectern. Shortly thereafter, the Old Testament reading for the morning–the following familiar passage from Isaiah–nudged me into awareness:

The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.

The painting is one of many versions of “The Peaceable Kingdom” by 18th century Quaker artist Edward Hicks. Hicks’ artistic rendition of Isaiah’s vision is complete with rather flat representations of all the above animals plus three children, all hanging out on a grassy knoll with pop-eyed and glazed looks that have all the earmarks of drug inducement. The promise of the day’s Advent readings was a future world of peace where natural enemies will no longer be enemies. Drugs are one way to produce peace, I suppose.

At home we have a less diverse menagerie of beasts than Isaiah’s. Our group consists of two dachshunds—fifteen pound tubular bundles of extroverted energy—and a Boston terrier who is badly in need of a psychotherapist. A new friend who has never been to our house, upon hearing my description of our canine trio, said “well just make sure that they know who’s in charge.” To which I replied “oh there’s no doubt about who’s in charge—they are.” Although Jeanne and I love our four-leggers, let’s just say that peace is in short supply on the home front.

Lacking Isaiah’s prophetic powers and Hicks’ drugs, we tried something else not long ago. On a friend’s recommendation, Jeanne purchased a CD called “Through a Dog’s Ear,” a collection of piano arrangements of classical music that, according to the CD jacket, have been selected precisely to soothe and quiet even the most hyperactive dachshund and anxiety-ridden terrier. The companion website says that the CD “is recommended for when you want your dog to rest, when your dog is left alone, or when anxiety or excitement in your dog is anticipated — thunderstorms, fireworks, or the arrival of guests.” Most of the music is Mozart (also good for silencing babies and making them smart), along with some Bach and a bit of Beethoven.

We hoped that this CD would be useful when we want the dachshunds not to bark at people walking their dogs a quarter-mile away, or at me when I open the back door after being outside for thirty seconds taking out the garbage. Maybe it would even lessen the likelihood of Boston terrier incontinence and cardiac arrest when a male human being (especially me) is within ten feet.

We put the CD on the stereo and pressed the 24/7/365 button (I’m glad I love classical music), just to see what would happen. Although Jeanne thought the music made the beasts sleep more. I can’t say that I noticed a lot of difference in them. I did, however, find that I felt lazier than usual.

This same passage from Isaiah was one of the readings a few years ago for a service focused on an international day of prayer for peace. I suspect that such days were established with something more than canine tranquility in mind. Another of that morning’s readings was from Isaiah, who in chapter 2 invites us to go to “the mountain of the Lord” where, at some unspecified future time, the Lord will reign supreme and human beings will be acting quite differently than we do now.

They will hammer their swords into ploughshares, their spears into sickles. Nation will not lift sword against nation; there will be no more training for war.

Whatever Isaiah was seeing in this memorable vision, it sure isn’t the present. Although the writer of Ecclesiastes says there is “a time for war, and a time for peace,” the time for war has stretched for as long as human existence, and its end doesn’t appear imminent.

That’s probably why, in the religious tradition of my youth, we considered Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom either to be a description of heaven itself, or of God’s millennial kingdom of one thousand years which would occur after the second coming of Christ and the tribulation in which, after a lot of violence and judgment, the bad guys would be destroyed and only we good guys would remain. When we prayed “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done,” we really meant “Please come back soon and rescue us from this totally crappy and ruined world in which we live.”

So what am I supposed to be praying for on the day of prayer for peace and every other day? What can I do to help bring about world peace? Put “Visualize Whirled Peas” and “Who Would Jesus Bomb?” bumper stickers on my car? Commit random acts of kindness? Sing “Give Peace a Chance” along with John and Yoko? Play Mozart tunes as loudly as possible? Why not just spit into the wind and be done with it?

One possible place to begin is to remember that the Kingdom of God for which we pray, the Peaceable Kingdom, is here. “The Kingdom of God is within you.” The peaceable kingdom, the kingdom of heaven, begins in me, just as every one of Isaiah’s beasts is in me. I am a wolf, a lamb, a leopard, a goat, a calf, a lion, a cow, a bear, an ox, an adder, and an asp, as well as some other things Isaiah didn’t mention. There is probably a dachshund and a Boston terrier in there too. And, lest I forget, both a nursing child and a weaned child.

The key to establishing a peaceable kingdom within me is not to tame the scary beasts and put the fuzzy and cuddly ones in charge. Rather, it’s welcoming them all, allowing each their place, and not getting nervous when the lion and lamb decide to sit next to each other. To cite another John Lennon song, “Let It Be.” As I welcome and release each of the beasts, I commit myself, at least for today, to listening to as much Mozart as possible and following the example of the psalmist in Psalm 131:

Truly I have set my soul in silence and peace. As a weaned child on its mother’s breast, so is my soul.

Living Stones

The Bible is filled with rocks. The patriarchs pile rocks up every time they want to remember a place where they encountered the transcendent. Moses strikes rocks twice, once in obedience and once in anger, to produce water for the thirsty and complaining Israelites. David-and-Goliath-painting[1]David drops Goliath with a stone thrown from a sling. Satan tempts Jesus to turn stones into bread and have something to eat. And so on. I’m sure there’s a dissertation on Biblical rocks in there for someone. Theologians and Bible interpreters have a field day with the typology of rocks and stones, precious or otherwise. But I’m taking a basic approach—there are lots of rocks in the Bible because the people of the Bible encountered lots of rocks. Every day, all the time. How could the story of people who lived in a rocky desert not include rocks? I understand this, because I also grew up in a terrain filled with rocks. I grant you that northern New England, with its forests and green meadows, is not immediately reminiscent of Palestine. But as any Vermont farmer will tell you, dig or plow just a few inches under the surface and you hit rocks. Lots of them. Big ones. The neighboring state of New Hampshire’s official nickname is “The Granite State” (not “The No Sales Tax State” or “The Live Free or Die State”). bwquar[1]One of the largest granite quarries in the world, quaintly called the “Rock of Ages” quarry, is less than forty miles from where I grew up.

Just as most everyone, as a teenager I had my share of horrible summer jobs. The worst was the summer I helped dig swimming pools for a construction company run by the vice president of my Dad’s little Bible school. Really—a pool digging preacher. Who knew that swimming pools could sell in Vermont? On one occasion my co-diggers and I had just about finished digging the swimming pool hole—everything was planed off, measured, and ready for concrete pouring, except for one small detail, and they even add other things as the best pool heater to keep the pools warm. There was a rock sticking out of the deep end wall-to-be about ten inches. That rock would have to be removed and the hole filled in before the concrete could be poured. But the more we dug around the rock to loosen and remove it, the larger it got. Soon it became clear that this “rock” was a pimple-sized bump on a massive boulder. Removing the boulder required pulling it out with chains attached to a backhoe; once it came out, the whole back wall of the pool-to-be collapsed, setting the whole project back a couple of days. I didn’t see it through, as I fortunately got a job bagging groceries the next day and quit without giving notice.

The Bible says a lot about gems and precious stones, especially in the crazy, weird books like Daniel and Revelation. But I’m more interested in just regular rocks, as I think Jesus was and still is. He is the stone rejected by the builders. Why? There are plenty  of reasons why a builder might reject a stone—too big, too small, wrong shape, not what is needed, just doesn’t fit expectations—all the sorts of things that people said about Jesus. The-Stones-Would-Cry-Out[1]This guy’s not what we expected, so let’s ignore him or, better yet, get rid of him. But in Luke’s telling of the Palm Sunday story, we get a clear indication of what Jesus is up to. After his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the crowd continues to sing “Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!” The Pharisees, thoroughly annoyed as usual, want Jesus to tell the crowd to stop singing, to which Jesus replies “if these should keep silent, the stones would immediately cry out.” What God is after is living stones, and Jesus is the cornerstone of the new transcendent structure to be built out of these stones. Jesus wasn’t referring to gems and jewels that would cry out. He was talking about rocks. He was talking about us.

Peter (finally) got the message by the time he wrote the first letter attributed to him in the New Testament,  a Sunday reading from a couple of weeks ago:  “Coming to Him as to a living stone, rejected indeed by men, but chosen by God and precious, you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house.”living-stones[1] But stones, even living ones, are so random, so ordinary. We reject ourselves and each other for the same reasons that the original stone was rejected by the builders. Too fat, too thin, too hard, too soft, wrong color, wrong shape, wrong size, wrong gender. But when God makes a stone live, turns a heart of stone into a heart of flesh as Ezekiel says, that living stone is unique. Just the way God wants it.

Marsue-hed-shot[1]During Lent 2011 Marsue, a close friend and the rector of the Episcopal church Jeanne and I are involved with, and Bill, the junior warden, asked me if I would be willing to use some essays I had written while on sabbatical in Spring 2009 and after as a jumping off point for a biweekly adult education series. Apparently previous attempts at getting adult education off the ground had not been particularly successful.Trinity_Cranston[1] Marsue knew about these essays because I had been sending them to her, whether she liked it or not, over the past couple of years. The idea was that I could bring a couple of essays to the group, read them aloud, and try to generate discussion. I said “sure”—I had been looking for an outlet for these essays, given that no publisher had shown an ounce of interest in them—and we decided to give a try every other Wednesday night. I suggested to Bill and Marsue that we call the series “Living Stones,” reflecting Peter’s suggestion that “you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house.”

Those first few Wednesday nights attracted 8-10 people; just enough to justify continuing even after Lent and Easter season were over. Some essays worked well, some did not—but I was gratified that people were slowly opening up, willing to talk about their spiritual growth (or lack of same) more and more honestly as we got to know and trust each other. By the time Fall 2011 arrived we decided to try doing these “seminars” after the 10:00 Sunday morning service in hopes of attracting more people. We got into a routine of meeting after church every three weeks, a routine that continued until the beginning of this year, when we went to once a month in order to make room for a growing list of other classes that people were interested in.

As many as twenty have been in attendance on a given Sunday, but there are a dozen regulars who never miss. We have become so comfortable with each other that reading just one essay sparks a solid seventy-five minutes or more of fascinating discussion, with depth and insight that regularly astounds me. Telephone%20Book%203[1]I have said frequently that I’m quite sure that I could read from the phone book for ten minutes and the Living Stones group would turn it into something fascinating and powerful. I almost never am able to correctly predict what the group might pick up and run with—almost always it is something that carries my ideas to places far more interesting and edifying than I had in mind when writing.

Looking around the circle at a given seminar, I am first struck by our ordinariness. We’re just a bunch of normal folks who enjoy talking about our serious, but often pitifully or comically inadequate, attempts to live out what the closing prayer in the Episcopal liturgy challenges us to do—“to love and serve the Lord with gladness and singleness of heart.” I am also struck that the average age of the group is at least in the upper 60s, perhaps as high as 70. NewEngland[1]I am usually the youngest person in the group, and at 57 I’ve stopped pretending I’m just “middle aged” any more. The transparency and honesty of each member facilitates community in a way that I have seldom experienced. Sixty-something Episcopalian New Englanders are not supposed to be this open, honest and welcoming. Rock-ribbed New Englanders have little use for talking about religion in public. But living stones are different, as I am happily reminded every time we meet.

12817[1]In my favorite of Iris Murdoch’s later novels, Nuns and Soldiers, one of the main characters, Anne, is in the middle of a spiritual crisis. The God of her youth is dead; she’s not sure that there is any God at all. During a walk on the beach, she takes notice of the regular, ordinary, but unique stones lying all around her. The big, metaphysical questions fade into unimportance as she grasps the miracle of utter uniqueness. rocks[1]“What does anything matter except helping one or two people who are nearby, doing what’s obvious? We can see so little of the great game. Look at these stones. My Lord and my God. She said aloud, ‘My God . . . There they are.’” And as I look around the Living Stones circle this coming Sunday as we meet on our regular first-Sunday-of-the-month schedule, I will say the same thing: “My God . . . there they are.” Each flawed, imperfect, but unique living stone contributes to the building of a spiritual house that is the divine purpose in the universe. pearl[1]God knows rejection, insignificance and failure first hand, because God was the original rejected stone. But because of that, each living stone is unique and holy, a “pearl of great price.” Each insignificant stone has a divine space to occupy.