Tag Archives: baptism

An Epiphany

“It’s the cold mornings that it’s the hardest. You want nothing more than to wake up in your own place, look out the window, make some coffee, and not have to go anywhere.”

–“They’ve given me 10 days. Who the hell can find a place to live in 10 days? The only place you can find in the winter in 10 days is an abandoned building.”

“But I’ll live anywhere instead of going to a shelter. Some of the people in shelters are nasty. No matter how hard you try to mind your own business, somebody just has to get in your face and then it’s on.”

–“You’re telling me. A lot of those people never take showers, not that I blame them because the shelter bathrooms are disgusting. Animals wouldn’t want to use them.”

–“I sat too close to someone’s backpack one time and he kicked me.”

ripta_bus1_20081008103712_320_240[1]Not the sort of conversation I usually hear on a Sunday morning. But then I don’t usually ride the RIPTA #1 bus to church. “It’ll be fun,” I thought to myself; “It will be an adventure.” And it was. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have walked across the street to go to church, but here I was spending two hours riding buses, waiting for buses, and walking just to get to church, a trip that takes 10-15 minutes in a car. But Jeanne had the car in New Jersey and I felt like going to church. I spent a half hour on the RIPTA website the night before, eventually calculating that it is possible to get there from here, but just barely.

imagesCA1Q13KYEight-fifteen on a cold, January Sunday morning at Kennedy Plaza in downtown Providence. The local #50 bus just deposited me at the central RIPTA station. In a perfect world, the bus would have picked me up at my front door, the driver would have handed me a Dunkin’ Donuts medium decaf Toasted Almond regular as I boarded, and she would have dropped me off at Trinity Episcopal in 20 minutes. In the real world,  all bus lines go through Kennedy plaza. With 25 minutes before the #1 bus arrives, I look inside the terminal. It is filled with at least 100 people of various sizes, shapes, ages and races. Most are dressed in some sort of winter garb, designer or makeshift—given the light Sunday bus service on all lines, I’ll bet half of them aren’t even waiting for a bus. This is the only warm place they can find this morning. A few muffled conversations are going on, and everyone is giving me the look. I decide it would be fun to freeze my ass off and check out what the Riverwal4897635079_e53ed9fb7d_b[1]k is up to while I wait for the #1. It’s doing fine, by the way, and says hi.

I’m followed onto the bus by two gentlemen—early forties and late fifties, I guess—who  sit across the aisle and converse about trying to preserve a shred of dignity while being homeless. Neither of them “looks” homeless—it always shocks me how easily I fall into stereotypical thinking. But as I listen to them I am grateful for my good fortune and blessings and silently ask for a blessing on them. Please help our elected officials to figure something out. You are a God of love and justice and these men need a lot of both. Amen—and they get off the bus at Eddy and Thurbers, leaving me to travel the remaining ten minutes to Trinity in silence.

It is the season of Epiphany—“epiphany” means “to show forth.” This is the liturgical season to celebrate Jesus’s coming out party, first to the wise men, then at his baptism. The Old Testament readings are great. Psalm 29 tells us that “the voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of firePraying-the-Psalms-Psalm-29-Berger-300x231[1] . . . the voice of the LORD causes the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, ‘Glory!’” Now that’s what I’m talking about! That’s a God who can straighten things out and bring on justice like a flood. Enough with our puny human attempts! But Isaiah says something different about the one who is to come, the one who “will bring forth justice to the nations.”

He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.

I’m confused. How is someone so gentle that he won’t break a bruised reed or snuff out an almost spent candle going to bring about justice?

But then it dawns on me—a little epiphany, I suppose—that I encountered the bruised reeds and dimly burning wicks of my day and age this morning on the way to church. These are the people I read about in the paper and hear the talking heads screech about on MSNBC and Fox NewsIBrOGLoxmYhmNiT-556x313-noPad[1], but with real faces, wearing real winter clothes, and living real histories. These guys really exist, not as units in a collection or a specimen from the social category labeled “homeless,” but as men, exactly like me, who were one day stamped with a special mark by affliction and misfortune.

But how to respond? I might begin just by paying attention. Simone Weil writes that “those who are unhappy have no need for anything but people capable of giving them their attention . . . The soul empties itself of all its own contents in order to receive into itself the being it is looking at, just as he is, in all his truth.” In other words, before I try to solve your problem, tell me your story. Justice for bruised reeds and almost-extinguished wicks must begin in peace, gentleness, and silent attentiveness. Various sorts of force have just about finished them off. Any more might be the end.

isaiah 2[1]But who on earth could do this? Isaiah’s answer is disturbingly direct.

I am the LORD, I have called you in righteousness . . . I have given you as a covenant to the people, a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness . . . See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.

4862498560_a90b6be430_z[1]Epiphany basks in the glorious light of the Incarnation, of the divine made flesh. And nowadays that’s me. That’s you. That’s us. Only from that very unpromising source will justice roll down like waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.

Clouds of Glory

kant1[1]The great but incredibly difficult German philosopher Immanuel Kant, in a rare moment of clarity, wrote that all important human questions can be boiled down to these three: WHAT CAN I KNOW? WHAT OUGHT I TO DO?  and WHAT MAY I HOPE FOR? The Advent and Christmas seasons focus on the last of these three questions. A major figure in the seasons’ stories is John the Baptist, Jesus’ relative who once sent his disciples to ask his cousin a “What may I hope for?” question. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” This is one of the many imagesCAS1UEG4poignant and excruciatingly human scenes in the gospels—John has been imprisoned by Herod Antipas and his head will be on a plate soon. He is by no means the only prophet in the land—they came a dime a dozen in those days. Nor is Jesus the only Messiah candidate around—Israel is full of them. So John’s question is not an academic one. What he really wants to know is “has my whole life been a waste?”

Jesus’ answer to John’s question relies on John’s knowledge of the prophet Isaiah. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” Hopefully the message got back to John before he was executed by Herod. The man whom you baptized is the real deal–the Messiah has truly come. That’s what John foretold and waited for.

And that’s what we wait for every Advent and Christmas season. As Christians we anticipate and celebrate what we believe to be the single most important event in human history—the Incarnation. But there’s a secret, perhaps perverse part of me that asks, “so what?” What exactly are we celebrating at Christmas? imagesCAK1O2WOWhat difference do the circumstances of Jesus’ birth make, a story told differently by Matthew and Luke and considered to be so insignificant by Mark and John that they don’t even include it? As the 13th century Dominican monk Meister Eckhart provocatively asked, “What good is it for me that Christ was born a thousand years ago in Bethlehem?”

Collegeville lecture 3During the first five months of 2009, I spent a sabbatical semester as a resident scholar at an ecumenical institute on the campus of St. John’s University, run by the Benedictine Catholic order, in Collegeville, Minnesota. My academic plans were set; a well-defined book project was ready to be written. But upon arrival, it gradually became clear to me that something else was going on. For most of my then fifty-plus years, I had struggled with the conservative, fundamentalist Protestant Christianity in which I was raised. What became clear to me in Minnesota was that what I thought was a long-term, low-grade spiritual dissatisfaction had become, without my being aware of it, a full-blown spiritual crisis. Beneath my introverted, overly cerebral surface my soul was asking John’s question—“Are you the one, or is it time to look for another?”

100_0331The answer developed quietly, subtly, unheralded, over the weeks and months. As I tested the waters of daily prayer with the monks at St. John’s Abbey, I noticed a space of silence and peace slowly opening inside of me that I had never known. No voices, no visions, no miracles—but I was writing differently. The low-grade anger that had accompanied me for most of my life began to dissipate. I felt more and more like a whole person instead of a cardboard cutout of one. The world looked different. I felt different. Eventually a few of my colleagues said “you’re not the same person you were when you first got here.” And they were right–I wasn’t. I began spending more time with the monks at prayer, often three times daily. Essays began to flow from a place I didn’t recognize, but really liked. Little had changed outwardly, but everything was changing.

As the day of returning home after four months drew near, I was worried. Would these changes be transferable to my real life? Would this space of centeredness and peace be available during a typical 80-90 hour work week in the middle of a semester? Or would these changes soon be a fond memory, to be stored in an already overfull internal regret file? 443px-Santa_Caterina_Fieschi_Adorno-dipinto_Giovanni_Agostino_Ratti[1]Two days before leaving, one of the Benedictines preached at daily mass (which I did not normally attend). In the middle of an otherwise forgettable homily, he quoted the obscure St. Catherine of Genoa, who said “My deepest me is God.” This was the answer. The space of quietness, silence and peace inside of me, the one I’d never known and had just discovered—is God. I was stunned. Tears filled my eyes. I tingled all over. I’m tingling all over right now as I write this. Because what I had been looking for is here. And it is transferable. Trust me.

I used to think that the evidence Jesus sent to John in prison—the blind see, the lame walk, and all of that—was all well and good, but I’ve never seen a blind person healed, I’ve never seen a cripple stand and walk. Faith 05[1]But I was looking in the wrong place. Because although I don’t see perfectly, I’m a little less blind than I was. My frequent tone-deafness to the needs of others is getting a little better. My inner cripple is now walking with a limp. Some days I even think I know what Lazarus must have felt like as his sisters started to unwrap his grave-clothes. A few paragraphs ago I quoted Meister Eckhart—but only half of the quote. The full quote is “What good is it for me that Christ was born a thousand years ago in Bethlehem, if he is not born today in our own time?” The answer to that pressing question? He is born today. In us.

Let’s make this Christmas season a coming home, an embracing of the true, continuingwilliam_wordsworth[1] mystery of the Incarnation. Yes, God became flesh. And God continues to be incarnated in you, in me. This is our heritage and the promise to us. Our deepest me is God. William Wordsworth expressed this truth beautifully: “But trailing clouds of glory do we come from God, who is our home.

I’m hoping that in the darkness of his dungeon cell, John remembered his father Zechariah’s words spoken at John’s naming ceremony, words that I’m sure were part of the family stories in John’s childhood. Zechariah and Elizabeth[1]The Song of Zechariah, the “Benedictus,”  is the canticle that closes every morning prayer service in the Benedictine daily liturgy of the hours. You may remember that Zechariah had not spoken for months, struck dumb because he found it difficult to believe the angel’s announcement that his wife Elizabeth, well past child-bearing years, would bear a son. When Zechariah and Elizabeth’s son is circumcised at eight days old, a family squabble breaks out over what the baby’s name will be. Most of the group votes for “Zechariah Junior.” But Zechariah motions for a tablet and writes “His name is John,” as the angel directed. His power of speech returns—the Benedictus follows. After a beautiful meditation on his new son’s role in the divine economy, Zechariah closes with a stunning promise.

In the tender compassion of our GodC-002-r%20Advent%202[1]

the dawn from on high shall break upon us,

To shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death,

and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Let’s walk in that dawn together.

Big Bird

This is the first election cycle in my remembrance that, at least for a week or so, an eight-foot yellow bird has played a central role in presidential politics. When one candidate promised that his policies, if elected, will put the bird’s employment status in jeopardy, people sat up and took notice. This particular bird has played a special role in my family’s life for several decades. Strangely enough our journey with this bird began with trying to help my sons imagine what God might be like.

It’s pretty much a given that whatever God is, God transcends whatever words and pictures we use to capture the divine reality. But we have to picture what we believe, knowing that all pictures are inadequate. What gender is God, for instance? I have no reason to believe that God is a guy, but since every sacred text I was steeped in from my childhood refers to Him with mostly male nouns and pronouns, it’s been a challenge to picture God as female, a Mother, a nurturer. Old pictures fade hard. So I’ve started using words like “the transcendent,” “the divine,” “what is greater than us.” It helps to remove the picture of the old guy with a white beard, but doesn’t give me a new picture. Recently, I got a lot of help from William P. Young’s The Shack, in which God the Father is a large, robust, African-American woman called “Papa” who is a gourmet cook and generally Loves with a capital “L.”  I’m sure Young has gotten flack from all sorts of people who say “that’s not scriptural,” “that’s disrespectful of tradition,” and so on. So what? All we have is imperfect pictures, we all “see in a mirror, dimly,” and Young cleaned my mirror just a little bit.

Jesus is a guy, of course, simply because Jesus was—a guy. So what’s the Holy Spirit? To be honest, we didn’t talk much about the Holy Spirit in church when I was a kid; sure, the Spirit’s in the Bible, but that’s the only place I ever encountered him (or her, or it). People didn’t talk about the Spirit, probably because they didn’t know what to say, The Holy Spirit lived between leather covers. It wasn’t until I ran into a bunch of charismatics as a young adult that the Spirit all of a sudden became important. If forced to specify a Holy Spirit gender, I suppose I would have said “female” just to mix it up a bit. But the one visual of the Holy Spirit that stuck with me early on was the one that everybody knows from the baptism of Jesus, where God booms from heaven “This is my beloved Son” and the Holy Spirit descends “like a dove.” The whole Trinity together at the Jordan River. Don’t get me started on the Trinity—there is no picture for that.

So the Holy Spirit is a dove (male or female doesn’t really matter, I guess). I can buy the bird part, but a dove doesn’t work for me. Doves are too close to pigeons, those rats with wings that fly only when you’re inches from them in the car, and whose heads jerk back and forth in the same way that Steve Martin’s hands do when he does his “King Tut” routine (I’m really dating myself). The prophet Hosea even refers to the northern kingdom of Israel, which has wandered from God, as “a silly dove without sense.” Enter another inspired piece of iconoclasm. Once many years ago, when Jeanne joined my two young sons and I in a new “blended family”—it’s definitely a good thing that one doesn’t know what one getting into when one makes such decisions—she referred to the Holy Spirit as “Big Bird.” It was a brilliant move on her part, locking into a six and a nine-year-olds imagination, accustomed to regular doses of Sesame Street, an unforgettable picture of the divine. My sons are now in their early thirties, and the name my family uses most frequently when referring to “what is greater than ourselves” still is Big Bird.

And it works. The image is just irreverent and crazy enough to do the job. If God the Father can be a big African-American woman named “Papa,” why can’t the Holy Spirit be an eight-foot tall, bright yellow androgynous bird with massive feet and red-and-white striped stockings? No one’s going to go to doctrinal war over whether Big Bird’s feathers are yellow or orange (I don’t think), but it’s a great place holder for one aspect of what truly transcends any human attempts to get the picture perfect. I once sent Jeanne an email with a link describing a summer writing workshop, asking for her impressions as to whether this would be a good program for me to apply to. In her return email, she wrote “I don’t need to read the description. Anything that will help you write in a non-academic way has Big Bird all over it.”

At the end of his poem “God’s Grandeur,” Gerard Manley Hopkins writes that “the Holy Ghost over the bent/ World broods with warm breast, and with, ah, bright wings.” Indeed. But Gerard Manly forget to add that the wings are bright yellow.

I Don’t Like It

A baptism was part of the morning service a few Sundays ago. Actually, there were two baptisms—ten year old Brooke and her two year old brother Jacob. Many moons ago, when I was in my twenties and considering joining the Episcopal Church, their practice of baptizing young children, even infants, gave me pause. So much about the Episcopal way of doing things was attractive and an obvious spiritual balm to the scars I carried in my twenties from my conservative, fundamentalist upbringing. Liturgy, a pipe organ, excellent music, clerical robes, a prayer-book, weekly Eucharist—if I had been aware enough to design worship that spoke to my deepest aesthetic and spiritual needs, it would have been exactly like Sunday morning at St. Matthew’s Cathedral.

But they baptized infants. After finishing the baptismal liturgy, the Dean would carry the baby up and down the center aisle of the cathedral, saying “This is the brand newest Christian in the world!” as the congregation applauded. For someone taught from his earliest memory that becoming a Christian required a “born again experience,” a once for all conversion event that required a certain level of rational maturity and spiritual awareness, this business of becoming a Christian simply by some water being poured on one’s head in the manner specified by the prayer-book was jarring. My own full immersion baptism, performed by my father in a swimming pool size baptismal when I was twelve, was what a baptism is supposed to be like. I’ve always thought, despite sacred art and Hollywood depictions, that John the Baptist did not just pour a bit of water on Jesus’ head that day in the Jordan River—he dunked him.

None of this stopped me from being confirmed as an Episcopalian more than twenty-five years ago, as I chose to embrace a bit of spiritual life and comfort where I found it. Still, I am always somewhat crestfallen when on my infrequent trips to church I read in the bulletin that a baptism will be part of the morning’s festivities. My discomfort is not as crass as simple annoyance at finding out that the service will be lengthened by ten or fifteen minutes. It’s just that baptisms still confuse me. But as I watched and participated as a member of the congregation a few weeks ago, I was struck by the obvious pleasure that the young girl, dressed entirely in white, was taking in the proceedings. I heard the beautiful words toward the end of the baptismal liturgy—“You are marked as Christ’s own forever.” My doctrinal issues with baptizing children dissolved into a puddle of irrelevance.

Shortly after, as Jeanne and I were headed toward the altar for communion, the brand newest Christian in the world was making her way down the steps after having received the body and blood of Christ for the first time in her life. As she walked by us, she looked in our direction, screwed up her face, and said in a loud stage whisper “I don’t like it!” Out of the mouths of babes. “Kid, you don’t know the half of it,” I thought. There are going to be many things upcoming that you’ll dislike a lot more than a communion wafer epoxied to the roof of your mouth and the aftertaste of cheap wine. This “marked as Christ’s own forever” stuff is no picnic.

In the past, I’ve heard police and firefighter work described as 95% boredom and 5% sheer terror. That’s something like my experience over several decades of being one of “Christ’s own forever.” There have been long stretches of my life when there were no identifiable signs of such a privilege. The problem with ordinary spiritual commitment, as I’ve experienced it and heard it described by others, is that it is so ordinary as to be unnoticeable. Sure there have been some “Big Bird moments,” as Jeanne calls them, where the divine burst through so obviously that even I could not mistake it. But what about the weeks, months, and years during which those who are marked as Christ’s own forever slog through the barren desert of the everyday and mundane? Sometimes the silence is so deafening and the absence so palpable that the value of belonging to Christ escapes me. Teresa of Avila once complained to God that “If this is the way you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few.” No kidding—I don’t like it.

In one of Iris Murdoch’s novels, a central character has a vision in which she is visited in her kitchen by Jesus. As he leaves the room after a brief conversation, Jesus touches the woman on the hand. After the vision ends, she knows that her experience was not simply imaginary because her hand is painfully burned where Jesus touched her. Although the burn heals, and the pain eventually fades over the following days, a small but permanent scar remains. For the rest of her life her scar is an indelible reminder that she is forever changed because one day she encountered Jesus.

Perhaps baptism is something like that. Somewhere in the past and continuing history of those who are scarred by the mark of Christ are events, people, decisions, and experiences that form the skeleton, the internal structure of faith. A person’s spiritual identity is shaped by this structure, fleshed out in ways unique to each individual. Some pieces of this identity come out of the blue, divinely tinged experiences that cannot be easily accommodated or dismissed. Others are deliberately chosen, such as a baptism, responding to an altar call, a choice of worship community, or turning away from what no longer gives life. As Brooke’s and Jacob’s lives as one of Christ’s own unfold, each will be able to identify their baptismal Sunday as a signpost of difference. The fact that Brooke was part of the decision-making process while Jacob’s loving family chose the time and place of his baptism for him is not crucially important. The imprint of the divine on a human life often has nothing to do with individual choice.

The beauty of the Incarnation is that each of the moments of all of our days are, as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, “charged with the grandeur of God.” The grandeur is not in the product, the greatness of what I or anyone, marked as Christ’s own, might become or achieve. The grandeur is not even in the gloriously random Big Bird experiences that leaven our lives. The grandeur is in the very idea of God in the flesh, an indwelling reality that sanctifies even our most mundane days and disturbing experiences. “Marked as Christ’s own forever”—that’s something to embrace, even when I don’t like it.