Spirituality


From my friend Pete Rollins. I wish I could write parables like this.

Actual site and info on Pete’s work and current Insurrection project here.

Discuss.

Just as it was written by those prophets of old, the last days of the Earth overflowed with suffering and pain. In those dark days a huge pale horse rode through the earth with Death upon its back and Hell in its wake. During this great tribulation the Earth was scorched with the fires of war, rivers ran red with blood, the soil withheld its fruit and disease descended like a mist. One by one all the nations of the Earth were brought to their knees.

Far from all the suffering, high up in the heavenly realm, God watched the events unfold with a heavy heart. An ominous silence had descended upon heaven as the angels witnessed the Earth being plunged into darkness and despair. But this could only continue for so long for, at a designated time, God stood upright, breathed deeply and addressed the angels,

“The time has now come for me to separate the sheep from the goats, the healthy wheat from the inedible chaff”

Having spoken these words God slowly turned to face the world and called forth to the church with a booming voice,

“Rise up and ascend to heaven all of you who have who have sought to escape the horrors of this world by sheltering beneath my wing. Come to me all who have turned from this suffering world by calling out ‘Lord, Lord’”.

In an instant millions where caught up in the clouds and ascended into the heavenly realm. Leaving the suffering world behind them.

Once this great rapture had taken place God paused for a moment and then addressed the angels, saying,

“It is done, I have separated the people born of my spirit from those who have turned from me. It is time now for us leave this place and take up residence in the Earth, for it is there that we shall find our people. The ones who would forsake heaven in order to serve the earth. The few who would turn away from eternity itself to serve at the feet of a fragile, broken life that passes from existence in but an instant”.

And so it was that God and the heavenly host left that place to dwell among those who had rooted themselves upon the earth. Quietly supporting the ones who had forsaken God for the world and thus who bore the mark God. The few who had discovered heaven in the very act of forsaking it.

My friend Marc announced on his blog that his church in Maine is retiring VCW version 1.0 in order to dedicate his efforts to design, develop, and implement version 2.0 in the (hopefully) near future. There’s a lot I could talk about with that, since the idea fascinates me, but towards the end of his entry, he admits that he also needs a rest. And Americans don’t like to rest. It’s not something we value; we see it as a waste of potentially productive time. Simply stopping is decried as being lazy, or, if we are feeling more generous, we express our sympathy for someone who’s “burnt out.” Our idea of vacation is to go somewhere different, cram in as much new stuff to do while we’re there, and then come back to do our normal routine.

Maybe it’s just me, but can’t relate to this. I never have. The modern American “vacation” does nothing for me, and so I try to resist. But some people can’t enjoy their vacation unless they load the calendar with activities (and, I might add, spend more money in a week than they might normally spend in a month or two). My idea of rest is quiet and stillness, to walk the Garden with God in the cool of the day during the evening breezes. My idea of vacation is this exact same thing, only for a more extended period of time than what I can manage normally.

We annually make the trip from CNY to NH to go “home.” In Christian spirituality, “home” is often a metaphor for “place of rest.” In our society, though, it is anything but; some “vacation” at home in order to get more done; others use their “vacation” to work on/around the house for their entire vacation period. When I go to NH, I want to rest, even as I know that I must continue to work in other ways. I do not desire to have my calendar filled up with either my own work or with dozens of activities and excursions that we are not normally able to do. During my rest periods of the day, and on my weekly Shabbat, I desire to sit, perhaps read something light and unrelated to my work, or fish, or walk in my woods. Not everybody understands this or, if they do, they reject it in good American fashion. When I’m “caught” just sitting and enjoying the breeze over the water, I am likely to over hear “go ask your father, he’s not doing anything right now.” I am likely to be accosted with a request for a project that, since I’m not doing anything, I’m able to give a hand to (or be told to do outright by myself). Ironically, in order to rest from my labors, of which there are many, I have to pretend to work, to look like I’m working.

Shabbat is good for the soul. It is good for the mind, and it is good also for the body. It is a lost art. We drive ourselves, our workers, and our students very hard in our society. I wonder how much our work, and the work of our students etc., would improve by allowing them rest, and I wonder what it would take to cultivate a climate that values rest as much as it values productivity.

Caught between…Well, I did it. I went. Feeling spiritually downcast these days, I went to one of the local Southern Baptist mini-megachurches in the area for an evening service tonight. I just needed to do it. I sucked it up, decided that I didn’t have to have a “high-church” experience tonight, or traditional baptist hymnology on an organ, but wanted to be with people who genuinely love their image of God and Christ. Most of all, I just wanted to sing contemporary praise music. I can’t explain why, and even if I could, it would be in forced academicese.

I ended up sitting next to the Associate Pastor, who I actually know a little bit. When I arrived, about 5 minutes after the start of the service, and joined in with the singing. We shortly broke into small prayer groups.

All I really want to note is how contemplative this was. I don’t believe that I have experienced such a moving spirit of prayer since I was at Glastonbury Abbey.

Being a practicing Christian, or of any other faith tradition, and a professional academic scholar of religion really is to be caught between the proverbial rock and hard place, especially when one’s family doesn’t really see what the fuss is about, as much as they might try. It can get pretty lonely between the stone and the wall.

It was a good night. A good, good night.

Word Made Flesh.Whatever else Christian faith may be, it is incarnational at its core. It is common for us to think of this in the classical expression of “God becoming man,” but the gospel of John speaks of it in terms that are not spoken of nearly as much. For John, the incarnation is the Word becoming Flesh.

I offer up some thoughts of reflection on the idea of Word becoming flesh.

Flesh is passionate and desirous.

But it is not only passionate and desirous for other flesh, but also for knowledge.

Knowledge for us comes in the form of Words, and we are oversaturated with words in the twenty-first century.

Knowledge is erotic. The Bible tells us as much in its Hebrew expression, and the classical Greeks knew this to be the case in Homer as well.

To know something is to regard it, and as Jane Hirshfield notes, “what we regard must seduce us, and we it, if we are to continue looking.” The power of the Word is in its power to seduce us and to awaken desire for knowledge.

Adrienne Rich: “I dreamed you were a poem, I say, a poem I wanted to show someone…”

Rich, again:

What kind of beast would turn its life into words?
What kind of atonement is this all about?
-and yet, writing words like these, I’m also living.

and:

I have written so many words
wanting to live inside you
to be of use to you

The Desert Fathers of the Christian tradition believed the flesh to be evil on account of its capacity for passion and desire, and so they fled into the desert, long the archetype of dryness, infertility, and anti-passion. Yet it is in this environment where passion and desire are awakened most. They also had a profound mistrust of the written word, and yet their own words were assiduously recorded onto parchments. It was as if the Fathers knew the eroticism of knowledge and the desire for the Word.

The connection between parched desire and parchment may be more than coincidental.

stjohnchrysostom.jpgNothing makes one so dizzy as human reasoning, which sees everything from an earthly point of view, and does not allow illumination from above. Earthly reasoning is covered with mud. Therefore, we have need of streams from above, so that, when the mud has fallen away, whatever part of the reason is pure may be carried on high and may be thoroughly imbued with the lessons taught there. This takes place when we manifest both a well-disposed soul and an upright life.

St. John Chrysostom
Homily 24 (John 2:23-3:4), A.D. 390

Instead of Death: A Sermon for Ordinary 10

Texts: 1 Kings 17.17-24 (Elijah and the Widow of Zarephath); Psalm 146; Luke 7.11-17 (Jesus and the Widow of Nain); Galatians 1.11-24. Sermon title adopted from William Stringfellow’s book of the same name.

The situation was miserable and the outlook bleak. The Land was cracked, dry, and parched, not altogether unlike the way it looks around here in the middle of August; and no rain was in the immediate forecast. Crops had long since failed; oil jars and lamps had long since been emptied. The entire Land and the chosen people Israel were parched and dying of hunger and thirst.

Some miles away, at the capital of an apparently strong kingdom, a ruler was working overtime to keep his subjects happy and alive with a smorgasboard of political and religious policies designed to keep things the way they had been, and have been for a long time, policies that had been in place to safeguard the health and security of his people since the days of Solomon. Israel, after all, lay on the great road from the riches of Egypt and the power of Assyria, the one the economic and food capital of the world and the other the undisputed military leader and enforcer of the region. It was certainly in the state’s best interests to keep the financiers and the military police happy, and if it meant sacrificing a little piety here and there, or giving up the poorest people of the country to the state or even to death, well, such were the costs of living in an international economy. If it means that the widows and the orphans and those without a way to contribute to our security and way of life lose out, so they must have reasoned, so much the better; they’re off the books. Or, as Dickens might have put it, “If they’re going to die, then they’d better do it, and decrease the surplus population!” Better to keep all but the wealthiest people under the thumb of the state than to allow those who hate us to come in and destroy our way of life. And, these rulers reasoned, since we know, of course, that God is on our side, we absolutely must keep worshiping him in the way we always have for him to take care of us. The Word of the Lord is the same as it’s always been since he gave it to us.

The scene I’ve described sets the political, economic, religious, and indeed cultural background for our two primary passages today. The story from 1 Kings about Elijah is set against the background of Israel’s living in the shadow of the Assyrian Empire during the notorious drought and famine under the reign of a strong but paranoid king named Ahab. In the Gospel, Jesus is living and moving under the deeper shadow of the Roman Empire. Our studies of the history and of the archaeology of first century Palestine are making increasingly clear the amount of sheer poverty that existed as a result of Roman policies of taxation and industrialization of local industries in Judea and the surrounding provinces. We are also aware of corresponding and increasing religious conservatism in the context of both the Kings and Luke passages; the one entrenched the long-standing practices of Israel in order to safeguard the security of the nation against its enemies, while the other adopted the same policies in the Jerusalem Temple establishment in order to protect the people Israel from annihilation from an oppressive empire that was already installed and controlled the Land and its People. “They haven’t killed us yet,” the Jewish leaders thought, “so better to maintain the church’s status quo, lest the Romans destroy us and our holy place.” And so, under Ahab’s reign and under the rule of the Romans 800 years later, we find, in the words of the Psalmist, more

trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help (Psalm 146.4)

than

those whose help is the God of Jacob,
whose hope is in the LORD their God…
who executes justice for the oppressed,
who gives food to the hungry (Psalm 146.5, 7).

The texts tell us that the power of the princes of the world is one of death, no matter how great the temptation is to see all our institutions as righteous and effective. The Psalmist, again, tells us that when

princes and mortals die,
when their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish (Psalm 146.4).

The prophetic word is one that challenges these powers with an alternative that we can choose instead of death. In the case of Elijah and the widow and her son at Zarephath, Elijah has issued a challenge to King Ahab and his politics and his religion by announcing that God and God alone has power over life and death, and to prove it, yhwh has decided that no matter how well-laid the king’s plans are, they cannot compete with his own ability to grant or withhold rain on the Land, which, in an agricultural society like Israel, was tantamount to controlling life and death itself.

But neither Elijah nor the LORD are without compassion, as merciless as this divine decree might seem. After such a word to the king, Elijah is naturally a fugitive. And, with the Word of the Lord rejected by his own people, he leaves and takes the Word to “them.” “We” have rejected the life-giving Word of the LORD, and so those who bear his Word are obligated to take his Word to “them.” Elijah flees to Sidon, to a “suburb” called Zarephath, where he meeds and stays with a widow and her son, who is himself little better than an orphan as a result of his lack of father and protector for his mother. Where God has delivered a Word of judgment against those who consider that they and only they have received his Word and who believe that they and only they have God on their side, the bearer of the Word goes to complete outsiders, indeed, to those considered to be the Enemy (as Queen Jezebel herself was a Sidonian) who might recognize “the LORD your God,” but whose recognition is hardly at the expense of the Ba’als of virility and sexualized Asherahs of fertility. And it comes to a widow, and a minor son, of all people! People who have nothing, and whose plight is made even worse by the very drought and famine of this yhwh, uttered from the very mouth of the prophet she is now putting up in her house. And sure enough, even after the miracle of the never-ending bread and oil, the widow’s son eventually dies, and she casts the blame squarely on Elijah himself. But the Prophet of God, the bearer of the Word of the Lord, will have no truck with the death of the widow’s son; for he knows that while her son has capitulated to death caused by the powers and policies and institutions of Ahab and this world, the Word of God brings life to those who will receive it. Instead of death, the widow’s son receives life! Elijah, angered over the death of the son of his host, cries out to God to restore the woman’s son to her. Yhwh is the God of life! Even for those who “we” say are not “eligible.”

Jesus raises the Widow’s son at NainLike Elijah, Jesus rejects the finality of death of this world, and especially the alleged authority of those who think they have power over life and death in today’s Gospel passage from Luke. Jesus, on his way to a town called Nain, bumps into a funeral procession carrying out a dead man, who happened to be his mother’s only son; like the widow of Zarephath, this woman was a widow and, with the death of her son, was almost automatically consigned to a life of destitution and perhaps even prostitution under the “rules” of the day. Jesus was moved to compassion for her and her inevitable future of a living death; and like Elijah, Jesus rejects death, both that of the woman and that of her son! By the life-giving Word of the LORD, Jesus restores the life of the man and gives him back to his mother, and thumbs his nose at the powers of death in the world. The Psalmist tells us that

The LORD sets the prisoners free;
The LORD opens the eyes of the blind.
The LORD lifts those who are bowed down;
The LORD loves the righteous.
The LORD watches over the strangers;
he upholds the orphan and the widow (Psalm 146.7b-9a).

Instead of death, the Lord grants the gift of life! This is the Gospel, this is the message of Easter, this is the message of Easter, and this is the message that we must bring as bearers of the Word of the Lord. Against the institutions, ideas, policies, economies, corporations, governments, and so on that can only lead to death, we as Christians and Easter People who would follow the example of the Lord and of the Prophets who anticipated his coming must bring the Word of the Lord to those places that might make us a bit uncomfortable, places where we’d probably rather not go; do things we’d rather not do; say things that we would really rather not say.

Rembrandt’s St. Paul in PrisonThis is not only evident in the Elijah and Jesus stories, but it is also the thrust of Paul’s point with the Galatians in Galatians 1.11-24. This passage is infamous as Paul’s ironically self-righteous, self-justification of his apostolic activity. But beyond all the evident frustration in this part of the letter, what Paul is doing is he is pointing out that God’s intervention overturns our life of comfort and predictability, which is bound to bring us into conflict with that predictable, comfortable world’s powers of death. God’s apostolic and prophetic call disrupts Paul’s life, as it must disrupt our lives, in that he comes into direct conflict with his established traditions, his accepted religion, his comfortable church. The Word of the Lord, the Word of Life instead of death, is a word of intercession and intervention and disruption that is not going to be welcome. It is not going to supply pleasant and enjoyable fulfillments of our needs. Paul’s point is a warning that we in the church today do not take seriously enough; if we are to be prophetic witnesses to the Gospel, to bring life instead of death, to practice resurrection, as the poet Wendell Berry says, the reality is that that prophetic Word may very well need to start with our own people; our own community; our own government; our own church.
What is to be our response, then, to God’s action of bringing life instead of death? The Psalmist tells us once again: It is to

Praise the Lord!
Praise the Lord, O my soul!
I will praise the LORD as long as I live;
I will sing praises to my God all my life long! (Psalm 146.1-2).

The Gospel of Life, The Kingdom of God, tells us, as the Psalmist does, that through the power of life over death

The LORD will reign forever,
your God, O Zion, for all generations.
Praise the Lord (Psalm 146.10)!

Just when you think you’ve seen everything, stuff like this reminds you of what Bruce Cockburn says: You’ve Never Seen Everything. For which, I guess, we can only be thankful. But here’s a new one, at least to me: Virtue Perfume, a new beauty product that the creators say was inspired by biblical ingredients and which is geared toward assisting the wearer, or the lover, as the case may be, towards spiritual attainment. $80 bucks gets you a chance to be biblical, spiritual, and sexy all at the same time.

Scent From the Bible

Obviously this kind of materialist marketing, capitalizing on obscure content from the text of the Bible, is nothing new. Pop-culture pragmatic evangelical products have been around for at least 30 or so years and include everything from rock music to visual art of biblical scenes and characters, Christian Tee-shirts that parody popular consumerist products and ideology, to Christian horror flicks. The Christian retail industry hit something like $4 billion dollars in sales three years ago, and this figure doesn’t even include sales of Catholic bookshops and gift stores that marked incense, images, and other such sensory aids to worship. So I suppose that the surprising thing is that it took so long for a Christian perfume to appear at all.

Now, while I find the consumer-capitalist junk products of Tee-shirts and other Christiany knick-knacks highly problematic, especially for the purpose of evangelism, I can definitely appreciate sensory, physical, and material elements in the practice of faith. The natural, physical world exists to be experienced through the senses, which can deepen faith for those who have it and can inspire mystical ecstasy even among those who profess no faith or who cannot intellectually assent to the Divine. There is nothing that inspires my experience of God so much as things that allow me to participate in the physical, sensory world of the Creation. So much that I find sensorily beautiful move me to tears and to stronger faith. And smells are one of these; food, for example, is a spiritual experience for me from time to time, as it engages sight, smell, and taste. The human body is also an inspiration to beauty that engages the senses. I love good perfumes on my woman. So the concept of something like Virtue Perfume as an aid to experiencing the sacred isn’t particularly foreign or offensive to me.

What I find ridiculous is the need to justify the spiritual value of sensory and bodily beauty to certain Christian groups by marketing the stuff as a religious product and, especially, by making it “biblical.” As if to say that smelling good and feeling sensual or sexy is sinf, unchristian, and unbiblical unless it can be shown that smelling good, feeling sensual, or being sexy is OK’ed by Scripture. The way Virtue tries to pull this off is by listing its ingredients as “biblical.” And so they are. But so what? In fact, the website even notes that one of these biblical ingredients, Apricot, was probably the original forbidden fruit. This would have been news to medieval theologians like Bernard, no stranger to sensual spirituality himself, who thought of the fruit as the apple, and of modern scholars who find it much more likely that the forbidden fruit was the pomegranate. But in any case, it is highly ironic that an ap-peal to the forbidden fruit in this very biblical list would be used as an aid to experiencing God.

The thinking is that “Christians won’t buy perfumes if they psychologically associate them with negative stereotypes of sexuality that most perfumes perpetuate.” And that’s probably the case. Why feed into the sex industry even more by buying products that perpetuate sexual imagery that is damaging and destructive? It is tough, I suppose, to avoid thinking of having wild sex on the beach if your schnozz picks up avirtue-perfume.gif whiff Nautica or whatever. Having a marketing image that provides an alternative to ads like Nautica’s or Calvin Klein’s is commendable, but to actually say it’s “biblical” goes a bit over the top. Some things can be good, and sensual, without having to justify it as being biblical.

Plus, its $80.00 bucks.

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