Monday, September 07, 2015

Meditation XXXVII--Manipulating Ourselves into Slavery

Pilate said to them, “Shall I crucify your King?” The chief priests answered, “We have no king but Caesar.”
In John's account of the "trial" of Jesus, we have two moments that I have always read as distinct and separate moments, related only in that they are part of the narrative of Christ's crucifixion. After Pilate has had Jesus whipped and humiliated, he brings out the soon to be condemned and says, "Behold your king!" The crowd says, "Away with him. Crucify him!" Pilate responds with the question, "Shall I crucify your king?" to which they respond: "We have no king but Caesar."

It is clear the Jews here did not completely believe this, as the messiah they were hoping for was one who would overthrow the government they lived under. But for the rulers who wanted Jesus gone, the oppression of the Romans was beneficial. It gave them a common enemy to rally the commoners against (in words, not actions), and yet a structure that allowed them to keep power. So the declaration is merely an attempt to manipulate Pilate into killing Jesus.

But what they have done is swear loyalty to the state (not God). It is not only that they do not see Jesus as God. They also see the state's authority, when it suits their purpose, as greater than God's.
When Jesus is put to death, Pilate has written over the cross "the King of the Jews," which shows the state's power over the Jewish nation. The Jewish authorities complain, and say Pilate should change the phrase to "This man claimed to be the king of the Jews." Maybe they get it finally. Maybe they see that Pilate may have been manipulated to kill a single person, but they have signed an extension on their submission to the ruling power.

Does this sound familiar? In America, some see loyalty to God (or their idea of God) and loyalty to the country (or one's idea of country) as the same thing. Of course, they manipulate the words and the ideas so that loyalty is something that has little to do with godliness or reasonable citizenry. They cherry pick portions of the Constitution to fit their paranoia or thirst for dominion, and, having no real sense of the scriptures they claim guide them, turn those few, misquote phrases into their own scriptures.  They are slaves to fear and/or power, and so manipulate the masses with their fake God talk or fake talk of freedom and rights, unaware that they are dragging not only those they rule, but also themselves into deeper bondage.

Lord, save us from thinking our rights supersede your command to love. Help us to seek your peace instead of your power. Demonstrate your strength in our weakness. Amen in Christ.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Meditation XXXVI--Through the lens of metaphor

"For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind."

In this chapter from John's Gospel we find the incredible story of Christ healing a man born blind. The chapter opens with the disciples asking what may seem to the modern reader to be a very strange question: "Who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was was born blind?" The question is steeped in the prevailing error of the time, one based on an assumption that such maladies are the direct result of doing wrong. It defies reason that an innocent child could have done something before birth that he would be so cursed. Likewise, if the parents had done something worthy of punishment, why inflict that punishment on the unborn child?

Of course, the disciples, to carry the metaphor further, are blinded by the cultural and "spiritual" norms they have been born into. They can only see the either/or. And the answer, whether they realize it or not, says something about the nature of the God they are at Jesus' feet to learn about. With either expected answer, that God must seem a capricious overlord where rules are concerned.

But Jesus, ever the contrarian who adamantly pushes away from the trap of either/or thinking, says that neither option is correct. Then he adds, somewhat cryptically, that the man's blindness was there "that the works of God might be displayed in him." So while He could have said that this has nothing to do with God, He is clear that God is in the center of it, just not in the way everyone thought. I'll argue that the miracle of the man's healing, however, was only one part of Jesus demonstrating the "works of God."

See, the rule-makers/enforcers of Christ's time (and ours) were more interested in using the event as a way to trap their political enemy. After questioning the event, the man, his parents, and then the man again, they find themselves questioned. The healed man says, "We know that God does not listen to sinners." The statement is telling because they had adjured him to tell the truth (because they did not wish to believe the man's account), saying, "We know that this man is a sinner." Leaving aside for now what "sin" may or may not actually mean, we see these men expected a specific answer. Because Jesus was already their enemy, they could see nothing good coming from Him. This is further shown by them throwing the healed man out of the synagogue, for what can only be seen as having the audacity to stand up to them, with the classic circular argument: "You were born in utter sin, and would you teach us?"

It is easy for us to condemn the words and actions of the Pharisees here, and even to see the same mindset among certain people and groups we are familiar (or think we are familiar) with. I could not help but see corollaries in political groups on the right and left and in between, who see those who think differently from them as not only wrong, but grotesquely evil. What is harder, and more necessary, is that we look within ourselves for the germ that not only makes, but builds up enemies by ignoring the good right in front of us. That is the germ that, left unchecked, becomes terminal disease of the mind. As Jesus would tell the Pharisees, "now that you say, 'We see,' your guilt remains."

Stories like this show why an understanding of and openness to metaphors are so important. It was not love of the law that made the Pharisees unable to see the Jesus' truth, but their love of self made them turn the focus knobs of their microscope on the law until they could find their hatred, and this disguised as concern for the people. Our lens should not be scripture, but God Himself, whom we must continually seek. Otherwise, we cannot find joy, even in miracles.

Heavenly Father, we grope alone until you take us by the hand. And we do not always know it is You leading us. So quiet our minds that we can adjust to the light you give, and grant us vision of heart to trust You in what seems like darkness and even against the narrow vision of our times. Amen in Christ.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Scott Cairns' The End of Suffering

The End of Suffering: Finding Purpose in PainThe End of Suffering: Finding Purpose in Pain by Scott Cairns
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was not what I expected, and at first, not what I wanted. I cannot tell yet if it is what I needed. While some of the ideas may not be new to people who have spent a good deal reading this niche of literature, it is certainly more honest and better grounded, theologically and rationally, than other work I have read on the subject, including Lewis' sometimes infuriating The Problem of Pain.

View all my reviews

Thursday, June 04, 2015

A Barely Controlled Fire

Gabriela Montero is certainly one of the finest pianists recording. Her emotive playing is like listening to a barely controlled fire. This is evidenced on her recent project.

She performs the first three tracks with the YOA Orchestra of the Americas (conducted by Carlos Miguel Prieto) in a delicious rendition of Rachmaninov's Second Piano Concerto. Of course the composition itself is a delight, but in these hands it is even more stirring and wonderful.

The next piece is Montero's own composition "Ex Patria: In Memoriam" described on her website as, "an unapologetic musical commentary on Venezuela today, ravaged by violent crime, corruption and economic collapse." Her passion and love for her native country and her thoughts on the the corruption which plagues it is clear to anyone who follows her  on social media. This piece gives expression to the beauty and the savagery that is present day Venezuela. Part dirge, part rant, part love poem: "Ex Patria" is wholly moving.

I would put Gabriela Montero right up there with Keith Jarrett as an improviser, and the three gorgeous pieces which close the album are fine examples of why. Her playing here is so delicate and bright, you may think you are hearing the opening of flowers.

Friday, May 08, 2015

To Love As You Do: Meditations on The Lord’s Prayer

“Lead us not into temptation"
And yet temptation seems to come in force when I make a commitment, such as we do during Lent. We “give up” a food or activity and the desire for it grows stronger. I realize that my thoughts about a person are not good for my spiritual health, and that person seems to show up even more often.
O Lord, shield me. Be merciful to my weak mind!

“Hallowed by thy name”
Yesterday, we buried the Hallelujahs, but I am still to praise. But this word, hallowed, tells me to hold Your name in awe, to reverence it, because names tell us of identity, who one is.  And Christ tells us to pray for the Name to awe us. But do I honor Your name in the world? People know I believe in You. But what picture of You do I show them?

“on Earth as it is in Heaven"
Jesus seems to ask us to pray for the impossible, make us all wishful thinkers. But He isn’t saying to His disciples to make Earth like Heaven, but to ask the Father to make it so (“thy will be done”). What Our Lord may imply, however, is that when the world mirrors eternity, when God’s will actually occurs, that we be open to it, that we find peace in His Kingdom.
Christ, help me to see your will when I prefer blindness. Open my deaf heart to the voice of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“your kingdom come"
What does this even mean? Perhaps because we won't see it until it happens, the idea will always be a bit nebulous. Yet Jesus put it right near the beginning of the prayer between “hallowed be thy name” and “thy will be done.”  And He preached about it a lot during His earthly ministry. And in these days when I am so distracted by desires and duties, I so want it in my heart.

“lead us not into temptation”
Why would God want us to be tempted, let alone lead us there? But I ask this from a position of weakness, knowing how easily I am lead astray, perhaps assuming that being lead into temptation is the same as succumbing to it. Or that temptation is about actions and not being.
Heavenly Father, help me to trust where You take me, and see when I am not on Your path. Amen.

“Our Father…deliver us from evil.”
As I write this, I am home from work because a winter storm has put ice all around, making it treacherous to travel. I’m put out because my walk was cut short. But it is I who am: cold. Evil, like good, is not just what we do, but can be part of what we are. I have a warm home. Some are out in this and have no choice.
God deliver them from the evil of not just this weather, but our coldness toward them.

“forgive us our trespasses”
I am a trespasser. I’ve wandered into territory I don’t belong in, and I am lost. I am not sure how I got here or if it matters, but now I cannot move even on the rare occasions I know what direction to turn. I know “repent” means “to turn completely.” But before I can turn, I need You, God, to forgive me for going here, and for clinging in fear to this place I don’t know how to leave.
Forgive me. Forgive me. Wrap me up, away from the bosom of the world.

“Give us this day our daily bread”
Today is payday, a time when I rarely ask God to give me what I need or praise Him for doing so. On this day I often fail to realize or think about what can so easily be taken from me. I also, as needs seem to be met, rarely consider what I actually need. Jesus focuses on basic food, just what is necessary to be sustained. Sure, He could give me riches and power. But what I need is the Bread of Life.
Oh let me cling to You, Jesus Christ, and feast on You, my true need. Amen.

“as it is in Heaven”
This morning on the way to work, I was listening to C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce. The section of the book was an argument between a gruff man and a man who had worked for him. The latter had been trying to convince his old boss of the futility of hanging on to much he thought was important, and the latter kept bellowing about his “rights.” It hurt because it sounded so much like me.
Lord, I confess my eyes are so rarely set on heavenly things, but too often on what I convince myself is mine. Save me from my foolish self! In Christ, I ask.

“those who have trespassed against us”
It is not, for me at least, a far leap from hurt or anger or inconvenience to feeling “more sinned against than sinning.” And in that mental/emotional state is great danger.  Why is it so easy to empathize great distant sins, even when I can easily imagine them against me, but feel such wretched – shall I say it?—hatred from someone nearby who has done me little harm, or who has given me many more reasons to love, reasons that should easily overcome my wound?
It is a wonder, Lord, that You bother with us, but You do, and then tell us to love as You love. I don't know why that is so hard, but damned am I without such love, and damned is our world when we don’t. Help us, o Lord, to find Your way of peace and love. Amen.

Our modern usage of this word implies a gift: something is delivered to us; I might deliver a package to someone. But here the important word is “from,” which demonstrates something is wrong. “Deliver us from evil” we pray. From the evil in the world which may hurt us, no doubt. But also, from the evil within ourselves, which we deliver to a world far from good, a world also as near to good as a prayer or breath. I remember the prayer from my childhood, “deliver us, Lord, from every evil and grant us peace in our day.”
Oh God, make it so!

“from evil”
We think of evil as some big, bad thing we know wants to harm us. Not to be paranoid, but it comes as well in the distractions from what we love. Of course those things and people we love inordinately draw us from God. But also what we think we love or like “innocently” can pull us away, can bring evil, even if they themselves are not.
How can I be on guard, O Lord, and still enjoy the life you give me, and love as You love?

“Give us today”
I have never been good at living for or in the moment. Always the past creeps in to remind me of what I missed, what I screwed up, what I had screwed up for me. Always, the future looms, uncertain, and usually bleak, to tell me that now doesn’t matter: tomorrow I'll be forgotten. But Jesus says, "Today matters; let tomorrow take care of itself."
Oh Lord, help me to keep my eyes on You, this moment, that I may be Yours now, and that harm of what isn’t may not touch me. Amen.

I am always asking for something, usually several things. Always, it seems, I want something from God. Rarely do I thank Him, even more rarely do I praise Him. This sentence—this whole prayer, really—sets out what we should pray for, what we should ask of God: our day to day needs. Father Keith taught last night about agendas, and I must stop laying my agenda before God, as if I have a plan He should stop running the universe to enact.
God, help me to see my needs and trust You with them, and also to trust You with ordering the rest. Amen.

“as we forgive those”
What I must seek forgiveness for is not forgiving. The deepest hurts seem to come from the slightest slights, so small, yet so powerful, that one cannot even gauge intent. (But should I?)  How is it these hang on to me, destroying my inmost self and making me outwardly nothing but ugly.
Oh Lord! What a wretched thing I am! Forgive my uncharitable heart, and help me to love as You do. Amen.

“Your Name”
I too easily wear the name and jewelry of Christian, but do my actions and thoughts show I “hallow” God’s Name? Too quickly I want people to like me and my God, so that I try so often to make God look like a great guy, when Christ needs no salesman. And then I act in such petty ways as to reveal my darkness, not God’s awesome and awful light.
God, let them see You, and reverence You. Help me to get out of the way. Help me, if I must be seen, reflect your holiness and greatness, and nothing of me. In Jesus’ holy Name, Amen. 

“Lead us not”
The phrase implies being lead in the first place. I suppose that praying this or any prayer implies at least some small desire to even be led or directed by God or perhaps the wish to not be lost. But how much of me wants God, and how much have I left to my own control, and thus have deceived myself into believing is moving in the right direction.
Direct our paths, O Lord. Help me to see your way in me, and to be quiet enough to hear Your Voice. Amen.

Nonbelievers balk at the idea of people going further than just obeying commands from an entity they do not understand to submitting the self to such a seemingly vague and arbitrary being. And looked at in the half light of reason, one cannot blame them. But to surrender to the will of God is not about the acts; it is not about doing stuff. It is about turning, by degrees, to what we really are. And to say “Thy will be done” is to follow, as best as our earthly eyes can see, the example of the One who not only said it, but did it too: for whom doing so meant accepting what we cannot fathom doing.
May I, Lord Jesus, go from saying to doing to being today, living in Your Presence, walking by Your Light. Amen.

For all our emphasis on personal religion, it is easy to forget that much of the Old Testament focuses on the relationship between God and His people. Throughout this prayer, Jesus uses plural pronouns: “give us,” “lead us not,” “as we forgive.” And it is important for me to remember, on this day and always, that Christ died for all, not just me. He died for the person I hold a grudge against. He sacrificed Himself for the one who hurt me without remorse. He chose the will of His Father to lay down His life for myriad of people who I forget and forget Him.
Almighty Lord, forgive my hard, selfish heart, and my neglect of your loves. Help me to love all as you do. Amen.

“Our Father”
Jesus has us address God as Father. Ours. Not just His. As a father, I’ve often heard the accusations I've remember saying or thinking when young: that I am unfair. These come from those who may, in part, be right, but who do not see the bigger picture, or the love from which many decisions come from. It may be similar with God. I’ve often wondered at God, and I have been angry that He seems good to one who deserves nothing (even when it is me), and allowing hurt to those who seem so good (even me). But God is not understandable. I don't say that as an argument, but as fact. Even when He makes Himself known and clear, we have a tendency to get it wrong, for more reasons than I have space to address here.
Lord, You shall always be a mystery to me. Help me to trust as I did my own parents when very small. You shall always love, and I shall know it, no matter what the world says to my heart and mind. Amen. And amen.

Friday, February 06, 2015

The Truth About Stars

The child me cannot unknow
the truth about stars:
how, for instance, what I saw
this morning near the moon
like a little sister
was really a planet
was really much bigger
than the satellite which warms
my morning walk.
The unchild in me
can barely imagine
the boy who sees
a frozen firefly
or the distant ship of Christ.

The rechild me remembers
miracles in bread:
the priest holds up the host,
and just like that
hundreds of us are fed
with what the nonchild knows
is not the flesh of Jesus.

And yet.

The over rational fat me
can tell you why
all those carbs that kill
were good for multitudes.
The under rational me
just wants a sandwich.

The shedding me can take
in more, and talk about silence,
revel in Presence, seriously play again.

Friday, January 23, 2015


We called it a frog: a knuckle raised above
a tight, thin fist. Rapped quick like a bullet
shot from a weak gun at close range, one hit
on a growing muscle or bone would move
even the meatiest boy to profuse
public tears, embarrassed girls giggling
to hide from the shock of violence swimming,
each stroke paddling one closer to excuse.

I turn my head and it seems the bully
is trying to punch a way out of my neck.
A lump, I sense but cannot feel, saps joy
and marks me, tells my friends and family
today, without reason, I’ll watch my back
and soon the playground will be less one boy.

This poem was originally published in The Resurrectionist

Sunday, January 04, 2015

Max embarrasses his father at the altar

Leaping to the communion rail, the boy
thrusts his hands up and giggles to himself.
Some adults behind us think a sweet elf
has come to lighten the service, his joy
at the alter a quality we all
should aspire to. Some think a noisy sprite
has been set loose in the church to make light
of Christ. They look up from their prayers appalled.

But he’s my son. He’s hardly innocent,
but not possessed. He’s a potential man
bumbling through his journey to the sacred.
He’s a child, and I know he never meant
to humor or entertain. Yet his small hands
hold the Host carelessly as I turn red.