Burn Baby Burn

“My heart the altar and thy love the flame”

A colleague was laboring over Ash Wednesday’s sermon and kept coming back to the image of the phoenix. This was puzzling, so we talked. After pointing out that it was pure homesickness (she’s from the Arid-Zona originally), I had to admit that the image is really appropriate for Ash Wednesday and not just because we smear ash on people while quoting Genesis.

The story of the phoenix is that at the end of life it goes from home and builts a special nest. In that nest it sits until near death at which point it lights the nest on fire and burns to death. As the flames die back and the ashes cool, where the heart of the fire was, there is a golden egg. Eventually the egg hatches and the reborn/newborn phoenix rises from the ashes of the old.

This is similar to the spiritual mechanics behind our Lenten life because we are on the path to our own Easter rebirth. To get there however, we have to answer the call to die in fire and ash. As Bonhoeffer well knew, the life that brought us to this day is not the life that can bring us to tomorrow and that Great Gettin’ Up Morning. In a larger sense, this is a variant on the saying that “a problem cannot be solved by the level of thinking which led to the problem in the first place.”

There are times in our life where we are making small and gradual changes, that’s called daily life and growth. There are however moments when we need to take everything we are and have, put it in a big pile, and burn it to ash. In doing so we find, as Fflewddur Fflam did in The High King, that the fire tests and refines into beauty.

This is also part of the work of both our twelve step friends and those in psychology, getting us to face letting go of everything we know in order to grasp something greater. All of our certainties, all of our stories, all of our past life to this day has to be laid upon the altar and burned with fire. This is not even a one time thing, as Much Afraid found out in Hinds Feed on High Places. Throughout her journey she laid herself-thus-far on the altar and burned it all in fire.

While self immolation may seem a particularly unhelpful image (and, if it ends just in death it really, really is) the practice of laying our whole self down is a fairly important part of spiritual growth.

The Self I bring to today is a compound of many smart and stupid things. It is a being of brilliance and thoughtlessness driven by compassion and atavistic fear. If I simply build on what I have, adding compensation mechanisms to get around the dumb reactions and building bypasses to avoid the Bad Neighborhoods in my heart, I gradually become a shambling mess made up of bits and pieces bound together with chewing gum and bailing wire. Eventually, I end up making Frankenstein’s monster look like an orderly assemblage of regular parts.

Like a Ponderosa forest gradually being overtaken by spruce undergrowth and choked out by hypertrophic organisms, I need a fire to clear things up. I need to take my life and look at all the parts, sort the keepers and trash the junk. And, since we tend to carry our junk around like anti-treasures, everything not worth keeping goes into the fire. Everything that is worth keeping gets tested by fire and polished into new life (this is a biblical image by the way).

Like the phoenix, I need to die to the old life in order to be born anew into resurrection life. Golly, there’s something vaguely familiar about that idea, isn’t there? Almost as if this was part of what it means to say “he died for me, I’ll live for him.” Almost as if letting go of who I am in order to become someone more were the POINT of spiritual life.

Since we suck so badly at doing this kind of growth and life, the church has given us two seasons a year in which we can look at ourselves, dust out the cobwebs, and burn all the chametz into ash. And so the phoenix’s burning to ash as the door to new life is very like our own ash day and what comes after. It is a good visual symbol of what we do as we lay our life on the altar of grace, burn it all to ash as a whole offering unto the Lord, and then sift through the ash to find the life that is hidden there so we can celebrate and rejoice that “our chains are gone.”


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Ash Day, Grasshopper Day

Ash Wednesday

Lent is a penitential season in the church and we’ve been taught that penitence means “feeling bad about yourself.” Penitential manuals used to be a popular thing in the church, telling priests how much penance each sin merited. And thus the season become a bit dour and grim about the mouth as we were told to focus on our sins and what later generations would call “getting right with God.”

We treated the invitation to self reflection and spiritual deepening as a demand that we feel bad for being human and as a requirement to make our life more difficult. The fact that none of this made any sense at all theologically is swept aside because it is at least easier to feel bad than to grow good. Faced with the opportunity to do some spiritual housecleaning, we decided to wear a hair shirt (and eventually just “give up” things we didn’t want anyway). A season made to invite us into life thus became the punchline for a bad joke.

We were somehow supposed to greet the hope of spring after winter with the same dour grimness with which the diners greeted Babette’s Feast. And yet, in the face of our very human stupidity, a gracious God gives goodness and, as the General responded to that feast so long ago, we are invited hear his words “Mercy and truth have met together. Righteousness and bliss shall kiss one another.” (For the sharp sighted among us, he is indeed quoting a Psalm).

What are we then to do in this season? How do we make a season we’ve been taught is about the darkest sadness into something that leads to life?

The first step is to get it into our head that the notion of Dark and Dour in which we have been nurtured is unbiblical. In Isaiah we see God’s firm rejection of “humility” for the sake of eating dust and “feeling bad.” The fast sought is one of moving, living, being into grace for others and the only we we can give is by growing more deeply into who we were made to be.  Thus far, thus cerebral, but what other models can we use to look at this day? How about creation.

Lent comes during springtime and there are two things any good gardener does in spring: clear out last year’s dead bits and turn over the soil. The remains of last year, the growth which came up last spring, grew to maturity over last summer, and died back last fall, in short, last year’s life, is cleared away to make room for new life. Certainly the new sprouts can work their way around the old year’s death but why make them waste the energy?

Good gardeners prune back the dead, clear out winter’s debris and make the soil ready for spring. In short, they make way for new life by clearing out old death. Does that sound like a spiritual practice worth doing?

Gardeners also turn over the soil, looking for grubs, turning in nutrients, and aerating the ground so there’s room for new roots. Having made space in the publically visible part of the yard, they work on the hidden bits. They hunt down what would kill new growth, add in what will promote growth, and make space for that growth to happen.

Both of these behaviors are part of the point of our Lenten labor. Far from being a time to beat ourselves up for how bad we are, it is a time to review, reflect, and make room.

Part of making room is indeed throwing out the old, dead year, the things of our past which do not make us live. Some of those things are cherished illusions and false stories of our life. They can be the ways we made sense of a mad world while confused children or conclusions we drew from trauma and false assumptions. Regardless, they are the old, dead year we need to clear in order for there to be new life.

If we are going to welcome the good and new we have to shake our own foundation to be sure only our best makes it into the future.

Can you now see the attraction for “giving up chewing gum” or “going to the gym more?” That’s exactly why we allowed the season to become a joke, taking it seriously can be deeply painful. But pain does not require avoidance. As Bujold put it “Pain, like life, will come on regardless. The question is what moments of beauty can we win from the pain.” What gifts of grace can we find in the midst of being awake and alive.

This question circles back to Ash Wednesday, the day we get ashes on our forehead and hear the words remember “you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” It’s a total downer day, and yet…

One of the useful questions of psychology is “if you had (time period) left to live, what would you do with your life?” What one thing that you secretly desire and yet turn away from as unworthy would you do? The question is a key to energy for doing, living, being and yet it starts from the same place “you are dust” does: You Are Going To Die.

Yep, the key to this freeing question is “you’re going to die, now what?” In case you hadn’t heard that lately, you really ARE going to die, the authentic biological ‘cooling to room temperature’ version. So what are you going to do? What will you do with, as Mary Oliver put it “your one wild and precious life?”

If you’ve never read the whole poem, please do. Its title is “The Summer Day” and is a reflection on the life of a tiny grasshopper that suddenly lands on her hand. “Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?” She asks. Aren’t we all dust that blows away on the wind? And yet with our precious, wild, fleeting lives, we can make beauty.

Now that’s an Ash Wednesday from which we can draw life.

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The Walking Weary

Isaiah 40.21-31

In the face of the general indifference of the universe, it is easy to conclude that our living doesn’t matter, that our day to day choices are meaningless. We end up asking “Does what I do matter? Are my ways hidden from God? Doesn’t God see the injustice that is happening?” Sadly, we end up concluding that yes indeed, our life really isn’t deeply meaningful to anyone. But is that really fair?

Sure, we don’t have people throwing themselves at our feet or a million followers on social media, but is it really true that our lives are meaningless? Maybe, maybe not but anyone who’s survived middle and high school can tell us that counting our value by whether people like us (or even like like us) is a recipe for disaster. Even Epictetus, the great Stoic philosopher twigged to that reality when he pointed out that if our happiness depends on external factors, our joy is at the whim of those external factors. He urged us to look to the inward factors, what we can control and who we can become, as the source of our enduring happiness.

These good bits of advice do not however, change the reality of feeling “unloved, unwanted, and alone.” In fact, as anyone who has experienced one of those perpetually chirpy people who spouts bromides and tells us to “turn that frown upside down!” or even gives us the unkindest cut of all, that they’re “just too blessed to be depressed,” chirpiness is acid poured into an open wound. So what are we to do with the feeling Isaiah voiced “My way is hidden from the Lord” (God’s not paying attention) “and my right is disregarded” (these things that are happening to me are unfair and God’s not fixing it).

It’s pretty clear that the complaints are existentially important declarations of injury so what can we say that doesn’t come off as “I care but I really don’t” kindness? We have to look at the context. Isaiah has just gotten done describing the majestic power of God that fills the universe, calls the stars by name, and leads them out day by day by day. This chapter began with “comfort, comfort my people” and a reminder that although humans are frail and failing, God never goes away.

So when Isaiah brings up the people’s complaints of being unloved, the first reading of God’s reply may look like blowing the people off with empty promises, there’s however, something deep and real going on here. The first part of God’s answer is to once again remind the people that God really does have power in the cosmos. God’s power and constancy is thus contrasted with human fallibility.

We are reminded that even the strongest and most energetic of us will grow weary and lose heart, but those connected to God will not fade away. This last verse ends up on plaques and keychains, in internet memes and is an ever present saying in time of need. There’s so much treacle laid on top of it and that people turn away from its mawkish sentimentality and people of faith cringe whenever they hear it. But not even that makes the Scripture valueless.

Those who wait upon the Lord” we are told. So what is this “waiting” stuff? Is it that pacing the floor, constantly checking our watch kind of waiting? Is it the watching the calendar ’till Christmas kind of waiting? Of course not. The Hebrew word for “wait” includes the meaning of “hope” and since hope in God is the “hope that does not disappoint” one could translate this as “those who trust in God.”

There is however another sense of wait, it means “to lay in wait” the way a kitty cat watches something with their tail going tip-tip-tip. The kitty is ready to pounce and that too is a kind of “waiting.” So perhaps we could translate it “those who are ready to pounce upon the Lord.” (Just for a moment, relish the notion of waiting in a comfy spot, poised to pounce on God, possibly with intent to tickle).

“Hope” is the more common translation however, so “those who Hope in the Lord will” what exactly? They will renew their strength. This renewing is not like the way we renew library books, getting just a few more days to finish up our reading, staving off fines while admitting that we just couldn’t finish on time. Nope, this renewing is re-newing. It’s trading in that ratty old shirt for a brand new one, putting down our old story of loss and despair and then picking up a new life framed with hope and glory. It means to stand up again after being flattened by life.

In other words, to renew our strength is to receive our strength again from the very hands that gave us life in the first place. It is a resurrection. And what happens with this re-newed strength? It gives us wings to fly, energy to burn at the racecourse, and the capacity to walk forever. This resurrection energy is the energy we have from God which lifts us into life.

So here at the end of a chapter of comfort and confidence we have the reminder that even though our lives seem beyond God’s vision or care, this is fundamentally not so. We can and will trustfully wait and be deeply renewed in our waiting. God really does see our ways, we really are not alone and we really do get eagle wings and racehorse legs to run and fly forever and ever, Amen.

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Puffing Up, Building Up.

1 Corinthians 8.1-13

Ok, let me just say this right off, everyone else is just too stupid for words. This goes double for anyone who disagrees with me.

We laugh a bit when teenagers say stuff like this, but given that modern political discourse seems to be made up entirely of two Greek Choruses shouting “stupid liberal!” and “ignorant conservative!” at each other, I’m not sure how much more mature we really are. After all, who can forget the all time great political conversation ender “get educated and then try talking to me” (lip curl).

No matter the topic, the Other Guys are obviously so dumb that they couldn’t find their hind end with both hands and a map. We, of course, are the very soul of gentility and reason, kind and clear eyed visionaries who could bring the world into peace and wholeness if Those Idiots would just listen to us instead of clinging to their outdated notions. All at once, the argument the church in Corinth was having about “meat sacrificed to idols” sounds a whole lot more modern.

Fundamentally, it was an argument about how to deal with something with both a philosophical and a visceral component. Philosophically and intellectually, it was clear that for those in Christ, idols are just cute statues with no more spiritual value than a plastic action figure. BUT (and this is the part The All Too Wise tended to miss) there was still a lot of emotional freight tied to those idols.

Back in the day you got meat if:
A. You were massively wealthy and could run your own meat farm or
B. There was a sacrifice on at the temple and you bought the parts left over.

Furthermore, if you wanted to have a party, the only rental halls were… local temples (unless, again, you were massively wealthy). So if you weren’t at the top of the local power and wealth structure, you either ate no meat and did not go to parties OR you ate sacrificial leftovers and hung out at the temples. And since they didn’t have golf courses back then, if you wanted to make a go of business, you had to schmooze the parties, giving and receiving gifts in the temple. There was really no way around it unless you wanted to refuse the whole thing and go live on the fringes of society.

As you can see, this was a big issue about how we are going to order the community of faith, and emotions were very high. The Smart Set were busy rolling their eyes at the stupid peasants trapped in their pagan superstitions. Meanwhile the Salt of The Earth folks were rolling their eyes at the folks who were so smart they couldn’t even notice that they were propping up the oppressive and exploitive power structure.

And then Paul boldly strolls right into the middle of this mess. Goody, goody, goody, he’s going to open up a can of righteousness on Those Idiots. Break out the popcorn!

And then he doesn’t.

Instead, what Paul does is open a can of “you cannot both love and look down upon your fellow believer.” (Oh, ouch).

Instead of telling Those Stupid People to Stop Being Dumb and Get With The Program, he whups everyone in sight upside the head with a grace by four. He essentially says “yes, intellectually this position is right but since it is being applied without regard to the weaker folks, you are sinning against Christ in your righteousness.”

Let’s unpack that a bit:

“This position is right” – idols aren’t real, they’re just helpless statues (see also: Isaiah on this)
“But you are being jerks” – your strength is wounding your weaker sisters and brothers.
“So you are sinning against Christ” – pretty much a straight quote.
“So I’m not going to act like you” – even though I can, I won’t eat meat because doing so would mislead and ultimately destroy my sister, my brother in Christ.

Well bummer, Paul just took all the fun out of being that insufferable jerk who is always right.

But imagine how we would be if we could actually extend this kind of grace to others in our fighting. How would say, the 2009 sexuality decision in the ELCA have played out differently if each side had worked as hard to keep their opponent in the church as they worked to destroy them? What if instead we had each been able to say “I am a child of God, you are a child of God therefore even though I am right (and thus strong in God) and you are wrong (thus “the weak”) I won’t try to destroy or silence you but will instead give up my strength to protect your weakness.” Notice that the statement can be equally applied to anyone on any side of this (or any) argument. Notice also that this approach leaves open the door for Majestically Righteous Me to be convinced that the Other Guy might be right. In other words, it leaves the door open for the Holy Spirit and the Grace of God to change my own heart.

That’s really what Paul is bringing to us in the middle of our fighting. An invitation to see Christ in our neighbor and seek to gain them rather than defeat them. It’s a lot harder than Being Absolutely Right, but it is a whole lot more humane and even (dare I say it) Christ Like.

And in case anyone is wondering about the title of this post. Knowledge (gnosis) puffs up (inflates) on the other hand, love (agape) builds up (lit “builds a house”). So the loving response to a church fight (or any fight) is to work at building your opponent up, lifting them into grace instead of casting them into darkness.

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Fear of the What?

Psalm 111

We rightly deride those who advocate violence “pour encourage les autres.” We pour contempt on parents who use violence to gain the obedience and love of their children. We even tell romantic partners that “violence is not love.” And yet we either enthusiastically embrace divine violence to bring about obedience (in spite of biblical counter examples) or try to lightly gloss over the whole thing as the teaching of a (shudder) less enlightened time. I think our real problem is that we’ve got some wonky ideas about what fear really is.

But to get to that, we have to pull at this verse just a bit first. Our starting point has to be word order. Psalm 111 is an acrostic, which means each half verse begins with the next letter down the alphabet. Thus, the verse in question begins with reshit “head/beginning” instead of “fear” or even “the.” To be strictly clear with word order (and knowing that there are only four words in this Hebrew sentence) the sentence reads “[the] head/beginning [of] wisdom [is] fear [of the] LORD.” All the words in [brackets] are insertions to make the language work in English.

Thus, this verse could read “the head of wisdom is Fear-the-LORD” as much as “the starting point for wisdom is fear of the LORD.” There are a few other variations, but most of them fall into this same pattern. The beginning place, the start for wisdom/wise living is ‘fear the LORD.’

In a side note, wisdom in Hebrew is more than simple “schmarts,” the raw processing power of the brain. Wisdom is also not a vast storehouse of known things. Wisdom is making connections between all the things that are known and living them into our lives.

A wise person (hakam) is someone who can live out their days in wise-ness. To borrow from our friends in the East, when one has truly achieved wisdom (a concept which only vaguely makes sense to the Hebrew mind, because wisdom is what we do rather than what we achieve) one would truly have wei wu wei “doing without doing.” One would have cultivated a way of living such that our daily actions are so deeply steeped in the right and best way of God within us that we do what we do without effort. Life comes through us ‘in the flow” we’re “in the zone” as our sports friends say.

For the Hebrews, wisdom is what we live and we live wisdom with our whole being. If we are spending time thinking about it and pondering what the right move might be, we haven’t yet been shaped completely into the wisdom we practice. The reason we seek out wise people then, is because their life reflects what a human life entirely lived in God’s power would look like. Students seek out the wise ones to learn “how to do it” until the doing becomes instinctive.

And now at last we can come back to the text because now that we’ve established that this verse is about the beginning, the head of wisdom/wise life, it’s time to tackle “fear.”

When we hear “fear” in the English language, the vision turns to the stuff gets our heart pumping during horror films. We know that “fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to the Dark Side” and so we want to have nothing to do with that emotion. Our revulsion even gets in the way of our confirmation programs, where earnest people of faith have to try and explain how the phrase “we should fear and love God…” can be anything other than pure sophistry (to people who can’t even spell sophistry). The whole thing is a mess.

But what if we took this from a whole different angle? What if we checked to see if our definition of “fear” was actually accurate (hint: you already know how I’m going to answer that, right?)

Fear does not mean cowering, it means “don’t treat this like a casual toy.” There’s a kind of respectfulness we have when it is time to take out the family china. We know that these items need to be handled with care so we don’t play frisbee with the plates and we also don’t hold them with a death grip.

A wise woodworker will fear their table saw. It’s a fabulous tool, capable of making repeatable, straight cuts to precise lengths. Without it, we spend a lot more time truing boards and getting them to meet juuuuust so. A table saw makes that whole process much easier. But if we muck about with it, boards will kick back and, if we’re extra careless, take off fingers. It is a tool among many and in a lot of cases, placed in the heart of the shop, but casual misuse will get you hurt.

If we feared the saw and feared the china the way we’ve let culture tell us we need to “fear the LORD” then fear will rob us of our joy. It will destroy our capacity to create and appreciate beauty. If we take the common notion that fear=cower in the corner, we end up cowering because of this verse and living lives so petrified with fear that we cannot truly “live, and move, and have our being.” In other words, we cannot become wise because wisdom requires living.

So if we’re going to take seriously the notion that fear-of-the-LORD is the starting point of wise life, we’re going to have to change our understanding of “fear.” Although this will cause some of us to have palpitations to even say it this way, we’re going to have to learn a living, respectful fear to replace our Culturally Approved(tm) fear and groveling.

Lest anyone want to say that this “have no fear” stuff is unbiblical or stupidly permissive, remember that the angel’s greeting (“fear not”) isn’t there as some sort of cute segue, it’s true. The fear we have been taught is not the fear of the LORD, it’s plain paralyzing fear. The fear we have is the kind Jesus carried with him into the tomb and left there to rot with all the other dead things. For that matter, since Jesus is the way God loves the Cosmos, the real love (and its respectful “this is so amazing, don’t screw it up” fear) can actually show us how perfect love casts out (stupid, human, culturally defined) fear.”

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The Passing Scheme

1 Corinthians 7.29-31

There goes Paul, at it again. He’s clearly being a Big jerk today, trying to get us to live out the literal meaning of the ascetic concept of apatheia (“no feelings”). He wants mourners not to mourn, the happy not to laugh, the loved to reject their lover and their own beloved-ness and basically be ‘a rock that feels no pain.’ Dumb, dumb, dumb. Also: stupid. He’s trying to get us to be inhuman supermen, unmoved by the petty trials around us. Right?

Well no. We’re taking this all out of context so before we start yelling about Paul’s monster tendencies, let’s check the context a bit more.

Paul is dealing with the issue of loving and being beloved in the seventh chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians and he knows something we don’t like to think about: the world is changing (if that version is a bit too down beat, try this one). To borrow the notion from Stoic philosophy, if our internal contentment depends on external factors (being loved, having things) then our happiness is hostage to the vagaries of a random and generally uncaring universe. Thus, if our happiness depends on things remaining Just As They Are while we live in a world where Nothing Is Forever… we are in for a world of hurt.

Paul gets that, it’s why he points out that “the schema (pattern/plan) of the cosmos is going away.” If we let ourselves get hooked (as we so often do) on the discussion that precedes this verse (we are to live as if we do not/have not/are not), we’re going to be lost in the weeds again. The Greek even makes this clear by marking the whole thing off as an ina clause. Ina is a word we don’t translate from the Greek and it marks out the subsequent clause as subordinate to and (in general) as the result of the independent, prior clause.

He begins with “the kairos (full, appointed time) has sunestalmenos (from sun “together” + stellw “to stand/be placed,” i.e. the time has been placed together in completeness), for the rest ina…” and the subordinate, result clause comes in.

The time, the kairos time (kairos is “appointed time/season, ‘and it came to pass’ time” as compared to kronos “clock” time) has come together so now (stuff happens). And then he draws the listing to a close by saying “for it has passed on/is passing by the schema of the cosmos.” And there’s where we should dig.

You see, the schema is the pattern, the way things are. It’s the electronic schematic, the work plan, the quilt pattern, the way things are done here, and it’s all going away. The world as you and I see it, as glorious and beautiful as it is, is a sand castle built below the high tide mark, and the tide is rising. You can spend your life grabbing on to each sand grain, trying to keep it all in place while the pounding waves lift up their voice, but that is an exercise in futility.

Essentially, the structure of the world in which we live, with these people, those animals, this tree, is actually going away. This is not because the world as we know it is bad as much as because the cosmos is impermanent. No matter how often we promise each other faithfulness “until death parts us,” we are going to be parted. No matter how passionately we love, even our love-that-lasts is going to change. We will go out dancing in the minefield of life and in the end, be bruised and beautiful with everything changed around us.

Paul wrote this chapter in response to questions about desire and marriage (see also: the intro to the first verse of this chapter). He did so to give the people the understanding that our impermanence was OK. The time is filled full (the base meaning of “fulfilled”) so now live in a way that holds the scheme of the way things are lightly because the scheme is going away.

Instead of trying to get us to live some inhuman, life denying, detached life, Paul is trying to get us to live lightly. Hoping that we can learn to love God deeply and to cling less tightly to the world that is going out with the tide.

We will not emerge from this world unbruised and heart-whole, not if we are truly human beings who love as we were made to love “out of all proportion.” Faced with the delightful, cuddly, fuzzy, humane beauty of it al, we can only be unscathed if we are unloving and unloved. If we can love this cosmos and all in it lightly AND deeply we will be part of what it means to love the scheme, even as it passes away. We can do this because the scheme is indeed passing away but passing into the mighty, loving hands which are greater than it and us.

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