“To you I life up my eyes, to you enthroned in the heavens.
As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their masters, and the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress,
So our eyes look to the Lord our God, until he shows us his mercy.
— Psalm 123:1-3
Out of Zion, perfect in its beauty, God reveals himself in glory.
Our God will come and will not keep silence, before him there is a consuming flame, and round about him a raging storm.
He calls the heavens and the earth from above to witness the judgment of his people.
“Gather before me my loyal followers, those who have made a covenant with me and sealed it with sacrifice.”
Let the heavens declare the rightness of his cause, for God himself is judge.
— Psalm 50:1-6
“As the eyes of servants look to the hand of their masters, and the eyes of a maid to the hand of her mistress,
So our eyes look to the Lord our God, until he shows us his mercy.” My first reaction to this characterization of God is to recoil in disgust, not fear. I react against what seems to be the “mean old man in the sky” revelation of God. “The beatings will continue until morale improves.”
For one thing, it hardly paints God as an ideal master — or, in a rare moment of inclusive language, a beneficent mistress. Slap me, beat me, make me write bad checks! At least there’s not the masochist’s joy in pain (which is better than where some medieval mortification canticles end up).
There may be a different way to hear this, however: as the growth in our understanding of God. Having come to an awareness that God is One — that it isn’t a bunch of gods, but a God — we are naturally fearful of such a One. Like a dog that has been kicked around by Ba’al, Demeter, and Osiris, we flinch at even the thought of the hand of God. And we remain skittish even once we are in the loving care of our Holy Mistress. (Which sounds deeply kinky following the “masochism” thought, but let’s let go of that for now. Perversity is, at heart, a distraction.)
But like a dog with a loving master, we may initially flinch at the hand of God, expecting it to be raised against us, until we sniff the hand and discover it holds a treat. Our mistress, whose face is too far in our limited sight to be seen clearly or its intent discerned, opens her hand and soothingly strokes our back and scratches our ears. We are being trained: in discipline; in good, orderly direction; but also in the love and mercy of our Owner. Aaarf. Mmmm. That tummy rub feels pretty good. Happy sigh. Is there more chicken?
Let the heavens declare the rightness of his cause, for God himself is judge.” Echoes of Psalm 119, which is just one long echo after another about how awesome — no, really, you’ll love ’em! — are the judgments of our God. His commandments are just, his word is our salvation, his law is our reward, blah blah blah.
But if he is the holy Kennel Keeper to us mutts, this would seem to be far more benign and loving. But I think Psalm 119 is, at heart, a Zen poem, a reminder at each verse to return to What Is, as revealed by the It Is What It Is, the great I Am.
I will always, I think, have a problem cloaking my theodicy in an acceptance of What Is. But theodicy needs a Why It Is What It Is — it is a human, cause-and-special-effect magical thinking story that may be so limited in its aggregation of inputs as to be false in its outputs. “The death of a child” is the classic rail against God — or the destruction of thousands of lives, innocent or otherwise, as in a typhoon, earthquake and fire disaster. I haven’t dug too deeply into Zen understandings of tragedy…except to suspect that true “compassion” may best be seen as a response, whereas a “tragedy” is a story we tell ourselves to force our compassion to the front of the line, ahead of our fear, our anger, and our relief at still being the protagonist of our story, the one who can react with outrage at the tragedy we have suffered and have witnessed.
But I Am decrees It Is What It Is: “It’s not about you, Job.” And perhaps the human yearning for an answer to “why” — the drive behind our literature and poetry, our science, our philosophies and our laws — is the cause of our tragedy. To bear witness is not to place blame; compassion is not reserved for the deserving, but for the creatures in pain from all the “be-causes.” There is little compassion for the stone and stream, more for the rook and rodent, still more for the hound and human. The less organic and arrayed in its architecture, the more we disregard its pain and suffering. Even a Buddhist monk will bruise a rock to fashion a stool, a stoup, a statue of the Buddha.
“Let the heavens declare the rightness of his cause, for God himself is judge.” It is what it is, because I Am is the ground of what is and not what is not.
Faith may be nothing more than a trick of the mind, as the atheist might say. Yet it is the trick that has stood the test of time to reveal that what is is what is and not, even at its best, what is merely and only the story in our head.
Direct us, O Lord, in all our doings with your most gracious favor, and further us with your continual help; that in all our works begun, continued, and ended in you, we may glorify your holy Name, and finally, by your mercy, obtain everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Until we get to the heresy part, this is a much better beginning to Lent than obsessions over the Ash Wednesday Collect. But in reflecting on that further, for a moment, because I can see it will continue to be a stumbling block for me throughout Lent if I don’t lay it down, I should just say:
I admit I tend to now approach most theological ideas from a position of “trinitarian universalism.” So when something like “eternal life” and “salvation” seems predicated on weak, human fallibility rising above itself to seek God’s forgiveness and then either keep itself in a state of sinlessness until the point of death (uh huh; sure) or, more likely, rest assured and smug by merit of baptism in the faith of Jesus Christ — even when that baptism was performed before my assent was possible — then I start to get suspicious of some theological holes. Or maybe loopholes. We of the infant baptism traditions tend to get around this problem with our own confirmation of our baptism, taken around the age when Baptists baptize and Jews bar/bat mitzvah, so certainly part of the human family’s understanding of coming into personal and corporate relationship with God.
And just to note that I’m all in favor of infant baptism. I’m agnostic on the whole circumcision issue that seems to be roiling the “men’s movement” and other goofy counter-reformations, but just as Judaism has its rites for infants to recognize their participation in the people of Israel, like it or not, I’m all in favor of infant baptism, because it actually makes my point that salvation is freely given of God and nothing we ourselves can do anything to obtain. We cannot even seek it, and may do violence to our own spiritual health by thinking we can and must, or worse and more often, that we’re A-OK, but others can and must.
So I find myself also hearing collects, hymns, and scripture through a subwoofer of this trinitarian universalism. Which threatens to take up all my attention if I let it. Yet, to be honest, in my own jerry-rigged theological framework, I suppose I see it that if we are to partake of that eternal life in this life, even as we see through a glass darkly, then we do have to seek it, we do have to confess our sins, we do have to live in love and charity with our neighbors, we do have to engage in fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers. What I want to take off the table is the notion that our loving Father will cast us into hell if we don’t believe rightly, confess completely, and repent thoroughly. So let’s let Lent prepare us for Easter, not for heaven. Let’s let God prepare us for heaven, not so that we can be the only ones who get there. Instead, let us in Lent let God be God and learn to be truly us, a picture taken before the Fall and our own personal poaching of the Tree of Knowledge, and not the picture of us we’d like God and others to see. Then when we reach heaven, we can maybe be allowed this much smugness toward all the Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, animists, Arminists, Hittites, Shiites, Sadducees and Samaritans, agnostics, and atheists we find thereupon: “See! We told you it would be wonderful and beyond any space- and time-bound consciousness to describe it truly!”
Which brings me to today’s collect:
“Direct us, O Lord, in all our doings with your most gracious favor, and further us with your continual help”; As this seems to be the same thing I pray daily — although this is much more mellifluent and succinct than I ever manage in my rambling babbling to God — I’m thinking that perhaps I should memorize this collect. It already looks amazingly applicable year-round, especially for daily use.
“…that in all our works begun, continued, and ended in you, we may glorify your holy Name”: Redundant? If we begin, continue, and end our works in God, wouldn’t that glorify his holy Name? I think perhaps this is a call to to keep us from deceiving ourselves. That “does it glorify God?” becomes the measure against whether we have truly begun, continued, and ended our works in him (or at least truly attempted to, and let God take care of the rest), and not walk in denial of the sinful and self-seeking nature of so much of what we do, shrouding our awareness of our disingenuity and cynicism with the self-assurance that we are doing God’s work. Because that is surely one of the gravest sins facing humanity today and perhaps throughout recorded time: self-justification through faith.
“…and finally, by your mercy, obtain everlasting life”: This was my only sticking point, my only real problem, and it doesn’t entirely go away even once I’ve taken salvation of the self-elect off the table. For one thing, there’s that “finally” — meaning, I can only see, “upon our death” — and as the sentence is written (without my break for annotation) we’ve got “that in all our works…we may…obtain everlasting life.”
But that one word seems to save salvation: “mercy.” In a more wholistic reading, not line-editing the prayerbook, this prayer seems to ask God’s help in showing us what to do, enabling us to do it, and blessing the results to be to his greater glory. And asking that, once our work is finished, we may enjoy that eternal joy with and “through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”
For now I’ll leave alone the question of the collect seeming to begin in address to Christ, but ending addressed to the Father. Because, like I said, I’m a trinitarian universalist. So it’s all good.
Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
I think I am over Ash Wednesday.
Growing up, Ash Wednesday (if we even called it that) was not particularly noted. It was the 1970s and early 80s in a very Protestant town in a staunchly Presbyterian church. Lent was certainly observed, in the sense that the lessons were prescribed by The Worshipbook (1970), which introduced one of those Protestant denominational lectionaries (themselves based on the Roman Catholic lectionary work out of Vatican II) that later were rolled up into today’s Revised Common Lectionary. So I was in my formative years of Christian worship during the Presbyterian Church’s own formative years of ecumenism in worship.
But it was still recognizably Presbyterian worship. I’m sure it still is, but our ministers (rarely called “clergy” in a church that took the “priesthood of all believers” nearly literally) and choir wore only the academic-style “Geneva” robes. In the late 1970s, we had a Welsh senior minister who I think introduced us to the notion of clerical collars. I remember he would offer the benediction on St. David’s Day — a saint’s day being by itself a very suspect notion, if he were not himself so thoroughly Reformed — *in* Welsh. So while many American Presbyterians were rediscovering their Scottish roots, we were exploring our Welsh roots, in northeast Oklahoma.
But there was no imposition of ashes on the first day of Lent. As lectionary ecumenism led to other explorations of earlier Presbyterian and Reformed traditions that held more in common with its Anglican siblings than its Methodist nieces and nephews, we might have a simple congregational dinner — bean soup, iceberg lettuce salad (or spinach, if we were being exotic), garlic bread, and several choices for dessert, Lenten discipline be damned on that score when it comes to church suppers.
Nowadays, there’s an Ash Wednesday service at the church where grew up and I think they may even impose ashes on the foreheads of today’s staunch Presbyterians. Although staunchness seems to be out of favor among that denomination — just as you’d be hard-pressed to find an Episcopal Church in most cities today that is overly concerned with its earlier Reformation allegiance, as proudly proclaimed in its former name, “The Protestant Episcopal Church.”
Funny aside: When the Anglican Communion in Japan had become established to the point of finding its own name as a national church and consecrating its own bishops (1923), it landed on Nippon Sei Ko Kai: “Japanese Holy Catholic Church.” Because “Protestant Episcopal Church” translated into Japanese meant “house of the quarrelsome overlords.”
I didn’t really discover Ash Wednesday until I joined the quarrelsome overlord church in 1986. It was, along with all the other smells and bells being rediscovered in the newly Anglo-Catholic Episcopal Church, a wonderful, earthy (even dusty!), physical experience of worship that I’d never seen outside of movies or books. (There has to be a high overlap among people who became Episcopalians as adults and adults who read and loved the Harry Potter series. And no, it’s not satanic witchcraft to have a cross marked in ashes on your forehead, although there is an element of medieval “bring out your dead!” to the proceedings. That’s part of the thrill, I think.)
But after more than 30 years of weighing the Gospel lesson for the day against the ashes on the head — part of me wants to take a break from Ash Wednesday. Not from Lent, but from trying to unearth fresh or thawed identification with the practice of imposing ashes … and singing the same lugubrious hymns. (There are only 11 hymns specifically for Lent in the Episcopal hymnal, so even if you process in and out without singing, you still end up singing them all way more than you might want to, especially since not very many of them are very good.)
By contrast, parts of the Collect for today feel less dusty. A “new and contrite heart” is something I can get behind. In other years, I have had profound Lenten journeys that were begun being reminded that I am dust and to dust I shall return. I got that part, I think. At least for this year, when you’ve got ashes on offer — imposition of ashes; round-the-clock ashing; ashes-to-go at the train station — I’m gonna pass, I think. Probably next year. Or the year after that. (Not the first time I wish some of our liturgical traditions were on a three-year cycle, same as the lectionary. Years go by much too quickly as the number of younger people I run across seems to increase. It can’t be a coincidence; I think they’re causing it.)
Beyond that, however, I’m not even sure I’m completely on board with this whole Collect today.
“Almighty and edverlasting God, you hate nothing you have made…”: so far, so (pretty) good. It’s certainly more tepid than any notion of unconditional love, but at least God didn’t make us to hate us.
“…and forgive the sins of all who are penitent”: Hmm. There’s that debate (perhaps *the* debate) among the Christians: Does God forgive us even if we are not penitent? It’s probably really a koan, in the “if a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound” kind of way. Perhaps I can affirm that God forgives the penitent just as I can affirm that Black Lives Matter. Because all lives do *not* matter unless Black Lives Matter. But if it comes down to me being told to forgive 70 times 7 times, but my Father in heaven will *only* forgive if I am penitent seems to hold God to a lower standard. It also doesn’t seem to square with Jesus’ prayer on the cross — not to get ahead of ourselves here and jump to the end of Lent — to forgive them “for they know not what they do.” And even that, I wonder, may be too conditional. But it’s not me hanging on the cross, so I won’t quibble with Jesus’ doctrine of grace and salvation. He performed admirably under a lot of stress, I think.
“Create and make in us new and contrite hearts”: Yes. And not just in a self-help, self-improvement way. But in the modern age, it’s hard not to hear it in this sense. And perhaps it’s not the worst way to approach it. But a “new” heart seems at least to recommend a “new” way of contrition that isn’t just being the best us we can be.
“…that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness”: This kind of stinks, straight up. If it were even “we, who worthily lament…” it would be better. Maybe it is just a statement of fact, however. That it’s understood that you wouldn’t be praying this unless you were asking it. You can’t (I can’t, at least) very easily pray: “Lord, forgive me, even though I’m not a bit remorseful for my sins.” Mother Church wisely does not to wish to raise her children to be psychopaths secure in their faith. Having said all this, and even being at heart the way I feel and understand it, the Collect still reeks of conditional love. But then, the Bible itself does, most of the time. You have to dig carefully and then interpret roughly to understand anything like grace.
“…through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.”
Richard Rohr asks me to ask: How would I acccurately describe the stages I’ve gone through?
He posits two formulas or flow-charts to consider. The classic hero’s journey — which is timely, since I just finished “The Hero With a Thousand Faces” last night — of simple consciousness, to complex conciousness, to enlightened consciousness.
“We could say it this way, too: as we grow older, we live, love, sin, fail, forgive, read, wait, struggle, and search, presuming that we have to get it right all by ourselves. Finally we discover both the Source and the guidance, and when we place our trust in that larger reality, life becomes simple again.”
I’m not sure it’s so simple, but perhaps it is simpler. Or, more likely, I am not “there” yet, and never will be, but am ever in the process of getting there. Becoming enlightened — becoming sober — is like the stock market, except that it is nothing like gambling and everything like the reality of walking, chopping wood and carrying water.
In my younger days, life was simpler. I can only thank God that I can say this. My family was loving. My frustrations and fears were prosaic, quotidian. While not in a chaotic environment, I still sought equilibrium and safely explored — and largely developed an inchoate unified field theory. I longed for magic and imagination made real. I was a child of The Hobbit and A Wrinkle in Time, before Harry Potter was born, and I enjoyed as much of the fantasy and science fiction as I could find, before these genres had exploded in young adult literature and their adult companions had not yet blurred the lines of adolescence and maturity.
So I could readily convince myself that I could talk to animals and that they could understand me. I sometimes still wonder how much of that is true, knowing even then that I was using language for my own sake, as a way of channeling whatever emotion or intention for myself that would communicate to a bird or a squirrel. (Squirrels, though: you just can’t talk to ‘em. They have zero attention span.)
I had, at one time, a small army of imaginary friends whose names I have largely forgotten, but among them was a wizard (stolen straight from the pages of Tolkien), a horse? unicorn? I forget which. I vaguely remember and elf and a dwarf. I needed a “one” of everything, nearly — I was half of a Noah — and I think I may have even tamed an orc in my mind.
Even in elementary school and certainly in junior high, when I began to think more overtly about God and Jesus and my spiritual life, it was easy (as I would later read that C.S. Lewis had done) to translate my thoughts about magic to larger analogies about the Spirit. I remember two insights, one of which I came up with nearly on my own, and the other which I’m sure I borrowed from some bowdlerized John Donne text or another:
Nothing is good or bad except thinking makes it so. Okay, in truth, that isn’t how I thought it, which is how I know that I came up with this one on my own, and only later applied the insights of Hamlet to my own realization. For some reason, my insight had to do with desire and obtaining, and store windows. And sofas. Maybe our family was buying a sofa at the time, and if so, we would have gone shopping first and foremost at Sears. I can remember nearly nothing in our house that, if it wasn’t inherited from family, didn’t come from Sears — the piano being perhaps the sole exception. And, maybe, an Ethan Allen something, only because I remember being in that showroom, but I think I was older by that time.
But I remember having the insight that whether one saw a sofa on display and imagined oneself already owning it, or if one purchased it, brought it home, and it was in the living room, it was in either case the image of the sofa in the mind that delivered the satisfaction, regardless of where it was. I’m not sure I managed to extend this “power of the imagination” to the distinction between actually sitting on the sofa and merely thinking about sofa that one could sit on — i.e, it doesn’t quite explain the power of consciousness and living in the moment — but I still think it was a profound enough insight for a pre-teen to have that it has stuck with me. Not as being profound, but as being among the first applications of imagination and mental images to emotional life. Is one necessarily happier once one has purchased the sofa? Why? Is it not merely that one has supplanted one mental image (“the sofa on display that I could imagine in my home”) with another (“the sofa in the living room of my home”)?
Two admissions I only realized much later: My concerns and consciousness were still very much rooted in materialism. And while I had a growing awareness of an emotional life — to the extent of identifying emotional reactions to physical phenomena, as in the sofa — and spiritual life, it nearly always grew out of wanting a thing, place or person. It was noun-based living, which is a good introduction to reality and even epistimology, but will only get you so far, in that “getting so far” isn’t a noun but a verbal phrase.
And second (and the one that I must have read or heard somewhere and internalized enough to not even remember where I heard it, but I’m pretty sure it was in a church context): I have something to learn from each person I meet. It may be that I remember thinking this because I remember Jim Tenney and Paul Prather thinking I was a pious prig to say it. And they were largely right. I was nearing my teenage years, I was already at the cusp of adolescence, I think, and I saw a huge tsunami of a train-wrecked metaphor headed my way in the form of sexuality, popularity, self-determination, social pressure, and a fear that, in an effort to protect me, my parents and church had sold me a bill of goods, and God actually was a vengeful God. I began to suspect, based largely on the inner life I was beginning to discern in those around me at my age and the adults I came into contact with, that I could only earn God’s conditional love by loving others unconditionally. I did not, at that time, see that this meant loving myself conditionally — a perversion of “to love as God loves” in my adolescent mind. But somehwere between 4th and 6th grade, I ate of the Tree of Knowledge, and thereby produced my own Fall. Even now, knowing better, it is still a daily challenge to be “in this world, but not of it.”
And so I entered that phase of life where I would “live, love sin, fail, forgive, read, wait, struggle, and search, presuming that we have to get it right all by ourselves”: Dear God, I would pray, help me get it right. Help me to be better in your eyes (I don’t think I was ever so arrogant as to think I could be the first perfect person, the Second Coming of Christ) by being perfect in the world’s eyes. I wanted both: acceptance and admiration of the world, and God’s approval for having sought it. Therein lies madness. Or, to be less melodramatic about it, therein lies the seeds of alcoholism. And probably nearly every other human failing.
Enlightenment. Can I say my relation with the world and with God coheres better now than when I was 43? Than when I was 13? I think so. I’m not drinking to avoid the incongruities, at any rate. I’m learning to accept myself, rather than learning to hate myself — which was true at 43 as it was at 13.
For me for whom inaction, reflection, and inertia are default modes, it is a continuing struggle to move from life as a collection of nouns — of people, places, and things — to a collection of verbs — of living and loving. To learn that being a human being can and should also be a human doing. I need to “be still” and know that God is God, but I have to actively seek out that stillness, that time, that relationship. I can’t just drift and expect it will happen in God’s good time.
I have to act. I have to move. I have to do in order to feel myself be. The question is never “whom am I to be?” for the answer to that must always be “myself.” And finding out who “myself” is requires active participation in my life, even if that is taking time, like now, to mentally and emotionally reflect upon it. (Brooding is neither meditating nor writing; it is merely brooding.) The question is “what am I to do?” “To do the will of God”; “to do the work you have given us to do”; “the courage to change the things I can”; “to do the next right thing.”
Act, and the motivation will follow. Move a muscle, change a thought. If not immediately, then over time. If I am always going to seek equilibrium as my default, I need to reset my default — take my engine out on the highway and open it up regularly to get all cylinders pumping. If my problem becomes “I am taking on too many important commitments and stretching myself too thin” — as, in past years, I did, along with ridiculous obsessions I didn’t need to satisfy, but did — I can actively seek to find rest and restoration if I am at least in a mode to be active. I take finding alternatives off the table, however, if I never turn my switch to “on.”
Enlightenment is a process, therefore it is a journey, therefore it can only occur through verbs. I have largely eradicated the negative verbs from my life, that led me deeper into darker verbs and even a growing desire to end all of my verbs prematurely. I have, I think, reset my nouns by replacing my verbs. — to fear, to lie, to obsess, to please, to personalize, to resent, to self-destruct — with some easier but more helpful verbs: to walk the dog, to go to meetings, to help, to pray, to forgive.
To be more like God is the opposite of being static, inert, and dead. God is alive, creative, fecund — and invites me into living, creating, and fecunding. (Blush!) “I AM,” says God. Existence exists. But as R. Buckminster Fuller said: “God is a verb.” I need to conjugate myself in my present tense that I might be more like God in my future.
Reading this lesson this morning (Acts 14:1-18), I thought: Huh. I wonder where else the Greek gods are mentioned by name? So I did a search on “Zeus” and “Hermes” and this is the only spot. (There’s a Hermes greeted in Romans, but he’s obviously a Christian mortal.) Given the “to an unknown god” story and how the spread of Christianity among the Gentiles was primarily among the Greeks, it’s interesting to me that there isn’t as much mention or characterization of Greek religion as there is in the Hebrew scriptures of other nations’ gods. Maybe because evangelism was done by this Jewish sect of Jesus followers with persuasion and debate, and not as one nation taking arms against another, or viewing alternate god worship among themselves as a fifth column, as the Hebrew people did (or more frequently didn’t, to God’s wrath).
Also, in looking further into Barnabas, he is considered by many to be the brother of Aristobulus, one of the 70 or 72 disciples, whose household is greeted in that same passage in Romans, and who was the first Bishop of Britain, possibly dying at Glastonbury. This I did not know!
We had the following poem — written by the founder of Prophetic Kabbalah, I later learned — as the second lesson at last Sunday’s 7pm service at church.
(Our 7pm Sunday service is what I like to call “trinitarian universalist,” but maybe only because I like to call myself that, too. It has a “psalm” that is often from another tradition than Hebrew scripture; three readings, one of which is the gospel lesson for the day, the other two being usually a piece of poetry, as below, and an excerpt of prose from some other source. This is all followed by a brief reflection on the readings from the clergy, 10 minutes of silent meditation, and then a basic “Rite III,” stand-round-the-altar Eucharist.)
English version by Peter Cole
Original Language Hebrew
And YHVH spoke to me when I saw His name
spelled out and merged with the blood in my heart,
separating blood from ink and ink from blood:
and YHVH said to me: Behold,
blood is the name of your soul, and ink the name of your spirit:
your father and mother are vessels for my name and a sign.
And then I fathomed the tremendous difference between
my spirit and soul, and a great joy came through me.
For I knew my soul was dwelling in the redness as blood,
and my spirit was dwelling in the blackness as ink.
And there raged a war in my heart between
the blood and the ink: the blood from the wind
and the ink from dust, and the black ink
over the blood was victorious —
as the Sabbath subdues all days of the week.
And so my heart rested within me — and I offer
praise to the Lord, to the Name in my heart forever.
—from The Dream of the Poem: Hebrew Poetry from Muslim and Christian Spain, 950-1492, edited by Peter Cole
This floored me during the service and continues to. First of all, a distinction between “soul” and “spirit”! A theory of special relativity and a theory of general relativity for the numinous of us and for what we are of?
And then the written name of God, the Tetragrammaton — the Great Existence: “I AM.” (I feel as though I’ve only ever seen that in all caps; I’ll have to check some Bible translations to see if that’s usually so.)
Of course, as with reading Isaiah (or hearing his words sung in British baroque oratorio), I can’t help but read back in my trinitarian experience of God: power of the name of God, the Word of God (or Logos), and the Spirit of God that moved over the dark waters of chaos when the universe — when What Is — came into Being in a way that could be, with the eventual advent of humans, aware of Itself.
Black ink — the spirit of God — putting my blood, my soul, my temporal, spatial awareness of my own existence, as well as all other things, in subjection under the ink, the Name, the Word, Logos — “as the Sabbath subdues all days of the week.”
Theologian Stephen L. Harris claims the author of John adapted Philo‘s concept of the Logos, identifying Jesus as an incarnation of the divine Logos that formed the universe (cf. Proverbs 8:22-36).
Jews. To the rabbis who spoke of the Torah (Law) as preexistent, as God’s instrument in creation, and is the source of light and life, John replied that these claims apply rather to the Logos.
Gnostics. To the Gnostics who would deny a real incarnation, John’s answer was most emphatic: “the Word became flesh.” [Jn 1:14]
Followers of John the Baptist. To those who stopped with John the Baptist, he made it clear that John was not the Light but only witness to the Light.
It’s always tricky to talk about Christianity as it relates generally to (and specifically in the first-century to) Judaism. We can’t explore the implications or connections of our beliefs without the context of the monotheism it began as a sect of. We can’t explore the person, teachings of, and earliest beliefs about Jesus very deeply without the context of his faith and the society in which he expressed and lived it.
So it may be even more difficult — it might even be considered offensive — to continue that exploration in the context of Jesus’ religion more than 1,000 years after my religion and Jesus’ religion diverged in a yellow wood, and I took the one more travelled by.
However, I suspect that Rabbi Abulafia, the medieval Spanish mystic who ventured to Rome with the intent of converting Pope Nicholas III to Judaism — !!! —would not be distressed at my efforts. Like his co-religionists Jesus and Jacob, Rabbi Abulafia sounds like he didn’t shy away from a good wrestling match.
Did you know there are absolutely no instances of demon possession in the Hebrew scripture, the Tanakh? There are a few evil spirits, but they’re usually just causing jealousy or vengeance. Some are even said to be sent by God to false prophets… so they will then fool King Ahab, Jezebel’s husband…. Complicated. But in the Hebrew Bible, there aren’t any instances of demonic possession and certainly no examples of exorcism, the casting out of the demons that possess people.
Yet the first three Gospels are full of people possessed by demons! Even the Pharisees had their own guild of exorcists, and Jesus gives his apostles power and authority to cast out demons. And later in Luke, the apostles come across a freelance exorcist using Jesus’ name without permission. But Jesus tells them bootleg versions of his exorcisms are fine; it’s all good, he says.
So I was struck by this: in Hebrew scripture, there is no evidence of demonic possession or any practice of exorcism, yet by the first century, Jesus and the Pharisees and all the crowds and the worried family members: they all seem to understand demonic possession as — usually — just another in a long line of possible ailments. You’ve got your blindness, your hemorrhaging, your demonic possession, your orthopedic problems… You know, the usual.
But even in today’s story from Luke, which is maybe among the more cinematic exorcisms Jesus performed, we can recognize the rough outlines of what this guy suffers from. Luke doesn’t use the terms from the fifth edition of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but after just one convulsive treatment, followed by a session of talk therapy, this demon-possessed man in Gerasa goes from being the crazy, barely dressed guy you avoid on the subway platform to being the somewhat less crazy, badly dressed guy on the plane in the seat next to you who wants to tell you all the great things Jesus has done for him here take this pamphlet!
We all get that we are a more scientifically advanced people than the first-century Gerasenes. It sounds barbaric and primitive to our modern ears that they used chains and a guard to bring this man’s demons under control, whereas we now have antipsychotics and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors to prescribe.
But we shouldn’t be too quick to pass judgment on their brutal, backward ways.
In our own city, one jail — Rikers Island — is the largest mental health facility in the state, holding more prisoners with serious mental illnesses than there are patients in all of New York State’s mental hospitals combined.
In the U.S., a seriously mentally ill person is 10 times more likely to be in jail or prison than in a state mental institution.
And when people with a serious mental illness encounter police officers, for any reason or in any way, they’re 16 times more likely to be injured or killed than other people — unless the officers have also been trained as first-responders to people in a serious mental crisis. Examples and studies show that when police are trained to talk the mentally ill off that metaphoric ledge, the number and severity of bad and violent outcomes go way, way down.
My point is that we may call these diseases in the Gospels by new names, and we may have medications and therapies for them, but because we’re afraid of them, we still often treat the people possessed by them like demoniacs, the same way the Gerasenes did 2,000 years ago: in chains and under guard.
And — while the modern scientific method doesn’t have much use for personifying and anthropomorphizing the things it’s studying or treating — personally, I’m comfortable with people demonizing diseases, whether they want to call their personality disorder “Legion” or their cancer “Adolf”: whatever works to help them understand that it’s not them, it’s something affecting and hurting them, and showing all of us there’s more work to be done to bring about the Kingdom of God.
It’s not just these things like full-blown psychosis or Stage IV cancer, either. Anyone who has spent time in 12 Step group meetings for alcoholism or addiction is familiar with the characterization: “I have a disease that wants me dead.”
Or, to acknowledge it wouldn’t take very many days or drinks for our lives to spin out of control all over again, sometimes we’ll say, “While I’m sitting in here in a 12 Step meeting, my disease is out there in the parking lot, doing pushups.”
It keeps it real — in a way that discussing dopamine levels and opioid receptors just wouldn’t.
So I haven’t been diagnosed with this particular Legion demon we heard about, but I have this other disease of alcoholism that wants me dead. Until about four and a half years ago, I was too afraid to name it for what it was. It was just another reason to hate myself.
Because, see, I also take medication for depression. I’ve taken it for years — and I was amazed to find out how much better the antidepressants work when I’m not diluting them with alcohol. But last year, my psychiatrist and I thought I might take a break from that prescription for a few months, in order to, you know: reboot it. Or reboot me.
It kind of made some sense at the time. But I will say now that the cloud of doom and self-annihilation that hung over me this time a year ago was easily bad enough to give that demon a name I can’t repeat in church. As the writer and priest Barbara Crafton said about the worst of her own depression: “I don’t ever want to feel that way again.”
So, yeah: I’ve got demons that want me dead.
And as we saw in Orlando last week, sometimes other people’s demons want me dead, too.
We’re actually having political and social media arguments over the names to give last weekend’s demons. Some people want to yoke the second largest religion in the world to it — the experience of God for one-quarter of the world’s people! — and name that demon “radical Islam.”
Others of us hear that and just can’t square it with the religion of the poet Rumi, of the boxer and fighter for conscience Muhammed Ali, of the young Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai — any more than we can hear about the Aryan Nations or the Ku Klux Klan and euphemistically agree to call them “White Christian Separatists.” C’mon! The Mennonites are Christian Separatists; the Sufis practice radical Islam. The Aryan Nations and ISIS are just very real hate hanging off of very false faith.
At least for us here today, whatever our orientation, I bet the minute we heard about the dance club where this shooting took place, we all knew one name for this demon was obviously “homophobia.” Now we’re hearing that maybe it was something instead of or in addition to that led to the worst mass shooting in American history. Maybe it was “internalized” homophobia … which — oh… — is certainly a demon that I picked up early in Oklahoma and then spent way too many years with, even after I moved to New York. Like major depression, that’s another feeling I never want to feel again. Maybe “internalized homophobia” is redundant. Or maybe hate is sometimes just an intransitive verb.
Whatever the demons are called, they’re clearly comorbid with our national addiction to the cheap and easy access of assault rifles — the name the Nazis first gave them, by the way, speaking of names.
Does it even make a difference if we identify the demons that possessed a native New Yorker to rain down death in a dance club in Orlando? Maybe. We’re going to discuss things like that at a forum following this service, and everyone is encouraged to stay. In today’s reading, Jesus wants to hear the demons’ named. If only so he can use his power to cast them out.
There’s one condition or disability mentioned in this story in Luke that Jesus doesn’t heal, though. And in general, I notice, he can’t ever seem to heal it just by himself, all on his own. That’s fear. Here the very vocal and important Gerasa Council of Pork Producers see what’s happened and they are “seized with great fear.” Jesus can heal a demoniac without his or her participation and, in other cases, he can do it even from a distance, but he can’t simply heal the people’s fear.
As we heard, Jesus and his disciples come to the Gerasene countryside by boat, across the Sea of Galilee. (I hear there’s a lovely old cemetery worth visiting near Gerasa.)
It was on this trip, in Luke immediately before our reading today, when the wind picked up and the waves started to wash over the boat, and the disciples woke Jesus up, terrified they were going to drown. He rebuked them for their lack of faith, he rebuked the wind and the waves, and everything and everyone calmed down. But he can’t just erase the disciples’ fear from their hearts. He can command even the wind and the water, but not the faith of his closest friends, who know him and love him the most.
It happens again and again. People get visited by angels and the first words they hear are “Fear not!” Obviously the natural reaction to seeing an angel, or God’s healing power, or a resurrected savior is one of abject terror. Sometimes Jesus calms down the external cause of fear; sometimes — like the earth-wind-and-fire special effects that Elijah witnessed — you just have to wait it out.
There’s obviously the respectful, awestruck “fear of the Lord” that is a sign of piety in the Bible. But Jesus always asks us — well, often he gets bossy and orders us — to not let our fear get in the way. He’s like Cher in “Moonstruck”: “Snap out of it!” He can work wonders, but if all we can contribute is our fear and useless anxiety, then he might as well get back in the boat and head home.
So, yeah, I’m an alcoholic. I was in the closet for at least 20 years. I’ve got depression — it probably seems like I’m ready to cop to just about any demon that shows up in my Google search history.
But the truth is, even when I can clearly identify them, I’m not always ready for Jesus to cast out my demons. Like the people of Gerasa, I’ve numbed myself to the status quo, the political stalemate, so that when Jesus shows up, I can even mistake him as the threat. I often feel I’m the one shouting: “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? I beg you, do not torment me!”
So Jesus approaches me carefully, hands out and upraised. Going by the manual, he says the things you’re supposed to say to calm down the guy who’s out of control: “I’m here to help you. Don’t be afraid,” he says.
Perhaps most importantly, he quietly says to me — me, who’s crazy with fear, standing there naked among graves and tombs and horrible headlines and victim after victim after victim after victim of other people’s demons: “So, yeah, I’m Jesus. What’s your name?”
Now, Jesus knows my name is Derek. It’s on my birth certificate, it’s on my marriage certificate. He heard a minister at Lowman Memorial Methodist Church in Topeka, Kansas, call me Derek when I was baptized in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. (It was pretty old school, so he probably said “Holy Ghost.”)
And Jesus also knows me as DAB, which some friends call me, since that’s just how I’ve always signed emails, with my initials: D-A-B. (Yes, Jesus apparently hacked into my server and has read my email.)
And Jesus calls me and knows me just as “D,” since that’s the name my niece calls me — because that’s what her father, my brother, called me, all the way back to before he was able to say my full name.
This Jesus, he knows our names, he calls us each by name, by all the names by which we’re loved. But when I’m possessed by the demons and seized by fear, Jesus still asks: “What’s your name?”
He wants me to hear it. He’s trying to remind me that my name is not “Legion.” Or “Jack Daniels.” Or “Idiot.” Or “Faggot.” Or “Loser.” Those are just the names of some of the demons he wants to cast out of me.
Jesus calls me “Friend,” he calls me “Beloved.” He calls you “Beloved.” He calls us “Whole.” He calls us “Healed.”
So to distract me at least enough so that he can perform this unscheduled exorcism, so that the wind in my head and the waves of fear in my heart can subside, maybe Jesus even says something like: “Listen to me; you don’t need to be afraid, no matter what happens. I, Son of the Most High God, I call you by name — and you are loved.
“Now, see those pigs over there? Stay calm. But just keep your eye on them.