25 May 2012, 5:26pm
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[holy daze] a violent wind & tongues of fire

Sunday is Pentecost. Before I started this project, I didn’t know anything about Pentecost. I think I may have known it was a holiday, but I think I associated it first and foremost with Pentecostal Christianity, which I also didn’t (don’t) know much about except that it maybe had something to do with speaking “in tongues” and the laying-on of hands and possibly falling down and witnessing… whatever that might mean. Maybe I saw it in a movie once?

Turns out Pentecost is actually an ancient Jewish feast day (Shavuot) celebrating the first harvest (”first fruits”) and commemorating the day Moses received the Law (the Torah) from God on Mount Sinai. Wikipedia says, “On Passover, the nation of Israel were freed from their enslavement to Pharaoh; on Shavuot they were given the Torah and became a nation committed to serving God.” I am feeling parallels between this and the corresponding Christian story: during Holy Week we were saved from sin by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, and Pentecost is considered by many Christians to be the birthday of the Church, when the Holy Spirit made the apostles speak in the languages of all nations, and Peter stood up and called for all those nations to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of their sins.

Here’s the whole thing, Acts of the Apostles 2:1-41 (New International Version) –

The Holy Spirit Comes at Pentecost

1 When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place. 2 Suddenly a sound like the blowing of a violent wind came from heaven and filled the whole house where they were sitting. 3 They saw what seemed to be tongues of fire that separated and came to rest on each of them. 4 All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.

5 Now there were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. 6 When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard their own language being spoken. 7 Utterly amazed, they asked: “Aren’t all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 Then how is it that each of us hears them in our native language? 9 Parthians, Medes and Elamites; residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya near Cyrene; visitors from Rome 11 (both Jews and converts to Judaism); Cretans and Arabs—we hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongues!” 12 Amazed and perplexed, they asked one another, “What does this mean?”

13 Some, however, made fun of them and said, “They have had too much wine.”

Peter Addresses the Crowd

14 Then Peter stood up with the Eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd: “Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. 15 These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It’s only nine in the morning! 16 No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:

17 “‘In the last days, God says,
I will pour out my Spirit on all people.
Your sons and daughters will prophesy,
your young men will see visions,
your old men will dream dreams.
18 Even on my servants, both men and women,
I will pour out my Spirit in those days,
and they will prophesy.
19 I will show wonders in the heavens above
and signs on the earth below,
blood and fire and billows of smoke.
20 The sun will be turned to darkness
and the moon to blood
before the coming of the great and glorious day of the Lord.
21 And everyone who calls
on the name of the Lord will be saved.’

22 “Fellow Israelites, listen to this: Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know. 23 This man was handed over to you by God’s deliberate plan and foreknowledge; and you, with the help of wicked men, put him to death by nailing him to the cross. 24 But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him. 25 David said about him:

“‘I saw the Lord always before me.
Because he is at my right hand,
I will not be shaken.
26 Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
my body also will rest in hope,
27 because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
you will not let your holy one see decay.
28 You have made known to me the paths of life;
you will fill me with joy in your presence.’

29 “Fellow Israelites, I can tell you confidently that the patriarch David died and was buried, and his tomb is here to this day. 30 But he was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that he would place one of his descendants on his throne. 31 Seeing what was to come, he spoke of the resurrection of the Messiah, that he was not abandoned to the realm of the dead, nor did his body see decay. 32 God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of it. 33 Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear. 34 For David did not ascend to heaven, and yet he said,

“‘The Lord said to my Lord:
“Sit at my right hand
35 until I make your enemies
a footstool for your feet.”’

36 “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”

37 When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. 39 The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

40 With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” 41 Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.

I’ve been listening (via iTunes U) this week to recorded lectures from a course on “the Historical Jesus” from Stanford University. I’m about three meetings in. The lecturer, Thomas Sheehan, spent one of the course meetings talking about apocalyptic — i.e. revelatory (the words mean the same thing) — literature, with regard specifically to the Book of David in the Old Testament and then the Book of Mark in the New Testament. His basic premise is that such literature is not written about the past so much as it is written about the present and future. According to my possibly-faulty recollection of his lecture, the Book of David, for example, was purportedly written circa the 600’s BCE and unearthed — revealed! — at a divinely-determined time — the 200’s BCE. In other words, it was written in the 200’s and contained lots of “prophecies” about what had happened in the years between which, oh look!, had come true. Then it went on to say: The beast (empire) that is now oppressing you, it too will be defeated. The point was to inspire hope and to suggest certain ways of approaching the problems of the present that the writers of the text believed to be the best ways. Politics!

There’s a lot of information in the lectures that I might have absorbed a bit better if I bothered to take notes, but a few of the other bits I remember seem relevant. One, Acts was written by the same author as the Gospel of Luke. Two, Luke was the second gospel to be written, at least fifty years after the death of Jesus. I’m a little unclear on the whole end-times / imminent-arrival-of-the-Kingdom-of-God thing and its presence in early Christianity (I think there’s a lecture on that coming up), but Sheehan did mention at one point that that emphasis had considerably faded by the time the Gospel of John, the last of the gospels, was written — such that in John a lot of things become (relatively) explicitly figurative that were previously literal. I guess that doesn’t have much to do with Pentecost, but I did get a little thrill from hearing it after writing this about John’s version of the Great Commission.

But, okay, Pentecost. The bit in Acts sounds pretty apocalyptic to me, and I mean that in both the usual sense with which people use the word, and the way Sheehan uses it, which is why I brought in the Sheehan thing to begin with. I do enjoy the fact that the apostles are actually drunk on the Holy Spirit. But the whole thing reeks of “repent or else!”

Fortunately, I’m not even really a Christian, much less a Biblical literalist, and I can interpret the scriptures as I see fit. Or, as the case may be, borrow the interpretations of others. Today I like that of Nadia Bolz-Weber (thanks Ben for the link), a Lutheran pastor in Denver who writes a pretty awesome blog. Today she posted this Pentecost sermon, in which she emphasizes that the apostles were all hanging out together rather than mixing with Jerusalem’s other denizens. The Holy Spirit, she says — and she gives the Holy Spirit a feminine pronoun, which definitely helps win me over — came in to rustle ‘em up and make ‘em diversify. To make sure that the Church — the Body of Christ — would be inclusive of every nation. Not a bad beginning.

Here’s how Pentecost is generally celebrated in Western churches (Catholic and Protestant), according to Wikipedia (gotta love it): The color red is displayed everywhere, for the fire of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes there are red balloons (happy birthday, Church!). Priests and even laypeople wear red to celebrate (I might get in on that). Symbols of or words associated with the Holy Spirit are displayed, such as the “Fruit of the Spirit” (which I had not heard of but which is another thread to follow in my journey here, and which reminds me of the first fruits presented at the Temple for Shavuot… right? Anyway, “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control,” cf. Galatians 5:22-23). Red flowers and flowering plants are also on display, symbolizing “the renewal of life, the coming of the warmth of summer, and the growth of the church at and from the first Pentecost.” Brass instruments often feature to recall the “mighty wind.” Sermons may be repeated in foreign languages. Some cathedrals from the Middle Ages feature “Holy Ghost holes” through which dove figures were lowered during Pentecost services; other churches strew rose petals over their congregants to recall the tongues of fire. These days sometimes origami cranes are used! Pentecost is also often chosen for the ordination of clergy and the Confirmation of young people. Ironically, Pentecostal congregations often ignore the holiday of Pentecost.

The time between Ascension and Pentecost is traditionally a time of fasting and/or prayer vigils, in recognition of the time the apostles drew together and awaited the Holy Spirit (though I’m not sure there’s much indication that they knew that they were waiting for something). I suppose I’ve used the time between Ascension and Pentecost to do some reflection, too, about this project. Turns out Christianity is a big, big subject that I know a lot less about than I thought I did. Maybe I should be a little more systematic in my explorations? One major denomination per month? Or some time spent on the Creeds (Nicean, Apostles’ — or are they the same?), or the Sacraments? Ordinary Time starts on Monday (or Tuesday? I’m not sure what Pentecost Monday is all about), so I’ll have some time between holidays to consider all of these things. Unless I want to mark every saint’s day, or some. I guess we’ll find out!

[this entry was originally published on may 25th, 2012, at holy daze.]

20 May 2012, 1:13pm
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what i’ve been up to

not writing here, it would seem. i think most of my blogging energy’s gone towards a new project (about which you can read below) and my photography business, where i also post plenty of personal photos and so on… i hear that in this business it’s one’s individuality that makes one stand out (and i believe that that’s probably ultimately the way to get the clients i want), so i’m doin’ my best to be open there, but it’s not quite like this space and i can’t quite make the jump to making it that way. not all my photos are perfect and i can post the less-than-perfect ones here and be less-than-perfect here in general and that’s okay. lately i’ve been feeling too busy to even do too much posting there — plus i am taking a lot of photos with my new iphone(!), which is not exactly the content i want there but which i am excited to post here! and so — without further ado — what i’ve been up to in 2012 –

* A and i moved to san francisco. it was unexpected and serendipitous — my aunt, who lives in a beautiful old house in the mission, had a room open around the same time we were realizing our situation in berkeley was financially unsustainable. yup, we moved to the city to save money! it’s been pretty awesome — A has wanted to live in san francisco proper since he was a teenager, and i’ve been loving all the street art i see on my morning runs. for example (iphone photos!) –

and lots more. i find something new every day.

* i’m still working at an after-school program at a public elementary school in oakland. it remains the most challenging job i’ve ever had. four weeks of school left! i’m not sure what i’m going to “do” next; i have a few weddings lined up this summer and fall, but i’m not sure i’m going to get too many more without investing in advertising. i’m planning to find another part-time job in the fall, but i’m not sure whether i’d like to try to work with kids again or find something that takes a bit less emotional energy! working with young kids for a year has made me really thoughtful about education, discipline, learning processes and so on, and to be honest i really wish i had kept a better journal throughout the year. i’ve struggled with a lot of things, but the kids are wonderful.

(collaborative chalk artwork!)

(puddles: just as interesting to kids as expensive playground equipment.)

* i photographed my first paid wedding. it was scary and exhilarating and fun. you can see some of the photos i took here and here.

* i joined a church: the first unitarian church of oakland. i signed the membership book in march. i like it a lot. i have been thinking so much about religion and spirituality lately — really for the past few years, but it’s felt more pressing recently. last month i started a related big longterm project that i’m still trying to define and organize and articulate. you can find it here.

* i’m in a play! my friend adam is directing his ambitious adaptation of moby dick, his favorite book, in his backyard as part of the international home theater festival. i play tashtego, a harpooner; and captain bildad, one of the owners of the pequod. i’ve been pretty busy this past month with rehearsals and so on, but i’m so glad i said yes! it’s been a lot of fun and it always feels good to do some theatre. i haven’t regretted moving on from wanting to make it my career, but i do hope to keep it a part of my life in some capacity.

anyway, last night was opening night (and, uhh, our first run-through without stopping. hah!) and tonight is closing night! some rehearsal snapshots –

* it’s spring, which means flowers! though who am i kidding? i live in california and there are always flowers. but here’s some iphone photos of flowers anyway –

* i bought an iphone — my first smartphone — and have found it to be the biggest technological leap i’ve made since i got my first laptop computer (at 14). it’s slowly replacing a lot of stuff i’ve always carried around: phone, camera, notebook, planner, ipod… plus i’ve been listening to a whole bunch of podcasts (my favorite lately is american public media’s “on being”), and i downloaded an app called “runmeter” that includes the couch-to-5k program and will tell me exactly when i should run and when i should walk to get the intervals right (i’m on week 3 and going strong). and of course i’ve downloaded at least a dozen camera apps; my favorite is VSCOCAM, and i also like Osmo 120 for adding fun light leaks. my instragram feed is at statigr.am/staciafuchsia. here’s some more phone photos –

(the brass liberation orchestra, which A joined a few months ago.)

* we are getting married in less than six weeks. here’s a cute cheesy photo by lynette boyle –

17 May 2012, 5:25pm
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[holy daze] dazed & confused

Well, it’s Ascension Day, the first major holy day of this project about holy days. And to tell you the truth, I’m not really prepared to say anything about it. I’m not sure I’m really prepared to say much about anything. I work at an elementary school after-school program, and today during recess some of the fifth graders called me over to settle an argument. “Who invented humans,” they asked, “God or, like, particles in the air?” I told them it was a matter of opinion, but stuck around to eavesdrop a little while they duked it out. The question got me thinking a bit, about science in that context as a kind of theism (”particles in the air”? I admit, I laughed a little), and about what I really believe about creation. If I sort of believe that humans created God (like Voltaire suggested we would need to if He didn’t exist), am I really a theist?

More eventually, but tonight I promised my partner I’d go watch him rock out with his brass band, so I’ll have to do my reckoning another time.

[this entry was originally published on may 17th, 2012, at holy daze.]

15 May 2012, 5:24pm
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[holy daze] aporia

My partner introduced me to the concept of aporia; I was with him a few years ago when he got the Greek word tattooed on his arm. It’s a word Socrates reputedly used to describe the state you reach when you realize exactly how little you know — it’s at this point that true knowledge can begin to be obtained.

A few days ago I emailed the Reverend Ben McKelahan, a.k.a. my friend and wedding officiant and college ex-boyfriend, and asked for some guidance with regard to this project. He was the second person I’ve told about it (after my partner) — I’m not sure why I’m feeling so shy about it. I’m sure it’s more about me than about anyone else — after all, I have become, with this project (and the experiences and reflections that led me to take it on), exactly the sort of person at whom I would have looked down my nose as a 16-year-old. You know, opiate of the masses, crutch for the weak, etc? My self-consciousness about it illustrates my lingering disbelief at my own drive to know God, and the judgment I evidently still feel, at least a little bit, towards religiosity and religious people (and by extension, myself).

The other part of it is a more generalized fear of criticism, maybe. I was struck, recently, by the contrast between my Twitter homepage (i.e. the Twitter feeds I subscribe to and read regularly) and my own Twitter feed. My Twitter homepage is political, outspoken, engaged in dialogue with itself constantly. My own Twitter feed consists of inoffensive witticisms (on a good day) and links to photos I’ve taken. No — to revise what I stated above — I don’t think the fear is of criticism, exactly. I am reluctant to open myself up to political dialogue because of the unspoken rules of that dialogue: it will be logical, argumentative, and somewhat confrontational. I admire those who excel at that kind of dialogue (and I love reading and hearing it, when it is respectful), but I am not one of those people. When I’m put in a situation where I am expected to engage in that kind of dialogue, I stumble and am easily distracted by tangents and exceptions. I know that argumentation is a skill (like any other) that I could develop and improve with practice and attention, but the truth is that I don’t particularly want to. I think I am afraid that if I don’t engage in that kind of dialogue, I will be perceived as, well, dumb (here the word that means both silent and stupid seems appropriate) — unable to back up my ideas and experiences with evidence, et cetera. Probably that means that the skills I ought to be cultivating are graciousness, acceptance, and self-confidence. And that I ought to be engaging in other kinds of dialogue that make my heart sing and at which I am skilled. So, I guess this is a disclaimer of sorts to any eventual readers: let’s pretend on this blog that we’re sitting around a fireplace, or a wood stove, or a campfire, or maybe we’re on a warm beach or a sunny lawn somewhere, and we’ve all got nice glasses of wine or ginger ale or beer or whatever makes your head a bit fizzy and bubbly and wandering. You know?

I guess my last fear is that no one will care.

Anyway, Ben wrote me back with a great list of articles and a bunch of PDFs, and I haven’t read any of them yet, but I am thankful all the same. Instead, I’ve been listening to religion-related podcasts and reading The World’s Religions and thusly, I guess, getting some perspective from two ends at once: a broad historical and theological overview on one hand and contemporary issues on the other. Regarding the latter, I subscribed to NPR’s “topics” podcast in religion, and one of the segments I listened to the other day was this one, an interview with author Michael Sean Winters, who recently published a biography of Jerry Falwell. One of the things that Winters pointed out is that the idea we have these days of religion — specifically Christianity — as a phenomenon on the far-right end of the political spectrum is a recent construction:

WINTERS: [...] When you think back to the ’60s and the ’70s, the face of Christianity were people like Dr. King, Father Drinan, the liberal member of Congress from Massachusetts, William Sloane Coffin, the, you know, celebrated liberal chaplain at Yale.

And now, in our own day, when you hear of religious involvement in politics, you almost instinctively assume it’s conservative and Republican. And so Falwell’s Moral Majority, which was only in existence for 10 years – from ‘79 to ‘89 – really changed the face of Christian political involvement.

I had never heard of Father Drinan or William Sloane Coffin, which I suppose proves his point a little bit. Winters goes on to talk about his opinion that Falwell’s agenda was ultimately bad for both politics and religion. I’ll quote his comments about religion in particular:

MARTIN: You say that the fastest growing religion in the U.S. is the religion of none. And you argue that the public image that he created and promoted has contributed a great deal to the growing numbers of people in this country who don’t want anything to do with organized religion. Again, that’s a very damning assessment. Why do you arrive there?

WINTERS: Well, I think – you know, when you conflate religion which has, you know, deals with the ultimate life questions into this kind of, you know, handy political card of how you should vote. When people that have questions about the politics and decide they don’t like your politics, they’re going to throw the political baby out with the baptismal water. You know, you need to have some mediating philosophies and mediating institutions between religion and politics, to make sure that they’re kept separate.

The whole purpose of the Moral Majority was to conflate those in ways, and again, because of this fundamentalist mindset, often in very simplistic ways. And so when people said, you know, well, I just don’t want to have anything to do with his politics, they almost felt they then had to abandon Christianity, because this is what Christianity had become in their mind. And I think he’s very much responsible for that.

Yes — certainly something like this had a lot to do with my teenage anti-theism. Winters goes on to say:

The other part that I argue is that he reduced religion to ethics. And so when people found themselves making different ethical choices, they lost the kind of other salvific message of the Gospel. Because if you have to leave your religion at the door and just go in and talk about ethics, you’ve still left your religion at the door.

Huston Smith says something similar in his chapter on Christianity in The World’s Religions — which, by the way, is an incredible, thoughtful, engaging, and enlightening book, at least judging by what I’ve read of it so far (not enough). I expected when I picked it up that its content would be similar to that of the Revealing World Religions podcast — a straightforward, balanced history. But Smith, as he explains in the “Point of Departure” at the beginning of the book, is not interested in balance:

This book is not a balanced account of its subject. The warning is important. [...] The full story of religion is not rose-colored; often it is crude. Wisdom and charity are intermittent, and the net result is profoundly ambiguous. A balanced view of religion would include human sacrifice and scapegoating, the Christian Crusades and the holy wars of Islam. It would include witch hunts in Massachusetts, monkey trials in Tennessee, and snake worship in the Ozarks. The list would have no end.

Why then are these things not included in the pages that follow? My answer is so simple that it may sound ingenuous. This is a book about values. Probably as much bad music as good has been composed in the course of human history, but we do not expect courses in music appreciation to give it equal attention. Time being at a premium, we assume that they will attend to the best. I have adopted a similar strategy with respect to religion. [...] Others will be interested in trying to determine if religion in its entirety has been a blessing or a curse. That has not been my concern.

Having said what my concern is — the world’s religions at their best — let me say what I take that best to be, beginning with what it is not. Lincoln Steffens has a fable of a man who climbed to the top of a mountain and, standing on tiptoe, seized hold of the Truth. Satan, expecting mischief from this upstart, had directed one of his underlings to tail him; but when the demon reported with alarm the man’s success — that he had seized hold of the Truth — Satan was unperturbed. “Don’t worry,” he yawned. “I’ll tempt him to institutionalize it.”

He goes on to write eloquently about the humanity of religion and the inevitability of institutionalization and contextualization and so on. The point is that the book is not about those things. Instead he takes what is to me a completely novel approach and, well, divorces religion from politics and (largely) history and explains the basic tenets of Christian theology in a relatable and lovely way.

My partner, when I talk to him about this project (and when I try to convince him we should include “Morning Has Broken” in our wedding ceremony), jokingly asks, “you’re not gonna become a Christian, are you?” That would, of course, be pretty uncool because of the political associations Winter’s talking about above. But the theology about which I am reading in Smith’s book is so disarmingly beautiful that I find myself thinking, “how could I not be a Christian?” Are these things that, as Smith asserts, most Christians practice and believe? How come I’ve never heard them put this way before? –

God and earth are not spatially separate. Jesus differed from the Jews of his time in emphasizing Yahweh’s compassion rather than His law. “Jesus located the authority for his teachings not in himself or in God-as-removed but in his hearers’ hearts” (page 325). “The two most important facts about life [are as follows]: God’s overwhelming love of humanity, and the need for people to accept that love and let it flow through them to others” (page 327). Early Christians felt Jesus’s love and it melted away their fear, guilt, and ego and replaced them with love: “Ontogenetically speaking, love is an answering phenomenon. It is literally a response” (page 334). The Church is the body of Christ still on earth; Christians are its cells: “The cells of an organism are not isolates; they draw their life from the enveloping vitality of their hosts, while at the same time contributing to that vitality” (page 337). (I like this metaphor because there’s room for all kinds of variance, a whole ecology: symbiotic bacteria that’s not a “part” of the body — i.e. Christian — and yet contributes vitally to it and vice versa; the fuzzy border at the skin where body meets not-body and the more you zoom in the harder it is to see the line…) The Doctrine of Incarnation: Christ was wholly man and wholly God; he was evidence of God’s compassion — God was “concerned enough [about humanity] to suffer in its behalf” (page 342); Jesus’s example was both perfect (Godly) and relavent (human). The Doctrine of Atonement: “its root meaning is reconciliation, the recovery of wholeness or at-one-ment” (page 343). And here I would like to break away from this litany for a minute to devote more attention to Smith’s account of sin –

[Sin is] a disconnectedness or estrangement from God. It is the heart’s misplacement; a disalignment of our affections. Augustine, making this point in a positive vein, said, “Love [God] and do what you will.” When there is wholehearted love for the All, for the universal good we might say, then the will wants that good and needs no rules. For the most part matters are otherwise; concern for ourselves sabotages our love for others. And yet we do not truly like ourselves very much. Our hearts are drawn to something larger, beyond the narrow confines of the ego.

Thus the bondage that imprisons us is attachment to ourselves, with the fear and guilt that trail in its wake. Put the other way around, our bondage results from our estrangement, our sin or sunderment, from full participation in divine life. Being excluded from such participation doesn’t feel good. Paul had the openness and honesty first to see this and then to admit it: I feel wretched, he said. Prisoners always do. A good part of their wretchedness springs from their helplessness: by definition they can’t free themselves. So Paul continues: “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 14:15). He is admitting that he is trapped, which realization leads to his desperate cry [...], “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 14:23). In whatever words it is the cry that every alcoholic has repeated. If there is to be a liberation, it will have to come from without, or better, from above: a higher power. It was the Christian witness that the Power that works the liberation, and restores the self to the ground of being, is Christ. One could equally say that it is God, but Christians add that in this instance God’s purpose was accomplished by Christ.

In the context already established — that God occupies the same space as earth and creation and humanity; that Jesus is God’s compassion made human flesh; that the Church, like Christ, is God and is human, made up as it is of Christians — it seems to me that this “higher power” is not so much higher as bigger — as in, bigger than the sum of its human and divine parts.

One of the points Smith makes is that the ideas of Christian theology came out of very real experiences that early Christians were trying to make sense of and explain. I thought of that point today when I listened to an episode of American Public Media’s On Being podcast, called Remembering God, in which the host, Krista Tippett, interviews poet Christian Wiman about his experience with faith. Here:

Mr. Wiman: Oh, the notion that love could open up the world for you in that way. We just published a poem in the magazine by a poet named Spencer Reese who’s become an Anglican priest as it happens. He’s talking about the whole poem is an elegy for someone he knew and is trying to get at the truth of his life. He says, “All I know is that the more he loved me, the more I loved the world.” I think in any genuine love, and it’s not simply romantic love …

Ms. Tippett: Right. It’s other loves, yes. It’s our love for our children, yeah, it’s friendships, yeah.

Mr. Wiman: Right. I think there’s some kind of excess energy. We tend to think of love as closing out the world and we can only see the face of the beloved. Everything else goes quiet or goes numb, but actually what I experienced was that — and I’ve experienced it again with my children — is that the love demanded to be something else. It demanded to be expressed beyond the expression of the participants. You know, it kept demanding more. That excess energy, I think, is God and I think it’s God in us trying to return to its source. I think it’s — I don’t know how else to understand it, but if I think of myself as having returned to faith, and I do think of that, although I feel like I’m a desperately confused person and when people look to me for advice or direction on faith, I just feel sometimes like it’s hilarious.

But, um, you know, I think we have these experiences, and there are people reacting against the word spiritual these days. But, uh, I don’t know what other word to use at this point. They are spiritual experiences. And then religion comes after that. Religion is everything that we do with these moments of intense spirituality in our lives, whether it’s whatever practice we have, whether it’s going to church, it’s how we integrate sacred text into our lives. Being religious or taking on some sort of religious elements in your life, you’re not necessarily saying I agree with everything that this religion says. What you are saying is that I have had these incredible experiences in my life of suffering or joy or both and they have demanded some action of me and demanded some continuity of me, and the only way that I know to do this is to try to find some form in it and try to share it with other people.

Ms. Tippett: I actually wanted to ask you about the words faith and belief. You know, you’ve written “faith is not a state of mind but an action in the world, a movement toward the world.”

Mr. Wiman: The way I’ve defined it to myself is I think of belief as having objects. Faith doesn’t have objects. Faith is an orientation of your life or it’s an energy of your life or however you want to define it. But I think it is objectless.

Ms. Tippett: Doesn’t have to be faith in.

Mr. Wiman: Right. That has helped me to at least understand those terms somewhat and to explain to myself why I do need some sort of structures in my life. I do need to go to church. I need specifically religious elements in my life. I find that if I just turn all of my spiritual impulses, if I let them be solitary as I am comfortable in being, I’m comfortable sitting reading books and trying to pray and meditating, inevitably if that energy is not focused outward, it becomes despairing. It turns in on itself and I will look up in a couple of months and I find that I’m in despair. So I think that one of the ways that we know that our spiritual inclinations are valid is that they lead us out of ourselves.

Which brings us back to politics, doesn’t it? That which leads us, for better or worse, out of ourselves? I see where Winters is coming from, in wanting to separate politics and religion, but it seems awfully difficult. My own church is very political, in its way: it welcomes all congregants, regardless or color or creed or orientation, and it is active in social and environmental justice movements. Jesus too was engaged in these kinds of politics, according to Smith (himself a bit of a 60’s radical; my first exposure to him was as a character in a history book called The Harvard Psychedelic Club): “Having concluded that Yahweh’s central attribute was compassion, Jesus saw social barriers as an affront to that compassion. So he parleyed with tax collectors, dined with outcasts and sinners, socialized with prostitutes, and healed on the sabbath when compassion prompted doing so. This made him a social prophet, challenging the boundaries of the existing order and advocating an alternative vision of the human community” (page 322).

I don’t think I’m trying to make any particular point here — after all, that would contradict my statement at the beginning of this post that I’m no good at making particular points, wouldn’t it? Just a few days before Ascension and though I’ve no clear idea what it means that Christ rose bodily to heaven or even how churches mark the day, I know I’ve got something here in this mess of block quotes and parentheses. I’m looking forward to finding out what it is, and then realizing I have no idea what it is, over and over and over again.


God goes, belonging to every riven thing he’s made
sing his being simply by being
the thing it is:
stone and tree and sky,
man who sees and sings and wonders why

God goes. Belonging, to every riven thing he’s made,
means a storm of peace.
Think of the atoms inside the stone.
Think of the man who sits alone
trying to will himself into a stillness where

God goes belonging. To every riven thing he’s made
there is given one shade
shaped exactly to the thing itself:
under the tree a darker tree;
under the man the only man to see

God goes belonging to every riven thing. He’s made
the things that bring him near,
made the mind that makes him go.
A part of what man knows,
apart from what man knows,

God goes belonging to every riven thing he’s made.

– Christian Wiman

[this entry was originally published on may 15th, 2012, at holy daze.]

9 May 2012, 5:22pm
1 comment

[holy daze] the great commission

But, to get back to the calendar — what was that appearance to the disciples three weeks after Easter all about? I found this way-more-useful-than-that-pdf source, a gospel harmony on Wikipedia, which calls that particular appearance “the Great Commission” and places it in all four canon gospels. The chart includes only a few short verses from each gospel, but I’m gonna include the whole appearance, though I am pretty sure these are not all exactly the same three-weeks-after-Easter appearance. In one of them, Thomas and maybe some other disciples are missing. But anyway. These are from the New International Version, from an app I installed on my phone that makes it way easier to carry around the collected Word, if you will.

Matthew 28:16-20 –

Then the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain where Jesus had told them to go. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”

Mark 16:14-18 —

Later Jesus appeared to the Eleven as they were eating; he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen.

He said to them, “Go into the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes it and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”

Luke 24:36-49 (Wikipedia says 44-49) –

While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”

They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”

When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.

He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

Then he opened their minds so they could understand the scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

John 20:18-23 (Wikipedia says 21-23) –

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they say the Lord.

Again Jesus said, “Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” And with that he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive anyone’s sins, their sins are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.”

Whew! My favorite of these is John, probably because it is easily and beautifully interpreted metaphorically. Here’s the interpretation I want to make: Jesus wasn’t sent by God only to show humanity that God shares their suffering and joy (i.e. is human as well as divine) but to show humanity that they are divine as well as human. As Jesus was sent by and is a part of God, so humanity is a part of divinity. We as humans create our own salvation, create the kingdom of God on earth, by forgiving one another of our sins. This rings true for me, because I know that relationships without forgiveness do not thrive (hell is other people) and that the best relationships give life its meaning and are, dare I say, heavenly.

We all make terrible mistakes. Maybe we all sin? I am beginning to see how a belief in sin and sin nature, rather than a heavy guilty yoke, can be an ego-killing blessing with the right perspective on it. First step is admitting you have a problem, right?

I’ve been listening to a podcast called Revealing World Religions, specifically the 2-hour-long segment on Christianity (though I look forward to listening to the others, too). It’s a remarkably thorough and balanced presentation of the religion’s history and practices. Anyway, I learned that three of the four canon gospels were written from essentially the same source material and are called the “synoptic gospels” — Mark, Matthew, and Luke. John stands apart and was written last.

I’ve also just barely started reading Huston Smith’s The World’s Religions, which my partner very sweetly bought for me when I told him about this project. One thing that struck me in what I’ve read so far of the Christianity chapter is this statement about a fading era of skepticism with regard to the historical Jesus: “We [knew] almost nothing about him; and of the little we know, what is most certain is that he was wrong — this last referred to his putative belief that the world would quickly come to an end” (page 318). Of course, as far as geological time is concerned, the 2000 years that have passed since Jesus’s life are but a blip — “the end is near” is relative. And I gather that whether Jesus meant when he spoke about the coming kingdom of God that judgment was coming or that we would work to create heaven on earth is somewhat up for debate — I am not the only one who’s interpreted his words the way I did above.

But, well, I guess that either way he was wrong — raise your hand if you’re feeling like you’re living in the kingdom of God! There is a lot wrong with the world. But I suppose that on my best days, I do feel that I am living in the kingdom of God. And to practice forgiveness, love, trust, and respect — all things I find there, on those best days — that is a commission I can get behind.

[this entry was originally published on may 9th, 2012, at holy daze.]