Ambivalence is a Good Place to Hide

Ambivalence scares me, especially my own.  In the area of most ambivalence, amidst the shallow, shoal infested waters that lie between hope and fear, there are moments when I find everything within me rising in hope and I cry out: save us, we pray -hosanna! Then in the next moment the impossibility of my hopeful exultation crashes under the weight of a defensive cynical realism, and because I am an INTJ, I quietly give voice to my fears and whisper: crucify him.

Palm Sunday is my least favorite stop on the Easter liturgical Express I find the contradiction of blessing palms and singing Ride on, ride on in imagesmajesty before minutes later hearing an enactment of the Passion, with its crescendo cry of crucify him, crucify him, deeply disturbing.The juxtaposition between hosanna and crucify him administers a shock to the system. For this is an expression of the human capacity for shocking contradiction. We retreat into our paranoia saying: see there really is something out there to be afraid of.

In 160BC after seven years of guerilla resistance, Judas Maccabeus led the triumphant Jewish Resistance back into a Jerusalem newly liberated from the yoke of the Seleucid Emperor, Antiochus Epiphanies. The Jewish forces carried blessed palm branches with which to begin the cleansing of the Temple, a Temple that  had been defiled by the image that Antiochus had placed of himself in the Holy of Holies. The Maccabean Revolt was the last time the Jew’s could point to a successful assertion of their independence from foreign domination.

I find drawing a connection between the Maccabean cleansing of the Temple and Jesus being welcomed by the crowds bearing branches they had cut from the trees gives an insight into the hopes and aspirations of the crowds that welcomed Jesus into the city. They were welcoming in the name of the great King David a new liberator, who like Judas Maccabeus would liberate them both from the foreign Roman domination and the Jewish Temple authorities, the domestic collaborators with Roman oppression.

We know the end of the story. We know that as the events of Holy Week unfold, things don’t go in the direction of fulfilling public hopes and expectations. These increasingly turn to disappointment and in disillusionment the crowds turn on the one in whom they felt their deepest longing had been betrayed.

This is what happens when our impossible expectations fail to materialize. We turn on those who have hitherto evoked our hopes and crush them. It seems the only thing we can do to express the rage and despair that feed our fear that nothing has, nor will ever, change.

How does the profound disillusionment of the crowds at large, and of Jesus’ own inner circle in particular play into our current experience of the world? We live in a world in which the political, judicial and law enforcement, the educational, economic, and religious institutions that articulated our highest aspirations and hopes as a society are either in rapid collapse or changed beyond recognition. We seem to be returning to an age when the levers of power are firmly controlled by those with unaccountable privilege while the rest of us are gripped by a growing sense that we are helpless in the face of a new world in which there is a great deal to be afraid of.

The danger is that our liturgical journey through the events of Holy Week and the Great Three Days of Easter communicate only esthetically and sentimentally. We are moved, maybe even caught up in the drama of this week. Yet, when the gruesome ordeal of poor Jesus is vindicated in his glorious and shining resurrection, we breathe a sigh of relief. Easter is now over for another year and we are reassured by having witnessed the archetypal triumph of good over evil.

The danger I fear most is that we travel through the events of Holy Week and Easter as if we are only attending consecutive performances of Shakespeare’s history plays or the demanding three days of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. We emerge from the experience moved, disturbed, elated, saying to one another: gee that was powerful!  Like drama and opera, liturgy has the power to transport us from one spiritual state of awareness to another. Liturgy is the vehicle that moves us into and through what I have been referring to as sacred time. Yet, the question will remain, for what purpose? Is the drama of Holy Week and Easter just another form of entertainment? Or is Holy Week and Easter fundamentally important to our ability to live out our hopes and longings?

What scares me about my ambivalence is that in the events of Holy Week and Easter as they are particularly magnified on Palm Sunday, I see myself in the crowds crying both hosanna, and crucify him. I am full of hope and longing for a world transformed beyond the maintenance of the status quo, the endless repetition of business as usual. Yet, my very hopes and longings also terrify me, and so I resist the change I most long for. If I really believe that self-sacrificial love can change the world, challenAmbivalence_artge the tyrannies of power and privilege, where then would I find myself? What might an allegiance to self-sacrificial love cost me? What will following Jesus to the Cross and beyond demand of me? Now that really scares me! Ambivalence is a good place to hide.

All Aboard the Easter-Bound Liturgical Express

This Lent, I’ve been exploring the traditional spiritual disciplines of fasting and self-denial; meditation on God’s holy Word; and self-examination and repentance. My central theme has been that spirituality flows through practices that discipline the human heart. Spirituality needs a vehicle or instrument for expression.

Today I turn my attention to the spiritual practice of worship. The Episcopal Church is a liturgical church. We are not the only one, yet what distinguishes us even among other liturgical churches is the beauty of our worship and the importance we place on its form. But what does this really this mean?

I don’t know about you, but I love trains. Given a choice I would always go by train. Let me explain. We board a train in order to be taken on a journey. Along the way, we make numerous stops, but each stop is simply a station we pass through along the route to our intended destination. There is something about being transported at speed, through an ever changing landscape, free of the anxiety of watching the road or the traffic.

Applying this metaphor image to our worship, liturgy like a train transports us through the landscape of sacred time. On Ash Wednesday, we boarded the Easter-bound liturgical Express. It has taken us on a journey through the Lenten countryside; making stops at a different station each Sunday. Along the route, we notice that terrain changes.A train approaches Ribblehead ViaductWith each change, our awareness deepens, or maybe heightens is a better spatial term, in preparation for arriving at our ultimate destination.

The final stage of our liturgical train journey will take us through some very dramatic scenery. I am talking about the scenic contours of Holy Week. Our itinerary has us reaching the Palm Sunday station on April 3rd. Here, we notice a change in the air quality, laden with a heightening of expectation as well as apprehension. Compared to our long journey through the Lent countryside, with long expanses between stations, the last leg of our journey is short in terms of distance, the stations increasingly close together. Between Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday we will stop at the stations of Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday in Holy Week. Each station is a metaphor for a liturgical experience of the events in Jesus’ last week.

On April 7th, we arrive at the major junction of Maundy Thursday. From here we travel overnight and through the following day’s descent into rocky terrain, reaching the station of the Good Friday Liturgy. From here the liturgical train takes us through a barren plainimages of Holy Saturday. By evening, we will begin to pass through the last canyon before emerging into a lush valley, the location of our final destination, the golden city of Easter. We might decide to leave the train at the first station in the Easter City, called the Easter Vigil. However, many of us will want to continue through to the main terminus of Easter Day.

Liturgy moves us through sacred time, or put another way the eternal now of God. Psychologically as well as spiritually, liturgy transports us into and through the spiritual landscape of the Christian Calendar. The journey from Ash Wednesday prepares us for joy-filled arrival at Easter. The promise of New Life offers enrichment for our everyday living. Mentally, emotionally, as well as spiritually, we need to prepare for our arrival. Easter is not something you can just parachute into at the last minute – if you want, that is, to be ready for the fullest experience possible.

Worship brings us into the company of others and together we journey into the encounter not only with God, but we also find ourselves reflected in our encounter with one another. worship11Worship brings us to the cross, in the sense of an intersection between the vertical and the horizontal dimensions of life. Invite your friends and board the Easter

Why not invite your friends and board the Easter liturgical Express, stopping at stations in Holy Week and the Triduum or Great Three Days of Easter. You won’t arrive if you don’t get aboard.

The Homeopathy of Repentance

Opening reflection

I have been thinking about a recent experience. Late last year, I asked my bishop about the study resources he draws on in his preaching. Now, I should have known better. My bishop is quite a scholarly guy and so he recommended a biblical software package called Logos. I dutifully signed up and purchased Logos 6 (Anglican version of course) software, on monthly installments. I felt that this was quite an investment and that I needed to get the most out of it. However, I could not make it work for me. I mean, it’s a complex software and it takes time to know how to get into all it has to offer, which is truly exhaustive. That was one challenge. More significantly, I just didn’t find its resources useful for my sermon prep. I have come to the conclusion, not for the first time, that I am not a scholarly preacher.

I found all the background information on text a little tangential to my main interests. I am interested in text as it relates to exploring the chasm into which the biblical author’s intended meaning falls, as the result of translation of a word from Hebrew or Greek into English. Languages have equivalent words, but equivalent words often do not convey equivalent emphasis or meaning. But overall, when it comes to interpreting Scripture, I am a broad brush-stroke kind of preacher. It’s the intuitive impression of the text, filtered through the prism of my own, and my community’s preoccupations and experiences that seems to be the grist for my preaching mill.

So I finally had to admit that Logos 6 was not for me. Relinquishing my scholarly presumptions to struggle with my pride, I have come, not for the first time, to a realistic acceptance of who I am. My Parish Administrator came to my rescue. She offered to wrangle with Logos 6 customer services to extricate me from the installment plan. She’s good at that sort of thing!

The text

I am putting aside for a moment that fascinating vignette, giving us access into the struggles of the Israelites in the wilderness, that comes to us from Numbers 21:4-9. Turning first to the readings from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians and John’s Gospel, both appointed for Lent 4, I find myself struggling with my own knee-jerk reactions to the text.

From my broad brush-stroke vantage point, the Scriptures often communicate a worldview that fails to translate well into my own 21st century way of looking at things. The tone of both Paul and John in these readings evokes negative feelings in me, feelings of being lectured by the voice of authority, telling me that because of my miserable worm-likeness God has deigned to throw me the carrot of salvation, but only as long as I tow the line and stay within the fold of the elect, or as John puts it among: those who believe in him are not condemned, but those who do not believe are condemned already. 

Biblical worldviews, for there are many, to my 21st century mind can communicate the feel of a predominantly, hierarchical, patriarchal- which kind of goes with hierarchical, and exclusionary perspective. I mean that so often it’s childlike (unquestioning) obedience that’s required to make sure we find ourselves among those who are included and not among those excluded. This worldview contrasts with my broad bush-stroke encounter with the spirit of Jesus’s teaching. Jesus’ emphasis is less on obedience and more on metanoia – turning of the heart. It is less about exclusion and more about God’s invitation, for all are included.

The scholar and the pastor

As a preacher,  I feel I am knowledgeable, but the purpose of my knowledge is always pastoral in application. The scholar has a primary interest in the text. Logos 6 was not of great use to me because my interest is less in the text itself, and more in the impressions the text gives, and the reactions it evokes in us, its hearers. My passion lies in taking the impressions and intuitions that emerge from my 21st century shaped encounter with the Tradition, something I deeply cherish, in order to render it accessible to my community’s 21st century mindset so that our lives too, may be enriched by its timeless wisdom.

Getting to the point

My opening section has taken the form of a kind of self-examination, and it enables me to neatly segway into an examination of the next spiritual practice, which the Prayer Book mentions as necessary for keeping a holy Lent – self-examination and repentance.


It was Socrates who said: the unexamined life is not worth living! The Christian spiritual tradition is certainly in agreement with Socrates on this score. Yet, it is also part of our human nature to shield ourselves from too much self-examination, because it’s often painful.

Self-examination and repentance

The Prayer Book invites us to keep a holy Lent through self-examination and repentance. Oftentimes self-examination is the path to repentance. Repentance is the doorway to our liberation from the pain and shame of the past.

Most Episcopalians think of confession either as the General Confession in the liturgy, which is communal not individual confession or as the Roman Catholic practice of going to confession. In the Book of Common Prayer, we have a rite called the Reconciliation of the Penitent. Contrary to common knowledge the practice of going to confession has always had an important place in Anglican spiritual practice. Cranmer talks about the need to seek ghostly counsel from the priest. The difference between Anglican and Roman practice is that the Prayer Book understands going to confession or Reconciliation, as a images-1spiritual and pastoral practice. This is in sharp contrast to the Roman view of confession as being reinstated to a necessary (juridical) state of grace in order to receive the sacraments.

At certain points in life, we are led to a reflection on the deeper currents that flow beneath the surface of our lives. These currents are fed from deep wellsprings of spiritual and emotional energy that hold the potential to enrich our sense of connection with God, with ourselves, and with other people. A paradox of life is that our strengths and weaknesses, joys and sorrows often flow from the same source. Beneath the surface of our living we also find feelings of shame, guilt, and the pain of relationship loss and failure.images

The Sacrament of Reconciliation is designed to aid us when we feel stuck; when we sense that something is blocking the reworking of pain into gain. Unlike modern counseling which brings a psychological framework to bear on self-examination, Reconciliation brings a forgiveness framework to bear on our internal reflections. The real problem is not whether God forgives us. The real stumbling block is our inability to forgive ourselves!

Human beings are at heart relational, and so there is a limit to how far we can get by simply talking to ourselves or even talking to God within the privacy of our own minds. When we can’t make progress on our own, what is needed is to be able to talk to another person. The Sacrament of Reconciliation provides the confidential space for opening ourselves to the healing grace of God, mediated through the ministry of a priest representing the living Body of Christ.

Painting with a broad brush

My attention is riveted by the implications of the story about the infestation of the Israelite camp by venomous serpents in Numbers 21:4-9. It seems that in response to their endless grumbling, God’s patience comes to an end. He punishes the Israelites by sending an infestation of poisonous snakes among them, with the result that many of them die.

God instructs Moses to cast in bronze an (graven) image of the snake and raise it up at the heart of the camp. Anyone with snakebite has only to look up at the image, in order to be healed. The real snake kills. The image of the snake of bronze heals. The connection between the two lies in the source of death also being the source of life. This is what I mean by a spiritually, homeopathic images-4solution. The image works like a psycho-spiritual vaccine, healing through exploiting its associations with the source of the poison.

Our potential to be healed and to experience joy flow from the same place as the source for much of our pain and suffering. This is the paradox of human emotional life and is not dissimilar to the realization that our main strengths are not different from our fundamental weaknesses.  For us, Jesus is raised upon the cross, not as an allopathic (combative) condemnation of sin, but as a homeopathic source for our healing. As we explore self-examination in preparation for repentance, we encounter a loving Christ who feels with us in our weakness because he too, knows first-hand, the vicissitudes of the heart.

When we bring our self-examination and our earnest desire to be liberated from the pains and shames of our past into the shadow cast by Jesus of the cross, we are not submitting to an experience of condemnation, a kind of spiritual snakebite. We are opening ourselves to being healed by the one who not only knows of our suffering, but is well acquainted with the sources of our grief. For as the prophet Isaiah says: by his stripes we are healed.

The theology of Reconciliation of the Penitent in the Episcopal Church can best be summed up as: all may, none must, but some should, make their individual confession. Some people find the Reconciliation of the Penitent to be a valuable and regular part of their spiritual formation. For others, it is a remedial and healing action taken at particular times in pursuance of a healthy pastoral care. Either way, this Lent why not consult with a priest near you?


The God of the Covenant

The old Testament lections for the previous two Sundays have recounted the evolution of a  crucial element in the historic relationship between God and humanity. This crucial element we call, covenant. On Lent I, we received a reminder of the second covenant. God makes the first covenant with Adam and Eve.  The flood symbolizes a God who despairing of the evil that had come to distort the goodness of creation wipes the slate clean. In this second covenant that God makes with Noah, we glimpse a sign of God’s regret, having destroyed the creation, he now vows to never do this again. God seems to have learned rainbowthat destroying things is not the way to reform them.  As an enduring sign of his faithfulness to his promise to Noah and all of those who are, symbolically, his descendants, God makes the rainbow in the sky.

Tissot_Abraham_and_the_Three_AngelsOn Lent II we read of the call of Abram and Sarai, whom God now renames Abraham and Sarah as a sign of the covenant God makes with them. The promise is to Abraham and Sarah, a promise to make their descendants as numerous as the grains of sand on the seashore and the stars in the sky. In return, God simply asks for Abraham and Sarah to keep faith with God and to trust God in a relationship of collaboration.

Covenant evolves as God renews the covenant he made with Abraham, with each of the Patriarchs, the son, grandson, and great-grandson of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. Then today we hear of a new covenant between God and Moses on Mt Sinai. The covenant with Moses takes a new form. This time the human side of the obligations are spelled out and written down.

The New Covenant

In many of our Anglican-Episcopal churches dating from the late 17th and 18th Centuries, Trinity Newport being a fine example, one often sees the tablets of the Ten Commandments on either side of the altar. What many don’t fully appreciate is that this is Rembrandt_-_Moses_with_the_Ten_Commandments_-_Google_Art_Projecta particular theological statement of the period. It’s somewhat anomalous to have the Ten Commandments depicted in tablet form adorning Christian Churches because they have been supplanted by Christ in his teaching of the two great commandments: love God and love one another. For Christians these two great commandments take the place of Moses’ ten. 

The presence of the Ten Commandments in some of our colonial churches represents a shift in religious consciousness during the period known as the Enlightenment. This shift was characterized by a movement away from a relational experience of God, mediated through image, ritual and mystery, towards an experience of a more impersonal universe, where God having set up the mechanism goes on vacation. Now, the goal of the spiritual life is not the pursuit of a felt relationship with God, but to live an ethically-moral life.

The basis of an ethical and moral life is to live according to the codes, hence the importance of having the mother of all codes in plain sight. Codes, stipulate what is, and what is not to be done. Like all codes, the Ten Commandments  tend to emphasise the negative – thou shalt not. The ideal may be that following the code leads to an appreciation of all that it noble and true, but the danger is that code driven faith degenerates into a stultifying legalism. At its best, pursuit of the moral-ethical life decoupled from relationship with God becomes an allegiance to the grand project of ethical and moral self-improvement, both at the level of the individual and at the level of society.

This has produced our modern secular age in which it is now possible to live morally and ethically without any reference to God. This is no small achievement and I don’t mean to disparage it. I mean only to refute the widespread misapprehension that to be a follower of Jesus amounts to simply being a good person, dedicated to a life of ethical and moral self-improvement. Christians are not good people merely doing what society dictates that good people should do!

Paul, in the opening of his first letter to the Corinthians, speaks of this tension. On the one hand, there is the high ethical philosophy of the Greeks that places the self-assertion of the noble individual as the source of wisdom. To the Greeks, allegiance to Christ seemed folly, flying in the face of reason. On the other hand, he speaks of the slavish adherence to every letter and jot of the written code. He characterises this kind of legalism as the struggle within the Judaism of his day. Ethics on one hand and legalism on the other, neither of which are the way of Christian discipleship.

In John’s Gospel, we are shown a picture of Jesus, raging. What has made him act in a manner that most of us consider to be out of character with our conception of Jesus, meek BA-106330-2and mild? Jesus rails against a religious institution, i.e. the Temple, that has placed money as the determinant of access to God. No money equals no pigeon, or no sheep, which equals no sacrifice and thus no access to God. He rails against a system of exchange – the money changers- who defraud the people. To buy what was necessary to make sacrifice, you couldn’t use ordinary money. You had to change your heathen denarii for Temple currency at an extortionate rate of exchange. Jesus cries out against an attitude that says that doing business as usual is the price for purchasing a relationship with God.

Much more significantly, we see Jesus engineering a shift. This is a shift from a spirituality which locates God in the externals of a building or a code, or in behavior. He alludes to his body as the Temple, signaling a shift in emphasis from true religion as allegiance to institutions and codes, to true religion as an allegiance to personal relationship.

Living in the New Covenant

This last week we celebrated the lives of John and Charles Wesley. These great Anglican priests, were part of a reaction against the Enlightenment’s impersonal view of God, a view which goes by the name, Deism. They led a return to a spiritual emphasis on the primacy of relational love as the way to live the New Covenant, inaugurated by God through Jesus.

For the Wesley’s relationship with God was more than being ethical, or moral. It had little to do with being wise and reasonable. Relationship with God was a manifestation of devotion, devotion rooted in the worship and common prayer of the Book of Common Prayer. For them and those who joined them, relationship with God emerged from a heartfelt encounter with God through the Scriptures, a heartfelt encounter that compelled them into lives of generous service. They were branded as Methodists, because of their methodical commitment to loving God from the heart, marked by a life of devotion.

In my two previous postings, I explored fasting and self-denial in an attempt to make these ancient practices comprehensible to our 21st Century mindset. Prayer and meditating on God’s holy Word are further practices commended to us. Many of us get stuck on prayer as intercession. Much intercession seems to function as our initiative, seemingly designed to raise God’s consciousness about the concerns we think important, or to present God with our shopping list of desires. In reality, intercession works in reverse. Intercession attunes our consciousness to the concerns that God continually bears for the plight of the creation. Thanksgiving is prayer opening us to experience gratitude, paving the way for converting gratitude into actions of generous living. These forms of prayer take root only when we begin to listen more and speak less. So what are we listening for?

In answer to this question, I would like to commend two ways of living prayer-filled lives guided by meditation on God’s holy Word. I’m more intuitive than sensory. Therefore, I try to follow a pattern of sitting and listening for the presence of the Spirit speaking through my intuition, which is my gut-level awareness, or through my insight, which is more of an intellectual awareness. If you are more sensory in orientation, you might listen for God communicating through images, and, or feeling states – often triggered by the world around you. Very often, the most I can manage is simply to try to sit in one place and watch myself breath, repeating under my breath the Aramaic phrase: Maranatha, or come Lord! I am hardly ever conscious of how this prayer makes a difference other than at some dim level of awareness I know that in the silence, which is paradoxically still filled with the clamor of my thoughts, I am opening a little chink in the protective walls of my defenses, my preoccupation with myself, through which I am slowly being transformed by the trickle of Grace into my life.

To meditate on God’s holy Word is an ancient practice known as Lectio Divina or divine reading. Taking a small section – no more than a sentence or two, particularly from the Gospels or Psalms, we slowly read the passage several times. We note the word or phrase that attracts our attention. This word or phrase creates associations in our imagination. This is not so much a study of scripture as it is an encounter with the text brought to life so that we might discover God’s invitation to pay attention to something in the next 5-7 days. Norvene Vest describes this process in a very user-friendly manner in her little book, Gathered in the Word

A startling discovery

The invitation to keep a holy Lent speaks of the spiritual practices that help us to translate into action and behavior our spiritual longing for relationship with God. Oftentimes we live out of touch with this longing because it does not always register consciously. Spiritual practices are simply methods for bringing unconscious soul longing and soul pain into conscious awareness. In this sense, are we not all methodists?

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