The Paradox of Christianity, or Wandering Tree Remains

Of the myriad thoughts which have bounced around in my head lately, an urge to change the name of this blog has surfaced and warrants consideration.  On my “About” page, I describe myself as “the tree who has troubling standing still,” but since I have decided to settle, spiritually, in Christianity, and now, I think, as a member of the Episcopal Church- well, the desire to have a name more “rooted,” so to speak, has entered my thoughts.

A moment of recap might be necessary.  Over the past few months, I have been trying to find a new church to call “home.”  I became disenchanted with my church, for a number of reasons, mostly through my own prejudices and rationalizations, as I soon realized, but distance was also a primary factor and I longed to find a church closer to my house.  This led to a reassessment of the denomination I had called home for three years- I am not a cradle Episcopalian, so the exploration seemed reasonable.  I checked out a number of churches with a wide number of approaches.  However, I love the liturgy of the church, and find time at the Table a necessary part of my celebration of Christ.  In addition, my decision to leave Emmanuel Episcopal had nothing to do with the welcome and love I received from the congregation.  This, in fact, was what made it so hard to leave.  And so, after wandering into the Church of the Ascension– an Episcopal Church much closer to me, and receiving the same type of welcome- well, that was it.  I think the Episcopal Church will have to put up with me for while.

Anyway, back to the name change.  Could I really say I was still “wandering”?  The implication of that word connotes a lack of direction, an aimless meandering.  Someone who has “wanderlust” has a strong impulse to travel, and what good is that word if you want to feel that you have arrived?

The addition of the word “tree” might be an appeal to balance this sense of wandering- a rooted fixture in the earth, which is moved only by great disturbance.  But in reality, it seems only to add to the confusion, and maintain a sense of paradox.  Trees don’t wander.  No one expects them to.

Ah, but then comes the reminder.  The reminder of an insight I had a few years ago.  The Christ-centered life is itself a paradox, and therein lays the beauty and mystery of the faith.  Inherent in Christianity is the unexpected.

To wit:  A Virgin gives birth.  God becomes Man.  Death on the cross leads to life.  Water changes into wine.  Fishermen become the disciples of the Rabbi.  Blind men see.  The crippled walk.  Five loaves of bread and two fish feed five thousand people.  The last become first.  Love wins.

Nobody expected any of that.  We expect catastrophe and hurt.  The catastrophe in Haiti is devastating, but we expect that in this hurting world.  What we marvel at even more, however, is the outpouring of help and aid and support, and the images of neighbor helping neighbor.  A selfish world wakes up and becomes giving.  That’s what is unexpected.  We are not used to seeing it on a scale that rivals destruction.  Tolkien called it the “eucatastrophe”- the sudden, unexpected turn to good, the serendipitous event.

And Tolkien, as well as a couple of other well known authors, incorporated trees into the unexpected as well.  Saruman never expected the Ents to revolt against Isengard, or that Fangorn would awake to consume the forces of evil.  He thought Shakespeare did not go far enough in Macbeth when “Great Birnham Wood” was prophesized to rise up against Macbeth (turning out to be the illusion of Siward’s forces camouflaging themselves).  Lewis has the trees dance around Aslan in Prince Caspian and the movie has a wonderful sequence of the trees defending the Narnians against the Telemarines.

There are other wonderful paradoxes inherent in trees as well.  They stand silent, but for many centuries we have used their fiber on which to etch thousands of stories with ink.  We have used them to communicate, to create, to express, to reveal.

The last paradox is the most important of all.  When one finds Christ, it is only the beginning of a journey.  There the true search begins, for once we are found, it is our commitment to “come and see.”  We are not meant to sit but follow.  We are not meant to wait but “go out into the world.”

So the name stays.  Wandering Tree remains.  At times a cedar in Lebanon, at times a withered fig tree, at times a fruitful tree in the center of a garden.  But at all times, hopefully, conscious of the wind, the Spirit, which rustles its branches.  And I have not arrived, not yet.  There is still much “wandering” to be done.  But the Land is not barren, and every step I take has meaning.

A lingering question- do you have a blog?  If so, why did you choose the name you gave it?  Have you ever wanted to change the name of your blog?  Why?  Post your response in comments!

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The Violence of Commitment

The violence we should use in religion is the violence of commitment:  Using every means you have as a creative being to bring yourself closer to God…I believe that everybody on earth was created in God’s image.  We are all related in being created.  So I, as a created [being] have to respect other created things.  That’s what I mean when I say putting God at the center.  He created us this way.  We have to learn to live together.

Such were the words of an Orthodox Christian nun of the St. Mary Magdalene monastery located at the Mount of Olives who  Bruce Feiler spoke to as part of the stirring conclusion of his book Where God Was Born.  This nun exemplified the passionate position that the God of Christianity is a God of Love, not hate.  Therefore, when I need to send my friend Liz a link to Rob Bell’s Bullhorn Nooma video, to provide her with some relief and hope after she stumbled across this, I am convinced more and more of the need for the gospel to truly be the Gospel- the Good News of a loving, compassionate God.  If we as Christians remain quiet while our misguided fellow brothers and sisters in Christ preach a message of hate and exclusion, instead of the redeeming message of love and inclusion spoken from the lips of Jesus, then where exactly do we stand?  Book Burning?  Is this what we want to be reduced to?  Or shall we be lights in the darkness, bringing peace and love to those we meet, regardless of race, sexuality, creed, etc.?

Feiler writes that “religion can only be saved by religion,” that the “only force strong enough to take on religious extremism is religious moderation.”  I believe he speaks the truth in this regard.  Do we want to be content to shout from the mountaintops our “rightness” or feed the poor and hungry at the foothills?  No matter what translation of the Bible you read, care for the poor, the widow, and orphan is pretty self explanatory.

For too long we have allowed the message of Christ to be used as a weapon, not as a unifying force for good.

Coffee and Theopoetics

Today a day for my mind to ramble and explore.  Currently reading Speaking in Parables by Sallie McFague and The Orthodox Heretic by Peter Rollins, both of which explore the metaphoric implications of parables.  Upon researching Sallie McFague’s bacckground online, came across Theopoetics(dot)net, a fascinating site exploring the relationship between postmodernism, narrative, poetry and theology.

All of this culminating in what I hope will be a better understanding of my role as a teacher of literature and my ongoing journey of faith.  The two had seemed almost disparate, but the more I explore and read, the more perspectives I have encountered in the past three years, have served to show me a connection between the two hitherto ignored or unseen.

“The Monks are back. School must have started…”

…this is what I wrote recently in my journal, totaling the entries to two (2), because it’s a beautiful leather bound journal I received as a gift for Christmas years ago and I don’t want to mess it up with my scribbling.

So what I wrote must have, in hindsight, been pretty important.  And now, upon reflection, seems to me an indicator of a new season in my life.

The “monks” in question are actually two books about monks: An Infinity of Little Hours by Nancy Maguire and Voices of Silence: Lives of the Trappists Today by Frank Bianco. Infinity profiles five young men who chose to become novitiates of the strict Carthusian order started by St. Bruno in the 11th Century.  Voices explores the structure of life among the Trappists, from the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky to Notre Dame de Melleray in France.

The books are quite gripping, and help sustain an interest in monasticism I’ve had for years, but the real question remains: “Why did I choose to pick up those particular books?”

I’ve quipped a few times to my friends that the practices of monasticism are really a form of Ritalin for those of us suffering from spiritual ADHD.  For those, like me, who suffer from the actual physical disorder, you may know what I’m talking about here.  Our attention span is a like hummingbird drinking espresso- it’s all over the place.  Spiritually, I think this makes it harder for us to focus on God, especially in silence and reflection.  If there are a million things going through our mind every second, what do we do to help us put all of that aside and focus on God and His guidance and assurance?

Along with increasingly over-perscribed medication, psychiatrists emphasize the establishment of routine and pattern of those with ADD.  This emphasis on organization helps reduce the stress and anxiety that usually occurs when “too many things seem to be happening at once.” Similary, monks have established spiritual practices (prayer, work, contemplation, lectio divina) which allows them to further focus on God.  This is not to reduce these practices as some sort of “prescription for finding God,” but I think the analogy works to a point.  Monks remind themselves daily- hourly- of the pattern, rhythm and presence of God in their lives and in the world.

Which brings up the question of liturgy.

It’s a question already posed, and answered substantially, over at Julie Clawson’s onehandclapping blog.  Liturgy is the rhythm and pattern many Christians follow and embrace every Sunday as part of their worship service.  This is the “smells and bells” approach to worship, with repeated prayers, times for standing, sitting, kneeling, singing, contemplation, and the partaking of the Eucharist.  For many of us, it is a reminder of God’s role in the world and the steps it took to bring about the miracle and mystery of Christ.  For me, it’s a reminder to breathe, not simply just to relax, but to breathe in the realization, as Rob Bell stated in a recent sermon, that “A whole new world is bursting forth, right in the midst of this one, and everybody everywhere can be a part of it” and that “A Christian is constantly learning how to see this creation with their very own eyes.”

There are many other thoughts on this, and I encourage those who would like further perspectives to the conversation put forth in Clawson’s blog.

This sense of structure and organization is imperative to me as a high school teacher.  yep.. That’s what I do.  And let me tell you, if you are disorganized as a teacher, life quickly becomes a living hell.  Because it’s not just me…the organization of my 150 students is a necessity as well.  It’s organizing lesson plans, homework, essays, vocabulary work, grades, progress reports, permission slips, notes, etc.

But it’s all meant to create a space so we can open up.  We can explore.  We can immerse ourselves.

The monks are back.  To remind me of what higher purpose that structure is for…

Currently Reading:How (Not) To Speak of God by Peter Rollins

I waited eagerly for the delivery of How (Not) to Speak of God by Peter Rollins in my mailbox (I still have this childish anticipation for things coming in the mail, which is why I’m pretty much addicted to Amazon.com).  The book has been around for a few years, so I am just now getting to something that should have been on my “to read” list long ago.  Rollins essentially uses postmodern theory to reassess the state of Western Christianity, and then transcends that postmodern idea and its own limitations to offer a new vision of Christianity for the Church.  Rollins sees the “embryonic” stage of this new vision in the emerging church.

What I’m already loving about this book is Peter’s reevaluation of the understanding of God that Christian mystics explored in the medieval period.  These mystics seem swept under the rug in favor of the scholastic theology and rational interpretation of scripture that emerged from the Age of Reason (actually from the medieval period as well: including Duns Scotus and St. Thomas Aquinas).  Mystics such as Meister Eckhart and St. Francis of Assisi challenged the contemporary understanding of God, but rather than denying it, immersed themselves completely in it.

Anyway, I have just started the book, and there are already a few great gems to ponder.  Consider this insight from Chapter One in which Rollins uses the analogy of a painting and a parable to show possibility/impossibility of knowing (read: revealing, revelation) God.

When we ask ourselves the meaning of [artwork], we are immediately involved in an act of interpretation which is influenced by what we bring to the painting.  In a similar way, the revelation of God should be compared to a parable that speaks out of an excess of meaning.  This means that revelation offers a wealth of meaning that will be able to speak in different ways to those with ears to hear.  The parable is given to us, but at the same time its full wealth of meaning will never be fully mined.  It is not reducible to some clear, singular, scientific formula but rather gives rise to a multitude of commentaries.  In opposition to this, many Christian communities view the stories and parables of the Bible as raw material to be translated into a single, understandable meaning rather than experience as infinitely rich treasures that can speak to us in a plurality of ways.  Hence revelation ought not to be thought of either as that which makes God known or as that which leaves God unknown, but rather as the overpowering light that renders God known as unknown (How (Not) to Speak of God, 16).

“Sunday:” Why do we go to Church?

Interesting that I am attending two significantly different churches at the moment: Emmanuel Episcopal, a low church Epsicopalian congregation, and Discovery Church, a contemporary worship, non-denominational church.  Both have a significantly different approach to liturgy, but this week, at Discovery’s Young Professionals Group (a focus group for Christians in their 30s), and during Father Malcolm’s homily at Emmanuel, the two converged on the subject of the relevancy of church in our lives as Christians.  Is church something you just “do” once a week, out of habit or expectation?  How do we live and love Christ with our whole heart when it just boils down to empty ritual after a while?

Father Malcolm emphasized our liturgy in the Episcopal Church as a “means, not an end.”  They are there to ground us in the ineffable mystery of God, to bring us closer to the Divine in a physcial, methodical way.  Unless we carry within us that desire to be closer to God, it is empty, and bereft of meaning.  In a similar way, if we do not carry that desire with us beyond the walls of the church, if we do not try to see Christ in all things and in every person, then our live as Christians become empty as well.

At Discovery, we had the opportunity to watch and discuss Rob Bell‘s Nooma video “Sunday.”  Below I’ve nicked part one and two of the episode from Youtube:

“Holy Scriptures:” Reflections on George MacDonald 25

This story may not be just as the Lord told it, and yet may contain in its mirror as much of the truth as we are able to receive, and as will afford us scope for a life’s discovery.  The modifying influence of the human channels may be essential to God’s revealing mode.

It was one of those nights last night when I wasn’t exactly in the mood for a three hour theological debate, but it happened anyway.  A good friend of mine and I had a bit of an argument that opened up some old wounds.  In the midst of coming to peace with that, we got on a tangent on how our respective views of the world color our thinking.  It’s no secret to my friend that I am a Christian, and in his frustration, he said, pointing to my Bible, “Doesn’t it bother you that none of it is even true.  That it’s all just stories someone made up?”

Oh, boy.  Now this is where my problem of reading more than conversing comes into play.  I hear these words “true” and “stories,” and immediately my mind is abuzz with articles, essays, books, and podcasts that I’ve absorbed on these two words.  I try valiantly to remember my reflections on those essays in which I put those articles, etc. into my spiritual context as a Christian.  Merton, Bell, Norris, Aquinas, Feiler, Underhill, the conflicting doctrines of Protestantism, Orthodoxy, and Catholicism, the Cloud of Unknowing- all dancing in my head as I face the increasingly annoyed and aggravated gaze of my friend.

Did I tell you that at this point it was 1 AM?  It was 1 AM.

So my mind wasn’t exactly primed and prepped for this discussion, and of course I fell flat on my face.  We ended up having a rather garbled interchange on the nature of truth and the need for comforting fictions to keep us in line- ah, can hardly remember, really.  I do remember at one point admitting, “Look, I just don’t know.  But I’m convinced it is worth it.  There’s something there.  I just don’t know what.”  Yeah, put that in your theological pipe and smoke it.

So this quote of George MacDonald resonates with me.  It probably got him into a bit of trouble- there’s always the literalists out there, and they usually have the loudest voices, ready to defend “The Book.”  But he’s admitting something terribly important to our faith as Christians.  “[Scripture] will afford us scope for a life’s discovery.”  In other words, it’s enough for what it can impart- words that describe the nearly indescribable.  We don’t bow down to it, we don’t worship it, but it is a text that tries to convey the unfathomable mystery of God.

Kathleen Norris, in her book Amazing Grace, continues this thought:

It is a mystery, a matter of faith in something that can’t be explained or understood, at least not in our conditional human speech.  Silence is the best language for it- “the silence of eternity interpreted by love” (quote by Whittier).  She later goes on describe how Christians can say “yes,” about what they believe: “Answered in the spirit of hope, not that other people of faith will come around and see things my way, but in the conviction that the incarnation of Jesus is powerful enough to live up to its name and will work to the good of all people despite all our groaning, quibbling, and squabbling over terminology.”

It’s not really about the Bible, ultimately, but what happens when that follower of Jesus lifts their eyes from the page and looks out at the world.  Are they able to see and hear the word of God in their interactions with their neighbors and enemies, in the soft breeze that gently flows by them, in the darkness of a night lit by only one lamp, with a frustrated friend sitting on the couch?  Are we ready for discovery through human channels?  Are we open to the experience of word?

“No Comparing:” Reflections on George MacDonald 20

Here there is no room for ambition.  Ambition is the desire to be above one’s neighbor; and here there is no possibility of comparison with one’s neighbor: no one knows what the white stone contains except the man who receives it… Relative worth is not only unknown- to the children of the Kingdom it is unknowable.

A note of context before we begin: the “white stone” that MacDonald refers to alludes to Revelation 2:17 (“He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.  To him who conquers I will give some of the hidden manna, and I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone which no one knows except him who receives it.”)  MacDonald notes that each of us gets a “white stone” from God, that expresses, in Him, our deepest identity and meaning.

We like ambition in the United States.  We need ambition now- the drive to get this country moving again, to recover what’s been lost- sense of unity and hope.  But it’s necessary to define the first word in this reflection: “Here.”

What “here,” is MacDonald talking about?  When ambition is “the desire to be above one’s neighbor,” it is an ambition based on the Self.  What “I” want, what “I” deserve.  Therefore, the “here” that MacDonald speaks of , which has “no room for ambition” must be a place of Non-Self, or a focus to where the Self is not the Center.  This is a “here” in the presence of God.  There is no measure, no “relative worth,” for, as Jack Kerouac once said, “All is precious and holy.”

This is why when Jesus was approached by the mother of the sons of Zebedee, who wanted her two sons to sit at the right and left of Christ in Heaven, he said “You do not know what you are asking.” Later in the passage he spoke to the other disciples: “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them.  It shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mt. 20: 25-29)

Those who long to be close to God must first let go of the desire to be first among others.  There is no hierarchy of Love with God.  It encompasses all completely and fully.  To desire to have more of the Love than another corrupts that Love, and makes it unattainable.