24 September 2015

Faithful Scholars

September 30th is the feast day of Jerome patron saint of archaeologists, archivists, Bible scholars, librarians, libraries, school children, students, and translators*. Known for his re-translation of the bible from Hebrew to Latin (the Vulgate Bible), he had a long career in the Roman Catholic Church. At times he was close to the center of power as a favorite of popes and at other times he was either a self-imposed hermit or a true outcast. As such he had wide experience of the ups and downs of life in the church. He went out of his way to learn Hebrew at a time when Greek was the language of scholars (though how well he learned it seems to be up for discussion in scholarly circles).

The lessons for the day reflect this scholarly bent, with Timothy exhorting followers of Christ to be:

be proficient, equipped for every good work

Psalm 19 giving us the classic sermon closing line of:
Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O LORD, my strength and my redeemer.
Psalm 119 stating:
Your commandment has made me wiser than my enemies, and it is always with me.
I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your decrees are my study.
I am wiser than the elders, because I observe your commandments.
and the Gospel of Luke giving us:

Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures

Something I have always appreciated about the Episcopal Church is its focus on learning and on providing paths for education for lay-people. From Sunday school to Education for Ministry; from diocesan-wide youth events to weekend trainings for adults; and from anti-racism training to mandatory Safeguarding God's Children training-- all of these events help foster life-long learning in the church.

I believe it also fosters life-long learning outside of the church environment by making learning and becoming educated a normal activity. In the church I grew up in I was encouraged to not just learn rote scripture or memorize what a passage was 'supposed to mean' but to actively engage with the classic three-legged stool of episcopalian metaphor, and the teachers I had worked hard to engage us where we were at. Ultimately, this reinforced my understanding that learning in general was a Good Thing.

I took the ideas I learned in Sunday School to college with me and those skills helped me analyze texts and synthesize my thoughts throughout my college career (and this was back in the day of the card catalog).

Just after college, stuck in the wilds of Texas, EFM (Education for Ministry) was my salvation. I met nice people, engaged with the scripture, and didn't feel quite as desperately alone as I did most of the year we lived there. It was also my introduction to a formula for learning that I have used ever since.

Experience + Reflection = Learning

This idea was further developed when I took leadership skills training and train-the-trainer workshops through the Diocese of Olympia continuing my experience of the Episcopal church as a place that encourages all types of learning from structured classes to intentional self-reflection.

It is my hope that, especially in this age of digital communication, my experience will not be rare or unusual and that the Episcopal Church will continue to be an heir to Jerome and all other scholars who valued study and learning and put that at the heart of faith.


*Also apparently patron saint of flame wars-- so truly a saint for modern times.

Resources used:

"Jerome." The Lectionary Page: Jerome. Ed. Kelly W. Puckett. N.p., 11 Sept. 2015. Web. 22 Sept. 2015. .

"Jerome." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc.,, 22 Sept. 2015. Web. 22 Sept. 2015. .

Kiefer, James E. "Jerome, Scholar, Translator, and Theologian." Jerome, Scholar, 
Translator, and Theologian. Society of Archbishop Justus, 29 Aug. 1999. Web. 23 Sept. 2015. .

This essay was originally published at the Episcopal Cafe: Speaking to the Soul on 23 September 2015.

17 September 2015

Beauty in the midst

Last week I was reading about Constance and Her Companions. One of the fabulous things about the Internet is how much information used to be obscure, hard to find, or just existing in a single copy in a library somewhere is now no more than a quick search engine click away.

In this case it was a compilation of writings by the sisters that were gathered an annotated by an unknown person just a year after the epidemic that killed all but one them.

It is a long document, but worth reading. When I read it, one short sentence leapt out at me. From August 29, 1878, sandwiched in between notes about the number of new cases of fever that day and a note that four 'romish' priests were dead was the line: "One cares so much for the lovely weather, the evening light; one sees such exquisite pictures everywhere. It seems almost heartless to care for them!

That line made me stop and think about how easy it is to fall into the idea that I should feel a certain way in some circumstances. That I should be solemn at a funeral, sad at the bedside of a dying friend, and happy at the birth of a child when frequently my feelings are much more complex and unpredictable.

When my son was born I did feel so much joy that I started crying, but at the same time I felt terror, exhaustion, and straight up crankiness. At my father-in-law's funeral I was distracted between feeling his loss, a tendency to giggle at odd things, and distracted anxiety that my son (then around four) wouldn't sit still at the right times and it would be my fault.*

I never had just one type of feeling during those times when I had a cultural expectation of what I was 'supposed to feel' and when I saw the line from Sister Constance's papers quoted above it brought me up short. Here she was in the midst of suffering and death and she could still see beauty and feel it move her. She felt 'almost heartless' but I think it was a gift from God and it reminded me of another story.

My housemate's family were in the displaced persons (DP) camps in Europe at the end of World War II. They were in the camps for a long time and lived with a great deal of uncertainty about what would happen to them. In spite of that, the adults got together and set up schools for the children and classes for the adults. The adult classes were places where skilled artisans could teach others their trades including leather and metal working. Using scraps and sharing what little they had, they learned to make art from one another. In the midst of confusion and doubt they banded together to keep each other's spirits up and minds engaged in the world around them, until, at last they made it out of Europe to the United States. My housemate has a few of the things that her grandfather made in the camps and even without the context of where and when they were made, they are beautiful.

I think the trait to see beauty even in the midst of death and destruction, the ability to make beauty out of nearly nothing, and to raise others up into beauty makes us both fully human and in touch with the divine.

So Sister Constance was not heartless in her recognition of beauty, she was touched by creation in the best possible way.

*Disclaimer: all of the fear of being judged by my in-laws came from my own insecurities and never from them, but it took me about 15 years to figure that out.

Resources used:

"The Sisters of St. Mary at Memphis: With the Acts and Sufferings of the Priests and Others Who Were There with Them during the Yellow Fever Season of 1878." The Sisters of St. Mary at Memphis. Ed. Unknown. Project Canterbury, n.d. Web. 16 Sept. 2015. 

This essay was orginially published at Episcopal Cafe: Speaking to the Soul on 16 Sept 2015

10 September 2015

Greatest Hits: Psalm 51

What started as project to methodically read the psalms in order has turned into hoping in and skipping around the psalms based on what other reading I have been doing, searches for the occurrence of particular words or phrases, and in following the lectionary.

As I was looking at some of the lessons for August, I read Psalm 51 and realized that it is one of what I think of as "the greatest hits" in Psalms. Unlike many of the psalms that I examined when I was reading them in order, this psalm is so familiar to me that, less than halfway though reading, it I remembered how it went.

Curious, I went and looked it up in the Book of Common Prayer (which can be downloaded as a searchable PDF!) and found that, in addition to appearing in the Psalter, Psalm 51 also appears in the liturgy for Ash Wednesday services, and a section of it is presented in the Daily Devotions for Individuals and Families for Morning.

Since I had a searchable version of the BCP I looked for Psalm 51 in the lectionary and found, before I lost count, that it is called on at least 10 different times throughout the entire liturgical calender.

This is the psalm as I stumbled upon it during my reading:

51 Miserere mei, Deus
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; *
          in your great compassion blot out my offenses.
Wash me through and through from my wickedness *
          and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, *
          and my sin is ever before me.
Against you only have I sinned *
          and done what is evil in your sight.
And so you are justified when you speak *
          and upright in your judgment.
Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, *
          a sinner from my mother's womb.
For behold, you look for truth deep within me, *
          and will make me understand wisdom secretly.
Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; *
          wash me, and I shall be clean indeed.
Make me hear of joy and gladness, *
          that the body you have broken may rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins *
          and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, *
          and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence *
          and take not your holy Spirit from me.
Give me the joy of your saving help again *
          and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.
I shall teach your ways to the wicked, *
          and sinners shall return to you.
Deliver me from death, O God, *
          and my tongue shall sing of your righteousness, O God of my salvation.
Open my lips, O Lord, *
          and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.
Had you desired it, I would have offered sacrifice, *
          but you take no delight in burnt-offerings.
The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; *
          a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
Be favorable and gracious to Zion, *
          and rebuild the walls of Jerusalem.
Then you will be pleased with the appointed sacrifices, with burnt-offerings and oblations; *
          then shall they offer young bullocks upon your altar.
                            ~(BCP, Psalm 51, pp 656-657)

This seems like an excellent opportunity to look at this frequently used psalm from a different point of view.

Robert Alter makes the case that the first and last two lines of this psalm were added by a later editor. The first two were likely added by editors to set the psalm during David's time even though it was probably composed centuries later (and those two are left off of the psalm as it appears in the BCP). The last two were added to rebut or soften the original author's focus on personal atonement (as opposed to making burnt-offerings at the temple). Both of these ideas make sense in the context as provided and once pointed out are hard not to see. There is a sudden shift from a historical setting to a personal plea and then back to an institutional setting at the close (which hints that perhaps some burnt-offerings would be welcome by God- in direct contradiction to the main authors heartfelt plea only a few verses earlier).
Here is the psalm from Mr Alter's book as it would appear if he had left the 'added' verses off.

3 Grant me grace, God, as befits Your kindness,
          with Your great mercy wipe away my crimes.
4 Thoroughly wash my transgressions away
          and cleanse me from my offense.
5 For my crimes I know,
          and my offense is before me always
6 You alone have I offended
          and what is evil in Your eyes I have done.
7 So you are just when You sentence,
          You are right when You judge.
8 Look, You desired truth in what is hidden,
          in what is concealed make wisdom known to me.
9 Purify me with a hyssop, that I be clean.
          Wash me, that I be whiter than snow.
10 Let me hear gladness and joy,
          let the bones that You crushed exult.
11 Avert Your face from my offenses,
          and all my misdeeds wipe away.
12 A pure heart create for me, God,
          and a firm spirit renew within me
13 Do not fling me from Your presence,
          and Your holy spirit take not from me.
14 Give me back the gladness of Your rescue
          and with a noble spirit sustain me.
15 Let me teach transgressors Your ways,
          and offenders will come back to You.
16 Save me from bloodshed, O God,
          God of my rescue,
                    Let my tongue sing out Your bounty.
17 O Master, open my lips,
          that my mouth may tell Your praise.
18 For You desire not that I should give sacrifice,
          burnt-offering You greet not with pleasure.
19 God's sacrifices-- a broken spirit.
          A broken, crushed heart God spurns not.

Striped of its familiar wording, of the editorializing verses, and with the much more vigorous 'fling' used in place of the less emphatic 'cast' this 'greatest hits' psalm takes on a much more personal and immediate feel. It also keeps the focus on the grace of God that is mentioned in the first line. At no point does the author claim to be worthy of rescue. Instead the author lists out all the brokenness that needs healing or purifying or strengthening. The offering is not 'young bullocks upon Your altar' but is, instead, 'a broken spirit, a broken, crushed heart.'

The author lives in hope, hoping to teach others and hoping to show them the way back to God but it is an offer of service, rather than a demand for such a gift.

Unlike young bullocks, broken spirits and crushed hearts are not in short supply as suitable offerings to God.


This essay originally published at Episcopal Cafe: Speaking to the Soul in September 2015.
Resources used in this essay:
The downloadable Book of Common Prayer

Alter, R. (2007). The Book of Psalms:: A translation with commentary (pp. 180-183). New York: W.W. Norton.

02 September 2015

Washed in the blood

(Warning for visceral description of blood.)

I've never been a big fan of the book of Revelation and it has been years since I read the entire thing from start to finish.  However, it does crop up in the lectionary from time to time and this time it is: Revelation 7:13-17.

As I was reading though the lessons, the phrase "they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb" sprang out at me and I really thought about what it would be like to wash something in blood and have faith that it would come out, not only clean, but purified.

Fresh blood is warm and sticky.  It has a distinctive smell that can drive animals into fear or frenzy. Dried blood leaves indelible stains. White cloth dipped in blood will, in the normal course of events, be permanently marred.

So what does it mean to be washed in blood as a visceral experience?  Would that metaphor have more power for people who had regular experience of both animal sacrifice and killing and eating their own stock?

I, for one, rarely eat meat and what little I do eat, I buy from a grocery store when it has been drained of blood and prepared for prompt use.  I have never hunted, and the only animals whose death I have witnessed have been well-loved pets (and most of those from old age). The most blood I have experience with is my own, shed either through menstruation or by accident.

In the realm of metaphor, most of what I have seen comes from the communion table where wine subs in for the Blood of Christ.  Communion wine might be dry or sweet, but it tastes noting like the salty blood from an inadvertent paper-cut and has none of blood's proverbial thickness.  In my thinking, blood stands for loss and suffering; for separation and impurity; and for sacrifice and death.

The idea that one could take a garment, or a person, wash them in blood, and have them come out clean says to me that these are people who have suffered and lost, who have been immersed in suffering, who have had pain stick to them like dried blood; and yet, they have come though the other side of suffering clean and dry, their robes made white, their pain relieved.

As the psalm for the day says: 

Restore, O Lord, our fortunes
like freshets in the Negeb.
They who sow in tears
in glad song will reap.
He walks along and weeps,
the bearer of the seed bag.
He will surely come in with glad song
bearing in his sheaves.
(Psalm 126:4-6 from "The Book of Psalms" by Robert Alter)


Resources used: 
Bible Gateway  (all quotes in this essay are from the NRSV translation)
Alter, R. (2007). The Book of Psalms: A translation with commentary (pp. 447-448). New York: W.W. Norton.

Originally published in: Speaking to the Soul: Washed in the blood on 1 September 2015