Sunday, May 30, 2010

Pentecost, 2010

Find rest my soul; the work is done,
And you may simply keep the feast.
There's time to rest just as to run
And to receive and pass the peace.
The calling is revealed a grace: the choice
To follow where you're fashioned to rejoice.

The Spirit hovers on the deep
That 'til today had groaned in pain,
And those who sewed in tears will reap
The New Creation green from rain.
You entered fractured, but you found the whole;
So rest, O weary Pilgrim — rest my soul.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

The Season of Pentecost

The very long, six-month season between Pentecost and Advent is known as Ordinary Time. For those who get excited about the seasons of the Church calendar as I do, this is the boring time, when after six months of walking through the story of Christ’s work in the cosmic story of salvation, we simply go about our business as usual with few major celebrations.

This dull picture of Ordinary Time was indeed consistent with my dull picture of our era in the cosmic story of salvation. Christ came, lived, died, rose again, and ascended to the Father, and now we are left in this awkward time between the climax and the ultimate resolution.

But this year I remember that it is also called the season of Pentecost, a season where the Church colors are green because creation is being reborn (not simply waiting for rebirth in the Second Coming). Christ has already been raised from the dead, “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep”— the Resurrection has begun! The Spirit has already been poured out upon us “who have the firstfruits of the Spirit,” just has he had hovered over the waters in the first creation. As the Orthodox liturgy states quite clearly, the sign of the Spirit’s coming demonstrates that the Fall has already been reversed, as those who have been cursed with confusion of language are brought together as the Gospel is proclaimed in all languages at Pentecost:
The arrogance of building the tower in the days of old
led to the confusion of tongues.
Now the glory of the knowledge of God brings them wisdom.
There God condemned the impious for their transgression.
Here Christ has enlightened the fishermen by the Spirit.
There disharmony was brought about for punishment.//
Now harmony is renewed for the salvation of our souls.
So be encouraged, my friends. Creation is being restored, and we the Church already have the firstfruits of the Spirit, who, Psalm 104 reminds us, created and renews the face of the earth. Though we may indeed be living in the “already but not yet,” we are much, much closer to the “already” than I had realized.

And by chance a friend reminded me of Wendell Berry on Pentecost Sunday, a scene from Jayber Crow when the protagonist looks out a flood and is reminded of the Spirit's work in creation. For any Wendell Berry fans out there or those who should be, I will let him end this:
As soon as I shut my eyes, I could see the river again, only now I seemed to see it up and down its whole length. Where just a little while before people had been breathing and eating and going about their old everyday lives, now I could see the currents come riding in, at first picking up straws and dead leaves and little sticks, and then boards and pieces of firewood and whole logs, and then maybe the henhouse or the barn or the house itself. As if the mountains had melted and were flowing to the sea, the water rose and filled all the airy spaces of rooms and stalls and fields and woods, carrying away everything that would float, casting up the people and scattering them, scattering or drowning their animals and poultry flocks. The whole world, it seemed, was cast adrift, riding the currents, whirled about in eddies, the old life submerged and gone, the new not yet come.

And I knew that the Spirit that had gone forth to shape the world and make it live was still alive in it. I just had no doubt. I could see that I lived in the created world, and it was still being created. I would be part of it forever. There was no escape. The Spirit that had made it was in it, shaping it and reshaping it, sometimes lying at rest, sometimes standing up and shaking itself, like a muddy horse, and letting the pieces fly.
--from Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry

Friday, May 21, 2010

Made Flesh

I once had a conversation with a friend who suggested to me that allegiance to the Catholic Church was an embracing of a glorified picture of the Church at the expense of Scripture. This impression is common enough, and were it true, it would be a grave error indeed.

“Em, Scripture is given to us by God himself,” she affirmed.

I agreed. “And the Church is not?” I cautiously asked.

“Well, the Church may be given to us by God as well,” she agreed, “but it is not part of the Trinity.”

This gave me pause. “...and Scripture is?” I hesitated.

“Yes,” she affirmed, but did not seem sure of her answer, “because Jesus in the Word made flesh...”

This conversation has spun in my mind quite a bit since it happened. It was not the first time I had heard the notion that the introduction to the Gospel of John means that Christ as the Word made flesh is the incarnation of the Bible, as if the Bible is the second person of the Trinity, the form of Jesus that has stayed with us in the past 2000 years since the Ascension.

Please hear me that I am not making fun of my friend. There are some ways the interpretation might have been hasty, an on-the-spot defense of conclusions she had beforehand, but there are other ways that she might have tapped into imagery that John welcomes us to explore. And to whatever extent I sympathize with the idea that the Bible is the second person of the Trinity, perhaps there is a sense in which the Church is the third, the tangible manifestation of the work of the Holy Spirit that has stayed with us for the past 2000 years since Pentecost.

I won’t take that idea very far (anymore than it would be kind to take my friend’s idea farther than it was meant to go), but I am comforted today to remember (as a friend insisted to me two years ago) that God has not abandoned his Church to muddle through the past 2000 years on her own, that the Holy Spirit will not abandon the Church, that God in his surplus of graces has poured his Spirit on us both individually and as a united body.

As I am Confirmed in the morning of the eve of Pentecost, it is good news indeed.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Like the dew that disappears

My five-year-old nephew revoked his friendship from me when I was babysitting last night because of my cruelty in withholding additional time on the wii beyond his daily allotment. “You better give me special Auntie-Em-wii-time,” he ordered, “or I won’t be your friend anymore!”

It brought back old memories from the church nursery when my childhood best-friend (except not evidently of that day) revoked her friendship for some now-forgotten crime of mine.

“I won’t be your friend again!” she had threatened.

Always a natural diplomat, I struggled to comprehend this dilemma. “But,” I reasoned helplessly, “you can’t not be my friend, because I’ll be your friend.”

“You can’t,” she countered, “because I won’t be your friend.”

I pondered my quandary. Whether or not friendship would have required a mutual agreement between the parties, we could hardly be enemies if one of the parties continued to extend friendship. She could withhold any benefits of friendship from me that she wanted, but could the friendship nevertheless remain intact if I continued to extend them to her? Beyond that, I wasn’t sure what friendship involved beyond mutual affection, so if my fondness for her continued, the doors to friendship would remain open.

(Seriously, I remember pondering all this, though perhaps not in those terms.)

“Well,” finally concluded triumphantly in the full capacity of my three-year-old articulation, “I’ll still like you.”

And certainly, one of the mysteries of the Gospel is that Christ continues to extend his friendship out to us after we have revoked ours from him like my nephew or my nursery friend. But while I would not go so far as to affirm the Calvinist doctrine of irresistible grace (at least not in its simplistic form), I have begun to hope that God’s friendship is not quite as helpless to childhood tantrums as my three-year-old capacities had left me.

Perhaps the deeper magic of the Gospel is that his open offer of friendship extends beyond our blockades, even those we maintain until our deaths. Perhaps his very offer of friendship begins the process of healing that our acceptance of it would complete (or at least would expedite). Perhaps healing comes to some extent whether I like it or not, as it does when I skin my knee. Perhaps though (as Hosea says) our love is like the morning cloud and like the dew that disappears, God has already (as Isaiah says) blotted out our transgressions like a cloud and our sins like a mist. Perhaps he hauntingly calls out to us, “Return to me, for I have [already?] redeemed you.”

For those who are not sure what I mean, never fear: I don't either. I just like to think our little tantrums might not have the last laugh.

Friday, May 14, 2010

The trees of the field

I missed the unfolding of my last spring in the South, which means I missed my last dogwood season. The best of my childhood memories are dusted with these four-pedaled blossoms that descended upon the Southern forest every spring like snow in colder climates. I would decorate my dark hair with their contrasting whiteness. I would weave them into wreathes and wear them like a crown of pure simplicity.

But I was in Italy the entirety of this spring’s dogwood season, and at the end of the summer I will be moving back to the Midwest where I was born, trading the spring snow of dogwoods for the colder fall-winter-spring snow of the flatlands, trading my green cottage for whatever residence I could manage to find at this unfamiliar place.

Not to be outdone by dogwoods or green cottages, God began demonstrating his ability to take care of me right away, and the last week of April found me and my mom hopping into the car for a whirlwind 13-hour-drive to put an offer on a restored, 100-year-old, 3-bedroom house two miles from campus that I can easily afford to buy with my graduate student stipend. My neighbors range from agnostics to theology majors, from pagans to Mennonites to Catholics, from case workers to those the cases they work on to graduate students. My house is fully restored with its original hardwood floors and plaster walls, with newer additions like the windows and appliances and wiring and ceramic tile and vinyl siding. After adding a couple green accents and a garden, this house could be home indeed.

God is not looking for sacrifice, he keeps reminding me; we are mistaken to confuse the looseness of the follower's hold on his possessions with God's alleged desire to take them away. There is a deep mystery woven into every blossoming spring that, despite the brokenness of creation and the suffering of his servants, God does not tease us with goodness that he takes away. Again and again, God reveals his high superfluousness, his gratuitous beauty and mundane magic, and when I prepare places for faith God turns around and prepares places for me. Abraham, I recall, did not demonstrate a faith that declared "My God, good or evil!" but a faith that was willing to step out to where God's goodness would be tested. Again and again, God passes the test.

At any rate, there in my new neighborhood in that whirlwind trip in the last week of April, the dogwoods were in full bloom. I guess they do grow in some parts of the Midwest.
For you shall go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall break forth into singing,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

God joins forces

The most important person on earth is a mother. She cannot claim the honor of having built Notre Dame Cathedral. She need not. She has built something more magnificent than any cathedral—a dwelling for an immortal soul, the tiny perfection of her baby's body… The angels have not been blessed with such a grace. They cannot share in God's creative miracle to bring new saints to Heaven. Only a human mother can. Mothers are closer to God the Creator than any other creature; God joins forces with mothers in performing this act of creation… What on God's good earth is more glorious than this: to be a mother!

Joseph Cardinal Mindszenty

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Sonny, in memorium

Sorry for a heavy note in the beautiful spring. I remembered this story as I read a freshman’s essay about a meaningful family reunion complete with a brief scare (and there was reason to be scared) when the police drove by.

Sonny was a beautiful boy. In my days in the intercity commune, before my life plans were side-swiped and found me taking a surprising detour into graduate school, I loved living across the street from the 16-year-old and his mother Ms. Carol.

He was a beautiful boy, transitioning into a beautiful young man. He was charming, polite, and welcoming to the white stranger who moved in across the street from him, and I tried to imagine what he was like among his peers. I was sure the girls at school must have loved him: his well-carved form, his gentle voice, his bright eyes, his energy and charm.

It was beautiful to see him playing basketball with the little kids on our block, giving the little African boy rides on the handlebars of his bike on a Saturday afternoon. It was almost more likely for to see him surrounded by children than by teenagers his age. They all loved him.

It was beautiful to hear the brightness in his voice when I passed him on the street corner and he sang his cheerful hello to me, even if it was at night and he was with his friends engaging in questionable activity. I loved him.

It was beautiful to feel the love of Ms. Carol for him depicted in her motherly worry, her sighs when I asked how Sonny was doing, her shaking head and distant looks. She loved him.
“Did you see those police cars driving through the block?” Ms. Carol asked me one afternoon when I came home from work. She was standing in the middle of the intersection so that she could see down four blocks.

“No, what’s going on?” I asked.

“I don’t know, but I’m telling everyone I see to get in the house. Have you seen Sonny?”

“No, but I’ll keep my eye out for him.”

“Please do. I’m staying right out here until I bring him inside!”
A year after I moved out of the neighborhood, I returned from my first summer studying in Latin in Ireland to discover that Sonny had ended up in jail. The charge was severe, the young man was entirely guilty, and I am almost sure that by the time he leaves prison well into his adult years the brightness will be gone from his face. I will miss Sonny.

There is a twistedness to the world: it is not the force of evil that has infiltrated our culture and our families, but a rather a warping, a warping that has Ms. Carol warning the neighborhood of the police like an invading enemy that tears children away from loving mothers and dashes their hopes. Who are the bad guys in a story like this? Sonny? Ms. Carol? The police? The absent father, once a boy like Sonny? Somehow we have all become the enemies just as we are all certainly the victims; creation has been twisted in upon itself.

Yet it is still Easter season, and we rejoice in a God who has come into the very twisted places of creation and has begun it again from the inside. The Resurrection has begun, and Christ is the first fruits of the New Creation. Then raise us with you, Brother; resurrect the families of my students, the protection of the police, the love of Ms. Carol, the brightness of Sonny. Our good has been twisted; come revive it!