Sunday Blessings

It has come to my attention that this blog, once upon a time, was breezier and more day-to-day. It has evolved over time, from snarky political-cultural writing, with a dash of Saudi crime stories, to an overly serious religion and theology blog.

Which chronicles my change. So, it’s a fair representation of things.

Still, perhaps there should be more day to day. So, I’m sitting in my basement apartment this morning in overly cold Moses Lake (temp today: 10F/-12C), trying to stay warm and waiting for my laundry to be done. Jennifer is sleeping. I woke up this morning with an entry for my other blog in mind (because yes, now I have two of them). Coffee has just brewed. Once Jennifer wakes up and is more or less fully conscious, we’ll do church.

Right here in our basement. St. John-in-the-Wilderness Anglican worship for the Fourth Sunday in Advent. With hymns and communion and service music I wrote myself. I intend to broadcast some or much of that music live on Facebook today. Or Twitter. Or something.

And maybe I will even eventually broadcast worship services.

Jennifer and I are church people without a church. I’ve chronicled a lot of that here, too. We are trying to be two — or more — who are gathered, though I was reminded recently that isn’t so much a general description of Christ’s presence with believers, but rather Jesus telling his disciples that he is there when sisters and brothers try to deal with sins in their midst.

I won’t say any more, since I’ve already talked about this at length.

But a blessed Fourth Sunday in Advent, everyone.

Some Things Simply Never Change

I am reading Sinclair Lewis’ novel Elmer Gantry (in fits and starts, and inbetween chapters of Before Philosophy by Henry Frankfort et all, tearing up floorboards in student housing, building bicycle wheels, and recording songs I wrote 20 years ago). I’m about a third the way through, Elmer is still in seminary (Mizpah Theological Seminary, a conservative Baptist school), and so far nothing that happened so far in the novel happened yet in the film, save the first scene.

Anyway, Lewis’ description of seminarians in their off hours, well, frighteningly accurate:
“Rats!” grumbled Harry. “Of all the fool Baptist egotisms, close communion is the worst! Nobody but people we consider saved to be allowed to take communion with us! Nobody can meet God unless we introduce ’em! Self-appointed guardians of the blood and body of Jesus Christ! Whew!”
“Absolutely,” from Horace Carp. “And there is absolutely no Scriptural basis for close communion.”

“There certainly is!” shrieked Eddie. “Frank, where’s your Bible?”

“Gee, I left it in O.T.E. Where’s yours, Don?”

“Well, I’ll be switched! I had the darn things here just this evening,” lamented Don Pickens, after a search.

“Oh, I remember. I was killing a cockroach with it. It’s on top of your wardrobe,” said Elmer. (p. 91-92)
It’s all too true. Just trust me.
I cannot, however, vouch for the complete veracity of Lewis on seminary courses and seminary professors, as accurate as it sometimes seems:
The course in Hymnology Elmer found tolerable; the courses in New Testament Interpretation, Church History, Theology, Missions, and Comparative Religions he stolidly endured and warmly cursed. Who the dickens cared whether Adoniram Judson became a Baptist by reading his Greek New Testament? Why all this fuss about a lot of prophesies in Revelation–he wasn’t going to preach that highbrow stuff! And expecting them to make something out of this filioque argument in theology! Foolish!

The teachers of New Testament and Church History were ministers whom admiring but bored metropolitan congregations had kicked up-stairs. To both of them polite deacons had said, “We consider you essentially scholarly, Brother, rather than pastoral. Very scholarly. We’re pulling wires to get you the high honor that’s your due–election to a chair at one of the Baptist seminaries. While they may pay a little less, you’ll have lots more of the honor you so richly deserve, and lots easier work, as you might say.”

The grateful savants had accepted, and they were spending the rest of their lives reading fifteenth-hand opinions, taking pleasant naps, and drooling out to yawning students the anemic and wordy bookishness they called learning.

But the worst of Elmer’s annoyances were the courses given by Dr. Bruno Zechlin, Professor of Greek, Hebrew and Old Testament Exegesis.

Bruno Zechlin was a Ph. D. of Bonn, an S.T.D. of Edinburgh. He was one of a dozen authentic scholars in all the theological institutions of America, and incidentally he was a thorough failure. He lectured haltingly, he wrote obscurely, he could not talk to God as though he knew him personally, and he could not be friendly with numbskulls.

Mizpah Seminary belonged to the right-wing of the Baptists; it represented what was twenty years later to be known as “fundamentalism”; and in Mizpah Dr. Zechlin had been suspected of heresy.

He also had a heathenish tawny German beard, and he had been born not in Kansas or Ohio but in a city ridiculously named Frankfort.

Elmer despised him, because of his beard, because he was enthusiastic about Hebrew syntax, because he had no useful tips for ambitious young professional prophets, and because he had seemed singularly to enjoy flunking Elmer in Greek, which Elmer was making up with a flinching courage piteous to behold. (p. 118-119)

In The Land of Wandering & Exile

For some reason, I found myself pondering Genesis 4 — the story of Cain and Abel — yesterday. Not sure why, maybe my current circumstances, but I think a lot about exile, and what that means. The world has never felt much like my home to begin with, not a place where I’ve been much wanted. Rather, it’s felt like a wilderness, a place of exile, a largely inhospitable place I’m just traveling through on the way to someplace else. Not sure where that is. I only know I don’t much belong here.

Enough of that. Genesis 4:1-16 tells the story of the first murder, the first time one human being in anger and jealously, took the life of another. There is much to be made of the story (including the alleged “mark”), but I’m interested in who and what Cain and Abel are. Abel is a “keeper of sheep” (4:2, JPS Tanakh — again, this little Asus Eee PC doesn’t let me do Hebrew), a pastoral nomad who wanders from pasture to pasture (scrubland in the Middle East), tending his flocks, while Cain is a “tiller of the soil,” a settled farmer who doesn’t wander, who is tied to land and place. Abel’s life is one of tents, of open skies, of moving from place to place to follow the rains. His home is wandering, it’s on his back and the backs of the animals he keeps. Cain’s home is one of brick and mud and fences and furrows. He worries about the rains, but he cannot follow them — he must remake the world around him to get the water for his crops, to build the tools to work the land.

The story continues:

In the course of time, Cain brought an offering to the Lord from the fruit of the soil; and Abel, for his part, brought the choicest of the firstlings from his flock. The Lord paid heed to Abel and his offering, but to Cain and his offering He paid no heed. Cain was much distressed and his face fell. (Gen. 4:3-5, JPS Tanakh)

Some might say that Cain’s offering was inferior — not firstfruits. Maybe. But it may also be that God was partial to Abel’s “choicest of the firstlings” as opposed to whatever grain and fruit Cain offered. There is, I think, a subtext in Jewish scripture that laments Israel’s slow evolution from pastoral nomads to a settled people, a concern reflected in the use of the pastoral metaphor (all the way through the gospels and the epistles, which use this metaphor extensively as well) to describe, in particular, David, and to condemn the kings of Israel (Ezekiel 34 is the example that comes to mind) for their failures. For a settled people there is wealth and power, but there is also intense inequality and exploitation — the weakest suffer the most. The surplus wealth created by sedentary activities (farming and resource extraction, like mining and timber before silviculture) almost never goes to those who extract or create that wealth.

But this is not the matter up for discussion today. Cain, the first-born older brother, murders Abel. (In the Qur’an, he also buries him in an effort to hide what he has done.) Abel’s blood cries out to God from the very soil (adamah) that Cain tilled. God then tells Cain: “If you till the soil, it shall no longer yield its strength to you. You shall become a ceaseless wanderer (yanad) on earth (ba’aretz).” (Gen. 4:12)

Cain is made a wander, and he goes to live in “the land of Nod” — eretz nod — the land of wandering/exile, “banished from the soil” (Cain’s own words, 4:14) and away from the “presence of the Lord.” What kind of wandering can a farmer do? What kind of exile is this, being yanked away from who and what he was? Did Cain love the land? Did he love tilling it? It’s hard work, and perhaps he felt that God did not reward his work well enough. But maybe the sense of rejection he felt when God favored the firstling of Abel’s flock was intolerable. Tilling the land wasn’t just what he did, it was who he was, and clearly he saw that who he was simply was not good enough for God.

That’s a hard pain to live with, that sense and perception that who and what he is, what he has to offer God, is simply not good enough for God. Perhaps this is how he understood what happened, and he took his despair and rage out on his brother who was clearly much more acceptable to God. How to imagine the despair and rage that comes from knowing that God has favored someone else over you, accepted them and rejected you? When one is rejected by God, what possible acceptance anywhere or by anyone can make up for that?

And yet it is Cain who separates himself from God. He tells God, “I must avoid Your presence.” It is Cain who fears being killed, not God who threatens Cain with death. God, in an act of odd grace, “marks” Cain, and promises vengeance upon anyone who kills him. It is Cain who walks away from God. The greatest punishment he inflicts is upon himself. He compounds his alienation from the land, from what he does and who he is, with a self-imposed alienation from God. God condemned him to wander, but said nothing about avoiding the divine presence.

Cain did that. All on his own. Maybe that says something about us, as human beings, as we wander, as we pass through and try to live in eretz nod – the land of wandering and exile.

Invisible People

When I was working as a wire service reporter in Washington, I considered writing a book about a group of white supremacists who insert themselves patiently into D.C. — one of whom was a wire service reporter covering (cough cough) the Department of Agriculture — in order to eventually kill the president. I never got any farther than thinking about how they’d go about doing it, and I talked about the idea with Amatzia Baram, who at the time was a professor of mine at Georgetown (and sometime mentor). His addition to the plot was to have the would-be assasins tied, somehow, to Saddam Hussein. I didn’t like the idea, and eventually discarded the project as not worth the effort.

I never put anything on paper because (1) I wanted them to be successful and get away, but I could not make that work and (2) I didn’t want THAT kind of trouble. The kind of trouble one gets from being a wire service reporter at a government agency writing about a wire service reporter at a government agency who is part of a complex plot to assassinate the president of the United States. The idea of the book was a thought experiment — a tight and patient cell of people (say, five) willing to work quietly and silently, could do something like that. It was only a thought experiment unwilling to become a shabby thriller.

One of the ideas running through my mind was to have two or three members of the cell go to work for the phone company as technicians. Phone company trucks were ubiquitous, even on Capitol Hill, and guys (they were guys, mostly) with gear checking the status of twisted pair and T1 lines were as close to invisible as possible. At the time, before September 11, 2001, they could go just about anywhere with boxes and toolbags and whatnot. So it was interesting when I came across this in an article in the UK Independent on urban survival training in the age of economic collapse:

He dropped us off in an alley in Bricktown where I’d cached a bag of disguises the night before. In a lecture on urban camouflage, Reeve and Alwood had taught us there was a certain category of people in cities called invisible men. If the city is a network of veins, invisible men are the white blood cells: they work to keep it clean. They’re the janitors with bundles of keys on their belt loops, the alarm servicemen with clipboards and work orders, the UPS men hidden behind piles of boxes, and the construction workers with hard hats, safety vests, and tool belts.

In these disguises, Reeve and Alwood said, we could walk unnoticed into almost any event.

Interesting someone else noticed this.

At Least God Knows I Was Here

For several months last year, I did Clinical Pastoral Education (don’t ask, it can be explained later) and then was interim pastor at Uptown Ministry, a mission church and outreach center in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. The ministry largely served area homeless, the mentally ill and addicts of various kinds, being a place folks could come in out of the cold, or the heat, have a cup of coffee, talk to pastors like me. (And more serious folks who can actually help…) The ministry has a food pantry and holds worship services twice a week.

I never imagined, in all my born days, that I would love such work. Or that I’d be good at it.

At any rate, Jen and I visited Uptown Ministry today, got to see some old faces and meet some new folks. And I noticed something I always found somewhat perplexing. The ministry has a sign-in sheet, and folks are asked to sign when they first come in.

A few people, not many, will come in, sign the sheet, and walk right back out. They won’t get a cup of coffee, or water, or anything else. they’ll just sign it and leave. What’s that all about?

As I was sitting at the front desk there today, I thought about that a bit (no one did it today, it just wandered across my consciousness as people signed in). Why would anyone do that? Maybe it’s a desire that someone know they were there, that they still exist and they want some proof in ink on paper to show for existing. That someone know who they are, where they are, THAT they are. It’s not much, a signature on a piece of paper, but what do most of us really leave behind? anyway (Aside from our genes, and some of us don’t even have that.)

There was a time when I wanted to leave no evidence behind that I had ever been on earth. My existence, once I was gone, would be utterly erased, would be a matter only between me and God. I wanted all evidence that I’d even walked and breathed and wrote and sung to simply disappear. I’m still somewhat ambivalent about that, though Jennifer and I now have a plan that our mingled ashes will at some point be part of the bed for a bramble of wild roses. But I also trust that somehow, something of me will actually touch the world and remain in it. I don’t know what that would be, or who would carry that, or how it would touch someone else. I trust that will happen, even as I have no idea what it means.

So maybe I too am one of those folks signing the sheet and walking right back into the cold, hoping that my simple signature on a piece of paper means that God knows where I am. Even if no one else does.

Oink Oink

Okay, so I’m reading (as part of an independent study project this summer, on account of I wasn’t able to get into a Clinical Pastoral Education program — if you don’t know, don’t ask) the Library of Christian Classics, starting with the first volume, the Early Christian Fathers. Most of the writings are from the very early second century A.D. through the middle, and cover some writings that were, for a time, part of the Christian canon in some places (the First Letter of Clement, the Didache, for example).

There’s not great doctrine here yet, since Christians are still working on the words to articulate the concept of Trinity and how Jesus really gets to be both fully God and fully human at the same time (though that is fervently believed, just as Father, Son and Holy Spirit are as well), and most of the writings are fairly simple (to simplistic, such as the Martyrdom of Polycarp). I’ve run across a few good quotes, but none as good as what I just read in the Apology of Justin.

It’s the longest piece in this collection, but it isn’t a very sophisticated piece. He spends a lot of time blaming pagan religion on demons who, overhearing what God said to Moses or what Moses said and did for Israel, repeated those tales as lies to gentiles in order to foster unbelief. There’s a really good description of a Eucharist service, but mostly he spends his time trying to “prove” the merits of Christianity, which was as much a waste of time than as it is now.

This is one way he tries to do that. In paragraph 64 (p. 285 in my edition), Justin writes:

“In imitation of the Spirit of God, spoken of as borne over the water, they spoke of Kore, daughter of Zeus. With similar malice they spoke of Athena as a daughter of Zeus, but not as a result of intercourse — since they knew that God designed the creation of the world by the Word, the spoke of Athena as the first Concept. This we consider very ridiculous, to offer the female form as the image of an intellectual concept.“[italics mine — CHF].

I dunno, I rather think female forms are very intellectual and very conceptual. Certainly they are worth conceiving of.

And I’ll shut up about the subject now.