At the beginning of July, Series 10 of the revived Doctor Who concluded its two-and-a-half-month regular run (with a Christmas Special still to come). Doctor Who is a long-running BBC science fiction show that follows the adventures of the Doctor, an alien Time Lord who freely travels through space and time, usually with one or more human companions from contemporary Britain. At least once per season, the Doctor saves the earth and/or humankind from an existential threat, acting out his self-appointed role as our defender from alien menaces. Since its 2005 revival (after an extended hiatus), Doctor Who has established itself as a favorite of fans and critics (at least those for whom this sort of fantastic television isn’t a bridge too far).
One could write a long series of essays discussing Christian themes and ideas in Doctor Who, but a couple are of particular interest to me right now. The one that preaches is the salvific power of love, which succeeds in saving people where other efforts fail. To give just two of many examples from the show, in the first series episode “The Doctor Dances,” it looks as though alien medical nanogenes are going to turn all of humankind into broken, gas-mask-wearing creatures with a hive mind (it’s a long, but extremely good, story) when, at the Doctor’s prompting, the mother of the boy who was the first to encounter the nanogenes finally approaches and hugs her now-inhuman son instead of fleeing from him. The net result is that the nanogenes start healing people rather than turning them into copies of a dead boy; the mother’s love has saved humankind from annihilation. Similarly, in “The Lie of the Land” from the most recent season, alien invaders are broadcasting a psychic signal which convinces the people of earth that the aliens have always been our rulers. Bill, the Doctor’s companion, retains her memories of real history by imagining conversations with her long-dead mother; in the end, while attempting to sacrifice herself to break the signal, the love in Bill’s memories proves stronger than the alien lies and, with their hold on people’s minds broken, the aliens retreat rather than fight. Again, love has saved humankind where violent solutions could not; I cannot watch such episodes without thinking that they resonate with the example of Jesus, whose love saves us where our own efforts to save ourselves cannot.
The other theme which presently interests me offers more of a challenge. After the first three seasons of Doctor Who in the 1960s, it became apparent that the actor playing the Doctor was in need of replacement, so the writers devised a concept that would eventually be known as regeneration: when a Time Lord’s body is dying, a biological process releases a burst of energy that heals and reforms said body. In addition to transforming the Doctor’s physical appearance, allowing a new actor to inherit the role, the regeneration also affects memory and personality, allowing the new actor to put his own spin on the role rather than impersonating his predecessor. The idea of regeneration poses interesting questions for Christians. In the person of Jesus, we believe in someone whose self remained even as his body was transformed; like Doctor Who fans who spend the first few episodes of a new Doctor struggling to recognize the familiar character in a new body, the disciples tended not to recognize the resurrected Jesus when he first appeared to them. For ourselves, we believe in a bodily resurrection (articulated from the earliest centuries in the Apostles’ Creed), but most of us also believe in the immortality of our souls independent of our bodies (and thus enduring even through changes in our bodies). So it is very interesting for us to contemplate someone like the Doctor, where the self remains even though the body and the personality of that self change dramatically, and consider how the same might happen to us as members of the body of Christ.
This past week, the BBC announced the actor who will inherit the role of the Doctor from Peter Capaldi during the forthcoming Christmas episode. The Doctor Who lovers of the internet exploded in a predictable mix of fury and jubilation when it was revealed that Jodie Whittaker will play the first female regeneration of the Doctor. Although the announcement of every new Doctor is greeted with dismay from at least some portion of the fandom, I still find it depressing that, in a show limited only by the imaginations of the writers, a female incarnation of the protagonist should evoke such rage, as though the Doctor’s bodily gender would prevent her from saving the earth where Daleks or Cybermen could not.
But then, we in the Judeo-Christian tradition have long had the same problem. Our Scriptures often implicitly deny that the humanity of women is equal to men; just in this summer’s Sunday readings from Genesis (for those following Track 1 of the Revised Common Lectionary), women are assumed to want children without being consulted, cast out into the desert for no reason, and bought and sold as brides. The idea that God calls women as well as men to administer the sacraments and otherwise lead the body of Christ remains controversial in most corners of the Church and unfathomable in many. Among far too many men, and at least some women, the idea of a female conveying God’s salvation is as inconceivable as the notion of a female saving humanity is for some Doctor Who fans.
However, the love of God is indeed limitless, and it is the height of hubris to imagine that God does not fully love women or cannot share God’s love through a woman as easily as a man. So here’s an interesting thought experiment: a woman claims to be the Second Coming, the Word of God incarnate. Do you automatically reject her, assuming that God would not save us through a female messiah, or are you open to the possibility that she could be the one for whom we wait, testing her as you would any man making the same claim? If we cannot conceive of a female Christ, then perhaps we need to spend more time coming to grips with the reality of women as equal humans; perhaps we need to pray that, in the body of Christ, we will be regenerated into that version of ourselves most capable of recognizing God’s image in all our neighbors and sharing God’s love with everyone.
The Rev. John Adams
Trinity Episcopal Cathedral presents its second annual Summer Sing! on Thursday, July 20 at 7:00 p.m. The public is invited to participate in an instant performance of Gloria, a sacred choral masterwork by an Italian Baroque composer, Antonio Vivaldi. The evening will include an energized one-hour rehearsal followed by a one-hour performance. Scores will be available on loan for the evening, or participants may bring their own copies. Admission is free.
Tom Trenney, nationally acclaimed conductor and organist from First-Plymouth Church, Lincoln, will lead the event. “Summer Sing is a popular annual event in Lincoln, and we are pleased to share it with the Omaha community again this year,” stated Marty Wheeler Burnett, Canon Precentor at Trinity Cathedral. “Many church, school, and community choirs are on vacation during the summer months, and this event provides a welcome opportunity to join others in singing some of the world’s greatest music.”
The event is designed as a community sing where all are welcome. Unlike many choirs, no auditions, extra rehearsals, or long-term commitments are required. Casual dress is encouraged. As Burnett suggests, “Music, hospitality, air conditioning, refreshments, and fun combine for perfect summer evening.”
Trinity Cathedral is located at 113 N 18th Street in downtown Omaha. Information is available at http://trinityepiscopal.org. The program is presented by Abendmusik in collaboration with Trinity Cathedral.
On occasion, I listen to country music. I admit that, when I do, I listen to the classics. There is something about old country that screams reality – it’s honest. It talks about real problems, real emotions, real people. It has been even said by David Allan Coe that a proper country song includes things like getting drunk, prison, mama, your pickup truck…real stuff.
A bumper sticker I once saw asked us to consider playing the country song backwards. You know, back in the 80s folks thought that rock music had secret satanic messages if you played it backwards – which, of course, none did. But, play country backwards and you get your wife back, your hound dog back, and your pickup will actually start.
Today we heard in our Genesis lesson about Hagar. She is a servant girl, a woman who has had an intimate relationship with Abraham, born him a son, raised the jealousy of Sarah and today we hear, sent out, abandoned, forsaken, and at that, this woman who has offered herself, service, both in body and hard labor, we clamor and say – that is not fair!!!! But I also recognize, that for many of you, this very morning, are secretly going through similar struggles, sent out, your bearings shifted. You are a mess of emotions, you wonder if anyone cares, you wonder where is God, and you cry out in prayer, – “GOD, SERIOUSLY?”
We say: My wife (or husband) argues with me day and night. There always seem to be more bills than income. The kids are making all kinds of bad decisions. The dog has heartworms. I’m facing a health crisis. Just get the guitar up here, cause I got the stuff of a country song…and yet, in church, we hear: Build your house on the rock. Or even in today’s Gospel, “I came not to give peace, but a sword. GOD SERIOUSLY? When is this supposed to get better?
If we listen to motivational speakers or whatever seems to be selling to the masses, if I just think positively God is breaking barriers and giving me the best life—right? Try telling that to Hagar, or Jesus’ disciples (all but one of them died for the faith, you know, and even John (the one who survived)was so abused he probably wished he was dead.) Tell the myth of Prosperity Gospel Light to those who died in the Coliseum when they were drowned for entertainment, or fed to lions. Tell that to crucified people in Armenia in 1915; Jews, clergy, LGBT folk, or intellectuals in Auschwitz; Jesuits in Japan in the 1500s – All of them echo, “GOD SERIOUSLY?” Even we who have lives that are filled with pain, but are not faced with the prospect of death, pray likewise.
But what if the Rock of our life was actually seeking to polish us? What if, “GOD, SERIOUSLY” was a prayer that got us through successive layers of grit until God could see his image in us. Yes, God…seriously!
When I was growing up, I had a Graves cabochon machine. (Cabochons are gems that have a rounded top, without facets) The machine consisted of a diamond saw which cut larger pieces of gemstone into manageable pieces. Then it had a series of wheels, working from left to right: 80 grit, 150 grit, 400 grit, and then a leather wheel green with chromium oxide, a polishing aid. All of this was cooled by a constant water drip.
Slowly, a rock, hidden in the earth for millions of years becomes less of a doorstop and more like jewelry. Slowly the grit and water, and time reveal something that is prized!
Life is like a country song, it filled with real grit, real trouble. We tend to get angry, our patience is tried, we wonder how we can take it, and yet, the longer we live and the more we see, the grit bothers us less and less. God starts with the diamond saw, clipping off whole chunks at a time, and works through our formative years with some pretty aggressive abrasion. As we enter the senior years, he is polishing, polishing, waiting to see his image, just at the right time to enter God’s Kingdom.
That’s what Christian community at its best does, it is a polisher…except when we short-circuit the process because it’s just too hard, too painful.
Sadly we often react to the polishing, sometimes we attack, lashing out at the polisher. We blame, we ignore God, we keep our distance from our brothers and sisters in the Church. Really, we act like Jonah and walk in a passive aggressive way – totally the opposite way that God wants us to go.
Other folks just shut down by avoidance. They leave the room, they leave the church, they just have to get away because the grit is too hard. The polishing is too intense. Still others just shut down through emotional isolation. They don’t fight and they don’t flee, they just go inside and put up walls.
Our emergency defense is how we protect ourselves when we feel threatened. But God is trying to polish us in every situation. We may feel like life has become a bit too much like a Merle Haggard ballad and were all praying the same thing: GOD SERIOUSLY? But can we see God working in our midst, or are we too clouded by the friction of when God is working?
What if we did not have to stay in that place? What if we accepted the polishing. What if we decided to accept becoming the jewel and less of a boulder. Even in the desert, God cared for Hagar. God knew the story. He vindicated her cause. God loved her son Ishmael. God heard Hagar. God saw her abandonment and her plea, “GOD…SERIOUSLY?”
This doesn’t mean we deny our pain or repress it or pretend it isn’t there—it’s real and God is a big God to take exactly the real emotion we give him. God is not challenged like our Aunt Suzy who gets off in a huff if she is even challenged. GOD GETS US, and He gets that “God, seriously?” prayer even before we are ready to offer it.
Today, I ask you if your struggles are a bit too much like a country song. Maybe you are praying the “God, seriously?” prayer. Maybe you are praying the Eight Word Prayer – “Oh, God, Oh God, Oh God, Oh God.” Maybe the heat of being against God’s polishing wheel is just too much and you are thinking you are going to crack…God’s listening. He is working on things you will never even comprehend. He is an Almighty God, not a limited one. He’s polishing you. Let him turn you from a doorstop boulder to the jewel of his delight. It might not be comfortable, you might have a lot of heat, but God isn’t done with you yet!
But even more than that, remember that you are in a group of folks going through the same thing. We are all being polished. Some of us have lopped off corners, some are cracked, some of us have taken all the polishing we can stand in this time in our life. You belong – HERE. It is here -the Church – that you find the quench of the constant drip of the Water of Life, which quenches the heat and soothes our pain.
So I should imagine that the steel guitars and fiddles are crying away on the road to Heaven. The road from here to there is often paved with pain and friction. You are not alone. The Church is here to work along with you. It’s here you belong – let’s work through the grit, and the hurt, and even the song, together. Amen.
The Reverend Robert M. Lewis, D.Min., Rector
Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Grand Island
*Spoiler alert: The following contains extensive discussion of the plot and characters of Wonder Woman (2017). If you haven’t seen it yet, why not? Straying into movie criticism for a bit, and setting aside the argument advanced below, Wonder Woman is about as good as superhero movies get, particularly origin stories. The acting (and the chemistry among the actors) is compelling, the action sequences are strong and (for the most part) don’t feel familiar from other action movies, the plot is straightforward and coherent, and it manages to balance a fun spirit with the consideration of serious issues (more on which below) better than most movies in any genre. So go see it; this essay will still be here tomorrow.*
In contemporary theological discussions of war, the so-called “myth of redemptive violence” is never far in the background. Coined by the Methodist theologian Walter Wink, the myth of redemptive violence is the term for a plot archetype that reinforces the ideology of a violent status quo. In the archetype, a violent, evil power rules and oppresses the world until a hero rises to oppose them. Through actions that may be similar to or even worse than those of the oppressor (particularly violence), the hero defeats the oppressor, inaugurating a new era that could only come about through the violent destruction of the old. Such stories (which occur in ancient mythology, religion, the interpretation of history, and various forms of entertaining fiction) encourage the readers and hearers to identify themselves with the new order and recognize that violence is sometimes necessary to defend that order. To quote Monte Python and the Holy Grail, a myth of redemptive violence invites folks to “come and see the violence inherent in the system” and understand that violence as a good thing.
As Christians, we must question and challenge myths of redemptive violence. In part, this is because we follow Jesus, who told his followers to put away their swords even when their leader was physically threatened (Matthew 26:51-52); his teachings compel us to seriously consider the possibility that no act of violence may be considered good. In part, this is because myths of redemptive violence train us to see those who oppose us and/or differ from us as less than us, deserving of violent oppression in a way we are not, which runs counter to Jesus’ command to love our neighbors, even our enemies, as ourselves (Matthew 22:39, 5:44). The danger in questioning myths of redemptive violence lies in the temptation to despair: if my religion, country, and worldview are predicated on such myths, I may stop trying to find anything good in them and give up on them entirely.
At least in my opinion, Wonder Woman does an outstanding job of presenting and challenging a myth of redemptive violence without succumbing to despair. The Amazon Princess Diana is raised on a magically isolated island in an ongoing myth of redemptive violence. After Zeus created mankind as good, his son Ares corrupted them with thoughts of war. Ares turned on his fellow gods and Zeus, able to temporarily neutralize but not kill his son, charged the Amazons with killing Ares when he resurfaced. Growing up in a community of warrior women, Diana was enamored with the martial arts that would be required to fulfill their mission.
When Diana leaves her home to seek and destroy Ares on the Western Front of World War I, she envisions completing the myth: using the Godkiller sword that Zeus gave to the Amazons for that purpose, she will slay Ares and, by doing so, redeem humankind from the violent tendencies that have so long enslaved them. In her understanding, following the contours of the myth, the death of Ares will remove his dark influence on the Germans (the aggressors and bad guys, who have already made war on the Amazons) and bring immediate peace. But she quickly becomes disillusioned, first with her inability to save the many non-combatants who are suffering during the war, then with her human allies, who, although fighting for the British, seem just as enamored of war as their German opponents.
After killing the German general she believes to be Ares, Diana becomes despondent that his death has made no difference, that the myth she believed is invalidated because the violence she committed failed to redeem the men who are fighting. At which point Ares shows up and further dismantles the myth: he tells her that, as god of war, he did not create violent human tendencies but only encourages those tendencies that are already present. On top of that, the Godkiller is not the sword, a single weapon to kill a single source of violence, but the person of Diana, a daughter of Zeus; while she can, and does, slay the god of war, she cannot so easily destroy the violence that lurks in the hearts of men.
In the modern-set frame at the beginning and end of the movie, Diana announces her conclusion: human nature is a mix of the good and the bad. While her own Amazonian violence can defeat other expressions of violence, human and divine, no violent action she could take would root the violence out of human hearts; as she says at the very end, “only love will truly save the world.” Admitting that my only knowledge of the character of Wonder Woman is from this movie and last year’s Batman V Superman, I find this frame particularly satisfying. Having involved herself in the wars of men, she understands that, while her violence can offer a significant advantage to one side, by fighting she cannot stop the human tendency to fight or even save those she loves. But rather than despairing and withdrawing from mankind entirely, she begins to work in antiquities (presumably because in doing so she can devote her energy toward saving good and beautiful things made by humans), again taking up her weapons only when Doomsday, a non-human monster, starts rampaging in her vicinity. She has rejected the myth that her violence will redeem mankind and instead sought a way to cultivate love and beauty; as Sia sings during the movie’s credits, “to be human is to love even when it gets too much. I’m not ready to give up.”
So as a Christian who enjoys movies that often depict violence as redemptive, living in a country that tends to frame its wars as necessary violence against irredeemably evil men, I find Wonder Woman a refreshing and rousing challenge, inviting us to question our leaders and lobbies that see violence as inevitable and, rather than despairing, imagine a future in which love, not war, is the defining feature of human interaction.
The Rev. John Adams
Our DioNeb Creation Community has written a set of short prayers for each day of the week, to be used during this season of Ordinary Time. These collects are unique to our Nebraska setting, and would be appropriate for use in both public and private prayer. May they enrich your prayers in the months to come.
Click here to download the prayers as a PDF document.
Trinity Sunday 2017
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. (Matthew 28:19-20a)
Along with all the things happening in our nation and the world and all the things happening closer to our parish and our own families this week — and goodness knows there was a lot to take in — something important was happening in the wider Episcopal Church that is worth our noting this Sunday.
Friday the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church began a three day meeting. Executive Council meets quarterly to carry out the programs and policies developed in our General Convention and to oversee the ministry and mission of the Episcopal Church. The Episcopal News Service yesterday reported on the opening remarks by Presiding Bishop Michael Curry and President of the House of Deputies Gay Clark Jennings. (http://episcopaldigitalnetwork.com/…/presiding-bishop-foll…/)
Bishop Curry spoke plainly about the moment in history in which we find ourselves. He said that such a time as this is a “strange national, cultural and global moment – when things are being turned upside down, when old patterns don’t work anymore, when the old rules don’t even seem to apply anymore, truth doesn’t seem to be what the truth used to be, and all of a sudden what’s wrong is right. All of a sudden, even Christianity is co-opted by injustice, by lack of compassion, by inhumanity, by indecency.”
We have spoken often here at Church of the Resurrection in recent months about what is happening: the apparent acceptance of hateful speech and actions in our national political arena, our failure to address the urgent climate crisis, the violence exhibited by gun deaths right here in Omaha and acts of terrorism around the world, the wide divide between the very rich and the working poor. Bishop Curry is right to name the truth that even people who might consider themselves Christians have been lured into supporting injustice, lack of compassion, inhumanity, and indecency. Too many Christian churches, and even some parishes in the Episcopal branch of Christianity, gather on Sunday mornings without ever speaking of these things. Some are afraid of offending major donors; some are afraid of upsetting people who don’t want to acknowledge or think about what is happening; some are simply too tired to offer up anything new, anything that speaks to a particular moment or a particular place. And too many self-identified Christians go through the week saying and doing things that are the opposite of what Jesus would have us say and do, making choices dictated by fear and selfishness rather than choices dictated by faith and compassion.
I’m so grateful for parishes like this one and for Christians like most of our sisters and brothers in this community, and I’m also grateful to have leaders in this time both in our diocese and in the wider Episcopal Church who have the energy and courage to speak the truth and name the moment.
We know how important it is to see the world as it is in all its wonder and all its woes. We know how important it is to see and remember the marginalized people in our society who are so easily not seen by others. And we know how important it is to have a living faith that points to the kingdom of God and helps us find the strength and wisdom and love to live into God’s kingdom in all aspects of our daily lives.
Today is Trinity Sunday, a day that reminds us that just as it’s important to see and name the world as it is, it’s important to understand and name God in all of God’s fullness.
In the words of the ancient Athanasian Creed [that you can find in the section of Historical Documents in the back of The Book of Common Prayer], the church teaches:
That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the substance.
That is: we worship one God that is somehow three Persons — Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — and those three Persons are somehow One. We don’t confound or mix up those three Persons but are clear about their separate identities, and yet we also don’t say that they are substantially — in the true meaning of the word, in their Substance — divided from one another.
What does any of this matter? At this point in human history, it matters very much that we not tempt people — others or ourselves — to dismiss God and faith because the only God they’ve heard anyone talk about is a lesser god that would be no great loss. If we forget that all three Persons of the Trinity are essential, our understanding of God can easily become an understanding of a small god.
If we forget Jesus and the Holy Spirit, it’s easy to slip into seeing God as distant and unconcerned with us (except perhaps to judge us severely from time to time); if we forget God the Father and the Spirit, it’s easy to slip into seeing Jesus as a great teacher but nothing more, or as a pal who asks little in the way of discipleship; and if we forget God the Father and Jesus and focus solely on the Spirit, it’s easy to become unmoored from our tradition and have only our own experience as a spiritual guide. In all cases, God becomes smaller. Instead of a Living God whose fullness exceeds our powers of language and comprehension, we would instead find a lesser god that is more easily comprehended and also much more easily dismissed.
In his recent book The Divine Dance, Franciscan author Fr. Richard Rohr suggests that we look not so much at the traditional question of how one God can be three Persons, but at the complementary question asked by some Christian mystics and the tradition of the Eastern Church: How can the Three be One? He writes “Don’t start with the One and try to make it into Three, but start with he Three and see that this is the deepest nature of the One.” (p. 43, The Divine Dance)
What we find when we begin with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and ask how they can be One is that God is not a single object to be grasped by our minds, but that the essence of God is relationship, a “flow” of divine energy. “God is love” said the apostle John in his First Epistle, and that may be about as good a summary of the Living Trinitarian God as any other.
God is love. My sisters and brothers, the church now faces a moment unlike any other moment in human history. Along with all the challenges that have been with us a long, long time — violence, Illness, poverty, heartbreak, warfare, political and cultural oppression — we have unleashed the destructive forces of nuclear weapons and of rapidly accelerating climate change.
Pray that the church will meet this moment with theological integrity and truth, because the only way we are going to get through this is by sticking closely to the true God and going out into the world as bearers of God’s truth. We are disciples not of some tame god who sits above a bland world, but of the Living God who does not hesitate to step into our disorder and despair and work powerfully through us in ways we cannot imagine on our own.
Our Gospel passage for today is the passage assigned for Trinity Sunday because it makes the Trinitarian formula — the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit — explicit, but the context of that trinitarian formula is what makes this a powerful message for us here today. “Go therefore” says Jesus “and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” Jesus is telling his followers to bear Christian witness — to go out and tell the truth.
Just about every day brings some new piece of news that makes our world look less stable and less secure than ever. The world needs authentic Christian witness more than ever, and we need to be truthful to ourselves and others about what is happening in the world in order to bear that witness. We also need to be truthful about God. In the short term, it may be easier to ignore what is happening and pretend none of it matters. In the short term, it may be easier to tell ourselves that God is something “less than”, to pretend that God is small enough for us to understand and utilize as needed. The powers that be tempt us to be numb to the needs of others and numb to God’s love. But in the long term, to serve in the world as faithful disciples and to teach others about the God of love, and to have a chance at restoring the stability and security we are lacking, we must open our eyes to see clearly the realities of the world and open our hearts and minds to God through prayer and study. Then we can shake off the temptation to numbness and be honest both about what the world is like and about who God is.
God is love — a “fountain fullness of love” in the words of St. Bonaventure. (Rohr, The Divine Dance, p. 430 How do we respond to a fountain fullness of love? Jesus said, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ (Matthew 22: 37b-39) We respond to God’s love by sharing love.
Our job in these difficult days is the same as the job of Christians in every age: to bear witness to the fullness of God’s love in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Preached by Archdeacon Betsy Blake Bennett at Church of the Resurrection, Omaha, Nebraska June 11, 2017
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ –
Among the small duties of which I need to keep track is the task of having the right color vestments on hand in my truck for any given week’s liturgical celebrations. The choices are limited but still several, and since riding around in a dusty truck-bed is not an easy life for clergy vestments, I don’t keep the whole collection with me at all times. Instead, once or twice every week, you’ll find me at some point walking from my office down to the cathedral sacristy to grab the proper cope, stole and mitre for whatever celebration is coming up next. It’s satisfying to get those choices right (all according to season, day, service and local custom) and only once in a while do I forget altogether, and find myself begging to be clothed out a local sacristy closet.
Now that the season of Easter is ended with our annual celebration of the feast of Pentecost, the work of choosing Church vestments will become somewhat simpler for the next many months. We have entered the long green season of the Church year known as “ordinary time,” and while we will still celebrate an occasional feast or exceptional life transition in our parishes, we will, for the most part, find ourselves bedecked in plain green vestments and altar arrays, and having the time and space in our church communities to settle into a different rhythm of worship and ministry.
This is the time of year that we hear the story of Jesus in more or less chronological order as part of our Sunday morning gatherings, and so are reminded of the larger scope of his many teachings and miracles. This is the time of year that absent the need to build big celebrations (like Christmas or Easter!) parish leaders can focus on discernment, engaging with questions about a church’s call and mission. This the time of year when absent the press of the school calendar and related activities, youth and youth leaders can find the time to be together in more deeply engaging ways. This is the time of year when long, bright days mean there is actually room on Sundays to “do it all,” making weekly church attendance a more do-able proposition.
I am a person who loves our Church calendar and the way it marks the passage of time in both my personal and community life. And one of the things I love best is the way that our alternating seasons change up the rhythm of our lives by setting aside times of feast, fast and feria. When we keep these days and seasons well, we become disciples who know how to love, honor and praise God in every single moment of our lives from the mountaintop, to the valley of shadow, and on all the many days that lie between these two.
I pray that you can enjoy this long, unhurried and even dreamy season of our church calendar year. Truly, this long green season of the Church’s year is no ordinary time!
Faithfully Yours in Christ –
+ Bishop Barker
One of my favorite series of books right now is the Craft Sequence by Max Gladstone, in which he has built an intriguing world around the insight that, at some level, religion is transactional. From this perspective, humans praise and worship gods, offer them sacrifices, and donate their time and wealth to the gods’ institutions, all of which increase the gods’ power and influence; the gods in turn use their power to bless their worshipers, offering tangible and intangible benefits both generally and to specific worshipers (in response to prayers or other petitions). With this insight, Gladstone then builds a world in which humans have identified and quantified the soulstuff that serves as the means of religious transactions, which in turn allows for the union of the religious economy and the purely human monetary economy.
The books take place in the aftermath of the God Wars, cataclysmic battles between the old regional divinities and Craftsmen and Craftswomen, humans who, having attained the power of gods through their study and accumulation of soulstuff, sought to replace divine authority with human power. Most of the surviving gods are in hiding or bound to humankind and the human economy by contracts far more quantified and detailed than the old covenants between gods and their worshipers. The post-war world is ruled by Craftsmen and Craftswomen who are simultaneously wizards and lawyers of the most careful sort.
The five novels of the Craft Sequence are thus an unusual but compelling mix of urban fantasy and legal thriller. In Three Parts Dead, the first published, a junior Craftswoman and a grieving acolyte team up to investigate the death of a god whose demise was engineered through manipulation of his contractual obligations. Another, Full Fathom Five, deals with strange happenings on an island where new idols with no native worshipers are used like offshore bank accounts.
Beyond being thoroughly enjoyable reads (where else are you going to find an amusing and plausible answer to the question of what happens when a caffeine addict is turned into a vampire?*), Gladstone’s novels are particularly thought-provoking for us as Christians. They force us to confront the possibility that we are treating religion as transactional rather than relational. Do I pray in the hope that God will do something for me or because I hope to deepen my relationship with God? Am I giving of my resources to help ‘the least of these’ in an attempt to love them as Jesus loves me, or to “score points for the afterlife” (as Weird Al phrased it in “Amish Paradise”)? Do I think of storing up treasure in heaven as the less tangible equivalent of saving money for retirement? And how might we be misunderstanding God if we treat worship in this way?
In a particularly resonant scene from Four Roads Cross, the leaders of a church confront this issue. Kos’ beloved consort Seril (the moon goddess to his sun god, as it were) was thought killed in the God Wars but has recently emerged from hiding, alive but greatly weakened. Kos has been covertly strengthening her with gifts of his soulstuff, but the human concerns to which he is contractually obligated have noticed something amiss and are threatening Craft action that will essentially lobotomize Kos if he doesn’t desist. During deliberations, Kos’ cardinals invite the novice who communicates directly with Kos to testify as to why he advised the god to continue aiding Seril despite the possible consequences. He says:
Last night, he led me to understand himself: Lord Kos loves, and he must fight to defend those he loves. He would not be himself if he let Seril fall, any more than I would be myself if I abandoned my friends, or my church. To turn from that truth is to turn from him – to deny our living god and satisfy ourselves with the worship of his dead image, of a picture on a wall that does not change or ask us to change. We must accept that he needs her, that he was less in her absence. You say I have endangered our god. I say I have grown to know him, and the greater danger lies in deafening ourselves to his purpose, in abandoning his truth for a version of him that may seem comfortable. Faith is a state of constant examination and openness. In faith we must be vulnerable. Only in this seeming weakness do we live with god.
We run a similar risk: it is too easy for us to follow a dead image of the divine that demands church attendance, tithes, or certain behaviors in exchange for wealth, health, and power. But the nature of our living God is to love, to give love freely in the hope that we will be similarly free in loving one another; the economy of divine love operates very differently from the monetary economy. That creates potentially scary uncertainty: there’s no price sheet telling us that a certain gift to the church will result in us getting a raise, handing this many sandwiches to the poor will bring victory to our football team, or saying so many Our Fathers will shave a year off our time in heaven’s waiting room. We can do everything right and still suffer bad things.
In that vulnerability and uncertainty, we must treat God as something more than an ATM which cannot help us if our account is empty. We cannot act as though Gladstone’s insight is true for us, that our religion is transactional, if we hope to deepen our faith during our journey through life. It is only in relating to God as a friend rather than a store clerk that we truly grow to know God.
*According to Four Roads Cross, it isn’t pleasant. Unlike those addicted to recreational drugs, who can drink the blood of human users to get their fix, coffee-loving vampires have to put up with the headaches and muscle cramps because “by the time I wake up, most of you have metabolized your caffeine.”
The Rev. John Adams
Prayer is one of the most important things a Christian can do. It must come from the heart, and doesn’t have to be something difficult or complicated. It can be done anywhere at any time. The Episcopal Church Women at St. Francis Church in Scottsbluff do all we can to make our church community one full of prayer.
Pati McLellan heads up a prayer chain of women and clergy who pray for anyone whose name is called in whether it’s an emergency or on our weekly prayer list. She includes suggested prayers in her emails to us. We are also kept updated on loved one’s progress, if it is available for sharing.
Our Courtesy Committee (responsibility changes monthly) sends Birthday, Anniversary, Sympathy, and Get Well cards to our older members and the children. Our clergy encourages all to come forward during services and have their special day remembered by the congregation and a sharing of blessings with praise and prayer.
We also have a Prayer Discipleship Group that has been meeting weekly for approximately three years led by Father Mark, as we study and use prayer in our lives. Our prayers don’t change God, as some people think, but praying changes us. When we spend time with God, he changes our hearts to be more like His. We no longer live a self-centered lifestyle, but one that is focused on others.
Upon the recommendation of Canon Liz Easton, and a representative of the Tamar Project in Omaha, we began a Ministry with the Doves Center here in the valley. With the leadership of Sue Selvey, we assemble bags of personal supplies and prayer letters of encouragement to women leaving abusive situations. Upon request from DOVES, we have expanded our ministry to cover the Doves Centers in Sidney and Chadron besides here in Scottsbluff County.
The picture here shows another small group of our ECW members who have recently completed 18 lap blankets (with a lot of prayers) for those in area nursing homes. Prayer is a powerful force in not only the lives we pray for, but also for those who pray.
St. Francis, Scottsbluff ECW
On June 3, at the Willa Cather Spring Conference in Red Cloud, a Eucharist was celebrated with Fr. Randy Goeke-Celebrant, Dr. Steve Shively-Lector and Chalice Bearer, Fr. Chuck Peek-Preacher, and Rev. Ruth Eller-Gospeller. This was the anniversary of Ruth’s ordination to the Diaconate. Her father was ordained a Priest in this Diocese nearly 60 years ago. The Eucharist was attended by 65 participants from the conference on the occasion of the dedication of the National Willa Cather Center. Cather was Confirmed by Bishop Beecher at Grace Church.
Former first lady Laura Bush came to Willa Cather’s hometown Saturday and officially opened a $7 million center meant to re-ignite fascination in the famed novelist and the tiny Nebraska town where she set her most famous books.
See this Omaha World-Herald story for details on the conference.