Archives for the month of: May, 2013

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            Have you ever taken a class you were not interested in just because it fit your schedule just right?  When I went to theology school about ten years ago every semester I took a class offered on Monday nights because of my work schedule.  One semester the only course offered on Monday night was an Old Testament course called Wisdom Literature.  I groaned.  I was something of a Bible geek and I had no idea what the course was about.  I expected learning about spiritual poetry or something.

            To my surprise, the class hit me over the head with texts like our first reading today about a god-Woman participating in creation.  Are you kidding?  This woman is called Sophia and she dances through numerous texts of the Old Testament.  In a world today where women are disproportionately poor, unschooled and abused, it would be good news enough to have a powerful female face for God to talk about.  But Sophia also has a compelling story to tell about God, about us and about salvation.  As more and more women reflect on theology in our day, Sophia’s story is on the march again.  Her story is even causing many to rethink concepts like the Trinity.  Let’s see how Her story intersects with our own this Trinity Sunday.

A Different View of the Human Condition

            As I traced Sophia’s activities and sayings through the Old Testament, it started to dawn on me that Sophia sees me differently than other Biblical writers.  Today’s text is typical as She says: “I was daily God’s delight, rejoicing before God always, rejoicing in God’s inhabited world and delighting in the human race.”  (Did Sophia miss the memo that I am a sinner, cut off from God and in desperate need of a rescue?)  This one sentence says a lot and is supported by many varied texts:  She is about every single day, not just the big holy moments.  She is for everyone, not just those thought to be chosen.  She honors creation.  She thinks you are utterly delightful.  Sophia says our most basic problem that needs salvation is that we are asleep to God’s vibrant presence.  She wants to wake us up.

            If doctor Sophia diagnoses you and me as spiritually asleep, what are we to wake up to? Concepts of the Trinity that focus on images of two male characters and a dove out there somewhere, or that worry about how Jesus is “consubstantial” with the Father, are sure to make us drowsy.  The Book of Wisdom says that Sophia “pervades and penetrates all things” and that she is “more mobile than any motion.” (Wis. 7:24).  As theologians have been reintroducing Sophia to the world, there has been a gradual shift in our understanding of the Trinity.  Instead of focusing on mysterious concepts of Three being One, we are beginning to see in the Trinity an invitation to actually participate in the love flowing between Father and Son, a love that pervades and penetrates all things and is more mobile than any motion.

The Dance of Love

            One way to test new insights is to see if it bubbles up anywhere else.  Sophia’s message checks out.  The mystics have been talking Sophia language for centuries.  Her message pops up in the culture as well.  In 1963 an obscure English songwriter, Sydney Carter, wrote new spiritual lyrics to a popular Shaker tune.  He thought average church folks would be offended and he was shocked that it became one of the most popular hymns of all time.  He called it “Lord of the Dance” and the song taps into a deep longing for Sophia energy:

                                                I danced in the morning when the world was begun,

                                                I danced on the Moon and the Stars and the Sun.

                                                I came down from heaven and I danced on the Earth,

                                                At Bethlehem I had my birth.

This verse could have come straight from our first reading.  The last line of the chorus says “I will lead you all in the dance said He.”

            Richard Rohr is among many spiritual writers who now refer to the Trinity as a “Dance of Love.”  Rather than seeing God as a static presence “out there” to be pleased, obeyed, even appeased, he sees a God in a relationship, ever new, on the move.  Let’s learn together to participate in the love flowing within the Trinity.

            We then have a choice to make.  We are like awkward guests at a wedding reception standing just outside the dance floor.  We wonder if we should stay where we are or risk participating in the Dance that is the relationship between the Creator, the Redeemer and the Giver of Life.  What does that step toward participation look like for you and for me?  The step probably has something to do with the three legged stool we talk about here: choosing love for ourselves, our faith community and/or our world.  Let’s help each other discover what participation in God looks like, and then support each other on the step into the Dance.

Amen

George von Stamwitz
Liturgy for Trinity Sunday
Saturday Evening, May 25, 2013
Focus Text:  First reading, Proverbs 8: 22-31 (Sophia at creation)

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Focus Text: Acts 2: 1-11

The hunger of Fire has no need
for the reliquary of the future;
it adores the eros of now,
Where the memory of the earth
In flames that lick and drink the air

Is made to release
Its long-enduring forms
In a powder of ashes
Left for the wind to decipher.[i]

John O’Donohue

The Burning Fire of Transformation

You probably recall the lesson from high school Physics: Matter cannot be created or destroyed.  But matter is changing constantly.  There is slow change.  Through the slow shedding of dead skin cells and the constant regeneration of new ones we are made new ever 35 days.  Change can be slow and slight and nearly unperceivable, but sometimes not.  Sometimes there’s an explosion.  Change comes all at once and, suddenly, there is something new.  This is the energy of Pentecost, when matter and spirit get thrown into Fire.  The 50 days of Easter have been a time of joy and preparation – learning to trust in Life in spite of the outward appearance of death.  And then… fire!  Pentecost is about the burning consuming Fire of sudden transformation!

Brennan Manning wrote of the one purpose of Christ and the Gospel:

to make brand-new creation.  Not to make people with better morals but to create a community of prophets and professional lovers, men and women who would surrender to the mystery of the fire of the Spirit that burns within… who would enter into the center or it all, the very heart and mystery of Christ, into the center of the flame that consumes, purifies, and sets everything aglow with peace, joy, boldness, and extravagant, furious love.  This, my friend is what it really means to be a Christian.

We are blessed by the witness of the early church and mystics to the experience of Fire.  It’s a gift, not something that can be predicted or controlled.  Fire doesn’t come by an act of will or by doing everything right or by believing the right thing.  All we can do is prepare, as best we can, for the day when the wind blows just right to fan our spark into flame.

Building a Pyre – Preparation

This was the work of the first witnesses after Jesus’ resurrection.  They knew fire would be coming, but they didn’t know when.  They gathered stories together like sticks and kindling.  They came together for comfort and encouragement.  They chose leaders in a seeming attempt to put some boundaries and structure around this fire.  But preparing for Pentecost is not building a campfire.  It’s more like building a funeral pyre… for ourselves.  What may look ordinary, even passive is and extreme act of courage – feeling the heat, drawing closer, waiting it to set you aflame!

We have all felt the presence of fire  – in passionate love, in our work or play when we are not motivated by past conditioning or future reward but a kind of flowing energy  (creative pursuits, movement of the body, song, connection with another that burns away separateness), in the places where thought and expression all become ashes “left for the wind to decipher”. 

The process of preparing for fire will be different depending on the places that burn in your particular life.  For me yoga has been making space in me for new fire.  In the practice of yoga you hold a pose and feel the “heat” and instead of judging the heat or running away from the heat, you breathe.  In that way the heat grows and moves and sometimes fills your entire body.  In this way, little by little one is changed from a cellular level, eventually burning in the mind, emotions, spirit and life.  For any spiritual practice you may endeavor to try (meditation, being fully present to another in a time of conflict, art), we may ask, do I feel the heat and how do I respond – do I back off or do I breathe?  Breathing into it will have consequences – both indented and unintended.

Learning to Live with Fire Inside[ii]

When that early human first discovered fire and found the courage and boldness to bring it into their lives it was a great boon, but also caused unforeseen problem.  Whereas before his dwelling was cold, now it was often too hot for comfort. In the past, the air he breathed was clear, now with fire inside it was filled with smoke which made people ill.  Flames and hot embers always threatened and , once free to play about the cave, had to be restrained.  Water boiled and burned.  Precious food was burned to a crisp.  “The presence of fire inside was not merely benign.”[iii]    

Once we experience fire inside it can be quite disorienting.  Even though the world may seem the same, one who is living with fire inside will have a whole new set of problems…  the truth of the world and our response to it will look different.  Fire inside will, at first, require extra time, extra quiet, extra care.  St. Paul needed to be taken in to be cared for by the church in Damascus after his awakening when he was knocked off his horse.  He was made “blind,” totally disoriented.  The witness of the Acts of the Apostles warns us that strangers and foreigners may understand us, but our own will think we are drunk.  You may find yourself becoming more sensitive, like the sensitivity of new pink skin that regrows after a burn.  You are more sensitive to beauty, to the smallest thing, the glimmer of light at dusk on a leaf, can bring you to your knees.  You are more sensitive to pain, also, feeling everything more deeply.  Living with fire inside transforms everything from the inside out.  You become a new creation.

Fire in Community

Fire makes us vulnerable, our defenses burned away.  It changes every relationship in our life… it changes community.  The fire burns away the masks.  Inevitably, the tenderness will invite pain, but it also invites the fire of other souls to grow…. soul attracts soul, fire attracts fire. 

When one person in the room is on fire, the little spark that might be inside of us puffs into flame… and we feel a burning recognition.  That’s happened to me over and over again sitting here in the pew listening to a homily, standing around the altar with you, hearing stories of pain and joy.  That’s what a community of faith is for… to set fire!

When a community can begin to burn away the motivations of guilt or obligation or pity or reward… persons who learn to live with fire inside are motivated by Love.  My prayer is that all of our action and ministry at SCF are motivated by the fire of Love.  And who knows where the fire will spread!

Someday, after mastering the winds, the waves, the tides, and gravity, we shall harness for God the energies of Love, and then, for a second time in the history of the world, humanity will have discovered Fire.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin


[i] John O’Donohue, “In Praise of Fire,” To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (New York: Doubleday, 2008) 12.

[ii] Ideas in this section gleaned from Anne Hillman, “Learning to Live with Fire Inside,” Awakening the Energies of Love: Discovering Fire for the Second Time (Bramble Books, 2008) 236-253.

[iii] Ibid. 237.

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Acts 7:55-60
Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20
John 17:20-26

A very happy Mother’s Day to all of you mothers and all of you who mother in any way.

In Spanish the woman of the house is referred to as the ama de casa, the soul of the house.  The ama de casa has often been understood as the glue that holds the family in unity, the one who prizes unity above all else.  So Mother’s Day might be very appropriate for looking at this text from John’s gospel. 

The author is describing Jesus praying for our unity, “I ask…that they all may be one.” (John 17:20-21)   That’s apparently what he most wants, that the life flowing between him and his God would flow among us in a very real concrete unity.

People make fun of moments like this.  It is easy to be cynical and sarcastic about the prospects of human community.  Sometimes when people use the phase kumbaya moment, they say it with sarcasm referring to an easy, shallow sense of unity which is a veneer over the actual disunity—a kind of naïve sense of unity.

That is a shame because the song Kumbaya originated on the banks of South Carolina and Georgia among enslaved people who understood the value of human solidarity.  It was never meant to be a shallow song sung around the campfires of “Pleasantville.”  It was a song that cried out to God for compassion and justice in the midst of a commonly experienced oppression.  Its meaning showed up again during the civil rights era when young white freedom riders had to decide whether to literally risk their lives for their oppressed, as they called them, brothers and sisters.  (Click here for a story about this by Vincent Harding.)

Our longing for unity is not a shallow matter.  It cannot be unrealistic or naive to desire oneness.  To desire like this is to know the heart of Jesus.  It is easy to view the world through our darkest lenses and to believe that it really is a “dog eat dog” world.  Our job, we believe in our false selves, is primarily to protect ourselves from others.  In the old song “What’s love got to do with it?”, Tina Turner sings, “Who needs a heart when a heart can be broken?” and then goes on to explain that she is singing this for her own protection. 

We sometimes think of others as wolves who are trying to steal and slaughter.  According to a new book called The Genius of Dogs, some wolves figured out that they did not need to compete with humans over food, they could work for the humans in exchange for their left-overs.  These more friendly wolves developed into what we call dogs.  Moving from a dominating and competitive model of existence to a collaborative model based on solidarity is an evolutionary advance.  It is, in one sense, salvation. 

One of our heros, St. Francis of Assisi, had a legend grow up around him about the taming of a wolf.  Apparently, according to the legend, the wolf was terrorizing a village.  Francis approached the wolf in peace offering it food and ultimately tamed the vicious wolf.  (There have been recent claims that archeologists have actually found the remains of large dog-like bones buried underneath a church in Assisi.)  Like a lot of legends that are not necessarily historical fact—and this one may well be historical fact—there is a huge truth here.  It is the truth that the dominating/competing model for human existence is a lower form of existence.  Cooperation and collaboration arising out of human solidarity is what humanity is long for; and we stand for the truth that, while difficult, it is possible. 

Eavesdropping as we are tonight on the heart of Jesus (“I ask…that they all be one.”), we hear a call to practice the kind of self-knowledge that would slow us down when we are tempted to put each other into boxes and to assume that we can never love each other or even work together. 

We need to be able to see a wolf and believe in a dog.  And we need to be able to start with the wolf inside of each of us.  This is the age-old path to oneness.  On Mother’s Day when we think of phrases like “someone only a mother could love,” we might ask ourselves why mothers are able to look past certain things.  What are they seeing?  What could we be seeing?  Does God our Mother peer at me like that?  What is to be learned in a Mother’s gaze? 

As James Finley says, “Looking out through eyes transformed in meditative compassion, we see the world God has loved so …  We see others who, like us, go about suffering in the mistakes their egos make as to who they are and what they are about.”  (Finley, James (2009-10-13). Christian Meditation (Kindle Locations 1808-1810). HarperOne. Kindle Edition.)

The church we are carefully building together, this community, is one that values unity, that believes in unity, that works for unity.  Amen?

Homily by Frank Krebs
Seventh Sunday of Easter
May 11, 2013
Photo by ArranET at Flickr.com

photo by susivinh on flickr.comImage

Focus text – John 14: 23-29 (Jesus promises the Paraclete)

            There are few topics in our tradition more awkward than talking about the Holy Spirit. The literature, and often our own experiences, are studies of awkward extremes.  On the one hand many say our subjective experiences cannot be trusted and our only valid experience of God is that mediated by a priest or sanctioned as a sacrament.  We have a wonderful correction of this awkwardness in the Pentecostal traditions; however, extremes here have been all too common.  TV and radio are filled with examples of people a bit too confident about what the Holy Spirit is saying and doing.

            In today’s gospel from John, Jesus’ introduction of the Holy Spirit provides an antidote for these extremes.  In response to the disciples angst that Jesus was leaving, Jesus introduces them anew to the Holy Spirit who will be with them.  The Greek word used to describe the Spirit is “Parakletos,” which is very difficult to define.  Various translations of the Bible use words like Advocate, Comforter or Helper.  The scholar, Raymond Brown, said the word is so unique we are justified making up a new English word – “Paraclete.”  It is one of those words that seems to be a noun and a verb at the same time.  Tonight we explore what it might mean to be filled with Paraclete energy.

To “Walk Alongside”

            The literal definition of paraclete is to “walk alongside.”  It is not a passive companionship as it speaks to supporting, giving strength to another or giving encouragement. The picture Jesus is painting is “God with us” in an intimate and active way.  Recall the movie “To Kill a Mockingbird” where an African American defendant in a rape case was friendless in a southern town.  His attorney, played by Gregory Peck, was a paraclete who came to walk alongside the defendant.  The Paraclete is a companion that points to and gives strength to that fragile diamond of light within us that came from God and is returning to God.

            The story of Paul’s conversion provides a picture of Paraclete energy.  Recall that Paul was a zealous persecutor of Christians with blood on his hands.  After his “aha” experience of being knocked off his horse, he traveled to join up with the leaders of the early church (see Acts 9 for all the details).  But nobody would see him.  They were afraid.  Who could blame them. Then a man named Barnabas, all by himself, went to stand by Paul.  He “walked alongside” Paul and he saw in Paul the grace of God.  He took Paul to the other leaders and made his case.  Later when Paul was finally ready to be put to work for the gospel, Barnabas went to him again and helped Paul get started.  Barnabas believed in Paul and he gave Paul strength and courage.

            This was not an isolated incident of Paraclete energy by Barnabas.  Jesus and the early church were fond of renaming folks and when we meet Barnabas for the first time his name is Joseph.  The church renamed him the “son of the Paraclete” which is translated as Barnabas.  In drafting Acts of the Apostles, Luke as a rule does not give biographical information about the main characters.  He makes an exception about Barnabas.  Later in Acts 15, Luke writes that Barnabas “was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith.”  There is no mistake that being “filled with the Spirit” really means at its core: while I hope for every experience of God for you and for us, the indispensable marker of being filled with the Spirit is to be one who walks alongside another.

Be Filled, Be a Paraclete

            We know this to be true from our own experience.  Very few things in life are more moving than witnessing two partners making vows to “walk alongside” each other for better or for worse, in sickness and in health.  When the connection is healthy and mutual it can promote a spiritual and creative energy.  Look around the room and you see partnered folks that you know as individuals, but we also know the breath of life and the Spirit that is the two of them together.  Similarly, the creative power of this community is based in large part on members saying to each with their actions and their words that we choose to “walk alongside” each other in our spiritual lives when it is easy and when it is hard, when it is successful and when it is not. The Spirit, the Paraclete, is unleashed through these choices and promises.

            I was at a meeting here a month or so ago on the issue of discerning a collective work of service for Sts. Clare & Francis.  A dozen or more good ideas were on the table.  As the discussion evolved, I was struck by several comments that it mattered less which service was ultimately selected – what mattered the most is how the service was to be performed.  People spoke about “companioning” and being “in relationship” with others in whatever we choose to do.  There is an instinct here about the primacy of Paraclete energy.

            We have heard many times that, whatever else we can say about God, we know God as Love and in the act of loving we encounter God.  Today we have a refinement to meditate on. God as Spirit is “walking along side” and we connect with God as Spirit when we “walk along side” each other and the world.  May this Eucharist inspire even more Paraclete energy among us.

Amen

George von Stamwitz
Liturgy for the Sixth Sunday of Easter
Saturday Evening, May 4, 2013

holding hands

Photo by jardek at Flickr.com

Acts 14:21-27; Revelation 21:1-5; John 13:31-35

Dorothy
I went by to visit Dorothy Armbruster this week.  She greatly misses being with us on Saturday evening, just as we miss her.  But make no mistake: the woman has not lost her sense of humor.  I explained to Dorothy when I arrived that I rushed out to see her, forgetting my bionic ears (hearing aids).  I concluded by saying, “I’m totally useless.”  She said, “I’m glad you finally recognized that!”

Useful?
While I know that Dorothy was kidding lovingly, I did end up pondering those words later when I was meditating.  In a certain sense I am, and each of us is, useless.  My ego doesn’t make the big difference it would like to think it does.  My little list of “to dos” that I operate off of each day will not bring the world to a screeching halt if left undone.  That led me to think about this: if it’s not primarily about accomplishing tasks (and of course they ARE important on some level), what is most important?  Our greatest gift and responsibility is to be wide awake and appreciative for the life that is teaming around us.  A religious term for this is “worship.”  I respond with gratitude and love for the Awesomeness that is right in front of me revealing Herself.  This connectivity between persons, which begins here and ends here in this divine encounter, is what life is all about at its core.  Nothing is more important.  When it is carried over into our life with other human persons, life loses its insipidness and becomes awesome as well.

“Being There” Is a Gift
A friend of mine, Jeff, invited another friend, Ed, to an important event in Jeff’s life (which I was unable to attend).  When Jeff was expressing his appreciation to Ed for showing up, Jeff said, “This thing lasted three hours and perhaps wasn’t particularly engaging; I am kind of undone that you came and sat through the whole thing.”  Ed said, “I grew up poor.  We didn’t really have much to offer each other except our presence; and that was always a good gift.”  Being there is a precious gift indeed.

When Being There is Especially Important

There was a story this week about a young man who was in a horrible auto accident, which broke every bone in his face and left him blind.  While he was being treated in ICU, a nurse squeezed his hand and kept repeating, “I am here.”  They had never met.  He did not know her name.  He was barely conscious.  But it meant everything to him that someone was holding his hand, he would later tell, and saying, “I am here.”   This young man  survived the accident, received a Master’s degree in Narrative Medicine, and has spent his adult life lecturing to health professionals about the importance of human touch and presence.  Sometimes being there is very important.

When Being There Opens Up A Whole New Creation
I was visiting Michelle Smith’s sister, Carolyn, this week at St. Alexis Hospital down on South Broadway.  This is the hospital where a famous exorcism was performed in 1949, which later became the basis for the movie, The Exorcist.  They have a kind of “history wall” at the entrance to the hospital, and it has a very small portion dedicated to that exorcism.  There’s a letter there from the Jesuit priest, Fr. Bowdern, who performed the exorcism, thanking the Alexian Brothers for their “hospitality.”  This was no ordinary “bread and butter note.”  The letter thanked the brothers for their hospitality especially because NO ONE ELSE would offer hospitality to this suffering child; they were perhaps too afraid to take in “someone like that.”  Fr. Bowdern pointed out that the brothers had lived up to their oft proclaimed slogan that no one would be turned away from their care.  Wow.  So Fr. Bowdern and the Alexian Brothers in 1949 were walking the walk of being there for the most marginalized!  I noticed also that the most frequently used word in the letter was “boy” or “lad.”  It was clear that the whole experience for this priest was to be there for that boy.  He was focused on the boy who was ensnared, not the drama around his bondage.  Sometimes being there is the difference between a New Creation and the same old tired one.  The Lord says in our second reading tonight, “See, I am making all things new.” (Rev. 21:5)

We, Right Here, Right Now

Being there is a precious gift.  Sometimes it is very important.  Sometimes it opens up a New Creation.  (The boy went on to be an airline pilot.)  Make no mistake about it.  We are not totally useless!  But our greatest usefulness is to be there for each other.  It is a privilege to stand in each other’s presence.  And it is a wonderful when someone gives that gift to us.  But there is no more creative or life-giving gift than when we stand there among the most marginalized.  This is the meaning of tonight’s gospel: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  (John13:35)  Will we show up?

Homily by Frank Krebs
5th Sunday of Easter
Saturday, April 27, 2013
Sts. Clare & Francis