Saturday, September 22, 2007

Spare the Bear, Spoil the Child

Regarding the prophet Elisha, from the several verses following today's lectionary text:

23 He went up from there to Bethel; and while he was going up on the way, some small boys came out of the city and jeered at him, saying, “Go away, baldhead! Go away, baldhead!” 24 When he turned around and saw them, he cursed them in the name of the Lord. Then two she-bears came out of the woods and mauled forty-two of the boys. 25 From there he went on to Mount Carmel, and then returned to Samaria.

Mauling she-bears. And not a word of regret.


This is a harsh season. Warm days herald the coming cold. Episcopal Bishops gather in still-ravaged New Orleans, some to invoke Biblical inerrancy to attempt exclude those who are not heterosexual males from full participation in the life of the Church. My own parish held morning prayer last Saturday, and, since it was our town's History Week, used the 1789 BCP -- it was all quite historically authentic, except (as Reverand S. wryly pointed out) for the gender of the priest.

It hasn't been that long since the first guerilla ordination of women in the Episcopal Church in 1974, and now our Presiding Bishop (to the deep chagrin of some) is a woman. Nor, for that matter, all that long since the Episcopal Church whole- heartedly embraced the full, equal inclusion of African Americans. It's been 4 years since the election of Gene Robinson, a partnered gay man, as Bishop of New Hampshire -- occasion, of course, for yet more deep chagrin.

One can find Biblical texts to support almost anything, including the mauling of sassy children by she-bears. The Old Testament, speaking of the sanctity of marriage, blithely accepts royal polygamy and concubines, and its pages are full of all manner of righteous, God-sanctioned slaughter and oppression. And Christ Himself says, "Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple." So much for the Biblical basis of the All-American Nuclear Family, eh ?

September marks my one year Episcopal anniversary. These ongoing Anglican tribulations are deeply distressing to me. I'm pleased that our Bishop, Thomas Shaw, has called the election of Gene Robinson an instance of "prophetic discernment."

"Run with that," I want to counsel the gathered Bishops in New Orleans. I want to shake some of them by the lapels of their purple shirts. Or even bonk some sense into them with their crosiers. I want to cite the example of the Catholic Church, which put instututional preservation over the safety and well-being of abused children. No, I am not a patient woman. Especially with theological absurdity: why would GOD, the Infinite Ground of Being, the Magnum Mysterium which passes all understanding, be so obsessively and pruriently fixated on gay sex ?

Because the Bible tells us so. And, oh, by the way, release the she-bears.

Faugh. Tomorrow's the first day of Fall. I feel old and creaky, a little more melancholy than usual, brittle and dry as an autumn leaf.

I recently pulled out a poem I wrote a few years ago about being unchurched.


Who has no house now will never build one.

-- Rainer Maria Rilke

The autumn's past. This is the house I've built.
A roof, a floor, four walls, a door, that's it,
sub code, badly measured, unvarnished, raw,
overly apophatic, you'll complain,
but even a window would be luxury,
a campy tribute to an enthused age,

when casements spilled their buttery, mullioned light
into the obscure forests of our selves,
or to last night, when fitful, needling rain
slashed accents graves upon the windowpane
where my face floated, backward, looking in.

Before you know it the bulldozers will come
to plough this shantytown under. Then you'll see,
from freshly fertilized, newly enriched tracts,
glass spires beanstalking up toward eggy gold,
all window, panoptical, endlessly prospecting,
until the light off their fa├žades at sunset blinds you
and you fall to your knees, afraid, misreading GOD.

And then I'll shelter under the startling call
of geese who cross the night-time winter sky
in ragged Vs, dark-of-moon dull, no more
than air wrinkling between the naked trees,
and, at the eye's cold corner, sybilline,
a sudden blinking of the pleiades.

I hear Rilke's "Who has no house now will never build one" a differently, now, but not smugly. I have a house now, not my own DIY spiritual shack, but a place in the Body of Christ. It's not a house that I built; it's a house to which I asked to be admitted, and which has welcomed me inside, and to which I have submitted.

And yet there is still that other shelter, the dark, overarching winter sky with it's startling call of geese and stars and God: this is the church to which I would invite the various Bishops of Chagrin.

Listen, I would say to them. Listen.

Saturday, September 08, 2007


Our first reaction to our first look at the Grand Canyon was visceral; it knocked the wind out of us like a body blow, made us weep. It was sheer, impossible, incomprehensible, and overwhelming, more than we had ever imagined.

I wanted to, but didn't, fall to my knees, then into a full prostration. There was nothing to say. We just held on to one another and looked. Looked into a vastness and stillness beyond anything we'd ever seen. Looked into expanses of light and form and color like an enormous library of the visible vorld.

I had a sudden thought, a thought I'd also had a week before when a sublime lavender sunset had caught me by surprise in the supermarket parkinglot. It had been a strange thought, practically a non sequitur.

I would like to show this sunset to Archbishop Akinola, I'd thought.

How could he look at this sunset and remain so bitterly fixated on using culturally archaic scriptural texts to anathemize GLBT Christians ? This sunset would speak to him, a living revelation of God's goodness and bounty and love !

The canyon seemed a grand enough manifestation of God's infinite love and goodness to convince all of CANA, AMiA, and all the other heterogenitally-fixated acronymic Anglican splinter groups (with Bishop N.T. Wright thrown in for good measure) that they have become dreadfully sidetracked -- that they've driven right off the road, really -- and need to stop and take a deep breath. Maybe even Pope Benedict, ne Ratzinger, would fall under the Canyon's holy charm, and announce a Vatican 3 in which Paul's There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus would be the reigning principal.

Later, when we had recovered our senses, I shared this thought with DK. He was skeptical. Deeply skeptical.

I realized he was probably right.

We were, after all, a fearful, greedy species, fond of lording it over one another in countless absurd ways,

always clinging to bits of our world and our self-image as if we were building a fortress that could save us from all perils.

It was hard to hold onto the notion of that fortress here. The canyon's immensity flung me right into the breathtaking, existential improbabilty of my own tiny existence, into that swirling, vertiginous point of nausea that had always been at the core of my spiritual life.

I had been reading recently deceased Anglican theologian John MacQuarrie's "Principles of Christian Theology." It, more than anything I'd ever heard or read, had addressed this point of thrownness and facticity in a way that convinced me I'd chosen the right spiritual home.

"We could, however, say that "God" is synonymous with "holy being;" and the descriptions and analyses that have been put forward in earlier pages of this book have been designed to show us that, in spite of admitted ambiguities, it makes sense to recognize the holiness of being, and to take up before it the faith-attitude of acceptance and commitment. Our final analysis of being as the incomparable that lets-be and is present-and-manifest , is strikingly parallel to the analysis of the numinous as mysterium tremendum et fascinans. (MacQuarrie, p.115)

Yet even MacQuarrie, I'd learned, despite having no theoretical objection to women having a full role in the Church, had opposed women's ordination as potentially divisive to the Anglican Communion. The roadside bushes were full of theologians. It was disheartening.

That evening we returned to see the sunset. A thunderstorm had been gathering in the west all afternoon. The sky was full of bulbous, lowering clouds, ranging from brilliant white to bruise blue, interspersed with rifts of bright blue sky. We gazed west at thin strip of sky between a towering cloud and a flat outcropping: that's where the sun would show before falling behind the rocky horizon. Intermittant fat raindrops were splashing down, and thunder was rumbling. I'd left my camera in the car and, after a few minutes of separation anxiety, felt strangely liberated. We watched the colors of the rock flare and fade, and, finally, blinding orange-red appeared in the slit between rock and cloud. There was a collective gasp from the small crowd, and then applause. We watched the sun sink below the horizon. But the light remained. I watched the west side of a beautiful, conical rock glow with an uncanny, unearthly rubor. It was the most sublime light I'd ever seen, light like a sharply indrawn breath, a celestial, transforming light. I turned and looked at the faces of the people around me: they were glowing with the same indescribably beautiful light, shining, literally, like the people in Thomas Merton's famous Louisville sidewalk epiphany, like the sun .

I turned to DK, barely able to speak.

We don't deserve this beautiful light, I whispered, choking on tears.

We didn't deserve it, but there it was. Pure grace.


During and just after our trip to the Southwest I slept badly, waking after every REM cycle as if I'd been drowning in dreams and had to surface to breathe. It was, I theorized, a combination of jet lag and the utterly new landscapes my brain had to process. And it was not just one new landscape -- every few miles the terrain and vegetation changed -- from slagheap-like hills outside Phoenix, to the red buttes of Sedona, to sudden stands of birch and towering evergreens as the highway's elevation increased, to the boulder-strewn hills and fields just before Hoover Dam.

But mainly it was the desert -- flat, dry expanses stretching to the horizon -- that had disoriented and astounded. It's like the moon, we said to one another. It was alien. We were alien. We were strangers in a strange land, a land of sand, rock, sky, sun, and tough, low weeds. We were used to leaves, and rain. Intimate horizons. Streetlights, not the high voltage transmission lines of the power grid.

These were Biblical landscapes, the landscapes of Moses and Jesus, and the landscapes of the earliest monastics, places of heat and drought and rock. Places of God-encounter, free of the distractions of cities. I'd been living in a state of distraction for the past several months -- work, work and more work, then an irritable exhaustion into which I welcomed easy entertainments, then sleep. I needed an abruption like this, something to shake up the neurons, to realign the inner power grid.

A few weeks ago, since I've been in training for the Altar Guild, I attended a funeral at our church. I had the scantest connection with the deceased: once, in choir, I'd picked up his personal, monogrammed hymnal. Someone, a longtime choir member, noticed and said, "D. was in the choir for many years. Now he has Alzheimer's." Alzheimer's, like my Mother had.

And I was at his funeral, as I had been at my mother's 5 months prior.

A phrase from the burial liturgy has stayed with me:

All of us go down to the dust; yet even at the grave we make our song: Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

I woke, one restless, desert night, out of one of the few dreams I remembered. My father was in the dream. He was, he warned me, about to go out on a date with a woman that resembled my mother. But who was not my mother.

Alright, I acquiesced.

And, suddenly, there she was, on my father's arm -- my mother, younger than I ever knew her, even more beautiful than I remember her -- I gasped, then remembered she was not my mother. And yet, strangely, she was, even at two removes. I went out into the dream desert and wept. The thirsty dust swallowed my tears as fast as they fell.

Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.