Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Happy Infant, Early Blest

We have escaped like a bird from the snare of the fowlers; the snare is broken, and we have escaped.”  Psalm 124:7

A few yards from the door of this chapel lies the grave of Samuel Griffin, the first person to be buried on this spot.  He died on October 11, 1792, accidentally drowned in the lake at the age of four years, six months.  On his stone, you can still barely pick out the epitaph verses:
            Happy infant, early blest
            Here in peaceful slumber rest
            Early rescu’d from the cares
            Which increase with growing years.

Now, I don’t know about you, but I find that epitaph hard to swallow.  It’s hard for me to imagine those as the words chosen by his mother, the ones that seemed to fit best as she held him dripping and cold in her lap at the shore of the lake. 

I guess it just sounds too easy.  Killed tragically while still a young boy, his whole life ahead of him—is that “happy infant, early blest.”  I’m sure they tried their best, but no one could save him, he had to die in such a frightening way—is that really “early rescued from the cares?”  Surely these words would speak only to someone who wasn’t ready to be honest about the real devastation of such a death—surely they’re trying to put a bright face on things when everything is falling apart inside?  

Monday, December 28, 2015

For Meditation: Contemplation Completed

"Christ’s saying about John, “I wish him to remain thus until I come,” suggests the state of contemplative virtue, which is not to be ended through death, as the active life is, but after death contemplation is to be more perfectly completed with the coming of the Lord …. For who gives bread to the hungry in that life where no one hungers? Who gives water to the thirsty where no one thirsts? Who buries the dead where it is the “land of the living” (Ps. 27:13)? Who carries out the rest of the works of mercy where no one is found to be in need of mercy? And so no laborious action will be there, but only the everlasting fruit of past action. Contemplative happiness, however, which commences here, will there be made perfect without end when the presence of the heavenly citizens and of the Lord himself will be seen, not through a mirror and in a dark manner as now, but face to face (1 Cor. 13:12)."  The Venerable Bede, quoted in Zachary Giuliano, "John and Peter, Patterns of Holy Life."  Covenant, 27 December, 2015.

Christmas Makes People Crazy

“I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”  St. Luke 2:10-11

Perhaps you’ve noticed that Christmas makes people crazy.  About a month ago, my neighbor affixed a two foot-tall stuffed antler on either side of her SUV and a red pom-pom the size of a basketball on her front grill.  She’s a very sensible person really, a German, for heaven’s sake, but—you know, it’s Christmas.   Only at Christmas do we get up on ladders to affix dozens of tiny lights to our down spouting.  It’s our only time for drinking out of vessels that look like a deer’s head or an elf’s boot.  Christmas is the only time quite a few of us would be caught dead singing in public.

It’s not just that we become silly at Christmas.  It’s also the season for generosity.  We remember to greet people at Christmas.  We set aside a little gift for so many of those folks that we usually take for granted: the poor fellow who delivers the newspaper so early in the morning, our children’s longsuffering teachers.  I heard a story on the radio last week about an anonymous man who went into two Walmarts in Cleveland and paid for everything on layaway.  He spent over $100,000 buying items from socks to big screen TVs for people struggling to get by.   And of course, he did it at Christmas. The official Walmart spokesman put it this way: “Christmas is a time of year when many people go above and beyond to give back to their neighbors and communities.  When customers anonymously pay off others’ layaway items we’re reminded of the amazing things people will do to support each other.”[1]

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Ponder: Enough of a common world for disagreement to be worthwhile

"And this, I suppose, helps to make sense of Orwell’s conclusion to the essay on Swift – a conclusion that is not as simple as he makes it sound. ‘One can imagine a good book being written by a Catholic, a Communist, a Fascist, a Pacifist, an Anarchist, perhaps by an old-style Liberal or an ordinary Conservative: one cannot imagine a good book being written by a spiritualist, a Buchmanite or a member of the Ku Klux Klan.’… The argument is still a provocative one.  There are systems of belief that are intrinsically not capable of generating serious writing; presumably because they are not really capable of seeing specific truths in a way that can renew or reshape the reader’s world.  They may be simply dogmatic schemes without intellectual curiosity; they may be infinitely more lethal varieties of terror and bigotry.  They begin with the sort of denials that guarantee dead and self-referring language.  They give us nothing to recognise; or perhaps they fail to create in us the sense of a serious question because they are so confident of having a final answer.  Orwell grants, in other words, that even a comprehensive ideology like Catholicism or Communism will be arguing about its answers, in ways that engage the outsider: we know why they think these questions matter, even if we have no time for their answers.  The trouble with the systems Orwell writes off is that they fail to let us sense why the issues that they are worried about should matter to anyone.  Not a wholly clear argument, but it gives us some interesting criteria, once again, for identifying serious writing.  Serious writing points to enough of a common world for disagreement to be worthwhile.  Stale ideological writing never moves outside its comfort zone; bureaucratic and pseudo-technical language is indifferent to replies.  You can’t disagree; but the systems Orwell thinks are capable of producing something worthwhile are precisely systems that begin with recognisable human questions – not puzzles to which an esoteric philosophy provides solutions but themes that human beings as such characteristically worry about."

Rowan Williams, The Orwell Lecture, 2015.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Ponder: the education of speech

Our current panics about causing “offence” are, at their best and most generous, an acknowledgement of how language can encode and enact power relations (my freedom of “offending” speech may be your humiliation, a confirmation of your exclusion from ordinary public discourse). But at its worst, it is a patronising and infantilising worry about protecting individuals from challenge; the inevitable end of that road is a far worse entrenching of unquestionable power, the power of a discourse that is never open to reply. Debates about international issues such as Israel and Palestine, or issues of social and personal morals – abortion, gender and sexuality, end-of-life questions – are regularly shadowed by anxiety, even panic, about what must not be said in public, and also by the sometimes startlingly coercive insistence on the “rational” and canonical status of one perspective only. On both sides of all such debates, there can be a deep unwillingness to have things said or shown that might profoundly challenge someone’s starting assumptions. If there is an answer to this curious contemporary neurosis, it is surely not to be found in the silencing of disagreement but rather in the education of speech: how is unwelcome truth to be told in ways that do not humiliate or disable? And the answer to that question is inseparable from learning to argue – from the actual practice of open exchange, in the most literal sense “civil” disagreement, the debate appropriate to citizens who have dignity and liberty to discuss their shared world and its organisation and who are able to learn what their words sound like in the difficult business of staying with such a debate as it unfolds.
Rowan Williams, "War, Words and Reason: Orwell and Thomas Merton on the Crises of Language."  The Orwell Lecture, 2015.  

Saturday, December 19, 2015

O Key of David

O Key of David and Sceptre of the house of Israel, Who dost open and no man doth shut, Who dost shut and no man doth open, come and bring forth from his prisonhouse the captive that sitteth in darkness and in the shadow of death.

He would turn up for the grand occasions in the Chapel when I was a student at Duke.  He was an old man, very distinguished with a craggy face, an emeritus professor of chemistry.  His doctoral robe was Harvard Crimson, and he wore a velvet cap.  And he carried an enormous jeweled staff, with a wide silver head, the mace of the University.  His title was the University Marshall, and that staff represented, I think, the teaching authority.  He bore on behalf of the faculty, who had chosen them to represent him.  When he carried it in on Matriculation Ceremony, or on Founders’ Day or for Baccalaureate, and laid it upon the Altar, it announced to all of us that the university could now get about its business, that the teachers would teach, that students could learn.  He walked very slowly, because he knew that everyone had to wait for him.  His mace was the key that opened the proceedings of a great university.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Ponder: A good start along the path

“So yeah, most of what I loved about this time of year was secular and perhaps even a bit shallow. I had no sense of Advent at all, except that it was the churchy name for getting ready for Christmas. But even in the middle of all the hoopla in my thoroughly secularized Christmas, there was a strange kind of grace imparted to me. There was a magic and wonder to the whole thing that was not just about Santa Claus. It was not intellectual. It was an experience, a feeling even, almost imperceptible, that Christmas meant that the world could change. Christmas meant that old things would die and something new and larger than life would be born. Christmas meant the beginning of the end of evil, as good was being born into the world — not exactly the doctrine of the Incarnation in all its fullness, but a good start along the path.”

Jonathan Mitchican, “Stop Being Jerks about Advent.”  Covenant, 15 Dec. 2015

Monday, December 14, 2015

For Meditation: Fire and Spirit

In Your Bread there is hidden the Spirit who is not consumed, in Your Wine there dwells the fire that is not drunk: the Spirit is in Your Bread, the Fire in Your Wine--a manifest wonder, that our lips have received.  
To the angels who are spiritual Abraham brought food for the body, and they ate.  The new miracle is that our mighty Lord has given to bodily man fire and Spirit to eat and to drink. 
See, Fire and Spirit are in the womb of her who bore you, see, Fire and Spirit are in the river in which you were baptized.  Fire and Spirit are in our baptismal font, in the Bread and Cup are Fire and Holy Spirit.
Ephrem the Syrian, qtd. in Bryan Spinks, Do This In Remembrance of Me.  (2013), 80. 

Friday, December 11, 2015

O Root of Jesse

O Root of Jesse, Who dost stand for an ensign of the people, before Whom kings shall keep silence, and unto Whom the Gentiles shall make their supplication: come to deliver us, and tarry not.

The House of Jesse was a stump.  That’s where this majestic passage from Isaiah 11 begins.  God had revealed this to Isaiah, when to all outward appearances, it seemed likely to have a fairly secure future.  He’s talking about the royal house, Israel’s line of kings.  Jesse was the father of David, the greatest of kings, and it was David’s descendants who ruled in Jerusalem in Isaiah’s time.  It will become a stump, Isaiah begins, cut off violently after so many warnings went unheeded.  The patience of God would be exhausted, and it would fall like a great tree in the forest.

And great trees, generally, do not rise again. The ruin of what once was, the death of a promising future.  It’s the natural lesson of this time of year, of course, when the greenery of summer is dying off.  The trees have shed their leaves, and the wind whips through the branches, and the sap moves very slowly if it moves at all.  It’s dark and cold, and life seems chased from the earth.

Ponder: Doubt a little of his own infallibility

“Perhaps all of us, and especially Trump, could take a page from history, from the words of Benjamin Franklin after the writing of a new Constitution.  The debate had been hot and heavy.  There were deep feelings on all sides, and many were expressing strong reservations about signing it.  In calling for ratification, Franklin said, ‘On the whole, sir, I cannot help expressing a wish that every member of the convention who may still have objections to it, would with me, on this occasion, doubt a little of his own infallibility, and to make manifest our unanimity, put his name to this instrument.

Were we to doubt a little of our own infallibility, perhaps we might find it within ourselves to listen, to give a little more care to viewpoints that differ from ours, expressing the hope that those who voice them care just as much for and believe just as firmly and fervently in their causes as we do in ours.  We might find the gift if a solution.”

William Brock, The U.S. Political Devolution.”  The Washington Post 11 Dec. 2015, A25

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

For Meditation: Calls on our daily sympathy and tenderness

“Nothing is more likely to engender selfish habits (which is the direct opposite and negation of charity), than independence in our worldly circumstances. Men who have no tie on them, who have no calls on their daily sympathy and tenderness, who have no one's comfort to consult, who can move about as they please, and indulge the love of variety and the restless humours which are so congenial to the minds of most men, are very unfavourably situated for obtaining that heavenly gift, which is described in our Liturgy, as being "the very bond of peace and of all virtues." On the other hand, I cannot fancy any state of life more favourable for the exercise of high Christian principle, and the matured and refined Christian spirit (that is, where the parties really seek to do their duty), than that of persons who differ in tastes and general character, being obliged by circumstances to live together, and mutually to accommodate to each other their respective wishes and pursuits.—And this is one among the many providential benefits (to those who will receive them) arising out of the Holy Estate of Matrimony; which not only calls out the tenderest and gentlest feelings of our nature, but, where persons do their duty, must be in various ways more or less a state of self-denial.”

J. H. Newman, “Love of Relations and Friends.” Parochial and Plain Sermons, II.5.

For Meditation: "The Highest Grace"

“But it need not be so. Christ has come, and has breathed on us his Spirit to make us human again. We ought therefore to hope for — and to show within the fellowship of Christ’s redeemed a model of — a kind of human closeness that is deeper than and is not dependent upon the exchange of seminal fluids. If sexual intercourse finds its only proper place in the male-female pair bound together in covenant and open to procreation, then our natural desire for human closeness — even perhaps physical closeness — must properly be consummated in something other than sex. What if this is friendship?

This would make sense eschatologically. As Fr. Austin pointed out, we tend to think of the phrase “till death us do part” as meaning “forever.” But that is exactly what it does not mean. Christians don’t believe that death is the end of our story as human beings, but rather the door from our brief earthly existence into our everlasting glory in the world to come. “Till death us do part” in the marriage vow means that marriage ends at that door. But friendship doesn’t. “No longer do I call you servants … but I have called you friends” (John 15:15). Friendship realizes what is highest and truest about us: that we exist for an eternal friendship with God and with one another in God. And this friendship is nowhere more clearly manifested, at least on this side of heaven, than in the Holy Communion, where we bring our souls and bodies to feast together with our friends at a table where Christ is the host. Perhaps this is actually the highest grace, not only of the soul, but of the body as well: to share a meal with our friends. Perhaps this is where our good and natural desire for human intimacy finds its consummation.”

Mac Stewart, “I Have Called You Friends.”  Covenant, 9 Dec. 2015

Ponder: Little opportunity for thinking and learning

“The practice of medicine today is radically different from that of 20 to 30 years ago.  Shorter hospital stays require protocol-driven procedural care ‘with little opportunity for thinking and learning,’ according to a JAMA editorial accompanying the review.  Added pressure comes from online ratings of doctor performance, and direct-to-consumer advertising cases ‘patients to demand medications for conditions they sometimes do not even have,’ the editorial said.

There is also a huge disconnect between medical school and what happens in the first years of residency, Mata said.  New doctors are ‘spending 40 to 50 percent of their time on the computer’ doing secretarial work,’ he said.  Very little time is spent at the bedside. ‘It’s not rewarding.’”

Lena H. Sun.  “New Doctors at Increased Risk for Depression.”  The Washington Post 9 Dec. 2015, A3

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Home for the Holidays

“See your children gathered from west and east at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that God has remembered them.” Baruch 5:5

In our family, sometimes we call my mother the sheepdog.  She likes nothing better than to herd all her charges into one place.  My mother has always loved big family gatherings: the heaping table, decorations all in their places, music playing in the background, children shouting and dogs barking underfoot.   When we all get together there are fourteen now, the majority of us under seven.  It can make for quite a racket in a house built for smaller crowds.  Sometimes one of my brothers or I will suggest that it would be simpler to host us in batches.  It really is easier to talk at a smaller table.  There’s no need for quite so many dishes.  But she’ll have nothing of it.  Since my father died ten years ago, my mother spends most of her time alone.  For a woman who gave so much of her life to the things that make for a happy family, that’s sometimes very difficult.  When we are all together, I think that for her, it’s a bit like putting life back together again, recovering something of what was lost and can never quite be again.

Of course, this is the season for big family gatherings, when we endure hair-raising traffic and the nightmare of airport security to head back to our home places, to sit around the family table, among old, familiar things. 
I met a man who lives in Tennessee
He was headin’ for, Pennsylvania, and some home made pumpkin pie
From Pennsylvania, folks are travelin’ down to Dixie’s sunny shore.
From Atlantic to Pacific, gee, the traffic is terrific,
For there’s no place like home for the holidays.[1]

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Ponder: A clear alternative that demands we all grow up

Yale’s Halloween costume hubbub is not specifically about Christianity; but it is about community. The wisdom of the Benedict Option for this situation is in its unwavering insistence that cultural trends are only going in one direction, and if you want safety and flourishing, the Church is your best bet. We, as Saint Benedict did, are looking out on a world that is eating itself alive. We pity it and we pray for it. We remain cheerful, equipped with the armor of light. We offer a clear alternative that demands we all grow up. We define ourselves by the light of the Gospel, and we bend our knee to the king of kings. In obedience to his gracious rule, we find both our safety and our self-worth. In the hard work of true diversity within the body of Christ, we learn humility. We strengthen what we have by common prayer and faith in action. We expect our communities to grow. And we wait."
Andrew Petiprin, "The Benedict Option and Yale."  Covenant, 4 Dec. 2015

Friday, December 4, 2015

Emmanuel: God with us.

O Emmanuel, our King and Lawgiver, the Expected of the Nations and their Saviour, come to save us, O Lord our God.

O Emmanuel—it is a resonant name, “God and man hyphenated,” one author calls it.[1]  It means, “God is with us,” and the One whose coming we expect, Jesus the Messiah, His name, Saint Matthew tells us, is Emmanuel.[2]  You know this name perhaps, from the prophecy in Isaiah chapter 7, which we have just heard.  But you probably know it best of all from the great Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel.”  It is a translation of a medieval Latin hymn, which is in turn a versification of a series of beautiful antiphons.  These are one sentence anthems designed to be sung before and after Mary’s Song, the Magnificat at Evening Prayer during the last eight days before Christmas.  In that series of antiphons, and in the original Latin hymn, O Emmanuel is the last one, the antiphon for the Eve of Christmas Eve.  But when the great John Mason Neale was translating the hymn, he put it first instead, and so we know the whole hymn by that immortal plea, “O come, O come, Emmanuel.”

It was a wise choice, I think, for it is the finest of the antiphons, and in a way it is the summary of all of them.  The antiphons and the verses of the hymn chart a series of images, drawn deep from the well of Old Testament prophecy, mostly from Isaiah, the greatest prophet of the Old Testament.  O Wisdom, O Lord of Might, O Root of Jesse, O Key of David, O Dayspring, O Desire of Nations: but together, in their prayers for wisdom, for protection, for fulfillment and deliverance and peace—all of them can be summarized, O Emmanuel, O God be with us. 

Ponder: They miss me if I'm not there.

"That's what these programs sell, along with soul and power, a venue far more intimate than the gym.  They offer a place to belong, a correction to that loss of social connections that Harvard's Robert D. Putnam diagnosed in "Bowling Alone."  Washingtonians are sweating together.  In a recent study and symposium, two Harvard Divinity students compared CrossFit to church, a place where unaffiliated millenials find community and spiritual togetherness.

Solidcore is Anne Callas's community.  "If feel like they miss me if I'm not there," says the 34-year old librarian, who is training to become a coach.

In a city as transient and as uptight as D. C., this is awsome--the ability to create relationships and community," says Solidcore's Bradshaw.  Indeed, the two-year old program's goal, according to the promotional video, is "to create a second home."

Karen Heller, "Sweat Equity-What's Behind the Rise of Intense Boutique Fitness Programs?"  The Washington Post 4 Dec. 2015, C4

Thursday, December 3, 2015

For Meditation: It takes the whole world to know the whole gospel

"He maintains that God is present on earth, that he made the earth and declared it “good,”  and that Christ is the unifying force and presence holding the entirety of earth together. The creation reveals the creator; the earth reveals Christ.

“Therefore,” states Kaoma, “in ecological terms, this manifestation of divine glory is revealed fully in the complex web of life.”[8] It takes the whole world to know the whole gospel. According to this thinking, to participate in destroying the earth is to participate in destroying the revelation of the Creator God. Kaoma moves from talking of “missio Dei” to “missio Creatoris Dei” — from “the mission of God” to “the mission of the creator God,” and he stresses that constantly upholding, renewing, and sustaining the earth is intrinsic to the creator God’s mission. He argues that the prophet Isaiah “was right when he proclaimed God’s salvation as an advent of the new creation, where all creatures will live in perfect shalom.”[9] And so, for Kaoma, climate justice involves joining God’s wider mission for the salvation of the earth as much as it involves joining with his mission for the salvation of humanity."
Graham Kings, "Climate Justice: Insights from African Anglican Theologians" Covenant, 2 Dec. 2015

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Rend the Heavens: A Meditation for Advent

“O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down.”  Is. 64:1

The Church’s faith and proclamation seldom clashes as sharply with the world as in the early days of December.  The world is well into its “holiday season,” a time of meaningless jollity, excessive consumption, and a sentimental delight in the vague pleasantries of the comfortable home and the stable family. 

But the Church is keeping Advent.  We sit with those “who dwell in deep darkness” and follow the Baptist out into the desert.  We call for the Lord to come with power and set this sad and broken world to rights.  We scan the distant mountains for the first rays of the coming dawn.

For Meditation: Something Flesh and Blood

"After resisting a potentially lethal drink, Beckel sat weeping on a rock in the middle of a field.  "And I knew," he writes, there was a force that had wanted me not to do that, a force that loved me enough to stop me in my tracks and redirect my steps.  That loved me?  Me?  If there is one moment I can point to, a moment when the idea of God's grace shifted from being some kind of abstract concept to being something flesh and blood, something meaty and rich, something real, that was it."

Conversion, in the Christian tradition, requires the recognition of sin and failure, which is the only way the offer of grace makes sense.  This, to be honest, is a difficult concept for many of us to accept.  But voices as diverse as Carson and Beckel promise something encouraging: that any moment, early or late, can mark the beginning of hope."

Michael Gerson, "When Hope Begins," The Washington Post 1 Dec 2015, A15.

A Path to Virtue

“Why is it, then, that these necessary things, which sustain life, are created by God for common use, while money is not common? The reason is twofold: to safeguard life and to open the path to virtue. On the one hand if the necessities of life were not common, the rich, with their usual greediness, would take them away from the poor. In fact, since they keep all money for themselves, they would certainly do the same with these necessities. On the other hand if money were common and available to all, there would be no opportunity for generosity on the part of the rich and gratitude on the part of the poor.”
John Chrystostom, quoted in "John Chrysostom and the Virtue of Giving."  Covenant 1 Dec. 2015