Sunday, February 26, 2012

Retreat to Order of Julian of Norwich

I went on a retreat this weekend to the Order of Julian of Norwich in Waukesha, WI. They are an Episcopalian contemplative order of both monks and nuns. Their service to the world is constant prayer, along with occasional hospitality to weekend guests like me. It was a weekend of reading, relaxation, and complete silence. Part of their way of life is to keep entirely quiet, so as to better hear the "tiny voice of God." It was a refreshing couple of days, but also terribly challenging.

Silence is a powerful, but frustrating spiritual practice. Each time I passed a sister I was overwhelmed with the compulsion to overwhelm them: "How are you? How did you become a nun? Do you miss your family? What do they think? How do you know who to pray for?" etc. When I talked to the mother superior of the house about contemplative prayer she gave me insight. She told me about the fluctuations in her prayers, how sometimes she has remarkable experiences and sometimes she just hears the Gilligan's Island theme on a loop. "Sometimes all you can do is sit your bottom in that chair, and that's what you offer to Jesus." Our presence and our desiring, no matter how wretchedly flawed, can be a gift to God.

Silence also makes one more sensitive and aware. When few words are spoken, the small things take on a greater significance. Small gestures, facial expressions, brief encounters--they are somehow more telling.

On Saturday, I followed their schedule completely. This meant beginning the Daily Office with Morning Prayer at 5am. "Coffee is ready at 4," one of the sisters told me with a completely serious face and matter-of-fact tone. Groggy though I was, I loved spending the day like that. I watched the sun rise and set. I saw the different shades and types of light. It's hard to believe how powerful that is. In my busy world there's just light, work, then dark. It was remarkable to see all the different hues the day has to offer.

Participating in the prayer with them was interesting. It was of course lovely, slow, and peaceful. But it was also a bit difficult for the uninitiated. Especially with no musical training, it was tricky to catch on. I felt a bit like Garth and Kat from the snl sketch, who caught in their unpreparedness, have to make up their songs on the spot. One closely watches the other and sings poorly about half a second after the other.

"It's hard to deceive yourself," Mthr told me about the silent, contemplative life. Our world has built too many structures and superstructures. It's become all to easy to deceive ourselves. It has become such that we continue in our same way of life, knowing full well that we are deceiving ourselves. "I know very well, but..." is our modern adage [If we need an example, we may think of the current ecological crisis: everyone knows full well how dire the situation is, but we lack the political will to do anything about it]. Would that we would all take a contemplative turn this Lent, to stop deceiving ourselves and do all the necessary pruning to live a fruitful spiritual life.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Happy Friday

First Fun Friday of Lent! Here's some music that feels somehow apropos for being slap happy in a terrible snowstorm.

Pleasant Fish Frying!


Thursday, February 23, 2012

Did Darwin Kill God?

Fiddling around the internet tonight I came across this interesting video. The basic argument is that Orthodox Christian thinking has never been threatened by Darwin and evolution. It is a BBC TV documentary and so is a little simplified and dramatic, but at the core are solid ideas.

Basically, Christianity (and Judaism for that matter) has a long tradition of reading the Genesis creation account as myth, so this hermeneutic isn't merely some modern liberal innovation. The Hellenistic Jewish philosopher Philo saw different layers at work in the bible: the literal and the allegorical, the latter being the higher, more real meaning of the text.

Then came the Church fathers and Augustine, who did not necessarily take Genesis as literally forensically true, and draw conclusions like the earth being exactly 6000 years old. Augustine knew that the account couldn't be read that naively. He knew, for instance, that earth is round; when it's day on one side, it's night on the other, so there's not any single day 1 for creation. He held, rather, that God made creation (ie brought something out of nothing) in a single instant. The "days" are a symbolic taxonomy of the created world. Adam and Eve are likewise allegorical, telling us something about the fallibility of human nature (or even something more deeply awry in humanity, an ontological rift or "fall" in the heart of creation that came about at some point).

We only get time when we enter the created order; outside of the universe is the eternal. In other words, temporality itself is a part of creation. Augustine argues that God gave the created order the ability to develop, to change, to come to fullness in time--in a word--to evolve.

He wrote about a millenium before the scientific revolution got into full swing and of course he's not anticipating modern science. But his ideas create a tradition that basically eliminates Evolution as a threat to Christian belief. So, the Anglican reaction to Darwin was not as hysterical and negative as our simplistic historical folk lore suggests.

Too often, we accept these subtraction stories at face value. By "subtraction story" I mean the idea that we got our beliefs and values by simply shrugging off the old false, superstitious ones. When discussing religion this often takes the form: We used to believe in God and supernatural forces, but then science showed that those are false, so we became a secular society. Our cultural norms aren't simply the natural given, with the old false ones pruned away. They have a positive history.

Sometimes I try to start blogs, with a mediocre sermon

I've done this in years past, but I'm taking on a Lenten discipline of blogging. And it is a discipline for me. I'll try to write as often as possible. My strategy for lent this year is to try about 13 different disciplines (taking on, and giving up) and hopefully a few will stick.

I'm attaching a sermon I preached relatively recently, just to give some content. Something you can read on the toilet. I included typographical warts and all:

Scripture Text:

Mark 1:4-11 John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit." In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, "You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased."

My name is Brett Bravo and I am well pleased to be with you this morning. I come as a representative of the Julian Year, a program where young adults live together in Christian community, informed a little bit this Church’s patron and the Rule of St. Benedict. We also do a year of service work at different church charities. I look forward to sharing more about my program with you at the Sunday Seminar later.

I started coming to St. Benedict’s about four years ago when Rev. Heidi was gracious enough to answer an e-mail from a complete stranger who was curious, but had never been to an Episcopal church before. In that time I’ve gone from a curious stranger to a received Episcopalian committed to two years of service work in the Church. So I owe a big thank you to this congregation for the loving help it gave me along the way.

Today, we recall the love of God made known to us in the sacrament of holy baptism. And in this morning’s gospel, we remember Jesus’ baptism by John in the river Jordan. This moment was the starting point for all of his public ministry on this Earth. It presents one of the more puzzling questions in the bible: Why did Jesus need to be baptized at all? After all, according to Christian dogma Jesus is without sin. And doesn’t John baptizing Jesus imply that John is actually superior to Jesus. In fact, some gnostic groups survived for several centuries that believed that John the Baptist was the messiah. We’ll have to explore this question more.

That Jesus deigned to be baptized by a human being should be a mystery to us, since it’s indeed a mystery to John himself; as he says, he “is not worthy even to stoop down and untie the thongs of his sandals.” And why pick John? He is, after all, kind of an eccentric guy. All the details Mark gives us about John stress how strange he is. We’re told he lives in the wilderness, wears camel hair, and eats locusts. I think he picked John because, from the word go, Jesus is throwing his lot in with the nobodies and outcasts. This ministry is going to be something different. This man is going to draw these outcasts towards him. He’s joining his voice with John’s counter-cultural voice, saying, Repent! Things can’t go on the way they are. And isn’t John’s voice valuable even today.

We still need to think about our question: Why did Jesus get baptized? What does it mean for us? Baptism has meant many different things down the ages. It was already present in the Judaism of the time as a purification ritual. To St. Paul, it’s a way of dying and rising again with Christ. John’s baptism is about confession of sins and repentance. It is a Christian initiation rite, an incorporation into the life of the Church. When I was a Catholic boy in CCD, they told me baptism gets rid of original sin. In our time it has become a rite of passage; an occasion for all of the family to get together, dress up, take pictures, and celebrate a new life in their family. And those are joyful moments for any parish. Clearly, our sacrament is rich with meaning, but do any of these understandings touch on Jesus’ baptism in the gospel of Mark?

The baptism of Christ conveys a more fundamental message. As Jesus rises out of the Jordan waters something remarkable happens. The skies open, the spirit comes down, and he hears a voice calling to him from the heavens, “You are my Son, my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” At this baptism something fresh breaks through, God’s love in the form spirit, coming down like birds out of the sky. John realizes that all his preparation, prophetic work and baptizing has culminated in this person. I baptized with mere water, he says, but this baptism is something greater. So why did Jesus get baptized? There’s plenty that remains mysterious about it, but I think we can say for sure that he wanted to open up God’s love in a new way. This baptism gives God’s very self in the form of the spirit. And only God himself can give that, and so he does in his beloved Son. It was a launching pad for his public and a taste of things to come.

When I read this story, I’m moved by John’s faithful response to God; his “Yes to God‘s action. He spends so much time preparing, working to make the paths straight, to get the message out, hoping for something great to come. And then suddenly something fresh happens. God’s love breaks onto the scene in a new way in this mysterious person Jesus of Nazareth, and he recognizes it. It’s the same “Yes” that Mary gives to Angel, in the Advent we just celebrated. “Let it be unto me according to thy word.” And something fresh happens. They open themselves up, and God sends His love in a new way. The apostles discover the same thing in today’s reading from Acts: they discover that God is present in a new way in their baptism. The Spirit has come.

God is still to this day pouring out his love in Holy Baptism, and the church still sends out the message to all persons regardless of wealth or status, You are the sons and daughters of God. God loves you, and is pleased with you. As the Baptismal Covenant in the prayer book states, you are marked as Christ’s own forever. This baptismal message is what the Church, at its best, tries to tell the world; you are loved by God, and he wants to bring you into His family.

Being a part of Episcopal Charities I’ve been lucky enough to see some places where the Church is trying its hardest to get that message out. As part of the Julian Year we work 4 days at different service sites. I work at Holy Family Elementary School as a teacher aide. The School is in the North Lawndale neighborhood on Chicago’s west side. It’s one of the city’s so-called “rough neighborhoods” where police sirens are as much a presence as school bells. The families we serve are often low-income; many of the parents face the challenges of systemic unemployment. The children are mostly happy, normal kids. But many of them face things I never really had to consider in my suburban childhood: they see gangs, violence, and drugs. One student told me he can’t even go outside to play because his mother’s too worried that the area isn’t safe. But the school is a bright light in the community, offering a decent education and Christian formation.

Every Wednesday afternoon, I pull out the bleachers and the entire school gathers in the auditorium for our weekly Chapel service. We pray and sing songs of praise to God; we dance and shout (I‘ve done all the moves in front of the student body from Michael Jackson‘s “Thriller“ to Beyonce‘s “All the Single Ladies“); we even have contests to see which grade can shout the loudest. Then school’s chaplain preaches lessons in the Christian faith that always make the kids roar in laughter. One bemused visitor told me it seemed like a pep rally for Jesus, which I suppose I take as a compliment.

At the beginning of each Chapel, everyone turns to the person next to them and tells them, “Neighbor, God loves you, and I do too” and then gives them a hug or a high five. A few of the students I say this to in Chapel have lost their father, or never really had a father figure around to tell them this; What must it feel like for those children to hear that God the Father loves them? For most kids, though, its just a chance to share love with a friend. And it makes the teachers look something like human. No one leaves Chapel without being reminded that we are all beloved sons and daughters of God.

I’ve seen the baptismal message get out in the work of some of my colleagues, Julians, as we are called. They help feed hungry people, shelter those without homes, and tell young people who never considered it possible that they can go to college. In short, they try to keep the baptismal covenant. We fail, like the Church, all too often. But we must take seriously the charge to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves.”

I remember, the first Easter service I went to in the Episcopal Church was here at St. Benedict’s. Rev. Heidi walked through the sanctuary, and with a small branch flung holy water on the congregation. After I got whacked in the face with holy water, I obediently crossed myself but not without cracking a smile. And with each fling she commended us, “Remember your baptism.” Alas, I have no water to discharge at you today, but still I implore you to remember your baptism, and remember our Lord‘s baptism. Recall that you are beloved sons and daughters of God. And if you love God, feed His sheep; seek and serve Him in all people. Amen.