Be-ing

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been working on a Confirmation class recently, and the lessons keeping popping up here on the blog. Here’s 1000 words on theology, using three phrases from the Nicene Creed as a framework.

nicaea…of all that is, seen and unseen

What I’m about to write ignores the fact that the Nicene Creed was originally written in Greek and then translated into Latin and then translated into English. Don’t panic – the following is about the current English grammatical structure of the phrase, which is influenced by, but not chained to, the original language.

Do you see that little comma between the words “is” and “seen”? Yes? Good. Now, think back to all the times you’ve ever heard the Creed recited during church and ask yourself if anyone has ever acknowledged that comma. No? Didn’t think so. The sentence usually sounds like this: “…maker of heaven and earth, of all that-is-seen-and-unseen.” But the sentence actually reads: “…maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, [slight pause] seen and unseen.” I imagine you are now rolling your eyes at my disconcerting attention to inane details.

This detail may seem inane at first, but I assure you, it’s not. For now, let’s ignore the phrase “seen and unseen” because it gets entirely too much attention when Creed-speakers unwittingly barrel through the defenseless little comma. With what are we left? “Maker…of all that is.”

Maker…of all that is. This “is” is the most important linking verb in the history of linking verbs, and probably other verbs, as well. We believe that God made all that is. Put another way, we believe that God is the very ground of our “is-ness” – or, to use a not made-up word, our “being.” [Disclaimer: The rest of this section assumes the reader knows the unwieldy conjugation of the verb “to be.”] In Exodus 3, Moses asks God what God’s name is. God responds: “I AM WHO I AM.” This awkward English rendering of the Hebrew preserves the root of God’s divine name, which is the verb “to be” (hayah in Hebrew). When Moses asks God what God’s name is, God responds with something like, “I have being and I bestow being and that’s all you need to know.” Look at the word “being.” Now add a hyphen: be-ing. The noun “being” is disguised as a present participle verb, a verb of continuing action. This points to the eternal continuity and abiding presence of God, who is the very ground of be-ing.

All grammatical gymnastics aside, the point is this: God created all that is, and creation’s existence depends on God’s continuing presence. As small bits of that creation, we receive our be-ing, our identity, our life from the foundation of that be-ing, the Holy One we call God.

Through him all things were made

“We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ… Through him all things were made.” Okay, since I failed to return to the original Greek in the last section, I feel I must make up for it. John begins his Gospel account with this poetry: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him, not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life…”

You’ll notice that word be-ing from the last section crops up several times in just these few sentences. We said that God is the foundation for be-ing, and now we discover that the “Word” is responsible for translating that be-ing into life. Here’s the Greek bit.

The “Word” is the translation of the Greek word logos, from which dozens of English words take their root. Every time you see –ology at the end of a word (zoology, biology, epidemiology), that ending comes from the Greek logos. “Logic” also springs from this root. When something is “logical” it is ordered, it makes good sense. This is a good entrance into one understanding of logos. John says that the Word was in the beginning with God and through the Word all things were made. This “Word” is the “logic” behind creation, the “organizing principle” through which creation has come into being. In Genesis, God speaks creation into being (“Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.”). God uses words to organize creation, and John identifies “The Word” as God the only Son, who is incarnate in Jesus Christ.

So, the “Word” is creation’s logic or organizing principle. Creation, therefore, is not haphazard or accidental. You might be tempted to ask a question about “Creationism vs. Evolution.” But the unhappy dichotomy between these two positions breaks down when we see creation as both organized and continuous. My college chaplain was fond of saying: “If God stopped speaking, the world would stop turning.” The implication is this: the “Word,” the logic of creation continues to underpin and give life to all that is.

…he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary and was made man

As I said above, John identifies “The Word” as God the only Son, who is incarnate in Jesus Christ. “Incarnate” means “become flesh” (the –carn in the word is the same root as in the word carnivore, “meat-eater”). John’s use of “Word” connects to a strain of thought coming out of the Hebrew Scriptures. The “word of God” appears whenever a prophet is granted a new prophecy (The word of God came to so-and-so…). The Hebrew word for “word” (davar) means much more than the stuffy English equivalent. We think of “word” as something on a piece of paper or something spoken aloud. In Hebrew, however, the “word” is something that happens to people. It is an event, an action that calls for further action. When John uses the Greek form of “word” (logos), he purposefully links it back to this Hebrew understanding. The “Word” becoming flesh and dwelling among us is the ultimate example of the “Word” happening.

Here’s the thing to remember: the “Word,” through which God speaks creation into be-ing, is life-giving. Without the “Word,” life would not exist. When the “Word” became flesh in Jesus Christ, God gave us the gift of seeing how life is meant to be organized, meant to be lived. This means that the words Jesus speaks provide for us the means by which to organize our lives in order to be in deeper touch with God. The “Word” became flesh and lived among us. And now the “Word” continues to speak life into the world, disclosing the glory that is full of grace and truth.

Graceful

At today’s weekly healing service, I forgot something rather important. “Today, we are using Eucharist Prayer B found on page 367,” I said, and then a moment later, “The Lord be with you.”

“And also with you” came the reply from seven chilly parishioners (unlike the abiding presence of God, the heat in our building is both scarce and unreliable). We then exchanged the rest of the sursum corda* and I prayed the proper preface for Epiphany. Together, we said the Sanctus, after which I began the rest of the Eucharistic prayer.

“We give thanks to you, O God…” O God, I thought. I looked down. I looked up. O God. I looked down again. My distorted reflection peered up at me out of an empty chalice. I stopped speaking, pulled my hands out of the orans position, and turned around. “It seems that I forgot to put the wine in the chalice. Um…one moment please.”

I finished setting the table, smiling in a mortified kind of way. Then we continued the Eucharistic prayer, and the rest of the service went as expected. As I was walking back to my office, I thought to myself: I can’t believe I forgot to fill the chalice. That wasn’t very graceful of me.

Then I remembered some of the words I heard at my friend’s ordination, which I attended this weekend in Denver. The bishop looked at my friend standing before him and said, “In all that you do, you are to nourish Christ’s people from the riches of his grace…”

Nourish Christ’s people from the riches of his grace. What a phrase. At my own ordination, these words passed right through my sternum and took up residency in the neighborhood of my left ventricle. They set me on fire and I never thought I’d stop burning. But in the last seven months, I somehow forgot the message of these words. I don’t know — maybe their house in my heart went into foreclosure. Maybe I wasn’t inhaling enough Holy Spirit with each breath to keep the fire going. I never forgot that it was my job to nourish. But I did forget whose meal was providing that nourishment.

You see, as a priest (heck, as a person) it is my job to say, “I have nothing of my own to offer. I have only what you, Lord, have given me.” Too often, I get caught up in succeeding at things that I forget that my success is not really mine at all. Too often, I try to nourish Christ’s people from the paucity of my grace, rather than from the riches of Christ’s. But doing that is like trying to water your lawn with the hose turned off.

When I forgot to put wine in the chalice, I remembered just how graceless I am. There I was with hands outstretched and prayer on autopilot, about to ask God to bless an empty cup. After filling the chalice with wine and a few drops of water, I realized that it was not the only empty cup in the room. I needed to be filled, too. I needed the riches of Christ’s grace to nourish me again because I — through inattentiveness and pride — had let his sustenance leach from my body.

This guy invented the salchow. His name is Ulrich Salchow. What a coincidence!?!
This guy invented the salchow. His name is Ulrich Salchow. What a coincidence!?!

We use the word “graceful” when we describe a dancer pirouetting or a figure skater performing a triple salchow. The word also applies to those people who suck every ounce of nutrition out of Christ’s nourishment and walk about with shimmering cascades of grace spilling over the tops of their heads. I know a few such people. You can tell them apart because they leave little puddles of grace behind them when they leave.

Lord, help me to remember that it is your grace with which you call me to nourish others. I can’t nourish them if I don’t allow you to nourish me. So please, fill this empty cup with the shimmering riches of Christ’s grace.

Footnotes

* Here’s a list of the technical words I used in this post:

Sursum corda: The three calls and responses at the beginning of the Eucharistic prayer, in which the congregation gives the priest the okay to go ahead and celebrate the Eucharist. The responsory nature of this prayer makes explicit that the Eucharist is a corporate event.

Epiphany: The twelfth day after Christmas, on which we celebrate the coming of the wise men to see Jesus. The coming of light into darkness and the call of the disciples are stressed during the season of Epiphany, which extends from January 6 to the day before Ash Wednesday.

Sanctus: “Sanctus” means holy and is the name for the prayer which begins “Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might.” In Hebrew, there’s no way to make a word superlative (good, better, best); so, a three time repetition serves the same purpose.

Chalice: The cup we use at church. Remember that scene at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade? The room with the old knight is full of chalices. (“He chose…poorly”)

Orans position: “Orans” comes from the Latin word for “prayer” and is used when the priest is saying a prayer on behalf of the congregation. Think of a referee unethusiastically signaling touchdown and you’ve got it.

Ordination: The thing that happens to make someone who’s not a priest into a priest. The word comes from Latin and means something to the effect of “to put into order”; thus, ordination is when someone is set apart from others. There are four “orders” in the church: lay, deacon, priest, bishop — the latter three are “ordained” positions.

My Pavlovian response to the word “evangelical”

There’s a good chance I’m about to get incredibly soap-boxy, but I’m going to try my best to fight that tendency.

Do you remember the WABAC (“way-back”) machine on The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show? You know, the segment with the professorial dog and the red-headed kid who asked inane questions. If I could join Peabody and Sherman for a jaunt in their time machine, I would go back to the very hour that the word “evangelical” started being synonymous with “conservative” and attempt to stop the connection. I would fail, of course, like the guy in the movie version of The Time Machine who tries to save his wife’s life because of the temporal paradox. (i.e. If I succeed peabodyand sever the connection between “evangelical” and “conservative” I’d never have to go back in time to make the attempt, thus the words would be connected, thus I’d go back in time and sever them, thus I’d not need to go back in time…you get the point. I’ve said it before — Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban is the only book I’ve ever read with a truly well-reasoned time travel plot.)

Okay, I apologize for that stunning example of my ability to digress. I could delete it, but then I’d have no reason to use the picture of Sherman and Peabody. Let’s begin again.

You know how some people say “taxi,” some say “cab” and some say “taxi-cab,” but they all mean those yellow cars that you have to pay to ride in? The same thing has happened with the words “evangelical” and “conservative.” The media combine these two words in various permutations when discussing moral, ethical, or religious issues, and they bank on quickly instilling in your mind the vague image of a bellowing reactionary picketing an abortion clinic with a sign that says “Jesus hates gays.” Some media outlets do this so you will know to disagree with such “evangelicals”; others do it so you’ll know to agree. I’m not sure about you, but the image of the sign-wielding picketer has reached Pavlovian proportions in my mind. The fact that the image is a caricatured worst-case scenario is lost on a population conditioned to react strongly (one way or the other) to the word “evangelical.”

The current connotations of the word “evangelical” could not be further from what the word once meant. Peabody and Sherman could jump into the WABAC machine and travel to Mark’s house in about the year 65 and find the word in the fresh ink of the first line of Mark’s account of the Gospel. “The beginning of the euangelion of Jesus Christ.” Euangelion — one etymological hop and a few millennia brings us to “Evangelical.” Do you see the word “angel” in the middle there? That’s the Greek word for news or message. And the “ev-” at the beginning used to be “eu-” as in “eulogy” (good word/speech) or “[e]utopia” (good place/land).  This beautiful word — this word that has been co-opted, dragged through the mud of bigotry, and associated with narrow-mindedness and hate — used to mean “good news.”

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ. Not “The beginning of the reactionary bigotry of Jesus Christ.” Not “The beginning of the messy-ideology-of-hate of Jesus Christ.” Good News. Gospel.

I want the word “evangelical” back. I wish I could call myself an “evangelical” without being handed a “Jesus hates gays” sign in someone else’s mind. Of course, I am not saying that everyone who self-identifies as an “evangelical” hates gay people or thinks Harry Potter is the most inherently evil thing since evolution. These are facile characterizations that discount the good that “evangelicals” do in the world. But, as I see it, there is a latent schizophrenia in the “evangelical movement” that leads to simultaneous digging of wells in African villages and campaigning for Prop 8. Mix in the media’s fostering of the image of the sign-wielding picketer and the blustering of certain conservative demagogues, and the rebranding of “evangelical” is complete.

I have no illusion that the word “evangelical” will ever mean what it once did.  Words are collections of sounds and signs by which we signify objects, thoughts, and feelings, and these significations can change over time. Did you know that “happy” used to mean “lucky?” Juliet’s line “O happy dagger” (as in “O lucky weapon that I happened to find lying next to me”) makes more sense that way, right?

But this is a cautionary tale. If “evangelical” can take on such a twisted meaning, what’s next?

Notes

* You may wonder what spurred me to write this today. Well, to be honest, I’m a little bummed that Barack Obama picked Rick Warren to do the invocation at the inauguration. (I know that The Purpose Driven Life has sold millions of copies and helped a lot of people. But I can get on board with very little that Warren preaches or stands for.) Because of this announcement, the word “evangelical” has been on the news about 917 since yesterday.

** I edited out several very snarky pieces of this entry before publishing it. I still think I got too soap-boxy, but what can ya do?

A Fragile euXarist

He wore a grey t-shirt sporting the American flag, shorts, and velcro sandals. When we entered the apartment, he was sitting on one of those big exercise balls and staring through the blinds into the yards beyond the fence. His supervisor greeted us at the door and called out to him to welcome us visitors. The young man at the door — bleached-blond, tattoed, pierced — looked more like a roadie for Alice Cooper than a 24-hour supervisor for a man with Fragile X syndrome.*

My friend had asked me to accompany her to visit her brother and bring him communion. He is not able to get to church much, she had explained, because of his condition, but the Eucharist means a lot to him. She had also explained that Fragile X is a genetic mental impairment that, in her brother’s case, manifested in cognitive disabilities and, on occasion, uncontrolled violent behavior. He will repeat the same phrases over and over again, she had said, and he’ll probably ignore you this visit — he usually ignores strangers.

She and I sat on the futon in the small living room, and she attempted to engage her brother in conversation. I kept my communion kit (which looks like a camera bag) slung across my back, and I leaned forward to catch what they were saying. Instead of talking with his sister, he continued to stare out the window and converse with his supervisor about the comings and goings of various neighbors. After a few minutes, he stood up and I realized how big he is — he could have played power forward at Duke, I’m sure. He went over to the dining table and sat down again, musing about his dinner options. He wanted french fries with ketchup. My friend was patient, and every time she tried to engage him, he responded a bit more. After a while, I could tell that the two siblings had started playing an old game — she knew he was listening and now he was just pretending to ignore her. His responses to her queries, randomly nonsensical moments ago, were now humorously nonsensical. We all laughed about french fries and ketchup and about the lady in the apartment upstairs.

After a few minutes at the dining table, he wandered back to the exercise ball, produced a pack of bent playing cards, and began to shuffle them. My friend asked him if wanted communion. He started staring out the window again. She turned to me and suggested I start unpacking my kit. I unzipped the bag and took out the corporal — sort of a liturgical placemat. On the corporal, I placed the paten (plate) and chalice (cup). As I set out the vessels and tipped some wine into the chalice, he stopped shuffling and started watching. He picked up the Bible and leafed through it while I turned the pages in my prayer book. As I prayed the prayer of consecration, I found myself unconciously emphasizing the simple words in the prayer — words such as food and drink and life. I finished the prayer, my friend and I prayed the Lord’s Prayer with her brother, still holding my Bible, looking on, and then I broke the Bread. I brushed his hand as I gave him the Body of Christ, and, in that touch, I could feel the presence of Christ in our midst. He was there, as he had been our whole visit, and he made himself known in the sharing of his Body and Blood.

After sipping from the cup, I cleaned up the kit and repacked it. I found myself wondering how much my friend’s brother had understood of what we had just done. Then I stopped short. How much had I understood? I said the prayers. I laid my hands on the bread and wine. I asked the Holy Spirit to sanctify the gifts. But even with all my schooling and all my study, I still don’t know exactly what happens in those holy moments of sharing in Christ’s Body and Blood. I don’t know how Jesus indwells those elements with his Spirit. I don’t know how ordinary bread and wine are changed to something that connects us bodily with the grace of our Lord Jesus. But I know that connection exists, that relationship is real. I felt it when my friend, her brother, and I shared that Holy Eucharist.

We do not have to understand fully to participate in the life of Christ. In fact, living a life in Christ is not about understanding at all. It’s about following, about having faith that Christ is one step ahead of you, guiding you. As Paul says, right now I know only in part, but I will know fully, even as I am fully known. God is the one who understands. God is the one who, indeed, stands under and holds up everything that we hold true and good. Living a life in Christ cultivates that deep relationship with God that both brings some understanding, but also (and happily) removes the need to understand.

There’s a phrase in one of the postcommunion prayers in the Episcopal prayerbook: “Almighty and everliving God, we thank you…for assuring us in these holy mysteries…” I’ve asked myself many times how a mystery can be assuring. Mysteries usually thrive by keeping you wondering. But I think that’s the very point. If we understood everything about God there is to understand, God wouldn’t be God, and we’d be deluding ourselves. That was the problem with carved gods and graven images that were both worshiped and controlled. God reveals God’s very majesty and glory in the fact that the mystery abides. And the assurance comes when we cross that fine line between wondering and being lost in wonder.

I still wonder how much my friend’s brother understood about what we were doing. But I know now that understanding is a distant second to sharing — the sharing of the presence of Christ in our midst. My friend’s brother hugged her when we got up to leave. We said goodbye to the roadie-supervisor. As I left the room, I glanced back, and for a split-second, I saw Jesus balancing on that exercise ball.

Footnotes

*For more information about Fragile X syndrome, click here.