Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Why Study the Bible?

As soon as I write this title I am aware of its tract-like applications. My mind conjures up images of well-scrubbed, smiling people in sensible shoes. They want YOU to study the Bible because if you do, you will be a better person, which they very much want you to be. Their smiles turn down a little at the corners when they ponder that you do not study the Bible – that you can’t quote verses the way they can, that probably you are very Immoral as a result. They beckon to you from the picture and offer you a casserole.

When you open the tract, there is a cartoon of the Fires of Hell, in which you will be scorched for not reading the Bible. It is very sad that you will be roasting there and the people with the casserole want you to study the Bible so that you can avoid this. They do not want you taking their casserole to the Fires of Hell where it will become inedible.

Forgive me. I am afraid my baggage is showing. But I do love the Bible. I am a story writer and a story teller and a poet and it is partly for this reason that the Bible is beloved to me.

The other day I was talking about a Bible story with one of the teens who hangs out at our house. It was the story of Joseph and his brothers and though this particular teen attends church regularly, he didn’t know the story. The Bible can be intimidating when read in isolation. It’s an old book. But I told our friend the story – how Joseph’s brothers were jealous of him, (because Joseph was rather an arrogant jerk), so they threw him in a dry cistern and then sold him to some traders and told their dad he’d been eaten by a wild animal. How Joseph was framed by the wife of his employer (who was, um, “interested” in him) and thrown into prison for several years, but later became a powerful man in Egypt because of his ability to interpret dreams. How, when there was a famine many years later, Joseph’s brothers had to come to him (not knowing who he was) and beg grain from him. And how, after putting his brothers through the mill so to speak, Joseph finally told them who he was. And he wept so loudly that he could be heard from a great distance. And how he then invited his father and brothers to live in Egypt.

I love that story. I love its tension and its messed-up family and the humanness of Joseph and his flawed but simple faith in God. And when I was finished telling it, our friend was chuckling and rather intrigued that such gritty stuff would be in the Bible.

I think we need these stories. More and more our culture is losing them, not passing them on, even banning them from the public square (but that’s a whole other discussion). And I think it is a great loss. Not only do we end up with blank spots in any literary study if we don’t have a basic knowledge of the Bible, we also lose out on shared stories. (And no, I am not ignoring that there are other shared stories we could benefit from as well.)

Of course, if you know me, you understand that the Bible is more than ancient literature to me. It is a framework by which I attempt to understand a God who is beyond knowing. In the Gospels – the stories of Jesus – I begin to experience the character of God by reading what Jesus did and said when he walked the earth. And even though I have read those stories over and over, I hunger for them again – how Jesus healed the sick and walked on water and raised the dead and spoke with such gentleness to the disenfranchised and with such forcefulness to the self-righteous. I need to return to those stories because when I read them it changes how I act during the day – how I view things. It takes me out of myself long enough to see the beauty of those around me.

Orthodox Christians view all other people on the earth as icons of Christ. If we love Christ, and are reminded of that love daily, we are motivated to treat everyone we meet with dignity and caring (even the self-righteous, who were loved by Him in their blindness.) Reading the Bible is a reminder that I need – and lately, the only Bible reading I have been doing is Sunday mornings at church.

So, we are going to begin a first-Saturday Bible study this weekend at our place at 4:30. We’re going to start with the Gospel of St. Matthew – read a little, discuss it, find out what the early Fathers and Mothers of the Church had to say about it. Then we’ll have a Vespers service, which is an evening service of ancient prayers and psalms. After that, we’ll have a potluck.

Everyone is welcome – you needn’t attend our church or be Orthodox to participate. Contact me if you are interested and I’ll give you directions. Maybe I’ll even make a casserole.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

Mother of God

When Mary uttered her brief and obedient, “So be it,” I hardly dare say what happened then — the word of the creature brought the Creator into the world.

— Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow, 1874

Today I am thinking about Mary, the mother of Jesus. I’m writing this on Mother’s Day, so that’s probably why. But I think about Mary a lot these days, being still somewhat at the beginning of my love for her — as if she is the mother I didn’t know I had.

Anything I write about women and Christianity is bound to be controversial. Friends ask me why I’d be part of a faith that seems so focused on men. Others worry that maybe I worship Mary. Some say — rather hopefully — that she is really our version of the Goddess. And to these questions I have to answer 1) There’s more to ancient Christianity than meets the eye 2) Venerate and worship are two different things 3) No, not a goddess, and that’s the beauty of it.

I have been in communities where I felt patronized and minimized as a woman — where men patted me on the head and told me that my role was “to be a support to my husband,” or “to bear children.” I have also been in communities where men were considered somewhat evil, or at least rather pathetic, but we forgave them anyway (maybe).

It wasn’t until I attended an Orthodox service that I experienced a community offering profound reverence to a woman:

More honorable than the Cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the Seraphim, without corruption thou gavest birth to God the Word. True Theotokos, we magnify thee!

“Theotokos” means “God-bearer” and it’s what Orthodox call Mary. The implications are astonishing: a human-divine cooperation by which God becomes physically present in the world, in a form we can relate to and understand.

For Mary to have “accepted Christ into her heart” as she did (making her the first Christian), she had to have a deeply intimate connection and transparency with the Divine, cultivated over years. Tradition tells us Mary was brought to the Temple when she was three to be raised there, and that she left her parents and climbed happily up the steps as soon as she arrived. We are told that she slept in the Holy of Holies (which, if one is familiar with Jewish tradition, is outrageous. I was shocked when I first heard that teaching. But there is something quite wondrous about it.)

Orthodox believe that we are created in the image of God and that our journey is to remember who we are in that image — to come back to our Edenic selves, as it were, in a process called Theosis, or Divinization. This does not mean we are the Source of the universe; rather we journey closer and closer to the Source, until we become united with the Divine as iron takes on fire. The Theotokos is a perfect example of this, and as such she gives me hope. Mary is not a goddess, because she doesn’t have to be. She does not have special powers that I don’t have. She is an ordinary human who opened herself fully to God. This is something every single human being can do. In fact, it is our destiny. That is why we can hymn a human woman so extravagantly.

Mary elevates not only women, but all humanity, by reminding us of who we are and of our incredible potential for goodness. In mother-love she calls my attention to the wind of the Divine stirring in and around me — and gently prods me to have the courage to say, “So be it.”

Friday, February 23, 2007

Thin Places

“Standing in the temple we stand in heaven.”

I have spoken of the origins of the Christian temple in the experience of the “assembly as the Church.” We can now add that insofar as this assembly is undoubtedly conceived of as heavenly, the temple is that “heaven on earth” that realizes the “assembly as the Church.” It is the symbol that unites these two realities, these two dimensions of the Church – “heaven” and “earth,” one manifested in the other, one made a reality in the other.

--from The Eucharist by Fr. Alexander Schmemann, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2000.

I always tell myself that liturgy is a hard sell. Many folks see liturgy as “empty ritual;” others see it as superstition, still others see it as boring, interminably long and irrelevent to their daily lives.

But I need ritual. I’d even go so far to say that we all need it – a connecting point with the Divine, a place to physicalize our spiritual longing. I’ve taken part in many spiritual rituals in my lifetime – passed the sacred pipe around, danced to the drums, sung Kum Ba Ya around the campfire, prayed inside a Sukkah, attempted yoga poses my body was not ready for. But specifically I have found that I need the Liturgy. I need it not just for the incense and the icons and the chant, not just for crossing myself and bowing or for the priest coming out of the altar all in gold – I need it because it connects me with a specific Story that resonates for me like no other Story has. The idea of the Divine becoming human and entering the human experience in order to co-suffer with me, with my friends and enemies, and with every torture victim, every hungry person, every abused child, every one of us who has ever felt lost and alone – that is a concept that will not let me go.

Faith in this Story is just that. Faith and nothing more. I can live with the possibility that it may not be true – that God may not have become incarnate and entered history. But I have decided to live my life as if it is true. I’m willing to be that foolish because the notion of Jesus the God-Man fills me with completeness.

The Celts spoke often of “thin places,” where heaven and earth came together. In Orthodox thinking, the Liturgy is such a place. When I forget myself, time stops and I am there in the presence of Christ, walking through the whole Story with Him. When I do not forget myself, I am focused on my singing, my children behaving themselves, the time, my rumbling stomach. But even then, He is there and the words stay with me all week long:

Only-begotten Son and immortal Word of God, Who for our salvation willed to be Incarnate of the Holy Theotokos and ever-virgin Mary, Who without change became man and was crucified; Who is one of the Holy Trinity, glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit: O Christ our God trampling down death by death, save us.

I’ve heard it said that life is really just about showing up. So this is where I show up on Sunday mornings, presenting myself to Mystery, allowing it to be bigger than I am, hoping that the co-suffering love of Christ will take ahold of me so that I can take it out into the world and do what I could not otherwise do.