For Lent, both a via negativa and a via positiva

The priest who says Mass at the hospital where I work, on Our Lady of Lourdes day, preached on the humanity of Mary, the mother of Jesus. She is a venerated woman, a saint with iterations in many cultures. She approaches divinity in the minds and hearts of many faithful Christians. However, the priest said, we must beware of prioritizing her divinity such that we forget she is a woman, a human creature, whom we can relate to.

The next week, the priest said Mass on Ash Wednesday, which is the day after Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday. Ash Wednesday is a day when Christians often give up things they have binged on during Mardi Gras. We give up pleasures and indulgences in order to remind ourselves to be penitent and mindful during the 40 days and nights Jesus spent wandering in the desert, enduring temptations, at the start of his ministry. This 40 day period culminates in Holy Week, when the Last Supper, trial, Crucifixion, death and Easter Resurrection occur. Then we feast again.

Many people give up alcohol, or meat, or chocolate during the time of Lent. But Father Bob, the priest at the hospital, suggested instead of giving something up, we add to the goodness of the world. Instead of giving something up, increasing the dreariness, suffering, and drudgery of the world, why not make the world better? What good can you do for other people; what good habit can you cultivate that will make you more whole? Instead of the “via negativa” or negative way, can we practice the “via positiva”?

I saw recently a play, Testament, by Irish playwright Colm Tóibín, in which Mary is portrayed as a very human mother of a just-Crucified Jesus. She is being guarded and interviewed and watched by Jesus’ disciples in Ephesus, where according to legend, Mary lived out her life after Jesus’ death. She describes the wedding at Cana, considered the site of Jesus’ first miracle, turning water into wine, in very human terms. She interacts with her son at this family wedding and realizes that he is becoming more distant and larger-than-life, that the folks at the wedding are attributing to him a miracle, when she knows him as her son, a rabble-rousing delinquent who was always bringing his gang of friends to the house.

The Mary of Testament is incensed that her interviewers think that Jesus’ father is God. Jesus had a father, Mary said, and Mary misses him dearly. (The play doesn’t explain what exactly happened to the father.) Mary understands Jesus to be nothing more or less than her son. The aspirations of being God’s Son are ridiculous to her.

Did this mother give up anything to bring her son into the world? Maybe. Many human mothers make sacrifices. But I know very few mothers who would give up more if their child were more special, or more powerful, or more divine.

My feminist sensibilities don’t sit well with the idea that a Godly love can be evident in self-emptying or pouring out. God’s love is filling and life-giving. Turning water to wine, the fullness of pleasure in giving a feast to your children, taking joy in their goodness and happiness, knowing that their goodness and happiness does not take away from your own, but adds to it, indeed is your reason for being.

But there is always a via negativa. There is always a path to holiness that involves sacrifice. Does a mother feeding her children with her own food, and not from a bounty, diminish the holiness of her gift? Does a child’s prison sentence diminish the holiness of the mother’s tears, or her willingness to sacrifice for her child’s comfort and well-being?

These two ways, the positive and negative ways, of devotion, of love, they are not mutually exclusive. They are always in all of us. We are created to hold both, in the image of God.

The Mary of Testament has a very human, and very powerful, motherly love of her son that is made no more or less powerful by the idea that Jesus might be divine. The love of this mother knows nothing of achievement or divinity or titles or worth.

It is a perfectly human love.

Mother Mary's perfectly human love.
Mother Mary’s perfectly human love.
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Ministry Matters™ | Articles | If You Love That Flag, Don’t Put It in the Sanctuary

Ministry Matters™ | Articles | If You Love That Flag, Don’t Put It in the Sanctuary.

I recommend this article. I have visited churches where the U.S. flag is placed prominently in the sanctuary, and I usually don’t go back. I am American, happy to live in the United States, and proud of my military veteran family members. But the United States is a construct of human beings, and the flag in the sanctuary is akin to the golden calves representing God (Exodus 32).

Seeking pastoral prayers

This summer I have been working as student assistant for San Francisco Theological Seminary’s doctor of ministry program. This involves daily chapel services, and for this I have spent the past few weeks meditating on Aelred of Rievaulx’s “oratio pastoral” or pastoral prayer. This quote makes me laugh in solidarity: “Wretches that we are, what have we done? What have we undertaken? What were we thinking of? Or rather, sweetest Lord, what were you thinking of regarding us poor wretches?” (Aelred of Rievaulx, “The Pastoral Prayer” in Treatises and The Pastoral Prayer. Kalamazoo, MI: Cistercian Publications. 1971.) God, don’t you know what a flawed human being I am? Yet you call me to this sacred work?

I’m hoping to use this and other pastoral prayers in a series for the last two weeks of chapel, and I could use suggestions of other pastoral prayers. I’m already looking at Letter From a Birmingham Jail and a prayer/poem sometimes called the “Romero Prayer” by Bishop Ken Untener of Saginaw.

Suggestions welcome!

A meditation on Advent of the gospel

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’
Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
together they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see
the return of the Lord to Zion.
Break forth together into singing,
you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the Lord has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The Lord has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God.
Isaiah 52:7-10 (NRSV)

How beautiful is the messenger who brings the gospel. Who is the messenger in our Christian nativity story? John the son of Elizabeth, who comes before to announce the Christ. The angel Gabriel, who brings the message to Mary, blessed among women. Mary herself, the literal bearer of good news. The starlight dancing on the mountains, leading shepherds and magi to the birthplace.

In our Christmas carols, we ourselves are the bearers of the news: “Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere! Go tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ is born!” Later on in the Christian story, the apostle Paul will write of the gospel in ways that make me think that Christ, Immanuel, is both the message and the messenger. The news the messenger brings is not just notice of peace, but peace itself. The message has transformative, blessing power.

We know of moments like this in our own lives. Moments when knowledge touches not only our minds but our hearts and very bodies. They are moments of sickening tragedy, when we learn of the death of dozens of innocents in a senseless school shooting. They are moments of tender care, when our sister or brother comes out of the closet and the life of our family is never the same. They are moments of empowered solidarity, when a marginalized group stands up and proclaims justice and peace. They are moments of soaring joy, when the news of a baby’s birth, long awaited, changes the world, and hope enters in.

The Lord’s Prayer, director’s cut

I’m working this year as a chaplain’s assistant at San Francisco Theological Seminary. In that work this week, I’m spending some time pondering the language we use in liturgy and how that informs how we see God.

I like seeing God as a father, and the Lord’s Prayer, from Matthew 6:9-13 addressing God as father has always given me a comforting and grace-filled message. When I came to seminary, I was pushed by my colleagues and by school policy about inclusive language to expand my subconscious picture of God. If I speak of God as only a man, or only a parent, only a spirit, only a creator, I slowly concretize God in my mind. God becomes smaller, frozen. I have enjoyed examining the following interpretations of the Lord’s Prayer and trying to pull the prayer out of the concrete I have encased it in.

What images stand out for you in these? And do you have other readings of the Lord’s Prayer to add to my mix?

Eternal Spirit, Earth-maker, Pain-bearer, Life-giver,
Source of all that is and that shall be,
Father and Mother of us all,
Loving God, in whom is heaven:

The hallowing of your name echo through the universe!
The way of your justice be followed by the peoples of the world!
Your heavenly will be done by all created beings!
Your commonwealth of peace and freedom
sustain our hope and come on earth.

With the bread we need for today, feed us.
In the hurts we absorb from one another, forgive us.
In times of temptation and test, strengthen us.
From trials too great to endure, spare us.
From the grip of all that is evil, free us.

For you reign in the glory of the power that is love,
now and for ever. Amen.

Anglican Church in Aotearoa, New Zealand and Polynesia. “Night Prayer.” A New Zealand Prayer Book. http://anglicanprayerbook.org.nz/167.htm (accessed October 15, 2012).

Our Father above us and all around us, may your unspeakable name be revered. Here on earth, may your kingdom come. On earth as in heaven, may your will be done. Give us today our bread for today. Forgive us our debts as we forgive. Lead us away from the perilous trial. Liberate us from the evil. For the kingdom is yours and yours alone. For the power is yours and yours alone. For the glory is yours and yours alone. Now and forever, Amen.

McLaren, Brian D. “The Lord’s Prayer.” http://brianmclaren.net/archives/blog/the-lords-prayer.html (accessed October 15, 2012).

Our Mother, who art within us, many are your names. Your wisdom come, your will be done, unfolding from the depths of us. Each day you give us all that we need. You remind us of our limits, and we let go. You support us in our power, and we act with courage. For you are the dwelling place within us, the empowerment around us, and the celebration among us. As it was in the beginning, so shall it be now. Amen. (Miriam Therese Winter)

Warrener, John. “God Is Falling.” The Unofficial Confessing Movement Page. http://ucmpage.org/articles/jwarrener4.html (accessed October 15, 2012).

Father in heaven, Reveal who you are. Set the world right; do what’s best — as above, so below.

Keep us alive with three square meals. Keep us forgiven with you and forgiving others. Keep us safe from ourselves and from evil.

You’re in charge, God! You can do anything you want! You’re ablaze in beauty! Yes! Yes! Yes!

Peterson, Eugene H. The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Printed in The Message-NKJV Parallel Bible. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Inc. 2007.