Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Shameless Self Promotion- Independence Day Edition

I have a new article up on Ministry Matters, "Praising America More Than God", discussing the place of patriotism in the church in light of the July 4 holiday (Independence Day, not Jessica's birthday). A sermon referenced in the article is attached.

Comments are always appreciated!

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Julian of Norwich- Eighth Showing

This post is part of my meditative reading of Julian of Norwich's Revelation of Divine Love during my renewal leave.

Julian’s eighth showing is an extended meditation on the suffering and death of Jesus that includes a lot of very specific (some might say graphic) detail and the effect it has on the one who contemplates this image. My knee-jerk reaction was not positive, mostly because of the negative associations I’ve had in the past with those who talk endlessly about the suffering of Jesus (as a friend of mine likes to say, “swimming in the blood”) and never talking about the Resurrection. I think that negative reaction deserves its own post.

My experience of this showing began to change, however, when I quit reading the text like I would a work of systematic theology and tried instead to slow down and hear it in my head as if Julian was speaking these words out loud. Imagining the tone of her voice made these words sound very different in my head. Instead of laboring the point of Jesus’ suffering to make the reader feel guilty and get them to pray a magic prayer, Julian is meditating on this ugly, horrifying image and finding incredible beauty in it.

I am particularly struck when she talks about feeling Mary’s pain and how her suffering was worse than that of any of the disciples. As a parent, causing me physical pain would be infinitely preferable to seeing my child in pain for even one second.

Just when the reader begins to imagine Julian inhabiting some other plain of existence where masochistic love of pain and suffering is totally normal, she says several times how she regrets asking to experience the pain and suffering of Christ because she didn’t know what she was asking for. At this point, perhaps she’s thinking there would have been an easier way to get such insight into the mind of God.

Many people I know who take their faith very seriously and have made major life decisions based on their best understanding of God’s will for their life have said that they are glad they didn’t know what they were in for when the signed up for this, because they probably would have said no!

Since Julian has a strong sense of God orchestrating all these things ahead of time, perhaps she’d say God keeps us from knowing what we’re asking for for our own good.

Wild Goose, etc.

Yes, I know I'm doing a ton of posting today, so I'm sorry if this is clogging your Google Reader, FB blog page, or whatever else you use to read my musings. I'm mostly trying to catch up on my reflections on Dame Julian's text, which I'll likely still be working on after my renewal leave ends next week.

I also have a post I've been working on since I got back from the Holy Land, and I've been inspired to finish and post it because I've been reading about the experience a group of university students is having there thanks to J Street. Hopefully that will be up tonight.

Tomorrow through Sunday, Jessica and I will be at the inaugural Wild Goose Festival in North Carolina. I know of some folks who are going, and I'm looking forward to sharing the muddy, humid weekend with friends old and new. If you're going, please tweet at me (@matthewlkelley) so I can be sure to catch up with you. I especially want to hang out if we haven't met in person yet!

Julian of Norwich- Seventh Showing

This post (my 350th!) is part of my meditative reading of Julian of Norwich's Revelation of Divine Love during my renewal leave.

In the seventh showing, Julian experiences an emotional roller coaster that one might today see as symptoms of manic depression or bipolar disorder. In her depression, Julian acknowledges that while the comfort of God’s promises was there, it wasn’t terribly helpful when she found herself in so dark a mood. That might be another way of saying she knew those things in her head, but at the time her heart just couldn’t get on board with it.

Julian’s depression doesn’t last long, however, as she finds herself on a spiritual high of total certainty in God’s protection. She concludes that “it is profitable for some souls to experience these alternations of mood” so that they can know how God sees them through everything they experience, even when that experience seems like separation from God.

As someone who suffers bouts of very bleak depression, I can identify with Julian’s feelings of hopelessness and her conclusion that God walks with us through those dark places. I differ with her, though, in her belief that God causes such emotional states so that we can learn something about the nature of God. Suffering is an unfortunate fact of living in a fallen world, and it is not God’s desire that we go through it. God works to make the best out of even the worst situations, but that doesn’t mean God wanted it to happen in the first place. Still, Julian’s conclusion that coming out on the other side increases one’s gratitude for God’s sustaining grace is right on.

Julian of Norwich- Sixth Showing

This post is part of my meditative reading of Julian of Norwich's Revelation of Divine Love during my renewal leave.

In the sixth showing, Julian sees “three degrees of bliss” that await God’s servants in heaven. The first is being delivered from pain as part of God’s gratitude for being God’s servant in life. The second is the “glorious thanking” where God makes known all the servant’s good deeds while on earth. The third is the joy of knowing that this state free of pain and full of glory will last forever.

The “second degree of bliss” really intrigues me, because the idea of having to make an account for all one’s deeds after life is over is usually used as a scare tactic and to convince people that they’re awful sinners. The idea that one’s good deeds are also noticed and remembered (as Jesus promises in the Sermon on the Mount) is a very comforting counter-point to such scare tactics.

It hadn’t occurred to me until meditating on this showing that for all Julian’s talk about human sinfulness, she doesn’t say it with any scorn or condescension, as if she’s better than anyone else. She sees us all as in the same boat, all equally in need of grace.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Julian of Norwich- Fifth Showing

This post is part of my meditative reading through Julian of Norwich's Revelation of Divine Love during my renewal leave.

This showing begins with Julian looking at God for a “measurable period of time”. She says nothing of God’s appearance, but notes this because there are no words at first. After a while, the very act of beholding God tells her what she is meant to know. This builds nicely on the meditation on divine self-giving from the previous showing.

What Julian realizes here is that God and the devil (whom she clearly believes to be a conscious entity rather than a projection of human brokenness and sinfulness) are fundamentally different. She says that the devil is full of malice and contempt- things that lead one to try to defeat their enemy through violence. But God doesn’t overcome evil through force, but through loving self-sacrifice. In fact, Julian says, “there can be no wrath in God”. God does not fight fire with fire, as it were.

The way for us to live out the Kingdom of God in the world is to realize that it operates by a fundamentally different set of rules than human kingdoms. It doesn’t simply play the game better than they do, it changes the game entirely. God doesn’t conquer human kingdoms or human hearts through coercion or violence, but through self-giving love.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Julian of Norwich- Fourth Showing

This post is part of my meditative reading through Julian of Norwich's Revelation of Divine Love during my renewal leave.

In the fourth showing Julian briefly explains how God showed her that God chooses to wash us clean with blood rather than with water. At first this sounded a bit macabre to me, but after meditating on this passage for a while I saw a different side.

Julian talks about how God created water for many purposes out of love for us, but that his blood is simultaneously more precious and more plentiful than water.

As I thought more about this, it struck me that water is a created thing, just as we are. So of course God could use created things to redeem other created things, but in the Incarnation we see God inserting God's self into the created order. Jesus is God's ultimate act of self-giving.

Perhaps this is because as a created thing, I can possess and give all kinds of other created things and maintain the illusion that I am somehow in control. One of the reasons that religious institutions get so twisted and toxic is that we begin to believe that we are in control, and we leave God out of the process. But when God gives God's self, there can be no mistaking who is doing the giving, hence there is no mistaking who is in control.

Although Julian doesn't mention this, God choosing to redeem us through self-giving as opposed to through a created thing calls to mind the sacrament of Holy Communion. Celebrating Communion (both as celebrant and congregant) has always been very meaningful to me, because recalling the story of the Last Supper and proclaiming the elements to be infused with the real presence of Christ helps me temporarily forget the limitations of finite people and things and see everything as interconnected and animated by the living presence of God.

Until meditating on this showing, I wasn't sure I was going to be able to find the beauty that Merton and others found in her text, but I may be beginning to see what they see.

Julian of Norwich- Third Showing

This post is part of my meditative reading through Julian of Norwich's Revelation of Divine Love during my renewal leave.

In the third showing, Julian is shown a concept directly instead of arriving at it through a particular image God is showing her. This showing concerns God's omnipotence, and she claims that God is the first cause of all things and that nothing happens outside of God's will. Julian says that anything that seems to us to be an accident or outside of God's will only seems so because "our blindness and lack of foreseeing".

I can't get on board with this particular assertion, as beautiful a description of God's infinite power and goodness as it is. Perhaps it was easier for Julian to avoid the plethora of questions this assertion raises about God's character because she was cloistered in a cell beside a church for much of her life.

I wonder, though, if the priest of that parish would be able to say such a thing so easily, having sat with the sick and the dying, consoling parents whose children died senselessly, and trying to reconcile the goodness of God with a world full of suffering. Then again, maybe the priest would have said the exact same thing. I don't really know how the common fourteenth century priest handled questions of theodicy. Any scholars of medieval theology care to enlighten me? (I know theodicy didn't exist as a theological category at the time, but the question still has to have occurred to people)

In the introduction, del Mastro said that each showing built upon the previous one, so I'm trying to make sense of how this relates to the first two showings of Jesus' passion. Perhaps this is her way of working out why God would will such pain and suffering to happen to his own son in the larger context of suffering and evil in the world. Or perhaps it will make more sense in the next showings.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Jon Stewart on Fox News Sunday

Jon Stewart was on Fox News Sunday this morning, and the interview blew my mind.

What's hilarious is that Chris Wallace does not get that The Daily Show is a comedy show. It seems like he and the Fox News take themselves so seriously that they can't conceive of anybody not playing the exact same game. So since Stewart lampoons them on a nightly basis, he must have as militantly a partisan agenda as they do.

They don't get the joke.

The only analogous situation I can think of is evangelical Christians who rant and rave about the "homosexual agenda", insisting that people of other sexual orientations are out to convert others to their way of life. That's what they do, after all, and they assume everyone else is playing the same game.

What if people who disagree with us or are just wired differently than us aren't at war with us? What if the majority of people in the world don't have a "kill or be killed" mentality about everything? What if it actually is possible to respectfully disagree, peacefully coexist, and perhaps even have our horizons broadened by those who are different?

The sooner Fox News and the establishment they represent ponder those kinds of questions, the sooner they stand a chance of actually being "fair and balanced".

Friday, June 17, 2011

Julian of Norwich- Second Showing

This post is part of my meditative reading through Julian of Norwich's Revelation of Divine Love during my renewal leave.

In the second showing, Julian is focusing her attention on the crucifix on the wall when she sees Jesus’ face becoming discolored. Perhaps what she is seeing is what modern medicine would tell us happens as the result of gradual oxygen deprivation, as a crucified person is less and less able to take full breaths. That is what makes crucifixion such an agonizing death, and the discoloration shows Julian how the image of God is distorted by the sinful cruelty of humanity.

She reflects on the Trinity and how God created all human beings in God’s image, and how in the Incarnation God shows us “as a man might be if he were without guilt”.

Julian also reflects on the difference between “seeking” God and “seeing” God. Seeking after God is something all people do to one extent or another, although Julian emphasizes that even that cannot be done without the leading of God’s grace. Seeing, however, is something that happens entirely independent of human effort. Julian’s visions are “seeing” God in full as God wills God’s self to be seen, and all she can do is be still and marvel at what God is showing her.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Julian of Norwich- First Showing

This post is part of my meditative reading through Julian of Norwich's Revelation of Divine Love during my renewal leave.

In the first showing Julian witnesses the “crowning of Christ”, where the crown of thorns is pushed onto Jesus’ head so roughly that the thorns cause blood to flow quite freely. The modern reader will likely recall Mel Gibson’s “Passion” film that seemed to delight in every gory detail of Jesus’ torture and execution.

Far from finding the image gruesome or repulsive, Julian is filled with joy because she is so aware of how she is a “sinful creature living in wretched flesh”, and God chose to endure this for her even so. The image also causes Julian to think of the oneness of the Trinity, but she doesn’t make the connection explicit. My guess is that the contrast of God’s ultimacy and humanity’s smallness makes her marvel that God chose to experience everything we experience, but I don’t know if that’s how she’s coming at it.

This showing also causes Julian to think of St. Mary, again contrasting God’s ultimacy with humanity’s smallness and how Mary marveled at the fullness of God dwelling within her. Not being Catholic, I don’t normally give as much attention to Mary as I do to some other people in biblical stories, but being a parent has given me lots of new things to think about. The holiest and most joyous moment of my life was when my daughter was born, yet it occurred in the midst of a lot of blood and pain (blocked by some excellent drugs). Jessica will tell you the same thing, and she has more ground to stand on because it was her blood and her discomfort in that holy moment.

Julian’s first showing reminds us that God can be profoundly experienced in the midst of the messiest human circumstances.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Julian's Prologue

This post is part of a journal I'm keeping as I prayerfully read through Julian of Norwich's Revelation of Divine Love during my renewal leave.

By way of prolegomena, Julian briefly describes each of the sixteen showings. She then pulls back and describes the things she asked God for that occasioned the revelation. She asked to “enter into the spirit of Christ’s passion”, a “bodily sickness so severe it would bring (her) to the point of death”, and the “three wounds” of “true contrition, natural compassion, and full-hearted longing for God”. It is the second of these “gifts” that she elaborates on before describing the first showing, which is also the one that intrigues me the most.

Julian became very ill when she was about thirty years old. She languished for several days and was then given last rites, which meant that she and everyone else thought she was done for. She mentions that she forgot that she asked God for this, because I guess if she remembered that if she asked to go the brink of death without actually dying, it would kind of defeat the purpose. Being sick to the point of dying would make one truly let go of all earthly things and focus solely on God. Some of the most inspiring interactions I have had as a pastor have been with people who knew they didn’t have long to live. They knew what was really important.

The skeptical side of me wonders about how much of her own vision Julian determined beforehand. She appears to have had a really awful fever, and when that happens, the things people see are tied to what is on their mind or buried in their subconscious. Since she lived in a cell on the side of a church and dedicated her entire life to prayer and contemplation, Jesus is the foremost thing on her mind, so it’s not surprising that it’s what she sees in a delirious state.

A possible psychological explanation of her vision doesn’t mean that God was not involved, of course. But the modern reader does have this extra difficulty that a contemporary of Julian’s would not have had.

I’m hoping this won’t continue to be an obstacle, and I’m guessing it won’t since Julian has remained very popular and influential even into modern times.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

Julian of Norwich- Translator's Introduction

According to translator M.L. del Mastro, we don’t know much at all about Julian of Norwich (or Juliana, as he calls her), and she wants it that way. We don’t even know her real name. She is called Julian because her cell was attached to the church of St. Julian in Norwich.

Julian would completely disagree with the idea that “all theology is biography”. I’ve subscribed to that notion for quite some time and became particularly convinced after reading Jurgen Moltmann’s autobiography, A Broad Place. I believe that God reveals God’s self in very real and powerful ways, but that we communicate these experiences of revelation using words and images that we understand. So when I tell you about God, you’re learning as much about me as you are about God, because you’re hearing about the divine through the means of my own subjectivity.

Julian of Norwich does not share this belief. She wanted people to focus on the message, not the messenger, believing that she would only get in the way of people knowing and loving God more fully. But if she and I were sitting across the table from one another, I’d remind her that the written account of this revelation from God is the product of twenty years worth of meditation on events that occurred over a period of two days. Wouldn’t she have to agree that her own fingerprints are all over the finished product?

Having one’s fingerprints all over the report of a revelation from God is not a bad thing, nor does it somehow cheapen what one can gain from hearing about such an experience. Quite the opposite, in fact. I believe that recognizing the inherent subjectivity that we all bring to the table should inspire even more wonder that God chooses to use highly flawed, imperfect vessels to make the depths of God’s love known to us. I think perhaps Julian would agree with the latter part of that statement.

In any case, it would be a mistake to expect Julian to share this assumption with me, because she is a person of the fourteenth century and I a person of the twenty-first. To expect long-dead authors to share my assumptions about the nature of divine truth as if they were some kind of objective fact would be quite hypocritical!

I’ll have to see if this epistemological tension remains between Juliana and myself as we spend more time together. Hopefully they won't be a barrier to God speaking through the text. If that turns out to be the case, Julian's fear would be realized.

Monday, June 06, 2011

And the winner is...


Since my father-in-law and I were the only entrants in the Tell Matt how to wear his facial hair for a good cause drawing, it was pretty much a coin-flip. I went all twenty-first century and used a random number generating website, and it turned out that one of my entries was the winner.

Once I discovered I won my own contest, I had to decide what to do. Which of the many interesting and somewhat humorous options should I choose as my winnings? I actually decided to select several, and have some fun along the way.

I started off looking like I've looked for almost a decade.

Next I did a tribute to my friend Eric, who sports a version of the Chester Arthur:

Then I did a kind of early 2000s boy band look, complete with every man-bander's "I'm trying to be sexy but really I just look like I've got digestive issues" face:

Then I went with the Errol Flynn, which in the 1930s was cool, but in 2011 might be interpreted otherwise...

Next came McDreamy-esque stubble, alas without Patrick Dempsey's wavy hair, strong chin, or sensitive eyes

Finally, I put down the trimmer and grabbed the razor, recalling what's been under there all this time:

I've haven't been clean shaven since before I met Jessica, and her first words upon seeing this were, "you're naked! Your face, I mean..." Here's my impression of her reaction:

I'll be really curious to see how Kate reacts in the morning, since Daddy's had a beard for her entire life.

I'll post soon with my first reflections on Julian of Norwich's revelation soon. I'll be at a friend's farm for a few days, so my internet access may not be all that great, but I'll be recording my daily meditations regardless. It's just a question of when they'll end up here.

You can still donate to One Day's Wages partnership with Eden Reforestation Projects in Ethiopia, and every dollar will help plant ten trees and create jobs in a part of the world that really needs them. Thanks!

Liminal Space

Yesterday was my last Sunday at Bethlehem, and so my renewal leave begins today. As I mentioned before, I'm going to be reading through Julian of Norwich's Revelation of Divine Love.

The other day when I was working out a reading schedule, I realized that Dame Julian had pretty much made it for me. Beginning today, taking Sundays off, and ending on June 27, which is the day before the official Conference "moving day", I have seventeen days to read. Julian's revelation is documented in sixteen showings, so I've decided to do one per day, reading the translator's introduction today. I'll try to do a post about what I'm reading most days, but Annual Conference and some other activities may interfere with my ability to post each day.

If you have the book and are so inclined, read along with me and post your thoughts in the comments. I'll post later tonight after I've read M.L. del Mastro's (the translator) introduction.

Also, you have a few more hours to get in the drawing to tell me how to wear my facial hair for the next two weeks. So far the only entrants are me and my father-in-law. Make a donation to One Day's Wages partnership with Eden Reforestation Projects in Ethiopia, and you'll be in the drawing, which will take place at 3 this afternoon. The winner and the pictures of their prize will be announced this evening.