Wednesday, December 20, 2017

The Most Terrible Irony in My Lifetime

     I am shocked that a large number of U.S. Senators and members of Congress who identify themselves as believing Christians would approach the yearly celebration of the birth of Jesus by shamelessly enriching the wealthy of this country while eliminating health care insurance coverage for over thirteen million poor and struggling families.
     Who do they think they are honoring on December 25? It is certainly not Jesus, who identified himself over and over again with the poor and the outcast. It is certainly not Jesus, who time after time railed against the wealthy who enriched themselves at the expense of the human family. One cannot hold a hymnal filled with Christmas carols in one hand while holding this legislation in the other.
     Jesus, following the lead of the Prophets who preceded him, spoke loudly and clearly against the underpinnings and the elements of the "tax reform" bill passed last night. Jesus summed it up in his brief challenge, "You cannot serve both God and Mammon." Our President and the Republican majority in both houses have loudly and clearly chosen Mammon - and as a final insult to the faith they claim to profess, they wanted to accomplish it all "before Christmas." Is that terrible, terrible irony - or simply blasphemy?

Monday, May 01, 2017

Israel & the Clown

Israel and the Clown
Thomas B. Woodward

            I have been convinced for a long time that most of our Biblical history is centered in the comic experience – or more particularly, in the image of the clown (not not Bozo or Ronald McDonald, more like Emmet Kelly or a stage clown like Avner the Eccentric or Ken Feit.[1]
The fool. I want to explore that through four overarching themes:the calling of the nation, Israel;the role of Isaiah's image of the suffering servant; the ministry and role of the prophet; and the fool, the church as pied piper.

            For me, the two high points of Jewish Scriptures are the calling of the nation, Israel, and Isaiah's vision of the nation as suffering servant. Both reflect the clown's experience.
            There is a poem by William Norman Ewer which It begins, "How odd of God to choose the Jews.” “How odd" and, some would add, how very much in keeping with the comic or foolish stance of God in dealing with the world, reflected in the wonderful playfulness in the calling of Israel. 
            In the Bible, God does not choose the richest, most educated, or most powerful people to be His people. God, instead, chooses the smallest and least significant people to be the people of God. They are not rich, they are not powerful, they are not distinguished morally or ethically.The choice of the Hebrew slaves was comic -- just as it was with the apostles - and for you and me.
            And Israel's authority does not depend not on military might, but on her weakness and her faithfulness to a vision. Reading the Book of Deuteronomy, there is a cyclical pattern. When the nation is conscious of its comic origins, it flourishes; but when it begins placing its trust in its own power and strength . . . certain disaster. That cycle is repeated over and over again. That is called the Deuteronomic theory of history.[3]
            It is only when Israel takes herself too seriously, when she forgets the high comedy of her calling that she becomes unfaithful. The experience of grace, for both Christian and Jew is, at its purest, the experience of incongruity, of surprise and delight at being chosen, forgiven and redeemed. But, when that becomes our right, when it is something we own, we are in for big trouble.

                     Adam, to stretch Biblical language, fell from gravity.
                     We all fall, says the Bible, though not in so many words,
                     because of gravity.
                     We are raised in levity,
                     levitated into a new dimension.  "How odd of God. . . ."
          The comic dimensions of Israel's calling is also reflected in the underpinnings of her identity.
One of the phrases that echoes throughout the Psalms is the exhortation to remember that we worship “the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob." You've got to love it: Abraham, who lied to protect himself and his interests, Isaac, born when his parents were in their nineties, who with tears running down their faces from joy and shock, to celebrate the incongruity of it all they named him Isaac, which means "Laughter." And then Jacob, who violated at least nine of the 10 commandments in grand style while stealing his family blind. "The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. . ." or, "The God of the liar, laughter and the larcenist." How odd of God . . .[4]


            On the other side of Biblical experience, there is Isaiah's great portrayal of the nation as Suffering Servant. These visions of the Suffering Servant reflect much more the pathos of the clown than they do the grimness of tragedy -- and that, I believe, is its peculiar power. Similarly, I am  reminded every Holy Week that no one ever pities Jesus on the Cross. An important element of the Russian tradition, the clown is "He who gets slapped," the buffoon who absorbs into his or her body the pain and the hostility of the surrounding world.
            As you read the words of Isaiah 53:2-7, picture Israel, the Holocaust, picture Jesus on the Cross, picture suffering humanity in any setting. Or picture Emmett Kelly, the tramp clown as he is buffeted in one after another tragedies.

"Without beauty, without majesty (we saw him),
no looks to attract our eyes;
a thing despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering. . .

And yet ours were the sufferings he bore,
ours the sorrows he carried. .
On him lies a punishment that brings us peace,
and through his wounds we are healed. . .

[picture Emmet Kelly, picture a holocaust victim]
Harshly det with, he bore it humbly,
he never opened his mouth,
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter house,
like a sheep that is dumb before its shearers
never opening its mouth."
                                       Isaiah 53:2-7

           In my experience, one of the most impressive things done by a religious group was done by a group of Quakers in New York City.One day in the late 1960's with all the violence surroundingthe nations' responses to the Viet Nam War,the City's Quaker community heard that there was to be an ugly confrontation between some angry young protesters and some militaristic construction workers at a building site.
          So the Quakers went, as a group, to the siteand positioned themselves between the two factions as they converged upon one another.absorbing the hostility and the punishment of both protesters and hard-hats until,finally, the combatants began to see what was happening. Then quietly, and somewhat sadly, both sides withdrew – touched deeply by the holiness of God present in those (how could you say it better?) clowns.
            In response to Isaiah's portrayal of the Suffering Servant and the many instances of Jesus' embrace and of the poor and the marginalized, Soren wrote in his diary one of the most ironic lines in all of Christian theology: 

"In the splendid Palace Church a stately court chaplain, the declared favorite of the cultivated public, shows himself to a select circle of distinguished, cultivated persons and preaches a moving sermon on this word by the Apostle: 'God chose the lowly and despised.'  And nobody laughs."


            We have the calling of the nation, the vision and experience of the Suffering Servant/the Crucified One, and  third,  the calling of the nation and its people to be prophets for the world,
to expose and to shame the idols which entrap human lives and human communities with their 
 inadequate, false and blasphemous ways of being in the world. This sacred calling of the nation and its prophets is not too different from the calling of the clown or fool. The Fool. The Holy Fool.
Rabbi Abraham Heschel used to retell an old Hassidic tale as a parable of our calling: 

   Once upon a time there was a small kingdom whose only industry was its agriculture.  Everyone was happy and everyone had plenty to eat -- until one year, when it was discovered to everyone's horror, that something terrible had gone wrong with that year's crops. Something in the crops made whoever ate them crazy -- insane. The kingdom was soon in an uproar. So the king hurriedly gathered all his wise men and wise women together and met with them around the clock for several days. Then he called his kingdom together to announce his decision. "Twelve people will be set aside," he said.  "The rest of us will eat the crazy-making crop. But all our food in storage will be set aside for the twelve. They will eat the old crop. The twelve will serve the very important function of reminding the rest of us that we are, indeed, crazy."

What a magnificent image of our calling!  The ministry of the fool. The fool, stumbling along, in trouble with the authorities which trouble us all, not quite understanding the wisdom of the age, always a little out of step – whether by name of Mother Theresa or Francis of Assisi, Desmond Tutu or Rosa Parks -- ambassadors of another way, reminding the rest of us that we are, indeed, crazy.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit," says Jesus. 
"Blessed are the meek. . the merciful. . the thirsty and the hungry. . .
"Blessed are you  mourn. . ." 

Those are hardly values of this world. If you want to find the Credo of the clown, there is no better place to look than the Beatitudes or the Magnificat, a world turned upside down.
            As teller of truth, as mirror (mime) to the people of their sin and their possibilities,
spelling out the bondage and the idolatries of the age, the  similarities between Israel and clown, between the church and the fool are neither frivolous nor artificial. Both traditions are grounded in a common frustration with the fallenness of the world and both understand both the tragic and the absurd in life. Both understand the reality of a grace and radical acceptance which are not for the world to give. I'm convinced that the more completely we understand the fool, the more involved we will be in the meaning and the message of the Bible.
            We begin with the prophets. For the Biblical prophet, for Amos and Hosea, Isaiah and Jeremiah, there is a fundamental confrontation between a confused and alienated world – and a vision of a radically different order.  The same is true for the clown; though where the prophet's weapons for the confrontation are his anger, his imagination, and (for Isaiah, Jeremiah and Hosea) occasional pantomime, the clown uses play, costuming and a whole range of miming and slapstick to confront the absurdities and idolatries of the day.

The director for Charlie Chaplain and the Keystone Cops movies, Max Sennet, had one, and only one basic tenet: "Always keep the comic on the wrong end of the gun." Just so with God and the prophets -- both in Biblical times and now.

            Isaiah, a patrician turned prophet, goes through the streets virtually naked in order to pantomime the distress which is about to overtake the nation. Jeremiah, learning that the country is soon to be overwhelmed and overrun by conquering Babylonian forces, on his way out of town absurdly buys a field as his commitment to God's promise to restore the country's fortunes. 
            The prophet Hosea was a marvelous fool. In order to show the nation its own unfaithfulness towards God, Hosea marries Gomer, the most outrageous prostitute in the country –and remains faithful to her while she continues to ply her trade. When his friends ask, "Hosea, how on earth could you have married Gomer -- and then stay faithful to her while she continues to have sex with any and all available males in the city? How can you deal with that level of unfaithfulness?" Hosea responds, "How is that different from God's experience with you?" 
                Hosea then names his children with names which reveal the nation's shame. You can see Hosea out with his children waiting for some super patriot to say, "What lovely children. What are their names?" just so he could respond, "Well, this one is Internment Camps and his sister is Ferguson, Missouri and the little guy in the stroller is Abu Grahib."[5] The Prophet as Clown/Fool


            Part of being the prophet involves holding up before us alternative realities, just as our understanding of our Baptism is that we are already citizens of heaven, already incorporated into the Kingdom of God - something our coming physical death will not interrupt. The Credo of the world is "First you live: then you die. The Credo for the church is "First you die: then you live."[6]
            An Alternative Reality: or, as my friend David Fly observed, "Every Stan Laurel needs his Oliver Hardy."  Not too long on almost every large college campus across the country there was a group of films which came back year after year, playing to packed houses. You can still find them at Netflix. The message in each of these movies is the same:  in this world, it is only the fool who is sane.

Zorba the Greek
A Thousand Clowns
King of Hearts
Harold and Maude
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

            Whether it is Murray in "A Thousand Clowns," Alan Bates in "King of Hearts," Maude in "Harold and Maude," Mac in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" or Zorba the Greek each of these clown/fools has found himself or herself caught in the midst of a hostile world, somehow out of place and involved in a constant struggle for emotional, spiritual and physical survival.
            The message in each of these movies is that always, it seems, the one who appears the most human, the most humane, discovers himself or herself as the alien, the intruder -- as out of place. I think of Charlie Brown and Linus in the old comic strip, Peanuts, two kids, standing together, pondering the meaning of life. The first to speak is Charlie Brown:

Charlie Brown:   "I think I can understand your fear of libraries, Linus. 'Library Fever'  is similar to    other mental disturbances. You fear the library rooms because  they are strange to you. You are out of place. All of us have certain areas in which we feel out of place."
Linus: "Oh?  In what area do you feel out of place, Charlie Brown?"

Charlie Brown: "EARTH!"

Maybe Charlie Brown is on to something, something that each of us knows, however dimly --
that maybe it is better to be ill at ease in a world such as ours, where survival of the fittest so often means survival of the least human. To be too much at home in this to be in trouble.
As Jesus said, "Foxes have holes, and birds have their nests, but the [children of God] have no place to lay their heads."
            And there is the movie of Harold and Maude, a story of the courtship of Harold, a teenager obsessed with death, and Maude, an irrepressible seventy-nine year old woman who takes delight in everything, absolutely everything. They have just met after a funeral Harold has attended out of his morbid obsession with death. Maude is there because a funeral is just as much a celebration of our lives as anything else.

Harold walked out of the pew and the old lady followed.
"What do you think of old fat Tom?" she asked.
"Who?" said Harold.
"St. Thomas Aquinas up there.  I saw you looking at him."
"I think he's... uh ... a great thinker."
"Oh, yes.  But a little old-fashioned, don't you think? 
Like roast swan.  Oh, dear!  Look at her."

They stopped before the dour portrait of the Madonna.
"May I borrow this?" the old lady asked,
taking the felt tipped pen from Harold's coat pocket. 
With a few deft strokes she drew a cheery smile on the Virgin's mouth.

Harold looked about the empty church to see if anyone was watching.
"There.  That's better," said Maude. 
"They never give the poor thing a chance to laugh. 
Heaven knows she has a lot to be happy about. 
In fact," she added, looking at several statues at the back of the church,
"they all have a lot to be happy about. 
Excuse me."

Harold made a halfhearted gesture for his pen, but to no avail.
The old lady was already in the back of the church,
drawing smiles on St. Joseph, St. Anthony, and St. Theresa.
"An unhappy saint is a contradiction in terms," she explained.

The Clown/Fool as Prophet, as Truth Teller. The Church as Buffoon, soaking up the world's hostility. And the Church, like Maude, as Pied Piper, enticing us into deeper and more profound dimensions of reality.  So, where are we in the world? Again, as David Fly reminds us, every Stan Laurel needs his Oliver Hardy:

There is an old Hassidic saying which goes: Everyone must have two pockets into which he can reach from time to time as his need requires. In the one pocket it shall be written: "For my sake were the heavens and the earth created." And in the other: "I am but dust and ashes."

One of the chief functions of the comic spirit is to remind us of "the whole truth."  Whenever we want to become either more or less than ourselves, the task of the clown/fool is to remind us of just that, the whole truth. In his collection of fantasy lives of Jesus, A. J. Langguth relates this story:

"At the instant the heavens parted,the Baptist turned up his face and absorbed
the words with his whole being."THIS IS MY BELOVED SON-- " the Baptist's
eyes shone with pride --"IN WHOM I AM WELL PLEASED." John dropped
his head with humility and looked for long moments into the depths of the brown
river. This will not do, Jesus thought.  Apologetically, he said, "I believe he meant me."

In his concern for the whole truth, the clown/fool chastises us when we reach too high –
and inspires us when we fail to reach at all.

Thus, Anderson and Johnson were sitting at the local bar, each lost in his own,
private misery. Finally Anderson heaven an enormous sigh and said, “Things
are so bad. .. so terrible, I feel like committing suicide." Johnson took a sip of
his beer, sighed his own enormous sigh and said, "If only I felt that good!"

The whole truth. The concern, always, with the fool is to return us to our humanness and to the experience of grace and forgiveness. Sometimes we get lost in our finitude. Other times we get lost in our abstract delusions of grandeur. Then, when we reach too high  or become too arrogant,
the fool's (the church’s) task is to recall us to our finitude and to the reality of our finite, thingy, particular world. There may be no better illustration of this than an old Jules Feiffer cartoon of an elderly man sitting on his front porch in a rocking chair:

"I used to think I was poor." he says.
"Then they told me I wasn't poor.  I was 'needy.'
"Then they told me it was self-defeating to think of myself as needy; I was 'deprived.'
"Then they told me 'deprived' was a bad image; I was 'underprivileged.'
"Then they told me 'underprivileged' was overused; I was 'disadvantaged.'
"I still don't have a dime.
"But I have a great vocabulary."
It may be that only when we come to terms with the most concrete and persisting realities of our human condition that there is any decent chance of hope. We begin that, in ourselves and in the world around us, by paying attention to the whole truth. The tough stuff.
            And paying attention to the other side, the banquet side of life. Again, to use the words of Rabbi Abraham Heschell: "God has so ordered this world that every little girl will be a princess and every little boy a prince." Somehow, you and I, despite all the evidence to the contrary,
must continue to say just that -- in every way we can.
            And maybe the only way we can understand this is through parables, the Magnificat, the Beatitudes, the Sermon on the Mount or some means which shows the presence of a totally other dimension than the pragmatic and the functional and the relevant. As St. Paul notes, our worldly wisdom tends to do us in. Here is my favorite illustration of this thing we have called "the whole truth." Langguth is writing about the boyhood of Jesus -- and his fantasy about Jesus has its own reality in the imago Dei that is each of us.

“Jesus opened his notebook on the study hall desk. Using the ruler from
his geometry class, he drew a ledger's line down the center of one page.
At the top of the left hand column he wrote ‘ASSETS.’ and over the other,
‘LIABILITIES.’ Under ‘LIABILITIES,’ he printed in block letters,

Shielding the page from the girl across the aisle, he added:

With some dismay he counted the entries and began to contemplate
the "ASSETS" column. With another look to be sure the girl couldn't
see the page, he wrote, "SON OF GOD."

In better spirits, he closed the notebook and started on the next day's translation of Cicero.

Despite all our liabilities, confusion and the dailiness of our lives, we have been chosen for a God who, for some strange reason, delights in us. It is so important to remember the left hand column.  We must never allow that to be taken away from us - or any of those in our care.
Part of the ministry of the fool (the church and the synagogue) in this culture is to remind us, always, to contemplate the ASSETS column.
            So how to sum it all up, put it all together? I think if I had to choose one character (not from the Bible) as an example of what it means to be a holy fool in the kind of world we living in, it would be Murray, in Herb Gardner's play, "A Thousand Clowns." Murray does not sound very religious, but a wise person would say that he is talking about life as it is given to us and speaking deeply about the things of the spirit.
            Because Murray has been a pretty unconventional guardian for his young nephew, a social worker has come to see about taking the boy away. At one point, the social worker speaks sharply to Murray, saying "Murray, you've got to come back to reality!" Murray responds, "Well, O.K., but only as a tourist."[7]
           Then Murray talks about the child's future –and in these words about our own vocation as holy fools: 

“And he started to make lists this year.
Lists of everything: subway stops, underwear, what he's gonna do next week.
If somebody doesn't watch out he'll start making lists
of what he's gonna do for the next ten years.
Hey, suppose they put him in with a whole family of list-makers? 
He'll learn to know everything before it happens,
he'll learn how to be one of the nice dead people. .

I just want him to stay with me till I can be sure he won't turn into Norman Nothing.
I want to be sure he'll know when he's chickening out on himself.
I want him to get to know exactly the special thing he is
or else he won't notice it when it starts to go. 
I want him to stay awake and know who the phonies are.
I want him to know how to holler and put up an argument,
I want a little guts to show before I can let him go.
I want to be sure he sees all the wild possibilities.
I want him to know it's worth all the trouble
just to give the world a little goosing when you get the chance.
And I want him to know the subtle, sneaky, important reason
why he was born a human being and not a chair.”

That's the crucial thing about living, all of living. Along with all that troubles or delights us from day to day and all the crises that befall us it is the reaching for that subtle, sneaky, important reason why we were born human beings and not chairs that provides the dimension of depth and of meaning for our lives.
            You and I have been set aside – set aside as religious people – as Episcopalians – to be a kingdom of fools. Believe me, there is no higher calling. Gabriel Marcel, the great French philosopher, once said "Life is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived." And it is so important that we do not reduce life to surviving or coping. Survival skills and coping skills and getting along too often leave us clinging to the surface of life. But there is so much more: you and I, we have been asked, in a phrase, to eat last year’s grain. And there is no higher calling.


            "The Prostitute in the Family Tree" by Doug Adams goes into detail about many of the comic elements of Scripture. One of the highlights of the book is Doug's hilarious use of the Geneology of Jesus - suitable for Advent sermons. Doug was a faculty member at the Graduate Theological Union, specializing in Scriptural Studies and Religious Art.
            "Kerygma and Comedy in the New Testament: A Structuralist Approach to Hermeneutic" by New Testament scholar Dan Via is a difficult read, but an important element in contemporary Biblical scholarship.
            "The Parables of Jesus from the Inside," in Volume 47:1 of the Sewanee Theological Review is my own contribution to the study of the parables, based in part on the work of Walter Wink and Carl Jung. My approach, using a dramatic approach to the parables, rich in comedic insight, in interactions with a congregation or other group allows participants to find themselves within several key parables of Jesus. A copy is in the St. Bede's library.
            "Tellling the Truth: The Gospel as Comedy, Tragedy, and Fairy Tale" by Frederic Buechner has an engaging reflection on the comedic structure and experience of the Gospels.


You can find several videos of Avner the Eccentric on youtube. I believe he is the best stage clown around. You will not regret the time you spend watching these videos. In my glory days, Avner and I taught together - and each time after watching him perform, my stomach ached from laughing. His stage show is on two youtube videos:  and

Ken Feit is much better in person than on a video, though I just found John Towson's site which has most of a long lost film about Ken's performances (the other part of the film is dedicated to the Jesuit ministry of Nick Webber's Royal Lichtenstein One-Quarter Ring Circus which played mostly on college campuses and in the middle of large ghettos. You can search for his videos on your own. Here is Ken Feit:

Here is Ken Feit, the storyteller, as Prophet, with his story of Cleo, the pregnant woman who is also the Muse of history and here as a poor Apalachian woman:
Cleo has gone to a fortune teller because she is worried about the baby she is carrying:
-- Fortune-teller lady, I got me a problem.
*  The problem in your belly, Cleo?
-- That's right, fortune-teller lady. That's where it is. Can ya help me? Sometimes I lay on my back, I feel a kickin' in my belly. Sometimes I close my eyes, I feel a pain in my head.
*  Well. This sounds serious. Set yourself down. I'll check ya over.
*Cleo, your baby is something else!
-- I know that fortune-teller lady.
*  I mean it is somethin "else" else!
-- Whatcha mean?
* I mean this here baby's gonna be strong.
-- Stronger than Rome?
*  That's right! This here baby gonna be rich!
-- Richer than Egypt?
*  Uh-huh. This here baby gonna travel a lot!
-- More than England?
*  That's right!
-- Well, that's wonderful, fortuneteller lady. I'm much obliged for what you tell me.
*  Not so fast, Cleo. You didn't let me finish.
--  Whatcha got to say?
* Just this. Your baby gonna be strong but gonna beat up on the babies it don't like.
-- No!
*  Yeah-us. Your baby gonna be rich and have lots of food, but keep it for its own mouth.
-- No!
*   Yeah-us. Your baby gonna travel lots. But its eyes gonna be mostly closed.
. . .
-- Tell me, fortune-teller lady, ain't der a goodness in my baby?
*  There's a goodness. Your baby's a good baby, but it got a streak of meanness too.
-- What name should I give my baby? Huh?
*  Call your baby, call your baby ... Cleo, call your baby -- America!
-- America?
*  America!
__ I never heard that name before.
*  I just made it up.
--  But why America?
*  On account of it's genuine kind - and that's Amer. But it's mean to. And that's Ca!
--  Can't I just call my baby, Amer?
*  You forget the Ca, and you get a kick in the teeth from your own baby. You understand?
And then Cleo wrestles with the thought: shall she keep this baby who will be full of kindness and generosity or what happens when her baby hurts and maybe kills some of her other babies?

This is an adaptation from Joe Martin's collection of stories and reflections of Ken in the book "Foolish Wisdom."

Ed Stivender's Nyah-Nyah Geschichte

 One of my favorite storytellers is Ed Stivender, whose work almost always focuses on religious religious themes.  He has one of the most creative theological minds in the country and often introduces himself,
One of my favorite storytellers is Ed Stivender, one of the most creative theological minds in the country. Here is how he often introduces himself:

"Hello, I'm Ed Stivender and I am a storyteller.  In fact, I'm a religious storyteller.  As a matter of fact, I'm a born-again storyteller.  If you want to know the truth, I've been born again so often that my soul has stretch marks!" 

He then lectures about the truth of "Nyah, Nyah Geschichte" ("Geschichte" being the German word used in theology to designate holy story or holy history). 

"You can hear the 'Nyah, Nyah, Nyah, Nyah-Nyah' phrase from early childhood echo through all of holy history," says Ed. "You can hear it as Noah looks back from the Ark at those who mocked his venture and are now holding on to the upper branches of the town's tallest trees as the flood encroaches foot by foot. "Nyah, Nyah, Nyah, Nyah-Nyah! Look at the Smarty-Pants!"
"You can hear it as the Hebrew slaves reach the other end of the Red Sea safely, as they look back on the Egyptians and their fancy horses and chariots drowning in the sea -- 'Nyah, Nyah, Nyah, Nyah-Nyah!  You thought you ha-ad us!  You thought we were on-ly sla-aves!"[[8]] 

The same theme echoes through event after event throughout Jewish and Christian scriptures -- with the Exodus, with various rescues of the young nation, with the return of the people from Babylonian captivity, and supremely with the resurrection of Jesus.  "Nyah, Nyah, Nyah, Nyah-Nyah!  Evil thought it had won!  Nyah, Nyah, Nyah, Nyah-Nyah!"  Not a bad image.

[1] See appendix for a videos and stories of Avner and Ken.
[3] You can check it out in Judges, I-II Samuel, I&II Kings, and Chronicles.
[4] This illustration comes from Doug Adams, author of "The Prostitute in the Family Tree."
[5] For a similar perspective, read in the Appendix Ken Feit's performance piece on Cleo, the Muse of History, visiting a fortune teller for advice on whether or not to abort her new nation about to be born.
[6] My first 15 Minute Play is an illustration of ths Credo. You can see it at:
[7] When I was presenting an earlier version of this piece, a middle aged man at the rear of the lecture hall became very disturbed. When I asked him if he had something to share, he said, "I teach drama at Kent State University and one year we were in rehearsals for "A Thousand Clowns," when the National Guard killed four of our students and the university shut down. When the university resumed the semester, we decided to go ahead with the play. On opening night, when we came to the line 'but only as a tourist,' the place erupted with cheers, tears and applause lasting over five minutes."
[1][8][]From lecture notes.

Monday, April 03, 2017

Difficulties in Believing: The Virgin Birth, Miracles, Creedal Statements

St. Bede's Forum, March 2017
Tom Woodward

            In the recent HBO series, "The Young Pope," the young American Pope was asked why he decided to be a priest. His response was simple, "I wanted to serve God." That, I believe, should have disqualified him from the beginning.
            A priest serves the people who serve God. In doing so, the priest is serving God, but not in the ways we usually mean with that phrase. As a priest I serve God by supporting you, feeding you spiritually, building up your community.
            One afternoon in California I was part of a meeting of Rural Deans, called by my bishop. In the middle of our discussion, he asserted that he was "the chief evangelist of the diocese." I responded by noting that bishops spend most of their time in their offices dealing with priests who spend most of their time in their offices dealing with lay people who spend almost all of their time dealing with the unchurched. It is the lay people who are really the chief evangelists of the diocese.
            As I remember, that was the last time I was to be invited to a meeting of the Rural Deans.

            I have often heard comedian Bill Maher challenge self-identified Christians by asking "How can anyone believe in a religion with a talking snake?" The line always got a chuckle from his audience, even while demonstrating an amazing ignorance of Bill Maher, who was unaware of the role of myth and metaphor in dealing with the ultimate questions about human life - and in addressing our relationship with the infinite.
            What is most important in talking about Christian doctrine and faith is this: we are saved through Grace by faith - not doctrine. The key for any of us is faith, which has to do with trust and relationship. That relationship can range from the tiniest of threads on our part to the relationship we attribute to our monks and nuns in their 24 hour daily devotion. We are all somewhere on that continuum - and every place is OK.
            Doctrine comes into being in the service of faith. Its purpose is to protect that basic experience of faith. As an example, the phrase in the Nicene Creed about Jesus being born of the virgin, Mary was inserted not to require belief in the virginity of Jesus' mother, but to mark the belief or trust that Jesus was born of a human mother - and that his birth was a matter of God's initiative. This came after a time of conjecture that Jesus miraculously appeared in the world as fully adult or that Jesus only appeared to be human, his humanity some form of a mask.
            The Church's doctrine arose out of the necessity to preserve the experience of the pre-Easter Jesus. So when disputes arose, in particular deciding which manuscripts would be in the Canon of the Christian Scriptures (the New Testament), arguments were settled by those who knew others who knew or were taught by the Apostles. It was not the resulting doctrine, but the faith the doctrine protected that was and is important.
            So what about St. Paul's teaching that we are saved through grace by our faith? When I was Protestant Chaplain at the University of Rochester I worked with Paul Walasky, who also taught courses in religion at the university. One year Paul summoned to his office a student who had earlier handed in his paper on St. Paul's Understanding of Grace. The student, anticipating a severe dressing down for his work, began making noises that his paper was not very good and probably deserved a failing grade. Paul interrupted him to say, "I agree that you didn't take the time to understand St. Paul and his understanding of grace, that your spelling was bad, the grammar often deficient, and you spilled coffee on two of the pages of your essay.  So I want to know that I am giving you a B on your paper. The student  was shocked, "But there is no way I deserve a B - everything you said is true!" Paul shoved the paper with the large "B" on the front page toward the student with these words, "Now you understand Paul's understanding of grace." That  may be the most important story most of us will hear during our lifetimes in the church.
            One last thing about doctrine, especially as codified in our Nicene Creed. The Nicene Creed begins "We believe. . ." This creed is the belief of the church - and as a whole, not  necessarily the belief on any individual at any given time. I have often preached on the matter of faith and belief by having the congregation stand and then remain standing or regain standing for any phrase of the Creed they believed or which made a difference in how they lived their life. When the opposite was true, they were to sit.
            Through the opening of the Creed ("We believe in one God") everyone remained standing. Then with "the Father Almighty" a good proportion of the women along with a few men sat down. And on and on through the Creed. We then would talk about our experience, including the observation that no one stood throughout the Creed - even the priest! Our conclusion was always that the Creed represents the belief of the church, and not necessarily that of any individual in the church. We each have a part of the whole - and together we approximate the whole. That should be a relief to any of us who is struggling with belief.

            First, some background. One of the rarely used elements of Bible study is the field of Typology, which uses events and persons to illuminate or reveal aspects or significant meanings of history - or, for our purposes, holy history. For example, in our Bible readings two weeks ago, Paul made reference to Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness. What image or event does that call to mind? The forty days the Hebrews spent in the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land.
            Thanks largely to recent Biblical scholarship, we are beginning to understand the myriad ways the events and people of Christian Scriptures are tied to those of the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament).  As we will discuss later, I believe our best thinking is that we as the Christian church have been grafted into Jewish holy history (see Romans 9-11). Thus, our relationship to Judaism is one of dependence, not superiority.
            So here we go - with times when a prior unresolved event is fulfilled or resolved in the present - or when an event in one of the Gospels can be seen as the mirror image of an event in Jewish history, as in the passage two weeks ago about Jesus' 40 days in the wilderness. These things tie us to our Jewish ancestry and  history as the people of God.

- Jesus as the New Adam
- The Disobedience of Eve is overcome by the Obedience of Mary
- Confusion at Tower of Babel is reversed at Pentecost
- Slaughter of the Innocents, both at the time of Moses and of Jesus.
- Refugee status of Moses - and similarly of Jesus (both involving Egypt).
- 40 years of wandering in the wilderness - Jesus spending 40 days in wilderness.
- Ten Commandments from the mountain and Beatitudes (sermon on the mountain)
- Moses' face shining, coming down the mountain precedes the Transfiguration.
- At Transfiguration, Jesus flanked by Moses and Elijah (the Law and the Prophets).
- Suffering Servant Passages in Isaiah (46-53) reflected in Passion of Jesus.
- Passage in Isaiah 7:14 about "the virgin" or young maiden is basis for Matthew 1:22-33.
- The story of Cain and Abel lived out in Steinbeck's "East of Eden" in the Salinas Valley:
 --  Bruce and Steve Taylor had controlling interest in Fresh Express produce. When Steve "got religion," he initiated a brutal battle, forcing Bruce out of the family business.  Bruce, my parishioner, later started Taylor Farms, which is now the equal of Fresh Express. Thus, the important question about a myth is not "When did it happen?" but "Where is it happening?" This is especially true of the myths in Genesis.

- The Sacrifice of Isaac (Genesis 18) provides the context for Simon of Cyrene carrying Jesus' cross. Mark, alone, tells of Simon of Cyrene, father of Alexander and Rufus, carrying the cross of Jesus to the crucifixion (15:21). Note, that Simon is a Semitic name, Alexander ("one who contends") is a Greek name, and Rufus (from the Latin for "red") is a Roman name. Then remember that Isaac's sons are Jacob, who contended with the angel, and Esau, who founded the nation of Edom which was located on red clay (Edom's approaching soldiers were referred to as "dressed in red"). Third, just as Isaac was compelled to carry wood to his own sacrifice (where, instead, a lamb was provided), so Simon was compelled to carry a wooden cross to a sacrifice (where the Lamb of God was provided). So this is a stunning piece of writing by Mark, as in one verse with Simon's family consisting of a Semite, a Greek, and a Roman, - the whole of the known world was involved in carrying the cross of Jesus to Golgotha.

                Note:  You won't find this explanation in any Commentary, though the connection is clear                 and makes no other sense. TBW

            The nativity stories in Matthew and Luke reflect the passage from the prophet Isaiah, but there remains confusion as to the meaning of the term in Isaiah 7:14. However, regardless of a literal truth of a virgin birth of Jesus, there are other even more important truths:

a.  it is a metaphorical rendition of the belief that Jesus' birth being at God's initiative. There may     
         have been no other way to portray this.
b.  this is an affirmation of Jesus' humanity as he was born of a human mother, over against the  
        heresy of Docetism, which held that Jesus "seemed" to be human.

            As noted earlier, Mary's obedience reverses the Genesis story about the disobedience of Eve and the inclusion of "virgin Mary" in the Nicene Creed was to contradict the heresy of Docetism. It is interesting that in Mark's Gospel Jesus holds his humanity and divinity in tension by referring to himself as "the Son of man." The phrase is ambiguous. The Book of  Daniel refers to the Son of man coming to earth in clouds of glory, while the Psalms and the prophet Ezekiel speak of the Son of man being lower than the worms of the earth.
            In talking with Mike Miller, my Roman Catholic colleague in Salinas, California, I asked what progressive Roman Catholics thought about the doctrine of the virgin birth. He said it had to do with this: We all have parts of ourselves that we keep hidden from others and there are also parts of ourselves which are even hidden from ourselves. They are "virgin territory." When Mary opened herself to God, she offered all of herself, including that virgin territory - in that sense Jesus acquired a humanity deeper than all other births.

Myth over Literal Fact: There is a huge difference between an astonishing fact (virgin birth of Jesus) and the revelatory power of the metaphor, as explicated above. I want to explore in a future Forum the struggle between Biblical myths and Jesus' parables and the cultural myths embedded in our personal and national lives.

            The miracles are treated differently in Gospels. Mark, in the first half of his gospel, uses miracles to support his theme of "Who is this man?" to define his presence. As miracle follows miracle the question arises "Who is this who quiets the sea/heals the sick/ forgives sins/ and raises the dead?" John uses miracles as signs, revealing significant aspects of our Lord's power and mission. This is clearest with the turning of water into wine at the wedding at Cana. There were plenty of miracle workers at the time: the issue was their identity and mission.
            Here are two paths to making sense or understanding the miracles in Christian Scriptures.
First, a Roman Catholic author, Louis Everly, writes that a prerequisite for understanding or believing the miracles, divine healing, and resurrection is that we have experienced these things in our own lives; that we have experienced the miracle of touch, the healing of another's forgiveness, the reality of resurrection in our own lives. Someone has also posited that the inability to accept the reality of miracles is a failure of imagination.
            Second, there is the analysis of physicist Karl Heim in his book, "The Christian Faith and  Natural Science." Heim was a real believer in Rudolph Otto's understanding of the experience of the numenous or Mysterium Tremendum* in his book, "The Idea of the Holy." For Heim, the experience of the Mysterium Tremendum is a reality of human existence and a clue to religious reality.  In short, his analysis is:

            a point has no conception or understanding of the dimension of a line, just as
            a line has no conception or access to understanding the dimension of a cube, just as
            a three dimensional object (human) has no direct access to the dimension of the Holy.**

The Holy is another dimension of reality which is inaccessible to humans (mundane reality), except when the Holy permeates the boundaries between itself and mundane reality. The Holy is a constant reality, as real as anything else  - just beyond our human capacity for apprehension or understanding.         

*  A feeling of the uncanny, the thrill of awe and reverence, the sense of dependence, of impotence, or of nothingness or the feeling of of religious rapture and exaltation. The sense of the tremendous, the awful, the mysterious, the numinous, the mysterium tremendum. . .often experienced in liturgy.

**  Most of us grew up in a world in which there was a single geometry, Euclidian Geometry. Mathematicians now wrestle with a variety of geometries and dimensions of reality.

            St. Mark bookends his Gospel with what Karl Heim is exploring. At the beginning of his Gospel, as Jesus is being baptized by John the Baptist, the heavens part and the Holy is expressed in the words "You are my beloved in whom I am well pleased." The word for the parting of the heavens is from the Greek, schizomenous, meaning a splitting apart. Similarly, at the close of Mark's Gospel, as Jesus breathes his last, the veil of the Temple is split apart, obliterating  the separation between the holy and the mundane. Again, Mark uses the Greek schizo, as do Matthew ( 21:55) and Luke (23:45)in treating the splitting in two of the veil of the Temple at Jesus' death..
            The same phenomenon is the focus of the Transfiguration, in which the full glory of the Holy infuses the body of Jesus as he is flanked by Moses and Elijah (Moses having earlier been the occasion of much of this phenomenon when he descends from the mountain with his face glowing from the reality of the holy in him.
            By extension, the miracles we experience in Scripture and in life may be expressions of this same reality of the Holy - not violating natural law, but permeating that boundary between the Holy and the mundane.  
            Martin Gardner, the insightful mathematician who was the puzzle editor for the magazine, "Scientific American," for many years, writes of coming upon a congregation in New York City which had at the center of its understanding this notion of Karl Heim.
            All this is close to what we are talking about when we talk of life as sacramental. Thus, as the novelist Walker Percy writes, a kiss is not just four lips in closest proximity. It is sacramental: an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace - or an inward attempt at manipulation . . betrayal. Frederick Buechner writes in his "Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC" that when we say "God is love," we are asserting that God is the source of all love. Love is not one of the things in our power to create. When I love someone, that is God's love happening through us for the other. It is, in the old movie cliche, "bigger than the two of us."
           My favorite Buechner aphorism is from the same book. "Sex," he writes, "contrary to Mrs. Grundy, is not sin; and contrary to Hugh Hefner, it is not salvation, either. It is more like nitro-glycerin, which can be used to blow up bridges or to heal hearts."
           So it is in a world which is sacramental and with the clues to its heart in our experience of the holy, the mysterium tremendum.

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