Mahalia and a City Called Heaven– The Word of God is not Chained.

 

A sermon preached at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church on Proper 23 Sunday October 13. I reference the spiritual known as A City Called Heaven or Poor Pilgrim of Sorrow. Frank Ward’s homepage  including audio of his singing can be found here.

 

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Homily: Anger and the Gospel of the Disinherited

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A sermon discussing the interpretive principles of the fourth century desert father Evagrius and the twentieth century theologian Howard Thurman.

Joyful Sorrow: A sermon at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, Akron Ohio

The following sermon was preached on September 15th of this year. This week marked the anniversary of 9/11 and the Feast day of Harry Thacker Burleigh, the greatest African-American composer and arranger of the black spiritual tradition. This Sunday also marks the Feast of Our Lady of Sorrows in the Roman Catholic tradition and who is celebrated within the black spiritual Weeping Mary sung most famously by Paul Robeson. In our worship, we looked forward in hope and joy with Mavis Staples, our nations finest singer of both gospel and soul from within the black church tradition. Her arrival for a concert in Cleveland this week gave us added encouragement to find our joy even within what she and her beloved father Pops Staples call ‘the heavy.” Sha la boom boom yeah! 

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Sister Mavis shows us the face of one steeped in joy and intimate with sorrow. As we say in the church, the icon of the face of Christ and his Mother Mary.

(Apologies for the poor sound quality. I preach on the floor, not the pulpit and the microphone is not as close as desireable. And, as always, when preaching without notes, mistakes are made. Dvorak was Czech for example, not Hungarian. But as I remarked in the sermon following the great African theologian St. Augustine, our mistakes are only another way for the one we call our Higher Power to show that power even in our weakness.)

 

Cranes as Guardians of a Trustworthy Heart

In my new job as an addiction recovery chaplain, one of the first themes we have explored in chapel was that of the need for trust. For reasons that I think will need a book to work out, my own thoughts on this topic draw me continually to the subject of birds, in particular, sandhill cranes. This is a snippet of some draft notes for that book.

Most of my friends know by now of my deep and passionate love of a pair of sandhill cranes that reside in a marsh here in Medina County. I named them Gene and Grace (Kelly)  for a number of reasons.  Cranes are renowned for their remarkable dancing and for me the image of Gene Kelly dancing in the rain is one that fills me with great joy, especially knowing that he had a high fever on the day he shot that iconic dance scene. Also, one of my best friends in college, one who listened with amazing attentiveness to me as I struggled with my own wounds is also named Eugene, or Gene as we called him then. Naming animals is a tricky thing, but usually they have a way of letting you know if you’ve got it right. 

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Gene dancing up a storm

Grace lost the bottom part of her leg this spring in an accident and now relies even more upon her partner Gene to keep watch for her and the potential enemies she is less able to defend herself from. As I watched her bow down low on one leg to forage for food, I was struck by the gracefulness of her movements and the name Grace seems most fitting as I thought of the slow moving beauty and resilient strength of the iconic Grace Kelly.

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Grace preening on one leg. How could she not be Grace?

Cranes are the oldest species of bird known. They have been revered by all cultures, civilizations, and religious traditions where they reside, including the Buddhist, native American, African, and Christian traditions.

Cranes typically mate for life and are fiercely loyal to one another. Both the male and female take time to sit on the nest while the other keeps guard and gets some food. Because Grace lost part of her leg this spring, they were unable to produce any offspring. Grace struggles somewhat to forage, and when she does, she is more vulnerable since she can’t use one of the bird’s best defenses, a strong kick. Gene is always by her side. Always. And when she bends down to eat, he is usually scanning the horizon for any threats. This is trustworthy love in action. We are all wounded in ways, but some are more vulnerable than others and one way to think of prayer or spiritual practice is as attentiveness to the vulnerable heart of another. This is Gene in action.

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Gene on the lookout while Grace gets a breakfast of soybeans in a field near their marsh home

In the Christian tradition cranes are revered for their prayerful attentiveness. It was believed that, like monks in a monastery, or residential staff in a recovery center, it was crucial for there to be one or two cranes who stayed awake all night to insure the safety of the rest. Cranes are known for sleeping on one leg. In the medieval imagination, it was believed that the other leg held a large rock, symbolizing the rock of Christ, which, if the guardian bird were to accidentally fall asleep, would hit the ground with a loud thud and awaken the birds to their danger. These verses from the First Epistle of Peter were likely in the monks minds when the imagined the cranes this way:

Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.  Be sober. Be Watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering.

crane bestiary

Here are snippets from two sermons speaking of their qualities and an icon from a medieval Christian bestiary. Theologian birdwatchers have been drawn to their watchfulness, one of the most important qualities in a strong prayer life. Though their ornithological accuracy may be in doubt in the thoughts, Isidore and St. Antony are surely on to something by seeing that our own attentiveness to the virtues of natural world have much to teach us. By their faithful presence to one another day after day, Gene and Grace have taught me a great deal about how to be a trustworthy partner to those I love. And they have taught me one way to think about what it means to pray without ceasing.

Isidore of Seville [7th century CE] (Etymologies, Book 12, 7:14-15): Cranes (grues) take their name from the murmuring sound they make. When they are travelling somewhere they follow the letters of the alphabet. They fly at great altitude so they can see the lands they seek. The leader in flight maintains the line of birds with its voice; when it grows hoarse another bird takes its place. At night they take turns acting as guard; the one on duty holds a small stone in its claws to hold off sleep, and cries out at anything to be feared. Their age is revealed by their color, because the darken as they grow old.

St Antony of Padua [12th-13th century CE] (Sermons): Merciful men compared to cranes. Let us, therefore, be merciful, and imitate the cranes, who, when they set off for their appointed place, fly up to some lofty eminence, in order that they may obtain a view of the lands which they are going to pass. The leader of the band goes before them, chastises those that fly too slowly, and keeps together the troop by his cry. As soon as he becomes hoarse, another takes his place; and all have the same care for those that are weary; so that if any one is unable to fly, the rest gather together, and bear him up till he recovers his strength. Nor do they take less care of each other when they are on the ground. They divide the night into watches, so that there may be a diligent care over all. Those that watch hold a weight in one of their claws, so that, if they happen to sleep, it falls on the ground and makes a noise, and thus convicts them of somnolency. Let us, therefore, be merciful as the cranes; that, placing ourselves on a lofty watch-tower in this life, we may look out both for ourselves and for others, may lead those that are ignorant of the way, and may chastise the slothful and negligent by our exhortations. Let us succeed alternately to labour. Let us carry the weak and infirm, that they faint not in the way. In the watches of the night, let us keep vigil to the Lord, by prayer and contemplation.

Artistic Vision Requires Community

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Sudden Illumination

 

This post continues a line from my previous post about seeing the foundation of the Christian community as an act of artistic vision and commitment.

God’s call to new life and creative innovation  always happens in community no matter how much we as individuals experience this creative energy stirring very personally in our own hearts.
So in the crucial story in Acts 10 of God’s calling of the church to open its mission for the first time to the gentiles, both Peter and Cornelius have visions of remarkable power and personal impact that cause radical changes in their ways of seeing the world. What they have seen in their visions is undeniable, and they must act on it, yet, as Luke puts it so wonderfully, they remain “puzzled,’ about what their visions portend.*
Luke makes it very clear that neither actually sees what God’s call is apart from one another and apart from the gathered community. Even Peter and Cornelius meeting alone would not have been enough to clarify things. Though we often think of artists working in isolation, or romanticize art as the lonely call of a ‘genius’ hearing intimate things no one else can hear, the truth is that all art is communal of its essence, as it is about opening the aperture of a community’s heart to new things–it aims to communicate something fundamental about community and its blindnesses: “This is what I see, I don’t know quite what to make of it. What do you see?” If I as an artist see something previously unimaginable, I  work to bring this vision to life in order to have the community help me see what it means, what it intends, for all of us.
Art lives then at the intersection of profound insight and radical unknowing and is an inherently political act when we understand politics in its root meaning as the art of living together in harmonious creative play.
Because vision requires this shared discernment even as we have powerful intimations that God is doing something new and in a unique way with us each as individuals, we must gather and listen together to the word, behold the vision. This is actually the most important reason why the church gathers regularly each week and sometimes more often and why it is simply not possible to be a Christian or a spiritual being apart from some kind of gathered community. We don’t know the communal meaning of what we see otherwise.
What Acts 10 tells us is that we should be careful of defining that artistic spiritual community too narrowly, for God has a way of bursting open doors we didn’t even know were there!
“Then the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the Word.”
* for you philosophy types, the greek word here for puzzled is διαπορέω [diaporeo] a variant of the verb ἀπορέω from which we get the word aporia.

St. Peter’s Artistic Vision: The Spirit of not quite knowing who we are

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Gurdon Brewster’s Jesus and Buddha dancing ecstatically. Are you sure you can tell who is who? St Peter would be proud I think!

“I was in the city of Joppa praying, and in a trance ἔκστασις I saw a vision.” –Acts 11:5
We celebrate the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul today. To Peter we owe our militant refusal to identify God’s ways with our own. When he insists that we not judge or criticize God’s re-making of our very identities, he becomes the patron saint of all artists.
For art is above all the ‘ecstatic’ science, one that takes visions with ultimate seriousness, even when these visions undermine who we thought we were and where we thought we were going. True art is fearless, seeing possibilities for new life even in the monstrous mixing of categories, identities, and story lines. So Peter took and ate the unclean animals and his spirit was nourished and expanded. It is hard to underestimate the radical nature of Peter’s faithfulness to this vision, one which revolutionized the church’s mission and opened it up to continual revisioning and spiritual leaps of creative and often improbable connection.
His friends who wanted to keep everything in its proper place criticized him (διακρίνω) and insisted on being reasonable above all else–surely a vision by a man literally out of his mind cannot be the basis upon which we are to be reborn? We are who we are, who we always have been, and to suggest otherwise is to be more than ecstatic, it is to be a revolutionary. For some, he was undoubtedly seen as quite beside himself and mad. That’s our Peter, church. Are we so bold as to follow?
Peter insists that the vision he has seen is of God and then he holds relentlessly to the discipline of re-building his life and the life of the community around this vision. It will be hard work, full of mistrust, desires to clarify and codify and delimit what is a whirlwind, a colorful mixing of metaphors, not to mention  families, languages, peoples,  and nations. We will be tempted to cleave to the safe shore of our familiars, but Peter the artist will boldly lead us into the blooming and onto the whirling wheel of life.  “The Spirit told me to go with them and not to make a distinction (διακρἰνω),” Peter insists.
When we think of that rock of the church,  Peter,  as a spiritual artist then we can begin to see art and artists in a different way.  Artists are not, as is often thought, impulsive dreamers, rogues, or ne’er do wells (well, okay, sometimes they are ;-)) but principled and discipline followers of visions and promptings of the spirit, and they tend to contemplative silence and communities of radical hospitality.  The are protean in their willingness to be re-formed, de-formed, and in-formed by their vision, and so they are often allied with the mystics and the misfits of society. But they are seriously grounded, as Peter was, upon the reality of what they see which is why they align with other scientists in their insistence on being true to what is seen and heard. Artists learn the hard way to either get out of the way of the work or be damned to ugly narcissism.
Contemplative silence is therefore crucial, a prayerful attentiveness in which self-aggrandizing distinctions, premature criticisms, and risk-averse judgments have little place. Vision and discipline together lead to humility and awe before the ways our creator gives us the task of extending the creation in our own lives.
And so we should not be surprised that Peter’s words lead to this outcome:  Hesychia (contemplative silence) and praise. All truly spiritual art begets more of the same.
When they heard this, they were silenced (ἡσυχάζω). And they praised God. —Acts 11:18

Spirituality and the Arts: Why We Need Tragic Drama

This fall Ellen Gainor and I will be teaching Paula Vogel’s remarkable play Indecent in our course at Cornell. Vogel is a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright and a lesbian feminist of Jewish heritage.
I was struck by her comment in a recent interview when asked if she considered herself a spiritual person and if that affected her work. Vogel responded:
“I don’t think there’s anyone in theatre who doesn’t consider themselves spiritual. I don’t really know any secularists. In terms of spirituality when it comes to theatre, you are dealing with, literally, the undead. Characters are bringing to life the sense of humans that don’t exist. I consider myself extremely spiritual.”
It strikes me more and more that in the kind of death-driven political climate we live in, the spiritual resources of the arts are more necessary than ever. We need life and more life and the courage to explore the depths of human suffering and the joy that can come even in the darkest moments of our lives. Vogel’s play, which I saw when it was still off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theatre, does exactly that.
So too for the Ayad Akhtar play Disgraced currently at the Hangar Theatre here in Ithaca. It was a bold and even dangerous choice by Michael Barakiva and  the Hangar to begin their season with this bracing tragedy, and it certainly stirs up for our attention the many forms of political and religiously inflected violence in the world today. disgraced image
But like all true tragedies, Disgraced does this with a deeply moral, political, and spiritual agenda. Here’s Rowan Williams in his remarkable little book The Tragic Imagination articulating the crucial spiritual and political role well-written tragedies can play:
“In this moment of my watching in the theatre, the only action that is going on is on the stage. I am both free from the necessity to act and bound to be still. I have surrendered this time to the action of others. And that, so Cavell argues, is where the tragic drama becomes transformative of my perception. I am enjoined as a spectator to allow to happen what the tragic agents on stage are struggling not to allow: I am affirming human separateness, the impenetrability of agents to each other, so that my/ our response to suffering is to some degree stripped of the corrupting drama of easy identification with the sufferer, the absorption of the terrible otherness of alien pain into my own story…
…my immobilization in the face of terrible pain has here a contemplative quality; and when tragic liturgy has decayed or disappeared, we are left with a toxic gap in our human repertoire. Once, as audience to a tragic representation, we had a ceremonial ‘doing nothing’ which showed us why we feel helpless in the face of pain and loss— because we are still learning the solidarity that comes out of recognizing the sheer distance between actual human persons, so that our stillness in the face of represented pain becomes a forced acknowledgment of our habits of avoidance and denial and a confrontation of the helplessness in the presence of catastrophe that we regularly experience and avoid reflecting about.
From this experience, we can recover a proper political ethic, we can learn better how and when to act. Without this liturgical moment, the only answer to the question of why we are doing nothing in the face of pain and terror— in the face, say, of constantly reported pain and terror, or pain and terror represented as entertaining anecdote; in the face of newsprint and screen— is that we have chosen to do nothing, a choice that ‘requires the same energy, the same cunning and avoidance, that tragic activity used to have to itself’.
And the implication of this is that a culture without tragic drama, a culture in which the tragic audience has been replaced by the assembly of spectators, is itself exemplifying tragic disaster; it is refusing to know what it knows about humanity, and so is at risk of dying from what it does not know, like any classical tragic protagonist.”
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