Wednesday, December 20, 2006

More Majestic than the Mountains

Glorious are you, more majestic than the everlasting mountains.
-Psalm 76:4
I was reflecting last night on Psalm 76, and it led me to wonder whether anyone has ever really been an animist in the primitive sense we imagine worshipping trees and wind and mountains and so on. The verse above from Psalm 76 really speaks to me. I know God in the way of which this verse speaks.

I grew up in the Appalachian Mountains in western Maryland, and these mountains always had a special draw for me. They were home. When coming back from a trip to Baltimore, the cut at Sidling Hill always felt like the gateway to where I lived. Before that pass, I was away and the mountains were in front of me. After that pass, I was home and the mountains were all around me, surrounding me as a mother hen gathers her brood under her wings.

Then in my 20's I moved to Oregon, and I got a whole new picture of what is meant by "majestic mountains." If you've never lived in a city near a mountain like Mt. Hood, I'm not sure I can really convey what it's like. You'll be driving down the street like you would any day, and then you turn a corner and suddenly, as if it appeared out of nowhere, there is an 11,000 foot mountain right in front of you, dominating the landscape. And the beauty of this mountain is glorious. Pristine and pure, serene, unmoveable. It's easy to see how the early inhabitants of these lands could have personified the mountains. There's certainly something numinous about its all-seeing presence.

And here, at the numinous quality of nature, is where Psalm 76 meets the language of animism. It's been said that God is invisible, but it simply isn't true. I see God all the time. Often, I see God when I look at the sky. The sky is God, but only some days. Frequently, I see God in a lone tree in the middle of a field. The tree is God, but not always. And the mountains.... "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help." (Ps. 121:1, KJV)

Obviously, I don't really think the sky or a tree or a mountain is God, but quite often when I look at them I see God. I know I am seeing God because I am seeing more than sky or tree or mountain. I am seeing God, who is more majestic than the everlasting mountains.

Monday, December 18, 2006


Regular readers of this blog (and maybe even some of you who are irregular) may recall that I have an ongoing struggle with the idea of vocation. I can't help feeling that the traditional Lutheran teaching on vocation is too easily co-opted to support the status quo. As frequently expressed, it seems to come down to "whatever job you happen to be doing, that's your vocation." Yes, a baker helps answer our prayer for daily bread, but what about someone in a marketing position whose job is simply to convince people to buy company A's product instead of that of company B? How does that figure in the Kingdom of God?

Last night I got some help in this area from Brian Taylor's book Spirituality for Everyday Living: An Adaptation of the Rule of St. Benedict. Taylor uses the example of an artist who works as a waiter to pay the bills.
When asked what they do, one may find the reply: "I wait on tables for a living, but my 'work' [vocation] is painting." Vocation is a matter of our identity in God. It is who we are called to be in Christ. It is the activity through which God is made manifest. We are all created in the image of God, and each of us presents one facet of God's infinity. ... If one has a sense of personal vocation, then why not join the painter as a waiter in order to make ends meet?
The reason that I always struggle with vocation is that I can never see how my job contributes anything to either the Kingdom of God or to human society, and I don't feel "called" to it in any way. On the other hand, there are things to which I have a very strong sense of calling. So why not join the painter as a waiter (or software engineer, as the case may be)?

Thursday, December 07, 2006

St. Nicholas (a day late)

I was out of town yesterday and so missed St. Nicholas' Day. I suggested to a co-worker recently that Santa Claus has long since escaped from Christmas, thus making him a safe character for pluralistic settings, but really he still has a lot of potential as a proclaimer of the Christian message, besides which the historical St. Nicholas is a really neat guy.

A couple of years ago I was in Russia on a business trip. One of my Russian co-workers, Eugene (Evgeny), took a group of us around town to visit various tacky knick-knack shops and such things. After visiting a number of stores I noticed that there was one particular icon that I kept seeing. I asked Eugene who it was. Eugene, who is Christian, took a glance and said, "Oh, that's probably Holy Nicholas." I about fell over. It was the middle of June and Santa Claus was all over Russia.

But in America, the good bishop has what I would consider a bit of an image problem. Every year the horrid claymation story purporting to tell children Santa Claus' origins gets under my skin. St. Nicholas has a really interesting history. Why did the makers of the wretched "Santa Claus is Comin' To Town" feel the need to invent a new history? Was is because they wanted to help Santa escape from Christmas?

This year, I got some unexpected help bringing Santa back into the Christian fold for my family. My wife has been looking for a Christmas puzzle. Yesterday, she picked up a puzzle called St. Nicholas in His Study. The picture has a fairly American Santa, but he's surrounded by images linking him to the saint of Christian tradition. The back of the box relates the story of St. Nicholas, explaining the various symbols.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Union with God

In my previous post I mentioned some ideas on union with God that I found a while ago in Lawrence Kushner's book God Was in This Place & I, i Did Not Know. I went back and re-read this section in Kushner's book. It's very good stuff.

The rabbi he references is Kabbalah expert Moshe Idel and the Hebrew term Idel uses to describe the mystical union is devekut. He gives three types of union: cognitive devekut, devekut of behavior and devekut of prayer. Kushner summarizes this way:
We don't want just to read about what God wants. We don't want someone else telling us what God wants either. We don't even want God telling us what God wants. We want our eyes to be God's eyes so we can see the world the way God sees it. We want our teaching to be God's Torah. We want our hands to do God's work. We want our prayers to be God's prayers. We want what God wants. Devekut: being one with God. At last the "little i, Anochi," and the "Great I, Anochi, of All creation" are one.
That's not too much to ask, is it?

It reminded me of what St. Augustine said of his conversion experience: "This was the sum of it: not to will what I willed and to will what you willed." (Confessions, Book 9, Chapter 1)

Friday, December 01, 2006

Praise God

I confess, I have a bit of a problem with praising God in prayer. Not that I don't think it's right, for it is indeed right and salutary that we should at all times and in all places offer thanksgiving and praise. But what I mean can be seen by my use of a traditional quotation in the previous sentence. Namely, it just doesn't come naturally to me to speak this way.

When I try to say a prayer of praise, it comes out sounding like the prayer from Monty Python's Meaning of Life:
O Lord, you are so absolutely huge. We're all really impressed down here I can tell you. Forgive us, O Lord, for this, our dreadful toadying and barefaced flattery.
And, while I'm at it, contemporary praise songs like "Our God is an Awesome God" sound like that to me too. I'm forced to rule it out, based on prayer advice I've heard attributed to Martin Luther: "Don't lie when you pray."

That is, I'm not going to pray "O Lord, you are so big..." if that's not what's on my heart.

But something occurred to me recently that put me at ease about this, which I'd like to share with you. Some time ago, I was exposed to a sermon series on Gary Chapman's book, The Five Love Languages. At the time, I was appalled to be attending a church that would do such a heinous thing, but now, unexpectedly, a seed from that time has come to bloom. Chapman's idea is that different people express love in different ways, and if we want good relationships we need to learn to recognize each other's love languages. Some people show love verbally, others physically, others by service, and so on.

The thing that occurred to me this week is that if people can learn to recognize and respect each other's love languages, surely God will do at least that. Words of praise just aren't my love language, and they aren't likely to become so. But God knows not just what's in my heart but what my various actions mean.

I once heard an interview with the arch-heretic John Domminic Crossan. Asked if he prays, Crossan said that he doesn't understand the difference between prayer and study. For him, when he studies that is prayer. I was shocked to realize that I knew exactly what he meant. While I'm not so bold as Crossan to give up traditional forms of prayer, I think I could say, and this may scandalize both prayer-oriented spiritualists and service-oriented spiritualists, that study is the primary medium by which I experience God's presence.

Lawrence Kushner, in his book God Was In This Place and I, i Did Not Know tells of a revered Rabbi who taught that there are three ways to union with God: prayer, service and intellect. This maps directly, I think, to the three Hindu margas of bhakti (devotion), karma (service) and jnana (intellect). I think it's a fine example of something Christians can learn from people of other faiths. And it came together for me this week as I reflected on how I love God.

Afterthought: To what extent do the theological virtues of faith, hope and love correspond to these three paths of intellect, prayer and service? Is the correspondance more than superficial?