Among the best parts of my job when I was Canon to the Ordinary for the Diocese of Indianapolis was that I got to spend a major portion of my time on the road, visiting congregations and other ministries around the diocese. Consequently I got to see the seasons unfold in fast motion, as I drove from Indianapolis southward and saw spring unfold more and more as each mile rolled by. In the one week I saw daffodils blooming in sight of the Ohio River in Jeffersonville, fields of wild flowers showing their glory outside of Washington, and all sorts of trees and shrubs blooming in the old neighborhoods of Vincennes.
Driving northward the seasons would go a bit backward, as winter still held onto the barren fields and bare trees. Yet all of this brought a sense of joy to me, not just because for the last 18 years before returning to Indiana I experienced the confused plant life of Southern California, which never can know for sure by the weather whether it is time to bloom or bust, but also because it is such a vivid reminder of God's creative beauty in the world. As many people have said for centuries in different ways, I enjoy gardening, but God really knows how to do it spectacularly.
Seeing the change of seasons, whether backwards or forwards, in a matter of a couple hours, rather than in the deliberate time of nature, gives me perhaps a twentyfirst century nature experience, one that is condensed and ready for quick consumption. Maybe it would be like trying to do Lent using just one Sunday instead of the full forty days. It seems that quick journey would make Christ's resurrection on Easter not as significant to us, not as deeply felt.
I hope even on the days when I drive no more than a handful of miles I will still pause and notice what God is doing all around me with the daffodils and budding trees. Then perhaps I will also remember to notice all that God is doing in that other part of nature that is all around me, the human species, and appreciate in my fellow children of God what God has been up to with them, the various ways in which God has nurtured them to be as beautiful as spring flowers, even if their bloom is springing from some gnarled branches scared by life. Then truly I will be seeing the power of Christ's resurrection embodied, embodied by people at times desperately in need of new life and hope, and provided that by God through our own nurturing efforts to help one another.
I love to read, sometimes at my own peril. I may start reading a book that looked good by the cover, then quickly into it realize it was not at all what I had hoped it would be. Rather than set it aside and move on, usually I have to finish it just to make sure I was not judging it too harshly or otherwise was unfair to the author, publisher, book seller, and anyone else affected by the book's sale.
The exception to this pattern in me has been sermon collections. I have long been a student of history, so am well aware of the importance of reading original documents in order to understand people and events. So fairly regularly I have tried to read collections of sermons from different eras, traditions, and individuals in order to better understand those times and peoples. Inevitably I soon surrender the attempt, particularly if they are sermons more than a hundred years old, as the style of writing seems so foreign with its flowery constructions and convoluted sentences.
Listening to National Public Radio recently I was reminded of Henry Fowler, who is the parent of modern English writing. He published A Dictionary of Modern English Usage in 1926 and it remains both in print and in use today. It influenced mightily all the writing guides that followed, including The Elements of Style and The Chicago Manual of Style, both of which are more accessible than Fowler's seven hundred page work.
Certainly the movement in English writing was already moving towards greater simplicity from the Victorian grand style, but Fowler codified it in a way that was powerful and lasting. So preachers who in the past may have drawn on the long and complex sermons of their elders for examples were now learning from an early age that simple writing with straightforward constructions was the way to communicate clearly. Other media undoubtedly influenced this movement, as radio was becoming more common in homes, with its demands of short programs that could sell products to the listeners, so that congregations' ears became dull after a dozen or so minutes of a sermon in contrast to the multiple hour sermons of centuries past.
So perhaps Fowler merely was the first to write down what people were experiencing in their everyday language, of a desire for keeping sentences short and sweet, with few adjectives and fewer adverbs. But I am still struck by the image of Fowler's life at the time of his writing his works on how to write and speak. He was living in a one room cottage that was part of his brother's tomato farm, located on an island off the coast of England. I wonder if he was more of an extravert, if he was a person of the city rather than of a solitary existence, he would have advocated more elaborate forms of expression. Even if the tomato plants did not appreciate adverbs perhaps English speakers could have stayed conversant with our own literary past, with the sermons that moved thousands as they patiently took in the elaborate sentences, if Fowler had been more comfortable with more words being used. Or maybe Fowler, a dedicated atheist, did a massive favor to the church by helping preachers learn to be conversant in contemporary language, in the way people were and are talking now.
Even pondering this evaluation of our language does not really motivate me to dive back into those old sermon collections, yet I am reminded of the need for our Sunday preaching to be connected with the Monday through Saturday ways in which people talk about the everyday events of their lives. Part of our goal in preaching is to help everyone see God in those everyday occurrences, the ways in which God loves us and moves through our lives constantly-sometimes in simple ways, sometimes in ways that do require an extra adjective or adverb to communicate God's generous love and caring for each one of us. And of course this articulation does not apply merely to preaching, but to all of us as we try to make sense of our lives, and thereby become more faithful and loving Christians.
A.J. Jacobs wrote a wonderful book entitled A Year Of Living Biblically. For the sake of full disclosure, I admit here that he sent me a free copy of that book, after I referenced his earlier book, The Know-It-All, in my parish newsletter which was later posted on the church website. I think I have made up for that free gift with all the copies I purchased as gifts for friends and family. It has a few swear words in it, to complete my full disclosures, but is a fascinating book about Jacob?s attempts to live out all the rules of the Bible for one year, hopefully with the result for himself of gaining a deeper understanding of the Scriptures and also of people who seek to live their lives by them. Walking with him though the months is educational, at times hilarious, and always intriguing.
There is a lot of talk these days in the Episcopal Church on all levels about what we should do to reach out to modern Americans. Dozens of books are being published about how to understand contemporary ways of spirituality, church structures, worship, and similar matters as people inside the church try to understand and effectively reach people outside the church. Reading A Year Of Living Biblically for me was like reading original source material on a different culture across the globe, even as it unfolds for the most part in New York City.
Jacobs is wonderfully honest and self revealing about his views and experiences of his own and others? spiritual experiences. He chronicles how both of those change through the year, and writes not with broad strokes but sees many of the nuances of modern spirituality. Perhaps this book works for me because it is not trying to be anything more than one person?s working through questions and issues that people have grappled with since the first biblical stories started to be told around the fires in Sinai, or wherever they were first shared.
His book also gives me a peek into the "gotta do it myself" trend in American spirituality that is expressed both within and outside the historic religious institutions of our country, though currently that trend seems to be most scrutinized by the press and scholars as it is expressed in the emergent church movement. Folks are making their own choices about what they believe, how they worship, what ethics they live out, without worrying about whether that set of decisions makes them Episcopalian, Jewish, Unitarian, or none of the above. Perhaps the most likely answer if pressed would be ?all the above, and more.?
Certainly the scholars, theologians, and published leaders of current spirituality movements have many valuable words for me to read and hear (and my Amazon.com bill can back up that statement all too fully). But do not miss the opportunity to hear directly from a seeker who stepped onto the road of Biblical spirituality and now is a fellow traveler on our journey, though very much walking in his own sandals and to his own harp tune.
And this blog is not an effort to get a free copy of his next book...
A little after settling into our house in Indianapolis, we added to our pack of dogs by adopting Pepper from a rescue shelter. She was supposedly a black Labrador puppy around seven months old, but she came from an abusive home so her roots remain murky. While she exhibits some lab characteristics in her behavior, and she has the general build and color of a lab, she has never grown any larger than her puppyish size. Perhaps if we could isolate her gene pool, we could make a fortune selling a new breed of miniature labs, but that is beyond our current interests.
So Pepper is not quite a lab, but that is only part of the story. She is also very emotionally reserved. At least at this point in time no one has given a Myers-Briggs personality inventory to a dog, but Pepper is definitely introverted. She is unlikely to approach anyone for attention, does not like being hugged or scratched all that much, and until she knows for sure what is happening, her first action is to hide in any given situation. But she is also virtually trouble free, as her approach to life means that she does not investigate the kitchen trash or the laundry pile as the other dogs of our house have been known to do. So her primary activity in life is to lie on the family room couch, though to her credit she is usually willing to share it with other dogs, cats, and the occasional human.
So sometimes it is tempting to wonder what Pepper is good for besides holding down the couch cushions. Then I look at her cute face, and I wonder even more how anyone could have abused her so much that she is literally afraid of the wind in the trees. I wonder how someone could have neglected her so much that she fights her instinct to bond with the humans around her with her experience of the dire results of her early life in trying to do so. And I realize she is our four legged reminder of what Christians are called to do-to welcome those so damaged by life that they don?t know that they are beloved children of God.
Sometimes such people will walk through a church door, and other times they must be sought out. Sometimes such people will present themselves as healthy and whole, and only later do their wounds start to be evident. Sometimes such folks do not know that humans can truly love one another rather than use each other. Pepper, with her sketchy past and reluctant connections with us, reminds me to treat everyone around me with care, as all of us have hidden scars and resulting fears that go beyond rationality. Pepper is our four legged Gospel lesson.
Whenever I get the pleasure of spending time with one of our congregations along the Ohio River, I make a point of pausing at least for a bit to watch the water roll by. Sometimes there is something to focus on, like a boat or driftwood, and of course sometimes there is something to ignore, like litter as it drifts along. But there is always a sense of wonder and renewal in me at those times, perhaps because my grandfather was a ship captain and he passed along to my mother and his grandchildren a sense of wonder and awe of waterways. Whether I am at the edge of a deep river or an ocean, I feel its infinite connection with the rest of the world, in the way in which I can start from where I am and go to any continent, even if it may take a long while and require a complex course. And from that new place, I could again go anywhere, and then somewhere else, and so on and so on crisscrossing the globe forever.
Looking at our lives in Christ can be the same experience if we give enough room for God to inspire us. There are infinite possibilities in our journeys with Jesus, no limits to where God may lead us next or the time after. For some people this can be so scary that they sort of sit down wherever they are spiritually and say “no further!” to God and themselves. God still loves them in their stuck-ness, but those folks are both missing out on some grand adventures as well as limiting how God could express love for the world through their lives.
The amazing thing about God is that there is no need for a river as deep and powerful as the Ohio for God to move tons of miracles. Perhaps we see our lives as being more like a quiet pond or small creek. Most of us experience life like the creek at Waycross, rushing sometimes and dry others. But God can move in all of those circumstances to work miracles of love and transformation in our lives and in the people around us, if we simply let the flow of God?s love take us to the next place, the next place of adventure, hope, and lov