Air Hunger

Pentecost Sunday

Acts 2:1-21

Psalm 104:24-34

1 Corinthians 12:3-13

John 20:19-23

 

Then the LORD God formed man from the dust

of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the

breath of life; and the man became a living being.

                                       Genesis 2:7

 

When he had said this, he breathed on them and

said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

                                     John 20:22

 

You who pour mercy into hell, sole authority in the

highest and lowest worlds, let your anger disperse

the mist in this aimless place, where even my sins

fall short of the mark… Arouse my heart again with

the limitless breath you breathe into me, arouse the

secret from obscurity.

                                    Leonard Cohen,  The Book of Mercy

 

Pentecost, with its attention to the life-giving breath of God, seems especially poignant this year, with the world immersed in a pandemic caused by a virus that takes away breath and, tragically often, life.  In spite of assurances that the worst may be over, many of us continue to live day-to-day with simmering anxiety that threatens periodically to boil over into full-blown dread, that we or someone we love will become sick and perhaps even die. One of the most fearsome things about the virus is the way it attacks the respiratory system, making it difficult for the lungs to oxygenate blood. Inadequate blood oxygen causes faster and deeper breathing, which causes changes in blood chemistry that lead, among other things, to panic. The name for this response and the terror it causes is “air hunger,” and anyone who has had a serious asthma attack has experienced at least a measure of it. It is a dreadful thing to watch, much less experience.

It’s small wonder, then, that we are so anxious, for breath is essential to life. This is as much a theological claim as a physiological one; Creation is animated by the breath of God, and the breath that sustains the life of every creature has God as its first cause. Just so, the lectionary for this Pentecost reminds us that God’s ultimate intention, both for us and for the rest of God’s beloved Creation, is not sickness and death but healing and wholeness, given freely in the limitlessly merciful and limitlessly powerful breath of God. Read more

Amazed

Pentecost
Acts 2: 1-21

I am a sucker for wonder. I love to see a waxing or waning moon at twilight, when you can just make out its three-dimensionality. I jump at the chance to look through a telescope at Saturn, and admit to the occasional, brief squint at the sun—that massive ball that is, for us, a constant, consistent, continuous explosion of the nuclear fusion of hydrogen into helium. Recently, I experienced a glimpse of the sacred, for me a holy moment, while watching a CGI animation of the Earth’s magnetic field dispersing the lethal solar wind that would otherwise strip off our protective ozone layer. A giant shield surrounding the planet, our magnetic field means we can bike to the bakery for bread, through a gentle breeze, without fear of burning to a crisp; it means that you and I can exist. Read more

The Weeds in Our Hearts

Seventh Sunday after Pentecost

Genesis 20:10-19
Romans 8:12-25
Matthew 13:24-43

“You can add up the parts
You won’t have the sum.
You can strike up the march
There is no drum.
Every heart, every heart to love will come
But like a refugee.

Ring the bells that still can ring,
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything.
That’s how the light gets in.”

– from “Anthem,” by Leonard Cohen

I have laid waste my life in pursuit of a better past, grieving twenty-year old mistakes while ignoring my all too present sins. I am also – and by no means coincidentally – overly attentive to the sins of others, at least those sins I know from the inside, through personal experience. As the Twelve-steppers say about calling out failings in others, “If you name it, you claim it.”

The plain sense of Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the wheat and the weeds suggests a world in which the children of the kingdom and the children of the evil one are distinct and readily identified, if not easily separated in this life. I trust that is sometimes – perhaps more frequently than I care to admit – the case. I hope those who can reliably tell wheat from chaff or sheep from goats benefit from this parable, reassured that God will identify and deal with each justly and in due time. We may all be grateful in knowing that’s not our job.

For now, however, we must accept that the weeds aren’t going anywhere soon. We can all pray to receive the necessary grace to love our enemies, despite the current climate of partisan rancor and public denunciation. We can all pray to resist the weight and pull of worldly ways.

Yet my own experience of good and evil reminds me of an insight from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: Read more

The Good Work of the New Humanity

Pentecost

Acts 2:1-21
Psalm 104:24-35
1 Corinthians 12:3-13
John 20:19-23

Works of pride, by self-called creators, with their premium on originality, reduce the Creation to novelty—the faint surprise of minds incapable of wonder.
– Wendell Berry

We seldom associate Pentecost Sunday with work of any sort, even good work. Perhaps this is because the wild imagery of wind and flame and the strangeness of glossolalia tempts us to see Pentecost as distinctly other-worldly. Or perhaps we have simply assumed that work itself is inherent in the curse passed down from our primordial ancestors, and that the redemptive power unleashed at Pentecost is part of God’s action to release us from that curse—and so from work.

This is a misreading, both of the first chapters of Genesis—the gifts of tilling and keeping the garden were part of God’s instruction to humankind from the beginning—and of the story of Pentecost in its broader theological context as the commencement of the mission of proclaiming the gospel. It tends to obscure the fact that human work of a certain kind is part and parcel of our faithfully embodying our role as icons of the triune God. Read more

Shown, Not Told

Seventh Sunday of Easter
Acts 1:6-14
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
John 17:1-11


“Preach the Gospel at all times. When necessary, use words.”

-often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, but of uncertain origin

The late New Testament scholar, John Pilch, noted that Jesus, as rendered in the Gospel of John, “tends to get a bit long-winded.” All those extended discourses, repetitions, and interlocking phrases stand in stark contrast to Mark’s rustic efficiency, to be sure, and if it seems like Jesus has been saying goodbye to the disciples for weeks now, you’d be right. This is the fourth week in a row in which the lectionary’s gospel reading comes from John – unless you’re celebrating the Ascension this Sunday, in which case you get a synoptic reprieve. And yes, this is the third consecutive week culled from John’s multi-chapter Farewell Discourse.

Those lost in the Johannine word-cloud might be forgiven for missing the clues in today’s gospel that Jesus has stopped talking to the disciples and is now directly addressing the Father. In other words, Jesus is praying, not preaching. Or is that a misleading distinction?

Perhaps a more helpful terminology comes from the first principle of good writing: Show, don’t tell. In what is sometimes called “The Great Intercessory Prayer,” Jesus stops telling his clueless disciples how to serve, love, and live peacefully with one another. He stops telling them that the Father and Son are one in the unity of the Holy Spirit. He stops telling them they must turn from the world’s ways in order to experience true joy. He stops telling them these things, not because the disciples already know and understand – their behavior over the next several days will destroy that illusion – nor does he stop because the lessons no longer apply. He stops telling them in order to show them. Read more