Monday, December 29, 2008

Notice: Winter Hiatus

This blog will be on temporary hiatus through Jan 7, 2009. I have nine days to write a book, people. See you next year!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Qur'an: Palm Fibre

Replying to an uncle who opposed and insulted the Prophet:

May his hands be ruined! Neither wealth or gains will help him, he will burn in the Flaming Fire, and so will his wife, with a rope around her neck.

Not too different from an imprecatory Psalm!

Qur'an: Purity

A sura of sincerity: He is God the one, eternal. He neither begat nor was begotten. No one is comparable to Him.

These all begin, I should say, with the phrase "In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of mercy." They also begin with the instruction "Say..." Presumably, instruction to the Prophet.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Editorial: Christ Comes Thrice

Christ comes thrice. This is, of course, my way of announcing on the church sign that we'll have three Christmas services. It also, not coincidentally, refers to Jesus's three advents: he came to Nazareth as an infant, he came back from the dead in resurrected form, and he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead at the end of the days.

Christ comes thrice. To a Jewish author who wrote that there is something in the definition of Messiah that Messiah never comes, I can assert with some safety that Messiah is always coming. Jesus is always on the way.

There is, I'm told, a new trend of installing GPS locating units inside the baby Jesus in public manger scenes, to expedite the return of those Christ infants who will, inevitably, once again be stolen. On the one hand, I'm of course dissappointed when people take anything that doesn't belong to them. This is why we can't have nice things, and so on.

On the other hand, Jesus always was a slippery jit. He's in Nazareth, now he's in Egypt. Wait a sec, now he's in Caana and Galilee! Watch out over there in the desert, too. Now he's on his way to Jerusalem! Now he's by the Jordan! Now he's on the Dead Sea! And did you see him escape those Pharisees? They had him on the edge of a cliff!

Not only that, accoring to the Mormons he made appearances in America. And did those feet in ancient time? People have traced his missing years to Egypt, to Greece, and to ancient India, as well as to the much more plebian Essian sect in the desert at Qumran and the equally arid wilderness of Saint John the Baptist.

So I can understand the impulse to move the kid around a bit. This was the man, after all, who clearly refused to set up shop, despite the rabbinic practices of the day. And the son of man has no place to lay his head. So this makes the GPS tactic a little theologically misguided. If posession is, as they say, nine tenths of law, God is pretty clear that no one gets to keep Jesus. He's pure subject, no one's object but his own.

Indeed, religious thinkers have noted that the most significant move of the Old Testament is to have a God who goes with you and before you. This deity transcends your valley. God is everywhere, and, because of the prohibition of idolatry, no one place specifically.

Yet the second greatest shift of religious thought is to have YHWH active in history. This had not been the case; while the village chieftan could have told you where El was, they couldn't have told you when he was doing anything, except that it happened in the spirit world, which was more or less timeless except for crop cycles.

So God, on the whole, behaves something like an elementary particle. You can say where Jesus is or you can say when Jesus is, but you can't do both. It's like the end of my unwritten trilogy, where one character transcends time but becomes fixed in space, and the other character, named the Faith, becomes fixed in time but transcends the spacial distinctions of the universe.

"So he's here?" someone asks. "Because he's everywhere?"

"But the question you have to ask yourself," a wiser soul replies, "is when ?"

Christ is always coming. Jesus is always on the way. Christ comes thrice, plus this is my body, plus where two or more are gathered in my name, plus it is not me but Christ in me, never mind the traditional dogma of omnipresence. I think we might just overwhelm the satellites. I understand they still have difficulty tracking. Space and time are difficult together.

Electronics might tell you your position on a map, but they do have difficulty talking about a journey.

So, yes, this Christ comes thrice is also, if anyone should ask it, a horrible pun. I would think myself remiss, after all, if no one found a church sign remarkable. Besides, we follow a pilgrim God. With Advent we celebrate the beginning of God's humble, winding and impoverished journey to a holy place. That the holy place happens to be not heaven or a temple but a cross and pauper's tomb is, I gather, something of the point.

So we begin to tell again the greatest story ever told. We are careful to introduce Mary and Joseph, we build character through childhood and baptism, we create tension with the Pharisees, we climax with Holy Week, and we denoumont with commissions and ascensions.

I would do all my literature teachers a great injustice if I did not also know that this happens to roughly parallel the stages of the human sexual experience. My question for the world is why we choose this word, why out of all the world's possibilities do we tell our lovers that we are on the way, coming? When we are already very much physically there?

Are we sexual pilgrims? Is the question not are we meant for each other, but are we meant for each other in a week long drive to Mexico?

Therefore a man shall leave his mother and father and cleave.... He is coming. There is a trodden path. Christ is a bridegroom. The structure of the short story is roughly the same as the structure of the pilgrimage. These are sexy parables. Advent is a faintly erotic time of year; everyone is blushing. There are supernaturally fertile virgins. All the pleasant surprises are inevitable. Cresting a hill, you see a holy city, fertile and fecund in its valley below. Grapes burst at your touch.

Christ comes thrice. Messiah is always coming. The question you have to ask yourself is when?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Love Poem: The Sun and the Shadow

The Sun and the Shadow

Once upon a time
the Beloved came and said:

I posess your love
both day and night-
but you'll never
be my companion
as long as you remain yourself.

I am the Sun
but you are just a shadow,
walking upon the earth.

Step out of hiding
and walk into my light-
once you've been erased,
then you will be
my closest friend.


Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Love Poem: A Thousand Eyes

A Thousand Eyes

In love,
your lips should be silent.

Inside the heart,
you cook, boil, and burn.

No longer should you have
a single eye-
but you
a thousand eyes.

No longer should you have
a single ear-
but you
a thousand ears.

-Mushtaq Isfahani

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Qur'an: Daybreak

Another invocation against evil: seek refuge with the Lord of daybreak against the harm in creation, harm in the night, harm in witches who blow on knots*, and the harm in envy.

(*to cast spells)

Qur'an: People

Seek refuge with the Lord of people, the Controller of people, against the harm of the slinking whisperer, who whispers into the hearts of people. The whisperer can be jinn or people.

Well, that was short.

(More seriously, it resonates with Biblical language of Satan as deceiver, and says that harm can be human or, supposedly, demonic (if that's what jinns are).)

Notice: Bass Ackwards

I'll be reading and blogging the Qur'an backwards. See, there's no organization to the suras beyond the length they were originally preserved in- in this case, longest to shortest.

Now, if you had to choose between summarizing Psalms and summarizing Jude, and chronology didn't matter, which one would you start with?

Friday, December 5, 2008

Love Poem: The Same Language

The Same Language

To speak the same language
is kinship and affinity,
yet a person stuck with those
he can't confide in
is trapped like a prisoner
enchained by a lack of understanding.

It is indeed ironic:
There are many people
from India and Turkey
who speak the same language,
while there are countless Turks
who really can't understand one another.

The universal language is authentic insight.

To be one in heart is surely superior
to only speaking the same words.


Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Love Poem: Invisible Caravans

Invisible Caravans

Love's concert is calling,
but the flute can't be seen.

The drunks are in sight,
but the wine can't be seen.

of caravans
have passed
this very way -

Don't be surprised
if their trace can't be seen.

Muhammed Shirin Maghribi

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Editorial: Why the Qur'an

It is a fair question, I think, as to why I should choose, at this point in time, to study the Qur'an, the holy text of Islamic faith. And the answer is easy: I intend to convert.

Or, alternatively, I believe that Christians, Muslims, and Jews have more potentially in common than any one of them should share with secular global capitalism. We are all theists. We believe there is more to the cosmos than its visible material. We all believe that humanity does not stop at the border, and we all see the devastating effects of war and famine and plague. And we are all in the world-healing business. The same can not be said of Wal-Mart or Haliburton.

Which is not to say that we are all the same; it is to say that I can envision an odd coalition in the next century. Call us the Servants. Call us the Brotherhood of Widows. We are dissatisfied. We are anxious about the present but filled with the promise of the future. We have seen enough justice to believe that it is possible, and enough oppression to see that inhumanity cannot possibly be tolerated.

And we've come to challenge your conscience. Read these books. Transform your mind. Your choices are, as always, entirely up to you.

Who is else is going to wake you up? The same corrupt and equivocating UN that took a pass on Rwanda and Darfur? The fractured and militaristic legacy of American interventionism? The same corporate citizens who believe that a bad job is good enough for everyone? Who have a monetary incentive to increase, rather than address, your distress?

No, I do not intend to convert, anymore than I intend to condemn. Like any religous scholar, I intend to neither promote or disparage any one religion. But perhaps like very few scholars, I believe that we might promote religion as a whole. I'm simply fascinated by the force of faith in people's lives, and I feel it still has, often despite its history, more to offer the world than the absence of belief.

And I remain compelled by something that every religious tradition has in common: a strand of mysticism, thus my sojourn into Sufi poetry. I am perhaps irrationally fond of this eccentric and ephemeral point of contact between the world's great religous traditions.

So I do intend to learn. This blog has always been more than a little Christocentric. And hardly anyone I know has actually read the book at the center of so much contemporary controversy.

Thus, the opportunity is almost entirely too good, too fitting: as the interfaith work I do through Gethsemane develops into something that could take me to Spain or Israel, my own ignorance is brought entirely to light.

This is not punishment, but opportunity: as this blog swerves toward Religion 2.0, the religious ferment of my generation, and as my own religious studies move toward something as focused as a dissertation, I intend to learn and listen and understand in the broadest context I can comprehend.

I mean, do you ever wander what's beyond the forest that the trees sometimes hide?

Monday, December 1, 2008

Editorial: On Healing

I am prone to depression. When I say this, I do not mean that I am depressed now- I'm not. And it's not even likely that I'll be depressed tomorrow- as a matter of fact, I feel pretty good. I only mean that, having a history of depression in my adolescence and early adulthood, it's fairly likely that I'll know diagnosable depression again sometime before I die.

Part of this propensity is, I believe, personality. I brood. I consider myself a secret. I feel loss deeply. I carry old wounds around longer than many other people seem to. I connect smaller points of pain into larger self-punishing portraits. My gifts of self-knowledge, emotional awareness, deep memory, and perpetual pattern-seeking have also cursed the train of my existence to careen off of its very tracks- and to keep on going.

The other part of my proclivity, is, of course, chemical and biological. Early on I recognized that long nights threw my soul into darkness, and that brighter days abruptly reversed the trend (I later learned this to be a symptom of Seasonal Affective Disorder). I strongly suspect on evidence that both my mother and my father have wrangled with the their own versions of melancholia, though of course they have always refused to talk about it.

I write all of this because depression is the strongest ailment I have known. Physically, I've never so much as broken a bone. I've never had a major operation. I've had no significant infections or viruses- nothing at all, in that line, lasting more than a day or two. So I've lived my life externally unscathed.

Most people who know me have never, and would never, guess my annual malady. Which is a shame, because my remedies have been equally silent and internal, yet far more profound, their implications far more reaching.

In my earliest adolescence, the reversals of spring seemed - and doubtless were- essentially miraculous. I trace my commitment to follow Christ back to a bathroom epiphany in March the year I was in the seventh grade. The enduring bliss of my confirmation and Baptism one year later centered on the empty tomb of Easter- and, subliminally, on the change to Daylight Savings Time. My internal year begins on my birthday not because it is the day that I was born, but because in the middle of March's shifting weather I have been perennially reborn, reanimated.

Spring shoots its grass into my soul.

So you see, I do not understand the ascent from ahedonia to be one example of healing. I understand all healing to be extensions of what happened to me after those crashing, crushing waves of despair. Many have tried, though few have succeeded, to capture the numinous quality of the energy one receives post-trauma. Jane Kenyon has said that it is like falling into life again. I have said that happiness must have been surprised to find me there.

Have you ever smelt joy? It's something like detergent. Have you physically heard the electric crackle of the world, the snap and hum of emotional intent? Have you ever watched your golden breath pour out like sunlit water? Like amber wine?

Have you ever taken it back in?

Do you know what happens to the fine hairs on your friends arm when she reaches for a pencil? Do you know what color looks like what it comes back? Do you know what music sounds like when you've heard months of mumbling murmur?

I will never forget these things, though they fade as each year without an episode happens- seven now, in my provisionally stable sanity, my fortified emotional green zone. Mortars here, tanks over there. Keep the guards awake.

But the odd, the strange thing about such cyclic peaks and troughs was not that wellness meant getting back to normal. It is that normal meant getting back to illness, to the worse way things were before. By November, no one's paying attention, but it's coming just the same.

The best times, the breath of life times, were just this side of tragedy. Healing feels better than feeling well. Heaven is not your living room, but the place where you wake up after surgery. This may have interesting theological implications.

What if we went to church not for maintenance, but for recovery from the deep wounds of the world fully and clearly recognized? What if Christ gave no awards for perfect attendance, but did give budget-bursting parties for 12-step alcoholics? What if God was not the guy who cleaned your gutters, but the handyman who replaced the busted pipes inside your basement?

Talitha cumi. This is my body, broken for you. The Eastern church understands sin not as a legal offense but as a spiritual illness. Christ came not to die for our sins, but to live for our salvation, "God became human so that humanity can become divine." The Crucifixion was not about an innocent taking the fall for Adam's infraction, but about a healing benediction of a cosmos rent asunder from God. About putting the splint on a relational split, not leveling the scales for some blind biddy.

A preacher I knew once shattered a number of coffee mugs, "This is what happens to our lives," he said, and put them inside a bag. Then, while he was teaching, he took the scattered shards and set them on a piece of wood. He had arranged them into a mosaic. "And this is God's response," he said, "if we let Him."

We're going to begin offering a healing station at Gethsemane in a few weeks, and it's going to be a temptation for me to go back week after week. We're always wounded. Indeed, some have said that the art of wholeness is learning to understand and accept our infirmities. But if that is true, then the art of living in Christ is learning to understand and accept the healing principles at work inside our lives.

The Bible, I'm increasingly beginning to see, divides the world into two kingdoms: the kingdom of the world with all of its powers and principalities and the kingdom of Christ, that is the kingdom of heaven or the spirit. One of these kingdoms offers healing. The other one does not. Perhaps the art of living is simply deciding whose side you're on.