Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Reading "Reading Jesus"

I have just finished reading Mary Gordon's new book Reading Jesus. As Mary Gordon describes it, her book is the result of a realization that while she had been hearing passages from the gospels in church all her life, she had not actually read the four gospels straight through.

The first section of her book takes up ten readings which she quotes from one or more gospels. The tenth reading is the the beatitudes from Matthew 5: 3-10. When I read Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven, I expected to turn the page and read Luke's version, Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God, but no, Mary Gordon does not give us Luke in this case.

She writes
For many days, I write and rewrite these words [the whole passage, Matt. 5:3-20] by hand and then I am paralyzed. Struck dumb. Afraid to write. Silenced by the depth of my attachment to them, silenced at the example of sheer moral greatness and the sense that after these wrods there is, perhaps should be, nothing to say.

What kind of life, what kind of living is suggested by the Beatitudes? Perhps equally important, what virtues are not mentioned...elided, simply left out?

Most striking: the bourgeois virtues. There is nothing about onesty. keeping your word, paying your debts, placing yourself in the right place in relation to authority or hierarchy. Mercy, peacemaking, poverty of spirit, purity of heart (the body is not metioned here). The sexually well-behaved are not given a place.
And a little later:

When I complained to a wise friend that it was impossible to live up to all the Beatitudes -- how can you be both meek and hungering for justice -- she told me no one was meant to live up to all of them, that was the glory of them.
I myself don't take the Beatitudes as a list of virtues to live up to. Rather they are are a list of priorities. And they are paradoxical, taken in the complete context of the gospel. Blessed are the poor, but we are called to relieve their poverty. Blessed are the hungry, but we are called to feed them.

To return to "Blessed are the poor...," in The Historical Jesus, John Dominic Crossan gives two other versions besides those cited above from Matthew 5:3 and Luke 6:20: Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of heaven. [Gospel of Thomas 54] Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him? [James 2:5]

Crossan writes:

The basic problem is not just Matthew's gloss "in spirit," although that certainly diverts attention and interpretation from material to spiritual, from economic to religious poverty. Even when that is left aside as a Matthean addition, there is still a serious problem with the word poor itself.
Crossan then goes on for three more pages to demonstrate that the Greek word ptochoi means "not the poor but the destitute, not poverty but beggary."

In The Essential Jesus, Crossan renders this saying as "Only the destitute are innocent."

Mary Gordon grapples honestly with the text of the gospels -- but she grapples with the texts only as they are translated, even to the point of prefering one translation to another not for the accuracy of the translation but for its resonances. And she grapples with the text without a glance at question of when or how the gospels were written -- especially the synoptics.

Mary Gordon's treatment is not fully satisfying to me. Many parts of her book, however, do resonate with me. For example, she asks the question (page 176) "What is lost if we give up the idea that Jesus is God incarnate?" Part of her answer is "If the experience of birth, friendship, suffering, and death was shared by the divine, a relationship of intimacy, and a refusal of dualism, is necessitated. And this, to me, is a pearl of great price."

Monday, January 25, 2010

Autumn in New York (but posted in Winter)

Here's an incomplete post from October 15th.

Two days ago, Liz and I shut up our cottage and returned to New York, two weeks earlier than last year. In the past few weeks, I have been pondering how I want to spend my time.

A good deal of my time is taken up with Morningside Gardens affairs. Another large chunk is time that Liz and I spend together. It's the rest of the time I am thinking about -- what I might call my intellectual projects.

This fall I returned to the study of Chinese -- there is a free Chinese class here at Morningside Gardens. When I was teaching at Seward Park High School, I took a Chinese class for several years, but since it was 1993 when I left Seward Park, that was over 15 years ago. I have a lot of reviewing to do to bring me back to where I was in the past.

I am also determined to spend some time seriously pursuing genealogy -- with the particular aim of having something concrete to pass on to my cousins and my neices and nephews.

A third topic is the Dunciad. I need to find time to get down to the NYPL and read a dissertation before I proceed.

This blog post puts me in mind of a topic I have been thinking about -- what exactly is a blog for? Today I am using this blog as a kind of online journal -- but without the depth of a real journal.

Highs and Lows

Here's another unfinished post -- this on from December 6th.

One of the reasons I have been posting infrequently is that I actually have other things to do with my time (believe it or not!) There's lots been going on in the wider world recently and today I am goingto take the time to note some things that have particularly struck me.

Most recent was the election of two women, one a lesbian, as suffragan bishops in the Diocese of Los Angeles. Susan Russell has an initial reflection on the election and Elizabeth Kaeton rejoices as herstory is made. Rowan Williams issued a predictable if disappointing statement.

Everything free and easy, do as you damn well pleasy

Here's another unfinished post -- this one from last December 18th.

The lines in the title of this post are from The Lambeth Walk, a song from the 1938 musical Me and My Girl. To my mind they are in an ironic sense doubly appropriate to the situation we in the Episcopal Church find ourselves in.

In case you don't know, the Episcopal Diocese of Los Angeles has elected two women as suffragan bishops. One of them happens to be a partnered lesbian. Judging by some of the reactions you would thiink the sky had fallen.

On the one hand, the Diocese of Los Angeles has acted in accordance with the canons of our church and the clear intent of resolutions at our most recent General Convention. The fact that a person is a lesbian (partnered or not) is irrevelant to considering her as a candidate for any of the Holy Orders. On the other hand, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the ill-named Inter-Anglican Standing Commission on Unity, Faith and Order and the newly jumped up Standing Committee of the Anglican Communion have all issued statements urging the bishops and standing committees of our church to exercise "gracious restraint" and withhold consent to the election of

The draft breaks off in mid sentence. I don't remember, but I was probably searching for a phrase, or maybe a quote. But what they were saying was that The Episcopal Church should not consecrate Mary Glasspool a bishop.

I posted the the song The Lambeth Walk in 2008 at the beginning of the most recent Lambeth Conference. YouTube took that video down, but here it is again:

[I have also fixed the older post.]
To paraphrase the intro to the song, "You can no more walk the US way than we can walk the UK way." We have General Convention, you have General Synod, Parliament, the Archbishiops, and the Government, and the Monarch. We elect bishops, you appoint them. But most important, since the 1979 revision of the Prayer Book, we promise, with God's help, to
strive for justice and peace among all peop;e, and respect the dignity of every human being.
And we repeat that promise regularly.
It isn't really true that everything's free and east in TEC, nor that we can do as we damn well please -- but it is true that we are bound by different constraints than our sisters and brothers in other parts of the Anglican Communion.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

A New Year: Conflict and Concord

Here is a fragment that I wrote on January 1st, New Year's Day.

The current issue of Anglican & Episcopal History arrived this week. I have just read a paper by C. K. Robertson, Canon to the Presiding Bishop, entitled "The Challenge of Definition: Concord and Conflict in Anglicanism." Canon Robertson provides a useful look at the development of the concept of Anglicanism, starting from Richard Hooker: "Hooker's example of letting go of one's own supposed infallibility of opinion in order to learn from and be open to others would become his lasting gift to Anglicanism ... and its defining mark."

That's all I wrote that time. Now I add this line from Marilynne Robertson's Gilead:

Doctrine is not belief, it is only one way of talking about belief.

This is the second in my series of posts that I started earlier.

Breaking Silence

I began writing this on Friday, January 15, 2010 -- the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. at 9:30 in the evening here in New York. Just over three days earlier, an earthquake devastated the city of Port-Au-Prince, the capital of Haiti, as well as many other parts of the country.

Earlier that week, I finished reading Gilead, a novel by Marilynne Robinson. The narrator, John Ames, is a minister in Iowa, whose grandfather fought for abolition in Kansas. Towards the end of the book I spotted this: "doctrine is not belief, it is only one way of talking about belief." I almost wrote a post beginning with that quote.

I've been trying to get something posted for a few weeks now. Early this month, the journal Anglican and Episcopal History arrived. I was attracted to and immediately read three articles. The first two, "Anglican history in the 21st Century: Remembering All the Baptized," by Jane Shaw and "Anglican History in the 21st Century: Remembering All the Baptized: How Then Shall We Teach?" by Daniel Joslyn-Siemiatoski were presented at the annual meeting of the Historical Society of the Episcopal Church which took place in Anaheim in July, in conjunction with General Convention. My principal takeaway from the first article is a reminder that it was the "British conservative evangelicals" who were opposed to the early Lambeth Conferences producing any binding resolutions and now "it is the conservative and evangelical bishops, not only in England but all around the globe, who are pushing for Lambeth decisions to be binding."

The second article brought to my attention the early Christian community in China, evangelized in the seventh century by the Church of the East. There are Chinese writings called Jesus Sutras which date from the seventh and eighth centuries. I am interested in this partly because of my renewed interest in learning Chinese and partly for its own sake. The Jesus Sutras reportedly use language drawn from Taoism -- this interests me and I want to find out more about it, to see if it offers any insights that might be helpful in meditative spiritual practice.

Around the beginning of November, Liz and I began going to morning prayer at the Lampman Chapel in nearby Union Theological Seminary. This service was started by our rector at St. Mary's, Earl Kooperkamp, and takes place Monday through Friday at 8:30 a.m. I call it morning prayer without the capital letters because we do not use the prayer book rite -- instead we use a form from Iona. There's a lot of silence in it, and I am beginning to get used to that. We read two lessons from the Daily Office lectionary, but no psalm, no canticles and no gospel. My interest in the Jesus Sutras is partly so I can use them to briefly meditate on in this morning prayer time.

The third article that grabbed my attention the current issue of Anglican and Episcopal History is "The Challenge of Definition: Conflict and Concord in Anglicanism," by C. K. Robertson, Canon to the Presiding Bishop. It's an important article, but here I will focus on a what is almost a side issue. Canon Robertson refers to the concept of "a spiral of unmanaged conflict" discussed by Susan Carpenter and William Kennedy in their 1988 book Managing Public Disputes. "Their premise," he writes, "is that any given divisive issue left unresolved will reappear again and again in slightly different guises, so that the passage of time, far from bringing healing, instead creates an ever-increasing intensity of opposition." I had never heard of the spiral of unmanaged conflict and was particularly struck by the idea, not for its applicability to the conflict in the Anglican Communion over sexuality but for its applicability to conflicts in the housing cooperative where I live and am a board member.

Note: This is first of a series of posts that I began in the past. I have rounded off the last paragraph that I wrote earlier and leaving it at that

Saturday, January 23, 2010


This blog gets a small amount of spam in the comments -- as do most Blogger blogs, I suspect.

This morning I got the following email from Blogger:

Anonymous has left a new comment on your post "Finite Time":

Hello everyone! Who knows where to upload the film Avatar?I even bought the film Avatar for a SMS to a Russian URL, the link was, but download fails, the system will boot quite strange cocoa something.Men, advise where to normal as quickly download film avatar?

I have substituted "a Russian URL for the link, which was of course the whole purpose of the spam, but otherwise the comment as shown above is verbatim.

It's a found poem:

Hello everyone!
Who knows where to upload the film Avatar?
I even bought the film Avatar for a SMS to
a Russian URL, the link was,
but download fails,
the system will boot quite strange cocoa something.
Men, advise where to normal as quickly download film avatar?
"The system will boot quite strange cocoa something."

Last Wednesday my computer sytem booted quite strange -- or rather it wouldn't boot at all. And I hadn't even sent an SMS to a Russian URL. (I had to use Goodsearch to learn that SMS is a common term for texting -- in fact it stands for Short Message Service -- a name that describes an essential part of the underlying technology for texting.)

Friday, January 22, 2010

Pizza and Higher Power

On Wednesday evening, January 20, several members of St. Mary's gathered with the current interns who are living at St. Mary's. There were about a dozen of us from St. Mary's, predominantly from the choir. This post is a continuation of what I wrote about this gathering in my previous post.

Each of us spoke to the questions "What do you do to connect with your Higher Power?" and "What do you do to express your creativity?" My immediate reaction when I saw the words "Higher Power" was a negative one. After all, this is a church, not an AA meeting. As it turned out, however, it was ok. The first two who spoke were Charles and Rhonda -- both members of the St. Mary's choir and both people who live or have lived on the margins, sometimes in the grips of addiction and sometimes homeless. Both spoke of prayer and praise as important to them.

I spoke after several others had spoken. The first thing I said was that my experience was more like the interns than like several of the choir members who had spoken -- I have never experienced real hardship. I didn't say it, but I am the beneficiary of both white privilege and male privilege.

During my sophomore, junior and senior years in college, while I was pondering the implications of being gay, I was also seeking a satisfying relationship to church. We had Sunday evening chapel at Hamilton in those days -- i don't remember anything about the order of service except that we said the General Thanksgiving, which at the time I did not know came from the Book of Common Prayer. When I was at home, I went with my mother to the Community Baptist Church in Port Dickinson (a suburb of Binghamton, New York,) which was the church she grew up in and in which my grandparents were leaders. In the summer, if I was at my grandparents' cottage at Heart Lake, I went to the Heart Lake Methodist Church. Each of these places had a different flavor, but none truly grabbed me. I knew I was a Christian, or at least I thought I did, but I wasn't sure what brand of Christian I was. In the fall of 1955, when I was 19, my grandparents brought me to New York to see a production of Ruddigore by the D'Oyly Carte Opera Company. Before we went home, we went to Riverside Church and I heard Dr. Robert James McCracken preach. I don't remember what he said, but I remember that it left me with more questions than answers.

I started graduate school at Columbia University in September, 1958. I was 22 years old. At about 3:15 in the morning of November 5, I met Rex Slauson in a gay dancing bar called the "415" at 415 Amsterdam Avenue. Rex and I immediately clicked, and we were together for the next fourteen years and a little over, until Rex died of a heart attack on February 13, 1973. Rex took me first to an Evensong at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, and then to St. Mary's. I immediately found that I liked the Prayer Book liturgy and I have been at St. Mary's ever since.
For a few years, probably five or six, Rex and I read Morning and Evening Prayer daily, week in and week out. So my spiritual practce consisted of fixed forms of prayer, either at Sunday worship, the Daily Office at home, or grace before meals. I should also mention hymns. I sang in the choir at St. Mary's for many years. I used to know the names and tune names of many of the hymns in the 1940 Hymnal by number. I can't associate the numbers with hymns in the 1982 Hymnal. The words and music of many of the traditional hymns are an important part of my spiritual life.

Liz and I have from time to time had a practice of reading psalms, scripture, and prayers as well as singing hymns in the morning and sometimes we have done compline in the evening. In recent years we have done this more at Heart Lake where the pace of life is a little more relaxed than it is here at home in New York.

About three months ago, shortly after we came back from Heart Lake for the season, we began going to the Morning Prayer service sponsored by St. Mary's weekday mornings at 8:30 in the Lampman Chapel at Union Theological Seminary. This is not a Prayer Book service, rather it uses an order of service from the Iona Community that uses daily themes from iona and short Celtic prayers. We use the Old and New Testament readings for the day from the 1979 Prayer Book Daily Office Lectionary. The service has a lot of silence, which I am beginning to find useful, especially since from where I sit I can gaze at a large Eastern Cross with a chi-rho in the center; or I can turn my head and look at a Christos Pantokrator ikon. I do miss the psalms, the canticles, the fixed prayers, and the gospel readings.

I answered the question about how I express my creativity by mentioning this blog.

The preceding is a revision and expansion of what I said Wednesday evening. What follows are some relsated additional thoughts.

I am currently reading Mary Gordon's Reading Jesus. I find it a maddening book in many ways, but I keep reading. I keep reading because I am looking for something -- I'm looking for an answer to an important question -- not the answer, but an answer. To put it in Anglican terms, the question is: How can we use reason to reframe our understanding of scripture and tradtion and still remain in continuity with the communion of saints through the ages? I doubt Mary Gordon would come up with those words, but I suspect that is the question she is also exploring.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Sigh! and Hi!

For weeks I have been trying to write a post for this blog. I have lots of drafts, but none of them have seen the light of day. But yesterday evening I mentioned the blog and someone said she would like to see it and I gave her the url.

Blog is short for weblog. The web part is the world wide web, that is, the internet. The log part originally was sort of like a journal, or the way some folks use Facebook or Twitter. So I'll use this post as a sort of journal tonight.

Yesterday morning my computer died. It's still under warranty and today I took it to the shop -- that's easy to do since I live in New York. They said they have a five business day turnaround, which is fine (though inconvenient) because I can use Liz's laptop as a replacement.

Yesterday evening at St. Mary's we had a pizza gathering with the interns. Click on the link to learn more -- to understand what I am saying all you need to know is that there are five interns living in an apartment at St. Mary's, it's an AmeriCorps program and the interns work in social service agencies. Most of the St. Mary's people there are in the choir, since the pizza gathering came right after choir rehearsal.

There were somewhere between 16 and 20 of us there and over the course of about an hour and a half each of us spoke to the questions "What do you do to connect with your Higher Power?" and "What do you do to express your creativity?"

I'll give you my (revised and extended) remarks tomorrow.