That Which We Have Heard & Known

Occasional thoughts of an Anglican Episcopal priest

Category: Humor (page 1 of 2)

The Work of Christ – Sermon at the Requiem for Elizabeth Scott Bres, January 28, 2018

You all know the truth of the statement, “You can’t take it with you.” What you may not know is that that sentiment is straight out of the New Testament! St. Paul, writing to the young new bishop Timothy, says, “We brought nothing into the world – it is certain that we can take nothing out of it.”[1] Once upon a time a man who died was given a dispensation from this truth. Before his death he was given a very special suitcase into which he could put one thing to bring with him to heaven. He gave it a lot of thought and over a period of years, as he led a successful life, he made his final decision and loaded up his suitcase. He put it under his bed waiting for that last day. When he finally died, he showed up at the Pearly Gates carrying his special suitcase with his one important thing. Word spread through heaven and all the angels gathered around him wanting to know what he had brought. So he knelt down and, with great flourish, opened the valise to reveal bright shining bricks of gold. The angels were stunned; they just stood there, staring silently at the man and at his suitcase. Finally, Michael Archangel, the commander of God’s army and spokesman for the angels, in a disappointed and incredulous tone of voice asked, “Pavement? You brought pavement?”

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Fatherhood and Laughter: Sermon for RCL Proper 6A (18 June 2017)

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A homily offered by the Rev. Dr. C. Eric Funston on the Second Sunday after Pentecost, June 18, 2017, to the people of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio, where Fr. Funston is rector.

(The lessons for the service are from Proper 6A (Track 1) of the Revised Common Lectionary: Genesis 18:1-15; Psalm 116:1,10-17; Romans 5:1-8; and St. Matthew 9:35-10:8. These lessons can be read at The Lectionary Page.)

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Our gospel lesson is the shortened version of Jesus’ commission to the twelve as he sends them out to do missionary work. As he continues with their instructions he tells them, “I am sending you out like sheep into the midst of wolves; so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Mat 10:16), and then he warns them that those who follow him are likely to face all sorts of terrible strife, including bitterness and enmity within families.

“Brother will betray brother to death,” he says, “and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death; and you will be hated by all because of my name. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Mat 10:21-22).

It’s an odd lesson, I suppose, for Father’s Day, but of course Father’s Day isn’t on the church calendar and the Lectionary doesn’t take it into account. It’s simply a coincidence that this lesson about discord between fathers and sons should come up this morning, just as it’s a coincidence that the Old Testament lesson about the promise of a child to the elderly and barren couple Abraham and Sarah should be in the Lectionary rota today.

As that story continues, you know, Sarah laughs at the idea that she (at the age of 90) would become pregnant by Abraham (who was 100 and – as the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews says – “as good as dead” [Heb 11:12]). But that is exactly what does, indeed, happen. She gives birth to a son whom she and Abraham name Isaac because, as Sarah says, “God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me” (Gen 21:6). Isaac’s name in Hebrew, Yitschaq, means “he laughs.”

Lutheran seminary professor Kathryn Schifferdecker says of this episode that it proves there is humor and comedy in the bible,

. . . [not] comedy in the sense of stand-up routines or canned laugh tracks, but comedy as something so extraordinarily good that it’s hard to believe, something so out-of-the-ordinary that we laugh until the tears stream down. It’s what Frederick Buechner calls “high comedy”: “the high comedy of Christ that is as close to tears as the high comedy of Buster Keaton or Marcel Marceau or Edith Bunker is close to tears – but glad tears at last, not sad tears, tears at the hilarious unexpectedness of things rather than at their tragic expectedness.” (Working Preacher, citing Frederick Buechner, Telling the Truth: the Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale, Harper & Row, 1977, p. 61.)

That is the very contrast these two lessons on Father’s Day present us: the “hilarious unexpectedness” and the “tragic expectedness” of life, both of which are so often present in the always serious, sometimes heartbreaking, and often uproarious business of parenthood.

A few weeks ago I mentioned the late essayist and poet Brian Doyle. A few years ago in The Christian Century magazine (July 22, 2014), Doyle published a poem entitled The poem about what it’s about:

Here’s my question. What if there was a poem
That didn’t know what it was about until it got
To the end of itself? So that the poet’s job isn’t
To play with imagery and cadence and metrical
Toys in order to make a point, but rather to just
Keep going in order to find out that the poem is
About how hard it is to watch your kids get hurt
By things they can’t manage and you cannot fix.
If I had been the boss of this poem I would have
Made it so they can manage things, or I could be
The quiet fixer I always wanted to be as a father;
But that’s not what the poem wanted to be about,
It turns out. This poem is just like your daughter:
No one knows what’s going to happen, and there
Will be pain, and you can’t fix everything, and it
Hurts to watch, and you are terrified even as you
Try to stay calm and cool and pretend to manage.
Some poems you can leave when they thrash too
Much but kids are not those sorts of poems. They
Have to keep writing themselves, and it turns out
You are not allowed to edit. You’re not in charge
At all—a major bummer. I guess there’s a lesson
Here about literature, about how you have to sing
Without knowing the score . . . something like that.
All you can do is sing wildly and hope it’ll finish
So joyous and refreshing that you gape with awe.

I have called that “the best poem about fatherhood . . . ever.” I know from personal experience how absolutely accurate Doyle is when he writes that in parenting (and in so many other aspects of life) there are times when “there will be pain, and you can’t fix” it and “it hurts . . . and you are terrified,” and all you can do is “try to stay calm and cool and pretend to manage.” Being a father, being a parent is the case-in-point that proves again and again how correct St. Paul was in writing that we accept our “sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us” (Rom 5:3-5). It is the case-in-point that proves Jesus’ words that even when there is strife between father and child, “The one who endures to the end will be saved” (Mat 10:22).

This is why fatherhood is the primary Christian metaphor for God’s relationship to us. As Paul wrote to the Romans:

All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For . . . [we] have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ . . . .” (Rom 8:14-17)

And as John wrote:

See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are. * * * Beloved, we are God’s children now. (1 John 3:1-2)

The Prophet Zephaniah wrote of God: “He will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing as on a day of festival” (Zeph 3:17-18). Just as our poet, Brian Doyle, said in his poem, “All [a father] can do is sing wildly and hope it’ll finish so joyous and refreshing that you gape with awe.” That is God’s hope and promise for us, that everything, all the hilarious unexpectedness and all the tragic expectedness, will “finish so joyous and refreshing” that we will all gape with awe. Those who endure to the end will be saved, and we will all laugh with Sarah. Amen.

(Note: The illustration is “Sarah Laughing,” a woodcut by Julius Schnoor von Carolsfeld from Die Bibel in Bildern: 240 Darstellungen, erfunden und auf Holz gezeichnet published in 1899.)

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

Five AM Walking the Dog – From the Daily Office – August 12, 2014

From the Psalter:

Clouds and darkness are round about him,
righteousness and justice are the foundations of his throne.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary [Morning Psalm] – Psalm 97:2 (BCP Version) – August 12, 2014)

Moon Behind Clouds

“Comedian Robin Williams, the Oscar and Grammy winner known for his rapid-fire delivery, was found dead in his home after an apparent suicide, authorities said.” — NBC News

Five AM Walking the Dog

The clown is silent; the laughter stilled.
The last mad improvisation was fatal;
Often wisdom behind silliness
but I cannot see any sense
hidden in this.

In desperation, the jester demanded
attention in a world whose madness
was crazier than his own; the clouds
and darkness hiding any glimpse,
any chance of righteousness, no
justice visible, no
hope perceived, no
more wrestling with the black dog

A world in need of jesters
is one poorer as I walk beside
my black dog and try to make sense.
Moon glows small silvery yellow
disc behind mist behind
clouds behind dark behind
chill beyond thought beyond
sense below perception below
knees kneeling on cold wet
grass weeping beneath
the silence of the jest
praying in the darkness beneath
the silence of the clouds.

“Mork, calling Orson;
Mork, calling Orson . . . .”

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

Otherwise You’d Cry – From the Daily Office – March 26, 2014

From the Gospel of Mark:

Immediately the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to the girl. Then the girl gave it to her mother. When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Mark 6:27-29 (NRSV) – March 26, 2014.)

Salome by Giampetrino, c. 1510I have a hard time with the beheading thing . . . . I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about cutting someone’s head off that just appalls me.

When I was a student in Italy in 1969 (and again when I chaperoned 87 teenagers to Italy in the summer of 2000), I visited the cathedral in Siena where the head of the local medieval heroine, St. Catherine of Siena, is on display. It’s really quite creepy! Catherine wasn’t beheaded in life, however. Her head was separated from her body when the Sienese, upset that the corpse of their favorite hometown girl was in Rome, tried to steal it back. Unfortunately, they were only able to get the head and were only able to smuggle it out when the Roman guards were miraculously led to believe that the sack in which it was carried contained rose petals rather than a mummified skull.

There is a special class of saints who were martyred by beheading and are commonly depicted carrying their heads under their arms like a football in religious art. John is the first of them, but because of his importance in the Jesus story, he is not usually so represented. These saints, called the cephalophores (it means “head carriers” referring to their artistic portraits), are often said to have recited, scripture, preached, or even spoken to choose their own burial sites after decapitation. For example, St. Nicasius of Rheims att the moment of his decapitation was reciting Psalm 119. When he reached the verse “Adhaesit pavimento anima mea” (My soul cleaves to the dust, v. 25), he was executed. After his head had fallen to the ground, he spoke the rest of the verse, “vivifica me, Domine, secundum verbum tuum” (give me life according to your word).

St. John Chrysostom said of the cephalophores that the severed head of a martyr is more terrifying to the devil than when it was able to speak in life. I don’t know about that, but severed heads just present me with all sorts of problems. It presents a problem to artists, too. How do you handle the halo in a portrait of a beheaded saint? Some put the halo where the head used to be, others have the saint carrying the halo along with the head, but neither is a really adequate representation.

Anyway, I have to admit that I find very little in the way of spiritual uplift thinking about, contemplating, or viewing (in reality or in artistic depiction) the severed head of a martyr. These stories only speak to me of the depravity of human beings, which I suppose must be their point. I speak lightly of them and joke about them only because I would otherwise slip into despair. As my late mother used to say, “You have to laugh about, because otherwise you’d cry.”

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

Yeast Infection – From the Daily Office – February 7, 2014

From the Psalter:

When my mind became embittered,
I was sorely wounded in my heart.
I was stupid and had no understanding;
I was like a brute beast in your presence.
Yet I am always with you;
you hold me by my right hand.
You will guide me by your counsel,
and afterwards receive me with glory.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Psalm 73:21-24 (BCP Version) – February 7, 2014.)

The Pillsbury Doughboy suffers a massive yeast infectionSeldom has depression been so artfully described as in these few lines of Hebrew poetry. Translated in the Prayer Book as “embittered,” the Hebrew is chamets which refers to yeast. It means “to be leavened” or “to be sour.” Most versions of the Scriptures translate it with some version of “bitterness,” a few use “grieved,” and the Complete Jewish Bible renders the verse, “when I had a sour attitude.” I rather like that last one, closest to the Hebrew, best; it describes depression perfectly.

Several years ago, sixteen to be exact, I went through a severe depressive episode requiring treatment with medication and cognitive therapy. Both of those were helpful but of most value was my work was a spiritual director, really learning the discipline of daily prayer. In the course of that episode, I learned about psychological rumination, how to recognize its early stages, and how to get myself out of it.

The word rumination is borrowed by psychology from biology; it derives from the Latin ruminare meaning “to chew again.” It is the process by which ruminants (animals like cows, goats, sheep, giraffes, yaks, deer, and camels) digest their food. Having consumed and swallowed it, they regurgitate it together with digestive juices, chew it again to thoroughly mix it (“chewing the cud” we call that), and swallow it again.

In psychology, and especially with regard to depression, it refers to the process of returning again and again to replay in one’s mind, think over, regret, and obsess about some small but painful incident. It describes a useless but harmful feedback loop of negative emotion.

The Hebrew language’s and, thus, the psalm’s use of leavening to describe this process is nothing short of brilliant; it is wisdom. The process of rumination is exactly like the process of leavening. As the yeast fills the lump of bread dough, the negative emotions of rumination fill one’s every thought, every moment. The result, as the psalm says, is that one becomes “stupid” (ba`ar — ” brutish”) and “ignorant” (lo-yada — “lacking understanding”). In my own experience, when I would get stuck in a rumination cycle I simply became unable think outside of the feedback loop of negative thoughts; sometimes I couldn’t even think at all — I would simply “zone out.” Talk about “brutish” and “ignorant” — that was me in those ruminant moments!

But as the psalm suggests, there is a way out: God holds me by my right hand; God guides me by God’s counsel. For me, the structures of Prayer Book liturgy provided a way out of the cycle of rumination. If I could just get my hands on a Prayer Book and begin to read the Daily Office, or the prayers and thanksgivings section, the cadences of prayer would break through the obsessive replaying and over-thinking of whatever had triggered the cycle. I found, in fact, that the older language forms of the Rite One liturgies (or the 1928 Book of Common Prayer) were best for this purpose.

Depression is an awful thing. (As I contemplated it this morning — in a non-ruminative fashion — in light of the Hebrew linkage to leavening, I was tempted write something about a “yeast infection of the spirit” . . . but decided not to get there. I’ll just plant that image and leave it for later contemplation.) It is an awful thing, but there are ways to deal with it and ways to get out of it. I know, from personal experience. The best way is the one today’s psalm reminds us of — the guidance and counsel of God.

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

Meeting Together – From the Daily Office – January 31, 2014

From the Letter to the Hebrews:

Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Hebrews 10:23-25 (NRSV) – January 31, 2014.)

Social Media Cartoon by NakedpastorAttendance is down. No one in the church really needs to be told this, although church ministry pundits have been making a good living for the last couple of decades reporting on it and diagnosing the reasons for it.

A recent New York Times op-ed piece pointing it out (and repeating a lot of old complaints that supposedly explain it) has been reprinted and shared electronically a lot the past few weeks; I must have seen it posted on Facebook at least twenty times.

It’s not news, however. Over the past several years (for a few decades, in fact) attendance figures in all mainline churches have been falling. Some congregations have bucked the trend, but even they are beginning to notice that fewer people are filling the pews, chairs, couches, or whatever seating alternative is provided.

For a while, the various denominations looked inward for the problem. My own Episcopal Church went through a period of fairly rapid change starting in the 1970s — prayer book revision, ordination of women, acceptance of LGBT persons, ordination of LGBT persons — which erupted in internal conflict. Episcopal pundits pointed to each of these developments, or to the conflict that arose over them, or to the allegedly heretical theology behind them and blamed these interiorities for declining memberships and lower attendance.

Being of a fairly ecumenical bent, I read the press from other denominations. During the same period of time the other American mainline churches were experiencing the same sort of decline and — guess what? — their denominational press was laying the blame at the feet of whatever their particular conflict du jour might have been.

Then along came a secular sociologist, Robert Putnam, who pointed out that it was happening across the board . . . and not only among churches! Fraternal and public service organizations, social clubs, and even bowling leagues were all experiencing the same sort of decline. Putnam’s book Bowling Alone graphically demonstrates the congruence of membership growth-and-decline curves for all organizations that depend on and sustain what he calls “social capital.” Every church leader should read it!

Unfazed, the church growth-and-decline “experts” are at it again, this time laying the blame at the feet of age cohorts. The ecclesial blogosphere is rife with punditry blaming the Boomers, Gen-X, Gen-Y, or Millennials. And for every such essay there are a dozen or more answering pieces explaining why it isn’t “my generation’s” fault! It seems like everyone in the church is singing this old song by The Who from nearly 50 years ago:

People try to put us down
(Backbeat line: Talkin’ ’bout my generation)
Just because we get around
Things they do look awful cold
I hope I die before I get old

My generation
This is my generation, baby

Why don’t you all fade away
Don’t try to dig what we all say
I’m not trying to cause a big sensation
I’m just talkin’ ’bout my generation

My generation
This is my generation, baby

Why don’t you all fade away
And don’t try to dig what we all say
I’m not trying to cause a big sensation
I’m just talkin’ ’bout my generation

My generation
This is my generation, baby
My, my, my, my generation
My, my, my, my generation

People try to put us down
Just because we get around
Things they do look awful cold
Yeah, I hope I die before I get old

My generation
This is my generation, baby
My, my, my, my generation
My, my, my, my generation

Talkin’ ’bout my generation
(My generation)
Talkin’ ’bout my generation
(My generation)
Talkin’ ’bout my generation
(Is my generation baby)
Talkin’ ’bout my generation
(This is my generation)

Somehow, somewhere someone is going to knock this off! Active church people have to stop pointing the finger of blame and start working with one another on solutions. We’ve had enough punditry diagnosing (or misdiagnosing) the causes — now we need to work on reframing the Christian message for a new generation that hasn’t heard it. In the words of the writer of the Letter to the Hebrews we have to “meet together . . . encouraging one another.”

What “meet together” means in the 21st Century is another issue, however. With social media of all the various sorts, and newer versions developing nearly every day, and existing versions being tweaked and modified — Facebook seems to change hour by hour — it’s an on-going, and never-ending struggle to keep up and figure that out. But “meeting together” probably no longer means (as a colleague puts it) “butts in the pews.” “Average Sunday attendance” may have become a meaningless metric (if it ever was one).

There is value, of course, in face-to-face meeting, in getting to know one another as physical beings, in joining together in (what another colleague once called) “meat space;” for those of us for whom sharing the Bread and Wine of Holy Communion is of paramount importance, it’s imperative! But if that isn’t happening on Sunday morning, let’s accept that it isn’t, move on, and find new and different ways to be church, new and different ways to mark and follow the admonition in Hebrews. It’s time for the hand-wringing, finger-pointing, blame-calling, and excuse-making to end, and for creative solutions to begin. It’s time for us to meet together . . . somewhere, sometime . . . and encourage one another!

(The social media cartoon is by David Hayward aka Nakedpastor.)

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

Herding Cats – From the Daily Office – January 30, 2014

From the Gospel of John:

[Jesus said,] “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me. But if you do not believe what he wrote, how will you believe what I say?”

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – John 5:46-47 (NRSV) – January 30, 2014.)

The Church Today - Jesus Herding CatsIs it just me, or does this speech of Jesus (the verses are part of a long, long address to “the Jews”) just drip with frustration? And it makes me wonder – did Jesus really express such frustration? Or is it John who is frustrated and does his frustration color the way he presents the gospel story?

I’ll admit it . . . I have a problem with the Gospel according to John. I view it with suspicion. Its Jesus is at one and the same time too holy, too divine, but also too combative, too confrontational, and too given to these frustrated and frustrating condemnations of those whom he has not persuaded.

It’s not that I don’t think Jesus was divine; I believe that whole-heartedly. I am convinced that he was and is the incarnation of God. And it’s not that I don’t think the human Jesus had his moments (as the Rolling Stones’ devil put it) of doubt and pain, moments of sheer human frustration and anger. I’m certain that he did. It’s just that the way Jesus is presented by John is hard to understand.

He’s almost too hard to accept; he’s confusing and frustrating. I get as frustrated trying to understand this Jesus as he seems to get with his audiences. John’s Jesus is sublimely holy — the Logos of God (1:14) — who is also presented as just plain rude to his mother — “Woman, what concern is that to you and to me?” (2:4) He is compassionate to a woman caught in adultery — “I do not condemn you” (8:11) — yet dismissive, even condemnatory, of others — “There is no place in you for my word.” (8:37) He heals a stranger he happens upon in Jerusalem — the man at the pool of Beth-zaida (5:9) — but declines to help Lazarus whom he is said to love until after he’s gone through the pain of death just to make an example of him — “I am glad I was not there.” (11:15)

David Hayward, who blogs and draws church cartoons under the name “the naked pastor,” has done a drawing of Jesus attempting to herd cats (an expression which was a favorite of my late grandfather) with the caption “the church today.” In one simple picture, Hayward captures the frustrations of the modern pastor, but it seems to me he also depicts the difficulty I have of getting a handle on John’s Jesus! John’s Jesus is not one of the “cats” and he knows it; he can do and does things no “cat” could ever. He says as much at one point, “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world.” (8:23) And sometimes he seems not to like the cats very much!

John’s Jesus is holy, rude, compassionate, condemnatory, dwelling in the world, not of the world, loving to strangers, using his friends . . . he’s confusing, contradictory, complex, and incredibly frustrating!

Trying to understand John’s Jesus, in all his contradictory complexity, is definitely like herding cats!

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

The Bible Is Fun! – From the Daily Office – January 23, 2014

From the Book of Genesis:

The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.”

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Genesis 11:5-6 (NRSV) – January 23, 2014.)

Construction of the Tower of Babel by Pieter Bruegel the ElderI’ve never quite understood the story of the tower of Babel. I get that it’s an etiological myth to explain the variety of languages spoken by human beings, but the picture of God that it paints is (shall we say?) less than positive. Might it have been better to cast someone else (say the Tempter?) as the “bad guy” who thwarts the plans of the tower builders?

As the story of God and God’s People develops over time and through the pages of Scripture, we learn that God’s goal is that “they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you,” or at least that’s what Jesus said (John 17:21). The apostle Paul proclaimed this Good News setting out that the goal was that all people, indeed all things, be put in subjection under the Christ and ultimately under the one God “so that God may be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28). And his colleague, Peter, argued that preachers should speak as if speaking the very words of God so that “God may be glorified in all things through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 4:11).

It’s not just the New Testament that proclaims this goal of universal solidarity. Solomon proclaimed in prayer that the goal of his kingdom was “that all the peoples of the earth may know that the Lord is God; there is no other” (I Kings 8:60). The prophet Isaiah proclaimed that “in days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it” (Isaiah 2:2).

So, if that has been God’s goal all along, isn’t God’s fit of pique at the plain of Shinar just a wee bit counterproductive?

Playing with questions like that is why I so enjoy studying the Bible; the Bible is fun! So, I get really annoyed when someone treats it as some sort of scientifically or historically accurate text, and robs it of its capacity to provide fun and enjoyment.

It’s a bunch of stories and other sorts of literature! It’s a bunch of often contradictory stories, myths, poems, histories, memoirs, and so forth which, despite their contradictions (and often because of them) point to a truth that transcends our mundane perceptions. Sure, if I were writing a single text to tell the story of God, I’d use the Babel story quite differently and tell it from a very different perspective. But that’s not how the Bible came to be and, thanks be to God, I don’t have to write God’s story! Suffice to say that the Bible is not a history book; it’s not a scientific text. It’s a library, a collection of all different sorts of literature.

These texts must be read in light of each other. The prophet’s vision of the nations streaming to a temple on a hill and Jesus’ prayer for unity among all peoples (the prayer is not just about his followers) provide lenses through which we view the myth of the tower at Babel; the story of the tower provides a critical backdrop and foundation for the prophecy and the prayer. So, I may not understand the story of the tower of Babel standing alone, but I understand it in context. I understand it as a part of a synthetic whole (synthetic in the sense of dialectic synthesis, not as “artificial” or “unnatural”).

I’m not going to write a synthesis of these stories this morning (and probably not ever), but I am going to start the day acknowledging that, if the Bible is anything, it is fun!

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

What’s a Cubit? – From the Daily Office – January 18, 2013

From the Book of Genesis:

God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence because of them; now I am going to destroy them along with the earth. Make yourself an ark of cypress wood; make rooms in the ark, and cover it inside and out with pitch. This is how you are to make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits.”

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Genesis 6:13-15 (NRSV) – January 18, 2014.)

Noah's Ark ReconstructionI read those words and heard Bill Cosby’s voice. I’ll bet I’m not alone. More than 50 years ago (1963), Cosby’s debut comedy album Bill Cosby Is a Very Funny Fellow…Right! included a 3-1/2 minute skit he’d been doing on stage entitled Noah: Right! Ever since, it has colored the story of Noah and the ark for Americans; I know people who wouldn’t be born for another quarter century after that album’s release for whom Cosby’s skit is nonetheless an interpretive filter for the Noah story. Millions read the story and hear Noah asking, in Cosby’s voice, “Lord, what’s a cubit?”

In 1979, the comedy sketch troupe Monty Python released a full length movie entitled Month Python’s Life of Brian, which spoofed the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth by telling the story of Brian, the baby born in the stable stall next door and who spends his life being mistaken for the messiah. When he is present at the Sermon on the Mount, Brian is at the edge of the crowd among those who are so far away from Jesus they cannot hear clearly what he says. As they struggle to hear and understand Jesus’ words, they have this conversation:

What did he say?
I think it was “Blessed are the cheesemakers.”
Aha, what’s so special about the cheesemakers?
Well, obviously it’s not meant to be taken literally; it refers to any manufacturers of dairy products.

I cannot read the Beatitudes without that dialog coming to mind; I have to bite my lip to keep from laughing. I’m sure that when it is the appointed Sunday Gospel, my parishioners wonder why I have such a goofy expression while reading it!

Because I’m a child of the television generation, I also cannot read the story of Adam and Eve without seeing in memory Bob Newhart and Ruth Buzzi in beige long underwear playing a Garden-of-Eden skit on the old Laugh-In show, or sometimes Richard Basehart as a shipwrecked, alien space-traveling Adam encountering a similarly shipwrecked Eve (the plot of an old Twilight Zone episode).

I’ve two points in mind this morning in recalling these comedy routines to mind. The first is the difficulty of setting aside preconceptions when reading the scriptures. What we think we know about the text may be helpful as we study and interpret it, but it can also be a barrier to hearing it fresh each time to encounter it. I am convinced that the bible speaks to us anew in each reading, and that what we already “know” can and does interfere with our appreciating that. So I struggle to not hear Cosby’s voice, to not understand peacemakers as cheesemakers, to not see Adam climbing out of his space ship.

The second point is rather the opposite of the first, that these comedic or fanciful takes on the stories of the bible are as helpful as they are distracting. I know a lot of people who have a hard time finding humor about God or Jesus or the bible acceptable. My staunch Methodist grandfather frowned upon any humor about church, Sunday School, or other things religious; he considered them disrespectful and (I’m sure) blasphemous.

I find wisdom in a line by Oscar Wilde (from Lady Windemere’s Fan): “Life is far too important a thing ever to talk seriously about it.” The same can be said of the bible. Theologian and author Madeleine L’Engle once wrote, “I take the Bible too seriously to take it all literally” (a quotation often misattributed to Karl Barth). Finding humor or inspiration for fanciful works of fiction and comedy in scripture is part of both taking it seriously and not talking seriously about it. These comedic or fanciful treatments help us hear the scriptures with new ears.

And the question still remains: “What’s a cubit?”

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

Gimmicks Distract – From the Daily Office – January 11, 2014

From the Psalter:

Hallelujah!
Praise God in his holy temple;
praise him in the firmament of his power.
Praise him for his mighty acts;
praise him for his excellent greatness.
Praise him with the blast of the ram’s-horn; *
praise him with lyre and harp.
Praise him with timbrel and dance;
praise him with strings and pipe.
Praise him with resounding cymbals;
praise him with loud-clanging cymbals.
Let everything that has breath
praise the Lord.
Hallelujah!

(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Psalme 150 (BCP Version) – January 11, 2014.)

Clown Presiding at CommunionThe musical Godspell debuted in 1971 (my junior year in college); in it, Christ is portrayed as a clown. Whether it was an expression of or the catalyst for the phenomenon of offering clown eucharists as an edgy, avant-garde presentation of the Christian Mysteries, I really don’t know. The two are inextricably linked in my memory.

And . . . to be honest, I never cared for either. And . . . being further honest, that may be because I have never like clowns. I find them creepy. On the other hand, a bishop of whom I was very fond and for whom I had great respect, loved Clown Eucharists. He had a set of clown-decorated vestments made; he offered a clown eucharist at least once each year (often at diocesan convention) throughout his episcopate. They may have resonated for him because, unlike me, he loved clowns.

But I didn’t (and don’t) and so the clown eucharist was, for me, a distraction. I couldn’t get passed the gimmick, the clown images and the circus music, to the Christ at the center of mass. The clown gimmick, not the foolishness of God to which it was supposedly pointing, took over and seemed to be the point of the whole thing.

Some years later, when the music of U2 became popular and new generation were finding spiritual meaning in the band’s lyrics, someone put together a celebration of the Holy Mysteries in which that music played a part — the major part — it was the only music — and promoted the event as a U2charist.

“Right,” I thought. “The clown eucharist in a new guise.” Again, for me, the gimmick (the U2 music) distracts from the principal focus. I attended a U2charist and, for me, all I heard was the band’s music; I didn’t hear the gospel. That’s not to say it wasn’t there; it may have been. I just couldn’t hear it through the distraction of the soundtrack.

Since then I have heard of (but not attended) celebrations of Holy Communion in which the music was all from the Beatles canon, or all “oldies” from the 1960s, or all Broadway show tunes . . . and I wouldn’t be surprised if there have been other similar “thematic” eucharists. All, I think, the descendants of the clown masses of the 1970s — attempts to package the Christian Mysteries in edgy and avant-garde ways to present them to a target audience, to sneak the gospel message in under the guise of entertainment.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Let me hasten to say that I think entertainment is fine. If clowns float your boat, go the circus! If you like the music of U2 (and I do), listen to it! If you like Broadway musicals (and I do), go to the theater! And if you find something of spiritual import in those entertainments (and I do), great! Make use of it in your spiritual life and, even, in church services and celebrations.

The last of the psalms encourages the people of God to make use of many forms of entertainment, symbolized by musical instruments — trumpets and horns (the ram’s horn), stringed instruments, percussion, wood winds — and dance, in their worship. So I believe it’s fine to make use of clowns, to use of U2’s music, to sing the Beatles’ lyrics, to offer the tunes from Broadway shows as part of the liturgy.

But when these things become the reason for the service, when we name the service for the clowns or the bands or the theater district, the tool meant to be used for praising God has become the object of praise. The psalm says, “Praise God with strings and pipe,” not “Praise the strings and pipe;” “Praise God with resounding cymbals,” not “Praise the cymbals.”

Others, I am quite certain, will have found the U2charists a path to God. Other, I know, will have found in the Beatles mass and in the Broadway eucharists the truth of the gospel. After all, that bishop whom I really did love found Christ in clowns no matter how creepy I may have found them!

But for me, these feel “gimmicky” — one or two Beatles songs might be used to good effect, but nothing but Beatles music through the whole service? Not so much. U2’s Gloria could certainly stand as a liturgical piece, but all U2 music throughout the mass? Too much of a good thing. I’m not sure that I can say anything positive about clowns . . . but someone might, perhaps. My point is that themed eucharists like these, in which the theme predominates, feel like gimmicks. It feels to me like we have stopped praising God with the clowns and have started praising the clowns; the gimmick distracts. Praise God with the gimmick, but don’t praise the gimmick!

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A request to my readers: I’m trying to build the readership of this blog and I’d very much appreciate your help in doing so. If you find something here that is of value, please share it with others. If you are on Facebook, “like” the posts on your page so others can see them. If you are following me on Twitter, please “retweet” the notices of these meditations. If you have a blog of your own, please include mine in your links (a favor I will gladly reciprocate). Many thanks!

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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.

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