A Buddhist tells this story:
Once upon a time, there was a tavern owner in Mumbai. He had a hard-working bartender, who was always trying to be helpful by inventing new ways of doing things. One hot day, the tavern owner wanted to go to the beach. So he left the bartender in charge while he was gone. The bartender had noticed that many customers ate a little salt after drinking their liquor. He didn’t know why, but not wishing to show his ignorance, he never asked. He thought it might be that the liquor needed salt to taste good, and he wondered why taverns didn’t just add salt to their liquor. He decided that if he did so, the business would make much higher profits, and the tavern owner would be very pleased. So he added salt to all the liquor, not knowing that the actual reason the customers ate the salt was to chase away the aftertaste of the liquor. To his surprise, when the customers came to the tavern and drank the salty booze, they immediately spit it out; they left and went to a different bar. When the owner returned from his day at the beach, he found his tavern empty, and all his liquor ruined.
“In the Name of God the Broken-Hearted. Amen.”
In January of 1991, I was a student at Church Divinity School of the Pacific, where there is a tradition of Thursday night community eucharists followed by dinner together in the seminary refectory. On the evening of Thursday, January 17, the Rev. Dr. John Kater, professor of ministry theory and practice, was our preacher and he began his sermon with the invocation I have just offered. You see, that was the day “Operation Desert Shield” became “Operation Desert Storm,” and we had all been glued to the TV sets in the common room, the dormitory lounges, or our apartments watching as the US Air Force began a bombardment of Baghdad that was to last for weeks and, eventually, lead into nearly three decades of war in the Persian Gulf region.
There was another American bombing of Baghdad just a few days ago in which the military leader of Iran, Qassem Soleimani, was killed. If the news reports are correct, his death may trigger more armed conflict in the region. So this weekend, as we read in our newspapers about the Iranian general’s death and tonight consider the visit of a group of Iranian scientists to Israel, it seemed good to repeat that invocation tonight.
In the beginning, God said . . . and there is creation. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word became flesh . . . and there is salvation. When we cry “Abba! Father!” it is not us but the Spirit who speaks through us . . . and there is sanctification. At the core of our faith is communication and personal relationship, and how we express that is vitally important. It is more than an intellectual enterprise. Choosing, using, hearing, reading, interpreting, and translating our words and those of scripture is a spiritual and existential exercise, as well. To demonstrate this, I have brought a prop to use this morning: this. [Bottle of Mountain Dew]
What is this? I mean, generically what is this beverage called? You might call it “pop” or “soda” or (despite the fact that it is not a cola and not a product of the Coca-Cola Company) if you were from some parts of the American South you might call it a “coke.” If you were from Great Britain or Ireland, you might call it a “fizzy drink.” If a man we have just met describes Mountain Dew as his favorite kind of Coke or calls it his favorite fizzy drink, we will automatically know something about him and we will assume much, much more, and what we know, what we think we know, and what we assume will all color our relationship with our new acquaintance.
When I was a kid growing up first in southern Nevada and then in southern California, the weeks leading up to Christmas (we weren’t church members so we didn’t call them “Advent”) were always the same. They followed a pattern set by my mother. We bought a tree and decorated it; we set up a model electric train around it. We bought and wrapped packages and put them under the tree, making tunnels for that toy train. We went to the Christmas light shows in nearby parks and drove through the neighborhoods that went all out for cooperative, or sometimes competitive, outdoor displays. My mother would make several batches of bourbon balls (those confections made of crushed vanilla wafers and booze) and give them to friends and co-workers. Christmas Eve we would watch one or more Christmas movies on TV, and early Christmas morning we would open our packages . . . carefully so that my mother could save the wrapping paper. Then all day would be spent cooking and watching TV and playing bridge. After the big Christmas dinner, my step-father and I would do the clean up, my brother and my uncle would watch TV . . . and my mother would sneak off to her room and cry. You see . . . no matter how carefully we prepared, no matter how strictly we adhered to Mom’s pattern, something always went wrong. We never got it right; Christmas never turned out the way my mother wanted it to be.
Some years later, I read the work of the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai and I understood what our family problem was.
While making a presentation at a conference about teaching English as a second language, an expert in the field remarked that one of the difficulties is that there are many instances in English when a double-negative renders positive meaning and this is confusing for non-English speakers. “It’s fortunate,” she said, “there’s no way in English that a double positive can convey negative meaning.”
From the back of the room a voice spoke up, “Yeah, right.”
Now when that story is written, the sarcasm of that double positive giving negative meaning is hard to indicate; in fact, it is impossible. And yet it will probably be understood by a native speaker. For the non-English speaker, however, discerning the sarcasm and humor is difficult. Inflection and tone of voice can and do drastically alter meaning and understanding.
Two things happened last Saturday.
Early in the day I got into an internet discussion (in a Facebook comment thread) with a friend about the “distinctives” of the Episcopal Church and (as the context broadened) Anglicanism in general. It started as a joke when I made a snarky comment that what sets us apart from other parts of the Christian world is that we are a “place” where people can argue about such important things as candles on the altar or processional crosses or the theology of bread with vile, soul-crushing vehemence and still claim to be loving brothers and sisters. My friend responded, I answered, and as things progressed I realized he was being serious while I was trying to be sarcastic. I shifted gears and we ended up agreeing that the Anglican distinctive is difficult to put into words, it almost defies definition.
And, yet, there is something! We had both commented during the give-and-take that there is a je-ne-sais-quoi about our tradition that we miss when attending worship in another church , that if the Episcopal Church did not exist we would have to invent it.
I retired from active parish ministry as a priest in the Episcopal Church in December 2018 after nearly 29 years in holy orders, more than half that time as rector of one parish. Since then, my wife and I have visited several Episcopal congregations in this and other dioceses on Sunday mornings, not as supply clergy and spouse but simply as visiting worshipers.
In nearly every case, we have been greeted by friendly people, found worship that is lively and engaging, enjoyed sermons that are masterfully crafted and well preached by erudite clergy, and left feeling that we have encountered a loving God in a vibrant community. Oh to be sure, we have been able to find minor aspects to criticize, but these are merely the quibblings of professional church geeks; sharing them is how we amuse ourselves on the drive home. In the main, though, we have been very impressed at how well the Episcopal Church follows the first great commandment: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.”
Lenten Journal, Day 39, Palm Sunday
Yesterday and the day before I wrote in this journal but did not post what I had written to Facebook as I have throughout the rest of Lent. Friday was our 39th wedding anniversary and Saturday, being the day before Palm Sunday, is when Evelyn and I remember the day our daughter disappeared (she was later found and all is well). What I wrote yesterday and Friday was simply too personal to put out on public social media.
Today we have stayed home from church because Evelyn has a rip-roaring upper respiratory infection. You should hear her cough! As we have done so, I have been thinking about the way we have commemorated Palm Sunday as married persons for the last 39 years. Except that year when Caitlin went missing, they have been invariably the same (as least for me): Saturday spent decorating the church with palms; Sunday the simple 8 a.m. distribution of palms within the context of Holy Communion; the later service a big production number beginning with a procession around the church and through the cemetery (if there was one nearby, as there has been here in Medina and was in San Diego), a choral Eucharist, the dramatic reading of the Passion Narrative.
Lenten Journal, Day 36
I really wish that were true (it means “I speak Irish”). I don’t. I study Irish. I forget Irish. I study it again.
That is how I spent today; using Duolingo and a free online course from Dublin City University, I have spent the day refreshing my memory of the Irish language, recalling things I learned a decade ago at a school in the Connemara Gaeltacht north and west of Galway City.
Irish is just one of the languages I have studied. I took Spanish in grades 5 through 8 in the Los Angeles city schools. I studied Latin throughout high school. I took Italian in an immersion course in Florence in 1969 and then French in a longer immersion course in Paris in 1973. I cannot speak, read, or write in any of these languages, although I could back in the day.
Lenten Journal, Day 29
So, typical of me, I let the Lenten discipline slide and didn’t write anything in this journal yesterday or the day before. In my defense, the first day was dominated by the “prep” for a colonoscopy and yesterday the procedure was done early in the morning; I spent the rest of the day sleeping off the Propofol used as anesthesia during the procedure.
That’s one of the drugs used in the capital punishment “cocktail,” by the way. One minute I was watching the nurse inject the stuff into my IV line; the next, I was in a different room, my wife at my bedside conversing with the gastroenterologist about radiation damage to my colon (that damage being a sequela of my treatment for prostate cancer). The rest of the day was spent mostly in a fog of unthinking, which is not the same thing as the cloud of unknowing by a long shot!