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!
I’m not preaching this week, but if I were . . .
I often read poetry as part of, and frequently as a substitute for, a homily. This is especially true on “high holy days” when the liturgy and the lessons of the lectionary speak so eloquently that the attempt at exegesis seems at best irrelevant and at worst intrusive, e.g., Good Friday or Palm Sunday. On such days, in such liturgies and with such lessons, the poets seem to get and to give the message so much better than I can.
There are two poems that I’ve used on Palm Sunday which look at the story focusing on or speaking through one of the often-ignored characters, the donkey which carried Christ into the city of Jerusalem. One is Mary Oliver’s The Poet Thinks about the Donkey in which the poet expresses her hopes for the animal. The other is G.K. Chesterton’s The Donkey in which the animal speaks for itself.
Lenten Journal, Day 20
Sigh . . . . it’s detachment time again!
This Lent, my first as a retired priest, is certainly focusing my attention on not focusing my attention, which is just a cute way to say “Detachment.” The need to “let go” is hitting me squarely between the eyes.
I’m feeling very much like a stubborn donkey.
Lenten Journal, Day 13
I had a first-in-the-morning appointment at the digestive disease medical office today, a pre-screening for the colonoscopy I have scheduled in two weeks. Weight, blood pressure, review of medications, instructions on which medications to discontinue ahead of the procedure, medical history review, that sort of thing … and, of course, the preparation instructions for the day before.
I can’t really think of anything more appropriate for Lent than colonoscopy prep, can you?
OK, I’m being facetious.
Lenten Journal, Day 6
“… rendering unto thee most hearty thanks for the innumerable benefits procured unto us by the same.”
A few days ago, a fellow priest complained about the difficulty of saying these words from the “traditional language” service of Holy Communion in the Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer, especially early in the morning (which is about the only time they are said in most parishes anymore, if they are said at all). I responded with the snarky remark that if my colleague had grown up with them, rather than being a “convert” from another Christian tradition (as he is), they would not be difficult at all.
I did not grow up with them myself, but I did hear them at least three times each week during the academic terms of my high school years. A non-Episcopalian, I was enrolled in an Episcopal Church affiliated boarding school more than a thousand miles from home. Like all the students of that school, I was required to attend chapel which most days followed the liturgy of one of the Daily Offices but twice each week was a celebration of the Eucharist. Then on Sundays, unless one was attending church off campus, there was another mandatory service of Holy Communion.