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.
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.
Back in May of 2016, after hearing about the #WearOrange movement, which supports reasonable gun sales and gun ownership regulation, I got the idea to wear an orange stole at worship as a witness against gun violence. The idea caught on and spread. Recently, my friend Rosalind Hughes, who made my orange stole and a hundred others, asked me to sum up what I thought might achieved by the importing the #WearOrange movement into the liturgy of the church. This is what I wrote for her:
Several years ago, while serving in a parish in Kansas with a limited budget and little money for more than a few stoles, I made several full sets of vestments and, at that time, did some research on liturgical colors. One of the things I learned was that although orange is not now considered one of the standard colors of the liturgical spectrum, it was once considered an alternative to green for the Sundays of “ordinary time.” I also learned that it is an accepted color for vestments in the Russian Orthodox Church where, for some reason, it is considered appropriate to the Feast of Sts. Peter & Paul.
This is a special Sunday for me. Friday marked the 28th anniversary of my ordination as a priest in the Episcopal Church. It was on Sunday, June 23, 1991, that I celebrated my first mass. So I am grateful to you and to Fr. George for the privilege of an altar at which to celebrate the Holy Mysteries and a pulpit from which to preach the gospel on this, my anniversary Sunday.
Now that I am retired, I am filling part of my time studying Irish. In the world of Irish studies, I am what is known as a foghlaimeoir, which is to say “an Irish learner.” The truth is that I have been a foghlaimeoir for over eleven years, but I have not yet progressed to the level of Gaeilgeoir, that is, “an Irish speaker.” Studying Irish is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done; it is both fascinating and maddening, and I think that among the reasons for that are the cultural assumptions which underly the language.
There is an old tradition in the church: on Trinity Sunday, rectors do their best to get someone else to preach. If they have a curate or associate priest, he or she gets the pulpit on that day. If not, they try to invite some old retired priest to fill in (as Father George has done today). No one really wants to preach on Trinity Sunday, the only day of the Christian year given to the celebration or commemoration of a theological doctrine, mostly because theology is dull, dry, and boring to most people and partly because this particular theology is one most of us get wrong no matter how much we try to do otherwise. Back when I was a curate getting the Trinity Sunday assignment, my rector encouraged me with the sunny observation that, listening to a sermon in almost any church on Trinity Sunday, one could be practically guaranteed to hear heresy.
As I started preparing to preach on this Trinity Sunday, however, I thought, “I have an out, a handy escape hatch” because today is not only the church’s feast of the one, holy, blessed, and glorious Trinity, it is also the secular, some say “Hallmark,” holiday of Father’s Day. So, I thought, “I’ll talk about Father’s Day and if the Trinity decides to show up, well … that’ll be fine.”
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.”
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.
Where to begin?
I’ve decided to spend at least one hour each morning on the task of writing. That’s the advice given all aspiring writers, “Just do it. Set aside time and discipline yourself to do it. Write whatever comes to mind.” So here I am, coffee cup at my side, fingers on the keyboard of my laptop, sitting at the kitchen table. I would prefer to use a paper and pen, but the arthritis in my hands simply does not allow me to actually write much anymore. I can “type” so much faster and more accurately than I can scrawl now (and auto-correct, as much as I hate it on my phone, is a great aide in my word processing application).
The furnace is on. It’s snowing outside and the Weather.com app on my phone said it was 21ºF when last I looked. There was a weather notice of a burst of snowfall moving through the area limiting visibility and making roads dangerously slick.
Anyway, the furnace is on and I can hear the rush of air through the registers. Normally, I never pay attention to this; I don’t even notice it. It is simply background white noise. This morning, however, it seems to be abnormally loud, very noticeable. If I were still in the preaching business, I might make myself a note about the furnace background noise, a reminder that it could be used a sermon illustration. I don’t know what biblical text or theological idea it might illustrate, but that’s the nature of sermon illustrations, isn’t it? You don’t know how you will use them until you do. File this one under “background noise” for now and move on.