Imaginary Things

Lorikeet Image

Proper 17 (22) | Mark 7:1-23

Imaginary Things

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

Rules are simple things. By means of rules we divide the universe into halves, and we set one against the other. One obeys a rule, or one does not. One is right or wrong, in or out. There is only light and dark, black and white, and by means of such a mental contrivance we simplify our world.

There is only one problem. Rules are imaginary things.

Our world is probably not imaginary, or if it is, we are part of the same dream. Imagination is not what we see: imagination is how we see it.

The same beautiful lorikeet as elsewhere on this page, but in black and white. Look at what is lost. (Photo taken at the Lorikeet Landing at the NC Aquarium in Ft Fisher.)
The same beautiful lorikeet as elsewhere on this page, but in black and white. Look at what is lost. (Photo taken at the Lorikeet Landing at the NC Aquarium in Ft Fisher.)

Take the creation stories of Genesis. They help us to imagine the coming into being of the world—so far so good. When we take those stories and set them against the explanations of science, we have ourselves performed an act of creation—we have created a duality that does not exist, pitting science against faith. If science discovers a truth that contradicts a tenet of faith, as Galileo did, then it is our theology that is flawed.

It is a bit like describing death to a child. An explanation of the biological process, while scientific, may be useful on some levels, but such an explanation will not assuage her grief. A non-scientific story, even a mythical or fanciful one, illustrating the wheel or cycle of life may be more helpful in addressing her feelings, the human pain of loss. The two approaches are different, but they are not in opposition. Each is helpful in the right setting. Yet there is something in humanity that wants to hold to a single view, a single explanation of the world, as though the mind were a hand too small to grasp two strings at once.

It is the easy way.

The religious folk in the passage from Mark are no different. Beginning with the notion of living a life of faith, they developed rules. Having developed the rules, they began to follow their rules instead of their faith.

Rules define things. One either follows them or one does not; one is therefore considered faithful by the other religious folk or one is not. Rules eliminate the gray areas on the face of our moral compass. Tithing replaces generosity. Obedience replaces faith. Rules replace thought. Religion replaces love.

Some modern Christians are tempted to label the people in this Gospel story as ‘Old Testament’ thinkers—people of the rules—as opposed to the opposite notion of ‘New Testament’ thinkers—people of grace. That kind of thinking only works if you forget that 700 years before Christ was born, the prophet Micah had already gotten there:

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.IMG_2389
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
—Micah 6:8 (NIV)

Long before Jesus dealt with the rule followers, their own prophets had already rejected sacrifice and ritual and rules. It seems some of them weren’t listening. Centuries later, some of the people around Jesus were still more concerned about ritual, rules, and conformity than about love.

In all of scripture, it was never written that God preferred rules, or governance, or even religion. The prophets told us that God is love, that God is light.

Sin is never about failing to follow rules. Sin is always about failing to act in love.

No matter how well we follow the rules, if we act without love, we have failed. If we forget all the rules, but treat ourselves and one another with love, we are people after God’s own heart.

Lorikeet Image

Hard Words

Proper 16 (21) | John 6:56-69

Hard Words

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

Stone pathwayTaking offense has been raised, or lowered, beyond an art to a daily occupation. Each day a staggering number of people find the energy, interest, and time first to half-read or half-hear the words of others, then to take umbrage, and then to attack. The trolls have crawled out from under the bridges and started strolling in the light of social media. So long as people spend their energy and time being outraged on Facebook and Twitter, the poor will always be with us.

It is not a modern day problem. The Internet has simply given us a new venue.

The people of Capernaum, where Jesus was living, were just the same. The lectionary passage from John’s Gospel describes people taking offense at the ongoing metaphor Jesus was using—bread, and his own body, as a symbol for the life of the spirit.

“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” Hard words, indeed. If he meant what he said to be taken literally, Jesus was insane. People wondered: we read that many of Jesus’ own disciples left him.

The Gospel of John lacks the obvious communion passages of Mark, Matthew and Luke. Instead, John takes the metaphors of bread and wine and weaves them throughout the entire narrative as running themes to explore the spiritual aspects of the life of Jesus. Even so, the words are hard. The image is so visceral—eating a man’s flesh, drinking his blood—that they would be more easily accepted as elements of a horror story: The Vampire Cannibals of Capernaum, or something like it.

Stone gargoyle
A stone face at Biltmore House in Asheville, NC. Perhaps he is contemplating a soft word.

In the posts of the past weeks, perhaps enough has been mentioned of the bread metaphor. Still, we might do well to consider the value of hard words.

We often hear them—words spoken in anger, or in ignorance, which is the frequent companion and precursor and cause of anger. Sometimes we ourselves speak or write them, words to condemn others, to screech our indignation, to demonstrate our personal righteousness.

How often we want to be right! Jesus was right, of course, all the more so if Christianity has the truth of it and this man was also somehow God. But oddly enough, Jesus did not appear to be very interested in being right.

What was he interested in? Working from the supposition that what we do demonstrates who we are, we might figure it out. Jesus fed hungry people. He had compassion, and patience, for needy people. He healed the sick ones, paid attention to the marginalized ones, spent hours talking to and teaching anyone who was willing to listen. He was kind to children.

Another stone face from Biltmore House. Perhaps this one is considering a hard word.
Another stone face from Biltmore House. Perhaps this one is considering a hard word.

He was angry with people who claimed to be good. He made a violent scene in the temple itself.

I don’t know whether he would have had a Facebook page or a Twitter account. Maybe. He did sit down in the synagogue to teach, which was the closest thing to public media in his day. I suspect that he would have posted interesting things, and for one post or another, many of his followers would have un-friended him. Following someone two thousand years ago took more energy, but the idea is much the same.

The hardest words are the ones we need, but do not wish, to hear. Give up the French fries and the sugar. Stop the drugs and the drinking. Get over yourself. Put your children first. Be faithful. It’s not all about you.

Hard words may convey the greatest love. Those who care about us the least are also least likely to speak the hard truths we need to hear.

Jesus may have hard words for us all.

Hard stones in waterfall
Hard stones at Linville Falls in North Carolina

Bread and Stone

Proper 15 (20)  |  John 6:51-58

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.

Bread and Stone

Mt Mitchell 5I wrote this post while visiting the mountains of North Carolina with my daughter. Twice we hiked along trails on Mt Mitchell, the tallest peak east of the Mississippi. The first day was cold, and the mountain was covered in clouds, making the trails quiet and secretive. The second day was warmer, sunlight streaming through the forest, so that the same stones and trees were sometimes hard to recognize as the ones we had found the day before.

Mt Mitchell 2Along the trails I thought about the way Jesus used bread as a metaphor for life. The stones rising around us and the forest growing from them began to take on the same meaning.

The mountains of Appalachia are old. These mountains are not as tall as the Rockies or the Himalayas, and there is none of the astonishing grandeur of those jagged peaks. The Appalachians have been worn down by time, covered by trees and moss, until like Grandfather mountain and Graybeard and Mitchell, one is left gazing at a chain of old men and women, moss ridden, home to birds and squirrels and bears.

Hiking through these hills, there is also the constant reminder of the stone beneath one’s feet. The landscape may be softened by trees, moss and mushrooms, but the stone is always there, just beneath, supporting the life above. These mountains were here when the plants came into being. These stones rose up long before the dinosaur ancestors of ravens clawed and squawked across the rocks.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus makes the peculiar claim that he is living bread, come down from heaven. “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them,” he tells his neighbors in Capernaum.

They are appalled. Why wouldn’t they be?

Mt Mitchell 3A man they have known for years tells them that eating his flesh and drinking his blood is life itself, and they are supposed to understand that he is anything but insane? They were not a people given to metaphor.

We might restate the idea for them, and for us, something like this–God is in the bread we eat, the stones beneath our feet, the stars across our sky. God is in all that sustains our lives.

There is a popular notion that rational people should reject everything that cannot be expressed or explained in scientific terms. According to this way of thinking, anyone supposing the existence of God is at best ignorant, at worst delusional.

God is not the only such idea. We cannot explain a great deal.

Why do we love? Why do we mourn? Perhaps the long developmental period of humans and apes provides a basis for our devotion to our children. Lizards, in contrast, lay the eggs and walk away from their young, or perhaps eat them. Even granting the power of evolutionary forces to explain our initial bond, how does that explain love?

Anyone not knowing that love is more than biological compulsion and obligation is missing a great deal. No, he is missing everything worth knowing.

Mt MItchell 4Science is wonderful. Through science our lives are better, our scope of thought is widened, our pursuit of our potential is less limited. Science can explain attraction and the biological basis of our compulsions. It has not quite explained our minds, as differing from our brains. And it has failed altogether to explain love, that which the ancients called agape.

Faith is not delusion, nor is it in antipathy to science. The idea that one must either accept science or faith is a false dichotomy. It is the task and joy of science to explain how things are. It is the joy and the task of faith to explore what may be. I suspect that faith and science are a double spiral that one day will join in a point of understanding, transcending our ideas and ways of thinking.

Meanwhile, we have metaphor instead of explanation.

Eat the bread, drink the water. We may find God in the stones beneath our feet.



Proper 14 (19) | John 6:35-51

Lectionary Project—Part of an ongoing three year project of weekly posts based on the Gospel reading from the Revised Common Lectionary. A study in practical theology.


Bread. Water. These are the central images in the Gospel of John. Did you ever wonder why?

GrassesCommonplace things are easy to overlook. They are also the things that give us life.

The most striking thing about the elements composing our bodies is how common they are. We are life forms based on carbon, scientists tell us. Here on earth, carbon is everywhere. It’s the dust of the universe. Nature builds with what is on hand, what is abundant.

We should not be surprised that our lives are housed in the commonplace.

Some carbon is special, like the compressed chunks we call diamonds. We treasure these bits of hard shiny crystal, but a diamond has no real value to organic life. The carbon trapped in a diamond no longer combines in any of the myriad ways that support life on our planet.

It is ironic that we have come to value things so rare that they cannot help to sustain our lives, but we’re not consistent in our treatment of common things. If we find something that we agree is valuable, like a diamond, we’re glad. If we see something common, though we are made of it and it keeps us alive, we are not impressed. If only we measured ideas the same way, but in our thinking we treasure the commonplace, and we reject rarities of insight. We would rather be right in our closed minds than have the clamshell of our thoughts pried open by the rare and unexpected.

Dogwood FlowerThe audience in this Gospel’s story were angry with Jesus. They were in the synagogue of Capernaum, the place where Jesus made his home, and he was commonplace to them. They saw him on the street. They knew his family. So long as he walked their streets and did not disturb their commonplace thoughts, they accepted him. When he made the claim that he brought them something of God, they scoffed and grumbled and grew angry.

We would do the same.

In fact, we are doing the same. We walk past the commonplace landscape, breathe the commonplace air, taste the commonplace bread of our meals, drink the commonplace water, and we do not appreciate the value in them. We do not appreciate that these are the things that sustain us. We would trade away the common things in our lives, only to be left with the cold sparkle of crystallized carbon, a handful of diamonds that we cannot eat or drink or breathe.

If we would see something of great value, we need only look around us. Life is in the taste of bread, the sparkle of water.

In this Gospel, we hear that Jesus raised the commonplace to the divine, and that he brought the divine into the commonplace. God is in the stardust at our feet.

Maple Seeds