Saturday, November 28, 2009

Not Yet and Right Now

The following is a sermon I will be preaching tomorrow in our church here in our monastery church in South Africa. It is perhaps one of the most difficult Gospel passages from which to try and foster any sign of hope. (Luke 21:25 - 36) However, thanks to some remarkable people who have fostered hope for me -- my monastic brothers, two women who live with us and also work to make the promise put forward in Luke's Gospel a reality for children and families affected by poverty and AIDS in areas that have been forgotten by many including our own South African government, a fellow preacher in Port Alfred, a philosopher named Rene Girard, who has offered insights into how Jesus's willingness to be scapegoated has exposed the insidiousness of all the scapegoating and victimisation in the world and a theologian named Jurgen Moltmann, who has made eschatology no longer a matter of depression but worth risking all for -- I think I have made at least a fair attempt at finding the light where I least expected it to be, in the simple contradiction of living.

Advent 1C

Certainly for parts of this Gospel this morning, it would seem rather difficult to sing “Alleluia” either before or after them. I find myself trying to weave ways around this apocalypse rather than to face it directly, being foolish enough to think that I could avoid the ominous signs of sun, moon, stars, the towering waves of the sea, the screams of terror and confusion of the people, the deafening rumbling of earth. Ultimately, none of us can avoid these kinds of calamities, and … none of us have. We have all experienced earth shattering events in our lives, in the world around us, in the atrocities, violence, cruelty, destruction of the last two millennia ever since Jesus spoke these words to a group of Jews having no idea that their own Temple, their central place of worship, their place of security and safety, their locus of identity, would be destroyed only some 40 years later.

But if we were only to get entangled and sucked into the vortex of these catastrophes, then, from our own cowering we will miss what would happen next. Because “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” Precisely at the moment where we would want to run for cover, Jesus compels us, “When these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads because your redemption is drawing near.” Just imagine it! Just as the world is falling down around our ears, the new Kingdom is sweeping in. Jesus is saying to us, Just imagine it! Isn’t it wonderful? Well, no and yet, yes it is. Isn’t it glorious? Well no, and yet yes it is. Isn’t it a time to rejoice? Well, no and yet, yes, yes it is. There is never a better time for this Son of Man to come and to come with power and great glory.

It is the time to begin again, to begin the new church year again and to wait in expectancy, vigilance and … dare I say it, hope. It is the time to hear and believe the promise of something else other than our own fear, own injustice, own destructiveness and despair talking back at us. To hear the promise of our redemption, where we no longer have to live in drunkenness, dissipation and anxiety about this world to try and avoid the inevitable, that nothing lasts, nothing is permanent. All will pass away. Eventually, we will have to let it go. And if we do, we can set our imagination free and see the Son of Man breaking in on a cloud already. The theologian, Jurgen Moltmann, wrote in the Theology of Hope, human life must be risked if it is to be won. It must expend itself if it is to gain firmness and future. If however we are thus to risk expending ourselves, then we need a horizon of expectation which makes the expending meaningful …

Advent is the invitation to live meaningfully when so little has any meaning to us, to stand up with our heads held high in contradiction. We can stand in terror and joy. We can stand knowing that our redemption is drawing near and yet is here now exactly at the point where it may seem that nothing can be redeemed. We can stand in the contradiction of this promise being right within our grasp and yet elusive, beyond our comprehension or understanding. We can set our imagination free when to do so is dangerous and risky. We can endure when nothing else seems to and stand before God.

We can see through the choking and blinding haze the Son of Man coming in power and great glory.

Is it a time to sing, “Alleluia” before and after this promise? Well, not yet and yet, yes, right now.



Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Zion Song

Just recently, I have returned to using a book called The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron to help jumpstart my writing a bit. One of the tools that she recommends for a daily discipline of writing is called Morning Pages.

The Morning Pages is a practice of producing three pages a day preferably right when one wakes up in the morning. Cameron calls those pages a “brain drain”. I like what that suggests: they are a kind of morning cleansing, an emptying out before being filled with all the hecticness of a day. They are also a way of getting down on paper the angsts we go through in everyday living -- the emails to answer, the documents and articles to write, the class to teach on Wednesday, the sermon to preach on Sunday or the pressure to complete the next blog entry that is long overdue and then seeing dust on the blinds that I just dusted last week.

Julia Cameron says that there is no wrong way of doing Morning Pages. “They are not meant to be art or even writing. Pages are meant to be, simply, the act of moving the hand across the page and writing down whatever comes to mind. Nothing is too petty, too silly, too stupid or too weird to be included.” And I would add that nothing is too private, secret or dark to include either. On the mornings I can get up early enough to do them, they are an excellent preparation before we start our prayer day at 6AM with Vigils.

We have offices, our monastic liturgy, five times-a-day. Can it be tedious? Indeed. The psalms can be monotonous and never ending. The Scripture passages can sometimes sound like they are from a different planet. The collects can be so carefully crafted and yet distant and lifeless.

But, the offices are our Opus Dei, the Work of God, our very reason for being monks. Whether I like it or not, they are the great dialogue between humanity and God. If that is true, nothing is too taboo, too remote and even disconcerting that can’t be spoken. Not even our darkest passions and violence are off-limits. God knows them anyway. As Jesus says, “…For nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known.” (Matthew 10:26, NRSV) He even compels us to shout what is told in secret from the rooftops.

My preparation of Morning Pages is a small microcosm of the entire day of monastic prayer, and with that practice, I not only exercise my writing skills but my receptivity to the Divine Office. If I can reserve my criticism of my own Morning Pages, then, who am I to criticise the Divine Office.

My own voice together with the other voices bouncing around the monastic church brings to light the complexity and diversity of the human condition and the language to express it, including my own judgmentalism, prejudice and resistance to prayer. We sing in unison that one antiphon, canticle or psalm, with one language, that one dialogue with God. Whether it is our experience or not, we are bound to be vocalising someone else’s, maybe giving voice to someone who can’t speak it themselves. If we really look deep enough within ourselves, we might even find we are giving voice to an experience we have denied owning up to for a long time.

Most of what we chant each day is songs, poems. Some to me are not great art and some are. Some I can chant or recite easily because I can empathise with the sentiment. Others require words coming out of my mouth I don’t necessarily want to say or to accept. But ultimately that shouldn’t matter. They are all part of that catharsis that speaks to and for millions, and like it or not they are our language … all of our language as human beings.

One of the Psalms that exemplifies that cleansing most for me is Psalm 137. It is a song of exile, of Israel in Babylon. The first part is a moving lament full of longing and mournful reminiscence. And then, it abruptly changes tone to a startling rage, a rage many of us would be uncomfortable repeating. The translation of the psalm below is from The Message, which captures the true bite and relevance for our own day.

Alongside Babylon’s rivers
we sat on the banks; we cried and cried,
remembering the good old days in Zion.
Alongside the quaking aspens
we stacked up our unplayed harps;
That’s where our captors demanded songs,
sarcastic and mocking:
“Sing us a happy Zion song!”

Oh, how could we ever sing God’s song
in this wasteland?
If I ever forget you, Jerusalem,
let fingers wither and fall off like leaves.
Let my tongue swell and turn black
if I fail to remember you,
If I fail, O dear Jerusalem,
to honor you as my greatest.

God, remember those Edomites
and remember the ruin of Jerusalem,
That day they yelled out,
“Wreck it, smash it to bits!”
And you, Babylonians – ravagers!
A reward to whoever gets back at you
for all you’ve done to us;
Yes, a reward to the one who grabs your babies
and smashes their heads on the rocks!

I have to admit that most monastic breviaries (office books) omit these verses, including our own. Many religious writers and theologians, including monastics, throughout the centuries have tried to spiritualise these verses by describing them as rages against our sins. The psalmist, however, probably didn’t even consider that interpretation. No, I think this psalmist really meant children here. These attempts to tone down his meaning are a dishonesty.

Robert Alter writes about these verses, “No moral justification can be offered for this notorious concluding line. All one can do is to recall the background of outraged feeling that triggers the conclusion: The Babylonians have laid waste to Jerusalem, exiled much of its population, looted and massacred; the powerless captives, ordered – perhaps mockingly – to sing their Zion songs, respond instead with a lament that is not really a song and ends with this bloodcurdling curse pronounced on their captors, who, fortunately, do not understand the Hebrew in which it is pronounced.”

Alter’s commentary reminds me of a story told in the film Amandla, an excellent documentary about the music of the anti-apartheid struggle here in South Africa. One woman who was a recording star in the 40s talked about the cheery songs black Africans would sing for their white oppressors, mainly to sell records. Those who supported, upheld and benefitted from apartheid and who could buy the records had no idea that they were hearing songs about them “getting what’s coming to them”. Welcome to the human experience!