Category Archives: essay

I Am a Pre-Existing Condition

Great essay by Sheila G. Hunter published on Unfundamentalist Christians blog.

Source: I Am a Pre-Existing Condition

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Pancakes and Ashes

“Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you die.”
Ecclesiastes 8:15

 Pancakes and ashes. What do the two together have to do with the season of Lent? For me the peculiar juxtaposition of the two in the liturgical year relates to the equally peculiar and powerful juxtaposition of feasting and fasting—and then feasting again—in Christian spiritual life.

Shrove Tuesday, also called Fat Tuesday, is the last day of carnival or Mardi Gras, a final day of celebration and feasting each year on the edge of the wilderness journey of fasting. During the Middle Ages, Christians “shrove” or sought absolution before the start of Lent. Shrove Tuesday was the last day of “Shrovetide.” Shrove Tuesday is known in some parts of the world today as Pancake Day. On Pancake Day, we eat our feast-fill because, as the Shrove Tuesday text from Ecclesiastes says—“for tomorrow we die.” Ash Wednesday. A day of “dying.”

Ash Wednesday’s “day of dying” marks the beginning of Lent. The origins of Ash Wednesday are rooted in the Jewish observance of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. Both Lent and Yom Kippur emphasize fasting and self and communal reflection. Christian worshippers today mark their foreheads with ashes to mark the start of Lent’s 40 days of fasting. Why ashes? In Scripture, ashes symbolize death (Genesis 18:27), judgment (Ezekiel 28:18), lament (Esther 4:3), and repentance (Jonah 3: 6). Ashes are also associated in the bible with fasting (Daniel 9:3 and Isaiah 58:5). Some burial liturgies include the phrase, “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” spoken as dirt is sprinkled into the gravesite; both the ashes and the dust symbolize the finality of death. Both also symbolize life and growth. Fasting and feasting merge, it seems, as ashes and soil intermingle.

Feasting to fasting to feasting again is a liturgical arc encompassing the Lent/Easter seasons. In Eastern Christian traditions, Lent is called the Great Fast and Easter’s 50 days the Great Feast. During Lent, some traditions bury the Alleluia—we fast from this word of celebration—to enter into spiritual quiet—to let our spiritual soil rebuild for the springtime to come. But this work is not only symbolic or metaphorical spiritual work; it has to do with concrete realities of living in a world where too many people endure fasts that they did not choose. To choose to fast during Lent is a privilege for many of us.

Consider: this season reminds us that we were made from the soil and that we eventually return to the soil. We are dependent upon the dirt of the earth—the sacrificial gifts of the earth—to eat and live. Christians sometimes think of fasting as a kind of contract with God; I’ll give up “x” in order that “y” might come to pass. But what if fasting has more to do with the rhythms of harvest and the gift-bearing wonders of the dirt from which we come and to which we will return. What if fasting teaches us how to live more redemptively with the earth and calls us to work with greater passion and urgency for Isaiah’s grand feast where there is plenty for all?

Ε. Β. White, author of Charlotte’s Web, writes of his wife Katherine, an avid gardener, who every year in the fall, even in the fall of that year when she knew she likely would not live to see the spring, headed out to the garden to plant bulbs in her garden:

Armed with a diagram and a clipboard, Katharine would get into a shabby old Brooks raincoat much too long for her, put on a wool hat, pull on a pair of overshoes, and proceed to the director’s chair, a folding canvas thing…at the edge of the plot. There she would sit, hour after hour, in the wind and the weather, while Henry produced dozens of brown paper packages of new bulbs and a basketful of old ones, ready for the intricate interment.

As the years went by and age overtook her, there was something comical yet touching in her bedraggled appearance on this awesome occasion. . . her studied absorption in the implausible notion that there would be yet another spring, oblivious to the ending of her own days, which she knew perfectly well was near at hand, sitting there with her detailed chart under those dark skies in dying October, calmly plotting the resurrection.*

Historically, Christians fasted each Friday to recall Jesus’ death. Sunday was always considered a feast day, even during Lent. Between Sunday and Friday, eating practices were more “normal.” Perhaps the feasting and fasting themes of Lenten biblical texts can help us to embrace this historic sacred rhythm in our daily lives. Or we can consider again that the central meal of Christian worship consists of simple basics, bread and wine, that shared in community become a nourishing feast of radical welcome and promise of food for all. The possibility of such a Lenten consideration is a restored relationship to food—to earth’s good dirt—to each other in a world where too many are hungry.

So Lent begins. And despite all that is wrong in the world and our uncertainties about what the future holds, we yet again take up the radical Gospel work of plotting the resurrection.

 

*from E. B. White, “Introduction” in K. S. White, Onward and Upward in the Garden.

Teaching Memories

I am sitting here wanting memories to teach me
To see the beauty in the world
Through my own eyes

From “Wanting Memories,” by Ysaye Barnwell
Performed by Sweet Honey in the Rock

On Tuesday morning several weeks ago, I stood at the edge of Lake Miriam as fog faded into morning’s strengthening light. Students and I had journeyed here to the Isabella Freedman Retreat Center in Falls Village, Connecticut, to spend eight days experiencing the daily life and rhythms of a Jewish farm called Adamah. We were eager to learn how this vibrant community connects land and liturgy, ecology and theology, everyday life and the mysteries of faith.

Lake Miriam. I liked that name for the waters that revealed themselves to me with the sunrise. Once the fog lifted and the sky cleared, the lake reflected almost to perfection the clouds and surrounding hills. Lake Miriam, in that reflective moment, seemed to gather up ancient memories embedded in dirt, rocks, and mountains and make them new again with the dawn.

I thought then that for me this was what the eight days were to be about—connecting again with ancient memories shared by Jews and Christians and learning what it means to reflect these memories anew as dawn appears on each misty horizon.

This work my students and I undertook for the week is not new work. Remembering—and wrestling with how to collect and record individual and communal memories—is central to what it means to be human. We humans believe, it seems, that memories are powerful, that they have wisdom to impart. This is a paradox for me, as my memory is a rather unreliable source of factual information. What I recall about past events often blurs the details of what happened in those events. This is true in my case for remembering both large and small things. I forget about once a week where I put my car keys, and I have been known to forget where I parked my car. Any number of daily details slip through the sieve that is my mediocre memory.

Larger scale historical remembering is also forgetful and often with dangerous outcomes. Too much “official” history has supported certain groups and communities and ignored or denigrated others by its use—intentional or not—of selective remembering or purposeful forgetting. Individual and collective remembering and memories are, at best, imperfect and, at worst, damaging.

Yet, as unreliable and unhealthy as it can be, memory is central to human mean-making, and ritual remembering is a significant part of much religious meaning making.

While my students and I were at the Isabella Freedman Retreat Center, we celebrated the Jewish holiday of Shavuot along with more than 100 Jewish retreat guests. Shavuot, the “Feast of Weeks,” focuses on the first fruits of the harvest season and God’s giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. Together with our new Jewish friends, we remembered what happened all those generations ago on that holy mountain on the other side of the Exodus. And what a remembering we shared. Meals were lavish; psalms and prayers were chanted and danced; a Tikkun Leil Shavuot, or all-night Torah study session, kept the midnight oils burning through the night before and into the morning of the main liturgy. The joy of remembering was intense and palpable throughout the weekend.

Memory and remembering are important both in Jewish and Christian traditions. Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman writes about Jewish remembrance, or zekher:

[Zekher] is a pointer that fastens our attention across time, space, and even logic. It attaches where we are to somewhere else we wish to be. It rivets our consciousness on our inherent connectivity to something that might otherwise be lost among the disparate sense perceptions that constantly assail us, as if to say that regardless of how our lives may change, this particular pathway of attentiveness must never be lost. We move on with our lives when the moment of remembrance ends, but the connecting tissue to the event being memorialized attends us wherever we go, deepening our sense of what matters and committing ourselves to the lessons that flow from it (see http://blog.lawrenceahoffman.com/tag/do-this-in-remembrance-of-me/).

Christian remembrance is like this too. The Greek word for remembering is anamnesis and has the sense of making present now something from the past. When Christian communities practice anamnesis at the communion table in Sunday worship, we practice being attentive to how God is with us in the grains of the fields and in the meals we share together every day. Anamnesis invites us to re-member in our very bodies what matters in life and faith.

Often forgotten by faith communities today is that ritual remembrance—both anamnesis and zekher—is more than recollection or nostalgia. When we remember as we did during Shavuot, we are doing something more radical than wistful looking back over our shoulders with the sneaking suspicion that if we look too long or too hard we might join Lot’s wife in the wilderness as pillars of salt. During Shavuot at Isabella Freedman, as ancient dust was blown away from stories in Exodus that I have never remembered in quite the same way in my Christian tradition, I experienced the sense that for me some long-neglected connecting tissue was being restored and preserved. I somehow became connected again to sisters and brothers I met that weekend for the first time. Ancient-new pathways of attentiveness were cultivated. Looking back—anamnesis and zekher—can be salty in healing ways.

What struck me about Shavuot at Isabella Freedman was how embodied all of this remembering work was. In the days leading up the festival, my students and I joined others on the farm in feeding chickens, weeding raspberries, planting squash, and milking goats. During the retreat, much of the food for the festival meals came from the ground in which we planted and upon which we walked. And then there were the wonders of how worshippers danced with delight and abandon on that holy retreat ground to rhythms of djembes and tambourines that seemed linked to sources deep in the earth and even deeper in human spirits. Shavuot retreat goers remembered with their bodies—through Torah yoga, a communal mikveh (ritual cleansing) in Lake Miriam, breaking bread together, singing and dancing.

In the embodiedness, it seems, resides a forgotten gift of ritual remembering. The point of embodied remembering is not so much to sharpen our recollection of historical detail as it is to connect us to others who have dug in this dirt, walked on this earth, and danced in this place before. The point is to connect us to each other and God’s good dirt in this place and to connect us to the ancient place called Mt. Sinai and the people who dwelled on that ground. Memory of this sort is neither static nor linear. It defies human articulation. It resists doctrinal formulation and religious institutionalization. Memory of this sort resides in sinewy places, perhaps even in the molecular structures of our bodies, accessible to us to heal and restore our spirits even when our minds have lost their ability to recall and recount. And somehow, for people in Jewish and Christian traditions, God’s presence infuses and enlivens these memories.

I stood at the edge of Lake Miriam again on Sunday morning, Pentecost Sunday in the Christian tradition this year. Pentecost marks for Christians the giving of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost (fiftieth) is also the Greek word for Shavuot. This is what the water, trees, and dirt of Lake Miriam remember each day: though different, we are all connected.

On that Sunday morning, Lake Miriam’s waters again reflected the trees and hills gathered around her. Perhaps in that watery reflection dwells the beauty and mystery of what remembering God in community with others teaches us. The reflected images were so still and perfect that day, one could mistake them for the trees and hills. Though they are just watery echoes of the things themselves, the reflections—the echoes—are real, in their way, as are our memories.

What happens when we touch these reflections, these ancient memories, as we did that Shavuot weekend? Our fingers pass through the images and into the waters where deep truths and wisdom dwell. And if we are attentive, we realize. The truths that shimmer in our remembering are at the same time fleeting and enduring, but because God’s Spirit lingers in and moves through them they have the power to connect, heal, and transform.

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