Sunday, July 16, 2017

Can we be the Sower?

It has been a while since I blogged the lectionary. When I decided this past week that it was the time to get back to it, I discovered that I'd started doing this in Year A in 2014. And we're back in Year A again.

Today's lectionary readings:

This could be subtitled, "Wherein I get caught up in Paul but thankfully remember what it's all about. (Hint: God's love.)

In Judaism, there is no original sin. God created humanity in God's likeness, with free will, and so as Rabbinic Judaism describes it, humans have yetzer ha-tov, the good inclination, and yetzer ha-ra, the evil inclination, the latter being "a drive toward pleasure, property or security, which left unlimited, can lead to evil" (per However, this is not all that humanity is made of, so this is not a simplistic dualism. There is also the mind, the heart (equivalent to the gut in the ancient world, for example, a gut feeling), and the soul.  The two yetzers are what Paul is talking about when he speaks of the flesh and the spirit. Remember yetzer ha-tov (good) and yetzer ha-ra (evil, sort of). We'll get to Paul and today's gospel parable in a sec.

Let's start at the first of today's readings. Both Esau and Jacob exhibit these two natures. Esau has both good (we know because Isaac, who was consecrated to God, loves him) and evil: his desire for food is so great, he gives up his birthright. Same for Jacob, the yetzer ha-tov of living simply and wrestling toward God (as we'll see later) versus the yetzer ha-ra of coveting his brother's birthright -- and giving into that desire. Nobody in the Bible is perfect.

This idea of two natures or inclinations dates to rabbinic Judaism, which yes is after Paul, but Augustine's concept of original sin is also after Paul and has been read back into it. When Paul speaks of flesh it is yetzer ha-ra, spirit is yetzer ha-tov. Capital-S Spirit is the Spirit of God. Note also, that Paul uses different Greek words for flesh (sarx) versus body (soma). It's not Augustine's neo-Platonism of flesh/body vs. spirit/soul (or shadow vs reality). But two different parts out of many of being human.

It turns out I am not the only person who was thought of this: both W.D. Davies and his student E.P. Sanders say that Paul's word choices are consistent with a developing theology that led to (and was further expounded upon) by rabbis after the Second Temple's destruction.

Try re-reading Paul in this way: "But you are not in yetzer ha-ra; you are in yetzer ha-tov, since the Spirit of God dwells in you." (Romans 8:9)

Yet even with the gift of God's Spirit, we are still mortal and we still struggle between these two inclinations. Paul ranted about this in last week's lectionary passage: "For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do." (Romans 7:19) And he's one who has the Spirit of God with him! You've probably thought to yourself by now, what does it really mean to be in Christ Jesus if we still struggle with yetzer ha-ra? The things we shouldn't do, but do? Remember Jacob and how he wasn't perfect either? We are none of us expected to achieve perfection. It is God's mercy and loving-kindness that sees us through the mess of human life.

But wait, there's more.

This is also where today's gospel parable comes in. Because receiving the Spirit of God isn't a passive act. It's a get-up-and-go active response. "Let anyone with ears, listen!" (Matthew 13:9) Listening is not a passive reception but active. We need to want to hear the word of the kingdom first. How and why we don't listen are the reasons behind the lack of fruitfulness of the first three soils, various yetzer ha-ra motivations. If we can hear and understand, then we become fruitful in the sense of becoming a sower ourselves, bringing in a new creation, "pursuing what is right for everyone" (Jewish Annotated New Testament, my emphasis). 

The important thing is the Sower doesn't give up. The sower can be God, Jesus, the disciples, or those who have the Spirit of God through Christ Jesus as Paul does, that is, us, our active response. Again and again, the word of the kingdom is sown, the Holy Spirit is sent, without discrimination, without judgement, without despair because a seed fails.

All types of ground, all types of people, are are loved enough by God for the Beloved to sow the word of the kingdom. And God does not give up on us and will sow the word again and again, hoping, always hoping, that this time there is understanding, that this time a heart will be open, and the word will take root.

Commentary on the Torah by Richard E. Friedman
"Paul and the Yetzer Ha-Ra" by Mark Wauck on his blog meaning in history which quotes W. D. Davies' Paul and Rabbinic Judaism
The Jewish Annotated New Testament (NRSV), Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Butler, editors
Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: Year A, Volume 3, David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, editors
Sermon Brainwave podcast by The Working Preacher "SB549 - Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (Ord. 15)"

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Praying to the One Who Blesses

In the last weeks of Dad's life, I wanted to go and sing him a prayer I had learned in the synagogue, a healing prayer called the Misheberach.

Unfortunately, he passed away before I could get to him and the news that he was hours from death wiped out the idea of singing it to him over the phone, whether or not he could hear me. 

It became a prayer that I prayed for my dad as I tried to keep vigil halfway around the world. It became a prayer for me as I grieved. I had a notion of singing it at Dad's funeral as a healing prayer for others, but there were already so many sticking their oar in and I also knew myself well enough that it would not be a day that I could sing anything.

The first word of the prayer means "the One who blesses". The tune I learned was by Debbie Friedman and it is a mix of Hebrew and English.

You may be wondering why I didn't cling to the Lord's Prayer or some other Christian mantra. The words have been a source of comfort and an expression of grief. That it comes from another tradition are completely irrelevant. The words in English had a great deal to do with it too:
May the Source of strength, who blessed the ones before us Help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing And let us say: Amen.
Bless all in need of healing, with r'fuah shleimah**:
The renewal of body, the renewal of spirit,
And let us say: Amen.
The celebrant at Dad's funeral talked about how coming together as a community to mourn someone can be a life-changing experience. For him, it ultimately meant a move from Scotland to Australia. Similarly, I find the words "help us find the courage to make our lives a blessing" a similar impetus to re-center my life. Something to gnaw on and discern in the days ahead.

** r'fuah shleimah means complete recovery (from a page that I read about this song)

Debbie Friedman sings the song below:

Friday, June 2, 2017

What I Learned This Spring

Here are a few things I learned:

Talk to your loved ones, even if they annoy the crap out of you. You may never get the chance to.

My dad passed away this week. We are two terrible communicators and not all the calendar reminders in the world were sufficient for me to send an email. (We are separated by an ocean.) And then, after a visit and a promise to talk more, the cancer metastasized. We started talking weekly. The cancer took him quicker than we all thought. I thought I had time to get home. I didn't.

Kindness is an incredible gift. I wrote about the kindnesses exchanged when a group of us went to support the local Islamic Center. You can read about this incredibly moving experience here

Are you creative? (And don’t mind the occasional four-letter word dropped?) The Pug Party Podcast might be for you. It’s Roxanne Cable, mixed media artist, and her husband James, comedy writer, talking about the creative process, their careers, the nerdy things they are into, and of course, their two pugs. The link goes to Roxanne's blog, but you can also subscribe on iTunes.

What did you learn this spring?

Monday, April 17, 2017

What's the difference between being a writer and an artist?

What is the difference between being a creative writer and an artist? Aside from learning different skill sets, of course. This question popped in my mind while listening to a podcast recently.

The Pug Party podcast is hosted by Roxanne Cable, artist, and her husband James Siciliano, writer. They talk about art, writing, being nerds, and occasionally pugs. (They own two.) As someone who has been a writer and is now an artist, it's really interesting to hear their perspectives on their work.

In their first episode, they talked about their creative processes. James spoke about story circles, which is a way of envisioning Joseph Campbell's the Hero's Journey.

Unfortunately, what sometimes happens to me in listening to podcasts is that it provokes my own thought processes and I end up going down a completely different track. Which may mean I'm not as good a listener as I thought I was, but also, I rarely listen to podcasts because I tend to drift off with one voice talking for too long. I am much better at watching or reading. Or in person.

I ended up thinking about my own work both as a writer (I used the Hero's Journey loosely -- it was more about turning points for me) and as an artist.

In writing, there is a ton of work on character etc that doesn't get seen and in the longer format of a novella or novel, you travel with the character through a part of their life.

In my art, it is more a moment, a glimpse into a story: whether it is a moment of my life or an imagined character. 

Artist Michael Reardon in a video teaching painting watercolor cityscapes remarked, " [This] window has all these fancy mullioned patterns, but it’s really not the story...”  The story for him is told in the play of light and shadow around buildings and water, not in every single detail.

This editing is true in creating both art and writing -- unless you're James Joyce or Diana Gabaldon (whose books have reams of detail) -- you choose what to show. (This is why you so rarely read about a character going to the bathroom unless its intrinsic to the plot.)

In my art, the story is still there, often intuitively, not intentionally placed, and the viewer of the artwork can bring as much or as little into the piece as they want. This interaction exists in reading, of course, but a lot more is spelled out. (Baroom ching) The reader gets to imagine the characters and the scenes, helped by the writer but it is ultimately the reader's own story/life experience that comes into play.

What differences do you see between being a writer and an artist?

Monday, April 10, 2017

an Artistic Autobiography

When I went through Education for Ministry, we learned four different ways to tell our spiritual autobiography, where God had shown Godself in my life. Two of the ways were by using a timeline or by using images.

Now that I have recognized that I am an artist and in particular a visual artist instead of a writer of fiction, I thought it would be interesting to see where art has been -- or where I have been an artist -- in my life.

The first story I remember writing was a few sentences on top of a page illustrating a blue monster, which represented the bullies in my young 8 year old life.

I remember my mom taking us kids to the art gallery, and I loved the quiet space and the art on the walls both realistic and expressionistic.

Art was one of my favorite subjects throughout primary (elementary/middle) school and high school. Projects leap out of my memory: using watercolor pencils to do a continuous line sketch of branches and the whorls within; creating a clay bowl without a wheel and the grey lizard I shaped from the memory of the little grey skinks/lizards that are so endemic where I grew up. 

Weirdly, art as a subject was also one where the fear of failure was real. I was pretty much an A student (except for home economics and sewing), but brain smarts had no place in art. At least, so I thought at the time. It was like diving in at the deep end.

Art became an elective in the last two years of high school and I took an extra unit of maths instead of art. It was the practical thing to do. But there was one free period that I had a week and I ended up sitting in on the art class, watching and chatting until the art teacher, Mr. C., told me if I was going to continue to be there, I had to submit art of my own. I bought a handful of pastels and some cheap watercolors.  I did the bare minimum and was a smart arse in the process, submitting a "painting" of a brown envelope, addressed and stamped. 

In the first year of university, I dabbled in recreating costume sketches from Drama class and drawing palms against the sky. (At the time, I was studying computer science and had Drama as my one Humanities course: art wasn't an option.) I also had this cartoon character that ended up in the margins of my notes.

After that first year in university, The visual arts drifted away, but I continued to write. I didn't come back to art until I started scrapbooking. Because, paper, obviously.

Then my part-time, on the side, writing career started to fizzle. I discovered Suzi Blu, a mixed media artist. Scrapbooking became mixed media and art journaling and I was hooked.

All my paintings of girls looked very po-faced, but I was having fun. There was delight and joy despite the frustration of not being able to draw what I wanted.
My paintings are now of strong women, not sulky girls, and I think they might be becoming recognizably mine.

That would be thanks to Lifebook 2015, which is a year of mixed media classes, creating paintings and journal pages with a whole bunch of teacher-artists, including the sweet and kind class coordinator, Tamara Laporte. It's through Lifebook 2015 and 2016 that I discovered different ways to paint faces. It's through Lifebook that I discovered Flora Bowley and got a taste of her intuitive painting method. 

And it is with Flora that I discovered painting *created* joy. Whether I was angry or upset or frustrated, painting abstractly on a canvas cleared out the negative feelings and brought a quiet and very real joy and even delight.

So that is where I am now. I manage to get into my art studio three to four times a week, despite working full time. On the weekends, I can spend hours in there, while during the work week, it might only be 15 minutes or so and it'd be a sketch, or putting down a layer of gesso or some collage.

Art is for myself, right now, no performance anxiety or "will they like it?" is needed, although I was excited to share two self portraits that are recognizably me and more recently got even more excited when two other artists I admire (Annie Hamman and Misty Mawn) complimented me on a third self-portrait and encouraged me to do more.

Wanting to do more is definitely something I want to do! As I've been reflecting on my word for the year, joy, art is a central part of that. This month's one little word project was to create a vision board of our word. Here's the art related one:

And that's the story so far!

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Kindness is Infectious

A few people from my church have been standing with some friends outside a nearby Islamic Center with signs saying “We stand with you”, “We are all brothers and sisters” etc. They started doing it after the first travel ban executive order and are there during the main Friday prayer services. A little way to show love in a country that screams hate at Muslims.

I’d been wanting to go but there was always a reason not to. Friday is my tie-up-loose-ends, get ready for Shabbat day and I was concerned about the amount of time it would take from work. I had some overtime up my sleeve, saved for taking time off to make art, but doing this act of love was more important. So I finally went.

I’ve now been three times and it’s such a life-giving and life-receiving experience. We’re a mix of Christians, Jews and “just people”. We welcome all coming to prayer and they smile, wave and thank us … and return the kindness by feeding us and making sure we have something to drink, etc.  This is part of who they are, the great Middle Eastern core value of hospitality. It is a wonderful feeling, everybody loving on each other. It no longer is us vs. them, but brothers and sisters, humans acknowledging each other's existence and being kind.  It's kindness creating kindness creating kindness.  The love and kindness shown remains in my heart and ripples out to be shared with others into the next week. 

I think this is what the theologians (and the prophets and Jesus) mean when they talk about compassion and loving-kindness. The effects stay with you, growing your heart and you keep wanting to come back and give more love and kindness and receive more love and kindness.

How are you showing love and kindness?

Saturday, March 4, 2017

What I Learned This Winter

When I meet with my spiritual director, the first question he asks me are: what are the fruits?

Sabbath is so important. I've just started disconnecting from Facebook on Sundays. I figure POTUS will tweet or sign an executive order whether or not I am there to witness it and share my outrage. So far, it has been sanity-giving. I've been considering extending it to Saturdays for Lent. (Although I've already been on Facebook this morning, oops.)

Meditating. This month's prompt as part of one little word was to take on a daily practice. I figured that my initial idea of praying through frustration and anger would be a much needed daily practice but it has come down to a simpler (and yet difficult) practice: closing my eyes and breathing and observing thoughts and feelings rather than chasing them down the rabbit hole.

Watercolor. After completing the Ever After course run by Tamara LaPorte, I determined that watercolor is all very well but not for me. Three of my last four paintings in my art journal have been predominantly watercolor. So, um, so much for that decision. I have fallen in love with Daniel Smith's Moonglow in particular.

Raincoats. It turns out that raincoats only last about 25 years before they completely lose their water resistantness. I found this out during the last batch of heavy rains that hit Southern California. Thank goodness I also had an umbrella. A new raincoat is on the way.

House-cleaning. I now know how to clean under our sofa. Throw a ball under it. Turns out Miles-the-dog can wriggle into and out of some tight places. I nearly fell over laughing.

Quote of the Quarter: "Every act of hatred should be met with an act of love and unity." (from an article by the Southern Poverty Law Center)

linking up with Emily's "What I Learned This Winter" at "chatting with the sky"