Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Vine, Branch, Fruit & Resurrection

Last night, a group of UUs exploring Christianity got onto resurrection. One said she liked the idea (common in liberal Christian circles) that the resurrection is all of us. When we live as Jesus lived, when we work for social justice, when we try to respond with love to everyone, even our enemies, then we are the resurrected presence of Jesus on earth.

Which reminded me of the Gospel verse, John 15:5, “I am the vine, you are the branches.”

Think about it.

The branches bear the fruit. So without branches, a vine is barren – nothing but an empty trunk. If a vine is to fulfill any kind of purpose, it must rely on the branches to bring that purpose about. Not only that, the vine gives support and supplies water and nutrients, yes. But the branches produce the leaves where chlorophyll is concentrated and sunlight is turned into food. So the branches feed the vine.

This is an indivisible whole. The vine supports and waters the branches. The branches feed the vine and bear the fruit.

A vine needs branches just as much as branches need a vine.

Note: Despite some lovely sayings, I’m none too fond of John’s Gospel - what with the way it has been foundational to Trinitarian, damnation versions of Christianity, as well promoting rabid anti-Semitism. But it was a favorite of some Gnostic Christians, so obviously there are other ways to read it than “Jesus≡God + Jesus worship and only Jesus worship prevents damnation + Jesus worship is the one and only point.”

Another note: “I AM" does create a loaded statement. It exploits a God name in the Hebrew Bible (God answered "I AM" when Moses asked the burning bush for a name). This could mean “God is the vine...” or “Jesus≡God is the vine...” But it could NOT have been written to mean a simple statement like “Jesus is the vine” in the way that “I (Elena) am nutsy for bible quotes” = “Elena is nutsy for bible quotes.”

I learned Hebrew as a teenager on a kibbutz. We were told there was no present tense of the verb “to be.” So thirty years later when I met the “I AM” name for God as I stumbled into Christianity, I was skeptical. Except not surprisingly, the actual words in Hebrew are convoluted, controversial and explosive – leaving much room for meditative illumination (i.e., interpretation). See analysis of “I AM at wikipedea or THE NAME OF GOD AS REVEALED IN EXODUS 3:14

Hmmmm… God’s own name for God-self - given in the story of the God-meeting of one who was to reinvigorate the God-relationship of a nation - is so strange and obscure that it is entirely open to interpretation. Maybe that does reflect some reality, after all.

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Tuesday, May 06, 2008

A Fire Marching Out in Front: Prairie Burning & Psalm 97

Psalm 97 has the line: “Fire marches out in front and burns up all resistance.” Another sister said this was like spiritual conversion. God’s fire burned our resistance. It felt awful, but opened us so God could move in.

Each of the monastery’s prairies had a burn cycle, from every year to every five years. By some fluke, they were all burned when I was in the novitiate. That line from psalm 97 ran in my head as I watched each prairie burn and grow green again.

One Tuesday afternoon in April, I accidentally happened on the first in mid-flame. I had just planned to take a quick break from my desk in the basement with a walk around the building. The oldest of the monastery’s prairies sloped below the front parking lot. A small plot bordered by mown path, it was primarily a mix of grasses. I never got past it.

As I rounded a corner, acrid smoke blew into my face. Near me, pale threads of smoke drifted up from black-charred ground. Beyond that, unburned grass waved in the wind as if nothing were going on – except that licks of fire flickered here and there in its midst. The little prairie was burning.

I hurried closer, not sure if this was supposed to be happening or not, but soon saw clumps of people in heavy, orange jumpsuits standing around holding brooms. Presumably there to beat out stray flames, they were mostly chatting amongst themselves. In fact, the atmosphere was decidedly relaxed - except for one man.

That man strolled through the grass, his attention focused on the boundary with the burned area. Every so often he made a slow, throwing motion, and a tongue of fire leapt from his hand. It raced gleefully away like a little beast, only to die moments later when it hit burned ground. It took awhile to see that the fire came from a spouted can the man held. In his absorption, the man looked like a painter studying his canvas, carefully laying color on one exact spot, then standing back to study it again.

Painting with fire. I was fascinated.

The head groundskeeper strolled over to me.

“Why doesn’t the man start the fire over there?” I asked pointing into the wind at the far end of the unburned prairie. “It would burn faster, all at once.”

“First we make a backburn to contain the blaze. The fire marshal will start a forward burn over there when it’s safe, “ the groundskeeper explained, “You should watch that. It’s worth seeing.”

“How long will it be?” I asked.

“Ohhh…” The groundskeeper’s attention left me. The gossiping beaters had missed a flame that was now burning into a bordering path. He hurried over to put it out.

I watched as the backburn inched forward. In my head, I whispered encouragement to each new flame. I wanted them to live, to bust out and take over, despite rational needs for safety. It was as frustrating as it was fascinating to watch the slow, cautious progress of the burn.

I was never any good at meticulous arts - like lithography or etching - that required layer after carefully constructed layer, with the effect only apparent at the end. I needed media that pushed back, demanded dialog, that I could to sink my hands into.

Luckily for me, the burn was almost done when I’d first arrived.

The groundskeeper came back to my side. “You should move to the end,” he said, “He’s about to start the forward burn.”

I trotted in the groundskeeper’s wake as he headed to the unburned end of the prairie.

The fire marshal took some time placing the beaters along the prairie edges. Then he walked around it, looking thoughtfully at the ground. Several times, he started another small fire, adding to the backburn. Finally he came close to where I was standing.

His back to the wind, the fire marshal gazed over the prairie for a few moments. Suddenly, he released the fire. It roared to life, racing through the grass with a whooshing bellow. He walked a few yards and let loose a second burst of flame.

Within seconds, the fires met and erupted in a brilliant, orange-yellow-gold tower higher than the ancient maple by the parking lot. Black smoke streamed like battle flags from the top as it raced along. And then it was over, except for a few wisps of smoke and tiny, red, burning bits that glimmered like jewels in a field of death. As the beaters patrolled the prairie making sure everything was put out, I went back to my desk.

The smell of smoke lingered to the next day. I walked into the burn, little spurts of ash puffing up under each footstep. I was surprised that many grass stems were only half burned. They lay bunched together, filling mini washes and gullies, as if they’d been bowled over in a flood. How odd that a blazing gale of fire had acted like flowing water on those stems.

Less than a week later, green shoots dotted the charred earth.

So: the metaphor?

In life, as in art, as in watching a burn, I’m impatient for the big whoosh of exhilarating conflagration. If there has to be fire, let it be overwhelming in power and beauty, even if that hurts more. But without a backburn, a prairie fire consumes everything indiscriminately – even more so in the wake of us European-Americans who refuse to let the land burn naturally. Of course, the fire will out, and the blaze when it comes is then more devastating.

Like those deep wounds that close us down instead of opening us up.

I know I need that pillar of fire, although I can (and often do) suppress the burning. Yet when I put it off, the awakening is likely to be shattering rather than a little shake-up.

So maybe the point is to embrace painful burning when it comes, yet prepare beforehand. (However annoying that may be for lackadaisical sorts like myself.) Practice little, daily habits. Consider conflict as it relates to your own, spiritual development instead of first pointing to other people’s sin. Hold with compassion your own human frailty as well as that of others.

Those are the backburn.

Then, contained and focused, your soul’s fire can burn off old, stuck patterns, while leaving good, strong roots from which new growth will soon spring.

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Monday, May 05, 2008

Snow, Ticks, Spring

Despite the mini blizzard we had last week, it really is spring in south-central Wisconsin. After a long hiatus - about as long as since the last time I posted - I went to Liturgy of the Hours at the monastery, then took my dog for a ramble in the prairies. I pretty much stick to the paths, but...

Last week, no ticks. This week, after no more than five minutes in ankle-high grass: five ticks.

Yup. Spring. Gotta love it.