On Sunday, I lit a candle in each room of my house: bedroom (dresser), bathroom (shelf), and living room (windowsill).  Usually I light one at a time.  As I lit them, I thought, I am going to forget one.  I will burn my house down!  My mother always used to warn me about this.

I was reading more Jung earlier that day.  Jung is dreamy good for Sunday.  He quoted the Bible: “old men shall dream dreams.”  Old Testament, Joel, quoted by the New Testament, in Acts.  The school year is old, elderly, in fact, dying.  I was dreaming dreams.  I had dreamed about how people’s hearts are like the sun, sometimes clouded over, but always nuclear powerful.

I did blow out all the candles on my way out.  And I remembered that it was Pentecost.  How funny, that on Pentecost I had lit all these candles in the middle of the day, on a sunny, hot afternoon.  I happened to be wearing an appropriate, reddish-colored shirt, too.  I bumbled into church, late as usual, and there was our lesson:  “Old men shall dream dreams,”  The New Testament version– Acts.

What could it possibly have meant, that your leader got killed and no God stepped in?  Well, people come up with some ideas, and the only canonical narrative ones are Acts.  I found the whole thing rather uncomfortable last time I read it.  Healings, prisons sprung open, people falling down blind on country roads.  The Pentecost story is the nuttiest one, where Jesus’ friends are hanging out, and get inspired, and open their mouths to speak, and it’s like everyone has one of those Star Trek translation earpieces in, each person in the crowd hears God talking to him in a way that makes sense.  This disturbs them so  much that their only theory is: these guys must be hammered.

Why they don’t suspect that they are drunk is a reasonable question.  They are the ones hearing things.  Well, maybe it’s the people who can’t hear God are the ones making the accusations.  They usually are.  As a comic aside, Peter assures them that no one is drunk.  It’s 9 AM.  As everyone knows, you could be drunk at 4 AM, maybe even 6, but it is impossible to be drunk at 9.

Peter’s theory is that these are “last days,” and that “the sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood…. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”  Instead of the sun in your heart, you will feel dark and lost, and you will ask for help, and then you and your friends will light up like jack-o-lanterns, and breathe, and everyone will hear God, out of that.

Jung writes about many experiences he had that he can’t say are “real.” He saw a mosaic in Ravenna that gutted him with its beauty, and later found out it wasn’t there.  I went to get coffee after church, and blowing up the street like tumbleweeds, I saw bright balloons.  A red one.  Then a baby blue one.  How weird.  Were they really there?  Balloons are happy breath.  Blowing out celebration.  I think I saw them, and I think I heard them, in my own language.

Size Matters

This week I drank a glass of merlot at happy hour.  It was no big deal to anyone except me.  For many years, I gave up alcohol for Lent.  I felt like I needed to rethink my ritual, so I decided I would be easier on myself.  I’m calling this a “soft Lent.”  I would mostly give up chocolate and alcohol.  If I felt like I needed to be looser and kinder to myself, I would have a damn drink or eat a silly cookie.

I have been thinking about hope.  It’s Lent just now, so church is 80% repenting, buoyed by 20% hope.  We couldn’t have Lent at all if we didn’t know Easter party time was at the end.  The arrangements on the altar now are brown branches, no green at all.  Somebody wrapped our cross in scarlet film this year, rather than covering St. Peter, Christ, and St. John the Evangelist with our Lenten screen.  I was glad.  The screen is fine: a crown of thorns, a chalice and wafer.  I really miss the paintings of the guys when they’re covered up, though.  I like to see them and be like, what’s up, guys?

I ordered the wine after I got invited to happy hour and realized that I was feeling pretty down, and I ought to go wrap myself in the company of cheerful people.  So I drank my wine, sort of expecting to be struck by lighting, but instead laughing at how we faced a whole table of men, all of whom seemed to be staring at us, since The Game was on the TVs right above our heads.

The lesson last Sunday was about Abram (still Abram) being shown all the stars.  God says, I’m going to give you all these descendants, and Abram is like, yeah, right.  Then some creepy stuff happens where God proves He means it by levitating a torch through the halves of a goat carcass or something.  (I tried humor the author here, since he was writing a bazillion years ago.)

This story is about expanding horizons.  It’s someone saying, “This place is huge.  Big.  No, bigger.  Much bigger.  Your life could be much, much bigger.”  So big that it’s okay to stop drinking wine for a while if it makes you feel like an A-plus Episcopalian, and it’s also okay to settle for a C, or even an F if your day is a stupid F level day.

Lent is a good time to try to refocus yourself, which could mean experimenting with limits.  I have benefited from these limits– learned about how painful and how silly it is when fear you will DIE without a cookie.  Craving a cookie, I can often laugh at myself and the whole world.  Life is just full of ridiculous burning cravings that could could quickly fade if you are watching for favorite TV show.

This year, I think my more important challenge is to see the big picture, the full sky, and consider which limits are healthy, and which ones make me feel small and hopeless.

Hell Hath No Fury

Yesterday I walked into two conversations about Hell.  First I was sitting eating my lunch in an empty classroom when a couple of students wandered in.  I was doing my best to ignore them, but one was saying, “I have a King James translation and I just don’t understand it with all those wherefores and thous.”  And then, later, “I mean, she needs to know that stuff, or she might end up in Hell.”

We’re reading The Crucible, and my students are a pretty religious bunch anyway, but it still freaked me out.  Was all this talk about witches and Satan inspiring them to fret about their eternal souls?  I was hoping it would make them think, but the trouble with encouraging free thought is that it can go in directions you don’t like.

When I walked in to teach my next class, another kid stopped me and asked, “Hey, if you kill someone in a war, will you go to hell?”

It was an especially strange question for the Christian who doesn’t believe in Hell.  I’ve never understood why people were so eager to construct a place of ultimate suffering that is separate from good old planet Earth.

Hell is digging through the rubble of your house, looking for your wife and children, who are probably dead.  Hell is bone cancer.  Hell is a foreclosure notice on your front door.  Hell is people from the next village raping and torturing your neighbors in front of you.  That’s enough hell for me.

I don’t mean that I think hell is limited to the extreme outliers of suffering.  Hell is also being too scattered to enjoy your life.  Hell is twisted, recurring dreams about your ex.  Hell is seeing no options.  Hell is worrying all the time if you are “good” or “bad.”  Hell is believing in a God who is punitive and must send people to a hell after death in the interest of “fairness.”  (Hey, guys, you coulda prayed the right prayer if ya wanted toSo sorry!)

At least I got to answer the war/hell question by planting a seed for further thought.  ” I can’t answer that,” I said.  “But I can tell you different Christians would have different ideas about it.  You know, there isn’t one person who tells all Christians what to believe.”

Of course, you could jump in there like a good Sunday school student and say, “Yes there is, spineless liberal!  Jesus!”  Unfortunately, I don’t recall him saying a thing about Hell.  If it was such an important, straightforward religious concept, I think he would have been a lot clearer about it.  What I do believe is he was a stand-up guy who wasn’t trying to trick people or hint about an afterlife, and that every time he saw someone in a hell, he tried to help them out of it.

Aside: yes, I’ve read the Bible.  Yes, with the guidance of historical and critical research, because I believe in that stuff.  The Hebrew idea of what happened after you die was not a heaven/hell thing.  It was sheol, land of the dead.  Jesus talking about people burning up or being kicked out of somewhere doesn’t say “Hell” to me.  Vague, allegorical, certainly confusing.  That’s just where I’m at, and perhaps I am all wrong about this, in which case– I’ll see you in heaven.

The Word

St. John declares that words make us human.  That words, even, make us exist.  It is words, and not pictograms or tools or logic or emotions.  And so St. John is the patron saint of writers.

I mean St. John the Evangelist, theoretical author of what is known as John’s gospel.  I don’t know or care who wrote the thing.  The prologue is one of my favorite pieces of literature.  (St. John also theoretically wrote Revelation, but Martin Luther and I don’t approve of Revelation.)

“In the beginning was the word.”  And part of Jewish, and Christian, creation tradition has held that the world was made with words.  This “God” or “Lord” character speaks to make things be.

At the art museum here, we have a stained glass window that was made in medieval Europe, showing St. John holding a cup with a snake in it.  The story is, St. John and his buddies were captured by some bad guy, and the bad guy forces St. John and his buddies drink poison.  This bad guy must be building the grand tradition of unnecessarily elaborate execution techniques honored in “Austin Powers” with my favorite “sharks with lasers.”

St. John is so uber powerful that he drinks his poison, and then his buddies’ poison, and he’s fine.  Well, maybe he has a little food-poisoning type digestive discomfort, but  the point of the story is that poison cannot kill him.  He is a badass.

Some people find St. John’s gospel a little airy.  Some people say that Jesus’ feet never touch the ground.  I don’t see that.  What I see is a writer who had an experience of the Christ, rather than Jesus the man, and painted a more abstract picture.  The author struggled to find any language that would put the power of a Christ figure into focus.  Any language that would contain the experience at all.  St. John’s gospel explodes the Jesus notion into the Christ idea.  It says, you have no idea what this Christ thing means.  You have no idea how big this is.  You have no idea the force of love over ambivalence, confusion, or loss.

When I was in Rome last summer, I searched all over the Vatican City for a St. Giovanni Evangelista medal.  I’m not Catholic, and I have never bought or owned a medal, except, perhaps, the Libra medal that my step-grandma bought me when I was little.  I don’t think that counts.  In each little shop, I walked past the counters of rosaries and small towns of statues to bins of medals.  “St. Giovanni,” I told the salesclerks.  They nodded.  “Evangelista,” I added.  Their lips pursed pessimistically.

Only at one spot, directly across the street from St. Peter’s, did I find a silver St. Giovanni Evangelista.  He wears the usual Bible-person type robes, and he has a book in his lap.  His buddy animal (the patronage goes on and on) is the eagle, so an eagle perches on the book.  St. John and the eagle are both too tiny to have real facial expressions, but I think the eagle looks like he’s thinking, “Whassup?”  I bought the medal, and put it on immediately.

At my church, St. John is the right-hand side of the triptych.  Christ in the middle, St. Peter on the left.  St. Peter holds his keys, which always makes him look like an annoying older brother.  Jesus left me with the keys, y’all, so, watch it! St. John, as usual, has his snake cup. He take the poison for himself, and for anyone else who’s feeling weak.  That’s what makes him such a good man to have around, not just for writers, but anybody who runs into a bad guy now and then.