Mine's going to be spent putting a service together for next Sunday at my home congregation, Mt. Vernon Unitarian Universalist Fellowship. The title of my sermon and the topic of the service is Preparing for Peace. Our tradition is to light an Advent Wreath each Sunday of the Advent season to matching readings that are grounded in Earth-based spirituality as well as seasonally appropriate scriptures.
Advent II I will light a chanukiah and chant the blessings in our service, which will largely be a Lessons and Carols service, led by Donna Beaumont. Advent III I will be visiting the St. Louis home congregation of a chaplain colleague. And Advent IV I will again be leading the Sunday service on the Psych Ward at Christian Hospital. Then December 30 back at MVUUF for a Fire Communion service, led by Gail DeVilbiss.
As I wait for a possible call, my 24/7 on-call period lasting to 7:00 AM tomorrow, I feel myself on a pivot, looking ahead to this week and next Sunday's sermon while still thinking about yesterday.
I was woken up yesterday morning by a call from the operator at Christian Hospital. When I was patched through to the Trauma Nurse, I was asked to come in for a death. As I asked a few questions, though, I found that the patient was and the family are Catholic and they had called their parish priest to come in. At my suggestion, the nurse double checked with the family and found that, indeed, my presence would be superfluous. I stayed up, expecting to get another call, but didn't.
Though I was on call, I went on to shul at Central Reform Congregation with my pager and phone on vibrate. I didn't get called, though, after all. Enjoyed a wonderful bar mitzvah. Ate a light kiddush luncheon. (Loved the lox! Wasn't so fond of the chopped liver...) Then stayed for Talmud study, taught/ facilitated by Will Soll. In the selected text was the ancient rabbis' discussions of the reward for doing mitzvot and punishment for transgressions. Naturally, the ancient sources did not provide an easy answer, and we had great discussions. I was particularly interested in our supplementary use of Pirkei Avot 4:17, which in translation reads:
Rabbi Jacob used to say, “Better is one hour of t’shuvah (returning/repentance) and good deeds in this world than the whole life of the world-to-come and better is one hour of spiritual bliss in the world-to-come than all the the life of this world!”
Will introduced it as a great paradox. But I think there is a way out of the paradox. That the apparent paradox is a facade for something not paradoxical. As Br. David Steindl-Rast has taught, the only thing that exists is now, and while "now" sounds like a time word, now is actually out of time. Duration is not now, and without duration one is not in time. Similarly, 4:17 shows two parallel durations of time: this world and the next world; and two breaks out of time, if you will, one in each "world." So I read this verse and choose to see, that the present "now" of t'shuvah and good deeds is the same now as the "now" of spiritual bliss in the next world, making the two statements of the verse essentially an identity rather than a paradox. And because we have only now, this world and the world to come are not chronologically sequential but simultaneously experienced in the now.
After four very pleasant hours at shul, I was off to the St. Louis Art Museum. As I pulled up the hill from Lagoon Drive, I saw the sun glinting off Roxy Paine's "Placebo" (2004), a leafless stainless steel tree among natural trees on the museum lawn, and felt a frisson of joy at the sight. Inside, it was the following four works that drew me in today:
- A 2nd-3rd century CE Gandhāran "Standing Bodhisattva" made of phyllite, a black stone, 18-or-so inches tall; it is believed probably to be a representation of Maitreya, the future Buddha, and is shown as a young noble man with a mix of developed musculature and gentle, refined features;
- Across the gallery from it was a stucco 4th century CE Gandhāran "Head of Śakyamuni Buddha" with faint traces of polychrome on white plaster; the face is very smooth and had been formed in a mold; the hair had been formed by hand and tool; the Gandhārans (Afghanistan/Pakistan area) were the first to visually represent the person of the historical Buddha, and their style had strong Hellenistic influences, which you can see lessening over the centuries - indeed just between the centuries of these two pieces sharing a gallery;
|Gainsborough after van Dyck: "Lords John and Bernard Stewart"|
- A 1760s Thomas Gainsborough large oil copy of a 1630s Anthony van Dyck portrait of the teen "Lords John and Bernard Stewart," both of whom died in their early twenties in the English Civil War, fighting on the royalist side; the brothers are handsome lads, proudly exhibiting their privilege; I could not see them without thinking of the lines from Chidiock Tichborne, "The day is past, and yet I saw no sun,/ And now I live, and now my life is done"; I probably would not have liked them, had I met them, teen children of privilege and power that they were, and I know I disapprove of their royalist position, but they were and then, too soon, were no more, and I mourned them today as if I had known them;
- And Vincent van Gogh's 1890 "Stairway at Auvers" dominated by greens and his signature bold strokes; the green lane draws the eye, and with it the mind to the center of the painting, where the title staircase begins; if you look really close, you see a male figure descending the stairs, almost invisible, but two very noticeable pairs of women - old in black and young in white - heading down the green lane to the staircase; everything else is green - except that it is not - there are pools of blue and rays of yellow, yet somehow it all blends in the eye; and there is a house that just sort of stops because it is inconvenient, and landscape that makes no sense at all; and it is beautiful - and haunting.
I spent about a half hour with each then came out just before the sun's descent shaded the lagoon and its fountains in dusk. A beautiful day!
Then I came home and put together this morning's Thanksgiving service for the psych ward at Christian Hospital...