Email, lightly edited to make sense of a couple of really clunky sentences, that I sent today to my spiritual director in advance of our September meeting. Excerpts from my earlier posts are in italics and linked to the original posts to this blog.

Hi Sister —

Here’s the usual note to confirm our appointment for Monday, Sept. 21, and give you a heads-up on what I’ve been doing spiritually. Unless I hear otherwise, I’ll be calling you about 2:30 p.m. at xxx-xxx-xxxx. 

Not much to report on my spiritual journey. Had a flurry of activity after we talked at the end of August, and I’ll excerpt a couple of items from my blog below. But mostly I’ve been busy with next month’s presentation at next month’s Illinois history conference about Swedish Lutherans in Chicago in the 1850s. And, of course, arguing about politics with strangers on social media. 

The first excerpt is from a post I wrote on Aug. 31, about a book called “Energy for Life: Reflections on the Theme ‘Come Holy Spirit — Renew the Whole Creation’.” It’s by Krister Stendahl, a Swedish theologian who was also dean of Harvard Divinity School. Some of his insights remind me of Fr. Richard Rohr’s, and I wrote about it here:

— https://ordinaryzenlutheran.com/2020/08/31/letting-grace-renew-us/ — “‘Letting grace renew us’ — a little book by a Swedish dean of Harvard Divinity and the transformative power of the Holy Spirit”

I’ll just quote toward the end of my post, where I connect what Stendahl said about a Finnish-Russian Orthodox ecumenical dialog and a German/Swedish hymn that he quoted, with a verse that ends, “Even so, may we grow / Letting grace renew us / And your life imbue us.” To me, it kind of took the theology down to where the rubber meets the road (which would be pretty close to my overall definition of spirituality, or at least the way I go about it). I said:

… I won’t pretend I can connect this to Russian Orthodox cosmology or the epistles of St. Paul by means of a logical syllogism. I’m an English teacher, not a theologian, and I live and die by metaphor. So as an image or a metaphor, it works for me.

This does, too: Luther once said, “we are Christs — with and without the apostrophe.” (Click HERE, for his original quip in medieval dog Latin and my thoughts on it.) And coming up Sept. 13 is “God’s work Our hands.” Sunday, an annual community service project that unites ELCA congregations in “one of our most basic convictions as Lutherans: that all of life in Jesus Christ – every act of service, in every daily calling, in every corner of life – flows freely from a living, daring confidence in God’s grace.” There’s even an addendum, on Service in the Time of COVID-19, with tips on how to maintain social distancing “in compliance with local health guidelines.” And this:

We encourage you to plan your day of service in compliance with local health guidelines. The safety and well-being of your volunteers and those you serve is a top priority. Follow all local guidance regarding physical distancing, mask-wearing, maximum gathering size and building capacity limits.
As church, we are guided by our life in Christ to share the love of Jesus and serve our neighbors — even if such acts of service look different this year.

(Boldface type in the original)

I don’t know it I could parse it logically, and I’m not sure it matters. But I think a day of service during a time of pandemic — and Luther’s pun — are powerful metaphors for how the spirit of the Lord can transform us from one degree of glory to another.

The other is my latest (publishable) attempt at Ignatian prayer by putting myself in a couple of passages from Matthew. (I’m working on another, on the transfiguration but I’m trying to think it through carefully, and it’s going slowly.) [It’s] the second of two exercises based on the confession of St. Peter at Caesarea Philippi:

—  https://ordinaryzenlutheran.com/2020/08/30/caesarea-philippi-pentecost-xiii-2/ — “Back to the future (and the righteousness of the God of Israel) with a Jesuit spiritual exercise for Pentecost XIII”  

Even on this one, I made two stabs at it — and felt like I was closer to getting Ignatian contemplation right with the second. In the first take, I imagined myself a first-century Palestinian. That didn’t work out very well. So in the second, I transported myself back to Caesarea Philippi by imagining myself as a time traveler (hence the reference to “Back to the Future” in my headline). I wouldn’t presume to dignify what I’m doing as prayer, Ignatian or otherwise, but it does get me into the gospel stories and the scholarship, and engage me with both in a way I hadn’t experienced reading the bible before.

This excerpt is from the second take, in which 21st-century Pete Ellertsen, wearing a Chicago Cubs zip-front hoodie, pops up in Caesarea Philippi. As Jesus has just finished predicting his death and resurrection, this happens:

When Jesus is finished speaking, my training as a 20th-century reporter (and early 21st-century journalism teacher) kicks in. I step up to him and ask can I have a word with him, I’ve got a couple of questions? He smiles and says sure. (He’s got the kind of smile that can light up a room.) So we step off the side, and …

And my mind goes blank.

I’ve got so many questions! Like, hey, were you born in Bethlehem or Nazareth? Exactly what did you mean by the parable of the talents? Did you really walk on water, or was it just an optical illusion? Does the Holy Spirit proceed from you and the Father, or just from the Father like the Greek Orthodox say? Instead, I hem and haw and ask why just he asked Peter that question, who do you say I am?

So Jesus flashes that incandescent smile again. “That’s a good question,” he says. I’m not sure which question he means, but then he says, “Do you mind if I answer it with a question?” So he’s like every good teacher I’ve ever had, he’s drawing me in. “Who do you say I am?” he asks me. “Would you follow me?”

This isn’t going the way I thought it would … with part of my mind I’m thinking, that’s interesting, he’s using the Socratic method, this guy flat knows how to teach. And the rest of my mind is going, OK, who do I think he is? Would I follow this dude to Jerusalem — and Calvary? I pat the magic TV remote in my pocket and mumble, “in for a dime, in for a dollar.”

Jesus gives me a blank look. I realize if he’s truly incarnate as a first-century Jewish peasant, he isn’t going to know what a dime is or a dollar is.

“In for a shekel, in for a talent,” I say, and he beams at me. Encouraging me, drawing me out again.

So I mumble something about bringing in the kingdom of heaven. That’s interesting, he says. But what do you mean? What about the kingdom? I mumble something about the kingdom of justice and righteousness that Isaiah and Jeremiah preached. Thinking, man, we still have a problem with that 21 centuries later. And Jesus all the while is giving me an encouraging look I well remember from my own teaching days, half smiling and endlessly patient, drawing me out. I’m feeling like a C+ student in his Justice and Righteousness 101 class. ….

And then this, in my voice as a 21st-century blogger:

And I realize, as I do the meditation, that looking at Jesus is like looking into a mirror.

At least it is for me. St. Athanasius famously said, “the Son of God became man so that we might become God.” Well, I have no aspirations to do that. It’s way above my pay grade. But I do think Jesus — God incarnate — took on flesh in order to call me (among about 8 billion others) to be the best human being I can (with some help along the way from the Holy Spirit). And, if I were in Caesarea Philippi shortly before Jesus’ death and resurrection, being willing to go down to Jerusalem with him would be part of the deal.

Or I’d like to hope it would.

That’s enough to give you the gist of it. I’m not there yet, but I like the direction that Ignatian contemplation seems to be taking me.

I’ll call you on or about 2:30 Monday afternoon.

— Pete

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