Thursday, January 20, 2011

What are you looking for?

A couple of months ago I was pondering the question of what kinds of adult education offerings I might want to put together for the new year.  I was thinking about our congregation: about how this community has been torn apart twice in its history by differences of opinion so violent that the two sides could not remain in communion with one another.  I was thinking about the enthusiasm for spirituality that has long been central to the identity and mission of St. John’s, the belief that being a Christian involves not only belong to the church, but also being caught up in a dance with the spirit of the living God.   I was thinking about the hope that is sometimes voiced around here that many of our neighbors might like to know that there is a way of being Christian that has deep, thick roots, but also spreads wide the branches of compassion and understanding, humility and reverence.
I was thinking about those neighbors, and the world at large, and how the same illness that has afflicted St. John’s seems to be abroad everywhere.  Intolerance and hatred of the Other, always a besetting human sin, seems to be gathering force again, breaking forth in venomous speech and sometimes in catastrophic violence.  The hope of finding common ground between entrenched positions and of making peace between enemies seems to be fading, whether one is speaking of Arabs and Israelis, Christians and Muslims, or Democrats and Republicans.  I thought about these things and about our responsibility, as followers of Christ, to bring to the world the light of patience and forgiveness, healing and love.
  We do this inwardly, as we turn toward the dark and frightened places in our own souls, and open them to the healing grace of the Spirit of Truth.  But we are also to bring this light of Christ’s peace out into the highways and byways, into the marketplace and the public square.  Too often, Christians have taken this to mean joining forces with one powerful faction or another, and using the tools of political coercion and war to advance a “Christian” agenda.  But this approach, which seems expedient in the short run, has severely weakened the mission of the gospel.   Not only has it corrupted the church, it drives others away from it.  An Evangelical think-tank that studies public opinion recently reported that when they asked a scientific sampling of 18-29 year olds who do not attend church to indicate which of the following phrases applies to present-day Christianity “some or a lot”, 91% chose antihomosexual, 87% chose judgmental, 85% hypocritical, 75% too involved in politics, and 72% chose out of touch with reality.  By way of contrast, 54% chose offers hope for the future, 41% chose something that makes sense, and 30% indicated that Christianity is “some or a lot” relevant to your life.
And yet we cannot be deaf to the words of the prophet Isaiah:
 "It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to restore the survivors of Israel;
I will give you as a light to the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."
And we cannot forget the testimony of John the Baptist:
"Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”
The one on whom the Holy Spirit descended and remained, comes to baptize all flesh in that spirit, which is the Spirit of love and peace.  But as today’s gospel teaches, the first thing he does, before any miracle or enlightened teaching or sacrifice is to begin to form a community of disciples.  “What are you looking for?” he says, and they answer, “where are you staying?”
And he says “Come and See.”
We who are the descendants of Peter and Andrew look around at our empty pews and it seems to us that those who wish to abide with Christ are few.  But what if that’s not true?  What if we have simply stopped asking his question, “What are you looking for?”    Maybe we are surrounded by people who are dying for what he has to give, but we have driven them away by being so sure we’ve found it.  Maybe we have to learn new ways to invite our neighbors, not to find what we’ve got, but to seek for him with us.
So anyway, I decided I’d like to try offering an adult series on non-violence and the Christian path.  I’ve been studying this as a theme in theology in recent years, but I recognized that I needed to brush up a little on the theory and practice of non-violence per se.   I did a little research and found what seems to be the best recent book on the subject, a 2002 American Book Award winner called The Search for a Nonviolent Future.  I got a used copy on the internet and read the jacket and was interested to note that the author, Michael Nagler, teaches at UC Berkeley and lives in Tomales.  I wondered for a moment if I should try to get in touch with him, but then I thought he probably doesn’t know from the Episcopal Church; he’s probably too busy; he probably wouldn’t return my call.  The book sat on my desk for a couple of weeks and then Christmas started coming down the pike and it moved to the bookshelf.
It was about ten days before Christmas that the phone rang in my office.  “St. John’s Episcopal Church,” I said, “this is Daniel.”
“Hi Daniel,” came the voice on the other end.  “this is Michael Nagler.”
“You wouldn’t be the Michael Nagler who wrote The Search for a Nonviolent Future, that I just ordered on the internet because I want to teach a class about non-violence here at our church and needed to brush up on the subject?” I asked.
“Yes I’m that Michael Nagler.”  He had a favor to ask.  He wanted to come and meditate in our church with some of his colleagues.  Michael’s retiring from teaching, and he and some associates were trying to decide whether to move their small non-profit educational institute from Berkeley to Petaluma.  He was looking for a sacred space for them to meditate in together about whether this was the right thing to do.  He knew about St. John’s because he’d been here many years ago, helping facilitate a public forum in the wake of the Polly Klaas abduction and murder. 
I told them to come on over, which they did the next afternoon.  Michael called me again the next week to tell me that they enjoyed our church very much and have decided that they are definitely moving to Petaluma.  He and I haven’t had a chance to even begin talking about how we might be able to help each other, but already we have found an opportunity to do so.   Michael’s group, the Metta Institute, is sponsoring a tour of the Bay Area by a Palestinian physician and peace advocate now living in Canada, Dr. Izzeldin Abuelaish.  He said Dr. Abuelaish was free on Sunday the 16th and didn’t have any dates scheduled in the North Bay.  So he’ll be speaking in our Parish Hall this morning about his refusal to let the death of his three daughters during the Israeli incursion into Gaza in 2009 win him to the side of hate.  On the eve of the celebration of the great pioneer of Christian nonviolence, Marin Luther King, Jr., with the events of last weekend in Tucson still fresh in our minds, this is a message we need to hear.
I hope this will be the first of many such events.  The church ought to be a place where people come to consider the questions that Jesus himself addressed: issues of wealth and poverty, love and hate, life and death; not in a spirit of partisan rancor, but with curiosity, wisdom and respect.  How many of our neighbors might like to be asked “what are you looking for?” in a way that doesn’t have the answer ready to jam down their throats when they open their mouths to speak?  How many might like to be among people for whom the answer to that question is another question, looking beyond the narrow menu of available choices to the wisdom of God, and asking—“Where do you abide?” I wonder how many might like to know that the answer to that question is an invitation to all of us—“Come and see.”    

About Me

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Petaluma, California, United States
I am a priest in the Episcopal Church, and have been (among other things) an organic farmer and gardener, and a Zen monk. I have a lifelong interest in social and spiritual renewal on the basis of contemplative discipline, creative nonviolence, and ecological practice. In recent years my work has focused intensely on the responsibility of pastoral ministry in the humanistic, evangelical, and catholic branch of Christianity known as Anglicanism. I'm married with a daughter, and have three brothers and two parents.