Monday, March 21, 2011

Big Waves

As a sometime surfer I was saddened last week to hear of the drowning death of a young father of two at the huge break down the coast called Maverick’s.  I have had my own scary experiences with the power of the surf, the first of which came many years ago in Mexico.  I was there around Christmas, at a spot on the Pacific Coast near the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula, where the winter swell broke sharply on a steep beach.  We got there in the evening and all night long we listened to the booming of the waves pounding on the shore.  The next day a group of us walked up the beach to a place in the shelter of some rocks where we could wade in up to our waists and paddle around a little bit.

But I was twenty-four and in excellent shape and I decided that wading and bobbing up and down in the tide pools was not my idea of water sports.  So as we were making our way back to camp I announced that I was going for a real swim, and ran into the surf.  Getting out past the breakers was easy.  I timed things right and dove under a couple smaller waves as they came in and soon I was floating on my back, riding happily up and down on the swell as it rolled in toward the beach. 

Getting back in was another matter.  There was a pretty strong offshore current and I had to stroke hard to swim closer to the beach.  In my exertion I forgot to account for the really big waves and I got into the impact zone just in time to get swallowed up by a set of six- to nine-foot swells.  The first one tumbled me like socks in a clothes dryer, grinding my hip down painfully into the sandy bottom.  When the pressure finally let me go I fought to the surface and managed to fill my lungs with air just in time for another wave to crash on top of me, knocking me down and around once more. Eventually I found the bottom and staggered to shore, where my girlfriend helped me up onto the beach.  For the next year or so, I regularly dreamt of huge waves looming on the horizon.

Of course, there is no comparison between what I experienced, or even the death of a young sportsman in the pursuit of the ultimate ride, and the devastation wrought on Northeast Japan by the earthquake and tsunami that struck there over a week ago.  Seeing the nightmarish images of cars, boats and houses being swept along by the surging wave, or the satellite pictures of whole sections of settled coastline turned into faint smudges like dust on a chalkboard, it makes sense why water is a favored image in the Bible for chaos, annihilation, and death.

In the first chapter of Genesis, the Spirit of God hovers over the great abyss of water and then, at a word, light awakes, the water is pushed back and penned within limits, and a space is opened for life.  But in the worldview of the Bible the creation is not final or absolute, but must continually be renewed by God.  And there are moments when it seems like the forces of chaos and destruction have been let loose, and the good world is in danger of being unmade.  And so Psalm 18 can cry out helplessly, “The breakers of death rolled over me, and the torrents of oblivion made me afraid.”

John’s gospel tells us about Nicodemus, a learned and important man, who comes to see Jesus in the night.   He is drawn to Jesus because he and others have heard his teaching and seen his works of power, and they recognize that God is with this man.  Nicodemus wants to make literal sense of what Jesus teaches and to be able to apply its practical lessons to his religion.  He is greatly interested in what can and can’t be done.  But what Jesus is interested in is something else entirely, something that comes, metaphorically speaking, “from above.” Jesus is talking about new life in the Spirit of God, a life that comes through him, but is for the whole world.  And this life is characterized by the freedom of the Spirit, which is not limited by human knowledge or capability. 

“No one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit."  When we hear these words, we are again at the moment of creation.  Not literally traveling backward in time, but in the sense of returning to the deepest level of being, to the very source of existence, where the world is breathed into being by God.  At this moment our own lives are a mystery to us, but this strangeness is not a threat but a promise, the hope of life that is never destroyed but is given up only to be clothed in yet more life, in a process that goes on and on, into eternity.

There is nothing we can do to take hold of this promise but leap into the unknown.  We can only launch off in faith into the wind that comes from who knows where and blows where it chooses. To experience re-creation means we have to be ready to let go again and again of the old life, the old rules, that have outlasted their time and their truth. As Paul writes to the Romans, it is God “who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”  The message of the Gospel is that we can trust this God.  In fact there is nothing else we can trust, except Jesus, the one who descended from heaven as a witness to the love and the life of the Father, and the Spirit that bears us onward into that radiance.

Jesus’ words about water and the Spirit also take us back to our own moment of re-creation in baptism.  Baptism is a symbolic drowning, our joining with Christ in his own descent into the abyss of chaos and death.  But it is also the sacrament of rebirth in the Spirit, and as we rise with Christ out of the womb of the font, the watery grave is transformed into the well of life. 

All of these sounds wonderful, but after a week like the last one, you can’t help but question if it is enough.  It is sobering to realize the power of nature in an earthquake that could move Japan’s main island of Honshu eight feet east in an instant.  We aren’t sure we want to live in a world as wild as that, and as free.  And yet, it does not minimize the horror and sorrow of what the Japanese, and the Haitians, and so many other peoples in our world are experiencing, to say that somehow life goes on.  Somehow the fact that there is no knowledge we can acquire and no rules we can follow to tame that kind of chaos only illustrates how good the world is most of the time, how the greater fabric of life does not unravel.  It may stretch and even tear, but it holds, and it heals,

Only God is enough to heal some wounds; sometimes only God’s great compassion and patient, inexorable love is enough.  Events like these, even at a distance, help us to remember that.  And so we pray to be recreated from above, to be reborn continually in the Spirit, so that our vision may be made clear enough to see and our faith be made strong enough to know that God does give life to the dead, and does call things into existence out of nothingness.   By this grace may we ride the wild winds and waves with fearlessness and hope, even the ones that are far too big for us to handle.  

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

O Felix Culpa!

This story of Jesus’ fasting and temptations begins with the action of the Holy Spirit.  The same spirit that, at his baptism, descended upon him in the shape of a dove, now drives him out into the wilderness to be tested.  And this is a classic pattern in the tales of spiritual heroes.  After the bestowal of a divine gift, the revelation of a new self-understanding and a new holy purpose, the saint must undergo tests and trials.  These two actions of the spirit are closely linked.  The enlightenment experience is not complete until it has been refined in the crucible of suffering and temptation.
In the case of Jesus, the agent who carries out the tempting is identified as diabolos.  This character is not clearly and consistently defined in the New Testament.  There is good reason for that, if you think about it.  As monotheists, the Jews and their Christian descendents would have been reluctant to suggest that there is an evil power in the world who exists independently of God.   At the same time, their experience of guilt and the manifest presence of injustice and evil in the world demanded to be accounted for.  And so a personified notion arose, a malevolent angel that opposes God’s will and seeks to injure God’s creatures.  The ambiguity of this character is seen in the present story, for the devil in Matthew is definitely trying to mislead, corrupt, and destroy Jesus.   But in the process, he is carrying out the Spirit’s work of purification. 
Maybe it helps us make sense of this paradox to think in terms of delusion.  The devil is the archetype of the rational creature who falls prey to the delusion that he does not need God.  He imagines that he is a new kind of being, free from the limitations and obligations of having a place in a greater whole.  Of course he is actually completely un-free because, like a child determined to show his parents that they do not control him, all he can do is reflexively oppose whatever God wills.  And he is even mistaken about that, because God’s sovereign wisdom is able to use even the actions that he intends for evil in the service of the divine drama of salvation.
You can see something like this in the story of the fall in Genesis, where the serpent deceives the first humans into taking for themselves what belongs to God.  The serpent’s logic is childish but effective—why would God have forbidden you to eat this fruit, out of all the fruit in the garden, unless God was trying to keep something really nice all to himself.  There is treachery in the serpent’s guile that takes advantage of the man’s and the woman’s naiveté, their envy, impatience and pride.  And so what seems delightful and liberating comes with an unexpected cost.  We wanted to taste Godlike knowledge, and did, but ended up swallowing nakedness and death along with it.
And yet for all its pathos this story is leavened with the sense that things had to happen this way.  For it is the introduction of tragedy into human existence that creates the tension out of which all the subsequent drama arises.   We cannot imagine how we could be really human without having our eyes open, even if the world we see sometimes seems meaningless and cold.  Would we really want to forgo the power of our discriminating intellect, even if we do not have the wisdom and moral strength to handle it in a healthy way?   There is a tradition of Christian interpretation of this story that says “O felix culpa”—“Oh happy fault!” because it is the germ of this premature and incomplete realization of our Godlikeness that flowers into perfection in Christ.
So, returning to the gospel, one of the first things that the devil does is to reveal to us, the readers, that the descent of the Holy Spirit upon Jesus brought with it the gift of power.  You and I would not be tempted to turn stones into bread, no matter how hungry we were, because we know we cannot.  Most of us would not be tempted to throw ourselves down from the pinnacle of the temple, either.  Jesus in these encounters is in a position similar to that of the woman in Genesis, because the devil appeals to his sense of entitlement—“if you are the Son of God”—and reveals to him that Godlike power is there for the taking.  We may not think that we have that kind of power at our disposal (although there are numerous passages in the New Testament that suggest that we might be mistaken about that) but what Jesus shows us in today’s Gospel is that having or lacking power is not our first concern.  What really matters is how we relate to God.
The assumption of the devil is that God is an instrument to be used for our purposes.  If we are hungry, we should use God to obtain bread.  If we are reckless and self-destructive, we should prevail on God to save us.   I probably shouldn’t be using contemporary politics to illustrate diabolical logic, but I caouldn’t help but be reminded of the Chairman of the House Subcommittee on Environment and the Economy who recently said that there is no need to worry about rising global temperatures because the 8th chapter of Genesis states that God promised Noah that he wouldn’t flood the earth ever again.  Never mind that this is a highly questionable application of scripture.  What’s really troubling is the way it uses God as a convenient excuse to shirk human responsibility.
But Jesus puts forward the opposite view—God is not our pawn, to be used in the service of our agendas.  Instead, our real satisfaction, our real safety, our real nobility and power stem from our willingness to be at God’s disposal, to be instruments for God’s purposes.  That is the aim of this season of spiritual renewal that the Church calls “Lent.”  When we fast, and abstain from creature comforts that are not really necessary to sustain life, we are opening up a little space for God.  When we break the cycle of automatically satisfying our little desires, there is a space in which we can ask “what is my big desire?” Or, to pose the same question in another way, “What might God want for my life?”
Or when we practice penitence, examining our thoughts and actions and being really honest with ourselves about our obsessions and errors of judgment, we invite the Holy Spirit into our lives.  The nagging anxieties about money and prestige, the little lies and carefully tended resentments, the self-pity and excuses and things we always manage to put off for another day—it is painful to look at these things squarely and call them by their true names.  But the same paradox that we see in the story of the Fall and in the temptations of Jesus is also true of us.  Those same areas where we meet the tragedy of our lives, and I don’t mean misfortunes that are beyond our control, but rather the countless ways we sabotage ourselves and fall short of becoming the persons God created us to be; these exact places are where we have the potential to break open to the healing of the Spirit. 
We have to resist the temptation of mocking up a God to keep our attention somewhere else, who will tell us what we want to hear, and make us stronger in the ways we already imagine we are strong.  But if we can do that, a tension is created in us between the persons we know ourselves to be and the new persons that we are becoming in the love and grace of God that are ours through Christ.  And that tension, though it sometimes feels like suffering, is a hope more precious than all the world’s kingdoms and their splendor.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Do not be afraid

In the summer of 1994 I made the 200-odd mile journey on foot from Yosemite Valley to Mt. Whitney on the John Muir Trail.  On the last night of the 20-day trip I ate an early supper at Guitar Lake and climbed up to about 12,000 feet on the west shoulder of Whitney, where I made camp on a grassy shelf not far from the trail.  My plan was to be the first person the next morning to stand on the top of the highest mountain in the lower 49 states.   I arose when it was barely light, had a breakfast of trail mix and granola bars, drank a little water, and packed up my tent.
I scrambled up through a boulder-field to the trail and it was there that I met with a terrible sight—Boy Scouts!  A whole troop of them, chattering and grumbling their way up the side of the mountain ahead of me.  Little had I known three weeks before as I was laboring up out of Yosemite with fifty pounds of food, fuel, and equipment cutting into my shoulders that I was already conditioning myself for this final, desperate race.  My pack was like a feather on my back; my legs were like steel pistons.   I greeted the scouts curtly as I threaded my way past them—morning pleasantries were not my concern.  When I got to the ridge-crest and began to traverse the long spine of the mountain I stopped just once, long enough to put on more clothes against the sunrise wind cutting through the rocky defiles.
And so I got my fifteen minutes alone on the top of Mount Whitney in July.  I swung my legs over a ledge and perched above the vast gulf of the Owens Valley, a mile below me and filling up with morning light.  I looked out north and saw the countless peaks of King’s Canyon and Sequoiah National Parks like pennants against the sky, all the country I had clambered over like an ant for the last 10 days.  And I had one last deep drink of the high mountain silence before it was shattered by the hollers of excited Boy Scouts and I began my descent to the dusty world.
Across cultures and mythologies, the mountaintop is the meeting place with God, if not God’s actual dwelling place.  So it would be natural to place today’s Gospel story in that context.  Indeed, the story does this to itself, quite deliberately I think.  The fact that Moses and Elijah come to meet Jesus on top of the mountain is meant to remind us that these two great prophets also had encounters with God on the holy mountain.  Moses, as we heard in the first reading this morning, disappeared into the smoke and fire atop Mt. Sinai and returned with the law of God’s covenant with Israel.  And Elijah fled the apostate King Ahab and his murderous queen to Mt. Horeb, where he heard the “still, small, voice” that stiffened his resolve to fight for the covenant’s survival.
But this Gospel story is also different.  First of all, it does not describe an experience in solitude.  Jesus does not go the mountaintop alone, but he brings his disciples along with him—not the whole crew, but those three, Peter, James, and John, who form a kind of inner circle within the inner circle.  And in fact, it is their presence there that becomes the whole focus of the story, even though they are ill-at-ease and out-of-place as, I don’t know, a group of Boy Scouts.  We never learn what it is that Jesus experiences atop the mountain, or what difference it makes to him, even though he is this story’s great mediator between God and people.  Moses goes up the mountain and comes down with the Ten Commandments; Mohammed goes up the mountain and comes down with the Qu’ran.  Jesus goes up and comes down with three guys named Peter, James, and John.
It is these disciples who receive the revelation, and a strange revelation it is.  It does not stand by itself; it has no objective content that you can look at from a distance from and interpret, like words inscribed on tablets.  And yet a day will come when this ungraspable experience becomes their touchstone of the most demanding kind of truth, so that the 2nd Epistle of Peter can say “We did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we had been eyewitnesses of his majesty…while we were with him on the holy mountain.”
They had gone up a mountain with him before.  He gave them a Sermon there and a startling new version of the law.  But they were not brought to this mountain to learn any new doctrines or precepts.  Rather, they are given a new vision of the person they have been following.  They see him transformed by a radiance that is not of this world, and then they are enveloped by the same glory, and they hear the very voice of the invisible God declaring, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!"  So what they end up finding out on the mountaintop is simply that they are to follow Jesus.  If the wisdom and authority of his teachings was not enough, if the wit with which he deflated the scribes and Pharisees was not enough, if the casting out demons, and making the lame walk, and feeding the hungry multitudes were not enough to convince them that this is the master teacher, the one whose words are the words of life, they now have the vision of his transfigured body, and the command of God.
And what are his words to them, when the vision is past, and they are alone with him once again on the mountaintop?  “Do not be afraid.”  “Do not be afraid”—the same words he spoke when he walked across the Sea of Galilee to find them in the fourth watch of the night; “Do not be afraid”—the same words he will say to the women who meet him in the garden after he is raised from the dead.  If the job of disciples is to listen to Jesus, these seem to be the words he most wants us to hear.  Because we never get to stay on the mountaintop.  We always have to go down again into the crowds, and the dust and heat, to contend with people’s opinions and our reputations and the crooked dealings of the world.
The mountaintop is its own special place, and the God who we see there in glory is usually hidden in the flatlands and the city.  But He is there, and so is Christ is the well-beloved, still leading his disciples.  We may not remember his radiance, but he is our guide in the twists and turns of the dark labyrinth, as well as on the bright mountain.  And even if all we can see are faces of suffering, we still have access to the deeper, inner data that comes with listening.  It may take some time and close attention to drop down below all the chatter and noise, but if we are patient we will hear it-- the voice of a friend near and dear, speaking to us with great patience and tenderness.  And the first thing the voice says is, “don’t be afraid.”

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Look at the birds

Last week I attended the annual conference of the ordained Clergy in our diocese.  The featured speaker was an academic specialist in what used to be called Christian Education, but is now more often called “Formation.”  Her presentation boiled down to a couple of ideas, neither of which was new to me.  I had heard these ideas and discussed them and even promoted them when I was in seminary.  I thought I had incorporated them into my world view.  So I was surprised when I had a strong emotional reaction to the conference program.  I experienced sadness, even despair, and gripping anxiety that kept me awake long after the portly priest I shared a room with had stopped snoring —anxiety about the future prospects for the church.
So what were these ideas?  The first is the broad historical narrative of a transition to “Post-Christendom.”   Basically this means that for about 15 hundred years, the church has served as an integral pillar of a society which was assumed to be completely and irreversibly Christian.  The church was the air that the people breathed and the water in which they swam.  Individual lives would wax and wane, and the church would be there to bless and give meaning to all the crucial thresholds of human experience--birth, coming of age, marriage, parenthood, and death.  But the church itself, and the social order of which it was the religious DNA, was as stable and eternal as the mountains.
But in a process that was slow and hard to see at first, all this began to change.   The pace of secularism, skepticism, pluralism and materialism which began advancing 500 years ago has picked up frightening speed in the last fifty.  In the modern West, there was a final surge of Christendom in the postwar boom of the 20th century United States.  But that wave and its aftershocks are receding fast.  For the professional clergy, this phenomenon is a threat to their livelihood and to the survival of the institutions to which they have given their lives: Shrinking and aging congregations, diminished resources for staff and programming, fewer and fewer full-time stipendiary positions, and a general sense of social irrelevance. 
Maybe that’s why the conference made me so anxious.  It was one thing to talk about Post-Christendom when I was in seminary.  After all, I was not yet one of those who is supposed to know what to do about it.  It is quite another to sit with my colleagues, my fellow leaders of the Christian community, and listen to their heartfelt anguish about the challenges of sustaining a legacy fewer and fewer people seem to want.  And mingled in with their grief for the possibility of being the last elders of a vanishing tribe, was fear for their salaries, benefits, and pensions.
As I think we all know, anxiety about what we will eat and what we will wear is not limited to the clergy of the Episcopal Diocese of Northern California.   And I hope you would agree that this is not just lack of faith.  For millions of people, this anxiety is not a spiritual failure, but is grounded in daunting material reality.  We live in a time when the economic system that is responsible for producing and distributing the necessities of life is largely failing.  Instead of offering people the means to realize a meaningful place in the social order, directed toward human development and the well-being of all, “the economy” seems more like a merciless juggernaut of cutthroat competition for a limited supply of goods, where one mistake or stroke of bad luck is enough to condemn a person to poverty or worse.
There are those who say that such an economy is inevitable.  Some say that is so because of the simple mathematics of an expanding population on a planet of limited size and carrying-capacity.  But there are others who find the cause in human nature.  We are inherently self-interested, this logic goes, and so the only possible economy, and the only one that is desirable, is one in which we struggle with one another in a ceaseless race to acquire more wealth and power for ourselves.  The winners and the losers, so it is said, deserve what they receive, for it is this struggle that tries and proves the moral worth of a person.   It is ironic that so many Christians, who bitterly fight against the teaching of Darwinism as a biological theory, uncritically champion it as a social one.  
These are not new ideas, not at their core, and Jesus explicitly rejects them when he says that no one can serve God and wealth.  There is no room in his teaching for the rationalizations that say it is God who made human beings greedy and covetous, and it is God who rewards hard work and thrift with prosperity.   According to Jesus, our material prosperity and creaturely survival does not depend on our work or our cunning but on the providence of God.  The correct model for our economic lives is not the farm or the factory, or even the “market”, but the wilderness. 
But the natural order that Jesus holds up as a demonstration of God’s will for us is not the “nature red in tooth and claw” of the Darwinian survival of the fittest.  It is the incredibly abundant world that the first European adventurers found when they came to the shores of San Francisco Bay: a sky black with clouds of migrating geese and ducks; the highest Grizzly bear population in the world feasting on the salmon that choked the creeks and rivers; oak trees bending under the weight of acorns that were cultivated with little more than carefully-set fires.

The second idea that we discussed at the Clergy Conference is that the fall of Christendom opens for us the opportunity to recover a deeper purpose, a more essential strand of our DNA.  This is the idea that the church came, as Jesus comes, for the sake of the people who are not on the inside.  The work of the church is to form disciples of Jesus Christ for the continuation of his mission.  His mission is to invite and incorporate people into the mission of God.  This mission is not about “growing the church” as a means to balance future budgets.  If it were, it would be service of Mammon, and deserving of failure.
Neither is it about converting heathen souls for citizenship in an otherworldly kingdom.  The Kingdom of God is at work wherever we go, and it is not divorced from the work we do every day, or Jesus would not have likened it to a man who went out sow seed, or woman who mixed yeast into her dough.  Christ’s body has a future because God has a future for the earth which is already present and visible for those with eyes to see it.  The future is the renewal of the abundance, beauty and harmony for which God created us.  This coming world is not simply the restoration of primal nature, the world as it was before the coming of human greed, violence, and folly.  It is Creation reverently beheld, tended, shared and offered to God by human intelligence, human desire, human will and labor, transformed by grace into that love and power we know as Christ. 
This new world has been revealed to us in a historic person, Jesus of Nazareth, who manifested it in word and deed, and gave his life to bring it to birth.  When Jesus says, “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you,” the “you” to which he speaks is plural.  This Gospel is not a summons to individualistic striving, as if to say, “if only I can think positive thoughts, do only good deeds, and tot up my ‘spiritual experiences’” I will have plenty.  It is the call to become a holy people.  It is the charter to become a new kind of nation, ruled by Christ’s dependence on God, his forgiveness and love and servanthood. 
The Kingdom of God is not the church.  But without the church, how will we train our eyes to see the at workings of the invisible God?  Without the church, how will we see sign that points the way to this new world?  How will we recognize the Body--taken, blessed, broken, and shared with the world?  

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.