Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Big Disease

The name “Lent” means “spring.” “Spring,” as in the time when the hills are green with new grass and the buds break forth with blossoms and leaves.  There are lambs and calves in the pastures, and a feeling of freshness awakens in our own hearts, as the days lengthen with the promise of a new cycle of growth and creativity.    So it may seem incongruous that “Lent” should also mean a season of prayer, fasting, and self-denial.  If new life beginning to spring up all around us, shouldn’t we be living it up?  Wouldn’t we do better just to jump on the rising wave of natural energy and ride?   
I say this in all seriousness because it is not always easy for us to see a connection between the annual renewal of creation and the practice of repentance.  One way I think about it is to remember something my father said to me once—“After you were born, and I saw how much joy you had, how full of life you were, I knew I had to change.” If you are a parent you may have experienced something similar.  The birth of a child can be like a new birth for the parents as well.  A sense of fresh possibility, a new and powerful desire to give and to love unselfishly, arises in us and flows through us in ways that can take us quite by surprise.   
But then, almost without our noticing it, the sense of grace and wonder begins to fade.  It’s not that nothing has changed, or that we stop being devoted to our children, but that life returns gradually to a new normal state.  One day we realize that the things we were doing gladly and devotedly now feel like chores. In place of the anxieties and vexations we had when we were childless, we have new anxieties and vexations.  But our way of getting vexed and anxious is just the same.  And something analogous could be said about all the new beginnings of our lives: the new love affair, the new school, the new job, the move to a new town.  
So maybe Lent gets its penitential character out of the recognition that if we are going to make good use of the opportunity that another spring is offering us, it is not enough to enjoy the fresh new energy that is coming to us for free.  We need to meet that energy with some spiritual effort of our own.   We need to break up the clods in the gardens of our hearts, and crumble the compacted crust on the surface of our minds.  We need to make a seedbed where God’s gift of new life can take root and flourish.   If the fresh start is going to become a lasting transformation it will be because we removed the obstacles we continually put in the way of God’s power to change us.  
When Mark’s Gospel tells us that after his baptism Jesus was in the wilderness forty days, and there he was tempted by Satan, it is reminding us that initiation into a new state of being has two parts.  First there is the epiphany, the ecstatic experience of communion and the gift of expanded consciousness.  But if this is to become a lasting breakthrough there must be a second and much longer step, the arduous process of dissolving our resistance to the new understanding, of purging the soul of habits that no longer serve.  These steps do not necessarily occur in that order.  In fact, the ancient practice of the church was to take them in reverse.  The Lenten season was a time of intensive spiritual labor and preparation.  The 40 days of Lent corresponds to the 40 weeks of human gestation.  It was a time of outer renunciation and inner discipline, and it culminated at Easter, with the moment of rebirth in the sacramental mystery of baptism.
 As modern Americans our understanding of the possibilities and perils of human transformation is profoundly different from that of the people of ancient times.  One indication of how this is true is that we are certain that our understanding is far superior to theirs.  We take it on faith that we are saner, smarter, more reasonable and less superstitious than they were.  And so we find their notion of spiritual powers that are hostile to God and destructive of her creatures distasteful and weird.  We reject as exaggerated if not downright false the notion that there is in every human heart not only the potential but the innate inclination toward greed, self-deception, and violence.
And because we deny the existence of the big disease, we stay busy as beavers going after the symptoms.  We have our technological fixes and our public policy proposals, our free-market solutions and our military interventions, our psychotherapeutic treatments and our pharmaceutical remedies; we have our spiritual programs and our auto-suggestive techniques.  We argue with each other till we’re blue in the face about who’s right and what’s wrong.  Meanwhile the human race and the planet it lives on gets sicker and sicker every day.   
So what if the bible is actually correct?  What if we’re all wrong?  Every one of us.  Deeply, fundamentally wrong.  Not because God made us that way but because of some ancient and mysterious power that holds us in its sway, a congenital desire to take control of the universe and fashion an existence on our own terms, separate from and equal to God.  What if we’re sinking into the quicksand because of our hardened determination to substitute our own way for God’s way, to replace God’s wisdom with our knowledge, to defend the person we imagine we are instead of becoming the person God created us to be?  What if this were not something we choose, but something we fall victim to, before we even know what’s going on?
And what if to say this was not a condemnation?  What if it were not intended to instill terror or heap up guilt?  What if it were not meant to bully you into surrendering your freedom, but simply to say, “This is how it is—but it doesn’t have to be this way.” What would we do then?  Well, we’d have to be reborn.  We’d have to commit ourselves to a truly radical transformation.  Not just a momentary epiphany, but a deep, lasting, and continual process of change.  Change not just as individuals, but as a species.  We’d have to go back almost to the very beginning and start over.  Not by a spasm of destruction but by an unfolding drama of universal re-creation.
Mark’s gospel recounts the story of Jesus’ baptism and temptation in the wilderness as the beginning of just such a drama.  The heavens’ splitting open and the descent of the spirit upon the waters recalls the creation of the universe in the opening chapter of Genesis.  God’s words to Jesus “with you I am well-pleased,” reminds us of the refrain that punctuates the creation story, “and God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.”  The description of Jesus in the wilderness, “He was with the wild animals and the angels ministered to him,” is a picture of Adam, the first man, in the Garden.  And who did Adam meet in the garden, but the serpent, the tempter.   
And here the drama turns against script.  Mark does not give us any details of the contest between Jesus and Satan, but he does tell us what comes next.  Jesus emerges from the desert not with the bad news of human weakness and punishment for disobedience, but with good news of God’s victory.   What we are given here is not the story of one man’s spiritual quest, but the opportunity of new life for the human race.   At the river the Spirit anointed Jesus as the beloved Son—the first-born of a new humanity.  In the wilderness that transformation was tested and proved able to overcome the ancient adversary with all his tricks and disguises.  Now into Galilee he comes, with a message for everyone: It’s time.  God’s just rule is here.  Turn your life around completely, and believe this—I just met Satan.  And you know what?—he’s no match for you and me.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The view from the mountain

There’s something to be said for climbing to the top of a mountain.  I’m no mountaineer, but I have been to the summit of a few 14,000 foot peaks in my lifetime, here in California and in Colorado.  I’ve experienced the silence, the solitude, the rare light of the highest places, so I think I understand why so many of the world’s cultures think of the mountaintop as the dwelling-place of God.  But the most meaningful mountaintop experiences of my life have probably been the ones where I climbed a peak in the vicinity of my home.  These have not been particularly tall mountains—I’m thinking of place like Camel’s Hump, in the Green Mountains of Vermont, just over 4,000 feet high, or Mt. Junipero Serra, the tallest peak in Monterey County, just under 6,000.  But to climb mountains like that, to look down on the valleys where I was spending the rest of my days, was to gain a new, more encompassing perspective on the world I lived in.  It was to get a new vision of my life.
If we think of Mark’s gospel as a landscape, this story of the Transfiguration of Jesus is the mountain peak from which it all comes into view.  The voice speaking from the cloud reminds us of the baptism scene at the beginning of the gospel, where a voice from heaven says to Jesus, “You are my beloved Son.”  And on the way back down the mountain, Jesus orders the disciples not to tell anyone about their vision until he has been raised from the dead.  In this way the story points forward to the gospel’s end.  The Transfiguration is the center point of the gospel, the pivot on which Mark’s narrative turns.
But it is more than just the structural high point; it is also the contemplative heart of the gospel.  It is the moment at which the disciples, and we, their successors, are left speechless in awe.  It is the moment when all the different aspects of what Jesus says and does, as healer, as teacher, as victor over evil, and liberator from oppression, converge.  It is where all the colors of the spectrum combine in the simple purity of white light.  Peter says, "Rabbi, it is good for us to be here!” and he is right—Jesus wanted them there, wanted them to see this vision of his glory.  But when Peter adds, “Let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah," he appears ridiculous.  This is the moment when it is enough just to be there—there is nothing to do but to see, and to hear.  
And for all its spiritual grandeur, this is not a private mystical experience.  Peter, James, and John see the vision together.  In this way the Transfiguration is a preview of the life of the church, in Mark’s time and also in ours.  For we are a community bound together by a shared vision of glory.  Not that we all see the same details.  Not that we all interpret the vision in the same way.   We may not be conversant in Christian doctrine, we may not be able to articulate our spirituality, we may not have a conversion story to tell, or even to be comfortable calling ourselves “Christians,” but these things do not matter so much. We have all seen brightness so dazzling that you can’t look directly at it.  All of us are here this morning because we are drawn to the gospel of the glory of Christ, a light that mere human invention could not have made. 
The mountaintop is not just a place where we get a majestic vision.  It is also a place of quiet.  All the noise of everyday life and activity in the world below dies away to a distant murmur.  If we hear anything it is only the sound of the wind and the silence of the vast spaces.  And the Transfiguration is not just about seeing, it is also a story about hearing.  The voice from the cloud tells the disciples, “Listen to him.”  But at that moment Jesus is not speaking.  This is a command to an ongoing work of listening.  It reveals to us the one we should be listening to, and there is an implied message in this revelation—the one you see here, the person you see now, will continue to speak to you. 
There is a way of reading the Holy Scriptures that treats them as a material object.  They are a historical artifact to study, an enigma to be decoded, a puzzle to be solved, and we go to work on them.  We hold them up this way and that and examine their structure.  We pull them apart to see how they work.  We break them down and put them back together again to make them serve our needs and our purposes.  We want them to tell us what to do.  We want them to tell us a story we can believe in.  We want them to describe a world for us that makes sense.
But there is another way to read them.  It works best when we hear them read aloud by ourselves or by others.  It’s not something that we can make happen by effort of will.  We have to allow it to happen, and this requires us to forget ourselves for a moment.  Sometimes, when we let go of our needs and desires and give ourselves completely to the act of listening, we hear something in the scriptures that is more than the words being read.  We hear a voice, speaking.  I remember a Sunday morning in San Francisco about fifteen years ago, sitting listening to someone read the gospel lesson for the day, when for a moment I was no longer hearing the oral reproduction of a written text.  For a moment I heard, coming through the person reading, through the printed page, through the centuries of transmission, translation, analysis and commentary, through the act of writing down the oral tradition, through the passing along of the conventional form of the story, I heard Jesus speaking.
A glimpsed reflection of glory; a voice heard speaking through the text—such are the mountaintop experiences that have sustained countless Christian souls on their pilgrimage through this world.  Some of these souls have been so saturated with the light of the Transfiguration that they themselves become a source of that light for others.  Some have conversed so long and so deep with the master that their own mouths speak with his voice.  Most of us make do with a glimmer here and a whisper there.  But there is always the possibility of seeing more.  Any moment we might hear another word from his mouth.  A mountain is not easy to climb, but we keep at it.  We keep coming here, to get encouragement from other climbers, to urge each other on.
 And who knows, maybe there’s someone here this morning who is spending a little time resting at the summit.  Maybe one of you will see a little bit of glory here today.  Maybe one of you will hear a voice speaking here this morning that grabs your attention and echoes deep inside you with a life and a purpose that are not your own.  Maybe one of you will go away from this place today feeling like the horizons of your life have opened out a little wider, like you have a better sense for the place where you are and how all the features of your landscape fit together.  Maybe so.  Maybe not.  Maybe today.  Maybe next time.  But here is the place where we affirm for each other that the light of God’s glory is always shining.  Here is where we celebrate the voice that is always speaking.  Let’s keep coming back here.  Let’s keep climbing the mountain together.     

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

I choose--be clean

When I was living at the Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in the early ‘90s there was a zen student named Dean who was dying of AIDS.  He rented a house down the road at Muir Beach but he would come up every day to practice in the meditation hall.  One day he asked if he could volunteer to work in the kitchen.  The woman who was the kitchen supervisor didn’t want to allow it.  “We all use knives,” she said—“What if he cuts himself?”  One of the residents who was a medical doctor met with to her and reassured her she could keep everyone safe from Dean.  She told her about sanitary procedures to follow if anyone cut themselves in the kitchen, and offered to do a training for the whole kitchen crew.  
But the problems that Dean’s request to work in the kitchen raised weren’t just practical, medical medical.  Ultimately, the supervisor was able to allow him to work there.  But getting to that point involved a real emotional struggle, because his disease stirred up fears that were out of proportion to the real risks involved.  Modern biological and medical science offers rational explanations for why people get sick, and straightforward mechanistic cures for disease.  But in spite of that, some illnesses arouse dread in us in ways that bleed far outside the simple straight lines of cause-and-effect.   
HIV/AIDS has lost some of the aura of menace that it had when the story I just told occurred.  So we can forget about the stigma of shame, the sense of moral guilt, and the fear of contagion that it used to bring along with it.   Some people said it was a divinely ordained, punishing scourge for sexual sin.  Some people said it was a government conspiracy, genetically-engineered from a monkey virus by the CIA.  The President of South Africa said it didn’t exist, and was a great hoax perpetrated by rich countries and multinational pharmaceutical corporations.  These are radically-different interpretations of the meaning of the same disease, but all of them show us that AIDS had a symbolic significance that went far beyond its description as a bio-medical phenomenon.  Looking into what people thought about AIDS, you could learn something about where they thought disorder and evil in the world comes from.   
The ancient Israelites had a highly developed sense of purity and pollution.  The first five books of the Hebrew bible, the Torah, lays out an elaborate code of dietary, ethical, and ritual laws.  These rules were, it was believed, given by God to his chosen people to preserve them from defilement and enable them to be holy as God is holy.  Among the things that cause pollution is any one of a number of skin diseases that our translations call “leprosy.”  The thirteenth chapter of Leviticus contains detailed instructions to the priests of Israel concerning how they are to diagnose a so-called “leper.”  The purpose of the diagnosis is not to effect a cure, but to protect others from the leper’s uncleanness.  One who is pronounced a leper is expelled, made to dwell in isolation, away from the rest of the people—not to prevent the spread of disease, but to protect the group from the pollution that the disease represents.    
This is important for our understanding of today’s story from the Gospel of Mark.  The trusting vulnerability of the leper, the compassion of Jesus—these things are affecting and easy to grasp. But our English translation glosses over something important that comes through more clearly in the Greek text— Jesus is not just merciful in this episode, he is also angry.  He doesn’t just “sternly warn” the man he has just cleansed, he harshly rebukes him.  He doesn’t “send him away,” he “casts him out.”   Our translation has Jesus telling him to go bring the prescribed offering to the priest “as a testimony to them,” but these words could as well be translated “as an accusation against them.”
It is significant that in this story the healing effect of Jesus’ touch is referred to repeatedly not in terms of the resolution of the man’s symptoms or the cure of disease.  Instead, Mark repeatedly uses forms of the word that means “to cleanse, to make clean.”   Jesus is not curing a skin disease.  He is casting out the impurity, the uncleanness, that comes along with it.  He is harshly rebuking social and religious isolation.  He is accusing the socially-constructed boundaries that put human beings in categories of impurity and pollution and keep them there, that cut them off from the wholeness that is God’s will for them.  
In this story Mark also sets another piece in place for the coming conflict with the religious authorities.  It tells us that the site of the struggle, the place of the confrontation, will be the body of Jesus.  Remember that in his compassion Jesus reaches out and touches the leper.  According to the purity code, this act makes Jesus himself unclean.  But there is nothing in the gospel to indicate that he gives that a second thought.  And in the chapters that follow he will transgress the boundaries of the purity code again and again.  He will be touched by a woman with a hemorrhage.  He will touch a corpse.  He will cross over into Gentile territory not once but twice.   But Jesus will not show the least concern about catching the contagion of impurity.  Instead, he will cross these boundaries to spread the spirit of holiness and health to the outcast, the excluded, the unclean.  His body will be the sign of the contagious kingdom of God’s loving compassion.
The other thing about this story, of course, is that it is about discipleship.  Mark doesn’t intend for us to sit on the sidelines, feeling smug because we don’t ostracize people with skin problems.  This story is a challenge to us to take a good look at our own social norms and ask ourselves who threatens our sense of purity.  Who are the people we think of as dirty?  How are we responding to them with compassion?  Do we will to pronounce them clean?  Last week our Buildings and Grounds Committee Chair mentioned to me that it is becoming clearer and clearer to him that our first priority for our Parish Hall refurbishing project has to be to provide an accessible entrance and bathroom.  I think he’s right.  There are legal and liability reasons for taking this on, but even more important is our call to break down barriers of exclusion.  When our hospitality extends only to those who can walk unaided, we are not offering the world a very effective witness to compassion of Christ. 
But this kind of compassion is relatively easy to extend.  Disability advocates, like advocates for people with HIV/AIDS, have made great progress in changing social norms and breaking down the boundaries of their exclusion.  But there are other boundaries that are more costly for us to reach across.  There is still a purity map in our society, and some people are trying to draw the lines thicker and darker.  Laws to drive homeless people out of our towns and cities, laws to isolate undocumented immigrants and expel them from our country, law-enforcement that criminalizes members of ethnic and religious minorities—these things are on the rise, and they are not driven by rational social policy but by the fear of impurity. 
As the body of Christ, we are called to confront that fear with compassion.  We are called to reach across the barriers of exclusion and touch the untouchable.  This may be the hardest work of Christian discipleship, because it involves personal risk.  It risks taking on ourselves the stigma of the unclean, of being seen by others as “not normal.”  But is the only path to knowing ourselves as completely whole.  Because as long as we believe that God’s love leaves some people out, there is always the possibility that we are among the unloved.  As long as we are afraid of being tainted, not by the intentions in our hearts, but by something external that we cannot control, we will not be free.  The mission of Jesus was to overcome that fear, to reach across the boundary of our sense of vulnerability, and to say to us, and to everyone—“I will.  Be clean.”    

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Outside religion

One of the things I hear a lot in my profession is some version of the statement: “I don’t come to church because I experience God in nature.”  And I’m not the only one who hears this--I was at an interfaith gathering of clergy recently, and one of the participants was talking about a prospective new member of her congregation, one of those most rare and highly prized of creatures, a young male who comes to church.  She told us that during a recent conversation with him he’d been explaining his resistance to getting more involved and used the “I find God in nature” line—in this case while scuba diving.  There was an outburst of groans and shaking of heads around the circle.  “How unique!” cried out another pastor sarcastically, “I’ve never heard that before.”
I knew how she felt, but I also wondered to myself if there might be some better way to respond.  Because the truth is, nature is a good place to find God.  Many of my own most profound experiences of holiness have come outside; outside the artificially-lit, socially-constructed human world.  Haven’t we all had our moments of awe at the beauty and intricacy of the wild creatures, the round of the seasons, the grandeur of the mountains, the sea, or the sky?  Haven’t they spoken to us of a greater wholeness, a majestic presence to which we are in some way related?  So why belittle those who testify to the power of such experiences to move them to reverence?  It seems to me that as religious men and women in a secular age we ought to be celebrating transcendence wherever it shows up in people’s lives.  In a time when the human race casts a long shadow over the future of the earth, we ought to be affirming the sacred meaning and value of our connection with nature.
And if we feel that such moments of solitary communion do not make for a complete religion, we ought to be able to do better than to just get grumpy.  We ought to be able to begin a conversation on the common ground of our own experiences of finding God outside. Maybe we could ask people to tell us what those moments have taught them and how they inform the way they live every day.  Maybe we could give an account of what we have learned from them, and how they fit into a larger pattern of religious faith and ethics and practice.  It may not always work, but it seems worth a try.
Because I have a hunch that even the most confirmed nature mystic has found from time to time that right at the heart of the experience of the magnificent sunset or the thundering waterfall is a uniquely sharp kind of loneliness.  In part it is the loneliness of realizing that there is no way to communicate the experience to others.  Any words you could say, or picture you could draw, or photograph you could take would be inadequate to convey what you perceived at that moment, even to a lover or an intimate friend.  And there is also the loneliness of realizing how out of accord our everyday lives are with the harmonious and sacred order of God’s creation.  We come back from that day-hike or that vacation in peaceful natural surroundings and find ourselves in the midst of noise, waste, haste, confusion, competition, and struggle.     
You don’t have to have an overly romantic and idealized view of nature, or an overly jaded view of human society to recognize that things are failing to connect up in some very important ways.  And that is one way of explaining what biblical religion is about.   Because the bible is very clear that the God who orders heaven and earth in beauty and harmony, and the God who acts in history to liberate, to redeem and restore humanity are the same God. 
That is what the passage we read from Isaiah today is arguing.  “Have you not known?” the prophet says, “Have you not heard?”  It is God “who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to live in.”  It is God “who brings princes to naught, and makes the rulers of the earth as nothing.”  It is God who numbers the stars and calls them by name, and it is God who gives “power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless.” God is the creator and sustainer of humankind and does so along with, and through, the goodness of the natural order, which testifies to his wisdom and power.
If human society does not reflect the harmony of God’s creation, if the goods of the earth are not shared equally but are hoarded by some and denied to others, if carelessness and greed are making a world that is violent and ugly, toxic to life and menacing to the future, it can only be in the spirit of rebellion against God.  The harsh language of the bible that is so distasteful to our contemporary ears, and leads so many people to dismiss it as the work of weird fanatics, comes out of grief, horror, and anger at that rebellion and the destruction it has caused.  The bible does not let us rest easy about the consequences of a life out of harmony with God’s work and God’s will.  But it never despairs.  It never loses faith in God’s purpose for us, the purpose that was there at the beginning.  And it never loses hope that God is able, that God is active, that God is sending another spirit to heal the spirit of rebellion in our souls and recreate us, a spirit of truth, of wisdom, of holiness and peace.
The New Testament is the good news about that Spirit, as it breaks forth into the human world in the person of Jesus Christ.  We have been reading in the Gospel of Mark about the first day of his public ministry.   It was a Sabbath day, the day of the completion of creation, and he began it at the synagogue, teaching with authority and casting out an unclean spirit.  In the Jewish reckoning of time the day ends at sundown, and immediately when the Sabbath is over the residents of Capernaum go to work, bringing the sick and the demon-haunted to Jesus to be healed. 
We don’t learn when he finally goes to sleep, but he is up again in the darkness long before dawn.  He goes out alone to a deserted place, where we can imagine him standing and gazing up into the heavens and drinking in the immensity of the universe.  We can imagine him listening to the silent music of the stars and feeling his whole being vibrate with the same song.  We can imagine his heart uniting with them in joy and praise and love for the creator of all this wondrous beauty.  And in this moment he renews his will to go out and to preach to as many people as he possibly can that the same creator is coming now to act in their lives.   He knows himself again full of the Spirit of the one he loves as Father, and he steels his resolve to confront the spirit that condemns and excludes and dominates, that fears and hates, wherever it may be at work.
In Jesus we see that the solitary encounter with God in nature has the purpose of sending us back to the human community, to find God there.  That is where our real work is.  It is there that the language of religious tradition helps us make meaning of our private moments of religious experience (which are, after all, only moments).  Religious practice extends the influence of these experiences into the choices we make and the actions we take day after day after day.    The common ground of scripture, of liturgy, of applied ethics and mutual concern, gives us a starting point for community.  It gives us a place to stand together, and a place to hold each other accountable for what it is we claim to have learned about God when we went scuba diving, or backpacking, or made that spiritual retreat.  In place of a lonely epiphany that cannot be communicated, religion gives us the proclamation of the Gospel, the shared experience of God’s love for us all.

About Me

My photo
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.