Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Lessons of defeat

Like a lot of you, I suppose, I was disappointed that the Petaluma National All-Stars were defeated in yesterday’s National Tournament final of the Little League World Series.  When the last out was made, I looked at my daughter, whose classmate Beckham is the younger brother of pitcher and left fielder Quinton Gago.   She frowned and snapped her fingers and said, “darn it!” and I shared her feeling.  But a moment later, I started thinking about what an incredible ride it has been for those kids, and their families, and for their whole home town.  If they had won, we would be celebrating the victory, and preparing for another game against Japan this afternoon and the possibility of ultimate triumph.  But because they didn’t, the real value of what they accomplished stands out all the more.  The things that really mattered about the 2012 Petaluma National All-Stars— the teamwork and camaraderie, the athletic feats, the opportunity to play against the very best teams in the country and beat all but one of them, the love and joy and civic pride that they inspired back home—these are the things that will have a lasting impact on those boys’ lives, not whether they won or lost the final game.

Sometimes life’s best lessons are the lessons of defeat.  I myself came of age in the 10980s in a world that seemed to me hell-bent on destroying itself.  And I tried everything I could to get some kind of upper hand in the situation.  I tried drinking and drugs and rock and rock-and-roll, with predictably poor results.  I tried achievement, putting in time at an elite private East Coast college until my sophomore year when I had a dream one night that I was standing at the foot of an enormous escalator.  I knew I was supposed to step onto it, and that once I did there would be no coming back down and no turning right or left, only a smooth, non-stop ride straight to the top, and that at the top was…death.  

I tried American electoral politics, and I found it to be a cynical game for opportunists.  I tried left-wing Internationalism, traveling to Nicaragua in the midst of the civil war with a volunteer construction brigade, where we met with a slick, handsome, and charismatic young Sandinista Party official who gave a well-rehearsed speech playing on our anger at our government and especially our hatred of Ronald Reagan.  Many of the folks in the group were eating out of his hand, nodding and applauding, but I remember thinking that here was the same old devil in another guise.

I decided that the disease of the world was in my self, and so I went to the Zen Buddhists, to sit down without moving and look myself straight in the eye.  I learned a lot of valuable lessons there, and none more so than the knowledge that all the Japanese temple ritual and hours of cross-legged sitting could be a pretty, new covering for the deep psychic structures of bad religion—shame, self-righteousness, the desire to escape the world, and the longing to be taken care of by a paternalistic authority figure.  And so there I was at last, almost in spite of myself, with nowhere to go but Jesus.

“Do you also wish to go away?” he asks, and Peter answers “Lord, to whom can we go?”  This little exchange encapsulates a whole story of admitting that you are beaten, and nothing can help you now but unconditional love.  It may be possible to become a Christian believing that it will be the way to a quick victory over the world, but I’m not sure how you could maintain a lively faith for long on that basis.  There is in the gospel a profound realism about the world, a realism that is sometimes mistaken for pessimism.  And this pessimism is sometimes twisted into triumphalism, as if the mission of God in Christ is to destroy the earth, and all our human bodies, to save a few pure souls for heaven.   When, in fact, Christ comes out of God’s unconditional love for the world, to offer it the free gift of its own true life, which is wisdom, and compassion, and glory.

But these are my words.  The words of Jesus, the words that are Spirit and Life, are “Eat my flesh and drink my blood.”  These are realistic words, words that ground the work of saving the world in the human body and its vulnerability to defeat.  They point the way to a world to come that is not the endless repetition of the struggle for selfish advantage, nor is it final victory in that struggle.  And many of Jesus’ disciples decide to abandon him rather than walk that way.  The desertion of these disciples, like the talk about flesh and blood, is the Gospel of John’s subtle way of foreshadowing the cross.  Abiding in Jesus, allowing him to abide in us, involves being realistic about the world, and admitting that it has us where it wants us.  It means choosing a wholehearted engagement in the cause of life, knowing that life includes suffering. 

I was at Zephyr Graphics over by Pinky’s Pizza on Friday, picking up a Soccer League jersey for my daughter, and I almost couldn’t get one because they were so swamped with sales of Petaluma National gear.  I got into a three-way conversation with the cashier and a woman who was buying a stack of t-shirts for her family and they were sharing about how much more satisfying it was to root for the Little League team than for the professionals.   I’ve been at least a casual San Francisco Giants fan for many years, but when I think about the millionaire players and the billionaire owners, and the corporate sponsors and $30 for a ticket and $10 for a beer and how the layout of the stadium is a microcosm of the class system in America, and the poor are left out entirely, I have to agree with them.  There was an admission of defeat in that observation, a defeat far worse than anything the Little Leaguers will ever experience on the field.  It was the knowledge that they will come of age in a world that is able to corrupt even something as good and beautiful as baseball.

But as wounding as that knowledge is, following Jesus means that it doesn’t lead us to cynicism or despair.  We do not condemn the world, no matter how painful it becomes, because in spite of everything it still belongs to God, and God in Christ has embraced it from within.  He has given his flesh and blood so that it might not perish, but live.  To follow Jesus means to live by that gift, the gift of God’s compassion for all who suffer from the world as it is, which is to say, every sentient being.  

 But the gift is not only compassion for suffering—it is also power for liberation.  Following Jesus means not only that we give up trying to conquer the world and turn at last to receive the gift of life in its simplicity.  It also means that we join with him in struggle on life’s behalf.  As St. Paul says, this is not a struggle against flesh and blood.  It is a struggle with the spirit of pride and domination, who seeks its own hollow triumph at the cost of the destruction of the world.  The one thing this spirit cannot bear to see is its own hopelessness, and it will go to any lengths to keep us hooked on the false image of its power.   That is why it keeps after us, keeps trying to trick us into betraying our own life and bending it to our own will.  And that is why we keep returning again and again to eat the flesh of Jesus and drink his blood.  That is why, having exhausted all other options, we feed week-by-week on the humility of Christ.   Children of earth, we eat bread and drink wine and in that God’s compassionate love and God’s liberating power are real and present in us and for us, and that is life’s victory.     

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Taking the stage

1 Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14
Psalm 111
 Ephesians 5:15-20
John 6:51-58

I’m not a huge Bruce Springsteen fan.  I respect him as a person and as an artist, but his music has never really moved me.  Then again, I’ve never been to one of his concerts.  And Springsteen is one of those musicians whose reputation is founded on the quality of his live performances.  The people I’ve met who are fans of his have told me as much— “You don’t really know the Boss,” as his followers call him, “‘til you’ve seen him live.”
There is a profile of Springsteen in the July 30th New Yorker magazine, and I’d like to quote from it at length, because when I read what he had to say about his current concert tour, I thought about us:   
“We hope to send people out of the building we play in with a slightly more enhanced sense of what their options might be, emotionally, maybe communally.  You empower them a little bit, they empower you…It’s all a battle against the futility and the existential loneliness!  That’s what we do for one another…Our effort is to stay with you, period, to have you join us and allow us to join you for the ride—the whole ride.  That’s what we’ve been working on the whole time, and this show is the latest installment, and, in many ways, it’s the most complicated installment, because… it has to do with the end of that ride.  There are kids who are coming to the show who will never have seen the band with Clarence Clemons in it or Danny Federici—people who were in the band for thirty years.  So our job is to honor the people who stood on that stage by putting on the best show we’ve ever put on.  To do that, you’ve got to acknowledge your losses and your defeats as well as your victories.  There is a finiteness to it, though the end may be a long time away.  We end the night with a party of sorts, but it’s not an uncomplicated party.  It’s a life party—that’s what we try to deliver up.”
The liturgy of the church is not a rock-and-roll show, and yet in some ways what Bruce Springsteen is describing is what we are trying to do when we gather on Sundays.  We want to empower one another.  We want to enhance each other’s sense of emotional and communal options.  We want to assure one another that this is a community where we belong and that belongs to us, and that we will stick together for the whole ride.  The liturgy is about life, so it is also complicated in the way that Springsteen talks about.  It includes the awareness of finitude, and the desire to honor the people who used to be here but are not any more.
When Bruce Springsteen talks about the commitment that he and his fans have to each other, his remarks are tinged with the sadness of knowing that, at age 62, the energy is getting harder and harder to muster.   There is the understanding that someday, maybe soon, he’ll hang up his guitar, and maybe it won’t be long after that that he, too, will be an empty place on the stage.  His younger fans will remain, and maybe they will listen to his recordings and hang on to the ticket stubs in their scrapbooks and their memories of this or that incredible show, but these will be the fading traces of a ride that is over, and in time the last living person to have seen Bruce Springsteen in concert will be gone from the face of the earth.
But Jesus of Nazareth is still on tour.  Here in this building, and down the block at the Methodists’, and over the other way at the Open Door and at St. Vincent’s, and further on at Elim Lutheran, and even across town at the Petaluma Community Center, his band is playing live in concert this morning, as we have been every Sunday for almost two thousand years.  Somehow the connection that Jesus established with his followers didn’t depend on fancy light shows or electronic amplifiers.  It didn’t even depend on having him on stage, fronting the band.  When Jesus came to the end of his life, his fans couldn’t fill this room, let alone a 45,000-seat stadium, but when it was over they didn’t go home to nurse their fading memories of his amazing performances.  Instead they took the stage in his place.   The enhanced possibility for life that they experienced in the presence of Jesus simply would not die. 
It wouldn’t die because it wasn’t about him.  We can admire Bruce Springsteen for his commitment to his music and to his fans, for his desire to give them an experience that exalts their emotions and replaces their isolation with a sense of community.  But always it is Springsteen, his artistry, his charisma, his personality that is at the center of that community.  What holds it together is the excitement of being in the real living presence of the man himself.  But Jesus’ hope for his disciples was more ambitious than that.  For him the only real solution to their futility and existential loneliness, their only real possibility of community, their only hope of staying together all the way, was that they would come through him into a relationship with the one that he called “Father.”  Through his finite words and acts, they would come into the presence of the infinite. 
Everything that Jesus does in the gospel of John is a sign of something greater, a dramatic performance that points beyond itself to the infinite generosity, the infinite love, the infinite faithfulness, and compassion of God.   Jesus gives his finite self completely and without reservation to that performance, and it culminates in the great sign whereby he offers his own flesh and his own blood.  And when he gets to that point, he calls his disciples together one last time, and he kneels and washes their feet and says, “I no longer call you servants, but friends.” And the message is clear—  “I’ll be gone, but the performance of the Holy Spirit goes on.   Now it’s up to you to put on the show.”   
A liturgy is not a concert, but it is a performance.  It’s a performance where everyone is in the band, and no one is in the audience.  Its purpose is not to entertain, but to transform, and the raw material of the transformation is our lives, our selves.  So we need to bring them with us here.  We come with our real finite lives, with our modest victories and our intractable griefs, and they become the substance of the drama that we enact together.  Our struggles to have faith, our worries about whether we belong, our arguments with the scriptures and the creeds and the church, all that also is part of the texture of the performance.  All of it is part of the sign.  All of it is brought forward and presented with open, outstretched hands at the altar.  And all of it is fed with bread and wine.  Bread and wine that is chewed and swallowed.  Bread and wine that is flesh and blood. 
It is something that we all do together, and only the participation of everyone makes the sign complete.  But the life that comes through it, the Spirit that transforms, comes from somewhere else, and it is going somewhere else.  That is what makes it work.  That is what keeps it real.  It isn’t something we do to please ourselves, but to be transformed into the living flesh and blood of Christ, for the life of the world.  So we give ourselves, with sincere effort, to the liturgy, which is an ancient word that means “the work of the people.” 
In our praying and our singing, our speaking and our listening, our standing and sitting and kneeling and sitting and standing, our hugging and kissing, and crying and laughing, and our eating and our drinking, we are a performing a sign of the living bread that comes down from heaven.  All of us are needed to play along, to do our part, to help put on the best show that we can, so that we become a sign pointing beyond this temporary place, beyond our passing moment on the stage, pointing to eternity. 

The open door

The people in John’s Gospel who complain about Jesus remind me a little of how someone described one of the candidates in this year’s Presidential primaries—“He’s a stupid person’s idea of what a smart person sounds like.”  They see religion as chiefly a matter of believing certain doctrines, following certain rules, embracing an exclusive identity and joining a particular group.  And many people who are religious, and many who are not, have that kind of orientation.  But when Jesus says “I am the bread that comes down from heaven,” he is not placing a building-block on a new system of religious precepts.  He is offering entrance into a new kind of life.

When the complainers say, "Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How can he now say, `I have come down from heaven'?," they think they are being clever, but really they are just showing how completely they have misunderstood.  They speak from the vantage point of a consciousness that keeps separate the things that Jesus has come to unite.  For him, being a human creature of flesh and blood, with a family origin that is common knowledge, is not incompatible with coming down from heaven.   That is, in fact, precisely the purpose for which he was sent—to reunite God and human, flesh and spirit, earth and heaven, and to restore the original nature, the divine image, the life of paradise in which we were all created. 

We know very well the view of human nature that defines and divides people on the basis of sex, or sexual orientation, or color, or class, or nationality, or religion.   But Jesus invokes the vision of the great Hebrew prophets and says, “`And they shall all be taught by God.' Everyone who has heard and learned from the Father comes to me.”  The mission of the Spirit that lives in Jesus is to nourish everyone with the wisdom of God, who created the whole world, and sustains it in all its diversity, as a single multifarious feast of love.  And love is a way of being that is characterized by openness.  Love affirms that we flow into and through each other in spite of everything that we think keeps us separate and closed.  Love gives to the one who is loved the freedom to live and flourish, trusting that the other is essentially good, essentially worthy, even if he or she makes mistakes, even if those mistakes injure the lover.  It is this gift of wisdom and love that is communicated to us in the flesh of Christ. 

The openness of Christ’s flesh is revealed on the cross, submitting to the injuries of fractured human consciousness with compassion and forgiveness.  It is manifest in the openness of his resurrection body, inviting Thomas to place his hands in its wounds.  It is tangible in the openness of his Eucharistic body which is reconstituted day by day in the life of the universal church, and is never exactly the same twice. What we are and what we are to become is not determined by who our parents are or anything else we think we know about us—it is a question that remains open, whose answer is hidden in the life of God.  And yet Christ is that answer, embodying the mysterious and irreducible holiness of life in real, ongoing, ordinary human relationships.

The letter to the Ephesians is an instruction to a community that aspires to that live that new divine human life.  It is a profoundly realistic document.  It allows for the fact that people get angry at each other, sometimes rightfully so.  People hurt each other.  They even steal from each other.  But the letter suggests that such behavior is not the last word about human nature.  The example of the earthly life of Christ, and the continual spiritual nourishment of his grace, opens up for them a new possibility.  Christ opens a way for them to follow that breaks out of the endless feedback loop of blame, and shame, resentment and retaliation and leads toward the openness that is God.

 It is a way that begins with speaking the truth. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Power of Bread

Every year in February, the Episcopal Diocese of Northern California puts on a Congregational Leadership Conference for clergy and lay leaders in our region.  Last February St. John’s was invited to be one of two congregations to make an hour-long presentation in plenary session about our experience of congregational renewal, and what we have learned in the process about leadership.  So the outgoing Senior Warden, Nancy Bosch, and the incoming Senior Warden, Marti Shortridge, and I, met on a couple of occasions and planned our presentation and drove over on a Saturday morning to St. Paul’s in Benicia and gave it.  People seemed to appreciate it and even to be inspired by the story of St. John’s.  And when it was over Canon Britt Olson, who is the second-in-command, so to speak, of the Diocese, and the principal organizer of the conference, came up to me and said, “Great presentation—you know what I liked best about it?  It wasn’t all about you.

I was surprised by that comment, but I guess I shouldn’t have been.  We in the church just as susceptible as other people to thinking that leadership is about putting our own egos in charge.  We are just as prone to careerism, and ambition, and the desire for power and prestige, as leaders in other areas of society.   Maybe more so, because we have the added seduction of imagining that our noble purpose puts us above such things.  We can become so accustomed to being seen as loving and wise, that we overlook the subtle ways we take advantage of other people, or make them dependent on us.  We can become so dazzled by our lofty personas that we become blind to our baser instincts and selfish motivations.  And that blindness can be deadly to the people around us and to ourselves. 

When Nathan rebukes King David for the evil he has done in having a man killed so he can take his wife for his own, it is like he is shaking him awake from an enchanted sleep.  But it is not the beauty of Bathsheba alone that has entranced David—it is the seduction of his own power.  God has favored David over other men.  He has given him good looks, artistic talent, courage and cunning in battle and in politics.  He has taken him from following his father’s sheep, and made him a leader of armies.  He has supplanted King Saul, and conquered David’s enemies, united the tribes of Israel under his rule, and given the citadel of Jerusalem into his hand.  And he has promised to make from his offspring a dynasty of kings, a royal house that will be established forever.  

But God did not do all this for the glory of David.  David has a purpose--to unify Israel, to give her peace from her enemies, to make her secure in her own land.  And just as the power that God has given to David is not an end in itself, neither is the power of Israel.  The gift of the covenant, the deliverance from Egypt, the conquest of the land, David’s victories; all the great acts by which God created Israel as a nation were done for God’s purposes.   And the purpose of God is not simply to gain power.  If all God wanted was that his anointed king be absolute, if all God cared for was that his armies conquer other lands, if all God sought was to be served by the maximum number of worshippers, he wouldn’t have chosen a little strip of marginal land between the desert and the sea as his dwelling place.  He wouldn’t have chosen a wandering tribe of runaway slaves as his people.

God’s true purpose for Israel is woven like a golden thread through all the strange and sometimes repellent texts of the Hebrew Bible—to be a blessing to all nations, to be holy as God himself is holy, to keep the ordinances of righteousness, and to love God with her whole heart, and soul, and strength.  In treating Bathsheba like spoils of war, in plying his deceitful trickery against her husband, and betraying him to his death, David has also betrayed the God who anointed him for his holy purpose.  “You have despised me,” says Nathan, speaking for God, and David acknowledges the bitter truth of it—“I have sinned against the LORD.”  

All that follows in the biblical story of Israel is a deeper and deeper exploration into the mystery of what it really means to be the chosen people of God.  Where once it seemed enough for them to occupy their land and to keep their religious laws and cultic sacrifices, it became clearer and clearer over the centuries that something far more demanding and far-reaching was at stake.  With their scathing critique of the abuses of the powerless by the powerful, the great prophets of Israel gradually brought into human consciousness that the purpose of God in history has everything to do with justice.  With the power of their laments, the prophets awakened the human heart to the presence of a God who is with his people not only in victory, but also and even especially in exile and suffering.  With the beauty of their songs of consolation, the Hebrew prophets called all humankind toward a vision of God’s shalom, of universal peace and the world’s restoration.

All this came before Jesus, and he continues this tradition.  And yet the gospels ascribe to him a sovereignty that even David never had.  Jesus says to the crowd in Capernaum, "This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent," as if his own mission is the fulfillment of God’s whole purpose for Israel.  But if this is a claim to power is it is power of a new and different kind.   “I am the bread of life,” says Jesus, and what is the power of bread?  In itself it is nothing.  It is power that can only be realized in and through others, in their nourishment, in their satisfaction, in the health of their bodies and the work of their hands.

The ancient bishop and theologian Gregory of Nyssa wrote a commentary on the Lord’s Prayer in which he said that the petition “give us this day our daily bread” is intimately linked with the one before it— “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven. ”  The bread of which the prayer speaks is ordinary bread, the stuff we eat every day to keep body and soul together, but Gregory says that we are not just praying for our bellies to be filled, as a dog or a donkey might, but praying to have bread to eat that is earned justly, that comes to us without exploiting the farmer who grew it, or the soil in which it was grown.  When we pray the prayer of Jesus, we are asking to have our bread in a world where every child and refugee and prisoner is also getting enough to eat today.  We are praying to eat our daily bread in a world where people aren’t anxiously wondering if they will have bread to eat tomorrow, or when they get sick or become disabled, or grow old.

When Jesus tells the crowd not to work for the food which perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, he is talking about this kind of food, the food that nourishes justice.  No king or president can give us this food.  It cannot be taken by force, or contrived by cunning.  It can only be gently and carefully sown in the earth, and nurtured by human toil and cosmic generosity.  This dance of partnership, this joint project of human art and the powers of nature, continues through all the miraculous transformations from the field to the mill to the oven to the table.  And when it comes to the table the bread is transformed again.  Taken by itself it is next to nothing.  But taken and blessed, and broken and shared, it is family.  It is community.  It is conversation and culture, and equality and empathy and justice and peace.  It is sacrament.  It is the life of 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.