Thursday, September 27, 2012

Unconventional wisdom

Wednesday morning my wife Meg’s car wouldn’t start.  I won’t go through all the details, but on Wednesday night, after a full day of bicycling to work and shuffling our other car on trips to and from school and to the store and to a soccer game, after three visits from Triple A that left us with no solution, only a statement that the battery they sold us last year was not the problem and a “drain was detected,” and we shouldn’t call them anymore, I finished washing the dishes and went to find Meg.  She was folding laundry.  We commiserated with each other about how stressful car problems can be.  Neither of us is particularly mechanical, so when something more serious than a flat tire goes wrong with the car, we are both kind of powerless.   Meg said, “I realized I was feeling helpless, so I thought it might make me feel better to take on a task I could handle.  I decided I could do something about that pile of clean laundry.”
That struck me as a wise thing to have done.  It’s something that the ideal wife depicted in today’s lesson from the Book of Proverbs might have said.   The theme of Proverbs is wisdom, and the wisdom that it offers begins with the acknowledgement of God, and so we might imagine it is something mystical or esoteric.  But it’s not.  It’s practical.  It is wisdom that applies to daily life and worldly affairs.  It is related to the idea of creation, for it is through Wisdom that God did his work in fashioning the world.  The ordered structure of the universe, and its natural and moral laws, are the domain of wisdom.  The one who learns wisdom carries on God’s work of establishing a good world, a world of beauty and justice, prosperity and culture.  And the one who fears God knows that the commandments of wisdom are the cornerstone of the good life.  It is wisdom that gives the necessary temperament to seek such a life, and wisdom who directs the effort, and who blesses the results.  One who lives such a life becomes a blessing for others.
There is a lot to admire in this picture.  But we also have to acknowledge that this kind of wisdom is pretty conventional.  And conventional wisdom hasn’t really changed a whole lot in 2,500 years.  If you were to ask a random sample of Americans today “what are the personal qualities that lead to a good life,” they probably would come up with a list of characteristics not too different from we see in this ideal wife in Proverbs--industriousness, self-reliance, an entrepreneurial spirit; strength, generosity, piety and kindness; selflessly providing for the needs of her family and promoting its social prominence; earning the esteem of her children and her neighbors.
And it is just because conventional wisdom is so consistent across cultures and through time that the wisdom of the New Testament is so strange.  When the Letter of James talks about wisdom it is not so interested in how obedience to God’s laws leads worldly happiness.  Rather it sees wisdom as what enables a person to resist the seductions of evil that corrupt even our most honorable motivations.  There is awareness here that the pursuit of happiness as the world counts happiness can easily become a trap.   Self-discipline and self-reliance can lead to self-aggrandizement.   The pursuit of virtue can lead to hypocrisy, the desire for excellence to rivalry and envy.   Success in one’s life and fortunes can lead to disdain for those who are less able or less fortunate.  The idea that God’s wisdom is the foundation of the good life can lead those whose lives are manifestly good to believe that they are specially blessed by God, and that those whose lives appear less so are God-forsaken.   True wisdom, according to the book of James, is that close acquaintance with God that keeps us humble and gentle in heart, and rejects any desire for worldly goods that would lead us to fight with each other to get them.
So what lies behind this critical difference, this exception to the conventional wisdom of the Book of Proverbs, the conventional wisdom that still prevails in the world we live in today?  If we were scholars of the history of religion we could trace some complex process of development.  But I think that there is one simple explanation that is sufficient.  There is one event that had the power to shake the conventional wisdom of ancient times to its foundations, and it has not lost that power even today.  I am speaking, of course, of the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
It has been frequently taught in Christian tradition that “the Jews” were responsible for the murder of Jesus, but this is of course a libel and a falsehood.  It was not “the Jews” but some Jews, who were instigators and accessories to a crime committed by some Romans.  And the point I’m making is that the particular Jews that rejected Jesus, who accused him of blasphemy and insurrection and handed him over to be killed, were the chief priests, the scribes and the elders.  They were the urbane and cultivated people, the socially-prominent people, the well-educated and pious people, the people who, by the conventional wisdom of theirs and every age, are best-qualified to determine what is lawful, what is wise, what is politically feasible, and in the national interest, and what is not.   It was these people, people who could have read the description in Chapter 31 of the Book of Proverbs and thought proudly of their own wives and their own families, who rejected and killed the Messiah of God.   
But it was not some particular defect of their religion, or their class, or even their character that led them to do it.   They were only defending the prerogatives of wisdom as they knew it.  Jesus foresaw the conflict, knew it was inevitable, because he understood the power of conventional wisdom that made it impossible for them to change course, or to see him for what he was.  He saw that power at work among his own disciples, as they argued with each other on the road about which one of them was greater.  And he countered with a teaching that redefines worldly achievement as unconditional, selfless service.  It’s a teaching that still makes us squirm when we hear it today: "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all."
 And then he gave them a different way to think about how the wisdom of God shows up in the world.  In place of the all-powerful Creator, the master-builder of the universe who with wisdom established the foundations of the earth, spread out the dome of the heavens, and gave to us his people a perfect and eternal law, Jesus shows his disciples a child.  “Welcome a child,” he says, “and you welcome me, and not only me, but the one who sent me.” A child.  The most vulnerable and least powerful of persons.  A being who depends entirely on the love and protection of others.  One who knows nothing of social status or the distinctions of greater and lesser honor.  One whose needs are simple –love, food, warmth, companionship, play.  One whose gifts are simple—openness, affection, spontaneity, hope, and joy.  Welcome such a one, and you make room in the world for God. 
This wisdom of Jesus is still an available alternative to the usual way of trying to be happy.  A different way of seeking the good life is still waiting to be tried, kind of like that pile of laundry in the other room, waiting to be folded, as we fuss and fret and worry about fixing the car.  It’s true that that this way leaves you open to getting hurt, or being taken advantage of by all the serious people going about their serious business of  getting ahead in the world.   But there are worse things than getting hurt.  And there are better things than being one of the few who gets the things everyone else thinks that they want.  Or so says Jesus, but what did he know?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The way through

Proverbs 1:20-33
Psalm 19
James 3:1-12
Mark 8:27-38

I’m not sure exactly how old I was, maybe seven or eight, and I was on summer vacation at my grandparents’ cabin in the Sierras.  I went for a morning hike with my mother and younger brother on the old stagecoach road that runs along behind the cabin.  After a half –hour or so of walking, we had to scramble down a steep bank onto a wide, freshly-graded road that cut into the old one.   Going on a little further we came around a shoulder of the mountain and out from under the forest cover onto a hot, naked hillside.  It was dotted with stumps of trees and large heaps of bark, branches, and bulldozed earth.  My mother began to cry out in grief and fury.  She started shouting words that I recognized from my father and his carpentry projects, but that I’d never heard her use before.  This was a place she knew, a place she had visited from her childhood, a place she remembered as a cool, green, magical forest.
That day made a strong impression on me, and it wasn’t long after that I created a new imaginary self.  This was not the first time that I’d daydreamed a fantasy life.  As children do, I used to create scenarios in my mind and return to them again and again, making them more and more elaborate until finally it took more energy to reimagine them than the pleasure that they gave, and I moved on to something new.  But this particular fantasy was one of the most vivid I ever had. 
I was the leader of a band of merry outlaws who roamed the Sierra Nevada.  Relying on swiftness, stealth, woodcraft, and cunning, we would appear as if out of nowhere to fire our arrows into the tires of logging trucks, before melting away into the forest without a trace.  Our enemy, The County Sherriff, would use every trick in his book to capture us, but in spite of all his dogs and radios, deputies and helicopters, his stratagems were in vain--we always were one step ahead.
The child, becoming painfully aware of the injustice in the world, imagines himself a hero who can set things right.  He draws on stories like the legend of Robin Hood and retells them to himself in a way that makes meaning of things that are troubling, things that he doesn’t understand.  And something kind of like that seems to be happening in Galilee when we pick up the story of Jesus in today’s passage from the Gospel of Mark.  Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” and they say, “John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; and still others, one of the prophets."
For the common people of Galilee, the words and deeds of Jesus evoke the prophets, who destroyed foreign idols and faced down corrupt rulers, who healed and worked wonders and spoke the words of God.  Jesus awakens the imaginations of people sinking deeper and deeper into debt, people becoming landless laborers or slaves on the land of their ancestors, people crushed by the greed and ambition and violence of vainglorious overlords.  His words and his deeds remind them of the legends of their heroes, and these legends are the memory of hope.  Perhaps Jesus is a prophet like them, perhaps he is one of them, come back to life to deliver his people in their hour of great need. 
But Jesus wants to dig a little deeper.  He wants to know if his disciples have a different idea, and Peter does.  At the time of Jesus’ life Jewish ideas about the Messiah were various and somewhat vague.  And Peter doesn’t say exactly what he thinks he means when he says that Jesus is the Messiah.  But I think we can assume that one thing Peter means is that his master is more than the return of a legend.   He is someone unique.  He is the One we’ve all been waiting for, the one the prophets themselves were waiting for.   He will not just cry out against injustice, he will do something about it.  He will not just predict God’s deliverance of Israel, he will bring the plan to fulfillment.  Jesus is the hero of Peter’s ultimate fantasy. 
So it’s understandable that Peter balks when Jesus starts talking about the fate that awaits him in Jerusalem.  The hero of Peter’s fantasy is not supposed to be rejected by the leaders of the people—he’s supposed to be acclaimed by them, to lead them to put aside their petty quarrels and rivalries and unite under his authority.  He’s not supposed to be killed—he’s supposed to subjugate the enemies of Israel, bringing any who oppose him to their knees, begging for mercy.  And as for rising from the dead; well, fantasy is all well and good, but let’s not get carried away.
Part of the power of this story is that Jesus recognizes the temptation that Peter is putting in his path.  When he says “Get behind me, Satan!” he’s not being insulting.  He’s acknowledging that Peter’s fantasy has crossed his own mind.  He’s remembering a certain encounter he had in the desert, fasting there for forty days after his baptism.  He’s acknowledging a voice that’s always lying in wait for him, always flattering, cajoling, provoking him: “you have a special gift.  Don’t throw it away.  You see how desperate they are—how they only want to follow you, to do anything you ask.  Give them what they want.  You say the first will be last, and the last will be first, so how long do you want them to wait?  Just imagine how much good you could do.” 
But Jesus turns his back on that voice, and turns toward his disciples.  And I like to imagine that in that turning he is turning towards us.  He turns away from the fantasy of power and virtue, and looks to the truth of our experience, and his eyes are the eyes of compassion.  Jesus turns away from the myths of redemptive violence, and toward the reality of weakness and suffering.  And he opens his mouth, and he speaks words of hope.   They are hard words, but that is because sin has made a hard world, and he knows that we don’t need yet another fantasy of escape.  We need a way through, a real way, a way that doesn’t ask us to be superheroes, or to submit to a “great leader” and his cult of personality.   He knows we need a way to go that takes into account who we really are, and how the world really is, and what it is actually going to take to make it all the way to a new world of universal peace and perfect justice.
And we know that way is real because Jesus walks it.  That is his unique, divine mission.  That’s what makes him the Messiah.  The only truly free person in the whole world freely chooses to die as a prisoner.  Only in that way, can he show the prisoners they are captives of a daydream.  Only in that way, can he show the rulers that they are rulers of a lie.  Changing the nameplate on the door of the corner office, changing the pattern on the White House china, these things do not make change.  Change happens when people like you and me wake up from our fantasies of hero-worship, and start taking the slow, simple, sometimes costly steps in the direction of real life. 
Life—in the bodies God gave us.  Life— with the people God gives us.  Life— in solidarity with the poor, the outcast, the unloved, and the afflicted.  Life—that accepts illness, and old age, and death as part of the plan.  Life—in dogged resistance to organized selfishness and the needless suffering it causes.   Life—trusting in the basic goodness of the world and of human beings, and in God’s wisdom to turn even the worst disasters of human folly toward the good.  Life—in daily celebration of the glory of God in the work of creation.  Life, in short, in the footsteps of Jesus.  

Pure religion

Song of Solomon 2:8-13
Psalm 45:1-2, 7-10
James 1:17-27
Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

When I was twenty I decided I needed to purify my life.  I was living in a house in Seattle with my oldest brother and a bunch of his bachelor friends, whose mutual interests were punk rock and beer.  I was working at a couple of low-wage jobs downtown, as an early morning janitor and a walking courier in afternoon.  I had a girlfriend but then she dumped me for a guy who drove for the Green Tortoise hippie bus line up and down the coast.  So I decided to start changing things.  I moved out of my brother’s house, and found a new place to live where I could have peace and quiet.  I quit the janitorial job, and started a training program in massage therapy.  And I went on a Macrobiotic diet. 
What this meant was that I got one of those electric crockpots and started cooking large quantities of whole grains, mainly brown rice and millet.  I basically lived on that, plus a lot of vegetables.  I did get some exotic soybean products like tofu, tempeh, and miso, and learned to cook with them.  I learned to like seaweed.  What I didn’t eat was anything sweet or fried.  I didn’t eat meat, eggs, or dairy products.  I hardly ate any fruit.  No bread, or potatoes.  I didn’t even eat peanut butter.  I was always hungry, and I was usually cold, but man, was I healthy.  At least I thought so until I went to visit my parents for Christmas.  My mother almost cried.  I got out the bathroom scale and found that I was down to 110 pounds.  If you’ve ever gone home for the holidays and been amazed at how much your mother can feed you, you can guess what the next week was like for me.  Needless to say, the Macrobiotic diet was over. 
And I didn’t really miss it, because it wasn’t really about the food.  It was about regaining control over my life.  It was about making a boundary, so that my body would be a space that only good things, only pure things, could enter.  And this is what the scribes and Pharisees in this morning’s text from the Gospel of Mark are all about.  Their scrupulous rituals of washing their hands, washing their food, and washing their dishes are not based on principles of hygiene.  They are about creating a space apart, a sacred space, a kind of preserve of holiness in the midst of a dirty, crazy world.
And this is one of the things that religion does.  Religion can draw a map of the world, a map with clear boundaries, drawn in thick, black lines.  Rituals, doctrines, rules of moral behavior can all serve to mark off a defensible space.  Sometimes it’s an actual physical space, like the precincts of a church or a temple or a monastery.  But it can also be a social space, like a denomination, or a congregation, or even a psychic and bodily space.   And for those who understand this religious map, those marked-off spaces are where you find holiness.   The people and the things inside the boundaries are holy people, holy things, and anyone and anything that comes in from outside must first be purified.  Religious traditions, and institutions, and authorities all work together to maintain the holy space, to defend it and keep it pure and uncontaminated by the profane world. 
But Jesus shows up with a different kind of religion.  His religion is the freedom of the human heart that is loved by God.   It’s a heart that doesn’t try to wall itself off from the world, because it knows that the dirt and craziness of that world are right there within itself, and that God loves it anyway.  Jesus meets the crazy people in the world, and touches them and calls the unclean spirits out of their souls.  He sits down at table with dirty people, with tax collectors and sinners, and eats with them.  Some of his disciples don’t even wash their hands.  But Jesus is not afraid of “catching something” that will make him unfit to enter holy ground.  He is not concerned with keeping any space holy but the space that God’s Spirit of love creates in our hearts, and for the one who dwells in that space the whole world is holy.

The Song of Solomon is a love poem which has been read in the Christian mystical tradition as an allegory of the courtship that Christ pays to our soul.  The imagery that comes to us from that poem this morning is of the lover’s infectious joy that draws us out of our enclosed spaces into freedom.  Like a gazelle or a young stag the beloved stands on the other side of the wall of our fears, peering in at the windows of our obsessions, peeking through the lattice of our need for control and saying “Arise, my love, and come away.”   This is the invitation that Christ speaks to us, to trust the one who loves us with such gladness and passion, to arise and go with him into the world as into a springtime of delight, into a wide-open sacred space alive with beauty, and pleasure, and joy.
The Letter of James describes the gift of Christ’s love for us as like a mirror.  We can get stuck there, gazing at the reflection of our own selves as we appear in the light of grace.  We can keep looking and looking, trying to hang on to the feeling of that first glimpse, and in this way the grace of God, the love of Christ, the forgiveness of our sins, the salvation of our souls, all the life-giving good news of the Gospel can become another prison, another enclosed, holy space that we have to keep pure.  But James suggests another possibility, the possibility of looking into that mirror, of gratefully receiving the grace of seeing ourselves as Christ sees us, and then turning and going away to serve.  That vision of goodness can be something not to cling to, but something to give to others.  We can walk in generosity and freedom, not turned inward in a hungry search for more and more holy experience, but open-hearted, allowing the love of Christ to flow through us to the world. 
There was another thing I did when I was trying to remake my life that autumn in Seattle.  I called a telephone number from an advertisement in the free weekly newspaper, and I ordered a set of meditation cushions.  A week or so later I got off the bus in an unfamiliar part of town and walked a couple of blocks to an old house, surrounded by a rambling but well-tended flower garden.  At the gate I met the woman I’d spoken to on the phone, and she invited me in and I gave her a check, and she gave me the things she had sewn—a round firm pillow and a thin square mat.  I carried them home on the bus and I got up the next morning before sunrise and sat down on my pillow and my mat and crossed my legs and started learning how to be in the world in a different way.  I never did become a massage therapist.  The macrobiotic diet you already know about.  But I still have those cushions, twenty-seven years later.  I even use them sometimes.
Jesus calls us to stop trying to create defensible spaces of holiness in the world.  Instead he says, “Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.  Let me give you holiness in the sanctuary of your hearts, a sanctuary that you sweep clean day by day with prayer, that you wash with tears, and consecrate with songs.  Enter that sanctuary and drink from its deep silence, and in that silence hear my voice.  Let me light a sacred fire there, the Spirit of love and compassion, and generosity to the world.   Take that fire with you, wherever you go, even to the dirty, crazy places.   And you will find that, even there, holiness comes out to meet you.”

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.