Monday, October 29, 2012

Meeting on the road

When I hear a story about a man crying by the side of the road, I remember a morning when I was twenty years old.   It’s a time of my life I have spoken of here before, when I was at something of a loss as to my direction, the way twenty-year-olds often are.  I was living up in Seattle, and I’d moved out of a house I shared with my brother and his friends, because I’d tired of the party atmosphere.  But they were the only friends I had in that city, where I’d lived for less than a year.  I’d found a room to rent in a house full of strangers who were nice enough, but who kept to themselves.  I’d had a love affair with a pretty redhead I’d met during evening rush hour at a bus stop downtown, but now that was over.  And the particular morning I’m thinking of was a Saturday, and I had the day free and no one to spend it with.  

I took the bus downtown and had breakfast at the public market, looking out over Elliott Bay and feeling lonely, and as I headed home the feeling of loneliness grew and grew.  Then the bus I was riding on broke down in an industrial area just north of downtown.  The driver said that the next one should be along in forty-five minutes, and handed us new transfers as we climbed down onto the sidewalk.  A few of the passengers elected to wait, but the rest of us went off in our different directions.  I walked a block or two along the deserted street in the noonday glare, past the warehouses and auto shops closed for the weekend, with a feeling of frustration and friendlessness and emptiness welling up in my heart until I couldn’t contain it anymore and I just sat down on the curb and started to cry.

That was a low point in my life, but like some of my other low points it was also a turning point.  It was a point I had to get to, because there was something I needed to see.   What came to me as I sat there, with my heart breaking, by the side of the road, not caring if anyone came by or what they might think of me, was that the life I was leading meant nothing to me.  It wasn’t so much that I was doing anything wrong, but that there was another life I was supposed to be living.  There was a dream I was supposed to be following, and this painful emptiness I was feeling was a sign that I was out of excuses.  I’d run out of attachments, and illusions, and false hopes, and all I had left was my real life.  

I didn’t know or couldn’t admit at the time that what I was really embarking on was a search for God.   But that night I went to see the man who taught the massage-therapy course I was taking.   I told him that I wanted to try living in an intentional community.  It was something I’d been thinking about this secretly for years, but this was the first time I’d ever mentioned it to anyone.   I was afraid he’d think I was ridiculous, but he said, “Oh, there are still a lot of those around,” as if it was the most natural thing in the world.  He suggested I start visiting some to see what I thought, and he gave me the name of a place he knew about at a hot springs down in Oregon.  And so that’s where I started.  I didn’t stay, but on a bulletin board at Breitenbush Hot Springs I saw a flyer about an intentional spiritual community in Massachusetts that was offering free room and board to carpenter’s apprentices to help construct a new building.  I wrote to the name and address on the flyer and that’s where the life I was supposed to be living, the life I’ve been living now for twenty-seven years, my life in intentional spiritual community, began.

Two weeks ago Sunday we heard a story about another man crying on the road, a man who came to Jesus to ask him what he should do to inherit eternal life.  And Jesus told him that he only lacked one thing—to sell what he owned and give the money to the poor, and to follow him.  That man went away grieving, because he had many possessions.  He cherished his riches, and for all his strenuous efforts to be a good person, they meant more to him than the summons to follow his own real life.  

But today we meet a blind beggar, a man who sits by side of the road, crying for help.  He has a dream in his heart and the dream has a name—the name of Jesus of Nazareth.  When he hears that name spoken by the crowd of pilgrims going by on their way to Jerusalem, he recognizes that at last the turning point of his life has come, and he cries out “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!”  He doesn’t care what other people think, and though they try to shut him up, he will not stop shouting.  And when Jesus hears his insistent cries for help, he stops walking.  He tells his disciples to send the man over, and the blind beggar Bartimaeus leaps to his feet with joy.  He throws off his cloak and leaves it behind, and when he has asked for and received his sight, he does what the rich man could not do.  He follows Jesus on the road to Jerusalem.

The contrast between these two characters is not so much about the wealth of one and the poverty of the other.  It is about the refusal of the one, and the readiness of the other to answer the call of their real life.  And this is something to think about as we approach the end of our stewardship season at St. John’s.  Oftentimes the church’s teaching about stewardship focuses on the things of our lives.  Even the word “stewardship” implies that God has entrusted certain things to us and that we ought to be grateful for those things and use them in a way that God would like.  

So stewardship can become a numbers game, where we try to figure out what percentage of our money, and how many hours of our time, and what share of our interest and energy God is entitled to.  But the story of Bartimaeus, reminds us that God has given us a gift that can’t be appraised for its value.  It cannot be divided into portions.  It is not a thing in our lives, but what we have left when everything else is reduced to zero.  It is our very lives themselves, our real lives, in which we live for God, and with God, and in God.

My own path of discipleship no longer looks like heading off with my backpack to live in a commune, but it’s still the same path.  Now it has to do with being a husband and a father, and while it’s still about spiritual community, in recent years it has been more and more defined by the institutions and traditions of the church, and my role as a parish priest.  I have taken on the privileges and responsibilities of that role, which gives a particular form to my religious practice, just as the roles of lay ministers in the church do for you.  

But even as we re-commit to our ministries for the coming year, we need to remember our most important commitment.  The traditions and institutions, the roles and responsibilities, mean nothing if there is not at the heart of it all the willingness to leave it behind and follow Jesus Christ down the road.  God didn’t give us a percentage of our lives, just as Jesus Christ didn’t give a percentage of his.  He gave his whole life, body and soul, to the God who had given him everything.  And he did it for our sake.  Not to spare us the trouble, but to help us, now and forever, to do the same. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

One plan

In January 2001, after seven years of slowly creeping to the conclusion that God’s plan for my life included becoming an Episcopal priest, I had an appointment with the Bishop of the Diocese of California.  I’d paid for and completed the psychological evaluation.  I’d met the three year residency requirement, and gotten the letters of recommendation, and written the essays.  I’d organized the congregational vocations committee and gone through the day-long meeting with the diocesan Commission on Ministry, and they’d recommended me to the Bishop for admission to the postulancy, the first stage of the ordination process.  But it was the Bishop’s decision to make, and as he showed me into his large corner office looking out at Grace Cathedral, I knew that my fate was in his hands.

We chatted for maybe half-an-hour while he leafed through a thick dossier on his lap that I knew was all about me.  I don’t remember anything about the conversation until the point when he closed the folder, straightened up in his chair, looked me in the eye and said, “Well, I was prepared to be unimpressed.”  Then he said, “what I usually do in these interviews is I look at the person in front of me and match them up with some other person I’ve ordained.  I’ll think, ‘He reminds me of so-and-so, so I know he’ll be a really fine pastor’, or ‘she’s kind of like what’s-her-name, who’s such a wonderful teacher.’  And when I can do that, then I feel confident that this person has a real vocation and a reasonable chance of success.”  He paused for a moment, while I waited for what he was going to say next.  “But the problem I’m having with you,” he went on, “is that I can’t match you up with anyone.  You’re not like anybody else.  But I feel like maybe God is doing something here.  So I’m going to say it will be okay to go ahead, and we’ll see what happens.”

If you’ve ever listened to Christian AM radio, you’ve heard it said that God has a plan for your life.  This is a standard theme of sermons that are aimed at bringing about religious conversion.  It is an effective message because it speaks to an emotional and spiritual need that our secular society is not doing a very good job of meeting.  In our world every individual person is expected to follow a fairly predictable script: find what it is that you are good at, which, incidentally, had better be something you can get paid for; then apply yourself to that diligently and consistently over time, so as to be rewarded with the material standard of living that says “you’ve made it,” and that enables you not to have to depend on anyone else.  Many people are by temperament or good fortune able to fulfill that script pretty well, which is no discredit to them at all, although even they sometimes wonder if that is really all there is.

But a lot of people really struggle because for a whole host of reasons their lives don’t quite work out that way.  And some people actually were just never cut out for that script in the first place.  Either way, they often pay a very heavy price for their inability or unwillingness to “make it” in that sense, and it is to them that the radio preacher speaks, to say that there is something else, something that transcends the conventional “ladder to success”, something that gives purpose and pattern and meaning to our lives.  It can be life-changing to hear this, and to imagine that the holder and giver of life’s meaning is infinitely wise, and infinitely powerful.  That can be good news to people who are struggling to find a sense of their own power, their own wisdom and worth.

But this brings us to the question that Jesus asks James and John in the gospel story this morning—“what do you want?”  Because the way we answer that question says a lot about whether we are really open to God’s plan for our lives, or whether we’re actually asking to make a deal with God, to get her to work on behalf of our plan.  Sometimes when people say “God has a plan for your life,” they also seem to be saying “if you believe in God, and do the right things, your life will work out the way that you want.” But I think we all know that sometimes life doesn’t work out the way you want.  And with some things that happen, it’s pretty near impossible to believe that God was behind it at all.

James and John tell Jesus that what they want is to be given seats on his right hand and on his left when he is enthroned in glory, and he explains to them that those places are not his to give.  That’s the sort of thing that belongs to the higher plan, and as such it is none of their concern.   But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a plan for their lives, and Jesus answers with a question about their commitment to that plan.  “Are you able,” he asks them, “to drink the cup that I drink, or to be baptized with the baptism that I undergo?  Are you able to join me in my mission?”  And then he takes the twelve disciples aside to explain to them one more time what his mission is about, and what being his disciples really means.  Because God doesn’t just have a plan for their individual lives.  God doesn’t just have a plan for my life, or your life.  God has a plan for the whole universe, and your plan cannot be separated from my plan or anyone else’s.  There is really only one plan, and it is a plan for all of us together.

The mission of Jesus Christ, in which we are privileged to take part, is to give himself to the world in service of that great plan.  When our aim in life is only to seek our own advantage, to carve out our own little domain where we are the boss, and other people serve us, we diminish God’s plan for our lives.  We lose sight of our true greatness, a greatness of spirit that comes to life in us as we are remade by the grace and the glory of the one who came in service to others.  In his life of perfect generosity we see an image of God’s purpose for every human life.  It is a purpose that holds good, even when, on a personal level, we experience loss.  It holds good, even when we experience suffering.  It holds good, even when we experience, poverty, and homelessness, and failure.  Because on the personal level, that’s what Jesus experienced, and he accepted it--not because suffering and death are desirable in themselves, but out of the depth of his love, the breadth of his hope, the power of his faith in God’s plan.

I will always be grateful to Bishop Swing of the Diocese of California for trusting that God’s call to the priesthood sometimes paints outside the familiar lines.  It’s a trust I’ve tried to repay in my ministry by being open to the working of God’s purpose in all kinds of people and every sort of circumstance.  And as we celebrate our Stewardship Season at St. John’s, I think it is important for us to be grateful that God’s plan for us is greater than meeting the needs of our own parish.  So this week we have a couple of opportunities to reflect together on that more comprehensive plan.  On Wednesday evening we will gather to break bread and enjoy our friendship, and then to have a conversation about God’s vision for the future of our congregation, and what it might call us to do to take loving care for the whole Earth.  And this morning, as we did at this time last year, we welcome a representative of the Committee on the Shelterless (COTS), which does such fine work on our behalf, helping people in our community to maintain their faith in God’s plan for their lives, when they have no place to stay. 

Monday, October 15, 2012

Good questions

What is the purpose of religion, anyway?  Where is this God we are always talking about?  How do we know that God cares about us?  And how do we go to where God is?  How can we get what God has to give?  What does God want us to do?

This is a line of questioning that the world in which we live has pretty much abandoned.  It has decided that there are other, more pressing problems, problems mostly having to do with money and the things that money will buy.  Next month, the citizens of the United States of America will choose between candidates for President.  And the nominees of the two most powerful parties tell us that we face a fateful choice, between two fundamentally different approaches to the nation’s problems.  But the truth is that they agree perfectly on many of the most fundamental things.  They may differ as to who is entitled to more money, and who should be content with less.  They may disagree about how much money the government should take, or how much it should spend, but neither would think for a moment to publicly question the assumption that the whole purpose of our life in society, insofar as we can talk anymore about any shared and universal values, is to get money.
But these politicians aren’t working in a vacuum.  They are speaking on our behalf, and nobody challenges them to speak or think differently, because they are only saying what leaders in business, in the media, in academia, and the arts, and more than a few leaders in religion have also said.  There is really only one place left in society where you can consistently find a different worldview, one that proceeds on the basis of an entirely different set of assumptions, and that is here.  In a church, or a synagogue, a mosque, or an ashram.  We arrive here every Sunday, thoroughly conditioned by the values of a materialistic society, and if it were left up to us, we might just come together and sing some pretty songs, and hear some positive uplifting words that help us relax a little and feel a touch of grace.  And we would draw strength from one another to go out of here to resume our pursuit of money and the things that money can buy. 

But instead we do something kind of strange.  We invite a visitor into our midst every week and we listen to his voice.  It is sometimes comforting, but often it is disturbing.  It keeps us unsettled and unsure of ourselves.  It keeps us wondering if there isn’t something else going on in the world, something nobody is talking about, but that we really should be paying attention to.  We don’t always like what that voice says, but we take turns being its mouthpiece and when we’ve done speaking we say “the Word of the Lord,” and everyone says “Thanks be to God!” whether they feel like it or not.
This morning as we listen to this voice we hear it asking difficult questions, the kinds of questions with which I began my sermon.  They are the kind of questions that we are not supposed to ask, either because we’ve accepted the popular premise that God is irrelevant, or because we’ve identified as religious, which popularly means we’re not supposed to entertain any doubts.  But the readings raise a lot of doubts.  Job says, “Oh, that I knew where I might find him, that I might come even to his dwelling.”  He describes himself as like a man blundering about in a pitch-black night or a dense fog.  He turns this way and that, but God is nowhere to be found.  And at the same time Job senses that God sees him, naked and alone, and that thought brings terror, and the longing to be covered and to hide the darkness.

The Letter to the Hebrews says the word of God is sharper than a two-edged sword, cutting through all pretense and ambivalence and laying the human heart open to the eyes of the one with whom all must ultimately settle accounts.  And that must be what it was like for that nice fellow in the Gospel of Mark, the one who spoke to Jesus so politely and asked what he must do to inherit eternal life.  You can see his enthusiasm mounting as Jesus rattles off the commandments, and he says, “I have kept them all since I was young.”  But then Jesus, looking at him with that long, loving, penetrating gaze, speaks the word that sends him away crushed: "Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."
Eternal life is not another possession to be added to our hoard.  It isn’t something Jesus can just pass on to us, like a family heirloom.  He prefers to talk about it as a space you have to enter.  You have to leave behind the place where you are.  You have to leave everything you have there, and move over into another place, the kingdom of God.  From the outside, it doesn’t look like anything.  Most people don’t even believe that it’s real.  But from the inside, it is the so-called “real world,” the world of money and the things that money can buy, that seems like a strange, surreal dream.  It’s not that that world is bad—actually it was all made by God, who loves it.  It just doesn’t mean what we think it does, and the things in it that we think matter the most really don’t matter very much at all. 

The church is that funny place in that world where the kingdom of God keeps showing up as a topic of conversation.  It doesn’t mean we’ve moved there.  Even in the church we care a little more than we ought to about money and the things that money can buy.  But we keep inviting the living word of God into our midst, to cut through our cravings and our confusion, to lay us open to deeper inspection.   We ask for eternal life for ourselves, and the incarnate word points us toward our neighbor who is poor.  But even though we can’t avoid the little problem of our disobedience, we keep holding open the questions that the world keeps wanting to close once and for all.
 And we also make a very big deal about things that the world considers worthless, things that speak to us of the goodness that is God’s alone—some water and oil on a baby’s head; prayers for peace, for the sick and the dead; a morsel of bread and a sip of wine.  Week by week, year by year, we carry on our conversation about the hard questions, we share our little worthless things, in community, and by-and-by something strange and kind of wonderful can happen.  Those hard, possibly irrelevant questions—Where is God?  Does God love us?  How do we get to where God is?  How can we receive what God has to give?  What does God want to do?—by some kind of economics that world can’t begin to understand, these questions start to find their own answers. 
They are answers that are not given so much as they are lived.  Maybe they come down from above, and maybe they come out from within, and maybe it’s a little bit of both, and the best thing about them is that they take us deeper into the questions, so that the questions themselves overflow with grace, like water from an inexhaustible spring.  

Sunday, October 7, 2012

What does it mean?

Back during my seminary days, when I was doing a summer residency as a chaplain at Mt. Zion Hospital in San Francisco, I met a man who told me he was cursed by God.  He said this with such matter-of-factness, such conviction that this was the only possible explanation for his life, that I felt a responsibility to hear more of his story.  He was being prepped for surgery on his back, which had given him constant pain since his car had been struck by a drunk driver.  His best friend, who was a passenger with him, had been killed.  He then ran briskly through the rest of the catalogue of tragedies, catastrophes, and misfortunes that was his life.  He finished by repeating his summary judgment—for some reason unknown and unknowable, he had been cursed by God, and his life of torment was the ironclad evidence.  When he had given his defiant testimony, he made it clear that it was time for me to leave, and so I did.   
But that man has been a symbol to me ever since.  Not only a symbol of human suffering, though of course my heart went out to him for all the terrible things he’d been made to endure; but also a symbol of how powerfully we human beings desire to make meaning of our pain.  Rather than having to wrestle with the terrible ambiguity of a good God who could allow him to undergo such devastation, that man chose to believe in a God who hated him and cursed him.  That was the way he made meaning of his life.   But it limited his relationship with God to that of the victim to his torturer.  In a sense his own suffering became his idol.   And any face of the divine that might be turned toward him in love—bearer of impossible hope, sorrowing witness, seeker of forgiveness, compassionate fellow-sufferer—was ruled out.
The story of Job was a folktale that circulated in various forms in the ancient Near East.  It was about a righteous man who was tested in a wager of the Gods and afflicted with all kinds of undeserved calamities.  But he was patient.  He didn’t lose faith, and he didn’t seek relief in immoral acts.  He remained upright in his conduct, and pious in his speech, and in the end he passed the test, and was rewarded by having all that he’d lost restored to him, with interest.  The moral of that story was pretty conventional—if bad things happen to you, don’t waver—just endure.  Keep doing right and sooner or later your luck will change, and it will all turn out okay for you in the end.
But when the Hebrew sages adapted this story and made it part of their own sacred scripture, they weren’t satisfied with the simple moral lesson of the old fable.  They seemed to think that it didn’t do justice either to the problem of suffering or to the struggle of faith.  In the character of Job they created a model, not of long-suffering patience, but of dogged persistence in demanding an answer from God.  The other characters in the Book of Job try to get him to settle for a simple rationalization for what is happening to him.  In the excerpt we read today it is Job’s wife who counsels him to take the attitude of my acquaintance in the hospital—“curse God,” she says, “and die.”  Later in the book, it will be Job’s friends who keep telling him that he must have done something wrong to deserve the punishment that he is receiving, and that if he will just admit his fault and repent, all will be forgiven. 
But Job’s integrity is such that neither of these easy ways out will satisfy him.  He persists in arguing with God, demanding an accounting of the charges against him, in short, seeking a relationship with God that is founded on the truth of what they mean to each other.  Job has the courage to accept that God is more than a simple mechanism for dispensing rewards to people who are good and punishments to people who are bad.  Nevertheless, the reality of his own pain bears down on him, and he still wants to know who God is and who God will be—as his creator, as a God who still cares for him.  
In this way, Job becomes a model of the religious person whose faith does not depend on material prosperity, good health, or reputation.   Neither does he make an idol of his suffering.  Such a person does not seek God out of fear of punishment or hope of reward, but because of the desire to know God for the sake of a living relationship.  To be like Job is to bring into conversation with God the whole truth of who we are, which can include all kinds of paradoxes.  We can insist on our own worth, even as we are stricken with a sense of our failings.  We can struggle and anguish, and then find ourselves suddenly still and at peace; we might cry out angrily for justice one moment, and at the next be on our knees weeping for mercy.   
Maybe that’s in part why Jesus presents his disciples with children as their model for entering the kingdom of God.  In the family values of Jesus’ time a child was the person with the lowest status.  The people of those days did not see children as having any admirable character of their own, whether of innocence, or wonder, or spontaneity, or anything else.  Only once they started taking on adult responsibilities and making a productive contribution to the family did people have any value at all. 
And yet Jesus embraces and blesses the children as if to say that God comes into our lives precisely in those places where there can be no question of deserving or not deserving.  God meets us in the simplicity of our hearts’ seeking for blessing, our reaching out to know and to be known, to love and to be loved.  And this means that the real meaning of who God is for us is always ahead of us, always a potential that is yet to be fully realized, like that of a child.  No experience of suffering, any more than any great satisfaction or accomplishment, ever sets the final seal on the possibilities of a relationship with God.
And yet we recognize that such a life of integrity and openness is not easy, and it’s not something we can do by ourselves.  The story of Job is a story told by people who have suffered to one another, to help them sustain and deepen their faith.  The teaching of Jesus is for a community of disciples, to invite them to enter together a kingdom that is coming to be on earth as it is in heaven.  From this Sunday through All Saints’ Sunday on November 4th we will celebrate our life together as people who support one another to live with integrity in our relationships with God and each other. 
We call it our Stewardship Season because we take time this month to acknowledge that everything we are and everything we have really belongs to God.  That acknowledgment is not a cause for cursing and lamentation, but for celebration, because if everything really belongs to God, there isn’t any part of our lives we have to leave out of our religion.  Our relationships with God have room for our suffering as well as our contentment, and our anger along with our sweetness.  They include our poverty as well as our wealth, our limitations as well as our abilities, our weaknesses along with our strengths. 
A community of integrity embraces the whole variety of individual gifts and experiences.  It encourages us to be honest about our needs, and about our capacity to give.  It invites us to bless every part of our selves and every person in our lives with faith in God’s potential to make it mean something true.    

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.