Sunday, July 28, 2013

Praying with Jesus

When my step-grandmother MaryBeth died, she hadn’t been married to my grandpa for very long.   I think it was only ten or twelve years since they’d eloped to Reno.  So, there were a lot of people at her memorial service that I didn’t know.  My mother and father were there, and my mom’s brothers, and a few cousins—we loved MaryBeth and thought of her as ours.  But the majority of those in the church were her friends and relatives and descendants from the period of her first, and far-longer, marriage.  Which was just a little awkward.
That awkwardness extended to the service itself.  It wasn’t liturgical worship, of the sort we do here.  It was one of those kind-of-formless events we’ve all been to where the content depends heavily on the members of the congregation having something to contribute.  And most of us aren’t really good at coming up with words that would do justice to the meaning of a human life, or the mystery of its ending, or the experience of remaining behind.  So we sat there, feeling the import of the occasion, not really sure whether we were qualified to speak, or what to say.
Until the pastor stood up and led us in the Lord’s Prayer.  Then, suddenly, we all knew what words to speak.  And during the time that it took to speak them, we were united.  As we were praying I looked around and could see that I wasn’t alone in feeling the presence of something greater, something that embraced us as we were in that moment, in our sadness and embarrassment, and yet which open a window through which love, and memory, and hope could come.
The Lord’s Prayer is always there when you need it, when something true and beautiful needs must be said and nothing else is coming through.  And it helps that almost everyone knows the words, or close enough to be able to fake it.  Maybe that’s why we’re so attached to whichever version of it we know best.  Many of the earliest manuscripts of the Gospel of Luke contain words from Matthew that the copyist must have put in because he thought they been left out by accident: “in heaven”…”your will be done on earth”…”but deliver us from evil.” 
But there’s no escaping the fact that this prayer has, from the time of writing the New Testament, existed in two different versions.  Or that any version of it we might know is just one of many English translations of one of two quite different Greek texts that are themselves translations from Aramaic.   So the true power of the prayer does not come from having memorized the right words in the right order.  When the disciple asked, “Lord, teach us to pray,” Jesus didn’t begin by saying “repeat after me.”   What makes the Lord’s Prayer what it is, is the faith with which it was first spoken.  When we say it, we are not speaking the words that Jesus spoke, but we are joining his religion.
The Lord’s Prayer can unite us because it comes from the understanding that we are already One.  It begins “Our Father” because we are all one family, all children of one God.   It is the prayer of one who us divided by warring empires, and knows that the glory that the empires claim belongs to God alone.  It is Jesus’ prayer for a new kind of empire that brings us together, not from the top down, by violence and coercion, but from the inside out, with truth, and justice, and love. 
And just in case we think this kingdom is a castle in the air, the Lord’s prayer goes on to ask that the lives that we live now, today, be transformed into outposts of that kingdom.  It asks for bread enough for, and to be free from the anxious struggle to get more for tomorrow.  It asks for forgiveness, that flows from God in the measure that we ourselves can let go of our resentments and what we think we are owed.  It is a prayer for the grace to continually renew our relationships in the knowledge that we are equally imperfect, and equally deserving of respect. 
And it is a prayer that knows that to live in this way often comes at a cost.  When we give up trying to be proved right, we’re liable to be found wrong.  When we drop the pretense of being invulnerable, our vulnerability is there for everyone to see.  When we no longer strive to be on the winning side, we run the risk of being counted among the losers.  Jesus’ prayer doesn’t romanticize this possibility ending up a victim.  It knows that it is real, and asks to be spared.
When we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we are not simply repeating words and phrases that Jesus told us to remember.  We are praying with Jesus, carrying on the prayer that he prayed.   We are praying that his vision will be our vision, that his hope will be our hope, his mission our mission.  And we are praying for his faith that whatever happens, however much it might seem that our prayers are unanswered, our hopes dashed, our cause rejected and lost, God does live, and hears, and knows, and will vindicate what is worthy in us at the last.
On July 8th my daughter Risa and I went to our annual Giants game.  The team was limping back into San Francisco after a disastrous road trip which had dealt their hopes to repeat as champions a severe blow.   But as the game began I felt the stirrings of hope.  Maybe this would be the night when the tide turned, the game in which the unseen powers of baseball would start smiling on San Francisco again.  Tim Lincecum was on the mound, and looking like the pitcher he used to be, striking out one New York Met after another.  Buster Posey got to the Mets young star pitcher Matt Harvey early, with a two-run shot to center field in the first. 
But in the sixth inning the kind of sloppy play in the field that has sunk the team all season led to two Mets runs, and the game went into the eighth tied at 3.  And there it stayed for eight more innings.  Again and again the Giants got men on base, once they even had them loaded, again and again we stood and clapped and cheered until our voices were hoarse and our hands were sore, and again and again we failed to get the one timely hit that would send us all home victorious, and maybe break the curse that lay over their season. 
Risa and I had come to the game on the ferry from Larkspur Landing, so we were stuck there until the final out.  And as inning followed inning, and the crowd grew smaller and smaller, and midnight came and went, the final victory began to feel less and less important.  When the Mets scored the go-ahead run on a fielding error in 16th inning, and the Giants couldn’t answer, of course I was disappointed.  But I was also thankful: thankful, for everybody’s sake that it was finally over; I was thankful for the pluck of my little girl, and for a story she will never forget; thankful to the players of both teams, who had played so hard, for so long; thankful for camaraderie of the other fans who remained to the end; thankful to the couple that gave us their seats on the ferry so Risa could lie down with her head on my lap to go to sleep; thankful that when my wife called my cell after waking up alone in the house at 1:30 in the morning, I could tell her we were on the ferry coming home.
The Giants didn’t win that night, and the ebbing tide of their season didn’t turn.  But I had an initiation into something more precious than victory—the mysterious, undying, unconditional love of baseball fans for their team.  God didn’t spare Jesus the cross, but he raised Jesus from the dead, and exalted him as Lord of the kingdom that is already here, if we only know how to see.  Jesus lives, so we know that Jesus was praying the right prayer, for the right things, in the right way.  Jesus lives, so now when we pray his prayer, he prays it with us, not for his sake, but for ours.  Jesus lives, and this makes the Lord’s Prayer, and our every prayer--even the abject, inarticulate cry for help--a prayer of thanksgiving.


Thursday, July 25, 2013

From production to harvest

When I was farming, the work I liked best was the work of production; which is to say, the kinds of things people tend to think of when they think of farming—plowing, planting, watering, weeding, that labor where the focus is on the fertility of the soil and the growth and health of the crops.  Maybe it’s just because I’m an introvert, but I loved the solitary and contemplative quality of that work, the long hours alone on the tractor, the still, early mornings walking through the fields, opening and closing irrigation valves.  But inevitably, there came a turning point where the work would change, where the focus would be on sorting and weighing and packing and storing.  The attention of the farm would turn outward, to seek buyers, and negotiate prices, and schedule deliveries. 
That turning point was the harvest, when the crop, that was the fulfillment and culmination of all the months-long work of production, became the starting point for a whole new kind of work.  The harvest is what connected our needs with the needs of the city.  It was where the farm met the world of commerce, and the market that supplied it with all the things that it couldn’t produce for itself—seeds, fertilizers, tractor parts, diesel fuel.  The sale of the harvested crop is how we got the capital for a new cycle of production.
In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus sets his face for Jerusalem, and the climax of his mission.  He appoints seventy disciples to go, two by two, before him, to test the readiness of the people for the proclamation and demonstration of the kingdom of God.  And he impresses upon them the importance of the challenging work they are about to do, by likening it to the harvest.  “The harvest is plentiful,” he says, but the laborers are few.”  The work that Jesus does— his exorcisms and healings, his teaching of repentance and forgiveness and renewal, his invitation to outcasts and sinners to feast at the table of the kingdom—the work that he appoints these disciples to help to carry out, is a culmination and a fulfillment.   It is the harvest of all that Israel has learned about the authority and the wisdom and the justice, and goodness and compassion of God.
But the harvest to which Jesus sends the Seventy is also something new.  It is not just a turning point in their lives or even in the history of Israel--it is a turning point in the work of God.  It is God’s harvest.  “Pray to the Lord of the harvest,” says Jesus, “to send laborers into his harvest.”  It is the beginning of something new, so it requires laborers who are willing to try a new way of working that forms a new kind of community.  They are to travel empty-handed and depend on generosity of others.  They are to come as those who offer peace, who trust in the power of peace to turn strangers into friends.  They are to rely on the name of Jesus, and on the nearness of the kingdom of God.
And to show how profound this turning point is, what radically-new kinds of relationships will be called for, how the conventional wisdom about what it means to be God’s people must be discarded; Jesus is on the way to Jerusalem.  But when he gets there, the labor of the harvest will fall entirely on him.  It will get more and more concentrated and focused and intense until at last it is exhausted in the helplessness of the cross.    The body of Jesus, like a seed, will be laid in the tomb.  And it is there, where all the work of human production is swallowed up in the abyss of silence and stillness that is God, that the full abundance of the harvest will begin to be revealed.
I always knew, when I was farming, that the crops that we grew were for feeding people, but that remained kind of abstract for me as long as we were chiefly selling to restaurants and wholesale distributors.  I would walk down to the fields in pitch darkness and take boxes of produce from the refrigerator and load them on a flatbed truck and drive to San Francisco, and stack them at back doors and loading docks at 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning.  But then we started doing more and more retail sales at farmers’ markets.  It was there that I got to see people’s faces light up when they saw the banner with the name of our farm.  I got to hear their murmurs of delight at the variety of textures and colors of the lettuces and potatoes.  They would ask questions about how to prepare the food, and tell me about who was coming to dinner, and I started to truly understand how the harvest of the farm was shared with the world, how it passed into the hands of strangers to become the stuff of family and community, far from the fields where it grew.
The harvest of the gospel spread in the 1st Century world, where new urban communities were forming, made up of a cosmopolitan, highly mobile people, dislocated from their roots in the tribe and on the land.  They were people hungry for a deeper encounter with God than was offered by the smorgasbord of pagan cults and exotic mystery religions.   They were drawn to the religion of the Jews, to its moral seriousness and curious mix of mythic profundity and historical realism.  But they required a new way of being Israel, one that they could share with fellow citizens of this strange and unsettling new world.  And they found that way through the Apostles of Jesus the Christ, the Messiah of Israel, and the story of his life, and his cross and resurrection.  It was a story that awakened in them a spirit of faith, reverence, and devotion, and the power to lay aside old prejudices and superstitions and to live together in loving service to others, in a manner such as they had ever known before. 
And this context explains why Paul is so adamant that the gentiles in the church in Galatia should not undergo a formal conversion to Judaism.  It would be as if there were a field full of ripe grain, and you drove into it and started to plow.   Still, every generation of Christians seems to need to remember for itself not to keep toiling at the work of production when it’s time to bring in the harvest.  We still make the law of love a religion of rules, so we can tell for ourselves who’s in and who’s out.  We still seem to think that the Christian people are a tribe, with a homeland to defend, and enemies to vanquish.  We still want a God high above, whom we’ll meet when we’re dead, and not one who seeks us and speaks to us every moment, as close as breath, as plain as bread. 
But there’s no way to go back and fix our mistakes, and there’s no time to waste on regret, because the fields are still ripe with a plentiful harvest, and laborers are still far too few.  If you have a taste for the good things of the earth, and hate to see them go to waste; if you know abundance when you see it; if you desire nothing more than to share the gifts of God, and to celebrate with friends and strangers in the peace of the kingdom; then the Lord of the harvest still has a job for you.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Mother's Little Helper

Growing up in a family of four boys, I guess it was inevitable that one of us would have to be “Mother’s little helper,” and for whatever reason, I got the part.  Every evening, when the call came from the kitchen for a volunteer to set the table, I was that “volunteer.”  I was the one who learned to grind flour and bake the weekly bread.  I was the one who tried and failed to apprentice at the sewing machine.  The summer that my mother decided to market the surplus produce of her large and bountiful vegetable garden, I was the one anointed to spend my vacation as the proprietor of the road-side stand. 
Those early imprints are deep and lasting, as I discovered when I left home.  No matter how far from my mother I got, no matter where I went, or in whose company I found myself, I always seemed to be one of those who stood up when there was work to be done.  I was one you could count on to take responsibility for the thankless chores of keeping the house tidy, and the kitchen clean, and the people fed.  Which would have been admirable, I suppose, if I’d always done it with a loving and generous heart.
But this is where the story of Mary and Martha has a bite.  Because, like Martha, I wasn’t always happy to serve.  Sometimes I felt like I’d been saddled with an unfair and unwanted burden.  Sometimes I did the work because it made me feel less anxious, and sometimes I did it because it made me feel superior, and all the while I’d be looking sidelong with envy and resentment at those who seemed to have no guilty conscience about sitting idly, just enjoying themselves, and “going with the flow.”

This story has a bite of psychological truth, and it goes even deeper than I’ve already said.  Because if all Martha wants is a little help, why doesn’t she just go to her sister and ask for it?  Why does she create what Family Systems theorists call a “relationship triangle,” she dragging Jesus into her little drama, trying to guilt-trip him into taking her side?  Why does she ask him to judge between her and her sister, and to find Mary in the wrong, and chastise her for being lazy, like a disapproving dad? 
Needless to say, Jesus  doesn’t take the bait.  He knows Martha needs help, but not the kind of help she thinks she needs.  Martha needs to learn to let go, and it’s a lesson Mary can help her with, because she’s learning it from Jesus.

It’s not that there isn’t work to be done.  From the very beginning, the mission of Jesus has involved work—and not just the work of teaching and preaching and praying, but also the work of serving.  There has been bread to be baked, and tables to be set, and dishes to be washed.   And from the very beginning, Christians have looked around at the world and seen work to be done—widows and orphans going hungry, and sick people and prisoners lonely and in need of care and friendship.  They have looked around and seen justice denied, and peace forsaken.
And they have remembered the example of Jesus, and the self-sacrifice of his life and his cross.  They have remembered his teachings about self-denial and selfless service, like the parable of the Good Samaritan that comes immediately before this story in the Gospel of Luke, and they have gone to work.  But the story of Mary and Martha suggests that from the very beginning the work of Christians has also been a source of temptation.  Self-sacrifice, self-denial, and selfless service can easily become self-righteousness, just another yardstick by which we judge ourselves against each other, and against the world.  
Jesus knows this about us, and his reply to Martha lays bare the heart of the matter.  Because Martha’s real problem is not that her sister is lazy and won’t help with the housework.  Martha’s problem is that her heart is full of anxiety and can never come to rest.   Martha is anxious about the “many things” and lets them pull her in every direction because deep down she knows that none of them can ever give her what she really needs. 
So what is this only one thing that Martha, like the rest of us, truly needs?  Jesus doesn’t say, but he gives us some clues.  The first clue comes when he says that Mary has chosen the “better part.”  The way I read this, if Mary has chosen her part, then so must have Martha.  In other words, Martha thinks she doesn’t have a choice, that the “many things” absolutely must get done, and that if she is the one who must do them, but Jesus is questioning that.  Maybe these chores that Martha thinks are so all-important really aren’t.  What would happen if they didn’t get done until tomorrow, or not at all?  And why does Martha have to do them?  Maybe if she just left them alone, someone else would decide to get up and help.  But Martha will never know, because she keeps choosing to deny her own freedom and responsibility for the choices she has made.
A second clue about the only thing that is truly needed is what Jesus says about the part that Mary has chosen.  I don’t know exactly what he means when he says that it’s “better,” but I can accept as self-evident that he’s right.  But the thing that he says about it that I’ve always found really interesting is that “it will not be taken away from her.”  And this makes sense to me when I thought about as a teaching to Martha about the deeper reason she is so anxious about all those “many things” that have to get done.  Because any feeling of well-being, or self-worth, or inner peace that depends on getting all the work done isn’t going to last.  The work is never done.  You clean up the kitchen after dinner and the next thing you know it’s time to cook breakfast.  You feed one hungry family and five more appear at the door.  You fix the hole in the ozone layer, only to find out about the greenhouse effect.
Which is not to say that there’s no point in working.  But it does mean that the real importance of the work we do doesn’t derive from the results we achieve.  Thinking that way is a recipe for anxiety and distraction.  The real importance of what we do comes from who we are when we’re doing it.  And sometimes we learn best who that is when we aren’t doing much of anything at all, when we are just sitting there at the feet of Jesus.  Who we really are (which is the same as who we really want to be)—that is all we really need.  The author of the Letter to the Colossians calls it “the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations,” and goes on to say that God has made known to us the “riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” 
Nobody knows what words Mary heard when she sat at the foot of Jesus.  It’s not important—she heard the one Word that matters, the one Word we all need to hear, the Word of God about the riches of the glory of the mystery of Who she is, and Who she wants to be.  And I guess this is the better part of everything we do, the part that won’t be taken away.  Having this faith that Christ is in us and in others, having this hope of the glory that is yet to be revealed, we can do anything, or nothing.  It’s all pretty much the same.  It’s nothing to worry about, nothing to feel superior or inferior to others for.  It’s just a part we choose, because God speaks, and because we stop, for a moment, to listen.

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.