Monday, September 16, 2013

Lost and found

Tassajara Hot Springs is not an easy place get to.  You head inland from Highway One up the valley of the Carmel River until the road narrows and starts to wind.   Then you keep driving, slowly climbing through miles of sparsely-settled ranchland, until just about that point where you start to head down again toward the towns of the Salinas Valley, where you take a right turn.  And that’s where the journey really starts.  After a mile or two the pavement ends, and you start climbing again, steeply this time, for five or six miles and 3,000 feet to the top of Chew’s Ridge, where you can see the granite peaks of the Santa Lucia Mountains all around, and then you start down.  Down and down the steep side of a deep canyon, for another five more narrow, twisting, dusty miles, until the road ends at the front gate of a Zen Buddhist monastery, on the site of an old hot springs resort on Tassajara Creek.
 It’s the perfect kind of place to hide out from the world.  I was living there when the First Gulf War started in early 1992, and somehow the United States Selective Service Board got my address, and sent me a letter.  It said that I had thirty days to register for the draft or they’d refer my case to the Justice Department.  But I wasn’t really worried.  Somehow I just couldn’t see the FBI making the trip to Tassajara to knock on my door.  It was also the perfect refuge for a young man who’d spent twenty-odd years playing hide-and-go-seek with Jesus.  Or so you would think.  I was at the bottom of a canyon at the dead end of a dirt road in the middle of a wilderness, with no one around for miles but Buddhists.  Every day from 4:00 in the morning to 9:00 at night I was doing Buddhist practices and studying Buddhist texts, wearing Buddhist clothes, and eating Buddhist food.  But it was there that Jesus caught me.  It was there that I finally had to stop running, and turn around to face the person that I really am.

The English words “sinner” and “repentance” are so loaded for us that it’s helpful to know something about the Greek words that they translate in our Bibles.  “Sinner” comes from a Greek word that means a person whose aim is off, someone who is missing the mark.  It implies that there is a right goal or purpose or object of desire for a person’s life.  To “sin” means simply to think or say or do something that misses the mark, because it’s directed at the wrong target, or maybe because of a simple break in concentration, or a lack of skill.   And “repentance” simply means to turn one’s mind around.  To “repent” is to turn around and face what you’ve been running from. 
The Buddha way is a path of wisdom and compassion, and I’m a better person for the years I spent following it.  But it’s not my path.  And that only became clear when I was given the chance to get onto it all the way.  When I was at Tassajara the abbot of the monastery offered to ordain me a priest, giving me the chance to dedicate my life to studying and practicing and teaching in that tradition.  It was only then that I could see that my shot was off the mark.  It was only then that I could finally see that I had just been playing Buddhist, and I’d been running from my real life’s work and the truest longings of my heart.  

As conversion stories go, I don't mind saying it’s a pretty good one.  But it’s not nearly as good as Paul’s.  Paul’s turnaround, from enemy and persecutor of the church to tireless missionary and apostle of Christ, is the great Christian story of repentance.  Because if anyone ever should have been immune to the grace of Jesus Christ, if anyone ever was constitutionally incapable of admitting he was off the mark, if anyone ever deserved to be given up for lost, it was him.  If this man, the foremost of sinners, could be proved faithful and appointed for the service of God, then is there anyone at all of whom we can say, “don’t even bother with that one.”  He is too far gone.”  She will never change.”
Which is a pretty hopeful message, and it’s hard not to notice the contrast between that hope and the gloom and doom that we find in today’s reading from Jeremiah and the Psalms.  One way that people in the church have traditionally tried to explain that contrast is as the difference between the angry and vengeful God of the “Old Testament”, and the forgiving and compassionate God of the New.  But there’s something a little self-serving about that interpretation, and it’s not, strictly speaking, accurate.  There are plenty of scriptures in the Hebrew Bible that praise the patience and long-suffering love of God towards his people, and lots of places in the Greek Bible that talk about God’s wrath and the well-deserved destruction of sinners.
I think it’s more helpful to talk about collective and individual understandings of sin.  We’re used to hearing the harsh judgments and curses and threats of people like Jeremiah as if they were talking about our behaviors and our mistakes as individual persons.  But that’s not exactly what they meant.  The prophets were social critics, or, as one author I read recently put it, dissident public intellectuals.  They spoke on behalf of the God who had called his people out of slavery and led them through the wilderness and given them a holy and righteous law.  He’d driven out other nations before them and settled them on their own land.  He had made a dwelling place for his name among them.  The prophet gave voice to the hurt and the anger of God that now that whole people was missing the mark. 
The violence of the prophet’s language is directed against a false sense of security.  His harsh cry pierces through the soothing noises of the official spokespersons and dispensers of conventional wisdom, who love to say that nothing bad can happen to God’s chosen people.  But the prophet says the people are deceiving themselves, because they have forgotten the real purpose for which God chose them, and he threatens the worst if they don’t remember it.  They need to stop running, and turn around and face the truth, the truth about their indifference to the poor and their corruption of justice, the truth about their idolatrous worship of wealth and power, and the institutionalized violence of their society; the truth of their weakness and duplicity on the international stage.  They need to face these things because only then will they be found by the real God, the God whose covenant was to make them a nation where such things don’t happen.
The Jews remembered the words of Jeremiah because they came true.  They treasured them, because after their temple had been burned, and their city destroyed, and they’d been carried away into exile in Babylon, those words said that the horror that had befallen them was not some cruel joke of history.  It was not meaningless, but it was the consequence of their betrayal of God’s covenant with them.  And if this catastrophe could be a moral and religious lesson, then maybe they could learn it.  Maybe they could still repent, and if they did, maybe they would find that God had not abandoned them.  Maybe He would seek and find them, even in the land of exile, even without their temple and their sacrifices.  Maybe they weren’t really lost.
In the 3rd Chapter of Genesis, after Adam has eaten the fruit of which it was forbidden to eat, God comes looking for him in the garden, calling out “Where are you?”  And the man answers “I was afraid, because I was naked.  So I hid.”  This story, which is so foundational for Judeo-Christian ethics, has both personal and collective interpretations.   But either way, it suggests that the only remedy for our constant failure to hit the mark is the goodness of God, the patience of God, the persistence of God in seeking and finding us.  We can’t will ourselves to be perfect.  Half the time we don’t even understand what we’re doing.  But we can start to break the habit of running and hiding.  We can learn a new habit, that of stopping, and turning around.  We can learn to admit that we’re naked, and allow ourselves to be found. 

Sunday, September 8, 2013

The choices of discipleship

After I graduated from seminary my first job offer was from All Saints’, Carmel, and it included a place to live as part of the deal.   Griffin House was a quaint little cottage next door to the church, but it needed a lot of work before my family and I could move in.  So while we were waiting for that to be finished, we lived on the grounds of the church itself, in an old carriage house they used to give to the Sexton.  It had one room upstairs, about 15 by 20, with a small kitchen and a smaller bathroom, and a semi-finished basement below.  We slept downstairs, surrounded by our furniture and stacks of unopened boxes.  And when it rained, which it did a lot that winter, we would run outside in our pajamas, carrying the baby around the corner of the house and down the dark stairs under the pouring eaves.  The walls were made of a single thickness of redwood planks, and in the worst of the storms the roof leaked and the whole house creaked and swayed, filled with sounds of the falling rain, and the wind in the trees, and the thunder of the ocean at the bottom of the hill.
On a Saturday morning at the end of January a party of folks from the congregation came and helped us move the hundred feet into Griffin House.  The part-time interim pastor started work the following Sunday, and he and his wife stayed in the carriage house a couple of nights a week while they were in town.  Later, when the parish called a new Rector, he and his wife agreed to live there, too, for the time being.  How long “for the time being” would be was never specified.  Well, as it turned out, and this is my point in telling this story, “for the time being” was until we left Carmel to come to Petaluma, three year later.  For three years the Rector and his wife chose to live in the carriage house, which they renamed “The Chalet,” while his junior associate lived right next door in the three-bedroom cottage. 
You could say it was a smart decision.  If he had pushed us back into The Chalet so they could live in Griffin House, it wouldn’t just have caused hard feelings between my family and his.  It also would not have sat well with many in the congregation, who were very fond of us, and whose trust and affection they had still not won.  But even if their decision involved some measure of calculation, it was still a remarkably generous act.  It came at a real cost.  The Rector and his wife looked at what they stood to gain by cementing caring and trusting relationships with me and my family and with the All Saints’ congregation.  They took stock of what it would cost them, and they decided that three years in The Chalet was a price they could afford to pay. 
Our second reading today is the text of a letter from the apostle Paul to a well-off fellow and patron of a house church whose name is Philemon.   The subject of the letter is Onesimus, a slave who used to be part of Philemon’s household, but who ran away and who now has met up with Paul, and has himself become a Christian.  The exact location and circumstances of all of this are unknown, but Onesimus apparently has been a great help and comfort to Paul, who is in prison.  But now Paul has decided that Onesimus should return to his old master.    In the letter that Onesimus carries with him to Philemon, Paul is not shy to claim his rights as an apostle and spiritual father.  He points out that Philemon himself owes Paul a great debt, for without him he never would have received the promises of God in Christ’s New Covenant of grace.  So from one point of view Onesimus has still been working for Philemon at a distance, since the service he gives to Paul is a proxy for what is rightfully owed by his master.     
But Paul does not insist on his rights because he wants Philemon to do the right thing, not because he is Paul’s underling in the Christian pecking order, but as a free and responsible man.   Paul gives up the one who has become like his son, and Onesimus gives himself up, too, or this letter would not have survived.  The two of them pay this cost for the sake of the new relationship they hope to gain with Philemon.  By giving away their rights, they are asking Philemon to do the same.  Their hope is that he will decide what to do as a disciple of Jesus Christ, that he will choose the life of that new people of God in which there is no longer male no female, Jew or Gentile, slave or free.  Paul challenges Philemon not just to take back his runaway slave, not only to forgive him, and set him free, but after that to live with him as an equal and a brother in the Lord.  
When Jesus says in the Gospel that no one who does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, and even life itself, can be his disciple, this gets our attention.  It’s a way of talking that is meant to break into the comfortable place of our usual way of thinking, to tell us that the circles of relationship we draw around ourselves are too small.  When we only have concern and responsibility for our own lives and the members of our immediate families we aren’t doing justice to the mission of Jesus, a mission to bring healing, and forgiveness, and freedom, and the full dignity of human life, not just to us and the people we love, but to everyone. 
It’s a mission Jesus invites us to share, but this doesn’t mean we have to take responsibility for the whole job.  That is God’s work, in and through Christ, to whom be all honor and glory and thanksgiving and praise.  But we do have our part to play.  We do have our choices to make.  And Jesus wants us to know that those choices are often costly, not because God demands a penalty for our sins, but because it’s not easy to transform relationships.  It hasn’t been easy to transform the relationship of former slaves and slave master in this country into one of equality and mutual love.  It has been costly, and maybe the full cost has yet to be paid.  It’s been costly to transform relationships between men and women in our society so that the work of keeping the households, and nurturing the children, and producing the goods, and making the decisions is equitably shared.   The statistics on violence against women say that this cost is still being paid, and the relationships still are not transformed.
These kinds of transformations are not first and foremost a question of public policy, but of personal relationships, and individual decisions to pay the necessary cost.  Knowing about the work that many of you do every day—parenting children with special needs, or just plain parenting; supporting families where there are disabilities, or mental illness, or where someone is dying; as educators, and advocates, and artists, and employers; as partners in interracial marriages, or interfaith marriages, or just marriages, period—I know that you have made and continue to make costly choices.  Some of them might not feel like choices at all, but we always have a choice, even if it’s just the choice to keep showing up.   
And what makes these the choices of discipleship is the hope that they will contribute in some way to the transformation of all our relationships.  That hope is founded on the difference that it makes to know the cost that God was willing to pay in giving Jesus to us.  It makes a difference to know what we did with that gift.  It makes a difference to know that in spite of what we did, God gave him back to us alive, for no other purpose than to send us after him, as bearers of his mission.  When this story of God’s transformed relationship with us shapes our own accounting of gains and losses, when it becomes good news that we tell with our own costly choices, then we can say that we are carrying our cross, and that we are Christ’s disciples.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Sitting at the lower place

Every year the seminary that I went to gives out a prize for the best preacher in the graduating class.  And by the time I was a senior there, I thought maybe that prize would be mine. I’d given sermons at my home parish in San Francisco before I even went to seminary, and many more at and my field education site once I got there, and the responses I received gave me confidence that this was something I was good at.  It’s a tradition at the seminary that on Tuesdays throughout the year, one of the seniors gives the sermon at the mid-day Eucharist.  And from what I’d seen and heard there, I thought I measured up well against the competition.  I was proud of my own senior sermon, and when the call went out later in the year for a student volunteer to fill an open date on the preaching calendar, I jumped at the chance to give another. 
So I liked my chances to win the prize; and as our class was lining up for the commencement ceremony, and bishops and rectors of cardinal parishes of the church were coming down the line, giving us their congratulations, I couldn’t help fantasizing about that moment when I would hear my name called and, in front of my classmates, and the faculty, and all those distinguished guests, I would walk up to the podium to claim my reward.  And when the ceremony began, and we’d marched in, and were in our seats, and the big moment was drawing near, my heart was racing.  Finally, the Homiletics Professor and Dean of the seminary went to the microphone and announced that the winner of the Rt. Rev. Richard Millard Prize for Excellence in Preaching for the class of 2005 was…Katherine Kelley. 
I was stunned.  I didn’t know until that moment just how much I had wanted that award, and how certain I had been that they would give it to me.  As I struggled with my emotions, I thought I saw some of my classmates stealing glances at me, as if they knew that I’d been expecting to win, and I imagined that the color of my face betrayed my disappointment, and I was ashamed.  Suddenly I was no longer paying attention to what was happening around me.  The ceremony kept moving along toward the moment when I also would be called up to the podium, to receive that diploma that I’d worked so hard to get, that only a few years earlier seemed forever out of my reach, but I was stuck back there, thinking of the honor I had been denied: “Kathy Kelley?  The one with the voice like a rusty hinge?  How is this possible?”
Finally, I pulled myself together.  I recalled that I had missed Kathy Kelley’s senior sermon, and that for all I knew she was an outstanding preacher.  As the commencement exercises ended, and I looked for her in the crowd to congratulate her, I remembered the Baccalaureate dinner a couple of nights before.  After dessert, the seniors had the opportunity to get up and make some farewell remarks to the seminary community.  Mine were pretty lame—your basic “I want to thank everyone who made this moment possible” kind of speech.  But Kathy Kelley’s was oratory, a wise and heartfelt tribute to the lay people at Trinity, Sacramento who had nurtured her faith and her call to ministry.  She ended by admonishing us all to honor the laity of the church, and lead them and serve them with humility and love.  When she was finished the room was completely silent for a long moment, and then burst into applause.

Academic prizes are only one way our society singles people out for honor.  The cultural code that assigns us our places in the pecking order is extremely complex, and it depends on everything from the brands we display on our clothes and our cars, to the neighborhoods where we live and the places where we work and the schools where we send our children, from how we spend our vacations to where we sit when we go to the ball park.  But in Jesus’ day the code was simpler.  There weren’t that many ways to stake a claim to prestige.  And one of the main places it was done was at wedding feasts and dinner parties.  Who could hold the most lavish banquet, and who would be invited, and who would not, and who would accept the invitation, and where they would sit when they came—these were the things that mattered in the high-stakes game of social standing. 
And that is why the documents of the New Testament contain so many passages about wedding feasts and social banquets.  That is why the Gospel of Luke remembers Jesus’ remarks to supper guests in the house of a leader of the Pharisees.  Because in this passage Jesus isn’t giving advice about banquet etiquette—he’s pointing out the senselessness of fighting with your friends over rank.  It’s all just based on someone else’s opinion, and honor can turn to shame in an instant, and starting out at the bottom is just as promising a strategy as starting out at the top.   This is also why it is so radical for Jesus to tell his host that he’d be better off inviting the kind of guests to his party who don’t get invited to the better sort of affairs and can do nothing to burnish his reputation.  Because the only reputation that matters in the end is the one we have in the eyes of God, and God’s idea of who is honorable, and who is not, is not like ours.   
There was a time, not so very long ago, when attending a church like St. John’s was one way to lay claim to social prestige.  If you wanted to establish your credentials as a solid citizen and a moral person, someone of good character, whose acquaintance would reflect well on others, it paid to belong to a church.  And I would guess that this church gave its members that extra touch of distinction that some of the others did not.  Now I’m not saying that there weren’t a lot of genuinely devout and faithful people here, at every stage of the 167-year history of St. John’s.  But I do think it’s safe to say that there were also some of the other kind.  And somewhere along the line those folks stopped coming here, because it was paying diminishing social returns.
Today going to church is no guarantee of respect.  Indeed, there are some circles where it marks one out as a bigot, or a credulous fool.  There are others for whom church is still valuable for social climbing, but they tend to prefer places a little more fashionable than ours.  And we, who used to sit at the highest place at the table, now find ourselves nearer to the lowest.  But I think that if we’re truthful to the wisdom of our tradition, we’d have to say that it’s a better place to be.   At the low place it’s easier to remember that social status is an idol, a cracked cistern that holds no water. It’s easier to remember that honor is just shame that hasn’t shown up at the party yet.  At the low place it’s easier to remember what it is like to be uninvited, to be on wrong side of the codes of social acceptance.  In the low place it’s easier to remember how treating others on the basis of what they can do for our social standing is an affront to God.
It’s also a place where it’s easier to remember Jesus, and the dinner parties that he had, where he ate and drank and celebrated the Kingdom of God with tax-collectors and prostitutes.  It’s easier to remember how he sat at table with the one who would betray him, and the ones who would desert him, and said, “this is my Body, given for you.”  From the low place we keep the feast that he commanded, holding in highest honor the last meal of a condemned man.  Everyone is invited to this feast, where we come not for distinction, but forgiveness, where we belong, not to an exclusive social set, but to the eternal kingdom of the love of the one creator of us all.  

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.