Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Good, the Bad, and the Meaningful

Not long ago I was driving my daughter home at the end of the day and I had the news playing on the car radio.  And I was just turning onto our street when Risa asked me from the back seat, “Daddy, why is the news always bad?  Why do they always talk about wars and people shooting each other and things like that?  Why don’t they ever have news about the good things that people do?”  Well, there were a lot of different ways I could have answered.  I could have given her a dose of cynicism about the media.  Or I could have said something jaded about human nature, and the fascination that violence and catastrophe seem to hold for us.   But she’s nine years old.  So what I did was to agree with her that it just doesn’t seem right that the news is always bad.  I said I thought she was right that there must be a different way to talk about what’s going on in the world, that there must be more to the story. 
Some of us at St. John’s have been taking part this year in a program of reading the Bible from cover to cover.  And along with this so-called “Bible Challenge” I’ve been reading books about the Bible, and also leading courses of study at the church on especially important pieces of the Bible.  So I’ve been reflecting on the Bible in recent months even more than I usually do.  And this week as I was reading the lectionary texts for this morning, and remembering that conversation with Risa about the news, it struck me that things haven’t really changed all that much since the Bible was written.  People often fault the scriptures because they contain so much violence and catastrophe and terror.  But it doesn’t seem to occur to them that this is still what the world is like, and it wasn’t any different in Bible times.  In some ways, it was worse.
The other thing we sometimes forget is that when the Bible was written there was nothing else in print.  The Bible was not shelved in a specialized section of the bookstore labeled “Inspirational.”  And there was no idea at that time of a dimension of human experience called “spirituality” or “religion,” that only had to do with lofty, uplifting, and comforting subjects.   In fact the Bible speaks out again and again against the notion that religion is somehow unconcerned with all the ugly and disturbing things that people think and do.  What the people who wrote the Bible said is that there is one world of human experience and knowledge, and the whole thing, the good, the bad, the ugly and the beautiful, belongs to God.
 Which sounds kind of reassuring until you start to think about all the stuff that happens, and what that says about God.  And the prophets and sages of ancient Israel knew they had to think about it.  They had to make room in their understanding of God’s sovereignty and holiness, for the bad news.  Their experience of God’s goodness and faithfulness had to allow somehow for the arrogance and greed of the rich and powerful, and the sufferings of the poor, for apostasy and injustice, and the devastation of their land by invading empires, and the wholesale slaughter of their people.  And when you read the Bible you start to see that they didn’t give themselves an easy out.  If you go to it looking for a simple explanation for why the world is the way it is, or a straightforward solution to its problems, you will be disappointed.  They are not there.
What you will find is a record of the thoughts and words and deeds of men and women seized by a profound awareness of God, an awareness that comes to bear on every aspect of human experience, from the most exalted states of religious vision, or worldly triumph, or erotic love, to the depths of physical agony, emotional abandonment, terror and despair.   It’s not always easy for us to see the value of this kind of faith.  We are powerfully conditioned by the modern mind, which only wants to allow meaning to that which can be explained.  But the truth is that most of our experience, and in particular that part that affects us most deeply, is inexplicable. 
We will never know why that particular sunset was different from all the others, or why we’ve never forgotten that particular meal.  We will never understand exactly why we fell in love with that person out of all the men and women in the world, or why that child came to be ours, or why we got sick, or that one had to die, or why people make such foolish choices, or rise up with murder in their hearts.  But the faith of the Bible is that in spite of the limits of our comprehension, everything that happens, every that is, every last bit of it, down to the hairs on your head, means something to God.
So when we talk, as we have been doing this month during our Stewardship Season, about the abundance that we share as a faith community, we might consider this: our greatest gift may be that here, in a world where wonder and reverence are melting away under the hot wind of shallow explanations, is a place where there is always more to the story.  St. John’s is like a little wilderness preserve, where we keep alive the possibility that everything means more than we know.  And the way we do this is we pray.  Praying is where we meet the limits of our understanding of why things happen the way they do, and we go beyond them into God. 
Prayer is more than asking God to solve our problems.  It is also asking God to make meaning of things that are beyond our comprehension.  That goes for the good things as well as the bad.  Every day we receive blessings that we did not obtain for ourselves and can’t say with assurance we deserve.  When we make prayers of thanksgiving we stop sleepwalking numbly through the miracle that is our lives.  Giving thanks, we make even the most ordinary day a journey of discovery, the discovery of meaning. 
And as for the bad news, the personal struggles and the mass suffering, to pray about it is to stop explaining it away.  It is to acknowledge that it affects us deeply, and is more than we can handle by ourselves.  We could come up with explanations, but they wouldn’t really satisfy.  And knowing that, in itself, is the first step toward taking responsibility.  I don’t mean so much “responsibility” as in “guilt.” Or as in, “it’s up to us to fix it.”  I mean respons-ability just like the word says—the ability to respond. 
Prayer is empowering, because it says that we are able to respond to what happens, no matter how incomprehensible it is, because we know the world is God’s.  That’s what gives us the confidence and the mandate to keep praying for peace in a nation in a state of endless war, to keep praying for healing, though the doctor says it is hopeless, to keep praying for justice when inequality and corruption are on the rise. 
It is this knowledge that world is God’s, that keeps us praying for the safety and dignity of women and girls, that keeps us praying for the survival of species, for sight for the blind, and liberty for the captives, and good news for the poor, and for the resurrection of the dead, and the coming of the Kingdom.  Sometimes it doesn’t seem like enough just to pray, but it’s a whole lot better than nothing.  And I like to think that persistence in prayer makes it more likely, and maybe it happens more than we care to admit, that we will, from time-to-time, hear an answering voice in our hearts that says, “okay—here’s what we can do.”      

More than a family

Last week my daughter and I went to see my parents at their new home on the Eastside of Madison, Wisconsin.  They’d just moved into a smaller house in town from a place in the country west of Madison, and were still unpacking, but they were settled in enough for me to see many of the old pictures and knickknacks and dishes, and books and record albums which I’ve known all my life.  It was comforting to see them, like meeting old friends, but there was also something sad about finding them in an unfamiliar house, quite possibly the last home my parents will ever have. 
This was supposed to be the move when they took their first big step toward “downsizing” their personal possessions.  But their old house sold much quicker than they had expected, and their moving sale had to be canceled because of bad weather.  In the end they ended up just taking it all to the new place where it was piled up in the garage and in a number of basement storage areas.  My brother Ben, who helped them with the move, told me in private about the thought that struck him as he carried box after box of books down the basement stairs—“and in a few years I’ll be carrying them out again.”  Maybe it’s just because I was fresh from the Estate and Stuff Sale here at St. John’s, but these same things that spoke to me of home and family tradition have also begun to ask questions about what meaning they will they have when my parents are gone, and whether anyone will want them.
Our possessions can help us feel at home, for a while, but we shouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that they are enough.  When the prophet Jeremiah writes to the people of Judah who have been carried off into exile in Babylon, he tells them that God’s will for them is to make a home for themselves there, to marry and have children, and plant gardens, and work and pray for the well-being of the foreign cities where they live.  But that isn’t the same as telling them to forget about Jerusalem.  It isn’t the same as telling them to assimilate into the cultural and religious ways of Babylon and to cease to be Jews.  They are to make the most of a bad situation, and live for the time being as comfortably as they can, but that isn’t the same as forgetting where their true home is, or their real purpose.
When Jesus encounters the ten lepers in today’s Gospel lesson from Luke, he is on the road, in the no-man’s land between Samaria and Galilee.  It is a place that no one would think of as home, the kind of place where you might expect to find people whose disease had made them unwanted in society.  And when Jesus sends them away to show themselves to the priests, and they head off, and find they are healed, only one of them comes back to the borderland to find Jesus.  Only one of them recognizes that it is not enough to be healed on the outside.  Only one understands that he’s been given a greater gift than merely to be made acceptable, and re-admitted to normal society.  Only one of the ten comes back, praising and giving thanks for a reconciled and renewed relationship with God.  And he is the foreigner, the Samaritan, the one who, from the conventional Jewish point of view, will never belong.
The kind of faith that these stories recommend to us is the faith that looks to God to provide for our immediate needs—for health, for nourishment, for a place to call home, and a measure of belonging and contentment.  But it is also a kind of faith that knows that such things are not enough for us.  The abundance of God’s grace and love for the whole world, made manifest in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus, is a light that casts all other, more limited versions of goodness and well-being into shadow. 
That is why the great 20th century theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer said about the grace that is really God’s grace—the grace that actually has the power to heal and to save us—that it is “costly grace.”  Not so much because we have to pay for it by giving up the ordinary comforts of home and family, worldly goods and social acceptance—though it is true that all of us have to surrender those things in the end.   It is costly because when we begin to have true faith and lasting hope in what God is really doing in this world, when the glory of new creation shines through the cracks of what is partial and broken, when we perceive within our own hearts the infinite care and patience with which Christ is fitting us for work, work that is ours alone, and at the same time shared with the whole communion of saints and angels; when, in short, we begin to know grace, those other goals and aspirations that we have for our lives just aren’t worth very much to us anymore.
One measure of the extent to which we have faith in God’s grace is our giving to the church.  For one thing, there is no way to calculate whether we’re getting a good return on our investment.  Every other organization, even charitable ones, has some kind of metric they can use to justify to you the impact that your giving is having—so many clients served or cases won or scholarships awarded.  And the church also does the kind of work that can be measured in that way.  But such works, as good and valuable as they are, are not the essence of what the church does.  That is something entirely different.
The essential work of the church, the work that nobody else can do, is to celebrate the Eucharist.  It is the culmination of all the work we do as individual Christians and as a community, which is why the fruits of our worldly work, in the form of an offering of money, are collected together and placed on the table.  And what happens is that all the productive energies of our lives, all the work that is represented in the bread and the wine and the money, our efforts to make good lives and secure and comfortable homes for ourselves and our families and prosperous communities for our neighbors, are all gathered together into a single act of thanksgiving.   The climax of this act, the expression of our highest hope and our deepest gratitude, is our prayer for the grace of the Holy Spirit to consecrate our work, by and to the work and the purposes of Jesus Christ.  And it is Christ who gives himself back to us, as Body and Blood, to consecrate us for the world’s transformation.
Only God’s grace can make this act of consecration happen, and only by grace will it yield its fruits in our lives.  But it does happen, and it does yield fruit, and I had an experience of that this week in Wisconsin.  My visit there wasn’t a homecoming, but then I wasn’t looking for home.   Being reunited with my parents and my three brothers didn’t restore the past, or heal old wounds or resolve old resentments.  But I didn’t need it to.  I will always love them, and they will always be my family, the people who made me who I am.  But as I watched my eldest brother locking horns with my Dad, as they have done so many times before, or stood listening to another long story from my mother about some acquaintance of hers I never met I was also grateful that I belong to something more than a family, something that makes me the person I am becoming. 
Sharing in the Body of Christ, making a regular practice of thanksgiving for the consecration of all human life by Jesus’ self-offering—somehow, without my even knowing how, this has changed me, so that I no longer am only a person in need of love and acceptance and belonging.   But I also and even mostly am a person who knows he has received these things in abundance.   And this means my primary work is giving thanks, and sharing the gifts of God with the people of God.

Enough is enough

It is with a great sense of relief that I can stand here before you this morning and say “soccer season is almost over.”  Not that I haven’t enjoyed taking my daughter to the practices and watching the games, or that I’m not proud of her and of her teammates for the hard work they have put in and the improvement they have made over the last couple of months.  But it has been a big commitment of my time.  For some reason it has worked out that all of the practices and most of the games have been on evenings when my wife works, so it has mostly fallen to me to be the chauffeur and the cheerleader.   There have been days when Meg has dropped Risa off at my office at 4:00, where she’s watched TV on the computer until 5:00, at which time I’ve helped her get into her soccer gear and delivered her to the practice field at 5:30, gone home to make a salad, picked up a pizza, returned to get Risa at 6:30, swung by for the baby sitter, dropped the two of them off at home, stuffed some pizza in my mouth and returned here to the church for a two-hour vestry meeting at 7 o’clock.  I’m sure many of you know what that’s like.
So when you and I wish we had more faith and a stronger relationship with God, when we imagine our lives more abundant with the grace of Christ, it doesn’t necessarily mean that we want our names recorded in the church’s calendar of saints.  We’re not necessarily asking to be missionaries or martyrs, or miracle-workers, or leaders of great movements of religious renewal.  We might just be asking for the faith to get through soccer season.  We might be praying for the faith to get through the loss of a job, or the death of a parent, or a diagnosis of cancer.  Maybe we did start out with dreams of a doing something really important and impressive for God, and instead we found that the ordinary trials of life ask us for more faith than we think we’ve got, and we wish we had more.
When the disciples of Jesus him to increase their faith, the Gospel of Luke doesn’t tell us exactly why, but from the answer Jesus gives them, you can guess that they want to be more like him.  They want something like his spiritual greatness, or at least his miracle-working power, and they think that the reason why they don’t have it is that they don’t have enough faith.  This attitude is still common today.  The world is full of people who say, “if only I had more faith,” meaning “if only I believed in God harder,” or “if only I had more positive thoughts,” or “if only I wasn’t so afraid;” and then you can complete the sentence with any number of counter-factual results—“I wouldn’t have gotten sick,” or “I could have changed my ex-husband” or “I would have the glamorous, successful life I was supposed to have.”
Now this may seem kind of insensitive, and go against the grain of our habit of taking everything that Jesus said extremely seriously at face value, but Jesus turns this idea of what faith is into a joke.  If anyone in this room found that they suddenly the faith to obtain their heart’s desire, would he or she really use it for something as silly and pointless as uprooting a mulberry tree and planting it in the ocean?  Again, for Jesus, the notion that if we only had more faith we could be something that we are not, and make our should-haves, and would-haves, and could-haves come true, is a joke. 
But at the same time Jesus says something important about faith—something positive.  And to illustrate his point he refers to his old friend the mustard seed.   Now there can’t be a lot of faith in something as tiny and insignificant as a little round mustard seed.  But a little teensy-weensy amount of faith is all it needs.  All it needs is enough faith to sprout.  And then God goes to work.  God gives rain and dew for the moisture it needs.  God gives the soil to anchor its roots and feed it with nutrients.  God gives it sunshine and carbon-dioxide from the air so its little leaves can make food.   And the mustard seedling has the faith to receive what God gives, not trying to be something that it’s not, but just growing, a little more every day, until somehow, miraculously, that tiny mustard seed becomes a large shrub, twice the height of a man, in a single season.
We imagine from reading the Gospels that Jesus could do anything.  Maybe he could have uprooted a mulberry tree and planted it in the ocean—if he’d wanted to.  But we don’t really know, because although he did do amazing things like walk across the stormy lake and feed five thousand people with a few loaves and a few fish, he only did those things because that was what God wanted him to do in that moment.  He never did them to promote himself or to test the limits of his power.  He did them to show the greatness of God, and to help people. 
Faith is the radical act of surrendering one’s life to the will and the purpose of God, and with faith we can do incredible things, because it is God who does them.   And just a little faith is enough, because what God gives is enough.  Instead of asking why God didn’t give her something bigger and better, the faithful person says, “thank you.”   “Thank you, God, for your gifts.  Now—how can I use these gifts to serve you?”

The fall Stewardship Season begins today at St. John’s, and the theme we’ve chosen for this year’s program is “Sharing in Abundance.”  This is taken from a passage in 2nd Corinthians where Paul urges the church at Corinth to have faith that God is able to provide them with abundant blessings.  What that means in practical terms is that each of them can trust that they will have enough, not only for their own needs, but that they will also be able to share in the good works that all of them are doing together.  This passage, like the gospel today, speaks to the truth that, to be really happy, to have full human lives we need something more than the bare necessities of survival.  And we need something more than to accumulate a surplus in the form of money in the bank and closets full of clothes and garages stuffed with knick-knacks and toys. 
We have a need, not a passing whim, but a core spiritual need, to be of service.  We need to have a share, a part to play, in doing something good, something good that’s bigger than we could do by ourselves.  So when we talk about “abundance” in connection with Christian stewardship, what we are saying first of all is that we are committed to being a community that serves, that seeks to be faithful to the will and purpose of God and to gather together the gifts we have received and put them to work for the good of others.  And we are also saying that every one of us is blessed with enough to contribute something important to that work.   We may not end up revered as martyrs of the faith.  We may not be called on to spend our very life’s blood in God’s service.  And maybe we will.  But in any case, God is able to give us enough, and more than enough, to make a difference.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Cooking the books

Last Monday, as I usually do, I dropped my daughter off at school and then went surfing.  I have a standing arrangement with Susan Stewart that I can park on the street in front of her house, from which place I can put on my wetsuit and carry my surfboard down the hill to Dillon Beach.  It’s a little extra work, especially on the way back up after a couple hours of hard paddling, but it’s well worth it, because it saves me the nine dollar parking fee every time I go.  Or almost every time.  Last week I arrived at the road junction at the entrance to the village at Dillon Beach and met with a flag stop and a road crew with some heavy equipment getting ready to work. 
They waved me by, and I turned onto Susan’s street only to find it lined with orange-and-white-striped sawhorses and placards that said “No Parking: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. September 16.”  My heart started sinking as I saw those sawhorses marching away up the hill and along all the side streets and in front of Susan’s house.  I kept going around the block and the story was the same.  I turned back out onto the main road and tried the last street before the beach—more sawhorses.  I finally resigned myself to paying for parking, and then I remembered that my wallet was empty of cash.  Now the surf wasn’t exactly epic that day, but that doesn’t really matter much to me.  I go out there mainly just to exercise my body and let the ocean wash the stress and strain of my life on land off of me—if I happen to catch a few waves that’s the frosting on the cake.  So the prospect of having to turn around and head back to Petaluma completely dry didn’t exactly fill me with joy.
So I decided to drive down to the parking lot and see what would happen.  I pulled up to the little kiosk and rolled down my window.  The attendant was a young woman, perhaps eighteen or nineteen years old.  I told her the whole story about how I usually parked up on the hill but that the road work had blocked everything off so I needed to use the lot, and didn’t have any cash.  She told me I could pay with a debit card.  I started to pull out my wallet and she said, “No, not here—up at the store.”
I paused for a second before saying—“Ok, I guess I’m off to the store.  See you in a minute.”  And I put my wallet back and was reaching for the keys, when she spoke again—“Do you live up in the village?”
So I repeated my story-- “No, my friend does.  She lets me park in front of her house, but everything’s blocked off today because of the road work.”
“Road work,” she said to herself.  There was another moment’s pause while she considered.  Then she wrote something on an orange slip of paper and handed it through the window of the kiosk--a parking pass with 9/16/13 written on it, to put on the dashboard on the driver’s side. 

Our everyday exchange of society’s goods and services is facilitated by a wonderful thing called money.  And one of the reasons that money is so useful is that it’s not personal.  If you have something that I want, I have something I can give you in exchange for it that everyone has already agreed has value.  It doesn’t matter if I don’t have anything that you want in return, and we don’t have to have a long argument about how much my plumbing services are worth compared to your sweet corn.  You name your price, I pay it, and that’s that.  And it doesn’t matter whether you know me or I trust you, as long as we’re dealing in cold, hard cash.  Thanks to money, I can be in a mutually-beneficial economic relationship with people in China that I’ve never met and never will.  
But there’s something about this impersonal quality of money that’s seductive.  The way that it works seems so simple and clear and impartial, that it can make the value of other things seem kind of vague and uncertain in comparison.  That’s particularly true for the kinds of things that are prized for their moral or spiritual value.  We can all agree that things like wisdom and wilderness and community spirit are important, but just how much value they have, relative to other things, is difficult to say.  But because the rules that govern the exchange and accumulation of money appear so rational and predictable and precisely proportioned, we can start to imagine that they are transcendent, like some kind of natural, or even divine, law.  We can start to believe that the challenging and perplexing questions about how to be a good person and a responsible member of society can really just be boiled down to charging a fair price and paying one’s debts on time.
 But then there are those moments when we find ourselves, like that young parking attendant at Dillon Beach, in a position where the clear and simple rules about money are at odds with what we feel in our hearts is the right thing to do.  There are times when the kind thing, the generous thing, the courageous and admirable thing to do, is to reinforce the shared moral values and personal bonds that keep society healthy, by breaking the rules about money.
The manager of the estate in Jesus’ parable that we hear today finds himself in such a position.  There must be some truth to the charge that he has mismanaged his master’s affairs, because he has no doubt that he is about to lose his job.  And he also knows that, left to follow the pitiless rules of the labor market, he’s not going to make it.  If he’s going to survive, it will be because people behave towards him in a way that defies their supposed rational self-interest.  So he takes a risk that might just make a bad situation worse.  He acts irrationally, and unpredictably, and violates the clear-cut rules of wealth.  Instead he banks on relationships, and on the value of kindness, generosity, and mercy. 
The manager cooks the books, to the cost of his boss and the benefit of his debtors, so it’s hard to understand why the Master would approve of him, or why Jesus would hold him up as a model to follow.  I don’t think this story literally means that we should be dishonest in our business dealings.  But the master appreciates what his manager has done because it exhibits a kind of shrewdness that is more admirable than frugality or even integrity.    It’s the shrewdness of knowing that that in the last analysis, the human economy is personal, and that love, friendship, hospitality, generosity, and compassion are its real currency.
In the coming weeks our national political representatives will be facing many grave responsibilities of national and world affairs.  They will even address some of them.  So we should pray for them—they, as much as anyone, are in need of Christ’s grace and truth.  But watch out when you see them parading across the airwaves talking the nation’s wealth as if it were governed by some self-evident and inflexible law.  When they start talking about the federal budget and the national debt as if there are no real alternatives, as if it is a foregone conclusion that the elderly, children, the hungry, the unemployed, and the working poor must sacrifice on the altar of economic necessity, and the debate is only about how much, Christians need to remember that this is what idolatry looks like.   
When Jesus tells his disciples to make friends for themselves by means of dishonest wealth he isn’t just teaching the conventional wisdom that worldly goods are fleeting and you can’t take them with you.   He’s also suggesting that the rules that govern the exchange of those goods, which seem so impartial and rational and pure, are actually unjust.  The manager might be cheating his master by changing the amounts of oil and wheat that the debtors owe.  But the game of landowner and sharecropper is one that was already rigged in the master’s favor.  And on the other hand, Jesus remind us that the laws of relationship—those indeterminate, always voluntary, ever-being improvised and negotiated rules of hospitality and generosity and forgiveness and love—those are the laws that govern the eternal economy of the Kingdom of God.

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.