Friday, November 22, 2013

God's dream of peace

The prophecies in the second half of the Book of Isaiah came to an exile in Babylon.  He or she spoke to other Jews in exile, whose condition was a constant reminder of the horrors of war and starvation, of the destruction of Jerusalem and the bitter shame of captivity and deportation.  To these people their historical situation was not simply the result of failed policy.  It was not merely a national defeat.  It was a divine judgment.  The memory of horror, and the pang of loss, and the burden of oppression were constant reminders to these people of their collective sins.  They had squandered the blessings of God’s covenant with them; they had betrayed God with idolatrous worship, and injustice to each other, and violence toward their neighbors.

But the word of God to them, through the prophet, is that the memory of guilt will not decide their future —“the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind,” says God,  “for I am about to create new heavens and a new earth.”  In spite of their hopeless situation, God’s dream for them is not over.  If anything, it is coming more clearly into view.  God’s dream is of Jerusalem as a place of peace and safety and justice.  It is a vision of a community living life to the full, without fear or sorrow or want. 

These words must have seemed remote from the everyday experience of the people.  But that is what makes them like a sudden dawn breaking what felt like an endless night.  The vision of the prophet was like a dream, but it was a dream that awakened them from the slumber of numbness and despair.  It rang with a truth that ran counter to everything that they could have reasonably assumed from a practical assessment of their real life situation.  The vision of the new creation was a dream that could only have come from God.

Today’s reading from the Gospel of Luke speaks to the turmoil of the second half of the first century.  It was the time of the Jews’ bloody revolt against Roman rule, of the Romans’ savage campaign of re-conquest and their destruction of Jerusalem and the second temple; it was the time of the first waves of official persecution of those who identified themselves with the name of Jesus Christ.  These verses remember a time when Jesus himself spoke of the fall of the temple, and of turmoil and trouble and suffering in the world.  They recall his words of warning about those who would prey on the fears and doubts that fill the air in such times, and put themselves forward as Messiahs, claiming the power to make God’s promises come true. 

And we hear a further warning to Jesus’ disciples, that they would be put forward, not as victors but as victims, as scapegoats and criminals.  Jesus tells them of the ironic twist of history by which their accusers will bring them before kings and governors, giving them their moment to testify.  It will be their part, in the confusion of a world that seems to be coming to an end, to speak the word of God; Jesus will put his own wisdom in their mouths, the words of judgment and promise that open the door to the new creation: “The kingdom of heaven has come near to you.”  “Love your enemies and bless those who curse you.”  “Those who are called great among you must be last of all and servant of all.”  “Have courage, for I have overcome the world.”    

I grew up with a rather dismissive opinion of President John F. Kennedy.  Once as a child I became fascinated with a book in the town library; a coffee-table book full of photographs, it was about his assassination and the days that followed, I went back to it again and again.  But somewhere along the line I picked up the idea that President Kennedy hadn’t really accomplished anything, and that if he hadn’t been young and handsome, and given a great speech at his inauguration, and died the way he did, he would be a minor figure in our history.  And I didn’t find any reason to fundamentally reconsider that opinion until very recently--just a few weeks ago, as a matter of fact. 

My wife was out of town for the weekend, which meant that on Friday night I got to watch what I wanted on TV, and maybe because of the upcoming 50th anniversary of his death, I selected a documentary on JFK.  In the course of the film they showed some footage of the speech that he gave to the General Assembly of the United Nations on September 20, 1963.  In that speech President Kennedy hailed the signing of the first major nuclear arms-control treaty, the ban on atmospheric testing which he’d proposed two years before.  And he took the moment to insist that this should be the first step toward ending the Cold War, not a brief pause in its continuation.  While acknowledging profound differences between the superpowers, he laid out a clear path toward comprehensive disarmament, and an intention to follow it, “building,” as he put it, “the institutions of peace as we dismantle the engines of war.”  He made bold proposals for cooperation among nations, including the Soviet Union, in science and technology and economic and social development, and recommitted his support to the United Nations as the cornerstone of global security under the aegis of international law. 

Near the conclusion of the speech, he said the following: “But peace does not rest in charters and covenants alone. It lies in the hearts and minds of all people. And if it is not there, then no act, no pact, no treaty, no organization can hope to preserve it without the support and the wholehearted commitment of all people. So let us not rest all our hopes on parchment and on paper; let us strive to build peace, a desire for peace, a willingness to work for peace, in the hearts and minds of all of our people. I believe that we can. I believe the problems of human destiny are not beyond the reach of human beings.”

The thing that was most stirring to me about these words was that I could see that he meant them.  The film shows President Kennedy leaving the podium after he had spoken, and making his way back to his seat.  And watching it I was transfixed by the way he lowered himself tenderly down into his chair, his body in evident pain, but even more I was moved by the expression on his face—humble, even a little shy, but luminous with wonder at the privilege of speaking such hope to a world in the grip of confusion and fear; it was the face of a man who has tasted peace in his own heart, and knows what the word really means.

We all know what happened next, and as we approach the 50th anniversary of that terrible day, the most important questions are not the unanswered ones about his death, but the ones about memory.  Is it just a memory of shock and grief, of where you were when you heard the news?   Is it memory of the man, of glamor and charisma and glaring personal failings?  Or is it a memory of the vision, of words spoken at great political and personal risk, with the resolve do something about them?  Is it a memory of something more than a murder, something more even than a man, something about God’s dream for the world? 

That dream did not die in 1963 in Dallas, or in 1965 in Harlem, or in 1968 in Memphis or Los Angeles.  It did not die on September 11, 2001, because violence cannot kill God’s dream of life and peace for the world.  It rises again and again from the graves of its fallen witnesses and speaks in new voices and new visions, because it is God’s promise to all people for all time.  It is the new creation for which all things in heaven and earth were made.  That is the message we come to this place, week by week, to remember, to say aloud, and whisper in our hearts.  That is the hope we cherish here in large ways and in small, for nations at war and children in the hospital, for families in need and a planet at risk, for the unknown and unborn, and for the beloved dead.  It is the promise that gives power and purpose to our lives, because it is the dream that makes the world come true.  

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Loving what gets left behind

My maternal grandmother died in 1985, and my grandpa remarried a few years later, at almost eighty years of age.  I liked my new step-grandmother right away, and over the years became very fond of her.  When I went back to college to finish up my Bachelor’s Degree so I could go to seminary, it was she and my grandpa footed the bill for my tuition.  So a few years later, after she and my grandpa had died, I was faced with a little dilemma.
It began when I took up regular practice of praying the daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer.   I would get to the point at the end of the service where one adds personal prayers, including prayers for the dead.  I would pray for my deceased grandparents on my father’s side. And when it came to my mother’s parents, Gertrude and Frank, I would naturally pray for them together, as they were together for the first 20 years of my life, as they were together for over fifty years of marriage.  But I would always think of my Step-grandma Mary Beth at the same time, but it didn’t feel right to mention her in the same breath as them, and it didn’t feel right not to.   It was a long time before my heart was completely settled on this point.  Strange as it sounds, it felt disloyal not to give Gertrude her pride of place, as my Grandma and as Frank’s wife.  But I also didn’t want to make Mary Beth a second-class citizen in my prayers.
This problem I had about how to pray for my Grandfather’s wives, says something about how I understood love.  I think most human beings start out as with the idea that there is only so much love to go around.  I can only love this person more by loving that person less.  And the same goes for those who love me.  If they love someone else more, there is that much less love available for me.  This is a very natural way for us to think about love, because of our experience as small children who were completely dependent for our very survival on our parents’ love.  And our parents were limited.  They only had so much to give.  We were attuned to every ebb and flow of their attention and affection, and when it was directed elsewhere, to their work, or to each other, or, God forbid, to our brothers and sisters, we couldn’t help but feel that there was less for us. 
We grow and enter adolescence and develop more resilience and a capacity to love ourselves, but we still need a lot of love and reassurance from the outside.  And that’s also about the time that it starts to really sink in for us that our parents are going to die, that there is going to come a day when there is nobody left in the world who is obliged to love us.  And so a powerful new need awakens, the desire to find someone in the world with whom we can create a new bond to take the place of the one we had with our father and mother, to have someone in the world who will love us and make life’s journey with us all the way to the end.  Along with that yearning for a mate comes the equally powerful desire to have offspring, so that when we leave this world, someone will remain behind to remember us, someone who will keep the names and the values, the physical features and the stories that we pass on to them alive.
Now this is obviously a simplistic and incomplete description of human development, but I think it helps us see ordinary human love, family love, as a way of coming to grips with and even overcoming death.  And that is a beautiful thing.  Once when I was a still a bachelor I was walking through the Mission District in San Francisco at rush hour and saw an older Chinese man coming down the sidewalk, with a lined face and gray hair, but a body that was still lean and tall and strong.  He was dressed in tradesman’s coveralls and in his arms he held a girl of three or four years of age.  He was carrying her diagonally across his body facing out, with one arm under her arm and around her chest, and the other hand under the crook of her knee, so her other leg swung free.  She was laughing and wriggling as he swung her from side to side, and on his face was a smile of pure joy.  The sight of them struck deep into my heart, and I understood, in a way I never had before what it means to play with your granddaughter and know that your love will live on in her long after you’re gone.
The Sadducees of the Gospels believed that this kind of love is enough.  They came from the upper classes, people who were prosperous and well-fed and had large families, and for them the hope that they would live on in their children and their children’s children and their children’s children’s children was enough.  If they thought of resurrection from the dead, they supposed it would have to be a kind of family reunion, where you picked up where you left off with your relationships on the other side of the grave.  They were also conservative people, who upheld a traditional interpretation of the laws of Moses, so they thought a lot about cases, and real-world practical implications.  When they argued against the resurrection, it was because of the legal problems it would create, problems like the case of the woman who married the seven brothers.  Better to be satisfied, they said, to love those who will love you in return, and let life take its course, and give death its due.
But Jesus doesn’t think about cases.  Jesus thinks about that woman who was married to the seven brothers, who watched each one of them die, and never did have a child.  And Jesus question about her resurrection is not “whose wife will she be?”  Jesus’ question is what is her hope?  It’s the same question he asks about widow of Nain, following the body of her only son out of town to the burying ground.  It’s the question he asks about all the mothers and fathers whose children are stricken with hunger, or mental illness, or disability or disease, and about the ones who could have given a child a loving home but were never blessed to have one, and the ones whose marriages were broken by death, or addiction, or divorce.  It’s the question he asks about all the mothers and fathers who sent sons off to war, who never returned, or who came back broken.  What is their hope?  What is their legacy? 
And for an answer Jesus also looks to Moses, but not to Moses the author of laws.  Jesus looks to Moses, the man who came face to face with the living God, who turned aside from tending his father-in-laws flock to behold a bush that burned but was not consumed.  Jesus felt the anguish, and the loneliness, and the hopelessness of those who had no answer to death, and he thought of Moses who heard the voice from the burning bush that said, “I am.  I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, and I am your God.  And I have heard the affliction of my people.  Their cry has come to me and I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the bondage in which they are oppressed.”
It’s not that there is anything wrong with ordinary human love, with the love of husband and wife, and parent and child, and grandparent and grandchild.  But it doesn’t always work out the way we want it to, and anyway, even when it is enough for us, it is not enough for God.  It is not enough for God that we should love and die, and vanish like smoke.  God has more to give us than that.  In Jesus Christ God has given us the life that doesn’t need to find a work-around for death.  In Christ we are children of a parent whose love is not limited, who does not love the childless widow any less than the woman whose house is filled with grandchildren.  Christ is the bearer of the gift of that love and that life because it came to him first, and because he will be there to enjoy it with us at the last, and the gift is called resurrection.       

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.