Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Revolution of compassion

Some of us here at St. John’s have been meeting since September to study a book about Jesus.  Not Jesus as the author supposes he might have been, but Jesus as people have imagined him, in every era of Christian civilization: Jesus as they have honored and adored him; Jesus, who one way or another has held the key for them to know who God is, and what is good, and beautiful, and true. 

Reimagining Jesus is what Christians have always done.  It’s a process that was already well under way when the four Gospels were written, as you can easily see by comparing them.  Each one presents a different picture of what he said and did, how he died, and what happened to him after that, because each of them arose in a different community.  These little groups that became the church took the traditions that had been handed down to them about him and shaped them to speak to their hopes and fears, their needs, their experiences of the Spirit of Christ, and the signs he showed them of God’s kingdom.   Of course, those differences only serve to make the main character of the stories that much more compelling.  So while we find four distinctive images of Jesus in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, we have no doubt that they are all about the same person.

Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists, even atheists and agnostics, are curious about the person who inspired those stories.  Many admire his teachings and try to understand him better by making comparisons with other prophets, saints, and sages.  But what animates Christian faith is something more than curiosity and admiration.  It is more than the search for an accurate portrait of a historical figure.  It is something more even than the willingness to believe certain things about Jesus.  The heart of Christian faith in Jesus is the desire to know him as he is.  It is living and creative, because it is love infused with hope for oneself and for the world.   

In the great chapter on Christian love in First Corinthians, Saint Paul writes “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then [we will see] face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully just as I also have been fully known.”  Our desire to know Jesus is one with our hope of knowing ourselves and others as we truly are, as we are known and loved by God.  And when we look at those men and women who have cultivated that desire, and have committed more and more of themselves to the fulfillment of that hope, what we see is transformation. 

There is a story, perhaps apocryphal, that on his deathbed Lenin made this confession to a childhood friend who was a priest:
“I have made a mistake. No doubt . . . many people who were oppressed had to be freed, but our method let loose new forms of oppression and murder. You know it, and it is my deadly nightmare to feel smothered in this ocean of blood of innumerable victims. What was needed to save Russia—but now it is too late—was a dozen like Francis of Assisi.”

Whether or not this story is historically accurate, it rings true.  Because it says that no movement to transform the world will ever truly succeed unless it awakens in human beings the hope that they themselves can fundamentally change, and the power to do it.

The hope of taking revenge on their oppressors is not enough; the hope of taking control of the factory, or of the land, or even the simple hope of having enough to eat, are not enough.  These motivations will carry a revolution for a while.  But if it does not have at its heart a persuasive image of the ultimate purpose of being human, the movement will falter and lose its way.  It will be another promise broken, another dream that turned into a nightmare.   On the other hand, I know of one revolutionary movement that has kept going for two thousand years.  In spite of all its sad and shameful history of selling out and settling for less, of complacency and outright crime, it is still able, with regularity, to turn ordinary people into Francis or Clare of Assisi, into Oscar Romero, or Martin Luther King, Jr.  It can do this because it still carries within it, as its source and reason for being, the living image of Jesus and the desire to know and be known by him.

We have this image because of communities like the one that created the Gospel of Matthew, who saw in Jesus Christ what they most wanted to become, and found in him the power to transform the world.  The irony is that they had nothing of what we would account as power.  They were members of a marginal and vilified ethnic group, the Jews, who had fought and lost disastrously a war to free their nation from the tyranny of Rome.  And this particular little congregation was doubly marginalized.   Because their proclamation that the crucified Jesus of Nazareth was the resurrected Messiah of Israel, and their practice of including Gentiles among them as equals, were scandalous to their fellow Jews.  And though the Gospel never explicitly says so, it leaves clues in the text that they had been thrown out of the synagogue. 

But these painful events did not make them discouraged; they actually strengthened and amplified their hope.  They only confirmed that the things that Jesus had said were true, and that he had said those things for them.  The stories said Jesus promised to return in the glory and power of God, though about that day or hour no one could know.  But they also said that he would be with them where ever two or three were gathered in his Name, and that he would be with them until the end of the age. 

And the stories told them another thing about how Jesus would be present, a promise that was also a warning.  Because they were going to have to live for the time being in a mixed up world, a world like a field of wheat with weeds growing in it.  And they were always going to be tempted to take sides in that world’s arguments.  They were going to hear that there were nations of sheep and nations of goats, people who were favored, and entitled to kill to get what they wanted, and people who were cursed, and deserved whatever they got.  But Jesus told them that the whole human race was mixed up, that every nation was sheep and goats mixed together, and no one could sort them out until the very end, and, by the way, it would be up to him to do the sorting. 

But so they wouldn’t lose hope for the world, and become passive and turn inward, he gave them an image of himself, so they could pick him out in the crowd.  Jesus left us with an image of the ultimate purpose of being human, the same image that God showed him.  And it was not a self-image.  It was an image of God’s beloved, the key to the transformation of the world, and it was not a charismatic healer, a sinless savior, a spiritually enlightened being in a white robe and sandals.  Before he gave himself up to death on the cross, Jesus told us to seek him in the old man in the nursing home whom nobody comes to visit, to desire him in the pierced and tattooed girl on the
sidewalk with her placard and her dog, to love him in the ISIS fighter shaking his rifle and shouting “Death to the Infidels”, to care for him in the Guatemalan child on the bus to the immigrant detention center.

The violence of Matthew’s language of judgment disturbs us, but its purpose is to warn us.  Having lived through the horrors of total war, and the pain of religious schism, Matthew’s community knew well what also need to know—that any vision of our future based on the might of the strong, the wisdom of the intelligent, the purity of the self-righteous, or the prosperity of the rich, will sooner or later prove to be demonic.  And I hope that this threat of darkness won’t keep us from also seeing the light—the light of judgment that Jesus and Francis of Assisi and so many others saw and were transformed by—that when we stand with the weak, the hated, the powerless and destitute and share their hope, we take the part of God in the world.

Necessary freedom

“The Day of the Lord” is an ancient Biblical figure of speech.  It says that the God who made light arise in the darkness with the first word, will also have the last.  It says that the one who told Moses from the burning bush “I will be who I will be” was speaking the truth.  God will be who God will be and a day will come when God’s will and our becoming and the unfolding of the universe will be one and the same.   This was what gave the ancient Jews, and later, Christians, their great hope.  They saw a day of deliverance, when joy and thanksgiving would take the place of longing and suffering, and justice would no longer be deferred or denied.  It would be the day when, as the prophets said, “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea.” 

The promised Day of the Lord was also our ancestors’ greatest dread.  Because they knew that there could be no justice without judgment.  And they were deeply aware that as much as they might like to think that relative to some others they weren’t doing too badly, God’s justice would require nothing less than the absolute truth, of everything they had ever done, or thought, or said. 

Now in the modern world, this Day of the Lord no longer has the power to awaken much hope, or a lot of dread.  Maybe we think about the day of our own deaths with some mix of these feelings.  Perhaps we hope for a tunnel of white light that leads us to a reunion with the loved ones we have lost.  Maybe we dread the extinction of our ego consciousness and bodily life and fear that nothing will be left when they are gone.  But the culmination of history, in which God comes in person to set the whole creation to rights, to heal and restore all that is hurt, and lost, and broken, really doesn’t speak to us very persuasively any more.  Instead of hope or dread, what it mostly evokes in us is a kind of embarrassment.

It’s not hard to understand why.  We are painfully aware of a long history of the use of this image to threaten and cajole, to make people fearful and guilty, and then to play on their feelings to manipulate and control them.  Quite apart from the vengeful glee that some folks take in the extravagant and sometimes lurid visions of Biblical apocalypse, and even more than the low comedy of preachers who make precise predictions of the End that is near and wind up with egg on their faces when the fateful date passes with no more than the usual crimes and cruelties, I think that what makes us most uncomfortable about this day of the Lord is the shade it throws on our autonomy.

Because at the heart of our world view is the idea that we modern human beings have broken free.  The faith of our civilization is that God, if there is one, will not decide our destiny, as a species or as individual persons.  We have taken control of our fate, and will become what we create.  Our ever-expanding scientific learning and its rational application to society and the natural world, will guide the endless forward march of progress.  Advances in pharmacology, with the right attitude and therapeutic technique, will make us relaxed, confident, and happy all the time.  If we run into roadblocks we will remove them, with no divine intervention required.

Or, if we are one of those who entertain the thought of a shadow on the horizon, it is because of human factors that have gotten out of control.  Some do imagine a future of overpopulation and resource exhaustion, climate catastrophe, nuclear apocalypse, and such things, but if there is to be a reckoning it will be our reckoning with what we have done.  And the thought that God might lift this curse from us, or that these might be signs of some inevitable and irreversible transformation, seems infantile, the worst kind of religious delusion.

So it makes us embarrassed to read scriptures that suggest that there is another agenda at work here, one that is proceeding without regard to what we had planned or what we have feared.   We don’t want to consider that even though we do not comprehend the ultimate purpose of our own existence, there is one, and it will reckon with us, whether we reckoned with it, or not.  And we certainly don’t care to hear that it is there for us to find in the Bible.

I have a guilty little secret to tell you.  On the day I was ordained to the priesthood, right at the beginning of the ordination service, I knelt on a cushion at the altar rail at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, along with eight other people.  And the bishop came to each of us in turn, and the archdeacon of the Diocese of California held out a pen and a stiff folder containing a piece of paper for me to sign.  And there, in front of the bishop, and my family, and a few hundred other clergy and lay witnesses, I signed my name to a declaration that read: “I do believe the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation.”

Which I find to be a really elegant, and very Anglican, way of handling this sensitive but crucial matter.  You notice it doesn’t say that all the words of the Bible are the words of God, just that the whole thing altogether is the Word.  It doesn’t even foreclose the possibility that there might be things outside of it that can be extremely helpful.  It just says that everything that you really need to know is there.  It suggests that there is something necessary and inevitable about the Bible—again that embarrassing threat to our autonomy—but it also suggests that we have the freedom to discover for ourselves what is in it that we need.

That combination of necessity and freedom pretty well describes the path that the Bible asks us to take, what the Prayer Book ordination rite calls “salvation.”  On the one hand there is the warning that the things we are pursuing are not the things that really matter, and the things that do matter will be all that’s left standing in the end.   On the other hand, it says, here’s what you need to know to get back on track.  But instead of spelling it out for us in a simple formula, the Bible gives us rules about agricultural practices, and racy love poetry.  It gives us political polemics and grief-stricken laments, puns and proverbs, histories and folktales, dreams and nightmares.  Most of all it gives us a story. 

And a story that is moving towards an end is a story that means something.  It is always open to new interpretation and new information because it has faith in the skill and wisdom of the supreme author, to tie up all the loose ends.  That hope is what gives ultimate importance to all the myriad details of the story itself.  It says our lives have meaning, and the actions we take matter, and that we are more than bubbles drifting on the surface of the void, waiting to our turn to burst.  We are part of God’s story, with significance not just for this fleeting moment but for all eternity.

That suggests a lot of responsibility, but it is a responsibility that comes along with an extraordinary freedom.   This is the freedom of the apostolic communities, who found in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus a new way to imagine the whole story, from beginning to end.  They saw that the Day of the Lord will be his day, the full revelation of his purpose to gather people from every family, tribe, language and nation into the kingdom that is already present in his body and blood.  This is also the freedom of the slaves in the Gospel parable, whose master entrusted them with huge sums, and then went away and left them to do with it what they will.  It is a big responsibility, but it is only too much for the one who fears and distrusts the master, the one who buries his treasure in a hole in the ground, because he thinks that not being punished is the best he can hope to do.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

A Vision for St. John's

First published in The Beloved Disciple, the monthly newsletter of St. John's Episcopal Church, Petaluma:

People sometimes ask me what my vision is for St. John’s.  It’s been a hard question to answer because a vision takes time to develop, and time to communicate.  It is not a plan of action, but a description of where we hope our actions will take us.  It isn’t about what we will do so much as about who we will be.  As priest and pastor, it is part of my job do articulate a vision, but it can’t be just something I think up on my own—it has to be something I listen for, in what others are saying, in my own heart, and in the conversations between us.  During the four years I’ve been here we’ve had a lot of conversations about what matters most, and what we hope we are becoming.  I have tried to listen carefully to what’s been said.  And during this year’s season of discernment, I’ve made time for conversations with trusted friends about what I’ve learned and what inspires me to want to make a new commitment to the work of this congregation.  I’ve also done some listening to what is being said in the wider Episcopal Church about its challenges and opportunities for the future.
What follows is the fruit of these conversations.  It is a personal statement, and I don’t claim to speak for everyone at St. John’s.  But I offer it to you in the hope that some part or parts of it will speak to you, and illuminate your vision for the parish. 

St. John’s is a place where people are drawn by the love of God, called to seek the divine image in themselves and one another; uniting in praise and thanksgiving at Christ’s table, in contemplation and discernment, and in active works of wisdom, justice, beauty, and truth, we share here on earth in the joys of heaven.  It is a place from which each of us is sent to find the unique vocation that grows from our responsibilities and gifts, and to play our part in the mission of Christ to the world.  We are a circle from which no one who is not a danger to others is excluded, in which every voice is heard, and every truth respected, where no one is above criticism, and no one is beyond hope.
We foster a religious culture devoted to the maturation of our spiritual gifts and the satisfaction of our deepest needs by the grace of God—through taking creative risks, telling the truth, making repentance, seeking reconciliation, and empowering one another for servant-leadership in the world.  We take nourishment from the testimony of the Hebrew prophets and sages and the Apostolic communities; from the teaching and example of holy women and men of the past and present; from the riches of Christian tradition in music and the arts, mysticism, theology, and social action; from our membership in a worldwide communion of Anglican brothers and sisters, and the ecumenical body of Christ; from the rhythms of the hours and the church year, and the sacramental elements of grace.  
We are a place for joyous worship, with strong participation by people of all ages, representing the cultural diversity of our community, and bringing the talents of many leaders together in stirring, centering, prayerful, and purposeful celebrations of the Holy Spirit.  We are a learning community practicing the arts of peace—compassionate dialogue, open inquiry, and courageous discipleship.  We seek personal encounter across social, political, and religious barriers, in the shared pursuit of mutual understanding and the common good.  We offer space for a deeper and kindlier look at the world in which we live, where simplicity and faith allow us to hear the voice of the earth, of our bodies, and of the heart, and to take reverent and practical steps to restore the balance of the world.
We are wise and loving stewards of the goods we receive, cherishing the past and preparing for the future without illusions about either, but placing our trust in God’s covenant faithfulness, the truth of the Gospel, and the resilience of creation.

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.