Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Where we really are

There was a lot I didn’t know when I went to the Rector of my old church of St. Gregory’s in San Francisco and told him I thought, maybe, I was called to be a priest.  I didn’t know much about the Bible, or the history of the church, or how it was organized, and what the life of a minister was really like.  I certainly didn’t know anything about the ordination process, and if I had, I might never have had the courage to start.  Because the truth is I was afraid to tell my secret even to my friend the Rector—this secret I’d been keeping even from myself.  I was afraid of what he might say, and how I might feel.  I was afraid I was mistaken, and afraid that I was not.  Most of all I was afraid to be seen.
And the process of becoming a priest requires that you be willing to be seen.  You go through all these formal interviews with the parish Discernment Committee and the Diocesan Commission on Ministry, and the Standing Committee and the Bishop.  You get evaluated by a psychologist.  Each time you meet with these people you’re trying to articulate your vision of yourself as a priest, but it’s extremely awkward because all the while you’re wondering if it’s real, and you know that they are, too.  Because the way we understand the call to ordination in the Episcopal Church is that my own internal sense of being called is not enough.  Other people have to see it, too. 

I had a friend at St. Gregory’s who chaired the committee of lay people in the parish that met with me over a year or more to talk with me about that call, and hosted the meetings at her home.  And I’ll never forget the time, after I’d preached maybe my third or fourth Sunday sermon, when she came up to me and said, “This time I saw that you could be my priest.”  I could not have made it through in the ordination process or my subsequent years of life as a priest without moments like that one, when someone else could see what I had lost sight of, or doubted was anything more than a mirage.

You can see something like this in the story of the call of Samuel.   Samuel is serving as a kind of apprentice to a priest named Eli in the temple at Shiloh, and one night The Lord calls to Samuel as he is lying down to sleep, and the boy runs to Eli to see what he wants.  The priest tells him to go back to bed, because he had not called him.  And the call comes a second time, and again Samuel runs to Eli, and again Eli tells Samuel that he had not called.  But when it happens a third time, Eli has the wisdom to see what was going on, and he tells Samuel that it is the Lord who is calling.  Samuel was called to be a prophet, but to set out on his path he needed Eli to see him and recognize the calling for what it was.

I believe that all of us need to be seen in order to find our calling.  It is as true for teachers and scientists, nurses and bankers, artists and farmers, as it is for prophets and priests.  It’s true of professions, but it’s just as true of other, more personal callings, as parents and spouses and friends.  Because no matter who we are—what kind of family we have, or work we do, no matter what our talents, or disadvantages, or aspirations might be—we do not earn our lives by our efforts, or take them by cunning or by force.   We receive them as a gift.   

There is a voice calling out to each of us to accept the gift of our own true life.  There is a vision in the mind of God of who each one of us is, and of who we are becoming.  That is why it is such a blessing to meet someone who can speak to us with that voice, who is able to see that vision.  A person like that gives us faith in the gift of ourselves—the power to embrace it, and come fully alive.

The stories in the Gospels about Jesus’ calling his disciples only make sense when you understand that he was that kind of person.  It seems unbelievable that Nathaniel’s skepticism (“can anything good come out of Nazareth”) should change so dramatically to whole-hearted belief, unless you imagine this kind of experience of being seen.  When Jesus says to Nathanael “I saw you under the fig tree” I don’t think the point is that he is clairvoyant.   That wouldn’t be enough to make Nathaniel call him “Rabbi, Son of God, King of Israel.” To me, it’s the fig tree that’s the key.
Because under the fig tree is not just someplace Nathaniel happened to be hanging out before Philip came to tell him about Jesus.  This is a passage that is dense with references to the Hebrew scriptures, and in those scriptures under the fig tree is the place of freedom, fulfillment, and peace.  The classic text would be the book of Micah, Chapter 4:
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
   and their spears into pruning-hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
   neither shall they learn war any more;
but they shall all sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees,
   and no one shall make them afraid

And I think Nathanael’s fig tree takes us even deeper into the heart of the scriptures, all the way back to the Garden and the fruit of the forbidden tree, to a moment of seeing and being seen:
Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together and made loincloths for themselves.

What blows Nathaniel’s mind is that Jesus reminds him of a moment under the fig tree, a moment of being seen naked, of knowing the presence of an other with whom there can be no pretense or deceit, one who knows him as he really is; one who, at the same time, frees him from fear, makes him self-sufficient and at peace.  When Nathanael meets Jesus, he remembers that moment, and his eyes are opened to recognize the one who saw him there.

Becoming a disciple of Jesus, this story seems to say, happens when we see him as the one who sees us, as we really are.  And, as I said, the person who can do that has given us the gift of our lives.  But in the story Jesus also promises Nathanael that he will see something even greater.  He makes one more reference to the Hebrew Bible, to the legend of Jacob’s who fell asleep on a journey and dreamed of a ladder on the earth reaching to heaven and angels coming and going on it.  And he woke up and said, “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it.  How awesome is this place!  This is the gate of heaven.”  And he set up an altar there and called it Bethel, the house of God.        

The call to follow Jesus starts out innocuously enough—someone says “come and see.”  And if we go and see, we soon find out that we are being seen.  We see that we are naked, with nothing on but some fig leaves.  But we also start to see a vision of the person we are truly called to be, who we are when we are not afraid, when we want for nothing, but are at peace.  We begin to recognize the one who sees that person more clearly than we do ourselves, and to trust his vision more than our own.   

As that trust grows in us, a light of hope is kindled in our hearts, the hope of seeing something even greater.  We begin to sense that we are standing on holy ground.  We begin to glimpse a vision not only of ourselves but of the whole world as it is seen through the eyes of Jesus.  We begin to understand that this very place is the house of God, and gate of heaven.  And this vision, and this hope, gives us a new calling, one that unites all our individual vocations in the calling of the church.   It has two, interdependent parts. The first is worship.  And the second is to show the whole world where we really are.    

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Original grace

When I was in my early thirties, I decided to get baptized.  I’d been thinking about it for a few years, ever since I’d discovered that I couldn’t become a Zen Buddhist priest because I was actually a Christian.  And for a time I considered organizing a baptism for myself.  I could ask my father, an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ, to perform the rite, and invite a few family members and friends to the shore of the Pacific Ocean, or the banks of the irrigation pond on the farm where I was working.  But the more I thought about it, and the more I learned about this strange thing called Christianity, the clearer it became that baptism wasn’t just something for me.  And it wasn’t about becoming a Christian in some general sense, or undergoing some kind of metaphysical change.   It was about becoming part of something made of flesh and blood.  It was about joining a community.

So it was only later, after attending Episcopal churches for a few years, and finding one in San Francisco where I felt I could belong, that I decided it was time.  So I signed up for a class, which involved going with a few other folks over to the Rector’s house for dinner and a conversation.  The only thing I remember well about that evening, besides the delicious catered meal, was that, along with a couple of us candidates who were adults, there was a young mother, who came on behalf of her infant daughter.  We were going around the table explaining why we were considering baptism at this time, and what we thought it might mean for us, and when it was the mother’s turn, she spoke about the importance of family tradition, and her desire to give her child a religious foundation for life. 
But then her voice rose and she got really quite passionate, as she began to lodge a strenuous objection to the doctrine of original sin.  She was outraged at the thought that her beautiful, perfect little child was somehow deep-dyed wicked at the core, and needed to have this congenital taint washed out of her, and to be born anew.  And the rest of us around the table, including the priest, had to agree, because, after all, when you put it like that, it really doesn’t make a lot of sense.   
Now I have some doubts about whether that young woman was reacting against real classical Christian doctrine, or a one-sided misinterpretation of it, but that’s not really the issue.  Because she had a point—if baptism is about the difference it makes to live our lives with God, but the accent is all on a heightened sense of worthlessness and guilt, then why bother?  Shouldn’t it be more about love and grace?  And if it is about a life lived in communion, of membership in a body, why focus such a harsh light of interrogation on the individual person?   It’s a distortion of perspective, and it yields a grotesque image, which is plain to see when the person in question is a child. 

This is a good example of why it's good to come to church, because in church we get to balance out our theological ideas about things like baptism with the actual practice.  We get to look into the face of a stranger, a newcomer to the community, and recognize ourselves.   The words we say and the actions we take when we baptize are about acknowledging what we all have in common.  They are about our shared humanity in God.   Baptism illuminates what it truly means to be human, but what it reveals is not a philosophical paradigm or a collective entity or a universal archetype, but the life and death of a person. 
When we baptize someone we call her by name, because the relationship of the baptized to the baptized is a relationship of persons, each one of whom is utterly unique, unprecedented, with a face and a path and a story unlike anyone’s who’s ever lived before.  But we also baptize everyone in the name of Jesus, the only Son, the human person whose life and death and resurrection shows us how each one of our stories, and all our stories together, are the story of God.   Now people are always looking for new and different ways to get that point across, ways that they think will be more direct, approachable, or user-friendly.  But the best way, I think, certainly the time-tested way, is to come together to listen to the story of Jesus.

There are different versions, and some of the versions have prologues.  For the last three weeks or so we’ve been listening to bits and pieces of those.  But all the versions agree that the main story begins with baptism.  A man named John appeared in the wilderness by the Jordan River, telling people that God was about to make a new start with everyone, so they’d better get ready.  And apparently a lot of them agreed that a new start was necessary.  I gather things weren’t going all that well in Judea and Jerusalem, because the inhabitants of those places out in droves to meet John, and they confessed all the things they had done to participate in the violence and injustice, the callous self-righteousness and self-promotion, the self-indulgence and escapism that plagued society at large. 
And as a sign of their desire to put all that behind them and make a new start with God, they waded out into the river, and John put them under with loving ferocity, pushed them down into the dark, cold, turbid water and held them there until they started to feel fear, started to really know just how close they were to nothingness, and how much they would give for just one breath of air.  And then the force of John’s strong hands reversed direction and lifted their faces up out of the water into light and breath and freedom.
And one of those, the story says, who came to be baptized, was Jesus from Nazareth in Galilee.  He heard John’s call to repent, a word that in our minds is linked with guilt.  But Jesus had nothing to confess.  His repentance must have been driven by something else: compassion, maybe, for his people; a sense of responsibility; a desire to be part of the movement of renewal; a longing for God.  In any case, Jesus gave himself over into the hands of John and went down into the river.  And when he came up everything changed. 
It wasn’t that he had changed—nothing had been added to him or taken away.  It was more like God changed.  God who had been hidden, far away in heaven, threw back the curtains.  God who had been silent, spoke.  God’s elusive Spirit, the maker of justice, the wisdom of creation, the vision of truth, came over him with wings of peace.  In that moment Jesus knew who he really was, and what he had to do.  Because this God of grace and love was not for him, but in him.  The immortal, invisible God had a visible, mortal face, and it was his face.
In this story of the beginning we can already glimpse the pattern of the whole: a life of repentance (or maybe we should call it “atonement”) for the sickness and suffering of the world, that is not preoccupied with sin and guilt, but abounding in solidarity, compassion, and joy; a personal revelation of God’s grace and intimate love; a movement of the Spirit, pouring out active, creative, healing, and liberating communication.   This is the pattern of the whole story of Jesus, and the fact that we can see the pattern right at the beginning is no mistake, because baptism is where his story converges with our own. 

Baptism is where our lives are incorporated into Jesus’ pattern, and that is why it matters, even if it happened to you as an infant, and you can’t remember a thing about it.  If there was even one person present that day that looked at you in your little white gown, kicking your legs and crying, and saw a recipient of God’s grace and love, it had its intended effect.  Because the choice that matters in our baptism is not our choice, just as it is not we who created the heavens and earth, or who gave us birth, or we who redeems our lives from death.  But though baptism is the revelation to the world of God’s life in us, conscious cooperation with that life is something we do choose day by day, hour by hour, moment by moment.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

It's a given

The summer I was eighteen, I went on a 21-day course at the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School.  I had just decided to take a leave of absence from college, even though I was doing well academically.   But, you see, that was part of my difficulty.  Doing well in school a given, and had been ever since I arrived at kindergarten already knowing how to read.  I’d skipped second grade.  My high school awarded me various academic honors.  I’d received early admission to my first choice of colleges, and after a rocky freshman year I’d made the Dean’s list as a sophomore.  If I’d wanted any of these things I might have been proud of them, but I hadn’t.  It was just what came naturally to me. 
People called me “smart,” but I didn’t feel smart.  They people applauded my academic success, but it wasn’t anything I wanted.   I didn’t know what I wanted, or who I was, or what to do with my life, but I did know I wasn’t going to learn the answers to these questions from a book or in a classroom.  Luckily, my parents understood at least a little of this, and they packed me off to an outdoor education and adventure program to sail around the coastal wilderness of Maine. 
And there I got to experience myself in a way I never had before.  I’d grown up the third of four boys.  In fourteen years of school I’d always been the youngest person in my class, usually by a wide margin.  But on the Outward Bound course I was with other kids my own age—many of them were younger than me.  And while they were still in high school, or had just graduated, I’d already completed two years of college.  To them I wasn’t the smart kid; I was the strong one, the capable and mature one.  I found, for the first time in my life, to my complete surprise, that I was a leader.    

We often think of ourselves as molded into a set shape by the unchanging “givens” of our lives.   Our ethnic background and genetic makeup, our cultural traditions and national and religious identities, the circumstances of our families of origin and early life experiences, make us who we are.  So do the choices we have made, and the habits we have picked up, not to mention the mysterious ingrained qualities of temperament and those involuntary feelings and thoughts and behaviors that we sum up with the term “human nature.”  We put all those “givens” together in a story, a story we tell ourselves and others about us, and that is who we are.
But the gift that Christmas brings us is a new given.  It is given, not by the history of the past or the circumstances of the present but by the grace of God.  Christmas begins a new story of what it means to be human, a story of what we are destined to become in Jesus Christ.   One of the ways that the New Testament talks about the impact of this new story on our lives is to say that it is like finding out we were adopted.   To really accept the gift of the coming of Christ into the world is like learning that what we thought was given, about ourselves and our place in the world,  is incorrect at the most fundamental level.  We aren’t who we thought we were, because, really, we were adopted.  We are God’s adopted children.

When a new and unexpected story overtakes the one we take for granted it can be an unsettling, even a frightening experience.  In the gospel of Matthew, when the wise men from the East appear, asking to see the newborn king of the Jews, Herod is afraid.  He is afraid because, without even knowing it, these foreigners have stirred up a ghost that he has worked his whole life to put to rest.  For Herod, the old hope of a new king of Israel, from the royal line of David, was a quaint legend for old women and country rubes.  His game was Roman imperial politics and the rule of terror, and he’d played it well enough to hold on to power for close to forty years.  He’s murdered all his rivals, and outlived the others, and he’s ready to pass on his throne to his sons were ready to succeed him on, and now, these outlandish messengers appear with their dangerous fairy tale.
And “all Jerusalem,” says the gospel, is frightened with him.  Because Herod is not the kind of person you wanted to be around when he gets upset, but also because this is news they’d long ago decided they would never hear.  The chief priests and the scribes know very well that Herod is not from the lineage of David, is not even ethnically a Jew.   They know how deeply he is hated and feared by the common people of the land, but they have learned how to stay on his good side, and have done very well for themselves on his patronage and his cozy relationship with Rome.  They have their given role, soothing the people’s seething unrest, and placating Herod’s tendency to violent outbursts of repression.  And now the arrival of the Magi threatens to upset this fragile peace.
I think the author of Matthew knew exactly what he was doing, weaving all these political implications into his story.  It’s how he sets the stage for the conflict that will center on the ministry of Jesus and culminate in his death.  But this story also lifts the curtain on a new revelation of God, one that calls age-old “givens” of religion into question.  Because Matthew, of all the gospel authors, is the most explicit in grounding his story in the Scriptures.   He quotes the Hebrew Bible at every opportunity, showing how the details of Jesus’ life fulfill the sayings of the prophets.  We have an example of this in today’s Gospel lesson, when the scribes quote the book of Micah to tell Herod that the Messiah is to be born in Bethlehem. 

But the biblical knowledge of the scribes wouldn’t have mattered if the Magi hadn’t come.   And the Magi are not scholars of the Hebrew scriptures.  They are Zoroastrian priests and astrologers from the country we now call Iran.  They have not come because of reading the scrolls of the prophets, but find their way into the story following a star.  From a thousand miles away, across great deserts and rivers and mountain ranges, across the frontiers of warring empires, the Magi saw God’s new sign.  By their esoteric wisdom, they knew it for what it was, and set out on the long and dangerous journey.  Carrying their precious offerings,  they followed the glory of the star until it led them to the greater glory of the face of the Beloved Son of God.  They gazed for few moments of wonder and adoration into that face, and then, just as mysteriously as they came, they were gone. 
But they are in the story long enough to reveal something essential about Christmas.  In the strange new light of their star, religion can no longer be a power struggle over givens.  Who has the royal blood, who owns Jerusalem and the Temple, who controls the interpretation of the Bible—the new given that is Christ is not concerned with anything like that.  Because Christmas is the point of departure for a pilgrimage of grace, a journey following the call of hope toward the face-to-face encounter with the glory of God.  
The New Testament is all about this journey, this grace-filled path that leads from glory to glory. It reveals a new kind of person, says the Letter to the Ephesians, living in a new kind of community, called the church. Many of us don’t think about the church this way.  We look at it and see a whole lot of givens—lectionary texts and liturgical calendars, prayer books and hymnals, old buildings of glass and wood and stone, committees and by-laws and denominational structures—all of it stamping us into a mold of givens from in the past.  But all of these things are really just accessories to the essential work of the church, the essential life of Christian people, which is praise and thanksgiving for the unfolding blessings of God.  We gather to remember a story, but it is God’s story that reveals who we really are,  what we are becoming more and more— God’s own adopted children.  And of all the things in this world that’s the only one that’s really a given.

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.