Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Particular people, particular places

Yesterday afternoon at four, eight human beings and one small dog set out from the front door of St. John’s to make a procession through the streets of Petaluma.  Chanting litanies and canticles and psalms, we walked to the community garden between the Cavanaugh Rec Center and the ball fields at McNear Park, where we read scriptures and said prayers and sang hymns and chants, and made a sacred circle dance, to bless the garden and the people who tend it.  This is our second year doing this, reviving a Christian tradition that goes back to the fifth century, of going out of the church at this time of the year and processing around the neighborhood to pray for its health and well-being, and especially, for temperate weather, and the fertility of the earth, and an abundant harvest.  
To be honest, a month or so ago I had decided that, as much as I enjoyed last year’s event, and would like to repeat it, I just had too much on my plate.  But that was before Francis Frazier came to talk to me about the Community Resilience Challenge.  This is a grassroots campaign that’s been going on this spring, with the majority of events happening this weekend.  It aims to inspire thousands of Sonoma County citizens and groups to take actions to save water, grow food, conserve energy, reduce waste and build community.  And as Frances and I talked about how our church might participate in this effort, it became clear that the Rogation Procession and blessing of the community garden was the very thing to fit the bill.   But not only did we decide to repeat last year’s event—we expanded on it.  To generate more goodwill and participation from the community, Frances got her son Miguel to truck his handmade mobile wood-fired oven onto the community garden site, and we invited the gardeners to join us after the blessing ceremony for a potluck pizza party, courtesy of St. John’s Episcopal Church.
It was my job to plan the liturgy, and as I went to work on it I ran into a familiar problem, the problem of how to pray and worship in public as a Christian.  The Bible, the Prayer Book, and the hymnals of the church give us a wealth of beautiful material for a service like this.  We have litanies and psalms, canticles and parables that beautifully express a sacred vision of the wholeness of the world.  In texts that blend images of wild nature, human husbandry, and the realm of the divine, they speak profoundly of our faith in the goodness of creation, our gratitude for God’s merciful providence, and our desire to be restored to unity with all.   But this language is unmistakably religious—Biblical and Christian. 
And when I imagined our neighbors at the McNear Community Garden, and the sort of people who would feel drawn to participate in the Community Resilience Challenge, I worried that this language might offend.  It turns out I worried about it too much.  There was only one person who was not a member of our congregation who came to the church for the procession.  There were only a couple more who joined us for the ritual at the garden, and if our Christian prayers made them uncomfortable, they were too polite to say.  There were a few folks working in the garden when we got there, and they kept a respectful distance while we did our religious thing.  But when the prayers were over they came and joined us, and others arrived in force.  And it was then, in breaking handmade wood-fired gluten-free pizza crust together, that we found a joyful common ground.
It turns out our neighbors could take care of themselves.  They did not take part in our religious activity, and so our religious language could not offend them.  And yet they seemed genuinely glad that we had come.  Our singing, in particular, came in for several appreciative comments.  One fellow, who had continued preparing his beds all the while our ritual was going on, came up to me after it was over, and I’d already removed my vestments, and asked if I would bless his seed potatoes before he covered them with soil.  So I grabbed my holy water and started sprinkling, while speaking an impromptu, non-sectarian potato-blessing prayer.
Yesterday’s experience got me to wondering about why it is I feel I have to be so careful about other people’s feelings when it comes to practicing my religion.  If you think about it, if we had been a group of Buddhist monks or Native American elders who had come to the community garden to bless the site and what goes on there, our neighbors might have regarded us with curiosity, or thought we were kind of quaint,  or mysterious.  But they also would have felt tickled, and maybe a little honored, that this exotic little tribe thought enough of what they are doing in that place to come and perform their traditional ceremony. 
But then again, it is no secret that ours is not just one religion alongside other religions.  Our Bible states that clearly again and again, and there are plenty of our fellow Christians who keep demanding, even in this secular, multi-cultural and pluralistic age, that nobody forget it.  And for some of us that’s an embarrassment.  We want to be liked.  We just want everyone to get along.  We think of ourselves as the good guys, and don’t care to be tarred with the brush of the conquistadors and witch-burners, the religious bigots and theocrats and fundamentalists.
The Bible does say that God is one, is universal.  But it also says that the great creator of all the worlds has a particular purpose for this one.  And in order to bring about that purpose, God intervenes in this world in particular places and times. God speaks and acts through particular persons, a particular family, one particular nation.  And so the Bible give us, not myths about divine beings, but human stories—the stories of Adam and Eve, Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, David and Bathsheba.  It give us the words of the prophets, who speak to specific events in the economic, political, and military fortunes of Israel, as moments of decisive importance to God.  And this strange way of thinking about how God relates to the world is, of course, what gets us to what the New Testament says about Jesus.
As Christians we say that Jesus is the particular and personal revelation of who God really is, how God really acts.  But our circumstances today force us to ask whether this necessarily excludes the possibility that God acts in other places, in other persons, in other true and noble paths to the higher kind of human life.  And what we are coming to is that what other people think and believe is not really any of our business.  If they are redeemed by Christ, as we believe, it would hardly do to force that redemption upon them in a way that does violence to their cultures and their consciences.  It would not be consistent with the teaching and example of him who said “The one who would be great among you must be last of all and servant of all, for the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
We say that Christ is ascended into heaven, and he is the universal Lord.  But his Lordship is hidden in God.  How he exercises it, and in what way it is universal, is beyond us.  It is not like the rule of the powers of this world.  All we are responsible for is the particular calling that the man Jesus of Nazareth has on our lives.  And that is something we cannot respond to in general terms.  Christ calls us to be faithful as unique persons with our own families and histories and gifts: in this particular community where we encounter him in word and sacrament; in the context of the particular place that we, as Episcopalian Christians, occupy in the cultural, political, and religious landscape of Petaluma, California in the year of Our Lord 2 Thousand Fifteen.
And that means practicing our religion without the consolation of being approved of by our neighbors.  It means letting go even of the satisfaction of damning them for all eternity if they don’t.  It means letting go of any expectation that they will join us, but seeking common ground with them even as we remain rooted in our own particular calling, knowing that if there is any trace of coercion or manipulation in the way that we relate to them, they will sniff it out and shun us like the plague.  It means going into the world as Jesus prayed we would, as those who don’t belong to the world, but who seek the world’s salvation that can only come from God.  
It’s a demanding dance, so Jesus does two things for us before he goes up to heaven.  Today’s gospel lesson tells us that he makes a prayer, a prayer that we will be protected from the Evil One, who is always trying to turn our dance with the world into a war.  And he makes a promise, a promise to send us the Holy Spirit to teach us the steps of the dance.
He makes a promise  

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Pruned into the shape of Christ

For fifteen years before I became a priest I was a farmer and a gardener.  I worked on a 15-acre organic produce farm near the coast in West Marin, and a two-acre vacant lot next to a public housing project by the freeway in San Francisco.  I eventually started my own organic gardening business serving residential customers.  Doing business as Green Man Gardening I did a little bit of everything from weeding and raking leaves to designing and installing landscapes, stonework, and irrigation systems.  But the thing I found that I loved the most to do was pruning trees—fruit trees, in particular. 
The thing about pruning trees is that it is a conversation.  You prune the tree in winter and then you step back and you wait to see how it responds.  Over time the conversation deepens.  You get to where you make a cut thinking about what the tree is going to do, not the next year, but the year after that, or the year after that.  There were trees in yards in San Francisco that I pruned for almost ten years, and as time went on, and my understanding of those trees grew, they assumed something closer and closer to what you might call the “right” form.  It was a shape that emerged not out of an idea in my mind, and not out of the spontaneous pattern of the tree’s growth, but out of a dialogue between the two.
And the more that happens the less pruning that’s required.  It got to be so that I could do the winter pruning on some of those trees in less than an hour, where at first it might have taken half a day.  The dead wood and crossing branches and sucker limbs that I found when I first started caring for them were long gone, and they had an open, many-tiered structure.  This allowed for good air circulation and let sunlight fall on the lower limbs as well as the ones at the top.  I thought those trees were beautiful, and I was as proud of them as if they were works of art that I had made.  They also happened to yield large crops of good-sized, disease-free fruit.
The Gospel of John imagines that this is how God interacts with us.  God is a vinegrower, as translated in our version, although the Greek original says “farmer.”  The actual word is “Georgos,” which is where the name “George” comes from, and literally it means “one who works the earth.”  I point this out because I like the connotations of that word.  John’s vision of God is of one who works the earth, a God who doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty, who is involved down here on earth with us.  God works with us the way a farmer works with the vines in her vineyard, the same way that I used to work with those trees.  She makes her cuts, shortening a branch here, removing a branch there, and then waits for us to grow in response.

Not that we particularly like being pruned.  I think I was about twelve or thirteen when I became aware of a growing sense of restlessness, impatience and frustration.  It wasn’t about what was happening in my life, as much as it was about what wasn’t happening.  As adolescents we start to feel the full scope of our potential.  We desire to grow, to expand, to learn, and to make our mark on the world; and that makes us that much more dissatisfied with the limitations of life as it is, with being an ordinary thirteen year-old kid living with his parents and his brothers, going to school, with chores to do, and homework, and a long way to go to be a man.  That struggle between yearning for growth and acceptance of limits, is, I suppose, the great theme of the never-ending process we call “growing up.”
But it feels very different now from how it did when I was thirteen.  I’ve gotten sick, like I am today, and been injured, and had my heart broken.  I’ve done a hundred stupid things that I’m lucky didn’t get me killed.  I’ve taken wrong turns, and I’ve failed.  I’ve sinned and hurt people and had to ask for their forgiveness.  I’ve struggled to forgive those who’ve sinned against me.  I’ve had to work for a living—for almost twenty years it was at hard physical labor.  So you could say I’ve been chastened.  You could say the hard knocks of life have taught me to lower my expectations, and you wouldn’t be completely wrong.
But that’s not the whole story, because along the way I’ve learned lessons that are not just about swallowing disappointment or giving up on the dreams of youth.  They are lessons about how much you can learn when you devote yourself to something in a sustained and disciplined way for a long time, whether it’s an art, or a profession, or a relationship.  They are lessons about how you can grow when you make the decision that where you are right now, and what you are doing, and who you are with, has everything to give you—if not everything you want, then everything you really need.  The lessons that actually change us for the better and make us more mature are not only about what is realistic, but also about what is possible when you are willing to make the effort, and take the risk, to love.     
The gospel talks about the branches that do not abide in Christ, how they are cut and thrown away, how they wither, and are gathered up and burned.  We hear these words and they make us afraid, because they sound to us like punishment.  And that is, in fact, how we often interpret the things that happen in our lives that cut us back, the defeats and injuries and losses that cause us to suffer, and that we struggle to accept.  But we read in the 1st Letter of John that the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ reveals that God is not a punishing Father who ought to be feared.  The Father of Jesus Christ is a God who works the earth, a God who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty.  This is a God of love, love that casts out the fear of punishment.  

Jesus promises, “If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you,” but when he says this he’s not talking about the kind of wishes I had when I was thirteen.  He is not talking about our wish to be exempted from the trials and difficulties that going along with life here in this world.  He is not talking about desire for superiority and the admiration of others.  This is not some kind of magic spell for turning straw into gold, or frogs into princes.
He is talking about growing up into Christ, the growth that begins at baptism.  Today we mark the beginning of that growth for Abigail Josephine Johnson.   It would be nice to be able to say to Abbie, and to her parents and godparents, that now her troubles are over, but that is not what baptism means—not exactly.   What it does mean is that, for Abbie, as for all of us, those troubles don’t have to be meaningless.  Because God is working on us, is working in us, and with us.  And because God is love, and in love he sent his Son to suffer with us, even our worst traumas and failures don’t have to mean that we are punished.  They don’t have to be the final judgment on our lives.  In a manner we can’t exactly explain, we can make peace with our sufferings, as what prune us into the shape of Christ.  They are how our own free will and spontaneous growth become infused with his mission, how we take on his commitment to being rooted in the earth and to lovingly, patiently bear fruit for the Kingdom of God. 

And if we stay with this journey, what we wish for changes.  Instead of desiring to have things for ourselves, we wish for what we can become for others.  We still yearn for what popular psychology calls “personal growth” but we understand that the growth that will make us truly happy and free, really full of life, is growth in connection.  Our longing is to have love and understanding, compassion for and insight into the needs of others, and skill and wisdom to truly help them.  The desire we learn from Jesus is to be a person through whom other people let go of fear, and receive God’s love and forgiveness.  And when that is what we truly wish for, the promise says, our lives bear fruit—fruit that will last.

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.