Sunday, August 16, 2015

The way of wisdom

I had lunch the other day with a friend whose 18 year-old granddaughter was struck and killed by a car in June while jogging near her home in Mill Valley.  He told me about what happened, and its aftermath, and of his struggle to make sense of it.  And he said that he’d kept thinking about all the time that she wouldn’t have, all the life that she wouldn’t live, all the years she should have been in the world but wouldn’t be.  And the injustice and flat-out wrongness of it was heavy on his heart and made him angry at God.  But then, he said, something shifted in his thinking, and he stopped brooding on his granddaughter’s death, and began to remember her life.  Instead of dwelling on her absence, he began to give thanks for her presence.  And about that time she came to him in a sort of waking dream, and he knew that God had not abandoned her, had not forsaken him.
We like to think that God is wise, by which we mean that God knows the right thing to do, and does it.  And if we are good and sincere people, we might hope that God will give us wisdom, too. The biblical figure who traditionally exemplifies this wisdom is Solomon.  Solomon, who, thanks to the crafty politicking of his mother Bathsheba, won out over all his brothers and succeeded his father David on the throne of Israel.  The story says that he was young and inexperienced and overwhelmed by the responsibility of governing the nation, so he went and made sacrifices to God.  And though Solomon sacrificed in the wrong places, God answered his prayers anyway.  God came to Solomon him in a dream and asked what he could do for him, and Solomon didn’t ask for long life or riches, or to be rid of his enemies, but for understanding and discernment, so that he might make wise judgements and be a good king.
The idea that God is the source of wisdom, and desires to teach that wisdom to us, is one of the great themes in the theology of the Bible.  The scriptures not only say that God has created the world, and called Abraham and Sarah and their descendants to be his people; God has not only made a covenant with them, and liberated them from bondage; has not only brought them into a good land, and driven out other nations before them, so that they might dwell there in safety and peace; but God has also given them laws, ordinances, and commandments so that they might gain understanding and learn how to choose what is right.  

The anti-Jewish polemic in the New Testament has caused us to think of the religion of Jesus as legalistic, as if the point of the law in the Hebrew Bible was to follow the rules literally and exactly, so that in doing so, God would find you righteous and favor you.  Of course, that’s one way to interpret it, but that legalistic streak runs through all religions.  There are a lot of Christians who read the Bible as a set of laws, absolute obedience to which, is our ticket to heaven.  But if you read widely in the Bible you find a lot of places, especially in the Psalms, that speak of a very different understanding of the law. 
This is the view that the commandments are the handiwork of God, much like the created world and the great acts of salvation history.   They are not simply arbitrary requirements, but they reveal that God’s purposes are faithful and true.  The point for us is not simply to obey the letter of the law, though that is important, but to study the statutes of God, to keep them in one’s heart and meditate upon them, to delight in them and allow them to illuminate one’s path in life, so that, in time, one might gain insight into the mind that gave them.  It is the contemplation of the awesome grandeur, the sublime justice, the boundless compassion and mercy of that mind, that the Bible calls “the fear of the Lord.”  It is called “fear” not so much because of the threat of punishment for those who disobey, but because one has had first-hand experience, a little taste, has dabbled ones toes in the shallow ripples at the edge of the ultimate mystery.   This fear, the Bible says, is the beginning of wisdom, the way that leads to knowing what God wants and even who God is.
That wisdom is partly the ability to make good choices even when the rules don’t tell you what to do.  We may not have to govern a kingdom, like Solomon, but we all regularly face decisions where there is no clear-cut right-and-wrong, when there are competing principles at stake and it’s not obvious which should prevail.  It is like this for me almost every time someone comes to our parish office asking for financial assistance.  Sometimes the request is simple and I can meet it whole-heartedly without thinking about it very much.  But more often the situation is complicated and I have to weigh my choices carefully. 
I have to consider all different kinds of factors—have I helped this person before, and how recently?  Will the assistance I give have a decisive positive impact, or will it just delay the inevitable?  Is there something else this person needs more than money, and if so, what is it, and is there someone else who can meet that need more effectively than I can?  In the end I have to make the best choice I can, within the limits of my power and my knowledge, and then I have to let go.  The same goes for all kinds of choices I have to make, as a pastoral leader, as a husband and a father, as a citizen of my town and country, and a member of the human race.   I assume it goes for all of us—we make the best choice we can, within the limits of our power and our knowledge, and make the best effort we can to follow through on the consequences, but at certain point, we just have to let go. 
Because there are even more fundamental choices we have to make; we have to choose not just between different courses of action but between different basic orientations to life.  It’s like the choice my friend had to make between agonizing over his granddaughter’s death and being grateful for the gift of her life.  There are things we have no power to alter and no way to understand, realities that confront us with the choice between hope and despair, between love and hate, between peace and retribution.   The wisdom that enables us to affirm the goodness and worthiness of life in the face of these realities is indistinguishable from faith.  It is grounded in humility about the limits of our power and knowledge.  It is freedom from the burden of having to know why everything happens the way it does, or of having to find the one right course of action that will make everything turn out okay.  Wisdom is trust that there is one who will take up where we leave off, who will tie up the loose ends, and catch what falls through the cracks.  
I think our faith in Jesus is faith in this kind of wisdom.  It’s not so much that he sets us a practical example of good habits and sound decision-making.  What I mean is that Jesus lives by what he knows of the living God.  The love and goodness of God is nourishment for him, more essential than food.  And everything he says and does is for the purpose of sharing that heavenly food with us, even giving his body like bread to be broken and his blood to be spilled like wine. 
That gift, raised again and renewed by the Spirit, makes Jesus’ whole life a revelation of the wisdom of God.  In the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus we have an inexhaustible subject of contemplation, disclosing depths that theological theories cannot penetrate, but only the radiance of love.  Such love subverts all worldly wisdom, with truth and power that could only come from an infinite source, from the one who alone can tie up all the loose ends of our ignorance and suffering, and catch what falls through the cracks of death.  And so we give thanks at all times and in all places, because in Jesus we have the bread of eternal life, the wisdom that satisfies a hunger nothing else can fill.    

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Good Ol' Testament

I’ve been taking some heat recently, as I do from time to time, for the Sunday Bible readings.  Not the poetic and inspiring spiritual readings from the Letter to the Ephesians, but the Old Testament readings.  Some of you are puzzled as to why we have to listen to stories in church about people behaving badly, about adultery and treachery and murder.  You wonder about readings which seem to put forward an archaic picture of an angry and vengeful God.  You ask what positive spiritual benefit there could be in retelling such stories, and whether we couldn’t choose more uplifting ones, or possibly just leave off the regular reading of a lesson from the Old Testament altogether.  So I’ve decided today to explain, if I can, a little about why the Hebrew Bible is the way it is, and why I think it’s worth reading.
First, I want to say that it’s okay with me that you are raising these questions.  It means you are engaged, and paying attention, and care about what the church says it believes, which is as it should be.  I also want to say that I accept full responsibility for the fact that we are reading these particular texts in our Sunday worship.  Because while I’m pretty sure our bishop would not permit us to stop reading the Hebrew Bible entirely, I do have some leeway in deciding which texts we choose to use.  The Episcopal Church plans its reading of scripture on the basis of something called the Revised Common Lectionary, which is a schedule that we share with millions of other Christians in many denominations around the world.  And every year, during the long Season after Pentecost (roughly June through November), the Lectionary gives us a choice of two different “tracks” for the Old Testament reading. 
One of these tracks follows the practice that prevails throughout the rest of the church year, of cherry-picking readings from the Hebrew Bible that mirror themes of the Gospel lesson of the day.  This makes for a coherent “package” of readings that feels quite satisfactory.  But it also reinforces a bias that has colored the Christian reading of the Bible since the dawn of the Gentile church.  This is the view that the Old Testament has no other purpose, and no other meaning, than to give a kind of advance notice of Christ.   We are free to take a bit from this place and from that one, as it suits the telling of our own story, because those scriptures are no more than preamble to our own, with no narrative structure or compositional integrity of their own that we are bound to respect. 
In doing this we take our lead from passages like today’s Gospel reading from John, which makes a sharp distinction between Jewish memory, and the new thing that is Jesus Christ.  It is “the Jews” who grumble that Jesus cannot have come down like something new-made from heaven, because he is the son of Joseph.  They know his father and mother, and can trace his ancestry like that of any other Jew.  Jesus replies that what he means is that he is sent to carry out God’s purpose.  He has come to gather those who have heard and learned from God.  He will nourish them with the imperishable food of God’s will, and this guidance already draws them right through history with the life of the world to come.   
But if you think about it, what Jesus is describing here is a deeply Jewish project.  Its foundation is a history of distinctively Jewish hopes.  The anti-Jewish polemic of the New Testament, with its emphasis on differentiation, has made it hard for us to see an essential continuity.  Because as diverse and incongruous a collection of writings as the Hebrew Bible is, it has an underlying unity, which is embodied not in the text, but in the life and hope of a people in their God.  Jesus was one of those people.  His genius was a new experience of unity with the God of Jewish revelation, life with whom he embodied to the ultimate degree. For Christians the life, and death, and resurrection of Jesus is the decisive event that reinterprets all that came before it.  But we have to see that it is the culmination of a story that Jesus knew to be the story of himself.  So if we want to really understand Jesus as a living person, we need to learn to read the book that taught him who he is.   That is why, every year, I choose the other lectionary track for the Sunday readings during the season after Pentecost.  That is the one that traces the rough outline of the whole Hebrew Bible, beginning with Genesis and ending three years later with the last book of the Hebrew Bible, the book of the prophet Malachi.    
These readings sometimes fit awkwardly, at best, with the Gospel lesson on any given Sunday, but they do relate powerfully to each other.  Consider the readings about David of the last few weeks.  We heard about David’s moment of glory, when he ascended to the throne of his united kingdom, which spoke of a transcendent hope in God’s promise to his people of sovereignty and peace.  But the Hebrew scribes also knew they had to tell the whole truth about David, and so we had the story of Bathsheba, showing David’s lack of integrity and abuse of power.  This led to personal and national tragedy, as a sign of God’s judgment. 
The mystery of God’s way with his people includes glory and judgment, promise and warning.  And somewhere in between these extremes is compassion, as in today’s reading when we simply bear witness to the grief-stricken cries of a father for his son.   Because whatever else David’s  story is about, it is about a man, and the raw emotional truth of human experience.
The Bible is not God’s word about us, and it is not our word about God, and it is not our word about ourselves, but it is all three of these things woven inextricably together.  Which is exactly what is unique about it.  It contains almost no mythology: no descriptions of heavenly realms, or tales of the origins and adventures of the gods.  It is also quite thin in metaphysics and philosophy.  What it is about is the unity of the God who made us, and the world in which we live, and who sustains the life of all.  It attempts to tell the whole history of human interaction with that God.   And because it is a human story it is full of the brave and noble, the shameful and ignorant, the inexplicable things that humans do.    
But woven throughout, and tying it all together, is this recurring theme of the revelation of God.  God keeps breaking in to interrupt the human story, and the message of these revelations is not just “I exist—worship me!”  It is, “I care what happens to you, and I have a purpose for you.  I am involved in your story.  I do what I do for my own reasons, but they have everything to do with your flourishing, with your living the way human beings are really meant to live.  So trust me—and here’s what I want you to do.”
This repeated discovery of God’s involvement with them is why this inconsequential little tribe of Israelites, left behind a far more detailed record of their history than the great empires on their borders.  That is why they clung tenaciously to that memory through one conquest after another, through all the persecutions and deportations, and efforts at forced assimilation—because their history as a people was also the history of God’s word to humankind.  And it is more than a story of the past—it is also God’s blueprint, sketchy though it might be, of a truly human future.
That refusal to let go of memory makes the Bible sort of like your crazy Great-Aunt Millie’s attic.  The out-of-fashion and horribly uncomfortable ladies underwear is jumbled together with the Picasso she found at a garage sale.  There is a lot in it that is peculiar, incomprehensible, even downright repugnant.  But it’s funny how we moderns, in our arrogance, assume that the compilers of the book didn’t know that.  They were surely dubious about many of the same things we are, but they did not share our confidence in the infallibility of our own hindsight.  “If we have learned anything our ancestors didn’t know,” they seem to say, “that knowledge was hard-won and is easily lost.  So we want to remember how we learned it, by telling the whole story.”  They didn’t claim that all of it was equally true, or equally important, only that all of it was worth remembering. 

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.