Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Power of truth

On Wednesday morning I came to work and opened the church for our public service of Centering Prayer.  It was still early, so I went to my office for a time, and when I returned at 9:25 I was surprised to find some people in the church I didn’t know.  They were two women and a man, I would guess in their mid-twenties, standing uncertainly back by the baptismal font, and I asked them if they had come for Centering Prayer.  They said that they had, and they’d never done it before, but wanted to try.  So I invited them to follow me up here to the chancel and said “Let me put out a couple more chairs, and then I tell you what we’re going to do.” 
Just then, Jeannette Myers’ cousin Lani arrived, as she usually does, and she engaged them in conversation while I arranged the furniture and lit a candle.  The man said his name was Martin, and he lived in Texas, but was out here doing some work.  On the plane to California, he’d read a book, The Wisdom Jesus, by an Episcopal priest named Cynthia Bourgeault.  And although he is Jewish, this book had moved him deeply, and he was inspired to want to try for himself some of the contemplative practices it describes.  So that is how he did an internet search for “centering prayer,” that turned up our website, and drove down that morning from Healdsburg, and brought his sister-in-law and her friend along.  When he finished telling his story, everything was ready, so we took our seats, and I gave a brief instruction to guide us into meditation, and we sat together for a half-hour in silence and stillness, bringing our awareness again and again to our desire to know the intimacy of God.
When we think of how it is that people come to the Christian faith, and pass it along to others, we don’t always imagine a kind of simple truth that becomes evident when people put it into practice, and verify it in their experience.  It is more common to see it as a set of beliefs that come down from above.  We accept its testimonies and articles of faith because we trust the authorities who hand them down to us.  But people nowadays are inclined to be suspicious of authority, and prefer to rely on their own judgement.  If they place any stock in religion at all, it is because they have had, or hope to have, personal experience of the reality of which religion speaks. 
And this has led to a great enthusiasm for what is commonly called “spirituality,” which has come to mean the psychological and mystical dimension of religious practice, and the search for illumination of the self with the experience of God.  With this there comes a renewed interest in Jesus, not as a cosmic redeemer, but as a historical teacher of practical wisdom for the transformation of personal consciousness.  Such is the figure we find in The Wisdom Jesus, who led Martin and his friends to St. John’s in search of Centering Prayer.
And some find corroboration for this image of Jesus in the so-called Gnostic Gospels, recently-unearthed texts from the early centuries that didn’t make it into the official New Testament.  These documents, such as the one known as the Gospel of Thomas, are collections of Jesus’ sayings without the elements of his life story that we find in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.  Many of these sayings are not found in the canonical Gospels, or differ significantly from their more familiar form, and this adds to their allure.  Reading them can give us the thrilling experience of catching snatches of lost conversation, and listening with fresh ears to the living voice of Jesus.   We can imagine that this is his teaching, not as it has been mediated to us by religious institutions, but as direct communication from mind to mind of religious truth.
But there is something missing from the Gnostic texts that is at the very heart the canonical Gospels’ portrayal of the historical Jesus.  If all we have are words that he said, we amputate the limbs of his teaching.  Because Jesus didn’t simply give private instruction in inner development—he acted.  He welcomed sinners and ate with them, and healed the untouchable.  He took his teaching abroad in the world, out onto roads, and into the villages and the city squares. 
And when crowds gathered to hear him because he spoke with the authority of personal experience, he gave them practical instruction.  Not only about prayer, and the love and generosity of God, but also about the world they lived in—about social and economic relations, about wealth and poverty, conflict and forgiveness, solidarity, perseverance, and hope.   He spoke of the arrogance, and violence, and hypocrisy of those who styled themselves as rulers and lords, and he taught the crowds to look close at hand for the signs of God’s kingdom.
Jesus bore witness to God’s truth about us, and the political powers killed him for it.  But God raised him up, the first-born from the dead, to vindicate the truth of what he said.  And his disciples experienced this event as a decisive shift in the balance of power in the world.  They went on, bearing their own witness, not only in words, but in the life of a new community in which God’s truth of wholeness and unity overcame divisions of social class, and gender, and ethnic and religious identity.  They began to call Jesus “Lord” and “King” and “King of Kings” and “Lord of Lords” because they refused to acknowledge any greater power, any higher authority, than the truth that Jesus knew, that Jesus spoke, and Jesus enacted on the stage of human history.
This makes the Christian religion more than a search for timeless truth—it is also a practice of historical remembrance.  The central ritual of Christian worship is a not only a celebration of the spiritual power of God’s transforming love—it is also a commemoration of the decisive event that manifested that love to us.  Likewise, the ancient practice of pilgrimage, of going to the places where the martyrs lived and died, of walking in their footsteps and venerating their relics, springs from the desire to know, from one’s own experience, that those people really lived in those places in the world, where those things truly happened.  Which helps us remember what they proved with their witness—that the powers of the present darkness are not the real rulers of the world.   
And no less than the indwelling presence of God, this is a truth we can experience for ourselves, if we do our religious practice.  When Mohandas Gandhi set out to liberate India from British colonial rule, he did so trusting in what he called Satyagraha, or “truth-force.”  His political strategy was nonviolent resistance, taking confrontational actions in order to make what was invisible and unconscious plain for everyone to see.  By breaking unjust laws, his campaigns of civil disobedience aimed to tear away the fa├žade of morality from a social order based on relationships of exploitation and oppression.  The more the British resorted to violence and terror to maintain their control, the more it revealed about the underlying logic of their rule, and undermined their legitimacy.  But this strategy was not complete without the spiritual philosophy of Satyagraha, which holds that if the oppressed can maintain their faith in the humanity of the oppressor, and continually meet his hatred with love, sooner or later the truth will out. 
The truth is that we are all brothers and sisters in the family of God.  The truth is that when we violate and oppress one another, even if only by our complacency, we obscure the image of God in ourselves.  But when for love a faithful witness bears the truth, unwavering in her heart, through fires of hate and storms of dread and even down into the grave, the true human image rises out of the darkness.  In its light, no ideology of racial or cultural or religious superiority, no rationalization for oppression and violence, no denial of the spiritual cost to both sides of an injustice, can stand for ever.  The transcendent worth and promise of being human comes into view, the truth of which doesn’t derive from any human institution, but only from the purpose for which God created us in love.   Only God knows the fullness that purpose, but we can abide in it, in practices of prayer.  We can celebrate it, as we practice communal festivals of joy.  And we can bear witness to it, in practices of resistance, solidarity, and reconciliation.     

Songs of Justice

On Thursday morning I got a text message from Kate Klarkowski that her daughter Diana, who lives back in New York, had gone into labor.  Kate has checked in with me regularly as Diana’s pregnancy has come along, and each passing month has brought with it mounting excitement, but also relief.  Diana and her husband Kevin have been down this road before, only to end up in sorrow and disappointment.  But when I returned to from a walk to the store to get some things for my lunch, Jerry in the office had a message for me: Kate has her first grandchild, an 8 lb., 2 ounce baby girl named Frances Delaware.
This news made me think of another woman who finally got the baby she wanted—Hannah, the mother of Samuel.  Hannah’s husband tells her not to worry that year after year she is unable to conceive a child.  He loves her and favors her and thinks that this should be enough for her, but that is easy for him to say—he has two wives and the other has given him plenty of daughters and sons.   In those days people believed that the gift of children was in the hands of God, so Hannah goes to the sanctuary at Shiloh and prays fervently for the child she longs to have. 
She vows that if God will only grant her what she asks she will dedicate the child back to him, to live a life of special holiness and renunciation.    So Hannah gets her first born son, but this gift is not simply hers to enjoy.  If we read on in the story we find it is not a heartwarming family drama about Hannah and Elkanah and their cute little boy.  It is about Samuel, who goes as a child to live in the sanctuary of God, and his call to be a prophet, who goes on to anoint the first kings of Israel.
And Hannah’s Song is more than a psalm of thanksgiving for the granting of a woman’s personal request—it is a universal anthem of human liberation.  The God whom Hannah praises is not above caring about ordinary human beings, and Hannah’s heart exults in his strength, who in giving a child has restored her strength.  But beyond that she doesn’t make a lot of claims for herself.  She doesn’t thank the Lord for answering her prayers, or her rewarding her patience.  It’s more like she praises God for revealing once again just who he is. 
It’s not personal—God doesn’t play favorites.  This is just how he deals with the whole world, which he created and over which he rules with providence and justice.  Hannah is on top now, but that’s because she was on the bottom before, and she has to watch out not to get arrogant.  The Lord kills and brings to life, lifts up and lays low, makes poor and makes rich, and his justice is as immovable and as perfectly balanced as the pillars that hold up the earth. 
The Song of Hannah echoes in the words of another song of thanksgiving to God, the Magnificat of Mary in the Gospel of Luke.  And as we will soon be hearing, Mary is another a woman who has improbably conceived a child.  

But for Mary, like Hannah, this is not an occasion of merely personal joy—she sings of God’s mercy in remembering Israel, and his power to execute justice.  Somehow, Mary knows that her unborn son is an instrument of God’s judgment on the world, that in giving him to her the mighty are cast down from their thrones and the lowly are lifted up, the hungry are filled with good things, and the rich go away empty.  And this is in fact who the church confesses that Jesus is, the Son not just of Mary, but in the power of the Holy Spirit the Son also of Israel’s God, who’s will it is to restore the wholeness of the world, and free it from the stain of injustice and the sentence of death. 
He is the Christ, the anointed priest, prophet, and king of the world, and he will be its judge.  And in fact, as the Song of Mary says, his holy birth has already given us a sign of God’s judgment.  We are already in the last days, because the judge of the world has already come.  He dwelt among us, offering reconciling justice in words of grace and works of mercy.  He healed the sick, fed the hungry, confronted the mighty with their hypocrisy; he brought the kingdom of God within reach, and proclaimed that it belonged to the poor. 
And the world judged itself by rejecting him.  It condemned him to die on the cross, and so erected an indestructible sign of its own perversion of justice.  The vain pretensions of the human race to be able to straighten ourselves out—to decide for ourselves who is right and who is wrong, who deserves to get what she wants out of life, and who must suffer in silence—these were nailed to the cross with Jesus and lifted high for all to see.
But God is just, and God’s justice is mercy and forgiveness.  And so she raised Christ from the dead, as we will rise with him at the last.  God has heard the cry of the poor, has seen the tears of the mothers who have lost their children to violence, to starvation and disease, to drugs and suicide—and the tears of those who could not bear children.  God remembers, and in the end all will come to light, all will be restored, all emptiness filled, and all that hurts will be healed.  This is the work of Christ, the ministry of reconciliation for which he was sent, and which we who love the world long to see completed. 
So as we come to the end of another year the question comes up again—“When?”  How long must we wait?  Sometimes it feels like the world is going from bad to worse.  When we hear about the slaughter of civilians in Syria, Afghanistan, or France, and see the misery of migrants streaming across the borders of Europe or the United States, it seems to us that inequality and injustice, violence and destruction and pollution are rising to a point where something has got to give.  Something has to change, but we’re not sure whether to be hopeful about that change or to despair. 
And that is the really important question, more important than the question of “when?” (which, contrary to popular belief, neither Mark nor any of the other writers of the New Testament really cares about, or tries to answer).  We need to know whether the long arc of history really does bend toward justice.  We need to know if there really is some great purifying work of the spirit moving through all this suffering, or whether we are just beginning our descent into hell.  We need to know if all the trouble we see around us is the labor pains of our new birth in a new creation, or the death throes of a god-forsaken world.

The children who are born today will need, even more than we do, an answer to that question, because they will come of age in a very different world from the one that we were born in.  The masters of media spin tell us to measure this difference by our children’s immersion in digital media and mobile microcomputers.   But the truth is they face far more sober and painful adaptations—to stagnant economic growth and falling standards of living, to social and atmospheric instability, both of which are prone to break out in violence.  They will have to learn to do without the profligate use of fossil energy that fueled our free-wheeling lifestyles, and to do so quickly if they wish to have children of their own in a world worth living in. 
They will need to learn things we have forgotten about the power that comes up from the bottom, and the wealth that grows out of the land, and the wisdom of deep cultural tradition, that is hidden in communities of memory.  They might want to learn again about a God who created a world in magnificent harmony, who blesses it and calls it good, and entrusts it to us to tend and keep.   It will help them if they know about the justice of that God, who does not play favorites, but whose mercy is over all his works.  And they might like to know that the judge of the world has already come.  Our judgment of him was blasphemy, treason, and death.  His judgment of us is truth and forgiveness, indestructible life and love.  

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.