Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Agreeing to agree

·  Psalm 8

Last Tuesday, as I usually do, I drove my daughter to her piano lesson after school.  There’s a comfy leather couch in the front room of the teacher’s house, where parents are welcome to wait while the lesson is going on.  I had brought some things to read over before the vestry meeting that evening, but as I was sitting down I saw a magazine on the coffee table.    What caught my eye was a single word splashed across the cover page, a word so ideologically-loaded that it is hard to say it without a certain discomfort.  Maybe that’s why we so often prefer not to mention it, even though it is the dominant cultural force of our existence.   The word, as you might have guessed, was “Capitalism.”
So I opened the magazine to the cover article, and was startled to read, and I quote, “The U.S. system of market capitalism is broken.”  Intrigued, I read on about the growing concentration of wealth and its investment, not in the expansion of productive business activity, but in debt-fueled speculation on existing assets such as housing, stocks, and bonds.  Across every industry from banking to auto-makers to computers and telecom, the focus has shifted from developing new enterprises that create new jobs to making more money from money.  The result: an unstable and anemic economy that provides astronomical fortunes for hedge fund managers, Fortune 500 CEOs, and large shareholders, and diminishing returns for everyone else.   It is a system, the article concludes, that needs a “lifesaving intervention.”   
What was really surprising about this article was where I found it.  It’s not as if the story it tells is news.  They proclaimed it at Occupy encampments all over the country in 2011 and 2012, and the political establishment and its media outlets jeered in disdain.  Armored police drove the Occupy protesters out of the public squares, but they must have scattered like sparks on the wind, because now, five years later, their message is on the cover of Time magazine. 

Naturally, the Time article was quite narrow in what it was willing to admit about the crisis of Capitalism.  It touched only lightly on the political crisis that is engulfing the system because of its corruption and inability to reform itself.  It said even less about the moral crisis of a system in which 31% of children in the District of Columbia do not have access to a reliable supply of food.  And it said nothing at all about the ecological crisis of Capitalism, epitomized by the fact that it would take 3.9 earths to sustain the world’s 7 billion people at the level of consumption of the average American. 
But, be that as it may, the idea that the Capitalist system is fundamentally broken must have penetrated far into our society, if Time magazine can put it on the cover as the simple truth.  And when an idea that once was unthinkable is suddenly accepted as obviously true, it liberates enormous energy for change.  In 1985, when Mikhail Gorbachev was finally ready to admit what everyone already knew, that the economic system he oversaw was no longer functioning to meet the needs of his people, and he called for “perestroika” or restructuring, it was already too late.  Now I’m not saying that the United States of America is going to collapse in six years, like Gorbachev’s empire did, only that at the critical turning points of history, the great creative breakthroughs begin with changes in what people agree to believe.
It seems the editors at Time understand this, because why else, in the closing paragraphs of the article, would they start reaching for religious language?  They speak of American capitalism’s “crisis of faith,” and talk of reforming business education, “still permeated with academics who resist challenges to the gospel of efficient markets in the same way that medieval clergy dismissed scientific evidence that might challenge the existence of God.”  They remind us that our market system “wasn’t handed down, in perfect form, on stone tablets,” and call for a “reaffirmation of first principles.” 
The only “first principle” they can come up with is that the financial system should “provide a clear, measurable benefit to the real economy.”  Fair enough, but we Christians have been through religious reformations before, and we have our own first principles, largely forgotten, that might prove useful at this time: “Man does not live by bread alone, but from every word that comes from the mouth of God.”  Or “do not worry about what you are to eat, or what you are to drink, or what you are to wear.  Your heavenly father knows you need all these things.  But set your hearts on his kingdom first, and its saving justice, and all these other things will be given to you as well.”  Or how about this one: “No one can be the slave of two masters: you will either love the first and hate the second, or be attached to the second and hate the first.  You cannot be the slave of God and money.”   

You see, from the point of view of those who follow Jesus, the great error of Capitalism is its distorted view of human beings.  Because our true value as persons is not measured by how much we produce, or how much we consume or accumulate.  In truth it is immeasurable, for we were made in the image of God, and this is as true of the profoundly disabled person who will never have a “job” in his life, as it is for the CEO.  And we do not achieve our highest good by each pursuing his own self-interest in competition with others, but by taking Christ as our pattern, walking in love as he loved us and gave himself up for us as an offering and sacrifice to God.
We don't think nowadays, of the idea of Holy Trinity as a revolutionary breakthrough.  But it was, historically, and might still be, because it originated, not as a new doctrine about God, but as the experience of a new way of being human.  You and I experience the world through a narrow window each of us calls “myself.”  Our habit of identifying with that self, of fearing for its safety, defending its reputation, and promoting its interests, is near impossible to break.  And yet this “self,” which seems to be the single indispensable fact of our being, is treacherously unstable.   Because it learns who it is and what it wants by imitation.  It desires what the other people have. 
But in Jesus of Nazareth, the pioneers of the Trinitarian faith encountered a different kind of self.  It was not that he didn’t have the individual personal characteristics.  It was that he didn’t seem to want what other people had.  To meet him was to come into the presence of person who wasn’t trying to get anything from you, but only to give you something that you couldn’t see was already yours, an indescribable fullness of being, flowing from an unseen source.  Not that this made him indifferent to the people around him.  On the contrary, he was exquisitely attuned to them, embracing their aliveness, encouraging their faithfulness and generosity, perceiving with compassion their fear, their delusion and suffering.  With flawless precision he would find the places they were bound, trapped by their traumas and disappointments, attachments and resentments, and he would say the word or make the gesture that opened the cage and gave them the chance, if they chose, to go free. 

And when Jesus rose from the dead, the apostles finally began to understand that this is also the kind of person God is.  Not a jealous rival for our affections, for there is no God but God, but an inexhaustible fountain of life pouring out for the well-being of others.  They saw that God’s desire to give life and blessing to all creatures—with infinite tenderness, and absolute respect for their integrity and freedom, to speak to them in terms that they could work with, and come in time to understand—this parental love was the mysterious force at work in Jesus.  And when they looked into each other’s eyes and saw the recognition, the agreement, that this is how it really is, that same love poured into their hearts. 
They received the gift of the new person each of us is called to be, not a person restlessly hunting to shore himself with what others have, but a person whose self springs with effervescent freshness from the depths of life in God.  This gift is still here for us, still working in our remembrance of Jesus, in the grace and peace of his Word and Sacraments.  And when can look at our neighbor, and our eyes meet with a knowing look that says in both of our hearts, “yes, this is really how it is,” this is the promised Spirit of truth.  It is declaring to you the things that are to come, the fullness of being we were created to share from before the foundation of the world.

The spiritual objective

Last Wednesday we held a mid-week Eucharist here, as we always do.  Quite often there are eight, ten, or even a dozen people at that service, and they are a tight-knit group that knows and cares for one another just as we do on Sunday morning.  Last week, though, only five people came, six if you include me.  Yet it struck me as I was preparing the table for the Eucharist that in its own way this small gathering was a perfect expression of the worship of the church.  It was very simple--no music, very little formal ceremony, just the Prayer Book and the Scriptures, a brief extemporaneous homily, prayers for the church, the world, and one another, and the thanksgiving meal of bread and wine.  If someone had just dropped by casually to see what was happening, they would have seen five older people and one not-exactly-young-anymore priest, standing around an old table in an old building saying old words and might have thought that nothing very extraordinary was going on.  They might not have thought to themselves that the Holy Spirit was present.  But I want to say that it was.
We hear a lot of talk nowadays about “spirituality.”  It is the term many people prefer to use in connection with what used to be called “religion,” and it has the advantage of being so vague and ill-defined that it can mean whatever you want it to.  In general, though, it refers to beliefs and practices that produce a subjective experience.   Because it is subjective, people name what they experience in many different ways.  It might be the same as other people’s spiritual experiences, or it might be completely different, and there’s no way to say for sure. 
But when it comes to “Christian Spirituality” we are talking about life in “the Holy Spirit”.  And this clearly refers not to a generality, but to a specific.  Now, it’s not my purpose here to get into what are “authentic experiences of the Holy Spirit,” and what are not.  Subjectively speaking, there might be no difference between what a Christian experiences in the Holy Spirit, and what any other person’s “spiritual experience” might be.  And the difference is not that those experiences are wrong, or that Christian experiences are better, but that Christian spirituality is not primarily subjective.  That is why we do not speak of the Holy Spirit as an experience we have, but as a gift that we receive.  It comes from beyond the realm of our own subjective experience, and our acceptance of it puts it to work, quite independently of us, and gives us life in the Spirit. 
In the Judeo-Christian tradition, the Spirit that matters is the spirit of the creator God, which is to say, it is the spirit of life.  Psalm 104 talks about how God withdraws the breath from living things and they die, and sends forth his Spirit and they are created, and here breath and Spirit are the same word.   You could say, then, that at its essence spirituality is simply being alive, being carried on the pulse of life that runs through and within and between all things. 
But something happens when we add that qualifier “Holy” to the word Spirit, which makes it mean more than simply the rhythm of life as it is.  It makes it to be also the renewing, transforming, liberating Spirit of life that is straining toward fulfillment.  This Holy Spirit is not only the one through whom God created the world once, long ago, and the one who sustains it in harmonious equilibrium now, but also the Spirit who is guiding the world onward to the fullness of truth.  It is the Spirit who seeks to bring about a further flourishing of life of which all that has been is but a foretaste and a promise. 
And this also is a distinctively Judeo-Christian way of looking at things.  Biblical cosmology does not describe the universe as an endlessly recurring cycle, arising from the eternal ground of existence and then dissolving back into it again and again.  Instead the Bible puts its emphasis is on the singular history of this universe, created by God for love of the beauty and goodness of these particular forms of existence.   Every one of God’s creatures is an utterly unique and precious member of the one great tree of life, united in the Creator Spirit with every other creature that is and was and is to be.   But what the Holy Spirit further reveals, first through the law and the prophets, and then in the person and work of Jesus Christ, is God’s great work of salvation.  God’s word and wisdom are coming into this world to free its precious creatures from a futile existence, bent toward negation and death, and bring them to full flower and fruitfulness. 
The work of the Holy Spirit weaves subjective experience, both ours and God’s, into the objective history of life on earth.  More than that, it creates a particular historic community to carry out God’s mission of saving the world.   The memory of this Spiritual history is the direct line that connects last week’s small gathering on Wednesday at noon, and this larger one this morning, with the event described in the story of Pentecost in the Book of Acts.   Because before there was a sound like a mighty rush of wind, and before the divided crowns of flame came down, and before the curious crowd came running to see, and hear of the mighty acts of God, each in his or her own native tongue, there was a community of friends who had come together to remember and to pray. 
They came together because there are some aspects of human experience that really aren’t meant to be kept to oneself, but need to be shared.  These are the deep and essentially human experiences, such as joy and gratitude for the wonder of life, thanksgiving for sharing in the existence of all things and for the privilege of giving and receiving love.  This fullness of experience overflows the vessel of our private subjectivity, and desires to join with others in song and dance and feasting, in play and celebration.   Also meant to be shared is our experience of deep sorrow at the transience of life and the loss of love, the burden of sickness and aging, our weariness of the world and fear of our dying.  This is experience that fights against isolation, that seeks the touch of another’s hand, and the recognition in the face of an other that we walk this road together.   And then there is our longing for deliverance, the hope that there is more, the need we have to encourage one another in the faith that God who is in heaven will in time renew the earth, and all griefs will be mended and every wound be healed.  
The people who gathered on Pentecost Day had shared these experiences together, at a level of intensity they hadn’t known was possible, in their journey with Jesus of Nazareth.  In him they saw revealed, with shattering objectivity and power, the height and breadth and depth of God’s engagement with the world.  And when they met to pray that morning, it was with the knowledge that, in their shared memory of Jesus, they held the promised future of the human race.   This is not a promise of becoming god-like, with supernatural knowledge or miraculous power.  It is the promise of becoming Christ-like, of knowing the Father through seeing the Son, and of receiving the gifts of the Spirit of truth to do the things that Jesus did. 
So that, like him, we can proclaim the nearness of the kingdom of God, and bless the poor, the gentle, and the brokenhearted; so that, like him, we can speak words of repentance and forgiveness, of reconciliation and peace; so that like him we can heal the sick, and feed the hungry, and welcome the outcast and the dispossessed, breaking bread with them at the table of God’s friendship; so that like him we can confront the powers of domination and death and bear witness in their presence to the invincible life and love of God. 
This is the pattern life in the Spirit, the worship in Spirit and truth, that came down on the church at Pentecost.  It doesn’t rule out spiritual exercises or practices of solitude and contemplation, for Jesus himself went often away alone to pray.  By definition, it does not exclude any aspect of human experience, including those that contemporary people call “spiritual.”  But neither does it privilege them over the merest acts of kindness or prayers said in desperation.  Life in the Spirit is connected with what is universally human, so it can communicate in any language, and take innumerable forms.  But it does tie all our experience back to a single center, to the remembrance of a single person, who is the objective revelation of the work of the Holy Spirit in the world.

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.