Saturday, June 17, 2017

Also God

·  Psalm 8

Thirty years ago this summer I was living in a kind of New-Age commune in the woods of Western Massachusetts and one beautiful afternoon a few of us were eating lunch outside at a picnic table when a great strategic bomber from the air base at Springfield went roaring nearly overhead.  Pacifist that I am, I muttered some kind of grumpy comment to my table companions and my friend Bruce smiled and said, “You know, that also is God.”  Which kind of stopped me in my tracks, because I did know that what he said was true.  I knew it was true, and at the same time, I knew that I didn’t believe it.  Because the huge warplane could also be God only in a whole and unbroken world.  Which is not the world of my experience.  
I live in a world of human artefacts and human enterprise that I experience as separate from and set against the world of natural things.  And I am not alone in this.  How often have I heard a person say that he or she experiences God most vividly in contemplating “nature,” in places where wild creatures still dwell!  How often have I done the same!  In such places we can see the beauty and mystery of an order of things that we did not create, and have not yet managed to pollute and destroy.  It is as if the wild places awaken in us faint memories of a forgotten language, one we used to speak and understand in a country we left behind long ago.  And when we come back from those places to the world we think we know, our world of machines and money and war, of business and government, of working and getting and spending, the language of wild things goes silent.
It slips again into oblivion, and with it goes a part of ourselves.  It is a part that we often scorn, as “romantic” and “na├»ve,” that we tell ourselves has no place in the “real” world, the practical, modern world of human affairs.  We say it belongs to the past, to childhood, to prehistory, or to “primitive” cultures that have been swept away by the tide of progress and civilization.  We tell ourselves this as a way of denying that we still have a choice.  We prefer to believe that the potential in human nature to be in sacred communion with the whole created order of the world has been lost beyond recovery.  Because this spares us the pain of knowing that every day we actively, systematically suppress it.  We prefer the despair of human isolation in a mute and mindless universe, to the guilt of admitting we have given up hope.
If this is so, it is in part because we have forgotten how to read the Bible.  We like to congratulate ourselves for figuring out that the first chapter of Genesis is not a scientifically-accurate chronology of cosmic evolution.  As if it ever intended to be that.  And yet we have closed our minds to its poetry, to its vision of a whole and unbroken world.   It is a vision of a world of which we human beings are an essential part, in which our unique power, our dominion over the fish and the birds, the wild and domestic animals, comes from being made in the image of the creator of it all.  Our activity, our filling and subduing the earth, eating the plants and their seeds, and the fruit of the trees, is not innately a crime or a curse against the creation.  It was meant as a blessing to the creature who, more than any other, is able to see this world as God does, as good in every particular thing, and all together very good.
Of course we know what’s coming next, in the Second Chapter: how the gift of power and freedom was more than we could handle responsibly; how it was not enough for us to know the goodness of the world, we had to know evil as well; how we found that evil in ourselves and so the world we know began to be, the world of shame, and mistrust of God, of blaming one other, the world of gender inequality, of jealousy and murder, of agriculture and mining and the building of cities, and of exiles wandering over the face of the earth.  But our historic obsession with that second story—and it is, after all, the story of us as we are—sometimes has made us forget our first creation story.  We have put it aside as if it is a story of who we were, in some irretrievable dream, with nothing to say about who we might be, or might become.
And yet the First Chapter of Genesis is precisely a story of hope.  It tells the essential spiritual truth of the world as a living unity, including human nature created in the image of God.  And more than that, this story places a gift in our hands.  It gives us a way to remember and renew the highest truth of who we are: that we are not simply masters of the earth community, but members of it, with a unique responsibility to love it for its own sake, and because it is the handiwork of God.  This story gives us the gift of time, time out from all our filling and subduing the earth, time to celebrate the glorious and gratuitous beauty and goodness of life in this world, to be again like God, as only we can be.
This gift is, of course, the Sabbath.  In Genesis 1, God does not create a world in which some places are holy and others are not.  But God does create a special holiness in time— every seventh day, hallowed as a day of rest.  In a practical sense, however, only one creature is able to number the days and consciously keep the Sabbath.   This is how we human beings are unique, as far as we know, among the creatures of the earth—not just that we are clever, resourceful, industrious, numerous, and strong—but that we mark time and set some apart for the rest that comes from God.  It is our privilege to enjoy this holy time of rest, on behalf of all the creatures in the world, to share God’s love for all that has been made, to share God’s judgment that the world is very good.
In the fullness of time one came who shared God’s love and gracious judgment perfectly.  He is Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Man, the Lord of the Sabbath.  The true human image and likeness of God was perfectly restored in him.  And his Lordship, his dominion, is for the sake of making the creation whole again.  It was his will, and the will of his Father, to share his true human nature, no longer broken off from God or from the world, no longer male nor female, Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, with those who became his disciples.  This is the gift we hope for when we baptize a person in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, as we are doing for little Zane Ra today.  But it is not only we who have this hope: “The whole creation,” says St. Paul, in the 8th chapter of his letter to the Romans, “waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.”
This is the great hope of the Bible, a hope that is always in danger of vanishing from the world—that human nature and the whole creation will be restored to harmony and share in the Sabbath peace and joy of God.  This great hope is inseparable from a great responsibility—for it lives or it dies in us.  But we do not shoulder this responsibility alone.  The Holy Spirit working in us, awakening hope for love and fulfillment, and this turns the struggle and suffering of everyday life into the path of discipleship, of growing into the full stature of Christ.  And it is the Son of God who walks beside us, God’s Word of wisdom and compassion, guiding our steps on the journey that leads to the fullness of life.  He promised to be with us every day until the ages of creation are crowned with completeness.  And because he is with us, we have nothing to fear, for though he is ever active, ever blessing, ever interceding on our behalf, he is also already at rest, already abiding in the eternal Sabbath day. 

Thick accents of love

Last weekend I was a special guest at the annual convention of the Episcopal Diocese of Honduras, and all during the long flight down there, and the journey by pickup truck from the airport to the diocesan camp and conference center out on the Caribbean coast, I kept thinking about what I was going to say to the convention when the time came for me to speak.  Because I had a pretty good idea that I would be given the opportunity, not for a lengthy speech, but for a couple of minutes to make some courteous remarks appropriate to the occasion: greetings from Bishop Beisner and all of us in the Diocese of Northern California; gratitude to Bishop Allen of Honduras and everyone there for their warmth and hospitality; hope that the companion relationship between our dioceses would continue and grow stronger in the future—you know, that sort of thing. 
And sure enough, on Friday night after dinner, Bishop Allen asked me if I wanted to get up and say a few words during his address to the convention the following morning.   The opportunity came pretty much exactly as I had expected, so you might wonder why I had wasted so much time worrying about what I was going to say.  Well, because I had decided to give my remarks in Spanish.  Some of you know that I started studying Spanish seriously about eight years ago.  Which is one of the reasons why Bishop Beisner asked me to go and represent him at the diocesan convention in Honduras.  Moreover, I’d already made plans to go there during my sabbatical later this summer, partly to improve on my Spanish, and partly to learn more about the work Episcopal diocese there.   So I jumped at the chance to make this brief initial trip, to get a little bit of the lay of the land, and make some acquaintances.    
It was out of that desire to open doors that I decided that if I did get the chance to speak to the convention, I was going do it in Spanish.  And I wouldn’t write my remarks out ahead of time, but would deliver them in an impromptu conversational style.  That was why I spent so much time beforehand going over in my mind what I would say, and how I was going to say it.  But it turned out, of course, I really need not have worried.  Not because I ended up giving a flawless performance.  There were things I had meant to say but forgot about in the heat of the moment; and there were other things I did say, only awkwardly, after fumbling for the right word, or the correct grammar.  Still, when I was done Bishop Allen thanked me for what I’d said, and for taking the risk of saying it in what obviously not, as he put it, my “mother tongue.” 
The twelve apostles take the same risk in the story of Pentecost.  I think we often assume that because the power to speak in different languages came from the Holy Spirit, they must have spoken them perfectly.  And yet the story says that the people in the crowd that gathered were doubly amazed, because the apostles both spoke to them in their various native tongues, and did so with Galilean accents.    And it seems that their syntax was a little jumbled, and their pronunciations a little slurred, because some of the bystanders got the impression that they were drunk.  All of which says something important about the way the Holy Spirit works.  It gave the apostles the power to communicate with strangers from many foreign lands, but in using that gift they remained the persons they always were—those rough and rude, poorly-educated, fishermen from Galilee.
Which is precisely the point of the passage from the prophets that Peter quotes to explain to the crowd what is happening—that before that great and glorious day when God makes his power and judgment unmistakably manifest on earth, the spirit of prophecy will come on all kinds of people.  Young men will see visions and old men will dream dreams; your sons and daughters, even your slaves, both male and female, will be filled with the prophetic Spirit, and speak the truth that comes from God.  And it is this great outbreak of divine communication with humanity, this democratization of the power to see and know and speak and hear and understand the hidden things of God, that is the real miracle of Pentecost.   
I was able to connect more effectively with the Episcopalians in Honduras, not just because I spoke in Spanish, but also because my Spanish was not all that good.    This broke down to some degree the unspoken dynamics of inequality built into our relationship by the legacy of colonialism, so we could see eye-to-eye, heart-to-heart, as sisters and brothers.  In a similar way, the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles, does not transform them into higher beings of perfection and light.  It does not turn them into flawlessly fluent speakers of Parthian, but uses these ordinary and imperfect channels to open the crowd in Jerusalem to receive its message.
And even though each of them heard it in a different tongue, the Holy Spirit’s message was the same to all.  It did not require an extensive vocabulary of subtle theological terms, or a grammatically complex sequence of logical proofs.  This message was a new communication that would revolutionize the world, of who God is and how God acts, and yet it came upon the crowd that day with so much spiritual power precisely because it was so simple.  It was as deceptively simple as a really good story.  And that’s what it was—a story; a story of God’s love for us.  It told how God communicated that love by taking the risk of speaking our language, becoming one of us, to meet us face-to-face, heart-to-heart, in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. 
The Holy Spirit’s message told how Jesus did not set himself above us, but came as one who shared the disappointment of the poor, the loneliness of the outcast, the sorrows of the bereaved, and the suffering of the oppressed.  He struggled against the religious, economic, and political powers of his day, with no weapon but the truth of God, and the faith of the little ones who believed in him.  He carried out that struggle to the death, to his own ignominious death on the cross.  Through it all Jesus never ceased to love God, never stopped offering himself to be an instrument of God’s will, never gave up hope that God would be faithful to his promises.  And God was faithful.  For Jesus’ sake, God broke the chains of death that hold us all in bondage, and raised this same Jesus to the life of a new and glorious body, exalting him to heaven where even now he sits enthroned as the gracious and merciful Lord and judge of the world. 
The miracle of Pentecost is that the fishermen told this story—in different languages, with poor pronunciation, awkward syntax, and thick Galilean accents—and many of the people in that crowd knew that it was true.  The truth of it poured into them, like water sinking into cracked and thirsty ground.  And to their amazement they felt an answering response within; the welling up deep inside them of something that they had almost forgotten was there, as if a heavy lid had been removed from an ever-flowing spring.  The Gospel of John says that the Holy Spirit will flow like rivers of living water from those who believe in Jesus. 
But our translation is a bit misleading when it says this water will come out of our hearts.  Because the original Greek literally says that rivers of living water will flow out of our wombs.  The Holy Spirit is a fire, burning away all illusions and ignorance that blind us to God’s truth.  But it is also water, dissolving hardness of heart, eroding the dam that obstructs the flow of God’s love.  We who drink in the story of Jesus discover a God who loves us with the compassion of a mother for her child.  This God, the Holy Spirit, not only pours over us, as compassion for our suffering, our fears and weaknesses and limitations; it flows out of us as life-giving rivers of compassion toward all who, like us, are mortal and sorrowful, lonely and afraid.  And there can be no mistaking what is meant by this symbol of water bursting forth from our wombs—it is this Holy Spirit, that we know in the self-giving love and compassion of Jesus, that will give birth to a new 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.