Tuesday, February 28, 2006

A Colossal Negation of Our Stewardship

Dr. Paul Zahl has written an interesting commentary on the work of the Diocese of California's episcopal search committee, which he describes as "unscrupulous:"

Why is their decision to present two gay candidates unscrupulous? Well, first, it wipes its feet on millions of dollars, literally, of airfares! Since August 2003, millions and millions of dollars have been spent on airfares to dozens and dozens – probably hundreds – of alarmed meetings all over the world. Was it all a complete waste of money? Did all those thousands of security searches, from Texas to New York to Heathrow to Belfast to Lagos to Bermuda, take place for nought? What does this decision say about "counting the cost” to the rest of the world – and specifically the "orthodox" church world? It is a colossal negation of our stewardship. What it says is, We don't care about the effect this decision has on you. Our desire, or need, to push a way forward takes no regard to the conscience, not to mention the pocketbook, of others whom the step has alarmed. No Pauline "weaker brethren" here!

It seems to me that the "colossal negation of our stewardship" involved here is the waste of millions of dollars on reifying heterosexist structures in the church that could have been spent on mission and ministry. In light of Nigeria's recent
criminalization of gay and lesbian people and those who advocate for them, enacted with the full weight of the Anglican Province of Nigeria's support, it seems that money might have been better spent listening to the needs of the "weaker brethren" who are being persecuted because of their sexual orientation. No more junkets for Primates who despise the outcast in their midst!

Our episcopal search committee prayerfully, patiently, and passionately sought to discern whom God is calling to be our next bishop. They refused to capitulate to the kind of scapegoating and fear-mongering that suggests preserving Anglican unity requires sacrificing the human dignity of gay and lesbian people. Such behavior should be interpreted as faithfulness rather than selfishness.

The people of the diocese of California will continue to pray for discernment. We cannot possibly know at this stage whom God is calling us to elect as our next bishop, and must remain open to the movement of the Holy Spirit. We need not be anxious about it, however, regardless of how many "alarmed meetings" others may hold around the globe.

Sunday, February 26, 2006

Suffering Transfigured

As they were coming down the mountain, [Jesus] ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the [Human One] had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean. Amen. Mark 9:9-10

Have you ever wondered what this rising from the dead could mean? Peter, James, and John did. The mystery of death and resurrection is at the very heart of Christian faith. But it isn’t easy to get our heads around it.

Perhaps that is the problem. It isn’t something we can get our heads around. It isn’t an idea to be grasped intellectually. It is an experience to be lived.

This seems to me to be the point of the story of the transfiguration in Mark’s Gospel. It is a peculiar story that comes at an odd place in Mark’s narrative and is retold at an odd time in the cycle of the liturgical year.

The Transfiguration is essentially a Resurrection appearance story. But why would Mark place such a story before the account of the crucifixion? Why does the Church retell this story just before Lent, the season that precedes Easter?

It is sort of a tease – dangling in our face this vision of humanity transformed just as we enter that part of the story where we must squarely face the reality of human suffering and death. But it is also a hopeful reminder – “This is my Son, the Beloved” – recalling Jesus’ identity, our true identity as objects of God’s undying love even in the face of suffering and death.

Mark is trying to underscore an important truth that Jesus exemplified for us in the pattern of his life, death, and resurrection. The truth is that resurrection can’t be experienced apart from the crucible of our encounter with suffering.

The meaning, beauty, and dignity of human life cannot be realized unless we actually live it. And to live as a human being requires us to acknowledge real pain and suffering. We are tempted to avoid it, deny it, or suppress it, while marginalizing those who come to represent suffering for us.

That is the temptation that Peter, James, and John encounter on the mountaintop with Jesus. They see Jesus transfigured, revealing the glory of the divine welling up from the depths of his humanity. And it is terrifying.

It was terrifying, I think, because it revealed the distance between humanity as it can be and humanity as it is too often lived. Peter, James, and John saw the chasm between the dignity of every human being and the life that most human beings must endure. It was too much for them.

So they try to retreat into the protective shelter of religiosity. Peter proposes to build a shrine and stay up on the mountain. It is all too easy to use the form of religion as a barrier between us and our suffering: not to mention its use to shield us from the suffering of others.

Isn’t that what so many false prophets of Christianity propose these days? “Believe in Jesus and you will have long life, prosperity, and a submissive wife.” “Say this prayer, send us a check for $50, and you will be healed.” “And, oh, by the way, if it doesn’t work out – it’s your fault.”

Christian faith is not a prophylactic to prevent suffering. It is an encounter with the Risen Lord that exposes the reality of suffering and places under judgment our complicity in our own suffering and that of others. Yet this judgment is not rendered in order to condemn us, but to set us free to become fully human.

Jesus does not allow Peter, James and John the luxury of false religion. They must learn what it means to be God’s beloved children, to experience the reality of their true identity, by trudging back down the mountain and heading with Jesus toward Jerusalem, toward the Cross.

True religion is discovered in the living of life on life’s terms, in our learning how to respond to suffering with compassion for ourselves and for others. This is why Jesus sternly tells the disciples not to speak of what they saw on the mountain. Human beings can only experience resurrection for themselves as they learn to come to grips with suffering and death.

Peter, James, and John will have to undergo the dying and rising with Jesus that each of us also must share. They will have to refuse the false piety of a religion of success, and instead walk the way of the Cross. The path to becoming fully human must pass through suffering.

The purpose of worship, contemplative prayer, and participation in the sacraments of the Church is not to escape from this truth. Their purpose is to draw us more deeply into engagement with life rather than avoiding it. These practices cultivate an awareness of life as it is, and give us the courage to live with this awareness by reminding us that we are all God’s beloved children.

Suffering, like life itself, cannot be explained. It just is. Jesus calls us to engage life as it is, to draw upon the depths of God’s love to become agents of healing and reconciliation. We experience transfiguration by having the courage to embrace the deep pattern of death and resurrection, to offer our own lives in service to that sacrificial love that gives life. That is how we realize our dignity and meaning as human beings.

God loves us into discovering our identity in this pattern of dying and rising, dying to our denial of life and rising into acknowledgement of its suffering and its joy. God wishes us to embrace life and its joys, but we cannot do so if we refuse to acknowledge and heal the suffering that comes along with it.

Christopher Evans recently called my attention to a poem that captures much of what I am trying to communicate about the mystery of death and resurrection, but with a good deal more soul and style. So let me conclude this morning with a reading from the prophet Maya Angelou:

You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
'Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries.
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
'Cause I laugh like I got gold mines
Diggin' in my own back yard.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I'll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
Out of the huts of history's shame
I rise
Up from a past that's rooted in pain
I rise
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
I rise
Into a daybreak that's wondrously clear
I rise
Bringing the gifts my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
I rise
I rise
I rise.


[1] Maya Angelou, “Still I Rise,” And Still I Rise (New York: Random House, Inc., 1978), 209.

Sunday, February 19, 2006

Holy Amnesia

“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” Amen. Isaiah 43:18-19

“Do not remember the former things.” What is it, precisely, that the Jewish exiles in Babylon were supposed to forget? They were invited, I believe, to forget the memory of their own sin. The people of Israel had sinned grievously against God. They failed to practice justice and mercy; they exploited the poor, oppressed the aliens among them, abandoned widows and orphans. They placed their trust in riches and their security in alliances with imperial powers. Their religion had become little more than a veneer to cover their naked greed and ambition.

When the idols of wealth and military power failed, as they always do eventually, Israel was defeated by Babylon and its leaders were sent into exile. Realizing the consequences of their choices, the depth of their sin, the exiles felt certain that God had abandoned them. They finally had gotten what they deserved. Whatever life remained to them and to their children would be defined by the sins of the past. Their captivity in Babylon was nothing compared to their captivity to the condemnation of their own relentless memories. We might even go so far as to call them diabolical memories, memories that divided them against themselves, separating them from a sense of their own humanity and dignity as God’s people.

In the midst of this vicious cycle of diabolical memory, God announces through the prophet Isaiah what can only be described as a kind of holy amnesia. God says, “I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.” God refuses to allow Israel’s relationship with him to be defined by the past, by the power of diabolical memories. “Forget about the things of old,” says God, “for I am about to do a new thing. I’m bringing you home.”

It is all too easy for us to be locked in the past, unable to forgive sins committed by ourselves or others that were cast long ago into the abyss of God’s holy amnesia. We can become paralyzed by a sense of condemnation rooted in events of the past that blind us to the invitation to be at home with God in the present moment. God invites us to forget our diabolical memories, and accept the invitation to be “at home” in God’s gracious, loving presence.

Jesus takes this teaching a step further: “so that you may know that the Human One has authority on earth to forgive sins – he said to the paralytic – I say to you, stand up, take your mat and go to your home.” The healing of the paralytic becomes a sign of something else: the capacity of all those who are truly, fully human to release others from the paralysis of sin so that they may “go home” again. Not only does God forgive sin: human beings have authority to forgive sin as well. The question is, “Are we willing to exercise that authority?”

Katy Hutchinson decided that she didn’t really have any other choice.[i] After her husband Bob was beaten to death while investigating a party being thrown by their neighbor’s son, Katy found herself having to explain to her four year-old twins, Emma and Sam, that their daddy had died. “I looked into their eyes,” said Katy, “and knew that I could not allow their lives to become dominated by their father's death. I promised them and I promised myself that underneath the horror of what had just happened we would find a gift.”

Katy did not want her family’s lives to be forever captive to diabolical memories. She knew that forgiveness was the only hope for healing and freedom, even as a wall of silence soon grew up around the murder. It was four years before Ryan Aldridge admitted to having delivered the fatal blow. Ryan was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to five years in prison.

After his arrest, Ryan stunned police by asking to meet Katy so that he could apologize for what he had done. Within 24 hours, she found herself face-to-face with the young man who had murdered her husband. As he sobbed it was all she could do not to hold him. Describing the experience, Katy said, “Second to the day I gave birth, it was probably the most human moment of my life.”

Together, Katy and Ryan participated in a victim-offender reconciliation program. It took place in the prison and lasted most of a day. In that meeting Katy told Ryan that she had forgiven him. While Emma and Sam fully supported her choice to forgive Ryan, others asked, “How could you?” The answer for Katy is that “Forgiveness became an opportunity to create a new and hopeful beginning.”

“Katy’s forgiveness is the most incredible thing that anyone has ever given me,” says Ryan. “It changed my life. My life would still be full of anger and violence if it wasn’t for Katy. Doing time is easy compared to the guilt I’ll have to live with for the rest of my life. But with Katy, Emma and Sam’s forgiveness – I hope that perhaps, one day, I’ll be able to forgive myself.”

There are several things to notice about this true story. The first is how forgiveness releases us from the power of diabolical memories: Katy refused to allow her children, Emma and Sam, to have the rest of their life defined by their father’s death. Forgiving Ryan Aldridge gave them the freedom to see themselves as more than simply victims who remained paralyzed by the past. “Forgiveness became an opportunity to create a new and hopeful beginning,” as Katy stated so eloquently.

Second, it is important to emphasize that forgiveness created the opportunity for a new beginning for Ryan as well. In Ryan’s words, “It changed my life.” Note the order of events here: Ryan was forgiven, and then his life changed. We tend to think forgiveness should operate the other way around. But Katy, like God, chose to blot out Ryan’s transgressions for her own sake, as an expression of her own freedom. In exercising this powerful freedom to forgive, Katy gave Ryan the opportunity for a new beginning.

Finally, Katy saw Ryan for who he could become, rather than for who he had been. Reflecting on their relationship, Katy commented, “I’ll never understand how our universes collided – but they did, and as Bob can’t make further contributions to society, then perhaps Ryan can.” Katy saw Ryan as the person who in the future would carry on her dead husband’s legacy, rather than as her husband’s murderer from the past. This is holy amnesia indeed.

Now, by holy amnesia I do not mean literally forgetting past sins; that is impossible. We can not pretend to "not know what we know," nor should we. Holy amnesia is refusing to define ourselves or others in the present moment in terms of diabolical memories. Through forgiveness, such holy amnesia is possible. We can begin to accept ourselves and define our relationship to others in terms of our identity as God’s children, here and now, rather than remain frozen in images from the past.

Ryan, of course, might well have hardened his heart and refused to perceive that God, through Katy, was doing a new thing. The point is that through forgiveness, Katy created an opening, a possibility, for a new thing to spring forth: a new Ryan and a new Katy. She allowed that both of them might be free from the burden of the sins of the past.

The consequences remain unchanged: Bob is dead. Ryan is in prison. How we choose to respond to those consequences, however, can make all the difference between exile and homecoming, paralysis and walking ahead into the future with hope. That is the power of forgiveness.

People have a remarkable capacity to move beyond the static image of them that we cling to in our hearts and minds. All too often, we want them to remain the person who harmed us, so that we can nurture our resentment and bind ourselves ever more tightly to the past. Similarly, whether victim or perpetrator or both, we can lock ourselves into a static identity that refuses God’s invitation to perceive a new thing, a new possibility for us to grow far beyond our self-pity or our self-loathing.

Ryan Aldridge has only begun to sense this possibility through the forgiveness he has been offered. A hunger for the peace and freedom that he perceives in Katy Hutchinson has been awakened. He, too, may yet take up his bed and walk, no longer paralyzed by sin.

At our baptism, we affirm in the words of the Apostle’s Creed, “I believe in the forgiveness of sin.” Now you know why. Forgiveness is the most powerful means by which we can exercise our freedom and dignity as children of God. It is God’s greatest gift to us in Christ Jesus, who sets us free from the past to experience God’s loving presence here and now.

The wonderful thing about Christian community is that it affords us so many opportunities to practice forgiveness. With a little time and effort, our participation in the life of the church can only result in our getting better at it! But we must be willing. We must be willing to go beyond the words of the creed, doing what we believe and not just saying it.

Consider then, the diabolical memories that bind you today. Acknowledge those relationships that remain frozen in time, captive to sins of the past that continue to define you and others as you were, rather than as you are in God’s eyes. Open yourself to the possibility that God is doing a new thing. Do you not perceive it? Amen.

[i] The story of Katy Hutchinson and Ryan Aldridge is taken from The Forgiveness Project website at www.theforgivenessproject.com.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Do Justice

UNITE HERE, the union representing hotel workers, kicked-off its Hotel Workers Rising campaign yesterday in San Francisco. This is a nationwide campaign positioning the union to negotiate from a position of strength when its contracts with major hotel chains expire in six major U.S. cities this year. Hotel workers in San Francisco have been working without a contract since 2004, when workers were victims of a lockout.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, hotel housekeepers nationwide earn an average of $8.67 per hour, or approximately $18,000 per year for full-time employment. Unionized hotel workers earn closer to $13 per hour. Profitable hotel chains like Hilton, which earned $238 million in net revenues in 2004, should pay their employees a living wage with benefits as a matter of justice. The union is wise to adopt a nationwide strategy so as to leverage its power against transnational corporations that try to force a piecemeal approach to contract negotiations; a divide and conquer strategy. The globalization of finance and capital must be met by the globalization of labor organizing, else we will see a continuing "race to the bottom" as corporations seek to exploit cheaper labor markets.

Almighty God, whose Son Jesus Christ in his earthly life shared our toil and hallowed our labor: Be present with your people where they work; make those who carry on the industries and commerce of this land responsive to your will; and give to us all a pride in what we do, and a just return for our labor; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen. The Book of Common Prayer, p. 259.