Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Bishop Kelsey's Mantle

As the bishops of our Church prepare to gather in New Orleans next month, I'm mindful of the important decisions they will have to make in response to the Dar es Salaam Communique. While the "Pastoral Council" scheme proposed by the Primates already has been rejected by the House of Bishops and the Executive Council, it remains for the bishops to respond to the following request of the Communique:

In particular, the Primates request, through the Presiding Bishop, that the House of Bishops of The Episcopal Church
1. make an unequivocal common covenant that the bishops will not authorise any Rite of Blessing for same-sex unions in their dioceses or through General Convention (cf TWR, §143, 144); and
2. confirm that the passing of Resolution B033 of the 75th General Convention means that a candidate for episcopal orders living in a same-sex union shall not receive the necessary consent (cf TWR, §134); unless some new consensus on these matters emerges across the Communion (cf TWR, §134).

I'm encouraged by the resolution displayed by our bishops at their last meeting, and am hopeful that they will be equally forthright in their response next month. The New Orleans meeting will be more difficult, however, due to the presence of the persuasive persona of the Archbishop of Canterbury. The ABC, already triangulated between the "Global South" Primates and the rest of the Primates, as well as between liberals and conservatives in the Church of England, has been a powerful force for consensus and unity at any price. It seems that he finds it impossible to self-differentiate as a leader, to take strong stands that, while making the chronic anxiety in the Communion more acute in the short-run, could ultimately move the Communion toward healing at a more mature level of integration.

There have been some signs recently that he is beginning to set boundaries with the Nigerian and Uganda Primates, indicating that if they walk away from the Lambeth Conference they will be responsible for the rupture in the Communion. Still, I am wary. Chronic anxiety in any system has an emotionally regressive pull on leaders, and it takes real strength of character to resist the temptation to preserve togetherness by adapting to the lowest level of functioning in the system.

Edwin Friedman writes in A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix that

The "togetherness" that forms under such circumstances is an undifferentiated togetherness. It is more a stuck-togetherness, similar to the oneness that is characteristic of cults. The chronically anxious, herding family almost seems to develop a "self" of its own to which everyone is expected to adapt. As its regression deepens, it will turn the togetherness principle into the supreme goal that rules every member and transcends all other values. In the herding family, dissent is discouraged, feelings are more important than ideas, peace will be valued over progress, comfort over novelty, and cloistered virtues over adventure. Problems are formulated in rigid either/or, black-and-white, all-or-nothing categories. In this cult-like atmosphere, members of the family will tend to pressure both outsiders and "their own" to adapt to the centrality of its togetherness principle. This behavior is always short-sighted since it promotes contrariness, conflicts of wills, and perversity. In fact, the constant pressure of various members to coerce one another to adapt, whether through threats or charm, is often characteristic of the families with the most severe physical and emotional problems.

The alternative, however, is not to promote compromise and consensus but to develop the kind of self-differentiation in each member that will increase the toleration of every other members' differentiation. Actually, the polarizing potential of the chronically anxious family's all-or-nothing attitudes makes the family more
likely to split and increases the possibility that alienated members will cut off from one another. While the latter may seem to go against the desire for togetherness, it has a selective effect that preserves the homogeneity of the herd, for only those who are willing to surrender their self to the family's self will be comfortable in the homogenized togetherness. And where the family does not break up, the intense, locked-in polarization between members can also be understood as another kind of emotional fusion. Perhaps the major goal of family counselors ought to be to help people separate so that they do not have to "separate." (Friedman, pp. 67-68)

Friedman argues that what is true of families is true of larger systems as well. Capitulation to the herding instinct undermines the capacity of leaders to be decisive.

In order to be "inclusive," the herding family will wind up adopting an appeasement strategy toward its most troublesome members while sabotaging those with the most strength to stand up to the troublemakers. The chronically anxious, herding family will be far more willing to risk loosing its leadership than to lose those who disturb their togetherness with their immature responses. Always striving for consensus, it will react against any threat to its togetherness by those who stand on principle rather than good feelings. (Friedman, p. 68)

Sounds like the Anglican Communion to me! The mistake of liberals has been to adapt to the immaturity, threats, and emotional regressiveness of schismatic elements in the church for the sake of "inclusiveness." In truth, we are better served by leaders who can take firm stands rather than constantly trying to moderate the reactivity of the least healthy members of the body. "The word decision means literally 'to cut away.' When one makes a decision, one is making choices, which includes the choice of being willing to give something up." (Friedman, p. 69).

My hope is that our bishops are coming to recognize this. The late Bishop James Kelsey wrote to his sister shortly before the March 2007 House of Bishops meeting that

I have come to believe that the time has come for us to step back and name bigotry for what it is. All these nuances about the nature of the Anglican Communion are important, but I am going to need to say that even if it resulted in a tearing of the fabric of our ecclesiology as we have received it, when the time comes that our ecclesiastical structures are bringing us to even tacitly support bigotry, it may be time for us to go boldly, even against our beloved polity, if need be, to stand and speak out for gospel love. (Bishop James Kelsey, personal email communication, March 7, 2007, shared with permission of his family).

Bishop Kelsey understood that leadership requires acting on principle, "gospel love," rather than good feelings to preserve immature stuck-togetherness. He understood that decisive leadership requires a willingness to give something up, even something as valuable as the unity of our polity, to preserve what is even more valuable: our baptismal covenant.

We will miss your voice in September, Bishop Kelsey. God willing, others will take up your mantle.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Teach Us To Pray

One the disciples said to Jesus, “Lord, teach us to pray.” One of the best stories that I know about prayer comes from the Hasidic Jewish tradition:

The Rebbe Levi Isaac of Berditchev asked an illiterate tailor what he did on Yom Kippur since he could not read the prescribed prayers. The Jew reluctantly replied: “I spoke to God and told Him that the sins for which I am expected to repent are minor ones. I also said to Him: ‘My sins are inconsequential; I may have kept leftover cloth or occasionally forgotten to recite some prayers. But You have committed really grave sins. You have removed mothers from their children and children from their mothers. So let’s reach an agreement. If You’ll pardon me, I’m ready to pardon You.”

The Berditchever rabbi angrily rebuked the unlettered Jew: “You are not only illiterate but also foolish. You were too lenient with God. You should have insisted that He bring redemption to the entire Jewish people.”[i]

I love this story because it turns our usual notions of prayer upside down, and comes a lot closer to the kind of prayer that Jesus advocated. Notice here that prayer is not relegated to the religious experts: even the illiterate tailor is allowed, not only to approach God, but to get in God’s face. This is not the polite, formal prayer of God’s “frozen chosen.” It is prayer rooted in real relationship, an intimacy that allows one to storm heaven, to make demands, to take a few risks.

The point here is not to pray “correctly,” but rather to pray vulnerably, to really show up and put one’s self out there before God. Such prayer is not about making nice, or fulfilling an obligation, or trying to score a few points with God. It is about growing in relationship with God.

The rabbi admonishes the tailor, not because he has been presumptuous or disrespectful, but because he didn’t go far enough! He should have asked for more! This “more,” however, represents a demand that goes beyond the self-interest of the tailor. The tailor’s problem is that he thought only of himself, when he should have prayed for the entire Jewish people. We tend to ask too little of God, perhaps because we fear that if we ask for more God might demand more from us as well.

It seems to me that the moral of the story is that prayer is properly in the imperative mode. That is to say, heart felt prayer is insistent, demanding, a calling upon God to be God that requires more than a little commitment on our part. “Praying,” writes Walter Wink, “is rattling God’s cage and waking God up and setting God free and giving this famished God water and this starved God food and cutting the ropes off God’s hands and the manacles off God’s feet and washing the caked sweat from God’s eyes and then watching God swell with life and vitality and energy and following God wherever God goes.”[ii]

In other words, be careful what you pray for: you may well have to become part of the answer to your prayer. As Kierkegaard said, “Prayer changes the one who prays.” Is that what we really want? I prayed all of my life that my father would stop drinking, all the while becoming more afraid of, and for, my father, and resentful that he didn’t change. Then, after many years of separation, I discovered a month ago that he has been sober for almost two years. How surprised I was to discover that it took more time for me to let go of my fear and resentment, than it did for my father to stop drinking. I hadn’t yet become part of the answer to my prayer. How humbling to discover that it was me who needed to change.

Prayer in the imperative mode is about learning to let God be God and becoming self-differentiated, the unique person we were created to be, in the process. Such prayer brings us on a journey toward maturity, in which we increasingly learn to take responsibility for our part and leave the rest to God. The practice of prayer is not meant to leave us cloying, dependent, sycophants in relationship to God, nor is the “goal” of prayer a kind of mystical absorption into God in which we lose all sense of identity. Prayer is about learning to be self-differentiated in relationship with God and the world, even when to do so is uncomfortable or even threatening.

Jesus instructs us to command God when we pray: Your kingdom come! Give us each day our daily bread! Forgive us our sins! Do not bring us to the time of trial! Jesus teaches us to be insistent and persistent, to trust that God will give us the Holy Spirit in answer to our incessant demands. Prayer in the imperative mode takes more than a little chutzpa. But beware! You will have to grow up before you can receive what you demand.

Notice, too, what we are instructed to demand from God. All of the petitions of the Lord’s Prayer are communal in scope; we ask not only for ourselves, but for us – all of us. Remember the tailor’s error? He prayed only for his own redemption, and not for the redemption of Israel. Jesus teaches us to pray, to demand, God’s kingdom of justice and peace; enough bread for all of us each day; the forgiveness of debts so that none are trapped in perpetual slavery to poverty; deliverance from evil.

Prayer in the imperative mode and its demands are inescapably political in nature. Jesus teaches us to pray for the restoration of human dignity in a just and peaceful world. We pray for ourselves in light of our participation in the whole. To pray for anything less is hardly to pray at all. And so to pray is to enter into a way of life that is in opposition to the powers of this world that destroy the creatures of God. Prayer is a political act, and as such is almost always a subversive act.

As Richard Rohr puts it, To pray is to build your own house. To pray is to discover that Someone else is within your house. To pray is to recognize that it is not your house at all. To keep praying is to have no house to protect because there is only One House. And that One House is everybody’s Home . . . That is the politics of prayer. And that is probably why truly spiritual people are always a threat to politicians of any sort. They want our allegiance and we can no longer give it. Our house is too big.[iii]

The dichotomies between contemplation and action, mysticism and prophecy, solitude and community, are transcended and integrated in the lives of those who persevere in prayer. The great saints of the Christian tradition always have exemplified this truth, from Jesus himself to Desmond Tutu. As we go deeper on the inner journey, the more expansive becomes our sense of connection with the whole of creation. Prayer shatters inner boundaries as we integrate light and shadow, and shatters external boundaries of race, nation, even species, as we discover that we are but a microcosm of the universe: “Thou art that;” “Everything belongs.”

Prayer is imperative: it demands much of God and of us as we grow in relationship. Prayer is political: it invariably expands are range of connection and compassion. But the real difference between a life that is grounded in prayer and one that is not, is that prayer is pacific: it brings lasting peace. Prayer is the practice that makes it possible to remain related to God and to the world without anxiety, even when the going gets tough. And it will get tough.

The peace of which I speak is not the result of flight from the world, withdrawal into some sacred precinct protected from distraction and suffering. No, the peace of which I speak is a serenity experienced in the midst of daily life, watered from the spring of regular, intentional prayer. Such prayer is perhaps best described by the great saint and doctor of the Church, Teresa of Avila. She likens prayer to the watering of a garden, which unfolds in stages of increasing joy:

Stage I: The water is drawn manually from the well, a tedious effort akin to the first, difficult steps of developing a prayer practice. We feel like we are both garden and gardener, and it is hard work!

Stage II: The water is drawn mechanically from the well by means of a waterwheel. At this stage, our prayer practice becomes habitual, requiring less effort, and becomes quieter, less focused on words.

Stage III: The water flows naturally from a brook into the garden. Will, memory, and intellect fall silent; the one who prays is utterly passive. We are the garden. God is the gardener, “for it is He who does it all.” Our prayer becomes God praying within us and through us.

Stage IV: The water comes as rain, freely bestowed by God, bathing the one who prays in “heavenly love,” an experience of total union with God.[iv]

St. Teresa describes a practice of prayer that simply becomes like breathing. The presence and peace of God is carried with us in each moment, available to us always and everywhere if we are but attentive: and this from a woman constantly on the road founding convents, battling with the Spanish Inquisition, leading a great movement of reform within the Carmelite religious order that would transform the whole Church while still finding time to maintain a far-flung correspondence and write books that have inspired people of prayer for almost 500 years!

St. Teresa challenges our usual excuses: “I don’t have time to pray! I don’t know how to pray!” Do you have 10 minutes a day to give God your undivided attention, and maybe a piece of your mind? Do you know how to talk? Do you know how to listen? If you can answer “yes” to these questions, then you have the makings to be the next great Christian mystic. It is not that the world must change before we can pray. Rather, we must pray to become the change we seek in the world.

When it comes to prayer, the real question is “What are you afraid of? What is really keeping you from beginning?” Perhaps you are afraid that if you started praying, you might actually find your desire for God increasing. And then you might have to rethink your entire life and its priorities.

Now that would be a great problem to have. Amen.

[i] Quoted in Philip Zaleski and Carol Zaleski, Prayer: A History, p. 51.
[ii] Walter Wink, Engaging the Powers: Discernment and Resistance in a World of Domination, p. 303.
[iii] Quoted in Wink, Engaging the Powers, p. 306.
[iv] Paraphrase of quote in Zaleski & Zaleski, Prayer: A History, p. 176.

Monday, July 23, 2007

A Meditation on Suffering

“In Christ Jesus all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” Amen. (Col. 1:19-20)

I want to talk with you about what is, perhaps, the one subject in which we are all experts – suffering. We, all of us, suffer. It is part of the human condition. Philosophers and theologians have spent a lot of intellectual energy analyzing suffering; distinguishing between natural and social suffering, unavoidable and preventable suffering, meaningless and redemptive suffering. Such distinctions can be helpful, but they do not really comfort. The bottom line is that we suffer. The only real question is: “What do we do with our suffering?”

Alfred North Whitehead famously defined religion as what we do with our solitude. He was wrong. Religion is about what we do with our suffering. Please understand that when I say “our suffering” I mean our collective suffering, not simply my or your personal suffering. One of the most unfortunate effects of suffering is its tendency to turn us is in on ourselves, to separate us from one another, to make us feel as if we are alone in our suffering.

The truth is that suffering is what unites us; or, at least, it can become the means by which we enter into human solidarity and Holy Communion. As Christians, we believe that it is through Christ Jesus’ suffering, “through the blood of his cross,” that all things are reconciled with God. The divine compassion draws us into community, a community that is cosmic in scope. It is through this suffering that the whole creation is made new.

In fact, we speak of Christian discipleship as the way of the cross. Suffering is front and center. St. Paul goes so far as to say, “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church.” (Col. 1:24). This is a stunning and bold statement when you think about it. Our participation is crucial to the economy of salvation. At the heart of Christian spirituality is the sense that our suffering becomes an extension of Christ’s suffering until all things are reconciled with God in the bond of peace.

What we do with our suffering, how we respond to the world’s suffering is absolutely central to Christian faith and life. It is perhaps particularly important in our time, when the response of so many is to deny, avoid, and flee from suffering. Our economic life and popular culture is, it seems to me, predicated on the refusal to suffer. Our obsession with youth and beauty is a flight from the suffering that aging necessarily entails. The blight of addiction is a massive refusal of suffering, an attempt to self-medicate rather than acknowledge uncomfortable feelings and deal with reality as it is. Our consumerism is a failed attempt to secure ourselves against suffering any need or loss or threat.

Remember President Bush’s admonition in the wake of the 9-11 tragedy: “Keep shopping!” God forbid that we might actually make some sacrifice in solidarity with the suffering of others. Consumption, rather than compassion, is our collective response to suffering. It is the response of the privileged. It is a far cry from St. Paul’s exclamation: “I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake.” (Col. 1:24).

In our reaction against the Christian masochism of “suffering for suffering’s sake,” which has been and must be rejected, the cultural pendulum has swung wildly in the other direction. We are unwilling to suffer even for our own sake, much less for the common good. In fact, we are destroying ourselves, other people, and the very capacity of the earth to sustain life because we don’t know what to do with our suffering. The looming crisis of global warming is only the latest installment on our deferred suffering plan. How ironic that in our attempts to avoid suffering at any cost, the price we pay is even more suffering on an unimaginable scale.

It is crucial as Christians, and as human beings, that we get this business of how to respond to suffering right. The first step is an absolute refusal to deny the reality of suffering. We must accept that suffering is part of life. Simone Weil goes so far as to say that “Not to accept an event which happens in the world is to wish that the world did not exist.”[i] Hers is the language of excess common to mystics, but it expresses the truth that the denial of suffering can represent a flight from reality, an attempt to make ourselves invulnerable that destroys the possibility of relationship and of compassionate response to suffering.

We must begin by accepting and even loving the world as it is. Dorothee Soelle understood this well when she wrote that “The prerequisite for acceptance is a deeper love for reality, a love that avoids placing conditions on reality. Only when we stop making conditions that a person has to satisfy before we yield ourselves to him, only then do we love him . . . The same is true of the relationship to reality, that is, of love for God. It cannot be made dependent on the fulfillment of certain conditions.”[ii]

We can accept life on life’s terms, even its tragic dimensions, its suffering; because in loving God we love the world God has made and embrace reality unconditionally. The courage to love is the courage to affirm life in the midst of suffering and death. God chooses to come among us in Christ Jesus precisely to affirm this love, a love that embraces especially suffering people and a suffering creation. To love God, to love as God loves, requires our hearts to be broken.

The first step is acknowledgement of suffering, the refusal to deny reality, even to love life as it is. But that is only the first step. The second step is to engage suffering, to enter into it, and to transform it. Love does not leave us unchanged. Our love of what is, even in its suffering, compels us, in fact, to alleviate that suffering. When we acknowledge the full reality of suffering, we can not help but be moved to compassionately engage it.

As Soelle rightly points out, “It is paradoxical but true that unconditional love for reality does not in the least defuse passionate desires to change reality. To love God unconditionally does not mean to deny our concrete desires and accept everything just as it is.”[iii] Loving the world as it is does not mean simply being passive in the face of suffering. Love demands that we risk ourselves on behalf of securing the good for our beloved, and as lovers of God, we can seek nothing less than the good for the whole creation, for “God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven.” (Col. 1:20)

In other words, we engage suffering; we enter into it with courage and compassion, for the sake of love. But here, let me offer a cautionary note. Engaging suffering is not meant to be an exercise in heroism. It is not an excuse to use other people’s suffering, or our own, to make us feel better about ourselves, much less better than others. It isn’t about me, and it isn’t about you. It is about us. Suffering can only be addressed meaningfully at the level of community; not what I do with my suffering, but what we do with our suffering.

This is why St. Paul speaks of his own engagement with suffering as “completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, the church.” Acceptance of suffering that evokes compassion must lead us into community, into the body, into union with Christ’s suffering for the sake of the world. If Jesus can’t save the world by himself, if his work on the Cross is in some sense incomplete without us, what makes us think we can do it alone?

What do we do with our suffering? The Christian response is one of acceptance and compassion in an ever-expanding community of all things, whether in heaven or earth. I was reminded of this simple, but not easy truth, by an experience shared by our bishop, Marc. He was describing a recent visit to St. Dorothy’s Rest, one of our diocesan retreat centers.

“You might say that the heart of St. Dorothy's is the medical camping programs,” writes Bishop Marc. “In one session, children who either have cancer, or have siblings with cancer, are the campers, and in the second, children who have received transplants are the campers.

Everyone involved in these camps is so evidently full of grace: the campers, the counselors, the nursing staff, the camp administrators, cooks and maintenance staff. I was surrounded, enveloped, floored by the compassion and grace that abounded at St. Dorothy's.

Let me simply sum it up by recounting the morning gathering today: Campers and counselors all standing in a circle, holding onto each other, asked by our chaplain, the Rev. Chip Barker-Larrimore, to name one thing for which each of us is grateful. When two tiny boys, at different points in the circle said, "Scientists," my heart was pierced, but when perhaps the smallest child said, simply, "Life," I was not sure I could trust myself to walk, in all truth. To see so clearly, to say it with such simple honesty, at such a young age, tutored by loss and pain, and also by love - I was overwhelmed.”[iv]

That is what we do with our suffering. We accept its reality, we respond with compassion, and we hang onto each other as together we form an ever-expanding circle of love that will, in God’s good time, bless and heal the whole world. How strange, and strangely beautiful, that our suffering, of all things, offered in union with Christ’s suffering, will, in the end, save us. Amen.

[i] Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1952), p. 197.

[ii] Dorothee Soelle, Suffering, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), p. 92.

[iii] Ibid., p. 94.

[iv] http://bishopmarc.vox.com/library/posts/2007/07/