Sunday, September 23, 2012

God the Child

One of the highlights of my week during the school year is the St. James Preschool chapel service on Wednesday mornings.  This past week I told the Godly Play creation story to the kids.  Some of you may be familiar with it.  Part of the story goes like this:

“In the beginning, in the beginning there was, well, in the beginning there wasn’t very much.  In the beginning there was nothing.  Except, perhaps, an enormous smile; but there was no one there to see it.  Then, on the very first day, God gave us the gift of light.”

The story continues from there, but you get the picture.  Cut to Wednesday night, and Maisie, from the Rabbit class, is getting tucked into bed by her mother. 

Maisie:  Good night, Mommy.  I love you all the way to infinity and back.
Mommy:  I love you all the way past infinity and back.
Maisie:  Past infinity?  But where does infinity go, Mommy?
Mommy:  It keeps going and never ends.
Maisie:  Is God before or after infinity? 
Mommy:  That's a very good question, Maisie. 

Long pause.  Now, at this point, I’m quite certain Mommy is beginning to break a sweat.  But on this night, at least, she’s let off the hook when Maisie finally says, “I think I'll ask Father John...he'll know!”

If you think this Sunday morning gig is challenging, try facing 30 three and four year olds every week!

Jesus wasn’t fooling around when he took a little child, held her in his arms and said to his rather dense disciples, "Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes not me but the one who sent me."  Jesus wasn’t trying to be cute or sentimental.  Rather, he was illustrating the point that God doesn’t evaluate success the way that we normally do.  And he does so in a rather astonishing way – by saying that God is like a little child.

If we want to be close to God, we have to welcome the child – both real, live actual children, and the child-like, dare I say, God-like, capacity that we all carry within.  If we want to be close to God, we have to welcome the child.

I think the clue to what Jesus is up to here comes from the immediate context of the story.  Jesus has told his disciples, on more than one occasion, that he is going to be betrayed, killed, and then rise again.  They still don’t get it.  They can’t get it, not yet, because it doesn’t square with their definition of what God is like and therefore with what God’s Messiah, Jesus, should be like. 

For them, God is large and in charge.  God is the guarantor of worldly success, blessing those who are good and punishing those who are bad.  Therefore, it follows that God’s Messiah will be powerful and triumphant.  A Messiah who is condemned and dies isn’t much help.  A Messiah like that is a scandal, a failure and thus no Messiah at all.

But what if God isn’t like that?  What if God is more like a little child, more like Maisie, more like what you and I aspire to be like in our best moments?

We tend to think of God as one who is remote and unaffected by the ebb and flow of life; an unmoved mover who is literally above it all.  But what if God is more like a child – seemingly always underfoot, at the center of it all, completely open and taking it all in.  Such a God, however powerful, would also need to be incredibly vulnerable and receptive.  Jesus understood that children, then as now, are the most vulnerable among us.  In welcoming them, we welcome our own vulnerability and that of others.  We welcome the vulnerability of God.

We also tend to think of God as one who is preoccupied with evaluating, comparing, rewarding, and punishing.  Such a God inspires fear and perhaps, therefore, compliance, but also a fair bit of resentment and resistance.  We are always trying to measure up to this God, and never quite making it.  So, we either drop out of the competition altogether, or else double down our efforts to be successful.

But what if God is less concerned with measuring up to an ideal, than with exploring what is?  Until we’ve socialized them into the stress-filled, status preoccupied culture we’ve created, in which nothing matters but success, children are completely creatures of the moment, the here and now.  They are fully present to their experience and give themselves over to it without reservation.  Try to tell a child that it is time to stop doing whatever they are doing before they are ready and transition to whatever is next and you’ll know what I mean.  Meltdown! 

We are constantly focused on what’s next, what we should be doing, what others can do better.  Children are focused on this beautiful present moment.  It is enough, just as it is.  In fact, if we really perceived reality as they do we would be stunned by the awesome wonder of it all.  I’m not saying that children are perfect.  I’m saying they are awake, operating at a level of wide open awareness that we have to work to narrow down, focus, and prioritize.  Their first move is to wonder . . . “Is God before or after infinity?”  Whereas our first move is to evaluate “How do I answer this question correctly?”  They get excited!  We get stressed!

In welcoming children, we renew our capacity for awe before the sheer mystery of it all.  We welcome the mystery of God, the Source and End of life.  And we don’t need to worry about it.  We just need to see it as it is in all its wonder, and give ourselves – and others, including our children – permission to enjoy it.  Too often, we are like the plumber, recently graduated from his apprenticeship, who was staring intently at Niagra Falls.  Finally, he announced, “I think I can fix that.” 

Life is not a problem to be solved.  It is a mystery to be enjoyed.  Welcome the child. 

If we too often imagine that God is distant and demanding, there also is a part of us that believes that God is capricious.  This is evident in the behavior of the disciples, who were arguing among themselves about which of them was the greatest.  When God is both demanding and capricious, one either seeks to be obedient out of fear, or to bend the world to one’s own will out of a cynical disregard of God and others.  That cynicism, too, is finally rooted in fear – the fear that God and others can not be trusted. 

People who are consumed with getting ahead, with making the most of every advantage and exploiting their privilege, are deeply insecure people.  They are afraid, and so the struggle to be the greatest, to be on top of the heap, is a misguided attempt to alleviate their anxiety.  It is an expression of deep cynicism and distrust of God.

But what if God does not exercise freedom arbitrarily?  What if God is limited in at least this respect:  God is free only to love, because that is the nature of God? Perhaps God is more like a child than a tyrant, for children are incredibly unconstrained compared to adults in their freedom to give and receive love.

Now, I’ve met quite a few tyrannical three-year olds; I’m quite sure I was one.  Theirs is an age appropriate egocentricity in response to their developmental needs.  No, what I’m pointing to is that despite their terrifying dependency in almost every respect, their capacity to love is remarkable: whether it is a dog, a doll, a beloved blanket, or daddy. 

Children love freely, because they trust God’s love in a fundamental way.  They are so quick to forgive our manifest faults as adults charged with their care, because they literally can’t believe that anyone would wish them harm.  It is too scary to for them to contemplate.  It requires a fair amount of trauma to turn their freedom into cynical disregard.  Children know intuitively that they are beloved; the apple of God’s eye.  All too soon, life can disabuse them of this, at the cost of their true nature.

One week, I was unable to lead the Preschool chapel service, so Roger, the Preschool’s director, substituted for me.  Later, he shared with me a conversation that one of the little girls had with her mother when she came to pick her up that afternoon.  Her mother asked her how chapel was.  The little girl looked pensive for a moment and then said, “Well, God wasn’t there, but Roger was.”

Here is a child not yet consumed with cynicism, for whom priesthood can still serve as an icon of God’s loving presence.  We all share in this priesthood by virtue of our baptism.  We are all called to be free to love, to be transparent to God.  When we are free in this way, without insecurity or cynicism, we become far more concerned with how to love in any given situation, than with how to gain some competitive advantage.  In those moments, we welcome the child.  We welcome God the Child.

Jesus invites us to welcome the child, to reimagine God as mindful presence, as wonder-evoking mystery, as unconstrained love.  He invites us to remember who we were created to become.  Amen.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Following a Failed Messiah

I am slowly coming to accept a very hard truth: I don’t know what part of my life experience may prove useful to another – or even to myself at any given point in time.  So I have to accept it all and turn it all over to the sifting of God the Holy Spirit.  I never know what She might choose to make an instrument of healing; often, it is the mistakes, the failings, the fumbling attempts to succeed that go nowhere that become the fuel enkindling the fire of God’s love.

We have tendency to want to offer only our best to God.  We expect God to make use of our gifts, our strengths, our successes.   We only allow people to see the parts of our lives that put us in the best possible light.  But it is in the shadowy recesses of our soul that the seed of compassion often takes root.   It is as we come to accept our failures that this seed is nurtured and begins to bloom, becoming a tree of life in whose shade others may find rest for their souls.

Like Peter in today’s Gospel lesson, we really don’t want to hear this.  Peter doesn’t want to hear that Jesus will have to suffer and be rejected and be killed and then rise again.  Peter is so shocked by this announcement that I doubt he even hears the part about rising again. 

All he can hear is that Jesus is a failed Messiah.  He isn’t measuring up and meeting expectations.  Peter doesn’t trust that God will bring new life out of death.  He doesn’t believe that Jesus’ failure will become the most powerful source of healing the world has ever known.  Do we?

The answer to this question is a matter of experience.  It hinges on our capacity to receive the brokenness of Jesus and of our own lives as a place where infinite compassion and forgiveness have come to dwell.  God comes to us in Jesus as the source of grace whereby we can find freedom from the fear, guilt, and self-preoccupation that tend to block the flow of love in our lives.  Our brokenness is not a barrier to life with God, but rather the crack in the ego’s armor through which God’s gracious presence can enter into our awareness. 

Jesus doesn’t retreat into the safety of a life in which he can manage all the outcomes, control how others perceive him, and preserve his reputation.  Life is not something to be saved.  It is meant to be given away, to be recklessly spent in the service of love, risking everything for the sake of love – even failure.  Even death. 

The paradox is that the more we give our lives way, the more we save them, because what is gained in the process is an increase in the flow of love.  Love never dies.  It only increases our capacity to give ourselves away.

Perhaps the truly hard part is not this giving of our life to the work of love, but rather the necessity of sharing all of it – even the parts we’d rather hide or deny.  The offering of our lives to God means sharing even the shameful parts – especially the shameful parts, so that they can be transformed by grace into the very means whereby we become transparent to God’s forgiving and healing love for others.

There is a saying in AA:  “No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others.”  

I was reminded of this saying by a recent story in the Christian Science Monitor about Arno Michaels.  Twenty-five years ago, Michaels was a racist skinhead.  Although he grew up in a comfortable Milwaukee suburb, by the age of sixteen he was deep into the punk subculture and became radicalized as a member of two of the most notorious racist groups in the United States.  As Michaels describes his experience, “We practiced hate and violence, and we became very, very good at it.”

Michaels was actively involved in the white supremacist movement for seven years until the mid-1990s, and continued to struggle with alcoholism until he began to get sober in 2004.  He recalls being crazed with hatred of blacks, Jews, and queers, even fronting for a heavy metal hate band whose music continues to serve as an anthem for the white power movement.  He burned down the homes of African-Americans and reveled in gay-bashing. 

It took the birth of his daughter and the violent death or imprisonment of numerous friends to wake him up to the truth of his brokenness.  He now works with a group of former gang members and white supremacists to produce a monthly online magazine dedicated to human goodness called Life After Hate (which also is the title of his memoir), and has developed an anti-bullying character development program called Kindness not Weakness.  He credits the practice of meditation with opening himself up to the power of compassion and forgiveness.

Speaking to youth at hip-hop dance competition in Wisconsin recently, Michaels described how the murders of Emmett Till, an African-American teenager, in 1955 and of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man, in 1998 were fueled by the same raw material of fear and ignorance that drove his own violent past.  The room fell quiet as Michaels confessed to brutally beating a gay man and then laughing about it nearly 20 years ago.

“I’ll never forget that night,” Michaels admitted.  The past still haunts him.  “But,” he added, “I have the power to transform that act of stupidity into something positive, and I can share that with you guys, to hope that you can learn from my mistakes.”  Once the founder of one of the largest racist skinhead organizations in America, Michaels now credits Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Run-DMC as major influences.

Our failings may not be as dramatic as those of Arno Micheals, but as the Letter of James reminds us, “all of us make many mistakes.”  It is from the stuff of our mistakes – failed marriages, lost jobs, struggles with addiction, everyday contempt, indifference, and selfishness, all the little deaths through which we must pass – that we are raised to new life.   It is as we come to accept the truth of our failings with compassion, it is as we die to the false images of ourselves to which we cling, and instead come to see ourselves whole, that we become usable for God’s healing purposes. 

Jesus bore the shame of the cross, condemned as a blasphemer and criminal, to demonstrate that nothing and no one is beyond the redeeming power of God’s love.  We can share everything with God in trust that God will make use of even our most shameful experiences as a means of grace.  When we are willing to accept God’s love and forgive ourselves, even our gravest failures can become a means of grace for others. 

It is in losing our lives – the lives we think we should have, accepting instead our actual lives as we have lived them – that we save them.   And maybe, just maybe, through the grace of Jesus Christ, those lost lives can become a means of saving others as well.  Amen.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Discipleship is Sharing

How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?  Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.    I John 3:17-18

If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,” and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?  So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. – James 2:15-17

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.  – Acts 2:44-45

Perhaps the most important mark of Christian discipleship is what we do with our economic resources.  For the early church, following the way of Jesus was intimately related to responding compassionately and generously to people in need.  From the Torah and the Hebrew prophets, through Jesus’ teaching and practice, and into the writings of the early Church, there is a clear pattern linking biblical faith to economic justice.

Thus, there is nothing new about the emphasis the new monastic movement places on “Sharing economic resources with fellow community members and the needy among us” as a vital mark of mission.  This practice is as old as biblical faith itself.  What sets the new monastics apart is their recovery of this emphasis as a communal, rather than an individual, practice.

For the early church, generosity was a mark of the community as a whole, in which possessions and goods were shared and distributed according to the need (not the worth or productivity) of the recipients.  It was only later, as the church became more institutionalized, that generosity became a more individual action. 

The Church transitioned from being a model of egalitarian community that practiced social and economic justice, to being an agency of charity for the wealthy to give to the needy without transforming the basic underlying social relationships.  There were exceptions to this trend, such as the monastic orders and the Anabaptist wing of the Protestant Reformation, but these were minority witnesses.

The new monastics invite sharing resources with one another in ways that are creative of community: not as acts of individual charity, but as ways to nurture the common good.  The form of sharing is less important than the act of sharing itself: fostering gratitude, generosity, simplicity, sustainability, community and justice.  The new monastic communities have evolved certain principles for sharing economic resources as guidelines.

1) Shift from “Ownership” to “Stewardship” – everything belongs to God and is entrusted to us for a time for the sake of the common good.  How then do we share more fully what we have and need?  Some examples include creating community gardens, sharing tools (does everyone really need their own lawn mower?), car sharing services, and exchanging childcare.  Think about it for a moment: we already pool resources to share a priest.  How else might we expand upon that model? 

2) Shift from “Brokerage” to “Mutuality” – too often the Church can become a place for rich people to drop stuff off for poor people to pick-up, without any real interaction, much less mutual vulnerability.   St. Martin de Porres’ Hospitality House (which is itself a new monastic community) is a good example of moving beyond brokerage; as are microloan programs like Mothers Helping Mothers, though at more of a distance.   St. Gregory’s Food Pantry, in which recipients also volunteer to operate the pantry, is another example of finding ways to move beyond “us” helping “them” to all of us sharing in our need and our gifts.

3) Shift from “Accumulation” to “Redistribution” - Shane Claiborne notes that redistribution of wealth is not a prescription for society that must be mandated; it is a description of society when people discover what it means to love.  It is as simple is clearing out the closets once per year and donating what you don’t wear anymore.  It is as complex as finding ways to make health care available to everyone.  The practice flows from the recognition of what is “enough,” and what is “excess” to be shared with those who do not have enough. 

The practice of sharing in this way is not a moralistic burden, but rather an opportunity to discover joy and freedom in our common life.  It moves us from isolation to connection.  It makes life possible and love tangible.  It is an invitation to follow Jesus and discover Christ in one another. 

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Guarding the Heart

True religion is a matter of the heart.  Jesus criticizes the religious leaders of his time because they honor God with their lips and their worship, but their hearts are far from God.  The controversy about whether a good Jew must wash his or her hands before eating was a case in point.  What was at issue here was not personal hygiene or public health, as we might understand it.  The Pharisees were concerned with encouraging people to see all of life as holy.  Washing hands before eating, much as the priest in the Temple purified himself before offering sacrifices, was a way of democratizing participation in holiness, if you will.  It was a practice that invited people to see ordinary life shot through with the divine, a way of sanctifying time. 

Now, that in itself is hardly a bad thing.  It isn’t so different from the practice of saying grace before meals or making the sign of the Cross as your plane takes off.  Problems develop when we confuse these practices with holiness itself.  It is not that such practices render things holy, but rather that they serve as reminders of the holiness of things as they already are.  Saying grace before a meal doesn’t make food sacred.  Food comes to us as a gift of creation and is intrinsically holy.  Our prayer serves to awaken in us an appreciation for that which is.  It is our response to what God has done for us, not the means by which we make sacred something that would otherwise be profane.

Religion becomes problematic when it turns this around and teaches us that we must do certain things – or abstain from certain things -  in order to become holy.  Holiness then becomes our possession, a means of boosting our egos and defining us over against those people who do or don’t do what is required or forbidden.  We become preoccupied with the externals of religion rather than the inner transformation that these externals are meant to serve.  Thus, religion becomes about saying certain prayers or eating certain foods or avoiding things like alcohol, tobacco, card games and dancing.  These external markers become the focus of religion and are used to define the boundaries of God’s grace.  Meanwhile, our hearts may well be far from God, filled with judgment, condemnation, resentment, scorn and even hatred of those who don’t participate in the modern equivalents of washing hands before meals.

Jesus invites us to look beyond the externals of religion to the experience of inner transformation, the disposition of the heart in which true holiness, as well as evil, takes root.  True religion begins with an awareness of our heart being centered in God, desiring as God desires.  If our heart does not rest in God, if it is fragmented or fixated on self-centered concerns, then our fidelity to religious traditions are for naught. 

David Steindl-Rast, a Roman Catholic Benedictine monk, beautifully describes this problem.   He says that
Wherever we find religious tradition, we find these three elements: doctrine, morality, and ritual.  An image I like to use is that of a volcano.  Religious experience is like an eruption of living fire.  The lava flows down the side of the mountain until it cools, developing a hard rock-like crust.  This is also what happens when experience is replaced with a commentary on the experience.  As the crust becomes thicker, you have not only commentaries on the experience, but commentaries on the commentaries, and finally, commentaries on the commentaries on the commentaries.  Everything becomes hardened.  Doctrine becomes dogmatism; morality becomes legalism; and ritual becomes conditioned action with is empty of meaning.  Our great challenge and responsibility is to continually break through this hard crust of religion.  Again and again, we need to let the lava, the living fire, flow out.[1]
Doctrine, morality, and ritual have their place, but they serve as pointers to and expressions of what St. John of the Cross described as the living flame of love ignited in hearts on fire with God.  It is by tending this inner flame and allowing it to enliven daily life that true religion comes to expression.  This is why Jesus is so radical in his single-minded concern for the intentions of the heart, from which all good - and evil - springs. 

On this understanding, sin is not about moral failings or impiety and holiness is not about observance of the moral law or ritual practices; at least, not primarily.  These are secondary consequences.  Sin and holiness are fundamentally states of interior consciousness and being rather than particular actions.  Sin is a state of self-centeredness and fragmentation in which we are identified with isolated ego consciousness, cut off from reality grounded in God.  Holiness is wholeness, the realization of our identity in God, loving God and loving all things in God, being in touch with reality.
The Fathers [and Mothers of the Church] say that when we are fragmented and alienated, we are in a state of delusion and distortion, and reality is not experienced as it actually is . . . In this regard, Gregory of Nyssa says that the mind is like a river that flows with great force and vitality at its source.  And then, as the water continues along, it begins to divide into smaller streams here and there, until finally at the end of its course, the river has become dissipated.  It has been so fragmented that it has lost its wholeness and there is no vitality left.  In the same way, the energy of our inner being becomes completely lost when we are existing in a state of fragmentation, delusion, and sin.  To reverse this process, the mind has to be recollected and brought back into its state of wholeness.  The mind then regains its original vitality and force, and becomes wholly integrated and mindful.[2]
 Salvation – in its ancient sense of healing – is the process whereby we are made whole again through Jesus Christ.  St. Paul speaks of “putting on the mind of Christ” and admonishes us to “let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus.”  The essence of Jesus’ message is repentance, which means to change our mind, moving beyond our little mind or ego consciousness into the big mind or cosmic consciousness of Jesus Christ. 
When Maximus the Confessor talks about Christ and his relationship to us, he says that Christ is the Divine Logos, the essential character of God, the mind and world of God, the intelligence and wisdom of God which become incarnate and embodied in [Jesus], and that that same reality has to be born and incarnated and lived and fulfilled in every human being.  Christ comes not only as a teacher and example, but as one who has embodied the likeness of God and who enables us also to do likewise, so that we may be what he is.[3]
So, what do we have to do to change our mind?  We must allow our ego to die so that Christ can be born in us.  As Jesus said, “He who would save his life must lose it.”  We must trade in our fragmented, self-centered consciousness for an integrated, God-centered consciousness.  This requires a process of slowly dying and being reborn through the practice of attention, what the Fathers and Mothers called “guarding the heart.” 

“Guarding the heart” is a practice of mindfulness or awareness of reality.  St. Hesychius of Jerusalem said that 
sin begins as thought knocking at the door of the mind.  If that thought is accepted by the mind, then one moves into a visible act of sin.  However, if the mind is quiet and still, attentive and aware, that is, if the mind has been changed, then thought no longer governs the mind and sin cannot enter.  If sin cannot enter the mind as thought, then there is no way that it can come to fruition.[4]
 Keen students of the inner life that they were, the Mothers and Fathers clearly described the process of sin at the level of conscious awareness. 

  1. The mind experiences a stimulus or provocation of some kind.  If the mind is attentive and watchful, there will be enough space to simply observe the temptation and allow it to dissipate.  Say, for example, you notice that someone cuts you off in traffic. 
  2. If the mind is not attentive, it becomes disturbed by the provocation and becomes preoccupied with it.  You begin to brood on the fact that you’ve been disrespected by your fellow driver.
  3. The response of the mind becomes united with the stimulus such that it begins to dwell in the preoccupation.  You begin to think about how you deserve to be treated better and what a careless, stupid, and cruel fellow that was who cut you off.
  4. The mind becomes captive to the thought and we begin to be moved into some kind of reaction.  Your breathing becomes constricted, your face turns red, and you begin to sweat as you grip the steering wheel.
  5. Finally, in captivity to the thought we arrive at a state of passion whereby the thought carries a weight of energy that leads to impulsive or mechanical reaction of some kind.  You begin to curse the fellow out loud and flip him off.
Guarding the heart is the practice of awareness such that we are able to cut off sin at its root, by observing the stimulus that gives rise to the thought and observing its passing away without needing to react.  It is possible to simply observe that we’ve been cut off in traffic and allow the stimulus to pass through our mind without becoming attached to it.  In fact, we even can cultivate a sense of compassion for the hurried and harried fellow who cut us off. 

Jesus tells us that all evil comes from within.  This is a teaching that challenges us to take responsibility for our own behavior.  We are exhorted to take responsibility for our lives in this way, not for the sake moralistic perfection, but rather for the sake of spiritual freedom.  True religion is a matter of the heart, and we must guard the heart so that it remains free to love.

Otherwise, we become like the guy who was walking down the street with blisters in both of his ears.  A friend asked him what happened to cause the blisters.  “My wife left her hot iron on, and when the phone rang I picked up the iron by mistake.”  “Yes, but what about the other ear?”  "The damned fool called back!”

Sin will keep knocking on the door of the mind – again and again and again.  We can choose whether or not to open the door.   

[1] Susan Walker, ed., Speaking of Silence: Christians and Buddhists on the Contemplative Way (New York: Paulist Press, 1987), pp. 109-110. 
[2] Ibid., pp. 177-178.
[3] Ibid., pp. 178-179.
[4] Ibid., p. 179.