Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Not Knowing

Today is Trinity Sunday, so we are invited to reflect on the question, “What is God like?”  What is God like?

I don’t know.  Whatever God is, God can’t be described in words.  Even the great Doctrine of the Trinity: “One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit” is inadequate.  It is a beautiful statement.  It is worthy of our attention.  But it is, at best, the least inadequate way to describe the indescribable.  It can help us avoid some errors, but it doesn’t give us the truth.  It just nudges us into the Mystery.

The problem is when we confuse the Doctrine of the Trinity with the reality of God.  “When the sage points to the moon, all the idiot sees is the finger.”  The Trinity is the finger.  And as the French writer, Jean Guiton, adds: “We often use the finger to gauge out eyes.”[1] 

That is the problem with religion.  We think we know!  We don’t know!  Fr. Anthony De Mello describes the problem with a story.

A man born blind comes to me and asks, “What is this thing called green?”  How does one describe the color green to someone who is blind?  One uses analogies.  So I say, “The color green is something like soft music.”  “Oh,” he says, “like soft music.”  “Yes, I say, “soothing and soft music.”  So a second blind man comes to me and asks, “What is the color green?”  I tell him it’s something like soft satin, very soft and soothing to the touch.  So the next day I notice that the two blind men are bashing each other over the head with bottles.  One is saying, “It’s soft like music”; the other is saying, “It’s soft like satin.”  And on it goes.

Neither of them knows what they’re talking about, because if they did, they’d shut up.  It’s as bad as that.  It’s even worse, because one day, say, you give sight to this blind man, and he’s sitting there in the garden and he’s looking all around him, and you say to him, “Well, now you know what the color green is.”  And he answers, “That’s true.  I heard some of it this morning!”

The fact is that you’re surrounded by God and you don’t see God, because you “know” about God.  The final barrier to the vision of God is our God concept.  You miss God because you think you know.  That’s the terrible thing about religion.  That’s what the gospels were saying, that religious people “knew,” so they got rid of Jesus.  The highest knowledge of God is to know God as unknowable.[2]

The vital, living stream of contemplative Christian tradition always has taught this, but we forget.  We start to think we know.   Even St. Thomas Aquinas, as voluble a theologian as ever lived, wrote at the beginning of his famous Summa Theologica, “About God, we cannot say what He is but rather what He is not. And so we cannot speak about how He is but rather how He is not.”[3]  In fact, in the final years of his life St. Thomas took a vow of silence.  He realized that he didn’t know; or, perhaps, that what he did know could not be communicated with words.

Confusing our ideas about God with the reality of God can be deadening.  We can be so focused on religion that we miss God altogether.  De Mello tells another story to illustrate this point.

There was a man who invented the art of making fire.  He took his tools and went to a tribe in the north, where it was very cold, bitterly cold.  He taught the people there to make fire.  The people were very interested.  He showed them the uses to which they could put fire – they could cook, could keep themselves warm, etc.  They were so grateful that they had learned the art of making fire.  But before they could express their gratitude to the man, he disappeared.  He wasn’t concerned with getting their recognition or gratitude; he was concerned about their well-being.

He went to another tribe, where he again began to show them the value of his invention.  People were interested there, too, a bit too interested for the peace of mind of their priests, who began to notice that this man was drawing crowds and they were losing their popularity.  So they decided to do away with him.  They poisoned him, crucified him, put it any way you like.  But they were afraid now that the people might turn against them, so they were very wise, even wily.  Do you know what they did?  They had a portrait of the man made and mounted it on the main altar of the temple.  The instruments for making fire were placed in front of the portrait, and the people were taught to revere the portrait and to pay reverence to the instruments of fire, which they dutifully did for centuries.  The veneration and the worship went on, but there was no fire.[4]

Religion can teach you about the fire, but it can’t make the fire.  Only you can make the fire or, rather, the fire already is in you.  This is what Jesus Christ is all about:  wake-up, and realize the fire that is in you, the love that is in you!  Get in touch with the reality of God that is available to you here and now, without which you would not be at all!  Wake-up!

The most that religion can do is pass along some tools that help us to wake-up, remind us that we don’t know, and encourage us to drop our illusions and attachments so that we can get in touch with reality.  When we do that, then we will know God; not as an abstract concept expressed in the Doctrine of the Trinity, but as the living flame of love in which we are consumed and made new.

The anonymous author of The Cloud of Unknowing, a 14th century mystical treatise, advises us that “Thought cannot comprehend God. And so, I prefer to abandon all I can know, choosing rather to love him whom I cannot know. Though we cannot know him we can love him.” “It is laudable to reflect on God’s kindness and to love and praise him for it; yet it is far better to let your mind rest in the awareness of him in his naked existence and to love and praise him for what he is in himself.” 

The author invites us to know God in the only way possible:  through self-emptying love, surrendering in love to the mystery that we cannot comprehend.  Placing ourselves between the cloud of unknowing in which the reality of God is concealed, and the cloud of forgetting, whereby we detach ourselves from our obsessions and illusions, we simply rest in God’s presence and seek to penetrate the cloud of unknowing with “little darts of love.”  By emptying ourselves in this way, we may be filled with the love that transcends our understanding.   We do not attain to God through intellectual abstraction, but through ego subtraction:  we become receptive so that we may be filled.  And being filled, we empty ourselves in self-giving to the Beloved.  And so it goes on.

The language of the Trinitarian relationships within the Godhead, derived from biblical metaphors, is an imaginative extrapolation from the the human experience of divine love:  of giving and receiving in mutual self-surrender, but it is not the experience itself; which is, finally, uncommunicable.  In the fire of divine love, language turns to ashes. 

Don’t get tripped up by theological language.  Embrace the cloud of unknowing.  There really isn’t any other option!  All we can do is trust Jesus’ promise that “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth . . . He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.  All that the Father has is mine.  For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”[5]  Just as the Father shared everything with Jesus, so we can trust that Jesus will share the fullness of the Father with us.  We can boast with St. Paul “in our hope of sharing the glory of God . . . because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.”[6]

Fr. Thomas Keating writes that

The Trinitarian relationships, of their very nature, invite us into the stream of divine love that is unconditional and totally self-surrendered.  This boundless love emerges from the Father into the Son, and through the Son is communicated by the Spirit to all creation.  The invitation is given to every human being to enter into the stream of divine love, or at least to venture a big toe into the everflowing river of eternal life.  As we let go of our false self, we move into this stream of love that is always flowing and bestowing endless gifts of grace.  The more we open our capacity to receive, the more we can give.  And as we give, we enlarge the space in us to receive still more.[7]

Beautiful words from a book entitled, not without some irony, Reflections on the Unknowable!

Well, enough about the finger already.  Turn your gaze instead, to the moon.  

[1] Anthony De Mello, Awareness:  The Perils and Opportunities of Reality (New York:  Doubleday, 1990), pp. 102-103.
[2] De Mello, pp. 101-102.
[3] De Mello, p. 100.
[4] De Mello, pp. 174-175.
[5] John 16:13a,14-15.
[6] Romans 5:2,5.
[7] Thomas Keating, Reflections on the Unknowable (New York:  Lantern Books, 2014), p. 155.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Consent to Love

 This morning I would like to begin with a provocative quote from Fr. Thomas Keating that is, I think, quite stunning in its implications.  I invite you to listen carefully to his words.  They provide a very good exposition of the meaning of this morning’s Gospel passage.  Keating writes,

“Our precious days on earth – the spiritual journey – are not primarily about us, or even our transformation in Christ.  They are about God taking over our lives in every detail.  To repeat the same insight slightly differently, living daily life and the evolution of consciousness are not primarily about ‘us.’  They are about God and God’s life, death, and resurrection in us.  They are about whatever God wants to do or doesn’t want to do . . . The goal is not just union, or even unity with God, but God incarnating in our humanity with all its circumstances.  Christ renewing the sacred mysteries of his human life in our humanity is one way of describing his incarnation in each of us . . . It is also the healing and completing of our creation out of nothing:  to be taken over body, soul, and spirit by the Eternal Word of God:  to be an extension of Jesus in space and time; and to contribute to the continuation of the ongoing evolution of the human family.”[1]

This is why when Philip asks Jesus, “Show us the Father,” Jesus replies, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”[2]  Jesus is the complete manifestation of God in the flesh.  Now, this is an astonishing claim, but it isn’t simply an assertion on Jesus’s part.  Jesus invites Philip to judge the truth of the matter based on his own experience.  We judge ourselves based on our intentions, but others judge us based on our actions.  “Don’t just take my word for it,” says Jesus, “look at what I am doing.”[3]  Does Jesus manifest God or not?  Judge by word and deed.

This is a remarkable dialogue, but it doesn’t stop there – although our piety and our theology tend to stop there.  Jesus isn’t only making a claim about himself, but also about those who seek to follow his way.  God will be manifest in them as well.   They will do the works that Jesus does – even greater works than him.  And they will know the truth.  Jesus promises that they will receive the gift of the Spirit, the Spirit in which he and the Father are united, and that they will be together with them forever.[4]

To grow into “the fullness of Christ” or to have “the mind of Christ,”[5] as St. Paul describes it, is to consent to the process of becoming increasingly transparent to God, just as Jesus was completely transparent to God.  Fr. Keating puts it this way:  “God’s plan:  to manifest divine humility and infinite compassion and to make each human being his equal to the maximum degree possible, transformed into divine love.”[6]  God chooses to share God’s life with us, to bring the divine life to fulfillment through us, in love. 

We were created so that God may become manifest in us, that we may share in the very life of God and that our actions may reflect the will of God for the fulfillment of the whole creation.  When we consent to manifest God in our lives, we participate in our own healing and the healing of the world.  

How do we consent to this divine transformation?
The first step is to simply acknowledge our desire for God.  God already has made the first move toward us in our creation and redemption in Christ:  God has said “Yes!” to us.  The only response necessary is to return God’s love with love, to allow God to love God through us as we come to realize our unity in God. 

In the deepest part of our being, God’s love vibrates in time with the beating of our heart.  Our soul’s desire is to rest in this love, to allow it to shape our identity and our actions.  As Jesus said to Philip and the other disciples, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”[7]  Love is the beginning and the end of our union with God in Christ.  We must consent to love. 

St. John of the Cross said that “What we need most in order to make progress is to be silent before this great God with our appetite and with our tongue, for the language he best hears is silent love.”[8]  The difficulty of this first step is that it requires nothing of us.  It is utterly simple.  We need only bring ourselves before God in silence, with the sole intention of responding to love with love.  This is the practice of contemplative prayer:  simply resting in God’s love.

Such prayer is simple, but not easy. It requires us to turn our attention from our compulsive striving and acquiring, our obsessive planning and thinking, to let go of our attachments, our efforts to make a name for ourselves, and receive the name that God already has given us: “Beloved.”  This love is a river of life that satiates us, and a consuming flame that burns away all that impedes the flow of love. 

There is another way in which we can turn toward this love: by participating in the sacramental life of the Church, through which we become part of the Body of Christ, the extension of Jesus in space and time.  In Holy Communion, we receive the very life of God and discover our mutual indwelling in that life.  Through the grace of the Sacrament and the grace of contemplative prayer, we consent to receive our identity from God.

When we are in touch with our love for someone, we are willing to give them our time and attention. So, it is with God.  We consent to love by setting aside time for quiet prayer and for the Sacrament. 

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”  When we love someone, our desire for their well-being comes to shape our identity and our action.   To consent to love God is to consent to love everyone and everything, since all things have their being in God.  Love is realized in genuinely desiring and seeking the good of the beloved.  “If you love me,” says Jesus, “you will do the things that I do for the healing of the world.”  This is step two.

It seems that the more we consent to love, the more we allow the fire of love to burn away our false self and the impediments to love, the freer we become to act in ways that are life-giving for others.  This is what it means to bless others:  to increase their capacity for life.  Confident in God’s love, we are less self-preoccupied and more available to bless others. 

As God becomes incarnate in us, we are taught by the Spirit of truth.  The Spirit of truth helps us to see ourselves and the world as we really are.  The scales fall from our eyes and our projections are reeled-in.  We accept reality no matter how awful or how wonderful it may be.  We take responsibility for the harms we’ve caused, and forgive the harms we’ve suffered.  We begin to intuitively know how to respond to people and situations in ways that foster healing and life, because we are living in the truth.   This is the peace of Christ that the world cannot give:  compassionate acceptance of reality and a love that overcomes our fear. 

Jesus is the first fruit of the new humanity, the cutting edge of the process of spiritual evolution in which we are all called to participate.  As more and more people consent to love, the more we do what Jesus does; and, yes, even greater things than him!  The incarnation of God is an evolutionary process in which more and more of the creation is brought to its fulfillment through our consent to love. 

What we celebrate on Pentecost is the movement that Jesus inaugurated: the ever-increasing incarnation of God in human life as more and more people consent to love.  This movement subsists in, but is not limited to, the Church.   It is realized through contemplative prayer and loving communion. It is not afraid to speak the truth in love, and is capable of doing great things to the extent that it is willing to suffer great vulnerability. 

This movement leaves healing and reconciliation in its wake.  It is spreading everywhere, until the Spirit of God renews the face of the whole earth, and fulfills the promise of the prophet Joel, whom Peter quoted on that first Pentecost:

“In the last days it will be, God declares,
that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh,
   and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
   and your old men shall dream dreams.
Even upon my slaves, both men and women,
   in those days I will pour out my Spirit;
     and they shall prophesy.
And I will show portents in the heaven above
   and signs on the earth below,
     blood, and fire, and smoky mist.
The sun shall be turned to darkness
   and the moon to blood,
     before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day.

Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.”[9]

Consent to love, and everything changes.

[1] Thomas Keating, Reflections on the Unknowable (New York:  Lantern Books, 2014), pp. 138-139.
[2] John 14:8-9.
[3] John 14:11.
[4] John 14:12-17.
[5] I Corinthians 2:14-16; Ephesians 4:11-13.
[6] Keating, p. 136.
[7] John 14:15.
[8] John of the Cross, Sayings of Light and Love, no. 132.
[9] Acts 2:17-21.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

There are no disposable people

 Remarks at the Faith in Action Affordable Housing Action
May 11, 2016
by the Rev. John Kirkley

As we gather to reflect on the housing crisis in our city, I want to place our policy discussion within the context of our common life.  Housing policy should not be developed in a vacuum.  It should be driven by grassroots, citizen engagement in the larger questions of who we are and what we value.  What kind of community do we want to be?  How do we preserve the things that we value, those things that make San Francisco worth living in, even as we welcome new people to our city?  What is the moral vision that informs – and when necessary, constrains –  our political judgments and policy choices?

I’ve been part of a multicultural, interfaith group of San Francisco clergy leaders who have been reflecting on these questions.  I want to share with you the values that shape our moral vision, uniting us across a wide spectrum of identity and belief.  I invite you to consider these values as a set of criteria by which we might evaluate the various proposals we will hear tonight. 

To begin, we affirm that all human beings are created by God, equally deserving of respect, dignity and opportunity. In light of this, housing is a basic human need and a fundamental human right. It is not a privilege. This means a minimum baseline of safe, affordable housing should be available to everyone.  There are no exceptions.  There are no disposable people.

We also value being part of a community that is inclusive and diverse.   We are rightly proud of San Francisco’s rich history of being a place of refuge for immigrants, refugees, queers, artists, cultural creatives - and, yes, entrepreneurs.  We fear that San Francisco is becoming a tale of two cities – one for the extremely wealthy, and one for everyone else.  Do we want San Francisco to be an exclusive enclave of the rich, or an inclusive community that celebrates human diversity?

The median home price in San Francisco is around $1.1 million. One bedroom apartments rent for $3.4K/month and two bedrooms for $4.65K/month. Meanwhile, the average household income of San Franciscans is $83,000.

Think about that. To afford to buy a home here, you need an average household income of about $254K/year and a down payment of $240K. Only 11% of San Franciscans can afford to buy a home at these prices.  Renting isn't any easier, given that a household of average means would spend 67% of its pre-tax income on rent for a two-bedroom unit.  Part of the problem is that in the past five years, the City has not built nearly enough new housing to meet the demands of job and population growth. More building and greater density is part of the solution.

However, the housing that is being built is overwhelmingly luxury housing for the 11% who can afford it, because that is where the money is to be made. Some of that housing lies empty, because it is purchased by investors simply as a place to park money rather than house people.  What about the other 89% of us who can’t afford this housing?

Poor and middle-class households are being displaced at an alarming rate, especially in communities of color. This means that teachers, nurses, social workers, clergy, artists, police officers, and paramedics cannot afford to live here. Even tech workers are beginning to be priced out, especially once they have kids. Forget about it if you work in service industries.

Homelessness is an extreme form of displacement.  People living in homeless encampments are among the most vulnerable in our community.  They, too, need to be integrated into the fabric of our city in ways that respect their dignity as human beings.  People need to have basic shelter and safety needs met before other needs such as health care, education and employment can be addressed adequately.

We value human dignity and community diversity.  We also value sustainable communities:  communities that are capable of caring for people and the places they live over the long haul.  Such care requires two things:  time and love.  People who love their community are motivated to care for it, to preserve its vitality and integrity, and not simply exploit it for short term personal gain. 

Long term residents with deep roots and strong social ties are an irreplaceable form of social capital.  We squander such capital at our peril.  Tech cycles go boom and tech cycles go bust.  People who love this city, and the rich fabric of families, neighborhoods, schools, congregations, small businesses, arts and activist groups that they sustain, are the common wealth that enriches us all. 

It is time for people of faith and all people of good will to speak up for the values of community, compassion, and sustainability.  It is time for our housing policies – and our public policies generally – to reflect a moral vision.  That can only happen if you and I are actively engaged in the development of those policies, and hold our city officials accountable for ensuring that they reflect our values. Thank you for being here tonight.  May we challenge each other to continue the difficult but meaningful work of creating a San Francisco for all people.