Sunday, August 6, 2017

Theosis: Sermon for the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord Jesus Christ

Today we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Transfiguration is attested in all three Synoptic Gospels:  Matthew, Mark, and Luke, as well as by the Second Letter of Peter.   While the Gospel of John does not include an account of the Transfiguration, it explicitly underscores the theological significance of the event in an important dialogue between Jesus and Philip.

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.  (John 14:8-12)

All four Gospels make the same point:  in seeing Jesus, we see God.  And in seeing God, we are empowered to become fully ourselves:  human beings created in God’s image.   Through Christ, we become united with God in the creative, life-giving work of love.

This teaching is at the heart of Christian faith.  It was expressed beautifully by Bishop Irenaeus of Lyon in the Second Century, when he wrote that "The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God. If the revelation of God through creation already brings life to all living beings on the earth, how much more will the manifestation of the Father by the Word bring life to those who see God" (Against Heresies IV, 20, 7).  This vision of God is made possible through "the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ, Who did, through His transcendent love, become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself." (Against Heresies V, preface)

This is a great mystery, and it is astonishing to realize that God desires to freely share God’s life and glory with us!  God desires so much more for us that we can ask for or imagine!   How patiently God waits for us to wake-up to our desire for God, to become united with his will for us, which is true freedom and joy.   

In Luke’s account, Jesus brings Peter, James, and John up to the mountain to pray.  The three disciples struggle to remain awake, but in doing so see the glory of God revealed there.  This is the work of prayer:  the struggle to shake off our illusions and preoccupations, so that we can attend to God’s desire for us and our desire for God.  Prayer is the work of seeing God so that we can see ourselves as God sees us. Prayer is waking-up so that we don’t miss the point of being alive!

Prayer can be a struggle, much as attending to any relationship can be a struggle.  It takes effort and perseverance, time and attention, for a real relationship with another human being to unfold, to move beyond our projections and illusions about each another to that we can really see each other.  Genuine friendship is the fruit of such effort; accepting one another as we really are so that we can grow into the fullness of who we are meant to be. Real friends love each other, and they accept each other, warts and all, thereby providing each other the space and time to let go of those things that prevent them from becoming fully alive. 

St. Theresa of Avila describes prayer in much the same way.  She writes that “prayer in my opinion is nothing else than an intimate sharing between friends; it means taking time frequently to be alone with Him who we know loves us.  In order that love be true and the friendship endure, the wills of the friends must be in accord . . . Oh what a good friend You make, my Lord!  How You proceed by favoring and enduring.  You wait for others to adapt to Your nature, and in the meanwhile you put up with theirs!”  (The Book of Her Life, VIII, 5-6)

Like any good friend, God puts up with us until we can see ourselves through God’s eyes: as objects of God’s loving desire, invited to share God’s life and work.   Prayer is the experience of God loving us until we can love ourselves.  Then God loves us some more, until we begin to love others as God loves us.  We adapt ourselves to God’s nature and so become like Jesus.

Good friends also listen to each other, deeply and patiently.  The voice from the cloud announces to Peter, James and John: “this is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!” (Luke 9:35).  The vision of God in the face of Jesus Christ also entails a willingness to listen to his voice, to internalize his teaching, not simply to venerate him but to follow him, to become like him.  How do we do this?

In Eastern Orthodox tradition, the Feast of the Transfiguration is a celebration of the chief end of human life:  deification or union with God’s will.  This is called theosis in the Eastern Church, a process of transformation through catharsis (purification of mind and body) and theoria (illumination by the vision of God).   Theosis is not our achievement, but rather God’s gift to us, whereby we become transparent to the energia of God in the power of the Holy Spirit.  The practice of prayer disposes us to become willing to receive this gift, empowering us for service in God’s name. 

In English, theoria is translated as “contemplation.” Gerry May defines contemplation “as a specific psychological state characterized by alert and open qualities of awareness . . . contemplation consists of a direct, immediate, open-eyed encounter with life as-it-is.”  Contemplation as a psychological state occurs naturally and can be taught, learned, and cultivated.   May notes that when practiced over time, the psychological state of contemplation produces changes in brain function, with quite visible psychophysiological effects:

1 1.Increased clarity and breadth of awareness:  the experienced contemplative develops a capacity for more panoramic, all-inclusive awareness that includes stimuli that is normally screened out as distracting or irrelevant.  Thus more information is available for consideration.
22. More direct and incisive responsiveness to situations.  Since a greater range of perception is available, the experienced contemplative is more present in the moment and responsive to people and situations.  At the same time, she is increasingly confident in the mind’s natural intuitive ability, thus spending less time consciously thinking about what to do.  This combination of increased information and decreased effort makes for more immediate and efficient reactions.
33. Greater self-knowledge.  Mental activities that were previously unnoticed become visible; the unconscious becomes conscious, increasing understanding of thoughts, sensations, emotions, and memories.  Personal abilities and vulnerabilities are better understood and accepted.  Most importantly, the insubstantiality of one’s self-image is recognized, making one less vulnerable to a variety of existential anxieties.

All of this makes for a remarkable increase in personal power, but at the level of technique, contemplation is morally neutral:  it can be cultivated for great good or for great evil.  Contemplation becomes contemplative prayer only when it is directed toward a conscious desire for God and knowledge of God’s will.  This is also why, in the Christian tradition, the practice of contemplation is always done in conjunction with the cultivation of the virtues, especially the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. 

Here, we move beyond honing neurological responsiveness and personal power to cultivating a willingness to be open to God’s grace, embracing the vulnerability of friendship with God of which St. Teresa speaks.   Contemplative prayer is a willingness to embrace the vulnerability of loving and being loved.

In contemplative prayer, we reach the limit of what training and effort can achieve, and surrender to the healing and transfiguring power of God’s love.  We cannot make the vision of God happen.  We can dispose ourselves to become willing to receive it, to risk the vulnerability of love.  This willingness is risky.  In prayer, St. Catherine of Genoa heard God say, “If you know how much I loved you, it would kill you.”  How much love can we bear?  May argues that the only psychological determinant that correlates with our capacity for love is our willingness to accept the pain of love and the courage to bear it.  Love can hurt, but it also heals like nothing else can.[1]

In the Kontakion for the Feast of the Transfiguration, our Eastern Orthodox sisters and brothers sing,

On the Mountain You were Transfigured, O Christ God,
And Your disciples beheld Your glory as far as they could see it;
So that when they would behold You crucified,
They would understand that Your suffering was voluntary,
And would proclaim to the world,
That You are truly the Radiance of the Father!

In Christ, God willingly risks the vulnerability of love for the sake of life, for our life and the life of the world.  In contemplative prayer, we gamble on that same risk and surrender to this love.  We become truly ourselves: icons of God’s own love, united with God in the work of justice, healing and reconciliation.  For this, we were made.  Amen.

[1] May’s discussion of contemplation and the quote from St. Catherine of Genoa are found in Gerald G. May, “To Bear The Beams Of Love: Contemplation And Personal Growth” at 

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Relaxing In God's Image

Curtil-sous-Burnand, France

Today is Trinity Sunday according to the Christian calendar.  It is a day to reflect on what God is like.  How do we imagine God?  The Trinitarian dogma – that God is a unity of persons in communion, a dynamic exchange of love that is creative, generative, and joyful – was the definitive statement of the early Church in its effort to describe God in the least inadequate way.  It is a valiant attempt to communicate the incommunicable, to seek truth in the only way possible with respect to language about God:  by refusing to resolve the paradoxes.  

That is all I’m going to say today about the Trinitarian dogma.  The less said, the better.  In the face of the Mystery of God, the most appropriate response is silence.  If we are going to talk about God, a more biblical approach is to tell stories.  And one of the best stories in the Bible about what God is like is the first reading we heard today from Genesis.

Usually, this story in the Book of Genesis is taken to be about the origin of the universe.  It is treated as a cosmological myth.  Well, it does contain elements of such creation accounts, but the story is more about God than about the world.  Like most stories about what God is like, it is implicitly a story about how we should live in the world given our understanding of what God is like.   And the message of this story is really good news, because its central proclamation is:  RELAX.  Chill out. Take it easy.  Rest.

Jewish commentators have been much better at picking up on this than have Christians.  We tend to focus on the “work” part of the story rather than the “rest” part.  We don’t pay much attention to the climax of the story:

And on the seventh day God finished the work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all the work that he had done.  So God blessed the seventh day and hallowed it, because on it God rested from all the work that he had done in creation.[1]

God does not bless the other six days in which he worked.  God blesses the creatures – as intrinsically valuable quite apart from their use by humans – and the adam, the human beings, male and female.  But it is only the day of rest that is declared “holy.”  To be blessed is to be infused with the life-force, to be made fully alive.  Holiness describes being completely set-apart for or consecrated to God; reserved to be used by God, so to speak.   The seventh day is set apart so that creation can rest and so become fully alive in God.  

What does this story reveal about what God is like?  Creation is very hard work.  It requires a great deal of energy and imagination.  It also requires a certain capacity to go with the flow.  Creativity requires letting be, permitting things to develop, to emerge, to disclose what they are becoming.  This is not creation on demand.  It is creation by invitation.  God invites and trusts that the response will turn out to God’s liking: “Let there be . . .”  And, indeed, it turns out to be very good. 

God delights in creating and in creation, but God is not a workaholic, anxious about getting it right, worried that everything will collapse if God isn’t directly controlling things 24/7.  God is “necessary” in that God donates being to everything in existence, but there is secondary, contingent causality – real creaturely freedom – within the created order.  And God is OK with that.  You may believe it is difficult to trust God.  The real challenge is believing that God trusts us! God trusts us enough to take a break on the 7th day.  God trusts the ever-renewing cycles of nature, the rhythms and harmonies inherent in God’s work and the participation of the creatures in that pattern of work and rest. 

It is not our work that defines us, but rather our capacity to trust, to let go and let be, to relax into the loving intention of creation so that we can really live.  God created us because he thought we might enjoy it.   Israel’s faith, and ours, is inextricably bound up with this sense that we receive our identity, not from what we produce or acquire, but from our willingness to rest in God’s love, to trust that there is a benevolent intention beating at the heart of reality.

This Genesis story dates from the period of Israel’s exile in Babylon.  It is a story about preserving one’s identity, one’s humanity, in a hostile culture that undermines one’s capacity to trust and refuses the dignity of rest.  Keeping Sabbath is a way of resisting imperial claims to impose an identity that denies God’s image in us.  Keeping Sabbath is a proclamation of faith that there is a loving God who graciously donates being to creation, infusing it with life-force, so that we may share in the eternal play of self-giving love that is God’s own life.  This God stands over and against all imperial claims to power that would define us solely by our work and deny us rest.

Israel’s experience generated a sophisticated critique of ideologies that seek to define human beings by their work; which is, by definition, slavery in the broadest sense.  The Torah defines Sabbath observance more precisely as work stoppage – for adults, children, slaves, resident aliens, and even livestock.[2]   Cessation from all work is the means whereby the Sabbath is kept holy.  If we really trust that our identity is God-given and not a function of our own efforts, we can relax long enough to discover and enjoy the intrinsic dignity and worth of creation.

The sages of Israel appended a second “creation” story – the one about the Garden of Eden – to the first “creation” story in Genesis, that goes so far as to define work as a curse.  It results from seeking to make God into a rival, against whom we set our own efforts to know, produce, and acquire.  Rather than gratefully sharing and enjoying the fruits of an abundant creation, we experience the fear of scarcity and the burden of toiling in rivalry with others to secure our lives.  This is the consequence of refusing to rest in God’s love, instead defining ourselves by our achievements or our failures.[3]

What Israel struggled to resist was the reduction of all of life to the economic.  Politics, community, the family, and even the self becomes subservient to economics when production and consumption is the touchstone of identity and value.  It is a struggle we know well.  We’ve internalized the belief that we are what we own.  We are anxious to provide our children with “opportunities” for “success” – by which we mean economic success – keeping them even busier and over-scheduled than many adults.  What they really want is not more opportunities, but more time for relationships – with their parents, families and friends.  We trust in wealth to provide us with a security that can only be provided by community.  It is the breadth and depth of our relationships, not the size of our investment portfolio, that sees us through the tough times – including tough economic times.  And look at how wealth determines our politics, rather than the common wealth being subservient to the common good.  People exhausted by the rat race have precious little time or energy to act as citizens, and are far easier to manipulate.

Sabbath rest was thought to be so essential to human identity and sanity, that the Torah stipulates death as the punishment for profaning the Sabbath; whoever does any work on that day is to be cut off from the people.[4]  This sounds like a text of terror.  But, to my knowledge, this was never literally enforced. It was taken to contain a deeper truth:  If you don’t observe the life-giving pattern of work and rest intrinsic to creation, you will die.  If you don’t keep the Sabbath you will be “cut off from the people” – you will lose your identity and, for all intents, cease to be fully human.

Earlier this week, I had dinner with my family and a dear friend of our son, whom we’ve known since he was two years-old. We were talking about their freshman college experience and what life is like for their peers.  The scope of depression, eating disorders, self-harming behavior, and suicidality among their peers was shocking to hear.  These are complex phenomena, and individual cases are unique, but one factor they both felt was relevant was the sense that their generation lives with enormous pressure to achieve, a lurking fear of scarcity, and an insidious sense of inadequacy.  According to The New York Times, drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death among Americans under the age of 50.[5]  This is the consequence of a culture where identity is defined by achievement, productivity, and consumption.  If we can’t compete, if we aren’t good enough, we numb out until we die.    

Observing the Sabbath is critical to our resistance to this Culture of Death.  It is in our resting, not our working or achieving, that we realize God’s image within us.  It is how we become fully alive and truly free.  In the Torah, we are told that “on the seventh day, God rested, and was refreshed.”[6]  Walter Brueggemann observes that the word translated as “refreshed” is the Hebrew word for “self” turned into a verb:  literally, God was “re-selfed” or got Godself back. 

When we are defined by achievement or failure, we lose our self.  We become so fearful, anxious, and driven that we are literally beside our selves.  Resting in God’s love, in the beauty, joy and wonder sustained by God’s creative self-giving, we are restored in the image of God, renewed in our sense of identity, power, and freedom.  Sabbath keeping is essential to the politics of resistance to a Culture of Death that seeks to reduce everything to economic winners and losers.

Refusing to be defined by work is a subversive act.  It asserts an intrinsic dignity and worth that cannot be quantified or managed.  It expresses a profound trust in the benevolent, abundant, and sustainable nature of reality, and a willingness to surrender ourselves to the care of God and others.  It recognizes that we do not need to “add value” to the world, as if the world and our existence in it were somehow insufficiently valuable; as if we could improve on God’s handiwork.  We don’t need to make the world great again.  It already is.  We are just too busy to notice.  If even God took time out to rest, why can’t we?  Maybe, just maybe, we are most like God when we relax and do . . . nothing.  

[1] Genesis 2:2-3.
[2] Exodus 20:8-11.
[3] The first eleven chapters of Genesis describe the unfolding of the consequences resulting from the refusal of Sabbath rest.
[4] Exodus 31:14-15.
[5] Josh Katz, “Drug Deaths In America Are Rising Faster Than Ever,” The New York Times (June 5, 2017).
[6] Exodus 31:17.

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Interpreting (Unequal) Scripture: Listening for the Shepherd's Voice

What are the scriptures for?  How do we relate to these texts in such a way so to receive the abundant life that Jesus offers us?   That is why Jesus came isn’t it?  “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy.  I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.”[1] 

Sometimes, reading the scriptures, it is easy to forget this.  Today’s lesson from I Peter is a good example.  It gets a bit right and a whole lot wrong.  It provides a meditation on the imitation of Christ’s suffering.  Just as Jesus suffered and died unjustly, without engaging in retaliatory violence, so too should we be willing to suffer, entrusting ourselves to God’s judgment.  However, the audience addressed by the text is not, in fact, “we” but rather slaves.  “Slaves, accept the authority of your masters with all deference, not only those who are kind and gentle but also those who are harsh.”[2]  The lectionary reading conveniently leaves out this verse, which immediately precedes the passage we heard.

The text goes on in a similar vein to encourage married women to similar feats of patient suffering.  “Wives, in the same way, accept the authority of your husbands, so that, even if some of them do not obey the word, they may be won over without a word by their wives conduct.”[3]  Not only should wives submit to spouse abuse, but they should feel responsible for their husband’s behavior in the process.  “He’d change if only you were good enough.”  What a load of crap. 

In fairness, the letter goes on to address a larger “we”: “Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind.”[4]  Hard to argue with that, except it seems a bit too little, and much too late.  I Peter draws on the image of the suffering servant in Isaiah and the example of Christ’s Passion to reify being a victim – “better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil.”[5]  Hmmmn.  Maybe.  This seems to miss the whole point of Jesus’ passion and resurrection, which was not an exercise in celebrating victimization, but in revealing the mendacity and godlessness of the ways in which we make victims of one another quiet contrary to God’s will, so that we can instead enjoy abundant life together. 

Now, I don’t wish to scapegoat the author of I Peter.  He struggles with the question of Christians suffering persecution in a violent culture, trying to make meaning out of a difficult situation; situations where we often feel powerless and wonder if God is punishing us.  No, he assures us, sometimes good people suffer unjustly, just like Jesus did.  It isn’t your fault.  Just as God raised up Jesus, our suffering will become a means of righteousness in ways we can’t yet see.  The writer promises that “after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you.  To God be the power forever and ever.”[6]

Even so, I Peter falls short in its understanding of Jesus’ suffering and our own.  Reading it encourages us to explore afresh Jesus’ example and the suffering servant poems in Isaiah.  Is that what they really meant?  Not all scripture is equal, and scripture can only be interpreted in conversation with other scripture and in relationship to the community of interpreters.   We misunderstand scripture if we read it as a unitary text or even as a text that was meant primarily to be read.  As James Alison reminds us,

They have always been a series of texts which rub against each other in a constant process of mutual elucidation.  Thus was it before the time of Jesus, at the time of Jesus, and so it is now. Furthermore, the Scriptures were never designed to be a Final Version for a reading public. They were designed as a base text for public proclamation and commentary. That is: from the beginning, the liturgical function of explaining and narrating the “wherefore” of things, of events, of stories and of festivals preceded the production of texts. The texts are, as it were, manuals for preaching or exposition, helped along by their divergences, their internal references, their allusions, repetitions and contradictions. These allow the person doing the teaching to take advantage of the hooks, the hints and the bifurcations so as to get more juice from their possibilities, from the various “How would it be if...?” and so on. Which is to say that it is the performance which is important, because it is the performance which makes the story come alive and allows it to be applied to the “today” which is always the moment of challenge in any good Liturgy . . .[7]

The performance being spoken of here is not simply that of the preacher or teacher, but the performance of those of us who find ourselves on the inside of the story of God-with-us, our willingness to make that story our story and bring it to life. 

It is not so much what the text says that is important, but rather the interpretative lens of the people bringing the text to life, bringing it into conversation with the larger biblical, Christian, and human witness.   For example, reading this passage from I Peter in relationship to today’s Gospel reading, when I’m told to obey the voice of my master or my husband who is abusing me, I have to say that I Peter sounds a lot like the voice of the thief in Jesus’ parable, who comes only to steal, and kill, and destroy.  It doesn’t sound like the voice of the Shepherd, who comes to bring abundant life.  I don’t recognize this voice.  I’m not going to follow it.[8]

Notice, too, that the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep undergoes suffering voluntarily, as an act of freedom, in solidarity with those who suffer so that they will not have to suffer anymore!   He opens the gate so that the sheep have freedom to come in and out, to find good pasture, to be nourished and to enjoy life.  He releases the sheep so that they will no longer be sacrificial victims.  In John chapter 10, Jesus is using an image of the sheep brought through the Sheep Gate of the Jerusalem Temple complex, where you can check-in any time you like but you can never leave; until, that is, you are slaughtered as a sacrificial offering.

Who is doing the interpreting makes a difference doesn’t it?  If I’m a slave reading these texts, I must ask, “Where is the freedom and abundant life that Jesus was willing to die for?”  Or, as so many African slaves did in these United States, I might read I Peter in light of the Exodus narrative and ask, “If God freed the Hebrew slaves, why should I be treated any different?”  As a slave master, should not my conscience be seared by the realization that if I own slaves, much less mistreat them, I am complicit in the suffering of Christ?  

Even on the terms of the argument of I Peter, if slaves and wives are suffering unjustly in imitation of Christ, then those who cause their suffering are doing so in imitation of those who persecuted Christ.  This is simply a way of saying that there is no true reading of scripture that is not self-implicating, that doesn’t allow me to find myself on the inside of the story.  But where we find ourselves in the story can be quite different for different people:  it all hangs on our relationship to the victims of suffering.  Jesus enters into solidarity with our suffering in order to resist it, to judge it, and finally, to overcome it.  He does so nonviolently, but not passively.  He invites us to imitate him in his resistance, not in the making of victims, much less in some masochistic embrace of suffering for its own sake.

Not all scripture is equal, and scripture can only be interpreted in conversation with other scripture and in relationship to the community of interpreters.   Be careful what scripture you read.  You may not like where you find yourself in the story, because the community of interpreters includes slaves as well as masters, women as well as men, immigrants as well as citizens, people with pre-existing medical conditions as well as health insurance company executives, lay people as well as clergy.   As a cleric, I have not invariably found myself to be comfortable with where I find myself in the story.  Most of the oxen that Jesus gored belonged to religious leaders!  We cannot interpret these stories together without being variously liberated, convicted, admonished and encouraged by where we find ourselves on the inside of the story. 

It is, of course, Jesus, who is the interpretive key, but not just the Jesus back then and there; rather, the living Jesus present in the gathered worshiping community.  It is here that we read the words of scripture and wrestle with them together, confident that Jesus is present with us, and that this Presence is made known in the scripture and the breaking of bread.  We know that our interpretation of scripture is not completely off the mark, so long as it is productive of the kind of community that is able to share abundant life from its communal reading and enactment of the story of God-with-us.  

If our reading of scripture can’t help our world to be more like a green pasture, and less like a slaughterhouse, what good is it?  The truth of scripture is found, not simply in our interpretation of the story, but in how we live it together.   How we live it is, in fact, our interpretation of it. 

[1] John 10:10.
[2] I Peter 2:18.
[3] I Peter 3:1.
[4] I Peter 3:8.
[5] I Peter 3:17.
[6] I Peter 5:10-11.
[7] James Alison, He opened up to them everything in the Scriptures concerning himself (Luke 24,27b): How can we recover Christological and Ecclesial habits of Catholic Bible reading?”  Lecture for the “Voices of Renewal” Lecture Series at Corpus Christi University Parish, Toledo, Ohio, 9 October 2001.
[8] John 10:4-5.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Living the Dream

When I was about seven years-old, my great-grandmother, Bess Caron, died.  She was 83 years-old.  We called her “Old Granny” to distinguish her from my maternal grandmother (her daughter-in-law), who no doubt appreciated being thought of as the young granny.  Old Granny had been a widow for more than half her life, and split her time living with her three children.  So, we had her for a third of each year, plus holidays when the extended family was together.

I don’t have many clear memories of Old Granny; more of gestalt, a felt-sense of her overall presence, radiating warmth and love.  She had a vintage fur coat that was almost as soft as her skin.  I’d fight with my cousins about who got to sit next to her in the backseat if she was riding with us, so I could cuddle up to that coat.  Being the oldest great-grandchild, I usually won!  That is how I remember Old Granny: being enveloped in the warmth of her presence.

When my parents informed me that she had died, I do vividly remember throwing myself on the sofa and weeping like only a bereft child can.   But that was pretty much it:  an explosion of grief, and then I was OK.  Children are remarkably resilient.  Thought to be too young for the experience, I did not attend Old Granny’s funeral.  But not long after she died, I had a dream. 

In the dream, I was in my grandparent’s house, where Old Granny lived part of the year.  I walked into the bedroom where she stayed – the last place I had seen her before she died.  I was, understandably, a little apprehensive about going into the room, but felt compelled to do so. 

When I walked in, there she was in luminous splendor, much as she had been when alive.  I can’t recall her exact words, but the gist of it was that she assured me that she was just fine and that all would be well.   What a gift that dream is!  I never had another dream about Old Granny that I can recall, but that one was enough.  It has lasted me a lifetime.   

Since then, I have sat with people as they died, attended and officiated at many funerals.  Having done so, I can’t say I look forward to dying, even as I recognize that it is as a sacred part of life.  But I can honestly say that since my dream, I’ve never been afraid of death.  I absolutely trust my Old Granny.  All will be well.

Now I suppose you could dismiss this as “only a dream,” as if dreams are not important; as if they are not a part of the fabric of reality, containing their own evocative power.  I’m not one of those people.  It seems to me that all truly creative experiences have a dream-like quality to them: containing a depth of meaning that can never be fully plumbed, a capacity to invoke their fulfillment in waking hours.  The vision that comes to us, dream-like, is no less real than the life it inspires while fully awake. 

My dream is that death is swallowed up by love.  It is a dream stronger than any of the nightmares I’ve ever experienced, far more liberating and generative in its consequences.  From it I’ve received, well, life – a freedom and joy in living here and now unburdened by the specter of death.  Death comes and goes, but life endures because love never ends. 

Now, it seems to me that part of the power of my dream lies in the continuity between the Old Granny I knew all too briefly in life, and the Old Granny who remains with me even after death.  My experience of her overflowed the boundary between life and death, you might say.  That is what the power of love is like.  Thus, it is that, however marked the discontinuity between her former and current mode of being, Old Granny abides in Love, objectively, and not just in me; this power is available to, and sustains, all things.  Even so, my dream remains a very personal one. 

The appearances of Jesus to his disciples after his death shares in this dream-like quality.  There is continuity and discontinuity between the pre- and post-Easter Jesus. Jesus really is present, but in a different way that is not immediately recognizable to his friends. 

Here, the dream-like experience of Jesus is collective in scope – he appears to more than one of his disciples – but it is time limited.  He only appears to them during a forty-day period following his death.  That was enough to last a life-time for those who saw him; enough to last in perpetuity for those who, as scripture tells us, are blessed because they believe even though they have not seen.  

We are in the position of having to decide whether to trust the apostles’ dream of Jesus, just as you must decide whether to trust my dream of Old Granny.  None of us knew Jesus in his lifetime, just as none of you knew my Old Granny in her lifetime.  But the dream lives on or, rather, comes to fulfillment in those inspired by it – those who receive the Spirit of Jesus.  

You may not have met Old Granny, but you can share in her spirit through me and pass it along to others.  So it is with Jesus, but on a scale and with consequences far more profoundly life-changing than those who receive the spirit of .my Old Granny. 

What I realize now, without in any way diminishing her unique dignity, is that what Old Granny shared with me is the Spirit of Jesus, the Spirit of Love Incarnate, in which she participates even now.   What Old Granny witnessed to me, in her own beautiful way, is God’s dream for the Earth, the dream that Jesus made so very real: the power of love bringing the whole creation to its fulfillment, when all will be well.  Sin – all that seeks to separate us from love – and Death are swallowed up in Love, bringing life out of death again, and again, and again, until all things are made new.

How this is so is a great mystery, just as the origin of the universe itself is a great mystery.  As Thomas Berry observed, “The universe seems to be the fulfillment of something so highly imaginative and so overwhelming that it must have been dreamed into existence.”[1]  It is the realization of God’s dream: an emergent process moving toward an increasingly creative, diverse, complex, and self-consciously integral mode of life.  Death and resurrection is the deep pattern of the universe, it is how God’s dream comes to fulfillment.  This is the profound meaning of the apostle’s experience of the risen Jesus.  We are now conscious participants in the larger life processes of the universe.  We must choose to live God’s dream. 

We are living at a perilous time in the emergent process of the universe.  For the first time in its more than 4.5 billion-year history, the delicate balance of the fundamental life systems of the Earth are being undermined by human intervention.  We are living through a period of unprecedented species extinction and ecosystem destruction.  Our impact on the planet has been so profound that some scientists believe we have entered a new geological epoch:  the Anthropocene.  The scope of human ecological devastation has approached a geological scale, to the point that life on earth as we have known it is increasingly unsustainable.  We are turning God’s dream into a nightmare. 
In the Gospel of Mark, there is a longer ending to the Gospel that scholars have identified as a later addition of an editor or editorial committee.  This version is unique in that the risen Jesus gives the following commission when he appears to his disciples: “Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.”[2]   Here, the implications of the good news extend to the entire Earth community.

There is a tendency to believe that the good news is for human beings only.   I grew up in a branch of Christianity that taught that salvation consists of believing in Jesus so that when you die, your soul would be whisked up to heaven.  Jesus will come again one day in a final mopping-up operation, to rapture the believers remaining on Earth before it is destroyed.  Doesn’t sound like very good news to me.  And it bears almost no relationship to what Jesus taught. 

The good news of Jesus is an invitation to wake-up and realize God’s dream for the Earth: a vision of justice, peace, and reconciliation in which human beings recognize, honor, and sustain the abundant life God intends on Earth.  This is the kingdom of God, doing God’s will on Earth as it is in heaven.  The focus is not on personal immortality, though that is not denied, but rather on the renewal of life for all beings.  In the final chapters of the Book of Revelation, a notoriously misunderstood scripture, God’s dream is of a new heaven and a new earth in which God’s home is on Earth with us.  It is a dream of abundant water and flowering trees whose fruit is for the healing of the nations.[3]  The root meaning of “salvation” is “healing.” 

We have been brought to this time to fulfill this specific commission, to share the good news of God’s dream with the whole Earth community, and to realize the dream together.  Easter, the celebration of the ever-renewing cycles of life, is a time to renew our commitment to fulfill this commission.  The great task of our moment in history is to adapt human life to the conditions and limits necessary to sustain the life systems of the planet upon which we all – human and non-human – depend.   The healing of the Earth would be very good news indeed.

This work will require a new collective dream experience, a vision of the possibilities for human flourishing in a mutually beneficial communion with the entire Earth community.  Such a dream is necessary to invoke the imagination and creativity of scientists, artists, engineers, teachers, politicians, entrepreneurs, and farmers, generating nothing less than a new way of living on Earth in fulfillment of God’s dream.  The dream is already here in us.  We have been given everything we need to realize it.   Let us choose to live the dream. 

[1] Thomas Berry, The Great Work: Our Way Into The Future (New York:  Three Rivers Press, 1999), p. 165.
[2] Mark 16:15.
[3] Revelation 21:1-5; 22:1-5.

Penthos: A Good Friday Homily

While I was on sabbatical last year, I spent a good bit of time studying Christian monasticism, especially the practices of the earliest monks in the deserts of 4th Century Egypt, Palestine, and Syria.  One of the things that struck me about these desert contemplatives was their emphasis upon the importance of grief in the spiritual life. They sought the gift of tears or penthos, a piercing of the heart that opens one to a deeper level of spiritual maturity.  They taught that the cultivation of an openness to grief is crucial to spiritual growth. 

A brother asked an elder, “What should I do?”  And the old man said to him, “We ought always to weep . . . “Let us weep,” Abba Macarius counseled his disciples, “and let tears gush out of our eyes . . .”[1]

We are told that Abba Arsenius “had a hallow in his chest channeled out by the tears which fell from his eyes all his life while he sat at manual work.”[2] He was thought to be an icon of holiness. 

Why this emphasis on tears?  Tears were considered a sign of honest appraisal of the self and the world, of our fragility and mortality.  They counseled weeping as a means of cultivating genuine feeling for the world and opening the heart to being transfigured by compassion.  Tears reconnect us to the world, breaking through the fear and illusion that alienate us from life and from one another.

The early Christian monks knew that tears could help break open the soul, kindling a deeper awareness of one’s vulnerability and fragility, and one’s capacity for intimacy with God and all living beings.  But opening oneself in this way required courage, a willingness to face one’s own fragility as well as the fragility and brokenness of the world.  It meant refusing the temptation to evade the reality of those bonds that connect all beings to each other, and embracing the reality of a shared world.  Weeping, when understood as part of a conscious spiritual practice, had the capacity to flood the soul with an awareness of the intricacy, beauty, and spiritual value of all existence.[3]

Penthos, the gift of tears, is both the doorway into life, and the sign that we are not only alive, but awake.  Tears cleanse the lens of perception so that we can see ourselves and the world honestly.  “In the world of feeling,” writes E. M. Cioran, “tears are the criterion of truth.”[4] 

When we refuse to acknowledge suffering and loss, we close ourselves off from reality.  We lose touch with vital sources of information necessary to respond appropriately, in ways that can bring about healing and restore hope.  We risk becoming indifferent; or, worse, positively cruel.  We can become complicit in the suffering of others, delighting in their misfortune, projecting our denial and fear on to them.  Here, the refusal to suffer becomes an expression of evil. 

In the Passion narrative, the fact that Peter wept bitterly after abandoning Jesus is a sign of hope.  This is penthos, grief that pierces the heart.  Peter acknowledged the truth of his failure, his lack of courage, making repentance possible.   Rather than hardening his heart, Peter wept, and that made all the difference.   Peter’s acceptance of the truth made the acceptance of forgiveness possible.  He could begin again.

Then there are the women:  Mary, Martha, Mary Magdalene, and Jesus’ mother, weeping at the foot of the cross, weeping outside the tomb.  There is no denial of the depth of their loss, their shattered hopes.  They grieve their sense of powerlessness to prevent this terrible injustice; their faithfulness seems pointless, but they persevere.  This, too, is penthos, the refusal to sever the bond of relationship however painful it may be.  Later, it will become the source of their power as the apostles to the apostles. 

Jesus, we are told, “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death,” according to The Letter to the Hebrews.[5]  This is true even in the otherwise stoic Gospel of John, where Jesus weeps at the grave of Lazarus before the Passion narrative, rather than in the Garden of Gethsemane.  In all the Gospels, Jesus’ tears are the supreme act of penthos, an opening of the heart to embrace the suffering of the whole world. 

The penthos of Jesus expresses a compassion that transfigures suffering through the perception of God’s presence and power even in the midst of death.  It is an affirmation of the work of grief in the service of life and love.  The work of grief is not abstract.  It is rooted in particular places:  Bethany, Gethsemane, Jerusalem; and in concrete relationships with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, Peter, James, and John.  Yet, the greater our vulnerability to the particular; the greater our capacity to encompass the universal. 

The writer of The Letter to the Hebrews interprets Jesus’ suffering as an act of submission to God whereby he was made perfect, becoming the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.[6]  Here, penthos, the willingness to be touched by the suffering of others and to suffer in solidarity with them, is placed at the very center of the meaning of the crucifixion.  It is not, as the prophet Isaiah proclaimed in another context, that “it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.”[7]  Jesus’ submission to God’s will is reflected not in his suffering per se, but in his compassion, his absolute transparency to God’s self-giving love. 

In this sense, the cross is a symbol of perfection.  Here, Jesus is revealed as God Incarnate, the Center in which all polarities are held in a larger wholeness. In John’s Gospel, Jesus declares, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all things to myself.”[8]  Nothing is excluded.  Everything is embraced.  This is the moment of revelation of God’s glory:  the love in which everything is held, nothing is lost; all is judged, all is forgiven. 

The earliest Christians interpreted the meaning of Jesus’ death and resurrection through the lens of Psalm 22.  “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” the first line of the psalm is placed on the lips of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels, invoking the meaning of the entire psalm.  It combines both prayer and praise, suffering and celebration.  

In the psalm, the protagonist experiences suffering at every level of life:  loss of bodily integrity, social ostracism, and abandonment by God.  Surrounded by evildoers who delight in his downfall and mock his dependence upon God, the protagonist is revealed as one of the anawim, the little ones or poor of the land.[9]  But God does “not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted,” nor does God hide his face from their cries.  God will hear his cry and deliver him.[10]  All the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; all the families of the nations shall worship before him.[11]  Jesus’ death and resurrection, as interpreted by this psalm, is as a call to the world to trust in God’s love and mercy. 

Our salvation, our wholeness, is found in obedience to Jesus, in becoming vulnerable to God as he became vulnerable to God.  The Center, the kingdom of God, is everywhere.  How do we learn to perceive it?  “Weep,” said, Abba Poemen, “truly, there is no other way than this.”[12] 

[1] Quoted in Douglas E. Christie, The Blue Sapphire of the Mind: Notes for a Contemplative Ecology (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), p. 75.
[2] Christie, p. 101.
[3] Christie, p. 77.
[4] Christie, p. 101.
[5] Hebrews 5:7.
[6] Hebrews 5:8-9.
[7] Isaiah 53:10.
[8] John 12:32.
[9] Psalm 22:26.
[10] Psalm 22:24.
[11] Psalm 22:27.
[12] Christie, p. 72.