Monday, October 16, 2017

The Secret of Life

Many of you have no doubt seen the fish symbol common in early Christianity; although on Bay Area bumper stickers, it is more likely to have “Darwin” written in the middle of it!  Its use as a religious symbol predates the Church, which made it particularly useful for Christians in hiding during periods of persecution.  Its use would not have aroused suspicions; but, for those in the know, the head of the fish pointed to the site of local gatherings of the underground Jesus movement.  The Greek letters in the word “fish” form an acrostic signifying “Jesus Christ, Son of God, Savior.”  The fish directed people searching for the good news of Jesus. 

What was it about these early Christians, that people were willing to go underground, risking arrest, torture, and death, to join their movement?  What did they see in them?  Huston Smith, the great historian of comparative religion, suggests that “They saw lives that had been transformed – men and women who were ordinary in every way except for the fact that they seemed to have found the secret of living.”[1]   They were enjoying life. 

More specifically, their lives evidenced two qualities. The first was mutual love demonstrated by concrete acts of care.  Tertullian wrote that the Romans would exclaim of Christians, “Look how they love one another . . . and how they are even ready to die for one another.”[2]  This mutual regard transcended all social boundaries: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus,”[3] St. Paul wrote to the churches in Galatia.  Justin Martyr described Christian love this way: 

. . . we who valued above all things the acquisition of wealth and possessions, now bring what we have into a common stock, and communicate to everyone in need; we who hated and destroyed one another, and on account of their different manners would not live with men of a different tribe, now, since the coming of Christ, live familiarly with them, and pray for our enemies, and endeavor to persuade those who hate us unjustly to live conformably to the good precepts of Christ, to the end that they may become partakers with us of the same joyful hope . . .[4]   

Such love made for a discipleship of equals.

The second quality evidenced by these Christians was joy.  They had obtained an inner peace that radiated joy.  Now, by and large these early Christian communities weren’t numerous, wealthy, or powerful.  They didn’t reek of success.  In fact, they were marginalized and frequently persecuted.  In a cultural climate marked by fatalism and pessimism, in which poverty and death loomed large, Christians were notable simply for being happy.   

St. Paul is a good example.  He sacrificed the security and prestige of his status as a learned Pharisee when he joined the Jesus movement, which he had previously persecuted.  During his missionary journeys he suffered hunger, public stoning and whippings, and even shipwreck.  He was ridiculed and opposed for sharing the good news of Jesus.  Yet, he considered the loss of privilege to be nothing, a pile of crap, compared to the surpassing value of knowing Jesus Christ.[5] 
Writing from prison – where torture and deprivation were commonplace in the 1st Century – Paul encourages the churches in Philippi, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice . . . Do not worry about anything . . . and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”[6]  Paul and other disciples in the Jesus movement where held in a peace that was impervious to external circumstances.  Their joy was rooted in something deeper than normal considerations of pleasure and pain, gain and loss.  It was rooted in an unshakable sense of being unconditionally loved.

People saw the mutual care exercised in this discipleship of equals and the joy they shared and they said, “I want what they have.”  And they were willing to do anything to get it.  What was the secret to living that these Jesus people seemed to know?  They knew that God loved them, and this love freed them from the barriers that keep us from being fully alive.  I’m not talking about a formal, abstract idea of love, but an intimate, personal experience of being loved by God communicated by their encounter with Jesus.  Jesus imparted a love that transcended death: Resurrection love.  It made everything new.  They couldn’t help but re-joice: get their joy on again and again and again.

Huston Smith uses the analogy of the atom.  Within the atom is locked the energy of the sun itself.  For this energy to be released it must be bombarded from without.  So, too, locked in every human being is the energy of God’s love, but it can only be unlocked by being bombarded by love from without, breaking through the barriers that contain this energy so that we can respond to love with love.[7]  Jesus set off a chain reaction of love breaking through the barriers to love that is still expanding even now.   

We can be swept up in this great unfolding of love, joining in God’s project of renewing the world, of getting its joy on again.  But the barriers to love are real.  In another analogy, St. Teresa of Avila describes the soul as an interior castle “made entirely out of a diamond or of a very clear crystal . . . a paradise where the Lord says He finds His delight.”[8]  This is almost unimaginable to us.  At the center of our being God makes Her home in us because She delights in us.  This is the deepest truth about us!  We are loved.  God delights in us.  Teresa goes on to lament that we don’t understand ourselves or know who we are.[9]  What prevents us from knowing ourselves to be so beautiful and beloved?  

We are diamonds encased in thick walls of fear, guilt, and self-centeredness.  Only God’s love can shatter those walls and reveal us to ourselves as reflections of God’s own glory.  Only love can break through our fear of loss, of failure, and finally, of death.  Fear looms large in us these days:  fear of the loss of basic civility; loss of democratic government; loss of a sustainable planet to bequeath to our children and grandchildren.   And beneath it all, the fear that we are not loved or loveable.  Only love can break through our fear and release our compassion – our passion with – ourselves and others.

In the face of so many threats, our guilt looms even larger:  guilt that we haven’t done enough to solve our world’s problems; guilt about our privilege in the face of so much suffering; guilt about our complicity in the systems that cause this suffering and preserves our privilege.  Only love can break through our guilt and unleash our creativity so that we can do our part to mend the world.

Overwhelmed by the enormity of it all and our uncertainty about the future, the retreat into self-centeredness is an ever-present temptation; the preoccupation with me and mine; the frantic scramble to secure my piece of the pie; the sacrifice of integrity before the false idols of fantasy, illusion, and compulsive escapism in all its forms in our culture.  Only love can break through our self-centeredness and restore our connection with reality so that we can reclaim our place as part of a larger whole with awareness and humility. 

God’s love doesn’t solve all our problems.  It doesn’t protect us from suffering.  What it does provide is an inner peace and joy that sustains us amid life’s problems and inevitable suffering.  Leaning back into that love, we can re-joice, get our groove back, get our joy on again. 

We are experiencing dark times in our world, but, as Andy Crouch points out,

There was violence and disintegration in the day of Jesus, too.  Jesus was hardly shy about confronting the patterns of sin in his culture – though he was consistently harder on the pious than he was on the pagans.  But everywhere Jesus went, life blossomed.  The sick were healed, lepers were touched, daughters and sons were plucked from the mouth of the grave.  Jesus left behind him a trail of leaps and laughter, reunited families, and terrific wine, as well as dumb-founded synagogue leaders, uneasy monarchs, and sleepless procurators.  His witness against violence, amidst a culture in rebellion against the good, was neither withdrawal or war.  It was simply life:  abundant, just, generous life.  And, ultimately, a willingness to let the enemies of life do their worst, confident that even death could not extinguish the abundant life of God.[10]

Jesus was like the man in the Parable of the Wedding Banquet:  he didn’t fit in at the party, refused to conform to the oppressive violence celebrated there, and so was thrown into outer darkness.[11]  But I suspect he enjoyed the open bar while he was there, and never refused anyone who asked him to dance.  He got his joy on and it was contagious.  And that was what really pissed off the evil powers of this world. 

Even as we go down to the grave, we make our song:  Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia![12]  Nothing can steal our joy, for we are held in a deathless love.  You are loved.  You are loved.  You are loved.  This is the first and last word, and it will carry you through everything in between.  It is greater than your fear, your guilt, and your self-preoccupation.  You are a diamond reflecting the glory of God and nothing ultimately can dim this light:  So get your joy on and let it shine!

[1] Huston Smith, “Reasons for Joy,” Christian Century (October 4, 2005), p. 10.
[2] Tertullian, Apology, Chapter 39 in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. III, p. 46.
[3] Galatians 3:28.
[4] Justin Martyr, First Apology, Chapter 14, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I, p. 167.
[5] Philippians 3:7-10.
[6] Philippians 4:4a, 6a, 7.
[7] Smith, p. 11.
[8] St. Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle 1:1, p. 283 in The Collected Works of St. Teresa of Avila, Volume 2. 
[9] St. Teresa, p. 284.
[10] Andy Crouch, “Furrowed Brows Inc.,” Christianity Today (April 2006), p. 100.
[11] Matthew 22:1-14.
[12] See “The Commendation” in the Burial Office, The Book of Common Prayer, p. 499.

Monday, October 9, 2017

"Failed Politicians"

Zurbarán's St. Francis
What is it about St. Francis, and other saints, that is so fascinating, even to those who are not Christians?  What is the secret of their continuing hold on our attention, such that we appreciate them even when we no longer seek to imitate them?  Two stories about St. Francis provide a clue to this secret. 

One day before his conversion, Francis of Assisi was walking along the highway weeping.  Thinking he was ill, a man asked him: “What’s the matter with you, brother?”  “Ah,” he answered, “For the love of Christ, I should not be ashamed of going around the world like this grieving for my Savior’s agony.”[1] 

Many years later, at the end of his life when St. Francis was going blind, the doctors found the cause to be an excess of tears.[2]   This “excess of tears” is an expression not only of grief, but also of joy.  You know the wrenching tears evoked by tragedies such as those in Puerto Rico and Las Vegas, as well as the grief of personal loss.  But you also know the tears of joy shed the first time you held your newborn baby in your arms, or when that same child graduated from high school.  I’ve officiated at enough weddings to have witnessed plenty of tears of joy – usually the groom’s!  I hope it is tears of joy . . .  I recall starting down a trailhead at the Bishop’s Ranch for a hike and suddenly being overwhelmed by the beauty and sense of homecoming evoked by that special place.  I burst into tears.

It is this “excess of tears” that both fascinates and frightens us.  We are a little bit undone by the vulnerability of the saints, their capacity to embrace the sorrow and joy of the world with undefended hearts.  Yet, in their vulnerability, the saints also wield a certain kind of power.

Even Friedrich Nietzsche, no lover of Christianity, recognized this when he noted that

So far the most powerful human beings have still bowed worshipfully before the saint as the riddle of self-conquest and deliberate final renunciation.  Why did they bow?  In him . . . they sensed the superior force that sought to test itself in such a conquest, the strength of the will in which they recognized and honored their own strength and delight in dominion:  they honored something in themselves when they honored the saint.  Moreover, the sight of the saint awakened a suspicion in them:  such an enormity of denial, of anti-nature will not have been desired for nothing . . . There may be a reason for it, some very great danger about which the ascetic, thanks to his secret comforters and visitors, might have inside information.  In short, the powerful of the world learned a new fear before him; they sensed a new power, a strange, yet unconquered enemy – it was the “will to power” that made them stop before the saint.  They had to ask him -[3]

The powerful of the world recognize the power of the saint:  she mirrors something of their own authority.  They just have to ask, like the chief priests and elders of Israel asked Jesus, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?”[4]  The powerful are fascinated, not just by the ascetic feats of self-control whereby the saints master their own desires, but also by the saints’ will to know and to love, to know through loving, that compels them to action in the world.  The saints exercise power.  This is what brings them to the attention of the politicians in the first place.   

As E. M. Cioran notes in his Tears and Saints,

The difference between mystics and saints is that the former stop at an inner vision, while the latter put it into practice . . . Ethics plus mysticism gives birth to the intriguing phenomenon of sainthood.  The mystics cultivate a heavenly sensuality, a voluptuousness born of their intercourse with the sky; only saints take on their shoulders the load of others, the suffering of unknown people; only they act.  Compared to the pure mystic, the saint is a politician.[5] 

The saint is a politician: one who acts in the public realm.  Cioran thinks of them as “failed politicians,” but I’m not so sure.  They are successful enough not only to come to the attention of conventional politicians, but to come into conflict with them:  Nietzsche refers to saints as a “strange, unconquered enemy.”  I suppose Jesus’ execution as an enemy of the state marks him as a failed politician.  St. Francis imitated Jesus even in this failure.  Five year before he died, Francis lost control of the Order of Friars Minor that he founded because of his insistence on the renunciation of private property.  It is the authority of these powerless saints, these failed politicians, that so fascinates the powerful of the world and eludes their understanding.

What they fail to understand is this “excess of tears” that motivates the saints’ will to power, their relentless desire to know through love all things in God, and so to become transparent to God’s healing love for the sake of the world.  It is love that energizes their action in the world.

The difference between authority derived from God and human authority is the way in which power is exercised.  Violence and the sacrifice of human lives is the normal way of exercising human authority, as the chief priests and elders affirm in their description of what the owner of the vineyard will do to the wicked tenants in the parable by Jesus: “He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time.”[6]  This is how law and order is maintained.

The chief priests and elders identify with the owner in the story.  They are members of the aristocratic, landowning class, and they know all about how to deal with unruly tenant farmers.  They assume Jesus will agree with their response to the parable, and are shocked when he replies: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom.”[7] God’s authority is not exercised like human authority.  It is exercised through the power of love, which takes the form of justice in history.  That power is demonstrated through self-sacrifice in solidarity with the victims of injustice, rather than through sacrificing victims to maintain privilege masking as law and order. 

Human authority is recognizable by the excess of blood it produces.  Divine authority is recognizable by the excess of tears it produces; tears of compassion and tears of joy.   Human authority creates subjects with power and objects to be acted upon, who are divided against each other.  Divine authority creates communion between subjects who share the power of love in a common life.  The saints inhabit a kingdom without borders, and recognize no ultimate authority other than that of God.  It is love that makes them strange, unconquered enemies of violent human authority. 

And yet it is to the powerful, as well as the powerless, that Jesus and St. Francis preach the good news of God’s Kingdom.  In his parable of the wicked tenants, Jesus follows the prophetic tradition of using parables as a kind of verbal ju-jitsu to turn the tables on the powerful.  He draws them into a story that they think is about somebody else – the erratic violence of unruly tenants – only to discover that the story is very much about them – and the violence of law and order, the systemic violence of the powerful. 

In so doing, Jesus breaks one of the cardinal rules of social order.  It is OK to speak of the immorality and violence of the oppressed.  It is not acceptable to speak of the systemic immorality and violence of the powerful.  Into this silence, Jesus speaks the mercy of God.  Into this silence, St. Francis spoke the mercy of God to lepers, outcasts, birds and wolves, even Muslims: the perennial bogeyman of the West beginning with the crusades that Francis preached - against.  This mercy is for the sake of the powerful as well.  It is preached for their conversion, so that they may embrace communion instead of domination; so that together we can touch into the depths of joy that lies beneath our tears. 

Jesus quotes Psalm 118 and describes himself as the stone that the builders rejected.  If he is a “failed politician,” it is because the powerful reject the invitation to conversion that Jesus offers them; the renunciation of their exploitation of the poor that turns them into landless tenants in the first place.  They reject mercy, dismissing this “excess of tears.”  Yet, Jesus remains the cornerstone of a new form of human community, an alternative way of exercising power together, upon which St. Francis and all the saints, have continued to build.    

Nietzsche saw correctly that the powerful fear the saints.  This is what is so amazing about the them!  Despite their failure, their excess of tears, their rejection by the powerful, God is continually renewing the world through the ever-flowing stream of mercy flowing from their lives.  If the Cross reveals the usual imposition of law and order for what it is: a sacrifice of victims; the Resurrection reveals the life-giving power of God to forgive, heal, and renew.  St. Francis exercised that power.  That is the power that we are invited to exercise.  We can claim our vulnerability, our solidarity, our compassion, and jump into the stream of mercy that is renewing the world. 

The imitation of Jesus and the saints requires us to become “failed politicians.”  This is the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes!

[1] E. M. Cioran, Tears and Saints (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1995), p. 30.
[2] Cioran, p. 62.
[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil: Prelude to a Philosophy of the Future (New York: Random House, 1966), p. 65.
[4] Matthew 21:23b.
[5] Cioran, p. 6 – 7.
[6] Matthew 21:40-41.
[7] Matthew 21:43.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

To Mercy Bound

After a week punctuated by fires, floods, and an earthquake, someone posted a simple, two panel comic strip on Facebook.  In the first panel, a pious looking preacher, prays to God, “Lord, why do you pile all these troubles upon us?  It’s because of the gays, isn’t it?”  To which the voice of God replies, “Yes, it is.”

Second panel: “I knew it,” says the preacher.  “You’re punishing us for their abominations!”  “Oh, no, no, no, not at all,” responds God.  “I’m punishing you for the shitty way you treat them.” 

Now, there was a part of me that enjoyed the smug smirk that crossed my face when I read this.  It felt satisfying to see the tables turned for a change.  Most of us, no matter how we distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys, have internalized the cultural meme that good guys should be rewarded and bad guys should be punished.  It is a familiar plot device in literature and film, the foundation of our legal system, and a deeply cathartic experience; even more satisfying, when we believe God is on our side.

But my smirk quickly turned to a frown.  This comic may work as satire, but it is poor theology.  Aside from the indiscriminate and disproportionate nature of the punishment it describes, its basic commitment to the reward/punishment scheme doesn’t square with the arc of the biblical story and the image of God it portrays. 

When Joseph’s brothers, who, out of jealousy, sold him into slavery, come seeking forgiveness, he assures them, “Do not be afraid!  Am I in the place of God?”[1]  With tears in his eyes, Joseph forgives them, trusting that God was at work to preserve life even though his brothers intended harm.  Having experienced God’s mercy, Joseph shares that mercy with his brothers and provides for them in their need.

St. Paul knew that there is no fight like a church fight.  He urges the churches in Rome to welcome those who disagree with them, because God has welcomed them.  “Why do you pass judgment on servants of another,” he asks them.  It is before the Lord that they stand or fall, and, Paul says confidently, “the Lord is able to make them stand.”[2]  Who are we to take the place of God?

And when St. Peter asks Jesus, “how often should I forgive?”  Jesus’ response implicitly means there is no limit to forgiveness.[3]  Forgiveness, as an expression of love, is a renewable resource.  It is inexhaustible. God’s mercy is boundless, and to mercy we are bound. 

So, let’s talk about forgiveness and mercy, beginning with forgiveness.  I’d like to suggest that forgiveness is a response to people and situations in which we’ve suffered or caused harm.  It is a way of healing and reclaiming our freedom.

There are still consequences for the harmful behavior.  Forgiveness doesn’t mean everything is now OK.  It simply means that the past no longer has the power to define my present reality, and that the possibility of reconciliation exists, so long as all the parties involved are willing to take responsibility for their part.  Forgiveness prizes relationship over reward or punishment, without sacrificing human dignity or physical or emotional safety. 

Forgiveness is a process, not an event.  Some harms are so profoundly wounding, and the guilt we carry for having committed them is so debilitating, that forgiveness can take a lifetime.  It cannot be forced.  It begins by simply acknowledging the harm that has been done.  The second step is the recovery of our capacity to acknowledge the humanity of the victim or the perpetrator, perhaps by becoming willing to hold them in prayer.  It may proceed to the offer and acceptance of forgiveness.  In some cases, as with Joseph and his brothers, it can even lead to the restoration of relationship. 

Note that forgiveness does not depend on the action of another.  If harmed, I do not need wait upon the repentance of the perpetrator to forgive.  If I have harmed another, I do not need wait upon the forgiveness of my victim to repent and amend my life.  In either case, I simply must become willing to take responsibility for my part in the process of healing and restoration of freedom.   

We always begin with forgiveness, for it is freedom from the past that makes the healing of wounds and the amendment of life possible.  When we are no longer defined by the harms we’ve suffered or caused, we can begin to live again.  Reward and punishment become quite secondary to the primacy of being alive.

Forgiveness is not simple or easy, but without it, spiritual growth is stifled and viable community becomes impossible.  It is the key that unlocks the vicious cycles of despair, resentment, remorse, and vengeance that make our world a living hell.  Forgiveness is hard work.  It is utterly dependent upon the inexhaustible mercy of God.

Mercy is deeper and broader than forgiveness.  I think of it as the background atmosphere of forgiveness, the oxygen that we need to engage particular acts of forgiveness.  Mercy is the “existential forgiveness” that comes with simply being alive, recognizing the enormous debts we owe to our ancestors, to society, to the Earth community, and ultimately to God; debts that we can never possibly repay. Mercy is the powerful experience that this “debt” is forgiven; that there is nothing we need or can do to repay it, no way we can be worthy of it.  It is pure gift, quite apart from questions of punishment and reward.    

In one of her essays, Margaret Atwood relates the true story of the nature writer, Ernest Thompson Seton.   On his 21st birthday, Ernest had an unusual bill presented to him by his father.  It was a record of all the expenses accrued while raising him, beginning with the fee charged by the doctor who delivered him.  The bill was now due.  Ernest’s father was implicitly saying, “I’ve met my obligation.  Now pay up, and we are even.”  It assumes moral relationships are like business transactions, in which payment of the debt ends the relationship.  Ernest paid the bill, we are told, and never spoke to his father again.[4]

Giving and receiving what is due, is not the only way to imagine a moral relationship.  A parent imagined in this way, much less acting in this way, is rightly considered a monster.  There is also the giving and receiving of gifts, not out of obligation, but as an act of love.  Yet, isn’t this the way we too often think about God?  As One to whom we owe a considerable debt, beyond our capacity to pay, yet who still presents us with a bill?  Which brings me to today’s parable of the unforgiving servant.[5] 

Jesus tells this parable, precisely to subvert our usual understanding of God as a divine creditor.  Remember that parables are metaphorical in character, not allegorical.  The kingdom of heaven is like what is described in the parable, but also unlike what is described, and there is no strict correspondence between say, God and the king in the parable.  They are alike and unlike. 

In its immediate context, the parable is told in response to Peter’s question about forgiveness.  Does forgiveness have a limit? Jesus affirms unlimited forgiveness.  Peter assumed the cultural norm that good guys should be rewarded and bad guys should be punished.  And, he assumed that he was one of the good guys. 

Peter was in danger of being like the unjust slave in the parable.  If we owe debts to our ancestors, to society, and to the Earth community, how much more do we “owe” to God?  More than we could ever pay.  But God doesn’t hold us accountable.  All is gift, not debt.  We need to reimagine what all our relationships look like considering God’s mercy, and imitate God in this way of being. 

The unforgiving slave feels entitled to demand everything owed him, no matter how little it may be.  He wants his due, no matter how badly his demands, however formally just, hurt others.  Note that the other slaves, when they see what he is doing, are greatly distressed.  They are distressed because their fellow slave is bound to the logic of reward and punishment, rather than to mercy, the very mercy he has received so unconditionally. 

When his lord discovers what this wicked slave has done, he hands him over to be tortured until his entire debt is repaid.  The same language of “handing over” is used when Jesus is “handed over” to the authorities.  This correspondence between the unforgiving slave and Jesus subverts our notions of justice – the slave getting what he deserves, while Jesus did not.  It isn’t about getting what you deserve.  We all owe more than we can ever pay.  The question is: will we allow God’s mercy to transform our imagination so that we can share that mercy with others, or will we refuse this mercy and double down on the hell of demanding our due, fueling the cycle of vengeance, rivalry, and violence?

In the ancient world, if you were unable to pay your debt, your creditor could have you imprisoned and even tortured to coerce your family, friends, or benefactors to pay the debt for you.  If your creditor was unforgiving, you became dependent on the mercy of others.  I wonder if there isn’t a certain irony in this parable, a subtle message that there is no way around mercy.  We can realize this the easy way, by accepting God’s mercy and allow it to change us so that we, too, can forgive from the heart, out of love.  Or, we will realize it the hard way, coming to see our need for mercy only through our own experience of suffering.  Either way, in the end, we all depend upon the mercy of God and each other.

We can forgive from the heart, really forgive as an expression of the mercy we have received from God, or we can remain locked in the torture of strict accounting of reward and punishment.  God comes to us in Jesus, not to pay our debt, but to share the gift of mercy; to reveal the bonds of mutual love, not strict reciprocity, that bind us together.  We are all to mercy bound. 

[1] Genesis 50:19.

[2] Romans 14:1-4.

[3] Matthew 18:21-22.

[4] Recounted by David Graeber, Debt: The First 5,000 Years (Brooklyn, NY:  Melville Publishing House, 2012), p. 92.  Graeber provides a fascinating anthropology of moral discourse and the metaphor of debt.

[5] Matthew 18:23-35.

More Saints

The Dalai Lama & Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Today we are marking the beginning of the secular school year and the Church school year, but the two don’t always mix very well.
A little girl named Martha was talking to her teacher about whales.
The teacher said it was physically impossible for a whale to swallow a human because even though it was a very large mammal its throat was very small.
Martha insisted that Jonah was swallowed by a whale.
Irritated, the teacher reiterated that a whale could not swallow a human; it was physically impossible.
The little girl said, 'Well, I’ll ask Jonah when I get to heaven.'
The teacher asked, 'What if Jonah went to hell?'
Martha replied, 'Then you ask him'.
This is a funny little story, but it has a bit of an edge to it when you think about it. We all start out, like Martha, taking the Bible – and everything else – literally.  The capacity for more sophisticated ways of interpreting our experience of reality is a much later cognitive development.  It is a real leap from “Dick and Jane” to Macbeth, from simple addition to advanced calculus, a distance that takes many years of patient learning to traverse.   We invest a lot in our children’s education to ensure that they make that leap successfully.  Our culture values and rewards intellectual development, and we willingly make sacrifices for it, especially for the sake of economic security.

It seems to me that we don’t invest nearly as much in spiritual and moral development.  Some people never move beyond a grade school familiarity with the Bible and theological traditions, what James Fowler calls the mythic-literal stage of faith development.   Children receive our faith tradition readily.  Faith traditions provide a foundation for spiritual and moral development: stories, rituals, and symbols, a language that allows children to express and reflect on their spiritual and moral life.  Christianity is one such religious language, providing the basic building blocks upon which later spiritual growth is built.  

The problem with remaining at the mythic-literal level of faith development is that we confuse our religious language’s mapping of reality with reality itself.   Like little Martha, we don’t even realize we are using a map.  For us, the map is the territory.  We see life in very black and white terms.  Those who do not accept our map are ignorant, obtuse, or positively evil.  They can go to hell for all we care. 

Most of us come to realize that our religious language isn’t the only one; there are other ways to map reality.  Once we wake up to the reality that ours is not the only religious language, this can lead to a kind of crisis of faith.   We may become disillusioned with our faith tradition, or double-down on its truth claims.  Some learn a second language, converting to another faith tradition, or decide that all religious languages are equally valid or pretty much equally garbage. 

Many who reach the point of critically evaluating their native religious language become skeptical and feel they we must make up their own language.  They become “spiritual” rather than “religious.”  Faith is what I make of it; a little bit of this and a little bit of that or nothing at all.

I’ve noticed that by midlife, however, people tend to become open to re-embracing their native religious language.  They recognize the limits of logic and instrumental reasoning, and acknowledge the paradoxes of life, the Mystery that can only be intuitively known.  Life experience has humbled them. They realize the Mystery isn’t something they can comprehend.  At this point, they have a renewed appreciation for the sacred stories, rituals, and symbols of their native faith.  They want to go deeper in their connection to the Mystery, and engage with the practices and community their tradition makes available to foster this connection, preferring to master their native tongue rather than dabbling in a surface level pastiche of various religious patois.

We obtain to a truly universal faith as we engage particular religious languages in depth, persevering in the work of spiritual growth. Such people are recognizable by the way they selflessly serve others with awareness and compassion, without the usual doubts and anxieties plaguing the rest of us. They are secure in their identity, no longer needing to define themselves over and against anyone or anything else.  They have nothing to lose, nothing to protect, no need to compete or compare.  They are free.  In the language of Christianity, we call them saints. 

Perhaps in our day, a picture of Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Dalai Lama laughing together illustrates what I am talking about far better than my words.  Here we have an icon of sainthood:  compassionate, joyous, free human beings in service to the world.  What if we equipped our children to become saints, much as we equip them to become doctors or lawyers or scientists or venture capitalists?  Given the violence of our world in its current clash of cultures, driven by religious and secular fundamentalists stuck at a mythic-literal level of spiritual development, can we hope for anything less?

While I was not surprised to see white supremacists marching in Charlottesville, I was taken aback by how many of them are young, white, middle class college students.  How could they be so privileged with regard to their economic and educational status, and so very poor with regard to their spiritual and moral development?  Did they have just enough religion to ruin them, and not enough to move beyond such ignorance and evil?  

The hope for our children’s future is not to be found in technological innovation, or unlimited economic growth, or the false myth of inevitable progress.   It is to be found in the lives of what Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called transformed non-conformists:  people capable of transcending the limitations of their cultural conditioning.  Such people persevere in the work of spiritual growth such that they realize reality exceeds their map of it, and that the Mystery in which we move and live and have our being is ultimately experienced as a unity of wisdom, love, and bliss.   This experience transforms our consciousness and our ethics.

This is what St. Paul refers to when he writes, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-- what is good and acceptable and perfect.”[1] He goes on to say that this transformation of consciousness is evidenced by both genuine humility, in which we no longer think ourselves better than anyone else, and authentic community, in which we share our gifts and abilities for the sake of the common good.  Collectively, we become the body of Christ, transparent to the presence and power of the Mystery we call God.  And we offer ourselves, in sacrificial love, as an offering to God for the healing of the world.  We are all called to be saints; not because we are perfect, but because we are loved and have been fitted to mirror that love.

Commenting on this passage from Romans in one of his most famous sermons, Dr. King said, 

I’m sure that many of you have had the experience of dealing with thermometers and thermostats.  The thermometer merely records the temperature.  If it is seventy or eighty degrees it registers that and that is all.  On the other hand the thermostat changes the temperature.  If it is too cool in the house you simply push the thermostat up a little and it makes it warmer.  And so the Christian is called upon not to be like a thermometer conforming to the temperature of his society, but he must be like a thermostat serving to transform the temperature of his society.[2] 

Are you a thermometer or a thermostat?  Are you ready to turn up the heat?  Transformed nonconformists make us uncomfortable.  They challenge us to see truths that we’d rather ignore, like the pernicious persistence of institutional racism and the calamity of global climate change.  Saints are not nice people.  They are people who tell us the truth because they actually love us.   

Archbishop Tutu once said, “Children are a wonderful gift. They have an extraordinary capacity to see into the heart of things and to expose sham and humbug for what they are.”[3]  Maybe that is why Jesus said we must become like children to enter the kingdom of heaven:  we must see through our conditioning, like children do, before they have been forced to internalize it.  In a way, the end of the spiritual journey is to find ourselves where we began, embracing a second naïveté. 

Equipping our children to become saints is difficult.  It takes an entire faith community, not just parents.  It challenges us to be role models of moral and spiritual maturity who are fluent in speaking Christian; not because it is the only religious language worth speaking, but because it can be the means whereby we transcend the limitations of our cultural conditioning and conformity to its violence, greed, and exploitation of people and planet.  The way of Jesus is a path to real freedom. Are you a thermometer or a thermostat? 

What the world needs now, what it needs most, is more saints. 

[1] Romans 12:2.

[2] Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “Transformed Nonconformist,” sermon delivered November 1954, Montgomery, Alabama, accessed at

[3] Quoted in The Words of Desmond Tutu (1984).

Friday, August 25, 2017

Bearing Witness

I have been privileged to have some powerful conversations with colleagues this week about how to respond to white supremacist provocation in San Francisco this weekend. There has been passionate conversation in particular about whether or not clergy should be present at Crissy Field, where the white nationalist rally will be held. One colleague asked, "What would being there accomplish? What would you hope to achieve?

My response is "nothing." This is not a situation in which there are winners. There is only the brutality of hate and the ongoing suffering of victims of centuries-old racism. The people of God will be at Crissy Field in all their beauty and in all their brokenness. Clergy will be there as a visible sign that the faith community is there too, at the place of greatest contradiction between the reality of evil and the reality of beloved community. We are not there to solve a problem, but to bear witness to that Love which transcends our differences and heals our wounds.

Clergy will be there, not as leaders, but to offer prayerful, nonviolent support to our community. We are there to bear witness. We will not abandon our sisters and brothers who are most vulnerable, nor ignore those who have demeaned their own inherent dignity in their espousal of racist rhetoric, intimidation, and violence. We must offer hope and healing to the vulnerable, judgment and mercy to sinners, at Crissy Field and everywhere else where the people of God gather.

I respect that others will choose to bear witness at other places in San Francisco. That is as it should be. Let us hold each other in prayer and love wherever we may be.

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