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.