Monday, December 25, 2017

The Mystic's Christmas

In his poem, “The Mystic’s Christmas,” John Greenleaf Whittier describes a group of monks who are taken aback by the refusal of one of their brothers to join them in their Christmas revels.   He sits apart, quietly, with a look of sweet peace upon his face.

"Why sitt'st thou thus?" his brethren cried,
"It is the blessed Christmas-tide;
The Christmas lights are all aglow,
The sacred lilies bud and blow.
. . .

"Rejoice with us; no more rebuke
Our gladness with thy quiet look."
The gray monk answered, "Keep, I pray,
Even as ye list, the Lord's birthday.

The gray monk in no way wishes to undermine the joy of his dancing brothers, nor diminish the importance of their sacred celebration.  There was a time when he too, found deep meaning in the observance of Christmas as a special day and enjoins them to keep the feast.  Yet, he says, through God’s exceeding grace we can transcend the mere forms of religion to attain a deeper truth and joy. 

"The outward symbols disappear
From him whose inward sight is clear;
And small must be the choice of days
To him who fills them all with praise!

"Keep while you need it, brothers mine,
With honest seal your Christmas sign,
But judge not him who every morn
Feels in his heart the Lord Christ born!"

The grey monk of Whittier’s poem echoes the teaching of the mystic, St. John of the Cross, who said, “The soul of one who loves God always swims in joy, always keeps holiday, and is always in the mood for singing.”[1]  This is quite a statement from this Spanish mystic best known for his teaching about the dark night of the soul!  St. John of the Cross is no Pollyanna, yet it was his experience that a deep and abiding joy is the fruit of spiritual awakening:  every day is Christmas for those in whom Christ is born.

Our Christmas celebration is meaningless if it does not serve to awaken us to the birth of Christ in our own souls, to the fullness of life and love for which we have been created.  This is God’s desire for us, and it is our deepest desire as well.   Christmas is not only about the birth of Jesus back then and there.  It is also about the realization of our true selves, Christ in us, here and now.   Christmas reminds us of who we are, of all we can become.  It is easy to forget.  

To borrow an analogy from Rabbi Sharon Brous, consider the importance of wedding anniversaries.  As a priest, it is a great privilege for me to help a couple celebrate the holy love they share and to declare it blessed.  Holy Matrimony is a wonderful celebration.  It is an intense, sacramental experience.  

Consider, however, from your own experience, or try to imagine with me, the difference between the intensity of the experience of the wedding day and say, the sixth or seventh anniversary.  By the 16th or 17th anniversary, God willing you should make it that long, you are lucky to remember what day it is when you wake up that morning, and scramble to make a restaurant reservation or hope you can get a card before your beloved springs one on you (or, better yet, hope you aren’t the only one who forgot).  I wasn’t so lucky.  I forgot our 7th anniversary, and my husband has never let me forget that I forgot!

As Rabbi Brous explains it, “religious ritual and rites were essentially designed to serve the function of the anniversary, to be a container in which we would hold on to the remnants of that sacred, revelatory encounter that birthed the religion in the first place. The problem is that after a few centuries, the date remains on the calendar, but the love affair is long dead. That's when we find ourselves in endless, mindless repetitions of words that don't mean anything to us, rising and being seated because someone has asked us to, holding onto jealously guarded doctrine that's completely and wildly out of step with our contemporary reality, engaging in perfunctory practice simply because that's the way things have always been done.”[2]

Christmas, like a wedding anniversary, is a reminder to keep love alive, not just on Christmas day, not just on the anniversary, but every day:  it is a reminder of who we are and of the commitment that love demands of us.  It is an invitation to live in the joy that we can only experience through the sometimes painful, but ultimately life-giving, commitment to love:  not just love of our spouse or of a friend but of God, and of all things in God.  

A religion, like a marriage, becomes stale when the celebration of its anniversary becomes an exercise in nostalgia, reducing love to mere sentimentality.  It becomes routine, lifeless, and, yes, boring; completely disconnected from present reality and the risks and vulnerability of real love.  That is one of the ways that religion goes wrong. 

Another way religion goes wrong is when it becomes extremist, all about domination and control, a form of domestic and even civic violence.  It is used to justify regressive and exploitative politics and policies, using sacred texts to legitimate hatred and violence in God’s name.  Such religion is an exercise in cultivating fear rather than love.  As Rabbi Brous notes, “Religion today has failed to capture the imagination of millions who are repelled by the viciousness of extremism and disenchanted by the dullness of routine-ism.  They refuse to choose between religion that’s deadly and religion that is dead.”[3]

The purpose of religion is not to numb us into complacency or force us into compliance.  It is misused whenever it serves as a form of escapism – “thoughts and prayers religion” – as in “our thoughts and prayers are with the victims of the mass shooting” but we aren’t going to do anything about the fetishizing of guns in America; or “our thoughts and prayers are with the victims of the hurricanes” but we refuse to acknowledge the reality of global climate change much less enact policies to mitigate its effects.  Religion is equally misused when it serves as a form of social control, serving as chaplain to the empire and its idolatry of blood and soil.  

Authentic religion is always an invitation to wake-up and a threat to empire.  Christmas is not a bucolic, sentimental story about sweet baby Jesus, meek and mild.  It is a subversive claim that God is found, not at the center of empire, but in the resistance.  It is a subversive claim that divine power is not exercised through violent domination, but through revolutionary love.  It is a subversive claim that salvation does not come down from above, in the form of noblesse oblige, but wells up from below, in the form of a community of nobodies from nowhere who turn the world upside-down.   The story of the birth of Jesus delegitimizes the official story, and offers an alternative version of religion as the practice of becoming human, fully alive and breathtakingly free.   

In a healthy marriage, anniversaries are celebrated as a joyous recognition of the way love challenges us to change and grow, and discover that the meaning of our life is found in community and in service to others.   Through it, we come to accept our vulnerability as a gift, a means of connection, and honor the vulnerability of our beloved.  We learn to let go of our ego, die to our self-image, so that we can see more clearly and love more deeply, selflessly, and unconditionally, so that we can become mutual agents of our beloved’s healing.  We accept pain in the service of growth, rather than trying to avoid or control reality.  We give ourselves away, and thereby receive all things in return. 

Well, Christmas is the anniversary of our love affair with God, who comes to us in the form of a child and says to us, in the words of another mystic, Mechthild of Magdeburg, “I, God, am your playmate!  I will lead the child in you in wonderful ways for I have chosen you.”[4]  The world is our playground, and God invites us to enjoy it.  Yes, you can get hurt on the playground.  It can be a little dangerous.  But the risk of love is worth the joy of playing together.  When we realize this deep in our soul, beyond our illusions and our fears and our false ideas about religion, then we can say with St. John of the Cross, “The soul of one who loves God always swims in joy, always keeps holiday, and is always in the mood for singing.”  When Christ is born in us, then every day is Christmas.  Amen.

[1] Quoted in The Living Pulpit (October-December, 1996), p. 30.
[2] Rabbi Sharon Brous, “It’s time to reclaim religion,” TED conference talk at
[3] Rabbi Sharon Brous, “I need you to breath,” keynote address at PICO Prophetic Resistance Summit, October 23, 2017 at
[4] Quoted in The Living Pulpit (October-December, 1996), p. 30.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Drop Your Expectations

“Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy.  Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.”[1]  Amen.

A couple of Sundays ago Shari was presiding and I was assisting at Communion. She had the bread; I had the chalice of wine as we moved around the altar.  Holy Communion was being distributed with the usual quiet reverence when I came upon Isaac.  Isaac is five years-old.  When I bent down to give him the chalice, he looked at me with eyes like great big saucers and his cheeks were all puffed up like a squirrel with a passel of nuts stuffed in its mouth.  He could barely speak but he managed to say, “Just a minute, my mouth is full.”  Chomp, chomp, chomp. Chomp, chomp, chomp.  “Not yet.” Eventually, he took a long swig from the chalice, gulping it to wash down that big chunk of bread.  He would have emptied it if I’d let him.

It totally cracked me up.  Later, I remembered Shari saying to me once that kids like to receive big pieces of bread at Communion.  If that is the case, then Isaac was a very satisfied communicant.  Good job, Shari! 

There is a point to this little story, and it is about expectations.  If I had encountered Isaac in that moment with a set of expectations of what reception of the Sacrament of Holy Communion should be like: that it should be solemn and dignified, for example, I might have felt disappointed by Isaac’s response; even a little angry with Shari for “giving him too much;” embarrassed that it had “caused a scene.” Trust me, I’ve seen priests like that.  I’m sure I’ve been that priest at one time or another.  And Isaac might have come away from the experience having internalized my expectation, at the cost of feeling ashamed. 

Instead, at least on that Sunday, I simply was present to what was happening, rather than trying to force it to conform to some set of expectations.  In being open to what was given, I was in communion with Isaac – just as he was, and just as I was in that moment – and experienced the joy of that communion.  Isn’t that the whole point of the sacramental celebration?  It is in such moments that we recognize Christ in each other.  

In reflecting on that experience, I was reminded of a simple truth: if we wish to experience joy, then we have to drop our expectations.  Let them go. They just get in the way of living.  Expectation says: “Everyone must receive Communion reverently for me to be happy.”  Hope says: “I would like people to receive Communion reverently, but my happiness doesn’t depend upon it.  I’m even open to the possibility that my hope may be fulfilled in an entirely unexpected way, or not at all.”  Do you see the difference?  It is the difference between living life and trying to control or avoid it. What makes this time of year difficult for many people is that it is loaded with expectations:  expectations that we want to fulfill and expectations that we want to avoid.  They can feel heavy and they can make us feel really stuck.  
Some of you may be haunted by the ghost of Christmas past.  I know I have been.  When I was a kid, my father was an active alcoholic (thankfully, he stopped drinking about 10 years ago).  We never knew how he was going to show up at family gatherings.  I often felt humiliated by his behavior, and felt a lot of anxiety as the holidays approached. For many years, I approached Christmas walking on eggs, wondering when the other shoe was going to drop, and feeling vaguely responsible for other people’s feelings about the season.  “If only my father didn’t drink, then I could be happy” was the story I told myself.  So, guess what?  I wasn’t happy, especially at Christmastime.  I had expectations.

My heart became closed.  The emotional energy of those childhood experiences hit me like a wave, but rather than letting them pass through me, I adopted a defensive posture, closing my heart and blocking the flow of energy.  The energy kept moving, but rather than being released I trapped it and kept it circling around itself.  

As Michael Singer notes, everything is energy and energy will expand outward if it is not contained.  For physical reality to be manifest, energy must get in the dynamic of circling around itself to create a stable unit: this is one way to describe an atom, the basic building block of the universe.  Atoms have enough energy harnessed in them to blow up the world if it is released.  But unless forced open, the energy remains stable in its equilibrium state.[2]
This cycling energy happens with emotional energy as well.  It can become trapped in our heart, harnessed by our resistance to letting it go.  Our expectations: that it will always be like this, that it must not be like this, that I must avoid or control what happens to be happy is the lock on the door of our heart that keeps this energy circling around itself.  It is exhausting keeping all that emotional energy stored up.  It prevents us from being open to the renewal of energy, what we call Spirit, that continually emerges from the abyss of God’s love.  The solution is to open our hearts to release the flow of energy and receive the inpouring of the Holy Spirit available in each moment. 

There are a variety of spiritual techniques or practices that help us to do this.  Sometimes, the emotional energy trapped in our hearts can be overwhelming, the result of trauma that requires very careful healing support to release.  This is where psychotherapy, or 12 step work, or spiritual direction, or all of the above can be an important resource.  We don’t have to do this work alone.  Yoga, meditation, and other contemplative practices are enormously beneficial.  They help us to claim our identity as “the Witness,” the observer of thoughts, feelings, and sensations that provides perspective and healthy detachment so that we can let go and be in the flow of energy, rather than blocking it.  We can accept the past.  We can release the energy.  We can open our hearts and be present to what is given now.  

The season of Advent is a time set apart to prepare to for the birth of new life, the renewal of the energy of love, symbolized by the birth of the Christ Child.  This preparation requires patience.  It requires repentance – changing our minds.  But another important part of this preparation is simply giving ourselves – and others – a break, by letting go of our expectations and allowing the past to be the past so that we can be open to the present moment.  

So it is OK to grieve what needs grieving.  It is OK to acknowledge what has been lost and give thanks for what has been received.  It is OK to forgive what needs forgiving so that we can be free.  This is how we open our hearts again.  This is how Christ is born in us again.  The realization of our hope for the world does not require perfection, or the absence of pain, or the realization of our expectations.  It only requires us to be open.  Just keep your heart open.  Let the energy flow through you, releasing into the world the love that is the only hope for the world.  

St. Paul tells us, “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. Do not quench the Spirit.”[3]  Keep the flow of energy open and we will discover the joy that is present in all circumstances.   Don’t quench the Spirit!  Keep your heart open!

As I drop my expectations and release the ghost of Christmas past, I find myself noticing a deep joy here and now.  I’m not the little boy clinging to patterns of energy that lock me in circles of fear and shame.  A new wave of energy is washing through me, washing me clean. 

Today, my associations with this season are of the moment: sharing a cup of tea with my husband in the living room at the end of the day as the last rays of winter light come through the window; the joy of my son’s homecoming from college for winter break; the sense of awe accompanying my sense of loss as I ponder the quiet dignity and acceptance with which our sister Nancy walked through the valley of the shadow of death.  Talk about letting go of expectations!  She said she was not afraid of the journey, but she was curious about the final destination. “Curious,” she said, her heart still wide open.  Somehow, I can find no other way of thinking about her death, other than as the release of great souled energy making space for new birth, new life to come roaring in.  If we let it.  Maybe not today.  But we will get there.

Don’t quench the Spirit!  Stay in the flow of the energy of love.  Those who sowed with tears will reap with songs of joy.  Those who go out weeping, carrying the seed, will come again with joy, shouldering their sheaves.”  Amen.

[1] Psalm 26:6-7.
[2] Michael Singer, The Untethered Soul (Oakland, CA:  New Harbinger Publications, Inc., 2007).
[3] I Thessalonians 5:16-17.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

A Change Is Gonna Come

It is often the poets, the artists, who express the truth of our situation and see the possibilities inherent in the moment that we can’t yet see.  They see the tender branch beginning to put forth its leaves, heralding the coming of summer, while we are still shivering in the chill of a seemingly endless winter.   The poets perceive the signs of life taking root in the soil of death, bringing hope to those blinded by grief and judgment upon those blinded by the illusion that all is well.

The poets speak of a world that is not yet to illumine the world as it is, and embolden us to traverse the distance between here and there:  between the wilderness and the promised land, exile and homecoming, the old creation and the new.  While Alabama state troopers beat, gassed, and rode down peaceful protestors crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge on March 7, 1965, Sam Cooke could be heard singing on the radio:

Then I go to my brother
And I say brother help me please
But he winds up knockin' me
Back down on my knees, oh

There have been times that I thought I couldn't last for long
But now I think I'm able to carry on
It's been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

Those beaten back from the bridge that day may not have seen the change that was coming, but Sam Cooke could see it.  Cooke placed his hope in a social movement that transcended his own brief life, trusting like Dr. King that the arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.  A change gonna come.  But in the meantime, stay woke: alert to the signs of the times, patient in the struggle, living in anticipation of the Beloved Community as if it already were here and now. 

This is what Jesus teaches us in the somewhat enigmatic apocalyptic imagery of Mark chapter 13.  It is about how to persevere in the struggle for a better world, resisting the nightmare in which we find ourselves by living into God’s dream for the earth.   Jesus weaves together the works of Isaiah, Ezekiel, Joel, Zechariah, and Daniel into a new vision.  Grounded in the classics of his tradition, Jesus performs a surprisingly creative variation on the theme of prophetic hope. 

That is what artists do.  They transform the received tradition to make it fresh and relevant, so that we have eyes to see and ears to hear again.  Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” is a beautiful example.  It was rooted in a long tradition of musical protest that wended its way back through Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind,” evoking Woodie Guthrie as well as Paul Robeson’s unsurpassable rendition of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s “Ol’ Man River;” even as it drew on the existential depth and critical perspective of the spirituals and the blues to subvert the inherent racism of 19th Century ministrel anthems.  As critic David Cantwell notes, “Thanks to ‘Ol’ Man River,’ we can move from ‘Dixie,’ the popular song most associated with the Confederacy and Jim Crow, to ‘A Change Is Gonna Come,’ one of the songs most associated with civil rights, in just two steps.”[1] 

Just as Sam Cooke skillfully drew on the best of American musical tradition to subvert its racist roots, Jesus skillfully drew on the best of his religious tradition to subverts its violent images of God.  At its best, the prophetic tradition holds up the promise that God will not forsake us.  It is a tradition of resistance to injustice and hope for a better world.  At its worst, it is a tradition rooted in the myth of redemptive violence, promoting an image of God overcoming evil through cataclysmic destruction to bring about a new creation.  Apocalypse, which simply means “revelation” or “uncovering what was hidden” – living in the truth –  becomes associated with violent end-of-the-world scenarios. 

Jesus takes over this imagery to tell a different story.  Jesus doesn’t elide the truth one bit.  Only the truth can set us free to creatively integrate the past in the service of a better future.  Jesus is profoundly in touch with the suffering of his people, the growing economic inequality between Jewish elites and peasants, the corruption arising from collaboration with Roman imperial power, and the intensification of violence engendered by Jewish resistance and Roman repression.  He uses the motif of apocalyptic to describe the reality of Roman rule, and to predict its denouement in the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple.

Jesus warns his followers not to be lead astray by these forces contending against each other.  Many false Messiahs will come promoting violent resistance.  He invites them to put their trust in God’s power to sustain them amidst conflict, betrayal, and persecution.  Oppression and suffering is part of the struggle for a better world.   

What is different about Jesus’ use of apocalyptic imagery is that suffering is never the expression of divine vengeance.  It is simply the result of wars, exploitative leaders, famines, and persecution.  God has nothing to do with it.  The only reference to God’s involvement is divine intervention to bring the suffering to an end.  God’s part comes “after that suffering” – this is the good news:  suffering is not the final word. 

What does the world “after the suffering” look like?  Well, it looks like a son of man coming in clouds with great power and glory.  “Son of man” simply means “human being,” and it is a symbol for the advent of a community in which human beings can realize their intrinsic dignity in God’s image.  While the darkened sun and moon and falling stars sound scary, they do not portend the end of the world.  They symbolize unjust rulers falling from power. Then the “son of man” arrives in clouds of glory to gather his chosen ones from all around the world.  This is an allusion to the Book of Daniel, which described violent empires as beasts, while God’s just rule looks like a human being fully alive.

A change gonna come.  When?  No one knows except God, according to Jesus.  We can only stay awake and watch for the signs of the times.  Just as the budding of leaves on the branches of fig trees portends the coming of summer, pay attention to the signs of new life and growth indicating the advent of humanity in our all too inhumane world.  They are there if we have eyes to see.  When the human being arrives, it will be like a homecoming.  Not a stranger, not a thief breaking in, but like the master of the house returning home at last; an occasion of joy, not fear.  Watch with eager expectation, not with apprehension or dread. 

Jesus turns apocalyptic on its head.  We don’t have to be afraid that God is gone get us.  It is our fellow humans we need to worry about!  We can trust that God is coming with power to set us free, to heal and make new.  In fact, the son of man already has come.  The human one is here.  

In Mark’s Gospel, the coming of the son of man is fulfilled in the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Three times, Jesus predicts that the son of man will be crucified and rise again.  Three times, Jesus predicts that the son of man will come in glory.  Two ways of saying the same thing.  God’s way of intervening to address suffering is not through cataclysmic violence, but through revolutionary love continually renewed by the courageous witness of those who work for justice no matter the cost.  It is this love the makes us human and renews the world.

I was born by the river in a little tent
Oh and just like the river I've been running ev'r since
It's been a long time, a long time coming
But I know a change gonna come, oh yes it will

Sam Cooke began his career as a gospel singer and it is telling that “A Change Is Gonna Come” was included in Cooke’s final album entitled, Aint’ That Good NewsIt’s been a long, a long time coming, but a change gonna come.  That was the good news that Jesus announced.  We are that change.  We are the Jesus movement, creating a genuinely human community. And through us, Jesus is coming again, and again, and again, a river that has been runnin’ ever since that first advent.   

[1] David Cantwell, “The Unlikely Story of ‘A Change Is Gonna Come,’” The New Yorker (March 17, 2015)