A Tale of Two Charters

Quite unexpectedly, this Fall seems to be the season for issuing charters.  The first one that came to my attention is the Charter for Compassion, which the Child and Family Institute celebrated in mid-November with a small event in the Trinity Chapel.  The Charter for Compassion is a project launched by Karen Armstrong, the internationally known author of books about all things spiritual and religious.  She was able to gather religious leaders from many different traditions and all over the globe to put together the Charter, with input via the internet from anyone who cared to offer a suggestion.  The result is a document that calls on the people of the world to do what the name of the Charter suggests:  “to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion”, based on a recognition that compassion is a cardinal value of all the world’s major religious and ethical systems.  That, of course, involves alleviating the suffering of our fellow creatures and respecting the different traditions from which we all come.  I remember reading one of Karen Armstrong’s books a few years back about fundamentalisms in Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and at the conclusion of her book, she suggests that while it is very difficult to judge another person’s religion or spirituality, we can perhaps say that if one’s spiritual path does not lead one to greater compassion, then perhaps something needs to be reevaluated.  I have placed a permanent link at the top of my blog to the Charter for Compassion, so you can guess that I’m enthusiastic about it.  It is a modern commentary, in a sense, and a call to action linked directly (for those of us who are Christians) to that whole pesky “love your neighbor as yourself” teaching of Jesus, not to mention the even more challenging “love your enemies, and do good to those who hate you.”

Recently, I became aware of another charter-like document that was also issued in the second half of November, called the Manhattan Declaration.   It was signed (in Manhattan) by over 100 leaders from the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox and Evangelical Christian traditions.   This document, according to the group’s website, is meant to “reaffirm fundamental truths about justice and the common good” and calls upon “our fellow citizens, believers and non-believers alike, to join us in defending them.”   The fundamental truths which the declaration calls upon its affirmers to defend are:  (1) the sanctity of human life, (2) “the dignity of marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife” and (3) “the rights of conscience and religious liberty”.    The group goes on to say that these truths are “increasingly under assault from powerful forces in our culture”, and it is because of this powerful assault that the signers of the declaration feel obligated to speak out.  They indicate that they make this commitment “not as partisans of any political group but as followers of Jesus Christ, the crucified and risen Lord, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.”   They say that they will fully honor these truths no matter what sort of pressure is brought upon them and their institutions to compromise or abandon them.

As I have thought about these two documents, I find that I don’t disagree really with the stated aims of either of them.  I am in favor of compassion, of relieving the suffering of others and of respecting one another’s traditions.  I also believe that human life is sacred (though I might reach different conclusions about what that means than the authors of the Manhattan Declaration do), I am in favor of the dignity of marriage (though I might like to be more broad in my application of that principle than the Manhattan Declaration wants to be) and I certainly value freedom of conscience and religious liberty.   Nevertheless, while I can support the Charter of Compassion, the Manhattan Declaration makes be profoundly uncomfortable.

The Charter for Compassion, it seems to me, represents religion and spirituality at their best.  The Charter seeks to focus on a common point of contact among our various traditions, and to call upon people to act on that universal principle of compassion for the sake of all human beings everywhere.  It is forward-looking and visionary, and it appeals to the best in our traditions and the best in ourselves.  To me, it represents religion as a force for positive change in the world, as a path toward empowering human beings.  Our bishop likes to talk about the Beloved Community.  The Charter for Compassion is about the Beloved Community, and the responsibility all of us have to one another.  Compassion can extend to the issues that touch the lives of  people all around the globe:  problems of poverty, education, nutrition, environmental degradation, to name a few.

The Manhattan Declaration, on the other hand, represents to me religion and spirituality at their worst.  It is, above all, a defensive document.  It looks upon a world in which many things are changing and long held attitudes questioned and it reacts with fear.  Rather than appealing to the best in us, it appeals to our more fearful instincts.  Its tone feels like the authors perceive themselves to be under siege.  It spends a great deal of time talking about what must be stopped and avoided, rather than embracing the great diversity of the human community.  And, of course, it is written from a militantly Christian perspective, without any regard for the other religious and spiritual traditions of the world.  And it defines its areas of concern rather narrowly.

In our world today, it seems to me that we need to focus our energies on bringing the people of the world together, and helping us to find common ground with each other, rather than focusing on the things that divide us.   Religion can be a powerful tool for promoting unity, but too often it is used as a tool for highlighting division and separating people into opposing camps — one of the reasons that religious involvement is looked upon so negatively by so many in our culture. One of the perennial religious challenges is to find a way to hold one’s values with integrity, to live one’s faith with commitment, and at the same time be open to those whose values and commitments might be different.  The Charter for Compassion seeks to do just that; the Manhattan Declaration represents a retreat into one’s own camp, hoping and praying that in the end, people in the other camps will either switch camps or just go away.

The world today cannot afford to retreat from engagement with one another.  Each person, and each group, should stand up for their convictions.  What matters most crucially, however, is the way in which we hold our convictions.  Do we hold them in a way that invites others to engage with us, and allows us to engage with them?  Or do we hold them so tightly that we cannot hear others — and, perhaps, they cannot hear us?

An Attitude of Gratitude

As we celebrate Thanksgiving, we are given an opportunity to stop and reflect on what we are grateful for.  It is, perhaps, something we do not do often enough.  It seems to be so easy for us humans to focus on what we lack, on what seems missing from our lives.  An attitude of scarcity seems to be easy for us to slip in to.

This was driven home to me several years ago by a man from Africa.   He was in charge of a program that the church I was serving at the time was supporting, teaching people in Kenya to read.  He was a native of Kenya, and had managed to acquire a good education.  He saw what he was doing as a ministry, because if people could read, then they could read the Bible.  Of course, he also recognized that by teaching people to read, he was opening up doors to new opportunities.  He came to the US to visit some of the churches that supported his work, and so our church and another church in town hosted his visit.  The weekend he happened to be visiting was the weekend of the annual community yard sale for the rather upscale subdivision in which our church was located.  He explored our neighborhood, looking at all the things that people were selling that they didn’t want or  need anymore.  On that Sunday morning, he gave the sermon for us.  The one thing I remember from his remarks is a question he asked all of us.  As he looked at the content of people’s yard sales, he said, and as he admired all the wonderful paved roads we had to drive on, he became curious about one thing:  “How do you know when you have enough?”

That question has remained with me all these years.  I can just as easily slip into an attitude of scarcity as the next person, and like most of us, it can be easy for me to focus on what I seem to lack in my life.  But every once in a while that African man’s question arises in my mind, and I realize that I do have enough — more than enough — to be happy and secure in my life.  And when I realize that, I am able to be grateful.

I hope this Thanksgiving becomes an opportunity for you to see where your abundance lies.  I hope that whatever you may be struggling with in your life, Thanksgiving might become an opportunity for you to discover what there is in your life to be grateful for.  And I invite you to share that gratitude here, by leaving a comment to this post.

I will begin:  I am grateful for my family, for the opportunities I have in the work I have been given to do, and for the community that surrounds me as I try to do it.  There’s more I am grateful for:  the roof over my head, the food on my table, the clothes on my back….the list could go on.  But that’s a good start.

May you have a happy and blessed Thanksgiving.  What are you grateful for?

Meeting God in the Present Moment

A member of our Vestry shared this prayer with us at the end of our recent meeting:

I was regretting the past

And fearing the future.

Suddenly God was speaking.

“My name is ‘I am’”.   I waited.

God continued,

“When you live in the past,

With its mistakes and regrets,

It is hard. I am not there.

My name is not ‘I was.’

When you live in the future,

With its problems and fears, it is hard.

I am not there.

My name is not ‘I will be.’

When you live in this moment,

It is not hard. I am here.

My name is ‘I am.’

From Helen Mellicost, on the kitchen wall of the ranch guesthouse, St. Benedicts Monastery, Snowmass CO

This beautiful poem captures one of the timeless truths not only of the Christian tradition, but really of all the great spiritual traditions:  that God is to be found in the present moment, because it is the only moment in which we are truly alive.   The past is already gone, and the future has not yet arrived.  We are only alive in the moment which is right now.  One of the challenges of the spiritual life is to be, as they say, present in that moment.  This has to do with our awareness, our consciousness.  And all of the great spiritual traditions have created techniques of prayer and meditation that are designed to help cultivate our awareness of the present moment.  In the western Christian world today, the technique that has probably received the most attention is that of Centering Prayer.   It is so simple, yet so challenging.  The idea is that you spend initially 20 minutes at the beginning of the day and another 20 minutes near the end of day simply sitting in a quiet space.  While you are in that space, you use a prayer word — a word that evokes a connection with God for you — to bring yourself into the presence of God.  Your eyes are closed, and ideally you recite the word within yourself rather than out loud, though when first beginning a Centering Prayer practice, many find it helpful to recite the word aloud.  And you set a timer to tell you when the 20 minutes has passed, so that you aren’t worrying about how much time has passed as you sit in meditation.  See?  Simple.

But here’s the challenge:  as you quiet yourself and begin to recite your prayer word, almost immediately your mind begins spinning around with all kinds of thoughts about things you are worried about, or about things you need to be doing, or about any number of things.  Your mind throws image after image, thought after thought at you, and without even realizing it, you start following your thoughts, and forget your prayer word entirely.  The Buddhists actually have the best term for this:  they call it monkey mind.  Eventually, you will notice that you have followed your thoughts down some path, and then you return to reciting your prayer word, seeking to return to that prayerful place.  All the spiritual teachers tell us that the more we try to keep our mind from getting carried away with our thoughts, the harder the mind will work against us.  And so they counsel that we should simply acknowledge each thought as it presents itself, and then let it pass, using the prayer word as a reminder of what we are doing in this time, and as an expression of our intention to be present to God so that God can be present to us.

As we follow this practice consistently, the mind begins to know what to expect during the time of Centering Prayer, and we get better at noticing when we are getting carried away with our thoughts.  And our practice deepens.  And every once in a while, we may notice that we are in a space of no thought, when we are just present with God.  The moment we notice it, it is gone — because we form a thought about it.  But that brief moment is pure gift.  We have been fully present in the present moment with I AM.

People who practice Centering Prayer faithfully notice that over time, it changes them.  It’s the kind of change that happens when water drips onto a rock for a very long time.  Gradually, the shape of the rock is changed.  A regular practice of Centering Prayer can change our shape over time, as well.  It can help reduce anxiety, and help us deal more effectively with our emotional life.  Increasingly, rather than reacting instinctively when something happens, one finds that a little space has been created between the trigger and the reaction — a space of awareness, in which we have a choice to respond rather than react.  And many have testified that those around them notice that they have changed, that they are different somehow.

Over and over in the Gospels, Jesus talks about the importance of awareness.  He tells stories about keeping alert and being ready, because we never know when God will show up.  The deeper truth of his teaching, I think, is that God shows up in every moment — if only we are willing to be aware of that presence.  Centering Prayer — whose roots go back many centuries, to the earliest days of the Christian movement — is one way of following Jesus’ advice, and of opening ourselves to the transforming presence of God.

A 92% Opportunity

opportunityIn his address to the Diocesan Convention this past October, Bishop Marc mentioned a figure that surprised me, and I have repeated it to a few people who seemed similarly surprised.  He said that according to studies of such matters, 92% of the population of the Bay Area claim no religious affiliation.  This makes it the second highest rate of non-affiliation in the country (I don’t know who’s number 1!).

On the one hand, this statistic is a bit depressing and dispiriting for those of us who are interested in keeping our churches vital, alive places.  On the other hand, it also presents us with a huge opportunity — and a huge challenge.

While the Bay Area is way ahead of the curve in terms of people’s lack of religious connection, studies do tell us that the country as a whole is experiencing a decline in religiosity, as measured by both claims of religious affiliation and actual attendance at religious services.  Some people look toward Europe, where religious affiliation rates are like or even worse than they are in the Bay Area, and wonder if that is where we are ultimately headed: to a society where religion is irrelevant to the daily lives of almost everyone.

At the same time, however, studies also show us that, unlike Europe, huge numbers — the vast majority — of Americans say that they believe in God, thereby suggesting that spirituality is important to most of us in some sense.  Clearly, at this moment in American life, there is a disconnect between interest in God and the spiritual and the institutions that are dedicated to God and the spiritual.

All of this suggests to me that there is great opportunity for us, if we can tap into the spiritual longings that most people still have.  The great challenge, as a church, is to find an intersection of relevance between that longing and our life as a community of faith.

Having served congregations in the Midwest and the Southeast before coming to the Bay Area, it is clear that churches here are much more in touch with this reality than is the case in most other regions of the country.   If we can act on that awareness, and take seriously where most people around us are in terms of both their spiritual longing and skepticism of religious institutions, then we may well discover the formula that will allow us to grow and to continue to have a vital and vibrant life.

Some Archbishop of Canterbury — I can’t quite find which one — once said that the church exists for those who are not yet a part of it.   That is perhaps an overstatement, but it does make an important point:  that we, as church, can never forget the spiritual needs of those outside our fellowship, and even Episcopalians have a sacred obligation to do what we can to reach them and share what we have found to be powerful and transformative in our lives.  Most people in our area have no spiritual home, and no awareness of the riches of our tradition.  I think we can be that place for some of them, if we are willing to become not only a radically welcoming church, but a radically invitational one, as well.

Kairos vs. Chronos

clockOk, so this past Sunday was All Saints Day — one of my favorite days on the church calendar, when we remember our departed loved ones and, as we contemplate the communion of saints, we make some new ones in celebrating the sacrament of Baptism.  The celebration was wonderful — oh, and yes, it was almost 90 minutes long.  Yes.  Well, perhaps that’s a little long for church.

I understand that, I really do.  After all, for people in our fast-paced world, time has almost become a more precious commodity than money.  So, it is wonderful that people are willing to come and spend part of a Sunday at church.  And it’s reasonable to expect that the service would be over in about an hour, so that the faithful can get on to other precious, time-grabbing obligations — like snatching a few moments to be with their families, friends or significant others.

Here’s the thing, though:  as the service ended this past Sunday, and I looked at someone’s watch (I don’t wear one), I was a little surprised that it had been about 90 minutes.  I knew it would be over an hour, and even said something about it in the announcements.  But it was longer than I thought it had been — because it didn’t seem like that long to me!  In other words, my perception of the time we had spent in worship was different from what the clock had to say about it.  This, perhaps, points to that interesting difference between kairos and chronos.

The Greeks are wonderful people with a tremendous culture, and a rich language — a language that often is able to capture subtleties which other languages, like English, cannot.  For example, Greek has several words for “love” , each of which brings out a different nuance of an idea that in English must be crammed into one, single word.   The Greek language has two words for time:  kairos and chronos.

Since Jesus tells us that the last shall be first, let’s deal with “chronos” first.  It is, of course, the word from which we get our English word “chronological” — referring to sequential time, in which second follows upon second, minute upon minute, hour upon hour.  It is where we live a great deal of our lives, as the clock urges us on to the next scheduled appointment or event.  Then there is “kairos” — which English cannot really express adequately in a single word.  But here is the definition, according to that great egalitarian authority, Wikipedia:  kairos “signifies a time in between, a moment of undetermined period of time in which something special happens.”  In other words, kairos points toward a moment when we cease to be conscious of chronos, of the tick-tick-tick of the clock, because we are taken up in a special moment that seems almost timeless.   While chronos is quantitative, kairos is qualitative.  In theology, chronos is generally used to refer to secular time, while kairos is used to refer to sacred time.  The different is pointed at in the Bible, in the Second Letter of Peter which says that a thousand years of chronos is, from God’s kairos perspective, about a day.  (see 2 Peter 3:8, and Psalm 90:4).  The fact that we spent this past Sunday more time in worship than I felt is an indication of the quality of that experience for me.  To be gathered together, praying, singing and celebrating together, helped me to transcend my preoccupation with chronos by lifting me into the timeless presence of God.  I have to be honest:  not every worship service feels like that to me.  But last Sunday’s did, and when those liturgies come along, I am grateful.

All of us could use a little more kairos in our lives — moments when we are able to transcend our chronos addiction in favor of a special, quality moment.  Church is not the only place where those kairos moments are to be found.  They can also be found in an afternoon spent with our beloved, a good play, a sublime concert.  When we find those moments, when we make room for those moments in our lives, then we can experience ourselves as truly having been blessed.

So, if church for you last Sunday was a little too long, I understand.  But maybe it will help to know how very special that 90 minutes ended up being for me.  And maybe this will help you, too:  math is NOT my strength, but if I have this right, based on a thousand years being as one day in the sight of God, I think the 90 minutes of chronos equates to about 2 seconds of kairos!  And what’ 2 seconds of kairos in the perspective of eternity!

Thank you to everyone who came last Sunday — your presence contributed to my kairos moment.  And I wish more kairos moments for us all — for in them is the depth and richness of life truly to be found.