A Litany of Thanksgiving

Let us give thanks to God for all his gifts so freely bestowed upon us,

For the beauty and wonder of your creation, in earth and sky and sea,

For all that is gracious in the lives of men and women, revealing the image of Christ,

For daily food and drink, our homes and families, and our friends,

For minds to think, and hearts to love, and hands to serve,

For health and strength to work, and leisure to rest and play,

For the brave and courageous, who are patient in suffering and faithful in adversity,

For all valiant seekers after truth, liberty, and justice,

For the communion of saints, in all times and places,

We thank you, Lord.

– From the Book of Common Prayer

As we give thanks this Thanksgiving, let us also remember those for whom giving thanks is a challenge, for those who experience life as more of a burden than a blessing.

May God help you to see the blessings in your life this day, and give you the grace to be thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Healing Wisdom

I read an article recently by Scott Cairns, a professor of creative writing at the University of Missouri, who has a new book coming out entitled, “Mysteries of the Jesus Prayer”, an ancient prayer used in an equally ancient practice of Christian contemplation, particularly in the Eastern Orthodox churches (though it has long since moved out into other Christian communities).  In the article, Cairns talks about the way in which today’s Christian world has largely forgotten the vocabulary of spirituality that was readily understood by Christians of the ancient world.  This, he suggests, is largely due to problems of translation.   The ancient Greek of the New Testament and the early Christian centuries often loses its more subtle meaning when translated into the languages of the cultures into which Christianity moved.

One example he cites is the Greek word nous, which is almost always translated as “mind” in English.  While the Greek nous is a complex termed, being defined somewhat differently in different systems of thought, the ancient Christian understanding of this term was that it referred to the faculty within humanity that was capable of perceiving God and entering into communion with God.  It might be thought of as the “eye of the heart”, an eye which is capable of beholding the light and presence of God.  We might also think of it as a kind of spiritual sense that makes a conscious connection with God possible.

Within the theological tradition of the early Christian centuries, it was understood that this nous had become damaged or gotten dirty, and thus was not functioning properly.   This was the result of that classic Christian idea of “the Fall”, and the biblical story of Adam and Eve was understood to refer, in a metaphoric way, to refer to this corruption of the nous.   If you think about that story from Genesis, it is perhaps not a story so much about how humanity was created (which tends to be the way it is focused upon in our time) but it is much more a story about human alienation from our true nature and, therefore, from God.   In a more ancient way of thinking, the Garden of Eden, or Paradise, represented the condition in which human beings related to God in a natural way, which led to growth and maturity.  The exile from that state was occasioned by a decision to exalt human reason above divine wisdom, thereby veering off the path of communion with  God as human beings get caught up in ourselves, in ego, in self-centeredness.  In ancient Greek, we abandon nous in favor of logos.

This being the ancient Christian understanding of the essential human problem, the solution to that problem was a life of prayer (especially contemplative prayer) and participation in the sacramental life of the church.  These were seen as therapeutic — therapy for the soul — because they were ways of overcoming our own self-preoccupation, our ego and narrowness.  They were ways of cleansing or repairing the nous so that it functioned properly, leading to a deepening perception of and communion with God, which in turn led to greater wholeness.  Thus, when St. Paul speaks in his Letter to the Romans about being transformed by the renewing of our minds, in Greek he is using the word nous. Scott Cairns suggests that to the modern, Western, English-speaking mind, this phrase of Paul’s can easily lead us to conclude that Paul is talking about the need for us to somehow change our thinking or reform our beliefs.  But the older Christian tradition reads this quite differently:  they read it as expressing what I have just described, as a need to have our nous renewed, our faculty for active connection with God cleansed and repaired.  And while they believed this was ultimately facilitated by God’s love and grace, it did require us to open ourselves to that grace through prayer and sacrament.

All of this highlights for me the way in which our understanding of things has shifted over the centuries.  So much of the time, it seems, Christianity is made into a matter of the head, in terms of thinking or believing the right things, and a matter of the will, in terms of willing ourselves to live a life that has a particular moral shape.  While thinking, believing and doing good are all important, the Christian tradition is rather clear, for most of its history, that we cannot do these things on our own.  Nor do they really get to the heart of the matter.  Rather, that tradition is insistent that we are spiritually ill, that we need to be healed, and that this is what the Christian life is primarily about.  Through this lens, sin is not seen so much as failure or wrong-doing as a symptom of being ill.  And healing comes about only when we open ourselves to God in Christ, who is the physician of our souls.

I find this way of looking at things extremely attractive.  It helps, I think, to move us beyond some of the things that we followers of Jesus get bogged down in arguing about, and it moves spiritual practice to the center of our concern and our awareness.  And I think this has traction in our culture.  Dr. Diana Butler Bass, in her reading and researching about religion and spirituality in America, points out that those mainline congregations that are most successful are congregations that have moved from an emphasis on belief or thinking to an emphasis on practice.  One cannot really have one without the other, but by focusing on spiritual practice, we find a way forward with people who are not so much interested in our churchly arguments, but in finding a deep healing of the soul.

Naming the Tension – and Living In It

Recently, I’ve been reading the book, “A Hole in our Gospel”, written by Richard Stearns, the President of World Vision.  While there are aspects of the book that don’t sit well with me theologically (Mr. Stearns has an evangelical perspective that I do not share), the book does an excellent job of pointing to an important tension in the Christian tradition:  the tension between faith in Christ as a path to personal salvation and faith in Christ as transformative engagement with the world.  Until he joined World Vision, Mr. Stearns had lived his Christian life primarily out of that first perspective, believing that his faith was primarily about his personal salvation and the personal salvation of others.  That perspective came with a mission imperative:  to help others believe in Christ so that they would have that personal salvation.  Over time, he came to see that this was a kind of “bingo card” Christianity:  once you check off certain items of belief, then your personal salvation is assured, and one can live one’s life in peace – without giving it much more thought.

Over time, Stearns came to see that there was a hole in his Gospel – and in the Gospel followed by most of the Christians he was aware of.   That hole became obvious once he realized that in the Gospels, Jesus actually says very little about belief.  He has a whole lot to say, however, about what people who would follow him should be doing.  And that doing is mainly focused on relieving the suffering of others, especially the poorest and most vulnerable among us.  Stearns comes to the conclusion that Jesus is far less concerned with the verbal proclamation of the Good News.  Rather, he is primarily concerned about us being that proclamation through our loving service to the poor.  In other words, Jesus seems to say that being his disciple is far more about practice than anything else.  It brings to mind the parable found in Matthew’s Gospel (chapter 25), in which Jesus makes it clear that those who are his most faithful disciples are those who served the poor, the sick and the imprisoned – for in serving them, Jesus says, they were in fact serving Christ himself.   It also reminds me of those passages in Matthew (chapter 7) and Luke (chapter 6) in which Jesus says it is not enough to call him “Lord” – one must actually do something.  In other words, following Jesus is not so much an exercise of the mind and lips.  Rather, it involves becoming an instrument through whom the kingdom of God can be brought into being in this world.

In Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians (in chapter 8), we read:

Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality.  At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need.  Then there will be equality, as it is written:  “He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little.”

In this passage, Paul is talking about one way of understanding this demand of the Gospel for action:  in terms of equality.  It is a revolutionary idea in contemporary America:  that those of us who have plenty should share with those who do not, so that there will be “equality”.   Words like that, in today’s America, would undoubtedly get Paul labeled a socialist – and that label would certainly be given by some people who are committed followers of Jesus.  Yet, if one reads what Jesus has to say about the kingdom of God carefully, equality is one of the characteristic markers of the kingdom’s presence.  Within the kingdom of God, there is not need or want, nor is there more than is needed.  There is, quite simply, just enough.   Everyone has what they need.

Our sharing of the Eucharist is meant to be a foretaste, a glimpse, of this kingdom of equality.  In another passage, Paul takes the Corinthians to task for distorting their celebration of Communion, because the wealthy members of the community are bringing a picnic lunch and feasting extravagantly while the poorer members are going hungry.  Paul points out that they have missed the point of the Eucharist, and he points out sternly that when they come together for this sacred meal, everyone should be receiving the same, because within the Eucharistic assembly, everyone is equal.  Everyone receives exactly what they need.  And at the center of this Eucharist, we believe Christ is made present – within an assembly of equals, where everyone receives just what they need.

This should teach us that Christ and his kingdom are also made present in those places where this ideal of equality is manifested.  But it is also clear in the  Gospels that Jesus does not wait for this to be achieved before he shows up.  He goes ahead of it, sometimes to the wealthy to make them more aware, but mainly to the poor who are so longing for that equality — that kingdom — to arrive.

None of this is to say that the personal dimensions of faith are not important.  We have personal needs, including the need for a personal encounter with God, that we might be strengthened for the work we are given by God to do in the world.  This is what attracts me to the concept of “contemplative engagement.”   We are meant to have contemplative hearts, rooted in the experience of God that is offered to us in the life of prayer and within the context of the church’s sacramental and communal life.  Yet, that contemplation is not meant to be an end in itself.  Rather, it is meant to propel us into the world in a desire to bring the kingdom that we taste in our personal prayer and spirituality into the larger world.  And part of the experience of prayer is to develop a sense of our own personal poverty which points to the places where we need to be transformed.   That should give us a special concern for the material poverty of the poorest among us, for that shows us where transformation needs to happen in the world.

The Christian life is, I believe, meant to be lived in that tension between contemplation and engagement, or put another way, between our personal salvation and the salvation of the world.  It is a misreading of our scriptures and our tradition to think that the conditions of life in this world don’t matter, that we are all simply aiming for eternity.  Any honest reading of the Gospels will show us that Jesus doesn’t let us off that easily.

St. Teresa of Avila perhaps summed this all up best in a prayer which she authored, and which Richard Stearns includes in his book:

Christ has no body on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours.  Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion for the world is to look out; yours are the feet with which He is to go about doing good; and yours are the hands with which He is to bless us now.

St. Paul’s own personal transformation as a follower of Jesus led him to conclude that it was no longer he that lived, but rather, Christ was living in and through him (in Galatians, chapter 2).  In other words, his consciousness had been transformed into a Christ-centered consciousness.  And when Christ begins to live within us, we find we have no other choice than to become his body on earth: his eyes, his feet, his hands, to bring compassion and blessing to a wounded world.  We acquire that consciousness through contemplative prayer supported by sacramental life in community.  We live that consciousness by engagement with the world on behalf of the poor, marginalized and vulnerable among us.


Collective Responsibility as a Spiritual Practice

Navigating Election Day and its aftermath this week, I was struck by the assertiveness of the “us and them” mentality.  And I’m not talking about Republicans versus Democrats.  I’m talking about the American public versus our politicians.  This week featured a great deal of talk about what “they” have or have not been able to do for “us”, and what the newly elected “them” will or will not be able to do for “us” over the next two years.  “We” seem ready and willing to blame “them” for our national problems, but there doesn’t seem to be any sense that “we” bear some responsibility for the mess in which we find ourselves.

For a democracy to work, all of its participants must share responsibility for our national life.  It is not enough simply to vote out of a sense of anger and outrage, and expect that those elected will simply fix things, and then enter another cycle of anger and outrage when things don’t get fixed.  We complain about the tone of our national conversation and the endless infighting amongst politicians, infighting which generally leads to nothing being done, and yet we don’t seem to realize that this behavior mirrors what goes on in the larger society outside of Washington.  If we imagine that Washington serves as a mirror of our national life, what does this say about the state of our society as a whole?

The reality is that politics is what it is today because our society as a whole has largely lost any sense of interdependence, any understanding that we have a responsibility for one another, that we are all in the same boat.  We have fallen victim to the illusion that there is an “us” and a “them”, defining “them” either as politicians or people we don’t agree with or whose life choices or mode of being are simply wrong or unacceptable.   With all the lip-service that many people pay to Christianity in this country, we have forgotten one of the most fundamental teachings of Jesus, exemplified in the parable of the Good Samaritan:  that we are to love our neighbors as ourselves and that the person who is our neighbor is simply the person we meet who is in need.  This was Jesus’ way of saying that we are responsible for each other.  On a national level, this means that we are responsible for our national life.  We can’t hand over that responsibility to others and pretend that our behavior — from the way we speak and carry on our debates to the causes we choose to support to the votes we cast — doesn’t have any real consequences.

This idea of taking responsibility for our own actions, as well as responsibility for the welfare of our fellow human beings, is a key concept certainly in the Christian tradition and also in the other major spiritual traditions of the world. The reason for that is simple:  from a spiritual perspective, all of the things that separate us fall away.  From a spiritual point of view, there is just one human family from which no one is excluded and no one is therefore isolated from that which affects someone else.

In the Jewish tradition, one finds the idea of tikkun olam, which in Hebrew means, “repairing the world”.  While this concept has a long and complex lineage, an important part of that lineage is the idea that to be faithful means to take responsibility for helping to repair the world in an ethical sense through the performance of good deeds, what one might call acts of mercy or compassion.  It is an idea that appeared in the early rabbinic period.  It is an idea that I think Jesus would have found great merit in.  It is yet another way of talking about loving one’s neighbors, another way of talking about our shared responsibility for the world.

Today, much of our political energy seems to be directed toward enhancing the suffering of others.  That may seem like an odd thing to say, but I have come to believe that it is true.  Most of the time, I don’t think we realize that this is what is happening.  We think we are setting out to ease the suffering of others.   But the presence of so much anger, name-calling, distortion, intolerance and just meanness points toward the truth of what our politics has really become.  Our political discourse is largely directed not at attempting to repair the world for everyone, but at inflicting damage on those whom we oppose.  It has become all about who has power and can keep it — not about how that power might be used in the service of others.

It is this kind of attitude toward power that we see at work in the image of Jesus being crucified.  Those who killed Jesus – politicians both Jewish and Roman –  were not concerned with repairing the world, but with who had power and could keep that power.  And in the midst of that monstrous use of power for its own sake, Jesus says, “Forgive them…for they don’t know what they are doing.”   We don’t know what we are doing, either.  We throw around angry words and angry votes, we gather around the crosses of those being crucified and cheer on those who are pounding the nails.  What we fail to realize is that we are not just doing injury to others but to ourselves and to the whole of our democracy.  For we cannot succeed as a nation unless we recover a sense of shared responsibility, unless we recover a sense of interdependence, unless we realize that we are all in this together.

The politicians are not some strange strain of alien life.  “They” are “us”.  We are them.  They reflect what we have become.  Our response to that truth should not be anger, but rather a deep soul-searching and a commitment to find a better way to fulfill our responsibilities to one another, to repair the world that we have damaged so deeply.