Open Spaces

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to gather near Atlanta, Georgia, with about 40 other people to think about the life of the Christian community in general and The Episcopal Church in particular.   It was an unusual gathering as such things go in the church.  No attention was given to who was ordained and who was not.  We were of many different generations and came from around the country, but one only discovered another’s background through conversation.  And, perhaps most radical of all, the gathering was convened with no expectation that there would be an outcome.  No product was produced, no plan was articulated.   The point of the gathering was simply to gather, to encounter one another, to have conversation and exchange ideas, and thereby to encounter the Christ in one another, the living God among us.

Biblically speaking, there are two images that emerge that seem to me to serve as analogies of what I experienced with this extraordinary group of people.  The first was the image of the feast.  While the Last Supper occupies a place in the New Testament as the feast par excellence, the scriptures are in fact filled with images of people sharing meals together.  Jesus and his followers do this, Jesus does this with people who are not entirely comfortable with him, and the early Jesus followers of the latter part of the New Testament do this, as well.  Feasts have wonderful qualities about them:  everyone has a place at the table, everyone is fed, people encounter one another in unique ways.  Conversations abound.  People get to know one another more intimately.  And, the biblical feasting stories strongly suggest that these are luminous moments when spiritual connections are formed between those at the table and the God who is somehow in the midst of them.  The feast is a kind of open space in the Bible where profound things can happen.  Our gathering last weekend was just such an open space.

The other biblical image that comes to mind is the story from the book of Acts of the disciples gathered together, awaiting the coming of the Spirit.  The story is full of wind, fire, and cross-cultural connection as each person present hears the good news proclaimed in her or his own language.  But before this happens, the disciples are following an instruction which Jesus gave them:  to wait.  Another way of putting this is that Jesus invited the disciples to create an open space between and among them, a space for prayer and discernment.  And into the midst of this open space the energy of the Spirit flows in unexpected ways, forming new connections and leading the disciples into new possibilities.  Last weekend’s gathering was also this kind of open space.

I have taken away many things from that gathering, most of which I am still processing in some way.  But one of the most important things I took away is how valuable – and how rare – such open spaces are in the lives that most of us seem to be living.  Whether we are speaking of secular culture or church culture, we generally don’t seek to create open spaces where we can simply encounter and be with on another in all the sacredness of our humanity.  Rather than conversing, we often spend more time talking at or past each other.  We want to categorize everyone we meet as soon as possible according to their work, gender, race, religion, politics, and social position.  We seem to have a need to place a label upon everyone we meet as quickly as possible, and then any open space shrinks to closure as we assign to one another all the assumptions that come with the label we have created.

But this is not the way of Jesus.   He went about creating open spaces as often as possible, filling them with feasting and Spirit-filled energy.  And in doing so, he gave people the precious gift of encountering each other in all the sacredness that is the foundation of each and every human being.   And so this week, I find myself thankful for the holiness of open spaces, and I find myself called to help our faith communities to be servants of such open spaces.  It could perhaps be the greatest gift we could give to church and society in our time.

Tough Language

Every year, it seems, when I encounter the Ash Wednesday liturgy, I am struck by the force of much of the language that is used.  In the Book of Common Prayer, the collect or prayer for the day mentions human “sin and wretchedness”.  The prayers used throughout the service sound these themes frequently, and many of them beseech God to not remain angry with us and, instead, to have mercy.  It is easy to emerge from the Ash Wednesday service with a sense of how terrible we are and how much God has to hold against us.  Not all that long ago, I wrote a blog entry about “Enough with the Wretchedness”, lamenting the theological prominence enjoyed by the concept that we are miserable sinners who are lucky that God tolerates us.  Yet, in the Ash Wednesday liturgy, it is hard not to leave the service with that impression.

For myself, I have found a way to bring this language into my heart in a way that is helpful.  Because in an important way, I think the language serves to wake me up to a spiritual truth that perhaps truly lies at the heart of the Lenten journey of which Ash Wednesday is the beginning:  the truth of our self-centeredness.  If one looks at the Ash Wednesday liturgy more deeply, coupled with the Bible readings that are read, a message emerges which we need to hear:  this journey of following Christ is not all about me.  Yet, over and over again, I tend to want to make the spiritual journey with myself at the center of the universe.  I really would like everything to be about me.  It would be great if the world would revolve around me.  How many of us spend time and energy trying to bend the world around us to our will, to make things work out the way we would like them to?

Yet, Lent arrives every year to remind us that our life in Christ is not primarily about us.  It is about moving beyond ourselves to recognize our connection with the whole human family, with all of creation, and ultimately with God.  For we only truly find ourselves when we are able to lose ourselves in that great communion of being.

So we begin with the ashes of Ash Wednesday:  reminders of our mortality, to be sure, but also a reminder that we are made of the same stuff as the ashes that are placed upon us.  Fundamentally, we and everything around us are ashes in various states of being.  And in, through and around all this ash is the reality of God.  May we have the grace to encounter the harder language of Lent as a wake up call to recognize that the path that leads to destruction is the path of serving the self.  The narrow path, the one that leads to true life, is the path of serving God as revealed in one another and in all that lives around us.

Beginning Again Always

Next Wednesday, the Christian world will observe Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the five weeks of Lent leading up to Holy Week and Easter.  As we contemplate and anticipate entering once again into this more reflective and contemplative season of the church year, I thought I would share with you a meditation on Ash Wednesday and Lent by Sister Joan Chittister, who is a bit of a spiritual hero of mine.  The meditation appeared last March in The Huffington Post.

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Ash Wednesday signals the beginning of that season of the church year that is most commonly associated with penance. But there is a danger lurking in that definition. If penance is all that Lent is about, the season, if not almost useless, is at least somewhat trivial. It makes the spiritual life some kind of arithmetical balancing act. I do so many penances for so much human misadventure and payback time is over. The important thing is that I remember to come out even.

But Lent is a much greater moment in life than that. Today’s readings make the distinction stark and clear.

The scripture for the opening of Lent, Joel 2:12-18, takes us back to a time of great danger in Israel. The land has been ravaged by locusts, the crops are failing. The very life of the population is in question. The prophet Joel, convinced that the people have brought the disaster upon themselves by virtue of their unfaithfulness, summons the House of Israel to repent its ways. But, interestingly enough, he does not call them to attend penance services in the synagogue. He does not require them to make animal sacrifices in the temple. He does not talk about public displays of remorse, the time-honored tearing of garments to demonstrate grief. No, Joel says instead, “Rend your hearts and not your clothing.”

Lent is a call to weep for what we could have been and are not. Lent is the grace to grieve for what we should have done and did not. Lent is the opportunity to change what we ought to change but have not. Lent is not about penance. Lent is about becoming, doing and changing whatever it is that is blocking the fullness of life in us right now.

Lent is a summons to live anew.

The first challenge of Lent is to open ourselves to life. When we “rend our hearts” we break them open to things we are refusing for some warped reason to even consider. We have refused for years, perhaps, to even think about renewing old commitments that we’ve allowed to go to dust — spending time with the children, visiting our parents, exercising, taking time to read good books. We’ve closed our minds, maybe, to the thought of reconciling with old friends whom we have hurt. We’ve refused to put the effort into reviving old spiritual practices like visits to church, meditation in the morning, the memorization of the psalms, that we allowed to die in our youth but failed to substitute for as we aged. We’ve failed to repent old abrasions, quick words, harsh judgements made in haste and expiated never. We have closed the doors of our hearts, as time went by, to so many of the things we need to live full and holy lives.

Lent is the time to let life in again, to rebuild the worlds we’ve allowed to go sterile, to “fast and weep and mourn” for the goods we’ve foregone. If our own lives are not to die from lack of nourishment, we must sacrifice the pride or the sloth or the listlessness that blocks us from beginning again.

Then, as Joel promises, God will have pity on us and pour into our hearts the life we know down deep that we are lacking.

The Illusion of Separateness

In my continuing exploration of the work of Alexander Shaia in his book, The Hidden Power of the Gospels, I have been revisiting most recently his discussion of the Gospel of John.  What moves me most deeply about his discussion is the way in which he teases out John’s beautiful and overarching image of the unity of all things as the key to the new life to which Jesus the Christ gives us access.  When John speaks in his gospel of “the world”, Shaia notes that he is speaking of the illusions to which we human beings fall victim.  The principal illusion is of separateness leading to division.  As Shaia says,

Our untransformed ego-self will persistently try to spring traps, tempting us to perceive our world and ourselves as a series of divisions instead of an indivisible whole.  It will keep asking us to separate things and to make either/or judgments.  It will try to force everything into black or white.

John would urge us to enter into the life of the Spirit, or the perspective of the Christ, which sees the unity that underlies all things and recognizes that the peace which passes all understanding lies in the grace to be able to bring opposites into harmony.  This spiritual vision is ultimately more a matter of the heart than of the head.

Wonderfully, Shaia points out that as John unfolds his beautiful, unitive vision, it is interrupted by glimpses of his own struggle to live into the vision he perceives.  There are moments of anger in his gospel where he lashes out at “the Jews”, for example.  Shaia laments the fact that in Christian history, these passages have been used as a justification for anti-Semitism. Yet, Shaia points out that John himself was a Jew, as was Jesus, and these outbursts betray an anger with Jewish teachers and leaders rather than with the Jewish people as a whole.  Nevertheless, they also betray the fact that John himself is still reaching for the fullness of the unitive spiritual vision he so carefully lays out.

We certainly find ourselves living in a time when the illusion of separateness is seen as the way things truly are.  The level of conflict in our public life (let alone in our private lives) is largely informed by an “us versus them” perspective that prevents us from perceiving that we are, in fact, all one.  Our dualistic thinking, so deeply ingrained in us, fuels our sense that “they” are a threat to “us” or “he” is a threat to “me”, and thus I must do all I can to secure my own interests.  We do not perceive that our interests are inextricably bound up with the interests of the “other”.

Recently, I heard an interview with a twenty-something man somewhere in the country about the upcoming Presidential election.  He regarded himself as an Independent, aligned with neither major party.  He said that sometimes he voted for Democrats and at other times he voted Republican.  He wasn’t sure how he would vote this year, but allowed as how, in the end, “I gotta take care of me.”  And it is precisely this preoccupation with “taking care of me” that leads us to forget that all these “me’s” are connected up.

Sadly, the state of Christianity these days is such that many Christians and churches also fail to grasp the unity to which John’s Gospel is pointing us. We fail to experience the depth of the Christ ourselves, we fall victim to illusion and dualistic thinking, and so too often we adopt a “my way is the only way to heaven” approach that serves to widen the imagined chasm between “them” and “us”.  We fail to see how this approach does damage not only to others but to ourselves.

In just two weeks, Christians will begin the season of Lent, a period traditionally devoted to deeper reflection on the truths of our faith and the ways in which we are and are not living into them.  Perhaps we should spend some time this Lent with John’s Gospel and with Shaia’s chapter on John’s Gospel, seeking to find again John’s grand vision and allowing him to help us meet the Christ who leads us out of illusion into the unity of the Spirit, in which we find God embracing all of us and all that is in a single, unifying love.  It is, after all, as a witness to that love that Jesus came into the world as the Christ-bearer, seeking to bring into our limited human illusions the truth of eternity.

Candles and Groundhogs

On February 2, most likely all of the morning TV news programs will have their cameras trained on Punxsutawney Phil, the “official groundhog” of the United States.  The reporters will be interested to know whether he sees his shadow (though no one ever seems to stop and think that the presence of so many TV lights might influence that) to know whether winter will lighten up.  For February 2 is Groundhog Day, perhaps one of the strangest days on the calendar.

Long before people were celebrating Groundhog Day, however, February 2 had another meaning entirely.  On the Christian calendar, the date is associated with the Feast of the Presentation of our Lord Jesus Christ in the Temple (yes, it’s a mouthful) or, as it is often called in the Western churches, Candlemas.  It is a feast which remembers the story from Luke’s Gospel in which Joseph and Mary take the baby Jesus, on the eighth day after his birth, to the Temple in Jerusalem to perform the rites that were expected to be done after the birth of a male child (which would have included circumcision).  While in the Temple, Luke says that the holy family encountered a prophet (Simeon) and a prophetess (Anna), both of whom waxed eloquent (and prophetic, of course) about the identity and destiny of this child Jesus.  Luke composes a beautiful hymn which he places in Simeon’s mouth, one that is traditionally sung or said at Vespers or Evening Prayer, in which Simeon speaks of Jesus as a “light to enlighten the Gentiles.”

This acclamation of Jesus as the enlightening light is what leads us to the term, Candlemas.   It became a tradition for candles to be blessed at the celebration of this feast and for people to take them from the church to their homes.  Candle-light processions also became a hallmark of this celebration.  The blessed candles served as a reminder, each time they were lit, of Christ as the light who enlightens the minds and hearts of those who commit themselves to him.

The candles also serve as a baptismal reminder.  It is common practice in many churches for the godparents of the newly baptized to be presented with a candle representing the light of Christ.  And, indeed, the most ancient term for baptism in the Christian tradition is “illumination.”   Christ is the One who brings God’s light into the world; that light is given to each Christian in baptism; and the traditional Candlemas blessing serves to remind us that we are bearers of that light.

And so the Feast of the Presentation give us an opportunity to reflect on our own vocations as keepers of the light of Christ.  Are we aware of that light within us?  If so, do we keep that light hidden, as simply a private illumination that is disconnected from our outer life?  Or do we allow that light to be seen by others, as it informs our words and actions?  If Christ was a bearer of God’s light, then we are surely meant to be bearers of that light in our own time and place.  For, as St. Theresa of Avila reminds us,

Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.

And Christ has no light in this world, either, but ours.