Trinity and Ubuntu

One of the sayings in our country is Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity. We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole World. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.  — Archbishop Desmond Tutu

In western culture, there has long been a tendency to exult the individual.  We value individuality, and we think it important to help people to grow into individuated individuals.  A positive aspect of this tendency is that it enables us to value uniqueness, and to affirm that each person, in and of him-/herself, is a being worthy of love and respect.  The fact that we value individuality positions us to be able to value individuals.  And, that’s certainly a good thing.  But there is a downside to this exultation of the individual:  that we lost sight of the importance of community, of our connection to other human beings.  We can, indeed, end up promoting a selfish sort of “me, first” ethic that allows each individual to dwell at the center of his or her own universe, and then these universes easily begin to collide with one another.

Desmond Tutu’s quote with which I began shares a piece of African wisdom encapsulated in the word, “ubuntu”.  It is difficult to translate, but as Archbishop Tutu points out, “ubuntu” seeks to point us to the truth that no person ever becomes a person in isolation.  We become people through other people – we become human by being a part of a human community.  Even when we pride ourselves on our individualism, even when we think of ourselves as self-reliant, we remain dependent on the larger human community for so much.   We are, in essence, relational beings, born out of relationship, developed through relationship, and dwelling always in a network of relationship.

This Sunday is, among western Christians, known traditionally as Trinity Sunday.  It always comes on the Sunday right after Pentecost, and is a somewhat odd celebration in that it is perhaps the only “feast” on the Christian calendar that celebrates a doctrine:  the doctrine of God as Trinity.  It is a doctrine that has been called Christianity’s most unique contribution to the human notion of God:  that God is both singular and plural all at the same time.

Preachers often groan at the thought of having to say something intelligent on Trinity Sunday, since doctrinal discussions have a tendency to put most people into a stupor.  But I think much of the “problem” preachers have with Trinity Sunday is a function of living in a too literal culture.  Having lost an appreciation for the truth of poetry and metaphor, we tend to look at things like the Trinity and assume that we have to explain it.  Yet the Trinity is not meant to be an explanation.  Rather, it is meant to point us to a profound truth.

Just as the word “ubuntu” is difficult to translate, so is the Trinity.  And yet, like “ubuntu”, the Trinity points us to the mystery of a God whom Christians apprehend as having a communal quality.  The doctrine of the Trinity does not seek to explain God so much as it serves to declare that, in some mysterious way, the very being of God is rooted in a communion of love.  God’s very being is, somehow, an eternal, everlasting, unending embrace.  In other words, God is relationship.

We will never understand that intellectually.  However, we can understand it emotionally, psychologically, and in the heart.  For we know ourselves to also be relationship, to be “ubuntu”.  The Judeo-Christian tradition declares that we are made in the image of God, meaning that we are made in the image of relationship.  If we think about this, we might recognize how profoundly meaningful that truth is.  We are each one, a unique person, an individual.  But we are also not simply one – we are who we are because we are caught up from the moment of our birth in a web of relationships with other people and with God.

So, whether you will be a preacher or a listener this Sunday, don’t dread the Trinity.  And don’t try to explain it.  Rather, recognize the Trinity as a platform for diving deeply into the mystery of being, both human and divine.  We are one and many at the same time.  We are relationship.  We are always embracing and being embraced.  It is what makes us who we are.

Elephants & the Spirit

Recently, I read an article about the death of Lawrence Anthony earlier this Spring in South Africa.  Mr. Anthony became known as the Elephant Whisperer after he spent time living with a group of “rogue elephants” on a large wildlife preserve in South Africa.  The elephants, it seems, had become a bit too wild and were seen increasingly as threatening, and people had begun to suggest that if things didn’t change, the elephants would need to be destroyed.  So Mr. Anthony set out to save them by living with them.  As his relationship with the elephants deepened, they apparently changed their ways so that they were no longer seen as a threat.  And so, the herd was saved.

Mr. Anthony eventually took up residence in a house within the vast reserve, and there he died this Spring.  The elephants with whom he had lived, and some of their descendants, were far from the house in which he died.  In fact, he apparently hadn’t had any contact with them for some time.   But, within a few days of his death, the elephants began to arrive at his house from the far corners of the reserve.  They gathered at this house, and there they remained for a few days.  Then, just as suddenly as they had arrived, they departed – apparently having completed their vigil for the man they had come to know.

The question, of course, is obvious:  how did the elephants know he had died?

Clearly, some connection had been established between the elephants and Mr. Anthony, a connection that remained even though Mr. Anthony and the elephants were no longer living together.   A connection that was maintained despite the distance that separated man and elephants in that great wildlife park.  We might call it by many names, we might develop a number of theories to explain it.  For me, there is really only one label that works to describe this connection:  spiritual.  Mr. Anthony and the elephants had developed a spiritual connection, and the elephants sensed his departure from this world.

This coming Sunday, most of the Christian world will celebrate Pentecost.  It is a celebration of the Spirit, given to the church as a gift.  It is really a celebration of connection between us and God, and among us as the followers of  Christ.  The story of the elephants and Mr. Anthony reminds us, as we prepare for this Pentecost celebration, that while the Spirit may indeed have been given to the Christian community in a unique way, the Spirit is not ours to possess.  As Jesus reminds us, the Spirit blows where it will.  Even among elephants.

And so as we celebrate the Spirit’s giving birth to the church as the animating energy of the Christian community, we should remember that this same energy animates all of life, all of creation, creating among us and between us a profound connection.  We often lose sight of that vast web of connection, conceiving of it in far too small or exclusive a way.  The elephants, and all creation, would teach us, if we are willing to learn, that this sacred web of connection encompasses all life.  The Spirit blows everywhere, and to truly appreciate this should not diminish our sense of specialness, but rather should increase our awe and amazement.

The true gift of the Spirit is perhaps the privilege that we get to be a part of something so vast and so deep.  If the elephants can appreciate this, we surely should, as well.

Filling All Things

This week, Christians celebrate Ascension Day.  One might think of it as a transitional sort of celebration.  Based on stories found at the end of Luke’s Gospel and the beginning of the Book of Acts, which speak of Jesus as withdrawing from the disciples into heaven (in Luke) or being lifted into the sky and then disappearing into a cloud (in Acts), Ascension marks the end of the appearances of the Risen Christ to his followers.  As such, it is a transition between a faith that was sustained by personal encounter with Christ to a faith that is sustained by a remembrance of Christ in word, sacrament, and community, and rooted in Spirit.

For me, the essential meaning of Ascension Day is expressed in this line from the Book of Common Prayer’s Collect (or prayer) for Ascension Day:  “Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things”.    This line of the prayer highlights Ascension Day not only as a transition point in the faith of the Christian community, but also as a profound act of giving Christ away.  I think it is common to think of the Ascension as the personal presence of Christ somehow being taken away, but the story becomes much more powerful to me when I think of it as a story about the church, the community of Jesus’ followers, giving Christ away, letting go of the personal Jesus so that the cosmic Christ might be given to the world, to the universe, to “fill all things”.  Indeed, it is not only a giving away but also a giving back.  For in Christ, the cosmic, the transcendent, the eternal became briefly present and manifest in a human life so that we might know ourselves beloved by God.  In the Ascension, that which became flesh in Jesus is returned to the cosmos.  And yet, in the Spirit, our relationship with God in Christ continues.

I also deeply appreciate the phrase, “ascended far above all heavens”.   This phrase presents us with a large image that shatters our imaginations.  It says to us that this return of Christ to the cosmos goes beyond any notion we might have of “heaven”.   Christ goes far beyond “all heavens” that we might invent, including those heavens in which we delight because we imagine them to have rather exclusive memberships.  As Jesus challenged the religious ideas and categories of his time in profound ways, so the living Christ continues to challenge our ideas and categories by moving far beyond them and beckoning us to follow.

And so Ascension Day reminds me that so much of what I think I know, so many of my certainties, are really quite provisional.  Christ is far bigger than my imagination, far bigger than the limits of my own thinking and understanding.  That is not to say that Christ is unknowable, because if that were the case, then no relationship with Christ through the Spirit would be possible.  It is a reminder, however, that within the confines of my human life, Christ can only be known in part.  God can only be known in part.  And if I imagine myself to know Christ fully, if I imagine that I have figured God out, then I will have adopted a conceit that can only lead to disaster.

At the end of the Ascension story in the Book of Acts, the disciples are left standing, looking up into the sky where Jesus is no more to be seen.  They are no doubt left standing in wonder, faced with a mystery that they cannot entirely solve.  Two men dressed in white are said to have shaken them from their wondering by asking why they are staring up into the sky.  Their work, their lives, are in the world, among the human family, to whom they must now bring the message of the Gospel.  Yet the wondering will always be there, their curiosity about the mystery will never fully disappear.  And that is as it should be.  For  a healthy faith always includes a dimension of wonder and an appreciation for mystery. Ascension Day affords us an opportunity to wonder at the mystery of the Christ who shatters all of our imagined heavens in order to fill all things.


Wisdom of the Young

Speaker and blogger Rachel Held Evans writes the following:

When asked by The Barna Group what words or phrases best describe Christianity, the top response among Americans ages 16-29 was “antihomosexual.” For a staggering 91 percent of non-Christians, this was the first word that came to their mind when asked about the Christian faith. The same was true for 80 percent of young churchgoers. (The next most common negative images? : “judgmental,” “hypocritical,” and “too involved in politics.”)

In the book that documents these findings, titled unChristian, David Kinnaman writes:

“The gay issue has become the ‘big one, the negative image most likely to be intertwined with Christianity’s reputation. It is also the dimensions that most clearly demonstrates the unchristian faith to young people today, surfacing in a spate of negative perceptions: judgmental, bigoted, sheltered, right-wingers, hypocritical, insincere, and uncaring. Outsiders say [Christian] hostility toward gays…has become virtually synonymous with the Christian faith.”   Click HERE for Ms. Evans’ blog article

It is difficult for me to describe how heart-breaking these facts are for me.  I have spent my whole life deeply involved with the Christian community, first with the United Church of Christ and then The Episcopal Church.   The Christianity with which I grew up was not any of the terms that have now become descriptors of the faith in the minds of most people: “anti-gay, judgmental, bigoted, sheltered, right-wingers, hypocritical, insincere, and uncaring.”  The faith which nurtured me, and which I, in turn, have tried to nurture in others, is something else completely.  And yet most people seem unaware that one can be Christian and support gay people and their rights.  Most people seem unaware that following Jesus doesn’t require you to judge others, to be bigoted, to live within a sheltered world closed off to the insights of science or other disciplines.  Christians don’t have to be right-wingers, and insincerity and lack of care and compassion do not mark out who we are.  I suppose all of us are hypocritical from time to time, but we don’t aspire to be.

There is much discussion these days about the decline of the churches and the many reasons for it.  But as the findings of this recent study make clear, part of the reason is that Christianity is increasingly known by its most conservative, most reactionary examples.  Those of us who hold a different sort of Christian faith must work harder to make that alternative known.  Rather than keeping our lights under bushels, we must take them to places where they can be seen by others.   We cannot allow the Gospel of Christ to be seen as the very opposite of the love which it proclaims.   We must embody that love and proclaim it to a world which increasingly suspects that Christianity is more problem than solution, that it has nothing to offer the world except venom.

The ancient Rule of St. Benedict, which came to inspire the lives of most Western Christian monastic communities, contains a great deal of wisdom.  One nugget is this:  “the Spirit often reveals what is better to the younger” (Rule, Chapter 3).  That younger Christians perceive that the preoccupations and viewpoints of so many of their older brothers and sisters in the faith are unfair, ungenerous, and, well, unchristian toward gays, lesbians, and others is something that should indeed be listened to.  For among the young who still wish to take Christianity seriously as a spiritual path, I think the Spirit is revealing something better.  I think the Spirit is seeking to call us back to the compassionate heart of the Gospel in which the world’s marginalized are God’s beloved; in which stoning of those we like to define as ‘sinners’ was annulled; in which people are to love others as they themselves would wish to be loved.

People are forgetting, and young people are not learning, that while some Christian people and churches have indeed stood in the way of social transformation, other Christians and churches have been active agents of change.  The civil rights movement in this country was, in many ways, a religious movement, and most if not all of its leading figures were religious, and most of them Christian.  That is a glorious heritage which we who seek social transformation in our own time should not forget.

It is time to stop using Christianity to hurt others; it is time for us to stop sitting idly by while others use Christianity to inflict pain; it is time for us to insist on the proclamation of God in Christ as the One who seeks not to hurt, but to heal.  It is time for us to insist that there is no truth to any sentence that begins with the words, “God hates…..”

Truly Christian Morality

Societies, organizations, institutions, and human constructs of all kinds run on rules. In some cases, the rules can be quite extensive and elaborate. In others, the rules might be simple and brief. Rules provide definition, helping people to know what’s okay in certain settings and situations and what’s not. Often, people appreciate this clarity. Sometimes, especially when situations arise that don’t quite seem to fit what the rules imagined, people find the rules unhelpful, pointing out that sometimes, things just aren’t “black and white”.

When it comes to Christian morality, it seems that a rules based approach has tended to carry the day. The Ten Commandments have been big in Christian circles, though Jesus’s restatement and commentary on them in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount have tended to get overlooked a lot. Churches have created their own rules about what’s right and wrong, based on their own particular harvesting of what they think is most important in the Bible. Certainly, Christians in different churches – and in the same church! – argue with each other about what the rules of morality should be. Seldom, however, does one seem to hear anyone argue that perhaps there shouldn’t really be any rules at all. After all, that would surely be a recipe for chaos.

Yet, I would argue that the highest biblical vision with respect to having a moral compass is not an ideal set of rules but rather a transcendence of rules all together. Consider, for example, this passage from Jeremiah:

But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, ‘Know the Lord’, for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more. (Jeremiah 31:33-35)

This passage speaks beautifully of a movement from an outward observance of rules to an inward orientation of the heart toward God, from a covenant articulated by written law to a covenant based on relational intimacy with the divine. The passage even seems to suggest that this covenant of the heart brings an end to the divine remembrance of sin, ultimately rooted in the breaking of rules.

St. Paul speaks at length of a shift from a morality rooted in law to one founded on grace:

In the same way, my friends, you have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead in order that we may bear fruit for God. While we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are discharged from the law, dead to that which held us captive, so that we are slaves not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit. (Romans 7:4-6)

This is just one small part of a long, complex passage detailing Paul’s understanding of the relationship between law and grace, and Paul is certainly not above telling people what they should and should not be doing. But at his best, Paul seems to commit himself deeply to the idea that, for followers of Jesus, morality emerges not from a law code or set of rules, but from a deep relationship with Christ.

Jesus himself promised in the Gospels (such as Matthew 5:17) that he had not come to abolish the law (he felt the need to point this out, since he was so often violating the rules of the ancient Jewish code), but rather, to fulfill it. For Jesus, however, fulfillment of the law did not involve an obedience to rules but rather a commitment of love: a love of God that involved the whole of one’s energies, and a love of neighbor that was rooted in the way in which we would want ourselves to be shown love by others (Luke 10:27, Matthew 22:37, amplifying Deuteronomy 6:5).

These are but three examples – from the Hebrew Bible and from Christian texts – that point toward this idea, present in a certain strand of biblical thought, that our moral compass is meant to be found within us, emerging out of the depths of our intimacy with the divine. It is a vision that both transcends written rules and the dynamic of offense/punishment that written codes inevitably produce.

Of course, it will be immediately pointed out that human beings have not arrived at the depth of intimacy with God that this vision contemplates, and that in the absence of rules, chaos would reign in society, and institutions would be cast into disarray. And that is undoubtedly the case. However, that does not mean that we then have permission to take this vision lightly, or to fail to recognize its implications.

It seems to me that one such implication is a recognition of the limits of rules and law. Many if not most people have probably experienced those moments when a given situation did not seem to fit the rules. The offering of this vision of a movement beyond law suggests to me that when we find ourselves in those “pinched” moments when things indeed can’t be easily boiled down to a “black and white” resolution, we should not force the matter. Rather, we should set aside the rules, if only momentarily, so that we might see the genuine humanity of the situation and allow ourselves to respond out of a heart-felt place of grace.

Another implication is that Christian communities should recognize that following the path of rules and regulations is never the preferred way for followers of Jesus, but is always a second best option. It seems today that Christians are frequently associated with inflexible rule-making, insisting that morality must be clear, seeking to define exactly what is right and what is wrong so that there can be no room for error. Such an approach may comfort us, but it is not the approach of Jesus, who was so often directing his energy toward those whom the rules of his society put down. As Christians, our first instinct should not be to make rules and enforce them, but rather to seek the intersection between our humanity and God’s love and find the most grace-filled resolution to a moral dilemma that we can. It may indeed be true that we have not achieved the kind of intimacy with God that would enable us to live fully into this vision of grace over law, but we cannot forget that Paul speaks of this as something that has already happened in Christ, not as some distant goal to be hoped for.

As Paul discovered, true human transformation in a God-ward direction can never be accomplished through an imposed external obedience. Rather, it can only be accomplished through a movement of grace in the heart.