Made Flesh

b201295025The Christmas season celebrates, of course, the incarnation or “enfleshment” of God in the person of Jesus. As the passage from the beginning of John’s Gospel appointed for this Sunday puts it, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Western Christianity has tended to interpret the incarnation of God in Christ as God’s response to human sin. Eastern Christianity has tended to interpret the incarnation as an overflowing of God’s great love for us, something what would have happened regardless of the state of humanity. Either way, we Christians maintain that in Jesus, God came among us and shared our humanity.

We often don’t think about the other side of this truth: that if God inhabited the human space of Christ, so we human beings have the potential to inhabit the divine space. As St. Athanasius put it many centuries ago, “God became man that man might become god.” Two mystics of old, Meister Eckhart and Theresa of Avila, each expressed this truth in their own ways. As we continue to celebrate Emmanuel, “God with us”, I offer their thoughts:

What good is it to me
If Mary gave birth to the Son of God
fourteen hundred years ago, and I do not
also give birth to the Son of God
in my time and in my culture?

We are meant to be mothers of God.
— Meister Eckhart (1260-1329)

Christ Has No Body

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.
— Theresa of Avila (1515-1582)

The Real Crisis

Sydney-grief-counselling-how-to-deal-with-the-loss-of-a-partner..Put your sword back into its place; all who take the sword will perish by the sword

Matthew 26:52b

For years now, various right-wing religious types have been lecturing Americans about the moral dangers that are threatening to undermine our society.   The dangers they point to basically boil down to sex and abortion.  For years, they have been telling us that sex outside of marriage — particularly among gay people — somehow threatens the very foundation of American society.   Abortion, they insist, is similarly threatening.  And whenever anything terrible happens – including, tragically, the horror that unfolded last Friday in Newtown, Connecticut – certain representatives of this point of view insist on connecting it somehow to these same two issues.   To hear them tell it, forcing gay people into the closet and outlawing abortion would somehow result in a perfect society where nothing bad would ever happen.

What these same would-be arbiters of morality never seem to talk about is the real crisis in American society, the thing that is truly threatening to increasing numbers of people:  the crisis of violence.  According to one report, in 2012 there at least 16 incidents in the United States classified as mass murders involving a gunman who unexpectedly shows up and kills people.

  • February 22  – five people were killed in Norcross, Georgia, when a man got into an argument and opened fire inside a health spa.
  • February 26 – one person killed, 20 others injured when multiple gunmen opened fire in a Jackson, Tennessee, nightclub
  • February 27 – three students killed at Chardon High School in rural Ohio when a classmate opened fire
  • March 8 – two people killed, seven wounded at a psychiatric hospital in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, when a gunman entered the hospital with two semiautomatic handguns
  • March 31 – two people killed, 12 injured when a gunman opened fire at a funeral in a North Miami, Florida, funeral home
  • April 2 – seven people killed, three wounded by a former student at Oikos University in Oakland, California
  • April 6 – three died, two wounded by two men who started randomly shooting black men in Tulsa, Oklahoma
  • May 29 – six people died (including the gunman) at a Seattle, Washington, coffee shop
  • July 9 – three people killed, including a 16 year old, at a soccer tournament in Wilmington, Delaware
  • July 20 – 12 people killed, 58 wounded at a midnight movie screening in Aurora, Colorado
  • August 5 – seven people killed, including the gunman, at a Sikh temple in suburban Milwaukee, Wisconsin
  • August 14 – three people killed at Texas A&M University by a rampaging gunman on campus
  • September 27 – five people shot, three wounded,  at a sign company in Minneapolis, Minnesota by a laid off former employee
  • October 21 – three women killed, four others injured at a spa in Brookfield, Wisconsin
  • December 11 – three people killed, including the gunman, in a “random” shooting incident at a mall near Portland, Oregon
  • December 14 – 28 people killed in Newtown, Connecticut, at Sandy Hook Elementary School

It is long past time for Americans to stop worrying about who is having sex with whom, about who is marrying whom, and about what healthcare decisions women are making for themselves.  These are not things that endanger American life.  We need instead to turn our attention to the very real anger problem we have in this country, and the violence that is ending lives and tearing apart families and communities.

From a Christian point of view, Jesus had nothing to say about gay people or abortion.  He did, however, have a lot to say about violence, about the danger of allowing anger to build within us.  He also had a lot to say about our obligations to take care of each other – and he spent a lot of his time healing people who clearly suffered from what we would now understand as mental illness.

Yet, Christians who are given a public forum rarely talk about these things.

It is deeply troubling to me that many of these same people, when the subject of what to do about guns or ammunition arises, have as their first reaction the defense of their personal right to bear arms.  I don’t think this would have been Jesus’ first reaction.  I think his first reaction would have been a concern for others’ rights – like the right to live in peace, without fear of becoming the victim of random violence.

It is also troubling to me that many of the solutions offered involve arming our teachers or posting armed soldiers at all of our schools.  Is this really the kind of society we want to live in?

These are complex issues, and I don’t mean to imply that they are easily addressed.  But we can no longer ignore them.  No other country in the world (except in places of war) experiences this level of violence.  America, we have a problem – a problem that is literally killing our children and something must be done.

Meet God in Your Pantry

2223044823_03405d8ab8In chapter 6 of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus gives some advice on how we should pray:

And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others.  Truly I tell you, they have received their reward.  But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

I was recently reminded by the theologian James Alison that what we normally think of when we read Jesus’ advice is quite different from what Jesus would have had in mind.  When we are told that we should “go into our room and shut the door” to pray, we almost certainly imagine our bedrooms.  But the houses in Jesus’ world didn’t have bedrooms.  The average house of his time would, in fact, have had only one enclosed interior room.  It would have been in the center of the house, and would have had no windows.  In fact, it would have been the equivalent of the pantry!  Its location would have provided a space with as little temperature variation as possible in their climate for storing food.  And if one went inside it to pray, with the door closed, it would have been a completely dark and quiet place.  Just enough room for a person to encounter God out of sight of anyone else.

James Alison suggests that the reason Jesus gives this advice about prayer is to encourage us to open ourselves to God as authentically as possible.   Jesus’ criticism of those who pray so that “they may be seen by others” is about what motivates them:  they are praying not in a way that makes them vulnerable to God’s grace, they are not bringing their authentic self before God.  Rather, they are praying in order to receive public approval.   And of such people Jesus says, “they have received their reward.”  They desired to be seen and approved of by others, and that is precisely the reward they got.

But prayer is not about seeking approval from others.  It is about opening ourselves to God.  And when we withdraw to a place where there is no possibility of being seen by others, we are withdrawing from our desire to be approved of by others.  We are potentially in a place where we are able to let our guard down, and “be real” in the presence of God.

Interestingly, in the very next passage, Jesus gives some advice to us about praying while we are in that secret, private place:

When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words.

If the danger of praying in public is that we are primarily interested in being seen by others so as to be approved of by them, the danger of praying in private is that we will delude ourselves into thinking that we somehow need to impress God, and so “heap up empty phrases” as if to convince God that we really do know how to pray.  Just as our desire for public approval can get in the way of our authenticity, so the heaping up of words in our prayer can get in the way of our authenticity.  The words themselves can become like a wall between us and God.   The intention of all those words may be motivated by a desire to get God’s approval.  The truth, however, is that we already have God’s approval because we are loved – and have been loved since the moment we came into being.

So, in the end, all this teaching about prayer is really about being authentic and vulnerable in the presence of God.  Whatever gets in the way of that needs to be let go, so that we can encounter God as the people we truly are, and thus be open to the transforming power of God’s love.

Opportunities

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So I’m sitting at the airport in Houston, having just learned that my flight home to San Francisco has been delayed two hours. What is a person to do?

Initially, of course, one is tempted to be irked, irritated, and otherwise unhappy. One is also tempted to blame someone for this suddenly announced inefficiency in the air traffic system. That is, in fact, the way many people do react, and the poor airline employees bear the brunt of it.

A part of me is tempted to react this way and, indeed, a part of me begins to do so. But the process of getting ticked off is interrupted by a small suggestion from somewhere within: there’s no need to be upset. This is an opportunity — an opportunity for spiritual practice.

An opportunity to breathe deeply, and be reminded by your breath of the Spirit within. An opportunity to recognize what can’t be controlled and surrender the desire to do so. An opportunity to find compassion for harried airline employees.

I’m grateful for that voice within that short-circuits my temptation to react by calling me out of reaction and into response.