Thanks Maya Angelou

052814_an_angelouread2_640I first encountered Maya Angelou in college, when we were assigned I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as one of our readings.  Reading that book was an amazing experience, and I have been an admirer of her work ever since.  Her’s was a rare and wonderful voice, speaking truth with clarity and compassion.  I offer her poem Touched by an Angel on the blog this week, in thanksgiving for her — an angel in her own right who touched so many of us.

We, unaccustomed to courage
exiles from delight
live coiled in shells of loneliness
until love leaves its high holy temple
and comes into our sight
to liberate us into life.

Love arrives
and in its train come ecstasies
old memories of pleasure
ancient histories of pain.
Yet if we are bold,
love strikes away the chains of fear
from our souls.

We are weaned from our timidity
In the flush of love’s light
we dare be brave
And suddenly we see
that love costs all we are
and will ever be.
Yet it is only love
which sets us free.

— Maya Angelou

Intelligent Religion

ignoranceProbably since the very beginning of American life, there has been something of an anti-intellectual streak running through our culture.  There has long been a distrust of people who are considered experts in any particular field, and a  kind of suspicion of the highly educated.  The heroes of American culture are almost never people with advanced degrees.   America has a bit of a love affair with the idea of the “common” person and the “self-made” man, and we have a tendency to think that the average Joe or Jane really knows just as much about things as someone who has studied them for years academically.

On the one hand, there is something attractive in this.  It is connected to the idea of America as a land of opportunity, in which anyone can make something of themselves regardless of education or background.  Of course, it’s never as simple as all that, but I have heard a number of people from foreign places affirm that this country allows for a mobility that their places of origin did not — and so there is, I think, something to it.

On the other hand, the anti-intellectualism that dominates American culture has created a great deal of havoc, as people and institutions, including governmental and religious institutions, put themselves in a place of denial about dangers that experts in various fields seek to point out with absolute clarity but which are frightening or unsettling.   The ability to occupy that space of denial is enabled in large part by a deep conviction that experts in any given field don’t really know what they are talking about, and their opinion shouldn’t really carry any greater weight than anyone else’s.

I am particularly aware of this, of course, in the area of religion.   At one time, in the Western world, Christianity helped to preserve the intellectual heritage of earlier generations.  The most educated people in society were quite often to be found in various ecclesiastical offices.  And while doctrinal commitments sometimes were allowed to trump studiously arrived at conclusions, particularly in the areas of biology and cosmology, on the whole these were the exceptions rather than the rule.

Today, however, religion in general — and Christianity in particular — has an increasing reputation of being the bastion of anti-intellectualism.  Large numbers of Christians believe that their literal reading of the Bible trumps studied scientific conclusions.  Many people have erected a wall between science and religion, seeing them as enemies that offer competing truths.   Some Christians go so far as to home school their children in order to prevent them from being taught anything that disagrees with their parents’ interpretation of the Bible and their faith.  Materials produced for these people, and for many “Christian” schools, even go so far as rewriting American history so that the founders of the country are depicted as understanding Christianity in the same way that modern evangelicals understand it.

We sometimes fail to realize that this is a relatively new development.  There is nothing inherent in Christianity that is opposed to intellectual inquiry, nothing inherent in Christianity that pits religious truth against complementary truths discovered in other fields.  The fact that so many Americans don’t experience Christianity in this way is testament to the degree to which the anti-intellectual bias of American culture has insinuated itself into our religious life.

Of course, there are many Christians who don’t subscribe to this anti-intellectual version of our faith.  There are plenty of faithful people out there who don’t see any opposition between science and religion, understanding that (at a basic level) science is about discovering the way things work and religion is about meaning.  In terms of biology and cosmology — the two places where science and Christianity most frequently are made to clash in our culture — science is able to tell us about the “how” of creation, while the religious traditions are interested in the “why” of creation.

There is such a thing as intelligent religion.  Faith can and should be informed by other fields of human endeavor and inquiry — that is one of the ways that faith is deepened and matured.   Too often in our culture we carry with us this idea that faith means to believe something regardless or despite any information to the contrary.  Such a view would say that we should cling to the idea that the earth is flat, even though we know that is not the case.  But faith is not meant to be a belief system that ignores everything else.  Rather, faith is meant to be a path for integrating all that we know into a meaningful whole.  Sometimes, that integration can be challenging, to be sure.  But that challenge is part and parcel of the journey of faith, and is, for me, part of what makes life exciting and wonder-filled.

Donald Sterling and Forgiveness

BasketballUnless you’ve been living in a cave or in some state of disconnection from all forms of media, you’re probably aware of the controversy that has surrounded Donald Sterling, the owner of the LA Clippers basketball team.   That controversy began when Sterling was secretly recorded making racist remarks — and this from an owner of a mostly black professional basketball team, part of a league that is dominated by African-American players.  The response of the NBA was relatively swift:  Sterling was banned from the game for life.  The league seems now to be trying to figure out how to separate the owner from his team.   Players and fans alike seem to agree that Sterling has no place in the game of basketball.

Recently, Sterling had an interview with Anderson Cooper in which, by trying to make things better, he seems to have made things worse by making negative comments about Magic Johnson — comments that also seemed tinged with a racist overtone.   Nevertheless, Sterling also in that interview admitted that he had made a mistake, and asked for forgiveness.

It is that request for forgiveness that interests me.  I wonder what you make of it?  Would you be inclined to grant him his request?

The reality of American culture seems to me inclined to withhold that forgiveness.  As a society, we’re not really big on the whole forgiveness thing.  Witness the many zero tolerance policies in place in many of our institutions:  one slip, and you’re done.  And, generally, when a public figure makes a mistake, the public seems inclined to hold that mistake against the person forevermore — or at least for a long time.   Forgiveness is just not something Americans tend to value, perhaps because it isn’t as interesting as perpetuating a public scandal by occupying a place of righteous indignation.

Yet, this is not the way of Jesus.  For those of us who would be his followers, we have a heavy obligation of forgiveness to bear.

Then Peter came and said to him, ‘Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.’  (Matthew 18:21-22)

And Jesus certainly lived this ideal of forgiveness out in his own life.  The Gospels tell us of countless episodes in which Jesus encounters someone considered famously sinful — perhaps an ancient Palestine version of today’s public scandals — who finds forgiveness and new life with Jesus over against the condemnation of her or his society.   Indeed, immediately after the verses quoted above, Jesus tells a story about an unforgiving servant who owned a substantial debt to his master.  He pleaded with the master to forgive the debt and, moved with compassion, the master did so.  No sooner does the servant receive this forgiveness then he goes and demands payment of a much smaller debt owed by one of his fellow slaves.  Rather than emulating his master and forgiving the debt, this slave has his colleague put in prison until the debt is paid.   This failure of compassion comes back upon the slave, for after his master hears of his actions, he withdraws his forgiveness of the debt and puts the slave in prison.

The story is meant to establish a strong connection between our extension of forgiveness to others and our reception of forgiveness from others.  Jesus describes what appears as almost a kind of karmic dynamic, in which the forgiveness of God is made dependent upon our willingness to forgive.  This principle is even enshrined in the Lord’s Prayer:  “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”  I am not sure that God deliberately withholds forgiveness to the unforgiving, but perhaps the unforgiving are unable to recognize and receive the forgiveness offered to them because a heart that is unable to forgive is also unable to receive.

We should remember, however, that forgiveness does not always involve a resetting of relationship, and it most certainly does not involve a forgetting of that which elicited the forgiveness in the first place.  To forgive Donald Sterling, as he has requested, does not mean that his racism is forgotten, nor that the NBA should reverse its decision regarding his role in the game of professional basketball.  But to forgive him does require us to let go of our emotional hold on him; it requires that we leave that emotional place of righteous indignation and anger, and allow not only him to go on with his life, but to allow ourselves to do so, too.

Of course, we may not wish to forgive him.   We often find the place of righteous indignation to be a rather comfortable spot.  But for those of us who are followers of Jesus, we are not allowed to ignore a request for forgiveness.  Jesus’s answer to Peter, and the whole tone of Jesus’s life, clearly requires us to wrestle with the request, until we get to the place where we are able to give the forgiveness requested, as much for ourselves and our own health as for the one being forgiven.  Sometimes, reaching this place takes time and hard work.  Yet, that journey toward forgiveness is not one we can opt out of.

On the Road

road-to-emmausIn many churches this coming Sunday, people will hear the story from Luke’s Gospel about two disciples encountering the Risen Christ on the road to Emmaus.   You may well know the story. Two men, one of whom is named Cleopas, who are said to be followers of Jesus are returning home to Emmaus, when they encounter a man who wonders why they seem sad. The two companions find it incredible that this stranger cannot have heard what happened to Jesus, and so proceed to tell him. The stranger, in turn, cannot believe that these men did not understand the events they described, and so, in Luke’s words, he “opens the scriptures” to them, interpreting for them in light of their experience of Christ.   They end up at Emmaus, and the men invite the stranger to dine with them. The stranger offers the traditional Jewish blessing of the bread, and immediately the companions recognize the stranger as Jesus, who then immediately “disappears out of their sight”.

I have always enjoyed this story, offered to us only by Luke. But it was the theologian James Alison (yes, him again!) who helped me to appreciate this story even more.

Alison points to the fact that Cleopas’ companion is not named, and suggests that this anonymity is perhaps not by accident. He suggests that Luke intends the reader or hearer of this story to put him- or herself in the place of the unnamed companion – a way of inviting every person who engages this story into it intimately.

Further, Alison points out that Emmaus is a rather hazy geographic reference. There are several locations in the Holy Land that claim to be this town, and none can be identified with any degree of certainty to be the Emmaus of this story. Alison suggests that Emmaus may not have been an actual place at all, but rather is an example of Luke engaging in a bit of “theological geography”, creating the place name of Emmaus as a kind of stand-in that means “any place”.

When we put these two observations together, the road to Emmaus becomes, for Alison, a story that invites every reader of the story of every place and time into its heart.

And what do we find at the heart of the story? I think that readers today might be tempted to find the heart of the story at its end, when the Risen Christ blesses the bread, is revealed, and then disappears.   But Alison suggests the heart of this story is earlier, in the middle, where we are told that Jesus opens the scriptures for Cleopas and his friend, interpreting them in light of what they have experienced in Christ.   Alison finds in this an instruction to every follower of Jesus who accepts the invitation to be drawn into this story: that as followers of Jesus, we are to read and understand the scriptures through the eyes of the Risen Christ.   He becomes the key to understanding the Bible, and the God to whom it points, in a new way.

If this is the heart of the story, then the aspect of the story that tends to most draw our eye – the blessing, revealing, and disappearing that lies near its end – points, I think, to how we are able to look at scripture through the eyes of Jesus: and that is by cultivating a relationship with the Risen Christ, and part of cultivating that relationship is participation in the Eucharist – to which the blessing of the bread in the story clearly points.

And so this Sunday we receive a double invitation: the invitation of the Gospel story into a transformation of our reading and understanding of sacred text through the eyes of Christ, and the invitation of the altar to the Eucharist, by means of which we are helped to acquire the eyes of Christ.