Pilgrim’s Progress

Santiago de Compostela Cathedral in Spain tourism destinationsOn Monday (June 30), I will be setting out with 8 other people (6 youth and 2 adults) for Sarria, Spain, where on July 2 we will begin to walk the last 100 kilometers (62 miles) of the Camino to Santiago de Compostela, an ancient pilgrimage path that ends at the cathedral in Santiago, where the remains of St. James the apostle are said to reside.  It’s an exciting challenge in many ways, and it’s amazing to think about how many people have walked this path over the centuries.   The walk will be a time of intentional community, intentional spiritual practice, and a more minimal technological connection to the wider world.  I’m excited to see what will unfold for us as we walk the path, what new internal and external connections the Spirit will bring to us.  Please keep us in prayer as walk — we will reach Santiago on July 7.   Here is an ancient pilgrimage prayer associated with the Camino:

O God, who brought your servant Abraham out of the land of the Chaldeans, protecting him in his wanderings; who guided the Hebrew people across the desert; we ask that you watch over us, your servants, as we walk in the love of your name to Santiago de Compostela.

Be for us our companion on the walk,
Our guide at the crossroads,
Our breath in our weariness,
Our protection in danger,
Our shelter on the Camino,
Our shade in the heat,
Our light in the darkness,
Our consolation in our discouragements,
And our strength in our intentions.

So that, with your guidance, we may arrive safe and sound at the end of the Road and, enriched with grace and virtue, return safely to our homes filled with joy. In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The Power of Story

Whats-Your-StoryOne of the things that the world’s religious traditions attest to is the degree to which human life is constituted by stories, by narrative.   After all, the sacred texts of the world’s religions are comprised primarily of stories that are designed to connect human lives to meaning, and to the source of that meaning.  The stories are offered so that they might interact with our personal stories, offering not only deeper meaning but also the opportunity for our personal narratives to be transformed through the power of sacred narrative.  In the absence of narrative, our lives have no meaning — indeed, they cannot even be understood.

Think about it for a moment.  You carry with you a narrative about your own life.  You began to construct this narrative as a child, once you acquired language, and initially, much of that narrative was offered to you through the shared stories of your family, your culture, your community, and, yes, your religion, if you grew up with one.   As your life has moved forward, this narrative has been continuously revised in light of your life experience.  Embedded in this narrative is the way you see yourself, how you understand your connection to other people and the larger world, and the frame of reference through which you understand the world around you.  When you meet someone for the first time, you and this new person, as you get to know one another, will exchange stories about your lives; you will offer each other your narratives, and through that exchange, you will come to know certain facts about each other, but you will also come to know something about how each of you interprets your lives, how each of you sees and interprets the world in light of the experiences you have taken up into your narratives.  And, most likely, the parts of your narratives that offer interpretation and meaning will be much more interesting than most of the facts, or data points, that your narratives also include.

The way in which narrative largely constitutes our reality is given prominent position in the Judeo-Christian tradition, beginning with the the stories of creation found in the Hebrew Bible.  The book of Genesis depicts creation as being spoken into being by God.   It is as if God tells a story of creation, and the story constitutes the creation.  Incidentally, if you doubt the power of story and its place in constituting our reality, you need to look no further than the debate raging in our culture about competing narratives of creation, from various religious narratives to scientific narratives.  One may wish to argue about which of these narratives is “true” (which is, in my mind, to ask the wrong question), but regardless of how that argument ends up, what really matters is which of these narratives people adopt as part of their own narrative.

But beginning with God’s speaking creation into being, the Hebrew and Christian scriptures echo from one end to the other with talk of the word of God, the suggestion that God is constantly seeking to offer us a new narrative designed to transform — and sometimes to subvert — our own narratives.  We see this in terms of the Exodus narrative the forms the heart of Jewish identity; we see this in the various narratives offered through the prophetic tradition; and we see this in the Christian scriptures as the narrative of the the life, death, and resurrection of Christ is offered as the new narrative that is meant to reshape our lives, the narrative of the “Word made flesh.”

I do not mean to suggest by all this that the various narratives of our faith traditions are merely stories, with no basis in concrete experiences.  What I do want to suggest is that the concrete experiences in which they are rooted mean nothing in the absence of narrative.  It is the stories about these experiences — stories that ultimately go beyond the mere facts of those experiences — where the power of these experiences lie.   If you doubt that, try to imagine your life without any narrative that takes up and interprets your experiences.  Try to imagine a narrative-less life.  I doubt that you can, because we are designed for narrative — we are designed to be the stories that constitute our lives.

When we appreciate the power of story in our lives, when we realize that our narratives constitute our reality, then we gain a new insight into the controversies and arguments that beset our culture.  A big part of what is unfolding in our society is that we have a constellation of competing narratives that constitute different realities for people.  And when these narratives — these realities — collide, then sparks fly.  Perhaps if we were able to take a step back and understand each others narratives, allow our stories to be told and heard and interact in new ways, some new narrative could emerge that might have a better chance of uniting our society in positive ways.  Not that we will all share the same narrative completely:  each of us will always have our own personal narrative.  But if together we can create a common narrative about what it means to be human, to be a part of this culture, this society, in this time and place, we can begin to tell a common story about our country that will lead us to work together, rather than divide us.


Divine Arithmetic

rublev-trinity-iconFor some people, the irrationality of religion might be rather neatly summed up in the Christian doctrine of the Trinity:  the idea that God is simultaneously One God in Three Persons, traditionally expressed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.   The Trinity involves a piece of theological arithmetic that insists that 1+1+1=1, and that doesn’t exactly seem sensible.  Indeed, over the centuries, our Jewish and Muslim sisters and brothers have been led by this strange arithmetic to wonder if we really do share the monotheistic tradition born out of Judaism and tightly held to in the Islamic world.  For many, it seems that we have three gods, rather than one God.  Yet, Christians have continued down through these same centuries to insist that it isn’t the case, and that while others might not understand it, to us, it makes sense.

Of course, the truth is, to many Christians this divine arithmetic doesn’t make sense — but that has never been a popular admission to make in front of our religious peers!  When I went to seminary, the Trinity was simply one mystery of our faith among a number of others.   After seminary, the Trinity remained a mystery — but one that was surrounded by a great deal of verbiage!  After all, as one might expect, this particular doctrine of our faith has generated a lot of written material over the years, as various people have attempted to sum up the mystery, or expound its deeper implications, for themselves (and, they hoped, others, as well).

Recently, I preached a sermon in which I suggested that while science regards a mystery as something to be solved, religion explores mystery not with a view to solving it but with a view toward discovering what the mystery means.  And, typically, the religious approach to mystery brings with it a variety of different meanings, depending on the person or community who is doing the exploration.

For me, as I have explored the mystery of the Trinity, I have come to see this exercise in divine arithmetic to be a manifestation of the divine sense of humor.  There is a story in the Hebrew Bible in which Moses, encountering God in the burning bush, asks for God’s name.   And God answers with what in Hebrew is clearly something of a pun:  I am what I am (to use its usual English translation).   The Trinity, I think, functions in a very similar way.  By holding in tension the ideas that God is one and yet three, we point to a mystery that has no rational solution.  None of us can authentically claim to know exactly what this divine arithmetic really means — in the end, we can only guess, and bring forth some meaning for ourselves.   This, then, means that the doctrine of the Trinity functions something like a safeguard, designed to prevent us from ever thinking that we can figure God out, that we can ever know with any sense of completeness the fullness of God.

Theologically, this should be self-evident:  no self-respecting theologian would ever claim to know God fully (even though some theologians sometimes sound as if they do!).   But on the ground, where faith is lived out, there are plenty of examples of people who forget this truth, who talk and act as if they know exactly what God is about, what God wants them to do, and that they have God figured out.   This includes very often people who think that a thorough knowledge of the Bible is the equivalent of a thorough knowledge of God.

The Trinity, which this coming Sunday is dedicated to, reminds us of the depth of our own unknowing.  When we encounter the mystery of the Trinity, we should not attempt to force it to make sense — we should not seek to understand it intellectually.  Rather we should allow it to scramble our brains a bit, and encourage us to simply bow before that mystery in awe and wonder,  knowing that the God it symbolizes is ultimately more than we can ever know or even imagine.

Overcoming a Culture of Violence

casting_the_first_stoneOver the past couple of weeks, news has reached us about a disturbed young man in Santa Barbara who went on a rampage of stabbings and shootings that left six people dead and a number of others injured.   We have heard about two 12 year old girls in Wisconsin who stabbed another 12 year old girl 19 times after luring her into the woods.  Fortunately, their victim has survived.  These are but two incidents in a long catalogue of violence that has become almost commonplace in the United States.  Mother Jones reports that in the last 10 years, there have been 70 mass shootings in America (mass shootings defined as injuring or killing multiple people).   This past January, the journal Pediatrics reported that every year in the United States, 10,000 children are killed or injured by guns.  That same journal pointed out that the mortality rate in the United States due to firearms is 10 times higher than in countries of similar wealth.   And in 2013, there were 28 shooting incidents in American schools.

You would be forgiven at this point for thinking that this is a blog about the need for gun control.  But, it is not.  No, this is a blog post about the relationship of the American people to violence.  One can argue, of course, that the easy availability of weapons contributes to the statistics quoted above, and that is certainly true.   But it seems to me that the deeper problem is not simply the availability of weapons, but the willingness of people to use them.  We live in a culture in which violence is glorified.  We live in a culture in which a president who is reluctant to rain down violence upon evildoers is described as weak.  Our movies, games, TV shows, and other entertainments are rife with scenes of violence which both glorify it and present it as a legitimate tool for solving one’s problems.  In many of these programs, the evildoers are regarded with a certain awe for their violent ruthlessness, even though that violence is clearly wrong.   We are, in short, surrounded by violent images, and in most of those images, the violence itself is not really condemned; only those who wield it for evil purposes are condemned — but, as I said, only after a certain grudging respect is bestowed.

Coupled with the glorification of violence in our society is an increasing problem with rage.  There is a lot of anger out there, and it both emerges in and is catalyzed by our public discourse.  Our politics have become more polarized than they perhaps have ever been in our history, and politicians activate their “bases” by using the most outrageous, inflammatory rhetoric they can muster against their opponents.  Much of that rhetoric is rooted in significant shifts within our culture in terms of economics, religion, sex, gender roles, ethnicity, and morality.  Without speaking to whether any of these shifts is good or bad, I simply want to observe that they are — and as some rejoice in these shifts and others recoil, the level of anger in our nation seems to be quite high.  As that level of anger rises, the need to point the finger at some person or group as the one(s) who should bear the blame intensifies, and so different people and groups make scapegoats of others — and that makes violence against the scapegoated person or group seem legitimate in the eyes of the angry.  That is especially true given a cultural background in which the use of violence is seen as heroic.

When it comes to Christianity, one finds that many of those who would most vehemently defend the right to bear arms and use them also ascribe to theologies that themselves glorify violence and give it legitimacy as a sacred tool of God.  Central to these theological perspectives are interpretations of the book of Revelation that view that book as describing a violent confrontation between God/Christ and evil/Satan.   Such an interpretation of Revelation often serves to legitimate human violence by demonstrating that it is, after all, a tool in the divine arsenal.   This is further reenforced by a concentration on texts in the Hebrew Bible which appear to ascribe violence to God or at least divine approval to human violence.   And, there are a few verses which these interpreters can point to (a very few) in which Jesus himself seems to bring together God and violence.

But if we look at the broader picture of Jesus, and at a fuller account of his teaching, we do not find such sanctioning of violence.  We hear Jesus saying, “Blessed are the peacemakers…..”   We hear him rebuking Peter for drawing his sword, pointing out that those who live by the sword will die by it.  We hear Jesus condemning the “eye for an eye” sort of mentality in which meeting violence with violence is considered legitimate.  We receive Jesus’ instruction to love our enemies, to do good to those who hate us, and to turn the other cheek.  And Jesus reinterprets the commandment against murder to point to anger as the real problem — for it is the anger that began the chain of events that led to murder.  Finally, speaking perhaps more loudly than anything Jesus said is what he did:  he willingly went to his own execution, refusing to fight against it or allow his followers to fight for him.   Jesus willingly became the victim of human violence precisely to demonstrate how unlike God such violence is, to shine a spotlight on its utter futility — the spotlight of Resurrection in which God declares life to be more powerful than death.

In the full light of the teaching and life of Christ, there can be no successful argument in which Jesus or God can be said to approve of violence.  Indeed, this was self-evident to the early church, which was profoundly dedicated to pacifism.  So much so that early Christians refused to baptize people whose jobs might require them to kill someone, so much so that early Christians refused to fight to defend Jerusalem from Roman attack.  It was only after Christianity became the official religion of Rome that the churches backed away from their opposition to violence — after all, how could it be maintained on behalf of an empire with a sizable standing army?  Then, later, came theologians who created criteria for a “just war”, seeking to establish standards for when war would be acceptable to Christians.  Yet, it has never been acceptable to Christ.

America is much more like the ancient Roman Empire than we would like to admit.  Yes, guns are too readily available in our society.   But our problem goes much deeper than that one issue.  We need to come to terms with the way in which our culture legitimates violence, and begin to find ways to change that.  We must deal with the rage that lies beneath the surface of our society, and begin to lead people into healthy ways of dealing with that rage.  And our religious traditions need to go back to their founders and discover again the non-violence that lies at the heart of  most of our traditions, so that we become part of the solution rather than perpetuate the problem.

This is social, political, psychological, and spiritual work — and we owe it to ourselves, and to our children, to get on with it.