So Now What?

What is unfolding in Ferguson and St. Louis County, Missouri, in the aftermath of the Grand Jury’s decision is on the minds of most of us as we move toward Thanksgiving.  I am reminded about how impossible it is for me to enter into the experience of the African American community:  I cannot know what it is like to step out of your house everyday with the knowledge that simply the color of your skin can place you in harm’s way.   I am reminded of how impossible it is for me to enter into the experience of the poor:  I cannot know what it is like to not have enough to eat or not have adequate housing.  The reality is that I am incredibly privileged.   But that does not mean that I cannot listen to the voices and stories of those whose experiences I cannot enter.  It does not mean that I cannot learn from them, and find my way through that learning to a deeper compassion and empathy.  It does not mean that I cannot focus on the common humanity that unites us all.   And out of that listening and learning, out of my own place of privilege, I can witness to the injustice and inequality of our society, and find ways to try to change that.

I can find no better words in response to what is happening in Missouri than the words that the Very Rev. Mike Kinman, Dean of the Christ Church Cathedral (Episcopal) in St. Louis wrote to his congregation, and so I share them with you:

I have said before that there are three types of journeys — tourist, mission and pilgrimage.

As tourists, we go on the journey to consume — goods, services, experiences. As missioners, we go on the journey to effect change — to make the place we are visiting better.

Then there is pilgrimage. As pilgrims, we go on the journey to be changed.

I wrote yesterday that this is only the next stage in an ongoing journey that began well before August 9 and will continue for years after.

We can approach this journey as tourists — consuming the experience as it comes to us on TV and social media. We can approach this journey as missioners — and have as our goal to make the world a better place. These both have their place. Particularly, I believe there is a mission aspect to what the present moment calls us to.

But I want to suggest Christ calls to approach this journey as a pilgrimage — to have as our goal to be changed ourselves.

Friends of mine who have gone on pilgrimages like the Camino de Compostela in Spain have shared that the most remarkable thing is not the steps you take but the people you take them with. It is the sharing of stories, the breaking of bread and the mingling of prayers along the way that is the true sacrament of the pilgrim.

They have shared that the real gift of a band of pilgrims is that even though everyone is walking the same steps, they are all in very different places and as long as none expects the other to be exactly where they are, they can push and prod one another, challenge and chide one another, love and share with one another, and they will all go deeper into the journey together. They will all be changed.

The key is recognizing that we are walking on holy ground — not so much the literal earth beneath our feet, but the holy ground of each other’s lives. That is where Christ enters in.

We arise this morning with the images of the night that is passed still burned in our brains. The feelings we had last night will resurface again — that is the nature of trauma — and they will be joined by new feelings and they will link up with feelings from long ago.

As with the pain and rage and conflict that was expressed on the streets of our city last night, we will have a choice of how to express those feelings. We may be sorely tempted to lash out violently at those who feel differently from us or whose thoughts or mere presence taps into old and deep wounds. We may be tempted to run away and hide — not only from each other but from ourselves.

My fervent prayer is that we will do neither. My fervent prayer is that we will take the pilgrim’s way. That we will continue to travel together and share with each other as openly and honestly as possible the breadth and depth of what we are feeling. But do it without the violence of personal attacks. Do it with the invitation of Christ that proclaims vulnerability as strength and love as the most powerful force for healing the world has ever known.

My fervent prayer is that we will recognize that one of our greatest gifts on this journey is one another, each other’s stories, the breaking of the bread and the mingling of the prayers. That we will listen deeply to each other and hold each other gently as we share these together. And that the other greatest gift on this journey is Jesus, who walks with us and whose story, presence in the breaking of the bread and the prayers is the common ground for the pilgimage we are on together.

My fervent prayer is that we walk this way together with Jesus. That we walk it willing not just to change the world but to be changed ourselves, knowing that is where the most profound change for the world will occur.

We do not need to be all of one heart and mind and this time. But we do need to keep coming together as fellow pilgrims and laying our lives on the table together and trusting that Christ will take us and make us new — not merely for ourselves but for the life of the world.

Yesterday, I invited you to stop, wherever you were, and pray a prayer. I’m going to do that again. But I hope you will not just pray it yourself but feel all your sisters and brothers in this community praying it with you. Ask God to bind us more closely together. Ask God to use us and change us. Ask Christ to be our companion on the way.

And so right now, wherever you are, I invite you to stop. And pray.

Breathe out all your anxiety. Breathe in peace. Breathe out. Breathe in.

Come Lord Jesus. Come fill our hearts. Come fill the streets of our city. Come fill us with courage. Come fill us with peace. Come Lord Jesus. Fill us with trust in you.

Second Simplicity

Garden of EdenAs Richard Rohr traces the human spiritual journey, he suggests that, if undertaken skillfully and intentionally,  it moves from a first simplicity, through increasing complexity, and then arrives at what he calls a second simplicity, a place of greater acceptance, compassion, and intimacy with God.

I wonder if you have ever noticed that the Bible, as we now have it, both begins and ends in a garden?

The beginning, of course, is the familiar story of the garden of Eden, with Adam and Eve and the whole story that gets them out of the garden.   One way of seeing this story is as a movement from the first simplicity of the spiritual journey — the place of the child, represented by the garden itself — to the greater complexity that lies outside the garden.  The story is presented as an ejection of Adam and Eve from the garden on account of their inability to follow the rules.  But I think we could imagine this story as representing a more natural human evolution:  children begin in a kind of innocence, a blissful unknowing about the world.  As they grow, they move out from that first simplicity into an increasingly complex world.  They both reach for knowledge and have knowledge thrust upon them, and this is necessary for human growth.  Thus, the journey out of the garden is necessary, as are the flaming swords that guard the entrance to Eden in the biblical story — because once we emerge from that innocence into the complexity of the larger world, we can never go back to it.

As we grow out of our first simplicity and encounter the larger world, we find ourselves in a place full of paradoxes and contradictions, a place that can be quite chaotic.  We have a tendency, armed with expanded knowledge, to think that we know more and better than we actually do.  The worldview that forms as we move away from that first simplicity we usually universalize, believing that our view is the correct view that should be shared by others.  We use that worldview to organize this new-found complexity, to make sense of it.   Information that does not correspond to that worldview we discard or reject, and we also have a tendency to discard and reject others who don’t share our view.

Yet, having left that first simplicity behind, the memory of it lingers.  From time to time, there is activated in us a longing for that first simplicity, when life seemed more enchanted and much simpler.   We often experience this longing as nostalgia.  And, at times, that longing can be powerful, indeed.

The end of the book of Revelation is really a story about longing, about hoping for a second simplicity.  Chapters 21 and 22 describe, at first, a city — the New Jerusalem — coming down out of heaven.  It is a luminous, radiant, impossibly beautiful sort of place that is filled with light.  At the center of this city is a garden, and at the center of this garden is the tree of life (that other tree in Eden from which Adam and Eve did not eat).   God dwells in the midst of this tree, and its leaves provide healing.  We are told that this is a place where tears are dried, where death, mourning, and pain are no more.

This garden with which the Bible ends represents well the second simplicity that we can arrive at in our spiritual journey.   In this second simplicity, we have passed through both necessary suffering and necessary joy — the various downs and ups of life — and we have used these experiences skillfully to take us deeper, to move us toward a greater intimacy with God.  Death, mourning, and pain don’t disappear from our lives, but our relationship with them has changed.  We have learned that these things are part of the “is-ness” of life, and that they do not have the power to destroy us, as we once thought.   We have learned that our lives are more than what we thought, have learned that there is a depth in us — our true self, our soul — that is held by God in such a way that it can’t be annihilated.  Our perspective has shifted.

We have also come to know God not as a magic wand sort of God (a term Rohr uses, that I love), who will use his magic on our behalf if we believe the right things or say the right prayer or have enough faith or belong to the proper group.   We have learned that God is to be discovered in the unfolding of our lives, working with us from the inside out.  God does not assure us of a blissful life free of suffering nor does God cause us to suffer because of our sins.  Rather, God moves with us through both the necessary joy and the necessary suffering of life, inviting us deeply into the is-ness of life that we might discover our true depth, and live from that deep place.

We are able, in this second simplicity, to recognize the true significance of the religious vocation:  to both seek and affirm that, in Rohr’s words, there is some coherence, purpose, benevolence, and direction in the universe, even when we cannot work it all out clearly and completely.  We are content to affirm all of this, while leaving the mystery in many ways unresolved.  And we are content to accept the “is-ness” of other people, recognizing them as fellow travelers in this great journey, no longer needing to make them over in our image or reject them if we can’t, able to look upon others with compassion, and no longer afraid of ideas that are different from our own.

Unfortunately, arriving at this second simplicity is not assured.  It depends on whether we are willing to use the journey of our lives skillfully, to take the opportunities it presents to go deeper.  It depends, in many ways, on our willingness to stop demanding explanations and placing blame when life doesn’t go the way we think it should, and instead pay more attention to the question, “Now that this has happened, how are you going to respond?”  It is, in many ways, about learning to move with life’s current rather than trying to swim upstream against it.  Life, ultimately, is a river that flows from Eden to the New Jerusalem’s Tree of Life — if we flow with it.

What does salvation really mean?

17944-bright-red-heart-shaped-diamondThe word ‘salvation’ itself carries both the connotation of being saved from something and the connotation of being healed from something.  Western Christianity has tended to view salvation through the lens of needing to be saved from something.   The question is, what is it that we need to be saved from? And, what would salvation in this sense look like?

Richard Rohr, in his book, Falling Upward, points toward what this looks like when he says that religion, “makes the mistake of turning this into a worthiness contest of some sort, a private performance, or some kind of religious achievement on our part, through our belonging to the right group, practicing the right rituals, or believing the right things.”

When we understand salvation through the lens of worthiness, then we define it in terms of moral perfection.   Since moral perfection is impossible for human beings, this view of salvation tends to create theologies in which the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross is a mechanism for filling in the gap between our unworthiness and God’s perfection.   This lens suggests that we must be saved from our own moral depravity.

When we understand salvation through the lens of private performance and religious achievement, we move away from any relational notion of salvation and presume that we can work our way into it, which usually implies some kind of religious superheroism or perfection. The result tends to be either a kind of delusion because we think we have worked our way into salvation when in fact we have not (because we define it too narrowly) or we convince ourselves that salvation is unattainable because we cannot seem to get to it, no matter how hard we try. This lens suggests that we must be saved from our lack of piety.

When we understand salvation as belonging to the right group or practicing the right rituals or believing the right things, then we turn salvation into a kind of mechanism or transaction that is really devoid of any real soulfulness.   This correct belonging, correct practicing, or correct believing don’t go deep enough. This lens suggests that we must be saved from false rituals or incorrect belief.

Each of these lenses tends to carry with it a certain conceit: they allow us to cast ourselves as the worthy elite or the religious elite or the in group, and they encourage us to think of our salvation as being over against someone else; that is, those who are not worthy enough, religious enough, or part of the in-group.   Of course, the flip-side of this is that we can decide that we ourselves will never receive salvation, because we will conclude, under the influence of these theologies, that we can never be worthy enough or religious enough, or that we just can’t really believe the right things or belong to that particular group.

It must be said that these understandings of salvation have tended to dominate Western Christianity, in particular. And, it must also be said that these lenses can be combined in various ways.  And, these ways of looking at salvation tend to foster a view of God’s love as conditional: God will only love you if you are good enough or religious enough or belong to the right group or believe the right things.

But what if we view salvation as not meaning that we need to be saved from something, but that we need to be healed?

The way this has been talked about theologically is that it is possible for human beings to find union with the energies of God, but not with the essence of God (this price of union is traditionally called theosis or deification), and is the view of salvation native to the Eastern churches (what today we know as the Orthodox churches).  Eastern Christian theology has always understood attainment of this union in a synergistic way: that is, it depends both on the movement of God and the movement of humanity.   It is interesting to note that some Eastern theologians have considered this union so fundamental that many have speculated that Christ would have come even in the absence of human sin – an idea that is almost inconceivable in the Western theological perspective.

Eastern Christian theology has tended to see human beings as suffering more from a disease of the soul rather than from moral failure or unworthiness. Where some Western theologians have gone so far as to suggest that the image of God as been destroyed in human beings, the East has always felt it was simply covered up, and could be found again if human beings worked to cooperate with the energies of God and move toward union.

This understanding of salvation in terms of healing also brings us to a view of God’s love as unconditional: God desires our healing, and all we need to do is choose to move toward healing.  It is a perspective on salvation that is more about grace than merit.

If we think of salvation through this lens of being healed from the delusion of the false into the authenticity of the true self (the image of God within us), then most or many of the problems of the “saved from” view of salvation are avoided.   Rather than understanding ourselves or others as “saved” or “not saved”, we can understand that, spiritually, we are all somewhere on a continuum of healing:  not completely ill but not completely well, either.   Thus, for each of us, our salvation is always in process.  And God wants the same thing for us all:  to be moving toward wellness of soul.

Time for Another (Civilized) Rant

god_hates_me_now_were_even_dark_version_tshirt-p235871443473272005z85iq_400Many people have been critical of moderate (that is, most) Muslims for not speaking out against the radical exemplars of their faith.  Well, as a Christian, I cannot remain silent when people who claim to be Christian speak and act hatefully.  For just as the press (joyfully?) advertises extremist Islam as what most Muslims are, so do they seem to (joyfully?) advertise hateful, ignorant Christianity as representing what most Christianity is.   And yet, I have been critical of the rant-ish tone of our public conversation, and so I must somehow rant in a non-rantish way.

First, with respect to the young woman in Oregon who this past weekend chose to end her life with incurable brain cancer within the framework of Oregon law:  apparently, a number of people claiming to be Christian have posted all manner of hateful comments regarding her decision (and the Vatican also was not amused, though perhaps they weren’t hateful in their condemnation).  Their hateful speech only accomplishes two things:  it is hurtful to her family and friends, compounding their grief; and it allows the public an opportunity to once again reach the conclusion that Christians are hateful people who have little compassion.  You may not agree with the woman’s decision, but it’s not your life.  And her decision did not hurt you in any way.  And, let me just say that there are plenty of Christians, including myself, who have no objection to her decision.

Second, someone claiming the mantle of Christianity (and, I believe, the title of pastor) recently suggested that Starbucks uses the “semen of sodomites” in their lattes.   I’m sorry to have to reproduce such language, but I know of no other way to communicate the odiousness of it.  This sort of nonsense is, of course, being uttered by someone who undoubtedly believes that gay people are horrible, etc. etc.   But, again, such statements only accomplish two things:  they gross people out (seriously!) and they once again provide an opportunity for people to conclude that Christians are idiots.   Well, I can only hope that most people have the good sense to believe that the number of Christians who think that he is right about Starbucks is extremely small.  Perhaps 2.

I am continually amazed at how eager the press is to report such preposterous statements as somehow representing what Christianity is.  Not every narrow-minded person with a Bible deserves the attention of the press.   For example, my church just this weekend hosted a conference on the evils of human-trafficking and what we can do to stop it.  About 200 people from around the community came.  We had three nationally-known speakers.  It was great.  It got a little bit of local press.  It has not been at all reported beyond the confines of our community.  And yet, if I had gotten up and made some bizarre, ridiculous, totally false statement (I’m having trouble imagining what that even might be, but perhaps you can), there’d probably be satellite trucks and news crews combing our parking lot.

I don’t suppose there is any hope that the press will stop focusing on people who have a questionable grasp on reality.  It seems to suit them — so much so that I wonder sometimes if there isn’t an agreement among the press that religion must somehow be discredited (but that would be conspiracy thinking, which I try to avoid).   So the only hope is that people will see these people for who they are, and recognize that they can’t possibly be representative of the faith they purport to be a part of.  If not, then God help us all.

Post-Election Spirituality

Sydney-grief-counselling-how-to-deal-with-the-loss-of-a-partnerThere is a Eucharistic Prayer (the prayer said by the priest over the bread and the wine) from the Iona Community in Scotland that we use rather regularly, and it includes these words about Jesus:

We praise you for his life which informs our living,
for his compassion which changes our hearts,
for his clear speaking that contradicts our harmful generalities
for his disturbing presence
his innocent suffering
his fearless dying
his rising to life breathing forgiveness and restoring us forever to you.

I said these words just today at a mid-day service, and they struck me particularly strongly in relation to yesterday’s elections, and our on-going political mess.   I don’t mean to speak in a partisan way:  when I speak of our on-going political mess, I am talking about the way in which our democracy has stopped working, a situation in which we have been living for many years now.  Very little has been accomplished by our political system, and most of the participants in that system spend much of their time figuring out how to sabotage each other rather than how to be of service to the people who elected them.

And we, the huddled masses who are yearning for something different, and voting, I think, largely out of anger and/or fear, are a part of the problem — and we are largely unwilling to acknowledge it.  For, in the end, it is we who elect people to office, and if we are casting votes out of anger or fear, then it is hardly surprising that the people whom we elect act largely out of anger or fear.  And they know that if they wish to remain in office (which, it seems, is often their highest aspiration), then they must continue to appeal to the raging, scared part of us.  And so we live in an unending cycle of fear and anger and, in the end, the real purpose and art of politics gets lost.

This leads me back to the words of that Eucharistic Prayer.  It seems to me that they point us toward what our lives are meant to be seeking and embodying.   For those of us who are followers of Jesus, our lives are meant to be informed by the life of  Christ.  And in that life, we meet the compassion of Jesus which seeks to make us more compassionate; we are reminded by him of the ways in which our generalities about others, particularly those who disagree with us, are harmful; his presence as One who questions what we are doing, and whose own innocent suffering reminds us of how we can be a cause of suffering to others, should disturb us, and make us examine our speech and actions more carefully; his fearless dying reminds us that we are called to think of others first, and that this is costly; and all of this reflects the shape of a risen life, a life transformed by deep forgiveness and love that restores us to the One from whom that life comes.  This is a spirituality of humility, a spirituality that is meant to place us in relationship with others so that our spirits might be enlarged so as to include more than our own harmful generalities.   It is a spirituality that asks us to replace our ideas of other people with actual experience of other people in the fullness of their humanity, in the depth of their need.

We have been searching for a way out of political gridlock for some time now.  It is hard to find anyone who is at all happy about our situation.  I think that if we are to find a way to a better place it needs to begin with a kind of inner revolution, a deepened spirituality that is capable of moving beyond fear and anger to positive relationships with others.  And that recognizes our political life is meant to serve  all people, and not just some people.

As Ghandi once said, “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.”  We have no right to demand change of others until we are willing to commit to it ourselves.