Standing in the Tragic Gap

casting_the_first_stoneEarlier this week, tragic news reached the Episcopal community in the United States:  a bishop, the Bishop Suffragan of Maryland, struck a 41 year old cyclist, a husband and father of two, Tom Palermo, and killed him.   As we were absorbing that news, we were told that the bishop apparently left the scene of the accident — eventually, she returned, but nevertheless, her first reaction was to flee.

Our hearts immediately reached out to the family of the man who died.  What a terrible, awful thing to have happened.  Few of us can imagine the grief they now live, few can understand how suddenly and irrevocably their lives have been changed.  And the bishop’s role in this incident — about much of which we still know almost nothing — leaves most of us deeply unsettled.

What has also disturbed me this week has been how reluctant so many hearts have been to reach out to Bishop Cook.  An old DUI incident has been brought up, though it is not clear whether alcohol was involved in this tragedy.  People have been quick to condemn, quick to judge, and often in the most mean-spirited of terms.  Few seem to have spared a thought for how devastated the bishop must be, having to live now with the knowledge that her actions or inactions led to someone’s death, and devastated a family and community.   And knowing that her life and work as a bishop, as an ordained person in The Episcopal Church, will be forever changed and, quite possibly, lost.

Let me be clear:  As the details of this incident are investigated, and Bishop Cook’s role in it becomes clear, she must and should face the consequences of what has happened.  She, like each of us, remains accountable, and she will ultimately have to live into that accountability.

But what disturbs me so much is how many Episcopalians have joined the reactions of condemnation, quick judgment, and mean-spirited talk, how many have seemed to have difficulty finding any compassion for the bishop to match their compassion for the man who died and his family.

Richard Rohr, speaking of the spiritual journey, notes that as we move into what he calls a second half of life spiritual perspective — in other words, as we mature in our spiritual path — we move from a dualistic to a more non-dualistic view of the world.  When we are caught in a dualistic mindset — the default mode of the Western mind — we have a need to split things into clear and mutually exclusive categories.  People are either good or bad, right or wrong, innocent or guilty.  As we mature spiritually, we come to appreciate how complicated our own humanity is and, consequently, how complicated is the humanity of others.  We recognize that within each of us lives good and bad, right and wrong, innocence and guilt.  Each of us is a tragic figure, a mixed bag, and the great good news of the gospel is that it is precisely this tragic figure, this mixed bag, that God loves.  For the spirit of God searches the hearts of us all, and has known our complexity from the beginning, long before we could acknowledge it to ourselves.

When we are able to see non-dualistically, then we are able both to hold people accountable for their actions and embrace them with love and compassion at the same time.  We do not feel the need to choose one or the other:  we are able to choose both.

Jesus enacts this non-duality many times in his life and ministry. For me, one of the most powerful stories of his enacting of this quality is in the “story of the woman caught in adultery” in St. John’s Gospel.  Here, a crowd brings a woman before Jesus to ask that he affirm the legal penalty for her misdeed, which means that she is to be stoned to death.  Jesus invites the sinless person in the crowd to cast the first stone, and one by one, they all drift away.  He has forced them to recognize that it is not as simple as the woman being a sinner and the crowd being filled with the righteous.  He has made them recognize that they, too, have done things that render them guilty or sinful in some way, shape, or form.   When Jesus finds the woman standing alone with him, he declines to condemn her, and instead sends her on her way with the instruction to “sin no more.”   In other words, Jesus does not excuse her behavior, he does not suggest that her actions don’t have consequences.  But he doesn’t judge or condemn her.  Rather, he has compassion for her, and invites her to move on from this point in her life in a new way, invites her to live a different sort of life.

The story does not tell us whether that woman accepted his invitation to a new life.  It seems clear to me, however, that the possibility of her choosing that new life is created by Jesus’ own act of forgiveness.  His compassion — his refusal to condemn — becomes the foundation upon which a new life may be built, if she chooses to do so.

As people who claim to be followers of Jesus, this is a lesson which we must seek to learn.  Our condemnation and judgment does not create the possibility of new life.  It is our compassion that does that.  No one was ever bullied into transformation.  Jesus teaches us that for true transformation to happen, we must be loved into it.

Jesus reminds us that our calling is to stand in the tragic gap that opens when we are confronted with a tragedy such as this one.   Rather than running to one side or the other, we are called to hold both in tension.  We are called to stand in the place that calls for justice and accountability while at the same time extending compassion and love to all concerned.  We are called to recognize the deeply human forces at play here, and to stand as witnesses to both the prophet’s call to responsibility and Jesus’ call to love.   It can be a very difficult place to stand, indeed.

I would hope that we might be able to step back and reflect upon this terrible tragedy.  As we pray for Tom Palermo and his family and friends, let us also pray for Bishop Cook and her family and friends, and for the people of the Diocese of Maryland.   We stand in the face of a terrible tragedy, and we are called to hold the whole of that tragedy, and all involved, in prayer.

Neil deGrasse Tyson and the Date of Christmas

science_religion_070703_msWell, today brings news that the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson tweeted about December 25 being the birthday of a transformative figure who changed the world — and then wished Sir Isaac Newton a happy birthday (noting that he was born on December 25, 1642).  And, predictably, people got upset, assuming that he was intending to make fun of the Christian tradition of celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25 (and, perhaps he was).

In a way, Tyson’s tweet could not have been more appropriate.  In the first place, Sir Isaac Newton was a faithful Christian himself.  More importantly, he lived in a time when to be a serious scientist and a person of faith was not seen as problematic to the degree it tends to be now.  Newton’s faith in God did not in any way conflict with his scientific career.  Indeed, a number of quotes of Newton’s on the subject of God can easily be found, including this one:

This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being


I would take issue with Newton and argue, as many theologians have done, that God is not a being, but that’s not my point just now, so let’s move on.

The larger point is that Newton was able to recognize that science and religion both pointed toward important and complementary truths, and he did not feel the need to pit one against the other, as so many people seem to feel the need to do in our own time.  Tyson and other scientists, as well as many religious people today, would do well to try to emulate Newton’s ability to bring science and religion together.

In the second place, Tyson’s tweet about Newton’s birthday is appropriate because the date of Newton’s birth is debated.  In fact, many list it as January 4, 1643.   And, the date of Jesus birth is also debated.  Indeed, we really have no idea at all when Jesus was born.  Christianity was over 300 years old before the church began celebrating the birth of Jesus, and December 25 was not chosen because it was the date on Jesus’ birth certificate (which, of course, never existed!).  The date was selected because it coincided with celebrations in various cultures around the Mediterranean of the winter solstice — and so it made sense to Christians to take this already popular holiday and redefine it, making it the occasion for celebrating Jesus’ birth.  For, clearly, Jesus did have a birthday, and even though it is impossible to know when that was, it is nevertheless appropriate to celebrate it.  Only Christians who are ignorant of their own history (as, sadly, many are) would insist that December 25 is the actual birthdate of Christ.

Sadly, Tyson seems to have played into the “conflict” between science and religion that people today seem to insist upon, desiring the triumph of one over the other.  This is a false conflict that does not serve the interest of the human family.  Both science and religion have important things to teach us, each has its own sphere of knowledge and experience to share.  A person who seeks to be well rounded should be open to both.   For wisdom recognizes the value of both — only the foolish believe that one needs to “win” over the other.


To Find the Child

Nativity-of-Christ (1)A poem for contemplation as Christmas approaches…..

To find the child
one must see the star.
To see the star one must go into the darkness,
the pain, the fear, the emptiness,
the hidden weeping,
the heart’s dark wounds.
Only in the darkness
can the stars be seen.
To find the child
one must hear the angels.
To hear the angels
one must listen in silence and solitude,
in perfect speechlessness,
in attentive adoration to the Mystery.
Only in such stillness
are the angels heard.
To find the child
one must enter the stable.
To enter the stable
one must stoop,
decline all palaces, all safety,
all familiarity or fortification,
and settle into poverty.
Only in such humility
is the stable entered.
To find the child
one must see the birth.
To see the birth
one must be awakened
to the heart of all things
beating in one’s soul,
the light of God shining in one’s hands.
One must be willing to speak
alone with one’s eyes.
Only in awakening
will the birth be seen.
To find the child,
seek in the darkness,
lay your heart open,
and discover therein
light unconquered.

                                                                                                       —Steve Garnaas-Holmes

Apocalypse Now

crucifixionIf you look up the word “apocalypse” in the dictionary, this is what you find:

1. the complete final destruction of the world, especially as described in the biblical book of Revelation.
2. an event involving destruction or damage on an awesome or catastrophic scale.


In common speech, when we throw the word “apocalypse” around, we do so with the sense that something devastatingly destructive has happened, something that either ends the world in a literal sense, or that makes us feel as if a particular world that we cherish is falling apart or is somehow threatened. We live in a time that is ripe with apocalyptic thinking.  As people look at the various human conflicts going on around the world, as we begin to appreciate the impact of climate change upon all of us, it’s not difficult to get in an apocalyptic frame of mind, feeling that our very existence is threatened, that our world is about to be destroyed.

Some religious people like to see these troubling times as a sign that God is about to act to bring the world to an end, and that usually involves some theological vision in which God destroys the world as we know it, and probably most of humanity, but saves “the elect” so that they might inhabit a new, glorious, everlasting world that is free of all these troubles.   As the dictionary definition suggests, this vision is usually heavily informed by the images and stories of the Book of Revelation with which the New Testament ends.

People who are attracted to this sort of theology tend to read some of the sayings of Jesus through the lens of Revelation, imagining that when he talks about the return of the Son of Man in glory (what is usually called “the second coming”), he is offering an apocalyptic vision just like that offered by the Book of Revelation:  a world-ending, sinner-destroying orgy of Divine Retribution.

But Jesus never read Revelation, and this kind of apocalyptic thought does not really lie in any way at the heart of Jesus’ teaching.  He is much more concerned with how we live now, with what our relationship with God and with others is like at this moment, than he is concerned about what may or may not happen in the future.  And, it may be argued, when he does speak apocalyptically, he often seems to change the popular meaning of that word.  Take this example from this past Sunday’s Gospel reading:

Jesus said to his disciples, “In those days, after that suffering,
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light,
and the stars will be falling from heaven,
and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.  Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.

from Mark 13

In this passage, Jesus puts two things together that don’t really seem to go together, at least when we define “apocalypse” according to its dictionary definition.  He invokes the imagery associated with that common definition (“the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will be falling from heaven, and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.’), yet immediately after he says something rather remarkable:  “Truly I tell you, this generation will not pass away until all these things have taken place.”

The only conclusion to be drawn from this is that either Jesus was wrong (since it is manifestly clear that the generation he was addressing has passed away), or that he is talking about a different sort of apocalypse than we are accustomed to.  Of course, there are those who would try to find a third path, and argue that “this generation” means something other than those who were hearing Jesus speak these words, but I find that to be too much of a stretch.

Some commentators have suggested that what Jesus is, in fact, talking in apocalyptic language about is his own passion, death, and subsequent resurrection.  And when one reads some of the Gospel accounts of what happens as Jesus is being crucified and after he has died, that imagery also sounds rather apocalyptic (darkness covers the land, the temple curtain is mysteriously torn in two, earthquakes occur).  Yet, clearly, no world-ending, sinner-destroying event has occurred.  So what sort of apocalypse is this?

The etymological meaning of the word “apocalypse” is actually rather different from its dictionary definition.  The Greek from which the word comes actually means “to uncover”.   So, in the word’s original sense, an apocalypse is an uncovering of something previously covered up.  And I think it is in this sense that Jesus employs apocalyptic imagery.

For Jesus wishes his disciples, and those who have followed them, to understand that his passion, death, and resurrection — and, indeed, perhaps the whole of his life and death — are uncovering some very important things that were previously covered up.  In this drama, we see God show up not as the conquering military figure that is usually pulled from the pages of Revelation, but rather as the vulnerable human being who surrenders to our violence.  And that act of surrender not only uncovers a very different sort of God than the one who often lives in our imagination, but also uncovers some rather unpleasant truths about human beings, like the way in which we make others whom we fear or hate or don’t understand into our victims in order to preserve our own sense of the order of things, or to maintain our position.  In the death of Jesus, we see God uncovered as the One who joins the victim rather than the victim-maker.

And yet, the resurrection of Jesus uncovers God’s deep love and compassion for the victim-makers, for in the Risen Christ God shows up not as the avenger who will destroy those who sinned against him so violently but as the victim who forgives and who, through that very act of loving forgiveness, invites us out of our violence, out of our victim-making ways (thanks to James Alison for uncovering this for me!).

In this season of Advent, we hear a lot of apocalyptic language in church, and it tends to drive our thoughts toward the “second coming” of Christ and some kind of Divine Retribution that Christ will bring to deal with the world’s troubles.   But I think this understanding is very far from the teaching of Christ, who seems to see in his own death and resurrection the apocalypse that really matters:  the uncovering of inconvenient truths about ourselves coupled with the opportunity to move beyond ourselves into a different way of being human.

When we consider the latest violence of the world — Ferguson, Oakland, Syria, Iraq, climate change, human trafficking, and on and on — I think we should indeed see them as apocalyptic events.  But not in a world-ending, sinner-destroying sort of way.  We should not imagine them as signs that God is about to show up and kick some butt.  Rather, we should look at them through the apocalyptic lens of Jesus, and see them as events that uncover truths about ourselves and our world that many if not most of us would rather not see.   We should see God in the victims that emerge from these struggles, and recognize that the Christ whose birth we are about to celebrate came into the world to uncover these very realities, to get us to see them clearly, and then to give us the power to live differently.