Ashes, Tough Language, Hardened Exteriors

Ash Wed Heart“Lamenting our sins”, “acknowledging our wretchedness”, “contrite hearts”, “I have been wicked from my birth”, “turn from wickedness…and live”.   These are just some of the phrases that are a part of The Episcopal Church’s liturgy for today, Ash Wednesday.  These, and many others in today’s liturgy, don’t sit all that comfortably in my theological perspective.  Heard in a certain way, they seem to point people toward feelings of shame and unworthiness — something that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, have often been accused of nurturing in unhealthy ways.  And, in my own explorations and reflections, I have concluded that God is not a God of shame (click here to see an earlier post on this topic).

But, this language also does serve a purpose — part of which is, indeed, to make us uncomfortable.    I think that often, when we encounter a day like Ash Wednesday that offers us this kind of tough language, we are not encountering language that is meant to shame us but, rather, language that is meant to wake us up, to get through our hardened exteriors in order to get our attention.   The language of Ash Wednesday is meant to do just this, I think:  to wake us up, to get our attention, and to shift our focus.

This year, Ash Wednesday comes in the midst of a cultural period in which we Americans are hearing a lot of triumphalist language.  We are being called to be “great again”, we are being called to put ourselves first, we are being offered a vision of our lives in which Americans are the ultimate “in” people, and everyone else is “out.”   Including Americans who don’t measure up to the triumphalist image.    Americans have long had a lingering superiority issue, and it has been brought to the forefront in a big way.

But this is also a manifestation of something that is not uncommon among human beings.  We are quick to put each other into categories, we are swift to make judgements, and very often, rather than dealing with the person who is actually in front of us, we end up dealing with the image of what we have judged that person to be.   Many people have superiority issues — they want to be seen as better than others in some way.  Some people have the opposite problem:  they constantly see themselves as worse than everyone else.  Life is conceived of as a great competition in which there are always winners and losers.

The language of Ash Wednesday seeks to break all of this apart by reminding us that, in the end, we are each and all just human beings, trying to make our way in the world, and that each of us faces limits — the ultimate limit being, of course, our lifespan on this earth.  “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  These words, given as ashes are ‘imposed’ upon the forehead, are the central words around which Ash Wednesday, and the whole Lenten season it inaugurates, turn.   They are words that are meant to equalize:  regardless of how better or worse than others we think we are, in the end, we are all the same:  we are all human, we are all given the same regard by God, and we are each just trying to do the best we can.

There is a great freedom in realizing this truth.  There is a great freedom and relief in having a space opened before us in which we are no longer competing, no longer measuring ourselves against others.   It is the space into which God always invites us, the space of belovedness.     That unconditional belovedness of God that makes it safe to be who we are.  And whether the world regards us as successes or failures becomes irrelevant.

Sometimes it takes tough language to make us realize this.   Ash Wednesday offers us both that challenge and that opportunity.

There Your Heart Will Be Also

Ash Wed HeartIn The Episcopal Church, every year the same readings are appointed to be read at the services on Ash Wednesday, marking the beginning of Lent.  For years, I have visited these same readings over and over:  Joel, 2 Corinthians, and Matthew.  They are, in many respects, dense texts, offering a variety of possibilities to the would-be preacher.  Each year, as I stand on the precipice of Ash Wednesday, I wonder how those texts will speak to me yet again — and, a little part of me is perhaps a bit scared that this might be the year that they don’t speak to me at all.  Thankfully, that year was not this year.

The text that speaks to me today comes at the very end of the readings, the last few words for Ash Wednesday from Matthew’s Gospel:  “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”   There your heart will be also.   What does Jesus mean when he speaks of the heart?

In the biblical context, and, indeed, in religion and spirituality generally, the heart is usually understood to refer to the center of our being, our most authentic self, the point of our being where we find ourselves in God and God in ourselves.  While I honor that ancient notion, I have also found myself understanding the term “heart” somewhat differently.

For me, the heart has become not the center of who we are, but rather the center of our attention or consciousness.  And as our center of attention or consciousness, the heart can dwell either in the spacious grace of God’s loving energy or in the restricted and constricted space defined by our fears, grievances, worries, and preoccupations.  In other words, our heart can either be centered in the light or in the shadows.  The choice is really ours to make, and what Jesus suggests to us in this passage from Matthew is that we will make that choice based on what we treasure.

The season of Lent is, in many respects, designed to bring us face to face with the truth about the choices we generally make as we go through our lives day by day.  How often do we choose to treasure our fears and worries, grievances and preoccupations, and allow those energies to dominate our heart, to dominate our attention and consciousness?

It is not that God is disconnected from our fears and worries, but rather that when our heart dwells among them, we loose track of God’s connection to our lives.  The noise of all that preoccupies us drowns out the still, small voice of God that whispers within our depths.  And what does that voice whisper within us?  It whispers the one truth about us that is more important than anything else:  that we are Beloved.  That we have always been the Beloved of God, and that we always will be.

This truth of our beloved-ness is what defines that space of divine grace and love within each of us, and when our hearts our centered in this Beloved space, then we experience God’s love as a movement of forgiveness, generosity, and compassion — we experience the freedom of knowing that in God’s eyes, we are good enough.  We experience the freedom of knowing that we do not have to strive to earn God’s love — rather, we simply need to allow ourselves to experience that love, to relax into God’s spacious grace.

If you attend an Ash Wednesday liturgy, you would be forgive for perhaps being left with the impression that God’s love is perhaps not as freely given as I have suggested.  I have to admit that I struggle a bit with that liturgy on an annual basis, since it focuses very much on sin and “wretchedness”, on our failure to choose the light over the shadows, on the many ways that we treasure the small world of our fears over the spacious world of God’s love.  But I have come to see the Ash Wednesday liturgy’s preoccupation with the shadow part of ourselves as a kind of therapeutic tool that is meant to push us to get in touch with what, exactly, we treasure, and where our hearts are hanging out.  This liturgy serves as a kind of wake-up call that brings us face to face with our own mortality, challenging us to see how much energy we put into the things that moth and rust will consume, rather than in our relationship with the God who names us as Beloved.

With that therapeutic value, comes the risk that this liturgy will send us away feeling guilty and defeated.  But I am quite sure that is not the invitation that God makes to us in Lent.  God, I think, wants us to leave this liturgy awakened to the reality of how often we allow ourselves to miss the truth of our Belovedness, and prepared to meet the challenge of really embracing that truth and all that it means for us.

For me, this year, that invitation takes the form of a question:  What do I treasure?  And what does that say about where my heart is?

What do you treasure?  Where is your heart?

The readings appointed for Ash Wednesday are Joel 2:1-2, 12-17; 2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10; and Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21.

Contending with the Crucifixion

The cross is the banner of what we do to one another and to God.  The resurrection is the banner of what God does [for] us in return.

— Richard Rohr

Every Palm Sunday, and every Good Friday, Christians must contend with the crucifixion of Jesus.  It is something that should really be quite simple, even as it challenges us emotionally and spiritually.   But Christians have tended to try to make it very complicated.

Here is the simple part:  Jesus was murdered.  It was a murder that was brought about by a collaboration between the religious and political authorities of his time, who manipulated crowds of people who were desperately wanting Jesus to start a political revolution, and were bitterly disappointed when he did not.  That disappointment, coupled with the cunningness of those in authority, allowed Jesus to become the scape goat for a lot of pent up anger and frustration.  The authorities successfully redirected that anger onto Jesus, making him (in religious language) the bearer of sin — the one to be made responsible for the fact that life was not what people wanted it to be.   And killing him promised to take the fire out of their anger, to make everyone feel better (whether it actually did is another matter).   And so, an unjust, state-sanctioned murder occurred.  Jesus became the victim.

Here’s the spiritually and emotionally challenging part:  Jesus knew he would be made the victim.  He had spent most of his adult life (and, perhaps, even his childhood) among victims, people who had been on the receiving end of their family’s or society’s anger and outrage.  He was intimately familiar with the human habit of victimizing a person, or a group of people, in an effort to resolve pain that really had nothing to do with the designated victim or victims.  Jesus knew this intimately as the truly original sin of humanity.  And he voluntarily allowed himself to be pulled into this victim role, carrying the Divine with him, so that he — and God — could fully inhabit this space of the victim, taking upon himself (in religious language) the sin of the world.  Notice that this has nothing to do with God requiring Jesus to die.  God does not need to make victims.  God became the victim:  of human beings.  And so the crucifixion does not show us God as Perpetrator but God as Victim — meaning that we are the ones in the role of perpetrator, as we so often are in so many ways.  The crucifixion of Jesus shows us who we are when we allow ourselves to be run by a fearful ego.   And that is hard stuff to take in.

Here’s the complication:  We have been so unwilling to allow the crucifixion to tell us about ourselves that we have insisted on turning it around and forcing it to tell us something about God.  That would have been okay, at least in part, if we had made the crucifixion tell us about God inhabiting the role of the victim, of our victim.  But that’s not what we have done over the centuries.  Instead, we have made the crucifixion tell us about God involving God’s self in violence, and insisting on violence and sacrifice as the only way in which forgiveness and salvation can be offered to us.  We have, in other words, interpreted the crucifixion to put God in the role of Perpetrator, and insisted that this was part of some complicated divine algebra that was necessary for reasons we cannot understand.  And so we have turned God into a monster, supposing that violence and sacrifice is what God is about.   We have imagined God needing the death of God’s Son, even as we can’t imagine demanding such a thing of our own children.  Somehow, God is a worse parent than we are.   I find myself wondering how we have carried on believing this for so long.

If we wish to see what God is up to, we need to look not at the crucifixion but at the resurrection.      That is the new thing that God is doing in Jesus.  And what we see in the resurrection of Jesus is not vengeance and retribution visited upon those who murdered the Son of God.  No, what we see is forgiveness and love:  this is the pattern of God’s response to our violence.  First, God in Christ becomes our victim — Jesus is indeed a sacrifice, but not to God.  Jesus is a sacrifice to us.  Then, God reveals that life is stronger than our violence, that love is stronger than death, for God in Christ returns to us to forgive us, to love us, and to invite us into the path of non-violence, in which there are no more victims.  It is through the resurrection that we get invited into the inside of God’s life, a life in which there is no room for any more crucifixions.

As we contend with the crucifixion on Good Friday, let us not contend with a complicated theology that somehow makes God responsible for the death of Jesus, or a prejudiced theology that somehow makes the Jewish people responsible for it.  Let us, instead, let the crucifixion help us to realize the patterns of fear and violence that run so deeply in us.  Let us allow the cross to expose all that is within us that draws us away from God’s love and forgiveness so that, on Easter, we might be prepared to receive God’s love and forgiveness in ways that allow us truly to walk with Jesus the path of compassion and non-violence.  For this is truly the life to which God is calling us in the Risen Christ.

Rising from the Ashes

Ash+CrossToday is, of course, Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Lent for Western Christians.  In the liturgy of The Episcopal Church for today, worshippers receive the sign of the cross made with ash on their foreheads and hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”

Traditionally, the ashes and the words that accompany their administration evoke our own mortality:  our life on this earth is limited.   Placed within the context of the Lenten season, that reminder of our mortality is also a reminder that we should get about the work of deepening our relationship with God, because our time is limited.  The language of the Ash Wednesday liturgy gives us many opportunities to remember just how out of sync with God we often live — which is really what we mean when we talk about “sin”.

Another way of saying this is that we live so much of our lives centered in the False Self, in the most shallow, most ego-driven part of ourselves.   We invest great quantities of energy into things that do not last, and spend relatively little time focusing on the deeper dimensions of life.  We settle for a self that is too small, and consequently for a life that is too shallow.

And this brings me to another meaning of the ashes of Ash Wednesday: that they are a symbol of mourning.   In many places in the Hebrew Bible, we find examples of people putting on sack cloth (a bit like burlap) and sitting in ashes, or heaping ashes on their head, as a sign of deep sorrow, lamentation, mourning, and grief.  This is the symbolism that strikes me most powerfully this year.

For Ash Wednesday is a day when we can and should mourn for how often we live centered in what is false and shallow.  It is a day to lament how small we so often are, and how that smallness impinges on the lives of others.  It is a day to grieve how often we try to pull God down to our level, making a mockery of the Holy One by assuming that God is as small and petty as we.  It is a time to regret how out of sync we are.

But ashes are also fertile.  They can enrich the soil with which they are mixed, and from ash can rise new life and new growth.  And that is the hope of Ash Wednesday, and of the Lenten season.  If we were to stop in our mourning, if we were not to move on from our grief over what we are not, then we would indeed be pitiable human beings.   The self-reflection to which Ash Wednesday invites us is meant not to stop us, but to move us on, so that self-reflection becomes self-awareness, and self-awareness becomes an opening to the Spirit, and the Spirit leads us into transformation.  We pause on Ash Wednesday to consider our own falseness in order to then see how beautiful our True Self is, and to hear God’s call to move toward it.

May this journey of Lent be a blessing for you:  may your True Self rise from the ashes.

Perhaps our Biggest Religious Mistake

deep-breathThe writings of Richard Rohr, in particular, have helped me to appreciate what is perhaps the biggest mistake we have made when it comes to religion:  we have disconnected the outer system/symbols of belief from the inner experience of God, or the divine.

In an earlier age, belief systems and inner experience were intimately connected.  Indeed, Rohr and others would argue that they were connected from the beginning of each tradition, but over time, under the influence of what we might call Western rationalism, outer belief systems and inner experience lost their intimacy.  In large part, this was the result of people losing touch with the profound notion that the realm of our inner experience was precisely the place where we were meant to meet God.  The rituals and spiritual practices of the world’s religions were meant to help us delve more deeply into our interior selves, to discover (in Judeo-Christian language) the image of God within us — which is the same as discovering God’s presence within us.  Outer belief systems were also meant to point us toward interior truths.

In the Christian tradition, for example, the story of Jesus is not simply the story of Jesus of Nazareth, but is offered as the story that defines the spiritual journey of the Christian.  The outward, historical journey of Jesus is a map for navigating our own interior journey away from what Rohr would call the False Self toward the True Self — another way of describing the image of God within us.  When we speak of Christian beliefs in the Trinity, incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, the “day of the Lord”, among others, we are not simply describing things about God and about Jesus.   We are, at the same time, talking about our own spiritual journeys.  Each of these beliefs is meant to connect to and be verified by our own inner experience.  Interestingly, Rohr points out that for people who have never touched this inner experience of God, even if just fleetingly, this kind of talk doesn’t make a lot of sense, and is, indeed, often heard as being a bit heretical.

Yet, the damage caused by this disconnection between outer belief system and inner experience is substantial.  One of the fruits of that disconnection is that the belief system loses credibility.  When we speak, for example, of Jesus as the incarnation of God and of his having been raised from the dead, we are speaking of things that, in their outward forms, lie completely outside human experience.  We propose them, then, as articles of faith that must be believed for their own sake — “because they are true” — and expect that people will simply accept those beliefs, and find some way to make them meaningful.  In the end, the only way these beliefs do become meaningful in any lasting, transformative way is when we can connect them to the inner experience of God that is possible in any human life.

Another side effect of this disconnection is the tendency to replace the inner experience of God with moralism.  Rather than finding that inner “place” where we participate in God and God participates in us, we too often seek to impose a rigid morality from the outside, believing that adhering to a strict moral code will somehow bring us closer to God.  We have forgotten that a truly moral life unfolds from that inner place of divine and human cooperation, rather than from enforcement of an external code (despite the fact that St. Paul was rather clear about this).  This is not to say that law should be abandoned — it is simply to say, with Paul, that law cannot take us where we want to go, and it cannot substitute for the actual experience of God.

Richard Rohr sums up the problem this way:

Our True Self remains untouched for most of us, because any direct experience of God or explicit union with God was blocked, denied, and largely declared impossible.  It always had to be mediated by a Bible, priest, minister, church, or sacrament, and very often the mediators, and the defending of their mediations, became the primary message itself.

-Richard Rohr, Immortal Diamond, p. 125

It’s not possible to discuss all the nuances of this in a short blog post.  But I hope this might be enough to help us come to terms with the way in which we so often have lost the point of religion.  It is not, and never has been, about assenting to a particular set of beliefs, no matter how strange and alien they may seem.  It is about learning to discover ourselves in God and God in ourselves, and to be transformed by the encounter.  The Bible, priests, ministers, churches, and sacraments were never meant to mediate between us and God; rather, they were meant to point us toward the depth of reality, including the depths of our own selves.  In the end, the rituals and beliefs of our traditions only become meaningful when they acquire a “hook” into our own deep, inner selves, so that the truth spoken “out there” finds the truth spoken inside each of us.

As it is noted in the Second Letter of Peter, all of these things God has given us so that through them, we “may become participants in the divine nature.”  We have too often settled for something much less.

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.

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.

The Humanity of These Days

crucifixionAs we begin upon what the Christian tradition calls the great Triduum — the three days that bring us to Easter and constitute the heart of Holy Week — I think we have to ask ourselves a question:  Is the drama that unfolds beginning on Maundy Thursday and reaches its fulfillment on Easter primarily a human drama, or a divine one?

I think we have become accustomed to viewing the events commemorated and celebrated this week as a divine drama, God pushing Jesus forward into arrest, trial, and crucifixion, and finally to resurrection.  God is in the driver’s seat, if you will, and always has been, needing things to turn out just this way.  After all, isn’t that what we mean when we say that Jesus in God incarnate, God appearing within a human life?

I think, though, that what unfolds in this week is not a drama driven by God.  Rather, it is a very  human drama in which God is a willing participant.  The elements of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday are all deeply human, and propelled by human beings.  The fear among those ancient religious authorities that Jesus will somehow ignite a revolution that will result in a blood bath;  the concern among Roman authorities about anyone who looks at all like a rallying point for Jewish aspirations for liberation and freedom; the disappointment of people who placed their hopes and expectations for such a revolution upon Jesus, and then become frustrated when he seems to be failing to act as they anticipated; the disappointment among some of his own disciples, and one particular disciple who decided to cooperate with the authorities in Jesus’ betrayal; the last, lingering meal of Jesus with his followers, knowing what is coming; the terror of those followers after Jesus’ arrest, running away out of fear for their own lives; their grief at the death of their teacher, a death which has made of Jesus a victim, and taken all the air out of any thought of revolution, relieving the societal pressure that had been building up around Jesus; the tenderness of his burial; and the deep humanity of the women who came to anoint his body.   All of these things speak of the complex dynamics of humanity, so easily drawn into fear, so ready to identify a victim to attach our fears to, and yet so shocked and grieved when we actually behold the victim in death.

What these days of Christ’s passion reveal to us is not a carefully laid out divine plan for our salvation, but the full truth of our own humanity, and the way we carry on with one another.  In Jesus, God enters into this human drama, becomes a willing participant in it, in order to reveal it for what it really is.

When we come to the end of the drama and behold its final act, the Risen Christ, then we really see what all this looks like in the light of the divine:  that all the fear, shame, guilt, and victimizing that to us seems so final, so absolute, and so necessary is a truth that God acknowledges but does not buy into.  In the Risen Christ, God finally does get in the driver’s seat, taking our human drama in an entirely new direction, showing us that we can live differently, that we can live outside of the dynamics of fear and death, shame and guilt, and be freed for a larger, fuller, more authentic, and inexhaustible life.

As we move through the heart of this Holy Week, I hope we will not see what happens to Jesus as following a divine plan, but rather, that we will see our God entering into the dynamics of our own humanity, in order to unmask them, name them, forgive them, and then move us beyond them into love.

Why I’m Fine Being “Ultra Liberal” & “Theologically Shaky”

faith-road-sign-with-dramatic-clouds-and-skyVery recently (just this past Sunday, in fact), a large church in our community decided to leave their current denomination (the Presbyterian Church USA) and join a new denomination that was just founded within the last couple of years.  Most observers characterize the new denomination as “more conservative.”   This decision, as you might expect, has received a fair amount of attention in the local press.  And, since the press is online these days, this gave people the opportunity to post comments — comments about the reasons given for the change, comments about suspected reasons for the change, comments supporting the change, and comments lamenting the change.  Someone, in response to comments about some people perhaps seeking a new church home, posted a comment suggesting that those looking for a new church might try ours.   Then, something interesting happened:  someone else posted a comment seemingly advising against choosing our church because, the author wrote, our church is “ultra liberal, theologically shaky, and membership weakened.”   The comment could not be found later, so it may have been deleted ultimately, but it did appear, at least for a while.  And it is that very comment that inspired me on the blog this week, because — for the most part — I would like to completely embrace these labels, and let you know why I’m completely fine being characterized as “ultra liberal” and “theologically shaky”.  I’ll get to the “membership weakened” comment, as well.

Ultra Liberal

In some respects, our church — like most Episcopal churches — would not be thought of as liberal, at least in terms of our worship.  We are a liturgical church, with an inherited tradition of worship that we strive to keep contemporary but whose form, symbolism, and ritual were developed centuries ago.  And most of the time, our music is pretty traditional.  So, in that sense, we could be thought of as conservative:  that is, in the classical sense of that term, which means that we have a tendency to “conserve” more ancient patterns of Christian worship and spirituality in creative ways.

BUT, I would imagine that the term “ultra liberal” in this case is meant to convey what is considered a “liberal” moral stance and way of being church.  For example, we ordain women and gay people, we bless gay marriages, and we tend to regard personal morality as, well, a personal matter.  Which means that we try hard not to pass judgment on people based on who they are, whom they love, and how they live their lives.  It’s not that these things don’t matter or are unimportant, but that they are deeply connected to a person’s relationship with God, and that who we are and how we live should emerge for each of us out of  that relationship, not be defined for us by a religious institution.  After all, St. Paul took great pains to point out that in Christ, we are invited to live not according to law imposed on us from outside, but by grace offered to us by God from within.

The term “ultra liberal” may also be related to the fact that I am not of the opinion that Christianity is the only way to reach God.  It can be a great way, it’s the way that works for me, and it’s the way I recommend to others because it’s what I know.  But I have known too many people whom I consider holy who have not been Christians, and I’m rather certain that God loves them.

So, I fully embrace the label of “ultra liberal” as a sign that I — and the community to which I belong — work hard to be open to all, without judgment.  That we aspire to be a sign of God’s kingdom in which all are joyfully welcomed just as they are, because all are loved deeply and passionately by God.   And I embrace the ultra liberal position that allows everyone to be full participants in the life of the church and all of its ministries and sacraments.

Theologically Shaky

I’m particularly happy to embrace this label.  Because, for me, “theologically shaky” means that we see the Bible not as an inerrant book that serves as a “text book” of the Christian faith, but rather as an amazingly diverse, complex, nuanced text that cannot interpret itself, but rather must be interpreted through a particular lens.  For me, that lens is Christ as I have come to know him and understand him within my own relationship with God.  The theologian James Alison (a Catholic!) points out that we always, ALWAYS read the Bible through a particular lens.  And if we think we don’t, then we simply are failing to see the lens that we are using.  For Alison, these lenses fall into one of two categories:  sacrifice or mercy.

When we read through a sacrificial lens, then we see our relationship with God as costing us something.  We see God as requiring sacrifice, beginning with the crucifixion of Jesus.  We embrace the Old Testament’s seeming tendency to ascribe acts of violence to God, or at least to God’s consent.  Ultimately, a sacrificial reading of the Bible finds people guilty, and in so many ways diminishes them by means of that guilt.  And much of what has been traditional Christian theology is done through a sacrificial lens.

However, when we read through a merciful lens, then we see our relationship with God as seeking to free us to be ever more ourselves.  We see that God is not the one who requires sacrifice, but that it is we human beings who require it, beginning with the crucifixion of Jesus and continuing through all the ways in which we human beings sacrifice one another.  The Old Testament becomes not a catalog of the many and various ways God will smite us if we step out of line, but allows us to see how readily we will ascribe the violence that we do to one another to God, in order to make it appear that this is the way God is.  It is using God as a cover to excuse the violence we do to ourselves and others.  Reading the Bible through a merciful lens allows us to see that God is seeking to draw us into a relationship that does not leave us guilty but grateful, and rather than diminishes us, empowers us to be beacon’s of God’s light.

It is not so much that I or we are theologically shaky.  Rather, we are willing to ask hard questions of our inherited tradition, and not simply accept the answers of the past.  I am always mindful that it is not our relationship with the Bible that is our salvation (a word which has more to do with transformation and healing than anything else), it is not having the correct doctrine or believing the correct things.  It is being in relationship with the living God.  The Bible, doctrines, and all things churchly are meant to introduce us to that relationship, not to replace it.  As our friends in the United Church of Christ like to say, “God is still speaking”.   And what some see as theological shakiness I see as a profound act of listening.

Membership Weakened

Okay, so this is rather an odd term.  And I assume that it refers to the fact that we are a smaller church (relatively speaking).  And, the Episcopal Church has gotten smaller over the years, in part because of everything I have just been talking about.   It’s not always easy to live as openly toward others as we try to live, or to live in the theological tension that comes with a questioning, listening stance.   And, our tendency to conserve ancient forms and patterns of worship and spirituality in creative ways isn’t always easy for people to get on board with.

But, we’re not weak.  We are simply smaller.  And while I wouldn’t mind being a bit bigger, smaller is not a bad thing.  Smaller allows us to have a community who feel like they know one another and are known.  It allows us, I think, to carry on holding ourselves a little more lightly, not taking ourselves too seriously even as we are up to some pretty serious stuff. And that smallness doesn’t keep us from doing some pretty great things both within our church and for the larger community.

So, I’m the Rev Matthew Dutton-Gillett, Rector of Trinity Church in Menlo Park:  I’m ultra liberal and theologically shaky.  And I’m totally fine with that.  In fact, I’m deeply grateful for it, and for the renewed relationship with God it has given me.

Faith as a Horizontal Phenomenon

faith-road-sign-with-dramatic-clouds-and-skyToday was the day that I resumed teaching James Alison’s course, Jesus, the Forgiving Victim, after a summer break.  And I found myself inspired by what I would call Alison’s ‘horizontal’ conception of faith.

Too often, he points out, Christians conceive of faith as something like a moonshot.  We set up a series of beliefs, and we tell people that they need to believe these things if they want to be Christian or “in” or “saved”.  These beliefs are set forth by some sort of appeal to authority, like “the Church” or “the Bible” or “God” or whatever.  To be faithful is defined to be the ability to subscribe to these beliefs at the level of the mind.  People are asked to accept the veracity of these beliefs “on faith”.  This is what I would call a vertical conception of faith:  on the one hand, an authority “up there” somewhere sets forth these beliefs as true, and we are asked to make a moonshot, to borrow Alison’s phrase:  to subscribe and uphold these beliefs, and their implications for how we live, simply because we are told they are true.

This vertical sort of faith often creates tension and anxiety.  On the one hand, those who are making the moonshot by subscribing to the beliefs that are set before them often find themselves wondering about whether these things are really true, but being unable to openly question them, because the authority that set them forth does not countenance such questions.  And so the believer in such a position often feels caught in a tension between him-/herself and the established authority behind the beliefs.   On the other hand, those who are somehow in authority in a  Christian community also can experience tension and anxiety when they learn that people have reservations about these beliefs which they have been appointed to represent and defend.   They need people to believe these things, because that is what it means (as far as they are concerned) to have faith.  Sometimes, people in this position will respond with rigidity, forcefulness, or even violence to defend these beliefs and their authoritative connection to them.

Alison suggests that faith is not meant to be a tense, anxious experience.  Rather, faith should enable us to relax into the One in whom we have faith.  For Alison, the stories of the Bible show us that knowledge of and connection with God emerges from human experience.  If we look at Jesus, for example, we see that everything he is doing is at the human level.  He lives a human life, he gathers around himself a group of followers and witnesses to who he is and what he does, and his crucifixion and resurrection unfold among human beings, within a particular human community, and are witnessed by a particular set of people.  Alison invites us to get wrapped up not in the crucifixion and resurrection themselves, for these are events that we did not witness.  Rather, he invites us to attend to the impact  of these events, what he calls a concavity.  Just as a meteor that hit the earth millions of years ago left its mark on the earth, a depression or concavity which scientists and others can explore, so did the Christ event, as some have called it, leave a similar sort of concavity within the lives of the apostolic witnesses.  The church, not as institution but as community of followers, is part of this concavity.  When the apostolic witnesses told the stories of the Christ event, Alison suggests that they were not asking people to make a moonshot:  they were not saying, “This is who Jesus is because we say so.”   Rather, they were saying, “We had this phenomenal experience that completely changed and transformed our lives.  Look at the effect of this experience on us and on those who come after us.”  To follow Jesus is, in part, to explore this concavity left in the human experience by the  Christ event.

And this seems to me to be a horizontal sort of faith.  Rather than asking us to accept a set of beliefs established by some authority, it invites us to explore the experience through the stories passed down to us, both stories of Jesus and stories of the ways in which the apostolic witnesses were transformed; through exploration of spiritual practices, including rituals of prayer and sacrament, that seek to present this witness to us in a different way and to induct us into it.  And as we relax into this exploration, we will discover ourselves changing, and as we do, we will become aware that there is a One who is behind this change, who is urging us into new patterns of being which that very One has made possible.  We will discover ourselves coming to believe things not because an authority decreed them, but because they have become meaningful within our own experience.  And this One does not make us anxious or tense, but rather enables us to relax into relationship with that One as we know ourselves to be loved by this One.

So faith is revealed to be not so much an act of obedience to an external authority, but a relaxed trust in the One who is working with us at our human level.