Giving Birth to God


Today is set aside in the church’s calendar to celebrate Mary, the Mother of Jesus.  The title by which she is most well-known in the Western world is as the Blessed Virgin Mary, and that has tended to lead to a preoccupation with Mary’s virginal status.  The Roman Catholic tradition followed this road to an interesting set of conclusions unique to that tradition and not shared by the rest of the Christian world:  the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, which maintained that Mary was born “without sin”, thereby setting her apart from the rest of humanity, and the doctrine of the Assumption, which says that upon Mary’s death, her body was taken up or “assumed” into heaven.  All of these factors, at least two of which have to do with a desire to maintain Mary is some set of purity, have, I think, obscured what this feast day really calls us to reflect upon:  the courage required to give birth to God in the world.

In the Eastern Christian world, the most well-known title for Mary is the Greek word “theotokos”, which means God-bearer.  It is a title that does not emphasize Mary as a virgin, and the Eastern church deeply disagrees with the Roman Catholic idea of immaculate conception that separates Mary from the rest of the human race.  The title God-bearer emphasizes, instead, what Mary did:  she was the bearer of God incarnate in Christ into the world.   And, in a very real sense, her courage to do so is a model for the courage that all followers of Jesus are called to have, the courage to allow Christ to be born in us, and the courage to be bearers of the Christ into the pain and brokenness of the world.

To me, this seems like a particularly urgent calling in today’s world.  Across the country and around the world there is a rising tide of fear, hatred, prejudice, violence, nationalism, homophobia, and misogyny.   We stand facing environmental crises that are so overwhelming that many people are tempted to deny their existence.  It seems that a world we had thought to have made progress toward a more enlightened way of living is slipping back into darkness.   And, sadly, too many people are using religion as a justification for that slipping backward, and in doing so, are twisting our religious traditions out of shape.

So on this day when we remember the courage of Mary is saying “Yes” to becoming a bearer of God’s light into the world, let us also remember that this same invitation is given to us.  May we, too, have the courage to say yes.  May we have the courage that shines through in every word of Mary’s song:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.

From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.

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.

Faith and Action


As the inauguration of the new president was approaching, the National Cathedral in Washington, DC — which is an Episcopal cathedral — announced that, in accordance with a tradition stretching back some years, it would be holding an Inaugural Prayer Service on the day after the inauguration.   At least within The Episcopal Church, this sparked quite a controversy.  Many Episcopalians who opposed Mr. Trump’s election felt that the National Cathedral should cancel its service, so as not to imply that either the cathedral itself or The Episcopal Church somehow endorsed the new president’s administration.

For me, it was an odd controversy.  Never before had I thought of the Inaugural Prayer Service, which has always been an interfaith service, as implying any kind of endorsement of whomever had been inaugurated or his administration.   It was, rather, a moment to pray for the future — not a president’s future, so much, but the future of the nation to which each presidency is tied.  The fact that this year, many people seemed to believe that the service somehow made the cathedral or the The Episcopal Church an endorser of the person elected perhaps speaks to the shift that has taken place in our political universe.

In the midst of this controversy, the Most Rev. Michael Curry, Presiding Bishop of The Episcopal Church, issued a statement on the matter, and I found his words quite powerful:

I grew up in a historically black congregation in the Episcopal Church. We prayed for leaders who were often lukewarm or even opposed to our very civil rights. We got on our knees in church and prayed for them, and then we got up off our knees and we Marched on Washington. Following the way of Jesus, we prayed and protested at the same time. We prayed for our leaders who were fighting for our civil rights, we prayed for those with whom we disagreed, and we even prayed for those who hated us. And we did so following Jesus, whose way is the way of unselfish, sacrificial love. And that way is the way that can set us all free.

Bishop Curry, as an African American, spoke something that we needed to hear at that moment, and that, I think, we continue needing to hear.  He reminded the people who were upset about the cathedral’s prayer service — and, at least as I was seeing it in various articles and postings, seemed to be overwhelmingly white — that minorities and oppressed peoples in this country have been praying for a long time for those who wished them ill.  “We got on our knees in church and prayed for them, and then we got up off our knees and we Marched on Washington.”   For Bishop Curry, as for much of the African American community, much of life has been lived in this dynamic of prayer and protest, never failing to offer prayers for leaders with whom they disagreed and who often wished them ill, and at the same time seeking to hold those leaders accountable for their leadership.

Those who were disturbed by the fact that the National Cathedral’s prayer service are, I think, mostly people who have never had to live in this dynamic.  People who, like myself, have never felt themselves threatened by power in any fundamental way, and who, therefore, have never really had to contemplate the relationship between prayer and protest, faith and action.

And it also seems to me that, for many white Christians — particularly maintain white Christians — we have a long practice of isolating our faith from the way in which we act in our public capacity as citizens.  Many white, mainline Christians have not seen a relationship between their faith — understood strictly as a personal matter of salvation and transformation — and their political lives.   The institutional separation of church and state has been seen as also embodying a separation of religion and politics.

On the one hand, keeping religion and politics separate is not a bad thing, if we are talking about refraining from using politics or political institutions to impose our religion on other people.   On the other hand, it becomes problematic when we do not allow the values of our faith to inform our personal civic lives, because then the values that our faith holds up for us are not given public voice, they are not advocated for.  I am reminded of a line from the Letter of James in the New Testament, “But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing” (James 1:22-25).  Too many of us have become too practiced at looking in the mirror of our faith that reflects Jesus’ words and teaching back into our lives, and then walking away from that mirror and forgetting about what we are called to do.  James sums up that call this way:  “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:27).  In other words, for James — and, I would argue, for Jesus — “true religion” is one in which faith informs action.  And to be “unstained by the world” means to stand up for the values of the Gospel, rather than giving in to the values that the world may embrace at any particular point in time.

Bishop Curry, in large part based, I think, on his experience as an African-American among whom this separation of faith and action did not become a habit, puts it this way:

Real prayer is both contemplative and active. It involves a contemplative conversation with and listening to God, and an active following of the way of Jesus, serving and witnessing in the world in his Name. For those who follow the way of Jesus, the active side of our life of prayer seeks to live out and help our society live out what it means to “love your neighbor as yourself.” So we work for a good and just, humane and loving society. We participate as followers of Jesus in the life of our government and society, caring for each other and others, and working for policies and laws that reflect the values and teachings of Jesus to “love your neighbor,” to “do unto others as you who have them do unto you,” to fashion a civic order that reflects the goodness, the justice, the compassion that we see in the face of Jesus, that we know to reflect the very heart and dream of God for all of God’s children and God’s creation.

If we truly wish to build a “good and just, humane and loving society”, then we surely must act in accordance with those values.   And we also, just as surely, must pray for those who seem to us to be working according to some other set of values.  Because we are called to love our neighbor, and to do to others as we would have them do to us.  And that does not change, even when our neighbor is someone we really don’t like, or with whom we really disagree profoundly.

That is the difficult calling which Bishop Curry was holding up for us: the call to live as fully as possible into the dynamic of prayer and protest, of faith and action.

My Brother’s — and Sister’s — Keeper

europe-refugee-crisis-father-and-baby-caritas-greece_opt_fullstory_largeThere’s a common expression in English that is used when we find ourselves in a situation in which we are being asked to be responsible for someone for whom we don’t feel responsibility:  “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  When we use the phrase, we are saying that we don’t feel that we are responsible for the person under discussion, or the actions they have taken.  In other words, we use it to say, “It’s not my problem.”   And, in my experience, it gets used as if it’s a positive statement, with the user sure that he or she is justified in feeling he or she truly is not responsible for this other person, and that this should be easily recognized and seen by those around them.

It seems that we don’t often stop to consider the source of that phrase, and the fact that in its original context, it is not meant as either a positive or defendable response.

The phrase comes from an incident in the biblical book of Genesis (chapter 4), as part of the story of the rivalry between Cain and Abel, who along with their parents, Adam and Eve, are meant to symbolize the beginnings of humanity.  In the story, Cain becomes angry at Abel because Abel’s offering to God is “accepted” and Cain’s is not.  The reasons are never entirely clear, and one might forgive Cain for being ticked off at this apparent arbitrary decision on God’s part not to accept Cain’s offering.   The key phrase in terms of understanding this is perhaps the line that says “God had regard for Abel and his offering”, which perhaps is meant to be an indication of Abel’s character as opposed to Cain’s which, ironically, is revealed in what follows.

In his anger with Abel (which is really misdirected anger with God), Cain kills his brother. In the story, God — who knows full well what has happened — asks Cain where his brother is, and Cain’s response is the one that has become our common expression:  “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?”

So in this story (which should be read symbolically rather than literally), the phrase that seeks to absolve Cain from responsibility for his brother is a phrase that is used to cover up a murder, to cover up what is the worst thing that one human being can do to another.   It is a story in which Cain seeks to justify his disposal of his brother by disavowing any responsibility for him — by disavowing his connection to him.

God finds this response unacceptable, of course, and requires Cain to leave his home and to wander in the world.  Cain worries about his own safety, what will happen to him when he encounters other people who don’t know him.   Ironically, Cain worries that he will meet the same fate as Abel, but at the hands of a stranger.  God places a mark upon Cain which, in some mysterious way, serves to protect him, warning others not to mess with him.   But the effect of Cain’s act is that he becomes a refugee, he becomes a wandering soul without home nor people, and he must live the rest of his days in the knowledge of what he did.

One of the lessons to be drawn from the story is that we are not supposed to emulate Cain. In other words, we are never to say, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”, because we are to realize that we indeed are our brother’s keeper — and our sister’s keeper.  We are meant to recognize that we are connected to our fellow human beings upon this planet, and the connection makes us responsible for their welfare.   We are not to emulate Cain because we are not allowed to pretend that the well-being of others has nothing to do with our own.  And Cain’s wandering in the world is, I think, as a wandering advertisement for this truth.   The mysterious mark, whatever the authors of the story imagined it to be, was a mark of our common humanity, and Cain was a sign to others that they could not hurt him because he was them, they were he, and their fates were inextricably bound together.

We find ourselves at this moment in human history awash in refugees, people who have been forced to wander the world without home, place, or people.  Except that they have not been made to wander as a result of any crime they have committed.  Instead, they have been forced to wander the world because of the crimes of others.   At the same time, this rising tide of refugees has led to a rising tide of fear toward them.  Rather than directing our attention to that which has left them as refugees, we more often choose to focus on them as “the problem”.  And as a result, we are increasingly tempted to say, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” in response to the question about what is to be done for them.   There is a great temptation to say that we are not responsible for them, which means we have no obligation to welcome them or make room for them in our lives or in the lives of our communities.

But clearly, as the Genesis story is meant to tell us, this is not what God would call us to in this moment.  Today’s refugees wander the world as a sign to us not of that which we are to fear, but as a sign that we are all connected to one another, and that we ignore that connection at our own peril.   The mark of the wanderer demands attention and response.  Just as Cain was wrong to pretend that he had nothing to do with his brother, so we are wrong to pretend that the refugee problem has nothing to do with us.

It comes down, once again, to that most basic teaching of Jesus:  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”   And when asked by someone who our neighbor is, Jesus made it clear that our neighbor is the person most in need of our help.

Am I my brother’s keeper?  Am I my sister’s keeper?  Absolutely.

Hope in the Uncertain Hour

hands-751107_640Jesus said to the disciples, “But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”  — Matthew 24:36-44

This past Sunday’s Gospel reading from Matthew, quoted above, is a bit weird.  Jesus talks about “the coming of the Son of Man” (himself) — an arrival that is unexpected.  At that moment, Jesus says, “Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.  Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.”  What is that supposed to mean?   The whole passage ends rather cryptically:  after exhorting us to stay awake, he says, “Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”

This story has often been interpreted through the lens of a “rapture theology”, in which it is believed that Christ will come again, and that when he does, those who are judged worthy will be “taken” with him into heaven, and those who are judged unfavorably will be left.  In that theological frame, this is just the beginning of a long period that constitutes the end of the world.  But I am not a “rapture theology” kind of guy.

This year, this passage has taken on new meaning for me, as I found myself looking at it not through the strange lens of rapture theology, but through that of current events.

There have been a number of people in my circle who, as a result of the election, have been thinking that perhaps the world IS coming to an end.  And in what is, for them,  understandable anger, fear, and/or anxiety, it seems that a number of people are veering into hopelessness.   And, I get that.  I have in  my own life heard the creeping footsteps of hopelessness pacing just outside my door from time to time.  And it is tempting, especially when feeling overwhelmed, to open that door and let hopelessness in.   But — and I know that this may sound harsh at first — that is not what Christian people, at least, are called to do.

And in this present moment, when so many are tempted by hopelessness, I heard this passage from Matthew’s Gospel as being all about hopelessness.

Whatever else it may be, the arrival of the “Son of Man” — the arrival of Jesus himself — is nothing less than the arrival of Hope.  When Jesus makes reference to the “days of Noah”, he is pointing to a biblical story that stands as the symbol of a world that has absolutely abandoned the dream of God for God’s people.  Things were so bad that the authors of the biblical story could imagine God attempting to wipe out the whole of humanity.  But, as people of faith themselves, those same biblical authors could not quite bring themselves to a point of utter hopelessness.  Noah and his family are the symbols of hope in that story — or, perhaps more accurately, the fact that God rescues Noah and his family along with all else that lives is the symbol of hope in the story.

And so Jesus, pointing to this biblical moment when all seemed lost, imagines that he himself will show up when the world seems again on the brink of losing it all.  And he comes as the symbol of hope, as the bearer of God’s hope, as the reminder that we human beings, who presume to have the last word about things, in fact, don’t.   That is the divine prerogative, and for Christians, Jesus is that last word — and it is a word of hope, a word of life, a word of compassion, a word of justice.

We are promised that in those hours or days or weeks when we feel that all is lost, Christ shows up bearing God’s hope to us.   The question is, are we willing to make ourselves see it?  Are we willing to grab on to it and refuse to let go?  If we do, then we are the ones “taken” in the parable — taken with Christ into a reign of hope that then becomes the basis and energy for our thoughts and actions.   But if we don’t, if we choose hopelessness, then we are the ones who are “left” in the parable.   Not by any arbitrary decision on God’s part, but by our own choice.

Therefore, Jesus counsels us to stay awake.  Much of the Christian spiritual tradition has understood this call to stay awake as a call to maintain a guard over our hearts and souls, to remain vigilant to the creeping footsteps of hopelessness so that it cannot come up behind us and capture us.  Jesus asks us to remain watchful, so that hopelessness does not steal our hope.  The whole of this passage, at least for me, at least for today, is a call not to lose hope.  Is a reminder that as Christian people, we live under an obligation to bear hope for the world.

I have quoted him before, but it’s worth quoting him again.  Once, retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa (he’s Episcopalian!  Well, Anglican, but it amounts to the same thing) was asked if he was optimistic about the world.  He responded that no, he was not optimistic.  But he went on to say that he was a Christian, and so that meant that while he was not optimistic, he was hopeful.  Because, as a Christian, he had to be hopeful.

I understand completely that willing yourself to be hopeful when you feel that everything around you is crashing down is a very hard thing to do.   There are days when I have trouble remaining hopeful myself.  But one thing that Jesus never said was that doing this stuff would be easy.  In fact, he made it quite clear that it would be very hard, indeed.  But just because something is hard does not mean we don’t do it.  In fact, it usually means that it is very much worth doing.

In this season of Advent, as we contemplate the birth of God’s word of hope into the world, we might consider that the spiritual practice that we most need to focus on in this moment is the practice of hope.  It may be a difficult practice, and we will surely not do it perfectly, but it seems to me we must attend to it.

And one of the consequences of attending to it is to be empowered.  When people have hope as the basis of their thought and action, they can move mountains.  They can do things they never thought they could.  Hope is a source of strength and power.  Hope is what carries movements of justice forward.  Hope is not, as is sometimes thought, the result of putting on rose colored glasses and refusing to see reality as it is.   Hope is a sacred power that sees the world as it is, inspires our vision to make it better, and gives us the energy to work to make that vision a reality.

Which is why the evil ones of this world prefer that we remain hopeless.  Because hopelessness takes way our strength, and leaves us unable to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with our God.  Hopeless people tend to lie down and be quiet.  And that is not what we need in this time.

So, my friends, this is a time for courage.  This is a time to refuse to open the door of your life to hopelessness and, if you have, now is the time to tell it to go home.  Because you are a follower of Christ, God’s word of hope to the world, and you choose to be a powerful bearer of hope to a broken and disillusioned world.

Love is Costly

241Recently, I was having a conversation with someone who struggles to reconcile the idea of a loving God with the suffering that goes on in our world.  The question to which this person returns again and again is, “If God is love, why does God allow so much suffering?”

In talking about this question, we spoke about love in the context of human relationships, and he touched on the death of his wife a few years ago and on a love he shares with a woman now.   This woman is beginning to have memory problems, and he wonders how it will feel if and when the day comes that she no longer remembers who he is.   In the midst of this poignant conversation, the words, “love is costly” floated through my brain.

Love is indeed costly.  The moment we sign up for it, we are not only signing up for great joy, but also for deep pain.  The human condition is such that making a commitment to love a partner or a child or a friend also means making a commitment to one day be parted from that person — either because of their death or ours.   And before that happens, the commitment to love also opens the door to other kinds of suffering:  the suffering of disappointment in the relationship, the possibility of betrayal, of misunderstanding, of fundamental disagreement about some important matter, and a whole host of lesser pains that dwell always as possibilities in the realm of human relationships.  We continue to choose love in the face of all of this because, in part, we are made for love — we cannot really realize the full depth of our humanity without loving someone, somehow, in some way.   We also continue to choose love because we have faith that the joy it will give us will be worth the painful parts.   And, we probably also continue to choose love because we don’t think about the painful parts.   After all, we commonly use the phrase “to fall in love” — which carries with it that sense that love happens to us, we are caught up in it before we consciously make any choice at all.   Love is indeed joyful — but it is also certainly costly.

It seems to me that if this is the case with human beings, then it is also the case with God. I suspect we don’t really think about love costing God anything, but if the love of God is real and genuine, then how could it not be costly?  There simply is no such thing as love without cost.  For Christians, the crucifixion is certainly a sign of the costliness of love.  It shows us that God suffers because God chose to love.  And it shows us the nature of this suffering:  that God suffers every time human beings choose not to love.  And God suffers every time we suffer.  It is impossible to know what the suffering of God is like, because we cannot know what it is like to see as God sees, to know as God knows.   But what we can be sure of is that if God loves, then God also suffers — because love is always costly.

In the moments when we are overwhelmed by our own suffering, or that of others, it is natural and understandable that we would wish that God might somehow intervene to end all suffering once and for all.  But that would require that God bring love to an end.  And that would require the end of existence itself.   In Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians, we read,  “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.  Love never ends” (1 Cor. 13:4-8a).   One of the points Paul is making is that love, by its very nature, does not seek to exercise control.  “It does not insist on its own way.”   We do not realize sometimes that when we wish for a God who intervenes to prevent suffering, or when we wish for a universe designed to exclude suffering, we are, in fact, wishing for an absence of love.   We might wish that God would create a love that had no cost — but the physics of theology tells us that is simply not possible.

So the love of God cannot provide us with a life free of suffering.  But that love does assure us of something very important:  that it will never leave us alone.  “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God” (Romans 8:38-39a).  Which means that, in the end, our suffering is not removed but it is transcended and transformed into a greater depth that surpasses our understanding — if we allow it.

All of this seems to me to be summed up in a quote from the great Frederick Buechner:

Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid.


What Praying for Orlando Really Means

241In the aftermath of the horrific violence against LGBTQ people in Orlando this past Sunday — as in the aftermath of all the mass shootings in the United States, of which this one was historically the most costly — we have heard people call for prayer.  As a priest, I would be among the first to declare that prayer is important.  But not, perhaps, in the way most people think.

I suspect, based strictly on many conversations with people about prayer over the years, that most people who engage in the practice of prayer do so in the hope of offering some kind of spiritual energy to those for whom they are praying.   That exchange of spiritual energy is, I think, a very real thing, even though it’s difficult to describe and, at least at the moment, impossible to measure.  And, praying for those effected by the murderous rampage in Orlando with this intention is certainly a good thing to do.

I would also suspect that another large group of people who engage in prayer do so with the hope of persuading God to do something.  Indeed, most of the official prayer of the Christian tradition (as with the other Abrahamic faith traditions) uses language that is directed toward this end:  please God, do something.  Engaging in prayer with this intention is problematic, because if God does not do what we ask, we are left with difficult questions that lead us into theological territory that tends, more often than not, to make God look at best, uncaring, and at worst, like a monster.

What most people in my experience seem not to understand about prayer is that engaging in the practice is really about changing ourselves.  If one reads the Christian tradition carefully — and, I would argue, the other great religious traditions of the world — it seems clear that all of the various ways we pray are meant to prepare us for the deepest prayer of all:  the contemplative prayer of the heart, in which we seek nothing but to engage with and be engaged by the Divine Presence.  And, in the context of that embrace, to consent to be softened.  The softening of contemplative prayer — or meditation, if you prefer — is a softening of the heart, mind, and soul.  It is a softening of the ego and of the passions that drive the ego.  It allows us to see the ways in which we suffer, and how that effects our relationships and the way we act in the world.  It shows us the places within us where love is found, but it also shows us the gaps where love is not in us.  And, over time, it seeks to fill those gaps with love — so that we may be totally and completely love.

This way of prayer is, it seems to me, the way in which we most need to pray in response to what has happened in Orlando.  Because we need a softening to happen among us.  We need to step away from the anger and hatred and violent passions that carry us away, and ultimately prevent us from experiencing the Divine.  It is, ultimately, the only way that we can short-circuit cycles of violence and retribution.  It is the only way we can truly deal with the turmoil in our society, which is ultimately a reflection of the turmoil within ourselves.  True peace in our culture can only happen when there is peace within us.

So, indeed, pray for those effected by what has happened in Orlando, and send out your energy to enfold them.  Pray to God — but in doing so, please recognize that we are truly God’s hands and heart in the world, and if we are looking for God to do something, that something must begin inside us, where the still small voice speaks in the vast silent embrace of love that lies at the center of our being.  And so, then, go within, allow God to reach you in the deepest places of your soul, and begin to be softened.  And as you act more and more in the world from that place of softening, so will you become a catalyst for peace.

I wish to end with a quote from the Rev. Paul Fromberg, which captures so well what we who would seek to follow Jesus are left with in the aftermath of all this death and destruction.  What he describes is, I think, both the act and the outcome of this softening of which I speak:

I spent hours thinking of something wise to write, something disruptive to do about the massacre of my sisters and brothers in Orlando. It keeps coming down to the essential truth of the Gospel: Love your enemies; pray for those who persecute you. This is the most radical starting place for restoring the moral order of society. Jesus taught other-love and not simply self-love or family-love or tribe-love. Living out of his teaching means that the manufacturers of the AR-15 assault rifle couldn’t make weapons designed to kill our enemies. It means that the NRA would have to work actively for the sake of eliminating weapons that are designed to kill our enemies, instead of preventing our elected officials from passing reasonable legislation to stop the sale of killing machines. It means that instead of stereotyping, demeaning and marginalizing members of Islam, we would do anything in our power to protect their dignity and honor. But, as a nation, we do not believe in the commandment of Jesus, not to the point of radicalizing the national conversation about violence. Which is why the only thing I know to do is be converted to the love of God manifest in Jesus, demonstrate that love to everyone that I encounter, and trust that God can empower me in this love to act for the sake of enemies and those who persecute. Love is the most disruptive force in the universe – it always has been and it always will be.

—  The Rev. Dr. Paul Fromberg, St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church, San Francisco

The Sound of Sheer Silence

soundofsilenceNow there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before God, but God was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but God was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.  When Elijah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave.   — 1 Kings 19:11b-13a

Human beings seem to have a kind of natural attraction to power — both the kind of power that is inherent in being able to destroy something or force someone else to do what you want, and the kind of power inherent in both a well-articulated and delivered speech and in an angry rant.  The stories that gain traction in our culture (seen in movies and television shows, for example) are often stories that radiate power as good and evil collide.  The politicians and other sorts of leaders who gain traction in our culture tend to be those who who can rant with power.  Power is currency.   Those who have it want to keep it, and often to have more, and those who don’t want it try to figure out how to get it.

The Christian tradition is not immune to this fascination with power.  Church leadership has historically been very concerned with power.  And, we have imagined God as being the Most Powerful.   The biblical narratives that seek to introduce us to God are often stories of power:  God creating, God destroying, God punishing, God healing.  Religious people have loved these stories of the All Powerful God for centuries, and they reenforce the image of God we often carry with us — of God as the ultimate power-broker, who can do anything and everything.   We often find ourselves wondering about the ways God chooses to use this power — or to not use it — but we seldom seem to question God’s all-powerfulness.

In the midst of these stories of God’s power, then, we have this little scene quoted above, from the First Book of Kings.   It features the prophet Elijah, the “original prophet”, one might say, and one who occupies a special place in the Jewish tradition.  Leading up to this scene, Elijah has gotten fed up with the people of Israel, and has run away, believing that there is nothing to be gained by continuing his prophetic ministry.  He hides out in a cave. In the midst of Elijah’s crisis, God comes to him.   And that brings us to this scene, in which God’s “arrival” is narrated.  There is a list in this narrative of a series of powerful things that one might associate with God:  an immensely strong wind, an earthquake, and a great fire.  But, the story tells us, God was not in any of these things.  Instead, God showed up in the “sound of sheer silence.”

What a different image of God this is compared with the one we seem mostly to carry with us.  The sound of sheer silence suggests a number of things to me.  First, it suggests that silence is not an absence, but a presence.  We don’t normally think of silence as having a sound — instead, we think of it as an absence of sound.  But this text suggests that silence does have a sound.  That is, it has a quality of presence.  It is capable of carrying something to us.  There is something in silence to be discovered.  Second, this silence seems foundational to me.  Before there was anything, there was silence.  The biblical metaphor of creation is of God speaking things into being.  If you think about it, silence is like a canvass for speech — and for music, and for all other sounds.  Silence, then, is the foundation for everything.  And if silence is, in fact, not an absence but a presence — a bearer of the Divine Presence — then it becomes the foundation of creation itself.  Silence appears to be passive, but this text suggests that it has a power of its own — a power that, indeed, enables everything that is.

Mystics within the Christian tradition — and, indeed, within all the world’s spiritual traditions — have long appreciated the power of silence, and its capacity for connecting us  with God.  By plumbing the depths of silence through various spiritual practices, mystics the world over have found something profound and rich within it.  They have found in it the very sort of foundational, enabling power that this text seems to point us toward.

When we look at God’s power from the perspective of this sort of silence, it seems to me that it is revealed as a power that gives rise to life itself, as a power that seeks to anchor that life in the life of God, as the powerful foundation upon which each of us stands, whether we are aware of it or not.  And what the mystics and spiritual explorers down through the ages have tried to tell us is that when we are able to touch this power, we find ourselves drawn more deeply into the divine life.   As Christians, we would speak of this as encountering the Risen Life of Christ.  These same explorers have also spoken about how transformational these encounters are, particularly when we adopt spiritual practices that allow us to regularly encounter God in the way Elijah did — in the sound of silence.

Unfortunately, our modern lives are quite noisy.   As you think about your typical day, how much room for the sound of silence do you have?  Are there moments when you are really able to listen to the silence, to touch its power, and to encounter the divine life that pulses within it?  For most of us, I suspect that there are not very many such moments from day to day.  That means, of course, that we must intentionally create spaces for ourselves when we can listen to the silence.  Sometimes, that might look like it did for Elijah:  going off to a place apart, away from the noise of our lives.  But most of us can’t, of course, do that very often.  So we must look to create smaller spaces in the dailiness of our lives where we can meet God in the silence that is our life’s foundation.

As we create such spaces for ourselves, we might find that the silence is a little disconcerting.   Part to that will be because we not accustomed to spending much time in silence.  But part of that may be that there is some part of ourselves that knows that the silence is powerful, and not being familiar with that power, there is a sense of being unsettled.   In those moments, we should remind ourselves that this sacred silence is where we came from, and it is really the “place” in which we live and move and have our being.  It is the canvass upon which our life is painted.  It is, indeed, the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.   If we allow ourselves to sink into it, and it to sink into us, we shall be anchored more and more in God.


Returning by Another Road

The Epiphany is depicted in a mural titled "Adoration of the Magi" in the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception at Conception Abbey in Conception, Mo. Painted by Benedictine monks in the late 1800s, the artwork is the first appearance of the German Beuronese style in a U.S. church. Christians celebrate the incarnation of the divine word -- the birth of Christ -- Dec. 25. The feast of the Epiphany is Jan. 2. (CNS photo courtesy Conception Abbey) (Nov. 8, 2004)

Yesterday — January 6 — began the season of Epiphany, whose heart is the story from Matthew’s Gospel about the three wise men who come from the  East, following a star, looking for the “king” whose birth they believe the star to announce.  They pay a visit to King Herod, believing that he would want to help them locate this newly-born king.  They are not at first aware of how threatening this news is to Herod, who asks that they let him know where they find Jesus, so that Herod can pay his respects, too (something, of course, which Herod has no intention of doing).  The wise men do, indeed, find the baby Jesus and give him their famous gifts.  At the conclusion of their visit, however, they “return home by another road”, having been warned that Herod’s intentions are anything but honorable.

This sweet story is usually interpreted as pointing symbolically to the significance of Jesus’ birth for people outside the Jewish community — for the wise men come “from the East”, meaning they are not Jews.  And much has been made of the symbolism of their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.   Particularly of the myrrh, which was traditionally used in the anointing of bodies after death — and therefore is taken to be a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own death.

This year, I have found myself wondering about the symbolism of the rest of the story.  For me, the wise men strike me as pilgrims, as spiritual seekers who are wise enough to perceive that in Christ, God has come into the world in a new way.  And they recognize that this particular coming of God is something they need.  It is like a light — or a star — that draws them to Christ.  And so they make their pilgrimage, leaving their home and the land that is familiar to them to go to a strange place.  Part of their wisdom is that they are wise enough to know that they can’t stay home, they can’t simply remain in their comfort zone.

When they encounter Christ, they have the courage to open their treasure chests — to open their hearts to him.  Indeed, the story suggests that it is in encountering the Christ that they are drawn to open their treasures to him, to share with him that which is most precious in their lives.  It requires courage, because the moment they open their hearts they are opening themselves to transformation, to change.  They are letting the light of Christ in, and they will never be the same.

And so their encounter with Christ sets them on a new path.  They do return home, they go back to the familiar and comfortable, but they do so “by another road”.  The return home different than when they left.  They are not quite the same people.  They have allowed Christ into themselves, and they have begun to be recreated from within.

Some people, like Herod, cannot make this journey, because it is too scary.  Rather than seeing the beauty of allowing Christ to remake them, they see only the cost of that remaking.  They cannot let go of what must be surrendered in order to embrace the light.

As we make our way into Epiphany this year, may we see the invitation to open our hearts to Christ and allow ourselves to be remade not as threatening, but as reassuring.  May we see it as God’s movement toward us in love, as an opportunity to become the light we see in Jesus, and thereby to bring light to the world.

God-With-Us (A Christmas Eve Sermon)

nativity-iconWhenever I find myself away from the lights of our urban sprawl  — up at Bishop’s Ranch in Sonoma County, for example, or driving across the vast expense of the Western US — I never fail to be astonished when I look up into the night sky, and behold the incredible beauty of the shining stars and the cosmic light of the Milky Way.    My astonishment comes, of course, from the beauty of the night sky, but it also comes from the knowledge that the light I see left those stars unimaginable numbers of years ago, and is only now reaching earth.   And more amazing still is the knowledge that some of those stars don’t even exist anymore — but we won’t know that until the light fades, probably unimaginable numbers of years from now.

Those shining lights, and their unfathomable journey through time and space, remind me that our human existence is a moment in an expanse of time so vast that we can hardly begin to contemplate it.  We are sitting here tonight as the result of a long series of events that started with the Big Bang billions of years ago and has extended out over that vast distance of time through the formation of the galaxy, the solar system, our planet, and the long evolutionary development of life on earth from simple organisms to the complexity that we are.  This history has moved forward from that Big Bang, and moves forward still.  But we can only understand it backwards.  We are only able to make this history meaningful by looking back from where we are now toward the beginnings of our universe.  And so much of what we are trying to look back at, in order to understand how we came to be here now, is still shrouded in mystery.    And yet, we continue to explore the universe as deeply as we can in our insatiable pursuit of the question, “How did we come to be here?”    To paraphrase Kierkegaard, Life moves forward, but it is only understood backwards.

This is true of the life of the universe, and is also true of each of our individual lives.  We live our lives forward from the moment of our birth, but we only  make sense of our lives — make our lives meaningful — by looking backward from the point at which we now stand.  And as we grow and mature, as we gain experience with both joy and sorrow, how we make sense of our lives, the meaning that we are able to take from our lives, invariably shifts as our perspective shifts.   Just as physicists and astronomers look back into the light of ancient stars and seek to construct a narrative of our universe that renders it sensible and meaningful, so are we constantly writing and re-writing our own narratives to give sensibility and meaning to the journey of our personal lives.

What is true of our lives is also true of the life of Jesus.  His life moved forward from the moment of his birth, but the church has only been able to make sense and meaning of his life by looking backward from a particular point in time.

On the day that Jesus of Nazareth was born, his birth was of interest to no one beyond his family and their friends, and perhaps the community and synagogue into which he was born.   His family held no important position, and their existence was not considered any more important than that of the average Nazarene.

So no one took particular notice of Jesus, as the lack of any substantive stories about his childhood seems to symbolize.   No one took notice of Jesus until he burst upon the scene proclaiming, “The kingdom of God has drawn near.”   No one took notice of Jesus until his preaching and his teaching and his healing of people gave him a reputation that drew people to him in large numbers.  The rabbi Jesus was someone to behold — the rabbi Jesus was not to be missed.

Then it all seemed to fall apart.  Jesus was arrested, crucified, his movement imploded, and everyone thought it was over.  And into the dark despair of his most intimate friends, at the moment when any hope that being with Jesus had kindled within them seemed to fade, a singular, life-altering, mind-bending moment irrupted into their lives:  the Risen Christ appeared among them.  They experienced Jesus as somehow being alive.  It was, you might say, the theological equivalent of the Big Bang.  It was the moment when everything changed.

And it was also from that singular moment that those first Christians began to look backward through the life of Jesus.  In the Risen Christ, they experienced God as with them.   And as they thought about their time with Jesus in the light of this experience, they realized that whenever they were with Jesus, they had experienced God as with them in him.   And so, this must be what Jesus had always been, from the very moment of his birth:  God with them, God with us.  In Hebrew, that idea is captured by the word, “Emmanuel”.

Held, as they were, in thrall by this perception, by this experience of Emmanuel — God-with-us in Jesus — they began to build a narrative of Jesus’ life that actually begins with the Resurrection and moves backward through everything that they remembered of what Jesus had done and said.   They tried to tell us as much as they could of the facts of Jesus’ life, but more than that, they wanted to tell us that when they were with Jesus, they knew that God was with them.  They wanted us deeply to know this, so that we could experience God with us in Jesus, as well.  Because for them, this truth held hope for the world.  For them, this truth held the key to living a transformed life rooted in God.   For them, this truth was everything.

So tonight, as we hear once again Luke’s achingly beautiful telling of the story of Jesus’ birth, it is just like going out into a dark place and looking  up at the light of the stars.   That story comes to us as a light that has traveled through time and space, a light whose origin is shrouded in mystery.   We so often end up wondering about its factuality, raised as we have been in an environment that equates truth with fact.  But that is not the kind of wondering Luke’s story is meant to provoke in us.  No, Luke’s story is meant to provoke in us the same kind of wonder that we experience when we look up into the night sky.   It is meant to move us into a place of awe, which is why it is so awe-somely told:  with angels singing, and shepherds abiding, and animals lowing, and the stars shining in the heavens.  Just as the lives of the first followers of Jesus ended up revolving around the Resurrection, that singular moment that changed everything, so did they tell the story of Jesus’ birth as if it were the singular moment around which all of creation revolved on that night so long ago.   Because they were not simply telling us the story of a baby’s birth; they were telling us the story of God with us in Jesus.

I don’t know what your life might be revolving around these days.  Maybe you’re not sure yourself, at least some of the time.  But tonight, each of us is invited once again to stand in the darkness of a hurting, imperiled, uncertain world and look up at the light of the Christmas story.   As that beautiful light filters down to us from centuries ago, our task is not to analyze it, but to fall in love with it.  And when we fall in love with this beautiful, ancient story, we fall in love with Emmanuel.  And we can believe again in the possibility and the power of God-with-us.   It is a power that completely changed the lives of Jesus’ first friends, and it is a power that can change our lives now.  And through us, it is a power that can change the world.

God-with-us is the power of hope.  God-with-us is the power of love.  It is the power of realizing that God is not simply out there somewhere, but is within and among us, as Jesus himself said (Luke 17:21).  Human history is a testament to how badly we need this power of God-with-us, and how often we misunderstand it, or forget it all together.

We remember tonight the birth of Jesus in history, the appearance of Emmanuel:  God-with-us, and the beauty of the light he brought into the world.  We pray tonight for the re-birth of Christ in our hearts, that we may know the power of God-with-us, and shine that beautiful, ancient light into the dark, suffering corners of our own souls, and of the world.