Giving Birth to God

mother-of-God-the-sign

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.

Paris, Climate Change, and the Elevation of Selfishness

‘Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?’ He said to him, ‘ “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbour as yourself.” On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.’   — Matthew 22:36-40

In Matthew 7:21, Jesus says, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven.”   To understand the full implications of this teaching, we must recognize that the ‘kingdom of heaven’ is not a place where we go when we die, but rather, it is a state of being into which we are drawn through our following of Jesus, a state of being which alters all of our relationships — with ourselves, with others, with our world — in a Christ-like direction.   We must also appreciate that, in this teaching, Jesus elevates doing over believing.  One does not, he says, enter the state of being referred to by the kingdom of heaven just by calling Jesus “Lord” — which signifies adherence to a set of beliefs that make that title meaningful.   Rather, it is putting into action the values of the kingdom of heaven as one follows Jesus as Lord that brings one into the new set of transformative relationships that constitute entry into the kingdom.

It is important, I think, that we appreciate the full depth of this particular teaching of Jesus on this day when the President has withdrawn the United States from the landmark Paris Climate Treaty that was concluded among 195 countries two years ago.  Because many of those who have brought about that decision call Jesus “Lord.”  And yet, the justification provided for this decision would indicate that they are very far from the kingdom of heaven.

The justification given for withdrawing from the Paris Treaty is, in the end, about selfishness — which, of course, was the very argument that brought the current administration to power.  It all comes down to “America First” — and so it does not matter what the rest of the world thinks, nor does the health of our planet matter, nor does the well-being of the whole human community.  It only matters whether it serves our own narrow interests as Americans.   Putting aside the fact that, in the long run, the provisions of the Paris Treaty will aid the health of the planet and, thereby, serve our interest as human beings who live here, to put forth such an argument as the basis of exiting an international treaty is the very definition of selfishness, and caters to the basest of national instincts.  All of this is the culmination of years of skepticism about the science of climate change on the part of large parts of the American population, most of whom also accept a narrative which places science and religion in opposition to each other, which venerates ignorance above learning, and, as one politician proclaimed early this week, believes that if climate change is really happening, God will save us from it.

Has it not occurred to anyone that the gift of human intellect upon which science, and so much else, depends, is God’s way of saving us?

It seems necessary to offer a reminder that selfishness is not a Christian virtue.  The whole of Jesus’ life and teaching points to the exact opposite of selfishness, embracing the virtue of self-giving, and of putting others’ needs before our own.  In no way is there any justifiable Christian theology that supports this idea of “America First”,  no authentic Christianity that justifies putting the perceived, short-term self-interest of a few million people ahead of the well-being of an entire planet of billions.

To love God with one’s whole being, and to love one’s neighbor as one’s self, is the basic ethical stance of the authentic Christian tradition.  It is the ethic that Jesus taught and on which he based his life.  It is the putting of that ethic into action that opens the doors of the kingdom of heaven, that brings us into the state of being that Jesus calls us to.  That ethic does not give us permission to love ourselves more than our neighbors, nor does it give us permission to adopt a narrow definition of “neighbor” that begins and ends at the American border.

I am not proud today to now be part of one of the few countries in the world that has turned its back on the biggest crisis to face humanity, choosing to hide behind the tribal wall of an increasingly ugly nationalism.  And I am angry to be connected with those who use the name of Jesus and the Christian tradition to defend the selfishness that nationalism promotes.

Jesus also said we must love our enemies — and that is hard to do on a day like today.  And I wonder how much love we will get from the rest of the world, when the United States has today become an enemy of the planet.

Let no one dare to say that what has been done today is somehow consistent with the Christian faith.  It is not.  It is simply being selfish.

And They Had Everything in Common: Re-Imagining God’s Dream for Humanity

On Sunday, May 7, I was invited to Preach at Stanford University’s Memorial Church in their regular Sunday service, University Public Worship.  That sermon is what follows.  Before you read it, I want to just make an observation about it.  The invitation to preach at Stanford came with an invitation to preach something challenging.  And I think this sermon takes that invitation seriously.  I am aware that, read through a certain lens, some of what I say in this sermon could be interpreted to suggest that people who voted for the current administration are somehow bad people.  That is not what I believe.  This sermon explores how the Christian movement is seen, particularly by young people — which seemed appropriate in a university setting.  It also explores the way in which voting patterns among the majority of white evangelical and mainline Protestant Christians in the last election contribute to that perception.  It also asks whether the priorities of the current administration are consistent with what we see Jesus doing and teaching in the gospels.  I would suggest that this is always an important question for religious people to be asking, Christian or otherwise, regardless of the party or administration in power.  I do not advocate, in any way, that any religion should dictate national policy.  But people who take their religion seriously cannot, it seems to me, keep that commitment completely separate from the public policy choices they would advocate.  

Scriptural Texts: Acts 2:42-47 & John 10:1-10

Over the years, I’ve been on the Stanford campus many times, and, as far as I can tell, there are no sheep at Stanford.  And there is no degree offered in the art of shepherding.   That, of course, is just a sign of what is true in our society generally:  namely, that very few of us know much about sheep or shepherds, and that the vast majority of us live at quite a distance from the kind of life that sheep and shepherding represent. The people of Jesus’ time lived much closer to the land.  Agricultural life was more of an immediate reality to them.  And so the metaphors of sheep and shepherds used in this morning’s Gospel would have been much more familiar.  But, for us, these metaphors are far less accessible.

About 30 years ago, I knew a priest who attempted to make these metaphors more alive for his congregation.  His name was Ted Rice, a now-retired Episcopal priest, and he actually had a brother who was a shepherd in New England.  Ted described what he witnessed of the relationship between his shepherd brother and his flock.  It so happened while Ted was visiting his brother, that there was a particular ewe who was having a great deal of difficulty giving birth.  Ted described how his brother had stayed with the ewe throughout the night, tending to her, keeping her calm, even singing to her.  His brother knew exactly what to do, how to reach in and gently turn the lamb and, ultimately, make it possible for the young sheep to be born, without endangering its mother’s life.  Ted was deeply moved by the tender relationship between his brother and the sheep, by the obvious love that bound them to each other, by the degree to which his brother placed the needs of his flock before his own.  As I listened to Ted describe this, what came to mind for me was the image of the shepherd as midwife, one who attends another in order to help bring to birth new life.

So when I hear Jesus being cast in the role of the shepherd, I always find myself returning to this story of Ted’s brother, and the connection it suggests between the image of the shepherd and the image of the midwife.  Jesus, it seems to me, is trying to bring forth new life in and among those who are his followers.  He comes to us as shepherd and midwife to bring a new way of living and being to birth, and he entrusts this same mission to the community his followers founded, to that community that we call “church”.  Elsewhere in John’s Gospel, in the 21st chapter, the Risen Christ walks with the disciple Peter on the beach and says to Peter, who represents the church as a whole, that a consequence of loving Jesus is that Peter – and the community he and the others are about to create – is to take on the mission of feeding and tending the sheep.  In other words, to do for others what Jesus has done for them.

And so, centuries later, it seems legitimate to ask the question, is the church living up to this calling?  Are we, in our various Christian communities, helping to bring to birth new ways of living and being as Jesus did in his own life and work?

As I survey the state of Christianity today, I have to say that I think the short answer to that question is, much of the time, “No.”  One sign of this is the image that Christianity currently enjoys in the public square, particularly among younger people.   Studies have shown that among people 16 to 29 who do not go to church, Christianity is frequently described as “judgmental”, “hypocritical”, and “old fashioned.”  When you combine the low impression of Christianity among increasing numbers of young people with the degree to which that same demographic tended to favor candidates like Bernie Sanders or Gary Johnson in the last election, what emerges, I think, is a view of the church as an institution which does not challenge the status quo of our world but is seen to reinforce it, often at the expense of those among us who, in some way or other, would be considered vulnerable.  In other words, the church is often seen as supporting the world’s ways of living and being, rather than helping to bring to birth something new.

This view of the church stands as quite a contrast to the image of the Christian community that we catch a glimpse of in this morning’s reading from the book of Acts.  Let’s listen again to the way that early community is described: “All who believed were together and had all things in common:  they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.”

This description is of a church that has not yet become an institution, a community of Jesus’ followers who enjoy no privileged position in society, who have no power at all, who are a small minority with respect to both the Jewish community around them and the larger Roman Empire of which Judea had become a part.  What shapes the life of that community is set forth in the first line of the passage:  they “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”  And the results of that devotion are made clear when it says, “Awe came upon everyone…they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of the people.”   This certainly sounds to me like a community in which something new is being born, a community that is adopting a new way of living and being that is based not on status or wealth, but on the notion that baptism is the great leveler, that being in Christ places everyone on the same footing.  It is a community that provides an alternative to the social structures of the time, in which status and wealth matter very much, and in which the poor and the vulnerable are often marginalized and left to fend for themselves.  And it seems to have been deeply attractive.

This early form of Christian community, and others that sprang up in the decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, were alternative communities whose values, in fact, undermined those of the prevailing culture.  And it was not so much an alternative to Jewish culture out of which, after all, Christianity was born, but an alternative to Roman culture, particularly as increasing numbers of new Christians were not drawn from Judaism but from the Roman, Gentile world.  We see this very much in the writings of St. Paul, who – though he was very concerned about figuring out how to get his fellow Jews to become followers of Jesus – was principally focused for most of his life on planting churches among the Gentiles.  Remember that Paul’s writings are the earliest to be found in the New Testament, and in them we find the language used by the early church to talk about Jesus.

The Roman Catholic priest and scholar, John Dominic Crossan, has argued that this language – the terms “Lord”, “Son of God”, “Kingdom of God”, “Savior” – is all drawn from the language that Romans used to talk about their emperor and his empire.  Indeed, while we are accustomed to speaking of the “Roman Empire”, Romans of the time were more accustomed to thinking of it as the “Kingdom of Rome.”  Caesar was Lord and Savior, and the term “son of god” was part of his title.  In his letters, Paul takes all of this language and applies it to Jesus – clearly establishing Jesus as a rival to Caesar, and the Christian community as an alternative to  Roman society.  For Paul and for early Christians, the death and resurrection of Jesus marked the in-breaking of the kingdom of God into the world, which pointed to a way of living and being that challenged the values of the kingdom of Rome. Caesar’s titles were emptied of the power that they were meant to convey, and their meaning redefined in light of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, which revealed that real power lay in sacrificial self-giving, in radical love, in embracing the inherent beloved-ness of every person as a child of God.  Far from supporting the status quo, far from being allied with wealth and power, the early church was truly a countercultural presence beneath Roman society, a “new thing” coming into the world that was most attractive to those who benefited the least from the prevailing social norms and structures, as well as to those who may have benefited from them, but who could see the injustices inherent within them.

All of this, of course, changed in the fourth century, when the Roman Emperor Constantine had his mysterious conversion experience, part of which was a belief that the Christian Christ was the one to whom he owed thanks for his decisive victory over his brother, which allowed him to consolidate his power.  In what was really a remarkably short span of time, the Christian community moved from being this alternative, even subversive presence beneath Roman society to being an institution that was on its way to enjoying great privilege and power at the heart of Roman society.  The church, over time, certainly changed Rome, but Rome also changed the church.  Gone, for example, was the early church’s deep commitment to pacifism, which could not be maintained once Christianity became the official religion of the greatest military power in the ancient world.  The conversion of Rome to Christianity was a decisive historical turning point, and it set Christianity on a path that transformed it from being an alternative form of community that nurtured new forms of relationship to being a cultural institution that blessed the powerful, reinforced prevailing social, cultural, and economic norms, and helped keep women and the poor in their places.

Today, we are part of a Christian movement that has traveled a very long way from what is described in the book of Acts.   We are not seen as the shepherd-midwife who nurtures new forms of relationship and works to help bring to birth new life, but rather as that ancient relative at the family gathering who laments the loss of the way things used to be and occasionally yells at the neighbors to get off the lawn.  Increasingly, we no longer enjoy the “goodwill of the people” because they sense that we have somehow lost the soul of Jesus’ life and teaching.

And that perception has only been reinforced in the last election cycle.  Last November, 81% of white evangelicals and 50% of white mainline Protestants voted for the administration that is now in power.   And setting aside the polarizing personalities that are a part of that administration and its congressional majority, let’s just consider a list of some of the policy positions that they are advocating:  a radical reduction in the numbers of immigrants and refugees admitted to the country; a construction of a physical wall along our border with Mexico; a reform of the health care system that most analysts agree would serve to favor the healthy and wealthy and disadvantage the poor, the old, and the sick; reducing or eliminating funding for the arts and other public cultural entities while dramatically increasing military spending; rolling back environmental regulations and withdrawing from the Paris Climate Treaty;  fundamentally changing current trade agreements or withdrawing from them all together.

None of these policy positions point to the birth of anything new, nor do they suggest new forms of being and relationship.   Instead, they involve a reassertion of the past and a denial of new realities that are emerging in our culture and in our world.  It is exactly this that the majority of white Christians voted for, and exactly this that a majority of young people voted against.  And those who are the principal protagonists of these policies mostly promote them under a mantel of faith in Jesus and adherence to Christianity.   And so Jesus and the church are put forth as the allies of the politically powerful and as blessing the policies that they choose to promote.

But none of this is really found in the gospels, in what we see Jesus doing and saying.  The community that Jesus comes to shepherd and to midwife is made up mostly of people who lived at the margins of their society, of people who had been cast out by the majority for one reason or another.   If you look at the healing ministry of Jesus, which was such a big part of what he was doing, notice that the illnesses he heals are of a very particular sort.  In almost every case, Jesus’ heals people of illnesses that had caused them to be cast out of their communities, because of fear and stigma that was attached to them in the ancient world.  He heals them, thereby nullifying the thing that caused them to be cast out, and then he returns them to their communities.  And when they return, they return as agents of transformation for those communities, because the people who had cast them out have to receive them back, and to do so requires them to change their point of view, to see these formerly cast out people in a new way.  Jesus does not build walls between people, but breaks them down.  Jesus does not seek to reinforce systems that protect the wealthy and the healthy, but seeks to change those systems, to force them to include the poor and the sick, the disadvantaged and the outcast.  Jesus does not encourage us to be preoccupied with our own desire for security, but invites us to step out of our need for security to discover that beyond the borders of our fear lie other human beings, just like ourselves, who are simply trying to live their lives in peace, and who simply want others to see their humanity.

Here’s what it comes down to, I think:  the default mode of an unredeemed and untransformed humanity is to live with a sense of fear and scarcity, and on the basis of these, to draw lines and create systems that keep everyone in their place.  Those who have the means to protect themselves and prosper do so; those who do not suffer the consequences.  What we often fail to realize is that living this way disfigures the humanity of all of us, planting seeds of war and violence everywhere.   The advantaged struggle to keep their advantage, and the disadvantaged struggle to gain some advantage.  The church has too often been a partner in this way of living, blessing prosperity as some kind of sign of the divine favor and assuring the disadvantaged that their reward is in heaven.

But as Christians, we are not supposed to be content with humanity’s default mode.  We are supposed to be interested in humanity’s redemption and transformation.   And as more and more people question the veracity and efficacy of the Gospel, as it is made known through our preaching and practice, we are challenged to recover the soul of Jesus’ life and teaching, to rediscover our role as shepherds and midwives who are called to bring to birth new patterns of relationship like those that existed in the earliest Christian communities.   We are called to re-imagine the kingdom of God, God’s dream for humanity, through that key line in the reading from Acts: “And they had all things in common.”   As human beings, we do, indeed, have all things in common, from this planet that we share to the societies of which we are a part.  It is only when we are able to see the common ways in which we are tied together, the lines of connection that bind us to one another, that we are truly able to realize God’s dream for God’s people.   We must nurture what Jesus seeks to nurture in us:  sacrificial self-giving, radical love, and the recognition of the beloved-ness of every human being.

If we fail to live up to that challenge, then we become the thieves and robbers who protect some of the sheep while leaving others vulnerable.  But if we can live into that challenge, then we become like Jesus himself:  a gateway through which we can re-imagine our own humanity, and the human community of the world.

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.

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.

 

Whose Story Shapes Your Reality?

your-storyThe theologian James Alison has said of human beings that “we are the animals that tell stories.”  When one thinks of the ways in which we are unlike other animals that inhabit our world, this is surely something that makes us different.   And this story-telling is not just a propensity we have or a habit we indulge.   It’s not just something we do because we like to do it, nor is it something we could choose to give up doing.  For it is precisely this telling of stories that constitutes our reality and makes it meaningful.

The primary way in which we make sense of ourselves and the world around us is through the telling of stories.  Our connection to everything is primarily linguistic.  Most people have no sensible memories before the acquisition of language, for it is language itself that allows us to order the reality around us and to interact with it.  Those who for reasons of disability are unable to engage the world linguistically are still certainly a part of it, but in a limited way.  They find ways to engage, but that engagement seems foreign to most of us.  Because for the vast majority of human beings, our connection to reality is rooted in language.  In order for something to be meaningful, it must be named.  And once something is named, a story can than be told about it.  Our reality is constituted by narrative.

The Judeo-Christian tradition itself points to the centrality of language and story-telling when it identifies the creative power of God with the spoken word.  In the creation stories of the book of Genesis, every thing that is made comes into being when God “speaks” it into being.  “God said, ‘Let there be light’, and there was light.”   The ancient writers of the scriptures perceived the power of language to constitute our reality — they knew who they were and the history of their people through the stories that were told down through the generations.   Thus, they easily imagined that the divine power to constitute reality was also rooted in the power of language.

We see this reflected over and over again in the Bible.  The prophets are conveyers of the word of God to God’s people.  The name of God is considered unutterable because to know and say a name implies some kind of power over it.  God and Jesus both give people new names when a new divine calling manifests in their lives.   The Gospel of John is able to say that Jesus is the Word made flesh, the embodiment of the divine creative word spoken of in Genesis.  Language is power — profound and fundamental.  And the great teaching of Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and most of the world’s religious traditions are all given by means of story-telling.   Jesus himself tells stories — parables, a particular kind of story — that are meant to collide with the narratives we have already inherited and offer us new narrative possibilities, which have the power to re-shape our lives.

Right now, in America, in the midst of a feverish presidential election campaign, we are all caught up in conflicting narratives.   Different political parties and different candidates promote different stories of what it means to be an American, of what leadership is meant to be about, of what the larger world is like.  These conflicting narratives are nothing less than conflicting versions of reality.  People are captivated or repulsed by one narrative or another, while some attempt to break through these stories with yet other narratives.   All of these competing narratives are seeking to shape our personal stories, the stories of our country.  Indeed, they are seeking to shape the way we see reality.  The person who wins the election in November will be the person whose narrative attracts the greatest number of people.

Those of us who seek to follow Jesus are, like everyone, narrative creatures.  But we have been warned to be wary of the stories people tell us.  Wolves can appear in sheep’s clothing, telling us stories that seem to liberate us but really are meant to enslave us to a particular view of reality.  As Christians, the only story that is truly liberating for us is the story of Jesus.  It is the story in which a brown-skinned Palestinian Jew becomes the victim of powerful elites who create stories that mark Jesus out as dangerous, stories that are sold to crowds of angry and frustrated people to convince them to sign on to Jesus’ execution.   Jesus is turned into a scapegoat for the problems and tensions of his time, and becomes the victim of powerful people who stir up resentment against him in order to deflect people from the real problems that they are facing.

The Risen Christ emerges from that victimhood in order to bring all victimhood to an end. This habit of scapegoating a person or group and making them the target of a society’s fears and frustrations must end — this is, in part, the message of the Risen Christ.  He comes among us to show us a different way, to offer us a different narrative that does not require the making of victims.

And so, as we listen to the competing narratives in this election season, we are obligated as Christians to ask ourselves an important question:  which of these narratives is the narrative of oppression and which is the narrative of liberation?  In other words, which of the stories the candidates wish us to sign on to most closely resembles the narrative of Rome, which led to the victimhood and death of Jesus, and which resembles more closely the narrative of Jesus himself, that is, the story of God’s radical embrace of humanity, setting us free from the need to make victims?

As Christians, we cannot subscribe to narratives of oppression.  We cannot subscribe to the making of victims or the singling out of scape-goats.  We have been claimed by the story of Jesus, we have been claimed by the power of the divine creative word that seeks to bring into being the reign of God among us, that tells a story of love and faithfulness, that speaks good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind, love of neighbor as self.  Our primary spiritual work is to make this narrative of liberation the central narrative of our lives, and to act in faithfulness to it.

From the cross, Jesus prayed God’s forgiveness on his oppressors, saying, “they know not what they do.”   The resurrection of Christ shown a powerful light on that moment, so that we might not slip into the darkness of that ignorance again.  Let us look now to that light, that we may not be overcome by the darkness of ignorance again.