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.

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 Limits of Forgiveness

repentance1-300x223“Then Peter came and said to [Jesus], ‘Lord, if my brother sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?’ Jesus said to him, ‘Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy times seven.” — Matthew 18:21-22

 

 

I have always carried with me a deep sense of God’s love.   While I have encountered many people who have struggled greatly with an image of God as judgmental, strict, demanding, and punishing, that has never been my struggle.   During my sabbatical last summer, as I worked on a writing project to put into words my understanding of God as known in the Christian tradition, I came to a realization that was really an expansion of this deep sense of God’s love that I have always had.  And that was that God is One who always moves toward us in a love shaped like forgiveness, compassion, and generosity.   I have come to see how clearly this shape of divine love is revealed and  known in Jesus.

And Jesus invites us into an imitation of this shape of divine love.  In John’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.”  The term “father” (or, more accurately, “daddy”) is the primary term Jesus uses to talk about God, especially in John’s Gospel.  A little later in this same passage, Jesus says, “Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these” (see John 14:8-17).   Here, John seeks to make clear that what Jesus enacts in his own life and ministry is an enactment of the divine love, revealing the shape of that love.  We, who are meant to do even greater things than Jesus, are called to similarly enact the divine love in the living of our own lives.   We look to Jesus as the one who reveals this love to us, and we see him constantly moving toward others in this love shaped as forgiveness, compassion, and generosity.

Within this context, then, it is not surprising that, in the passage from Matthew’s Gospel that appears at the beginning of this post, Jesus challenges Peter’s attempt to place a limit on one aspect of this love: forgiveness.   How often should I forgive someone who wrongs me?, Peter asks.  Seven times?   No, says Jesus, try seventy times seven (some variants read “seventy-seven times”).   I hope it is clear that Jesus is not saying, “490 times”.  Rather, he is using this mathematical expression to point to the limitlessness of God’s forgiveness and, thus, of our forgiveness.   God’s infinite love is infinitely forgiving, and this is what we are being asked to enact in our own lives, as we live into our call to be conduits of God’s love in the world.

This deepened understanding of the shape of the divine love has shown up quite a bit in my preaching since I returned from my sabbatical last fall.  Some of those who have to listen to my sermons might say it has shown up a bit too often!  Those sermons have always been, one might say, at a high level view.  That is, as we consider how we are to approach our fellow human beings in general, we are called to do so with a love shaped like the divine love.

Of course, people don’t live their lives at a high level.  People live their lives on the ground, within particular contexts, and with very particular people.  And, living life on the ground can include a lot of pain.   And so it was that I was recently reminded, by someone who’s life on the ground has included being the victim of emotional abuse, that this preaching on the need to approach others with limitless forgiveness has not been good news.  Rather, it has felt very much like the opposite.  It has sounded as though I am suggesting that there are no limits, and it has sounded to this person like an invitation to give an abuser a pass — and that feels like asking too much.  It feels like God might be okay with abuse.  It is asking too much, and God is not okay with abuse.

Hearing this very real testimony about very real pain has gotten me to thinking about the limits of forgiveness.   And it has helped me to see how limitless Jesus tends to be in the gospels.  After all, we are told that as Jesus was being crucified by his abusers, he said, “Forgive them, Father, for they do not know what they are doing”  (Luke 23:34).   So what are we to do in the face of those who do genuinely bad things to others?  What are we to do with those who do genuinely bad things to us, things that are simply not okay?  How are we to live forgiveness and preach forgiveness in the face of these painful realities?

I’m not sure I yet have a good answer to these questions.  And, more importantly, I’m not sure that I have the right to do so in any more than a tentative way.  While I have certainly been hurt by others’ actions in the course of my life so far, I have never been victimized by someone else.  I am not a victim of abuse.  And, therefore, I do not think it is for me to say what forgiveness can or should look like in the life of someone who has been victimized.  I can have compassion for those who have been victimized, but I cannot enter into their experience.

One of the things that seems clear to me as I look again at Jesus’ enactment of the divine love is that Jesus does not accept the ethical categories proclaimed by the privileged of his own time and tradition.  Instead, Jesus places himself among those who are the victims of those ethical proclamations, and he empowers them.  He gives them voice.  This pattern suggests to me that when it comes to deciding what is ethical, Jesus does not begin at the center and move outward.  Rather, he begins at the edges, and moves inward.  Ethics are to be informed by the victims, not by the powerful.   One might say that Jesus does theology from the margins.  And, as we seek to imitate his example, we cannot ignore this aspect of his ministry.

So, where does this leave me?  I remain convinced that God’s movement toward us is, indeed, a love shaped like forgiveness, compassion, and generosity.  Jesus’ living out of this in such a limitless way is perhaps meant to challenge the limits that we tend to adopt — and, like Peter, most of us tend to impose a limit too soon and too quickly.  But this does not mean that Jesus does not consider certain kinds of behavior to be wrong. As he goes among the victims of his time, he is clearly saying that whatever happened to make them victims was wrong.  He is not saying that their victimization is okay.  He is not giving the powerful wrong-doers of his society a pass.  Indeed, his ministry among the victims of his time acts as an indictment of those wrong-doers.  We could, perhaps, sum it up this way:  it is never okay to make someone your victim.

It is tempting for those of us who have not been someone’s victim to suggest how those who have been made victims should enact the divine love when it comes to dealing with those who victimized them.  But that, I think, is wrong.  It risks making others into victims again.  Rather, we must be like Jesus, I think, and go among the victims in today’s world.  We must listen to their stories, we must hear their struggles, and we must ask them to take the lead in showing us what the limits of forgiveness are.  We must learn from them how our proclamation of the love of God is heard in the ears of those who have been abused.

God’s forgiveness may indeed be without limit. But to protect the dignity of every human being, there might indeed need to be a limit to our forgiveness.   We could, I think, give that limit a name: justice, which itself is a powerful and recurring biblical theme.  Justice is, of course, not revenge, but it is a clear calling out of wrong-doing as exactly that.  Justice permits no hiding, it does not allow wrong-doing to be justified.  It demands that the making of another person into a victim be acknowledged, and it asks for repentance — which is more than being sorry, but is a deep conversion away from the making of victims and toward a way of living that affirms and preserves the dignity of all the people in one’s life.   It seems to me that perhaps, in situations of injustice, forgiveness cannot truly be given or received until the injustice is acknowledged in the way that justice demands.

In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Nothing is covered up that will not be uncovered, and nothing secret that will not become known. Therefore whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops” (Luke 12:1-3).  This is what justice requires:  a bringing into the light of all that is not light.

The love and forgiveness of God, where it is truly manifest, brings a light that illuminates everything.  If someone is holding on to darkness, if someone is truly refusing to allow the light to shine on the ways in which that person has caused pain to others, can there truly be forgiveness?  Perhaps not. Perhaps the forgiveness must wait until the darkness can be let go of, and the light can shine clearly.  Perhaps forgiveness needs repentance.

What to Make of the Risen Christ

resurrection_htmWhen it comes to speaking of the Resurrection of Christ in this Easter season, we often become preoccupied with the question of whether it “really happened” in the way the gospels describe it.  It is a question which, for me, is ultimately meaningless, because we can never get “inside” the experience of those first women and men who came to believe that Christ, though crucified, was still available and present to them.  Instead of pursuing this question, I would like to invite you to make a space in yourself that is able to acknowledge at least this: that the first followers of Jesus experienced him as somehow continuing to be present and available to them following his death; that they named this experience resurrection; and that out of this experience, they were able to proclaim confidently the existence of a Risen Christ. And, I invite you to also acknowledge that their lives were transformed and redirected in the light of this experience.

If we can hold this sort of space open within ourselves, then we can move to what is, I think, the much more important question: what does this mean for us?

One of the things that confounds us about the resurrection is that, in the dualistic way in which we normally think, life and death occupy entirely different categories. Our dualistic mind insists that either one is alive or one is dead, and our normal experience of life seems to confirm this. When it comes to the Risen Christ, we are talking about a dead man who is somehow still occupying the category of “alive-ness.” Let’s be as clear as possible: Jesus of Nazereth is dead. The man who was born somewhere around the year 3 B.C.E. and who was murdered by crucifixion somewhere around 30 C.E., and who was named Jesus, no longer exists. His life came to an end on that cross. Resurrection is not the same as resuscitation, and when we are speaking of the Risen Christ, we are not saying that the body of Jesus of Nazereth was reanimated, got up out of his grave and resumed his life. What we have when we speak of the Risen Christ is a dead man who is alive. In other words, we have someone who is — at one and the same time — both dead and alive. And our dualistic perspective cannot accommodate that. And so one of the first things that the Risen Christ does for us is short-circuit our dualism.

By blowing our dualistic mind, the proclamation of the resurrection is pushing our hearts out of our small self (the domain of the ego, dominated by dualistic thinking) and into our larger self (that deeper, more spacious place where we encounter God in ourselves and ourselves in God).  For it is only in the center of the larger self that we can live with the paradox of a dead man who is alive. As we contemplate this dead man who is alive, we begin to question the nature of death itself. Our dualistic mind sees in death the ultimate limit beyond which we cannot go. The things that support the identity of the small self — wealth, work, reputation — are all things that death overtakes. Consequently, the small self cannot see death in any way other than as extinction. As the mystery of the Risen Christ short circuits our dualistic mind, however, and drops our heart into the larger self, we can begin to perceive that death is not what the small self thinks it is. We begin to perceive that who we are in God, and who God is in us, transcends this limit we call death. We begin to see that while everything that constitutes the identity of the small self does indeed pass away, there is something deeper in us that remains untouched by this phenonmenon that we call death.

And it is that something deeper — the larger self, the “immortal diamond” as Richard Rohr call it: who we are in God and who God is in us — that the disciples saw shining forth when they beheld the Risen Christ. That larger self in which Jesus’ heart was centered, that place of deep intimacy, communion, and oneness with God that established the peace with which Jesus passed through the crucifixion — that is the self that continued beyond the limit of death, untouched and untouchable by death.

And in the Risen Christ we see also our larger self, our deep identity in God that, like Christ, continues beyond the limit of death, untouched and untouchable by death. This is where the good news of the Risen Christ becomes our good news, as well.

Subverting the Status Quo

crucifixionOne of my favorite stories in the gospels is one in which Jesus asks his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?”  The disciples give him all the gossip, what other people are saying about him.  Then Jesus asks the more important question:  “But who do YOU say that I am?”   Peter, always seeking to be the “A” student, blurts out, “You are the Messiah, the Christ.”   Jesus affirms that Peter is right.  But Peter has no idea what this means — and, in many ways, the Christian journey for each of us is to wrestle with this question, “Who do I say Jesus is?  What does ‘messiah’ even mean?”

As we enter the Great Triduum — the Great Three Days of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter — this question raises itself again for me.  And, this year, I am struck by a particular answer:  Jesus is the One who comes to subvert the status quo, to tell us that what we take to be “normal” is actually a twisting and distortion of God’s dream for humanity.

Jesus does this in a couple of ways.

First, he indicts the culture of his time and the ways in which it victimized and marginalized people whom it defined as “the Other”.   Jesus declares the accepted ways of treating the poor, the diseased, women, and foreigners null and void.  He says that the religious and cultural traditions that say these accepted ways are okay are human traditions, developed to accommodate the discomfort of the privileged and the powerful.  They are not, he says, of God.

Second, he subverts the expectations of people like Peter who are ready to call him Messiah.  Those expectations revolved around a kind of religious and cultural nationalism that focused on the desire to end Roman oppression of the Jewish people.  The messiah was supposed to be a general, a king, someone who would reassert and reestablish the Davidic kingdom.  But this was not what Jesus was about.  He was not interested in a political revolution that would reestablish a national identity, but rather in a revolution of the human heart and spirit that would root people firmly in God’s vision for humanity, one in which there is no room for nationalistic and tribal concerns.

Jesus’ double-subversion of the status quo and traditional expectations is what led him to the cross.  The privileged and powerful voices of empire and tradition could not embrace the vision of which Jesus was the bearer and sign.  They lacked both divine imagination and courage.  And so they resorted to the remedy that the powerful and the privileged always resort to when nothing else is working:  they set out to violently suppress what Jesus represented by killing him.  And, in the process, they convinced the people who were at the center of Jesus’ vision to cooperate in his destruction.  The crowds that cheered Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem would call for his crucifixion just days later.  Authority convinced them to act against their own best interest, and to participate in trying to kill the dream of God.

But God in Christ continued to subvert the status quo, and the expectations of tradition.  In the Resurrection, God declares that the divine dream for humanity cannot be killed off or suppressed.  It will always find a way to confront the privileged and powerful, and to continue to call the human heart and soul into the transformed life of the kingdom of God.  The revolution of the human spirit goes on, even in those moments when it seems least possible — especially in those moments.

As we enter these Great Three Days, let us consider what is our participation in the status quo.  How is God confronting us?  How is God seeking to call us lovingly into a new life?  Will we find the imagination and courage to say “Yes”?

There Your Heart Will Be Also

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you treasure?  Where is your heart?

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

Unity is Not Unanimity

Taize-CrossThe current headlines from the recent gathering of the Primates (senior bishops) of the Anglican Communion — that The Episcopal Church (based in the US) is to be excluded from key aspects of the Communion’s life, as a result of its decisions regarding the full inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the church, including the sacrament of marriage — raise a question that deserves serious consideration:  What does unity really mean in the life of the church?

Over the centuries, Christian people have often, it seemed, confused unity with unanimity.  They have assumed that in order to be united, people must agree about certain things.  That list that must be agreed to tends to include both matters of doctrine and morality.   The list has shifted over the centuries, but it has never gone away.   When groups of Christians have been unable to sign on to the list du jour, fracture of relationship has been the result — along with the formation of new denominations.

The results of the recent gathering of Anglican Primates appears to be simply another iteration of this history.   The majority of the Primates have a list of doctrines and morals which must be signed onto, in their view, in order to have unity within the Anglican Communion.  And the very top item on the current list seems to be a certain view of marriage and human sexuality.   Since the Primates, and the churches they represent, are not unanimous with respect to their views on these issues, the result is fracture of relationship — a deliberate distancing of The Episcopal Church from the other churches of the Communion, and the very real possibility that other churches will end up being treated the same way as they move toward The Episcopal Church’s position.

This idea of unity as unanimous agreement is, it seems to me, false; and particularly so for Christian people.

In his First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Pauls observes, “Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says ‘Let Jesus be cursed!’ and no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except by the Holy Spirit.”   What Paul is pointing us toward, I believe, is that the locus of Christian unity is not based on unanimous consent but rather on the conviction that Jesus is Lord, a conviction that is ultimately enabled by the one Spirit.

While this is not a term I normally use — generally because of the conservative theological connotation it has acquired in the present day — to say that “Jesus is Lord” is simply to say that Jesus is the one on whom we rely to bring us into a salvific (which is to say, a healing) relationship with God.  To say that “Jesus is Lord” is to express our loyalty to his proclamation of the kingdom of God, to say that he is the one whom we follow and whom we trust to bring us to God.   This is the unity of the Christian church:  to claim this central role for Jesus in our lives as we seek to “work out [our] own salvation”.  And Paul is clear that anyone who is able to say this does so “by the Holy Spirit.”

There is no doubt in my mind that this is something that all of us in the Anglican Communion are able to do.   We have each and all entrusted ourselves to  Christ and to his proclamation of the kingdom of God.  This unites us to one another and, indeed, to Christians around the world.

But having entrusted ourselves to Christ, we then embark upon the life-long journey of understanding exactly what this means.  As we continue to contemplate the life of Christ and to listen to his proclamation of the reign of God, we must work out what his life and his proclamation mean for us in the particular time and place in which we find ourselves. Just as we see Christ as the incarnation of God in a human life, so we must figure out how to incarnate the reign of God within and among us.   And while it may sound straight-forward, the actual process of incarnating that reign is far more art than science, and can be quite complicated.  Because for anything to be truly incarnated, it must — by definition — become fully and deeply embedded in its time and place.   The consequence of this incarnational truth is that Christians in different places will enact the Gospel differently, and will reach different conclusions about what it means relative to any given issue or situation.   This is simply because the act of incarnating the reign of God inevitably involves dialogue and interaction with the surrounding culture and its diverse inhabitants.

This, it seems to me, is how Christians who all are seeking to be faithful can arrive at very different points of view.  What we must learn to see is that these different points of view all begin at the same place:  a commitment to following Jesus into the heart of God.

We have tended over the centuries to want to find our unity as Christians by making everyone adopt the same point of view about pretty much everything.  The persistent divisions within the Christian community give us all the evidence we need about how well that has worked.  Nevertheless, we continue to nurture a fantasy of a universal church where everyone will be on the same page.

We need to come to terms with the fact that Christians have really never been on the same page with respect to lots of things, and it is unlikely that we ever will be.  But we can find unity in something we have, in fact, all always agreed on:  that Jesus is decisively the one whom we follow, and we trust him to lead us to God.   Rather than beating each other up about the different ways in which we incarnate that commitment, we would be far better served by rejoicing in the many and diverse ways we incarnate that commitment.

In the midst of the rejoicing, however, it is equally important to recognize that Jesus does give us a standard that must apply to all our efforts to incarnate the gospel, regardless of time and place.   When asked for the bottom line of his teaching, Jesus answers, Love God with your whole heart, body, soul, and spirit, and love your neighbor as yourself.   However the gospel is incarnated, whatever conclusions we draw from our commitment to Christ about how we live in union with God, we must be able to affirm these principles positively.   Our incarnation of the reign of God must reflect a deep and abiding love for God, and it must reflect a deep and abiding love for our neighbor.   When Jesus himself was asked to define that word “neighbor”, he said that the neighbor was the one among us who was in need.

We must always bear this standard in mind, and we must constantly and honestly reflect on our own incarnating of the Gospel and ask ourselves, “Is this expressing a whole-hearted love for God AND a whole-hearted love for my neighbor, the one near me who is in need?”   When we find that it is not, then we have an obligation to re-align our following of Jesus.

Incarnation of the reign of God is far more messy than most of us would like it to be — but it is the task and the truth to which we have been called.