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.

Politics, Priesthood, and Stolen Religion

A few people have noticed that I have not been blogging in a few weeks. My silence on the blog has been a result of trying to navigate a space that I have never quite found myself in before. I feel like I have been in a bit of a free fall, yet I think now I have landed somewhere — and so its seems right to share with you some of the contours of that free fall, and where I have ended up. This will take some time, so bear with me!

I realize that people have a variety of views on what I am about to say, and I also know that amongst my clergy colleagues, my particular journey may be strange, because they have approached this whole issue in a different way from the beginning. But, my journey has been my journey: we each walk the spiritual path in our own ways, and for those of us who are spiritual leaders, we each live that out uniquely, trying to be as faithful as we can to the way in which the call of the Sacred makes itself heard in our lives.

Politically, I have always been a liberal person. While the community in which I grew up could not be called liberal then or now, my early political views were influenced by the liberalism of my parents, and I have never departed from that. In my view, government’s primary role is to make sure that people have what they need, and that every opportunity to make a life worth living is made available to all. I believe in what has been called the American Dream, in the sense that I have always believed that this country wants to be a place where anyone and everyone is welcomed and given a fair chance to become what they want to become. It is a dream which has never been fully realized, but also one which we, as a people, have not been willing to give up. Our efforts to move more and more toward this dream have been heroic, painful, costly, incomplete, and imperfect, as any effort to move forward as a human community must be. The history of this struggle has given us a unique place in the world.

Religiously, my journey has been toward a more and more progressive view of theology. I grew up in a religiously progressive household, which certainly laid the ground work for my spirituality. For me, there has never been an “if” or a “maybe” connected to the existence of God. I entered a particularly deep period in my spiritual journey when I found my way to The Episcopal Church, and was able to fuse the religious perspective of my childhood with the deep sacramental tradition of Christianity. That ultimately led me to the priesthood, and to the privileges and responsibilities of spiritual leadership of various Episcopal communities. My spiritual journey has led me to an ever deeper conviction that at the heart of Christianity, and, indeed, all the great religious traditions of the world, is the call of God to an ever-expanding inclusiveness that rejoices in difference and distinction rather than recoiling from it. With respect to Christianity, I have come to believe that the kingdom of God is a condition of human existence in which no one is excluded, no one is scapegoated. It is a condition that requires us to be transformed into ever more compassionate, ever less selfish forms of living and patterns of relationship. The journey toward God is one of greater and greater opening of the self to others and the Other — a journey that is sometimes painful and demanding.

Throughout my ministry, I have sought to keep my political self and my priestly self separate from each other. It has long been clear to me that there must be a connection between one’s spiritual journey and one’s political journey, if there is to be any integrity to either. If I am honest with myself, I realize that my political and religious identities are constantly informing each other. Yet, I have always been keenly aware that the communities I have served have held a broad spectrum of political views. The truth is, they have also contained a broad spectrum of religious views! It has always seemed to me that if I were to ally myself too publicly with one particular political perspective, I would create an obstacle between myself and those parishioners who saw things differently. And so I made as much of a wall as I could between my political and my religious identities.
Over the past few years, I have felt like I was moving ever closer to the edge of a cliff, as both the political and religious worlds have shifted. Over the course of my ministry to date, the Christian world has seen the rise of a kind of conservative, evangelical Christianity which, in almost every way, has stolen my religion from me. What I mean by that is that the public image of what Christianity is has been taken over by the religious right, who have increasingly been given the power to define what Christianity is and what it means. That takeover has been so through and so complete that larger and larger numbers of people have no idea that there are forms of Christianity that do not at all resemble what the conservative branches of the Christian tradition are. And the result has been that Christianity is seen more and more as rigid, judgmental, uncaring, and much worse. Indeed, this has tended to be the case with religion generally, as the voices of more conservative parts of the religious traditions have gained the upper hand. What has happened to Islam is a perfect example. I have felt it was more and more important to affirm a different kind of Christianity, and I am certainly far from the only one attempting to do that.

Our political and social world has also been changing. There was a time when many Americans believed that we had dealt with the problems of racism, sexism, and homophobia, and moved to a more enlightened place. The victims of racism, sexism, and homophobia would have told us differently, of course, but we often weren’t listening. But over the past decade, that illusion was completely shattered, as more and more people came to believe it was okay to speak out against women and minorities in the most horrible ways, and as various organs of the media sought to present such points of view as legitimate options in a civil society. During this same period, America has become more and more divided, so that we are barely able to govern ourselves effectively. And we have seen these divisions mirrored all over the world, as nationalist movements have gained strength in Britain and other parts of Europe, pushed in part by an ever-growing refugee crisis which has led to a rising fear of “otherness”.

As I said, I have had the sense that all of this has been pushing me ever closer to the edge of some kind of cliff — and the election of Donald Trump pushed me over that cliff, and initiated the free fall which I mentioned a few paragraphs ago. That free fall has left me somewhat bewildered as to how I am to be a priest in a time like this, and has made the separation of my political and priestly selves harder and harder to maintain. And yet, despite the fact that I live and work in a notoriously liberal part of the country, I continue to serve a community of diverse points of view. It has left me wondering what I am called to do. And has led to this period of blogful silence.

But I think I have landed in a place of greater clarity. It began when, out of the blue, someone in my community (my town, not my church) called and asked me if I would be part of a Vigil for Kindness, to be held at a local park. It was an invitation to which I felt a strong inner obligation to say Yes, but it goes very much against my personality. I don’t think I would call this Vigil — which we have held twice – protest, so much as a witnessing to our better nature as human beings and as Americans. But, it certainly has the feel of a protest — and is the first time I ever participated in such a thing. It has constituted a huge stepping out of my comfort zone, and has felt internally very risky. It is as close, I think, as I have ever come to allowing my political and priestly selves to interact with each other in a public way.

Participating in those vigils — and the witnessing of millions of protestors a couple of weeks ago across the country — has given me, however, a deeper understanding of what I, as priest and citizen, believe I am called to in this moment.

For me, it has become clear that the intersection between faith and action lies in realizing when the “powers and principalities of this world” are moving away from the values of the Gospel, as I have come to understand them. And, as The Episcopal Church has largely come to understand them. That vision of the kingdom of God as a condition of existence where all are welcomed and valued, and the call of God to become every more open to the Other and to others, have to be accompanied by certain moral commitments. When those of us who understand our faith in this way see that we are moving away from that vision rather than toward it, then we must speak and act on behalf of those values. That speaking must, at times, be directed toward politicians, but for me, it is never fundamentally about those politicians on a personal level. Rather, it is about the choices they make in utilizing the authority entrusted to them.

This is not about imposing our religious commitments on others. Rather, it is about acting in a way that preserves the integrity of those commitments by recognizing how they impel us to act in the larger culture of which we are a part. And it is also not about maligning particular politicians or other people. Our politics in this era has become far too personal, and the line between disagreeing with how someone is seeking to use his or her authority and attacking someone personally needs to be preserved. Personal attack is not the way of Jesus, either. The way of Jesus calls upon those of us who are his followers to enact the vision of God’s kingdom as fully as possible — meaning that we find a way to advocate for the values of that kingdom without attacking someone personally. It seems to me we should bear witness to a different way of having public conversations.

So I find myself landing in a place of advocacy that I have never been in before. It is not an advocacy based on who is in office or who has power, but an advocacy which, in the political sphere, is based on whether we seem to be moving toward or away from God’s dream for humanity, as I have come to understand it. In the religious sphere, it is an advocacy for a way of being faithful that also moves toward that vision of the kingdom of God, and that also witnesses to the existence of Christians and other people of faith whose spirituality and way of holding their faith differs markedly from what has come to be the public image of religious people, thanks to the rise of conservative Christianity and radical Islam, as well as other forms of fundamentalism that distort and deform humanity’s great religious traditions.

For some of you, it may seem like I am arriving a bit late to the party, and rather than this seeming like some sort of epiphany, it might seem more like a “well, duh….” But for me, it has been something of an unexpected but necessary journey. Now that I have landed in this place, it marks the beginning of a new journey of how to live into this with faithfulness and integrity.

And perhaps I am not alone — perhaps I am among many people who are waking up in a new landscape that calls for some new way of engagement.

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.

A Fierce Kindness

Kindness       by Naomi Shihab Nye

Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.

Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.

Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside,
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.

Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and purchase bread,
only kindness that raises its head
from the crowd of the world to say
It is I you have been looking for,
and then goes with you everywhere
like a shadow or a friend.

Broken Silence, Broken Hearts, Broken Nation

I have been silent on the blog since August.  It wasn’t a planned silence, it’s something that just happened.   I’m still not entirely sure why.  Sometimes, we find ourselves in seasons of silence, when we don’t seem to be able to find just the right words.

Ironically, I’m finding myself moved to break the blog silence this morning because, in the wake of yesterday’s election, I’m having trouble finding the words to comprehend what has happened.

Priests are not supposed to be political — at least, not in public.   That is the model of priesthood with which I was formed, and it has been clear for most of my career that the congregations I have served have shared that expectation.  But this election was not just about politics — the choice between competing policy positions and approaches.  No, this election was — more than anything — a referendum on the state of our country.  And its result indicates that the state of our country is not good — we are a deeply broken nation.

Regardless of one’s political positions, the fact is that the American electorate has chosen to elevate to the presidency the candidate who appealed to the worst of human nature.  He built his campaign on people’s fears:  of women, of blacks, of hispanics, of foreigners, of Muslims.  He made fun of disabled people, and never hesitated to bully someone who dared to push back against him.   And the American electorate has now sanctioned all of this behavior as “okay” by giving him the presidency.  People around the country and across the world are being told that it’s okay to treat others in this way.  This is not just politics — this is an indication that America’s historic aspiration to be a light on the hill and an example to the nations has now become bankrupt.  Whatever moral authority we might have had in the world we have now surrendered.  I shudder to think what the consequences will be.  My heart is broken on so many levels, and especially for those who were the targets of Mr. Trump’s fear- and hate-mongering — how terrified they must be, to know that all of that has now been approved by the American electorate.

I know that I am not the only one who is struggling with this today.  And as a priest, I am often called upon to help people make sense of their own struggling.   I confess that I am not yet quite sure how to do that today.

But a colleague of mine, also a priest with two young children, had this to say to those children over breakfast this morning: “Yesterday’s election has shown us how far removed we are from people in our own country. We now know there are many people who are hurting, who are afraid, and who are angry throughout our country. And they feel alone. We have a lot to learn and a lot to do.”

And this, it seems, is the heart of the problem.  Large parts of our population are alienated from each other, so much so that we hardly understand each other.  I doubt that Mr. Trump — or any politician, really — will be able to help us with that.  This, it seems, is something we must do ourselves.  Somehow, we must learn how to be a people again.  I have no idea how to do that.

Jesus is always supposed to have a place in these blog posts somewhere.   And these are his words that came to me this morning:  “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another”  (John 13:34).   We, who purport to be a “Christian nation”, have failed miserably lately at living into this new commandment, and the new political reality that has come into being will not do it any better.   But somehow, we must learn to do it.  Hatred is easy.  Love is hard.  

We should remember that biblically, love is rarely a feeling, but almost always an action.  When Jesus asks us to love one another as he loved us, he is asking us to do something.  He is asking us to enact love the way he enacted love.  Jesus enacted that love not by seeking to become the leader of the Jewish nation, but by showing kindness and compassion to one cast out person after another, one day after another.   That is how we are meant to love.  Not by putting our hope in politics, but by acting with kindness and compassion toward each person who crosses our path.

That doesn’t sound very world-changing, does it?   And yet, all these centuries later, we still remember what Jesus did.   There is great power in these personal acts of compassion — and it has a multiplying effect.

It is tempting to respond to Mr. Trump’s fear- and hate-mongering with more of the same.  But where would that get us?  Somehow, we must find the courage to aspire to something greater, even as our hearts are broken and our spirits downcast.

On a morning when I feel like I hardly recognize my own country anymore, that’s all I’ve got.   It doesn’t seem like much.  But it is what I can do.

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.

The Art of Being in Community

exclusionFrom time to time over the course of my 25 years of ordained ministry, I have occasionally had a parishioner who would say something like, “If you do this, I will leave the church” (or, conversely, “If you don’t do this, I will leave the church”).   Fortunately, these moments have not come that often, but when they do come, they invariably leave me feeling sad.

Churches are, by their very nature, communities, and to be in community means that one does not always get one’s own way.  The nature of community — whether a church or some other kind of community — means that there inevitably has to be some give and take.  Sometimes, the community will do things that one can embrace joyfully.  Sometimes, the community will disappoint.  Sometimes one’s opinion or point of view will carry the day, and at other times, it will not.  The art of being in community means being able to remain in that community even when things don’t go the way you think they should.

When people make remaining in the community contingent on the community doing or not doing what they want, they have come to a place where they have lost the art of being in community.  They have made themselves the center, and having done so, they expect that the community will bend to their will.   They have said that they are no longer interested in conversation — they are only interested in getting their way.  They have made the issue in question more important than belonging.   If large numbers of people within a community were to take such a stance, there soon would be no community left, at all.

In many ways, Americans — and perhaps others in the world, as well — seem to have lost these days the art of being in community.  We tend to participate in our public life in zero-sum ways:  either I get my way, or nothing.  A community or society whose life is dominated by participants who adopt a zero-sum path is a community or society that will become increasingly unsustainable.   People become unwilling to compromise, they become unwilling to be happy with getting some of what they want while others get some of what they want.   People begin to see themselves and their like-minded friends as the enlightened center of their social universe, and all others whose opinions differ as somehow unenlightened outliers — who can quickly become people who, from the point of view of the self-defined center, no longer belong in that community or society at all.

The zero-sum, “my way or the highway” path is self-destructive, in the sense that pursuing it will almost inevitably lead someone to cut themselves off from a community, and it’s also destructive to the community itself, since that person’s departure diminishes the community.   And when it comes to societies, which cannot be entirely left unless one changes countries, the frustration engendered by following that path can lead to violence.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (5:39b-42).   At first glance, these verses may not seem to have anything to do with what I am talking about.  If, however, we ask what principle lies behind this teaching of Jesus, it is the principle of generosity toward others.  Jesus clearly says in these lines that when someone asks something of us, we should be willing to give them even more than they have asked.  In the context of the temptation to take the zero-sum path, I think Jesus would point us toward this same principle, asking us to be exceedingly generous in terms of entertaining points of view that are different from our own.  And, if the community decides to move in a direction that does not represent what we want, this same principle asks us to be equally generous in offering the community our continued support and participation.

In a time when we seem so tempted to walk away from each other, Jesus would have us walk toward and with each other.  Jesus would ask us to be as generous with each other as we can.  He certainly would not have us abandon a community if we don’t get our way.

There are, of course, moments when communities or societies do evil things that we certainly cannot support, and in these moments, if we cannot change that evil, then we must walk away.   But for the most part, we are not confronted with evil.  We are simply confronted with other points of view, different from our own.  In these moments, Jesus calls us to continued relationship and on-going conversation.  And living into that calling is not possible when we are determined to follow a zero-sum path.

We Deceive Ourselves

o-GUNS-IN-SCHOOLS-facebookIf we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.

— 1 John 1:8

In 1968, a large portion of white America deceived itself.   With the victories of the civil rights movement in hand, probably most white Americans believed that the “issue of race” had been settled, that America had ticked “Deal with Racism” off its to-do list, and that it was time to move on to other things.  That delusion pretty much held until the election of Barack Obama, if not somewhat before.   Over the past decade or so, people started uttering racial epithets in public that most people hadn’t heard in years.  Leaders, both political and religious, began to weave racially charged language into their speeches.  It seemed that permission had been given to speak about black people and other non-white peoples in ways that most of at least middle and upper class white America had thought was gone.  People wondered, “Where is this coming from?”  And, the delusion was shattered (except among those absolutely determined to hold onto it despite all evidence to the contrary).  It turned out that America hadn’t dealt with racism — it had just gone underground.   And a whole complex of issues, brought into focus by Barack Obama’s election as the first black US President, moved it out of the shadows in which it had been lurking.

What white America had failed to take into consideration back in the late sixties was the insight that Archbishop Desmond Tutu shared as the system of apartheid was coming to an end in his country of South Africa.   You can legislate apartheid out of existence and make it illegal, he noted, but legislation does not change the human heart.  And it was figuring out how to change human hearts — to overcome the racism that lay therein — that was, in some ways, South Africa’s greatest challenge (and, perhaps, still is).  That challenge, it turns out, is also America’s challenge.

The fact remains that, despite the real progress that the civil rights movement brought about, for the vast majority of white Americans, black people and other non-white peoples are perceived as “other”.   Even among those white Americans who don’t hate non-white people (which is, I believe, the vast majority), we still tend to see non-white people as not quite like us, as other.   And that means that when we encounter non-white people in situations that are at all unusual, unfamiliar, or tense, there is, I believe, in most white Americans a little bit of fear operating below the surface — fear that, for the most part, we remain either unaware of or are unwilling to acknowledge.  It is that basic perspective with regard to non-white people — seeing them as other — that is the first ingredient in what seems to be happening in our country right now.   Along, of course, with much more virulent forms of racism that still live powerfully among a minority of white America.

The second ingredient in current events is the narrative that has been gaining strength for some time now, a narrative which says that white Americans are somehow in peril, that our livelihood and prosperity are somehow under threat.  For many Americans, of course, that narrative has been all too real, given the economic dislocations of the past decade or so.  The fact is that some Americans, both white and non-white, are under tremendous economic pressure, and government seems unable or unwilling to address these issues in ways that cause people to actually feel that there is help for them.   This provides an opening to another, parallel narrative, that suggests that government is actually the enemy of every-day people, actively working against them.  People tell themselves and each other that they might be required to “take government back”, so alienated have they become from our public institutions.   There is no question that, for some Americans, there are real grievances that require a response.  But it is also the case that a large number of white Americans who are doing well economically and in most other respects have “bought in” to this narrative, and been encouraged to regard themselves as somehow imperiled without any actual evidence that this is the case.  These narratives of peril and of government mistrust make people afraid and angry, and that fear and anger activates that ancient human tribal instinct, an instinct that regards anyone who is considered other (not of our tribe) as even more of a threat.

Finally, the third ingredient in this poisonous stew is the American relationship with violence.  Culturally, we have embraced violence for really all of our history as somehow “cool”.   Those who resort to violence in a cause that is deemed right are always portrayed as heroic — and even the villains against whom they fight have a certain heroic quality about them, even as they go down to defeat.   Against this cultural background of “violence is cool” is the very real availability of weapons.  Recently, fueled largely by the narratives I cited above, some states have created laws that allow guns to be carried by large portions of citizens, increasing the potential for violence in any particular situation.

These three ingredients have, I believe, led to the tragedies we have seen this week, and that we have seen all too often in American life.   While some of the law enforcement officers who have killed black people have probably been possessed by the more virulent forms of racism, carrying with them a certain hatred for non-white people, I suspect that most of the officers who have perpetrated these tragedies are, instead, possessed by the same kind of racism that effects most white Americans:  a view of non-white people as other, and a lingering discomfort and fear of them.   Imagine, then, when a white police officer possessed by this view of the black man as other, who is a little afraid of that other, responds to a police call, and that in responding, the police officer knows (particularly if he or she lives in certain states) that it is entirely possible that someone involved in the situation has a gun.   It seems to me that the police officer arrives at the situation already a bit afraid, both of the non-white other and of the possibility of armed citizens.  How easy it would be for such an officer to respond, particularly in an unusual and tense situation, out of that place of fear — and in doing so, kill someone unjustly.  Please understand that I am not seeking to excuse such an officer — simply to understand the ingredients that make up these tragedies.

And is it any wonder that some of those black people, having lived under the shadow of otherness for so long, might lash out at law enforcement officers as happened in Dallas, and thereby compound the tragedy with more tragedy, and take us further down a road that we may have trouble figuring out how to step off?

I cannot speak to the experiences of non-white Americans — I am not qualified to do so.  But I can speak to the experience of white Americans, at least a certain segment thereof.  And it seems to me that, as we wring our hands over these violent events, we must stop deceiving ourselves, and allow the truth to make its way into us.  The truth is that almost all of us look upon non-white people as other, and we must begin to change that.  The truth is that the vast majority of white Americans are not uniquely in any kind of peril, and we must jettison the narratives that say that we are.  The truth is that government is not our enemy, though it could be a much better friend — and middle and upper class white Americans in particular have the ability to help make that happen.   And the truth is that violence is not cool or heroic — it just ruins lives and puts people at each other’s throats.

Dismantling all these self-deceptions will not be easy.  They live in us in surprisingly deep ways.  But that is our spiritual task.  Regardless of one’s religious commitments, the truth of the matter is that religion is about transformation of the self in the direction of deeper solidarity with the human family, deeper compassion, and deeper connection with the sacred.  All of the religious traditions say this, each in their own way.  In Christianity, we call this work repentance — an honest assessment of our own self-deceptions, and an honest commitment to working at dismantling those self-deceptions, all undertaken with the grace of God.

I pray that somehow, we can find our way into this work.  Because the time for self-deception needs to end — we all need more truth, more light.

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