Faith and Action

pray-think-do

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Brother’s — and Sister’s — Keeper

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.