On the Anniversary of Ferguson: some personal reflections

Luncheonette sign, circa 1943, Portland, OR.  Source: Oregon Historical Society.

Luncheonette sign, circa 1943, Portland, OR.  Source: Oregon Historical Society.

In view of what seems to me the obvious fact that our country still has a long way to go to heal the wounds of 400 years of racial discrimination against black people, I wish to weigh in with a personal account that will let you know how I see things at this time.

As I write, I'm recalling a conversation I had a year or so ago with a relative who maintained at the time that our country no longer had a problem with racism. I disagree. I write aware that the phrases “white privilege” and “Black Lives Matter” are full of electricity when used in the public sphere, inspiring defensive reactions among at least some of us white people. I write while in progress in reading Michelle Alexander's book “The New Jim Crow.” I write believing that we've made progress – a lot of progress – since the Civil War, but that we're not yet where we need to be. I write accepting the notion that while race is in anthropological and sociological terms a “social construct”, it is nonetheless a social construct which has had a powerful destructive effect on the lives of black people in this country.

I grew up in Oregon. My story with race relations begins there.

Oregon journalist Jon Tuttle's 1991 documentary Local Color features former Oregon Governor and US Senator Mark Hatfield telling of the day in 1953 when he carried to passage a bill in the Oregon Legislature to give access to hotels, motels, and restaurants to non-white citizens of Oregon. With a smile on his face, Hatfield recalls the “smiling, joyful” African-Americans who came through the open doors of the legislative chamber to celebrate with him and other politicians their hard-won victory. There was hugging and kissing and the shedding of tears. These African-American citizens of Oregon had lobbied for years for this day to arrive, and Hatfield acknowledges them as “powerful motivators.”

Oregon's Legislature had passed a law in 1949 prohibiting discrimination in hiring practices. In 1957 and 1959 the Legislature would act to prohibit discrimination in housing.

I was born in Portland in 1954, in the midst of this time of great change in Oregon. I was a first-grader before it would be possible for a black or other minority person to have legal recourse if denied a place to rent or the right to take out a mortgage on a property.

I was an adult in mid-life before I was made aware of these facts about Oregon's history of racial discrimination.

Growing up as I did in the Portland suburb of Tigard, then in Newberg, a little farther out, then in the mountains of Coos County, then in the town of Ashland in the Rogue Valley, I didn't see black people around. I can't remember any black classmates in any of the public schools I attended. I can't remember Asian classmates, either.

My first memories of meeting African-American people up close were when my father and I took the pre-Amtrak passenger trains, where the porters and dining car staff were black men. Then there was the African pastor from Kenya who visited our church and stayed in our home. It wouldn't be until college at the University of Oregon that I met black folks as classmates and acquaintances, and there were few of those.

I suppose if you would have asked me back in my youth whether Oregon had a problem with racism, I would have said no. I would have thought that was a problem in the South, but not in our state. I now know that such an answer would be simply out of ignorance; ignorance of the trials and tribulations encountered by black people living in Oregon and ignorance of the way racist attitudes had long been embedded in the structures of Oregon's political and social fabric.

The fact is, Oregon's constitution, adopted in 1857 and made effective in 1859, included a clause prohibiting black people from owning property in the state. Slavery was banned in that constitution, but blacks could not own real estate, make contracts, vote, or use the legal system. Oregon's was the only state constitution so to do.

The historical record in Oregon shows that a series of exclusionary laws passed in the days of the Oregon Territory. Clearly, the exclusionary aspects of the 1857 constitution were part of a pattern by which the leaders of Oregon were setting up a their idea of a whites-only society. Later on in the 1920's, the Ku Klux Klan surged in popularity in Oregon. Robed and hooded Klan members gathered in Portland, and a photograph published in the Portland Telegram in August of 1921 indicates how bold Klan leadership was in trying to influence public opinion and gain the ear of politicians. By the end of that decade the KKK in Oregon was practically defunct, but white supremacist and anti-Catholic attitudes would persist in Oregon.

It would be 1927 before the Oregon State Constitution was amended to give black citizens the right to vote and eliminate restrictions against both black and Chinese voters. It would be 1959 before Oregon would ratify the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, which provides that a citizen may not be prevented from voting based on that citizen's “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”

Jon Tuttle's documentary film features multiple interviews with elder black citizens of Oregon recounting incidents of discrimination in employment and accommodation in the state. They tell of “whites-only” signs on restaurants and other accommodations in Portland and statewide as late as the 40's and 50's, and of being denied jobs commensurate with their educational background.

In Tuttle's documentary, Mark Hatfield – who would later become Governor, then U.S. Senator from Oregon – recalls a visit by Paul Robeson to Willamette University in Salem sometime in the years 1942-1943 while Hatfield was an undergraduate. Robeson, a great singer known to audiences across the world, was denied hotel accommodation that night in Salem, Oregon's Capitol City, so Hatfield offered to drive Robeson to Portland to get a room for the night.

Remarkably, Tuttle – a veteran Portland television journalist – admits on camera in his documentary that he was born and raised and educated through college in Portland, but that he'd served 20 years reporting in Portland before he ran across the story he tells. “By then, it was almost too late to tell,” he ruefully remarks. His first interviewee, Otto Rutherford, voices his agreement with this, remarking that “all of those who really could contribute; they're dead now, and I'm almost dead, so when I'm gone, I don't know who you're gonna...talk to.”

Growing up in Oregon, I didn't hear this story, either. It wasn't a story I heard at school or at church, or around the dinner table at home. Why? Well, it's pretty obvious to me that as a white family living in a white neighborhood, going to church with whites, going to school with whites, we didn't have to talk about it unless we wanted to talk about it, which apparently we didn't.

Oregon remains a pretty monochrome place. Current census figures indicate that while the African-American population of the US is at 13.2%, Oregon has a mere 2% population of blacks, and most of those are in Portland, where they comprise 6.3% of the population. I once shared an apartment with a black friend in Salem in the 1970's, and I know that he stood out in the culture of that town.

The reasons for Oregon's continuing lack of racial diversity are no doubt complex, involving many social, geographic, and economic realities. World War II brought the greatest influx of African-Americans west to Oregon to work in the shipyards, where they were denied union membership and had to live in now defunct Vanport's segregated housing. The war's aftermath put front and center for Portland citizens and their political leaders the issue of what to do with all these relative newcomers after the demand for ships for the war effort dried up, and after Vanport was destroyed in a cataclysmic flood in 1948. Perhaps spurred by this urgency, the activists of the next decades would continue the struggle for racial equality play out in the political arena in Portland and Salem, the state's Capitol.

Where is Oregon now with respect to race relations? On April 30 of this year the Portland Tribune reported on a survey of 400 Oregonians conducted in mid-April of this year for Oregon Public Broadcasting. The results show a society that is conflicted about race relations. According to the director of research,

“Oregonians expressed conflicting opinions about race relations in the state. On the one hand, they believe that racism is still a problem and that most people hold some racist attitudes, while on the other hand most think we talk too much about race relations. As Oregon’s population becomes more diverse, how we collectively address — and talk about — these tensions will be one of the key challenges over the coming years.”

Like it or not, it isn't just Oregon's population that is becoming more diverse. The whole nation is becoming more diverse in population, with whites headed for minority status. We need to be anticipating this reality. We need to find ways to talk about race relations in constructive ways.

It's hard to get a conversation going about race relations. One reason for that is obvious: the latest census figures for Whatcom County indicate that our population is 87.6 white. Our church community is overwhelmingly white. That's just a reality, but this reality makes obvious this fact: we don't have many opportunities to be in the same room and have conversation with people whose experience may be different from us.

If we did have those conversations, we might have to experience some discomfort, because a conversation about race relations is liable to be both dis-orienting and re-orienting. No one likes to be dis-oriented, but that's a necessary thing for intellectual, spiritual, and moral growth, is it not? A follower of Jesus who sits in church listening to the Gospels and also to the Scripture that formed Jesus is being exposed to a tradition in which dis-orientation and re-orientation are the pattern of spiritual growth. When Jesus calls us, he calls us to dis-orientation to old patterns that keep us enslaved and re-orientation to the values and vision of the Kingdom of God.

It has been dis-orienting to me to realize in my adulthood how racist were the foundations of the society in which I grew up, how walled-off we were in my family and church and schools and neighborhood and city and state to the plight of people who were being discriminated against in our very area because of the color of their skin. My early years were in a de facto Jim Crow state, and I'm not proud of that aspect of my heritage as an Oregonian and a Christian. I'm glad things are changing there, but it's way to early to declare a victory for what is just and right.

As I mentioned earlier, I've been reading Michele Alexander's The New Jim Crow, which I started after Bishop Rickel recommended it to the clergy of our diocese. I don't find that I can read what is presented in this book about the realities of mass incarceration and at the same time deny that racial issues divide Americans and keep many black Americans living with insecurity. I cannot read of the findings of the Department of Justice investigation of the Ferguson Police Department and not be concerned about how corruption can infiltrate a system that is supposed to be dedicated to public safety and the maintenance of justice for all citizens.

I'd like to think that I don't have a racist bone in my body. I wasn't taught to hate, after all, and I was told that we should never use those hateful words. As a youngster, I was taught a song that goes “Jesus loves the little children/ All the children of the world/ Red and yellow, black and white/ they are precious in God's sight/ Jesus loves the little children of the world.” I'm glad I was taught that song.

However, I cannot deny that I grew up within a structure which fostered racism, that was slow to change, that is still slow to change, and that system shaped me, for good or ill. And I will probably continue to encounter aspects of myself that were formed in ignorance and in unconscious prejudice. After all, if Jon Tuttle has the courage to admit that he grew up in Portland, Oregon and was educated there and worked twenty years there as a journalist before taking up the story he tells about racism in Oregon, then I can admit that part of the racism that shaped me was just the attitude of not listening, not caring, not wanting to know.

I believe that for church folk – especially us white folk – the call now is to do a lot of listening to the voices that come to us across the distance, across the racial differences, across the grain of the way we've always thought of things. I need to listen to what the “Black Lives Matter” movement is saying to us. Frankly, I get the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” One may retort: “but all lives matter,” but I think that retort misses the point these activists are trying to make. Of course “all lives matter.” But the point is, let's see to it that we take a look at structures – whether judicial or law enforcement structures or what-have-you - that have diminished and still diminish the value of the lives of people who are black, that cause people to wonder if their lives really do matter.

When we in our baptismal vows “renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God,” we're reflecting the language of the New Testament's “Letter to the Ephesians”, where the apostle asserts that “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Those powers are still at work in the world. Those powers were at work when human beings captured, bought, and sold human beings for slave labor in the Americas. Those powers co-opted many in the church, and they can still co-opt us if we let ourselves in any way lose sight of the “dignity and freedom of every human person” our baptismal vows bind us to respect.

As a believer, I've promised myself to serve Christ and his kingdom, which stands in judgment on all these earthly powers, and can reform and redeem these powers. All judgment, says John's Gospel, is given over to Jesus. Let us remember that his use of that power of judgment is to convict us, forgive us, and empower us for the work of reconciliation.

Above all I must listen. Listen for what God is saying. Realize that God speaks through unexpected situations and through what I might consider to be unlikely emissaries. Be willing to be dis-oriented, so that I can be re-oriented.

What I hope for, and what we can all hope for, is the joy of discovery. Senator Hatfield describes his the joy he shared with neighbors and citizens whom he had helped to find new dignity and freedom. At the other end of hard work to achieve a more genuinely free America, we can anticipate joy.

Glen East Day 3

Abbey Chapel at Mount Holyoke College, which is providing me a place for silent meditation this week.

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/haz-caf/4812193152/

Walking with a companion at Glen East back from this evening's showing of slides of his work by the artist Tim Lowly, I heard her say "my cup brims over".  We were both awed by what we had seen, and didn't have many words to express it.

I know that in seeing a large body of his work, much of it with his profoundly disabled daughter Temma as subject, we were led to ponder the image of God in ways that are normally hidden from our view.  I was left silent, wondering, and thankful after the presentation.  He's presented Temma with great respect and awe of his subject, and both his canvases and his comments let us know how she has opened doors of perception for him and for his wife - a Methodist minister - and for a good number of artists who have collaborated with him and a great many viewers who have seen his work.

Temma is the kind of person who attracts attention out in public.  Because of her profound disability she is the sort of person who we look at, and then are tempted to look away.  Tim told us a great story about a great  moment in his life.  He got a phone message from the Temma's day care giver, who had taken Temma in her wheelchair to wander.  While in a park, suddenly the caregiver heard a very childish voice call out: "Hi Temma!"  Suddenly a gaggle of children ran over to Temma's wheelchair to greet her, which involved putting a hand on Temma's arm, since they know she is blind.  He said the moment of exultation for him was in realizing that these little children were able to see in Temma another human being, where many would simply see someone who was odd and made them feel uncomfortable.  Tim wants us to see all profoundly disabled persons and showing the image of God.  Tonight he did that for me, and with luminous and mysterious beauty.

Earlier in the day, I heard Paul Mariani read poems from his new book Epitaphs for the Journey.  Hearing a poet read their work out loud is a gift, and hearing Paul Mariani today was a joyful experience for me.

I'm in a community of people for this week who are gathered at the place where art, faith, and mystery meet.   I'm with a community of people who set very high standards for art, and for whom faith and doubt coexist in a mutually beneficial relationship.  That's why I came to my second Glen conference.

In our film seminar we are being challenged to ask ourselves what stories we would tell about our world, and on film we are seeing characters play out various kinds of stories.  Our first film, Wayne Wang's Smoke, proved to be about what happens when people tell stories that create community and the possibility of redemption and growth.  Our second film, The Swimmer, taken from a John Cheever story, was a contrast, because the people in it are acting out of a very different narrative of what it means to be an adult in the world.  As Gareth put it, these people seem to him to be "uninitiated into adult emotional life."  Today we watched Ridley Scott's The Duellist, with two kinds of narratives in tension throughout the film.

Throughout this experience, we are being encouraged to think about the story we believe about our lives, and how that story is shaping our lives in the present, and whether that story is true.  Gareth spoke to us of how The Work has helped him work with his own story line, helping him to disengage from the false stories he's believed; stories which impede his ability to love and to receive love, as his Christian profession would indicate is his path.

When I was in the Centering Prayer Immersion, we learned about how Centering Prayer is a method of putting aside for at least 20 minutes the thoughts, emotions, and ideas that we so often mistake for being our true selves, for better or worse.  We make ourselves available to increasingly consent to the story that God tells about us; which is that God loves us and will never leave us.

The film seminar and Gareth's emphasis are a nice follow-up to the experience in Snowmass in this regard.  In both contexts, I am being encouraged to internalize the best possible story about who I am.

I see how some things are coming together in my understanding during this sabbatical.  I began my sabbatical considering how we tell the story of Jesus' death on the cross as being the source of our salvation.  However we tell that story, it needs to be a redemptive story for the world; a story that points beyond the kind of hatred and violence that led to his death to a resurrected life for all of us and for the world God created.  Our story of Christ's death needs to raise up before our eyes the stories of those who suffer now, with whom Christ identifies even now, and make it less and less probable that this kind of suffering should be inflicted on others in this world. 

There are false stories that human beings believe; stories about ourselves and our lives which lead to death and despair.  The story of the cross and resurrection needs to point all to a love which transcends it all, and gathers in the despairing and dying.

In Centering Prayer, I strengthened a practice that is meant to lead my own conversion into a bearer of peace and Good news.  In this week at the Glen, I'm being addressed by truly great artists in a way that calls upon me to continue making myself available for conversion into the sort of human being who actually believes and acts on God's love for me and everyone else.

I do believe a lot of false stories about myself and the world.  Those false stories can isolate; they militate against community and communion with God.  They become destructive. 

I thought about that as I read with sadness about what transpired at Reynolds High School in Troutdale, Oregon yesterday.  There are many issues related to school shootings, but one of them has to be this issue: what kind of story are some young men - and school shooters are young men - being lead to believe?  Is there anything we can do to change the story line for them?  What in our culture is leading many to believe a story that can see no way out for us all but to be armed to the teeth?  What kind of story is believed by those who - like Wayne LaPierre, profess to imagine no greater freedom than to be able to have "all the rifles, shotguns, and handguns we want."  Tell that to the church-going Mormon parents of the young Mormon man who took an AR15 and a semiautomatic pistol into Reynolds High School yesterday, and will never come home to them again!  Tell that to the parents and friends of Emilio Hoffman!  On the other hand, never mind.  Let's not inflict more suffering on them!

There's one story to be grasped and received and internalized.  That's the story of God's love for all; a love that is indefatigable, not to be turned aside.  I have to do that work of believing that story and being transformed by it.  I'm the only one that can really help myself believe that story and act from it.

The artists with whom I am consorting this week are those who believe that their art should help us all be more truly human; more truly who we are in God's eyes.  They do their work with honesty, bluntness, great technical skill and rigor.   I'm thankful to be among them.

Sabbatical update: first day at Glen East

I arrived today on the leafy green collegiate gothic campus of Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts to attend The Glen Workshop East from today until next Sunday.  I will be taking part in a film seminar taught by Gareth Higgins, meeting people for interesting conversations, attending readings and presentations, and joining a gathering for worship each evening led by Debbie Blue for which the homilist will Eugene Petersen, a wise pastor and scholar.

At tonight's opening reception I had three interesting conversations with people, including a conversation with Suzanne Wolfe, one of the founders of Image Journal, which sponsors the Glen Workshops here in Massachusetts and in Santa Fe, New Mexico.   Suzanne is an author of fiction and teaches writing at Seattle Pacific University.  With her husband Gregory, she'll be leading the Founder's Seminar at this event.  Suzanne, finding I was from Bellingham, shared with me her appreciation of Luci Shaw, who, as she points out, can be credited with the founding of Image Journal.  Thank you, Luci!

Tonight's reception also gave me the gift of some time in conversation with Dennis Covington, author of Salvation on Sand Mountain, a book that amazed me and made me think and wonder when I read it last year.  I got to tell him what the book meant to me and thank him for writing it.  This book, which started out as an assignment for the New York Times, turned into a very personal account of his increasing involvement with snake-handling churches in his native south.  The book gave me a glimpse into their world that helped humanize these people for me, and led me to wonder about many mysteries of faith.  The book also made me like the man; I'm glad to have been able to meet him tonight.  I like the way he crosses borders to seek understanding of people in this great, complex world God made.  It's true what he says about himself: "I'm an adrenaline junkie."  He's presently under contract to write a book about religious faith in the border regions of the Middle East; an assignment that he reports is challenging him to the maximum.  He will read from this work-in-progress on Tuesday night, and I'm not going to miss that.  He is bearing witness to the violence and pain that results when people kill one another in the name of God, and it is hard.  Dennis told me he has a fascination with faith as "the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of things not seen".  It's a gut level thing for him, and a very hard thing at times, and I sympathize with that.

Speaking of hard things: at our opening session this evening the recent shooting at Seattle Pacific University was one of the subject of Gregory Wolfe's welcoming address.  Image Journal is hosted by SPU, and their office is a hundred feet or so from the site of the shooting.  He assured us that the calamity that befell that campus this week, taking the life of a student and bringing pain and suffering to many, has revealed the "gold" of the strength of that campus community.  He asked for our prayers.

I will begin attending Gareth's film seminar in the morning.  I'm reading his book "Cinematic States" as preparation.

I'm thankful to be alive, to be here, and for the people back home who are supporting the common life of St. Paul's.  God bless you all.

P.S.  Would you please keep in prayer our beloved parishioner Bob Keiper, who is very ill.  I don't know the latest, but his friend called me yesterday to report that Bob was getting a medical airlift back home from a trip he was taking in Russia.

 

A Sabbatical Update from Jonathan

 

Late in Easter Week I drove to St. Benedict's Monastery in Snowmass, Colorado to attend a 10-day immersion in the practice of Centering Prayer offered by Contemplative Outreach of Colorado in cooperation with St. Benedict's.  On the way there I stopped for Sunday Eucharist at St. Mark's Cathedral in Salt Lake City and spent an afternoon touring Temple Square and enjoying an organ recital on the Tabernacle's great Aeolian-Skinner.

 

Centering Prayer is the name given a method of silent prayer taught by Fr. Thomas Keating, a Cistercian monk. The roots of the practice are in the classic work “The Cloud of Unknowing”, which is an ancient and classic manual of Christian mystical prayer. The purpose of centering prayer is to foster an attitude of “consent” to God's loving transformative work in us. Before the retreat, over the last couple of years, I'd been moved more and more to undertake periods of silence in my private prayer. Conversations with members of our Contemplative Prayer group at St. Paul's and with Fr. Chuck Whitmore had encouraged me to seek out this retreat.

 

I found myself with about 20 people on retreat. We lived with a roommate in separate “hermitages” on the grounds of the retreat facility at St. Benedict's Monastery. We prayed in common in a prayer room. We took vegetarian meals together, beautifully prepared from fresh and diverse ingredients by three volunteer retreat facilitators and served family-style around large tables. We ate breakfast and lunch in silence, listening to readings about Centering Prayer taken from Fr. Keating's book “Open Mind, Open Heart”. Except for two completely quiet days out of the ten, we had conversation at evening meals which allowed us to meet one another.

 

We rose most days at 4:40 am to begin an hour of silent sitting in prayer at 5:00 am in the large, open prayer room with a wall of windows looking out on a range of the Rocky Mountains dominated by snowy Mt. Sopris. We kept our eyes shut during prayer, though! Following this hour was breakfast, after which those who chose to do so could attend Lauds and Mass with the monks at their oratory, which was some distance away on a road through their fields. Most attended. I found this daily corporate prayer an anchor that grounded my silence.

 

Returning from the oratory, we spent another mid-morning hour in silent prayer together. Typically, these hours of prayer were in 20-minute increments, interspersed with “walking meditation”. Late in the morning we had the option of viewing a video recorded talk in a series delivered by Fr. Thomas Keating under the title “The Spiritual Journey”. I found these talks captivating and meaningful, as they deeply explored dimensions of the work of transformation that can happen in human beings over a lifetime when we consent in prayer to the love God has for us. Discussion in the group after the talks was encouraged, and these conversations deepened our engagement with each other as retreatants.

 

After lunch we took an hour-and-a-half break, returning to the prayer room in mid-afternoon for another hour of silent prayer, after which we would view another in the series of Fr. Keating's talks and engage in discussion until just before supper. After supper we had the option of returning to the oratory for Vespers with the monks of St. Benedict's.

 

Two days out of the 10 were dubbed “hermit days”, because we agreed together to complete silence for those days, and each of us was given permission to structure our day as we desired. Periods of solitude were encouraged. I took each of those days to combine communal time in prayer and meals with solitary hikes from the retreat house up two different nearby peaks where I could see vistas of the surrounding Rockies and thank God for the privilege of being alive to witness the splendor.

 

As the monastery has no wi-fi, we could put our phones and computers away and not be tempted by them. That was a good thing! These ten days were given to being present to one another and to God.

 

You might wonder how people can be present to one another in silence. Believe me, it is possible, and a very restful and unifying way to build a sense of the value of each person in community.  This was noted by quite a few of us in our reflections on the experience at the end of the retreat.  Egos are subdued and normal patterns of dominance are disabled when silence is engaged.  Many of my fellow retreatants spoke of the value of the group for encouraging prayer, and spoke of the mysterious sense of community which grew as we were with one another in silence in that prayer room and around meals.

 

So, who was there with me? I'm glad you asked! People of diverse age and station in life, that's who. There was one other Episcopal priest present, and one Catholic nun. The rest of the company were living more normal lives in the world. The eldest of the company were a man who just turned eighty-one and a woman who just turned eighty. He is a retired academic administrator, she a vigorous activist in Catholic efforts on behalf of justice who is a widow after years of being married to a professor. The youngest was a man of 23 years who works in a famous craft brewery in Fort Collins and was introduced to Centering Prayer by his father back in Palestine, Texas. We celebrated a birthday one day for a young mom from Houston whose husband took care of their young child so she could have this retreat. She couldn't have been more than thirty, I'd guess. We had retired business executives with us, one of whom was a Presbyterian deacon, another of whom was a Vietnam veteran still seeking peace and healing from the wounds of war.  Another man told us he happened upon St. Benedict's Monastery 20 years ago when he took a side-trip from the famed Aspen Institute out of curiosity about what what monastic life was like and has been returning yearly ever since. We had with us a man who paints houses in Aspen during the summer and lives the rest of the year in a snowbound cabin high in the Rockies outside Aspen reading Thomas Merton. I roomed with an artist from Corpus Christi who I found quite a bit in common in terms of interests. One was with us who was the mother of teenagers back home in Southern California in the care of her husband. Another man surprised me when we got talking about his background of a decade as a successful investment banker in New York City. His appearance was more like someone you might find living in Bellingham as an artist, and as it turns out he is now teaching guitar in Boulder, enjoying a long-delayed stint as a father of a five-year-old daughter, and married to a woman who practices accounting. He'd gone into business to please his parents, and now he's living the life he actually feels called to live, which includes daily doses of silent meditation. There were others present whose lives touched mine. I give thanks for them all.

 

Our facilitators were dedicated practitioners of prayer who donated their time to prepare meals, lead the prayer times, engage in one-on-one conversation with retreatants, and generally promote an air of warm hospitality. They did so unobtrusively and with obvious pleasure.  I give thanks for each of them: a Catholic man from St. Paul Minnesota, an Episcopalian woman from Berkeley, and a former Bellingham resident who has been living in Colorado and working with Fr. Thomas Keating since the late 70's.

 

One night we had over an hour with Fr. Keating himself, who at ninety-one is living a sort of monastic “retirement” at St. Benedict's. We sat in a circle in the prayer room to hear him reflect on a range of concerns, ranging from the challenges faced by returning veterans of our current wars to the challenges faced by all of us when we try to practice contemplative prayer. It was all related, and all of a piece, and all in the spirit of encouraging us to allow God to use us as messengers of reconciliation in the world. He communicated with an open, joyful countenance and great warmth. The take-away message for me? “God wants to love us. God desires only our consent.”

 

We have a Centering Prayer group at St. Paul's, as you may know. They meet on Thursday evenings at 5:30 pm in a room set aside for that purpose in the lower story of St. Paul's. I encourage you to inquire about how you can join them for a session to try out Centering Prayer. You will hear more from me about this subject. In the meantime, you can read about Centering Prayer.

 

After the end of the retreat I drove to the southwest corner of Colorado through the stunning scenery of the San Juan Mountains to Mesa Verde National Park and Hovenweep National Monument, where I saw the astonishing remains of Ancestral Puebloan people. I spent a day at Mesa Verde; a morning at Hovenweep. Heading north through Moab, Utah, I stopped to watch the sunset from Grandview Point on Island Mesa in Canyonlands National Park. From there I drove to Capitol Reef National Park, where I camped two nights at Fruita and took a long day hike up high in the strange and wonderful rock formations of this great national treasure. Heading for home, I drove north through Utah enjoying the scenery, then caught the freeway south of Salt Lake City for the rest of the drive to Bellingham.

 

At home I've been engaging in a program of reading and doing some basic chores.  I spent a weekend celebrating my 34th year of marriage to Sharon, and another weekend celebrating at a family wedding, and enjoying the gift of four days of solitary time in a cabin on an outer island in the San Juans. Soon I will leave for a week at Glen East, a gathering of creative people organized by Seattle-based Image Journal, (ask Lucy Shaw about this) where I expect to gain some inspiration. I will attend a seminar on American cinema led by writer and critic Gareth Higgins which will explore what stories are told in cinema and how we might imagine what stories need to be told about love and justice from the standpoint of the Gospel.

 

Following this week, Sharon and I will spend some good time with our two daughters, first with Olivia near New York City and then with Olivia and Josie together in Vermont, where Josie lives. This will be precious time with family.  While in New York City we expect to see the 9-11 museum and hopefully have a conversation with the designer of the displays, who happens to be a high school friend of Sharon's.  We'll also take in "Amateur Night at the Apollo" with our daughter Olivia.

 

Thank you again for the gift of this sabbatical. I deeply appreciate it!


Yours in Christ,


Jonathan

Thoughts on MLK Day

Yesterday in church we heard the story of Jesus' miracle at a wedding feast in Cana, the first of several “signs” the Fourth Gospel gives us of the significance of Jesus' ministry as the manifestation of God's light in the midst of the darkness of this world.  This is a story calling us to transformation, as Fr. Chuck pointed out in his sermon for the day.  This thought comes out in the blessing appointed for the day: “May God, by the power that turned water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana, transform your lives and make glad your hearts.”

The incident at the wedding feast shows the reader that the ministry of Jesus is the best wine yet.  The story also carries within it a hint that the full revelation as to why Jesus' ministry is the “best wine” is yet to come.  “My time has not yet come”, says Jesus to his mother after she bids him do something to rescue a party that is about to stall for lack of wine.

When will his time come?  I believe that the time to which Jesus refers comes when the full extent of his love for the world is made known in his willingly becoming a victim of this world's violence and victimization on the cross.  Returning in resurrection, he forgives and loves those who made him a victim.  The cross and the resurrection represent the fullness of the epiphany of God's love for this world.  The deep significance of Jesus' ministry is not that he does amazing things at a party, causing a buzz.  The miracle with the wine points to a deeper significance.  The coming of Jesus is to a world where the party that God intended has stalled.  It has stalled because of human sin.  The world has run out of wine; the wine of God's joy and peace.

I came home from church today longing for the transformation to which Fr. Chuck pointed us; this transformation that is on offer from God through the power of Jesus Christ.  I long for this transformation in myself and in our society, which is so in thrall to violence and the fear of violence.

The unspeakable sadness of Sandy Hook Elementary School's pre-Christmas horror still weighs on us, and has sparked a renewed national conversation and debate about guns and their role in society.  A majority of Americans favor some new policy with regard to certain types of guns designed for military use, while a significant minority is opposed to change.

The divide appears to be deep.  I know people in my family circle who believe there is a conspiracy to confiscate their deer-rifles and pistols.  I don't believe that.  Others in our state proposed “Gun Appreciation Day” on the occasion of the weekend where we celebrate the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr.  I thought this a mockery of an occasion where we mark the significance of the life of a man who died by gun violence after showing us a courageous example of non-violent resistance to oppression.  Others propose arming every teacher, and as the parent of a young adult who seeks to become a teacher, I have a personal stake in contemplating the implications of such an idea.

Writing in the January 28 issue of Time Magazine, Amanda Ripley reminds us that the chance of a student being killed in school is “about 1 in 3 million, lower than the odds of being struck by lightning.”  She also cites evidence that in “fixating on hypothetical school-yard gunfights, we are choosing to fight in the riskiest arena.”   She points out that it is in this arena where chances are high that an officer or armed educators will be involved in an accidental shooting.

We are in for a long debate and discussion.  I hope the debate and discussion is substantive and robust, and makes us look at mental health issues and issues of law and justice.  The debate is needed.  Our nation stands out among developed countries for our gun violence statistics; and that is deeply troubling, especially in a nation where so many people profess Christian faith.  The idea that problems are solved and security is ensured at the end of a barrel of a gun is a prevalent myth in our story-telling and our history.  That troubles me.

In my upbringing in rural and small-town Oregon, I grew up around guns and hunting and sport shooting.  These are legitimate uses of guns, and there are legitimate reasons for some to keep a gun for self-defense.   But I have a great concern that we have made violent responses to conflict an idol in our culture.

Christian faith calls us to put aside idols and trust in Jesus.  He is our peace, who in the Passion and the Crucifixion directly confronts our violence, and in the Resurrection comes back in total forgiveness, showing the possibility of a new way of being.  We have a lot to learn from him about peaceful resolution to conflict.

In my view, our trust in the myth that violence is redemptive is one that has led us to the place we are.  The party is stalled.  The wine of joy is running out.  We're drinking the dregs of fear.

Into this stalled party Jesus comes with the best wine.  His life and teaching and death and resurrection hold the power to bring the party alive again; to show us new ways besides violence to seek what is just and right.  I hope we who are Christians will contemplate his Epiphany among us as we participate in the national debate and discussion, and let it influence us more deeply.

 

Youth and Church, Part 1

 I'm reading a book entitled Awakening Youth Discipleship: Christian Resistance in a Consumer Culture, by Brian J. Mahan, Michael F. Warren, and David F. White (Eugene, Cascade Books, 2008).

I'm only through the first chapter, and they have my attention.  

The first chapter is by White and entitled "The Social Construction of Adolescence".  

White begins with a survey of the contemporary social context, taking into account the National Study of Youth and Religion, which was led by Christian Smith of UNC Chapel Hill.  He quotes Melinda Denton's summary of that study before a gathering of United Methodist Youth workers in 2004.  She told them that the study showed that sixty percent of American teenagers - who are overwhelmingly mainline Protestant and Roman Catholic - view religion with "benign positive regard."  They view religion as "good, but inconsequential."  He quotes Smith: "Most religious communities' central problem is not teen rebellion but teenagers benign 'whateverism'".

In other words: religion?  Meh.

White maintains that the social construction of what we call adolescence is just over one hundred years old, and describes the "bargain" we strike with those in this period of life as "dependence and education now; responsibility and independence later."  This bargain is problematic, in that:

"recent cultural developments relegate most youth to institutions in which they have less than full power for longer than any age cohort in the history of the world, leaving them less free to make their distinctive mark on history, and are quickly shaping them as passive consumers rather than active agents and shapers of history."

It's hard to argue with that, it seems to me.

He further asserts that there is a "subtle hostility toward youth" in our culture, pointing out that states are criminalizing "behavior once considered experimental, such as public mischief, minor vandalism, and gang affiliation, placing increasing numbers of youth alongside adults in courtrooms and prisons."

White then devotes sections of his essay to summarizing historical periods beginning with "Organic Preindustrial Society".  In his section on, "Industrial Capitalism and Fragmentation of Organic Life", White explores the development of market forces as a major shaper of adolescent identity.  This development competes with  and substantially overcomes the "authority and guidance of families, communities, and congregations," giving rise to an "autonomous youth culture - one likely as not originating in Hollywood and increasingly incomprehensible and irrelevant to their parents and local communities."

White then explores "Postmodern Adolescence" as a period of "destabilization" of "meaning, social institutions, traditions, and personal identity." There is a mixed blessing in this development, as it has opened up new possibilities for women and minorities to gain equal rights and privileges, but has also led to an instability having to do with what he calls "the iconoclasm and promiscuity of the markets."  He cites "planned obsolescence" as an example of this; the work of corporations to instill in us a desire for new fashions and make us into consumers.

White observes several trends in this post-modern situation.  The first is "vastly diminished social roles allowed for youth", which involves the lengthening of adolescence, even beyond the age of thirty.  He observes that the promise that education would lead to middle-class security is increasingly in doubt, and that upward mobility in the workplace is less certain than ever before in modern times.  Underclass youth are now stripped of earning power in a new global economy as jobs are shipped overseas.  He describes a trend to prosecute as felons youth whose indiscretions might have in past times been considered with a more forgiving attitude, citing evidence from California which indicates a priority for prison construction over investment in the university system.  He cites evidence of a decline in the capacity for young people to think critically and in depth, and relates that to the explosion of the entertainment industry and it's power to attract attention from more intentional pursuits.

White also cites a trend in the post-modern situation toward a decline in the number and availability of adult mentors and sponsors, which goes hand-in-hand with what he calls a "specious adulthood" shaped by the entertainment media.

And White cites as a concern market forces which militate against the possibility that youth will find mentors who can apprentice them in meaningful work.  Adolescents are restricted to low-skill and low-pay service sector work.

In summary, White comes to eight conclusions in his review of the history of adolescence:

1. "Youth were abstracted from significant social roles in communities. (Youth roles are now limited to education, consumption, peer relationships)."

2. "Youth were abstracted from networks of care in communities. (Youth are largely relegated to peer relationships with little or no adult involvement)."

3. "Youth were abstracted from attention to the common good. (Youth today are seduced by marketers to a focus upon commodities and sumptous lifestyles)."

4. "Youth were abstracted from families and other local authorities. (Youth are relegated primarily to peer groups.)"

5. "Youth were abstracted from 'innate 'passions and sensibilities,' described by G. Stanley Hall as intellectual curiosity, compassion, passion for life, beauty, and justice. (Many youth experience curiosity and passion as unnecessary and irrelevant for vocational advancement.)"

6. "Youth were abstracted from expectation to fully attend to the call of God upon their lives.  (For many youth, the need for security and desire for consumption drives lifestyle and vocational advancement)."

7. "Youth were abstracted from faith communities.  (Youth are relegated to special but marginalized status as adolescents)."

8 "Youth were abstracted from their own powers as agents of God in history, shaping a better world.  (School and other social roles do not expect or challenge youth to explore their powers and abilities.)

This first chapter has me wanting to read the rest.  I'm thinking that some readers will be able to point out instances of exceptions to those eight conclusions about the "abstractions" of youth, but I find it hard to do anything other than agree with the general description of these abstractions.  They ring true for me.

I'm going to continue reading.  The book promises to give some direction as to constructive engagement with these abstractions.  

 

 

 

Lady Wisdom wants a hearing

 

My heart was touched by a story this week of the 18-year-old young man who while driving drunk after a high school graduation party caused an accident which killed two classmates.

At his court appearance the father and sister of one of the deceased teens watched that tormented young man shed tears of remorse and express a heartfelt apology.  They spoke to the judge in favor of a lenient sentence.

On the way out of court, that grieving father embraced that young man.  The photo was flashed across the world.

The story had me in awe, and in a reflection on my own life.

Sometimes Wisdom manifests itself, and when it does, it is startling.  From where did this father’s capacity for compassion leading to forgiveness arise?

We hear from Wisdom in our first reading.  Wisdom is the personification of God’s call to us, which searches all things and calls us to attention and challenges us.  Our local Greek Orthodox congregation, for instance, is called “St. Sophia”.  That means “Holy Wisdom.”  The members of that congregation always have before them in their name a reminder to listen for God.

Lady Wisdom is in the streets where people come and go, in the public square where politics are debated, on the busy corner where business is done, in the city gate where issues of justice are settled.

And she’s raising her voice. She’s yelling, because she’s been so universally ignored in those places!  She calls for our attention, and warns us of the cost of ignoring her urgent appeal.

The warning is unsettling.  “Because you’ve ignored all my counsel, I’ll laugh at your calamity!”  That’s troubling to hear.  It is partially softened for us by the promise made at the end of the reading: “…those who listen to me will be secure and will leave at ease, without dread of disaster.”  That helps, but the warning remains.  Ignoring wisdom leads to terrible predicaments.  Someone probably warned that 18-year-old boy about driving drunk, but he didn’t heed.  Now he’s got jail time, because that’s mandatory in Michigan for his offense.

In the Gospel writings and in the Church’s faith Jesus is the embodiment of Holy Wisdom.

Hear him today speaking.  Observe how he is ignored, as the Lady Wisdom in Proverbs is ignored.  He speaks in a way that flies in the face of the expectations of his disciples, particularly Peter.  He will not be the king who conquers by force.  He will be the anti-king whose hallmark is servanthood. 

See Peter ignore Holy Wisdom.  See Peter try to shush Jesus up.  See Jesus come right back at Peter, treating him like the adversary.  “Get behind me, Satan!  You’re thinking like mortals think!

And how do mortals think?

We seek knowledge rather than wisdom.  We want information, not insight.  We seek knowledge – as our first parents did in the Garden in the story of the forbidden fruit – because by knowledge we hope to gain power and mastery.  That was clearly Peter’s hope for Jesus.  He wanted Jesus to seize power in the expected way.

Theologian and biblical scholar Ellen Davis makes this very point.  Knowledge is a “form of power”, she writes.  In this sense, knowledge is “abstracted from goodness.”  She points out that Israel’s scriptures don’t recommend any “form of knowledge which is abstracted from the concrete problem of how we may live in kindness and fidelity with our neighbors, live humbly and faithfully in the presence of God.”

The story of a grieving father showing compassion and mercy stuck out for me this week amid news of hatreds breaking into violence, of intractable political fights, in a world of endless war.  It spoke to me of someone who has heard Wisdom’s call.

My guess is that man has spent time away from the madness and noise listening for Wisdom.   He’s probably had every scenario go through his brain; had every opportunity to embrace bitterness and anger as his response to the terrible loss of his son.  It seems he listened for Holy Wisdom.

Holy Wisdom is always speaking; we’re just often not listening.

How can we hear the voice of Wisdom? 

Wisdom speaks to us in the context of basic practices: Daily silence and daily prayer with examination of conscience.  Daily giving thanks.  Daily acts of mercy and kindness.  Weekly worship.  Giving generously of our money.  Fasting and Feasting.

These practices cultivate peace.  Life feels right; takes on meaning.

The passage from Proverbs promises that those who listen to Holy Wisdom will find security and ease in living.

As the example of our forgiving father shows, there is no guarantee in life that we will experience no great trial.  But there is the promise here that good things will come to us who cultivate a relationship with Divine Wisdom.

 Jesus Christ speaks to us today as Wisdom incarnate.  In a world where we seek knowledge in order to gain power, he calls us to lose our lives in order to save them; to seek the wisdom that makes for insight into how we can live compassionately with one another, as he lives compassionately with all of us.

O God, because without you we are not able to please you, mercifully grant that your Holy Spirit may in all things direct and rule our hearts; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Receiving the implanted word

Proper 17 Year B

The week before last, sensing a need to draw aside for renewal, I made plans for a day at Westminster Abbey, a Benedictine monastery in Mission, B.C.to be quiet in that community and to attend the prayer services in the monastery church, where the continuous round of prayer deeply rooted in Scripture – especially the Book of Psalms, focuses me on God.

While in that quiet day my focus was drawn to today's reading from the Epistle of James; particularly the words “welcome with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.”

I went up to Westminster Abbey in order to cooperate with God in the salvation of my soul. And by the soul I mean that depth in us from which we live. That depth in us is to be carefully protected and tended, as one would a garden.

I was aware that I was getting tired and stressed in concerns of pastoral ministry and administration of the congregation in a time of change. I was aware that in that condition the world – especially as mediated through mass media, looks more threatening and discouraging to me than it should look, and that my soul was crying out to be nourished and strengthened.

The Book of Common Prayer is so helpful in learning to recognize and diagnose diseases of the soul.

Take the Collect for the Third Sunday in Lent, for example, a prayer that's been around since the eighth century:

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep us both outwardly in our bodies and inwardly in our souls, that we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul....”

Our soul is given us as a place of depth to encounter the living God. But this world knows forces that rebel against God, from which our souls are vulnerable to attack. I made my plans agreeing with the Collect that “I had no power in myself to help myself.” Only God could supply that power. And for God to supply that power, I needed to be focused on receiving what James calls “the implanted word which is able to save our souls.”

The need for salvation of the soul is apparent in the community to which James the Apostle writes. They were troubled by a lack of basic hospitality toward one another which divided rich from poor, and by flashpoints of anger in the community which destroyed trust.

So he writes “rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word.”

I have the image here of my wife's work to rid a hillside of blackberries and knotweed in order that a garden may grow. Blackberries and knotweed are the “sordidness” and “rank growth”. Her intent is to implant new life in place of that “rank growth”.

And what is the “implanted word” of which James speaks?

The implanted word is the Gospel, the Good News. That Good News addresses two key questions we have.

“Who is God?” is the first question.

Who are you?” is the second question.

To the first question comes the answer, and it is a good news.

Every generous act of giving, with every perfect gift, is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change.”

God is the generous giver, whose attitude of giving never changes. God is the origin of all good gifts; not just those good gifts given by Christians, but good gifts from whatever source.

The knowledge of this truth, if implanted in our souls, is able to save us.

Salvation comes when we receive this truth; when it shapes the answer to the second question: “Who are you (we)?”

We are those loved by God, given birth into the knowledge of this love, and made a kind of “first fruit” of this garden that God is planting in order that the world might be saved by Love.

God is a giver who loves to give and never stops giving good things. The purpose of it all is that we should grow in depth and power of soul; souls responsive to God's generosity. James characterizes that soul-work as producing people who are quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; and who make a community in which the most vulnerable can be safe, whether orphans or widows or anyone who in today's categories is at risk of falling out of society.

Harry Emerson Fosdick, a great preacher in New York City's Riverside Church many years ago, made the observation that in his experience, “those who reflect upon their lives and conclude that they have received far less than they deserve tend to be among those from whom no great living comes. Others evaluate their lives, thinking they have broken about even, and conclude that they got about what they had earned. Rarely do you see any exceptional living from either. However, those who readily reckon that they have received far more than they deserved are among those who have indulged in great living.”

(As quoted by Peter Rhea Jones, from Fosdick’s RIVERSIDE SERMONS, New York, Harper, 1958, p. 174) 

The implanted word that is able to save our souls is the word that speaks to us God's infinite generosity.

God's generosity is present, not just on Sundays, but every day of the week. It is present when at work or in family life or other human endeavors we are patient with each other, more ready to listen to each other than to lay a lot of words on each other, and ready to make space for one another. It is present to us when that grace is extended to us from anyone.

Finally, a question:

What are you doing to prepare yourself to receive this impanted Word of God's generosity?

Do you immediately get up and turn on the news, flooding your consciousness with a psychic overload of the world's detritus? Is that the only thing flooding your soul during the day and when you go to bed at night? If this is so, you'll soon be in trouble.

The Church commends to us rest, contemplation of beauty, and the discipline of daily prayer, in which, for a few minutes at least, we are nourished from the Scripture and the Prayer of the Church, quieting our soul to hear the still, small voice of God speaking generously. My Bishop gave me a copy of a small book of Prayer called Hour By Hour, which makes readily accessible portions of the Book of Common Prayer and the Scripture for prayer in the morning, at noon, in the evening, and just before bed. It's available from Forward Movement Publications.

I mentioned how wonderful the Book of Common Prayer is for the soul. Hear again the words of today's Collect; how fitly it sums up today's reading from James:

Lord of all power and might, the author and giver of all good things: Graft in our hearts the love of your Name, increase in us true religion; nourish us with all goodness; and bring forth in us the fruit of good works; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen.

Our plumb line is Jesus

 

Proper 10, Year B

A sermon preached July 15, 2012 for St. Paul's Bellingham by the rector

If you look carefully into the chancel here, you will see an iron rod crossing the width of the chancel connecting both walls near the point where the slope of the roof meets the walls. Then, if you walk outside to the walkway and steps leading from Walnut Street to the Great Hall entrance and look up at the outside wall of the chancel, you'll see why that rod is there.

That rod is there because the wall of the chancel is bowed outward. That rod is apparently helping keep the two side walls of the chancel in place. When architect F Stanley Piper designed this building I'm sure he designed it so the walls were plumb; that is, straight at a 90 degree angle to the foundation. I don't know what instruments the builders in the 1920's used to assure those walls were plumb, but that long ago they may have used a plumb line, which is a piece of lead on the end of a line. Held steady, this line will show what is plumb or out-of-plumb.

Our building over time has gone out of plumb. Gravity and other stress forces make it so.

The message of Amos the prophet is that the nation of Israel is out of plumb. They are out of plumb because they are no longer the people they were called to be; a people devoted to God's will and purpose, to be a blessing in the world through the establishment of justice – right relationship with God and neighbor and the stranger who comes into the community.

Amos lived in a time when Israel had expanded its territory, had a strong military force and was apparently economically strong. Israelites felt this was a sign of God's favor toward them. Amos begged to differ.

Amos was not a professional clergyman. He was just a person on fire with God, what someone has called “a burning coal which fell out of the fireplace.” No one in the establishment summoned him from the little village of Tekoa in Judea where his occupation was as a shepherd and arborist. God sent him to the northern kingdom of Israel to Bethel, which you might say was the sort of “National Cathedral” of Israelite religion; the sort of “royal chapel”. He got into it with the priest in charge of the royal chapel, a guy named Amaziah.

Amaziah was the king's man; a chaplain to the powerful, and in no way receptive to the warnings of this rough man from a small no-account village. In no uncertain terms he says “Scram! Get back to Judah where you belong and talk as much as you want to down there. But never show your face again here!”

It's interesting to note that Amaziah the priest never mentions God in his dismissive rant. “This is the king's sanctuary! This is a temple of the kingdom!”

Amaziah seems to share in the disease which Amos says afflicts the nation; the disease that convinces a people that they are entitled; which leads to complacency and self-serving. They've forgotten to be open to God.

In our readings from Mark we've heard Jesus introduce the idea that his mission will encounter resistance, and that his followers can expect resistance as well. He's described himself as on a mission to bind the strong man who holds captive God's people, and his mission will put him directly at odds with powerful people.

The prophets of Scripture are necessary to God's story; they are the unpopular people who rise up to say the unpopular thing. Amos is one. John the Baptist is one. Jesus is one.

Amos comes with a plumb line. John the Baptist comes with water and a message of return to God's ways. Jesus comes announcing a new sort of kingdom that stands against the pretensions and the follies of human kingdoms.

For us, Jesus is the plumb line. He is the embodiment of God's life; in relationship with him we find life that is true to God's original design. Like all prophets, we resist him at least as much as we are attracted to him.

As I think about what it is about Jesus that makes him our plumb line, I'm drawn to the Epistle for today, and the word that comes to mind as I think about how it affects me is “extravagance”.

God's life in Jesus is a life of extravagant giving and forgiving and blessing. “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace that he lavished upon us.”

Like this building, our lives get out of plumb. We're ruled too much by the illusion that we are the center of our world, by the hurts we experience, by the things that we desire that slip from our grasp, by the perception of scarcity in the world. When this is so we lose the sense of God's extravagant love for us.

We live always in the presence of an extravagant God, who has a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in Christ; things in heaven and things on earth, to put things right, to make things plumb again. We're adopted as beloved children of this God. We have every spiritual blessing that heaven affords. We are forgiven, blameless before God.

This building is likely never to be plumb again. Our lives are not likely to be completely plumb, either. But we are adopted by a God who loves us in our imperfection.

Therefore our lives can be lived to the praise of God's glory. I pray for myself, and for St. Paul's Church, that we seize upon the extravagance of God's love, which is our inheritance. As we do, we'll worry less, and venture more.

Thanks be to God.

 

Easter evening

We were walking this evening.  Ahead of us I heard someone with a hacking smoker's cough.  As I approached, I could see the woman, her face somewhat haggard, standing outside her apartment block, her back against the wall of the building.  She clutched her cigarette between two fingers held close to her lips.

I greeted her quietly with a "hi".

In reply she said "Happy Easter".

So who is the messenger of the Resurrection here?

Easter Morning 2012

 

Greetings to all of you in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, Conqueror of Death and bringer of Life. Welcome!

I call your attention to the way our Easter Gospel ends. I'm going to give you a rather literal rendering of it in the original, and it sounds like this: “So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them. To no one anything they said; afraid they were for…” Strange, isn’t it?

Scholarly consensus is that this is the way the original author of Mark’s Gospel ended the Gospel According to Mark. Later scribes will add the material which tries to give a more pleasing end to the story the Gospel is telling.

Tom Long tells a true story about a guy who memorized the whole Gospel according to Mark in order to deliver it as a dramatic performance before a live audience. He decided to end the performance in accordance with this consensus. At the first performance he spoke that last verse with its ambiguous ending. That was awkward! He stood there for a few seconds not knowing what to do, his uncertainty obvious in his body language. Finally he blurted out “Amen!” and dashed offstage. The audience, their tension relieved, burst out in loud applause.

 Before the next performance the actor reconsidered, however. He realized he didn’t want to give the audience the satisfying conclusion, because that’s not what Mark’s Gospel intended. So when he got to the final verse he simply paused for one beat and then left the stage in silence.

 One who was there reports: “The discomfort and uncertainty within the audience were obvious, and as people exited the buzz of conversation was dominated by the experience of the non-ending.

We like endings that wrap everything up in a happy way. This is not a satisfying happy ending; the kind where you put down the book or switch off the DVD and call it good entertainment. This is another kind of story, a story that is still being written, and the way Mark tells the story makes this quite clear!

 We are the ones writing the rest of this story. We provide the ending.

 The Gospel according to Mark tells us that Jesus told those around him what would happen to him; that he would be sentenced to death and die, but that he would live again. It wasn't a message they were willing to accept, or capable of accepting. It didn't fit their preconceived ideas of the ending of their story with Jesus. If I'm honest, I would say that I would have been one of them.

So it is that the women come to the tomb preparing for an ending that is all about Jesus' death, and come away stunned and breathless from an encounter with life, which opens up a non-ending and a new chapter! 

They come away with an assignment for this new chapter of this story-that-won't-end. "Go meet the disciples and Peter back in the home territory of Galilee, tell them what they've seen, and tell them that they too can expect to see Jesus back on Galilean soil."

 They receive this message, and are too terrified and amazed to say anything to anyone! So the telling of the Resurrection story is left hanging, and it is indeed a never-ending story. We who receive the message are writing the story by the way in which we react to it.

As Tim Geddert suggests, we may react in this way: How could the women keep silent about this amazing event? And the question comes back right to me. How can I keep silent? Will I tell? Will you tell?

 You might react in this way out of spiritual longing: “I want to see Jesus on my home turf, in my Galilee!” And the Good News is that you and I are invited to see Jesus on our home turf. If the disciples who went around with Jesus and didn't get what he was about; who at the time of his trial forsook him and fled are all invited, then so are we. If Peter, who denied Jesus three times is invited, then so are we. We're all invited, and all because Jesus' love for us, which is God's love for us, just doesn't give up on you or I or anybody, or any part of God's creation. Jesus loves to invite unworthy people into his circle of mission. That's how I got here.

 You might react in this way: “I would have preferred an ending which gave a nice wrap to the story and didn't ask so much of me.” And that's a choice as well.

 The beginning of Mark's Gospel gives us a clue as to what we can expect in meeting Jesus in our Galilee, our Bellingham, our Deming, Sumas, Ferndale, Whatcom County, our wherever-we're-from. It begins as abruptly as it ends today: “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”.

 Reading Mark's Gospel, it becomes apparent that at the beginning of this chapter, then, we know we'll find Jesus wherever there's suffering and loss and the need for hope. We'll find him bringing newness there. We'll find him befriending lost and wayward and needy people; that's us, no matter how rich or poor we are. We'll find him bringing solace to those who mourn. We'll find him confronting the powers of this world that are prideful and arrogant and live by violence and corruption; those powers with which we all have more than we'd like to think.

Serene Jones sums it up:

"...It is not just pride or falsehood or arrogance or violent boasting that God redeems. It is also the nether regions of life where we are broken by violence and by love and by the sheer exhaustion of the labor it takes to go on. Here, where we expect to find him dead, the tomb does not hold him, as well. And with often unspoken force, grace abounds.”

We will find him helping us live with newness in the midst of the suffering we can't help, and with the power to alleviate the suffering that it is in our power to alleviate.

 We are writing the story, but the plot and the ending of the narrative is in the hands of God who is author and finisher. God is victorious over death, and unpredictable. Jesus remains in control, and is unpredictable. The only predictable thing is that God is good, that Jesus will love us at every point in the story, and that the final ending is up to God.

There's a line from today's Psalm which we can own, if we receive this Good News and desire this day to bear it:

"I shall not die, but live and tell the works of the Lord."

 

 Alleluia, Christ is Risen!

 

image: Women at the Tomb
Unknown
German, Hildesheim, about 1170s
Tempera colors, gold leaf, silver, and ink on parchment 

J. Paul Getty Museum

God too close to see

Mounted on the front of the pulpit of St. Paul's Church is a piece of rock – it looks like marble to me – which according to the inscription was brought from the Areopagus in Athens. The inscription calls our attention to the address the apostle – a Jewish Christian philosopher – delivered to the Athenians who gathered there in the marketplace to discuss ideas.

When I was nineteen I sat on a rock on the Areopagus with a small New Testament and read Acts 17:22-34, which records the apostle's words. In that address Paul takes note of the altar inscribed “to an unknown god”, and proceeds to make the startling claim before his Gentile pagan audience that this “unknown god” is the God who is revealed to Jews and in the person of Jesus Christ, the “man appointed” who is now raised from the dead.

St. Paul's boldness to proclaim the resurrection has the effect of causing some listeners to scoff and walk away. Their gods are immortal, after all, and the idea of a god subjected to death is to them too strange to entertain.

The speech is remarkable in too many ways to recount here, but I do want to emphasize the claim made by Paul that this God created all the inhabitants of the earth and the order of nature in which we live in order to provoke a spiritual quest. The speech in Acts has Paul saying that God created humans


...so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him – though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For 'in him we live and move and have our being'; as even some of your own poets have said.

Paul seems to be saying that this “unknown god” is unknown precisely because this god is too close to us.

Commenting on this text, Tomáŝ Halîk remarks: “He is unknown not because He is too far away but because He is too close. After all, we know least of all about what is closest to us, what we take for granted.”

Halîk gives as an example our face, which is close to us, but which none of us have ever seen. We only see its image in a mirror, and we can only see God as though in a mirror.

The Athenians had many gods with many names – and yet some impulse led them to erect this altar to an unknown god. That impulse, I imagine, had to do with the abiding sense of mystery left after the stories of their gods were told. Paul seized on this sense of abiding mystery as the beginning point for his proclamation, which is that this mysterious God drew close to us in Jesus. So close did God come that God was subject to the suffering that is the lot of so many victims of human cruelty and injustice and became subject to the death that is most inevitably our common lot.

Some in Athens scoffed and walked away when they heard this radical claim from the lips of Paul. Others said “we will hear you again about this.” Dionysius and Damaris and others became believers.

We're a lot like the Athenians. We have many gods, if by gods we understand the truth of what Martin Luther said, which is that whatever people assign the greatest value to is their god. Once you start listing the various gods to which we bow, you can really get a list going. Money is for many a god. Power over others becomes a god. Fame becomes a god, or fleeting youth or beauty becomes a god. Nationality can become a god. We all worship gods, and the commonality among all these gods is their service to some false notion of who we are and what our life is for. Understood this way, atheism is indeed impossible.

And – if we're honest – I think we can admit that we religious believers who claim to believe in the God revealed in Christ share in the lot of all human beings. Paul describes us as created “so that they might search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him.” We grope around like everyone else, and in our groping – which is a lifelong process – we get it at least half wrong at best, both in terms of our conceptualizations of God and our practice of God's presence. Humility before the mystery of God is of the essence, and humility before those who do not yet believe and who are seeking is of the essence. Paul, after all, did not go barging into Athens as a monotheistic Jew and make some rude assault on Athenian polytheism. If he had we'd have never heard about this speech. He found instead a common ground and began his discourse there.

We urgently need common ground as Christians and as citizens. The deep divisions and rancor of our time are the product of anxiety. The anxiety is rooted in fear. I get it. I was as horrified as anyone else when Sharon and I speechlessly and tremblingly watched television the morning planes slammed into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon and America entered into the modern age.

I get it that some people retreat into bastions of false religious security in order to wall themselves off and demonize the other. I get it that some writers rage against religion as the root of all evil, constructing straw men gods in order to easily knock those gods down. I get it, but I'm not buying either extreme, because neither is faithful to the God proclaimed in Paul's speech in Athens.

God is close to each of us, Paul claims. We cannot see God, as all good theology asserts. But Paul is telling the Athenians that they are right to intuit a god beyond their stories of gods. God is the one in whom we they live and move and have their being. God is the depth of their lives; the being in whom they have their being. God is closeness itself.

This is true for us. And it is true for our neighbor. And Jesus – God close to us - tells us who our neighbor is; it is the other we fear; the other whose suffering we would easily pass by on the other side of the road to avoid. God is the one in whom our neighbor lives and moves and has their being. God is the depth of our neighbor's life; the closeness that sustains the life of our neighbor.

The way ahead is charted for us in this understanding of things; an understanding that engenders humility and patience in us, and at the same time empowers a proclamation that God is love and a discipleship which follows in the way of Jesus.

Our deepest thanks is not for things


Thanksgiving Day 2011

“Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

In today's Gospel story from Luke ten lepers are cleansed in the act of obeying Jesus' directive – rooted in the Mosaic Law - to go show themselves to the priest.

Their cure means they suffer no longer physically from the complex of symptoms known as “leprosy”, and their appearance before the priest is their ticket to re-entry into society, from which their malady isolates them. It is a remarkable sign in many ways of the dominion of God active and on the move in Jesus of Nazareth.

Ten lepers who approach Jesus in faith for healing receive that for which they ask. Nine go on their way into a new life. One returns to Jesus to give thanks. He returns with great joy and loud rejoicing, giving praise to God.

And – as Jesus notes – this man is a foreigner. He is not of the household of Israel, but is a Samaritan.

Here is a further sign of the reign of God on the move with Jesus of Nazareth. Old barriers disappear and the compassion of God moves with generosity toward the alien and the stranger to Israel.

Ten lepers are cleansed, and one leper – a member of a despised minority – is made whole. The healing is so complete that it overwhelms him with joy. He now has a relationship to God that fills him and completes him as a person.

That is the promise of the Reign of God to all of us. The gift of God to us unfathomable, and we are capable of giving thanks for it only as we deepen our awareness that life is all gift.

Recently my wife and I were able to move into a new home we enjoy very much. I was standing in that house looking out the window and was feeling some conflict. I was thankful for the good fortune to be at home in a place I love, and at the same time aware that others around me struggle and suffer. I was feeling my feelings about that. There was pleasure, and also some degree of sadness.

I shared this with someone and they said “you deserve it.” They were referring to the house and our good fortune in finding it.

While I appreciate their kindness in saying that, I still cannot find rhyme or reason in why I should deserve my good fortune while someone else suffers. Life and the universe are fundamentally more mysterious than that.

The important thing about that moment for me was that in it I was drawn into a relationship with God. I was drawn into the realm where all is gift. In that realm, there is no ultimate “ownership” of anything. The house, my good health; these things are on loan. They could quickly be gone, and at the end, I'd still be held in God's providence. The only place I can be is in the moment, giving thanks, and sensing as well my connectedness to and responsibility toward those who are not as fortunate as I am.

On thanksgiving day around many tables there will be enumerated lists of things for which people give thanks. I hope so, at least.

Ultimately, our deepest thanks is not for things. Our deepest thanks is for relationship with God; a relationship God initiates and which God alone sustains. The ex-leper from Samaria leads the way.

The General Thanksgiving in the Book of Common Prayer enumerates a great many reasons for thanksgiving, and concludes with these words, which we pray in the spirit of that ex-leper, and in continuity with him:

“...Above all, we thank you for your son Jesus Christ; for the truth of his Word and the example of his life; for his steadfast obedience, by which he overcame temptation; for his dying, through which he overcame death; and for his rising to life again, in which we are raised to the life of your kingdom....”

The life of the kingdom is the life of service to the world we find so broken and fearful around us. It is life that draws its strength from deep wells of God's continuing care and faithfulness. As we take holy things from this altar/table we pray to be strengthened to live this life for God and for others.

Amen.

A Burial Homily

Robert Winston Brownlee

Sharon and I remember Robert Winston Brownlee as the person waiting here in this nave after the first liturgy I celebrated here on June 1 of 2008. Most of the congregation had moved by that time to the Great Hall for coffee hour. Bob lingered; he seemed to want to greet us, and so we went to him. We had conversation, and Bob made us both feel very welcomed. After that encounter I went away thinking: “I just met another reason I’m glad to be here”.

One day more than two years ago Bob came in to share with me his plans for his Burial Eucharist. They were well-laid liturgical plans, and you are experiencing them today.

Another day Bob arranged a visit to the parish office to show me the guide to flower arranging published by the Flower Guild of the Cathedral Church of Sts. Peter and Paul, otherwise known as the National Cathedral. What would I think of St. Paul’s Flower Guild taking inspiration from this book? He asked. Having a clear sense that a great gift had just been laid before me, I said I thought that would be just fine!

Encounters with Bob Brownlee were always occasions for blessing for me, and my wife Sharon shares this feeling with me. The greatest gift and blessing, in the end, was the way in which he shared with me and with Sharon his journey through his final illness. There was a lunch on the sun-dappled terrace of the Taproot Café at the Willows Inn where we heard about motorcycle trips in Europe and his love of travel. There were some visits out to his home overlooking the Strait of Georgia where we quietly conversed with him and with Grant, received the affections of Annie and Socks, his dogs, and read Psalms and Gospel texts from John and shared in the sacrament of the Holy Communion. Those times had all the character for me of communion times: together we communed with the living God apparent in the sea vista just outside the window, in the beautiful works of arts and crafts Bob collected in his home, with the wonderful canines greeting us with moist affection, and in the human conversation that appreciated the moment and the company and the essential mystery and beauty of life that enveloped us.

Bob had a deep soul. For all I know, he was born with it. I do know that we work on our souls during our lifetime, though, and Bob worked his soul.

And that brings me to the lessons he chose for his funeral. A common theme runs through them; the theme of the nearness of God. He chose a text from Isaiah with comforting words to a people returning from long exile. He chose a text from the Apocalypse affirming that the dwelling of God is with mortals, and that God’s presence among us is as consolation and comfort for sufferers. He chose a text from the Fourth Gospel affirming that in Jesus we have very present with us the Way home to God.

Sharon and I were discussing this theme, and her observation was that no one who lived the kind of professional life Bob lived as a physician with oncology as his specialty could very well find the thought of a distant God at all sustaining.

Bob gave himself to a profession in which he allowed himself to be present to much human suffering, and by all accounts he was anything but distant with his patients. He lived and practiced medicine soulfully, and in so doing I believe he became a friend of God.

Like another physician named Luke, Bob was drawn in his funeral planning to a text from Isaiah. That text we read occupies a central place in the story that Luke tells in his Gospel account. Luke alone tells us that on a certain Sabbath Day in Jesus’ home town Jesus was in the synagogue and was invited to read the appointed lesson. Unrolling the scroll, he read from Isaiah the words we heard:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.

Luke the Physician, in his vocation as a healer, gave us this recollection of Jesus as one concerned with the healing of the world. Bob also recognized in this text the call he was pursuing in his life. Bob saw himself as a disciple of Jesus Christ; seeking to learn from the Master how he himself might be the means of God’s compassionate nearness to sufferers.

This had a memorable affect on Bob’s patients. I heard from Grant the story of the occasion recently when Bob received word from a man with what we call a “Bucket List” with Bob’s name on it. Fifty years ago that man was a ten-year-old boy on a ward Bob visited on his rounds during his residency. Something apparently compelled Bob to make a gift to that small boy of his stethoscope.

Well, that ten-year-old boy lived. Inspired by Bob to seek a career in the healing arts, he practiced physical therapy for years. Upon his retirement his “bucket list” included an item to contact that doctor from long ago to thank him for his attention and to let that doctor know what his attention had meant to him all his life long. He followed through, and Bob had the joy of knowing the difference he made in that man’s life.

A ministry and vocation such as Bob had is demanding, and one cannot be around suffering as consistently as Bob was in his professional life and not seek other avenues for creativity that participate in the wonder and beauty of life.

In Bob’s home sits a piano he learned to play, and works of needlepoint he executed with loving attention. A cabinet in his dining room contained an extensive collection of recordings of much of the greatest music of the Western world,along with some of the most playful and accessible music of his time. And the other day I saw two notebooks given to Bob by a friend when Bob – having no prior training in flower arranging – asked for some help. Those notebooks contain the most beautiful pencil and watercolor sketches of designs for arranging. We at St. Paul’s Church became the beneficiaries of his efforts, and this altar was adorned many times for the celebration of the glorious mysteries of our salvation by Bob’s exquisite re-arrangements of some of the most glorious materials of God’s creation.

Through his compassion, Bob entered deeply into the mystery of life, with a keen appreciation for the things that make for joy. He enjoyed the depths of a Mahler symphony and he enjoyed a good country song like Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achy Breaky Heart”. I’m told he once took the nursing staff to a concert to hear Cyrus perform. That’s so Bob; generous and compassionate and wanting to share life’s pleasures with others.

Through his final illness I witnessed Bob graced with a keen sense of humor and a deep, unshakeable faith that God was with him and that he could entrust himself to God. Bob lived the Scriptures he selected today; he lived in the knowledge of God’s nearness.

Our desire for Bob and for ourselves is to know and trust the nearness of God until the world is healed and reconciled to God. That promise is expressed in the text from the Apocalypse chosen by Bob. Let’s hear it again:

Revelation 21:2-7
And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying,
‘See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.’

This hope, I believe, was firmly planted in Bob’s heart, and Bob’s desire for us would be that this hope be firmly planted in our hearts. And so I offer this prayer for us; a prayer to which I believe Bob would say a hearty “Amen, so be it.”

O Lord of life, who dwellest in eternity, and who hast planted in our hearts the faith and hope which look beyond our mortal life to another, even a heavenly country: We give thanks to thee this day for the bright shining of the light of immortality in Jesus Christ. As he hath showed us the blessedness of heaven on earth, and hath called us into a kingdom not of this world, so may our life be made ever richer in the things that do not pass away. Raise us up, we pray thee, in the power of his Spirit, from the death of sin to the life of righteousness. Prepare us to follow him, in hope and trust, through all the darkness of the grave into the world of light whither he hath led the way. And when our spirits shrink before the mysteries of life and death, may we be comforted by the thought of that immortal love which knoweth no change, and feels that, whether we live or die, we are safe in thine everlasting arms; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(from Burial Services, Joseph Buchanan Bernardin, p. 153)

Render to God God's image

Proper 24, Year A October 16 2011 St. Paul's Church

Once again we meet Jesus today in the precincts of the Temple in Jerusalem where he is parrying off challenges from the religious leaders who are in charge of the Temple They finally figure out how to get him in deep trouble

Sending a delegation, they flatter him, then pop the question:

Tell us, then what you think, is it lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?

It's a trap, of course.

If he says “no”, the Herodian party who are in close league with the Emperor will be able to charge him with sedition.

If he says “yes”, the Pharisee party will be able to accuse him of betraying the Jewish people by collaborating with Rome.

So Jesus' answer is deft.

“Show me the coin used for the tax.”

And here the hypocrisy of his interlocutors is put on full display.

“Whose image is on this coin?” he asks, “and whose title?”

There they are, bearing within the Temple precincts a graven image in contravention of the First Commandment against any graven images. Furthermore, the image of Tiberias Caesar on the coin bears an inscription on it that attributes divinity to the Emperor.

Jesus then utters his terse response:

“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesars, and to God the things that are God.”

Tertullian, an early Christian theologian commenting on this text made this statement:

“Render to Caesar Caesar's image, which is on the coin, and to God God's image, which is on man”. (Idolatry, chapter 15)

As I see it, Caesar may have his coin with his image on it. It is the coin of his realm, and with it he provides aqueducts and roads and sanitation and the like.

We, however, are God's coin. God's image and likeness is stamped on us in Creation, as we know from reading our Bibles.

Furthermore, as the baptized we are signed with the water and the chrism as our name is pronounced:

“You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ's own forever.”

When we confirm our baptismal vows we hear the bishop say “Defend, O Lord, your servant N. with your heavenly grace, that she may continue yours forever....”

At Eucharist we pray “sanctify us also, that we may faithfully receive this holy sacrament, and serve you in unity, constancy, and peace.”

The Church's meaning is now and always has been and ever shall be clear. We belong to God, and to God alone. All other allegiances are subject to our allegiance to God. We set no preconditions, we hedge no bets.

Everything belongs to God. All our money and financial decisions. All our talent and capacity for creativity. All our decisions as they affect every other child of God near and far. So yes, all our political discourse and political decisions, as those decisions affect every other child of God near and far. There's no private realm for God and another realm for Caesar.

This is what makes living the Christian life so challenging and hard. It would be so much easier if God were some private idol. But the living and true God is no private idol, but the God upon whom I depend for every breath; the God whose central requirement is to put God first and to love our neighbor as ourselves.

This is the God we confess in today's Psalm as “high above all peoples”, especially Caesars and Presidents and bankers and generals. “Proclaim the greatness of the Lord our God”, we prayed, “and worship him upon his holy hill; for the Lord our God is the Holy One.”

That God alone is over all peoples is good news, for when the Caesars of this world find us no longer useful, they are done with us. The God who is over all people is, as Isaiah writes, the one who cannot forget us, just as a woman cannot forget her nursing child. “See, I have inscribed you on the palms of my hands. (Isaiah 49:15-16).

“Render to Caesar Caesar's image, which is on the coin, and to God God's image, which is on man”.

God's image is on us. We are the coin of the realm of God's eternal Dominion, and learning what this means takes a lifetime to figure out. I'm still figuring it out and will never be finished.

As part of our effort to figure this out together, you can help me as I continue to work this out in my own life and in what I teach and preach.

You were handed a piece of paper when you entered. I'd appreciate it if you answered the questions on it and gave it back to me so I can read it. I'll share your answers with the Adult Education Committee. Your answers will give me ideas for sermons. I'll be grateful for your help.

What do you think Jesus means? What things are Caesar's and what are God's?

How does our faith shape our economic decisions -- our buying, saving, giving, and the rest?

What one question about the relationship between faith and money would you most like to talk about at church?

In sympathy with the faithless and unbelieving

For November 2011 “Messenger”

Last month in this space I wrote of faith in God, drawing upon some insights of theologian Nicholas Lash in his criticism of the brand of atheism touted by Richard Dawkins.

Now let's talk a bit about atheism and agnosticism. In so doing, let’s avoid the kind of brittle defensiveness that sometimes characterizes the speech of Christians in this regard. I see this currently manifested in reactions against the loss of the institutional power of Christianity in our time.

In a moment of serendipity, a parishioner recommended to me this week a book entitled Patience with God by the Czech priest Tomáŝ Halík. It is a wonderfully wise appreciation of the struggle of many people to believe, and a mature Christian appreciation that this struggle comes out of the common experience of the hiddenness of God which – if we are honest – is the experience of many characters in Scripture. After all, it is Moses who is told in no uncertain terms that he can only see the backside of God.

Halík, who studied for ordination and served as a priest underground during the years of communism and official atheism in his country, has no little experience with atheism and doubt and unbelief, and he has a loving and brotherly attitude toward those who refrain from full commitment to belief. He provides what I consider a helpful taxonomy of atheism.

“Frivolous atheism” he identifies as “a ‘forgetting about God’ that immediately crams the space vacated with substitute idols of every kind.”

“Haughty atheism” is his description for the kind “for which ‘God must not exist’ lest He eclipse the immensity of the human ego that seeks to take control of the deity’s throne….”

“Liberating atheism” is his term for the kind which has “finally gotten rid of its imaginary god, its own projection, which terrorized it for years.”

There is also, he says, “a sad and painful atheism: ‘I would like to believe, but there is so much bitterness within me because of my own suffering and the world’s pain that I am unable to.’”

This loss of faith he goes on to describe as ‘the death of faith on the cross of our world, the hour when the individual is plunged into inner and outer darkness, ‘far from all suns.’ Halík sees the Gospel story intersecting with this predicament at the point of Jesus’ cry of dereliction on the cross: “My God, why have you forsaken me?” He quotes G.K. Chesterton to illustrate his meaning:

Let the atheists themselves choose a god. They will find only one divinity who ever uttered their isolation; only one religion in which God seemed for an instant to be an atheist.

Halík is charting in this book a faithful and yet sympathetic response to the struggle of many people to believe. Using as inspiration the story of Jesus’ meeting up with Zaccheus, he demonstrates that Jesus reached out to those on the fringes of belief with special sympathy, while reproving the false certainties of the religious leaders of his time. The book is rich in reflection that helps Christian leaders recognize the danger of “too-facile belief” while at the same time addressing what he considers to be the shortcoming of atheism, which he sees as a lack of patience with God.

I am concerned about the secularization of our post-Christian age, particularly as it leaves us floundering as a culture for a common narrative to bind us together in solidarity with each other for the sake of the health and welfare of humanity and of God’s creation.

At the same time, I am unsympathetic to forms of Christian triumphalism which react defensively and with bitterness to expressions of disbelief in our time. I can’t escape the feeling when I encounter such expressions that “they protest too much.” A real relationship with God is not easy, and the lives of biblical people and of the saints show us that. If people are going to be drawn to God as we know God in Jesus Christ, they’ll be drawn by any sign that we joy in God; that we experience God as light in our darkness and as strength for compassionate and loving and truth-telling action in the world. You know, like people were drawn to Jesus.

Faith, some say, is a crutch. We believers - some say - are too infantile to accept the world on its own terms. I beg to differ, and I have little sympathy with the kind of facile atheism which uses this line of attack. These atheists have not done their homework, for if they did they would realize that the likes of Mother Theresa have experienced loss of faith even while remaining in love with God. In his book Halik has an appreciation of Thérèse of Lisieux, who confessed to a loss of faith, even as she remained in love with God.

I do share with Halík sympathy with the kind of “sad and painful” atheism of those who perceive that God often seems hidden, and who wish to believe. He maintains that these are our brothers and sisters, and I agree wholeheartedly.

I suggest that these brothers and sisters see my faith as more like the image which Halík gives us; the image of faith as a “pilgrim’s staff” which accompanies us on our journey through life up to the threshold of the life to come. Faith is not just about me, but about hope for the world God made and which God gives us daily. I want to believe that all things are held in God’s hands and that God is working in and through our struggle and confusion to accomplish God’s purposes. If that’s infantile, so be it. But I don’t think it is, if I am willing to risk something for this faith. If I’m to profess faith in God, that risk is a necessary corollary, including the risk of painful periods of a lack of faith during which I must simply continue to love the mystery of God.

God talk

For October 2011 “Messenger”

Last month in this space I wrote of being a discerning community listening for God's direction.

Now let's talk a bit about “God”.

A new strain of militant atheism is out there, typified by Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, a book in which the biologist argues vociferously against the idea that 'there exists a superhuman, supernatural intelligence who deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.”

Dawkins has his critics, including the atheist Michael Ruse, as well as philosophical theologians like Nicholas Lash, whose book Theology for Pilgrims I picked up at the Durham Cathedral bookstore last Wednesday.

The latter theologian brings a lifetime of careful work in theology to bear on Dawkin's claims, zeroing in on what he considers the fatal flaw in Dawkin's argument. That flaw is in Dawkin's definition of the word God quoted above.

Where the grammar of the word 'God' is concerned, Dawkins is ignorant of centuries of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic reflection on the 'naming' of the holy and utterly transcendant mystery on which the world depends, persists in taking for granted that 'God' is the name of a non-existent thing, a particular, specifiable, fictitious entity.

Lash also addresses and handily dismisses Dawkins' claims that faith consists of “belief without evidence”, and that believers in God are committed to a policy of not thinking about their belief.

Lash argues that we are mistaken if we follow Dawkins and presume that God is one more thing – albeit a big thing over other things - and then argue whether or not that “thing” exists.

Lash maintains that God is the way we name “the holy and transcendant mystery upon which the world depends.” In his essay he reminds readers that Christian theology down through the centuries acknowledges the truth we inherited from the Jews, which is that all language to describe God is provisional and inadequate. He quotes John Henry Newman, who acknowledges that in speech about God “we are forced to transfer to a new meaning ready made words, which primarily belong to objects of time and space. We are aware, while we do so, that they are inadequate. We can only remedy their insufficiency by confessing it.”

Speaking personally, I've always found that insight liberating and joyful. Also we, we don't have anything to fear from the new atheism. It seems designed to address only Christian and other forms of that new-fangled attitude we call fundamentalism using the same kinds of arguments that fundamentalists use.

The thing we have to fear is our propensity not to attend carefully and lovingly to the incomprehensible mystery we know in Creation, in the revelation to the Jews, in the Word of God made flesh in Jesus. That mystery, although hidden, we do experience and can know through worship and prayer. That mystery we call God calls us to trust in God's graceful forgiveness of us, to care for one another, especially the “other”. The act of trusting that mystery we call belief. Belief is never unquestioning, neither is it to be arrogant in the face of mystery. To believe is to trust; to set your heart on following this mystery.

We call that form of attending “love”, as in the summary Christ gave of Holy Teaching: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul, and all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” This is the only way we can approach God with any sort of enjoyment and ultimate benefit for us and for the world.

I'm glad to be amid a congregation that seeks and loves God in this way. Let's continue.

Making a Crucial Difference

“...If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” Matthew 16:24 NRSV

We gather today as ministers of the liturgy of the Church, a liturgy that presents us with the whole ministry of God in Christ Jesus; a ministry which makes the crucial difference in the world.

Every time we approach the sacred mysteries, we pledge ourselves to make a difference in the world; a crucial difference.

In that regard, I’m thinking of the events of the last week in Texas and Georgia, where two men were executed by the state.

One was most certainly guilty of a heinous crime committed against James Byrd Jr. Lawrence Brewer went to his execution for that crime.

The other man’s guilt as to the death of Mark McPhail was in serious doubt, but Troy Davis went to his execution anyway.

One man went to his death unmourned and scorned. His crime is so brutal that it is hard to feel anything but loathing toward him.

When Troy Davis went to his death, a crowd gathered outside the prison to mourn and protest. Celebrities, the Pope, Desmond Tutu, and Jimmy Carter spoke out in protest.

When Lawrence Brewer went to his death, only one person was present to mourn and protest the execution.

Former journalist and candidate for ordination in the Episcopal Church David R. Henson notes this fact in a very thoughtful blog post. In it he admits – that as an opponent of the death penalty – he was active in the protest of Troy Davis’s execution. He also acknowledges, that, according to the logic of his own arguments against the death penalty, he should have protested Lawrence Brewer’s execution as well as that of Troy Davis. But he didn’t.

The resulting comment thread on his blog is a rarity in my experience of reading comment threads on the internet. It seems free of ad hominem attacks. It seems thoughtful and respectful. It is certainly challenging.

One participant in the thread writes:

Candice says:
September 22, 2011 at 1:49 pm


The idealist in me says absolutely, the death penalty is wrong no matter the situation. However, I also know that is far too easy for someone like me to say. Someone who has never lost a family member due to violent crime. And now that I have children, I understand the dirty, ugly things I would do to protect them. I land pretty liberally on most topics but admit to being on the fence on this. If anything, this event has started a conversation for a new wave of people, including myself. It won’t be an issue I am apathetic about anymore and one that will get more research (on a personal level). That’s got to be a good thing.

I agree. That is a good thing. One of the things about taking up our cross to follow Jesus is putting away apathy.

I don’t know where all of you are on the death penalty. It’s not my purpose in this homily to address that topic head-on.

But it is my purpose to point out that when we approach the liturgy, we open ourselves – with Jesus – to troubling issues, and we pledge to make a difference in society; a difference rooted in the values and vision of Jesus.

Oh, by the way, Comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, a black man, was outside the prison where Lawrence Brewer, a white supremacist, was put to death for the brutal dragging death of James Byrd Jr.

Makes you think, doesn’t it?

But then, we follow Jesus, who died for all, the righteous and the unrighteous. “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

And I propose that we consider that Lawrence Brewer and James Byrd Jr. and Troy Davis and Mark McPhail and all their families have this in common: they are loved by God, who weeps over the sins which destroyed their lives. They are loved by Jesus, who offers himself to us in the liturgy that we may be empowered to follow Jesus into uncomfortable territory.

Amen.

David Henson's blog post is found at http://davidrhenson.wordpress.com/2011/09/22/the-state-killed-a-man-last-night/ For some reason I could not embed the link.

Of Shiphrah and Puah

In my reading this week in preparation for preaching I was reminded by one writer of the “Butterfly Effect” and its relationship to our first reading today.

The term is from meteorologist Edward Lorenz, and describes an aspect of chaos theory which describes how a small change at one place a non-linear system results in large changes to a later state of that system. A butterfly flapping it's wings, for instance, can have an effect which may lead to the development of a hurricane.

The Butterfly Effect in physics is an apt image upon which to call in considering the story of Shiphrah and Puah, two courageous woman who served as midwives to the Hebrew woman living in the land of Egypt. Their story deserves more attention than it gets.

We've been reading the saga of Joseph and his exile in Egypt and the developments that follow. That saga of the Bible explains why the Hebrew people are living in the land of Egypt.

Today's part of the story tells us that the ascent of a new Pharoah; one of those tiny-minded and heard-hearted brutes of history who do the Big Stupid Things. His tiny and fearful mind divides the world into “us” and “them”, and the Hebrews in the land suffer. First he decrees slavery and exploitation, and then a plan for genocide.

Here's where Shiphrah and Puah show their stuff. When Pharaoh tries to enlist these midwives of the Hebrews in his murderous plan, they resist with cleverness and courage, out of a respect for God. Ultimately, their resistance inspires more resistance, even going to the heart of the Pharaoh's own family. The life of a boy is preserved; a boy who will one day lead the Hebrews out of their slavery.

Also in this story is a woman whose attachment to her beautiful baby boy motivates her resistance. Also in this story is a princess acting out of the quality of mercy and pity.

Here's a story in which we see that small actions by a few lead to a large result. The Butterfly Effect.

Shiphrah and Puah fear God. A mother loves her baby, and a princess shows that cruelty and stupidity isn't hereditary, and God uses all of that to advance God's own purposes in history.

That's something to think about when we consider our collect for today, in which we invoke the mercy of God, praying for the power of the Spirit to unify the Church in order that we may “show forth [God's] power among all peoples, to the glory of [God's] Name.”

The power of God is the power of mercy, and God's intention is that the Church be the agents of that mercy among all people.

How do we become the agents of God's mercy?

We do so when we go out these doors as those who've received the Baptism into the image of the merciful Lord Jesus, been fed at his table and strengthened for service.

We do that as the actions we intend and the actions we take ripple out from their starting point with us into the world, affecting a chain of consequences we cannot possibly know.

We had a reminder of that recently in the case of Rachel Beckwith, the nine-year-old Bellevue girl who in May asked that instead of gifts on her birthday that people send donations to her favorite charity to enable water projects in Africa. Her goal was $300 by her birthday. In July she died in a traffic accident on I-90, and in August her fundraising goal topped $1,000,000 and was still climbing.

We celebrated the life of William Porcher Dubose this week at our Thursday Eucharist. He was a brilliant theologian and teacher from the American South. I noticed in his memoir this statement in reflection on his life:

“...life is not life as long as it is only in the mind, or even in the heart; that it is only life when it has been converted into life. Christianity has only begun when it begins to live what it believes and what it feels: "If ye know these things, blessed are you if ye do them."

In our epistle reading this week we read what our patron, St. Paul, writes to the Church at Rome, and it applies just as well to the Church in Bellingham or anywhere:

“I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.”

The actions you and I take this week as intentional acts for the love for our merciful God may be small, or they may be greater. You may find yourself acting on the small stage of the ordinary associations you have with people in the family or the workplace.

Some of you may find your actions stemming from a concern that is on a broader stage: a concern for right action on behalf of those without a political voice and power; a concern for those discriminated against to the denigration of their human dignity. You may find your actions directed toward the correction of a political system enslaved to corrupt speech and the undue influence of wealth. You may find your actions directed by concern about the human effect of vast inequities between rich and poor in this country, or by concern for the groaning of Nature under the burden of human carelessness and greed.

In our world there's plenty of reason to act, and plenty of opportunity to live the legacy of Shiphrah and Puah, who feared God.

Today we celebrate life as followers of Jesus, gathered by the Holy Spirit for story and song and ritual meal. Talk about Butterfly Effect! A man with 12 disciples changed the world forever! In his power we can change our world too. It all starts with small things. What's going to be our action this week?

Image: Puah and Shiphrah Defy Pharaoh, by Sallie Clinton Poet, oil on canvas (121 cm x 89 cm.


http://lds.org/liahona/1998/05/women-of-faith?lang=eng

 

The Canaanite Woman and Jesus



Proper 15, August 14, 2011

I read a story this week in the Seattle Times about a young 28-yr-old cab driver from SeaTac running for King County Council. The hitch in the story is that this young man came here from Somalia and is Muslim. He was recently naturalized as a citizen and is part of the change that is going on in South King County which is making white people the minority.

The comments section of the story shows that there's tension around all of this in South King County. Some people there are clearly nervous and afraid. This young man experiences some people saying “go away”, and some people saying “welcome”. In one of the comments, a Renton resident opined that anyone not born in the United States, no matter if they are a US Citizen, should be allowed to run for office. The point is that there's tension in the air, and that reflects tension felt all over this country around the issue of immigration. We're caught up in concern about boundaries, and it's very complicated.

This is nothing new.

In Jesus' day his Jewish community had clear boundaries with respect to the Gentile community. This story has tension in it over those boundaries, and this story is about those boundaries shifting in a major way.

Jesus, after a controversy with religious authorities that is essentially about boundaries, goes away. Where he goes is to Phoenicia, to Tyre and Sidon. This is Gentile country.

Then comes the drama and tension over boundaries.

A woman of the area approaches Jesus. She's a Gentile. Matthew's Gospel uses the term “Canaanite” to describe her. This is significant. It's a loaded term, with a meaning that goes right back to the ancient days of Israel when the Canaanites were their feared enemies.

Her approach is bold, and – despite that fact that she is not a Jew - in the language of Israelite faith.

“Have mercy on me, Lord, Son of David; my daughter is tormented by a demon.”

“Kyrie eleison,” she cries. “Lord, have mercy.”

How would you answer her?

In Matthew's Gospel in previous chapters we have Jesus quoting the prophet Hosea twice in two different contexts: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice.”

The Israelite God is the God of mercy. “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and compassion on whom I will have compassion,” reads the Book of Exodus. That's how Israel's God defines God.

The disciples know how they will answer her. “Send her away”, they say to Jesus, “for she keeps shouting at us.”

The disciples' response is not all that surprising, given what we know of them in the Gospel account. Like many of us religious folk, they tend to forget the manifold mercy of God in favor of setting up clear boundaries. Boundaries, after all, make religious life less threatening than would be the case if we risked the adventure of faith in a God of immense capacity for mercy. The church has had sad occasions of saying “go away” to some folk or other.

But Jesus is someone of whom we expect more. This makes his response to the disciples troubling.

“I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel”.

The woman draws nearer. “Lord, help me.”

It really doesn't more comfortable for us at this point, either.

A painting of this scene by 15th Century painter Jean Colombe shows Jesus turned away from this supplicant, his back to her.

This captures something of the encounter. No matter how you slice it, his first response is not “nice”. He echoes an old Jewish slur of his day in referring to those Gentiles outside the community of God's elect.

“It is not fair to take the children's food and give it to the dogs,” he says.

Well, that seems to be a clear message! Is Jesus really saying that his mission to proclaim God's dominion of mercy has limits, and the boundary is a traditional boundary of Jewishness?

This encounter is not over yet.

The challenge Jesus throws down she picks right up and throws right back at him. If you're a baseball fan, it's like Jesus drills one right across center field just out of reach of any player's glove, making someone stretch out full length and skid in the grass to catch it.

And catch it she does. It's a beautiful play!

“Yes, Lord, but even the puppies eat the crumbs from under the master's table.”

To extend the baseball metaphor, if you're rooting on this woman's team, you're on your feet at this point.

And Jesus, if he lived in our day and was bested this way in conversation might well have said “Touche!”

How much she knows of Israel's God's own self-definition we don't know. Was her response to Jesus informed by such knowledge, or was it just the desperation of a mother who dearly loves her child? Is it chutzpah, or us it just her expressing her last hope?

Whatever it is, Jesus is clearly won over to her appeal.

It seems obvious to me that he is delighted with her response, and with the faith that it demonstrates.

“Woman, you've got great faith! May you have just what you're asking for!

So you decide. Was Jesus learning something new that day from a woman coming to him from outside the community of the Jewish people? Was he undergoing a transformation in that moment in which he realized more fully than ever before that God's mercy could not possibly stop with Israel, but had to overflow the boundaries of Judaism?

Or was Jesus using irony that day, being tongue-in-cheek, using conventional language of his day to make the very opposite point, and having the perfect conversation partner in this woman?

I'm not sure we can know this for sure.

But at the end of Matthew's Gospel, it is clear that the Good News of God is for all nations, and that God is calling disciples to learn the way of Jesus' mercy and compassion.

We're living in times of tumultous change, with the shifting of boundaries in this country and across the world. We're living in a time where many are fearful; when a sort of tribalism infects our political and economic life and discourse, and when a sense of scarcity bedevils many people.

In times like that, it's only too easy to circle the wagons; to stay with one's kind; to hold onto the familiar so tightly that we can't receive what God might give us in the newness.

It happens in society; it happens in the Church of Jesus Christ as well, leading to struggles over control of finances, liturgical traditions, patterns of association and the assignment of authority in the church.

It's very easy, like the disciples, for us to react when our boundaries are threatened by saying “go away and quit bothering us.”

But with our Lord today, we keep learning what it means to belong to a merciful God.

It's comfort for us who sometimes wonder if God will be merciful to us, and encouragement to put our requests before God boldly. It's a prod to show mercy, as we have been shown mercy.

Image: Jean Colombe, 1485-89

Technique: Illumination

Location: Musée Condé, Chantilly

Notes: From "Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry".