Sunday, September 30, 2012

awareness and hell

Proper 21, Year B
Blessing of the Animals Sunday
St. Mary's by the Sea, Northeast Harbor, ME

When I was running a church summer camp, we had a camper-led evening prayer service every night. The small group responsible for worship on a given day had a period of the afternoon where they met with the chaplain to discuss the readings we had chosen and decided how to present them. I remember one night at dinner I checked in with the chaplain, who was someone I didn't know all that well and definitely hadn't ever discussed theology with. I asked how her planning time had gone that day, and she said, “well, when we were reading through the parable we forgot to stop at the end of the reading and the gospel goes straight into a bunch of hell stuff, about weeping and gnashing of teeth. They really wanted to talk about that, so we didn't end up with much time to plan a skit of the parable.”
“Hell stuff.” I think the campers' ears perked up because “hell” is a word very rarely heard in their, or our, Episcopal churches. What does it mean? Is it a literal place with literal unquenchable fires and literal undying worms? What sins are bad enough to land you there, and who decides? The idea, the cultural idea that my campers wanted to pick apart, is that the afterlife contains rewards and punishments for what we've done and left undone in this life. Good behavior = eternal life in heaven, bad = hellfire. Like Dante's Inferno. Notice that while today's passage says, “it's better for you to enter life lame than have two feet and be thrown into hell,” it doesn't end with “when you die.” All three times, Jesus says, “it's better for you to enter life/the kingdom of God (blank—this way), than be (another way), and be thrown into hell.” It seems to me that if we assume he's talking about a Dante-style scorekeeping system and giving afterlife travel advice, we're assuming an awful lot.
Since I believe God desperately loves the whole world, bad behavior and all, the Dante way of looking at hell doesn't ring true for me. Here's another perspective that's well rooted in our theological tradition, and I find more helpful: hell is separation from God. The Prophet Muhammad is remembered to have said, “heaven is closer than your sandal strap. So is hell.” We experience some days in this life that are heavenly and some that are hellish and fiery, and spiritual maturity is a lot about being able to distinguish the bad pain, or fire, from the good. Jesus talks in today's gospel both about the fire of hell and about the fire of sanctification, that which cleanses us from sin and ignorance and gets us closer to God. “Everyone will be salted with fire,” he says. Sanctification, getting clean from mistakes we've made, or working to restore harmony in relationships with God and with each other, is hard work. It can feel almost as painful as “hellfire,” as the pain of separation from God and from each other.
I have a very early memory of learning that some pain can be good for you. I remember whenever my mom patched up my scrapes and cuts, she explained to me what she was doing and why. Like “this is peroxide, it's going to sting a little bit, but it's good because it's killing any of the germs that may be in there.” I remember being very proud of myself for coming up with a theory of why this was: “Oh, that makes sense, Mommy. Because it hurts when you die, right? So if the little germs are dying in there it would hurt me a little bit.”
I'm not a parent, but I know that being a caregiver to a human or animal can come with huge amounts of good and necessary heartache. My boyfriend and I have been planning and preparing for months to welcome a dog into our little family, and he has told me stories about the last time he had a puppy, a Shiba Inu named Izzy. This particular breed goes through separation anxiety when very young and first leaving their pack. Izzy spent most of her life as a sleep-in-bed-with-the-people dog, but first she needed to be crate trained to help her learn that she could sleep on her own and she would be okay. As she was learning that, she did some of what's known as “the Shiba scream,” waking up scared in the night like some children do and making blood-curdling sounds. Art says it was incredibly hard to hear, but he knew she'd be happier in the long run if she was able to face her fear. The fire of sanctification takes many forms. Little Izzy was certainly learning to “have salt in herself, and be at peace.”
I read a theologian who said this is how God teaches us, like a parent who stands just out of sight of the toddler learning to walk, but close enough to intervene in case of danger, silently loving us and cheering us on.

But as parents and caregivers also know, the line between good pain and bad pain can be very thin indeed. Sometimes we, like the disciples, want to teach or comfort or help others but don't understand what they really need. Sometimes feeling good about ourselves for trying to help is more important to us than whether we've had a positive impact, whether we've succeeded in casting out the demons.
We find the disciples at the beginning of today's gospel feeling just that way. They're nearing the end of their journey to Jerusalem with Jesus, and they're starting to hear his warnings about how they'll have to go on without him before long. They're hoping for validation from the Teacher, both individually and as members of the group. One very human way to do this is to draw some boundaries that separate insiders from outsiders. They come across someone they don't know doing the good work they've been doing with Jesus, easing the suffering of his neighbors, and rather than celebrating that they've found a kindred spirit, the disciples get a little mean. “We tried to stop him, because he was not following us.”
They may have thought they were being good teachers, and would be helping their new friend by keeping him from blasphemy. But Jesus very clearly pointed out that they had crossed over from good pain to bad pain: they weren't practicing tough love, they were just being jealous. And Jesus knew that jealousy eating you up from the inside feels like hell. Feels like having a millstone hung around your neck and being thrown into the sea.
We heard about someone else this morning, too, who crossed that threshold without knowing it. Queen Esther stood in a fire of righteous indignation to stand up for her people and free them. But later in the story we learn that her anger was not quenched. Like many others with deep wounds, she stayed angry and felt she needed vengeance. She asks for a second day of retribution against the enemies of the Jews and gets it. “We seem to be in a time like that of the Judges,” says commentator Telford Work of this story, “in which God raises up deliverers whose lives are puzzlingly and distressingly unfaithful to and even ignorant of the covenant.” It took great courage to turn her fear and anger on behalf of her people into a way to use her power to help them. But the fire of her courage and toughness also threw her into the hell of vengefulness, and helping and healing others wasn't enough for her to heal herself. This is a very familiar story, isn't is? Kings and queens, of the Jews and every other nation, who defend and rescue their people from danger, sometimes feel they haven't done enough, and ask for their second day of retribution.

So for all of us, wholeness and holiness comes with some pain but it mostly comes with awareness. All the awareness we can muster. Asking all the questions we need to see if we're speaking and acting with integrity, or if we're just being jealous disciples. Bringing ourselves back, over and over again, restoring our deep unity with God and one another, against great odds. Today's readings have beautiful images of getting overwhelmed, by fire in the gospel, and by waves of anger and hatred in the psalm. Then the psalm ends with a beautiful contrast to those: a bird, flying free away from a broken snare that had held it hostage. In the name of the Father and the Son and that free-flying Holy Spirit, let's get free.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Occupy families

Sermon preached on Trinity Sunday Year B
June 3, 2012
St. Saviour's, Bar Harbor

Based on the day's readings (linked here to NIV versions on biblegateway):

The most useful thing I've ever heard about the Holy Trinity is this: the words “father” and “son”, the way we normally use them, are not people's names. They are names of relationships. God is in-- or God isfather-ness and son-ness. Focusing on relationship as the reality of God, the mystery I'm trying to get to know, helps steer the conversation away from sticky debates about whether God is an old guy with a beard in the clouds, or about the historical Jesus of Nazareth. Instead, relationship thinking invites deep questions about personal experience. It's one reason I like songs and art that refer to the Trinity as “Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier.” It's easy to think of stories of when you created something or were created, when you redeemed something or were redeemed, when you sanctified or were sanctified.

A fun vocab word for this conversation is perichoresis, the dance of the Trinity. It means “round dance” or “dancing around,” and is used in theology to refer to the idea that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exist in a dance wherein each dwells within, and transforms into, the other.

Last fall the Occupy Wall Street movement made news. It was unprecedented in my lifetime for a popular protest movement to get this much airtime on the major news outlets, and become something everyone in the country knew about. Not everyone felt they understood what it was about, and not everyone thought it was a good idea, but everyone heard the cries.

In our reading from Romans, Paul says When we cry, "Abba! Father!" it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit.”
Whatever your own feelings about Occupy, I ask you to explore with me for a few minutes the shape of the relationships involved. Not the politics, but the possibility that cries of “Abba! Father” and “This is what democracy looks like!” might have the same shape, the same deep source. That a rising up of part of a generation might, like the Holy Trinity, be about co-creation, relationship, and transformation.

I didn't go to New York to see the home base of Occupy Wall Street for myself, but I heard a story from a friend that made me think of these holy relationships. Chris is a group process consultant and workshop leader. He was working in New York for a few days in October, and took a walk down to Zucotti Park. There were many police on duty making sure the encampment and protest didn't spread outside certain boundaries. Chris saw one policeman and one protestor talking with each other over this boundary. It sounded like a debate about some of the Occupy issues, but they were deeply engaged in their conversation, and seemed to be enjoying themselves. When the protestor took a step closer to make a point, the policeman stopped him. He said, “Please don't step over that line. If you do, I have to arrest you, and I'd much rather keep talking to you.” A relationship was built, and as each of them shared his ideas and experience, their roles that might have led to conflict began to blur. Began to dance.

As a community organizer I was taught to always ask questions that will help me learn about the other person's self interest. What's important to them, what motivates them, why they do what they do. Without these conversations, I might assume that the protestor is a lazy kid who would rather protest than get a job to help pay for school. I might assume that the policeman is a grumpy, cold-hearted control freak. But I wouldn't know unless I talked to them. If I asked questions, I could look for ways in which both are motivated by wanting to be of service to their community. As long as I don't assume I already know what I'm going to hear, and am ready to share something of myself, I can join the dance. One of our principles was that political agitating can be healthy and productive, like an agitator in a washing machine, but only if you educate yourself and build real relationships first. We said “agitation without relationship is irritation.”

Along with listening well and asking good questions, sometimes speaking and crying out are the steps in our dance. The letter to the Romans urges church members to cry to God. Paul advises us not to be whiny in our cries, with a pessimistic “spirit of slavery.”
Instead, we are to speak, cry, and pray with a “spirit of adoption,” with knowledge that each of us is a member of the holy family, an heir to the eternal kingdom. We have a right to be heard and, what is more, we love our hearers and know they will continue to love us no matter what we say. The “spirit of adoption” might be what Isaiah received when the angel touched the coal to his lips. He was terrified to speak for his sinful self and sinful generation, but received a gift of divine love that opened the way for his prophecy. That love was so powerful that he became a prophet we remember to this day. If we cry with this spirit, what we say will be much wiser and more loving than we ever thought possible.

Remember Ram Dass and his book from the 70s, Be Here NowWriting in another era with young people in the streets, he took this idea one step farther. He wrote
hippies create police
police create hippies
if you're in polarity
you're creating polar opposites
you can only protest effectively
when you love the person
whose ideas you are protesting against
as much as you love yourself.

love and coercion can never go together
but though love can never be forced on anyone
it can be awakened in him through love itself.
love is essentially self-communicative.

If you think back on our sacred stories, love is the fuel for the dance of the Trinity. For God so loved the world, Father became Son so that we humans could have someone to relate to, to love better. Son became Father in an act of love that was self-sacrificing but not coercive.

In his debate with Nicodemus, Jesus draws distinctions between things of the flesh and things of the spirit. Pharisees like Nicodemus were famously concerned with rules and regulations, with what can be pinned down. I think when Jesus talks in this story about earthly and fleshly things to be transcended, he meant rules that have ceased to be life-giving, and attempts to put the Holy Spirit in a cage. He tells Nicodemus not to try to predict where the wind is coming from or where it goes, but to stay open and pay attention. When you're dancing with God, relationship is more important than goals, deadlines, or rules. No matter what happens, we've got to stay connected. In the bonds of love lies our perfect freedom.

Let us practice the dance with a prayer from the New Zealand Anglican tradition:

Eternal Spirit, living God, in whom we live and move and have our being, all that we are, have been, and shall be is known to you, to the very secret of our hearts and all that rises to trouble us. Living flame, burn into us. Cleansing wind, blow through us. Fountain of water, well up within us,
that we may love and praise in deed and in truth.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Not quite as big an about-face as Susan G. Komen?

A few months ago I deactivated my Facebook account. I spent several hours copying information from my account, such as email addresses for folks I wanted to keep in touch with but don't normally email. I sent this email to a long list of family and friends:

Hi, friends and family,

I wanted to give you a heads up, since I'm only in touch with many of you on Facebook, that I'm in the process of deactivating my account there.

My reasons are:
1) I spend much too much of my day on Facebook, and often don't feel good about how I've used the time.
2) I'm concerned about my role in Facebook's business model. My understanding is that we users are not the customers, we are the free content providers. Our desire to connect with other people and groups is exploited to get advertising in front of us, and to generate data about us that can be sold to advertisers.

If you're getting this email, I took some time to make sure I still had a way to contact you besides on Facebook, and would really like to stay in touch. Please, if you think of it, email me that awesome article, video, or picture that you posted on Facebook that you think I'd like/benefit from/be glad to see.

I received a wide range of responses. The one that stuck with me most was a friend who thought I was fighting a losing battle in trying to opt out of social networking in general (“It's how we communicate now,” he said). He also shared that he has a software configuration that allows him to use Facebook without seeing any ads.

What changed about my life when I got off Facebook? My email response time improved, and I communicated with my mom (most important person in my life not on Facebook) a lot more. I was hoping to become a more intentional consumer of news and media, and that sort of worked. I have a hard-copy subscription to the Economist, but I don't have long enough breaks in my workday to get through very much of it. I use my iPhone New York Times app, but the Top News Stories tend to be not all that much more in-depth versions of the headlines I've already heard on NPR in my car on the way to work. I'd love to have access to the “Most Emailed” articles section, but you have to pay for that.

A couple of things happened recently that helped me decide to become an active Facebook user again. I heard a Commonwealth Club of California program about “Social Networking on the Brain,” which reminded me of two important things. One, my large “Friends” list reflects one of my core competencies, namely connecting with diverse groups of people and knowing with whom to share a question or an idea. Two, from Tiffany Shlain, director of the documentary “Connected,” it's possible to adopt personal practices that can reduce the addictive, dopamine-hit habits of checking Facebook too often or finding it difficult to log off and get something done or go to bed. She and her family do a “digital sabbath”, where everything with a screen gets shut off every Friday night and stays off until Saturday night.

While the Commonwealth Club program reminded me about the benefits to me of using Facebook, it didn't address the “I'm uncomfortable with my role in FB's business model” issue. It was the news and conversations this week about Facebook's upcoming IPO that changed my position. It became clear to me that Zuckerberg&Co have never been out to maximize ad revenue at the expense of users' experience. Some pundits were disappointed with the current revenue numbers, but their highest expectations would have given Facebook a huge share of the huge media advertising market in this country. That seems not to make the list of what Facebook is trying to accomplish, and I respect them for that. I also respect them for setting up the IPO in such a way that they won't cede control to interests that will exploit their data and their users even more.

So here (there) I am. 6 days a week.