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, August 4, 2010

unsaying the word "God"

my friends are divided about in half, between those who personally and/or professionally (mostly professionally) talk about God sometimes or often, and those who never do. most of the latter tense up remarkably when they hear the word. i have been reading Barbara Brown Taylor's When God is Silent slowly this summer, when i've not been feeling much like talking about God or hearing anyone else do so. it's comforting, and it strikes me that spiritual effort, a relationship with G-d, does not have much to do with talking about G-d. at least, you can say a lot with no spiritual weight, or you could say nothing and it could be deep prayer. i think it's about effort.

when i was little i was always very flexible. i was always stretching, since i started ballet when i was 4 or 5. i was never very strong. these days i'm stronger and a lot less flexible. i've noticed that in any given season i seem to be either strong or flexible but not both.

when i was younger i had a very rich inner life. i drew pictures and wrote poems and letters to the flower fairies in my yard, i loved Holy Week church services for the way their drama affected me, and i was always imagining how to change the things i saw. these days i am so occupied with my tangible work and the people around me that some days i worry my imagination might be wilting. i like that i now more often have the ability to change things the way i imagine, but i also have such a thicker skin that i'm rarely drawn into awe and wonder. is it true that i'm either imaginative or effective but not both?

last week i took a break from my very thick-skinned, getting-things-done job and went to a meditation retreat with my dad. i meditated very little, but that's not exactly the point of this post. what i want to reflect on here is that as i've become more skilled and effective and focused in my work, i see God less. i hope to heck that is not a direct result.

we humans are complicated and noisy systems, so who knows. like strength and flexibility, this spiritual dry season is a pendulum swing, and when i take time off this fall i can meditate and journal my butt off. but wouldn't it be nice to have both?

i'm not going to start talking about God all the time. but i pray i make some effort, to be flexible as well as strong, to sit in silence and wait for awe to meet me, to come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses.

Monday, August 31, 2009

che on st. aidan's day

today was my first day off in milwaukee. i wore my che guevara t-shirt, which is apparently a good way to start conversations around here. first all my shipmates asked me about it at breakfast. (oh right. bit of a change since my last several blog posts: i'm working this fall as bosun on the schooner denis sullivan)

this afternoon i walked north along the lakeshore and explored the east side of milwaukee. i stopped for lunch at a restaurant/bar, and settled into a booth to read the novel i've been slowly working my way through for ages. i was facing a guy sitting in the next booth over, working at his computer. when i ordered my glass of zinfandel, he looked over and said, "how can you be wearing a che guevara shirt and drinking that? that's not a people's drink!"

i discovered he was from scotland, had just resigned from teaching poetry at one of the UWs, and deduced that he had already had several beers. he had a book of philip larkin poems, and was surprised to learn i had never heard of him. during a lull in his and my conversation, one of the waitresses came up and asked me about my che t-shirt, saying she'd lived in argentina for awhile and you see his picture everywhere.

drunk scottish guy had offered to give me the philip larkin book and pointed me to a poem called "Church Going." i allowed as how my next stop was going to be the cathedral for evening prayer, and my two conversation partners both turned on me in disbelief. scottish guy said he could have predicted i was "a religious person," and both of them said they think organized religion is nonsense. it was a common conversation for me but seemed higher stakes--it was more important to me to find common ground with them because we were strangers.

i did take the philip larkin book. here's the last few stanzas of Church Going. the church is,
"A shape less recognisable each week,
A purpose more obscure. I wonder who
Will be the last, the very last, to seek
This place for what it was; one of the crew
That tap and jot and know what rood-lofts were?
Some ruin-bibber, randy for antique,
Or Christmas-addict, counting on a whiff
Of gown-and-bands and organ-pipes and myrrh?
Or will he be my representative,

Bored, uninformed, knowing the ghostly silt
Dispersed, yet tending to this cross of ground
Through suburb scrub because it held unspilt
So long and equably what since is found
Only in separation - marriage, and birth,
And death, and thoughts of these - for which was built
This special shell? For, though I've no idea
What this accoutred frowsty barn is worth,
It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is,
In whose blent air all our compulsions meet,
Are recognised, and robed as destinies.
And that much can never be obsolete.
Since someone will forever be surprising
A hunger in himself to be more serious,
And gravitating with it to this ground,
Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in,
If only that so many dead lie round."

i only read this once i got home. i had spent some of the last hour hearing stories from folks at the cathedral after the eucharist on the feast of st. aidan, stories that did in fact involve rood-lofts. i got to this last stanza and really wished i could discuss it with scottish guy, because i agree perfectly with this perspective and it makes me itch--to let the sheep into the churches, to plead to keep the incense, to get rid of sniggering and frowsy-ness. i gravitate to church largely because i once heard it was ground proper to grow wise in. my work is helping it stay that way - i like that i spend my days both with the folks who mistrust and look sideways at the church, and with the faithful remnant keeping up the 150-year tradition of daily mass in the cathedral of all saints. my place is between them, like Jack Sparrow at the end of the first recent pirates of the caribbean movie, showing that we're not as far apart as we think and bringing into relationship. or, as I added to my facebook profile awhile ago, helping people who have stopped talking to start talking again.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

stations of the cross: jesus dies

reflection for a good friday service at st. mark's:

Jesus dies.
and then, on that day whose every movement we remember, it is quiet for awhile.
brother roger of taize says “in the long silences when it seems nothing is happening, we strengthen ourselves within, it is there that the best in us is being built up.”

it's certainly true that death creates space. sometimes we say we have a friend-shaped hole in our heart when a friend has died. those holes, those long silences, bring us to a thin space, connect us to the ground of our being, like holy wells—the hole is painful but it provides access to intimate feeling and knowledge of the Holy.

i'm a person who tends to see both sides to everything—how every experience has dark and light, the yin and yang. this makes me less bouncy on easter, but hopefully provides some hope on good friday! in fact, the last time i gave a reflection on this station of the cross, i was a senior in highschool, and my grandfather had just died. i was into hindu mysticism and rainer maria rilke, and i gave a happy, chipper reflection about how jesus leaving his body was cause for celebration.

this year my good friday hope is about falling in love. somehow, in a nonlinear, poetic way, jesus' descending to the dead and my own falling in love feel like similar movements. maybe that would sound horrible if jesus had been a friend i knew, physically here, in person, who i had lunch with last week. or maybe not. not that i rejoice in not having him around anymore. but that both events drop me down, make a holy well of my heart. the falling and feeling the depth is painful, but i think that may be only because it cuts away layers of protective thoughts, worries and fears. we worry that all that stuff that makes it hard to know what we're feeling, that clouds over our hearts, like the demons jesus cast out—we worry that's who we really are and we don't want to let it go. the hole that love leaves only love can pass through.

i've been telling the story about why i plan to moving away at the end of this school year. it's an important story so i've wondered how to tell it well. one friend, coaching me on this, said,
“start with the part about 'i'm in love.'”
she was right. if i say that i open my heart and my listener to a place of deep vulnerability and connection. i'll feel how i'm taking a leap of faith, going to join my partner working on a sailing ship. i'll feel how he's taking a leap of faith in inviting me, and how we're both scared. i'll feel how much we want to take good care of our ship, our crew, and each other, and how disappointed we'll be if we fall short. and the feeling that comes to reassure me, even when he's far away, that we're moving in the right direction, has that holy depth, the hole that love makes. it makes a pretty good story.

being in love, trying to step into the role and the work that my love calls me to, feels a lot like being a disciple. love of this dying savior, redeemer, and brother changes a lot of things. when Kent and i were on vacation a few weeks ago i sat at the cabin one afternoon while he was off hiking, and the song from Jesus Christ Superstar came to mind, Mary Magdalene singing of Jesus, “I don't know how to love him./ I don't know how to take this” she says, “I don't see why he moves me/I'm the one who's always been/so calm, so cool, no lover's fool/running every show/he scares me so.” love makes us somehow less in control but more responsible since we're called into caring for more than ourselves.

my love reassures me when i need to be brave, and especially since we're far apart i see that's also how jesus reassures us. it's a challenging reassurance, as jesus left us with work to do. we want to do well by him for he loves us so much and because living more as he did would be so rich and satisfying. brother roger says that in his death “Jesus stands at the door of every human heart and knocks: Do you love me? Will you remain with me to watch and pray for the people of the earth who are suffering?” He asks, can i make a hole in your heart that will be a direct line to the deepest love and suffering there is?

Sunday, October 19, 2008

thoughts on privilege

i'm reading the log from the sea of cortez, by john steinbeck, which chronicles the 1940 journey in which steinbeck and biologist edward f. ricketts travel around the gulf of california (in between baja and the mexican mainland) collecting specimens of marine fauna. he says:

it is difficult, when watching the little beasts, not to trace human parallels...the routine of changing domination is a case in point. one can think of the attached and dominant human who has captured the place, the property, and the security. he dominates his area. to protect it, he has police who know him and who are dependent on him for a living (do other traditional helping professions fall into this as well? how about parochial clergy?) he is protected by good clothing, good houses, and good food. he is protected even against illness. one would say that he is safe, that he would have many children, and that his seed would in a short time litter the world. But in his fight for dominance he has pushed out others of his species who were not so fit to dominate, and perhaps have become wanderers, improperly clothed, ill fed, having no security and no fixed base. these should really perish, but the reverse seems true.

the dominant human, in his security, grows soft and fearful. he spends a great part of his time in protecting himself. far from reproducing rapidly, he has fewer children, and the ones he does have are ill protected inside themselves because they are so thoroughly protected from without. (my emphasis. see madeline levine) the lean and hungry grow strong (and adaptive) and the strongest of them are selected out. having nothing to lose and all to gain, these selected hungry and rapacious ones develop attack rather than defense techniques, and become strong in them, so that one day the dominant man is eliminated and the strong and hungry wanderer takes his place. and then the routine is repeated. the new dominant entrenches himself and then softens.
i and my friends work with young people from very different backgrounds and circumstances around the bay area. we often have an easier time working with "underprivileged" kids; whether despite or because of the very real challenges in their lives, they are often better able to take the circumstances, instructions, and experience at face value than their well-off counterparts. i also always notice in these conversations that we teachers tend to be white upper-middle-class young adults, discerning for ourselves where along the spectrum from "entrenched dominant" to "strong and hungry wanderer" we would most like to be in our new adult lives. so sometimes i have an easier time with "underprivileged" teens simply because i don't see myself in them quite as directly, so it's easier to get to know them as their own people, and be open and surprised and delighted at their uniqueness and unfolding.