REMEMBER HOW HE TOLD YOU

As a boy, Tolstoy and two friends put together a club.  They called it the White Polar Bear Club because the only membership requirement was that a boy had to stand in a corner for 30 minutes and not think about a white bear.  Memory researchers say we’ve all got a bit of the White Bear Syndrome.  Close your eyes, if you don’t believe me, and whatever you do do not think about a white bear.

LEO TOLSTOY 1828 – 1910

Intentional thought suppression was once tested in a Harvard psychology lab.  Participants were told they were going to sit for five minutes and describe, in words, what’s on their mind; speak their stream of consciousness. They were randomly assigned to one of two groups. One group was told they could think about a white bear. The others were told they could not think of a white bear.  They would press a button if or when they thought of a white bear.  Additionally, their stream of consciousness utterances were recorded and the number of times they said “white bear” were counted. Participants who were told to not think about bears actually mentioned it less than the others, but all of them pressed the button at about equal rates.  If the goal is to stop thinking about something, it’s hardly effective.

Also interesting was a follow-up test with those who, in the first test, were told to not think about bears.  In a second test, they were told they could now think of white bears.  Those folks – first told to not think about something, then told they could think about that thing – were off the charts in mentioning white bears and pushing the button, much more so than either group in the first study.  Suppressing a thought actually leads, in time, to its subsequent over-indulgence.  Someone trying to quit drinking only thinks about alcohol; someone trying to lose weight lets himself have just a nibble of a chocolate bunny’s ear and winds up devouring the whole thing.

We humans are tricky animals, crafty, and pretty good at self-deceit.  I’ve always thought the Apostle Paul was describing me when he said to the Romans, “I don’t understand my own actions.”(Rom. 7)  “I do not do what I want,” Paul wrote, “but I do the very thing I hate.”  What do to about it?  God “gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ,” Paul wrote in another letter, so you and I should “stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.” (1 Cor. 15)

This is true.  When life besets us and gets us down, when the anxiety is too much to bear and the worries are real, when pain is acute or life’s direction gone missing, the story of our faith is that the victory’s already won.  For us, then, we hold on, we stand firm.

This is true, but it’s the type of truth Christians know a lot better as mystery than fact.  For the fact is that the games of life and the culture of death not only exist outside but also tear us apart, within – desires are inflated, wills are set in competition, and I continue to do the things I do not want to do and which I know aren’t good.  Christians celebrate resurrection, new life, but the context of this gift is death.

We labor but sometimes, contrary to Paul, it feels like we do so in vain.  I can only imagine that’s what it felt to those women who headed out early on this first day of the week, carrying heavy sacks of ointment and spices.  They were doing what they knew to do, laboring through life.  Like them, we are also good at finding tricks to get through the day: when life gets overturned, we make lemonade, some say, or bury ourselves in work or master a craft.  Mind over matter.  A study performed at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, in fact, suggested we’ve got some capacity to exercise mind over matter.  From an article in The Week: Twenty particpants were arranged into two groups and told to search for an item.  One-half of them were allowed to repeat, out loud, the name of the thing they were looking for.  The other half could not say the name of the thing.  On average, the group speaking the name of the thing found it quicker than the group which was silent.  Similar studies of children show that those who talk themselves through the process of tying their shoes do so faster than those who don’t.  We have the capacity, some capacity, to exercise mind over matter, to accomplish tasks, to labor well, to get through the day.

But that’s not what resurrection looks like.  Just laboring is not new life.  Breaking the culture of death and attaining new life is the goal, but it’s truly hard.  Phase two of the University of Wisconsin study is where it gets more interesting.  Again, from The Week:   “Researchers carried out a ‘virtual shopping task’ for common grocery store items, like Jell-O or Coke. Just as in the first phase, some of the participants were asked to repeat the item’s name to themselves while looking. But this time the results were ‘more complex.’ …Talkers were able to find familiar objects like Coke much quicker. But for less familiar objects, such as the slightly more ambiguous Speed Stick deodorant, the mutterers actually took much longer.  Why? ‘Speaking to yourself isn’t always helpful,’” one researcher said, “’If you don’t know what an object looks like, saying its name can have no effect or can actually slow you down.’”

If you don’t know what an object looks like, or if the events of life have so worn down the truth you once received, or if you’ve already made yourself believe there is no hope, just simply saying it has no effect on you.  In fact, it might even distract you, slow you down, get in your way.  Truly, I wonder how some of the words we regularly toss around in the church actually sound to people, to you.  What does resurrection mean?  What does new and unending life imply?  What does redemption say, to you, today?  Are you hearing something or, just as likely and for no apparent fault of your own, do these words not only sound empty, vacant, vacuous but are they a distraction, obscuring your path to wholeness?

The way the Easter story is told, then, is precisely for you, you who are tricky animals, you human beings.  The gospels do not describe the resurrection.  They tell only of its faint aftermath, the evidence of the action of God: a stone unrolled, a tomb empty, a promise kept.  Resurrection is a matter of faith, and faith is born in a place within the lives of perfectly ordinary women and men, people who can and do, from time to time, delude and trick ourselves.   Like those women we forget and lose sight, we alter memories and, as science has shown, we are actually a whole lot better at driving ourselves further from the truth than we are at doing what people say when you lose something: just stop thinking about it and you’ll find it.

That’s not what the angel said in the garden.  He said “Remember.”  “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man will rise again.”  And they remembered what he said and that he said it because they remembered how.  They remembered, at that moment, not in their quickly deceiving minds but in their well-hewn hearts.  For resurrection cannot be thought or learned.  Redemption isn’t something some are better at because they pray harder or attend more regularly.  It’s a gift and is retrieved in remembering, in coming back together and returning to life.  In that moment, in that garden, those women remembered how Jesus embraced them and blessed them, how he took bread and broke it, how he welcomed sinners and loved the outcast, how gently he touched them, in a place deeper than words or meanings or thinking.

That place is the harbor of faith, and it is there in you.  It’s been there all along.

……….

Excerpted from an Easter sermon at St. George’s Episcopal Church, 2013.  Full text is available here.

MAKING YOUR LIFE DEEPER, THE GIFTS OF A FAITH-BASED COMMUNITY

Almost one hundred years ago, an Episcopal bishop in Wisconsin noted his “strong antagonism to proselytism.”  “Men want to get others to join their side, their party, their church,” he wrote in 1914, “by way of triumph over some other party. They want their side to win, their sect to grow.”  Reading those words while the major American political parties geared up for their quadrennial convention pep-rallies was a fortuitous thing.  Seems to me that the heightened vitriol of yesterday’s religious arguments has simply been relocated to today’s political arena.  “This spirit leads to jealousies and rivalries,” the bishop maintained long ago, adding “it undermines the spiritual life.”

Bishop Charles Chapman Grafton (1830 – 1912), Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Fond du Lac

One of the gifts of a faith-based community is that we have learned, given our unfortunate history of fighting, to go beyond divisive, partisan warfare.  People of faith know that that’s a loser’s game.We are interested in building a community of people who are joined in the deep and meaningful questions of life.  The Christian New Testament calls this the Body of Christ, and the earliest Christians saw themselves as precisely that, Christ’s Body in the world, gathering in His Name to support one another and heal humankind through prayer, unconditional love, hospitality and service.  Today, most faith-based communities are more interested in improving the quality of your life and your family’s life than fighting doctrinal battles.

Make your life deeper, more bountiful, more marked by love, once again, as we set off into autumn.  Find a faith-based community and go there, not to be seen but to be enriched.  Consider that bishop’s other remarks, eerily relevant in 2012 as they were when written: “No wonder the air is laden with murmurings and complaints of the disappointed, when so many never seriously face the problems, what are we, why are we here, what will our future be, in what does our real happiness consist, and what will bring man peace at the last?”

I would dare say that the entire faith-based community of St. Mary’s County is praying, looking, and hoping for you.

____________________

A Letter to the Editors of St. Mary’s County, Maryland newspapers, The County Times (published Th. Sept. 6, 2012, p. 16) and The Enterprise (published Wed. Sept. 19, 2012, p. A-8)

STREAMS TO REFRESH AND GLADDEN

Born in 1775 and consecrated Assistant Bishop of New York at the age of 36, John Henry Hobart’s life and ministry offers something of a model for our time.  Without him, who knows what would have happened to the church he served.  What did happen, we know, is quite a remarkable thing.  Or is it all that remarkable?

Most reports about Hobart focus on the High Church faction of the Episcopal Church, of which he was a strident spokesperson and advocate; most notably, his conviction in the importance of the apostolic succession and historic episcopate – set against the individualized, evangelical tendency he saw in his own church and fellow countrymen.  A man of integrity, charisma and consummate drive, Hobart is also remembered for the things he did – create The General Theological Seminary, revive Geneva, now, Hobart College, build up the clergy in his diocese, plant churches, and write hundreds of meaningful devotional manuals.  He was all those things, apparently, and he did all those things, and he happened to be a leader in the Episcopal Church.  But his vision goes far beyond the Episcopal Church, far beyond the nineteenth century, far beyond his time, and offers models for our own.

The world into which he was born was a world of dramatic, profound and, for some, sudden change.  Only one year after Hobart’s birth, the American colonies declared their independence from the mother country, leaving what was the Church of England on American soil  in a serious quandary and search for a reason to exist.  Some sided with England, and fled.  Others argued for revising their way of being church while staying true to their tradition.  We know what happened in the Revolution and we know what happened to that church, now called the Episcopal Church.  We know how this new nation established a Constitution and this new church established an American Book of Common Prayer, and we know that these new entities found their way forward, step by step, in the later decades of the eighteenth century.

But what we forget is the steady, dark cloud of fear and anxiety that surrounds any change, no less significant political and cultural change.  We forget the way, I’m sure, many remembered the good ole’ days, even though those days weren’t so good and weren’t coming back.  We seem to have forgotten that change doesn’t happen overnight, and history isn’t always linear, and even when people are on board with the idea of revision they don’t always act nicely.  We fail to remember that having your world changed right under your feet leads inevitably to anxiety and fear; most people either shut down or act out.  And even with great visionaries in the decades immediately following the American Revolution – leaders in the Episcopal Church such as Samuel Seabury and William White – ordinary folks and everyday congregations were left in stasis, extended paralysis.

Enter John Henry Hobart.  I’m sure he heard from countless members of his grandparents’ and parents’ generations all about the good ole’ days, but he never experienced that culture and he knew it wasn’t returning.  He also knew that the changed political and cultural landscape (even though he disagreed with some of it) meant that his church, which was the very definition of the establishment, was going to die unless it stopped doing two things and started doing two others.  First, stop denying the change and, two, stop looking at other churches (the rapidly growing firebrand Methodists, for instance, or the more culturally nimble Congregationalists) as if they had a better answer.  And they needed to start, for one, accepting the change (something his mentor William White established) and, for another, mining their own ‘Anglican’ tradition for ways to be true to their story and authentic in their environment.  What historian Robert Bruce Mullin has coined as the “Hobartian Synthesis” is precisely this – a compelling vision that isn’t just about getting over denial and beginning to accept but, rather, a new way forward that is, at once, entirely rooted in their story, the story of God in Christ acting through their tradition.

That’s our moment today, I believe.  I believe it because I’m living it, and I feel it profoundly most days of my own ministry.  I was born in 1975 – long  after the glory days of the post-war years, long after the Baby Boom ended, long after the mainline Protestant establishment realized it was on the decline, long after social and cultural and political shifts had fundamentally changed our country and world.  I never knew a world in which every mother stayed home all day, although I’m grateful my own mother did.  I never knew a world in which neighborhoods were all one color or race or ethnicity.  I never knew a world in which prayer was legitimate in public schools, nor did I know a world in which Sundays were set aside, solely, for Christians to go to church.   I never knew that world, and yet I was personally drawn to church – my neighborhood’s classic Old First Church.  Unfortunately, that church was in deep paralysis during my childhood years.  They fretted about the changing neighborhood, about white families moving out to the suburbs and “other families” moving in.  They remembered with fondness their church bowling league, and twittled their thumbs about numbers and a huge physical plant.  They told their story as one of bewilderment and loss, and I was growing up there, growing up in a church that was dying, and knew it.

What I learned in those years has become, in these, a priceless gift.  I learned to love Jesus, not the church.  I learned to become rooted in God, not this ever-shifting world.  I learned that a culture which supports church-going isn’t necessarily a culture that is Christian, faithful in the ways Jesus preached.  Since my church also felt like it didn’t have what other, more ‘hip’ Christian groups had, I was dragged to more 80’s Christian rock concerts and evangelical “Jesus-be-my-boyfriend” rallies than I care to recount.  And I wasn’t fed by emotional, charismatic Christianity; it seemed as shifty and unstable as anything else.  So I also learned that the subtlety and majesty and accessibility of what has become known as mainline Christianity is a wonderful thing, for it lets people go in and go out, it creates space for diversity (at its best), it’s built to change (at its best), it doesn’t force God upon anyone, and it’s solid, staid, beautiful.  I also learned that most people who have remained in mainline congregations have a lot of depth to their life and faith.  Even though they were never trained to be evangelical, they’re unashamed of talking about struggles and joys, and they’re not afraid to mention God or Jesus.

I learned that we have a rich tradition, and we don’t need a complete overhaul – we only need a new spirit.  I suppose, for starters, to believe that you also have to believe that God in Christ is acting in the world today, and that things of deep meaning are also things of constant revision and adaptation.  (Those are pretty big “starters”, and maybe you don’t agree.  You’d better stop reading, then.)  That’s what it means to be traditional.  From its Latin root, tradition implies handing down, passing on.  Things that are of the tradition are things that speak through the ages, and anything that’s powerful enough to be passed down from generation to generation is going to be expanded or, at least, have its original packaging altered.  We know, for instance, that “all men are created equal” in our political discourse has been expanded, revised, and changed.  I, for one, am not willing to go back to its original packaging just because it was, well, original.

So is John Henry Hobart’s work all that remarkable?  No.  Not at all, in fact.  And, moreover, it can be replicated by women and men today, in this time of significant cultural change.  Provided that there are people of faith who are unafraid of making a choice between being culturally acceptable or being faithful to Christ.  Provided that there are people who don’t care to “see and be seen” in a pew but, rather, be transformed by God.  Provided that there are people who know or want to know the power of the Holy Spirit, not the invitation of social convention.  Provided that there are people who will root themselves in Christ, and his story – which is a story about death, first, then resurrection.  Provided that we as the institution called “church” begin to deepen our conversation and formation, and seek to become what we receive — the Body of Christ in this world.  You bet we’ll grow, provided we make that one, simple turn.

____________________

The sermon’s title is taken from Bishop Hobart’s address at the the opening of The General Theological Seminary of the Episcopal Church in New York City, held on Monday evening, 11 March 1822: “The event that calls us together is a subject of real congratulation. An institution, organized by the Church in her highest legislative council with a unanimity and cordiality that could not have been anticipated, has commenced its operations in this city under auspices that promise not to disappoint the expectations of its founders and patrons. Here is the sacred school in which are to be trained the heralds of the cross, we hope, to the latest generations. Here is the fountain, drawing, we trust, its living waters from the throne of God, whence are to proceed those streams of divine truth and knowledge that are to refresh and gladden the Zion of the Lord, the city of our God.”

Adapted from a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Valley Lee, Maryland on Wednesday, 12 September 2012, being the Feast of John Henry Hobart, Bishop of New York