Not because, but when you’ve let go

When we’re first introduced to Thomas in the Gospel of John, Jesus is preparing to go to Bethany, the suburb of Jerusalem where his close friends Lazarus and Mary and Martha lived.  Lazarus has died and Jesus is preparing to go, in his words, “so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.”(11:4)  Most of the disciples urge Jesus to stay put, to avoid Jerusalem, to let the tensions cool down.  Otherwise, they fear what will happen, and they’re pretty sure it’ll involve death.  But Thomas speaks up, saying “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”(11:16)  Thomas is bold, courageous, fearless, and strong, at least strong-willed.  Where the others are timid and scared, Thomas is undaunted.

Fast forward a few chapters, to the fourteenth chapter of the Gospel of John, and you’ll meet Jesus in the middle of a long farewell speech to his followers and friends.  “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus says.  “In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places.”  (The New Revised Standard Version gives the more accurate translation – “dwelling places” – but many of us like the King James’ Version of at least this one verse a lot better:  “In my Father’s house there are many mansions.”)  “And you know the place to where I am going,” Jesus goes on, explaining that he’s going to prepare a place for us and that he’ll lead us there, in time.

This sounds wonderfully reassuring to our ears, but imagine how it sounded to Jesus’ disciples back then.  They didn’t want him to die.  They didn’t want the movement to end.  They expected to help him bring about the Kingdom of God on earth.  Like students in a classroom, they were probably very confused, even more worried now that he was telling them to not worry.  But no one speaks up, that is, no one except Thomas.  Thomas states the obvious, “Lord, we do not know where you are going,” he says, bluntly. “How can we know the way?”(14:5)  Thomas is unafraid to speak his mind, bold and unassuming.

And then this chapter, John 20, a famous story which has ever since made ‘Thomas’ synonymous with ‘doubt.’  Thomas tells his friends that he doesn’t believe they’ve seen the Lord, and that he won’t believe until he can see it himself, until he can put his own finger in Jesus’ scars.

Why would Thomas believe?  The other ten didn’t believe, themselves, until Jesus showed up in their midst, and even then they didn’t recognize him.  It wasn’t until he showed them his pierced side and the marks of the nails in his hands that they recognized him, and believed it was, in fact, their now-Risen Lord. Thomas wasn’t there, so why would he believe?

We’ve gotten so carried away with this one snapshot of Thomas that we forget the larger picture.  He’s everything leadership consultants tell us to be.  Thomas is bold, courageous, fearless and strong.  He’s a natural-born leader and a good one, at that.  Thomas has everything we’re told we need to have if we want to succeed or win friends or influence people, or everything we wish we had within.

And yet we keep calling him Doubting Thomas, focusing on that one episode – an episode that’s perfectly, ordinarily human, I might add.

Every year, I suppose, we are supposed to say something profound about doubt.  If that’s what you’re expecting, I have to disappoint.  I have nothing profound or lasting or moving to say about doubt, except for what I consider a basic, shameless truth: Doubt is.  It’s there and it’ll always be there.  It’s part of a faith life. I’ve got plenty of doubts and I’m sure you do, too.  Doubt will always rub up against belief, and belief will always challenge doubt, and those two – doubting and believing – will be for ever locked into a wrestling match in all things in life.  (And let me add that I’m also glad to be part of a tradition in which I can say this, openly.  In my reading this week, I came across a sermon preached by an evangelical pastor who said what I just did – doubt happens and I, too, have doubts – but he included a footnote in which he explained those apparently off-the-cuff remarks and stated that, after the sermon, an elder of the church pulled him aside and said something like, “Now, Pastor, you can go around saying such things…”)  Sometimes, though, the honest truth is the best one, at least the best at which to begin.  Doubt and belief are powerful forces, and they’ll continue in you.

But the longer we keep talking about doubt, either excusing it or making it sound poignant or challenging it, the more we miss the point.  This story isn’t about doubting or believing. It’s about faith, and that’s another order of things, entirely.

Let me explain by way of a story.

You don’t go to divinity school or seminary unless you’re serious about training for the ministry or you’re really interested in having all your presumptions and assumptions and faith-claims laid out naked before others and questioned and challenged.  For me, I’m glad I studied in a ministry program in an academic divinity school because I feel I got the best of both worlds – serious preparation for ministry in an ecumenical context as well as a chance to be interrogated by and rub against the challenges of a great secular university, a chance to not let my faith statements rest, simply, on pietistic niceties or baseless claims of belief, a chance to both re-ground and challenge belief in order to develop something more, something I’d call faith.  But some people don’t like to have their belief system tested.  Some people are quite happy with having faith be, for them, a series of statements of what they believe.  After my first year, and after many first years in seminaries and divinity schools, a number of students dropped out.  After a long program, some students are so changed from who they were when they first enrolled, as well. Seminary or divinity school is not a hard thing to do, by and large – you have to learn languages and read books and write and talk a lot – but the hardships are on the inside, and for some that’s truly hard.

A book that was something of a required initial read for anyone entering the University of Chicago Divinity School is Martin Gardner’s semi-autobiographical novel, The Flight of Peter Fromm.  Published in 1973 and set at that divinity school in the late 1930’s, the novel features the transformation of the fictional Peter Fromm, a young, believing, Christian evangelist wanna-be from the oil fields of Oklahoma who ventures into that great secular university’s divinity school to take on the heart of liberal theology, itself – all of which is the first step in Peter’s life’s campaign to win the hearts of America for Jesus Christ.  Peter is bright but naïve, intelligent but with an agenda driven by evangelical theology, gifted but unrooted.  The story, overall, is about his transformation, but it’s also about a man’s breakdown and faith’s remodeling.

Early in the book, while he’s still a good believer, there’s a passage that’s long spoken to me, especially as relates to Thomas in our New Testament. It’s a scene from a chapter in which Peter’s dating a Catholic girl named Angelina.

“…Peter lingered for a moment to peer through the gate’s iron grillwork at the large stone statue of Saint Thomas that stands in front of the church’s entrance.  It was dusk and the Saint’s face was in deep purple shadow.  A powdery snow was clinging to his head and shoulders and to the arm outstretched as if to touch the wounds of Christ.

‘I am his brother,’ Peter said in low tones.

‘What do you mean?’  Angelina had never read the Gospels.  If someone had asked her who Saint Thomas was, she would not have known how to answer.

‘He refused to believe the Lord had risen from the dead,’ said Peter.  ‘He refused to believe until he could put his finger in the nail prints or rest his hand on the wound made by the soldier’s spear.’

‘Did he ever do it?’

‘No, when he saw Jesus he believed.  That was when Christ said to him, ‘Thomas, because thou hast seen me, thou hast believed.  Blessed are they that have not seen, and yet have believed.’’ Peter’s voice had a curious ring.  ‘It was the last of the beatitudes.’

Puzzled and a little more frightened, she studied the statue more carefully through the softly falling flakes.  ‘Why are you like him?’

‘Because,’ Peter answered desolately, his words blowing clouds of whiteness into the freezing air, ‘I’m not sure I believe the story about Thomas.’”

“I’m not sure I believe the story about Thomas,” Peter says.  At times throughout life I could’ve and probably wanted to say the same.  I’m not sure I believe the story about Thomas.  I’m not sure I believe he couldn’t and wouldn’t believe even after his friends told him they’d seen the Risen Lord.  It seems so strange, so unpredictable, so odd that someone with such boldness and courage and inner strength, someone exactly like Thomas, couldn’t, wouldn’t believe.  It seems, to us, that the trick to doing something or becoming something is to will it, to want it, to make space in your life for it.  Want to lose weight?  Do it, then.  Want to acquire a new skill?  Get to it.  Want to be a better believer, a more faithful Christian?  What are you waiting for?  Start praying more frequently, attending more regularly, resisting more forcefully.

But what if it’s not at all up to us?  What if the big things in life, the stuff that really matters, isn’t in our power or control at all?

I suspect that’s the case.  And I fear that the longer we keep pretending that things might be in our power, that the secret to faith, for instance, has something to do with doubt or belief, the further we get from the truth.   For the truth of the matter is that the story of faith is not about our searching for God, our yearning and our hoping and our desires, as good and well-founded as they may be.  Even if the desire to please God, as Thomas Merton once famously prayed, may in fact be pleasing to God, it’s not entirely satisfactory to our Creator.  The story of theology and, in particular, our faith is not at all about our searching for God.  It’s about God searching for us.

I’d like to say that we need to let go of worrying about belief and thinking about doubt but that, in itself, is still on you, that still requires your initiative.  I’d like to tell you to practice letting go, to practice as an Easter celebration no longer trying to be a better person or a more faithful Christian.  Practice ending practices.

But the truth is that we can’t do this, not entirely on our own.

Caravaggio’s (1570 – 1610) famous “The Incredulity of Saint Thomas” features the Apostle’s right forefinger nearly halfway into Jesus’ side!

What we’re talking about is simply being in front of God, naked and vulnerable and you.

After all, I believe, that’s the real story of Thomas.  Even though so many artistic depictions of this scene have, over the centuries, featured Thomas actually touching Jesus’ wounds, I don’t see that happening, not in the text at least.  True, Thomas said that he wouldn’t believe until he touched the marks, but nowhere does it say he actually did it once Jesus appeared.  No, when Thomas stopped searching and fretting and doubting and believing and God found him, after all, just as when God finds you, all of that other stuff dissolves and drifts away, and you and I are left face to face with the One who knows us more intimately than we, even, know ourselves.  It’s in those rare and beautiful moments, then, that we, like Thomas, find ourselves having dropped everything we were once concerned with and, together, utter in our hearts the greatest confession of faith made in the pages of the New Testament, “My Lord and my God!”

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.

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.

Human Flourishing

The new Archbishop of Canterbury is giving a lesson in ethics.  What he’s actually talking about is changing the way the church functions.

ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY Justin Welby

Yesterday, the Archbishop didn’t zero in on the political mess the Church of England’s gotten itself into.  The pundits on the sidelines are striving to get him to say something about women bishops or gay marriage.  Welby mentioned several times his own “fear and trembling,” but I think he showed remarkable strength in not talking about those things – in not chattering on about the church in self-reflexive ways, focusing with profound insularity on theological method (as his predecessor did); in not taking a prophetic stance toward the issues of the world while ignoring the clutter of his own spiritual house (as our Episcopal Church, I’m afraid, too quickly does).  Archbishop Welby showed great steel in turning our textbooks back to Aristotle and Jesus, in focusing our attention on a simple message: the church must be in the business of human flourishing.

In his inaugural sermon, Welby argued that the goal of the Body of Christ should be to enable human persons to flourish: in his words, to “make space for our own courage to be liberated, for God to act among us and for human beings to flourish.”  The church has taken prophetic stances over the years, Welby acknowledged, positions which became manifest in social campaigns – freeing slaves and ensuring the safety of factory workers, among others.

Similar issues confront human society in the 21st century, he noted, but his analysis, interestingly, didn’t go from cause to cause.  Rather, he quickly moved the conversation back to traditional Christian social thought.

Dissapointing media pundits and stumping secular critics, Welby’s message appeared, at first, to be about our work, our message, our cause and then, just as quickly, became a message of God. “Fear imprisons us and stops us being fully human,” he preached. “Uniquely in all of human history Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is the one who as living love liberates holy courage. …Courage is released in a society that is under the authority of God, so that we may become the fully human community of which we all dream.”

Early Christians adopted from Plato and Aristotle the concept that there is an end to which all human striving should be directed, a goal which is good for its own sake.  The Greek word is eudaimonia, often translated as happiness or flourishing.  In the Aristotelian worldview, eudaimonia is entirely egoistic: an individual’s self interest is to flourish, so a particular individual’s good is to flourish for the sake of her own good.  That obviously wouldn’t do for the early Christian community whose Lord commanded them to love one another, so the Christianized concept of eudaimonia also had to do with mercy, justice, forgiveness, and community.  Human flourishing from a Christian point of view is to strive towards the only goal which is good unto itself.  That we call the Kingdom of God.

The kingdom of God involves people, but what’s good for people is not necessarily a good unto itself.  That’s not an ultimate good.  The kingdom of God has a church but what’s good for the church isn’t necessarily a good in and of itself.  Better not chatter on about the church with incessant insularity.  The kingdom of God is expressed, from time to time, in our social campaigns to make this world a more just and equitable and liveable place, but those causes are not necessarily the same as the reign of God.  Best not confuse our social politics and theology.  If we want to understand what it means to flourish, we’ve got to understand what it is to be of God, firstly, and to have our actions and words speak Him.

Although this is deep within our tradition, it’s also a new teaching for the church.  It’s hard for many to understand, let alone embrace it.  We, the church, allowed secular society to put us in the center of their world – first it was Constantine, then Charlemagne, then in America our own interpretation of the Bill of Rights.  For centuries, we thought Christendom spoke for itself.  Even when it’s been waning these past several decades we tried to bolster the buttresses, talking on and on about ourselves and our self-proclaimed mission and our business.

That’s all falling apart.  Not the Way of Jesus, mind you.  Not Christianity.  Just the force of the predominately institutionalized shell.

And that’s why Justin Welby is the right man for the job, the right man, that is, at this moment.  While bishop of Durham, he seemed uniquely able to speak the truth plainly.  In an address in April 2012 to the Anglican Alliance for Development, Bishop Welby pointedly said, “The question that faces the church is that of what is human flourishing, good news, amidst the deep poverty…and utter spiritual bankruptcy and increasing material poverty?”

In that address, Welby named a profound truth: “Our good news,” he argued, “must be unique, because the radicality of the gospel call[s] us to a sense of what we are doing and saying utterly different from all other groups.”  This can be unsettling.  For those who have grown accustomed to Christendom this is a difficult teaching to bear.  Yet almost automatically, Welby’s mind readily goes beyond insular theological methodology – a threat to those hiding inside the church – and criticizes the way of the world from nothing more, nothing less than the Gospel of Christ.  To his credit, he already knows that world.  When he mentioned “suspicion of the NGO industry, its thousands of employees and the tendency to be as donor dependant as the recipients of aid, with whom one is drawn in a grim dance,” Welby quickly added: “I know, I ran one.”

Authenticity is the litmus test these days, which is both an opportunity and challenge.  We live in a time in which our message is heard only so long as the audience knows, already, the depth and quality of its source.  It’s no longer sufficient to make grand speeches without mobilizing the People of God.  Nor can we shirk from the obligation to speak a word of life in the public square; now, however, it requires the harder work of turning the hearts and minds and lives of those already among the body to influence those not yet.  The new Archbishop put it as a question:  “As Christians,” he asked, “are we simply a spiritual bit of the same tribe or, as self-proclaimed disciples of Christ, how is what we bring good news?”  Reading Micah 6:8 (“do justice, and love kindness, and walk humbly with God…”) and Romans 12:1-2 (“…do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewing of your minds”), Welby reminded:

“the language of our good news is not GDP, output and so forth, though they are part of the means. It is human flourishing in a context of love. The tools of our good news [are] the unique ones of reconciliation and peace, with its fellow travellers of generosity, community and self-giving love. All aid outside the context of the grace of God leads to the abuse of power and the creation of dependency. So we are called not merely to do, but to be. The inner motivation matters as much as the outer.”

These days anyone and everyone can see directly inside, beyond the stuff we’ve projected in order to protect us – our beautiful churches and stately liturgy, our pomp and circumstance, our cathedrals and order, our tradition and customs.  Real human flourishing is an inside job, and that matters a great deal.

Forgiveness

Forgiveness is probably one of the hardest things to do.

Jesus’ well-known parable of the Prodigal Son, I think, is about forgiveness and yet it’s not a neat and tidy story, mind you.  For that matter, I’d say true forgiveness itself isn’t neat or tidy either.

Jesus tells this story in a string of parables.  In Luke’s fifteenth chapter, there’s the story of the lost sheep, the lost coin and then this one about a lost son.  A woman lost a coin, Jesus told the crowd of tax collectors and sinners, and she turned her whole house upside down until she found it.  When she found it, she threw a great party.  Or have you heard the one about the shepherd who had ninety-nine good sheep, but there was that one who ventured off by himself?  The shepherd left the others and found the lost sheep and brought him home.  And then this story about a son who broke his father’s heart but wound up penniless and broken.  He dragged himself home but not as a son, only in the hopes he might get a job on his dad’s farm as a day laborer.  With the same abandon as the woman who threw a party because she found her missing nickel, matching the joy of the shepherd who organized a block party to celebrate that an errant sheep was found, the father rushes out, embraces and kisses his beaten, broken younger son and plans an all-out banquet.  This is a story of redemption, the best kind of forgiveness.

Why bother including the petulant, whiny, bitter, resentful – yet faithful, steadfast – older son? Doing so breaks the string of parables.  It’s unlike the previous two.  And if the parable of the Prodigal Son was only about a bad boy and his loving father it would’ve been good enough, it would’ve been a great story, in fact.  Why ruin it, then, by including the older son?

Because if forgiveness is just about me and thee, it’s good but not enough.  Not enough to be called fit for the Kingdom of God.

At this point in Jesus’ ministry, his fame had spread so far and wide he was being courted, it seems, by the powerful elite, the teachers and scribes.  Days earlier, Luke tells us at the start of his fourteenth chapter, Jesus was invited to a Pharisee’s home for dinner on the Sabbath.  If you were trying to show off your power or intelligence, your prestige or wit, Jesus would be the worst possible guest to invite to a dinner party.  That night in the Pharisee’s home, Jesus told the esteemed guests they should sit at the lowest place, and that they’ve invited all the wrong people – rather, he said, they should’ve welcomed all those whom that group regularly excluded.  Not only did Jesus make a mockery of the function, but he pierced that crowd to the one place where it struck the most: their pride.  Jesus saw through all of that.  And he called it out.

Jesus was such a bad dinner companion that he was not only removed, for ever, from the social roster of Galilean soirees, but they came to hate him.  They wanted him gone.  They wanted him silenced for all time.  So much so that days later, by the beginning of Luke’s “lost parable” chapter, those whom he shamed are grumbling on the edges while Jesus’ time is now filled by throngs of those whom he said should’ve been invited to that swanky party.

When Jesus begins to describe, for them, what the Kingdom of God is like, he not only describes a God who searches for those whom the world would otherwise ignore but Jesus also includes them, those scribes and Pharisees who grumble at him and want him silenced and, more than that, want him dead.  The story of the Kingdom of God is that they, too – yes, they who have not and likely will not forgive Jesus – they, too, are included; they, too, are a part of the story; they, too, are loved.  That’s why the older brother is included.  Because all are included.

Like it or not, all must be included.  Forgiveness is about community, although it may not be a community in which each member recognizes him or herself as a constituent part.  True forgiveness is more than simply me and thee.  It involves self, God and, yes, other.

For ourselves, forgiveness is getting to a place where you know yourself to be loved, protected, whole and treasured.  Forgiveness is a realization that the hurts and harms which have been inflicted on you do not define you.  It is self-love.

Forgiveness also involves the other, like it or not.  Forgiveness demands we walk that much longer road towards placing genuine hope in the bonds of common humanity which unite us with one other, even if the other has been mean or vindictive or cruel.  It’s tapping into that deeper love which awakens your own spirit and, surely, must do the same for the other, even if you feel they’re going about it all wrong.  Forgiveness is hoping, indeed loving the basic essence of the other.

It’d be good to admit that this is made more difficult because of the economic view of human interaction too many of us share, too fundamentally:  if you love me I will love you; to the degree that you harbor hope for me, I will hope in you.  There’s very good chance that our loving the other, especially the one who has walked away, will not change them.  Perhaps the other may not love you, but love them, still.  Perhaps the other may not rejoice in you.  Rejoice in them, nevertheless.  Scripture isn’t a psychology textbook, distinguishing between forgiving and forgetting. Like I said, forgiveness isn’t neat or tidy or easily summarized into quick slogans.  This is where it gets hard.

I suspect that for this very reason, then, the parable of the Prodigal Son is left unfinished.  The brothers never unite.   In fact, the older son never calls his sibling “brother”.  The slave calls him “brother” (“…your brother has come”, verse 27); the father, when speaking to the older, calls the younger one “brother” (“…your brother was dead and has come to life”, verse 32), but the older  does not recognize the younger as a part of him.  To him, there is no brotherhood.  There is only brokenness, anger, divorce.

That’s how the story ends, not a summary but an offering – asking to be made complete in your hearing.  To the degree that we, ourselves, try to live into God’s free offering of full and perfect love and, yes, try to love self, other and God we make good news out of the raw material of our lives.

That’s why there is always that third component of forgiveness, the love of God, by which I  mean two things: first, our love for God and, second, God’s love for us – inviting God’s love into our admittedly feeble attempts to be nice and get along.  Like the brothers in this famous story,  we, too, on this side of heaven, are not reconciled with everyone with whom we should be.  Ours, too, is an incomplete story.  The love of God is that which brings the possibility of completion.  While we are still far off from one another, on roads set apart by resentment, bitterness and mistrust, our Father God walks alongside all of us, in a sense holding all in a profound yet subtle embrace, holding us until we find our way back home, until we find our way back together.

In the Nicene Creed, if you’ve noticed, we don’t confess that we believe forgiveness, as if it’s a neat and tidy and straightforward thing.  No one believes forgiveness.  Everyone has a story of brokenness in which they truly cannot heal, not yet at least, an experience they fear they may never forget.

What the Creed asks us to confess is that we believe in forgiveness.  Believing in something is more like hope, more akin to trusting in the possibility of something, even something far off and remote and seemingly impossible.  So we believe in it, we hope in it, we strive for it, as hard as it may be, saying boldly with the universal church “we believe in one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.”

Benedicto!

Anyone who’s ever served on a church search committee knows what I’m talking about.  There’s such a gulf between our hopes, our expectations and the real qualities of real people who put their names forward.  As Americans, we deal with the swell of expectation and inevitable dissapointment regularly — every four years, in fact.  But we know in another four years we get to make a choice again.  Churches are harder places for leadership shifts.   In the church, we know we’ll be living with the consequence of our choice and, to be honest, living with what we didn’t know or expect at the time for a long, long time.

We don’t like to feel powerless.  That’s why search committees worry about things which are so far beyond anyone’s capacity or comprehension, unless they actually have a crystal ball.  It’s impossible to know how in the particular person of the Rev’d Mrs. Right or the Rev’d Mr. Wonderful (or, in the conclave, Cardinal So-and-so) our future hopes, past experience, and projected expectations will merge and find meaning.  And which I should quickly add “…find meaning, for me.”

That’s just it.  We like to be in control.  We are in control of a whole lot of things: what words we use, whether we tell our children we love them, what groceries we buy, whether we go the gym, how we spend our money, and who we associate with.

And yet we are decidedly not in control of a number of other things: why bad things happen or, for that matter, why good things happen, why other people act the way they do, whatever happens in the stock market, and why we are unable to resist impulse buys in a checkout line.

The question is how we deal.  Some among us, the Type A’s, exert such profound control over the things they can manage they never have to deal with the things they can’t.  Others write poetry or songs.  Some drink, others buy things.  Still others, most notably youngest children such as myself, don’t really give a hoot because we actually suspect someone else is in charge.  And still others are brilliant conspiracy theorists, and here I’m thinking not only of Oliver Stone but the folks who produce FoxNews and MSNBC.

We want to be in control and yet we know we’re not.  We want to manage the big things and, to add insult to injury, we’re afraid we don’t know who’s in the back office and, even if we knew, we still couldn’t trust them.  We are walking, talking contradictions.  Our Lutheran friends have a great phrase for this: paradox, defined by Merriam-Webster as “a statement that is seemingly contradictory or opposed to common sense and yet is perhaps true.”  That concept doesn’t solve anything (not for the Type A’s, at least) but it makes the conflict feel a bit more palatably holy.  To me, it’s always seemed the healthiest, least dysfunctional, most honest stance to do what 12-steppers call Step One: admit it.  Admit your human-ness, your frailty, powerlessness, lack of imagination, inability to control the future, and general anxiety about what’s coming next.

There’s good news and bad news.

The good news is that most of those who work in the institutional church, by and large, get this.  Over the past several decades, we’ve started becoming honest.  We’ve started to be unafraid of claiming our numerical decline, brokenness and powerlessness and laying that mess before God.  A seminary professor once pointed out the irony that most churches house AA groups but treat them like tenants or, in some cases, nuisances.  Too many churches, he remarked, fail to connect the transformative potential of 12-step spirituality to their actual functioning.  Too many fail to see AA as a mission partner, maybe mission builder, not just a renter.  (To be honest, the second “A” does have something to do with this.)  Fortunately, over time, the institutional Christian church has become increasingly comfortable with admitting our powerlessness.  Maybe being honest about, say, numerical decline is the first step towards actually seeking wisdom from a Higher Power.

Bad news: this still comes as a shock to lots of people.  It vexes search committees and stymies personnel decisions in too many churches.  Too often, we call institutional managers instead of pastors or, at least, expect those we call to be patient managers even though we might actually need what William Willimon called in a recent Christian Century article “impatient instigators”.  The 2005 papal transition highlighted this gulf, as well.  When the veritable definition of “institutional-manager”, Cardinal Ratzinger, became Benedict XVI, taking over after John Paul II, he not only followed a genuinely gregarious leader but — and this is no small point — took the reigns after his predecessor’s 27-year reign, over which time most of the world either became so comfortable with the ways J.P.2 filled the red shoes or, rather, never knew another Supreme Pontiff.

That’s why Benedict is, today, Benedicto!, a true blessing not only to the church but to the world.  He’s handing off leadership in a public way without the, um, advantage of dying in office — a quick trip to sainthood for anyone in the church.  It is a blessing — benedicto! — to finally be honest, and not only that but publicly so.

So let’s keep the spirit alive. Here’s the honest truth made public, church: most of those whom you call to lead these institutions have, through a long process of discernment, had to undergo fairly intense spiritual, emotional, psychological and, add to that, physical inspection and introspection, and we’re really serious about working on the inner life.  We think there’s real value to doing that, and we also think it’s a blessing that people aren’t joining churches to get a job connection or “see and be seen”.  Rather, we actually expect people who come to church to also want or at least want to want some intense spiritual and emotional introspection and hear a message about changing the way we live our lives.

Now that we’re being honest, we also want to admit we’ve been afraid of a lot of you who want us to act as managers and fit your prototypes and expectations.  We’re afraid of rocking the boat too much because (a) we don’t want to come across as meanies — though we have spiritual directors who help us deal with that — and (b) we’re all too painfully aware that no small number of folks think of church as nothing more than a voluntary organization, no different than the Elks Lodge, so if things change too much too quickly a number of you might just revoke your pledge.  We’ve been unsteadily trying to re-frame the conversation and talk more about God’s mission.  We’ve been afraid and sheepish.

We haven’t been as clear as we need to be, but I think it’s time.  I sense that it’s time.

In my experience, I’m touched by the ways in which the yearning for honesty spills across generational lines.  I’ve been pleased that most people genuinely come to church for spiritual, life-changing reasons.  I also think we’ve sold ourselves short.  For me, it’s been argued too often that Baby Boomers have an inability to talk about the stuff of real life — stuff which may involve brokenness or powerlessness — because they remember with fondness the stable institutions of their youth, and they’re trying to recreate their childhood.  That’s just not true.  Most members of the Baby Boom generation I know have watched their children and, now, grandchildren grow up in an changed world and they’ve come to terms with uncertainty, disorder, and suffering.   It’s also the case that the Boomers who wish for the 1950s all over again have already left churches because they sense we’re serious about steering into the wind, and those who’ve remained in our congregations are already doing that profound inner work.   It’s also been said too much that young people, today, don’t have a moral bone in their body or they’ve just put their faith in Apple products — not Jesus like previous generations did.  Youth and young adults have quite penetrating faith in God, and they also have a great ability to see what’s really there.  Many young adults are looking for congregations to take that Lord who turned over tables in the Temple quite seriously, and act in their lives and in our society as a voice of change — a voice which gets its power because it comes from the margins, not the center.  They just don’t find as much meaning in potlucks and old-fashioned dinners as did previous generations.  This gulf is being bridged day after day in most parish churches across our nation.  It’s refreshing to see someone in her 80s sit down over coffee with someone in his 20s and talk openly, truthfully, and meaningfully about life’s ups and downs, a conversation in which neither party is offering advice or trying to fix anything, both there as companions on the way.

This is good news, church.  And it’s time to be honest, publicly honest, and celebrate the work we’ve been doing and which previous leaders have envisioned.  It’s time to be a lot more bold about it, in fact, for if the Christian church can’t be the place in society in which people come from all walks of life and form community grounded in honesty and truth-telling, who will be?

Benedicto!, Benedict XVI or Pope Emeritus or Cardinal Ratzinger or whatever we’re supposed to call you these days.  Maybe, in the spirit of all this refreshing honesty, we’ll just get back to basics, and remember the only name God knows you by – Joseph.  Well done.

Such a life as killeth death

In the annals of the church of my youth there was a great pastor who served for nearly three decades.  He was renowned in the community and his sermons, legend has it, filled the pews, so much so they needed to build a larger church.  The new edifice went up next to the existing building.  It was a grand space, a long nave with a skinny chancel and grand pulpit.  With regard to the particular functioning of this pastor, the new building featured two notable elements – the first, an expansive pastor’s study replete with fireplace, leaded-glass windows and balcony, located high up in the tower and only accessible via a steep staircase, so high that, obviously, accessibility and pastoral calls were not highly regarded.  The second was an idyllic courtyard carved out of the space between the two buildings and which the congregation came to call ‘the garth’, itself a lovely, archaic phrase.  This pastor, Dr. McGee was his name, wrote poems, too.  The only poem I can recall was about the Garth Garden, how much he loved the simple, solemn quietude of a space set apart which featured, in his time, a bubbling fountain in its midst.

To me, nowadays, his sermons aren’t particularly compelling — they express the best of 1920s liberal Protestantism with snippets of bible verses thrown in.  His poems, even the one about the garth, weren’t altogether timeless either.  But that didn’t matter, not at the time nor in the decades which followed.  It wasn’t what he wrote or said.  It was the feeling and, in particular, the associations folks added to those feelings which mattered, and which have made Dr. McGee’s words into phrases which seem to reside, for some among the congregation, among the classics.

GEORGE HERBERT
1593 – 1633

Distortions can all too easily morph into delusions which, over time, become distractions. I don’t know when I first came across George Herbert, the seventeenth-century English priest and poet who truly belongs among the classics, but when I did I stayed or tried to stay, to breathe his air, to remain.  There’s something that seems pure in The Country Parson, Herbert’s description of the life and character of a country priest, living out one’s vocation in a little village, taking pride in the routine acts of daily prayer, serving the common person, taking rest as the fire crackles in the vicarage hearth at the close of day.  A poet as well, Herbert is responsible for a collection of penetrating verse, The Temple.

Beware the delusion, however.  We draw too closely a connection between a quiet, country life and the ability to think deep thoughts, to write lasting words.  We, the reader, make the link between Herbert’s verse and text back to Herbert’s life.  This is as true for lovers of George Herbert or those fond of Dr. McGee as it is for the wider television audience of Downton Abbey or those who remember the Vicar of Dibley or wish for the simpler antics of Fr. Tim in the Mitford series.  Of course, anyone who’s actually read Herbert’s Country Parson is aware that I’ve painted pictures of a simple, bucolic life which is, frankly, nowhere found in his actual text, a piece of writing, it should be added, which is something of a laborious list of duties and pietistic expectations.  I’m sure life in Downton Castle, itself, wouldn’t have been as romantic as we’d like to think in our daydreaming.

Maybe it’s limited to Anglo-philes, not to mention the entirely strange caste called Episcopal clergy, but George Herbert has long exerted a real influence.  In the summer of 2004, I closed the chapter on a life in Chicago, a life I had come to treasure and enjoy, taking pleasure in that great city’s many cosmopolitan offerings.  Off I went to the Virginia Theological Seminary to do my one-year Anglican ‘dip’, as it’s been called.  A part of me (or was it my bishop?) told me that I was coming back to Chicago at the end of that year.  I could have a wonderful, formative time but I wasn’t there to plant roots.  When the time came, early on, to choose which parish I’d work at as seminarian for the year, I resisted the advice of most folks who told me to go across the river to Washington, DC, find an urban congregation and connect there.  That’s what I’ll be doing when I go back to Chicago, they reasoned.  That’s what I’ll be doing when I go back to Chicago, I heard, so maybe there’s something else.

I had spent a week before the beginning of the academic year with my aunt and uncle in St. Mary’s County, Maryland, the birthplace of the colony, locals are quick to say, but which is known by anyone who knows of St. Mary’s as the southernmost tip of the rural portion of the state known as southern Maryland.   For that week under the hot August sun, I helped my uncle harvest grapes in his vineyard and, as the day closed, we sat under a great shade tree and drank wine and ate figs, hardly a noise to be heard except the crickets, no such thing as a traffic light, only the lush colors of a sunset and the brilliant nighttime stars and moonlight.  On Sunday, I ventured with them to the Episcopal chapel which has been their worshiping community as long as they lived there and which, together with its parish church up the road, has served that community for centuries, pretty much ever since Europeans stepped onto the shores of this part of the continent, back in 1634.

“That’s where I’d like to spend this year,” I told the seminary’s director of field education.  He thought I was crazy, wanting to drive more than seventy miles one way to my field education site, but he let me do it nevertheless.  And thus began a year of leaving the busy-ness of northern Virginia and the insularity of a seminary community and hopping in my car on Saturday mornings to drive down and spend a weekend in the country.  It was election season, as I remember, and the Kerry/Edwards signs which populated northern Virginia turned, in time, to a greater preponderance of Bush/Cheney signs once you got past the Washington, DC metro area.  What I found in St. Mary’s Chapel and Trinity Episcopal Church, St. Mary’s City, however, was in fact a wonderful cobbling together of diverse people – watermen and farmers worshiping next to professors and defense contractors, those who came here recently kneeling at the same altar rail as those who can trace their family’s lineage back to the original settlers, just as countless generations of people had done in a colonial parish which feels, to us Americans, almost ancient.

True to his word, the parish priest who was, for that year, my mentor (and is now my friend), let me do almost anything and everything I could think of, which is when I also learned the truth underneath George Herbert’s Country Parson – that in a country parish you do have the opportunity and, indeed, challenge of being involved in just about everything: you’re not only the chaplain and liturgical functionary who works in the church; you wear a lot of other hats.  You’re the closest thing many families have to a commonly-agreed-upon counselor in times of dispute or need; you’re a fixture at family parties and reunions; you are known throughout the community, even when you don’t wear your collar; you have a public role and, in time, you’ll bless everything from pets to yachts to vineyards to fire trucks.  You are a public person which is the very origin of the term parson.  For me, it was a year rich in learning and formation, a profound and eye-opening year.

At the end of that academic year, not even nine months after I first stumbled upon St. Mary’s County, I packed my bags once again and headed back to Chicago.  I’d been called to serve as curate at a large urban parish, a call I was not only looking forward to but, quite honestly, a type of vocation – curate, then rector of a city parish, then who knows what – I thought I was going to be engaged in for the rest of my life.

Looking backward on my life I may have a different perspective but back then, while a curate, I was enjoying a great mentoring program but I was, as I probably told people at the time, bored.  My duties were primarily functional and limited (I was only a curate, after all) and, as is often the case, I was doted upon by some within the congregation and held up as one who could do no wrong (I wasn’t the rector, after all).  I wanted more and, yet, I also wanted less.  I felt disconnected from the ground of that place’s being, divorced from the ground of my own priestly being, too, so haughty did I become when first ordained.  In the back of my mind, I kept returning to George Herbert or, in truth, what I thought was the call of a simple, peaceful, holy, country life.  Thus it was that the celebration of my time as curate was also my sending forth to a little country parish, nestled within the hills and valleys of St. Mary’s County, Maryland.

A compelling and, yes, snarky book!

The layers of associations we’ve lumped onto figures such as George Herbert are a palpable force and, on some level, a siren song.  This needs to be admitted.  This needs to be dealt with, along with some intense denominational therapy, I’d say.  In his compelling 2009 book, If You Meet George Herbert on the Road, Kill Him, Justin Lewis-Anthony makes the point that we’ve vaulted an image, no less a graven image of George Herbert, not the real deal. “Herbert has been, and continues to be, used as an exemplar, the exemplar for the English parson,” Lewis-Anthony writes.  “Whether you are High Church, Low Church, Evangelical, Charismatic, whatever, Herbert is portrayed as the prototype of the pastor, teacher, almoner, negotiator, gentleman, scholar.  He is Ur-Vicar, the Echt-Rector.”  Further, though he was relatively unpublished in his brief lifetime, George Herbert’s fame not only grew posthumously (Lewis-Anthony: “this has always been the fast-track to canonization in the folk religion of the Church of England”) but the myth of Herbert became established lore, most interestingly, when Anglicanism was trying to find its distinct voice.  In times of conflict, uncertainty, distraction, confusion, and the feeling that we are far from the ground of our being, we yearn for simplicity, purity, holiness.  Often, in such moments, we find George Herbert or, rather, who we’ve turned him into.

Having served as a country parson for nearly six years now, I can report there is no idyllic ‘Bemerton parish’.  There’s hard work and struggle, with enough silver linings to remind me why God is calling me here.  There’s confusion and disorder and uncertainty, graced by moments of pure bliss in which I have, literally, felt God’s presence.  There’s frustration and ego and pride which sneaks in, more often than I care to admit, and, at the close of most days, a true delight in simplicity.  I knew something was up when, following one particularly contentious Vestry meeting early in my time, I woke in the middle of the night and couldn’t get back to sleep, so nagging on my soul was that one person and her downright stubbornness.  Never before moving here had I ever awoken in the middle of the night. Never.

When a friend asked about the differences between a large, urban congregation and this smaller, country parish, I shared what was, at the time, an astonishing realization – that the issues between the two contexts were eerily similar, if not entirely the same.  “That’s probably true,” she said to me, adding: “I’d guess that when you went from a larger church to a smaller one what you really traded was quantity for intimacy.”  Intimacy is a two-edged sword.  When intimately connected, as we are in small communities and country parishes, you love deeply and you fight powerfully.  In this place, I’ve suffered – and suffered publicly, out in the open, at that.  I’ve experienced crushing defeat and loss and, along with it, piercing shame and guilt.  In this place, too, I’ve celebrated growth and witnessed depth, such things which only point to the authorship of a vibrant, living God. Here, I’ve achieved things I only previously believed, hoped I was capable of and I’ve been surrounded by love and warmth to a depth and degree I never imagined existed, not the least of which through the gift of my daughter who was born here.  This place has been my cross and the working-out of my redemption, my bitterness and my land of milk and honey.  And yet it’s not so on the surface.  Not at all.  The thread which weaves my little story in and out of God’s greater one is intimacy; without it, this is just a place and these are just people and this is just a job and that struggle is no failure of mine and that success just another notch on my resume.

EDDIE IZZARD

The point Justin Lewis-Anthony makes is not only that we’ve vaulted the wrong image, not only that there is no bucolic Bemerton parish (…add to that list Dibley, Mitford, or whatever parish Downton’s in, for that matter), but that these delusions mustn’t be searched for.  I take his point as a good one: there’s a disease in our church-ness, convincing us that church is supposed to be entirely gentle and calm and peaceful and lovely.  The provocative comedian Eddie Izzard described it in this way: “Nowadays, Church of England is much more ‘hello’, ‘how are you’, much more of a hobby-type.  A lot of people in the Church of England have no muscles in their arms,” Izzard carried on in a routine, traipsing about on stage like a wimpy, dorky priest.  This is ruining our churches.  We really don’t know how to engage our world and get out there, get messy.  (For Exhibit A, I’d introduce into evidence the line-drawing of Chicago’s Church of Our Saviour – that bustling urban parish where I served as curate – hanging in my office.  The sketch doesn’t include the apartment buildings behind the church nor the ones across the street, from which vantage point the drawing is made, nor does it include any hint of cars and people on Fullerton Parkway, nor anything that might tell you it sits squarely in a densely populated section of a major city.  No, in this drawing, there’s an expansive lawn, no neighboring flats and, most beguiling, trees are sketched in where the rest of the city would, otherwise, be.)  This is ruining seminary formation, as well; too many folks are running from the demands of their busy, hectic, professional lives into what they think is a simple and peaceable job, that of a priest, and how nice it’d be to live and pray and eat in a seminary community for three blissful years.  As it turns out this, too, is ruining our churches. In the absence of bold, entrepreneurial, faithful leadership, we know what to expect.  Taking Lewis-Anthony’s words as an indictment of our failure to truly grow congregations and do evangelism – a consequence of our inability to re-thinking priestly ministry – we are guilty as charged.

And yet once the graven image of George Herbert is smashed to bits, as it surely must be, we have for the first time the opportunity to come close to the person, the lived experience of a man of God, to see what he did with his experience.  This is a really hard thing, to take George Herbert down from the library shelf.  I’m thinking in particular of one of T. S. Eliot’s last books, his 1962 contribution to the ‘Writers and their Work’ critical series, Eliot’s George Herbert.  The bulk of this thin, three-chapter work is spent tracing the connections and distinctions between Herbert and his literary and spiritual mentor, John Donne.  Comparing one of Donne’s most famous religious sonnets (“Batter my heart, three person’d God…”)  with Herbert’s poem Prayer (I) (“Prayer the Churches banquet, Angels age…”) Eliot claims:

“The difference that I wish to emphasize is not that between the violence of Donne and the gentle imagery of Herbert, but rather a difference between the dominance of sensibility over intellect. Both men were highly intellectual, both men had very keen sensibility: but in Donne thought seems in control of feeling, and in Herbert feeling seems in control of thought. …[W]hereas Herbert, for all that he had been successful as Public Orator of Cambridge University, has a much more intimate tone of speech.  We do not know what Herbert’s sermons were like; but we can conjecture that in addressing his little congregation of rustics, all of whom he knew personally, and many of whom must have received both spiritual and material comfort from him and from his wife, he adopted a more homely style.”

T. S. ELIOT

Eliot comes so close, let me say, to breathing George Herbert, describing his “intimate tone of speech”, picturing him surrounded by those “whom he knew personally.”  Yet even in this there’s separation, a removal, the kindling of what becomes, in others, romanticization, delusion.  Perhaps it was the Englishness which Eliot came to treasure and, in time, adopt or that he was commissioned to write a critical piece about Herbert but, nevertheless, it strikes me as odd that there’s such a remove from the real lived experience of George Herbert – analysis so devoid of intimacy that Eliot, in a sense, furthers the delusion, imagining “homely” homilies preached to “rustics.”  Once vaulted there, Herbert resides permanently in the pantheon of the classics, rendering him as untouchable and statue-like as, to us Americans, George Washington is still.

What’s really standing in the way of growing the church is that we are downright afraid of the hard work involved in becoming the Body of Christ, the intimate and vulnerable work of becoming really human, really broken, really redeemed women and men who know themselves to be living out the story of God’s salvation.  That description probably sums up the character of George Herbert, but we’ve become so distracted with the graven image, our own projected delusions.  In his time Herbert took what he had – language – and used it in decidedly novel, penetrating ways.  Language is what we all have, in fact; it’s the only thing we possess to express that which resides within.  Of late, we’ve tried hiding behind the status quo and Christendom, but that’s falling apart.  We’ve tried High Church or Low, chasubles and copes, ashes to go on street corners, but the world has said it doesn’t care about our wardrobes or churchmanship even while it may be amused by our gimmicks from time to time.  What instead people seem to be searching is a lived story of redemption, experienced and expressed in the intimate truth-telling of real human persons.

This is vulnerable, frightening, new work.  And yet this is Herbert’s life’s work and what he modeled for us, that is, until we meddled.  Northwestern University’s Regina M. Schwartz offers, for the literary community, a new interpretation of George Herbert and, for the faith-based community, what I’d call a fitting method to renew focus.  In her essay “From Ritual to Poetry: Herbert’s Mystical Eucharist,” Schwartz argues that “in an age when the sacraments were under fire and undergoing rapid revision,” George Herbert left behind the opportunities and worldly trappings he enjoyed as a university spokesman, took up a living in a little parish, and did a poignant thing.  Boldly, he dug into his own life, warts and all, and drew connections to God’s life, which has no small amount of turbulence and pain but whose destination is always, already redemption. Herbert made the story of the interior life accessible and, most notably, sacramental.  In the seventeenth century “poetry,” Schwartz maintains, “is called upon to carry the performative power of the liturgy.”  This is a refreshingly different way to adopt the legacy of the Rector of Bemerton, considering Schwartz’s words:

“Unlike so many theologians, Herbert shows no interest in defining the meal served – in addressing the issue of the Eucharistic elements – instead, he attends to the process of conversation itself, the calling and answering.  What is at the heart of Herbert’s mystery of the Eucharist is that an utterance could ever be heard, that a call could ever be answered, an offer ever received, an invitation ever be accepted, a conversation ever take place.  For Herbert, then, an important aspect of this sacramental mystery is the mystery of language. …In [his] understanding of language, what is said and its relation to the referent – the sign to the signified – is less important than the activity of saying, than the conversation itself. …We have much to gain by framing the question as Herbert did: not economically but linguistically, in the context of conversation.  For when we shift the trope from gift to conversation, we no longer imagine an exchange of goods; instead, we think of a response that evokes a further response.  There is a world of difference.”

Realizing Herbert’s legacy should’ve been that of a man who knew, intimately, his own wretchedness and potential and one who knew, in turn, how to express with authenticity that place where God’s divinity meets our humanity, sans gimmicks, it’s all the more painful to admit that we’ve participated, we’ve directed the future of this particular illusion.

There is, indeed, a world of difference once we leave behind the graven images of cloistered garths and expansive studies; of bucolic parishes, whether Bemerton or Dibley or Mitford; of simple, blissful lives we’ll never be fortunate enough to have or find, though we may try and keep trying.  There is a world of difference when we realize that the only possibility of resurrection is found in that kingdom planted within, and that the road to unmasking that mystery takes us straightaway through our humanity, indeed, demands that we become fully human, intimate with our joys and pain, our pride and anguish, our failures and achievements, our Crosses and our Easter Days.  In this day in which none can hide behind pietistic pabulum, and which we, Jesus followers, ought no longer even if we may, no one wants our distorted signs and broken symbols, our treasured relics which speak confusion and, at times, pain to the world beyond.  I won’t be so audacious as to stake a claim for what others want, but what the world  certainly needs is our utterly true self, presented as a vulnerable and substantial offering, a sign of what new life looks like: intimately wedded, like the disciple whom Jesus loved, resting on the very heart of God. Again, for the first time in a long, long time, maybe ever, we’re coming to terms with this George Herbert, the only reason he’s made it through the ages.

Week of Prayer for Christian Unity

Earlier today, I sat with a Baptist and ate breakfast prepared by Roman Catholic neighbors in an Episcopal church.  All week long, I’ve shared community with Methodists, Catholics, Episcopalians, Baptists, Pentecostals, and folks from lots of other traditions I’m not even aware of.  I’m talking about WARM, the intentional network of faith-based organizations who provide shelter and food to persons who are homeless, but it’s obviously bigger than that.

Today, Jan. 18, is the Feast of the Confession of St. Peter — when Simon Peter said, “You’re the Messiah;” to which Jesus said, “Righto!  You are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…”  The week between now and next Friday – Jan. 25, the Confession (or Heavenly Knock-down) of St. Paul – is observed around the world as “the week of prayer for Christian unity.”  If you count it up it’s actually eight days, that is, an octave.  Begun by a Catholic priest in the early 20th century as the Octave of Prayer for Christian Unity, the celebration was blessed by Popes Pius (d. 1914) and Benedict XV (d. 1922) and soon caught on among Protestant churches, as well, such that by the middle of last century the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity was officially sanctioned by the World Council of Churches and is practiced today by 349 different Christian denominations around the world.

It’s fitting that it’s squeezed between celebrations of Peter and Paul, those two bright lights of early Christianity.  They were bright and gifted and shining lights, no doubt, but they also struggled, both of them, with pride and power and position.  Peter was with Jesus from the earliest days; he helped coordinate the disciples and became, in time, the spokesman for the original twelve and a key leader in the post-Ascension Jesus movement.  He had presence and longevity and personal relationships and skill.  Paul, on the other hand, was the brash, bold, new upstart.  Paul didn’t know Jesus personally, and even if you set aside that whole bit about Saul/Paul persecuting early Christians, he was still the new kid.  But that didn’t stop him from speaking his mind and following the Spirit where it led, even if it meant fights over what shape the Jesus movement was going to take.  If Paul and Peter, in spite of their very human posturing, could be on the same team and work for the same mission, so can we.  Hence, a week of prayer for Christian unity.

When I was in Chicago, serving as curate at the Episcopal church in the Lincoln Park neighborhood, we did a pulpit swap on the Sunday nearest this week.  One block down the street there was a Presbyterian church, and two blocks down was the UCC congregation.  Three blocks down and two streets over was the big Roman Catholic parish.  The clergy got together around the first of the year and made a plan as to who was hopping over to which church at which service that weekend.  It was really fun not only to get together, at least once a year, with other Christian ministers but also nice to celebrate and hear different preachers and expose ourselves to the rich diversity of Christian faith and practices.

We don’t do a pulpit swap like that in St. Mary’s County, and one logistical reason is that most of us don’t have multi-staff parishes so one priest can stay back in order to lead the service while the other can go and preach.  But we do have WARM, which is, as I’ve said in a previous post, not only about helping people who are homeless but also about helping us, the so-called helpers.  WARM, by intention, brings into relationship people who might otherwise not meet, let alone spend quality time together.  Maybe it’s the way we set it up at St. George’s, Valley Lee, but from the very beginning (due to the fact that we were afraid we wouldn’t have enough help) we reached out to our partner Episcopal churches as well as our neighbor Methodist church and Catholic parish and Baptist congregation.  And they not only help us in the work but they partner with us, such that they are known in this congregation and we are known in theirs, such that we are now more than neighbors, we’re brothers and sisters and, indeed, friends.

Christian unity is a gift, not only to us who follow Jesus but to the world we are called to serve.  Christians model, by our very existence, a deep and real unity — not uniformity of belief or practice or custom, but unity in spirit, grounded in relationship, founded in God.

I’ve always thought that one of the greatest things about Christianity is the way in which we’ve preserved our disagreements – theological, doctrinal, liturgical, whatever.  I mean, no one ever went back over the New Testament and tried to downplay or “clean up” the disagreement between Peter and Paul or the others.  No, they left it all in, warts and blow-ups and screaming matches and all.  And we don’t try to water down our worship or diminish our traditions in order to make our modern-day differences less obvious.  Some of us handle snakes (yikes!) and some of us use incense.  Some base everything on the bible, as it is written, others bring in the traditional writings.  Some use the Apocrypha, some only use the Old and New Testaments.  There are priests in some churches, pastors in others, parsons, prophets, bishops, evangelists, and whatever else in every which one.  And that’s great.

And that’s how it should be, for if we’re not united on the outward things our unity must be deeper, much deeper within.  That’s where the Kingdom of God has been, He said, all along.