Thursday, March 17, 2011

Holy No's

To turn towards life, you must turn away from what is not life. To grow closer to God, or your partner, or your children, or your church, you must turn away from what takes you further away from God or your partner or your children or your church. Turning towards also involves turning away.

Turning away from is our first act in baptism. The first three questions we answer in the baptismal covenant are these: Do you renounce the Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God? Do you renounce the evil powers of this world that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God? Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?

On this the first Sunday in Lent, we are at the beginning of our yearly retreat that we take to ground ourselves once again in the our goal – that is complete communion with the Divine. We retreat so that we can remember again that what we are about is growing into the full stature of Christ. And so, at the beginning of our 40 day retreat, we return again to the first steps – in order to go towards love and life with God, dwelling in Jeru-shalom – or in the peace of the City of God – we renounce what does not serve the peace of God, what does not serve peace in our own hearts – we renounce whatever takes us away from wholeness.

Saying no is as freeing as saying yes – but this came as revelation to me.

I grew up in the 60’s and 70’s. Even though my family was conservative, the culture was not. It was all about Yes to all kinds of experiences, and foods, and substances, and relationships – Yes! And I love the word Yes! I love e.e.cummings wonderful poem

i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

Sister Mary Corita Kent was particularly popular during the social upheavals of that time. If you don’t know of her work, it can be still be seen in almost any retreat center – beautiful silk screens and colorful seriographs of Yes to love and peace and life.

So when I began to read the theologian Karl Barth, I was unprepared for the forcefulness of his No. Unprepared, but immediately grabbed by it because he spoke a truth that was critical to any real ability to say yes.

Barth was a Lutheran pastor and theologian in pre-war Germany who grew increasingly alarmed at the growing militarism of his country and the support for this among his former professors and fellow pastors. This support was a result of what he saw as the moral weakness of liberal theology. That is, a theology that increasingly was focused on making peace with the world, and believed that humans, on their own, were progressing towards greater and greater enlightenment. The concentration camps of WWII, and Hiroshima, and later, the mass graves of Cambodia and Rwanda threw cold water on the idea of humanity’s progressive enlightenment – but at the time the result was churches which accommodated the prevailing politics rather than speaking out the distinctive word of the Lordship of Jesus the Christ.

In an attempt to understand what was happening to his country and his church he began a deep study of the Book of Romans, and he came away with the overwhelming conviction of the victorious reality of Christ’s resurrection – that is, that all the death dealing powers in the world were not able to dismantle and destroy the Irrevocable Intention of God to Love. God is absolutely sovereign – he is not dependent upon us – and he exercises complete freedom in revealing himself through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. At the same time, we can never know God the way we can know a patron saint. God is not our patron saint, and he is certainly not the patron saint of any one country or any one group of people.

Faith, Barth said, is " awe in the presence of the divine incognito; Faith is the love of God that is aware of the qualitative difference between God and human beings and God and the world."

Barth, almost single handedly, brought back the idea of the utter transcendence of God, the apophatic God before whom we bow and are silent, because we essentially do not know and certainly cannot control.

He founded what came to be called The Confessing Church in Germany, the small underground group of pastors and laity, who pitted the revelation of Jesus Christ against the “truth” of Hitler and the death machine of Hitler’s party. For a people immersed in churches that for decades had made peace with militarism and a political system in which classes of people – Jews, Gypsy’s, homosexuals, cripples - were made scapegoats and eventually rounded up and murdered, this thundering No, was an essential if bitter tasting corrective.

The truth is this No is the starting point of any authentic religious life. Any life that desires intimacy with God must begin with understanding that God does not belong to you, that God is not a vending machine, that God does not need to cure your cancer, or provide you with a job, or insure your prevailing in lawsuits, or make your life comfortable or easy.

Real Life, Life with God, begins on our knees. Begins with this recognition that God is beyond our thoughts and our imaginations, beyond our rules and our regulations, beyond our potlucks and our passions. God, in God’s essence, cannot be known – except in the way that God chooses to be known.

So, renunciation is the way that we begin this journey of Lent. Because the Holy Yes to the leaping greenly spirits of trees and the blue true dream of sky requires the Holy No to waste and pollution. The Holy Yes to seeking and serving Christ in all persons requires the Holy No to envy or pointing the finger at Muslims or illegal immigrants. The Holy Yes to healing and abundance requires the Holy No to blindness to human suffering and lack of compassion.

The truth is that at times this No is quite costly. It may mean saying no to what we most treasure in order that we may yes to what is more helpful and healthful. It may mean awkward and painful letting go of what does not belong in order that we may say yes to what truly does belong. It may mean asking for help in discerning what is standing in our way of love and accepting help in changing behaviors that are, in the long run, destructive. In other words, this saying no and this saying yes are not one time events, but are questions that we must return to over and over again.

So – the first and most basic question of our Lenten retreat is this: Do you renounce the works of Satan and all the evil powers of this world that would corrupt and destroy the works of creation?

And the response is: I renounce them.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

What happens when your world goes “kaboom!” – the word Donna used when she told me what happened for her when the pieces fell together and she knew her life’s direction and work.

Kaboom! Perfect word for this experience – this free fall kind of experience when everything is unified – everything falls together – and in that moment, in that free fall moment, all structure is temporarily gone, definitions are meaningless, there is no you / me / it / Everything melds into one and you see. You see in a totally different light – you see what has always been there, but is most always hidden.

Mystics of every faith describe these moments – these moments of great light, of shattering light – when it is not necessarily what you see that is transfigured, but your sight that is transfigured.

Listen to Teresa of Avila, the great Carmelite mystic of the 16th century, who wrote about prayer and the exquisite beauty and infinite value of every soul. She writes about herself in the 3rd person – “the Lord revealed himself one day to her, when she had just received Communion, in great splendor and beauty and majesty, as He did after his Resurrection..” He spoke to her and her life, her relationship with God and with everyone around her was permanently altered. This mystic Teresa, by the way, was not withdrawn from the world – she was a businesswoman, an entrepreneur. She established monasteries and convents under difficult conditions, and oversaw administrators of every variety.

Was her experience a flight of fancy? The writer of 2 Peter says, no. “We are not talking to you about clever, sophisticated myths. We are telling you about something we witnessed and a voice that we heard." The vision permanently changed them - even though it took time to live into all that it meant.

And remember Paul- blinded by this great Light, who heard a Voice from Heaven speak directly to him – and whose life changed direction after that experience? The fruitfulness of his life ever afterwards speaks for itself.

Paul did not think that this experience was meant for him alone. It was meant even for the Corinthian Christians, who were an ornery, argumentative, worldly wise congregation. He wrote to them that they and he ‘are being transfigured into Christ’s likeness with ever-increasing glory." (2 Corinthians 3:18)

Paul had this on good authority. Jesus said that those who hear the Word of God and do it will “shine forth like the sun." (Matthew 13:43) In other words – transfiguration is at the heart of what God is doing in our lives, you and me - here and now - “Transfiguring us into Christ’s likeness – with ever-increasing glory - so that we shine forth like the sun.” Kaboom!

It's very hard to take it in. This truth that permeation by Divine Light "is the destiny of our human nature*", and the even greater mystery revealed on the mountain that "the suffering endured on the Cross and the Majestic Glory of God are one." (Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury)

I'm guessing that most of the time, you understand those two things as separate - and that, if you're like me - you are actually more comfortable going down the mountain with Jesus towards the Cross than you are hanging out with him in blinding Glory. After all, we understand violence, scape goating, betrayal, suffering, death. Those things are human, and while we abhor them, we understand them – they fit into our framework.

The Transfiguration does not. The truth is, mostly we don’t know what to do with moments like these – moments of blinding clarity and beauty. I don’t know about you – but I totally get Peter and James and John wanting to erect tents – wanting desperately to make the experience fit into some kind of familiar framework. But God didn’t even wait for Peter to finish his sentence.... “This is my Son, the Beloved. Listen to him.”

And of course, Listen, in the Old and the New Testament, is a loaded word. Listen equals Do. Obey. Trust. Follow.

And so, since ancient times, Christians have listened - and they have climbed Mt. Tabor - through imagination and contemplation. They have climbed up the mountain, with Peter and James and John, and have fallen on their faces, overcome with the Glory of God, revealed in Jesus the Christ. Seen it for themselves and been transformed. So, my friends, let us also ... "consider the Mystery of the Transfiguration of the Lord…., and strive to be illumined by this Light ourselves and encourage in ourselves love and striving towards the Unfading Glory and Beauty….” (St. Gregory of Palamas)

They have also learned to listen for those smaller moments, those more individual moments of clarity and transformation that also come from God in which the pieces of their lives fall into place – whether that is vocation, or faith, or relationships, or the desire to co-create with God some part of the kingdom of heaven here on earth. I'm guessing that you too know some of those moment of clarity in which you see in a way that you did not imagine or make up. And if you pay attention, and do not dismiss those moments or ignore them, they have the power to guide you for a very long time – even when the initial flush of beauty and clarity are long gone.

After all, the letter of 2 Peter was written some eighty years after Christ’s death and resurrection - almost an entire generation – and yet this one experience of clarity on the mountain top was still providing sustenance and hope and encouragement for entire communities of Christians – especially, especially in the midst of serious questioning and doubts. It was providing sustenance because they took those moments of clarity seriously and re-presented them over and over again, in telling the story and in re-enacting the power and presence of Christ with them in the moment.

So – contemplate the Glory of Christ – AND reflect back into your own life, or the life of your family, or the life of this community – and re-visit a time in which you KNEW the power and presence of God, in which you SAW things in a new way, in a more unified way, in a way that had the potential to change you, if you let it. Revisit that time, maybe even come out of the closet and tell someone about it – you’re not crazy!

Linger on the mountain – don’t immediately descend into the cross of daily living – the mounds of laundry and the dishes and the office paperwork,– linger in that moment of clarity that was a gift from God. Lean into it and trust it and Listen – as God commanded – so that when you do descend the mountain – you do so as one who is beginning to shine like the sun - in however small or large a way.

Top photo from
Quote from Teresa of Avila, The Interior Castle, from the Seventh Mansion
Icon Fresco of St. Paul dates back to the 4th Century AD, and was discovered during restoration work at the Catacomb of Saint Thekla in March, 2011
*Michael Ramsey, 100th Archbishop of Canterbury, (1904 – 1988)
*St. Gregory of Palamas, Archbishop of Thessalonica (1296-1359), Sermon on The Transfiguration

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Which God?

So how many of you have been up in the middle of the night this past week because you had something on your mind? I have friends who swear by Ambien - the drug of choice for worriers and middle aged people whose bodies don’t rest well through the whole night.

Anxiety and worry are the new normal – the underlying tone, the background noise that is so omnipresent that we don’t even hear it although we are deeply affected by it.

We don’t worry about our next meal or how we are going to shelter our children – thank God. But we do worry about our weight, about what’s in our food, about the stylishness of our clothing and the solvency of our retirement plans. We do worry about our relationships, about our health, and about really big things over which we have actually very little control – the price of oil, the effect that will have on economic recovery, global warming of our planet, national security.

I may not be talking now exactly to you – you, as a person of faith, might not be deeply worried about these things – but we are steeping in a culture that is – and responds to that free floating worry and anxiety with ideas such as attempting to build a gigantic fence between California and Mexico, or Texas and Mexico, under the impression that this will actually make things better on either side.

Jesus goes to the heart of the issue – an issue that affected people in the 1st century just as much as it affects us in the 21st century.

You worry because you are divided, he says. Your attention is split. You are trying to serve two gods when that is not possible to do. That’s not because of some ethical failing – it’s just not possible. You can’t go two different directions at the same time.

I mean, when you drive to Lake Tahoe, there’s different routes you can take – but you can’t drive to Lake Tahoe and to Los Angeles at the same time. You need to decide – Snow or Oscars. They both might be great – but you can’t do both at the same time.

Likewise, Jesus says that a lot of our worry has to do with indecision – with trying to go in different directions. Will it be Kingdom of God? Or will it be Kingdom of Money?

If you decide Kingdom of God – that does not mean money is evil or scary or unnecessary. It doesn’t mean you can go pick flowers all day. It just means that it’s not your first priority – and it’s not your destination.

But what happens when you make the kingdom of money your destination? It turns out it’s governed by a god who isn’t very reliable, who is fickle and who – in the end – doesn’t take very good care of his people.

The god’s name is Scarcity. The rules? There’s only so much to go around and if you don’t get enough, you’ll suffer – and, it turns out, there’s never really an end to enough. No matter how much you get – it’s not quite enough.

It’s a kingdom of Musical Chairs. Remember the adrenaline of musical chairs? Grown up musical chairs is not any prettier. Even the ones sitting pretty can’t rest -– because conditions can change, sometimes quite rapidly, and then they are out - hungry and cold – either for real, or metaphorically speaking.

We basically live in the kingdom of Money, and the voice of its god, Scarcity, is all around us. We are all of us, every one of us, susceptible, and at one time or another we have all worshipped at its feet. Hoping we will be among the winners, we will be among those not caught on the outside.

It’s a cruel god – but we serve this god because we are trying to make ourselves secure, even when, deep down, we recognize that this god will not take care of us, will abandon us and let us down, and will ultimately make us insecure and increase our worry.

It’s just that it looks so true. It really does look like there’s not quite enough.

And we do not have to look far to see examples of real suffering because of not enough. In our backyard, there are homeless. And then, there are places of deep entrenched poverty, places like Haiti.

Jesus says that the true God – the God of the Kingdom of Heaven – the God of Abundance knows what you have need of and will provide. How?

A friend of mine spent yesterday rounding up blankets and jacket, hats and gloves and taking them out to the homeless men she knows who come to eat Sunday breakfast at her church. The weather forecast was deep cold – and her friends were going to be suffering – and tucked away in the closets of her more fortunate friends, were enough warm things to go around – to be shared.

I’m guessing that her fortunate friends might have wanted some of those coats and blankets. When you live in the Kingdom of Heaven, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have nice things – it just means that you have a different relationship with those things.

They are Not the source of your security or your contentment or your sense of value and worth. They are yours for as long as they are yours – and when the Generous God of Abundance has need of them elsewhere, you offer them, knowing that this God has your welfare in mind just as much as everyone else’s, and that there’s enough to go around – so long as no one hoards. Knowing that the intention in the Kingdom of Heaven is that no one get left out in the cold. That everyone has a chair.

Again - living into this Kingdom does not mean that you don’t plan for the future or that you are not prudent with one’s resources. It doesn’t help the poor to plan poorly.

But it does mean you can unhook yourself from the governing god of scarcity, this fear of not enough, and trust the true God of creation, the God who will not abandon you or turn his back on you.

You can learn to trust the God who has inscribed – tattooed – permanently marked you - onto the palm of his hand – who will not forget you - Ever.

Is this easy to trust? No. It goes counter to everything around us. That’s why we do it in community. That’s why we practice and work at building our muscles of trust by bringing food for the food bank, by making presents at Christmas for strangers, by pledging ever increasing proportions of our income to God’s work in the church and in the world.

It’s not easy. But it gets easier the more we find that it works – the more we find there is enough when everyone shares – and it gets easier when we begin to see examples of God’s provident care everywhere we look.

So choose your kingdom and your god – even if it’s a choice you have to make over and over again –which it is, for most of us.

Leave the kingdom of scarcity and choose the Kingdom of Heaven. Practice giving your undivided attention to the God who cares for you and see if the siren song of worry does not cease to trouble you.

photos: driving to Lake Tahoe, by Kai Harris
Luis Renteria, Monterey Food Bank Warehouse Manager, taken at Good Shepherd, Salinas, CA