Saturday, May 21, 2011

Good Questions

Yesterday, eight of us from Good Shepherd gathered with Bishop Mary and about a hundred people from around the Diocese to talk with Diana Butler Bass, a historian and sociologist, about religion and spirituality and culture.

The underlying story of everything we talked about what change.

Have you noticed that things in the world are changing? Fast? Will the Arab Spring lapse into Winter or blossom into Summer? Hamas and Fatah have formed a reconciled Palestinian Party and Egypt says it’s going to open the Gaza border, all of which changes things dramatically for Israel as well as for the United States.

I’ve hosted a 34 year old Korean high school science teacher this past week – and learned a bit about education in South Korea. Youth get to school 40 minutes before class in order to study foreign language, class time is a full 8 hours, and then everyone, including teachers, studies, at school, until 10 p.m., at which point, school buses take everyone home. Six days a week. I don’t have to spell out what this means for future American competitiveness.

Did you know that in 2008 1 out of every 10 couples that got married, met online? In 2011, 1 out of every 5 couples have met online. Journalists have no idea what to do, where the future of print lies. After Katrina and 9/11 and ongoing wars and the Wall Street meltdown and on and on….it is growing more and more difficult to turn on the news each morning.

This is all to say out loud, something that we all know in our bones. We are in the midst of epic cultural and economic and political upheaval and disillusionment and change – and faith communities are just as much affected by that as every other institution. People under 30 who believe in God, much less attend church, is at an historical low. The overall decline in people who say they are religious has happened at an astounding rate of change. Every institutional faith community is experiencing declining cultural importance and participation – now most especially the conservative evangelical churches that were, just a short time ago, experiencing explosive growth.

There are a couple of exceptions: Mormons - which I'm not going to deal with; and small communities of people gathering together, sometimes under denominational sponsorship, and sometimes not – communities of people who are more focused on their spiritual formation and growth then they are on institutional maintenance and order. While they would usually describe themselves as both spiritual and religious, they emphasize the spiritual – and by spiritual I mean experience, imagination, trust, relationship.

The questions these people are asking – the questions that drive their growth have to do with belief, behavior and belonging – but in a very different way than in the past.

In the past - the question of what you believed was answered by pointing to creeds and dogmas. Here’s what we believe – read it and sign it. At one point in my life, I began receiving instruction to become Roman Catholic – but when it came to reading and signing – I was very sure that I could not do that. While I could not have articulated the problem at the time – I understand now that the problem had to do with the whole gestalt – I was hungry for trust worthy meaningful relationship and a community rooted in beauty and in tradition. I was not in need of more concepts and dogmas. And I am not uncommon in this. For most people in our world today, the question of belief has much more to do with personal experience, with what someone you trust has told you they’ve experienced, with the stories you’ve heard from sources that you hold in esteem – in other words, our beliefs have much more to do with relationship and experience and trust, than with concepts and doctrines.

The question of behavior has undergone similar change. In the past, once you’d signed on to what you believed, you knew what rules to follow. Christianity, like other religions, is still very much associated, in the popular mind, with moral do’s and don’ts. With rules and regulations. You want to have a drink after work? Change from Baptist to Episcopalian. Both of which come with their own set of behavioral rules. But I’m guessing that you are like most people – in that what you hunger for is not more policing in what is right and what is wrong. What we hunger for is connecting our experience of the divine, of goodness and of beauty, with what we actually practice in the world. With how we live. Telling me over and over that it is right to use my cloth bags rather than plastic bags doesn’t really motivate me – though it is true and I acknowledge that it is how I should behave. What is far more motivating is to have love for animals and the ocean and the earth strengthened – to be in a community that prays for the right use of resources and sings about love for the earth and it’s creator, and talks about intentional practices that heal the earth and humanity – So The question is not so much “How do I behave?” but “What do I do with my life?” What do I do when I learn that plastic is harming the earth? What do I do when I learn that 7/10’s of the world’s population goes to bed hungry at night? The faith communities that are growing pay attention to this kind of context.

And finally, the question of belonging. Ever ask the question, Who am I? A very common question, right? And ultimately, incredibly isolating. We each have our own history that we could recite – family, geography, education, religion. We still ask and answer this question – who are you? But it is not very satisfying. The question of belonging that has much more juice – more potential – more significance – is the question “whose am I?” It’s a baptismal question – You are Christ’s own forever - and it’s a tribal question – We belong to the one who leads us beside still waters and restores our soul and leads us in pathways of justice and guides us through suffering and death and invites us to sit in the presence of enemies without fear or shame. We belong to the One who provides us with the food of compassion and the shelter of eternal love. We belong to the Shepherding God, the one in whom we are brothers and sisters with all of creation and by whom we see the face of Jesus in one another and in the poorest of the poor. The question “Who am I” can lead to anxiety – the question “Whose am I” can lead to freedom and to peace.

So what does all this have to do with the gospel?

Our reading from Acts is a description of this kind of community – I know – we all get a little scared when we read about the communism of this description of the early church in Acts. Clearly, this was not the path the church followed – it’s a utopian vision that was either idealized in this description, or did not work. Either way, we do not need to get hung up on the particular details of combining resources and giving out as people have need – whether this attracts you or scares you or both.

What is central to this passage is that an ordinary, common group of people had an extraordinary experience. In a common life, they gave expression to that experience and calling and became a very uncommon people. They became people who were more interested in service than status, more interested in opportunities than problems, more interested in preference than potential.” AND– their beliefs were based in their experience of the Living Jesus, their answer to “what do we do with our lives” was answered with intentional practices– they studied the apostle’s teachings and scriptures, they prayed, they enjoyed the fellowship of one another’s company, and they broke bread together – in the sacraments and by eating together, and they knew to whom they belonged – they belonged to a relational community in communion with God. A community that operated in the power of God’s Spirit, who understood themselves as united in purpose and identity – not a dispersed collection of individual churchgoers.

I’m guessing that if you look back on your experiences at Good Shepherd that fed you the most – it would have to do with one or more of these things – the joy of belonging to a community that loves one another; practices that made an impact on you – small group study, a party or hike or eating together; prayers and worship, – and that these experiences contribute to your believing.

I’m thinking that we are and can be one of these thriving small communities gathered around the basics, doing God’s work in God’s way, enjoying God’s blessing. As we make our way ever deeper into the 21st century, and change happening at a pace far more rapid than our human hearts and brains can manage to keep up with, we can trust this ancient path laid out for us in the tradition of the early church and we can ask God to make 301 Corral de Tierra a place where some of the questions of our postmodern world are being asked and answered.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Glorious Christ

Glorious Christ,
you whose divine influence is active at the very heart of matter,
and at the dazzling centre where the innumerable fibres of the multiple meet:
you whose power is as implacable as the world and as warm as life,
you whose forehead is of the whiteness of snow,
whose eyes are of fire, and whose feet are brighter than molten gold;
you whose hands imprison the stars;
you are the first and the last, the living and the dead and the risen again;
it is to you to whom our being cries out a desire as vast as the universe:
In truth you are our Lord and our God! Amen.

—Teilhard de Chardin, The Mass on the World

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Already Wondering - the 2nd Sunday of Easter

Many of you believe whole-heartedly in prayer, as I do. There are also some here this morning who have given up on it after praying for months and years for the sake of a loved one, to no apparent effect. Either way, I want you to know that you're in the right place.

Some of you believe in physical resurrection, as I do, others of you believe in only a spiritual resurrection, but there may be some here this morning who do not believe in an after-life at all. Whatever you believe, I want you to know that you're in the right place.

The truth is, we are uncomfortable with doubt, but when we pretend it doesn’t exist, and when we hide it from each other, we lose out – we lose our ability to be real and we lose our ability to be a healing presence in the world. We don't gain anything by pretending total confidence. As Voltaire said in the 18th century, “doubt is not a pleasant state of mind, but certainty is absurd."

Truthfully, total confidence is not what faith is about. Faith is not so much about believing a certain set of propositions – a list that we can check off – virgin birth, yes. Star in the sky, yes. Walk on water, yes. I happen to believe these things mostly because I find them beautiful – but I know lots of very faithful Christians who don’t believe them at all. A checklist of beliefs is not what make us who we are.

Honest relationship is what makes us a people alive in God’s Spirit.

When we say the Nicene Creed together - to outsiders and maybe to you - it may sound like a set of propositions. You may, in fact, believe every one of these things but that is not the important thing about the Creed. The essential reason this is in our liturgy, week after week, is that it puts us in relationship - in communion - with people around the world now and across time – and we value this relationship above all else. Credere – what we translate as "I believe" - is much more about our heart – it’s about where we put our trust and the weight of our being. Our religion is not so much about believing certain things as it is about what St. Peter calls "a living hope" – a living relationship with the Lord of Life and with each other. Like all relationships, it takes being present and available when we feel close to God and when we do not, when we are in love with God and when we are not, when we totally believe – and when we do not.

One of the books I keep on my shelf for the title as much as for the content – is called “May I Hate God?” and the Catholic author’s answer is "yes – hating is as much a part of relationship as is loving." When we are deeply disappointed or hurt or feeling abandoned, our love can temporarily turn to hate – but if we continue in relationship, it does not harden there, or remain in that state. It’s only when we refuse to engage, when we don't care, when we refuse to reveal the true state of our heart that we can get stuck and gradually find our love grown cold and our inner life increasingly dead.

The author of this slim little book points to the Psalms as one place among many in the Bible where people reveal the true state of their doubts about God’s loving intentions, their experiences of his abandonment, their laments and their sorrows and yes, even their angers, at their experiences of God’s absence and neglect. And lo and behold, those psalms almost always turn somewhere in the middle or towards the end into praise – because the very act of honesty, the very act of authentic revelation of what is really happening with your heart gives the Holy Spirit room to act and sufficient space to provide refreshment.

In Jesus’ resurrected body, his essential qualities remained. His kindness and compassion were entirely intact. He breathed peace and forgiveness and completely allowed for the very human need to touch and to see for themselves – in other words, through betrayal and abandonment and death and loss, Jesus continued in relationship. And his friends did as well - through their own fears and disappointments and disillusionments, they continued to meet with each other, and to be available for Jesus to come and find them. And out of the gift of that relationship, the gift of that commitment, new life was born, the Holy Spirit was breathed into them, and they were sent out to preach peace and to practice forgiveness.

Do you need to forgive God for not keeping you or your loved ones entirely safe and protected, or for not saving us from ourselves in this oh so broken world? Do you need to forgive your children for not being who you wanted them to be? Do you need to forgive yourself for not being honest with yourself, for not siding with yourself, for anything at all? We are a people whose gift to the world is relationship, peace and forgiveness. And that starts in here, at home, with those around us, and spreads out from there.

I invite you to place your hands on your heart, breathe in the Holy Spirit, and breathe out, saying “Peace be with you.”

Then turn to your neighbor, breathe the Spirit and say “Peace be with you.”

And when you receive the Host, you may want to offer your peace to God and breathe in his holy breath of peace to you.

Resources: The Rev. Buzz Stevens, Ministry Matters, 2010, for the beginning thoughts.
Garrison Keillor, Thinking Weaselish Thoughts at Eastertide,, 2008
Voltaire, 1694 - 1778
Pierre Wolfe, May I Hate God, Paulist Press, 1978