Friday, August 18, 2017

The Rocky Road to Radical Relationships

The primary question we are to bring to any relationship with any other person, no matter any matter of their identity is not, “Will you agree with us and become one of us?” (or, in evangelical parlance, “Are you saved?”).  It is, “How can we serve you?”

I wrote those words two days ago, and received an excellent request from a friend:  “I need some practical advice on enacting these words from your writing when we are dealing with Trump supporters or other non-believers.”

The first thing to say is that, like most things Christian and/or spiritual, we are talking about process.  This is true, for instance, with forgiveness.  Forgiveness and reconciliation are processes. They may (and usually do) have their moments of revelation, for example, when you can say to another, “I forgive you.”  Yet even that definitive statement does not signal the end of anything. It is rare when there is not more processing to do, both internally and externally.  There is also the great truth that forgiveness is a two-way street, with responsibility and accountability on both sides.

So, what about my friend’s question?  How do we enact the words, “We are here to serve you,” with people who seem so vastly different from ourselves and do not particularly want relationship with us?  I think there are several things to say about this, summed up in the title of this essay.  The road to radical relationship is a rocky one.  My apologies for resorting to a list here.  I do not intend for it to be taken as “steps.”

1.      I have introduced the word “radical” as a descriptive of the kind of relationship we are after, the kind of relationship I think Jesus wants us to pursue with others.  The word “radical” comes from the Latin word for “root” (think of “radish,” a root vegetable).  Radical relationships are those that get to the root of the matter. This must be true in at least three ways.  First, the root of any relationship we build as Christians is love, defined by Jesus as the kind of love that would involve the willingness to give up one’s life for the other (John 13:15).  Second, I must bring to this love the root of myself, inasmuch as I am aware of it, and I must address the root of the other, inasmuch as he or she is aware of it, and together we must be willing to go deeper.

2.      I do not myself have a great deal of success engaging people who are from the other end of the political spectrum, with whom I do not appear to share any values.  But that’s not just me.  We live in a time when the divide is deep and it is filled with all kinds of evil things like mistrust and fear (the cause of most hate) that keep us reactive and unwilling to be with each other.  The white supremacist’s desire to live in a country where the races are segregated is just the extreme manifestation of that fear.  This is the “rocky” part. We have not only become deeply divided, but the divide itself has taken on a life of its own.

3.      St. Benedict teaches us the beginning of radical relationships:  “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ” (RB 53:1).  If you want a “first step” this is it, and as first steps go, it’s a big one.  The Baptismal Covenant in The Book of Common Prayer says the same thing with the promise that we will “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves” (p. 305).  Step One is an open, non-defensive stance.  It’s the “non-defensive” part that is so difficult these days.  We tend to be ready to be defensive even before we meet someone.

4.      The further part of this welcome is that we must be ready to listen and not to talk.  We have to assume (and this, too, can be extraordinarily difficult) that the other person means well, has a story to tell, and wants to be listened to.  Again, we must be ready to do non-defensive listening.

5.      When it is our turn to talk, it is better that we tell our stories about how we have come to believe what we do.  After years of arguing propositions in the church and lgbtq issues, I firmly believe that we did our best and most decisive work when we told our stories.


6.      The last thing I will say is that we must be ready for rejection.  Fear is a powerful thing and the anger that results from it is even more powerful.  Our attempt at relationship may be completely rebuffed.  This reality may be the norm, given the present climate.  But we have no mandate from Jesus other than to keep trying.  The bottom line, I think is this:  “How can I serve you?” is first and foremost is an invitation to tell me who you are.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

C'mon Christians: It's Time to Get Serious About Who We Are

Whatever you think of the Trump administration, they are handing progressive Christians a golden 
opportunity for us to get serious about who we are.  This means finally throwing off the mantle of the “quasi-state church” of mainline Protestantism and risk our lives for the sake of the gospel.  At least two things are required of us from the beginning.  They are only a start, but I believe they are a significant start.

We must get clear that we are first and foremost the People of God, citizens of God’s realm or kingdom, with Jesus as our one and only Lord.  Individually we are many things. Our identities are rich with diversity, and we claim this as part of God’s creation.  We cannot, however, put the word “first” in front of any of them.  In particular, in the present moment, we are not “Americans First” nor can we buy an “America First” agenda.  Our common baptism puts us on an equal footing with brothers and sisters across the world. It also gives us a “human agenda,” the dignity of human life. This agenda calls us even outside our Christian tradition.  It gives us a biblical worldview that is as old as Genesis:  we are our brothers’ and sisters’ keeper.  Our human agenda is the Common Good, in which we love and live sacrificially. The point of human living is not to die with the most wealth.  The point of human living is to serve the common good, from which we have the right to exclude no one.

Second, we must get clear on the reality that free speech may be an American value, but Christians have a particular take on it.  There is for us, always accountability.  Speech that seeks to undo the vision of God for this world, including the dignity of all and the service of the common good, is not okay with us.  It participates in evil, which is anything that draws us from the love of God and neighbor which are our primary commandments.  If we are not, as Jesus said (being perfectly serious, I think), to call anyone a “fool,” than we are certainly not to use hate speech against anyone.  If you call yourself a Christian, then you are accepting the biblical value that we are not to call our neighbors anything but our neighbors.  Of course, we can disagree with them, but any disagreement we have is trumped by “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Christians have been infected over the centuries with the evil thinking that they are better than everyone else because of our allegiance to Jesus, and we have baptized our national citizenship in the same evil.  But the primary question we are to bring to any relationship with any other person, no matter any matter of their identity is not, “Will you agree with us and become one of us?” (or, in evangelical parlance, “Are you saved?”).  It is, “How can we serve you?”

When we get clear about these things we risk pissing people off.  They will say we are being political.  They will say this is not the way the real world works.  They will say that we are advocating an “anything goes” society.  The antidote is to read Jesus and St. Paul, both of whom were accused of the same things.  We cannot give into our fear.  We have to stop wringing our hands on the sidelines wishing that everyone would just get along, and quietly telling them so.  We do have at least two lines in the sand to draw.  One is that we belong to God first.  Two, we have zero tolerance for hate.

If we get clear about these things then we can have productive conversations about our purpose, God’s mission for us.  But this conversation is worthless if we are not clear about who we are, first, and what our values are, first.

Who Do We Say We are?

Friday, July 28, 2017

Back to School

Written on the plane on my way to start an MFA program in Creative Writing:

First Day of School

The yellow school bus that picked me up was number 21.  I have that flash of memory from my first
Off to School Again
day of kindergarten in 1966.

Was I nervous?  Was I scared?  What did it feel like to be leaving my mother and baby sister behind?  This was it. There was no pre-school or day care center in those days.  We just got on the bus that would take us to the school building for the next 13 years.  And, yes, it was the same school building for 13 years.

I remember my school room and can still point it out 50 years later.  It was a large room—the largest classroom in the school. There was lots of light, a bathroom of its own, and a small stage area (well, an area one step above the rest of the room).

My teacher’s name was Mrs. Amelia Lynch.  She was a short, older woman with an air of both authority and kindness.  I liked her.

I remember construction paper houses on one wall. Each one had one of our addresses and phone numbers (only four numbers in those days) on it.  It was a major task to remember where we lived.  I suppose that’s done much earlier now in these days when kindergarteners begin the rudiments of algebra and chemistry.

Shapes and colors were also important.  I remember endless sheets of them on which we had to match the same shapes and/or the same colors.  Occasionally, we would be asked to match different shapes and colors.  There seemed something sinister about these that played with difference.

We got grades using stamps with animals on them.  A lion was “excellent.”  “Good” was either a sheep or a dog, I cannot remember which.  Goats were somewhere below that.  I got lots and lots of lions, so many that I really wanted one of the other ones, and I figured out that if I got a few wrong I would get one of them.  The act was so distressing it required a teacher consultation with my parents. I was mildly scolded but I think they were more amused than concerned.  I went back to the lions.

So here I am 51 years later, heading off to school, feeling like its kindergarten all over again.  This time the bus is replaced by an airplane and the mile ride to school by a thousand miles.

I’m hoping Mrs. Lynch will be there—a firm and steady hand that makes me feel safe and like I belong.  I’m longing for direction and even steeled for criticism. Of Course, I am also terrified of rejection.  It’s not that I think I will get anything deliberately wrong—there will be no cool animal stamps to tempt me.  But after all this time, all this life lived, I know I will seek ways to be different.  But I am sure of my address and phone number, and the way home.

I have no idea what my psychological state was in 1966 (does a five-year-old have psychological states?).  A picture exists, and I don’t look anxious or afraid, but then my look is fairly inscrutable.  I certainly do not seem overly impressed by the liminal state of the moment.  That was probably for the best, because if I had been aware the picture might be of my mother dragging me onto that bus.

I am more aware today?  I am, are I not?  I did not fight to keep off the plane or linger at the car unable to let go of my husband.  There is, however, something ominous in the air—or is it abject terror that I have managed to tightly control, at least for now?

This is a liminal moment, a time of significant transition.  It has been coming ever since February 3, 2014 when I choose to go to the hospital rather than to work.  As I tell people of this new step, I hear myself saying, “I will not go back to parish ministry,” statement that both comforts and energizes me, but also leaves me a little uneasy.  Am I denying who I am and the thing I have done very well in spite of my illness?  Or is who I am evolving with the realities of my life, like most human beings?  Is this just a move from one form of mission to another?  Time will tell (at least I am hoping that it will.

What I have right now is my favorite prayer from Thomas Merton:

My Lord God,
I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
nor do I really know myself,
and the fact that I think I am following your will
does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that the desire to please you
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore will I trust you always though
I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for you are ever with me,
and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

Amen.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Why We Must Kill the Truth

The truth will set you free, but perhaps not until it has killed you.  Or is it you who must kill it?


Grasping the truth is like trying to grasp the ocean.  There’s just too much of it, and even if you can grab a handful, it slips through your fingers and evaporates off your hand so that nothing is left but a slight residue of salt.  You can see more of it than you can touch, but even that is something of an illusion. What you can see is an infinitesimal part of the whole.

You can always use a map. On a map you can see it all, but maps are only representations, despite their seeming precision in latitude and longitude.  Maps are like stop signs; they do not effect what they signify.

I hear it said, and from my own lips, that I must speak my truth.  A warning should flash behind our eyes like a beach sign warning of the rip tide that cannot be seen.  “My truth” is too much shorthand. The most it can mean is “the truth as I dimly perceive it at this moment in time.”  Tomorrow can so easily bring some different truth, new and strange.

In the few years that I played at being an evangelical, I was told there was a difference between capital “T” truth and small “t” truth.  God and the things of God were capital “T” truth.  Just read the Bible (that’s capital “B” bible).  I did read the bible and I read Paul saying, “Now we see in a mirror dimly, only then we will see face to face.”  The truth will set you free, but only when you and it can look each other in the eye.  The older I get the more I know how much a rarity is that experience.

The truth that we must kill just may be what we call “my truth.”  Does this mean that we let dishonesty abound?  Does this mean there is nothing on which we can stake our life?  To quote the said apostle, “By no means!”  We must always seek the truth, but never feel assured that we can catch it in our net and mount it for display like a beautiful butterfly.  Even God, the bible says, seeks the truth.  The psalmist says, “You look for truth deep within me” (51:7).  That is, deep within me, where I cannot see, at least with my eyes alone.

It is not so much that truth must die. It is our grasping at it which is in need of the grave.  It is the mirrors in which we think we see clearly that must be smashed.  It is the ocean’s vastness that we must respect.


So what ought to live if truth is to die?  It is, of course, the truth, paying no attention to the size of the letter.  The truth that is grasped must die so that the truth that is sought might live.

This essay was written while I was attending the Kenyon Institute's Beyond Walls annual week for spiritual writers at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.  It was written on the prompt, "What must die? And what ought to live?" given in the session my group had with Jeff Chu.  Photo by manu schwendener

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Welcome my deer!

I am at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio for a week for writers. I came to this event last year, but had to leave early due to a death in the family.  On my way out last year, as I was walking to the parking lot where I had left my car, I had an encounter with this deer, who calmly watched me as if to say, "It's OK."  As I drove off, she was still in the same place watching me.

This year, I pulled into the same parking lot, and lo and behold there was a deer standing at the edge of the lot, as if waiting to greet  me.

Same deer? Who knows. It was a doe, and she remained as still as could be. I got out of my car and she walked away, her business done.


Friday, June 09, 2017

"We're Under Siege, You Know That"

No, Mr. President, we don't.

Mr. Trump spoke these words at the annual "Faith and Freedom Coalition" gathering of Christians who call themselves evangelical (or is it evangelicals who call themselves Christian?).  It was red meat thrown to the lions (sorry for the upturned metaphor, couldn't resist).  Both the President and this group of evangelicals love to be under siege.  It seems to be from whence cometh their reason for being.

More than once Mr. Trump has confused evangelicals with all Christians (playing into the confusion many evangelicals have always had, to wit, the Roman Catholic Church is a cult, mainstream Protestant Christian denominations have been overtaken by godless liberals, etc.

Christianity is not under siege in America.  Disagreement on ethical issues doth not a siege make, especially considering the disagreement is among the various people who call themselves Christian. True, some public laws are difficult for some Christians to accept and to follow. This has always been the case.  There is nothing new here. Christians have been issuing divorce decrees for reasons not allowed by a literal reading of Jesus' teaching for as long as such divorces have been allowed (and baking wedding cakes for second marriages which, again in a literal reading, Jesus condemns as committing adultery, one of the ten big sins.

Christian numbers are shrinking, and that is cause for alarm for many, but we who call ourselves Christian have no one to blame but ourselves for this crisis.  People are not attracted to institutions who are involved in constant public infighting, spend ungodly sums of money keeping their pretty buildings standing, and are unwilling to risk everything for the sake of following the one they rather cheaply call "Lord."  Yes, some cultural things have not helped, such as youth sports on Sundays and the end of the Blue Laws.  I believe we could have easily dealt with these new realities if we were entirely focused on the good news of the gospel, setting people free to live with all the imagination, creativity and compassion that God intends.

The road marked "we are under siege" is a road to nowhere. It is certainly not the road to Emmaus or Galilee or Jerusalem.

Monday, June 05, 2017

"We're taking her in"

Sermon preached on the Day of Pentecost, June 4, 2017 at St. Thomas' Church, Bath, NY.

O Holy Spirit,
By whose breath,
Life rises vibrant out of death;
Come to create, renew, inspire;
Come, kindle in our hearts your fire.

          Before I was ordained, I served as the Director of Christian Education at a parish in suburban Chicago.  When the Day of Pentecost was approaching, I decided to try something that had never been done in the parish before: a children’s sermon.

          As the day approached I was filled with anxiety.  More than one parishioner, when they caught wind of what I had planned, asked me directly not to do it. This was a congregation which used what we called then “The New Prayer Book,” but they used it exactly as they had used the previous Prayer Book, with not an ounce of difference from one week to the next save for the readings. Their reception of passing the Peace had not advanced beyond what I called the “glaring stage.”

          On top of this I had never done a children’s sermon before. You can see how the scene was set for disaster.

          The day came; I had a plan; but I also could barely remember my own name. The moment came and I called the children up. It took three tries amid facial expressions that ranged from skeptical to hostile.  I got the children seated around and reminded them we were baptizing little baby Joan this morning.

          My mind then went blank.  I finally blurted out, “What are we doing to Joan when we baptize her?” Immediately I wished I could take the question back. These were elementary school-aged children not first-year seminarians. There was silence.

          And just when I had determined the only sane thing to do was to rush them out of the service and take them to the parish hall out of harm’s way, a little girl, not much older than young Skylar, raised her hand. I winced as I called on her.

          And that little girl, at the top of her voice, in that cavernous old stone church cried, “We’re taking her in!”

          It took a moment for my rational mind to catch up with my anxiety-soaked brain. Then I said, “That is exactly what we are doing.”  And I sent them back to their seats lest something happen to overpower that answer.

          The Holy Spirit’s work in and through us is always what that little girl said. It is always about making and strengthening relationship, making our common life stronger, building it upon the foundation of love, the kind of love that often requires great courage if we are to participate in it.

          The little girl’s answer showed a level of spiritual engagement by children that I have experienced often since that moment.  It is not an engagement based on intellect. It has not come from memorizing the creed or Bible verses.  It is, I believe, innate and free from the rational system we adults try to impose on all this wonder, to the point where it is hard for us to see it at all.

          In a few moments we will pray over the newly baptized that the Holy Spirit will lead them in a life that is characterized by, among other things, “Joy and wonder in all [God’s] works.”

          When Jesus told us that we would have to be like children to enter the kingdom of God, he meant that we adults gradually come to control our spiritual sense, as a result of which the gifts of the Holy Spirit are dulled in us, include the gift of wonder.

          If the Holy Spirit works to take us all in to one family with Jesus our brother and God our parent by adoption, then wonder is one of the gifts we need to be able to see this great truth, which can be so horribly obscured by the seemingly infinite number of ways with which we come up to divide ourselves one from another.

          In the Nicene Creed we call the Holy Spirit, “the Lord and Giver of Life.” This gift of life is our most common bond. We share it with our friends no more than we share it with strangers, with those we love no more than with those who trouble or even frighten us.

          In the Latin version of the Nicene Creed, the phrase “Giver of Life” is one word:  vivificandem. It is where we get such wonderful words as “vivacious” and “vivid,” but also a word that we do not use much anymore, and we are the poorer for it:  vivify, “to give life to,” or “to brighten.”  Discovering this has led me to wonder if the English proper name for the Holy Spirit might actually be “Vivian!”

          The Holy Spirit’s first gift to all is life itself, followed close by our need for relationships that give us all those gifts for which we will pray:

Sustain them, O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.

          When we talk of the Holy Spirit in the church these days we often talk about those diverse and particular gifts given to each one of us that help make a body strong. Such is Paul’s point with the Christians in Corinth which we heard this morning.

          Those, however, are secondary gifts. The primary gifts of the Holy Spirit are what bind us together in a life-giving body, and, indeed which are life-giving to each and every one of us. They are gifts we all share (to put them in my own words):  curiosity and wisdom, courage and perseverance, imagination and love, delight and wonder. Put this way I hope you can see that we learn how to use these gifts as much from children as from any adult, for these things come naturally to children. The truth is they come naturally to all of us, but most of us adults need to work hard to let them come back to the fore of our life.

          Let us take these two persons in to share with us in the community of curiosity, imagination, wonder, and love which knows no bounds: the community of the Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, Vivian by any other name.

O Holy Spirit by whose breathe
Life rises vibrant out of death;
Come to vivify and to inspire;

Ignite our wonder with your fire.