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.

Friday, May 26, 2017

Ascension Day: Power from on High

According to St. Luke, in his Gospel account of Jesus' ascension into heaven, the last words of Jesus to his disciples is, "And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high."

The four words that stand out for me in this declaration are "promised," "stay," "clothed," and "power." To attempt to put Jesus' words into my own interpretive sense, I connect these words thus:

I am going away, but you will receive what has been promised if you stay in the place of risk. In that place you will receive a share in the power of God that will so change you it will feel like being clothed with something not your own. 

"The city" of which Jesus speaks is, of course, Jerusalem. It is the place of fear. The other Gospel writers all have Jesus last experiences with his disciples in Galilee, their home country, a safe place. Luke is a man of the Empire, and knows intuitively that the world will not offer safety for the followers of Jesus.  All of the Gospel writers have the disciples-turned-apostles sent into the world with the message, but there is a difference in being sent from a safe place than being sent from a risky one. Luke wants to make it very clear that followers of Jesus must learn to live at risk ( or even in danger), so the risky, dangerous place, for him, is the only logical place to receive the promised power.

What is this "power from on high?"  "The Holy Spirit," is the obvious answer, but, really, a rather vague one. Saying that the followers of Jesus will receive power from on high begs the question, what kind of power with which do to what?

There is a kind of "power paradigm" that surrounds us.  Power is the smarts, the cleverness, the ability to project fear, the skill and strength to win. In current vernacular, power is whatever it takes to be a winner; lack of power, defined as weakness or lack of talent, or even laziness, inevitably leads to loss, to be a "loser."

The biblical sense of "power from on high" are characteristics like courage, resilience, graciousness and, above all, love.  Another list is Paul's "Fruits of the Spirit" from Galatians 5:22-23.

...the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.

None of these has anything to do with winning or gaining power over others.  They are not so much about "end results" as they are "ways of being," and that is perhaps the most important distinction between "power" as we tend to conceive it, and biblical "power."

The other important distinction is that "power from on high" is just that, from elsewhere. It is a gift. In biblical terms, it is grace, and so it is not something which we must conjure up in ourselves but something which we must be ready to receive and exercise sometimes despite our inclinations.

Which is to say, power from on high is a promise, something with which we are clothed.

Monday, May 22, 2017

It is Spring

It is spring in Western New York, and no matter how many times we have lived through it, we always have to remind ourselves that spring is not summer.  It is the promise of summer, not its fulfillment. One day t-shirts and shorts are in order, the next long pants and a jacket,

We also have to remember that it rains this time of year and this rain is, actually, not just a nuisance, but essential for the creation around us to thrive in the coming months.

I am struck this spring by the many different shades of green as I look out my study window. The trees on the hillside must be every possible color of green there is, a veritable 64-count Crayola box of greens.  Then there is the deep greens of the lawns on the street below, and the fields I noticed driving to church yesterday "over the hill," as we say, from one river valley where we live and another where our family is located, along with our church, and many things with which we are involved. This other valley is the valley of my birth.

On the church's calendar it is a Rogation Day. Historically, the three days before Ascension Day (this Thursday) are days of special prayer for the creation, for the spring plantings, and for our stewardship of it all. Almost no one observes them any more, unfortunately. They are a great way to pause at the beginning of the explosion of creation we are just beginning to experience thus far this year. The creation may be under siege (and I, for one, believe it is), but it insists on dazzling us with new life and beauty.

The institutional church is so obsessed with its own shortcomings these days, and afraid for its future, that we are losing our primary purpose--to shout glory and discover and pronounce God's blessing on every living thing. We have the words, we need to take them off the shelf, blow off the dust and sing them anew.

Glorify the Lord, all you works of the Lord...
Glorify the Lord, every shower of rain and fall of dew, all winds and fires and heat...
Glorify the Lord, O mountains and hills, and all that grows upon the earth...
Glorify the Lord, O beasts of the wild, and all you flocks and herds...
O men and women everywhere, glorify the Lord...

Monday, April 24, 2017

Easter Saturday

Easter Saturday
Many days ago Mary Magdalene
Came from the empty tomb
Apostle to the apostles I have seen the

Then she drops from history
If not from imagination
And what an imagination we have had
We have a salacious need to have in the story some

Joined to sin this sex must be of course
And a woman must be the villain
But Mary of Magdala was no prostitute
She was simply a woman who by Jesus was

She was healed and was grateful
And joined his followers
Providing for the men
Out of their purse and their

Jesus called her by name in the garden
And so she knew him whom she had known not
As the gardener or body-snatcher
In her mourning her name and that voice brought

Mary of Magdala deserves more
Than she has gotten from our ignorance
Would should follow her to serve
When no one else would a thereby be an