Blessedness

Blessed is sometimes translated into “happiness.”  And when Jesus talks about being blessed, he announces that it will be the meek, the poor, and the persecuted.   Could he be ironic or sarcastic?  An announcement that God’s work was different, not the property of the lucky and privileged?

The writer Matthew understood that “blessing” or happiness was meant to be a regular, and rigorous, orientation toward life.  It was not a cheap optimism, but a steely view towards one’s personal power.

To say that our meekness, lack and want is blessed, is to alter our perspective toward desire.  What was hidden is now seen.   We had been unaware that we were so attached; we denied were were captivated by our desires.  We are creatures that want; we want because we lack.

Blessing our desires also announces that we lack, yet without shame.  Our desires not be condemned, but honored.  And so, may our compulsions not destroy us, our limits understood as giving us the frame for appreciating the goodness and life in us.

May our attachments not terrify or diminish us.    May our imperfections themselves not hinder us, but be celebrated.  Blessed are those who make mistakes, for they will have done the work.

On the Twin Towers

Sent via my enewsletter the week of the anniversary of 9/11/01.

It’s the eighth anniversary of the attack on the twin towers. That morning, I called people who I knew worked in the area, and after doing what I could, began to drive up to Rochester to be with my father, who died the next day.

Several new people came to church that Sunday. One family is now an active member of the the church. I wasn’t there, but in my absence, the Rev. Allen Shin preached that Sunday. As the spirit would have it, he had been downtown at Trinity Church, shepherding young children with the Archbishop of Canterbury, who was there to give a talk.

It was a rough time. Some were heartbroken, angry, defensive, righteous, eager for a fight, determined to administer justice. All these sensibilities are real and appropriate. One parishioner said, “we should bomb them,” although she was unclear about who “they” were. Others simply wrestled with trying to figure out, why would this happen to us?

What the archbishop argued for was “breathing space.” At the time it seemed ridiculous. The archbishop noted that as the mob was about to stone the adulteress, he just sat in the ground, writing. Perhaps all Jesus was doing, was giving the demons time to walk away. Saying “I love you” offers space. Sometimes all we need is some time, spacious time, to gather ourselves, and think clearly.

Peter Stienfels once wrote about the Archbishop’s reflections upon a conversation with a rabbi after the war in Lebanon: “The rabbi,” Archbishop Williams told his audience, “made no political points. But he said that when in the Bible God tells Moses to take off his shoes in the divine presence, the Jewish sages had interpreted this to mean that we couldn’t meet God if we were protected against the uneven and unyielding and perhaps stony or thorny ground.”

The rabbi considered this also true “when we meet the human beings who are made in God’s image,” Archbishop Williams said. “Those who are responsible for violence of any kind, even when they think it is in a just cause, need to take off their shoes and recognize what it is like when flesh and blood are hurt.”

“Terrorism, is the absolute negation of any such recognition,” What will defeat terrorism in the end “is ‘taking off our shoes,’ coming to terms with what we share as mortal beings who have immortal value.”

It is a tough message. In a politically polarized environment, our first task is to recognize in each other the image of God, that admits that we all have fears, frustrations and questions. Perhaps we have to stop participating in the madness that elevates the spectacle and drama of emotional conflict. Instead, we are called to stand on that stony and thorny ground.

We must not rely on the easy platitudes that reveal our defensiveness or demand war. It is to simply recognize the truth that we can each find ourselves pulled in the direction of violence.

Jesus merely says stop. And without looking at us, He waits, and draws in the sand. The demons then depart. And so we hope.

On Beck

I’m not all that sure about what the kerfuffle is all about, but I’ve gained a few insights about the man.

Initially, I didn’t get indignant or outraged that Beck was having a revival on the same day as MLK’s historic I have a Dream speech.  Although a speech that is now iconic in American history, it has been played out to the point of parody (“I had a really weird dream last night“), and I don’t think it was even his best one.

The rally, however, did reveal some aspects of Beck’s personality.  I’ve always found him insufferably (deceitfully?) ingratiating, obsequious at times, and insulting on others.  His whingy sentimentality merely makes me even appreciate Bill O’Reilly’s strong arm.

The rally made me consider that he truly does want to make a difference.  In itself that is admirable.  But it seems to me that he’s really got a secret Obama envy.

Instead of working to challenge the powers, to gather the people, the hard way, as Obama had done, Beck consistently takes the easy way out.   Obama’s mettle has been tested:  he worked hard to get through school, was disciplined in his personal life, and has sacrificed a potentially lucrative career of that of public service.  Instead, Beck has been rewarded for his immaturity, his identification with the resentful, anxious and fearful element of the American Public.   He seems to be one of those people who thinks that Obama has gotten more than he has deserved, and that he is not fit to run the country.

What outrages me is the audacity that Beck would hold a revival when the man has no flesh-and-blood congregation.  His interest in the lives of the public seems opportunistic at best, and non-existent at worst.   From where does was he given the authority?  At the very least, pastors are given the authority from congregations who’s everyday difficulties aren’t ideological, but concrete.  He pontificates and orders people about, without the real relationship building that most pastors consider part of their work.  How dare he preach to anyone about spiritual improvement from the vantage point of arrogance about his own supposed gifts?

Was it a success?  We’ll see.  Building a movement isn’t for the charismatic:  it is for the organized.    My suspicion: he is even a two-bit propagandist, a man who should be challenged as a fraud at every step.  He wants desperately to be taken seriously; but since he cannot, he offers his followers what they want.  The adult wing of corporate party has the responsibility to ask him directly:  does he really believe the things he says, and will he sacrifice his career on them?  Or will he be revealed to be an opportunist?

Until I see that time, I will continue to be baffled by why he has the attention he gets.  Although, like any bright child, it is exactly what he is good at.

Pentecost

Fifty days after Easter, the spirit gave the apostles the power to speak in the languages of all the peoples.

It is a reversal of the story of the Tower of Babel. In that story, we tried to become like Gods by building a tower to the heavens. We were cursed to misunderstand and mistranslate. We would be caught in perpetual confusion, a consequence of our audacity. The source of violence in human culture was named: pride and misunderstanding – competition with the Gods for power.

Yet in this week’s reading, the spirit brings people together. Language to understand and comprehend rather than divide. The most holy work, in this case, is one of translation. And translation requires charity, because no translation is ever perfect.

Our age, however, has so compressed time and space that comprehension becomes very challenging: in part because there is too much to comprehend; and our words move exceptionally fast. Add that the same youtube video seen by people of two completely different cultures may be translated completely differently.

What characteristics do we need to handle our contemporary problems of “translation?”

First: we should remember that church – or any institution – should be an adventure. Charting new territories is fun and rewarding. Safety, quick solutions, and fads just postpone the inevitable.

Second – Tenacity: keeping attentive to the different ways we can improve. It means, also, plotting out small steps. A big vision is very useful, but it is also to map our small successes along the way. tenacity is how one learns a language – we are willing to keep speaking, even if we make a mistake. We listen carefully so that we can be sure we understand.

Last: listening. It is perhaps most true that the apostles were not just speaking in the language of the people, they were listening to the world.

There are immense difficulties here at St. Barts. And yet, there are also great opportunities. Let it be an adventure; and may we be both steadfast and resilient in the days ahead.

Blessings,

The Pygmalion Effect

One aspect about church life is that when a congregation believes it can accomplish great things, they are more apt to do the work necessary to get there.  This is not the Law of Attraction, or The Secret.   But such confidence allows goals to be broken down into manageable tasks.    It is not a quick fix, nor is success guaranteed.  New challenges arise even in the midst of success.  We’ve done a great job at St. Barts at balancing the budget, but there’s always another pipe that needs to be fixed.

This idea is called The Pygmalion effect.  Expectations orient results.  Leaders who trust and enable their congregation will have greater success than those who withhold authority.   Students do better with teachers who believe in them. Children respond differently after getting hurt with a parent who expects tears, and a parent who expects tenacity.    It affects creativity as well – feeling like a sucky writer will not make one a better writer.  Writing with encouragement will get the work done.

Not to say that there aren’t times people truly get hurt.  Sometimes we need… improvement.  But a perspective that allows for opportunity and openness is frames our choices we see before us.  It’s not a matter of promoting optimism:  but if I trust my volunteers, we’re likely to do more than if I don’t trust them.  People can rise up to each other’s expectations.  There can be a great transformation.

Easter!

Have you ever had a big goal for yourself? Perhaps its writing a novel, painting your house, or jumping out of an airplane? Or learning to play Satie or Chopin on the piano? Become debt free?

About 17 years ago I decided someday I would train and race a triathlon. I didn’t know when. But someday I would. In 2007 I realized that dream. I finished last in my age group, but I finished. I decided to take that journey again, so I’m training for one in July.

I think that it took a long time because deep down, I didn’t believe I could. I wonder if I was afraid of failing.

This Sunday, like most “low Sundays” is when we read about “Doubting Thomas.” I imagine Mr. Thomas as the reserved, skeptical pessimist who always knows all the facts. He’s the person you turn to when you need an honest opinion, the reasons not to take a desired course of action. He’s practical. He’s smart. But he’s not enthusiastic or idealistic.

But Thomas, though he doubted, was not afraid. There are always good reasons to know all the facts, to be realistic, to understand that actions have consequences. But finally, he stood up and recognized what he needed to.

We face “doubting Thomases” in our own life all the time. We have tons of reasons not to take risks, demand the best, or think big. After all, we’ve got phones to answer, laundry to do and twitters to tweet. Our daily distractions inhibit us from asking ourselves, what orients our life? What is the one grand thing that will give us meaning, that directs us to attempt what seems impossible?

The other evening, one of our parishioners boldly prayed for World Peace. I thought that this was quite audacious. It reminds me of the concept “Big Hairy Audacious Goals” (pronounced BEE-hag). In our personal life it might be getting rid of all our debt; it might be cleaning out our house so that it is free of clutter; it might be just being able to sell everything and take that trip to Antarctica. It could be changing the lives of young people in our community.

Or it could mean a change for our church: that our parish seek to become the premier place for innovative, justice oriented Christian worship in the Northeast! Perhaps that we seek to be a place of best practices – not merely seek to survive. It could mean that we strive to have the most powerful, eclectic music program in the region. But it is these sort of goals- those beyond our reach, those that require 10-30 years of work – that can give us a sense of mission and calling.

Now I know you have doubts. Of course you do. Some big goals might be a bit beyond our reach. I’m not going to win a world-series ring, or become an olympic swimmer, or the chief neurosurgeon at Johns Hopkins. St. Barts isn’t seeking to replace the Vatican.

But I submit to you, that the resurrection is our time to consider what our big hairy and audacious goal is for St. Barts. I know you will have doubts. Living them out might get hairy. But I will tell you – if we truly want it, it lies before us.

Gratitude and the Commercial Society

Are we losing our ability to express gratitude?

Is it perfunctory and ritualized?  The casual way we say thank you to a clerk or the worker at the DMV?   Perhaps our fees are enough gratitude; more seems cloying or inauthentic.  Simply handing over the cash without robbing the person on the other side fo the counter is good enough.

And it’s amazing that we do so.  The everyday exchanges we make without fear of violence is remarkable.  Strangers who look different from me take my money and give me french fries, shoes, and repair my window panes.

But when I cater an event, I usually thank the volunteers – not the caterer himself.   When the church throws a potluck, I have a long list of individuals to name when I’m addressing the crowd.  But all a caterer asks for is to have a sign and a few business cards.

Admittedly, sometimes I appreciate the “holy indifference” of a commercial society.  I don’t need to thank Anne for the awful Smuckers meatballs she made.  If people like the caterer they can get her card.   If someone is thankful for the caterer, they get her business.

When I hand over the cash, however, I don’t need to feel anything.  The exchange is done.  I’m free of the need to feel gratitude.   I don’t feel gratitude for my phramacy; I do feel thankful for my doctor.

I also don’t go to the DMV and feel gratitude; I rarely hear gratitude about schools, but for particular teachers.  WE’re in the habit of blaming the state for whtever goes wrong:  we take pot-shots at the post-office or the DMV, without considering the amount of work that both institutions do, or at the percentage of successes they have.  But governments are less responsive, surely, to the information pricing gives.  One expresses gratitude to a government by reelecting officials rather than buying the products over again.

It’s important to remember that we may feel, or lack, gratitude in part because of the system of relationships we’re in.  Commerce and government can economize gratitude, diminishment, or price it.  For some, the state diminishes the impact of gratitude by regularizing social welfare; commerce does the same by pricing it.

Gratitude is worth cultivating, and one way is through parties.  It’s easier to justify gratitude when there’s a celebration than when in a long line at the DMV.   Markets don’t need to do this, although corporations are more likely to through making good will gestures to the community and funding charity events.

I’m not likely to express gratitude to Apple, thought I might like their computers; or to Honda because I drive one; or to my high school.  I appreciate those who gave me advice about the computer, came with me to buy a new car, and taught me how to write.   All of these relationships happened within the context of engaging other institutions.    But I suspect paying a service fee may quantify the amount we are gratified; but it can replace that emotion, rather than develop or harness it.  This is oen of the spiritual dangers of capitalism, in spite of its many blessings.

I’m broadly grateful that we live in a commercial society; I think it would be stronger if our public institutions mitigated the “winner-takes-all” elements of our culture.  I’m skeptical that people who make more than $4 million dollars a year are more deserving of their wealth than the needy.  It seems to me that those making that kind of money would have a great amount of gratitude for being citizens of the country, and support this country’s institutions.  But perhaps instructing people in gratitude may inspire resentment rather than promote generosity.   Or we may be inaccurate assessors of the real price of the objects we value.

At the very least, it may have merit that in all our encounters to bless the usefulness of the persons before us in our economic and political life.