On Lent

From 2009

It doesn’t look good. Just the other day I heard about a few acquaintances who have lost their jobs. In the scope of the disaster, they are lucky – at least one person garnishes a wage, and they’ve saved enough to manage. Another might move north to cheaper rent.

So we’re going to be in the wilderness for a while. People are hunkering down, spending less and taking shelter. People are even buying less beer. Or at least they are buying cheaper beer. And beer is counter cyclical.

Perhaps Lent is a lot like an economic depression.

Some years I’ve used this time to practice new habits. One year was so horrible, Lent became my excuse to party. Usually I give up some food group, but other times I’ve added a task. Sometimes I have six or seven new disciplines and ended up with just one by Easter.

However, I don’t think Lent is primarily about “giving up sugar in your tea” or discerning all the ways you’re bad. We can be reminded of that on a regular basis, even without Lent. After all, we fall short often, even when we work arduously for whatever prize we seek. Jesus didn’t go into the wilderness because he needed to become more perfect or because he was supposed to give something up. He was driven there to understand who he was.

The wilderness is, by nature, a place where humans aren’t meant to be. Human beings are social, and we tame nature. In the wilderness, we are vulnerable and exposed. We could easily get killed.

There are times where even the strongest of us becomes weak and terrified in the midst of immense challenges. We become alone, and just like a small child, we become aware of the monsters (Metaphorically. Real monsters are actually furry, polite and misunderstood) that await us: a sudden loss of one’s livelihood, an imagined slight, a real slight, a betrayal, a misfortune. Yes we are deeply alone; temptations and illusions await, and we don’t know what we will say or do when they happen.

But this sense of loneliness, this “depression” is not meant to be the place we land. It allows us to reconsider the superficiality of our previous life. And perhaps we realize that there is a power that will allow us to reconnect even more deeply with others. And that is the power of the spirit which resides in every human being, that life force that cannot be dulled or finally beaten forever. The first stimulus package is the awareness that Easter is on the horizon. And that even in the midst of lent, we can still connect and find the true self that awaits to be lifted up and empowered.

H. A. Williams says that during Lent we discover that yes, the bucket of water in our soul is a lot like the ocean. It is teeming with life and of great depth. Let the next 40 days be a time to plumb those depths and discover the love that has filled all things in you.

Moving the Furniture

What does our furniture say about us?

I’ve got a garage full of furniture that my brother and I inherited after my parents deceased. In the rectory is furniture that has been donated or loaned to me over the last ten years. It doesn’t all match, but after a while it becomes more familiar. Perhaps my furniture says I have different sorts of s(h)elves.

Or that I’m just too lazy to throw any of it away.

The furniture we love the most is that which lasts. We associate memories with furniture thats been around a long time. Such timeless furniture is also the most expensive, and sometimes requires the care of talented artisans. It is even more ecologically responsible.

Most of us have probably bought furniture that is beautiful but doesn’t last very long, like at Ikea – good enough, of course. And I remember in college taking some cinderblocks and boards and thinking I had some very elegant bookshelves.

Of course, there are times when when we have to move furniture around. Although moving furniture is exhausting, it can completely alter the sense of a room. Moving a desk, a trash can, a bed can change the way we work. I have a garbage basket next to the mail box so I can throw away bills I don’t want to receive. I have my desk next to my library. I have a little island in the middle of the kitchen. Furniture in the right place changes the way we move and think. Puting a TV in the bedroom makes it our bedroom companion. Putting one in the dining room does the same. Personally, I think it’s best to have only one, and put it in the den. Not that I’m judging others who do things differently.

A little more than a year ago we moved the furniture in the church. We did this in part because the nature of the spirit is one that should bring people closer together and see the image of God in people who are different: old, young, black, white, male, female, bearded, and limping. To name a few. Having to see each other makes us aware of the many dimensions God is reflected.

There is a style of having furniture called “feng shui.” I’m not a proponent of this style of arranging furniture, but it does point to the fact that arranging furniture is important, and it reflects a sense of our own humanity and sense of the sacred.

There is a small irruption to thinking about furniture too much, and that is because our Israelite forebears were very much pilgrims. Perhaps this means we are not to be so concerned with furniture: we’re reminded that God is not an idol – a piece of furniture – but actually works in our lives when we have arranged spaces for Him to express His life.

Have you ever been in a place that is too crowded? A closet, a room with just too much furniture? A space that doesn’t allow for movement? The word “salvation” comes from a concept of opening up space: and perhaps this is what we are trying to do now: move the furniture so that we have space. Space to love, space to play, space to touch the God that seeks to move in our lives.

So when you see the furniture moved in our sacred space, ponder what it feels like. And perhaps it is useful to consider what your space says about who you are, what you value, and how you work. If you’re stuck in your mind, in your work, or in your life, perhaps the simple answer is to move some furniture around and see what happens.

Which is exactly what we’re trying to do here. Just see what happens. Because that is what the church is for: making things happen.

A Reflection on the Earthquake

Written in 2004 after the Tsunami by David Bentley Hart.

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As a Christian, I cannot imagine any answer to the question of evil likely to satisfy an unbeliever; I can note, though, that–for all its urgency–Voltaire’s version of the question is not in any proper sense “theological.” The God of Voltaire’s poem is a particular kind of “deist” God, who has shaped and ordered the world just as it now is, in accord with his exact intentions, and who presides over all its eventualities austerely attentive to a precise equilibrium between felicity and morality. Not that reckless Christians have not occasionally spoken in such terms; but this is not the Christian God.

The Christian understanding of evil has always been more radical and fantastic than that of any theodicist; for it denies from the outset that suffering, death and evil have any ultimate meaning at all. Perhaps no doctrine is more insufferably fabulous to non-Christians than the claim that we exist in the long melancholy aftermath of a primordial catastrophe, that this is a broken and wounded world, that cosmic time is the shadow of true time, and that the universe languishes in bondage to “powers” and “principalities”–spiritual and terrestrial–alien to God. In the Gospel of John, especially, the incarnate God enters a world at once his own and yet hostile to him–“He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not”–and his appearance within “this cosmos” is both an act of judgment and a rescue of the beauties of creation from the torments of fallen nature.

Whatever one makes of this story, it is no bland cosmic optimism. Yes, at the heart of the gospel is an ineradicable triumphalism, a conviction that the victory over evil and death has been won; but it is also a victory yet to come. As Paul says, all creation groans in anguished anticipation of the day when God’s glory will transfigure all things. For now, we live amid a strife of darkness and light.

When confronted by the sheer savage immensity of worldly suffering–when we see the entire littoral rim of the Indian Ocean strewn with tens of thousands of corpses, a third of them children’s–no Christian is licensed to utter odious banalities about God’s inscrutable counsels or blasphemous suggestions that all this mysteriously serves God’s good ends. We are permitted only to hate death and waste and the imbecile forces of chance that shatter living souls, to believe that creation is in agony in its bonds, to see this world as divided between two kingdoms–knowing all the while that it is only charity that can sustain us against “fate,” and that must do so until the end of days.

Craig Uffman also quotes Hart.

What is Church For? On Being Boring

How are we supposed to experience church? What does it mean to encounter the “holy”?

For some, church is supposed to be a time of reflection. While words and music float through your mind, you consider your failures, your losses, your hopes; the laundry and what’s for dinner; your old friend you haven’t called back.

For others its a time to let go of all the things you did wrong that week. Or to feel more self-righteous.

For others, Church is where I, the priest, tell you what to do. Like, if I were to say, “Please bring the rector a steak and a 2005 Bordeaux, now! It’s good for God, and good for me.” Or, more traditionally, “stop having a good time” or “don’t put a whoopee cushion on the rector’s seat, Jack.”

When I was vicar of the Anglican Cathedral in Seoul, I asked the American Ambassador, James Laney, who was also a pastor, if he would preach before he left town. “I appreciate the offer, but when I come to church, its a time for me to just sit and do nothing. I am always preparing during the week, and I’m always pleased just to listen.” For him, Church is a place to do nothing, to sit still. We’re always doing something, and church is a place to do the opposite.

Unless we’ve made you an usher, a Lay Eucharistic Minister or a member of the altar guild. Or put you on the vestry.

For some, church should be boring. James Alison, the theologian, says “When people tell me that they find Mass boring, I want to say to them: it’s supposed to be boring, or at least seriously underwhelming. It’s a long term education in becoming un-excited, since only that will enable us to dwell in a quiet bliss which doesn’t abstract from our present or our surroundings or our neighbour, but which increases our attention, our presence and our appreciation for what is around us. The build up to a sacrifice is exciting, the dwelling in gratitude that the sacrifice has already happened, and that we’ve been forgiven for and through it is, in terms of excitement, a long drawn-out let-down.” Excitement means we’re ready to go burn something down or creat a lynch mob. The mass is about becoming unexcited.

Sometimes, we experience the holy as a kind of enchantment. That’s how kids experience Disney, or I experienced Michele Pfeiffer in The Fabulous Baker Boys. To some extent, the mass is like that: a time to become a child, or to be crooned to by God’s holy, loving, intimate voice.

The eucharist might be also disenchanting, revealing the world for what it is, our own hands of love exactly what God has given us to get through this world. There are illusions all around us: the immediate promises of wealth and power, opposed to the simple symbol of people sharing bread and wine, now connected as one body.

But in either case, the holy is a time where we are awakened. Suddenly we see the world a little differently, in a new cast, in a different hue. All God has done is change the lighting. We saw dimly, but now what is real is apparent, heightened and lovely.

The holy is not about getting the world right; it is not about perfecting our souls, as if we could do that. It is not about doing what the priest says, no matter how I would enjoy that power. It is, perhaps, a state where we see the world differently, suddenly enchanted when we are despairing, or disenchanted when we had been fooled.

And then we are invited into the understanding that we are a bit more powerful than we thought we were, and not simply taken along for the ride.

Christmas, etc

I’d like to wish you a Merry Christmas. And a Happy Christmas. I’d also like to wish you a Happy Hannukah and Happy Kwanzaa. And also a Merry Chanukah and a Merry Kwanzaa.

If you are an atheist, then just happy and merry to you.

Happy boxing day, December 26th, which is a day we celebrate our urge to kill our family members the day after, by not killing them, but by just boxing them around a bit. That’s the day we float like a butterfly, but sting like a bee, as a prophet once said.

Have you bought all your gifts? I haven’t bought any gifts yet. I’ll probably wait until after the New Year. It allows me to miss the rush and get to some post- New Year’s sales. I’m waiting for the 90% discount sales at Hermes.

I’d like to support the economy more, but for now, I’m just avoiding the madness. Not because I don’t like madness, and there’s nothing wrong with a little madness, if only because it helps you appreciate sanity. I just don’t want to be stuck in traffic.

Perhaps it is enough to sing some hymns and have a good dinner. Perhaps you will open that Chateauneuf du pape you’ve been saving from last year, when you splurged after a wine tasting one evening. Or you decided to get your ingredients from Whole Foods, including some wild mushrooms and artisenal cheese. Instead of spending a few hundred dollars on that diamond necklace, or getting some extravagant electronic device, you bought truffle oil for your mashed potatoes.

Wise choices. Truffle oil is far more important than a 75 inch plasma screen.

For the great theologian Schleiermacher, the feeling of the love of Christ was best represented by a family singing hymns around a piano after a delicious meal. He did not say it was found by a new camcorder.

Although the Flip is pretty cool.

The story of Christmas actually begins with the story of his return, with His words of peace and reconciliation. It begins with Easter. The body of believers began to understand that Christ’s love overcame the power of the gods who maliciously manipulated the lives around them. When they saw how being loved changed lives into lives that were full of potential, maganimity and creativity, they listened to the stories that were being told about Jesus’ early life, including his birth.

Tonight we celebrate the story of his birth.

And no, there is little historical evidence when or where. But we can recognize a few things within the events, the snippets of the lives told from the religious imagination of the people.

The first is that God is in surprises. The shepherds, Mary, and pretty much everyone, were a bit surprised. God as a baby makes God vulnerable and dependent, which is much different than the God who throws his weight around, making lives miserable. Granted, not all surprises are good, which is why we spend a lot of time avoiding them.

The second is that our life in the spirit is one of engagement. The child is dependent upon his family and the generosity of strangers. We are likewise truly dependent upon each other. And we’ll probably learn more about this as the year continues.

And last, Jesus loves a party. If there is a victory, if love does work, if there is justice at the end of time, if there is reason to hope, then we can afford to be magnanimous toward our enemies, patient in our work, and optimistic in our orientation. It may not get better for us, right here, in our individual lives, but the work we do together does make things better for others, even in the midst of individual sorrow and pain.

Therefore, we have plenty to celebrate about.

This is why the church placed Jesus’ birth square in the middle of Yuletide. Because the pagans had a good idea in holding parties, Christians agreed that the birth of Christ is a pretty good reason to party in itself.

So we’ll see you tonight at some time.

Overturning the Tables

Overturning the tables in the temple was probably the main reason Jesus got nailed to a cross.

The story seems to indicate a severe separation of commerce and church. Money in church? No way! Take it out!

However, I don’t think that the problem of money is the primary message. More crucial was the nature of trust. In overturning the tables, Jesus challenged how and who we are expected to trust.

Nate Silver, the writer in one of my favorite blogs, reports in the General Social Survey that people are losing their faith in everything. Only 20% of people have trust in organized religion – down 10% from 30% in 2000. Just a little more trust than in banks.

That’s not very reassuring if you’re in the organized religion business. And we only forgive sins, not debts.

I don’t think the lack of trust is an entirely a bad thing. Given the number of clergy scandals, even in White Plains, suspicion makes sense. But trust is how we are still called to live.

Jesus was redefining who we are to have trust in.

Overturning the temples was a pretty important symbolic act. At core, following Joseph Schumpeter, Jesus’ act represented creative destruction. Jesus predicted the temple will be destroyed and replaced by a body.

It may undermine the idea that holiness is bought; but Jesus also seems to undermine the ritual itself. When he overturns the tables, it may be that Jesus locates true transformation not first in the temple, or through commerce, but in his body. Transformation is embodied, and participating in the life of God means beginning with your own. It may require creative destruction.

Sometimes an alcoholic realizes they cannot stop drinking after an event of creative destruction. Then they are called to continue rupturing their entire context to keep sober. They stop going to bars; they end their destructive contexts. They begin a long process of recalibrating their habits and renewing themselves. This is hard work. But they can then begin to trust themselves around drink after a time of training themselves differently.

Perhaps this is what we are living through now – this time of creative destruction. out of the broken shards of the old church, a new one will be born. Even in our own parish, people who have left congregations that they could not trust, are rebuilding a new community. And perhaps this church will represent, with God’s grace, the hope of a new generation.

Surrender!

I recently had a conversation with an friend about surrender.

We were discussing the nature of good and evil. I believe that you don’t need to be a Christian, or religious, to be good. Nor does a particular religious identity diminish the capacity for evil.

The great biblical scholar Willi Marxsen, probably the last bible scholar also famous for theological ethics, argued that the real point of the Christ event, the faith of Jesus, is that He is the sign for taking action.

There are a couple easy objections. Such a view is a bit reductionistic. It’s as if someone told us, “do something.”

We could just as easily respond with “do what?”

“Just stand there.” “Look busy.” Or just dead silence.

I argued that we know God when we are active, taking risks, and creating. When Luther said “sin boldly,” he was stating that knowing the love of God allows us to make mistakes sometimes. Knowing God means also knowing your power. And it is going to be imperfect. If it were perfect, it would be God-like.

My friend’s response: and what about surrender? Sometimes it is precisely when we realize we do not have power that we are able to grow and become transformed by God. I can’t control everything. One cannot both surrender and have power.

Yet even surrendering is a creative act. And often we need to surrender over and over again. Surely, we do not need to be in control, because the Divine Affection is. But the debate between initiative and surrender conceals Christ’s deeper challenge.

Jesus doesn’t ask for action or surrender for their own sake, but because our lives are at stake: are we zombies or human beings? sometimes the choices we make deaden us; and other times it is through surrendering we become award of God’s glory. Christ wants us to recognize our shared humanity and its reflection of the grand transcendence around us.

It’s actually an old metaphysical problem. Are we the living dead? Are we puppets on a string? We we simply robots? Or are we alive? Can we take the risk of commitment? Can we take the risk to change? To whom to we surrender?

We act in our walking. And some times we will stand still and surrender to the enchanted glory that envelops us.

What’s Up with Holiness?

I’ve always found the word “holy” to be a little strange.

I usually hear it describe other nouns. Like when someone says “Holy cow” or “holy moly” or “super holy mother of all crazy freak monster trucks….”

Or maybe when it refers to my coat pocket and the reason I keep losing pens.

Perhaps you’ve heard it used when someone says they are “holier-than-thou.” These are judgmental individuals. We don’t find people who value “holiness” to be a lot of fun, and they are generally dull at parties. Holy people are the ones always abstaining and raising their eyebrows when you’ve said a cuss word to make a point or had your third or fourth glass of wine.

Well, nobody else was drinking that glass. It was a 1985 Pomerol and needed to be quaffed.

It’s true that holiness is an important part of spirituality. But it is not about our private pieties, those feelings that allow some to feel closer to God than others. Holiness is not a weapon to be used against the unholy or profane. The world has too many people trying to go to war with the “unholy.” There are too many people who think we could establish what unholiness is for all time and in all places and destroy it. As if.

The root impulse of holiness, however, is to separate and to distinguish. One object or event goes in one place; another goes in another place. Holiness is at the root of any enterprise that tries to name and categorize. It is a way of understanding the world, a way of sorting.

The new revelation in Jesus Christ is that he has changed what gets distinguished. What is formerly holy: especially sacred violence or those systems that make some people better than others, is revealed to be … human. That’s all. Everything becomes de-divinized. In some sense, Jesus’ holiness is a secular, pragmatic holiness. It may be compelling; it may be lovely, but it moves as we move.

One person remarked to me, when reconstructing our new space, that now we could experience the “holy.”

I was a little taken aback, but I knew what he meant. Holiness is not merely a description of our own emotional or physical purity, but our ability to hold together being both on the edge of the familiar while also taking a great adventure. And the space represents an adventure we are taking together as a community. We are facing each other, and we are closer together. And we have no idea what’s going to happen. Frightening? Yes. Exciting? Also, yes.

Holiness is like a place where we are on the precarious edge, as if we are at the top of a waterfall or the highest point of a rollercoaster. We have closed our options in one part of our life, and turned to look forward to another.

It is dangerous and frightening, because when we are in the presence of the holy, life and death are at stake.

Perhaps this is why we experience holiness at the top of a mountain or at the edge of the ocean. We understand how fragile our lives are when we are at the edge of the earth’s immensity: mountains and oceans can kill us with a fatal step.

Perhaps it is also why we experience holiness at the birth of a child, or when someone is about to breathe their last breath. It is also why witnessing two people hold hands while they are jumping to their death, when people hold on to love even as they meet their tragic end, we are in the presence of the holy.

Holiness is being on the edge of the precipice, when we are aware of the balance between what makes a life, and what we have lost. It can be most present when we are witnessing a terrible tragedy.

Or it can also be a feast.

Being Thankful

A happy thanksgiving to you!

Travel safely. Make sure your tires are filled with air.

What are you thankful for?

I’m thankful for an excuse to open a 2004 Petit Vougeot.
For my brother’s apple pie, still in the refrigerator.
Kids outside my office door. Yelling.
A balmy day, for November.
That most of my friends are employed.
And those that aren’t who are glad to have time.
For work that is rewarding and fruitful.
Fresh fruit from the CSA.
The organic short ribs in my freezer.
Those that help with the bulletin.
Who make the sanctuary beautiful.
For love, undeserved.
The possibility of competent government.
The anticipation of a transformed and loving community.
Stuff.
Getting rid of stuff.
The new saloon that opened down on Gedney way.
Reconnecting with friends I haven’t seen for 20 years.
Accidental friendships that are new!
For reconnecting with family I didn’t know I had.
Tito Puente’s “Picadillo a la Puente”
The first movement of Beethoven’s 6th symphony.
&c….
For the latin word “et cetera.”

Don’t Invite People to Church

I recently read a fabulous article by a young Episcopalian. Her tag: stop inviting people to church.

Yep. Don’t invite people to church.

I understand why she says such. “Conversion” is often confused with “you’d better believe what I believe, or else.” I know it is a misunderstanding of the word; and I’m personally convinced that the Episcopal Church may save all that is good and holy and just in the church. But as someone with an interfaith background, I’m simply not interested in proselytizing.

I suspect Jesus was less interested in getting people to think the same, than to invite them into peaceful relationships.

Since we are in a post-Christian age, the faith will encounter lots of suspicion. The stereotype of Christians are that we can’t stand difference, sex and bomb Muslims.

Clearly, Episcopalian, modernist Christians will be misunderstood.

So stop inviting. That just affirms the wrong things about the faith.

Besides, it’s not working for us.

Instead, she suggests, just get out there and listen. Meet people and enjoy them. Chances are they are just expecting you Christian person to be another crusader for an agenda they don’t believe. Defeat that expectation.

When they say “I hate organized religion,” you can agree – we’re theologically disorganized, after all, compared to our sister Roman church. When they say they are “spiritual but not religious” there is no reason to mock their lack of commitment. And when they express their fears about religion, you can hold their hand.

It’s enough that you know that St. Barts is a different place. You are making it into a different kind of institution. In the fullness of time, our church will respond better to the lives around it – as we become a listening, learning, organization.

Don’t be afraid to be who you are. When your religious identity comes up, articulate it. State what you believe: I don’t hate gays, I don’t think other faiths are damned, I believe in evolution, but I follow in the path of Jesus Christ and believe that he liberated us from the powers of the world. If you aren’t sure you can say at least Yes, for what it is worth, I believe, even though I don’t always know what the end of that sentence is.

Chances are they are expecting you to convert them. Instead, stop. Don’t let it cross your lips. As they ask you about your theology, your commitment, your practice, do not invite them to church. If they ask to visit, don’t tell them how much you want them to be there. Say instead how much you love the community and what it has done for you. Be the church by simply letting the holy love lead them.

But don’t invite them to church.

You are now, and forever, off the hook. It is enough to hold fast to the idea that the Divine Affection cradles you in His arms and loves you effortlessly. I promise you, it will come up, where you to church. Tell them I’m not allowed to invite people. I’m only allowed to care for them.

Yes, we are called to preach the gospel. But the strongest evidence that we have inculcated the Gospel is a confidence in our own hearts; one that trusts that He knows what He is doing, even in the lives of those who misunderstand the nature of God, Christ, and His Church.

Because the faith is not just holed up in the institution. It is manifest in every relationship we create. It is enough to get out there, love and challenge the world that has been created, and work to build the peaceable kingdom with those who would have it.