Happy New Year!

Yesterday was the celebration of the Feast of the Holy Name.  The church says Jesus was circumcized on this date, affirming that Christianity is linked to Judaism, and that Christ had a history, a location, a culture.

For some this signifies the incredible.  Some would prefer God, or Jesus, to be a lot like a superhero.  In that case the story seems more like a comic book, a fantasy of the origins like the Green Lantern or The Hulk.  But the merit of the story is that we can’t get out of our historical context and cultural location.  Although we may feel righteous about who we are in our current context, we are always embedded and bounded.  For some this is a trap, a prison; but in another way it is a lot like gravity – without it, what kind of collisions would ensue?  Could we behave comprehensibly without the cultural knowledge we do have?

I often find that people are likely to judge the people of the past based on our contemporary morality.   But when we enter their judgement, we remain unaware of what they believed was truly at stake.  The cosmology of the ancients, their everyday experience of the world remains foreign.  I doubt that most of us would survive well even in 19th century America, not to mention 15th century England, 13th century Mongolia, 8th century France or 1st century Palestine.  We are learning much more than they did; and certainly we are not completely different emotionally, but those worlds are foreign places.  Our world has become both large and small – we intuit the cosmos, and yet it seems that the world as at our footsteps.

Holy Name reminds us that our God, by being embodied, works within our own materiality.  We may not necessarily name accurately who God is like.   Although it seems, however, as if we have implicitly limited God, we do not say that God cannot be placed in other cultures.  We still say we see God engaging any place where love is the primary form of grace. 

The good news is that the sources of liberation and hope we need are already here.  Discovering the sacred heart of God is not done just through becoming an expert; it is not done through becoming perfect; it cannot be except through the lens of our cultural context, the traditions and signs that are available.  For this reason, a theologian must identify the present symbols and signs  – the objects that convey meaning – and question them here.  People only experience the divine through the words and culture they inherit; the cross and the empty tomb reveals their worthy, if ephemeral, nature. 

Making Space

Over the last few days I’ve been thinking a lot about one aspect of the spiritual life that gets very little attention. It affects several dimensions of our everyday work, but is rarely at the forefront of our consciousness.

Storage space.

There is the practical sense of storage: where do we put the Sunday School supplies? Can we mix them with the supplies for The House? Why does the Buddhist group have so many bins? Where are the wine glasses? And why are we storing the fire pit in padremambo’s office?

A lack of storage space produces an immense amount of anxiety. We can’t always find things. It gets sloppy. And it becomes very hard to move around in the rector’s office.

There are plenty of ways we can begin to solve the problem of storage.

The first, is to get rid of lots of stuff. We don’t need the old cables and computers and magazines and the chemicals now underneath the stairs next to the kitchen. I think I could probably rid myself of a few of my books, even though they are like old friends. Get rid of stuff – let someone else have it. Then perhaps we’ll have more room for storage.

Sometimes things are just messy. So then we need good bins. Having clear containers keeps things separated, allowing us to discern what we have and what we don’t, helping us reduce the need to buy more stuff. Then we open up space for more storage. And we might find that we have a bit more room to move around in.

Sometimes we just need to label the storage space we already have. This allows us some clarity, giving us a bit more time to find what we really need.

If this all seems a bit too practical for the spiritually minded, let me clarify: our spiritual life is often about how we store things: do we place our frustrations upon other people? Are we carrying around too much stuff? Do we find that our lives are a bit too messy? Or do we just need some labels?

Now – I’m not advocating that we should not have some mess: after all, if we are a growing church, we’re going to have to rethink storage. Just being forced to think about “storage” is itself a sign that the spirit is inviting us to change. Being able to say, “I can live with a little mess” is as important as saying “this is such a mess that we’d better do something before it gets more messy.” Either way is fine. The first step might merely mean knowing what we’re storing, where we’re putting it, and is it what is best for us.

We’re thinking a lot about storage because we’re growing. It’s a bit painful – and our space here at church is going to change. But its a good change, one that demonstrates that the spirit is working here.

But what kind of stuff do you have? Where are you storing it? On your bodies? In your daily drink? In your restlessness? Can the church help you get rid of it? Or just do you need permission to say, “hey – its ok. you don’t need to keep it. Just throw it away. Give it up” or pray that “I need some more storage space. Perhaps the spirit can help me make some more room.”

I believe it can. It does, however, take attentiveness to just see the mess, and how we’ve got things in the wrong bins, and that we could consolidate a bit or just take some things over to good will.

I’ve often seen that people who keep taking on other people’s burdens have a hard time regulating what they eat; instead of caring for their own bodies, they are running around for other people. And while they destroy their own bodies, nobody really gets any better. Their burdens become the physical weight that they carry. They end up storing other people’s illnesses in their own bodies.

The church can be a place where people unload what they’ve “stored.” Admittedly, I know of plenty of people who when they are feeling burdened the last place they want to be is church. I can understand it – if church is a place of guilt and work rather than of rest and joy, why should anyone bother? Perhaps the church has to sometimes rethink how it stores the love of its people.

In the early church, Christ was considered a “manager of the mind.” He was the storage manager. He was the one who found places to put stuff. Taking sorrows, emptying them, placing them in places where they wouldn’t get too messy, ensuring there would be more space for us to move around in.

His promise was that there would always be enough room.

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.