Monday, August 30, 2010

Honoring the Dream

The Washington Post reported yesterday that "Conservative commentator Glenn Beck on Saturday drew a sea of activists to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where he championed a religious brand of patriotism and called on the nation to recommit itself to traditional values he said were hallmarks of its exceptional past." I think that is a pretty "fair and balanced" paragraph that I imagine Beck himself would agree with. He does proclaim, as far as I can tell, a "religious brand of patriotism" and he does exhort people to "traditional values."

The question I would ask is simply this: does that commitment rightly honor Dr. King's dream? Which brand of religious patriotism and which traditional values?

I have both re-read and re-watched the speech that Dr. King gave on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial 47 years ago. Every school child remembers those four words, "I have a dream" but watching/reading the entire speech gives us a context, some of which may be unknown or unfamiliar. King uses the word "justice" no less than five times, including a direct and familiar quote from the prophet Amos-"let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." (Amos 5:24) He also addresses the injustices of his day, comparing the rally to cashing in on a promissory note: the promise of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all people made at the founding of the nation and yet still denied to "the Negro." In addition to Amos, there is a liberal sprinkling of the prophet Isaiah: and there is an awareness of "poverty in a land of prosperity" and of "segregation in the land of the free" as counter to that Biblical vision of shalom.

There is also in that speech an important ethical commitment to non-violence that must not go unnoticed: to meet violence with "soul power" and to confront hate with love. As many readers of this blog certainly know, King did his graduate work at Boston University and was indebted to Ghandi, among others, in his own recognition that the path to peace must be a non-violent one.

Love. Non-violence. Social justice that includes life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all. While these values clearly transcend political party affiliation, it is very difficult for me to see how they were articulated or even valued by the political vision of Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin on the mall this weekend. Beck regularly mocks a commitment to social justice. His 912 Project is filled with "I"s - not the "We" that Dr. King called us to live into. Beck is about personal responsibility, which has a place; but devoid of any mention of social justice. He is entitled to those opinions and in fact they reflect the values of many Americans and not a few Christians. But it is beyond me to see how this is in line with Dr. King's dream, and more importantly, God's dream for a nation that may well be "good" but is called to do much better.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Remembering the Dream

I Have a Dream - Address at March on Washington
August 28, 1963. Washington, D.C.

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the greatest demonstration for freedom in the history of our nation. [Applause]

Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity.

But one hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free. One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination. One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languishing in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. So we have come here today to dramatize an appalling condition.

In a sense we have come to our nation's capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked "insufficient funds." But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check -- a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice. We have also come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice. Now is the time to open the doors of opportunity to all of God's children. Now is the time to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid rock of brotherhood.

It would be fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment and to underestimate the determination of the Negro. This sweltering summer of the Negro's legitimate discontent will not pass until there is an invigorating autumn of freedom and equality. Nineteen sixty-three is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope that the Negro needed to blow off steam and will now be content will have a rude awakening if the nation returns to business as usual. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America until the Negro is granted his citizenship rights. The whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright day of justice emerges.

But there is something that I must say to my people who stand on the warm threshold which leads into the palace of justice. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred.

We must forever conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not allow our creative protest to degenerate into physical violence. Again and again we must rise to the majestic heights of meeting physical force with soul force. The marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community must not lead us to distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny and their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.

And as we walk, we must make the pledge that we shall march ahead. We cannot turn back. There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, "When will you be satisfied?" We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro's basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream.

I am not unmindful that some of you have come here out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow cells. Some of you have come from areas where your quest for freedom left you battered by the storms of persecution and staggered by the winds of police brutality. You have been the veterans of creative suffering. Continue to work with the faith that unearned suffering is redemptive.

Go back to Mississippi, go back to Alabama, go back to Georgia, go back to Louisiana, go back to the slums and ghettos of our northern cities, knowing that somehow this situation can and will be changed. Let us not wallow in the valley of despair.

I say to you today, my friends, that in spite of the difficulties and frustrations of the moment, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."

I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at a table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a desert state, sweltering with the heat of injustice and oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day the state of Alabama, whose governor's lips are presently dripping with the words of interposition and nullification, will be transformed into a situation where little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls and walk together as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.

This is our hope. This is the faith with which I return to the South. With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.

This will be the day when all of God's children will be able to sing with a new meaning, "My country, 'tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the pilgrim's pride, from every mountainside, let freedom ring."

And if America is to be a great nation this must become true. So let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire. Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York. Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania!

Let freedom ring from the snowcapped Rockies of Colorado!

Let freedom ring from the curvaceous peaks of California!

But not only that; let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia!

Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee!

Let freedom ring from every hill and every molehill of Mississippi. From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

Friday, August 27, 2010

Paul Moses Gets the Last Word (really!)

I read Paul Moses' book The Saint and The Sultan, which I highly recommend. Yesterday I said I was done with this topic but I came across this today and it's too good not to share. Who can say for sure what John Paul II would have to say about this? And even if he said precisely this, I'm not sure that would be the final word for all Christians on the subject.

Still, Moses' logic about why Christians can and should support inter-religious dialogue as the path to peace moves us beyond Constitutional and legal questions and into the question I've been trying to ask over the past month about how Christians might frame this issue and contribute to the dialogue. For these reasons, I think that this is a worthwhile read:

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?

I want to bring these August reflections to a close - I don't know what September will bring but I'm ready to move on from ruminations on mosques and churches, except to add simply what follows.

This week's gospel reading is from the fourteenth chapter of Luke's Gospel. The first verse of that chapter begins like this: "on one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal..." Since I'm not preaching this weekend, a few random thoughts related to this text:

When I was still an Associate Rector in Westport, CT, I developed a curricula for a confirmation program for youth and their adult mentors. One of the sections deals with "table fellowship." In the ministry of Jesus, a lot of stuff happens around the Table. Like many of our own tables, it's not always cordial either. People argue about where Jesus goes to dinner, and who he eats with. In the Acts of the Apostles the followers of Jesus even eat with non-Jews which causes even more conflict. Eating is a political matter in the New Testament, and maybe even in our own day as well.

So the exercise after looking up numerous Biblical texts is to ask the students to arrange a dinner party - not literally, but to come up with a guest list for a dinner party in our own town. I ask them who Jesus would invite for dinner.

I'm not looking for one answer, but I'm looking for diversity. I'm looking for them to see how much Jesus is willing to "mix it up" with rich and poor, male and female, powerful and powerless. And in our context that might mean people across political lines, and religious affiliation.

In my branch of Christianity, the Table is central to our life-together. Relatively speaking it is a pretty open Table in the Episcopal Church that includes ALL the Baptized, regardless of when or where they were Baptized. But the general rule still holds (although it is being pushed in many parts of our Church) that Baptism is a requirement. Regardless of where one stands on that issue, there are other tables in our life-together as well: literal meals and pot-lucks and parish picnics that are shared over the course of a year.

The Table is at the center and we all are welcome, not just those with whom we happen to agree. This means, as I understand it, that the conversation continues. It will sometimes get heated. But there is something about arguing over good food and wine that makes it a bit easier. I think the book, "Three Cups of Tea," is about the same cross-cultural experience. Arguing across cyber-space rarely leads to transformation. Sitting at Table together and speaking the truth we know, in search of a larger and deeper Truth, gets us close to holiness.

Within the Christian tradition, there are voices that insist on purity of various kinds that still sound to my ears like the Pharisees did in the New Testament. I still hear Jesus pushing the boundaries, pushing hospitality and generosity, finding one more place at the Table where veal piccata is offered not just to the faithful but the lost and the searching.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Mira Schor, via the Huffington Post

I have never lived in Manhattan. But I used to live in Westport, CT, on a little lane called Gilbert Lane that had five houses on it. These included a Muslim family from Egypt (their daughter was one of our kids first babysitters), a Jewish family who moved to Westport from Manhattan, Italian Roman Catholics, Episcopalians and a family that (as far as I could tell) chose none of the above. "Only in America" - as Schor puts it - could we watch, in turn, families head off to pray freely at the congregation of their choice on Friday, Saturday, Sunday. If we are in fact ever going to wrap ourselves in the flag, I can think of no better reason to do so.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Light, not heat

In a recent email exchange with one of my faithful readers of this blog, I shared that usually when I shy away from "controversial issues" (both as preacher and as blogger) it has much less to do with being afraid to express my opinion and more to do with wanting to help shed light, rather than more heat. We live in polarized times. When I write, or preach, I want to challenge not only those who may disagree with me but also those who agree, to see things in a new light. And at some level I write to think, and preach to grow in my own faith. So when there is push-back, especially from those whom I respect, I am enriched and blessed.

In reflecting on the issues of a proposed community center (it really is more like a YMCA or in this case a PMA - People's Muslim Association) located two blocks from Ground Zero, it seems to me that step one is to move beyond our fears in order to clarify what is and what is not being proposed, who is and who is not funding the project. It does make a difference whether or not the person proposing the project is a moderate (which one would presume could lead to deeper awareness and understanding) or a terrorist. Everything I've been able to learn makes it clear that he is a respected moderate. It also does seem to me that the fact that there are mosques in the neighborhood (not to mention churches including St. Paul's, which is part of the ministry of Trinity Episcopal Church) makes a difference.

Reasonable people can still disagree. I've listened not only to Howard Dean's arguments but to friends of mine, New Yorkers, who are reasonable people and not reacting emotionally here (as far as I can tell) but who nevertheless have reservations and concerns. They challenge me and help me to recognize (to some degree) where my own biases and blind spots lie; and hopefully in turn I help them to do the same. (Although it's highly unlikely that Howard Dean is reading my blog looking for perspective!) ;-)

My own convictions are pretty clear here: both as a Christian committed to being "an instrument of peace" and as an American committed to the Constitution. It seems to me that there should be no impediment to having a PMA (or even a mosque) near (or at) Ground Zero if it meets local zoning regulations. The fact that people (in the name of Christ no less) want to burn Korans and refuse to allow mosques to be built anywhere at all because of a perceived "Islamization" of America is simple bigotry and ignorance, as far as I am concerned. Some might even just call it a manifestation of Sin.

But where I agree with Howard Dean is that, excluding the bigots whose sole purpose seems to spread deceit and fan the flames, conversations among those who come out in different places ought to be not only a goal but lead to a mutually beneficial process. Democracies (and healthy faith communities) are not afraid of disagreements. So how does the Church help to create a space where people can disagree, discuss, learn, grow, challenge each other with respect and dignity for one another? That is the question that will linger for me long after this particular controversial issue has passed. That doesn't mean we are wimps who never take a stand: but it means that when we do we are doing our utmost to shed light, not heat. In a culture that feels like a tinderbox that seems to me to a goal to which faithful people who disagree can aspire.

Friday, August 20, 2010

The Cost of Discipleship

Dietrich Bonhoeffer knew something about being the Church in fearful times, as a pastor and theologian in Nazi Germany. He also knew something about the ways that any great religious tradition can be co-opted by terrorists. I would propose that National Socialism was to Christianity what Al Qaeda is to Islam today. In other words, it is a serious error to equate Islam with terrorism. Where that is happening, Christians have an obligation to speak up.

Surely there is room for disagreement on whether or not an Islamic Center should be built two blocks from Ground Zero. There is room for a wide array of emotions, because the grief of 9/11 is not yet healed. And surely the families of those who died at Ground Zero deserve to be heard.

But there is no room for sowing fear and spreading misinformation. There is, here, an opportunity for Christians to discover (and rediscover) our mission and purpose as disciples of Jesus Christ. Which brings me back to Bonhoeffer. In The Cost of Discipleship, there is a chapter on "The Disciple and Unbelievers" that I think are still relevant. It's a meditation on Matthew 7:1-12, which begins "Judge not, that ye be not judged."

Bonhoeffer asks whether Christians have "special rights and privileges" over non-Christians, whether Christians "enjoy power, gifts and standards of judgement which qualify them to exert a peculiar authority over others?" His unequivocal answer is NO. He goes on to add two particularly insightful observations: (1) "Judgement is the forbidden objectification of the other person which destroys single-minded love;" and (2) "Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating."

Let me reiterate: faithful Christians can disagree about zoning laws and even about whether or not a it is helpful for a Muslim Center to be built two blocks from Ground-Zero. But faithful Christians must never objectify (or demonize) others (whether we agree or disagree with them, like or dislike them) because that destroys love, and because without love we are nothing more than clanging cymbals.

How can Christians respond to the fear that is in the air? We can seek the truth, which is found by way of love--love that is patient and kind, not arrogant or rude; love that doesn't insist on it's own way and is not irritable or resentful but rejoices in the truth...


The vestry (governing board) of the parish I serve is reading Peter Steinke's Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times together this year. We read a chapter before each month's meeting. Steinke's premise, building upon the work of Rabbi Edwin Friedman is rather simple: anxiety and fear keep us from thinking rationally. Halfway through the year the conversation is rather predictable and goes something like this: (1) there is nothing radically new here, it's common sense really; (2) knowing it and acting from a non-anxious place, however, are two very different things; (3) this has implications not just for congregations but for families and workplaces and everywhere human beings congregate.


My last four posts have been, alternatively, about beginning to explore what the Church is for in these early years of the twenty-first century and two posts about Islam. I wonder if congregations might be places where we can "dial it down" to be non-anxious enough to have serious conversations about the challenges we face in the world today. Clearly if congregations could behave in mature ways and model disagreement without polarizing and demonizing "the other" this would bear witness to the love of God made known in Jesus Christ for the world. Christians have a stake in building communities where our Muslim neighbors are free to worship as (and where) they choose.

We have our work cut out for us. Apparently one in five Americans think the President of the United States is a Muslim, and almost as many have not read the Constitution of these United States and think that this "fact" disqualifies him from holding that office. I yearn for this President and the media to not only put out press releases reminding us that he professes Jesus as Lord, but also reminding us that there is a reason the Constitution of these United States doesn't make that a requirement. It is one thing to say, "I'd never vote for a Muslim" and quite another to think it should be prohibited! The former is a form of bigotry; the latter is old-fashioned ignorance.

But we do live in fearful times, and high anxiety (as Pastor Steinke reminds us) keeps us from thinking clearly. I've seen the word Islamaphobia of late in various contexts. We've surely got it as a nation, and the Church has a stake in naming this phobia/fear/terror. We also might ask who is fanning these flames and to what end?

As I said in my post on Ramadan, I don't believe that Christians and Muslims are "the same." True dialogue among the children of Abraham (and religious traditions to the east as well) requires honesty about our differences. But before we can be honest about those differences, in search of the truth, we need to take a breath and allow love to cast out fear. Congregations can practice that. In fact it is a requirement of our faith. It's not rocket science, but if we practice it at Church we may better be able to live it in our homes and in the public arena.

Monday, August 16, 2010


The Greek word, ekklesia, literally refers to the assembly and it is from this root that theologians get the word ecclesiology, literally "words about Church."

Paul Tillich spoke of "catholic substance" and "protestant principle" when addressing questions of ecclesiology: which is to say there are things worth preserving and keeping in the Church, that which we might call "holy and apostolic" and there are also things which need to be reformed through the guidance of God's Holy Spirit. On this much it seems most Christians would be in agreement. So-called liberals and so-called conservatives (progressives and traditionalists?) part ways, however, when it comes to defining which is which. What is holy and apostolic and must be preserved, and where is the Spirit luring us toward change?

I have opinions, but no easy answers, in response to such questions. One of the ways I realize I have changed, however, over the past decade or so is that I am less patient than I once was with theoretical answers to such questions. Theologians rarely think like pastors, so pastors must learn to think theologically. Or to put it another way, an ecclesiology that is disconnected from the realities of congregational life, is of little interest to me these days.

I'm still thinking about the quote from Bishop Robinson in my previous post. It seems to me that at least since Willimon and Hauerwas wrote Resident Aliens, the Church has been focused increasingly on distinguishing itself from "the world" as we reclaim the meaning of our Baptismal identity. Again, liberals and conservatives may disagree on lots but the pendulum seems to have swung away from mirroring the dominant culture by focusing on what is uniquely "Christian." And I think that impulse is basically right.

But it is also fraught with danger, for if the Church seeks to be so much "in but not of" the world we risk becoming the kind of "garden" that Robinson speaks of, an escape from the world that God so loved...

Reformation comes not by insisting that we are not "of" the world, but by allowing God's Spirit to blow more freely through the Church, to cast out fear and bring with it faith that is bold, courageous, truthful, and loving.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Honest to God

"For the true radical is not the [one] who wants to root out all the tares from the wheat so as to make the Church perfect; it is only too easy on these lines to reform the Church into a walled garden. The true radical is the [one] who continually subjects the the claims of God in the increasingly non-religious world which the Church exists to serve." (John A. T. Robinson, Suffragan Bishop of Woolwich, in Honest to God, 1963.)

I first read Honest to God back in the mid-1980s as a college senior planning to head to seminary. It was a gift from my step-father. I didn't really understand the politics of Anglicanism or The Episcopal Church then but Robinson's honesty spoke to me and I felt at the time (and still feel) that a Church that could make such a man a bishop had to be doing something right.

I am re-reading Susan Howatch's Starbridge Series on the Church of England and have come to the fourth one, "Scandalous Risks." Each one of these novels focuses on a theologian from the time period of that character and this one focuses on Bp. Robinson. The quote above is the epigraph Howatch offers to set the tone for the novel.

For now I'll leave it at that, but the quote has me thinking and ruminating, so perhaps more to come.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Ramadan Begins

I am grateful to my friend Chris for reminding me that Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting, has begun. (

Chris and I attended a conference together a few years ago at our alma mater, Georgetown University, on Christian-Muslim dialogue. He has made a much more sustained effort since then to continue that dialogue, a witness for which I am grateful. For my own part, such dialogue begins with finding connections. That doesn't mean we are all "the same." There are differences between Christians, Jews, and Muslims to be sure - differences that far too often contribute to misunderstanding, but could be celebrated. But there are also similar ideas, or at least practices, that are too easily forgotten in polarized times.

Ramadan is a month of fasting that is intended to focus the believer on God, and to teach patience and discipline. It is about God's forgiveness and the invitation to make changes in one's life that put God/Allah first. It's about learning self-restraint and doing good deeds. To my ear, that sounds a lot like what Lent is about for Christians; the Book of Common Prayer says that it is a time of "self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial, and by reading and meditating on God's holy Word." (BCP 265) Yom Kippur, as I understand it, is about similar practices and disciplines.

When I try to take the long-view I am reminded that as a person born in 1963 (the year that Vatican II opened) I was born in a context where there was little understanding and much mistrust between Roman Catholics and Protestants. My aunt was not "allowed" to be my godmother because she went to mass in a Roman Catholic Church and I was baptized in a Lutheran Church.Times have changed. While the gains made in Christian-Jewish dialogue lag, in my context at least there have been gains here as well. In the fall I'll be co-officiating at a Jewish-Christian wedding that will attempt to respect both traditions (rather than watering things down to something unrecognizable by anyone as "faithful.")

The public opinions about mosques being built not only at Ground Zero but around the nation reveal that we have a much longer way to go in Christian-Muslim dialogue. One of the most poignant moments for me in the 2008 Presidential campaign was when, amid rumors that Barack Obama was "secretly a Muslim," General Colin Powell was one of the few voices of reason who said the right response was not "no, he's not" but "why should it matter if he was?"

There is a danger in comparing the worst of another tradition with the best practices of our own. Jesus said something, I believe, about seeing the splinter in another's eye and not the beam in our own. It seems to me that Christians can and should cultivate a "holy envy" that emulates the best practices we see in others. The forty-day season of Lent, after all, is not about confessing the sins of others, but our own. Perhaps the beginning of Ramadan gives us a moment to pause and reflect on that - even as we remember our Muslim friends and neighbors in prayer.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Burnt-Out Clergy (NY Times)

The op-ed piece above concludes with these hopeful words:

Clergy need parishioners who understand that the church exists, as it always has, to save souls by elevating people’s values and desires. They need churchgoers to ask for personal challenges, in areas like daily devotions and outreach ministries. When such an ethic takes root, as it has in generations past, then pastors will cease to feel like the spiritual equivalents of concierges. They’ll again know joy in ministering among people who share their sense of purpose. They might even be on fire again for their calling, rather than on a path to premature burnout.

I can't say I'm immune from the dangers of burnout (no cleric is) but I am blessed to serve a congregation that does ask to be challenged, and does understand why the Church exists. That allows for joy in ministry among people who do share a common purpose, and even sometimes that Pentecostal fire within me. For that I am grateful.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Between God and the soul, there is no in between

In my last post I spoke about the number of funerals I've conducted recently. I also noted that I don't know why some people find their faith strengthened and some lose their faith when they confront death. I still don't know why that is, but I want to explore it a bit further here.

I think religious truth is more of a way of viewing the world than it is a body of information. Ultimately Christianity is about something more than what we say we believe about the Trinity, or the Resurrection, or the nature of Sin. I think this extends to other religions, too, but the one I know best is Christianity. You could grasp what Christians teach on all of these issues but that doesn't nudge you one step closer to belief. (There are undergraduate religion departments all over the country you can check out if you don't believe me on this point!)

There is a kind of "knowing" that goes beyond our senses. I'm aware that this is innately easier for some than others; it may be simply how we are hardwired. Call it intuition or a sixth sense or a mystical eye. Sometimes people tell me that they want to believe but can't make the leap; I believe them. Sometimes the problem is theological - they need to let go of some poor theological training to become open to a new way of seeing. But that doesn't always work.

For me there simply is a reality greater than what I can know with my five senses. I can't prove that, especially to people who put all of their faith in what they can "know" by way of their five senses. And this is, of course, the challenge. But religious knowing is not make-believe, or denial, or wishful thinking. William James explored these issues, of course, in The Varieties of Religious Experience - and I am trying to speak of what he called a unitive experience. Speaking very personally, I have often said I feel more affinity with a thirteenth-century Muslim mystic like Rumi than with many twentieth-century Christians. It's because Rumi was interested in uncovering the "really real" side of life rather than ideology. It's because, like Dame Julian, he knew that "between God and the soul, there is no in between." Admittedly we only get "hints and guesses" of this reality in this world. But just because we cannot quantify it doesn't make it less real.

And what I think happens when we stand and face the reality of death, particularly the death of a dearly beloved, is that our guard comes down. We come into a vulnerable and "thin" place. It is always the case that between God and the soul there is no in between but we go about our lives normally as if God lives up in heaven and we are busy doing our thing on earth. But the veil is torn when we stand at the grave, I think; when we confront loss and ultimately our own mortality as well. We find ourselves in a place where God is present and we are changed. Or at least some of us are, some of the time...

I don't tend to use language like Fanny Crosby very easily(Blessed Assurance, Jesus is mine, O what a foretaste of glory divine...) but I am trying here to speak of that same reality. Even at the grave we make our song; we know that life is changed and not ended. I'm a lot more comfortable again with Dame Julian: all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. But either way, sometimes in those liminal places we discover, we see, we understand, that we are created and that we are loved. And that all of life is sacred. Beyond that, our faith seeks understanding and there may be more we can say, but the further we are from that unitive experience the more cautious we should be.