Sunday, February 26, 2012

Quote from Nouwen

Today's Gospel reading for the First Sunday of Lent (Mark 1:9-15) is about Jesus being driven into the wilderness for forty days and nights to be tempted, on the heels of his Baptism in the Jordan River. At his Baptism, the Voice from heaven speaks: "You are my beloved, with you I am well pleased."

That Voice claims and seals and marks us as well, as God's own beloved. On this topic, there is no one better than the late Henri Nouwen, and in particular the little book Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World (1998). This quote just about sums it all up for me:
The unfathomable mystery of God is that God is a Lover who wants to be loved. The one who created us is waiting for our response to the love that gave us our being. God not only says, "You are my beloved." God also asks: "Do you love me?" and offers countless chances to say "Yes." That is the spiritual life: the chance to say "Yes" to our inner truth. The spiritual life, thus understood, radically changes everything. Being born and growing up, leaving home and finding a career, being praised and being rejected, walking and resting, praying and playing, becoming ill and being healed--yes, living and dying--they all become expressions of that divine question: "Do you love me?" And at every point of the journey there is the choice to say "Yes" and the choice to say "No."   (pg. 106-107)

Saturday, February 25, 2012

The Peace of Wild Things

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s life may be,
 I go and lie down where the wood drake
 rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
 I come into the peace of wild things
 who do not tax their lives with forethought
 of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
 And I feel above me the day-blind stars
 waiting with their light. For a time
 I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.
                                            Wendell Berry             

I sometimes worry that Lent can be for us something other than a move toward freedom and new life. Somewhere along the line some of us were (mistakenly) taught that Lent is a time for narcissistic self-flagellation. Less extreme than that (but also off-track) is that we are prone to focus on remorse rather than repentance. Remorse (like it’s close cousins, guilt and shame) is a paralyzing emotion. Just because someone feels badly about something doesn’t mean he or she is ready to change. We are invited in Lent not to remorse, but to repentance. 

Repentance is a change of mind—in the Greek, metanoia--and ultimately about a change in direction. For the Israelites in the Sinai Desert for forty years, that was about unlearning the old ways of being slaves obedient to a worldly master, in order to learn how to be a free and chosen people beloved of God. That is what the gift of Torah is for—not a list of rules but a call toward a new and richer life. The Decalogue ("Ten Words") is akin to the "Twelve Steps" - an invitation to a way of life that really does lead to live, one day at a time. 

Wendell Berry’s poem provides us with an insight that we have sometimes forgotten in the Church about what a gift Lent truly is. Namely, Berry sees that the metaphor of wilderness is not a negative one: not a place of punishment, but a place of beauty where we can remember who we really are. There is a kind of peace about the wilderness—a “peace of wild things” as Berry puts it—that calls us back into our skin. We are re-collected and re-membered in the wilderness.

Berry is one of the most faithful Christians I know, even if he is often frustrated with the institutional Church. He speaks in this poem about how despair for the world can grow within us like a cancer. Carefully follow the news for a week and if you are alive—if your heart is at all made of flesh and pumping blood--you will find despair for the world growing in you. Violence in the Middle East. Missing children. Terrorist cells. Global warming. Juvenile political campaigns in the face of daunting problems. The list is long.

No doubt it has the same effect on many of us that it has on Berry, keeping us awake nights. Fear—especially fear for our children and grandchildren—gives us all nightmares.

Berry suggests an antidote—or at least a way of repentance in the true meaning of that word. He suggests a way for us to turn around and find ourselves again as if for the first time. He suggests that some time underneath the “day-blind stars” will do wonders for your soul. That some time by still water—watching a wood drake or a great heron—will call you back to something deeper still—into the peace of wild things “who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.” 

What the creation teaches us is not to “tax our lives with forethought of grief.” Or as Jesus put it elsewhere: “do not be anxious about tomorrow…today has enough worries of it’s own.”

Go to that place where you find “the peace of wild things” this Lent, and allow yourself to be ministered to by angels.From that place all else follows. We learn to be better spouses and friends, better grandparents or parents or children, better co-workers or classmates, and most of all, better followers of Jesus.

Friday, February 24, 2012

God's Beloved

 Photo taken by me, in the Judean Desert

Lent begins where it will end at the Easter Vigil: with the waters of Holy Baptism. In Mark's Gospel—which includes no birth narrative—we are simply introduced to Jesus, who “in those days...came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan." (Mark 1:9) Suddenly the heavens open and the Voice says: “you are my beloved, with you I am well pleased.”

I think about that Voice: the same Voice that ordered the chaos at creation and called all creatures great and small 'good.' The Voice that called Abraham and Sarah to journey to a new land and that Moses heard at the burning bush. The Voice that called prophets and priests now claims Jesus:  “You are my beloved."

Mark’s Gospel is sparser on details than the other three. There is in it a sense of immediacy and urgency that shuns details. So we don’t get the specifics about Jesus’ wilderness experience. There are no temples he is tempted to jump from. He is not promised the kingdoms of the world or invited to turn rocks into bread. We are simply told that he was tested in the Judean Desert; that he faced a time of trial. With or without details, this is a reminder that Jesus was like us in every way, save sin. To be tested is to face the possibility of choosing otherwise. Jesus resists Satan but he, like us, was free to have chosen otherwise. If we lose that detail of his utter humanity then we fail to grasp who Jesus truly is.

In this sparse gospel, there is one word about Jesus’ time in the wilderness that we must not miss. In Matthew and Luke we are told that the Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness. In Mark, however, Jesus is driven there. He is pushed. That suggests at least some level of resistance on his part—which again invites us to confront him in his full humanity. This time of trial—this period of testing—comes right on the heels of his Baptism. It is as if to say that the wilderness is where all is stripped away so that only the Voice remains: “You are my beloved.” All else is exposed as deception and distortion. That is the only truth in Jesus life—in spite of what the Tempter and others will say about him and project upon him.Only after Jesus completes his time in the wilderness does he begin his public ministry, proclaiming in word and deed the good news of the Reign of God.

Baptism, testing, proclamation. This pattern isn’t only about Jesus. It represents our journeys as well, we who have been called to follow him, to see his life as pattern and pathway to God. Substitute your own name for that of Jesus, or the name of  your faith community or the words "one holy, catholic and apostolic church” and you get a picture of what ministry looks like even in changing contexts. We, too, have been claimed and marked and sealed in Holy Baptism. We, too, are God’s beloved. The Voice has claimed us in love and sealed and marked us as Christ's own forever. We are called to go and share that good news, sometimes even with words. 

The waters of Baptism do not provide us with an inoculation against struggle. In fact, this pattern of wilderness and testing is as central to people of faith as God’s love is. We are not driven or led into the wilderness as a punishment. We are driven (or led) into the wilderness because that is where we discover for ourselves what matters—who we really are and what we are called to do with these wild and precious lives of ours. It's where we learn to trust that Voice over and against all others that try to tell us who we are. Over the course of forty years, God’s people were transformed from a band of ex-slaves into a chosen people with a mission. After the exile, Isaiah announced the construction of a highway in the desert—a way home through the wilderness. Powerful things happen in the desert!

Jesus goes into the wilderness not only to be tested but to clarify what kind of messiah he is called to be. The desert mothers and fathers in the history of the Christian church who likewise went out into the desert did so in order to find faith. What happens to us when we begin to see Lent as a time to do the same: not as a time for guilt or punishment or shame but as an opportunity to be with the wild beasts and to be ministered to by angels, in order to encounter the living God again? 

The wilderness is a place that ushers in a more authentic humility and a deeper awareness of our creatureliness. Remember that you are dust. It can lead us to a a deeper awareness of our dependence upon God alone and an embrace of our interdependence with our neighbor. The desert therefore teaches us a radically counter-cultural way to live in a world that says "you control your destiny" - take care of yourself!  

Prayer, fasting, study of Scripture, and focus on the needs of the poor are some of the practices that show us the way forward, and remind us that we truly are God's beloved. Blessings as this season unfolds!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday Sermon


For those who may not know what a word cloud is, it is (according to Wikkipedia) “a weighted list in visual design.” 

So what I did to create the cover of today’s bulletin was to cut and paste five documents—today’s collect, the psalm, and the three readings found in your bulletin—and then I put all of those words into a program called “Wordle” which then generated the “word cloud” that you see above.  Setting aside words like “the” and “and”—the largest words you see are the ones that came up the most, and the smaller ones, of course, came up less frequently.

Now that is not a method of studying Scripture that I learned in seminary! And it may not be a profoundly theological thing to do. 

And yet, as I thought about it, it occurred to me that Biblical scholars have sometimes engaged in what is called a “word-study.” You usually do a word-study by pulling out a concordance. So maybe this word cloud thing isn’t so far-fetched after all: maybe it’s just a modernized version of that old-fashioned word study which allows us to visualize the key words in a bunch of sacred texts. 

Sometimes Lent can get skewed. Some of us have some old tapes about what Lent is supposed to be about that we probably need to record over. So if the readings for today are meant to get us headed on the right path for the next forty days, then what might this word cloud reveal to us? 

What leaps out at me is that Lent is, first and foremost, not about us. Lent is about God. “Lord” and “God” (and to a lesser extent, “Father” and “Jesus” and “Christ”) dominate. Joel is blowing the trumpet to remind us that Lent is a time to return to God if we have wandered away. And that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” That is almost a formula in the Old Testament, especially among the prophets. There is no reason to run away from God; we are invited to run toward God’s loving embrace because God is gracious, and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love.  

It is for this reason that the psalmist invites us to bless the Lord and to bless God’s holy name. We began today at verse eight, but if you go back and look at the first seven verses preceding these you’ll find a whole bunch of verbs. We are called to bless God because God forgives, God heals and redeems and crowns and satisfies and renews; God executes righteousness on behalf of the oppressed. Oh yes, and because God is “full of compassion and mercy, slow to anger and of great kindness.”

Christian faith is not about believing in some generic Creator-God. It is about entering a relationship of love with this particular God of the poets and the prophets, this God of love and mercy. It’s about putting that God at the center of our lives. This God forgives and heals and redeems and crowns and satisfies and renews. This God is revealed to us in and through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 

Jesus’ shorthand for talking about the kind of loving relationship we are called to with God is to call God “Father” – another name for God that appears in our word cloud, as we heard in Matthew’s Gospel. He uses the Aramaic word “abba” which more closely could be translated as “daddy” or “papa” than “Father.” It’s an intimate word of relationship; not a formal title of paternity. 

I don’t think “abba” is meant to limit God to being a male father figure. God is both male and female, and neither one. God is beyond gender identities, and yet the Scriptures tell us that we humans are created in the image of God, male and female. So while it’s true that if you did a word cloud of the whole Bible, “mother” would be in smaller font than “father”—it’s still important to note that it would most definitely be there.

Like a mother who cannot forget her child, God invites us not only into a deeper relationship of intimacy with God’s own self. But if God is our father and mother, then we are all God’s children. That is another word that comes up in our word cloud. It means that we are sisters and brothers to each other and we are called to live like we believe that. It means that love of God is not enough; Lent is also about love of neighbor.

You can play with this word cloud if you wish, as you say your prayers today and over the course of the next forty days. Words like pray and give and fast and alms and offering remind us of some of the best practices of Lent. We do these things in order to draw us closer to God and neighbor.

Words like earth and moth remind us that we do not have all the time in the world. We are dust and to dust we shall return. That is not a threat; it’s just the truth.  All of our stuff—even our most treasured possessions—will eventually be consumed by moth and rust. As someone has said, life is like the game of Monopoly. After all the excitement of winning, after all those houses and hotels on Boardwalk and Park Place, it all goes back into the box when the game is over. 

So, it is with us, too. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Be sure you are not putting too much trust in the stuff that moth and rust can consume, because where your treasure is, there will your heart be also. 

Only God is forever. We participate in the divine life, in forever, only to the extent that we keep God first. Lent is about remembering again to do just that; and reorienting ourselves to that truth. We are invited today, and over the course of these next forty days, to return to the One who loves us, who heals us, who forgives us, who renews us, who speaks up for the poor when nobody else will.

And that is what Lent is for.