Monday, August 20, 2012

It ain't no sin to be glad you're alive: The Gospel According to Bruce

I started really listening to Bruce Springsteen in 1981, when I was a senior in high school. That spring The River was released and I devoured it.   I had been around his music before that and I’m sure heard singles played on the radio and listened to eight tracks and cassettes with friends. But it was The River that really hooked me as I listened on my own, again and again, reading along with the lyrics and entering into this narrative world he has spent four decades now creating. From there I worked backward to Darkness on the Edge of Town, Born to Run, The Wild, The Innocent, and the E Street Shuffle, and finally Greetings From Asbury Park.  

I began listening with the same care that I read the poets I was encountering in the classroom, and I really did learn at least as much from those three-minute records than I ever learned in school. These words, it seemed, were crafted by a poet who refused to stand back and let it all be. While I was too young and inexperienced to have the words to say it myself, when I finally heard them they rang true to what I knew in my bones: I was listening to the future of rock and roll.

I was hooked and have been a fan ever since. Nebraska was released during my sophomore year of college and I was living with a bunch of New Yorkers who had been listening to Bruce a lot longer than I had; for a while I think it's all we played. I didn’t see Springsteen in concert until two years later, on the Born in the USA tour. Since then I’ve not missed a tour and often been privileged to see him in two or even three different venues on a few of those tours. Recently I was present at Gillette Stadium, the third “Boston” show after two at Fenway. The man just keeps getting better.

A friend of mine says that what makes Bruce great is that he keeps on “growin’ up.” Unlike so many rock stars, who become parodies of themselves and then go out and sing the same songs as if they are trying to recapture a little of the glory days, Bruce keeps evolving, keeps growing, keeps learning. He takes musical risks. While he may have been born to run, the truth is that he has settled down into married life, and parenthood. A more political vision has emerged and he's been vocal about that; yet never an ideologue. He seems wise, or at least on the path toward wisdom. While he may not look 62 dancing around on stage for three and a half hours, he has continued to mature, and the man just seems pretty comfortable in his own skin. 

I’ve given a lot of thought over the years to his theology and someday maybe I’ll even try to write it all down. Clearly, Springsteen doesn’t think of himself as a Christian musician, but he has said on more than one occasion that you can’t take the (Roman) Catholic imagery out of the boy. But my sense is that even when he is not overt about religious imagery (and sometimes he is) the basic shape of his albums and the liturgical flow of his concerts takes one to the core of the Christian message of hope.

Perhaps the language of Paul Tillich is helpful here, who once said that there is a correlation between “the questions raised by existence and the answer of the gospel.” Springsteen keeps wrestling with the questions of existence. The answers he comes up with seem (to my ear at least) to ring very close to the gospel that I preach every week from a pulpit. He affirms the goodness of creation, yet knows that Adam raised a Cain. Signs of what Christians call “original sin” are all around us in spare parts and broken hearts, in cities that lie in ruins, and in the death that has come to so many hometowns. 

Yet Bruce never leaves you depressed. While brutally honest about all of that pain in the world (no one could ever say his music is an escape from reality; it's a diving deeper into reality), he never stops there. Death never gets the last word. Again and again, Bruce finds some reason to believe. Always there is a promised land to seek and a train that is bound for it on which one needs no ticket, and there is room enough for everyone. Always we are invited to come along; literally to "come on up for the rising.” 

He has faith and in his presence you have faith too. You leave his concerts feeling that anything is possible if only we can hold that vision and work together. It is admittedly, "just music." Just poetry. But as Springsteen keeps on dancing in the dark, you feel like joining in, because you know that in spite of it all, these are better days.

There is a line in “Badlands” that has always struck me but it really hit me between the eyes this past weekend in Foxborough. Echoing St. Paul, Bruce sings about faith, hope, and love—starting with the greatest of these:

Now I believe in the love that you gave me.
I believe in the faith that could save me.
I believe in the hope and I pray that some day it
Will raise me above these


And then, after the chorus, the next verse begins with these words:

For the ones who had a notion, a notion deep inside
That it aint no sin to be glad you're alive... (emph mine)

It dawned on me that this last line in many ways takes us to the very heart of Bruce's theological vision, if one wishes to call it that. (I wish to call it that!)  I feel better, happier, and more hopeful after three and a half hours with Bruce. He embodies these words, every time. In spite of it all, it's no sin to be glad you're alive and to live like you mean it.

Keep preaching the good word, Bruce!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Clare, Abbess at Assisi, 1253

O God, whose blessed Son became poor that we through his poverty might be rich: Deliver us from an inordinate love of this world, that we, inspired by the devotion of your servant Clare, may serve you with singleness of heart, and attain to the riches of the age to come; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
A brief biography of Clare can be found here. The gospel reading appointed to commemorate her extraordinary life and witness to Jesus Christ comes from the twelfth chapter of Luke’s Gospel. It is a familiar text, and a difficult one at that. Jesus says to his disciples: 

Do not be afraid, little flock, for it is your Abba's good pleasure to give you the kingdom. Sell your possessions, and give alms. Make purses for yourselves that do not wear out, an unfailing treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. 

Like her friend, Francis, Clare took this text quite literally. Also like him, she grew up in an affluent family and before taking vows of poverty lived a life of relative privilege. She found, though, that having money wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. It didn’t shield her from life’s problems. If anything, she came to see it as a burden: as something that got in the way of her relationship with God.  And so she gave it all away to embrace poverty as a way of life. 

Talk of money in church makes some people nervous. I am always amazed, and a little troubled, when I hear from people (very often who are outside of the church, and sometimes claiming to be “spiritual but not religious”) that "all the church cares about is your money." We all have our own experiences, I realize. But I’ve pretty much been in church every week of my whole life for over 49 years. I’ve worshiped with Baptists, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, United Methodists, Congregationalists, Episcopalians and I’m sure a few other flavors I’m forgetting about. I’ve heard some good preaching, a lot of mediocre preaching, and some that was horrible. I can be a tough critic of institutionalized religion generally and  of the church in particular.

But I am honestly not sure what church people are going to that talks too much about money! With the sole exception of the televangelists (whom I consider to be more hucksters than preachers of the gospel) my experience is that we talk about money WAY less than we should. Certainly we talk of it way less than Jesus or Paul or Francis or Clare did. And we need to change that if we mean to more faithfully live the gospel and bear witness to the love of God in Jesus Christ. 

I think the reason that Jesus and Paul and Clare and Francis talked so much about money was not because they were trying to start a religion that “just wanted your money.” They talked about money (as we must) because it is a false god; because it is an idol. Because, maybe more than any other false god our culture offers, it gets in the way of our love for God. As Jesus said, you’re gonna have to serve somebody. (Alright, so that’s Bob Dylan paraphrasing Jesus!) But what Jesus did say is this: you cannot serve both God and mammon. (Luke 16:13) 

In fact, Jesus talked about money more than anything else except the Kingdom of God (and very often when he talked about the Kingdom he used financial and economic metaphors!) How could a parish that looks to Francis and Clare as models of the Christian faith and life not be honest about money, when both of them voluntarily chose to live a life of poverty in order to more closely follow Jesus? It would dishonor them if we only blessed animals, and ignored the costs of discipleship. I don’t think that to be faithful disciples of Jesus we are all called to sell everything that we have and become Franciscan monks or “Poor Clares.” But as people who look to Francis and Clare as witnesses to faith we also can’t pretend that money—or more accurately, our relationship to money—doesn’t sometimes get in the way of us fully embracing the life that is ours in Jesus Christ.

I have served in a variety of contexts over the past twenty-five years of my ordained life. I began in New Britain, Connecticut, a blue-collar community where I mostly hung out with a lot of students who were working a couple of jobs to put themselves through school. From there we moved to the "gold coast" of Fairfield County, Connecticut. And of course for the past fifteen years we’ve lived in Holden, which I think it’s fair to say is somewhere in between the two socio-economically. 

I share this observation, with you, for what it is worth, based on these past twenty-five years of my ordained life. While it is not a hard and fast rule, I do think the exceptions prove the rule, which is simply this:  those with the most money seem to worry the most, while those with the least tend to count their blessings. Let those with ears, hear! Those with the most, worry that either they will lose it or that it still will not be enough, while those with the least, learn to rely on God and cultivate generosity.  Numerous studies on how much people give away seem to bear this out. 

As with all false gods, the problem with money is that there can never be enough. There will never be enough to guarantee our security. So if we worship mammon, like all false gods, it will disappoint, and we will live in fear. It is an addiction, and it cannot satisfy the hungry heart. 

Moths will eventually consume our best silk ties and our finest Persian rugs. Rust will eventually get to our prized vehicles. This is a fact. This does not mean we cannot or should not enjoy our stuff; in fact just the opposite. We should enjoy it, even as we remember that it is just stuff. But the temptation to hoard it and to cling to it is great and sometimes insatiable. And sometimes that is where our hearts end up.

Clare reminds us that we must be careful with our lives. It is the Church's work to help us to remember what really matters, and to help one another to become more faithful and generous stewards of all that God has entrusted to us. To do that work we must be willing to name that which keeps us from that work. 

We are called to live no longer in fear, but to embrace the life that really is life by entrusting our whole selves, more and more, to God’s steadfast love and abundant mercy. This is the church's work. 

God doesn’t want your money. But God does want your heart, and the Church is called to be a community where disciples are made, and glad and generous hearts are cultivated. Hearts like the one that Clare, Abbess at Assisi, had. (And her friend, Francis, too.)

What Clare discovered for herself is that her money got in the way. What we must all ask, each in our own way, is this: what keeps us from giving our hearts to God?

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Radiance of the Father

The photo above was taken by me from the traditional site of the Mount of the Transfiguration, where I presided at a celebration of the Holy Eucharist with a group of pilgrims in a course called "The Palestine of Jesus" in January 2010.

The first sermon I ever preached was on the Last Sunday of Epiphany at the Hawley United Methodist Church - my home congregation. I was a first-year seminarian at Drew. The Gospel reading for "Last Epiphany" is the Transfiguration of Jesus. In that liturgical context, Transfiguration becomes the culmination of a series of "epiphanies" (or revealings) of the Christ that begin when the magi arrive to pay him homage, and include his Baptism in the Jordan, his miracle of turning water into wine at Cana, and many healings. In all of these ways, the light shines forth in the darkness and is made manifest in the world. By the time we journey with Peter and James and John to the Mount of the Transfiguration we get the point.

And then, of course, the booths must not be built; for we must come down the mountain and set our faces toward Jerusalem. This pre-Lenten context matters. In fact, I realize that from the very first time I ever preached on this text all those years ago to the present day, I have rarely lingered long on the mountaintop. Very often my sermons on this occasion are a review of Epiphany and a preview of the Lenten journey that lies ahead. This liturgical context matters, and it's right in many ways.

But there is another tradition, more prominent among Eastern Orthodox Christians, who celebrate this Feast of the Transfiguration in it's own right today, August 6. This alternative date also is part of the Episcopal calendar, but rarely do we make as much of of a deal about it; first of all it's summertime and secondly, we've already done Transfiguration at Last Epiphany!

But there is wisdom in taking time to ponder this event recounted in Luke 9:28-36. The context of a lazy August day allows us to linger a little longer, without the pressure of thinking about Lent. It is true that Jesus does not allow us to stay there forever, and that we are not there to build booths. But like any mountaintop experience; there is no reason we should not gaze upon Jesus in all of his full glory, and breathe it all in, and take in the view for a little while, at least. I love this prayer from the Orthodox tradition:
On the Mountain You were Transfigured, O Christ God,
And Your disciples beheld Your glory as far as they could see it;
So that when they would behold You crucified,
They would understand that Your suffering was voluntary,
And would proclaim to the world,
That You are truly the Radiance of the Father!
To behold Christ, transfigured, to behold his glory "as far as we can see it" ultimately changes (and transfigures) us. The Orthodox word for this is theosis or "deification." To western ears it sounds almost heretical: this notion that (as Athanasius put it) "the Son of God became human, that we might become god." Yet that is what this day is about: to gaze upon Christ in all of his glory is to be invited in and to participate more fully and mystically in the divine life.

To speak in these ways is not to deny our broken and fallen nature. After all, how could we celebrate this feast day without remembering that today also marks the 67th Anniversary of the Bombing of Hiroshima? We know all too well the evil of which humans, of which we, are capable. We don't even need to look back 67 years; we grieve today with those who lost loved ones in yet another tragic shooting, this most recent one at a Sikh Temple in Wisconson. We have a long way to go toward theosis.

Even so, we pause on this day to gaze upon the transfigured Christ: to behold his glory. And to ask God to transfigure us: to transform our minds and our hearts and our bodies, to make us one with Christ, and in Christ; to make us instruments of God's peace.

Sunday, August 5, 2012


The following sermon was preached at St. Francis Church for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost. The Biblical text is II Samuel 11:26-12:13a

When it comes to political scandals, that old saw is proven true time and again: “oh, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.” Warren G. Harding learned this in the Tea Pot Dome scandal; Richard Nixon learned it after the break-in at the Watergate Hotel; and Bill Clinton learned it after telling the American people that he did not have sexual relations with “…that woman, Ms. Lewinsky…” For King David, in ancient Israel, it was Bathsheba-gate.

If you were in church last weekend, then you heard how it came to pass that David has an affair with Uriah the Hittite’s wife, while the other guy is off fighting his war. “In the springtime of the year, the time when kings go off to battle, King David remained in Jerusalem…” (II Samuel 11:1) David starts ogling his neighbor (who is out bathing on her roof) and then he has her over for drinks one night. (The Hebrew says he “fetches” her.) And then the EPT turns blue, and Bathsheba sends word to David: “I am pregnant.”  

Gasp. Time to bring in the damage control team. David gives Uriah a weekend furlough. His plan is simple: if he can just get Uriah to go home for a conjugal visit, no one will ever know. Unfortunately for David, Uriah is a good Marine who doesn’t take the king up on this opportunity to head home. He tells his commander-in-chief: “my men are still out in the field.” David gets desperate and moves on to Plan B: buying shots of Jagermeister for Uriah in the hopes that he can get him drunk enough to go home to see his wife. But he does not. So when these two plans fail, David comes up with a terrible Plan C: he sends Uriah to the front lines and tells General Joab to have the troops draw back. Uriah is killed in battle. I’m sure David was prepared to honor him with a purple heart.  

David has now broken at least three of the really big commandments, including coveting his neighbor’s wife, committing adultery, and murder. But at last it seems that his mess has been cleaned up. Uriah is dead. Bathsheba goes through a short period of mourning and then marries the king. What’s the big deal that the child born to them apparently didn’t go full-term? 

But as we heard today, this is not yet the end of the story. The thing that David had done displeased the LORD. So God sends Nathan to confront David, to speak truth to power. But Nathan is shrewd, so he doesn’t go in there full force. He goes in with a parable. So he says to the king: 

There were two men in a certain city, the one rich and the other poor. The rich man had very many flocks and herds; but the poor man had nothing but one little ewe lamb, which he had bought. He brought it up, and it grew up with him and with his children; it used to eat of his meager fare, and drink from his cup, and lie in his bosom, and it was like a daughter to him. Now there came a traveler to the rich man, and he was loath to take one of his own flock or herd to prepare for the wayfarer who had come to him, but he took the poor man's lamb, and prepared that for the guest who had come to him.

David can see, when the story is told in the third person, just how terrible this deed really is. In fact, his anger is greatly kindled against such a man who would do such a thing, “because he had no pity.” Isn’t it often that way: we are blind to our own sins, but we can easily spot those same sins in someone else—even in a blatantly obvious parable? That’s when Nathan puts his cards on the table, telling David: You are the man! And then notice what follows. The LORD says:

I anointed… / I rescued… / I gave… / I would have added more
You have struck down… / [you] have taken… / [you] have killed

David has violated his side of the Covenant with God, even as God has remained faithful. But what comes next is extraordinary. David says to Nathan, "I have sinned against the LORD." And that’s where we stopped today.

On the socio-political level, the narrator is making the very point that Samuel tried to make early on about kings: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Notice that the parable isn’t focused on sex, but on the abuse of power. Even this shepherd boy/giant killer is not immune from the temptation to misuse political power once he has it.

I suspect that it wouldn’t seem particularly surprising to us if we were to read a story like this in The Boston Globe. It’s a real world story, for sure. But what is surprising to some is to come to church and find all of this in the Bible. Many of us still carry around an image in our heads of pastel-colored Bible characters: David the shepherd boy or David slaying Goliath. But most Church School curricula doesn’t include this more R-rated material. (Which is probably a good thing, by the way!)

C.S. Lewis once noted that “the same divine humility which decreed that God should become a baby at a peasant-woman’s breast, and later an arrested field-preacher in the hands of the Roman police, decreed also that He should be preached in a vulgar, prosaic and unliterary language. If you can stomach the one, you can stomach the other.” Which is simply to say that the Bible isn’t interested in a sanitized version of pious reality, but in the real, messy world we live in.

When I teach the Bible to undergraduates I always make sure that we cover this story, because by the time they are eighteen or nineteen I want them to know how much richer and more complex the Bible really is than they think it is. Rarely do I have a student who has ever even heard this story beforehand. So I ask them: what is it doing here in the Bible? And I ask you today, what is it doing here on this tenth Sunday after Pentecost? Why are we reading this, and making the faith claim when we do that there is a “Word of the Lord” here for us?

I like texts like this because they challenge our assumptions about what the Bible is and is not, and as Lewis points out they force us to ultimately embrace the scandal of the Incarnation. God not sitting up on some cloud looking down on us like an accountant with a ledger in hand. God is right in the midst of it all; the messiness and confusion and bad choices of our lives, as we struggle with power and justice and human sexuality and temptation. This material from First and Second Samuel challenges our naiveté about the Bible. Do we dare enter into this world that is being created and to hold up the story like a mirror that reflects our own shortcomings?

There are various ways we might find our way into this story, and I suspect we play different roles as we go through life, even if on a smaller stage than King David’s. We might contrast Joab and Nathan: the general who is just following orders given by his commander-in-chief versus the one who dares to speak truth to power. For us it might be in the work place: what do we do when we know that what is happening is wrong? Do we, like Joab, go along to get along? Are there ever times when we are called to speak the truth even to a boss, even if that might prove to be very costly?

Bathsheba doesn’t get a voice in this narrative. Actually, she hardly gets her name. Mostly the narrator refers to her as “the daughter of Eliam” and especially as “the wife of Uriah the Hittite” (II Sam 11:3) to make it crystal clear that that she’s a married woman. I sometimes wonder how she might tell this story if given a chance to do so? And then I wonder: who are the people we make invisible and silence, the people whose names and dignity are stripped away by the powers-that-be?

What makes King David great (at least according to the narrator of First and Second Samuel) is not that he is morally upstanding. He is, in fact, a very broken and flawed person. But in the end, when confronted by Nathan, he admits that what he did was wrong. He confesses his sin: “I have sinned against the Lord.” Now of course he has also sinned against his neighbor, too: against his wife, Michal, for sure and Uriah the Hittite who is still dead; and Bathsheba and Joab and his people—whom he was entrusted to lead. He has been focusing all of his energy on a cover up and failing to do the job God had given him to do as king.

Even so, in the end, King David doesn’t blame anyone but himself. He owns it. God calls us all, as God called David, to accountability, to justice, to mercy, to self-awareness. And ultimately sin does not get the last word in this story or in our stories as God’s people either.  For where there is sin, God’s grace abound s even more. What does it take for us to follow David’s lead and learn to pray: “I have sinned against the Lord?” Or as we prayed in today’s psalm- those hymns attributed to this same King David... 

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; in your great compassion blot out my offenses. Wash me through and through from my wickedness and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.

When we dare to do that, can we then wait for—and then believe and take hold of the words with which God responds: You are forgiven. Life is not over; for I am a God of new beginnings….your sins are forgiven! Or as the preacher put it last weekend:  

[God keeps] gathering up the broken fragments so that nothing may be lost…God in Jesus Christ sees what is possible, sees our futures. Not judging our pasts, God takes us and meets us where we are, and offers us new life. God sees what might yet be, before we can see it ourselves. That is the kind of God we are dealing with, people….
Click here for a link to the full sermon by the Rev. Karen Safstrom

Here, yet again—even in the very heart of the Old Testament—we proclaim the good news that God’s amazing grace is bigger than David’s failings and weaknesses. And bigger than ours, too. It doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences for our bad choices; there most definitely are. We may think that that David deserves worse and ultimately maybe even that we deserve worse when we make a mess of our lives.

But ultimately this narrative, like the Bible from which it comes, is not about human achievement. It is about God’s steadfast love and mercy. It’s about the love of God made known in Jesus. It’s about a God of second chances. That is, indeed, the kind of God we are dealing with, people. 

Jean-Pierre de Caussade, S.J.

Jean-Pierre de Caussade, born in Toulouse, France, was ordained a member of the Society of Jesus in 1708. His little book, The Sacrament of the Present Moment, is basically a series of addresses he shared with a group of nuns under his spiritual direction. It was recommended to me some time ago by my own spiritual director.

I'm re-reading parts of it and pondering these words from the ninth chapter, "The Secret of Discovering God's Transcendent Will in the Present Moment:"
Recognizing God in the Most Trivial
...[the one] who recognizes a king in disguise treats him very differently from he who sees before him only the figure of an ordinary man and treats him accordingly. Likewise, souls who can recognize God in the most trivial, the most grievous, and the most mortifying things that happen to them in their lives, honour everything equally with delight and rejoicing, and welcome with open arms what others dread and avoid. The senses despise mean trappings but the heart worships this royal majesty in whatever form it appears, and the more humble its disguise the more the heart is pierced through with love. How can what the heart feels be described when it perceives God's divine word so shrunken, so beggarly, so prostrated? Ah! The poverty, the humility of God reduced to lying on straw in a manger, crying and trembling and breaking Mary's noble heart. Ask the inhabitants of Bethlehem what they would think; if that child had been born in a place in princely surroundings they would worship him. But ask Mary, Joseph, the Magi, the priests, and they will tell you that they see in this dire poverty something which makes God more glorious, more adorable. What is deprivation to the senses nourishes and strengthens faith. The less there is for them, the more there is for the soul. To adore Jesus at the transfiguration, to love God in great things, is not so perfect an act of faith as to worship them in small discover God in the smallest and most ordinary things, as well as in the greatest, is to possess a rare and sublime faith. To find contentment in the present moment is to relish and adore the divine will in the succession of all the things to be done and suffered which make up the duty to the present moment...Wherever you go, [Christ] has gone before. Only follow him and you will find him everywhere.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Why I Am Still Striving for Spiritual AND Religious

More than two years ago, I wrote a post entitled Why I Am Spiritual and Religious. As is so often the case when I go back and read something I wrote or preached in the past, I am aware that I am in a different place than I was then. I don't necessarily disagree with anything I wrote then; in fact I stand by all of it. But given the context of where my thinking and prayer life has been leading me lately (and especially about what it means to be "Church" in this time and place, and my role as a leader in the same) I am not sure I'd say it in precisely the same way, either. So I want to take another stab at this...

I don't know how religion came to be a dirty word, exactly, but I think it has much to do with the very human failings of people like me (i.e. clergy) The Church has failed people far too often through it's own desire for power and self-preservation. As is so well known, some have preyed on the innocent. But many more even than that have failed to protect the innocent. And beyond the very obvious violations of trust and sexual misconduct, is the "bad theology" that has kept people from knowing the breadth and depth of God's love in Jesus Christ for all of God's children. When people think of "anti-women and homophobic" when they hear the word "Church" there is clearly much that is broken.The Church has clearly left deep scars on so many people, pushing them away from "religion." There is a prayer in the liturgy for the Stations of the Cross, at the eighth station where Jesus meets the women of Jerusalem, that always stops me in my tracks:
Teach your Church, O Lord, to mourn the sins of which it is guilty, and to repent and forsake them; that, by your pardoning grace, the results of our iniquities may not be visited upon our children and our children's children; through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen. (emph. mine)
Even so, I don't think it is all the fault of the Church that "religion" has become such a dirty word. We live in a culture that likes to do it "our way." Spirituality is so much more an acceptable word in our culture in part, I think, because we get to do it ourselves. Religion requires commitment, work, devotion, and above all else, other people who see the world differently from us. Who needs that mess? So it is much easier to say, "I'm spiritual, not religious..."

If forced to choose between spirituality OR religion (and in spite of the fact that I have a pretty good pension plan with a religious institution) I still would choose spirituality every time. (Or, at least as I wrote two years ago, spiritual practices.) The thing is, I don't want to have to choose between the two; and I think it's a false choice to have to make...I want to be more spiritual AND more religious. In fact, increasingly I understand this to be my vocation as a priest: to help create communities of faith where people can be working at both.

I think the reason people are far more okay with spirituality is that they know in their bones that God is WAY bigger than the Church. They sense God at the beach and on hikes in the mountains (of course the Creator is present in creation!) and in yoga and in meditation and at the birth of a child. We are "spiritual' because we are, all of us, made in the image of the Creator.

But without religion, spirituality can so easily become narcissistic. It becomes the "religion of me"; whether acknowledged as such or not. Religio: the root about connecting, about binding together. While religious communities (including the one I serve) are made of of flawed human beings, the heart of Christian theology is not only about love of God but love of neighbor. There is both a "vertical" and "horizontal" dimension to our faith. At it's best, religion is about the goal of binding together God's children. It is about being part of a community of faith where we can encourage (and sometimes challenge) one another. Religion, or more accurately, healthy religious communities, give us a space where our spirituality can mature.We need them.

That is what I yearn for. That is what I dream of. That is what I want to be a part of, with God's help. I don't think for a minute that there is only one way to do that, or that the way we do things in my congregation or denomination are the only or even the best ways of so doing.

But I think that there is a need - and even a deep hunger (before there is even a language to express that hunger) for faith communities where people can be both religious and spiritual: communities where followers of Jesus can be together as a Body, to love and serve the world not just by words but in their actions.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Living Toward Transfiguration

On August 6, the Church Calendar will invite us to reflect on The Feast of the Transfiguration. Readings for that feast day can be found here.

On this same date, in 1945, an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan.

Somehow the juxtaposition of the holiness human beings are called to, and the evil of which human beings are capable of- converging as they do on this particular day, makes my head spin.

Yesterday I had lunch with a colleague and we talked about blogging. I realize some people have a 'theme' - they blog about "God and Physics" or Food or Social Justice.

I am a parish priest. This has been an emergent thing for me, but I realize that even when I venture into political conversations, the questions that concern me most are about how we build a visible witness to the gospel in small communities like the one I serve. How can we more faithfully be salt, light, and yeast that gives hope to the world, even in the midst of polarizing culture wars? If I have a "theme" then that is it.

My last two posts go to the heart of what I think are some of the big issues that the Church (holy, catholic, and apostolic), my denomination (The Episcopal Church) and the congregation I serve (St. Francis Church) must wrestle with if they mean to be faithful in this unique time and place in history.

The questions I struggle with most do not have right and wrong answers. They are questions we live into, and wrestle with. What are the limits of tolerance? The Church is called to be a place where all are welcome, but how do we deal with and include the unwelcoming without losing that call to the radical hospitality of Jesus. Jesus did, after all, eat with sinners and tax collectors but he was also willing to eat with religious leaders too. It's just that some of those wouldn't eat with the sinners and tax collectors. Jesus refused to compromise on that, which sometimes meant that the "religious" people self-excluded. That is the reality of who he was; yet I consider myself a person who is both spiritual and religious and yearn to help create a community where people aren't forced to choose one or the other.

And how do we live our lives in ways - as individuals and as a community of faith -  that embody both grace and courage? The gist of what I tried to say in my August 1 post on this topic is that grace without the courage to act in ways that lead to justice is what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called "cheap grace." We must act in ways, as a community, that make it clear that we stand for justice. On the other hand, courage without grace allows the church to simply replicate the culture wars. More than one of my Facebook friends this week has posted the photo of "Christians" standing in line at Chik-Fil-A for a sandwich and asking the question about why that many "Christians" aren't in line at a soup kitchen to feed the poor. (It's a fair question. And yet many Christians I know, including the people among whom I serve, ARE quietly doing just that: feeding the poor regularly and without much media fanfare.) Courage without grace divides the church along the same battle lines as those of the culture.

My friend and the patronal saint of my parish, probably didn't really write the prayer attributed to him but that prayer does take us to the very heart of Franciscan spirituality: Lord, make us instruments of thy peace...

I yearn to be part of, and help lead, a Church that is about love, pardon, faith, hope, light, and joy - even in the midst of so much hatred, injury, doubt, despair, darkness, and sadness. That takes me to the heart of my vocation as a parish priest - as a person trying to be spiritual and religious - and it takes me to the heart of why I blog, as simply one more "media" for trying to do that work (with God's help.) I blog for the same reason I preach: to share the good news of Jesus Christ.

We live in a world of warring madness, and August 6 gives us a chance to pray and reflect about how God calls us to be peacemakers, and to try to find ways to beat swords into plowshares, and spears into pruning hooks. August 6, as we contemplate Jesus on the Mount of the Transfiguration, invites us to be transfigured and to share in that new be in some small way, instruments of God's peace.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Grace and Courage

Today, August 1, we pause to remember Joseph of Arimathaea. He is definitely a character on the periphery in the Passion of Christ, but nevertheless an important one. Like Nicodemus, the tradition reports that even though he was a member of the Sanhedrin, he was a "secret disciple" of Jesus. The brief write-up in Holy Women, Holy Men, states that:
When our Lord’s intimate disciples were hiding for fear of the authorities, Joseph came forward boldly and courageously to do, not only what was demanded by Jewish piety, but to act generously and humanely by providing his own tomb for the decent and proper burial of our Lord’s body, thus saving it from further desecration.
The collects written for feast days aim at capturing something of the Light that the person being commemorated allowed God to reflect through their actions. I think the collect for today is particularly astute, seeing both grace and courage as qualities that Joseph embodied in this act of asking for Jesus' body.
Merciful God, whose servant Joseph of Arimathaea with reverence and godly fear prepared the body of our Lord and Savior for burial, and laid it in his own tomb: Grant to us, your faithful people, grace and courage to love and serve Jesus with sincere devotion all the days of our life; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Grace and courage. I think about how Christians are behaving, on both sides of the controversy over Chick-Fil-A, and mostly it is about self-righteous posturing. One piece that runs counter to most of what I've seen can be found here. I think that it is both graceful and courageous.

Grace without courage can leave us sitting on the sidelines, and never acting or speaking up for what is right. While it is true that all are sinners, and fall short of the glory of God; and by God's grace all is forgiven, grace without courage can allow injustice to flourish.

On the other hand, courage, without grace, can turn us into what William Sloan Coffin, Jr. used to call "good haters." It can make us bitter, certain, and angry.

When held together, grace and courage allow us to act out of our convictions without demonizing the other. We become more generous and humble. Grace and courage, together, allowed Joseph to do the right thing--the thing he was in a unique position to do. Grace and courage, together, open the path for us to love and serve Jesus with sincere devotion, all the days of our life.