"Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. Now write what you have seen, what is, and what is to take place after this." Rev. 1:17-19.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Lenten Reflections from the Wilderness of Winter

Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 25:1-9
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-15

Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan: Come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations; and, as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Right now, I’m not having any trouble identifying with the wilderness in which Jesus finds himself in our Gospel lesson. My wilderness this week is far from the rocks and sand of the Judean hills, where the sun beats down mercilessly and tiny lichens long for drops of dew. Instead, it is a winter wilderness in which I find myself: frozen and bare, where even the air seems scarce, and ice crunches under my feet like dry bones. Instead of thirsting for water, I thirst for sun, my skin gratefully gulping up even the coldest and weakest rays. The bright white of the snow blinds my eyes, and the eerie quiet of falling flakes makes me want to howl. Like Jesus, I do not enter this wilderness voluntarily. After a week of warmth at a conference in Texas, every piece of my flesh recoiled from re-entering the Polar Vortex last weekend. As the airplane sped me along, I felt like clutching onto fistfuls of clouds in order to slow down the inevitable. My face wore a solemn and sullen mask, as I prepared to descend into the void of winter. I know how Jesus must have felt, as God’s Spirit drove him into the desert, still wet under the ears from his baptism. As little detail as Mark gives us about Jesus’ time in the desert, Mark is clear that Jesus did not choose to go. Who chooses to enter into the bleakness, or deprivation, or utter desolation in which we sometimes find ourselves in this world?
I was reminded this week that the Hebrew word for wilderness means “away from words,” or “beyond words.” The wilderness, then, is an empty place removed from God’s life-giving creative power. It is a blank space, an indescribable chaos yet untamed by God. For God’s Word to enter the place “beyond words,” is a paradox like the cross itself: God forcing Godself to strip away all power and authority in order to join us in the wordlessness of human suffering. It is not surprising, then, that Mark’s Gospel, the first account of the Good News to be written, has few words to say about what happens in Jesus’ wordless wilderness. Mark doesn’t tell us about the devious offers that Satan makes to Jesus, testing him with scripture itself. Mark doesn’t tell us how Jesus courageously resists.  All Mark tells us is that there were wild animals and angels out there with Jesus.
When I replay in my mind films that I have seen about Jesus in the wilderness, my mind, too, keeps the images, without the words.  It has been years since I have seen The Last Temptation of Christ, but I can still picture, with a shiver, Jesus sitting alone in a circle in the sand during the long desert night, as a hissing black viper, a formidable wild lion, and a blazing pillar of fire lunge menacingly at him out of the darkness, as in a nightmare. For me, it is clear that the wild animals with Jesus were dangerous ones, as dangerous as the wordless fears and temptations that lurk around in my own heart, waiting for God’s absence before they strike. The ministering angels are there, too, silently circling, gracefully hovering, but it is the animals who have my wary attention.
Given the danger of the wilderness and our aversion for it, it is interesting that we even attempt to spend Lent there. Even without our horrible winter weather, Lent is supposed to drive us all into the wilderness with Jesus. For forty days (not counting Sunday, always the Day of Resurrection!) the Church asks us to let ourselves be spirited into the wilderness, in order to prepare ourselves for the proclamation and ministry that await us on the other side of Easter. My mediocre Lenten effort to quit wasting my prayer time by scrolling through Facebook somehow seems unworthy, though, in light of what Jesus experiences. But perhaps it’s not the giving up of something that pulls me into the dangerous desert. Perhaps the giving up is what allows the Spirit to drag the wilderness to us. Preacher Barbara Brown Taylor describes things like my Facebook fiddling as “pacifiers,” ways that we try to stay out of the wilderness: “I mean, almost everyone uses something--if not anesthesia, then at least a favorite pacifier: murder mysteries, Facebook, reruns of Boston Legal, Pottery Barn catalogs, Bombay Sapphire gin martinis.  I'm not saying those are awful things.  I'm just saying they are distractions--things to reach for when a person is too tired, too sad, or too afraid to enter the wilderness of the present moment--to wonder what it's really about or who else is in it or maybe just to make a little bed in the sand.”[1]
I couldn’t help but think of Reese Witherspoon’s recent film Wild, as I reflected on our Lenten wilderness. In case you haven’t seen it, Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, a lost and grieving young woman who heads out into the wilderness of the Pacific Coast Highway alone, weighted down with a 45-pound backpack and an even heavier burden of sadness and regret. With all of her modern camping gear to keep her going, one can’t quite say that she has entered the same extreme kind of wordless testing landscape as Jesus. Her wilderness adventure is more like me during Lent, giving the Spirit a chance to whisk her away to the real inner desert where her demons hide, to force her to confront her pain. In the film, her healing comes not from passing through the desert landscape or the mountain wilderness or even on her trek through the frozen snow. Her healing comes from the inner struggles that we see in flashbacks: her grief over her mother’s early death; her struggles with addiction and with intimate relationships. Facing these struggles are her real wilderness test. Her hike is merely the path down which the Spirit drags her to lead her into her own darkness.
As I make room in my life this Lent to be driven into the wilderness, what I really want to know is how I can get back to my old life when the testing is over. Mark seems to leave out that part of Jesus’ story. One minute Jesus is languishing in the wilderness, and then, all of a sudden, he is back in Galilee, proclaiming the good news that the Kingdom of God has come near. Finally it hit me: Jesus never does get back to his old life. His time in the wilderness changes him. He would no longer be smoothing planks of wood in Joseph’s shop in Nazareth. After the wilderness, Jesus embodies the dawning of God’s reign on earth, as he sets out on his way to the Cross.
I do have faith that Easter lies on the other side of the Cross. I can look through the hard, cold ice to the buds on the bare branches of the dogwood trees. I know what they will look like at Easter time when they are cloaked in delicate white blossoms. I can look through the piles of snow and know that the crocuses are coming soon. The wild animals who circle me in the cold darkness appear not because of a lack of vision about the Kingdom to come. What bothers me as I enter the wilderness is that I am no longer in control.  I know that God will require me to open my door to the sketchy-looking homeless man freezing in the alleyway. I know that God will ask me to bring my last pot of warm soup to my most grouchy and unpleasant neighbor. With each tree branch that I hear collapsing under the ice of winter, I know that parts of myself are going to have to crack and bend with the same splintering sound before God’s Spring can come. What we learn in the wilderness might not change the landscape, but it will indeed change us. Are you ready to let go? “Repent, and believe in the good news.”

[1] Barbara Brown Taylor, “The Wilderness Exam,” found at http://day1.org/1756-the_wilderness_exam.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Shame and Vulnerability on Ash Wednesday

Isaiah 58:1-12
2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10
Matthew 6:1-6,16-21
Psalm 103:8-14

Almighty and everlasting God, you hate nothing you have made and forgive the sins of all who are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

I have always wondered what to do with Jesus’ words in our Ash Wednesday Gospel. They seem to take all the fun out of receiving ashes and committing to Lenten spiritual practices. Is Jesus really condemning what we are trying to do as Christians today? Or at least taking us down a peg in our spiritual striving? It wasn’t until I read Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount in the light of Brene Brown’s work on shame and vulnerability that I got a new take on what Jesus might be trying to tell us. Shame, according to Brown, is “the intensely painful feeling … of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”[1] “I am never enough,” our shame whispers to us. “I am unwanted and alone.” Vulnerability, having the courage to open ourselves up to relationship, is what allows us to move out of shame and into joy.
          If you want to see shame at work take a look at the first hypocrite, whipping out his trumpet to play a fanfare to his own generosity every time he drops his pledge in the offering plate or hands a homeless man a dollar. Why does he need that trumpet? “Deep down, you are a loser,” the voice of shame whispers darkly in his ear. If you want to be loved, you need to be successful in your career. You are “enough” only when you are working, when you have money and fame to show for your actions. Without success and the concrete trappings that come with it, you are no better than a slug on the sidewalk. Without a nice house and vacations in Florida, your wife won’t love you. Without the latest fashions and top-notch schools, your children won’t honor you. Without a name in the community, your parents will be disappointed in you.” The successful, busy hypocrite needs the praise of others in order to feel worthy, in order to drown out the voice of shame inside his head, and he thinks that he can buy that praise with money or success, or even with his donations to charity.
          The second hypocrite, on the other hand, might well be a clergy person. If you want to hear shame at work, listen to him, as he prays loudly and publically, to impress onlookers. He puffs up his prayers with words like “eschatological” and “Christological,” and peppers them with Latin and Greek phrases. Or he brags about his special relationship with Jesus, shouting out to the Holy One as if God were his own best fishing buddy. Why does he need to make a show of his faith? “Deep down, you are a loser,” the voice of shame whispers darkly in his ear. “You are “enough” only when you are the perfect Christian, when you can impress others with your godliness.” The pious hypocrite needs the admiration of others in order to feel worthy, in order to drown out the voice of shame inside his head, and he thinks that he can manufacture that admiration by showing how close he is to God.
          Finally, if you want to see shame at work, watch the third hypocrite, as she dumps a whole container of ashes on her head and rubs them into her face and hair. “O woe is me,” she moans, “Look, look, look at what a miserable sinner I am!” Why does she want our pity? “Deep down, you are a loser,” the voice of shame whispers darkly in her ear. Without constant attention from others, you are nothing. You are ‘enough’ only when people are noticing you, when they feel sorry for you, when they comment on your Facebook post.”  Without exaggerating to everyone how she stayed at the office with the flu to finish the project single-handedly, she feels invisible. Without tearing herself down at every opportunity, so that others will build her up, she feels lost. The suffering, martyred hypocrite needs the pity of others in order to feel worthy, in order to drown out the voice of shame inside her head, and she thinks that she can stir up that pity by exaggerating her predicament far and wide.
          On the other hand, if you want to see vulnerability at work, take a look at Jesus. In Jesus, God slips on vulnerable human flesh. God steps into the shame-driven world in which we live. And yet Jesus does not shame us. Jesus welcomes saint and sinner alike with God’s own mercy and loving-kindness. Jesus risks everything out of that love, even letting us nail him to a Cross. “You are enough!” this Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel. “You are a beloved son and daughter of God. In the secret recesses of your heart and soul, God created you for relationship: for relationship with God and with one another. Live with integrity as God’s beloved children. There is no treasure greater than God’s Love. There is no goal more meaningful than being in relationship with your Creator, free of the venomous hissings of shame.”
I had a strange thought yesterday, as I was shoveling snow on my driveway, watching it billow out into the cold air like fine sand. If we gave out shame on Ash Wednesday, I reflected with a horrified shiver, we would use snow. Snow is so cold and white that it feels like death. It paralyzes us in the sterile, frozen whiteness of shame, creeping up our limbs and slowing our hearts. I could see myself dipping my thumb in a box of snow and tracing a wet, frigid X of shame  on peoples’ foreheads: ‘Remember that you are frozen in death, and to water you shall melt,’ I would say. The X might be invisible, but the chill in our hearts would show in our every desperate plea for worthiness.
How grateful I am that our God is not a shaming God, and that Ash Wednesday and Lent are meant not for shame, but for its anecdote: the vulnerability of repentance. Richard Lischer points out that today’s rite is not all about the ashes themselves: we have to remember that the ashes that we receive on our foreheads today are carefully formed into the shape of a cross—into the shape of vulnerability itself. “We don’t receive the ashes on Ash Wednesday only; we bring them to the altar every day [in our mortal bodies…] Only in Jesus are they gathered into the shape of the cross. Time and time again, we bring them to him and then return to our mortal lives with something far better.”[2] We return to our mortal lives filled with the vulnerability that opens us up to be in loving relationship with God and our neighbor. Our task today is to remember that we are frail human beings who make mistakes, and then to wear the mark of our vulnerability out into the world. It is to stand on street corners offering a blessing that could be refused. It is to risk being mocked. It is to go on TV with a box of ashes knowing that you might say something stupid. It is to wear the mark of Jesus to school and in the grocery store, where others might roll their eyes at your religious gullibility. Our goal is to become vulnerable children of God, children who hold onto the treasure of relationship, no matter what the cost.

[1] Brene Brown, Daring Greatly, (New York: Gotham Books, 2012), 69.
[2] Richard Lischer, “The Shape of Ashes,” The Chrisitian Century, February 18, 2015: 11.

[1] Brene Brown, Daring Greatly, (New York: Gotham Books, 2012), 69.
[2] Richard Lischer, “The Shape of Ashes,” The Chrisitian Century, February 18, 2015: 11.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Shame and Authenticity: two poems from the Daring Way Conference

What if what is left undone
is really the pocket of my soul,
a flap of frayed cloth tucked
underneath my armored ribs,
filled with bits of knotted string
     that no one dares untangle,
lined with the fuzz of unfinished
     lists now worn to pulp by anxious fingers,
the sly hole in the right-hand corner
     dropping coins and love
     into the weeds?
What if what is left undone
is me
          What a shame ....

What if the pocket of my soul
were supple silver like the shifting
sand in a stream, deepening
and narrowing with the current,
cupping sunlight and moonlight
in its belly?
What if the pocket of my soul
could open, reflecting light
like the satin folds under
my chasuble in the movement
of prayer?
What if the pocket were deep enough
to hold all of the love and glory
spilled into it, until
they overflowed like words
into the world?

Saturday, January 31, 2015

Corinth and the Tragedy in Maryland


Deuteronomy 18:15-20
Psalm 111
1 Corinthians 8:1-13
Mark 1:21-28

Almighty and everlasting God, you govern all things both in heaven and on earth: Mercifully hear the supplications of your people, and in our time grant us your peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Have you ever wondered what was in the letters that St. Paul was answering? After all, Paul’s words in our scriptures were addressed to specific churches, in answer to specific problems or joys in their life together. What about the letter from Corinth that prompted the answer from Paul that we read as our second lesson today? It might have gone something like this:
Dear Paul,
My friends and I so frustrated with the newer members of our community. They have been giving us grief about eating meat that has been sacrificed to pagan idols. Can you imagine?! They expect us to stay away from the Games, just because the city serves up a good idol-meat stew at the post-game celebration afterwards. They even expect me to skip my cousin’s wedding reception, just because her family is going to buy their food from Zeus’ temple! Can you imagine going to your friend’s house and refusing the hospitality of the delicious main course—a roast of goat for which she paid dearly, I might add—just because she might have bought it from a temple supplier? How ridiculous can you get? Listen, Paul, you know that we are educated, sophisticated Christ-followers. We have been baptized now for over 10 years. We don’t believe in those ridiculous gods that our pagan neighbors worship. As if those stone statues can really hear their prayers or smell the food that they put so ceremoniously before them. We are strong and firm in our belief in the One true God and in Jesus Christ his Son. It doesn’t matter what food we eat, then, for goodness’ sake. Our diet doesn’t change our convictions. I’ll tell you, those Christians who are complaining are just jealous. Just because they can’t afford to eat meat doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t have it. If they are so weak in their faith that hanging around pagans is tempting to them, then they can just sit at home. Really, how ignorant and pathetic can you get? Paul, can’t you set them straight for us?
Instead of “setting them straight,” Paul addresses his response to the folks who think that they have everything all figured out. You might have knowledge, Paul says, but you are not acting toward your fellow community members in love. All knowledge does is to puff us up about ourselves. Sure, the pagan practices are meaningless. Sure, that meat isn’t going to hurt you. Sure, God doesn’t expect Christians to withdraw from society all together. The problem isn’t about the meat. The problem is that you are not caring for your weaker brothers and sisters. If your actions are harming them, if your actions are causing them to stumble, then you need to stop what you are doing out of love for them. The thrust of Paul’s advice for the people of Corinth is that Christian community cannot exist where the strong are lording it over the weak; it cannot thrive where the powerful are ignoring the people at the margins; it cannot grow where the knowledgeable are glibly dismissing those who don’t understand.
          You might be surprised to learn, then, that today’s text is most often used in the Church to defend the status quo. Instead of protecting the minority voice and the marginalized Christian, it is instead used most often by those Christians in power to counsel against rapid change. “Wait!” they say, “We had better not push for civil rights for African Americans. We had better not ordain women. We had better not perform same-sex blessings. These things might be OK in themselves, but making them happen will offend the consciences of those brothers and sisters who disagree. Paul says right here that your liberty should not be a stumbling block to your brother or sister.”[1] Of course the Church needs to allow time for conversation and discernment. But is it fair to apply Paul’s words to these cases, in which women, LGBT Christians, and people of color are those whom Paul would urge us to protect? Aren’t those who fear change the ones in power in the community?
          In reflecting on 1 Corinthians this week, it didn’t take me long, however, to think of more fitting contemporary examples.
Have you ever thought how giving men all the power through using seemingly harmless words like “chairman” or “mankind” might hurt our sisters in Christ? How it might spread language that binds them in weakness and insignificance? What it would be like to avoid using those words for their sakes?
Or what about not going shopping on Sundays and on holidays? Without the old Blue Laws, our commercial-driven society never stops. Does it hurt us to go to Kroger on Sunday? Of course not. But by doing so, are we participating in a culture that takes advantage of the poor, that prevents others from resting, especially those who cannot chose when they are able to rest?
And then I remembered the Rt. Rev. Heather Cook. She is the suffragan, or assistant, bishop of Maryland, who hit and killed a cyclist while driving on December 27. Her blood alcohol level was .22 percent, and she was swerving and texting on her phone when the accident occurred. She has been charged with negligent homicide, has been fired by her diocese, and may eventually be stripped of her orders. If the death of an innocent man and the tragedy of her own future aren’t trouble enough, it was discovered that Bishop Cook had a previous serious DUI arrest in 2010, but that Church officials, who knew about it, did not consider it an obstacle to consideration for the episcopacy and did not disclose that information to the electing convention. What a tragic story all around! Could it all have been avoided? So many people, near and far, have been hurt by what happened that night. As the diocesan Bishop of Maryland wrote, “we cry for the Palermo family [whose family member was killed], our sister Heather, and all in the community who are hurting.” [2]
          As a member of a denomination often jokingly referred to as “Whiskeypalian,” and about whom they say “whenever three or four Episcopalians are gathered together you can always find a ‘fifth,’” I wonder if someone from a parish like St. Thomas could have written the following letter to St. Paul:

Dear Paul,
My friends and I are so frustrated with the members of our parish who are worried about the use of alcohol in the Episcopal Church. They have been giving us grief about Pub Theology and about our wine and cheese reception on Saturday nights. Can you imagine?! They expect us to give up these great evangelism tools just because the drinking might make people in recovery feel left out, or tempt them. What are we, ridiculous tea-totaling Baptists or Methodists? No, we are enlightened Episcopalians. We know how to handle ourselves socially. We know how to drink responsibly. As Christians, you have to fit in with the ways of the world, or it will turn people off. Besides, we know that it is scientifically proven that one drink per day is good for your health. Those of us who don’t have a problem can enjoy a glass of wine for goodness’ sake! I’ll tell you, those parishioners who are complaining are just jealous. Just because they can’t drink doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t. They can drink soda or juice. If they are so weak that hanging around alcohol is tempting to them, then they can just stay away from the activities where we serve it. Paul, can’t you set them straight for us?
          Do you see the problem? I wonder how St. Paul would set us straight? Would he tell the abstainers that they are being ridiculous? Or would he side with them and tell us to cancel Pub Theology? Would he condemn us for partaking in alcoholic beverages? From his response to the Corinthians, I don’t think that he would do any of that. But would he remind us that love for the weak should guide our actions? Yes, I think that he would. I think that he would remind us that we as a parish and as a denomination have some serious thinking to do about what is truly important, about how we might unintentionally be harming people we don’t even know by actions that seem to be “no-brainers” for us. As a matter of fact, as I thought about how I can keep my liberty surrounding alcohol from being a stumbling block to the weak, I was guided to an important decision.  I have decided that, as long as I am wearing my collar and representing the parish as rector, I will no longer drink alcohol at any public or parish events. Will I stop having a glass of wine at home with my dinner? No. Do I think that drinking is inherently sinful and something that we need to ban at St. Thomas? No, I don’t. I think that these social activities help to distinguish us from the judging attitudes of some Christians, and they show our openness to the joys of good food, drink, and fellowship. But as an authority figure, might my behavior in drinking be a stumbling block to someone else—clergy or lay--who should not be drinking? Yes, it might. I no longer want to risk contributing, even remotely, to tragedies like the one that happened in Maryland. 
         My response does not have to be yours. Neither is my response eternal and set in stone. Like love, it springs from the heart. What might God be calling you to do, in every particular circumstance, to honor your brother or sister?
          Let us pray:
Loving God, keep us from carelessly living our lives as stumbling blocks to those who need us most. Teach us to build up your body in love. Amen.

[1] For an example from the Church of England, concerning the recent issue of the ordination of female bishops, see http://www.churchinwales.org.uk/structure/representative-body/publications/downloads/theology-wales-back-issues/theology-wales-the-ordination-of-women-to-the-episcopate/empirical-theology-and-women-bishops-revd-professor-leslie-j-francis/ 

[2] “Episcopal Bishop Charged with Manslaughter,” in The Christian Century, February 4, 2015, 13.