The Ultimate Word

"The ultimate Word is not a paragraph but a person. If Jesus is the Word of God incarnate, then the heart of proclamation is personal and relational, not propositional."

Marjorie Hewitt Suchocki * God, Christ, Church, page 135

Sunday, June 04, 2017

Come, Holy Spirit

The Day of Pentecost

Come, Holy Spirit.  Amen.

I think that’s about the most powerful prayer I’ve ever heard or prayed.  “Come, Holy Spirit.”

The Holy Spirit is, perhaps, that person of the Trinity that we least understand, though probably feel most closely.

It’s easy to imagine God, the creator.  We’ve received that image through the ages of the old man with the flowing, white beard.  While I doubt that’s a literal truth, it is fairly easy to put into our minds’ eyes some person, overseeing and molding us and all that is around us.  Some human figure who loves us enough to create us.

And Jesus is pretty easy to imagine, too.  That picture that hangs in the parish hall – a reprint of the famous 1940 painting by Warner Salman, called “Head of Christ” – what we, in seminary, called Jesus' graduation portrait - that's probably the kind of image that most of us conjure.  The olive-skinned man with long, soft, flowing brown hair.  And while that image is most certainly not a literal fact either – Jesus was not, after all, European, as the Western forbearers of the faith would have had us believe.  But even so, even if our imagining doesn’t represent the factual truths of the man and the way he looked, we can still but together some image in our mind of what a man long ago might have looked like – even a man who was the anointed one of God.

But the Holy Spirit is a different character altogether.  Traditionally – for most of history, up until relatively recently, anyway, the Holy Spirit was imagined as a feminine being.  At some point, in the English language, at least, people began speaking of the Holy Spirit with male pronouns.  More recently, it’s become more and more common to hear the Holy Spirit spoken of with no gender-specific pronouns.

And it’s probably not surprising that we can’t even settle on the gender of the Holy Spirit, because we can’t even settle ourselves on the physical manifestation of it.  We say that the Holy Spirit is one of the “persons of the Trinity” (usually the THIRD person of the Trinity), but we rarely see images of the Holy Spirit in human form.  Much more often, the Holy Spirit is depicted as a dove.  Or as a flame.  Or as a wind.

It’s just harder to wrap our minds around this concept.

But even so, that prayer is very powerful.  Come, Holy Spirit.

Anne Lamott – a writer of books on spirituality and the church, wrote a book on prayer once, in which she argues that even if you don’t know “how” to pray, that we would all be wise to think of just these three, most simple prayers: help, thanks, and wow.  She calls them the three “essential” prayers and points out that much of our praying exists as variation of these three words.  Help.  Thanks.  And Wow.

“Come, Holy Spirit.” is a particularly ancient version of that “Help” prayer.  Veni, Sancte Spiritus.  It calls on that aspect of God that is hardest to pin down – that one whose being is so elusive – and asks for it’s presence.  For her presence.

The testimony I can give you today – the reason I believe this to be such a powerful prayer – is because it’s one that I’ve always had answered.  I can pray for the winning lottery numbers.  I can pray for some thing to happen, or for some person to come around, or for some luck to befall me.  Through all of that I can pray and never feel like anything has come of it.  But when I pray for the Holy Spirit, I always experience the Holy Spirit.

It’s rarely as violent as a rushing wind for me, like we read about in Acts this morning.  I’ve never experienced anything as bold as speaking in tongues - though there are those who have.  I’ve never seen tongues of flame resting on my head, or anyone else’s, nor seen a dove descending from heaven.

But I have felt the peace of the Spirit’s presence.  I have been inspired when I previously felt empty.  I have found paths through some of the seemingly insurmountable obstacles that life inevitably provides.  The Holy Spirit may not yield results for me that are as big and as bold as those we’ve read about, but the results were big enough to make a bold difference in my life.

Today, there were options for which lessons could have been read.  The reading from Acts could have been read for the first or the second lesson, but also, as is only rarely the case, there was an option for the gospel lesson.  They were both readings about the Holy Spirit, but the one we read today is from way back on Easter Day.  It’s when the disciples are huddled together in hiding on the day when they first learn of the resurrection.  Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you” – and with his words they were filled with the Holy Spirit as God’s enduring gift.  The same enduring gift of the Holy Spirit that we continue to pass on to Christians at their baptism – that was passed to us at ours.

We usually read this lesson on the Second Sunday of Easter – or, as it’s more commonly remembered, “Doubting Thomas Sunday”.  Remember, that when this scene happened, the disciples were all together – well, almost all.  Thomas was not with the others.  And when he heard about it, he couldn’t believe all that he was hearing.  And not just that he was amazed, but that he literally could not believe.  Not until he experienced it for himself.

Because deep experience and understanding of the Holy Spirit is so elusive, sometimes we can’t believe, either.  It doesn’t make sense to us.  We can’t put a face to the name.  So that’s why I chose that gospel lesson for today: because doubt is so much a part of our lives of faith.  Because sometimes we just can’t believe all that we’re told.

But the Holy Spirit – as mysterious and beyond our understanding as he, or she, or it is – is right there in front of you.  Around you.  In you.  If, in the challenges of your life, you invoke the presence and guidance of the Holy Spirit, you will not be disappointed.  Like the same Spirit that Jesus spoke and breathed to the disciples, the Holy Spirit is never farther away than your next breath.

The Holy Spirit will come.  I can’t explain it, and I doubt you can, either.  But it’s okay.  Just remember that most powerful prayer: “Come, Holy Spirit.”  When you’re feeling troubled and weighted down, pray those simple words.  If you can’t think of what else to pray, pray that.  “Come, Holy Spirit.”  Pray it again and again until you’re finally able to fill in the blanks.  If you’re feeling doubt, keep praying that.

And be prepared for what may come next.  It may not be a violent rush of wind, or unknown languages, or tongues of fire – but it may feel that big to you.  It may end up being just what you needed.  Amen.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Everything in its own time

Good Friday

Remember everything I told you
Keep it in your heart like a stone
And when the winds have blown things round and back again
What was once your pain will be your home

All around the table the white haired men have gathered
Spilling their sons' blood like table wine
Remember everything I told you
Everything in its own time

The music whispers you in urgency
Hold fast to that languageless connection
A thread of known that was unknown and unseen seen
Dangling from inside the fifth direction

Boys around the table mapping out their strategies
Kings of mountains one day dust
A lesson learned, a loving God, and things in their own time
In nothing more do I trust

But we own nothing, nothing is ours
Not even love so fierce it burns like baby stars
But this poverty is our greatest gift
The weightlessness of us as things around begin to shift

Remember everything I told you
Keep it in your heart like a stone
And when the winds have blown things round and back again
What was once your pain will be your home

Everything in its own time
Everything in its own time

Written by Amy Elizabeth Ray and Emily Ann Saliers.

It seems that every year there’s some song that speaks to me on Good Friday that typically exists beyond the catalogue of what we normally think of as “sacred music”.  And I think that makes sense.  Good Friday is a good day for profanity.  Not in the way that we tend to hear that word in popular culture – like “bad words” or “curse words” – but profanity in its original meaning: that which is outside religious norms.

Though Good Friday is among the holiest days of Christian observance, it’s also very profane.  It’s pretty far beyond any kind of accepted religious norms.  And it’s a day when we remember something entirely profane – the public murder of our savior.  The public humiliation and murder of a good person, who was a child of God, and who was trying his hardest to live his life in accordance with God’s will.

And today, we remember our part in it.  Humiliation and harm, torture and even sometimes murder happen all the time, all around us.  They happen in our own world, in our own lives, and in our own communities.  For all of the preaching about peace and kindness and humanity and community and relationships and all the rest – even despite all of that that we have had through the examples of Jesus and the thousands of years of followers who have sought to emulate him – despite everything, pain and suffering persist.  Humiliation and harm persist.  God’s presence among us continues to seem elusive because of our continued failure to make it known – to make it real.

We hear the evangelist write about “the Jews” and the ways that they made the death of Christ possible.  In our nearly exclusively Christian, American context, it’s too easy for us to hear that – “the Jews” – as “those others”.  But that’s not fair.  We’re still blind to the suffering all around us.  We’re still blind to the path of salvation that is ready for us.  We’re still just as likely to become subject to shifting political wills at the potential expense of our neighbor.  We’re still killing Christ today.

“The Jews” was merely the descriptor that made sense to describe the powers and people of that time and place, but our powers and people today are no less guilty.

Thankfully, this isn’t the end of the story.  But it’s where we are now.  All we can do now is to remember everything he’s told us, and to take everything in its own time.  What was once our pain will be our home.    Everything in its own time.  Amen.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Open my eyes that I may see

Lent 4A

Let us pray.

O Lord,
     Open my eyes that I may see the needs of others;
     Open my ears that I may hear their cries;
     Open my heart so that they need not be without succor;
Let me not be afraid to defend the weak because of the anger of the strong,
     Nor afraid to defend the poor because of the anger of the rich.
Show me where love and hope and faith are needed,
     And use me to bring them to those places.
And so open my eyes and my ears
     That I may this coming day be able to do some work of peace for thee.  Amen.

That prayer was written in the early twentieth century by the one-time prison warden, turned writer and anti-apartheid, South African activist, Alan Paton.  In his striving for justice, he saw the value – and even the necessity – of opening our eyes, particularly when we’re blind to the roles we play in harming others.

Earlier this week, I read a short blog post that a preacher wrote while preparing for this gospel lesson today where he declared this to be the most dangerous prayer.  Not this prayer, in particular, but the first few words of it: “Open my eyes…”

It is a pretty dangerous prayer.  When our eyes are opened, we can see all the pitfalls around us.  When our eyes are opened, we can see all of our shortcomings.  When our eyes are opened, we can see ourselves.

But yet, sight can be among the greatest gifts.  It can protect us.  It can guide us.  It can open us to the beauty of creation.

This morning we hear the story of Jesus giving sight to the blind man.  But in doing so, he helps to open the eyes of many others.  And when God intervenes to open our eyes, it can be a dangerous and profound thing.  We can see things we’d rather not see.  We can see things that the princes and powers of the world would rather us not see.

When Jesus opened the eyes of the blind man, he also opened the eyes of his heart.  And he opened the eyes of the hearts of his disciples.  He showed them glimpses of truth that they had all previously been blind to.

But not everyone had that reaction.  There were those among them who would, instead, cling to their blindness.  It felt safer.  They could only see what fit into their worldview, and anything else could not have possibly been from God.

We often talk about looking for evidence of God in the world.  We believe that we can see God in the natural order.  We believe that we can see Christ in the faces of the people we meet (and sometimes ignore) every day.  But we can only do that if we’re willing to pray that most dangerous of prayers: to invite God to open our eyes.

Throughout this season of penitence and reflection, this season of preparation for the coming reality of Christ rising beyond and conquering death – this prayer could guide us.  This prayer could be a path to seeing the coming reality as never before.

But only if we’re willing.  Only if we stop clinging to our blindness.

I’d like to share with you a hymn that was among my favorites when I was growing up.  It’s about inviting God to open our eyes.  Feel free to sing along, or at least just follow along.  But I hope you’ll hear this hymn as a prayer.  A prayer to see God more fully.  A prayer to be more fully present to the reality of God in our lives and all around us.

If we do that, we’ll be more ready for Easter than we ever have been before.

Let us pray.

Open our eyes, O Lord.
Open our eyes to our prejudice.
Open our eyes to our complicity with oppression.
Open our eyes when our short-sighted desires constrict our willingness to answer your calling.
Open our eyes to see Christ in every face around us.
Open our eyes to see Christ in ourselves.
Open our eyes so that we can see our sin.
Open our eyes so that we can see your grace.
Open our eyes.  Amen.

Thursday, March 02, 2017

An Immersive Lent

Ash Wednesday

In the name of Christ. Amen.

Most of you probably know about my love of theatre.  Though I have performed some (many years ago) my real love is more about experiencing theatre than it ever was about performing in it.

One of the roles that theatre can play in people’s lives is providing an outlet for escape.  When life is stressful – when the world seems more filled with uncertainty than security – when we’re mourning or angry – it can feel good to slip away for a while into happy, brassy music punctuated by rhythmically tapping feet holding up beautiful, smiling faces.  Or maybe some farcical comedy – laughing at the antics and missteps of some aggrandized version of humanity can pull us out of doldrums, at least for a while.  It’s a world where everything works out in the end.

There’s a place for that in our lives.  It can be therapeutic, and maybe sometimes even necessary to be forced into a smile when a smile seems most foreign.  As it’s said in Steel Magnolias – one of my favorite plays turned into a film – “laughter through tears is my favorite emotion.”

But where theatre really moves me – where it will get into my bones and stir me – is when it doesn’t provide escape, but deeper and more profound insight into my life; when it helps me to confront reality in a new way; when I’m not so much transported, as I am imported.  For me, deeper satisfaction comes not from being disconnected from my reality, but from being reconnected with my humanity.

That’s what we’re about during Lent – reconnecting.  We so often think of it as a time of denial, or of disconnecting from the world, but I’ve come to think of Lent as being like the very best kind of theatre.  It’s about reconnecting with humanity and with God in the deepest, most visceral ways that we can.

It’s summed up best in the words of Paul in today’s Epistle: “We entreat you, on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

In recent years, my very favorite kind of theatre has been what we call “immersive theatre”.  As the name implies – it’s about immersing the audience into the world of the story.  We’re not passive observers beyond that invisible fourth wall, but we become a part of the story.

Last week, Michael and I had an experience in just this kind of theatre.  We saw Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812.  The classic old Broadway theatre that houses the production had been transformed.  We were seated with hundreds of others on the stage, with the orchestra and actors all around us, and the play-space had been extended throughout the house.  The production happened all around everyone.  The actors stared us in the face, pulling us in and making us a part of 19th century Russian aristocracy.  It made the story as much about now as then.

That’s just what we’re trying to do in these next few weeks.  We want to pull ourselves into the story.  We want to remember that the story of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is as much about now as then.  This isn’t just a history lesson, or even a self-help seminar.  It’s both of those things, and more.  It’s about the joining together of what was, what is, and what will be.  It’s about finding that common thread that connects these great lives of ancient days to our own great lives now, and to the great lives that are still emerging.  We look to the person of Jesus as our guide, but it’s not just about him, long ago.  It’s also about us, right now.

Peter Gomes, the Baptist theologian and preacher, and long-time chaplain to Harvard University once said, “The question should not be ‘What would Jesus do?’ but rather, more dangerously, ‘What would Jesus have me do?’ The onus is not on Jesus but on us, for Jesus did not come to ask semi-divine human beings to do impossible things. He came to ask human beings to live up to their full humanity; he wants us to live in the full implication of our human gifts, and that is far more demanding.”

I entreat you, on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.  Don’t disconnect, but come together.  Don’t deny yourself, embrace yourself.  Don’t berate yourself for the many ways you are separated from God, but highlight and focus on the grace that makes you God’s own gift to our current time and place.

The whole of the Christian message is about finding that reconciliation that Paul told us about.  Lent is the same.  It’s about coming together, and knowing God more intimately.  It’s about recognizing that we are staring in the faces of the actors and being pulled into the story.  It is our story.  It’s not about escaping, but embracing.

You are dust, and to dust you shall return.  We were a part of this story before we were ever imagined on this earth, and we will continue in it through the ages that await.  Come inside.  Be reconciled to God.  It’s our story.  Amen.

Monday, November 21, 2016

What to do about the "bubble" affecting the liberal elite

On Saturday Night Live this weekend, a popular skit was one of those mock-advertisements that the show executes so well.  This time, they were advertising a community of shallow, liberal-minded people, who can’t stand the oncoming reality of a Trump Presidency that’s bolstered by strong-enough majorities in the Senate and House of Representatives.  The proposal is a hipster paradise in Brooklyn, complete with surface-deep character and Disney-development, corporate prices, all within the safe confines of a literal bubble that keeps out dissenting opinions.

This concept comes on the heels of nearly two weeks of the so-called “liberal media” chastising liberal people for living in elite bubbles and being entirely unaware of the “real world” around them.

At this point, let me take a little step back.  First of all, let’s not kid ourselves.  This “liberal media” that people keep talking about is nothing more than a marketing invention of those on the far right to try to explain why facts and statistics don’t support their claims.  The “liberal media” is why the Oxford English Dictionary has given us a disturbing new word: post-truth.

They define post-truth as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief”.

Post-truth is what happens when a candidate who is widely reported by independent fact checkers to be the most honest Presidential candidate in memory gets labeled as a liar, and a candidate who those same independent fact checkers discover to be one of the most dishonest candidates in memory gets a pass.  Post-truth is what happens when wide swaths of the populace decide that when a candidate says something they like, he’s telling it like it is, but when he says something obscene, he’s either being misrepresented, or shouldn’t be taken literally.  Post-truth is what happens when scientific realities are dismissed as ideology.  Post-truth is what happens when the insights of historians warning us about the similarities between our current politicalclimate and elected leaders and the rise of Adolph Hitler are ignored.

There is no “liberal media”.  The ones most widely decried as the “liberal media” are – to put real names to it – MSNBC and NPR.  While it’s true that MSNBC does tend to have a more progressive editorial bias than other commercial news networks, let’s not kid ourselves: their programming and news reporting over the past couple of years contributed mightily to the rise of Donald Trump as a serious candidate.  They loved the shock value that he brought to their network, and they capitalized on it to squeeze ratings out of us.  He was constantly covered, and rarely questioned.  Meanwhile, his main opponent, Hillary Clinton, was minimally covered in comparison, but nearly all of that coverage was devoted to questioning her and looking for scandals (which, let the record show, never materialized).  They bought in to the post-truth era wildly and eagerly.

NPR, on the other hand, has a reputation that is marred by the post-truth era.  Federal funding in support of public broadcasting is constantly endangered because politicians and members of the public on the right are quick to accuse them of liberal bias.  The problem, however, is that facts – real, tested, peer-reviewed, factual truths – tend to have a liberal bias.  If a network is reporting truth, and not just post-truth, those who only care about post-truth think they’re hearing liberalism.

It is a fact that the budget for the United States military is larger than the combined budgets of the next 9 largest militaries in the world.  It is also a fact that of those next 9 largest militaries in the world, 7 of them are nations that we consider to be our allies.  So, any reasonable analysis of the facts would suggest that we could drastically cut our defense spending, still maintain the most significant and powerful military in the world, and have funds available to provide much needed improvements to our failing infrastructure, support public education, provide a host of services that would strengthen and empower the struggling middle class, and still have room left over for tax cuts and deficit reduction.

EVERYONE can get what they want and live a better life.  But the military-industrial complex has defined the narrative through fear mongering to convince people of a post-truth reality that their lives would be endangered if we cut defense spending.  In fact, the only reason they oppose these cuts, however, is that it would cut into their exorbitant corporate profits.

These are the real costs of living in a post-truth world, and the “liberal media” isn’t doing anything about it.  It may be true (and I suspect it is) that most on-air personalities and behind-the-scenes content generators in the media do have a liberal bias.  Liberalism often accompanies education, and most people in the media are well-educated.  Even so, the bosses and shareholders benefit from post-truth broadcasting, and bosses and shareholders always win in the end.

So, enough of the “liberal media” and post-truth rabbit trail – let’s move on to what I’m really here to talk about: that bubble that I’ve been chastised for living in.

It is true that I live in a liberal enclave in the Northeast.  It is true that I am highly educated and have a decent job (though I’m not wealthy by any American standard).  All of this makes me a part of the so-called “coastal elite”.

But, when I say that I can’t believe that American would actually elect Donald Trump to be the President of the United States after the campaign of hate and division that he ran, that doesn’t mean that I’m a part of some bubble that I should get out of so that I can better relate to the “red states”.  I am educated.  I am a Southerner by birth.  I travel to and through those “red states” multiple times each year.  I have friends and family members who not only live in “red states” but who thrillingly embrace the post-truth reality.

I’m not in a bubble.  They are.

I understand their lives a lot more than they understand mine.  I can’t tell you how many times over the past two weeks I’ve heard my post-truth compatriots exclaim, “I just don’t understand why those people are so afraid!”  (Take a look at my previous post on this blog for some insight into that.)  When I’ve tried to explain it to them, or to explain why I’m angry that they voted for Donald Trump, I get talked down to, delivered phony rationalizations, and self-righteous ignorance portrayed as a virtue.

I understand them, but they show no interest in understanding me, my concerns, or anything other than post-truth assertions.  When I back up my claims with articles from reputable news agencies like the New York Times or the Washington Post, they think that a post from Brietbart is a fair refutation.  When I point to evidence from scientific journals and crime statistics, they fire back at me with the website, The Federalist Papers.

This issue here is not that we’re both in our own bubbles.  This has been the year of the false equivalency, and I’m on a crusade against them.  We’re not both in bubbles.  I’m in the world, and not just my corner of it.  I travel and read and talk to people who bring me new perspectives and learn and grow through the arts.  Meanwhile, they’re uninterested in anything BUT their corner of the world – as seen from only their perspective.  We aren’t just coming from two sides of the same coin.

And here’s the main difference between me and those people I know who are clinging to their bubbles: they want to trap me in their bubble – to make me live inside their narrow field of vision.  But, I want to make the experiences and opportunities that have so profoundly benefited me available to everyone.  I want everyone to have access to education and security.  I want everyone to be able to make their own informed choices, without being constrained by poverty or social standing.  I want everyone to be able to eat, and to have access to high quality medical care, and to be free from violence and oppression, and to have every opportunity that this world has to offer.

So let’s pop the bubble.  Not so “we”, of the “liberal elite”, can understand “them”, the “ignorant masses” – but so that understanding more generally can grow.  Let’s pop the bubble so that opportunity can be available to everyone, not just those of us already outside.

Like lancing a boil, it will probably hurt.  It’s already hurting me.  But it’s the only hope for our country to rid itself of the post-truth infection, going forward.