Faithful Citizens Have No Choice

As we catapult toward the end of a nasty and divisive election cycle there is much healing that needs to occur.  Will we be instruments of this healing or further division? Do citizens of good faith have an alternative?

I preached the following homily at our church on Sunday.  It was based on the story of the Pharisee and the tax-collector in Luke 18.  I offer it here as one contribution to the ministry of reconciliation to which we are called:

So, which one are you? The much maligned Pharisee? Or, the humble tax collector? With whom do you spontaneously connect? Such resonance is a good indicator for how God wants to engage us.

So, let’s dig a little deeper… Like us, the Pharisees were good, God-fearing people – generous, committed, devout. This particular Pharisee has reason to express gratitude — he’s got it good, better than the majority of other people. He knows it. He’s grateful. Like us, he lives his faith; he gives back – tithing time, talent, treasure.

What God is up to becomes more apparent when we dig as well into the character of the tax collector – the humble, honest, honorable tax collector. Do you catch the irony – Honest? Honorable? …Tax-collector? The oxymoron still packs a punch after 2000 years.

It’s said that Rabbi Simcha Bunem carried two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On one he wrote: “For my sake the world was created!” On the other: “I am but dust and ashes.” The Rabbi would take out either slip of paper as necessary, as a reminder for himself.

Yes, we are imagio dei, created in the image of God, created for relationship, capable of great things. Our faith also counsels, “Remember, you are dust and to dust you shall return.” And if we need any reminder, we don’t need to look too far to see just how ungodly, fractured, and capable of incivility we can become.

So, “Which one are you, Pharisee or tax-collector?” — good to ask at times. However, this is NOT one of those times! With the devout rabbi we recognize we are not one or the other — we are BOTH! Perhaps the more relevant question is: “WHO are we?” And even more: “WHOSE are we?” TO WHOM DO WE BELONG?

Look around…! We’re a little depleted on MEA weekend. But to all who are visiting, Welcome! We’re really quite a friendly, likeable bunch. Whether you’ve been here for 50 years or this is your first visit, you’re at home here. You belong! We’re an odd mix of saint and sinner — so we pride ourselves in “open communion”. Knowing who we are, we recognize ALL are welcome at the table Christ sets. God wants all of us to be in communion.

Today, the pairing of the Pharisee and tax-collector challenges us to go deeper, to discover and embrace this radical communion to which we are called. Yes, open communion is great for making our Catholic or Methodist relatives feel welcome when they visit. It’s may even assure “seekers” and the “unaffiliated” they will find spiritual companions among us.

But what happens if we learn the person ahead of you will be cancelling out your vote? Are we open, inviting? Are we truly respectful of those who hold differing opinions …even about the NRA? …or Planned Parenthood? WHO are we then? Around WHOSE TABLE are we gathering then?

Remember the pairing of Pharisee and tax-collector . Remember the rabbi’s wisdom. Gospel truth, the truth of our lives — mature faith — is never a matter of either/or; right or wrong, yes or no! In Christ, it is always BOTH/AND; always bigger, always more inclusive then we could ever muster on our own.

Look around …who do you see? Who are we? We’re more homogenous than many of us would prefer. Yes, we’re mostly like-minded, but we are hardly clones. We must never become a cozy enclave – comfortable and complacent has nothing to do with the One around whose Table we gather.

Look around! Who do you see? We are Episcopalians – not to the exclusion of others but with and amid others. As Episcopalians we come with distinguishing gifts, a certain identity – not better, but needed; not to the exclusion of others, but for the benefit of others. Within Christ uniformity stifles, differences enhance! All are welcome; everyone has something essential to share.

Never in my recollection, rarely in our nation’s history, have we been so fractured as a people. As Episcopalians we are not set above or apart from any of this. But we do come with certain DNA that distinguishes us from others within the Body of Christ.

At times it’s stressful, painful. Maybe even excruciating. But it’s not in our DNA to build walls – we prefer bridges! We don’t shut out tough conversations – we initiate them. That’s who we are! We’re wired to see Both/And rather than Either/Or! Pharisee and tax-collector are polarities within which we live.

Are these not the precise gifts our nation desperately needs? – the gift of holding the tension, living in the gap, walking into chaos, embracing differences, taking on our collective brokenness? This is the gift of our communion in Christ.

When we come to this table, we come with our particularities and our peculiarities, our giftedness and our poverty. In breaking bread together, in sharing one cup, we are changed, healed, reconciled, restored as one human family.

Like proud Pharisees we thank God for our good fortune. Like the awe-struck tax collector, we pray: “Lord, have mercy!”

Our church has served this nation well. The gifts we have been given are needed now as much as ever – provided we are faithful to WHO we are, WHOSE we are, and who we BECOME when we come here!

AMEN!

People Aren’t Stupid!

Too often I make a big mistake. I presume that people who disagree with me are uninformed, lack knowledge or otherwise need more facts. Not only is this supremely arrogant, it’s simply wrong!

Headlines provide plenty of reasons to scratch our heads in disbelief, amazement and even shock. Instantaneous global news access,as well as immediate answers via Internet searches, has done little to enhance human wisdom or well-being. Perhaps it hurts!

Poet, David Whyte flays our predicament, prescribes the solution we have forgotten:

This is not
the age of information.

This is not
the age of information.

Forget the news,
and the radio,
and the blurred screen.

This is the time of loaves
and fishes.

People are hungry,
and one good word is bread
for a thousand.

People aren’t stupid! So what are we to do? What are we to say? Will we give people answers, explanations, excuses? People are not ignorant! We have all the facts we need, perhaps too much information.

People are hungry! We seek nourishment for our weary souls. We seek real communication, authentic community, true communion.  Share a meal. Break bread. If we extend our hand, not our heads, our hearts are sure to follow.

As a great teacher once said, “You, give them something to eat!”
_______________________
Loaves and Fishes by David Whyte is from The House of Belonging: poems by David Whyte (Many Rivers Press). Copyright © 1996 by David Whyte.

What’s God Up To, Now?

How many Christian churches do you know that are next door to a Muslim mosque? Each time I round the corner of 18th & Lyndale Avenues on Minneapolis’ Northside, past the mosque’s muted gold and vibrant blue minaret, a wave of warmth and satisfaction washes over me. Despite headlines suggesting the opposite, this is the “real” America, who we are at our best and as it should be!

The relationship between our two communities is amicable and respectful. Given that Christians celebrate Sundays and Muslims gather on Fridays, our spontaneous interactions remain limited. But our hearts are open and we envision greater dialogue and seek out ways to join forces in service of our neighborhood and city.

Yesterday was even more exceptional. We were celebrating First Communion Sunday and Easter flourishes still adorn the church. Pews were full with extended families exuberant to mark this significant moment in the lives of excited children. Outside flowering trees, tulips, daffodils and fresh yellow-green foliage offset the crystal blue sky.

An off-handed comment by my husband shattered my revelry, “First Communion is a really big deal for Catholics!” His innocence — naïveté more than anything — caught me completely off guard. He was viewing this moment with a different pair of eyes. He wasn’t raised Catholic! He doesn’t have the Catholic symbols and sensibilities imprinted in his psyche. Wow… How easy it is to presume so much even about someone I know so well!

As the liturgy continued, his observation and my embedded assumptions filtered my experience of the celebration. Serving on the council for his Episcopal church, he is not ignorant nor uncaring about the Christian faith! We shouldn’t dismiss my husband’s religious perceptions and sensibilities too quickly.

What about our Muslim neighbors down the street.? What sense would our language about eating and drinking Christ’s body and blood make to them? What about Father, Son and Holy Spirit? What would they hear? How would they see what we so readily take for granted and presume about the God of all creation?

Still, I walked toward our parked car in the direction of the mosque at the end of the liturgy with deep gratitude and confident excitement — God isn’t done with us yet! In fact, God still has a lot of work to do if this good creation is to be brought to fulfillment. That realization itself carries a pretty fair rendering of the Good News and is reason for hope.

I made my First Communion fifty-eight years ago! Nevertheless, the remembering we do at every Eucharist holds the same potential — in fact, has the very purpose — to “disrupt all self-enclosed worldviews, every arrogance, idolatry, patriarchy, or religious fundamentalism that would justify the erasure or diminishment of persons, any person, in the name of God.”

First Communion Sunday at the Church of the Ascension on the Northside of Minneapolis will not generate headlines. But if we perceive how we are constituted at such moments, who we become at Christ’s initiative, we recognize a privileged point of convergence — an encounter with God, the one God of all peoples, no exceptions!
______________________
After returning home from this liturgy I picked up a book I have been savoring, Sophia; The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton by Christopher Pramuk (Liturgical Press, Collegeville, 2009). I stumbled upon the “disrupt all self-enclosed worldviews” quote on page 210.

Too Many Losers

Know the difference between winners and losers? Winners are those who have failed more than losers! No, this isn’t some clever turn of a phrase. It’s the truth! Yes, winners somehow overcome their fear of failure. Or, they let go of their need to be in control or to appear perfect.

Winners are those who understand they will fail — again and again. More importantly, winners accept — even invite — imperfection, mistakes and failure as part of the process of growing, living, learning. It’s as if winners somehow turn fear on its head by indulging the freedom to fail. They seem to live by some liberating appreciation that winning really is more fun than losing!

Case in point… I’m a really crappy swimmer. I’m scared to death of water. I could probably “save myself” but I make very effort never to find out. Pools are not fun places for me — I’m not in control, paralyzed by fear, avoiding any risk of “jumping” into deep water! Imagine how much fun I have missed because of my fear of failure, unwillingness to make a mistake, of not being “perfect.”

Here’s a true confession… this distinction between winners and losers came to me while reading about Thomas Merton’s fascination with Zen Buddhism and Russian Orthodox theology. While critically noting what he judges to be “mistakes”, Merton expresses admiration for each tradition’s willingness to ask bold questions and rend “profound insights into the real meaning of Christianity — insights which we simply cannot ignore.”

Perhaps his ability to admit his own limitations and partial understanding, Merton appreciated Buddhism and Orthodoxy’s freedom to make mistakes “in order to say something great and worthy of God.” He muses, “One wonders if our theological cautiousness is not after all the sign of a fatal coldness of heart, an awful sterility born of fear, or of despair.”

Yesterday Pope Francis gave us a picture of what this might look like in the concrete while a guest at a large Lutheran church in Rome. A Lutheran woman married to a Catholic man told him of her pain in not being able to take communion together in each other’s churches.

Saying “life is bigger than explanations and interpretations,” Francis suggested that we should not be held captive by abstract theological principles. Ultimately, we are each bound to follow our well-informed, mature moral conscience.

“It is a question that each person must answer for themselves,” Francis said, suggesting that even the church’s authority is below that of God’s in such personal matters. Francis offered a pastoral response to the woman: “There is one baptism, one faith, one Lord, so talk to the Lord and move forward. I dare not, I cannot, say more.”

Live! Jump in! Swim!  “Pick up your mat and walk!” Or expressed in yet another way, “love casts out all fear.”  In that grace, we are set free.  In this truth, we are all winners!
___________________
My reference to Thomas Merton quotes Sophia: The Hidden Christ of Thomas Merton by Christopher Pramuk. Collegeville, MN: Michael Glazier, Liturgical Press, 2015. p. 12.
You may read the Reuters report of Pope Francis’ visit to the Lutheran Church in Rome [here].

For the Love of Strawberries

A story is told of Bertha and Abraham Maslow… like many couples who marry at a young age — she was 19 and he was 20 — they struggled financially as their daughters Ann and Ellen arrived. As Abraham completed his degree at City College, the young family indulged simple pleasures within their constrained budget.

A favorite family outing was to go to one of the many city parks in their New York neighborhood where Abraham and Bertha had both grown up. During strawberry season the parents would splurge on one carton and carefully divide the berries among the four of them.

The parents would generally nibble on only one strawberry. Being the ebullient young children Ann and Ellen were, the girls would quickly gobble down their full share oblivious to their parents restraint. Abraham and Bertha knew their children would soon be back asking for more of the juicy, sweet treats.

Years later, after he had become one of the most influential developmental psychologists of the 20th century, Abraham would recall moments like these in the city park, “Bertha and I learned that strawberries never taste better than in the mouths of our children.”

My unexamined assumption is that the Maslows were Jewish. Their religious affiliation does not matter — their human experience as parents points to something foundational to all the great world religions — a deep, down unity and goodness girding all creation, the felt experience that all is bound up in the Holy, and we are “wired” to participate in this Love.

Contemplative practices of all faith traditions entice, nudge, cajole us to embrace a single-hearted unity with all creation — what my friend Ellen Swanson likes to call “community without conformity.” The Maslow’s strawberries — indeed the simplest of all genuinely human encounters — open for us what is nothing less than a mystical experience, we find God in all persons and all creation!

The mature spiritual life takes us beyond the prescriptions of what is “right,” “moral,” “just,” or “equal.” We are set free from the prescriptions for every step we take or move we make because some authority has “said so” or “others are watching.” We ourselves become the dance; our living becomes the loving; we are swept off our feet by the One who is Love.

The Maslow family came to appreciate this Love through strawberries. Jesus speaks of this in many ways, at many times and ultimately with his life — “unless a grain of wheat fall to the earth and die…” We find our life by losing it. Those who would save their life will give it away.

Love, life, God are never so wonderfully tangible as when shared in selfless communion with family, neighbors, whomever is hungry among us.

Some Assembly Required

Mike is a retired school counselor in his mid 70s. We know him best as the grandpa of the kids next door. He’s over regularly to live-trap and “relocate” pesky chipmunks, sweep up the acorns from the yard’s stately oaks and otherwise do those tasks full-time parents don’t have time to do.

Mike likes to talk. Man, does he like to talk! Fortunately, the Englishman who came to Minnesota to get his PhD, fell in love and stayed. He’s bright, knowledgeable and curious about many things. Recently, Mike was telling me about his decision to resume more regular church attendance.

Mulling over eternal verities or ultimate questions about meaning and purpose was conspicuously absent in Mike’s priorities. What was most striking were not questions about death or an after-life. Rather, Mike was primarily focused on quality of life now! He explained how social engagement and sense of community are essential for maintaining mental health and physical vitality well into our senior years.

Such nuggets of wisdom from elders I would want to emulate get noticed by 65 year-olds like me. Same way with my 85 y/o bother-in-law, Al. He’s always been popular in our family. Now six years into their seconds marriages, he and Elaine are modeling for the rest of us what its like to age with grace, gratitude and charm.

This past week I took a sour cream raisin pie over to share with them. A longstanding claim in our family is that Mom’s double-crust recipe is far superior to any meringue version others may tout! After our self-congratulatory remarks (and second helpings) we engaged in easy, wide-ranging conversation as we always do.

What I noticed throughout Al’s animated story-telling was more than a sugar-high from dessert. He was engaged, grateful and enthusiastic as ever.  This time he kept apologizing for going off on tangents. Every story had about five subplots and as many asides. But his were not the untethered wanderings of a feeble mind. They were exuberant reminiscences of people, places and times we shared in common. A perfect accompaniment to my mother’s double-crust sour cream raisin pie.

Not all our stories are easy or happy. My sister died in 2007. Now Al and his wife talk openly and lovingly about their first marriages. Though family circumstances prevented him from graduating from high school, Al remains as curious, wise and insightful as any philosophy professor I had in college. Twenty years his junior, I have always aspired to be like Al — now more than ever!

These disparate conversations with Mike and Al suddenly converged yesterday as I drove east on 50th Street. On the marquee of the largest Lutheran congregation in the world these words foretold this weekend’s sermon: “Some Assembly Required.” Immediately I chuckled at the clever play on words.

My conversations with Mike and Al suddenly struck me as profound as any sermon a pastor will be preaching at Mount Olivet. Life — and I would hold the spiritual life — is not like putting together a swing set or gas grill. As useful as the owner’s manual is for putting things in place and for their upkeep, such instructions are woefully inadequate for conveying the function and purpose enjoyed in life’s many conveniences — and dare I say, coping with life’s inevitable annoyances.

Yes, some assembly is required. Yet a full life, a purpose-filled life, a life the likes of which Mike and Al model for the rest of us demands more from us. We are nudged and enticed to move beyond the verb, “to assemble” according to the prescriptions of even the best user’s manual. We are invited, even wired, to engage assembly as the noun it is, as community — that full, rich, diverse assortment of characters that make us who we are.

Yes, some assembly is required. Here we carry the stories that enrich and define us, the memories we treasure, the tales that will one day be told about us. In the gathered assembly we reverently hold what’s most valuable and sacred — communion with one another.

Sufficient to Our Need, Despite Ourselves

It just feels relentless. Maybe this is simply what its like to be in your mid-sixties — at that ripe time in life where really painful stuff happens with regularity. Here are three current examples, all involving dear friends still in their fifties…

  • Divorce proceedings linger after nearly two years for a friend whose husband announced he hadn’t loved her since 1984!
  • The youth director at our local church returned early from leading a service trip in Guatemala after experiencing two minor heart attacks.
  • A mother of teenage daughters installs railings throughout her home and keeps a cain near at hand as an auto-immune disease steals her physical mobility.

Turning away with a smug gratitude for one’s own good fortune is not an option. With family, friends, neighbors we are bound in relationship. At times it is a painful “binding” for any with a heart that cares.

We can plant seeds in the young that we hope will bear fruit decades from now. Transformational encounters like “Outward Bound” can take our youth beyond self-imposed limits of endurance. We can wax eloquently about every athlete’s career ending in defeat — unless you are among the very few lucky enough to be on a league championship team during your final year of competition. But we just plant seeds. The harvest comes only when we are tugged kicking into our elder years.

All spirituality worth anything will nudge, coerce, entice us to embrace this confounding mystery. Mainline Christian churches too often ignore if not insulate us from pain, loss, suffering. More concerned with filling pews and feel-good sermons, too many of our faith communities have bought into the soft pastels and warm fuzzies of Easter and effectively ignore Good Friday. Too many seek a superficial solace in Sunday communion, forgetting that Christians gather for the breaking of the bread — offering stone, not bread.

Maybe because it is not my tradition, Native American spirituality has much to offer. Limited exposure to Lakota rituals such as the sweat lodge, vision quest and sun dance assures me that every human heart is indelibly imprinted with a greater wisdom. Tugged, pushed, coerced beyond our puny selves and self-referential egos, we are “birthed” kicking and screaming into a life beyond our imagining.

Like it our not — and if it’s the real deal, we won’t “like it” — every spiritual tradition worth our consideration will ultimately provoke a crisis in us. That’s not all it should do, but it is futile to expect a shortcut and foolish to short-circuit it. What good is a spirituality if it stands powerless to offer wisdom and counsel amid an onslaught of human suffering and inexplicable loss? Like the temptations Jesus endured in the desert, we too are called to reject the allure of idols.

Andre Louf (1929-2010), abbot of the Trappist monastery of Mont-des-Cats in the north of France expressed our condition in an especially poignant manner.  He counsels, it is the “holy ruse of God” to allure us through poverty, weakness, radical powerlessness and evident uselessness beyond anything we could imagine or suppose. Dom Andre describes where we will be taken, certainly beyond our will, to that place of ultimate grace:

…precisely where I am at my most vulnerable, stripped of my defenses, where I am totally diminished to an almost fatal extreme of weakness, where there remains but one single hope: that of finally laying down my arms and capitulating before God, that is to say, the hope of exposing myself, of casting myself upon his mercy, of allowing myself to be retrieved by grace at the place and at the precise moment where I was at the point of foundering.

To our ears so well attuned to feel-good, consumerist, self-anesthetizing pop-spirituality, this cannot be good news. Nevertheless, it is the only gospel worthy of the name or capable of addressing the inescapable truth of our lives.

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Quote is from In the School of Contemplation by Andre Louf. Cistercian Publications. Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN. 2015., p 75.