Sunday, September 15, 2013

Of Golden Calves and Lost Sheet: A Reflection Upon Priesthood


For the Rev. Coryl Lassen on the day of her Institution at St. Mark's Episcopal Church, Berkeley, CA

Create in us clean hearts, O God,
And restore a right spirit within us.

Today, in honor of Corrie’s institution as the newest Rector of St. Mark's, I would like to talk with you about priesthood, about what it means to be a church, about what it means to be human, and finally, what it means to trust God. Few sets of readings are more honest in their assessment of these things than the ones we have heard read today.

Our first story takes us into the wilderness where the identity of Israel was formed, where a people came face to face with their own deepest questions, hopes and fears. While Moses lived out one of the most incredible and life-changing relationships with God in all of sacred story, his brother Aaron served as Israel's first priest. To be a priest is to witness and affirm others’ life changing relationships with God.

But to be a priest is also to be embedded with the people God has given you, to care for them, meeting them not where they should be, but right where they are: old, young, rich, poor, healthy, sick, confident, frightened, wise, ignorant. Such empathy is an incredible gift, but it is not without challenges.

When the Israelites left Egypt and went into the wilderness, they were leaving a way of life that had formed their goings out and their comings in for 500 years, a civilization that had been formed in part by one of their own, Joseph, son of Jacob. In many ways, they were victims of their own success. In Egypt they had grown numerous, and so capable that they alarmed Pharaoh. The Bible talks about their being enslaved by Pharaoh, but I suspect they were also enslaved by their own competency, their own work ethic, very much as we in the United States are finding ourselves exploited today, not by our failure to work hard, but by our success. Success is the enemy of growth. Success wants to stop the clock, keep everything as it was, so instead of leading us down new paths, success creates a pile up. More work. More profit for the owners. More buildings. More supply cities. Once upon a time, people worked to make a living. Today, enslaved to past success, we work to subsidize billionaires.

Long ago, Israel was set free. Problem was, they had been in Egypt so long, they had forgotten their own roots: they had forgotten how to live in the wilderness. And when Moses disappeared for one of his long communions with God, they were left to fend for themselves. This is important. God has as much to teach us when we perceive in God to be absent as God does when we know God is present, and the Bible is full of stories about God's absence. I have talked about the absence of God stories with you already, and won't go into them again in detail; suffice to say, when people feel that God is gone, they tend to lose it. Control issues, especially, flare. Ask any saint: it's difficult enough to give control to God when God feels present. It's almost impossible when God feels absent. Political ideologies, computers, market theory, war, addiction, remodeling frenzies, social posturing, from the very greatest to the most petty, all these rush in to fill the vacuum left by a perceived absence of the Divine. If God is not in control, says this mind, then I must be in control, because if I am not in control, there are others waiting to control me. One of the reliable signs that a community has let go of God is that it breaks into warring factions that need some kind of joint symbol to bring them back together.

We priests, especially if we are doing what God has asked us to do, get caught in the middle of this very easily. We are asked to mediate between God and world, between the altar guild and the choir. We are asked to bring comfort to our dear ones who are suffering. We think that we can do it, and most of the time we can. But sometimes, well, imagine yourself Aaron with a whole lot of scared people who have a lot of gold that isn't doing them much good out in the middle of the wilderness, and they want their gold to be important since it was their last gift as they departed Egypt, to build a calf, not a full Apis bull or Hathor cow, but a calf, an icon to remind them of where they had been and where they had still to grow, and it was such a relief to pool all their goods in common and have something concrete upon which to focus…and, how could they know that the anger of God would burn hot?

Today is the day after Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of Atonement. Many Jews consider this the happiest day of the year. Yom Kippur is not so much my admitting that I have done wrong, but the experience of having God taking me back. Having the life changing conversation, and knowing that God is listening. As humans, we make mistakes. We make big mistakes. We worship gold rather than God. We treat nature as a personal feeding trough rather than a gift to be cared for. We are know-it-alls throwing our ignorance around as if it were truth. God knows that this is how we learn. This, in the words of Jewish educator Wendy Mogel is "The Blessing of a Skinned Knee." On this day of Corrie's institution, I wish all of us the courage to learn, to find the blessing even when our successes harm others and our failures make us ashamed.

Still, we priests often think we know more than we do. We often make pronouncements. And so God gives us 1 Timothy. Oh, the part we read today is inspiring: I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.

I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly. I say to you what I often say to myself: to receive mercy is not to receive knowledge. The act of being forgiven makes me only an expert in forgiveness. It does not give me permission to be bossy. But – having been forgiven his ignorance by God, the writer of the letter to Timothy (who probably was not Paul), goes on to behave like a know it all: he instructs men to pray, and women to dress modestly. In one of the most flagrant examples of Biblical bigotry, he writes "Let a woman learn in silence with full submission. I permit no woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty." To attempt to control any human being besides oneself is idolatry, because it places my opinions above the will of God. Some men have problems with women. Some women have problems with men. This does not mean that God has problems with any of us. But like Aaron and the golden calf, it is a temptation for priests to build a faith community in the image of themselves. On this day of Corrie's institution, I pray that all your identities and all your prayers grow community of genuine and surprising diversity.

And finally we come to the Gospel and one of the most beloved images in Christendom: the lost sheep laid on the shoulders of the Good Shepherd and brought safely home. That's what we want our great high priest to be: the one who shoulders us, our fears and our burdens and brings us in safety to our senses.

As we have richly seen during these past months, it's not quite that simple. Even as Corrie has been our priest and shouldered our burdens, we have shouldered hers as well as she has made her way through a difficult course of chemotherapy. Which brings me to my final observation about what it means to be a priest and a Church.

We are living at a moment when the habits of the last 500 years are going away. We are at a point of transformation as profound as the age of Copernicus and Galileo. If their age gave us the revelation that Earth was nothing more than another planet revolving around the sun, and overthrew the triumphal cosmology of the Catholic Church, our new age, the age of Darwin, kicks us out of our humanistic self centeredness on an isolated planet by giving us back to the universe. We are not the masters of nature, but the keepers of nature, fully embedded in the natural world. We are formed of stardust. We are a species. Every bit as much as a woodpecker, a river otter, or an iguana, our ability to thrive depends upon the health of the earth. In this world, it is not Church against science; it is Church together with science in the new wilderness of learning what it means to live according to the law of nature rather than the golden calf of our own invention.

God has known this from the beginning. As Isaiah says: "A voice cries out: in the wilderness prepare the way of The Lord."

In the wilderness, nothing is lost. Nothing is wasted. And thus, in the ecology of faith, Jesus comes to bring the lost sheep home. There can be no 99 and 1. There must be 100%.  And this is my prayer for you and Corrie: that for you all, this community will be your home. That you grow and flourish. That you learn to trust God and live well. For that is what the priesthood of all believers is all about.

Monday, September 2, 2013

What Goes Around Comes Around

In the natural world, all life exists to receive nourishment and to provide nourishment. It is not a food chain as much as a circle of life, endlessly recycling and spiraling. Jesus wasn't kidding when he said it was all about eating: the bread of life, the waters of life, the tree of life, the truth that gives life.

Consumerism is nothing more than a lopsided understanding of this process.



Leavers and Takers

In our myth of the Pleistocene, the disappearance of large, wild mammals was the crisis that started us down the road; the indigenous cultural forms embracing an ethic of nature preservation, the "advanced" ones embarking upon a program of nature management and control. Both responses, healing and control, were responses to trauma. Both had as their goal the survival of the human community. Scientific studies offer some compelling evidence that we stand at the brink of another extinction as profound as the one that happened at the end of the Pleistocene. The fact that we have already survived one mammalian crash should give us hope that we can survive another, and hope is what we need if we are ever going to be able to look with mindful, sober vision at what is happening to us now.

Not surprisingly, as heirs to the culture of control, as Westerners trained since birth to think of ourselves as somehow apart from nature, most of our conversations revolve around the human impact on the natural world: about being "green," about "sustainable" growth and "sustainable" power grids. Committed to capitalism and technology, my rich friends buy solar ovens for peasants in the third world and solar panels for themselves. We pretend that there is such a thing as "fair trade," (when every horse trader knows that the point of a good trade is that it is not fair at all). Ever since the 1970's, we have replaced the idea of life with "lifestyle," making it possible to think that all we need to do is "tweek" our lifestyles. As if biology were simple fashion and nature were some kind of control panel. As if. As if. At the moment when it has never been more important to come together as a species, too many of us are standing in front of the mirror, tweeking our lifestyles and being afraid that financial success is the only thing that can save us, because if I am in control, at least I will come out OK.

All of this deftly ignores the simple law of nature. There is no such thing as "I" apart from the web of life. We can't go on consuming forever unless we produce waste that is compostable and will grow more. We can't go on burning up petroleum, burning up forests, burning up trash and imagine that with so much burning things won't heat up.

As many of you know, the work I do as school chaplain and director of service learning encompasses teaching children all about the religious mind from a dizzying variety of traditions and perspectives, and being a voice for community outreach. The more I have pondered theology and soup kitchens, cleaning Lake Merritt and Buddhist karma, the more I have become convinced that the closest thing to the Kingdom of God on earth is a healthy ecosystem. (This is my body.) In a healthy ecosystem, all the parts work with and for all the other parts, nothing is ever lost, for even the death of things nourishes others, and if there is always something left over, nothing goes to waste. Or to put it another way, in a healthy ecosystem, nothing is self-sufficient and everything is about relationship. It’s all about relationship. To be human is to be in conversation with all of life, and to be in conversation with all of life is to be in conversation with God.


People who have studied ecological relationships are coming increasingly to see that global warming and global poverty are deeply connected, that there can be no environmental justice without social justice. Scientific studies have shown that one of the most important ways to achieve both happiness and resilience is practice compassion for others. Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured. …Keep your lives free from the love of money, and be content with what you have; for he has said, "I will never leave you or forsake you." 


Thursday, August 15, 2013

As many who know me are aware, I was totally upended by a visit to the Soviet Union in 1981. I came home with these thoughts:

  1. The Soviet Union was a “shame” society, far more focused upon external compliance than inner life;
  2. Despite its “leftist” and “revolutionary” reputation, the Soviet state was deeply and structurally conservative, more like the reactionary Nicholas I than the reformer Alexander II.

As a child in Berkeley, California, I grew up swimming in a sea of leftist, progressive thought, which was one of the reasons I was interested in the Soviet Union in the first place. Russian literature awoke in me a rich constellation of thoughts and feelings and the elegant society in which I passed my childhood found a sympathetic echo in its pages. So what was not to like about going to Russia?

The best parts of me did not like Russia. But the phoniest, smarmiest, public relations side of my being liked the place just fine.

“Remember,” said our tour organizer, a old Berkeley radical to the souls of his shoes. “You don’t have to put up with any shit from them. You’re free people and don’t forget it.”

Most of the people who were on my tour took his words to heart. Being raised to be gracious, I found them simply impolite, and though free, thought that silence was probably the more prudent course in a country whose customs I did not know.

The tour was a summer university exchange and we spent most of our time as guests at Leningrad University listening to lectures on Russian history and culture from various faculty members. They were interesting, and for the most part were about economic theory and economic development, topics that until that point had not particularly engaged me. But it was in the Soviet Union that I experienced with great honesty the power that money exerts over people’s lives, how having it confers confidence, how having it taken away shatters confidence; in short, how money could be used as a weapon of intimidation.

But while I sat quietly in my seat trying to deal with this onslaught of new information, my fellow travelers were hurtling the insults of “free people” at our Soviet hosts, demanding that they talk about imprisoned poets and slave labor, which, of course, this being a summer vacation, they would not. They did not return the accusations with silence, however; they returned the accusations with tracts so lengthy and so boring you regretted that anyone said anything at all, and it was in the midst of a discourse upon the construction of a dam in some area so remote that most Russians had probably not heard of it that I hit upon an idea.  

That idea was being constructive. Clearly, these guys knew how to deal with disruptions, but what about constructions? So, the next day, I raised a tentative hand. “I realize, thanks to you,” I began, referring to the Marxist ideology upon which Soviet Communism was built, “that ideas can be absolutely perfect. But it has been my experience of human beings that we are less than perfect. So, how do you handle the ordinary difficulties of daily life like traffic tickets?”

Everyone laughed, and one of our hosts, a lovely woman in her sixties who reminded me of my favorite aunt, touched me on the shoulder. “No one is interested in that,” she smiled, “but come over here and I’ll tell you all about it.”

While the rest of the group went on to loftier subjects, I received an incredibly lively picture of daily life in Leningrad, of squabbles between neighbors, small claims court, apartment councils, the sheer complexity of lots of people living in close proximity, the ill tempered ones and the nice ones. It was thanks to this lovely woman that I learned beyond a shadow of a doubt that the Russians knew a lot more than they were telling.

My alarm became not for them; it was clear that Soviet Power was on its last legs, but for us, because, after all, we were “free people,” in the greatest and best society that had ever arisen on the face of the earth, and we didn’t know a thing.

A lot has happened since 1981, but the tension between perfection and disruption continues, and now that we don’t have the Russians to beat up anymore, we are doing it to ourselves.

Social Ecology: Because We Are Nature

I'm  not sure where I first heard this story. I'm sure it was in Alaska, and its beginning was told me by a Native during the course of opening to me the Native Mind. The ending of the story was added by me, also a storyteller, and I can think of no better fable to show the difference between the way I was taught to view reality and the way my Alaskan friend was taught.

The story begins with a scientifically proven fact: at the end of the Pleistocene, about 10,000 years ago, there was a mass extinction of large animals across Eurasia and North America. No one was there to witness this event; most people attribute it to overhunting, and author Barry Lopez in his precise and pointed manner observes that outside the African continent, there was almost no co-evolution between humans and large mammals. Co-evolution describes a relationship between predators and their prey. Prey species adapt in ways to better avoid those who hunt them, forcing predators to hone their hunting skills and resulting in stronger species overall.

There is no question that during the Pleistocene, humans honed their hunting skills, napping flint arrow and spear heads and mastering the art of fire which permitted cooking what they had caught. In North America, so goes the Native account, the animals did not know us when we crossed the bridge into the new land, and because they did not know us, it made it possible for us to hunt them out of existence. When we saw what we had done, we were very sad and we were very hungry, so we came together to learn how we could live better with the animals and the land. Out of this was born our Native Way. We did not always have this way. We had to learn from our mistakes.

Presumably, the same thing was going on in Eurasia. All the animals whose memory haunts us from caves in El Castillo, Chauvet, Lascaux also went extinct. This might be one of the things indirectly alluded to in the myth of the expulsion from the Garden, although the Bible makes no reference to humans' eating meet until after the Flood, and the Flood is about saving animals, not losing them. The mythological evidence from Europe is spotty. But what we can document, from around that time, is the rise of a culture of control: agriculture, domestic animals, walled cities, armies, hierarchies; in short, the mechanisms of order, and the distancing of the human person from the world that nourishes and sustains him. With the beautiful exception of the Egyptians -- and remember that the Egyptians were Africans and so enjoyed co-evolution -- animal people are surprisingly absent from the Greek and Near Eastern pantheons, appearing mostly in monstrous form.

Ecological philosopher Paul Shepard believes that something so profound happened about 10,000 years ago that we are only just beginning to appreciate its consequences. His beautiful study Nature and Madness details the loss of adulthood that accompanies civilization. In the more technical societies, humans enjoy very long childhoods and lack any kind of initiation into real maturity. The result is that in the most so-called "advanced" technical societies, even the elders are just decaying young people. One of his other books, collected from posthumous writings, describes the Pleistocene, being the age in which humans rose to high levels of consciousness, was also the age to whose ecosystems we were the most perfectly adapted, and all that has followed has been in some way a mismatch, with all the distortions to reality implied when our instincts are not in tune with our surroundings. In such a view, although Shepard does not go this far, cities become a way of tailoring the environment to purely human sensibilities. More about this later.

In his whimsical book about a philosophical gorilla named Ishmael, novelist Daniel Quinn refers to two basic cultural stances in the world: the leavers and the takers.

To be continued...

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Maybe Change Isn't the Problem

"Spare change?" says the Berkeley panhandler, who, in various incarnations, has been sitting on Telegraph Avenue ever since I was a teenager in the 'sixties.

"There's been too much change," observes a friend at lunch, feeling slightly overwhelmed by all the transitions at work.

"People naturally dislike change," announces the latest self-help book, "but if you follow the program in this book you will be able to skillfully manage it."

"It's time for a change," says my mother, as if voting for a candidate was going to settle the matter once and for all.

The way  most of us talk about change, you would think it was the uninvited guest at the dinner party, a thing, like the change we keep in our pocket, or at the very least, like one of those disagreeable procedures that is sometimes necessary, like colonoscopy. An interruption in the "normal" state of affairs.

Now substitute the word "weather" for "change." We certainly talk about coping with the weather, and some people move to places that promise less of it it, but do we think we should manage it? (Indeed, human caused climate change rather warns us against it.)

But ever since Plato wrote about the universal, changeless forms, change has gotten a bad rap, equated with decay and duplicity, while that which is unmoved, remains superior, elegant, a state of being to be striven towards.

But what if eternal is just another word for rigid? What if Plato's forms turned out to be nothing more than a shrieking pedant telling you to stand still and obey or risk being hit with a ruler?

Since last I blogged here about religion, imagination and finding God in the Alaska bush, I've been mushing through the wilderness of change. Two of my best friends died. I lost my dad. I lost the last vestiges of a lost youth. I lost that rosy glow that surrounds the word "future." I've been dealing with illness in those I love, and at some point, now sooner rather than later, I'll be dealing with illness in myself. I have walked through the valley of the shadow of depression and have seen things that others would have rather I not see.

And yet, still in love with ideas as I have always been in love with ideas, I'm beginning to see that far from being dismal, change, even as it leads toward death, also teems with life, that co-evolution and not philosophical purity is where beauty and depth and truth are to be found, that, as the Buddhists have taught for thousands of years, there is no concreteness anywhere, only aggregates and relationships. Jesus didn't promise the woman at the well a stagnant mirror pool; he promised her living waters.

Maybe the problem isn't change at all. Maybe the problem lies in trying too hard to control it.

Join me in a summer series of stories. Just because we're stuck with change, doesn't mean it isn't a grand adventure.

Thursday, May 9, 2013


Forgive them, Father, for they do not know what they are doing, says Jesus. Forgive them. They do not know. Paul echoed Jesus later on when he said, we speak God’s wisdom, secret and hidden, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

But the crowd who had welcomed him with palms cried “Crucify!” Pray, said Jesus to his disciples, that you may not come into the time of trial.

The Passion is the story of the time of trial. It is a dense story. It is impossible to get all of it, no matter how often we hear it. It is impossible not to be touched by it. Overtly, it is a story in which Jesus is put on trial, but it is the world, not Jesus, that is in fact tried. We are tried. It is a story of betrayal, haste, grief and exhaustion. It is a story about facing our deepest fears. It is about a Savior that dies for our sins, not by erasing them, but by showing us what our sins really are. None of the rulers of this age understood this; for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.

A teacher writes: Bad things happen when the pace of change exceeds our ability to change, and events move faster than our understanding. It is then that we feel the loss of control over our lives. Anxiety creates fear, fear leads to anger, anger breeds violence, and violence … becomes a deadly reality. (p. 2)

Lord, should we strike with the sword? cry Jesus’ followers when the crowd storms their garden. One of them struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his right ear. 51But Jesus said, ‘No more of this!’ And he touched his ear and healed him. No more of this. Violence, coercion, even in the best of causes, even to save, it will not get us where we wish to go. Violence only sets Barabbas free.

Peace is a paradox. Those who show courage in the heat of battle are celebrated. Those who take risks for peace are all too often assassinated.The pursuit of peace can come to seem to be a kind of betrayal. It has none of the clarity of war, in which the issues -- self defense, national honor, patriotism, pride -- are unambiguous and compelling. Peace involves a profound crisis of identity. (p. 8) 

When our world falls apart, we forget who we are. When we forget, we grow afraid. When we are afraid, we will betray all that is best in us just to make it go away. It doesn’t go away. Most of us, at one time or another, have been afraid.

Man, I do not know what you are talking about!’ At that moment, while he was still speaking, the cock crowed. 61The Lord turned and looked at Peter.

Why was Jesus arrested? What social equilibrium did he threaten? What was the matter?

We found this man perverting our nation, forbidding us to pay taxes to the emperor.

The crowd has no idea what it is saying. Jesus did not forbid taxes to the emperor. Indeed, he told us to give the emperor his due, to not hold on to all that stuff. How many show trials have accused people of things they never did or said? Jesus asked us to serve God, to empty ourselves to God, to let God transform us. If we become people of God, the emperor will no longer have the power to harm.

Father forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.


Do we know what Jesus is talking about? Pause, and in the stillness of your heart, let Jesus look at you.