Monday, February 25, 2008

Discovering the New World: Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent (Still More on Failure of Nerve)

The people quarreled with Moses, and said, "Give us water to drink." Moses said to them, "Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you test the Lord?" But the people thirsted there for water; and the people complained against Moses and said, "Why did you bring us out of Egypt, to kill us and our children and livestock with thirst?" So Moses cried out to the Lord, "What shall I do with this people?”

What shall I do, indeed? Since last summer, one of my best friends and I have been wrestling with a book. It has a memorable title: Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. It was written by Edwin Friedman, a Rabbi and advisor to presidents and generals, counselor to troubled families, a systems theory genius whose landmark book Generation to Generation not only helped change the way in which children understand their parents and pastors understand their congregations, but also gave to people trapped in such systems a map with which to see their way out. His secret was not about changing the system, but about changing myself in such a way that the system’s rules could no longer entrap me. In Failure of Nerve, the system is neither family nor church but western civilization and here Friedman wonders what qualities are needed to become a leader. Today’s civilization, Friedman argues, like that of late Medieval Europe is not creative, but regressive. It clings to an unsatisfactory past because it has raised barriers to imagining the future. As Americans, we lose our individual integrity in the feel-good soup of a herd mentality which substitutes mindless conformity for the more difficult work of discovery. People like me stuff ourselves full of information in the hopes that the next book read will at last reveal the answer. Grades and standardized test scores take the place of the wisdom that is hard won out of failure. Reading Failure of Nerve was life changing. Seeing my own failure of nerve in its pages, I found the courage to finally stand up and begin to live my own life.

That said, reading this book was also deeply disturbing. As the author began to explore what great leadership and courage actually looked like, he offered a surprising example. Friedman’s differentiated leader was not a good liberal reformer like Mohandas Gandhi or Dr. Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela. No, the person Friedman chose to raise up as the paragon of differentiation was a man who left people and home: the late Medieval explorer Christopher Columbus. Columbus, according to Friedman, had the ability to stand up to the regressive forces around him and forge ahead to open up a new world. His voyage changed Europe and ushered in the Renaissance. This is true. But as I read all this, I found that even in the face of persuasive argument, I could not unconditionally admire Columbus. His was a very costly voyage. Nor was it limited to the advancement of Europe. To the Taino and other indigenous peoples, the European “discovery” of the “New” World, did not mean creative renewal. It meant rape, disease, slavery and death. Columbus, while able to rise above his own culture, was not able to arrive at a new one. Although capable of changing other, he could not be changed himself. Meanwhile, people who had been obedient to the laws of God and nature for thousands of years were swept away by an ethic of restless innovation.

I think the paradox of Columbus’ greatness and his failure may be one of the most essential questions we of the New World can ever address. What, really, does it mean to move ahead? If we call our spiritual life a journey, what is its true destination?

This is a question our civilization has been asking for a very long time. Thousands of years before Columbus, Moses and the Israelites left Egypt and set out into the desert. Moses was a great leader. He understood that life in Egypt was slavery. He had the perseverance to stand up to Pharaoh. He had the kind of vision that could see the way through the insurmountable barrier of the Red Sea. However, no sooner had this freedom been achieved than things began to fall apart. The people became reactive. They complained and whined at Moses like babies. “Did you bring me out here to kill me?” A friend called this one of the most self-critical texts in all sacred literature. It says, straight out, that the journey from slavery to freedom, from error to truth, from my way to God’s way, is far harder than I ever imagined. It is as hard as being an adolescent and having to grow up. It is as hard as leaving the lushness of youth for the more austere world of old age. It is as hard as going to the New World and greeting the Other, not as something to be conquered, but as a fellow child of God.

Today, on this third Sunday of Lent, we meet Jesus, not as great leader, but as a thirsty man all by himself in a lonely place. He is tired from his journey. A woman appears to draw water. She is a Samaritan. Jesus does not assert his superiority. He does not ignore her. Instead, he simply asks her for a drink.

Spiritual life, or so the scriptures tell us again and again, happens at the boundary. Boundaries have many different meanings, personal, political, spiritual. Boundaries are the places we cross at birth, as adolescence gives way to adulthood, adulthood to old age, old age to bodily death. Healthy boundaries are what allow me to function fully as myself and not violate the integrity of others. Politically, boundaries separate countries. Governments build walls at those boundaries and warriors and adventurers cross them. Knowing when a boundary is healthy and when it is not is the work of a lifetime. Spiritual boundaries help me to discern God and to know what spiritual practices give life and which bring merely control and death. In the ancient Roman culture in which Jesus lived, boundaries and crossroads were dangerous places. Thieves, prostitutes, drunkards and demons all hung out at there. And so did Jesus. In today’s story, he comes to the crossroads of Judea and Samaria, and he asks a woman for a drink. It is humbling to see him thus, as a suppliant. Usually, when I pray, it is I, not God, who is doing the asking. But in this story God is the one who asks. In this story, my differentiation does not depend upon innovation, creativity or moving forward, but simply being there, present to the voice of God.

The stories we read during the weeks of Lent are all pieces of a much larger story. Each one of the stories involves the loss of some personal illusion: illusions of power, of wisdom, of separation, the stigma of physical disability, and, finally, death. To lose these illusions is not to make me an effective leader as much as it is to make me a faithful follower.

In a sermon entitled “You are Accepted,” theologian Paul Tillich defined grace as precisely this: right now, just as I am, I understand that I belong not to myself, but to God. Sin is about separating myself, about setting myself above or below. Grace, on the other hand, Tillich writes, “is able to overcome the tragic separation of the sexes, of the generations, of the nations, of the races, and even the utter strangeness between man and nature. Sometimes grace appears in all these separations to reunite us with those to whom we belong. For life belongs to life.”

“God is spirit,” says Jesus, “and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth." It is not very often that we are given such a clear picture of God. Most definitions of God are symbolic, a quality that reveals the divine: God is father, God is love, God is creator. In those three cases, we must ask what it means to be Father, what it means to love, what it means when I talk of creation. But Spirit is something we can know in its pure, inarticulate form. Spirit is breath. Spirit is the boundary that connects all life. Spirit is that delicate envelope of air that embraces our earth in the depths of space. Like this air we breathe, each of us receives the Spirit in our own way. Like the air, we share the spirit in common. The spirit lives both within and without. Within its boundaries, spirit holds both good and evil. Spirit holds it all. Thus it cannot be found exclusively on the mountain of the Samaritans. It cannot be found exclusively in the city of the Jews. The hour is coming and is now here when neither will do. Truth is not about what I know or what I don’t know. If the Jews worship what they know and the Samaritans worship what they don’t know, Spirit contains both these things. To live in such a paradox requires not a leader, but a guide, a teacher who can help me through the wilderness of Sin, the wilderness of Self and the wilderness of Other. That one is Messiah. "I know that Messiah is coming," says the woman. "When he comes, he will proclaim all things to us." And Jesus says, "I am he, the one who is speaking to you."

At the end of the story, everything has changed and yet nothing has changed. Jesus is still thirsty. The woman never did give him his drink of water. Later, on the cross, some of Jesus’ last words would be “I thirst.” It isn’t finished. Thousands of years later, we are still pondering what happened at that High Noon in Samaria. We still seek those living waters. Thousands of years later, we still ponder the nature of spirit and truth. Lent after Lent, we return to Jacob’s well and meet that extraordinary woman who spoke so frankly with God.

When a society, be it the Egypt of Moses’ time or the Rome of Jesus’ time, the Europe of Columbus’ time or the world of our own time, when a society grows regressive and frightening, the temptation is to draw back, to impose our solutions upon others. But Moses and Jesus both say otherwise. At a time like this, we are called to trust in God. We are called to trust the question. To trust in the waters hidden in the rock. To trust in the traveler who arrives at high noon. To trust the wisdom of outsiders. No matter what it may seem, nothing is really finished. Nothing has changed and yet everything has changed. God knows that we thirst. Amen.

St. Paul's, Oakland
24 February 2008

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Boundaries, II

With that, we come to what is, for me, the most troubling and therefore most interesting part of Failure of Nerve. As an example of one whose nerve did not fail, Friedman chooses Christopher Columbus. His argument, if I follow it correctly, is this. The Europe of the late Middle Ages and early Renaissance was a deeply regressive culture. Lacking health and growth, the Church was devouring innovation in waves of persecutions. Doctrine took precedence over truth. And then Columbus came along and took risks and saw the way out of this mess and discovered a whole new continent. He did not give in to conventional thinking. He refused to be limited by a flat earth and dragons lurking at the end of the known world. He did not give up when the voyage got tough. His determination to find the New was like laser vision across the morass of late medieval Europe. This may all be true. The trouble is that it is far from the whole truth. If Columbus was able to maintain healthy immunity from his own culture, he could not sustain health in the New World. He gave flesh to the whole nightmare of regressive, judgmental, genocidal late medieval culture by initiating centuries of rape, plunder and destruction of a continent and its people. Of the gentle Taino who greeted him, not a single one remains. I don’t believe it is possible to praise the achievements of this man without also acknowledging his failures.

Friedman would brook no criticism of his choice of heroes. If someone suggested that Columbus might have been differentiated on one side, but was murderous on the other, he would answer that now was neither the time nor place for whining. Indeed, whining was the problem. Life is not about the abuse I suffered as a child and this conversation is meant to highlight the positive aspects of exploration.

And now, having changed the subject, I too must stop. What a mess I have got us all into! Columbus the explorer (forget his evil and concentrate on his differentiation) and me the victim (whining never did any good – build up your immune system). It’s the old apples and oranges problem. Stick to the subject at hand and swallow your own pain. Get over it.

But do I even want to get over it? Can I stick to the subject of your freedom when the cost is so high to my own? Getting back to the facile reasoning with which I began, I think Friedman’s theory facile. If Columbus is the best we can do, all I can say is heaven help us.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Boundaries, I

“It’s too facile,” said my husband after I had treated him to my theory of Western Civilization as an extended essay in adolescence.

“You are entirely correct.” I answered after a pause to think. “But – perhaps I am being facile for a reason. Isn’t facile what the adolescent mind is all about? Remember the sweeping theories you had at eighteen?”

Among my circle of friends and in my diocese at large, people are reading and admiring Edwin Friedman’s posthumously published book Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. Its sweeping theory is that as a society we have lost differentiated leadership. It is a book about boundaries. This should come as no surprise. Friedman was a rabbi. Boundaries are a great theme in Jewish law. God is One. Humankind is another. Wool and linen are not to be worn at the same time. Meat must not be served with milk. Honor your father and your mother. They gave you life but you are not them. In a community set apart for the service of God, boundaries within the group and with other groups are essential. Boundaries help me establish my place in the scheme of things.

Friedman uses the human immune system as his metaphor for differentiation within the collective. The human body is an ecosystem of interdependent, yet distinct, cells. A healthy immune system guards the integrity of that system. My immune system makes it possible for me to live among others without getting every passing virus. It can tell me when it is time to rest and heal. It can even ward off cancer and other serious illnesses that seek to break me down.

Interpersonal boundaries are another version of the body and its immune system. As human beings, you and I are part of the same human condition, but we are also distinct. I cannot minister to your pain if it keeps getting mixed up with my own. I cannot truly celebrate your joys if I am nourishing my resentment that those joys failed to happen to me. I cannot lead if I do not honor the integrity of us both.

As a teacher steeped in Jewish law, Jesus was very good at maintaining the correct boundaries. He did not catch the diseases of those he healed. He was very clear about the distinction between earthly and heavenly things. He called Peter “Satan” when Peter thought like a lump of dirt and blubbered from the fear of death. Jesus knew everything about everybody but he did not succumb to the dramas going on all around him. And yet, Jesus is rarely taught this way. Instead, he is portrayed as one who breaks boundaries down.

As Arnold points out in Life Conquers Death, “crossing boundaries is [Jesus’] typical activity.” (p. 42) We see Jesus hanging with Samaritans and tax collectors, centurions and unclean women. All true. But hospitality is not the same thing as a world without boundaries. Nor are factions like Jew and Samaritan, Democrat and Republican real boundaries. These are but different ends of a social continuum. The factionalism that Jesus crossed over was like the liver fighting with the kidney. He told them to stop fighting and to heal.

Adolescents love factions. I remember dividing the world into desirable people, sometimes known as an “in” crowd and creepy people who were beneath even my contempt. My friends and I climbed hills and looked patronizingly down upon the suburban world at our feet. We would grow wings and become, not citizens of these United States of banality, but explorers of the world, bringers of radiant joy, artists of the floating world. Instead, because the world encouraged us to remain young, and because we were a great deal more ignorant than we fancied ourselves -- Joseph Campbell described us as taking on the gods in our diapers -- we are now experiencing the wrath of that which we were too arrogant to believe.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008


“In everyday speech the word ‘myth’ is taken to mean an untrue historical story, whereas its real meaning is a true non-historical story.” Life Conquers Death, p. 17

For all its evocations of the modern world and the lessons of history, for all the concreteness of its writing, John Arnold’s Lent Book is really a sacred story, a myth disguised as an essay. The Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung believed that ancient myths were the treasure house of human wisdom, that the human soul is a weaving of tales. To relegate myth to the nursery, as we do today, while real adults build inanimate machines and manage inanimate money is unhealthy. “Inside each one of us,” Jung said, “lives a two million year old self.” When humanity cuts itself off from this rich past, we really do become dangerous infants, wielding power without benefit of wisdom. We cling to being young, although we are in fact very old.

The Gospels address the tension of time. They are a myth set in history. This may be one of the mystical reasons that Jesus must be both fully God and fully human in order to live the question that God sent him to address. As human, Jesus inhabits history. As God, he inhabits all that lies outside history. His miracles symbolize the tension between time and not-time, between mortality and immortality, between brokenness and wholeness, between what humans think is factual and what God knows to be true.

The spiritual world, being more mythic than scientific, (although like science, the spiritual world does have laws), is both universal and particular. My dreams come to me alone, but because they contain material that has informed the human species for millennia, they will speak their truth in different ways to other people. Liking the efficiency of uniformity, Western culture is impatient with this kind of multi-valence, feeling it to be “wishy-washy” or not incisive enough. Western cultures want answers, once and for all, (even the Bible harps on that phrase), and in our relentless rejection of ambiguity, we rejected the slowness of myth in favor of history, the “true” story of events and natural science, the “true” story of the physical world. As history, the Deuteronomic tradition in the Hebrew Scriptures posited the theory that idolatry was the reason for human suffering. When people turned away from God, bad things would happen. Thucidides, for his part, removed all mythic gloss from his tale of the Peloponnesian Wars and revealed the brutishness of men. On the side of science, Thales of Miletus posited water as the primal element of life and Copernicus moved us to revolving around the sun. Idolatry, brutality, water and orbit are extremely useful ideas. The Deuteronomic historian has helped me to understand that it is not must my clinical depression that makes me unfulfilled by retail therapy, but the fact that I have put my heart upon idolatrous things. Thucidides wrote one of the finest arguments against war we have ever seen. Thales of Miletus has been helpful to my understanding of the history of the earth, how earth’s first living organisms did indeed live in water and in evolutionary terms, how risky it is to live on land. Since Thales did not have the benefit of a laboratory, he shows that great knowledge is possible through careful observation and the contemplation of what is observed. Copernicus gave me humility.

Neither the Deuteronomic historian, Thucidides nor Thales nor Copernicus had much use for myth. Myths are notoriously imprecise. Myths, unlike theories, have many characters. Joseph Campbell did us a disservice in The Hero with a Thousand Faces when he raised up the hero archetype above the others, as if any myth could have a "main" character. The Hero is but one aspect of the human person. True myths are far more polyvalent than that, just as the human is more than his ego. Hero tales, like egos, draw sharp lines between “good” and “evil.” If Arnold is correct and Adam and Eve are less bad than merely precocious, tasing unripe knowledge for which they were totally unready, “good” and “evil” may be far less useful categories than generally supposed. Good and evil are projections. Immature egos deal with their likes and dislikes by projecting them onto external figures and situations, by dividing reality up into categories small enough for their emergent intellects to grasp. Real myths ask not that we grasp, but that we let go. Myths are less judgment than reflection. They give me the words to live as myself. They give me the way to live with others. They show me as I really am: healer, killer, lover, predator, selfless and selfish at one and the same time.

So Jesus was a myth who appeared in history. Go read Rudolph Bultmann if you don’t believe me. As history, as mammal, Jesus learned from nature. Jesus also learned from the wise ones of his culture, from his mother, his father, the local rabbis, the scriptures, but he was also God in ways it is harder for us to understand, because our culture confuses God with something idolatrous called “Master of the Universe” or some such assumption. Appropriately to our youth worshipping culture, Jesus was not elder, but ephebe, a young adult called to wisdom by a young and impetuous society defined by the adolescent quest to have its own way, and fascinated, as adolescents usually are, with violence. His message to us was a loving invitation to die to all that and grow up, but in the terrifyingly literal adolescent mind, that invitation resulted in his being put to death in the most violent of all ways as if to say, “There, God. Can you take THAT?”

We have been living with that question, and God’s answer, ever since.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

You Can't Be Under What is Everywhere

It’s my own fault for invoking the phrase “One Nation Under God.” Of course I intended it as a sly suggestion that I was and am more like the “Evil Empire” than I have ever cared to admit. But no phrase ever means what I want it to mean and there’s a whiff of theocracy in “One Nation Under God.” Few words strike more knee-jerk into my liberal friends than “theocracy.” Liberalism sees the Magisterium and the Fundamentalists and concludes that to obey God is to abandon reason. We see theocratic delusions the faces of the Taliban and their faceless women. We experience theocracy as tyrannical obedience to evil men who set death as the price of questioning authority. Was not violence the legacy of the Inquisition, the burnings at the stake that scented the Middle Ages with horror? History has seemed to clearly demonstrate that to claim to have God on ones side results in nothing but inhuman behavior. End argument. Theocracy is religious violence.

Well, maybe. It could also just be plain old ignorance. People do a lot of stupid things which they blame on God. Humanity is not God and God is not human. In the parlance of faith, we are images. The wise ones know full well that to believe I can govern in God’s name will end up driving me mad. I can’t do what God does. To be under authority to God is to acknowledge that God, not I, rules. It should entail the recognition of human limitation and a practice of daily humility. That this is not the case in theocratic states says much about the sorry state of the age.

Authority is one of the most difficult questions any of us will ever encounter, especially in a culture like ours that tells us always to question authority. What is authority anyway? Look at all the doctors and priests and leaders who have abused the trust we placed in them. In such a climate, how can I know what authority to trust? Does it matter? J.R.R. Tolkien reflected on the English custom of having to remove ones hat when a nobleman passed. “I lift my hat to the Lord, not because he needs it, and God knows, he probably does not. I lift my hat to the Lord because I need it.” For Tolkien, this act of respect was not an expression of subservience as much as a reminder of his own limited scope. As many of us heard yesterday, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.” This is simple fact. We are part of something so much larger than ourselves that all the saints both East and West can only convey the smallest part of it. “Under God” is even a limited phrase. God surrounds us like an atmosphere and as there is no up or down or east or west in space, so it is with the Divine. You can’t be under what is everywhere.

All these governments of men: the French Revolution, the American Revolution, the Bolshevik Revolution which this year’s Lent book takes up, the ideologies of Fascism and National Socialism, even something as benign as Tolstoyism, all of these are the product of human minds. All are tainted by wish fulfillment and a view of the world that elevates me. Have you ever seen anyone form a government in which they are compelled to doff their caps to their betters? Self interest is well disguised by rhetoric and ideology. A totalitarian state can do its damage in under a century, while it takes millennia for the work of God to unfold. All ideologies appeal to some aspect of human goodness. Tolstoyism was all about pacifism – Gandhi learned a great deal from Tolstoy. Tolstoyism taught that it was best to hold things in common and love ones neighbor, but only Gandhi succeeded in doing this and probably because he had a long tradition of Hindu monasticism to work with. He also made a point of practicing what he preached. Tolstoy himself was an abysmal Tolstoyan. We all know how he preached marital celibacy at the same time that his wife kept turning up pregnant, not just once, (an understandable and totally normal lapse for a married man), but ten times pregnant. I refuse to believe that Sonya Tolstoya’s bi-polar disorder was simply some form of organic imbalance. How could anyone live with a husband who publicly loathed sex and publicly preached the weakness and inferiority of women as year after year you were forced to deal with immaculate conceptions? This is to say that human ideologies have a way of driving other humans mad. Consider the classic American example. What we hail as the Land of the Free was built on the broken backs of slaves, treated like so many natural resources to be exploited for economic gain.

As I said, authority is a difficult question. Let the phrase “One Nation Under God” trouble you. It’s a deeply troubling idea. But during Lent, we are asked to practice living under the authority of God. I don’t think we need worry about a theocracy taking us over. We’re a resilient group. Let’s just ground ourselves in prayer and try and find our spiritual bearings. As the experience of the Soviet artists reminds us, finding those bearings has the capacity to surprise us in breathtaking ways.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Ash Wednesday 2008: Life Conquers Death

Every year, the Archbishop of Canterbury commissions a Lent Book. I have been reading these books as my Lenten study for a number of years now. I have always found them to be thought provoking, engaging as they do in a variety of ways, the implications of a life of faith fully lived. To put it in more down home terms, the books explore what it means to the whole of Creation that I have chosen to practice, as best I can, obedience to God. One year’s book, The Shape of Living by Richard Ford, brought God right into the center of these “stressful, busy lives” we keep reading about, and changed my attitude toward work. Last year’s book, Samuel Wells’ Power and Passion: Six Characters in Search of Resurrection took up the theme of how individuals respond to the pressures of conformity, convention and politics. This year’s book, Life Conquers Death, by John Arnold takes up my favorite theme of all: in its pages he weaves an incredible meditation between God, Gospel and Russian literature. The Forward lays it out so well. Although Arnold learned Russian as part of the Cold War, he discovered in its words “a lifetime of friendship.” He continues, “Writers like Pasternak and Solzehnitsyn show, without any evasion or sentimentality, how the beauty of the human face can show itself in the most inhuman of places.”

I invite you to read this book with me this year. It is well timed in a great many ways. One of those ways is that it invites us to look back: not only to the Soviet era and the brave men and women who, at great risk to themselves, kept the candle of truth burning throughout a very great darkness, but all the way back to the first darkness, when Creation was broken by Fall, to the Christ who entered into the very depths of our suffering and breathed life into the deadest of the dead wood of an earth that men cursed.

Lent is deeply about time and we Americans live very enslaved to time. Our physicists tell us that of all dimensions, time is the most rigid. Although it is theoretically possible to move around in it, the fact is that we cannot experience time as anything but moving forward, a relentless march, raising us up to youth and beauty only to relentlessly strip those things away. “Time is money!” scream the pundits as if there is anything left in this country that has not been reduced to money. The time crunch has been the subject of a number of books and studies, excerpts of which may be read in John deGraaf ed., Take Back Your Time, the anthology of a movement to reduce working hours and increase time with family and time for refreshment, a movement which, as far as I can tell, has gained little traction. When everything needful to survival (if not life) must be purchased with cash, time that is not money is too risky an investment.

Fortunately, God has no such constraint. God exists outside time and outside space. It is entirely possible that the Garden of Eden is not the beginning of things at all, but the center of them and that all this history that we humans see as moving forward is in fact moving in quite a different direction; the Tree of Life and the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil being not two trees lost, but the signs of things to come. At the very least, Lent becomes an invitation to us to look time right in the eye,

That great writer of the twentieth century, Marcel Proust, wrote a seven volume nove, In Search of Lost Time. Memory, said this novel, is our way around the seeming inflexibility of time. Memory, which includes dreams, is what every totalitarian state tries to destroy. But even more, memory is the fabric from which we weave our truths. Raising a child is memory, for as I watch my child grow, I become myself as a child again. Watching my parents grow old is also a country of memory. In such simple ties as family does one glimpse great truths. What it says is that I can go home again.

It is no accident that this Lent, the Lent of an election year when we as a nation are called into conversation with ourselves, that memory calls us back to the days of Old Russia when a brave group of creative people kept the light of truth in their window as they sought to be one Nation, not under Stalin or under Marx, but under God.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Transfiguration to Lent

The Last Epiphany is always about Transfiguration. The Church will not let us enter Lent without first seeing Jesus in all his glory, if we can in fact see and understand glory. As Peter suggests in the tale, understanding the truth of glory is easier said than done.

So every year I ponder glory and I ponder Lent, but I never know if I get it right, or if, like Peter, I am building my own booth around God. I suspect that the Church wants me to see light as the doorway into Lent, because Christians over the ages have tended to be too unhappy. Make no mistake. The Cross traumatized Europe. In such a spirit, therefore, it’s far too easy for me to get caught up in mortification and penance during Lent, in giving up the thing that brings me comfort at the end of a long day’s work as if in so doing I might bargain with God. What ends up happening is that I simply feel constant nagging guilt over the small and daily failures of being human. So up there on the mountain, Jesus whispers to me, “Lent isn’t about death. Lent, like Advent, is a time of preparation for Life. It’s just a different kind of life than baby life.” I read that sort of thing in the Lenten writings, too. “Lent isn’t about giving up bad habits,” says this year’s pamphlet, “it’s about taking up good ones: prayer, charity, delight in God.” You don’t know how badly I wish to believe this! But no matter what I may think today, on Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday will arrive tomorrow, and then I will go into the desert with Jesus on the First Sunday of Lent and will be faced with all that I cannot do. Jesus does not fast for 20 hours as I do on Ash Wednesday, but for 40 WHOLE DAYS, all the while resisting the temptations of Satan who is trying to give him a lovely home in Belvedere, a custom built world saving hybrid, an unlimited travel account and the ability to set up enough charities to achieve all eight Millennium Development Goals. Next to this, I look pretty pathetic. No one has ever wanted to tempt me with all the kingdoms of the earth.

So I try harder. It’s the American Way. Be all that you can be. Isn’t unlimited potential the obligation of all of us who live in a Free Country? Isn’t Lent about my unlimited potential to get better?

I never make it through Lent in one piece. I always turn up on Good Friday like some poor salmon, bruised and bleeding, scraping against the rocks of my own ignorance and saying “I surivived just enough to get here. Now let’s just get it over with.”

And thus I reveal my shocking ignorance of God in my very own words. “Now let’s just get it over with.” The point is that there is nothing to get over. Life is forever, sweety, and it’s good pre partum care to behave as if you know it. Lent is not about giving up chocolate or meat or alcohol or coffee or hot baths, nor is it about self-improvement. Healthy living is a good thing, but it is not the meaning of Lent. Lent is not about giving up, it is about letting go, and yes, giving up is different than letting go. I control what I give up. When I let go, on the other hand, I give it all into God's hands.

Which is why Lent, with its practice for eternal life, makes no sense at all unless the final revelation going into it is Transfiguration. If I don’t understand the mystery of Transfiguration, says the Church year in and year out, I cannot understand the task of Lent. Every year, therefore, I try to understand Transfiguration. If you have ever heard me preach about it, you’ll know that it’s one of the hardest of all teachings for me to get.

Transfiguration is one of those moments in our sacred story for which there is no explanation. Jesus begins to glow and Moses and Elijah appear beside him. I suppose one could call it hallucinatory suggestion, but that is just as beside the point as Peter’s offer to build sukkahs for the whole gathering. To answer as did Peter is like responding to the glory of God by opening a shopping mall. Transfiguration sits outside our common experience. At his Transfiguration, Jesus is doing nothing less and nothing more than giving his disciples a glimpse of the world beyond. He is parting the curtains of human sensory limitation and showing us Truth. For all its horror, the Crucifixion is nothing more than a particularly painful birth. No one is lost. To have experienced Transfiguration is to find the courage to get on with life. It is to find freedom. It is to stand before Pontius Pilate, and when he asks, "What is truth?" to pity all that "power" does not know.

And that is how, this year, I will begin my Lent. I will begin a dizzy descent from the mountain. I will begin to look, not for the achievements of mortification, but the truth that will set me free.

Monday, February 4, 2008

What My Body Learned: Transfiguration to Lent

During Advent, a dear friend set me the task of learning to love my body. I was not to do this as a matter of physical fitness, or of staying “young,” both of which I could easily resist. I was given the task of loving my body as a spiritual practice. I was to pray the body with the goal of finding unity where the early Christians had perceived a split. I was to try and transcend the categories of “flesh” and “spirit” and to be in my body as if this body, no less than the spirit which gave it life, were essential to the journey home to God. I have already said that the ancient Church, for its own reasons, chose to mortify the flesh in its search for spiritual enlightenment. We're still doing it today, though we've given the division a different set of names. Today, flesh and spirit are expressed as “science” and “religion,” as “evolution” and “intelligent design,” as “physical” and “psycho-somatic.” All of this distracts from the teaching stated most succinctly by the rabbis, that God created humanity so that we could be co-creators with God. To be a co-creator is to think less upon “product” (which is what an intelligent designer produces), and more upon relationship, which is the foundation of all collaborations. Therefore, to pray the body, at least for me, turns out to be less about physical substance or flesh and more about deepening the collaboration between all the parts of me as a way of deepening my relationship to the Divine. It is less about discovering the nature of the physical world and more about finding its meaning.

Because I am an otherworldly intuitive who learns from dreams, the physical is probably the least developed of my senses. Of course, this makes it the most important sense for me to befriend on my way to becoming whole. Nor will you be surprised to hear then that after a mere six weeks of body prayer, I stand in a state of amazement. My body is actually interesting! She has waited patiently for me to discover that her cells, her sinews, her tiny shoulders, are all possessed of intelligence. I hurt less. I can carry my heavy backpack without sore shoulders and when I’m tired, I know to gently rest. I have discovered an unexpected delight in the dailiness of the material world, a delight rare and fine in one who, as I said, is mostly an otherworldly intuitive. I have been surprised by the sheer joy of being alive. The story of God being born as a baby and being one of us has achieved new meaning. On the eve of Lent, I feel better than I have in years. I sit in the mystery of God’s spirit made flesh. I sit in the mystery of my own spirit fused with the cells of my body. At the age of fifty-seven, I am aquiver with life.

I have ceased, at least for the moment, to be a survivor. Thinking of Rilke and Tsvetaeva, and my own culture where warfare is seen as the natural condition of man, I have ceased to be a survivor. I don’t want to be defined by those who beat me up and rob me of my soul, leaving me lost and shell-shocked on some distant shore. I want to be alive.

But even to say the word “survivor” makes me realize, yet again, that I live in a culture that is still driven by the fear of death, by a physicality that pits one body against the other, a nature “red in tooth and claw.” To be physical is indeed to understand that the death of the body is real. How can I give up life’s sweetness? Suddenly, the old divisions snap back into place. My spirit seeks to take flight and return to its dance in the cosmos. My flesh won’t let her go. It makes my body sad that the spirit will continue to swoop and play, leaving inert matter behind. returned to the random chance of dirt, earth and rock, the dangers of chemical poisons, the boredom of nothing.

And then, one evening, I am sitting aboard the Ferry praying my body. And as I pray, I feel my cells speaking and saying, "But that is why you are here, dear one! You are here to give life. You are here to love the material world into life and if you do that you will never die. And not only you, but everyone, riding home in the night, sleeping, listening to their iPods, playing Tetris on their cell phones, reading financial reports and novels, drinking a beer. You are all a little universe that is part of the great task of the whole: all the rest of the bodies that breathe on earth, human, animal, insect, tree, fungus are engaged in this great work of bringing the physical world to life. Our bodies are homes for the wind that blows. A partnership, this body and this soul, just as God and Creation is a partnership. As our souls grow whole and strong, we can bring even more life, even more partnership, even more love." And I was very, very, happy.

I also know, from the depths of my happiness that our species has reached a moment of very great crisis. So many of us have lost our mystical God who is with us always. We understand the physical world far too well and far too mechanistically and we are afraid. We are very afraid. The controlling men who bristle with guns, germs and steel tell us that only force can prevail. We respond not with love, but fear, disesase, defensiveness. We use our knowledge of the physical for individual gain and in so doing, we murder the beautiful creation that we were meant to bring to consciousness. We are murdering creation because we have forgotten why were are here. Domination and laziness and solipsism have blinded too many of us to the great cosmic dance.

God is not the scientific or materialistic explanation of anything. God is the meaning of all that we know. Yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death you are with me. Your rod and your staff you comfort me. In discipline to God comes my joy.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

LOST: The Survivors

In 1925, the Austro-German poet Rilke wrote a perfectly cryptic letter to the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva. It was a bad time for poets. World War I had scarred Rilke’s soul and the Revolution had scarred Tsvetaeva’s. Beauty itself seemed to lie in the ashes of progress, machines, diesel, the lock step rhythms of an age ruled neither by God nor man, but technology. Rilke lived in Muzot, Switzerland. Marina and her daughter Asya had fled west and Marina was eking out a living as a tutor and translator. This most exquisitely educated of women – her father had been a professor at Moscow University – could not even properly school her own daughter. Too much hunger and cold and dislocation. She tried making peace with the regime that had stolen her soul, but it cound not be. In 1941, after returning home, she would hang herself in exile in Elabuga.

By 1926, Rilke would be dead of leukemia. It is almost tempting to say that his blood was not robust enough for the new age of marches, movements and masses, that the uncontrolled growth the century would witness ravaged his own small body. The bodies of artists and saints hold a lot of meaning. In 1925, he wrote Marina the following prophetic lines, couched in a strange, almost incomprehensible poem:

“We have ceased to live and have instead become survivors.”

This was one of those statements that literally changed my world.