Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Spiral Dance

Dear Friends,

Last week I did not post, because I was away having an extraordinary experience. I have woven that experience into today's sermon, preached at Good Shepherd, Berkeley. Here it is.

Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth.

I rarely begin a sermon with a disclaimer. This week I begin with two:

1) Welcome to the week that rocked my world. I’ve had a vision of God and a terrible case of the flu. We’ll just have to see where this goes.

  1. I’m going to say some things very critical of service learning in schools. Please, do not for a minute think that my critique extends to the beautiful mutual ministries of service that happen here at Good Shepherd.

You see, in the world of education, a world based upon achievement and success, few things are as misunderstood as service learning. As as priest, school chaplain and service learning coordinator, I should know. Others expect me to be an expert in goodness. It’s a terrible job. Even Jesus says, “Why do you call me good?  No one is good but God alone.” (Mark 10:18) 

Educational theory, however, doesn’t like that kind of pause. It likes measurable results. It is far less interested in process than in outcome, and to be a teacher today is to be meddled with in ways you cannot imagine. We’re always having to live up to someone else’s theory.

The theory with which I must deal is that service learning makes us good people. As a Christian, I should rejoice. Does not Jesus in today’s Gospel tell us to serve? That whoever wants to be first must be last and be servant of all?

I wish it could be so simple. In today’s schools, service, like everything else, has become a benchmark of individual achievement. If it takes being last to be first, then, very well, I’ll be last. But the emphasis remains upon being first. In today’s busy schedules, service must be scheduled according to the school day, not offered as needed. And finally, Studies show that students who do regular community service get into better colleges. Indeed, several years ago, a representative from the California State Legislature called me to see whether the state should make Service a graduation requirement for high school. As if we could institutionalize goodness.

In the course of an academic year, I spend a great deal of time reading manuals on how to make children more caring. The amount of ideology I contend with is enough to make anyone’s head spin. The sad part about it is that studies have shown that children are born caring. It is our system that educates it out of them as they are formed for a culture of busyness, competition and achievement, the very things that James and Jesus both warn us against in today’s readings. And this, my friends, is betrayal of all that is best in us.

The life well led, says James in his epistle, is not a matter of achievement, but of “gentleness born of wisdom.” Like a Buddhist, he warns us that craving, that wanting what is outside of us,  will do nothing but get us into trouble. But pick up and recent edition of the New York Times and you will see that if we are not in a state of constant craving, our economy will completely tank, because capitalism depends for its life upon the constant need to have. Again listen to James. “You want something and do not have it; so you commit murder.” This would seem just a bit hyperbolic, until I reflect that my country with its economy based on craving, its educational system based, not on awakening children’s innate gifts, but reminding them of their inadequacies, has been at war all over the world for most of my life. 

I remember a children’s moment many years ago in church, when a newly minted priest gathered the children and put them in a line. Everyone wanted to be line leader, so he decided to line them up according to height, with the tallest being first. This engendered all sorts of grumbles and snide remarks. But the moment the line was done, he said, “Turn around.” They did. Then he said, “Jesus says, ‘The first shall be last.’” And, with the littlest child leading the line with a great sense of having been vindicated, he asked the Sunday school teacher to take them away. I was the Sunday School teacher that day, and let me tell you, I had an hour’s worth of resentful and cynical children who felt they had been manipulated by a simple reversal of the status quo. It led to a rather fruitless conversation about feelings, about being “appropriate,” until finally, we could just have snack. Jesus wasn’t seen by these children as in any way a reflection of reality; there was no chance here amid whining kids to do the hard work of compassion; the line was a clever trick to get them out of the sanctuary and make a point to their parents. These were the children of very rich parents. They knew that real success happened not when you are last, but when you misbehave and break all the rules.  

This incident caused me to question a great many things.

Which brings me to what rocked my world. Last weekend I actually met “gentleness born of wisdom.” 

Julia Parker is a California Miwok elder. I believe she is a world changer of the order of Dr. King and Nelson Mandela. She has certainly experienced things at the hands of the so called dominant culture. Orphaned at a young age, she and her brothers and sisters were raised by a white family. They went to church. Julia loved church, for, as she said, it was a place of very good stories. Later, she was sent to an Indian boarding school where she was trained to be a domestic servant and told that she could have no aspirations beyond servanthood. No one was ever cruel to her, but neither did anyone know exactly where she fit in. Her stories about learning how to arrange wash on the line so that it would look impressive, the knives and forks that white people seemed to need to simply get through a meal, were very, very funny. But they also filled me with a sense of beauty and awe, of taking the time to make my laundry beautiful, of setting a table for a meal with friends. Where had daily life gone in these oh so anxious times? 

I don’t know what happened to Julia’s career as a servant, for while in boarding school, she met her husband, and the two went off to live in Yosemite. You may have even met her at Yosemite’s Miwok village, where she has made acorn mush and woven beautiful baskets for many, many years.

I found her at Pt. Reyes. I had signed up for the basket making class she taught with her daughter Lucy as part of a program in California Native studies. Although I am not a crafter and indeed, am quite klutzy, I knew that I would never understand anything of California Native Spirituality without baskets, for baskets lie at the heart of California Native Culture. So I went.

“You’ll learn more about yourselves this weekend than you will learn about making baskets,” Julia said at the very beginning. “Be patient. Listen. Wait for us to show you.”

It is not an easy thing to weave a tule basket. No matter how carefully I watched, I just couldn’t get it. I must have started my base ten times. Finally, with at least some kind of start, with the corners put in for me by Lucy, I took myself off to a corner and said, “I’m going to figure this out on my own.” As my little attempt got worse and worse, as I was told, “You don’t have the stitch,” I wandered dejectedly about. I could neither do it right nor take the time to wait to be taught. I wasn’t feeling very good. It turned out I was not the only one.

“This is just not up to my standard,” said one of the other participants, looking at her mess.

“This is not at all the kind of work I usually do,” said another, holding up hers.

“I wonder if that’s the point,” said I, in my usual theoretical way, knowing nothing at all except that we were twenty high achievers out there, and that few of us were achieving much at all.

“You’ll learn more about yourselves this weekend than you will learn about making baskets.”

I returned home exhausted with a clumsy cluster of tules that was supposed to be the base of a basket.

“Good try,” said my mother when I talked to her that evening. “You’ve never been a crafter like your sister. You don’t have to go back if you don’t want to. Think about it.”

I wasn’t sure that not going back was really an option. Could I just throw away all those tules that had been cut just for me? Could I treat the natural world and myself like so much trash? So I went back Sunday morning. The one who did not return was missed. We began our day with prayers and stories in the round house. At one point, looking around at the space which was mostly underground, Julia said, “This place is built real good. It has twelve posts for the twelve storytellers.”

“And who might they be?” someone asked.

“Peter, Andrew, James, John, Philip, Thomas, Matthew, Matthias, Bartholomew, James, Thaddeus, Simon,” she smiled, rattling off the names of the twelve apostles better than most of us. “Good storytellers each and every one.”

Some, I could tell, were a little taken aback by this evocation of Christian tradition in a Miwok round house, just as they were perplexed that one of the reasons baskets were so important was that it was a tule basket that carried the baby Moses down the river, but my heart was full. Julia was weaving. She was weaving not only tule baskets, but the stories of many different people. She was showing us that our little tasks were not just separate tasks, but part of a sacred circle that holds all life, that all that is sacred is one.

When I went back to my basket, my hands knew what to do. I finished. I’ll need to weave many, many more if I am ever to get one that is beautiful, but I have given my little basket to be the holder of my meditation chimes and candle when I sit with the children at school. But that was not the most important thing that happened that weekend. The most important thing that happened was that on the second day, all of us who were there turned away from accomplishing a task, and began to discover one another. What a wonderful, fascinating, heart felt group of people we were! What wonderful stories, loves and works we brought to our shared circle. We began, without thinking, to serve. We were all servants. Wanting to serve the world was what brought us here to learn from wise elders. 

And then I realized something just as important. In a healthy world, work is what brings people together. Work is not just something we do to get money so that we can do what we want. Work is the very fabric of life. We come to give our best. Giving ones best is very hard to do when one is forced to always look over ones shoulder and perform to another’s standard. Giving ones best is hard to do when we are pitted one against the other and live in fear of evaluation. Success, say the basket weavers, will eventually come with practice. But success is not what makes you meaningful.

To engage in conflict, as both Jesus and James teach us this morning, is to reveal that we are out of harmony with the universe. It’s not a bad thing to be angry or envious. Both these things are important teachers. Both tell us we have much to learn, and for me they are a good check in with reality. For the universe is not clashing opposites. The universe is a spiral. Physicists have found that it is only in a spiral galaxy that new stars may be born, that things may evolve. In a spiral there is no place that is the greatest. In a spiral, there is no boss and no slave, no rogue entrepreneur or rule breaking hero. In a spiral is only the dance. 

So dance, my friends. Even as things crumble, dance. And in so doing, make all who are with you your partners. AMEN.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Going to God Across a Muddy Floor, preached at Our Saviour, Mill Valley

"Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs."

During the years I was in seminary, we spent a lot of time sitting around tables. Sometimes the fare was food; sometimes it was ideas, but for hours, we sat, staring into one another’s faces, trying to figure out who we were, what nourished us, and what we were all doing there. 

As much as I loved seminary, it was also very hard. It took me a very long time to convince anyone that God was really calling me to the priesthood, leaving me to work toward a degree in a field I had no assurance I would ever be able to practice. It’s a deep story of learning humility, but it is not the story I am going to tell you today. Today, I am going to tell you the story of someone that I met along the way.

I’ll call her Helen. Helen arrived at CDSP during my second year. She was a very large and imposing woman with a face set into what appeared to be a permanent scowl. She favored sitting in corners. It began to be whispered around that Helen came with an interesting history. She had been a nun. Now she wanted to be a priest. And, some said, she was really, really angry.

Anger was kind of cool in those days of liberation theology, and because of my troubles with my vocations committee and my own nature, I had a bit too much fondness for holy rage. I wanted to know Helen’s story. So one day I approached her, and after some preliminary greetings, said, with not a little admiration, “I hear you were a nun.” 

“I was,” she retorted in a strong voice. “But I left. It was a totally abusive experience.”

In the language of that time, abusive was the worst thing you could call anyone. We thought a lot about how we used things and people, and to be used badly, which is what abuse means, was the ultimate violation of our contract with the universe. “I’ve been abused!” was the cry of all of us who felt hurt by members of our family, by circumstance, by the dominant culture. Abuse was the 1990’s answer to Original Sin. The idea that we might be here to do something other than use people and things had yet to occur to most of us. 

This was the spirit in which Helen told her story.

It was the week she was stuck with kitchen duty. She had spent two hours scrubbing the kitchen floor on hands and knees until it gleamed, and was just knocking off, when another sister, wearing muddy boots, turned up at the back door. Helen was about to ask her to take off her boots, when the other sister walked right in, tromped across the sparkling floor, and left a trail of muddy prints behind her. “Just look at what you have done.” To which the other shrugged and said, “That’s your problem.”

“She did it on purpose,” Helen said. “It was at that moment that I realized that this whole place was dysfunctional and abusive, and that I could not take it any longer.”

“That’s terrible,” I agreed. I could certainly feel her hurt and her rage, and knew I would be quite furious in her place, but for some reasons, her story left me very unsettled.

“It’s all a matter of intention,” said my husband when I shared the story with him yesterday morning. “If the other sister was just being thoughtless and uncaring, then it was wrong. But if she was making a point about patience and humility, then, that would be a different matter.”

I thought about it for a moment, and knowing what I know, said, “I suspect that it was a little of both.”

Since then, I have read a lot of monastic literature from both Christian and Buddhist traditions, and I can tell you that Helen’s was not the first floor to have been wrecked. You may know the teaching about the Zen monk who rakes the garden path perfectly and the moment it is done, in walks the teacher, messes everything up and orders the monk to start all over again. Or the Tibetan saint Milarepa who had to build an entire tower three times because his master Marpa kept knocking it down. The point of these stories is that we don’t do these things in order to be finished with them, but to keep doing a difficult and menial task until the act becomes more important than the accomplishment, and emptied of ego, the mind may at last see clearly. To take pride in doing what is expected is false pride. True humility, which is the ability of see and hear without self-interest, is gained by overcoming attachments to the ego and living in the simplicity and fulness of the moment. This is what monastics practice. The wise teacher often instructs by driving his pupil to the very brink.

All this sounds very romantic when set in the contemplative world of the mysterious East, but none of our professors in seminary appeared to be that kind of teacher. Quite the contrary, most of them came across as little more than versions of ourselves with advanced degrees, and thus upsets and disappointments typically felt more like abuse than parables. 

From which I derived two pearls of wisdom:

The first is not so pleasant. I think that, whatever the circumstance, it may be impossible to learn humility without feeling humiliated.

The second is more fun. I think that wise teachers in real life are more invisible than wise teachers in books. 

Was there a wise mother at the monastery who sat down with Helen and helped her sort out her conflicting emotions? Was the wise mother disguised as the thoughtless sister? Did Helen even ask? Or like most of us, was she protecting herself in a winner take all world?

And what of today’s Gospel? Are we meant to catch Jesus making a mistake when he refuses the Syro-Phonecian woman’s request? Is it important that Jesus be shown up by a woman? Is this even a story about mistakes and comeuppances? I’m always tempted to read it that way, but then, inevitably, I remember Helen jumping to conclusions about her kitchen floor.  Maybe Jesus is appearing to make a mistake in order to show me my own.

Maybe Jesus is being a wise teacher and refusing a good request in the hopes of hearing a better one. Maybe the teaching is less about Jesus and the Syro-Phonecian woman and more about the dogs under the table. Maybe what I take for my own vast spiritual depth is nothing more than the crumbs and leavings of a far greater banquet. Or maybe this story is a counterpoint to last week’s story, when Jesus teaches that it is not outer things that define us, but what lies within. The Syro-Phonecian shows great purity of heart. She also proves herself a wise teacher. In a world that denigrated women’s minds, this is significant. The mother’s wisdom, not Jesus’ hand, cures the daughter. After that, Jesus heals a deaf person who is cut off in another way. Outwardly he is fine, but his inner life is truncated because he cannot hear any Word of God. 

There’s more. In both stories, Jesus insists on a level of secrecy. After healing the deaf man, “Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure.”

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is always telling the people he heals not to say anything about what happened. Is this, too, like the kitchen floor that we have just mopped, a provisional moment? Are we to keep quiet about our spiritual transformations until others have had the chance to cross over them with the muddy boots of life? That’s what my vocations committee was doing for me when they held me back. They were thwarting my best laid plans, and they were right. 

To jump to conclusions, says the author of the Epistle of James, is to show partiality, and “if you show partiality, you commit sin and are convicted by the law as transgressors.” We are not to make distinctions between rich and poor, between ourselves and the Syro-Phonecians, between our hard work and the sister in the muddy boots, between the city and the natural world. This sounds great in theory, but is nearly impossible in practice. I’ve never been able to walk into a room without making distinctions. It’s very human. 

The mystics tell us to proceed with caution. They have cleaned enough floors, raked enough gardens and built enough towers to know that even the things we believe with the most intensity might not be true at all. Religion exists to help me to turn my mind away from appearances and toward a deeper, more generous truth. Away from judgment and more toward simple observation, away from talking about things off the top of my head and more the hard work of understanding.

After decades of wrestling with this, I think nature is the ultimate monastic kitchen. Nature makes no distinctions. You can’t bargain with a thunderstorm any more than you can bargain with God. That is nature’s beauty and her terror. Like God, Nature gives, and nature takes away. One of the gifts of living in Marin County is that we still have large swaths of the natural world from which to learn, but even here, we are human, and temptations of wealth and prestige turn us away from nature, and its limits, to pride in our own ability to surpass limits, to invent and tweek endless possibilities. We run for the cure, forgetting that all must eventually die. We are so busy that it gives us all an excuse not to think.

Until the late 19th century, all of California was so rich in life that it took people’s breath away. To come here in the spring was to encounter carpets of wild flowers as far as the horizon, what John Muir called “bee pastures.” One could see the snowy Sierra from the Berkeley hills. One old timer, Bill Barnes, who died in 1954, remembered when 2000 antelope came to drink at a water hole, when millions of birds congregated on Pelican Island to raise their young, when inland otters were plentiful and playful. Others remember a living water table so rich and so high that even with our dry season, the trees were huge, their branches raised toward flocks of migrating birds so thick that their passage darkened the sky. Today, I feel blessed if I see twenty geese flying overhead on my way to work. Being human, we made a distinction between those gifts and the wealth that could be leeched from them, and today, the great valley at the heart of our state is slowly dying, the living waters turning saline from evaporation, the soils laced with pesticides. Our ancestors encountered divine mystery, but their eyes were blinded by gold, as if seeing their faces through a glass, darkly.

Mirrors are universal symbols of illusion. Of confusing my image with myself. Paul writes of mirrors. James writes of mirrors. Teresa of Avila writes of mirrors. And so does Mohawk shaman Okhi Siminé Forest. Like the psalmist, she believes that God has delivered us to a place of reckoning, a wall of mirrors at the edge of existence.

“To go beyond the wall of mirrors,” she writes, “the final challenge is to pass through a tiny door. To do this, we must make ourselves very, very small. To be very humble. On the other side is a clear pond. There, for the first time, we’ll be able to see our true reflection.”

This is amazingly Biblical. Jesus tells us to follow the Narrow Way. He transformed himself into bread and wine. We end up beside the still waters. Earth becomes floor beneath our feet, upon which our sacred table rests. The Syro-Phonecian woman reminds us that can have no salvation without the otters, the pelicans and the dogs at our feet. We can have no salvation without the Other. We can have no salvation unless we are willing to get dirty. AMEN.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Thoughts Inspired by the Epistle of James

If a person with gold rings and in fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes also comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, "Have a seat here, please," while to the one who is poor you say, "Stand there," or, "Sit at my feet," have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?

Few subjects come up with as much regularity in our Sunday readings and all the commentaries that issue forth from those readings than the subject of rich and poor. You probably know most of the famous stories and sayings: it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven; give up everything you have, sell, give to the poor and follow me; the widow’s mite, Jesus the poor baby in the manger, Jesus the champion of the poor, St. Francis and Lady Poverty, the list in both scripture and tradition goes ever on and on.

Without devising program or remedy, Jesus consistently teaches that something is out of balance in our civilization’s relationship toward wealth, but the nature of those teachings is often hard to figure. He goes after the money changers in the temple, but gleefully sends Peter to get a gold piece out of a fish to pay the temple tax. He teaches that “For to those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away.” On balance, it seems safer to be rich. Without money to buy the things we need we cannot thrive; not only physically does poverty cast people to the margins, cutting off decent nutrition, decent housing, and decent health care, but the spiritual and psychological blows are terrible: poverty brands us failures. To be poor in our culture is to feel expendable. The same was true in Jesus’ day. People too poor to make it on their own were sold into slavery. To be poor is to be completely at the mercy of others.

I have always been uncomfortable with the church’s teachings on poverty. While I can relate to those wonderful saints like Basil, Francis and the Desert Fathers and Mothers who went joyously off the grid like early day homesteaders in Alaska, choosing to forgo the distractions of this earth, that’s not the same thing as the poverty I see in Haiti or the streets of Oakland. In one case, the people embraced a discipline of simplicity and an acceptance of hardship, in the other, hardship is just hardship. And this is without mentioning the wealth and power controlled by the Church for so much of its history, preaching an ethic of doing without, from a palace. 

Remember that last Sunday, Jesus warned us against hypocrisy!

One of the things that bothers me about where I always tend to go is that it is dualistic. It is just too easy to turn rich and poor into opposing categories, into the very distinctions we make among ourselves that the author of today’s Epistle is warning us against. How many of us could walk into a room at a homeless shelter or a soup kitchen and not instinctively make a kind of distinction between us and them? It’s like that old mind bender, “You can think about anything you want as long as you don’t think about tigers.”

Monday, September 3, 2012

Mysticism and Reality: St. Paul's Oakland

Mysticism is the art of union with reality.
Evelyn Underhill, Mysticism

Before I venture into the mysteries offered us by today’s readings, I’d like to spend a moment with this little quote from Evelyn Underhill’s book Mysticism. In my view, this little sentence is one of the most important things ever written in Western literature. 

Mysticism is the art of union with reality.

Think about that. What do you think of when you say the word reality? Is reality the thing to which you wish to be joined or do you secretly seek escape from it? How do you integrate your experiences as churchgoers with your experiences of reality? What, on this Labor Day weekend, does it mean to do the work of God?

I have to say that the first time I read that sentence, my mind stopped dead in its racing tracks. I encountered the work of Evelyn Underhill when I returned to the Church as a young adult, hoping that religion could make some sense of the disordered state in which I was living and offer comfort during the Reagan years that broke my heart. The religious right was on the rise and I didn’t want the traditions of my ancestors taken away. Being me, I was certain I could find my answers in books. I plunged into a long, Christian reading list. I was eager to embrace a lifestyle based in ethics rather than Reaganomics. I wanted to protest the so-called “real” world of consume until there’s nothing left, with an “ideal” world of loving your neighbor, caring for the poor, and above all, preserving this beautiful earth. 

And then Evelyn Underhill came into my life and offered me, not an alternative to reality, but reality itself.  As she writes in the preface to the twelfth edition of Mysticism: From being regarded, whether critically or favourably, as a byway of religion, [mysticism] is now more and more generally accepted by theologians, philosophers and psychologists, as representing in its intensive form the essential religious experience of [humanity].

Although it has produced some great mystics, the Christian Church, as it has existed throughout most of history has not been particularly mystic. Shaped by the organizational traditions of the Roman Empire and the legal traditions of Judaism, the Church has been an institution as much about governance as about spiritual teaching. Even at the height of its worldly influence, the Church viewed itself, not as the arbiter of culture but as an alternative social system, living in creative tension with “culture.” 

There is an essential difficulty with this image of the Church. All religions are intensely cultural. Religions are the glue that hold cultures together and lend meaning to what it means to be human in the context of culture. A minority religion, such as Judaism, might see itself as an alternative, but once you become the dominant culture, to oppose that which you dominate is to risk becoming “a house divided” where conflict and opposition are simply the norms of daily life.

In this light, it becomes very easy to read today’s Gospel, not as an interesting example of a Jewish learning debate of the sort that continues even to this day in yeshivas, but as a clash between religions, between the new good guys and the old bad guys, the Pharisees representing hidebound conservatism and Jesus as the new progressive. When the Pharisees question why some of Jesus’ disciples (we have no idea who -- they are probably not the twelve) are not following ritual practice and washing before meals. Jesus takes the opportunity to answer that ritual actions not accompanied by proper motivation are empty. This is very straightforward prophetic teaching. 

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?
   says the Lord in Isaiah, Chapter One.
“Inscribe the law upon your hearts,” teaches Jeremiah in Chapter 33. It is the inner life, not the outer one that brings understanding of God. “Return to me with all your heart,” writes the prophet Joel. “Then afterwards I will pour out my spirit on all flesh; your old men shall dream dreams and your young men shall have visions. Even on the male and female slaves, I will pour out my spirit.” Jesus does not argue against ritual as much as he argues against performing rituals in vain. 

But, in a typical liberal church commentary we hear, “What makes Israel acceptable to God is not correct performance of ritual acts but ethical behavior. Similarly, Jesus declares that it is not scrupulous observance of the food laws that makes Israel holy, but morality.” (Douglas R.A. Hare, Feasting on the Word, Proper 17)

 This would be very well and good except that ethical behavior and morality are just as external as handwashing. I know. I have spent many days behaving with perfect respectability while my heart has been dark with anger or resentment. Jesus is not pointing the finger at my behavior, he is pointing the finger at my heart. James agrees. “Anger does not produce God's righteousness.” No excuses. No justifications that my anger might helps me recognize injustice. It might, I cannot heal injustice as long as I am angry.

In this way, James reminds us that outer actions matter. Continuing with today’s teaching, Science has definitively proved that hand washing is very important for health reasons, but for about 1000 years after the Roman culture of bathing ended, Christians did not take baths. Using this passage as one of their proof texts, they decided that washing itself was hypocritical and that the true believer went about with filthy flesh, for as we all knew, flesh was the locus of sin. Indeed, one of the reasons Christians persecuted Muslims in Moorish Spain was because Muslims took baths and this was clear proof of their immorality.  

Only when science discovered germs did we change our doctrinal tune, and such phrases crept into the lexicon as “Next to Godliness comes cleanliness.” The Pharisees would smile. 

By recognizing the mysterious nature of reality itself, mysticism reminds us that knowing what to do and be is never easy. Reality suggests that when we neglect our inner lives and concentrate only upon outward appearance, test scores, success, bank balances, that our inner lives will erupt in conflict. We need to be open at both levels. Life is not about getting the right answer. Life is about asking the right question.

Last week, the New York Times ran an article called “From Bible-belt Pastor to Atheist Leader.” It told the story of Louisiana preacher Jerry DeWitt who had been a fundamentalist for 25 years until one night a parishioner called asking prayers for her brother who had been seriously injured in a motorcycle accident and might die. All of a sudden he realized he could no longer provide prayers on demand. It was ridiculous to think you could, or should, influence things like that. “He walked into the bathroom and stared at himself in the mirror. “I remember thinking, Who on this planet has any idea what I’m going through?”

He’s being a little self-referential, because anyone whose ever had a big crisis of faith will know what he was going through. Deciding that God is an impossibility is a natural part of the spiritual journey, particularly in a culture that is as rational as our own, a culture that relegates what it cannot explain to the psychiatrist’s couch. If the universe is an elegant machine, and my brain is already “hardwired,” who needs God? 

As a fundamentalist, Jerry DeWitt was expected to have answers about God as clear as a mathematical equation. After all, fundamental religion, steeped in a model of cultural conflict, stands against science, brandishing the Bible as a book of answers. And when those answers fail, as they must, because the Bible is not that kind of book, the religion based on answers will fail too. As he concluded, “In the end, I couldn’t help feeling that all religion, even the most loving kind, is just a speed bump in the progress of the human race.” 

A mystic will tell you: sit in the absence of God long enough and you will see God. Two of the world’s greatest religions: Buddhism and Confucianism, have no God. But they do have reality. 

Reality is a far more complex landscape than that which can be mapped by facts alone, which is why no rational system will ever be adequate to explain life. Reality, from protons and electrons on, is grounded in relationship. Reality recognizes and teaches inner experience as well as outer skill. But most importantly, reality leaves nothing out. No single brain will ever contain it. It is our job as human beings to be participants in the whole, not controllers of it.

If you let the Bible be mysterious and contradictory, it will reveal much that is surprising. Let the scientific world give us the facts. Facts are the looms upon which we weave mystery, and science has changed how we read the Bible. From the very beginning, the Bible has never been consistent, it regularly contradicts itself, is often outrageous, and even has conflicting versions of the same story, sometimes on the same page! This is reality, friends. There is no one version of that. Because the same thing can be both helpful and harmful.

And thus we come to the matter of love. If you’ve been coming to church this summer, you will have heard an earful about the dangers of erotic love: David, Bathsheba, the unraveling of family.

Then today, the same Bible that critiques David and Bathsheba, extols the passions of their son Solomon. 

The voice of my beloved!
Look, he comes,
leaping upon the mountains,
bounding over the hills.
My beloved is like a gazelle
or a young stag.

Arise, my love, my fair one,
and come away;

Can erotic love be at once a huge social disorder, and God’s very gift of life? Can I run through the hills with my beloved and still be a woman of great faith? Is a healthy relationship with God also a healthy relationship with nature?

The answer, my friends, is yes. 

Is passion dangerous? Does social authority seek to control that which is dangerous?

The answer, my friends, is yes.

In the mystical world, spiritual gifts are neither inherently good nor inherently evil, but become what we do with them. To live religiously, say the wise ones, is to be able to live with paradox. Our passions are valuable teachers, but that does not mean we should give into every passion. Our intelligence is an amazing gift, but our intelligence is just as good at deluding us as it is at showing us truth. Social justice is the light toward which we are always growing, but it is not a way of beefing up my resume or telling the rest of the world that their backwardness stems from not being just like me.  

The world is not a simple struggle between good and evil. God is not who I want God to be. God is God. True religion is not either or, but both and. Nature is diverse and so are the paths to God. Understanding one another may be our greatest task. Understanding one another may be our greatest risk. On this Labor Day weekend, may all that you do be an act of Love. AMEN.