What is faith?

Today’s epistle reading is from the Letter to the Hebrews, that most mysterious of New Testament books.  No one knows—has ever known—where it came from.  Neither Paul nor Peter nor John is its author.  The early church father, Origen, famously said eighteen hundred years ago, “Who wrote Hebrews?  Only God knows!”[i]  Throughout the centuries, some people have wished to kick Hebrews out of the bible altogether, but the richness of its content has always won out.  It is Hebrews that connects Jesus to the obscure Old Testament character Melchizedek.  It is Hebrews that mentions the great “cloud of witnesses.”  And, it is Hebrews that gives us our most succinct and, on the surface, clear definition of faith.

The author of Hebrews defines faith for us at the beginning of the chapter from which today’s reading comes.  He says faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”  Christians have often interpreted this to mean that faith is a dogged belief that things will turn out well, that we will eventually receive what we want and need, no matter how bad or unlikely circumstances may seem in the present.  If only we will believe hard enough; if only our faith remains stalwart and strong; if only we have enough faith, then our hopes will come true.  Today, perhaps more than ever before, a major strand of American Christianity, called “the Prosperity Gospel,” markets this definition of faith.  Does it sound familiar to you?

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If only I have enough faith…

There is an admitted utility in this interpretation of Hebrews’ definition of faith.  It can provide the kind of spiritual muscle that helps us keep going when times are tough.  The brass ring of such faith—the lingering image of the thing we want or need that will eventually be ours, if only we have enough faith—always hangs out there, moving us forward in life.  But I have to tell you, these very pews this very day are filled, and the world outside these walls is filled, with people who don’t buy it.  If this is what faith is—the belief that sooner or later our ships will all come in, that every cancer will be cured, that every estranged relationship will heal, that the financial windfall will ultimately arrive, that the world will finally recognize our genius and shower us with accolades—if faith is doggedly hanging onto such belief through a forced and cracked smile, behind which lurks secret but crippling doubt (which we’d better not let anyone detect, or else our faith will falter and these good things won’t happen), then very many folks want nothing to do with faith.  Indeed, many have walked away from Christianity entirely because they have discovered this notion of faith to be a sham, escapism from the hard and sometimes unrelenting reality of life.

But is this what the Letter to the Hebrews means by faith?  Is faith the dogged belief that all our wishes will be fulfilled, regardless of evidence to the contrary?  It may help to look at the portion of the Letter to the Hebrews assigned today, where the mysterious author gives us a litany of exemplars of faith, those he calls the “great cloud of witnesses.”  Among the list, the author reminds us of Rahab, and Samson, and King David.  Their faith, we are told, was strongest of all, and so our definition of faith must be derived from the faith they embodied.  Who were they?

Rahab was a prostitute in the ancient city of Jericho.  Rahab is remembered because, when Joshua led the Israelites against Jericho, she protected his spies and was thus spared when Joshua conquered the city.  Even so, when we last hear of Rahab, as she and her family are being incorporated into the Israelite camp, she is still referred to as “Rahab the prostitute.”[ii]  Her location changes, but essentially her life does not.

Samson, who may be more familiar to us from our childhood Sunday school, was the judge of Israel who had the strength of Hercules.  But Samson was bewitched by Delilah, who cut his hair and thus sapped his mighty power.  Samson prayed to God, but the outcome of his prayer was an act that resulted in Samson’s own death along with the death of his enemies, as the temple of Dagon crashed down upon them all.

Samson

Samson

And King David, on the one hand the paragon of faith, was also a man plagued from beginning to end with as much tragedy as triumph.  One of his children died in infancy, while his favorite son Absalom was killed attempting to overthrow his father.  The image we have of David at the end of his life is of a pitiful man covered in blankets who cannot get warm, with palace intrigue swirling around him until the very moment of his death.

In other words, the models of faith Hebrews provides to us today are not people whose faith was defined by a dogged belief that everything would be o.k. in the end, and for none of them was everything o.k. in the end.  Throughout their lives and right up until their deaths, they knew doubt, confusion, betrayal, hurt, regret.  They were, in other words, a whole lot like us, with all of our flaws and disappointments.  And so, faith must be something different.  When Hebrews tells us that faith is “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen,” what else might it mean?

For Rahab, Samson, and David faith was not the strained and nervous hope that everything would come up roses.  They and the other exemplars of faith the Letter to the Hebrews cites—and who Hebrews acknowledges were mocked, imprisoned, and tormented—were far too realistic for that.  Faith was, instead, the decision to walk through the world, whether or not the world provided positive outcomes, with God.  That is what rendered these different from other people.  That is how they “won strength out of weakness.”  That is how they faced challenge and endured hardship and failure, not because they believed God would bring all good things to them, but because they knew that God was with them even when the good didn’t prevail.  That’s a very different understanding of faith.

So, here it is: Faith is not wishful thinking.  It is not the dogged belief that everything will turn out well in the end.  Rather, faith is the perspective that sees the world, despite immediate evidence to the contrary, as infused by the presence of God.  Faith is, then, truly a binary choice: We either encounter the world as dead, inert, unenlivened—at best apathetic toward our lives or at worst brutishly assaultive of us—or we encounter the world as God saw it at the creation: as good, and as pervaded by God’s very presence and grace.   And so, one cannot have more faith or less faith.  It is like that elementary school drawing where from one angle one sees a young woman and from the other one sees an old woman.  The only difference in what we see is the shift in our own perspective.  So it is with faith.  We either encounter a world saturated with God, or not.

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“The only difference in what we see is the shift in our own perspective.  So it is with faith.”

I sometimes encourage parishioners to engage in an imaginative exercise.  Every time you go outside, imagine that it is a misty day, and that the mist has the sheen of silver and gold.  That mist is the milieu through which you walk, and move, and breathe.  And that mist is God.  Do this faithfully for a month, and the effort of imagination will no longer be required.  You will see previously unnoticed evidence of grace.  You will see beauty in people and things you did not see before.   Your hope will cease resting in specific outcomes and instead find its conviction in the lived realization that we are never apart from the God who creates us in love.  God is above, below, surrounding, and within.  Always.

Faith is knowing that the world is God-infused and encountering it that way.  It doesn’t mean all good will happen, but it does change the character of everything.  The Red Sea becomes a path to life rather than certain death.  Walls, like those of Jericho mentioned by Hebrews today, become things to take down rather than build up.  And in our own lives, the classrooms teachers and students are about to reenter, the lawyer’s courtroom, homeless shelters, businesses, hospitals, homes…all become crucibles of hope because all rest in God.  In faith, we walk through them differently.  In faith, we see the people who populate them differently.

Through faith we win strength out of weakness, because God is with us and in us, as near as the air we breathe.  Have faith, friends.

_______________________

[i] https://zondervanacademic.com/blog/who-wrote-the-book-of-hebrews

[ii] Joshua 6:17

What we do when we pray

A new Sunday School teacher was struggling to open a combination lock on the classroom supply cabinet. She had been told the combination, but she couldn’t quite remember it. Finally she went to the rector and asked for help. The rector came into the classroom and began to turn the dial. After the first two numbers he paused and stared blankly for a moment. Finally he looked serenely heavenward and his lips moved silently.  Then he looked back at the lock, quickly turned to the final number, and the lock opened. The teacher was amazed. “I’m in awe at the strength of your prayer, Father,” she said. “It’s really nothing,” the priest answered. “The combination is written on a piece of tape on the ceiling.”[i]

Christians pray a lot.  Episcopalians pray more than most.  My goodness, we’ve already prayed the collect for purity and the collect for the day in this service, and we’re not even to the halfway point yet!  The book with the cross on it that we treat as if it were the Bible’s big brother is called, of course, the Book of Common Prayer.  Yes, we pray all the time.  But when we pray, what exactly are we doing?

I’m reminded of that great, climactic scene in the Jack Nicholson-Tom Cruise movie “A Few Good Men.”  Nicholson is on the witness stand, and Tom Cruise is interrogating him.  “You want answers?” Nicholson growls.  “I want the truth!”  Tom Cruise cries in reply.

That captures in a nutshell what we want from prayer most of the time, I think.  We want answers: solutions to the things in life that vex us and those we love.  If my loved one lies weakened in the hospital, I want the cure that will restore her to wholeness and health.  If my job is a slog, I want the message that will tell me how to endear myself to my boss, or at least to smite him in front of my co-workers.  And if I’m a student struggling in school, I pray for the actual, literal answers for the Scantron bubble sheet on the desk in front of me.

Bubble sheet

I’m happy to report to you that these kinds of prayers are legitimate.  (Well, maybe not the one about smiting one’s boss.)  The catechism in the Book of Common Prayer names them as prayers of intercession, where we pray for answers for those around us, and prayers of petition, where we pray for ourselves.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus gives us the very paradigm for Christian prayer.  He teaches the disciples what we call the Lord’s Prayer, and it bears a closer look.

There is petition in the Lord’s Prayer, but only a little, and it has a different character from the prayers I described above.  Jesus encourages us to ask for only two things: our daily bread and help resisting temptation.  A couple of years ago Pope Francis helpfully offered a thought on the line about temptation.  “Lead us not into temptation” is “not a good translation,” the Pope said.[ii]  “Do not let us fall into temptation” is better, or, “When temptation threatens, lend us a hand.”  I like that.

Daily bread can be construed literally or metaphorically.  It means, in essence, “God, grant us the strength to persevere through another day.”

By way of petition and intercession, that’s about it.  The weight of the Lord’s Prayer is elsewhere, and the key to grasping how it encourages us to pray is in those following verses of Matthew, most remembered by Episcopalians in the hymn we sang just before the Gospel reading: “So I say to you, ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.”

At first that reads as if we are, once again, searching for answers.  But walking through a doorway, across a threshold (which is the prevailing image in Jesus’ words) is not the same thing as solving a puzzle or being given an answer, is it?  What is it like?

Let me tell you a story.  I am originally from Northeast Arkansas, and a couple of hours west of my hometown one reaches the Ozark foothills.  There, the Spring River runs swift, and throughout my childhood my grandparents took my siblings and me camping on its banks.  Once, when I couldn’t have been more than five or six years old, my grandfather Pop took my brother Robert and me by hand and waded with us into the river.  He turned with us against the current and said “Walk,” and we, with our spindly legs, tried to push against the flow of the stream.  It was physically difficult, but more than that, it just felt wrong, as if we were pushing against the force and tide of how the river was supposed to go.  Then Pop looked down at us with his shock of white hair and wise smile and said, “Now, turn around.”  We did, and Pop led us forward with the river’s current.  The difference was, of course, immediate.  The struggle relented, and we were moved along with the river’s flow.  There was still effort required, of course, not to lose our footing and be swept along too quickly, but it became an effort that felt right, in concert with wherever it was the river sought to move.

I believe that is what prayer rightly and most often has as its purpose and goal.  Prayer is that posture of body, mind, and spirit whereby we turn around in our lives and orient ourselves to the flow of God’s Spirit.  It is not, after all, primarily about getting things from God but about shifting ourselves from the attitude of “I want answers!” to being buoyed along with God’s own hopes for us and for the world God has created.  Prayer is a letting go into the current of God.

Pop in his shop

Pop, in his wood shop

The Lord’s Prayer begins with “hallowed by your name; your kingdom come.”  It ends, as we’ve already said, with “Do not let us fall into temptation,” which is another way of saying, “Help us not to turn against your current, but to walk with it, and thus with you.”  This is adoration and oblation, which are the two kinds of prayer with which the Prayer Book catechism’s explanation of prayer actually begins and ends.[iii]  A prayer of adoration expresses our love and joy for God for its own sake.  It says we adore God, which is the first and necessary requisite for any prayer.  A prayer of oblation offers ourselves to God.  It says, “I want to move into the current of your being,” which is, of course, love.

One more story.  Joy Sylvester-Johnson is a friend of mine, a brilliant pastor and teacher who knew all there is to know about prayer.  And then her husband died unexpectedly and tragically from a head injury after falling on the ice.  John lingered for weeks, and no prayer of petition or intercession led to physical healing for John’s wounded brain.  Nevertheless, as Joy sat with John she prayed, and she chronicled daily the ways in which her prayer was transformed and thus she herself was transformed in the process.  On day thirty-four after John’s accident, Joy wrote this:

“Here is what I know: at the darkest point of the night when there was no sound except my own breathing, the presence of our Comforter [was] with me.  It prepared me—regardless of the outcome—to be at peace…Over the last thirty-four days I have had time to remember and to dream, but most of all I have had time, without any distractions, to be in the presence of the One who loves John more than I do.”

For Joy, petitions and intercessions—the need for answers and solutions—receded, and she walked through the door, across the threshold, to something much deeper, something that she sought even before she knew she was seeking it.  She turned from walking against the flow of God’s Spirit in her own need and found the buoyant peace that comes when we enter into the current of God’s love.

Seek and ye shall find, says the Lord.  The current of God’s Spirit is all around us.  We need only heed the voice of God that says, “Now, turn around.”

____________________

[i] Found on the internet, where else?

[ii] https://www.commonwealmagazine.org/lead-us-not-temptation

[iii] Other than the bookend of petition and intercession, which we’ve already discussed.

Distracted by many things

Several essays in my book In the Midst of the City have led to spirited and challenging interactions with readers, either in person or online.  As recently as this past week, I had a fruitful debate with someone over the book’s essay on gun regulation.  Other essays that have sparked the most conversation focus on Southern monuments and the 2016 presidential campaign.  No surprise there.  (By the way, In the Midst of the City is available in the Cathedral bookstore.  You can purchase your copy and schedule a debate with me, too!)

Last year when the book was being prepared for publication, I asked several people to review it.  A single essay in the book irritated one reviewer, and to my surprise the essay was not one of the usual suspects.  Neither immigration nor human sexuality provoked a response.   Rather, the chapter that irked the reviewer was my essay on Mary and Martha.

Let’s hear the Gospel again: “Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to Jesus and asked, ‘Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ But the Lord answered her, ‘Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.’”

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In my book’s essay, I faulted Martha for her busyness, and the book’s reviewer reacted defensively.  I get that.  I’m really busy.  So are you.  And we put a premium—we often judge our very worth and the worth of others—by the gauge of our busyness.

If you doubt it, recall the favorite and most often retold story from Dean McGehee’s tenure at the Cathedral.  In the middle of a worship service, as Pittman is coming down the center aisle, an unknown woman in a red pantsuit leans over and claims that she is Jesus, or at least that she sees Jesus (depending upon who is telling the story).  Pittman gets to the altar and asks Canon Logan, “What if she really is Jesus?  What should we do?”  To which Canon Logan responds, “Look busy.”

Canon Logan speaks for all of us.  If the Lord returned we would do our best to appear as if we were actively, busily engaged in productive and constructive tasks, whatever that is for each of us.  It is the old Protestant work ethic in a twenty-first century guise.  The more our wheels turn, the more worthy we must be.  As we run and run and run to get done all the things that need getting done, Jesus’ words to Martha wound us.  Jesus seems neither to understand nor to care what our real lives are all about.

A closer look at the Gospel text reveals, however, that nowhere does Jesus indict Martha for the tasks she undertakes.  Martha is engaged in hospitality, after all.  She is opening her home and providing sustenance to weary travelers, including Jesus himself.  Her busyness (more than mine most of the time) is truly laudable.  So then, what is at the heart of Jesus’ critique?

“Martha,” Jesus says, “you are distracted by many things.”  Jesus is not, it turns out, unempathetic toward Martha.  Jesus, whose own ministry keeps him busy at a frenetic pace, is concerned for her.  But it is not the value or even quantity of Martha’s tasks that are the locus of Jesus’ concern.  He is concerned about her distraction.

What is distraction?  The most comical image is of “Dug” the talking dog in the Pixar film Up.  Dug can be in the middle of any conversation and suddenly—Squirrel!—find his attention diverted by whatever catches the corner of his eye.  We laugh, but a bit uneasily.  Distraction prevents us from being truly attentive to what is before us.  It keeps us edgy and uncentered.  It is that background voice saying “Hurry up!” in the midst of even our most important moments that inhibits us from being truly present to the experience.  Distraction may be the most common attribute in our lives.

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The author Philip Simmons developed Lou Gehrig’s Disease in his mid-thirties, and as his body slowly failed, he learned to pay attention to the world around him.  But first he became, for the first time, deeply aware of his own distraction.  He says, “Seems it’s always time to be doing something other than what we’re doing at the moment.  While reading in your chair, you find yourself thinking about last night’s argument with your spouse; you’re thinking that it’s time to rake leaves, check your email, get some sleep, get to work, pick up the kids, feed the boa constrictor, water the chickens, exercise the gerbils.”[i]

Simmons’ litany is intentionally ridiculous, because so are the things we allow to distract us in our lives.  As his illness progressed, Simmons remained very active, busy even, but he learned, no matter where he was or what he was doing, to be attentive to the present moment.  He says, “The present moment, like the spotted owl or the sea turtle, has become an endangered species.  Yet more and more I find that dwelling in the present moment, in the face of everything that would call us out of it, is our highest spiritual discipline.  More boldly, I would say that our very presentness is our salvation; the present moment, entered into fully, is our gateway to eternal life…You might say I want my eternal life now, before it’s over with.”[ii]

Simmons is more right than he knows.  When scripture talks of eternal life, we mistakenly interpret that as the afterlife, where we go when we die.  But that’s not what scripture means at all.  Eternal life in the Gospels means the life lived in awareness that all moments are embraced and enveloped by God.  It is a character of being in which we have the opportunity to participate not only or primarily when we die, but now.  It is that awareness into which Jesus invites us whenever he speaks of eternal life.  It is that awareness that Mary enjoys and Martha fails to grasp, because the greatest enemy to it is distraction.

Philip Simmons Quote

Philip Simmons

What does participation in eternal life look like?  Philip Simmons offers, “Dwelling in the moment, on our breath, on the works of our hands immediately before us, we’re drawn into life’s luminousness, into the mystery at the heart of ordinary things.  Dwelling in the present, at least at first, involves forgetting the past and future, stopping the mind’s whirlwind of memory and expectation…with further practice we may find past and future returning to our awareness, only now without bringing anxiety or distraction along with them.  Instead, we become aware of living in eternity, knowing that this moment has found its proper place in the stream of all time.  When we feel this way, the present moment enlarges, draws past and future into it, until we are dwelling not just in the moment but within the whole of life…We feel in touch with life’s unchanging essence, the bedrock beneath the flowing stream. We enter the eternal life beneath the surface of this passing one.”[iii]

Not long ago Junior Warden Andre Jackson told me, without realizing the depth of what he was saying, that this is a major difference between parenting and grandparenting.  For parents (at least for this parent), even in the most tender moments with our kids we are constantly thinking about the next thing, distracted from what is right in front of us, whereas the grandparent, at a different place in life and with a better understanding of its transience and fragility, savors the present miracle of a grandchild, soaking in the blessing of her presence in the world.

This—this being truly present to the present moment, whether it be active or still—is the “one thing” of which Jesus speaks today.  It is our only need, the “better part” without which life is incoherent, unsteady, and always off center.  With it, we enter eternal life even now.  We encounter and connect with the God who grants us the miracle of our presence in the flow of time, in a world of grace.

[i] Simmons, Philip.  Learning to Fall: The Blessings of an Imperfect Life, 145.

[ii] Ibid, 145-146.

[iii] Ibid, 147 & 149.

The Healing of a Nation

This morning we have read the story of Naaman.  Through this story comes up in the lectionary once every three years, I daresay for many it did not register.  In the grand scheme of things, Naaman is a bit character in the sweep of the biblical story, with vanishingly brief stage time.  And yet…

In the story, Naaman is the commander of the army of the King of Aram.  The kingdom he serves, Aram, is at a pinnacle of its geopolitical position in these days.  Aram has recently defeated Israel in conflict.  Aram is a power and a power broker.  And Naaman himself is the man everyone wants to be.  He wins battles.  He enjoys the esteem of those around him.  He lives in material comfort.  Naaman lives the life we all aspire to and hope for.  Except for one thing.  Naaman has leprosy.  And leprosy in the ancient world is the worst thing with which one can be afflicted.  It is a highly contagious skin condition that causes chronic, disfiguring lesions.  In the primitive medical understanding of the ancient world, leprosy is believed to be more than a physiological ailment.  It is the outward and visible sign of a deeper, internal, we might say spiritual rot.  The leper has misstepped in some crucial way, has erred in a manner that is causing everything—including his own body—to fall apart.  To see a leper is terrifying, and terror includes a fear of contagion, that the rot could expand to the world around.  In the ancient world, people who have leprosy are the objects of loathing and disgust.  They are pariahs from the rest of society.

There are hints in the story from 2 Kings that Naaman has, for a long time, been able to keep his disease secret.  He remains at the apex of the king’s service, when knowledge of leprosy even in a Gentile land likely would have required that he be ostracized.  The only people cited as knowing about his disease are a personal servant, who was privy to things those outside the household would not see, and the king, who surely has a vested interest in keeping a secret that would extend the service of his champion.  The very stability of Aram depends upon Naaman being strong and whole, and the king is as afraid as everyone else of a world in which Aram is weak.  Keeping up a veneer of robust health, hiding the disfigurement beneath armor and trappings, is vitally important.  But as the story opens, it is clear that the disease has progressed such that hiding it has become all but impossible.  The lesions are too deep.  They pain too much.  They are now evident for all to see, and both Naaman’s life and the way of life in the kingdom he serves are at risk of collapsing.  The only options left to Naaman are to succumb or seek healing.

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The Healing of Naaman

It is also not lost on me that today in our prayers and music we are acknowledging our nation’s birthday on this Sunday after Independence Day.  I think the Naaman story has something to say to us on a national level.  I doubt I would receive much argument against the assessment that something is wrong in our national life, and that the disease is not new.  For a long time, perhaps forty years, we were able to mask it.  Through our bravado, beneath armor and star-spangled bluster, we were able to present to ourselves and to the world as though both our external and internal signs of strength were ample evidence of health.  That was important.  Our societal stability and the stability of the world depends upon the health of the United States.

But it is obvious in the United States these days that our national veneer has cracked, that lately ugly things long hidden have erupted through as lesions onto the very surface of our common life: The vicious ways we speak about one another; the premier value placed on ideological purity over the common good; the worst motives imputed to those with whom we disagree; the disdain exhibited toward those different or most vulnerable among us; and the cavalier way our leaders increasingly disregard the very principles that have made the United States, in our best moments, the light of nations, are all grossly visible.   These things disfigure our national soul, and we are no longer able to hide our ailment from either ourselves or the world around us.  For many on all sides of the political divide, it feels as if our shared life is at risk of collapse.

Naaman is silently desperate, and when his house servant claims to know of one in Israel who can possibly heal him, he grabs hold of hope.  But Naaman mistakenly, almost comically, believes that the same bravado that enabled him for so long to hide his illness can facilitate its cure.  He loads up the symbols of his high standing and the materiel of his wealth, believing with a show of power he can bluff and buy his way to health.

But when Naaman eventually makes his way to the Prophet Elisha, he quickly learns that one cannot be healed by yet again pretending the disease is less than it is, and one cannot be restored to health by continuing to act and interact in the ways that have contributed to the disease.  Naaman is at first confused and then chagrined when Elisha merely sends word through a proxy that what Naaman must do is go and wash in the Jordan River seven times to be healed.  At first the instruction doesn’t even compute for Naaman.  It is counterintuitive.  It involves not a show of bluster or power—the things that make sense to Naaman—but humility, contrition, and a willingness to strip down (literally in this case) and be cleansed.  Naaman doubts the healing power of this prescription that doesn’t look like any kind of power he’s encountered before.  But despite his doubts and misgivings, Naaman is desperate, so he goes to the Jordan and washes.  And when Naaman emerges from the water, we are told, he is restored and made clean.

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I believe, firmly and with my whole heart, that Elisha’s prescription for Naaman is the path to healing for us as a nation as well.  In my conversations, people increasingly either express a hopeless myopia about our future or a thin bravado that fails to mask our signs of soul sickness.  There is no longer time for bravado, but there is still ample room for hope.  Even with our national pockmarks deepening and ever more visible, I believe that the Jordan still flows and still beckons us as a people.  I believe grace for the United States is even yet possible.  But nationally just as individually we must—all of us—recognize, like Naaman, how our healing will come.  It won’t be by raining fire down on one another, or from self-satisfying displays of bluster and power that only seek to mask our disease.  Healing will come from the acknowledgement that we are in need—desperate need—of God and one another.  Healing will come from humility, from contrition for the ways in which we have willfully wounded one another and our nation, and by stripping ourselves bare in vulnerability to be present to each other and see in each other not adversaries or interlocutors but sisters and brothers, children of God and of this great nation.  Healing will come by extending grace to one another, and especially to those who are most vulnerable.  Healing will come when we speak out and insist that our leaders do all of these things as well.

One deep dive won’t do it.  Like Naaman, we’ll need to submerge again and again into God’s grace.  But if we will do, we can still emerge healed, a nation restored that can again be a light to all nations.  With God’s help, may it be so.  Happy birthday, friends.

The Taste in Water

It may be slightly scandalous to admit that one of my favorite sacred quotes is not from the Bible.  It is, rather, from the ancient Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita.  In the Gita, the prince Arjuna is on the cusp of war against his kinsmen.  He is unsure of the morality of what he must do, and he turns to his chariot driver, the mysterious Krishna, for guidance.  The Gita is a prolonged conversation between Arjuna and Krishna, as the prince struggles mightily with his lot in life and desperately seeks some powerful sign of God’s presence in his midst. As to the quote I love, I’ll come back to that shortly.

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Elijah on Mount Horeb, where he meets God in the sound of silence.

Returning to our own holy texts, in 1 Kings today the great Prophet Elijah is as conflicted as Arjuna.  He has stood up for God against powerful forces, including King Ahab of Israel and Ahab’s pagan wife, Jezebel.  Jezebel has threatened Elijah’s life, and Jezebel always makes good on her threats. So Elijah flees across the border to Judah, in hopes that he might be beyond Jezebel’s reach.  Elijah is afraid—terrified by his circumstances in life—and he wants confirmation that God is with him.  (Whatever our lot and whatever our challenges, I think we can relate to that.)  He keeps traveling south until he gets to Mount Horeb, which is another name for Mount Sinai.  Catch that: Elijah is so desperate for God’s presence that he goes to the place he feels sure God will be, the very mountain on which God appeared repeatedly to Moses centuries before, where God was in the ominous mist, and shone so brightly that Moses had to wear a veil, and spoke audibly when granting the Ten Commandments.  With the possible exception of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, Mount Horeb was the one place on earth where God was sure to be in bombast and power.  That’s where Elijah determines to go.

On that mountain, Elijah waits in expectation for the thunderous arrival of God.  And thunder comes.  On the mountain, Elijah encounters a great wind, so strong that it splits the rocks around him.  The cyclone is followed by an earthquake that shatters the mountain at his feet.  And after the earthquake, a fire erupts that engulfs anything in its path.  With each in turn, Elijah thinks, “Surely this is the revelation of God, this demonstration of raw, unbridled power.”  But each time, as the phenomenon passes, God is not there.  Finally, after the fire, a stillness settles on Elijah and the mountain so completely that scripture calls it “the sound of sheer silence.”  (The King James calls it “a still, small voice.”)  And there, in the silence, in the stillness so subtle as almost to be missed, God is.  In the smallest thing, Elijah meets the divine.

In the Bhagavad Gita, Prince Arjuna eventually comes to realize that his chariot driver is actually an avatar for Vishnu—God—and across time, space, culture, and religion, Arjuna begs the same as Elijah.  In his predicament, Arjuna wants to meet God in reassuring power, in overwhelming bombast, in confidence-inspiring noise and wonder.  To an extent, Krishna obliges.  “I am earth, water, fire and space,” Krishna says.  But then he stills himself, and Arjuna encounters the same calm as Elijah on Mount Horeb.  Krishna then says, “I am the taste in water…[and] I am the sound in ether.”[i]

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“I am the taste in water.”

That is the quote I love: “I am the taste in water.”  This truth is universal, embraced by our Judeo-Christian faith and the Eastern faith of Hinduism. We seek God in the wondrous, in the miraculous, in the bombastic and big.  In our lives, we want God to part the heavens and still the seas.  But we may be looking for God in all the wrong places.  It may be that God is primarily to be found in the smallest and subtlest of things, in the calm, in the sound of sheer silence, in the taste in water.

Many of you know that I have only just returned from leading a Cathedral pilgrimage to Northumbria and Scotland.  Much of our time was spent on Iona, the island in the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland where St. Columba established his monastery in A.D. 563.  For centuries, the islands of the Inner and Outer Hebrides served to some extent like a human Scottish Galapagos.  While not completely separated from the rest of civilization, the Hebrides were only tenuously tethered to the mainland.  Generation after generation of Scottish fisher folk were born, raised, and died with little contact with outsiders, especially on the smaller islands.  Consequently, the ancient Celtic songs and prayers of Scotland were preserved on these islands that dot the North Atlantic.  In the mid-nineteenth century, Scottish folklorist Alexander Carmichael spent twenty years traveling the Hebrides collecting these songs and prayers.  He compiled them in a book entitled the Carmina Gaedelica, or, in English, “The Hymns of the Gael.”  The Carmina is a treasure, and though in the past hundred years Carmichael has received some justified criticism for his editing of the work, the Carmina undoubtedly is our best source for the Celtic understanding of nature, the world, and the presence of God.

What is most conspicuous is what is missing.  The prayers and songs of the Celts do not include noise and bombast.  They are not about the great and grand, the earthquake and the cyclone.  They are entirely ordinary.  They are mundane.  They are as subtle as the taste in water.  The Celts have a prayer for making the bed in the morning, from an age when the family bed was, in addition to being the place of nightly rest, also the nuptial bed, the birthing bed, and the dying bed.  The prayer recognizes the presence of God in all these things: “I make this bed in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In the name of the night we were conceived; in the name of the night we were born; in the name of the day we were baptized; in the name of each night, each day, each angel that is in heaven.”[ii]

The Celts have a prayer for the kindling of the morning fire.  Imagine the cold of the North Atlantic wind, as one walked vulnerably out of one’s house to gather peat or seaweed to provide life-giving heat.  The drudgery of that walk becomes an encounter with God, when one prays, “I will kindle my fire this morning in the presence of the holy angels of heaven…without malice, without jealously, without envy, without fear, without terror of anyone under the sun, but the Holy Son of God to shield me.”[iii]

There are prayers and songs for kneading the day’s loaf of bread, for churning butter, for blessing one’s children when they leave the house, for traveling with Christ as companion.

 

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The Bay on the Back of the Ocean, west coast of Iona

In other words, the Celts looked for God in the smallest and most ordinary things, in the sound of silence, in the taste in water.  And like Elijah and Arjuna, they found God there.  They noted that nothing is outside of the purview of God, not even the moments we consider incidental, or the daily tasks we consider burdens.

Perhaps we do look for God in the wrong places.  Maybe because our gaze is cast out there, or up there, hoping for a sign that lights up the night like Astros summer fireworks, we fail to see that God is right here, among us always, like the air we breathe or the still small voice.  How would our days change, how would our chores be enlivened, if we understood that God is present in it all?  How would we move through the world differently if we recognized that by living mindfully in the quiet and calm we would encounter the God who is here?

I am the taste in water, says God.  May we slake our thirst and meet God with every drink.

______________________________

[i] https://www.holy-bhagavad-gita.org/chapter/7

[ii] De Waal, Esther.  The Celtic Way of Prayer: The Recovery of the Religious Imagination, 30.

[iii] Ibid., 78.

The Antidote to Loneliness

Thank goodness for Great Britain, our first cousins “across the pond.”  As the social and political fabric of our own nation has unraveled these past few years, watching the corresponding dumpster fire in England stemming from the Brexit morass has granted our attention a reprieve from our own dysfunction.  Or, at least, Great Britain’s mess has allowed us to say, “See, they’re as screwed up as we are!”  Misery loves company, I suppose.

Because of the way Brexit dominates news from Britain, we may have missed a New York Times headline from last year.  It turns out, as Prime Minister Theresa May was laboring futilely to craft a Brexit deal Parliament could swallow, she made another notable decision: Theresa May appointed Britain’s first ever Minister for Loneliness.  When making the announcement, the PM said, “For far too many people, loneliness is the sad reality of modern life.”[i]

To some, such a position in the government might sound like the epitome of the nanny state, until one remembers that the Ministry for Loneliness is the creation of the most un-nanny Conservative Party.  But it is really necessary, this government portfolio to study and combat loneliness?  Loneliness and isolation among the aged, especially after the death of a spouse, has long been recognized as a problem, but in recent years it turns out the problem is not unique to the elderly.  Surprisingly, Britain’s Office for National Statistics reports that the 16 to 24-year-old age group report greater feelings of loneliness than those in the 65 to 74-year old age group.  Ironically, the digital technology that leads to connection through social media appears to be a primary culprit.  It turns out that electronic devices are a pale substitute for actual conversation and contact.  Virtual relationships are not real, and they do not nourish.  Ever-increasing connectivity is actually feeding social isolation and loneliness.

It also turns out that we share this, too, with Great Britain.  Late last year health care provider Cigna with help from U.C.L.A. released a large-scale survey in which “most Americans reported suffering from strong feelings of loneliness and a lack of significance in their relationships.  Nearly half say they sometimes or always feel alone or ‘left out.’”  Assuming that we are a representative cross-section, this applies to us.

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Our loneliness is borne in part, I think, by the transience of modern life.  I lived for the first eighteen years of my life in the same small town, in the same house, with the same friends.  Since then, I’ve lived in eight cities in five states.  And even if we don’t change cities, we change jobs, companies, and firms like changing socks.  That experience is now the norm, and it will only become more so, as what has been called the “gig economy” grows.  The circle of friends and depth of relationships that develop from a rootedness to place are increasingly rare in our transient world.

Even when around other people, including people we know, we often feel unknown and lonely.  In their song “Nobody knows me at all,” the Weepies sing, “When I was a child everybody smiled; nobody knows me at all. Very late at night and in the morning light; nobody knows me at all. Now I got lots of friends, yes, but then again, nobody knows me at all.  Kids and a wife, it’s a beautiful life; [but] nobody knows me at all.”  Does this resonate with you?

We are psychosomatic creatures—embodied spirits—and it should be no wonder that the lived experience of loneliness manifests itself in us physically.  Loneliness is resulting in a social and health crisis.  In the U.K., official Mark Robinson says that loneliness has been “proven to be worse for health than smoking fifteen cigarettes a day.”  And here in the U.S., former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy says loneliness is associated “with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, and anxiety.”[iii]

What can we do?  Ben Sasse, the senator who was first a Yale-trained historian, says the antidote to loneliness is to identify, wherever one finds oneself, “a ‘thick’ community in which people know and look out for one another and invest in relationships that are not transient.”[iv]  By virtue of our presence here, we have found such a community, even if we haven’t thought of it in that way.  It is the church, specifically, for us, Christ Church Cathedral.  Thick community may not be why we first walked through the doors.  We may have come because we appreciate the historic architecture and well-crafted liturgy, or find ourselves moved by the beautiful music, or want to be part of a place that engages in outreach to those who live on the margins.  But at the end of the day, each of these things is derivative of the church; they are what the church does, not who the church is.  The church, at its essence, is the community described in John’s Gospel by Jesus today in his heartfelt prayer to God.  It’s a dense prayer, with twisting language, but it’s super important.  Understanding it may change our very understanding of why we sit in these pews.

Today’s passage is the very end of a longer prayer Jesus makes on behalf of the disciples he will soon leave, and, it is important to note, on behalf of all those disciples who will come after.  In other words, us.  Jesus says, in prayer, that he has lived his life in complete communion with God, so much so that it is not really Jesus who lives, but God who lives in and through him.  Think of that!  This is what the Incarnation means at the end of the day.  We really don’t need to get tied up in knots about creeds and archaic doctrinal explanations.  The Incarnation means that Jesus knows God—really knows God—and God knows Jesus even more deeply.  And, if we want to know God, and what God is like, we must know Jesus, in whom God is and through whom God flows.  But in his prayer today, Jesus goes a step further.  He says to God, “Just as you are in me, I am in them, that they may be one, as we are one.”

This couldn’t be more profound.  Jesus is saying that in the same way he and God are intertwined, we are to be intertwined with him and with each other.  In the same way that God knows Jesus, Jesus wants to know us—really know us—and wants us to know him.  That’s not about architecture, liturgy, music, or even outreach.  That’s about the character of relationship we have with God.  We know God by knowing Jesus; and we know Jesus by knowing one another, deeply, thickly.  God loves us so much, from before the foundation of the world, that God wants us to be in relationships with one another that embody that love.  It’s not too much to say that we are the love of God to each other.  That’s what the church is.  That’s why the church does all the things it does.

And, that is the antidote to loneliness and the remedy to social isolation.  For everyone who walks through these doors, we are to be the thick community in which people know and look out for one another and invest in relationships that are not transient.  We are to be the community in which no one is forgotten.  We are to be the body in which our shared life in God runs deeper than politics, economics, race, age, orientation, or anything else.  Church is not a place we go or a thing we do; it is who we are, and that identity is available to anyone who seeks to live through God’s love.

To return to Prime Minister May, in a siloed world of virtual connection, we are, each one of us, called to be Ministers for Loneliness.  We are called in love to relate in love to one another, finding and assuring one another that none of us is alone.  What we do here on a Sunday—raising our voices together in song, passing the Peace, kneeling side-by-side at the altar of God—these are rightly just the sacramental signs of the depth of our relationship: that God is in Jesus and Jesus is in us, that we are one as he and the Father are one.  In his prayer today, Jesus says that the community that lives this way serves as a witness to the world.  What a witness we could be.

_____________________________

[i] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/17/world/europe/uk-britain-loneliness.html

[ii] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/23/opinion/loneliness-political-polarization.html

[iii] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/17/world/europe/uk-britain-loneliness.html

[iv] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/23/opinion/loneliness-political-polarization.html

Jubilation T. Cornpone (or, When Reality Mimics Art)

“Jubilation T. Cornpone; 
Old “Toot your own horn – pone.”
Jubilation T. Cornpone, a man who knew no fear!”

In July of 1968, my parents went on their honeymoon to a brand new Arkansas amusement park, Dogpatch U.S.A.  Dogpatch was themed for the Al Capp comic strip, “L’il Abner,” which drew from the lives of Southern country folk to offer subversive satire on wealth, war, and politics.  In 1956 L’il Abner became a musical play, with lyrics by Johnny Mercer.  I myself am Southern country folk, and I’ve loved L’il Abner since the summer the Greene County Fine Arts Council staged it in my hometown of Paragould, Arkansas, with my own mother playing the part of Mammy Yokum.  Lately, a particular tune from the show has been stuck in my head: “Jubilation T. Cornpone.”

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Within the world of L’il Abner, Jubilation T. Cornpone is Dogpatch’s town founding father.  He is a hero to the citizens.  The invocation of his name leads to cheering wild abandon and a dismissal of reason in favor of whoopin’ and hollerin’ support.   Dogpatch’s evangelical fire-and-brimstone preacher, Marryin’ Sam, is Jubilation T. Cornpone’s greatest supporter and advocate, singing Cornpone’s praises to all the people.  Marryin’ Sam says, “J.T. Cornpone didn’t know the meaning of the word fear.  Terror yes, but fear never.” (Let the reader understand.)

In addition to founding Dogpatch, Jubilation T. Cornpone was a Confederate general, and his claims to fame mostly extend from the Civil War.  With each stanza of the song, Marryin’ Sam sings about Jubilation’s heroic exploits in rip-roaring terms, but by each verse’s end, the listener realizes that those exploits have all turned to disaster.  Marryin’ Sam shares the names of the many and varied great battles against his enemies for which Jubilation T. Cornpone is heralded: “Cornpone’s Disaster,” “Cornpone’s Misjudgment,” “Cornpone’s Catastrophe,” and “Cornpone’s Humiliation.”  For example:

With our ammunition gone and faced with utter defeat,
Who was it that burned the crops and left us nothing to eat?
Why it was Jubilation T. Cornpone; 
Old “September Morn – pone.”
Jubilation T. Cornpone, the pants blown off his seat!

To which Dogpatch’s citizens cheer with an utter detachment from reality, “Hurray!”

Again and again, Jubilation T. Cornpone creates a crisis, addresses the crisis of his own creation with a “solution” that deepens distress, and then claims victory atop the layered heap of disaster.  And all the while, the people cheer (encouraged by the evangelical preacher).

The above stanza’s allusion to ruined crops is almost reminiscent of our day, in which a sledge-hammer trade war has led to a broad and severe crisis for American farmers, which is then heroically addressed by propping up farmers with subsidies paid for through borrowed money financed largely by the same country with whom the trade war blazes.  And the people shout, “Hurray!”

Ultimately, Marryin’ Sam tells us, Jubilation T. Cornpone ran for President.  (Because, why shouldn’t he? His track record surely supported such an idea!)

Who became so famous with a reputation so great, 
That he ran for president and didn’t carry a state? 
Why it was Jubilation T. Cornpone; 
Old “Wouldn’t be sworn – pone.”
Jubilation T. Cornpone, he made the country wait!

Marryin’ Sam’s last line drips with a final irony that the citizens of Dogpatch miss.  Because Jubilation didn’t become president, Marryin’ Sam sings,

Jubilation T. Cornpone, he really saved the day!