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!

 

 

Clipped Wings

Occasionally I will enter this space early on a weekday morning, when the lights are off and all is still, and the spiritual presence of a dozen generations Episcopalians across one hundred and eighty years seems almost palpable.  I sit in a pew on the lectern side, about eight rows back, and allow myself to settle into the quiet.  Increasingly, these days my prayers are without words, and during my time in this sacred space I most often look to the Resurrection window above the altar as the locus of my meditation.

I can tell you a lot about that window.[i]  It was installed after the great 1938 fire that destroyed the Cathedral chancel, and it is dedicated to the memory of George Alfred Taylor.  There is some dispute as to the window’s manufacturer.  Either the Gorham Company or Payne Spiers of New York created this work of art.  The window depicts Matthew’s rendering of the Easter story.  Matthew’s is the only one of the four Gospel accounts in which an angel meets the women outside the tomb of Jesus.  Matthew tells us, “After the Sabbath, as the first day of the week was dawning, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb.  And suddenly there was a great earthquake; for an angel of the Lord, descending from heaven, came and rolled back the stone…”

I can tell you all of these things about our Resurrection window, but none of these things enters my mind during my early morning meditations.  Rather, when I sit in the stillness of this church, I am captivated by an optical illusion the window presents.  You may have noticed it yourself.  Because of the greenery that flanks the base of the tomb of Jesus in the background and covers the angel’s wingtips, it appears as if the angel’s wings have been clipped.

Resurrection window-CCC

For over six years now, I have been preoccupied, and concerned, and curious about that notion.  What would it mean for an angel to have clipped wings?  What happens when an angel descends to earth but cannot return to heaven?  How does one destined to soar in starry skies make his way when the beating of his wings is only noise and folly?

Have you ever felt that way, like an angel with clipped wings?  Have you ever in your life felt as if you were supposed to soar but couldn’t seem to get off the ground?  Or, have you felt as though you should know God, and that God’s presence might make the very difference in your life, but that the distance between you and God, between you grounded on earth with clipped wings and God high in God’s heaven, is just too great?

I think many of us, perhaps most of the time, feel like that angel and are acutely aware of our distance from God.  We may have some deep intuition that we are created to be in close communion with God, that somehow God intends us to soar like angels.  But often that intuitions seems like a cruel joke.  Loss, and disappointment, and a world so skewed that fairness is a farce seem to be the normal markers of our days, and we catch ourselves wondering whether there is any transcendent meaning to life at all.

Other times, if we’re honest, we know that we clip our own wings.  We can be petty and small when we’re not being grandiose and self-absorbed.  We know the actions we take can be compromised by mixed motives.  We feel acutely the guilt and shame that accompany our decisions. Or else, we are apathetic toward the issues in this world that are of concern to God, preferring to keep our heads down, not even glancing up at the light of God’s heaven, and focusing on our individual, circumscribed present.

For those of us for whom none of this is operative, it may be because we’ve spent years willfully blocking out these thoughts, so that we’ve habituated ourselves to be blithely untroubled by our earthboundness and by God’s distance from us, almost convincing ourselves that if there’s a God at all, he doesn’t really matter.

The distance between God and humanity is the central motif in all of the theistic world religions.  God is “up there,” and we are “down here” metaphorically if not literally speaking.  Another common religious image is that we are separated from God by a great chasm, with no way to bridge the distance.  In fact, the very purpose of religion—all religion—is to bridge that gap.  The purpose of religion is to provide a conduit between God and humanity, and then to broker that contact.  We see this in ancient Judaism in the Jerusalem temple’s Holy of Holies, the space where God dwelt and into which the high priest entered once per year to intercede for the people.  We see it in native religions, in which the shaman with good medicine speaks to the spirits on behalf of the people and then foretells the outcome of events.  Even in Christianity, in the very design of our basilica-style churches (of which the Cathedral is one), the distance and elevation of the altar from the people was originally intended to emphasize the distance of God from us, and especially in the Middle Ages the priest was seen as the necessary intermediary between the people down there and God “up there” at the high altar.

Image result for temple curtain torn in two

Since the dawn of humanity, religion has provided an important coping function for the distress I described at the outset of living in the world with clipped wings, both the distress caused when the world acts upon us and the distress we cause when we act upon the world.  Religion, whatever the variety, has provided a means for us to plead with God for help or beg God’s mercy.  But here’s the thing: Jesus has no interest in religion.  Wait, that’s not quite accurate.  Jesus has great interest in religion, and his interest is to disrupt it entirely.  Because, Jesus says, the whole idea on which religion is predicated—the idea that we are distant from God and need a system to connect us from earth to heaven or across the chasm—is bogus.  In every act and every teaching, Jesus claims that religion’s very premise is wrong.  God is not distant from us.  God is as near to us as the very air we breathe.  God is never absent.  If we were fish, God would be the water.

On the day of Jesus’ crucifixion, the tearing of the temple curtain in the Holy of Holies from top to bottom is the sacramental sign that nothing ever separates us from God, least of all the pretensions of religion.  In Acts today, through St. Peter’s vision of all animals being made clean, God declares that the ancient purity rules that gave some access to God and denied others are invalid.  And St. John the Divine, in his grand vision on Patmos, understands the full implications of Jesus’ truth.  John’s sees what the world can and will be when God’s children fully recognize that heaven is not a place far away, and God does not reside across a chasm.  John says, “I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home of God is among mortals.  God will dwell with them; they will be God’s people, and God himself will be with them; God will wipe every tear from their eyes.  Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’ And the one who was seated on the throne said, ‘See, I am making all things new.’”

In other words, when we recognize that God is not up there, or over there, or absent altogether, but right here, always, surrounding us and permeating us with love, then the old world of distance, and loss, and disappointment begins to evaporate as the illusion it has always been.  And with the illusion, our despair evaporates, too.  It is impossible to remain petty or small, self-absorbed or apathetic, when we abide in the very presence of God.  There are no clipped wings in an Easter world.  The Church Jesus birthed is not intended to be another religion, brokering a distant God.  This is the end of religion.  The Church is to be the people who swim and soar through the very presence of God, both here in this sacred space and out there where God also is, and share this Good News in wonder and joy with all those we meet.

At the table of the Lord’s Supper, in our fellowship, on the streets toward our homes, we live and move through the God who is right here, always, making God’s home among mortals so that we need not reach for God, nor fear any chasm.  God is here, enveloping us in love.

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[i] The Windows of Christ Church Cathedral

Cognitive Closure and the Road to Damascus

Herman, distracted by his cell phone, ended up entering the freeway on an exit ramp and traveling the wrong way down a crowded Interstate.  A quick glance at his GPS suggested to Herman that he was on the Interstate, just as he’d intended, so he kept driving as cars swerved around him at seventy miles per hour.  A news helicopter quickly noticed what was happening and began covering the story.  Herman’s cell phone rang, so he answered, and his wife’s voice said, “Herman, I just heard on the radio that some fool is driving the wrong way on the Interstate.  Keep a lookout for him and be careful!”  To which Herman replied, “It’s worse than the radio says.  There’s not one car going the wrong way; there are hundreds of them!”[i]

We are loathe to admit when we are wrong.  And that’s not just because we are superficially stubborn.  Social psychologist Arie Kruglanski has pioneered work on what he calls “cognitive closure,” which is that moment when a person makes a firm decision, closing the mental filters to any new information that might change one’s mind.[ii]  It’s easy to see why a degree of such closure is necessary.  If someone lacks all cognitive closure, then ambiguity becomes the norm and important life decisions are never made.  Such a person waffles through the world, with events buffeting him back and forth.  But a high need for closure can be even more dangerous, shutting down one’s discernment too soon, settling for what seems preserving and safe for oneself, but blinding oneself to more far-reaching consequences.

Image result for wrong way sign

Especially in times of high anxiety and stress, Dr. Kruglanski says, everyone’s need for closure increases.  When things seem uncertain, our we crave certainty.  In an ambiguous and frightening world, we want simple and clear solutions we believe will preserve us.   Cognitive closure has two stages, according to Dr. Kruglanski: seizing and freezing.  “In the first stage, we are driven by urgency, or the need to reach closure quickly: we ‘seize’ whatever information we can, without necessarily taking the time to verify it as we otherwise would. In the second stage, we are driven by permanence, or the need to preserve that closure for as long as possible: we ‘freeze’ our knowledge and do what we can to safeguard it…And once we’ve frozen? Our confidence increases apace.”[iii]

This can quickly devolve into destructiveness.  In our individual lives, we may cocoon from the world, cutting off complex but important and life-giving relationships and avenues for living in favor of the simplest tasks we can manage, and which grant us a feeling of control.  In the world writ large, we may give our allegiance to leaders who make simplistic but certain promises, who paint the world in terms of black and white, who present a crisp and compelling narrative of us against them.  So long as we are among the “us” and not among the “them,” the leader’s message is a relief from our anxiety, and we accept his or her worldview, closing ourselves off to any other perspectives.  (It is worth noting that for Dr. Kruglanski this is not only an academic study.  He was born in Poland in 1939 and grew up in a Jewish ghetto under the Nazis.)

Cognitive closure is powerful.  It leads otherwise rational people to believe things patently contrary to evidence.  It leads people to say and do things—or acquiesce to things—that in a different time or circumstance they themselves would find abhorrent.  Traveling north on the southbound freeway, cognitive closure can convince us that all the other cars are driving in the wrong direction.

Cognitive closure is also a compelling way to diagnose Paul, who would become the apostle.  In first century Judea, in which the occupying Roman army was a constant source of anxiety and uncertainty, and in which the nascent but growing Jesus movement was an easy target, Paul became a leading voice identifying Christians as the problem, as the embodiment of all that was wrong in society.  (Acts 7 and 8 chronicle second-hand Paul’s vicious and violent persecution of Christians.  Looking back in his letters to the Corinthians, Galatians, and Philippians, Paul admits it himself.[iv])  In the face of anxiety and stress, Paul identifies the first Christians as the problem and himself as part of the solution, blocking out any other evidence, closing his filters to any other explanation.  Dr. Kruglanski says, “That’s what makes certainty so dangerous: When you dismiss other points of view; when you ignore information that is critically relevant to making a good judgment.”  Paul—a highly educated and faithful man—refuses to see those who do not share his vision of reality as being worthy of consideration, and he becomes zealously cruel in his approach to them.

But then we arrive at Acts 9.  There, Paul is literally knocked off his horse and onto the ground.  A thunderous, white light blinds him, both literally and figuratively.  The vision he has obstinately set before himself and claimed as true vanishes in the white light of God.  The voice of Jesus speaks aloud to Paul.  “You are not righteous, as you believe yourself to be,” Jesus says to Paul, “In your demonizing words and actions; in the pain you cause and abet; in your zeal and certainty, you are persecuting me.”  Paul’s cognitive closure has led him down a path on which he is persecuting the Lord of grace and love.  Nothing short of an intervention of grace and love by that same Lord can stop Paul in his tracks, fell the scales from his eyes, and open his mind anew to God’s reality that runs deeper than our anxieties.

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The Road to Damascus, by Rubens

Cracking open our cognitive closure requires such a jolt, and that is what Jesus intends to do in and for us just as much as in Paul.  I worry so about the world today.  I worry for us individually and our tendency to close ourselves to relationships that check and challenge.  I worry for us corporately and the ways we increasingly consider others as two-dimensional cardboard cutouts, as paper tigers we can demonize and against whom we rail.  Arie Kruglanski speaks the truth when he says, “We should be suspicious of our own sense of righteousness.  The alternative is the abyss.”

The words of Jesus ring out for me—to me, and to us all: If ever we demonize in words or actions, in the pain we cause and abet, in our zeal and certainty, we persecute the Lord of grace and love.

Paul hears and heeds the words of Jesus, and he is given new life and a new purpose.  It’s a harder life, trading circled wagons and a lashing anger for vulnerability and a willingness to speak grace and love even when those to whom he speaks do him injury.  But it is a truer life, one centered in God, and a life on whom the survival of the world ultimately depends.

This day—this very day—can be our road to Damascus.  We can be knocked to the ground, our closed minds jarred open, the white light of the God of love scattering all other images from our vision and replacing them with a vision of discipleship in which we become apostles, those whose whole lives are given not to self-righteousness or certainty but to Jesus and his love.  That is Good News.  Thanks be to God.

____________________

[i] From the internet, where else?

[ii] https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/01/opinion/the-price-of-certainty.html?login=email&auth=login-email

[iii] https://www.newyorker.com/tech/annals-of-technology/why-we-need-answers

[iv] 1 Corinthians 15:9, Galatians 1:13, Philippians 3:6.

Unboxing

A few weeks ago I was having lunch at a civic leaders forum, half-listening to the conversation around the table, when I heard someone say, “The kid is six years old, and he earned $7 million last year.”  That made my ears perk up.

“Who’s that?” I asked.

“You know, Ryan,” the speaker answered.  I did not know, but I assumed Ryan must be a child actor of some sort, 2019’s Shirley Temple or Macaulay Culkin.  It turns out my assumption was incorrect, and the conversation became one of the weirder ones I’ve had in a while.  Ryan does have his own show, but it’s a YouTube internet series.  And it’s not a sitcom, or even series of music videos.  No, the show “Ryan’s World” is simply Ryan, the six-year-old kid, opening boxes on camera to reveal hidden toys.

It turns out Ryan is not alone.  For the past several years, while I’ve been blithely visiting YouTube to watch country music videos and thirty-year-old clips of Saturday Night Live, other people have been getting online to watch people open boxes, all sorts of boxes, which contain all sorts of things: toys, electronic gadgets, shoes, live reptiles.  CNN reports that “Since 2010, the number of YouTube clips with ‘unboxing’ in the headline has increased 871%. Last year alone, 2,370 days, or 6.5 years, worth of unboxing footage was uploaded to the site.”[i]

I suspect that some of you still aren’t following what I’m talking about.  After that lunchtime conversation during which I was introduced to the world of unboxing, I still didn’t comprehend it, either.  So, let me say it again, in simplest terms: YouTube, by far the internet’s largest video streaming website, has an entire category of videos which consist of nothing other than people on camera opening boxes to see what’s inside.  And hundreds of thousands of people spend hours online everyday doing nothing other than watching these videos, doing nothing other than watching other people open boxes.

Even more bizarrely, the craze surrounding unboxing videos has turned into an industry.  Toy manufacturers have begun creating new toys in inventive boxes designed to be opened on YouTube unboxing channels.[ii]  The industry is leaning into the phenomenon.  And the video makers are cleaning up.  It turns out six-year-old Ryan didn’t earn $7 million last year.  He made $11 million. [iii]

Image result for unboxing

What the heck is going on?  I wish I could now tell you that this is all a prank, but Easter fell on April Fool’s Day last year, not this year. The unboxing craze is real.  My next thought was that it must be some sort of aberrant fetish, so I got on YouTube and checked the videos out for myself.

I watched one episode of Ryan’s World, in which the little boy’s real life mom wakes Ryan up to the surprise of a giant, papier-mache egg sitting in the middle of his room. Ryan excitedly tears open the egg to find a cache of toys from the Pixar “Cars” movie franchise. Ryan spends the next ten minutes playing with the toys, but for the viewer the novelty wears off within a minute or two, and there is an admittedly almost hypnotic impulse to click on the next video and watch Ryan open a new box.

I also watched a video posted by a twenty-something YouTube phenom who goes by the moniker SSSniperWolf.  In the video, SSSniperWolf purchases for $5,000 what is advertised on eBay as a “mystery box.”  That’s right.  She spends $5,000 for the experience of opening a plain cardboard box with unknown contents.  The box arrives, and SSSniperWolf opens it on camera only to find a disappointing array of clothing, pet toys, and junk exercise equipment.  As she peruses the box’s contents in disappointment, SSSniperWokf asks into the camera, “Am I missing something?  Is there…a hint in this?  No, there’s no hint. There’s… nothing, no secret message.  There’s just misery and deceit.”[iv]

And there it is, the key to deciphering the unboxing phenomenon. It is, I’ve come to believe, a digital metaphor and bellwether for the deep alienation of our culture.  We are all seeking something, but we don’t know what.  We crave deep and abiding meaning—meaning that will give a life structure, and purpose, and a horizon toward which to live—but we don’t know where to find it.  We’re not even equipped to go on the search for it.  So we settle for the shallowest possible substitute.  Hundreds of thousands of people now go online to watch other people open up mysterious boxes, wondering what they’ll find; perhaps dimly hoping that it will be something that endures, that fits the shape of the hole in our psyches and souls.  But we know, deep down, that the novelty will wear off quickly and we’ll move on to the next thing, that all such searches will end with SSSniperWolf’s dejection.  Like her, we will end up saying in exasperation, “Am I missing something?  Is there a hint in this?  No, there’s no hint. There’s nothing, no secret message.  There’s just misery and deceit.”

On the first day of the week, the women were just as desperate.  They and the disciples had searched for meaning in all sorts of packages, most recently in the ministry and message of Jesus of Nazareth.  But like everything that had come before Jesus, following him had led to disappointment and emptiness.  He was dead, and there was nothing left to do.  Nothing left, that is, except to do what good people do even in their despair and tend to the body of the teacher who’d let them down.

The women go to the tomb—its own kind of opaque box—and when it is opened, their dejection is heightened.  The box is empty.  Not even the remnant of Jesus remains, not even the body that can remind them one last time of the promise in which they briefly held all their hopes.  One cannot almost hear Mary Magdalene whisper to the others, “Is there no hint in this?  No, there is nothing, no secret message.  There is just misery and deceit.”

Rolling stone tomb, Nazareth

But just as hope dies, the world changes.  Suddenly, the mystery box is not empty but filled to overflowing.  Forget subtle hints; the women are surrounded by dazzling light and two messengers with a clarion call.  “Jesus is not dead,” they say.  “Jesus is resurrected!  Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

And we should ask, on this Easter morning, why do we?  Why do we seek our meaning, the structure of our lives, the horizon of our hope in dead things, in things destined to pass away?  Whatever avenue, whatever door, whatever box we may open—no matter how much it costs us—so long as we seek ourselves in the finite and the failing we will, eventually, find ourselves mired in misery.  Our alienation from this world is because we seek to find our deepest meaning things that are meaningless.

But it is Easter Day, and again the God of grace and glory reminds us that the superficial novelties and distractions we pursue are the illusion, not the reality.  The reality is that the love and power of God will not be boxed in, even by death.  Jesus is the embodiment of that love and power, and Jesus is alive.  That is the great mystery!  The love and power of him is risen and awake, even here.  That is no idle tale.  If we, like the women at the tomb, will go forth with that living love in our psyches and souls—if we will tell the others what we have come to know—then we will experience resurrection.  The old ways of living, the old places and things in which we’ve furtively sought meaning, will die, but we will not.  We will live newly in the God of love—with meaning, purpose, structure, and a horizon of hope—and our joy will be complete.

_______________________

[i] https://www.cnn.com/2014/02/13/tech/web/youtube-unboxing-videos/index.html

[ii] https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2019/3/22/18275786/youtube-video-unboxing-toy-industry-lol-surprise-dolls

[iii] https://www.scmp.com/news/world/article/2123939/meet-ryan-six-year-old-who-made-us11-million-year-reviewing-toys-youtube

[iv] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_cIOuNMG0ao&t=256s