My friend, Marcus Borg

Marcus Borg died this morning after a prolonged illness.  I received a phone call this afternoon from a Cathedral parishioner and friend of Marcus, relaying the news to me.

I first became aware of Marcus Borg when I was a sophomore at Hendrix College.  His landmark book, Jesus: A New Vision had just been released.  It hit me at exactly the right time.  I was a philosophy & religion major who knew God and increasingly knew about God, but I had little room or need for Jesus.  Marcus’ book gave me an entirely new access point: to consider Jesus as Jesus had been historically, as a wisdom teacher, a healer, a social prophet, and more.

Marcus Borg 2

I first heard Marcus speak at Hendrix.  He was the epitome of a college professor, right down to the cardigan sweater and pipe.  He spoke calmly and with passion, and the first time I heard him in person was also the first time I understood how those two things–calm and passion–could coincide.

I heard Marcus speak several other times over the years, but it was after I’d become a priest that I came to know him personally.  When he was the annual Dodson Lecturer at St. John’s-Roanoke, he and I went to dinner.  I was starstruck and wanted to quiz him about his research and his approach to Christianity.  He’d have none of it.  Marcus wanted only to talk about me, about St. John’s, about our ministry, and about my experience as a young priest in the Episcopal Church.  He was solely interested in me, and I’ve never forgotten it.

Several shared meals and opportunities for fellowship later, my Christology has become higher and higher as the years have gone by.  In ways I could not have done all those years ago in college, I now attest without hesitation that Jesus the Christ is God Incarnate, the hinge of history, the defeater of death, and the fulfillment in a single human life of God’s hopes for the whole world.  And yet, my approach to Holy Scripture, my social convictions, and my love for the Episcopal Church mirror Marcus’ own perspectives quite closely.  I once introduced Marcus to a church audience by saying, “I agree with roughly 75% of what Marcus will say to you this evening.”  When he stepped into the pulpit, Marcus quipped, “I’m tempted to forego my notes and discuss with Barkley the other 25%!”

Unlike so many other writers in the field of religion (on both ends of the spectrum), Marcus was humble.  Once one of my parishioners asked him during Q&A, “But how do you know that you’re right?”  He paused, looked at her thoughtfully, and said, “I don’t know.  I don’t know that I’m right.”

Very many people who had left the Christian faith have returned to it through Marcus’ evangelism (though he would grimace at my use of the word, I suspect). Marcus was a Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ in word and in deed.  He understood Jesus (and especially the Resurrection) differently than I do.  But the veracity of his faith was clear.  And calm.  And passionate.

Marcus and I last corresponded in late November.  I’d asked how he was doing, and he responded, “I may have ten years left.  Not sure I want more.  There comes a time to let go.  And I could, with gratitude, sooner than that.  My life has been very blessed.”

Like Abraham, Marcus was blessed so that he could be a blessing.  He blessed my life, and I am grateful.

When God calls

I’ve never known anyone who disliked today’s Old Testament passage from 1 Samuel.  There’s something so alluring about it, about the child Samuel, a boy wrested from his family and committed to a lifetime of menial service in the temple at Shiloh, who is almost asleep in the hazy twilight when a voice calls to him, beckoning and luring him forward.  Three times the misty voice calls, until the priest Eli realizes it must be God calling Samuel to something important, something unique, some role only Samuel can fill.

The boy Samuel in the temple with Eli

The boy Samuel in the temple with Eli

Those are the most compelling stories, the ones in which one is called forth from obscurity to carry out a task, to fulfill a quest, to achieve a goal.  And better yet if the entire world depends upon it.  Only young Arthur can draw the sword from the stone.  Only Frodo the Hobbit can return the One Ring to the fires of Mordor.   Only Harry Potter can face Lord Voldemort. By: Jose Gonzalez

This notion captivated me at an early age, the first time I saw on the big screen a small green frog, sitting atop a lily pad, holding his banjo and dreaming of what it would be like to follow his unique calling and leave the swamp.  He sang of rainbows and shooting stars, and then he offered a verse that easily could have been Samuel’s:

Have you been half asleep?
And have you heard voices?
I hear them calling my name;
Is this the sweet sound
That called the young sailors?
The voice might be one and the same.

I’ve heard it too many times to ignore it
There’s something that I’m supposed to be.
Someday we’ll find it,
The rainbow connection,
The lovers, the dreamers, and me.

It’s a captivating outlook: that I am uniquely called to something special, that I am special and set apart for wondrous and amazing things.  It’s also a sentiment that has been on the increase in recent years.  According to an annual study of first-year college students called the American Freshman Survey, each year since the 1960s more and more young adults believe themselves to be superior to their peers in virtually every category.[i]  This is true even in those categories, such as writing ability, in which test scores show a marked decline in ability over the past four decades.  Researchers call this phenomenon “ambition inflation.”  Our entire culture plays into it.  Every child gets a trophy.  The A- has replaced the “Gentleman’s C” as the average grade.  Any 6-6 football team goes to a bowl game.

At its worst, such ambition inflation leads to (or, perhaps, is a symptom of) clinical narcissism.  But in its more run-of-the-mill variety, the felt contention that we are each set apart for some great and grand role in life can and often does lead to frustration, disappointment, and deflation when the calling never emerges with clarity, or when we the things we pursue in life fail to satisfy, or when the world around us doesn’t appreciate just how special we are.  As former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams says of our time on life’s stage, “We think we could play Hamlet very effectively if only our talents weren’t so successfully concealed by the fact that we [instead are assigned] a two-minute appearance as Second Gravedigger.”[ii]  Our professions, our relationships, our sense of self-worth take a hit when Excalibur remains stubbornly stuck in the stone.

Our professions, our relationships, our sense of self-worth take a hit when Excalibur remains stubbornly stuck in the stone.

Our professions, our relationships, our sense of self-worth take a hit when Excalibur remains stubbornly stuck in the stone.

But what if we’re thinking about calling wrongly?  What if we are misinterpreting God’s claim and call upon us?

On the one hand, Holy Scripture assures me that I am, indeed, individually precious to God.  Psalm 139 says to God, “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.  I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.  My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.  Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.”

That is a heady thing!  But lest I take the Psalmist’s words to mean that I am destined for greatness apart from my peers, the Prophet Isaiah grants us a vision of all the gathered inhabitants of the world and then says, “Life up your eyes on high and see.  Who created these?  He who brings out their host and numbers them, calling them all by name; because he is great in strength, mighty in power, not one is missing.”

In other words, there is no one uncalled.  God speaks each of our names: Eli, Samuel, you, me.  And though this is, at first, hard to hear, if everyone is special, then, by definition, no one is, at least not in the unrealistic and increasingly inflated sense that our culture speaks of being special.

In other words, there is no one uncalled.  God speaks each of our names: Eli, Samuel, you, me.

In other words, there is no one uncalled. God speaks each of our names: Eli, Samuel, you, me.

Is this a downer?  Not for me. Rather, it’s a relief, and especially a relief from anxious striving.  Rather than spending our days frantically seeking to discover that great and grandiose thing God is calling us, and only us, to do in this world, Archbishop Williams says:

“God’s call is the call to be: the vocation of creatures is to exist as themselves, to be bearers of their names, answering to the Word that gives each its distinctive identity…The vocation of things [is] to be themselves, distinctive, spare, and strange…to be the person you are.  It means [God] is calling you by your name, at each and every moment, wanting you to be you.”

The real crisis of calling, Williams believes, is when we wake up after years of seeking to be special, only to discover that this very quest has led us to live falsely.  The stars we have seen have obscured our true vision, and when the haze finally clears, we sometimes panic.  That is when our professions, our relationships, our sense of self-worth truly suffer, when we recognize, sometimes in a flash—like Paul on the Road to Damascus—that we’ve been living a lie.  In fact, Paul’s conversion can be interpreted as exactly this kind of crisis, by which God calls Paul from falsehood to truth.

Paul’s conversion can be interpreted as exactly this kind of crisis, by which God calls Paul from falsehood to truth.

Paul’s conversion can be interpreted as exactly this kind of crisis, by which God calls Paul from falsehood to truth.

But whether we arrive at the understanding early or late, our calling is, Williams says, “to find out what is true and what is false in us.”  To ask, “Is this actually you we’ve got here? Or is it another defense, another game?”

“Our hearts,” Williams recognizes, “are infinitely cunning in self-deceit.”  And our faithful response to God’s call is “learning to shed the unreality that simply suffocates the very life of the soul.  [Calling] is, you could say, what’s left when all the games have stopped.”

We are not called, in other words, to embark on some fabricated and inflated quest for grandeur, but neither is calling a license to indulge in every impulse or urge that we experience in our lives.  Like striving, our impulses and passions can also often lead us to live falsely.  We are called, rather, to live authentically as the people God created us to be, people who recognize the image of God within us and therefore reflect to one another God’s own compassion and love.

Of course, it was the case that only Frodo could carry the ring, and there are those who are called to specific roles that only they can fulfill, roles both large and small.  But such particular callings can only emerge when we have first pursued the primary call to live authentically.  Because we can only hear the voice of God when we hear through ears that are truly our own and not the ears of a fabricated and false self.

Sometimes, that specific calling, if and when it comes, may be to a completely new place, or a completely new thing.  But it is worth noting that the life to which God called Samuel was the life he was already being formed to live.  Samuel had been raised in the temple at Shiloh in service to the Lord, and from Shiloh he would grow into an adulthood serving God as priest and prophet.  Samuel’s calling entailed a full and authentic living into his already-present context.

C.S. Lewis, an Oxford don both before and after his calling

C.S. Lewis, an Oxford don both before and after his calling

I am fond of asking people if they know the difference between what C.S. Lewis’ did for a living before his conversion to faith and after.  You see, before he became a Christian, Lewis was a scholar of medieval and Renaissance literature at Oxford.  But after his great conversion and sense of calling, Lewis was…a scholar of medieval and Renaissance literature at Oxford.  The difference for Lewis was not in what he did, or where he did it, but in the manner in which he approached the life he was already living.  He became his authentic self, and that made all the difference.

God is calling, you, me, and all people everywhere.  We are precious creatures, created in love, beckoned to give up the false self and live authentically, and to mirror God’s image to the world.  And that is, after all, the highest calling of all.

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[i] http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2257715/Study-shows-college-students-think-theyre-special–read-write-barely-study.html

[ii] This and all following Rowan Williams quotes are from Williams’ essay “Vocation (1)” in A Ray of Darkness, pp. 147-153.

The First Line

Some of you will know of the Rt. Rev. Gary Lillibridge, Bishop of West Texas.  Bishop Lillibridge is a wise and true Texan.  Some years ago I heard him speak at a workshop, and he imparted several important aphorisms.  Perhaps the most profound was this: “If you discover that the horse you’re riding is has died, dismount.”

Riding a dead horseBishop Lillibridge also had something to say about one of our appointed readings for today.  More about that in a moment.

I am a lover of books.  More specifically, I am a lover of stories, and of words, and of the way words are combined to grip the imagination and move the heart.  And often there are no more important words in a story than the first words.  We can all recall first lines that hooked us, captivated us, somehow encapsulated and rehearsed the entire story that was to come in an economy of language.  Once we’d read that opening line, there was no way the book was leaving our hands until the rest of the story was had.

Charles Dickens was one of the very best at first words.  A Tale of Two Cities begins with “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” before catapulting us into the at first hopeful, and then murderous, era of the French Revolution.  Even more tantalizing, A Christmas Carol introduces us to the soulless life of Ebenezer Scrooge with the line, “Marley was dead to begin with.”

"Marley was dead to begin with."

“Marley was dead to begin with.”

Like me, Bishop Lillibridge loves first words.  And his favorites, as he shared at the workshop those years ago, are the first words of the first book of Holy Scripture.  Four words, to be exact.  In the most traditional English rendering (slightly different from the New Revised Standard Version we read today), the whole sweeping narrative of the Bible commences with, “In the beginning, God.”  Adding the next singular word gives us, “In the beginning, God created.”

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Have you ever considered a hypothetical, distant future, when our society has gone the way of the dinosaur?  No matter when that occurs, space-age, future archaeologists will, I suspect, look back in time and assume with a fair measure of confidence that some cataclysm ended our civilization around the year 1993.  That’s the year I first remember hearing about a new technology called “electronic mail.”  It’s also about the time that the post office began losing money, because with the advent of email people quit writing things down on actual paper and other concrete, tangible media.  Even the supposedly permanent things on which we record information, such as compact discs, we now know degrade fairly quickly.  Should all the computer servers in the world be destroyed, our story for the past twenty years would be erased with them.  With no unearthed archaeological evidence to go by, future explorers will assume that some horrible, mysterious malady wiped out civilized, sophisticated folks in the mid-1990s.

Tarxien Temples on Malta, more than five thousand years old.

Tarxien Temples on Malta, more than five thousand years old.

I’ve been reading G.K. Chesterton’s classic book The Everlasting Man, which considers about how we similarly talk about the human epochs that preceded us.  Our confident understanding of human civilization only extends as far back as we can find enduring writing.  We tend to call the eras before this “prehistory,” and think of them as simple and primitive.  But the term “prehistory” really only means we don’t know much about such times, not that the human story was absent.

There are, of course, glimpses: The great temple mound at Newgrange in Ireland, and the even older Tarxien Temples on Malta (both of which I will visit this coming summer).  There is Stonehenge, and there are the strange, beehive-shaped cairns that dot Europe.  Even thousands of years older, there are elaborate cave drawings across the continents.  We conjecture the purposes of all these phenomena, sometimes with convoluted explanations, but the truth is, absent written stories and instructions, at best we don’t know much.  These things; the people who produced them; and the societies in which these people made their homes, found their meaning, and experienced pain and joy, are mysteries to us.  About the only thing we can piece together with any confidence is that virtually the first intuition of humanity was the religious intuition.  We find, again and again, the swirls that suggest infinity, the womb-like cells that mimic gestation, the altars that seem to yearn, through the eons, to mediate God.

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In the beginning, God…In the beginning, God created…

"In the beginning, God created."

“In the beginning, God created.”

As with so many other stories, in the story of Holy Scripture these first words are, indeed, the most important.  They tell us that, before anything else, there is God alone.  And everything that happens subsequently is by God’s initiative.

This is the greatest mystery, the one that extends back infinitely farther than the first, opaque evidence of human consciousness on the planet: the “is-ness” of the world, the fact that there is something rather than nothing.  We can hypothesize, in these heady scientific days, how the world is here, how the first cosmic explosion expanded matter until physical forces caused it to lump together into planets, stars, and galaxies.  We can explain the chemical soup that brewed the first biology on our planet, and the fossil record gives us the dramatic, stratified story of how those early creatures evolved, ultimately, into you and me.

But explanations of how answer questions of mechanics, not meaning.  They do not solve, or even approach, the mystery of why there is a world.  They do not tell us why the God who is, creates.  These are, ultimately, questions not of history or science, but of religion.  Despite what critics of religion argue, neither we, nor, I believe, the most ancient humans indulged the religious intuition in order primarily to explain the “how” questions.  Rather, faith is and has always been, from this altar to the altar at Newgrange five thousand years ago, about why: Why is there a world?  Why did God choose to create?

Glendalough

Here is the answer: God created so that love may be known.

People across the globe from ancient days to now have consulted their priests and plumbed their souls seeking to unravel the heart of this mystery, and different religious traditions arrive at different answers.  Our tradition, and the whole sweeping narrative of our holy book, takes the “why” of those first words—In the beginning, God created—and answers them with the person of Jesus, who is the embodiment of love.  It is an answer as profound as it is simple.  It is the response that would change the world, would end civilizations and create them anew, if we fully grasped it.  Listen to it as if for the first time.  Here is the answer: God creates so that love may be known.

We have entered into the season of Epiphany, which intends to remind us of all those ways God has been and is made manifest to the world.  And before all other disclosures, before the burning bush or the pillar of fire, or the baptism of Jesus, which we celebrate today, there is the first epiphany: that we are here, that there is something rather than nothing, that in the beginning, God created.

In love, God created a world in which a sun could warm a ball of earth and water such that molecules were enlivened that evolved into creatures who could and did develop the very awareness to know and seek God.  God created a world in which human beings could recognize the mysterious presence of that cosmic God in the human face of Jesus of Nazareth.  And God attuned those same human beings to receive grace, which is the depth of love that completes the creation sparked in the beginning.  There is no epiphany more wonderful or true!

How should we respond?  God creates so that love may be known.  That is the only answer.  And so, we should respond with our own epiphanies to one another, revealing love and extending God’s grace in the world; by recognizing the presence of Christ in the face of others; by baptizing little ones into the Body of Christ on days such as today; and by writing things down in ways that endure, that reveal God’s reality and love in our day and for ages to come.

In the beginning, God….In the beginning, God created.  It’s quite a first line.  But, then again, it’s quite a story.