Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Tao, The Truth, And The Life

From the early days of the Christianity,
there was a great division.
On one hand, there was a sacrifice religion.
Those folks got Good Friday right off.
Jesus was the sacrifice for us.
That’s all you really needed to know.

Yes, that kind of Christianity got Good Friday,
but they didn’t have a clue what to do
with Jesus’ teachings and the story of his life.
They didn’t know what Jesus’ teachings meant
so they just put them out of mind
and got back to what they understood,
brutal bloody sacrifice.
Tertullian was the big name for Christianity
that took pride in not thinking over much.

But there was another brand of Christianity also from the start.
Justin Martyr, St. Cyprian of Carthage,
Origen of Alexandria and St. Ireneaus of Lyons
saw the whole life, death, and resurrection of Jesus
as meaning something.
To them, Jesus wasn’t just the sacrificial lamb.
He was also the spiritual master who knew
the Father and the way to the Father.
They followed Jesus, who said,
“To you it has been given to know the secrets of the Kingdom
. . . . Blessed are your eyes for they see and your ears for they hear.”

Jesus for them was the way shower, the guide to God.
That kind of Christianity flourished in the British Isles.
It was the religion of St. Columba of Iona,
St. Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, and St. Bridgette of Kildare.
They knew that before our religion was called “Christianity,”
it was called “The Way.”

Of course they called it the Way in Greek and Aramaic.
If they had been Chinese, they would have called it the Tao,
since that is how you say “the Way” in Chinese.
That may be why in the 8th Century and earlier,
Chinese Christians had such an easy time
sharing their faith with Taoists and Buddhists.
They were all looking for the way of life.

Those ancient Chinese Christians believed
that Jesus taught the way
and he showed the way by his own life.
Taoists and Buddhists respected that belief,
and they listened.

I grew up with Tertullian’s religion.
I didn’t get brutalized by it.
I didn’t mind the guilt.
Being a neurotic, I rather enjoyed it in a sick masochistic way.
But I did get bored.
More than boring me,
Tertullian’s religion left me hungry for something.
I needed some wisdom to live by.

Knowing Jesus died for me was true but it wasn’t enough.
It didn’t tell me how to cope with life’s ups and downs,
didn’t tell me what to do in the face of aggression,
didn’t help me manage the pride and shame,
the craving and aversion, the fear and loathing
that tugged me to and fro each day.

Christianity seemed to offer no guidance for life
except rules against
a few culturally unacceptable vices
and a vague admonition to behave respectably.
Theologian, Stanley Hauerwas,
speaking of his own Methodist Church,
said that he once thought Methodists had no theology.
But, Stanley said, after years of teaching at Duke Divinity School,
he had learned they believe that “God is nice
and we should be nice too.”
It isn’t just Methodists. That was what I saw as Christianity too.

So I went shopping in the psycho-spiritual marketplace.
At Big Sur, I primal screamed.
In Denver, I strained my sacroiliac
while liberating my kundalini.
In Boston, I watched my breath
until I saw pretty cool light shows, drug-free.

But there was still something missing.
There is a truth in Jesus that I needed.
No one had said it, but I sensed it.
The truth is there in his life and between the lines of his words.
He told stories that surprised us
and broke open our assumptions and fixed concepts.
His stories still open the heart and the mind.

So I came back.
At one point when Jesus’ followers had had enough
and were abandoning him,
he said to Peter, “Are you leaving too?”
Peter said, “Master, where can I go? You have the words of life?”
So Peter stayed with Jesus and I came back.

When I came back, I discovered the Jesus who said,
“To you it has been given to know the secrets of the Kingdom
. . . . Blessed are your eyes for they see and your ears for they hear.”
I discovered the Jesus who was steeped in Jewish Wisdom teachings
which were already old in his day.

At the same time Socrates was holding forth in Greece,
Jewish sages were writing Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Sirach,
and the Wisdom of Solomon.
According to these ancient masters,
there is a knowledge that enables us to live well
– just as there are beliefs that make us live badly.
There are practices of living that open our hearts and minds
to better understanding just as there are habits of living
that make us callous and spiritually obtuse.

Biblical Scholars like Deirdre Good and Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenza
have shown us that Jesus’ teachings and his counterintuitive life
are rooted in those wisdom teachings
that were already 500 years old when he was born.

Many of these writings are open ended.
They are jumping off places for thought and imagination.
Take our lesson from Proverbs.
“Wisdom has built her house.
She has hewn her seven pillars.”

What are the seven pillars of wisdom?
One scholar draws on the Epistle of James to say
the pillars of wisdom are seven virtues:
purity, serenity, gentleness, discretion,
reasonableness, humility and sincerity.
Others might equate the 7 pillars with the cardinal virtues
of faith, hope, love, prudence, temperance, justice, and fortitude.
Others say they are insight into seven categories of reality:
the source of the universe, the nature of God, the way of salvation,
the planes of existence, the destiny of human beings,
and the destiny of the universe.

I don’t know what the seven pillars of wisdom are.
But any of these interpretations could make our lives deeper
and more holy.

The Christianity in which I have lived these 30 years,
is as rich, deep, and complex as any world religion
or philosophy.
It is not so much a set of neat answers
as challenging questions to ponder
and practices to master.
It takes connecting the head with the heart,
prayer with action, and worship with daily life.
It takes study, prayer, action, and believing.

But what’s the point of it all?
It’s higher ground.
I love that line in our song,
“My heart has no desire to stay
Where doubts arise and fears dismay.”
Christ bids us to come up higher by knowing his truth,
to rise above the petty squabbles of worldly life
and know his peace.

Paul prayed in Colossians
“that you may be filled with the knowledge of God’s will
in all spiritual wisdom and understanding.”
– and in Ephesians, “that you may . . . comprehend . . .
the breadth and length and height and depth,
and know the love of Christ . . . . “

There is much to know in this faith of ours.
There is no test. There is no competition.
There is no pride in knowing or shame in not knowing.
But there is joy in learning. There is peace and consolation.
There is wonder and delight.

As Paul wanted the Ephesians and Colossians
to be consoled, strengthened, and empowered
by deep wisdom, spiritual knowledge,
I want that for all of us.
Moses assured us,
“this is not too hard for us.”
Wisdom is God’s gift for all who will receive it.

On Such A Winter's Day

Our Gospel lesson ends with a haunting question,
“When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”//

First, who is this Son of Man?
That’s a profoundly ambiguous title.
Jesus used it to describe himself,
but what does it mean?
If Jesus is using these odd words the way the prophet Daniel did,
the Son of Man is a divine being coming in judgment
at the end of history.
But if Jesus is using the words “Son of Man”
the way most people meant them in his day,
they mean an ordinary person, the man on the street.

That’s how I think of them in this lesson.
I imagine the ordinary person on the street
and wonder if he will find faith on earth.

Here’s what I mean.
Some of you may be old enough to remember
the 1965 John Philips song, California Dreamin’
– or if you’re younger, you may have heard it
in last year’s movie, Fish Tank.
It’s about a guy feeling cold and lonely in New York on a winter day.
He stops into a church to get warm.

In how many movies have you seen someone feeling cold and lost
go into a church, perhaps to pray or just get warm – perhaps spiritually?
I’ve done it myself in real life.
When my daughter was backpacking through Europe,
she was homesick one day so far from home.
But she found an Episcopal Church
where a priest prayed with her
and it was like a shawl wrapped around her soul.

A church building embodies faith in an architectural way.
The priest embodies faith in a human way.
The paintings of Caravaggio and Fra Angelico embody faith in painting.
The sculpture of Michelangelo and Rodin embody faith in stone.

So here’s what the question in our Gospel lesson means to me:
When the cold and lonely John Philips of California Dreamin,
or my daughter in Europe, or any Son of Man
is wandering lost and lonely on life’s mean streets,
will there be a Church with a glowing hearth
where he can warm his soul?
I don’t just mean will there be church buildings around.
I mean: will there be faith in the world when we need it?
Will we find faith on earth?

By faith, I mean something that doesn’t fit a nifty definition.
I mean a deep trust that there is meaning and value to life.
Ultimate meaning and value is at least part of what I mean by God.

Faith is trust in the core of reality,
trust that the mystery will one day be revealed
for what is has always been:
good and true, beautiful and kind.
Faith is trust that there is redemption, forgiveness, and reconciliation.
Without faith, the streets get pretty cold on a winter’s day.

We need faith in order to live a truly human life.
One person clothes his faith in one religion.
Another person clothes his faith in another religion.
But faith cannot live naked in this world.
It’s too cold out there.

Faith needs a medium just like a medicine has to be mixed in a base.
Faith is the spirit inside religion.
Faith needs stories, rituals, art and architecture.
It needs songs and dances, holy days, saints, traditions.
These things are not faith themselves, but faith needs them to survive.

“When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on earth?”
When we need faith, when our children and grandchildren need faith,
will they find it?

Brothers and sisters, faith is not an accomplishment.
It is a gift from God.
But it is a fragile gift, a precious gift that must be nurtured.
St. Paul called it a treasure held in a fragile clay jar.
It is like a seedling entrusted to us to water, protect, and cherish.
Faith is a gift that lives or dies, flourishes or perishes,
in our hearts and in our culture
depending on how we treat it.

That brings us to our Epistle lesson.
Faith is clothed in religion, mediated to us by religion
-- but the religion only works if we know it.
Notice all the words of learning and knowledge in this text.
“Continue in what you have learned and firmly believed,
knowing from whom you learned it
and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings
that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith. . . .
All Scripture is useful for teaching … (and) training . . . .
Proclaim the message, be persistent whether the time
is favorable or unfavorable . . . .with the utmost patience in teaching.”

To nourish our faith, we have to know our religion.
In my younger days, I was not a believer.
But I at least knew what it was I didn’t believe.
I knew it. I missed it. And when the time was right,
I knew where to look for it.
On a cold winter day, “I stopped in to a church
I passed along the way.”
Thanks be to God and the saints who have gone before us,
the church was there. The faith was there.
Now here’s what worries me.
A recent Pew Forum survey of religious knowledge
showed that most of us don’t know much about religion
– either our own or anyone else’s.
Atheists and agnostics knew almost twice as much
as mainline Protestants.

There’s a lot of Christianity to know.
I don’t know the half of it.
But in my worst times of fear and despair,
the words of Isaiah have carried me.
When I have been falling apart,
the Jesus prayer has held me together.

I was over 50 years old before the Doctrine of the Trinity
opened my eyes to life being more beautiful
than I had ever imagined;
and the Mystery of the Incarnation blew wide open
all my assumptions about who God is
and what it means to be human.

Faith is a precious gift.
We pass it down from generation to generation.
We tend it, shield it, feed and water it.
We tend our faith with prayer and practice,
worship and study.

“Continue in what you have learned and firmly believed,”
the Bible says, “knowing from whom you learned it
and how from childhood you have known the sacred writings
that are able to instruct you for salvation through faith. . . .”

Faith lives between the lines
of the wild story of salvation in our Bible.
It lives in the prayers of the saints
and the imaginations of the artists.
But only if we know these things,
only if we know our religion.

“When the Son of Man comes,
will he find faith on the earth?”
It’s up to us.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Dukkha Du Jour

What do 10 lepers on the side of the road
have to do with us in Carson City today?
If we take the story an inch deeper and a foot wider,
this story is precisely about you and me.

10 lepers cried out “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us”
for a simple, obvious reason.
They had leprosy.
Their flesh fell off and they exuded an offensive odor.
The lepers found that condition unsatisfactory.

We may not have leprosy,
but we know what it is to find our lives unsatisfactory.
Gautama Buddha said, “The first noble truth is this: There is suffering.”
Only he didn’t say “suffering,” because he didn’t speak English.
Speaking Sanskrit, he actually said, “There is dukkha.”
Suffering isn’t a good translation of “dukkha.”
Actually, it means dissatisfaction, discontent.
Robert Penn Warren said, “The earth grinds on its axis.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge called it, “the tears in the nature of things.”
W. H. Auden spoke of “all the failed caresses.”
St. Augustine, George Herbert, and modern theologian John Dunne
called it “restlessness.”
Dunne set out to follow his heart’s desire and discovered, in his words,
“how unfulfilled longing can be (like) an unrequited love.”

Leprosy was the specific form of dissatisfaction our lepers had that day.
It was the dukkha du jour on their life’s menu.

Like the lepers, we sometimes find our circumstances unsatisfactory.
I have been in circumstances so unsatisfactory, that in my eyes,
they made leprosy look like a hangnail.
I have cried “Jesus, have mercy on me” and he has done it.
Thanks be to God, the old hymn is true.
There is “power in the blood, wonder working power.”
He has brought me though the deep waters and the fiery trials.
Sometimes we bring our fear and our sorrow to Jesus and are redeemed.
But after we have been redeemed, are we then satisfied?
That is the question Jesus raised when one leper returned to give thanks,
and Jesus wondered,
“Were not 10 made clean? Where are the other 9?”

Indeed where were they?
It takes only a little imagination to answer his question.
They were made clean.
The priests restored them as members of society.
They saw, as they expected, it is better not to be a leper,
and they were happy -- for a week, maybe two.

Then they noticed that they were poor.
Unless you were a high roller like the leper King Uzziah
or dermatologically challenged General Naaman,
if you had leprosy, you were out of work.
Our 9 lepers were certainly destitute.
Being destitute was unsatisfactory. It still is.

Being hungry, having no roof or walls,
no bed to sleep in, nowhere to bathe,
these things are unsatisfactory.

I like to think that one or more of them
had a trade before they fell ill,
resumed their trade after they were healed,
and eventually got back on their financial feet.
Once restored to the blue collar middle class,
they saw that it is better to be solvent than impoverished.
So they were again happy – for a week, maybe two.

Then they noticed that they had no family and were lonely.
Or they noticed that they did have a family,
and their spouse was insufficiently attentive to them,
or their children were rebellious or indolent or slovenly.

Everyone’s children are too something.
If nothing else, they are too perfect. That is the worst.
There are two great forms of social unhappiness.
One is to have no family. The other is to have a family.
So again, their situation was unsatisfactory.

Perhaps, having been delivered from the distraction of leprosy,
they noticed, in that pre-dentistry era,
that they had chronic bad breath
and intermittent toothache.
Eventually mortality manifested as a specific terminal illness.
And terminal illnesses are decidedly unsatisfactory.

Can we see our lives in this?
Perhaps we have evolved from some discontent in the 80’s,
to a new tribulation in the 90’s,
to whatever burr is under our saddle today.
If so, that is not too bad.

Grading our lives on the existential curve,
that would be at least an A-.
It is better to move from one unhappiness to another,
than to remain forever mired in the same old misery.
It is at least more interesting.
Freud said the goal of psychotherapy is to liberate us from neurosis
so we can live lives of ordinary misery.

But one leper did something different.
One leper returned to give thanks.
Instead of rushing onward into the impossible quest for satisfaction
he returned to the source of the blessing he had already received.
He returned -- he turned around -- the Greek word is metanoia.
He repented – not of his sins but of self-seeking.
He turned from the common direction of human life
and gave thanks.
In Greek, the word for give thanks is “eucharist.”
It’s what we do today and every Lord’s Day.

It’s a spiritual practice in awakening something inside us .
Yesterday, in a KUNR radio interview, our own Rev. Stefani Schatz
called it “the heart of gratitude.”//

In reflecting on his earlier life of spiritual disquietude,
John Dunne said,
“I had not yet been able to say ‘thanks’ for the past
or ‘yes’ to the future, and so I was not yet able
to live in the present.”

The thankful leper in our story made that leap.
He said “thanks” for his past.
Then Jesus set him free to say “yes” to the future
and live in the present.
“Get up and go on your way,” Jesus said.
His grateful faith had set him free.

It is a good thing to enjoy our passing moments of happiness.
But it is a better thing to root that happiness in its source,
to turn our minds from checking our own emotional temperature,
from measuring our lives against some unachievable standard,
from dwelling on the half-emptiness of our glass
toward the eternal source of our blessing.
It is better to take delight in the existence of the Blessed One
who blesses us with reality itself.

When we awaken the heart of gratitude,
we discover a wealth of spiritual solace and strength.
Of course, troubles still come, we are still frustrated, disappointed.
Life is still what it is.

But life floats in a sea of grace.
Gratitude feels the buoyancy of that grace.
We see that in the one leper who turned around,
who turned his heart from seeking its own content
to praising God for his very life.
We cannot repay God for our blessings.
But we can acknowledge the source of our good.
That’s why we give our money as a Eucharistic offering,
to acknowledge that our livelihood is a gift.
That’s why we perform acts of mercy,
to acknowledge we have received mercy.
That’s why we pray for others,
to acknowledge that someone’s prayers have carried us.

There is another poor translation in today’s Gospel lesson.
At the end, our text says Jesus told the man,
“Get up and go on your way. Your faith has made you well.”
But Greek word is not “made you well.”
It is “Your faith has made you whole.”

Jesus cured the man’s leprosy at the beginning of the story.
At the end of the story,
gratitude completed the job
of setting him free from chronic disquietude.
To give thanks, to celebrate Eucharist is, as it says in Rite I,
“meet, right, and our bounden duty.”
But it is more than that, much more.
It is, as it says in Rite II, “a right, good, and a joyful thing.”