Monday, June 20, 2011

Three Kinds Of Saving

The Trinity is like a poem that says a little about God,
gives us a few hints about God,
but leaves us still looking for more.
The Trinity tells us just three of the 798,000 things
we might say about God,
but they are three very important things.
They are three of the main ways God saves us
when life is hard and we need saving.

When we call God “Father”, we are saying God is parental toward us.
So what kind of a Father is God?
The Father’s main quality is wisdom
-- vast impenetrable wisdom.
It comes of his unique perspective as the one who was in the beginning,
is now, and ever will be
– the Father who knows everything – past, present, and future.

From that perspective, the Father sees how things that rock our world
in the worst way will someday be redeemed in ways we cannot imagine.
The Father is the Old Wise One, the Ancient of Days,
to whom we run when we are in panic to hear him say,
“Hush, child. It will be alright.”

The Father cares, but he cares calmly, confidently.
He has feelings without being overcome by feelings.
The Father’s feelings are in perfect balance,
supremely centered because the Father takes the long view of eternity.
In that long view, God’s has unshakable confidence that “all will be well,”

Such a Father cares for us but is not anxious about us.
While caring, God remains “infinitely at peace.”
There is in God a Serene Center,
unmoved, unshaken, eternal, sitting Buddha-like in perfect balance.
The Father God is, in T. S. Eliot’s words, “The still point of the turning world.”

The Father’s eternity and serenity are necessary to our hope.
But, the Father’s response, standing alone, is infuriatingly aloof.
If God remains immune to life’s ups and downs,
he cannot understand in a personal way what we go though.

That’s why we need another part of God – the Son.
The Son is the part of God that chooses to join us in our pain.
In his Treatise On The Love Of God, the Spanish philosopher
Miguel de Unamuno describes spiritual love this way:
“The lovers do not come to love one another this way . . .
unless they have suffered together,
When the powerful hammer of sorrow
has pummeled their hearts,
. . . . when they have suffered together,
. . . plowed the rocky ground
bound to the same yoke of a common sorrow.”

We see this part of God in Jesus on the Cross.
Jesus shows us a God who values us enough to join us in our suffering
instead of sitting blissfully serene in Paradise.

But it didn’t just happen once.
This is how God the Son is every moment of every day.
The Son is God’s infinite compassion and the word “compassion”
means literally “to suffer with.”
When we sing “there is no place where earth’s sorrows
are more felt than up in heaven,”
we are singing about the Son.

The Son is so present with the hungry that his stomach cramps;
so present with the lonely that his throat constricts
and cannot call out for comfort;
so present with the grief-stricken that he cannot move.
This is not God almighty, but God all vulnerable with us.

It is a good thing to have a God
who is serene when we are in a panic.
The Father’s wise serenity can be our eye in the hurricane.
It is good to have a God who loves us enough to suffer with us.
The Son’s compassion gives profound meaning to suffering
that might otherwise be for nothing
Those two parts of God are both essential to our salvation.
But they are not enough.
We need something more.

The Spirit is the divine force that both gives and restores life.
Our Creed calls the Spirit, “the Giver of Life.”
God gave Adam life by breathing into Adam’s nostrils
God’s own breath, God’s own spirit.
When Jesus lay dead in the tomb,
the Spirit breathed life back into him.
the Spirit breathes life back into us.

Just so, the Spirit is the force that raises us from death.
In an old spiritual, we sing,
“Sometimes I feel discouraged and like my life’s in vain.
But then the Holy Spirit revives my soul again”,

Life is often more than we can bear.
And yet, to our utter amazement,
people do rise from their ashes and walk on,
sometimes heroically, wisely, compassionately
– occasionally, even joyfully.
When this happens, we know we are witnessing a miracle and a mystery.
Human beings are not this resilient. No one could be.
And yet, it happens.

When the Spirit raises us from despair,
it does not just restore us to our old life.
We do not just carry on as before.
Life in the Spirit is new life with a new agenda.
When the Spirit of God fell upon prophets or kings,
it was not just to cheer them up, but to empower them
for a mission of service to others.
Jesus said:
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor . . .
to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind
to set at liberty those who are oppressed
and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.

Several years ago, a 20 year old college student in my parish
died in the crash of TWA 800.
Her devastated mother asked me “why?”
And I had no answer to give her.
I had no comfort to offer. But God did.

A few months later another woman in our parish
fell into renal failure.
She was blind, disabled, and at times psychotic.
She had no family to care for her.

So the bereaved mother got up from the bed of her grief
to do what had to be done.
Later she said, God had sent her that mission of mercy
to save her own life.

The Spirit calls and empowers us to help the afflicted.
God serves the suffering through the hands
of flesh-and-blood human servants.
The Spirit transforms us into those servants.

When we are hurting, it is natural to become focused on our own pain.
It is natural for our attention to turn toward ourselves.
Natural as these responses are, they are the very responses
that cripple us, that hold us back from moving on, experiencing new life.
The Spirit sets us free from obsessive thinking,
from old patterns of feeling and acting that keep we trapped
in lives less than God wants for us.
The Spirit liberates us by converting our self-focus to service.
The Spirit transforms our own pain can into compassion for others.
The Prayer Of St. Francis says, “
It is in giving that we receive; it is in forgiving that we are forgiven . . . “
Just so, it is in healing others that we ourselves are healed.

Life in this world is hard and it’s complicated.
You’ve know that.
So we need a big God and a complicated God.
We need a God who is perfectly serene,
we need a God who vulnerable and compassionate;
we need a God who powerful enough to create the universe
and when our world falls apart to put it together again
and raise us up from the graves of our despair.

We need all that and more.
But we got lucky.
God is all of that and more – “infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.”

Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Mind Is Its Own Place

Last week we celebrated the Feast of the Ascension
– the day when Jesus passed the torch of his mission to us
and promised that we would receive his power to continue
his mission.
Today we celebrate the birthday of the Church,
the day we received the spiritual power to change the world.

But as we celebrate the fact that we are here,
I find myself considerably confused as to what it is we are doing.
This is what confuses me.
Only 10% of Americans attend church.
But 92% of Americans believe in God.
By my count, that means 82% of Americans,
believe in God but don’t see the connection with Church.

These numbers make me wonder about several things.
What do they think religion is for?
What do they think Church is for?
What do we think Church is for?

One of our greatest living theologians, John Hick, looks at these facts
-- most people believe in God
but only a tiny minority attends Church –
and he has this observation:

“(T)he small minority of church attenders are generally happy
with the message they receive from the liturgies, hymns, and prayers,
and enjoy meeting with their friends there Sunday by Sunday .
They see the Church as destined to always be a small minority . . .
and believe this is an OK situation.
It means we are where we should be within our comfort zone.
But is this the right way to think?
Personally,” John Hick says, “I don’t think so.”

So what is wrong with this picture?
A few hundred years ago Christianity got lost
and drifted into a carrot and stick religion
all about going to Heaven and staying out of Hell.
Going to Church was our admission ticket at the pearly gates.
If we put in enough hours listening to boring sermons,
God rewards us with a get out of hell free card.
That's a far cry from the Bible and the teachings of the Early Church
which have surprisinglylittle to say on that whole subject
which became the end all and be all of Christianity in the Middle Ages.

But eventually some theologian decided
all we really have to do is believe that God exists.
In the words of the country singer, Don Williams,
“I don’t believe that Heaven waits
For only those who congregate.”
So church just doesn’t seem necessary.

That’s right as far as it goes.
God does not require us to log x hours of church time
as our price of admission to Heaven.
But without the inner transformation that comes
from a lifetime of spiritual practice,
Heaven may feel pretty uncomfortable.

As John Milton said,
“The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”//
Getting God to let us into Heaven is not the point.
Transforming our minds so that we are capable
of experiencing Heaven is more like it.
St. Paul said, “Be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”

What we do here is not to buy our way into Heaven.
We are here to be changed right down to the core of our being.
Yes, this is to prepare us for Eternity,
but Eternity doesn’t begin when we die.
Eternity is now.

What we do here is to change us now and for eternity
into the likeness of Christ.
Christian practice -- which includes study, prayer, worship, and service –
changes us now.
We receive the Holy Spirit – not when we die – now!

And what difference does that make?
It changes our hearts and our minds so we become
new people with new capacities – new powers.
Paul said, “If anyone is in Christ,
that person has become a new creation.
The old has gone. The new is here.”

That’s what it means to receive the Holy Spirit.
We become capable of new things.
In Galatians, Paul gives us a list of 9 of the new things
we can do and experience by the power of the Spirit.

The first is love. Everybody wants to be loved.
But the problem is we are not very good at loving
– needing maybe – but not so good at loving,
at caring for someone, at appreciating them.
We are here to learn how to do that.

Second is joy. How much joy do you have in your life right now?
How much deep down shout hallelujah joy?
Is it that the universe is not wonderful enough?
Or is it that our hearts are not sufficiently open to it?
We are here to learn and practice the art of joy.

Third is peace.
How many of us have mastered true serenity
– the capacity to be the eye of the hurricane?
Deep inner peace comes from training our hearts to pray
without ceasing until we float in grace
no matter what is happening in our outer circumstances.

The fourth is forbearance.
That means the capacity to keep our mouth shut
when words will do more harm than good,
the capacity to be still and wait.

Then there’s kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness.
The last is self-control.
Have you noticed that most of the world is out of control?
Have you noticed how often we are not in control of ourselves?
Someone says x so we automatically feel y and then do z.
Other people push our buttons and we bark to their tune.
What would it be like to pull back
and be ourselves instead of reacting to the button pushers?

So about the 90% of Americans who are at home this Pentecost
-- will God let them into heaven? Sure.
But how much joy do you see in their faces?
When they enter a room, do they fill it with peace?
Have they mastered self-control?
If we want to do those folks any good,
we need to get clear on what we are here for
and what we have to offer.
It’s not admission tickets. This is not the celestial box office.
We are here in the business of spiritual transformation.

In Ezekiel, the Lord said,
“I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you.
I will remove from you your heart of stone
and give you a heart of flesh.”
That’s what we are here for new spirits, new hearts
– hearts fit for this life and fit for the life to come.

We are about changing hearts, changing minds, changing lives.
That is what we ritualize in worship.
It’s what we pray for and accomplish through meditation.
It’s what we study in our ancient wisdom teachings.
It’s what we practice in our relationships and in our service.

When we change our hearts, when we change inwardly,
the change doesn’t stop inside our skin.
We become change agents in the culture.
We Anglicans are not defined by a detailed set of theological opinions
but by our spiritual practices and our mission.
We have 5 marks or points of our mission:
To proclaim the good news of God
To teach, baptize, and nurture new believers
To respond to human need with loving service
To transform unjust social structures; and
To safeguard and sustain the life of the earth.

This is about transforming the whole tone of our personal lives, yes.
But it’s more than that.
It’s about changing the world in which we live.
It’s about filling -- not only our own homes and friendships
but the whole world --
with love, peace, forbearance, kindness,
gentleness and self control.

That’s what people do when they have new spirits and new hearts.
That’s what we do when we stop just believing in God
and become disciples of Christ.
That’s what the Holy Spirit is doing through us.
Glory to God whose power working in us can do infinitely more
than we can ask or imagine.

Monday, June 6, 2011

3 Practices & 2 Songs For Spiritual Power

Jesus’ last words to the apostles were:
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you
and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea,
in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

This is Jesus’ last will and testament, his legacy to us.
His parting words threaten to change our lives.
Jesus hands over his mission to us.
To carry out his mission, we need his power.
That makes us distinctly uncomfortable.
No one admits to wanting power.
So what are we doing in a religion that promises power?

Talking about power conjures up images of tyrants, dictators,
political wheeler dealers, and financial robber barons.
Put it together with religion and you get one those double chinned bishops
who’s always eating turkey drumsticks in Renaissance movies.
Nice people don’t talk about power, especially in church.
What has power to do with Christianity?
As Christians we are supposed to be simpering, pusillanimous, dispensers
of charity and pious platitudes, are we not?

But is that kind of Christianity honest?
Does it have any place in the real world?
Sociologist of religion, James Davison Hunter says,
“Human relations are inherently power relations.
Power saturates all of social reality . . . .
How people engage the world is at least implicitly
a question of how they relate to power.”

To truly have nothing to do with power
is to disengage from the world.
To pretend we have nothing to do with power is
to deal with the world, and with our selves, deceitfully.
So we might start by talking about power honestly.

Jesus said, “You will receive power.”
2nd Timothy says, “God did not give us a spirit of fear,
but of power . . . .”
Ephesians says, “Glory to God whose power working in us
can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.”
Paul said, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.”

Jesus wants to give us power for his mission.
If we don’t claim that power, we remain spiritual parasites,
not partners with Christ in mission.
So what is this spiritual power Christ offers?
Is it something we might dare claim for ourselves
and put to use in his mission?

First, forget what you know about worldly power.
This is another thing altogether.
Spiritual power is not dominating power.
Jesus always resisted dominating power.

Spiritual power is relational.
It is the ability to influence others
out of something deep and authentic.
If you are a stranger to me, then you cannot influence me.
If you are a fool, you cannot influence me
unless I’m a bigger fool than you are.

But suppose we get to know each other.
Suppose I come to trust that you mean me well.
And suppose I believe you know something worth knowing.
Suppose I experience you as sane, wise, honest, and decent.
Then I will believe in you and what you say.
Then you can influence me for good.

Worldly power, dominating power is one person
diminishing the power of another person
– trying to make himself more by making someone else less.

Spiritual power is energy.
It flows between people to make them both stronger.
Relational power, spiritual power, can heal, encourage, inspire.

Look at any interpersonal transaction, be it in Scripture, current events,
or your personal life, and check the power dynamics.
Does one person exert power to diminish someone else?
Or does one person share power, empower the other person?
That’s how we distinguish the world’s power from the Jesus power.

We cannot empower others
unless we claim and cultivate our own spiritual power first.
There are three ways to receive the spiritual power Christ offers.

First, it takes prayer.
After Jesus told the apostles they were to receive power for the mission,
the Bible says, they constantly devoted themselves to prayer.
Prayer connects the circuit for Christ’s power to flow through us.

Second it takes study.
Remember that you gain the power to influence me
only if two thing come together.
One, I can tell you mean me well.
Two, I can tell you know something.
2nd Peter says, “His divine power has given us
everything we need for life and godliness.
This power was given to us through knowledge. . . .”
Proverbs 24 verse 5:
“A person of knowledge increases power.”
We do not grow in spiritual power unless we value our faith
seriously enough to study it.

Finally, spiritual power is relational.
Its roots are in Christ-centered relationships with each other.
Spiritual power grows through the intentional discipline
of paying attention to each other, caring for each other,
and finding things to appreciate in each other.

We grow in spiritual power when we do three things:
Pray, study, and befriend each other in Christ.
When we do that, we cease to be spiritual parasites
and become partners -- powerful agents for the kingdom.

But do we dare to claim the power Christ wants to give us?
I see several signs that make me wonder if we are that bold.
Some are a bit delicate.
The least sensitive examples are in our music.

The basic hymn for ordinations in the Episcopal Church
is the old Celtic song, St. Patrick’s Breastplate.
It’s so normative for ordinations and common for confirmations
that most bishops have heard enough of it for a lifetime.
It’s the basic strap on your gun belt song from every Western movie.
The words are an incantation St. Patrick prayed on the plain of Tara
before doing battle with the army of wizards of King Laoghaire.
It goes:

“I bind unto myself today
The strong name of the Trinity . . . .
I bind unto myself the power
Of the great love of cherubim . . . .
The power of God to hold and lead,
His eye to watch, his might to stay . . . .”

It’s what we sing at confirmations before the bishop prays,
“Strengthen O Lord your servant. . . .”
My question is: why have I never once in our diocese,
in any church large or small, high or low, traditional or hip,
not once anywhere in our diocese ever heard that song?

Example 2:
Three of Nevada’s last 4 bishops all attended the same seminary.
That seminary has a theme song, a bit of a fight song actually.
It’s called Chelsea Square named for the seminary’s location
in New York City.
It’s a vigorous song, a marching into mission song.
The opening lines are:
“Put forth O God thy Spirit’s might
And bid thy church increase. . . .”
You can guess my question.
Why have I never heard it in Nevada?

I am not really worried about holes in our musical repertoire per se.
I am wondering what this might say about our gumption
– our willingness to be strong in faith, powerful in mission.

Eucharistic Prayer C says,
“Deliver us from the presumption of coming to this table
for solace only and not for strength.”
Is strength part of what we mean by the word Christian?
Are we willing as Christians to claim and exercise spiritual power?
If not, why am I about to pray for the confirmands
“empower them for your service”?

The Body of Christ needs a backbone.
The Body of Christ needs some fire in its belly.
The Body of Christ needs a steady eye, a firm hand,
and strong right arm.

We need Christians who pray until they radiate spirit,
who study their way into holy wisdom,
who have the relational power to hold fast to a friend
in the strongest storms of life.

When we have that kind of religion, brothers and sisters,
we’ll have the faith of the apostles.
When we have that kind of religion,
our faith will not be an aid to ordinary life
lived in an ordinary environment.

It will be the driving force of extraordinary life
that transforms our environment with justice and mercy.
We will be change agents for the kingdom of God.
When we have that kind of religion,
we will have been baptized with fire as the Bible promises
and the world will feel our transforming energy.