Saturday, July 30, 2011

Right Field Prayer

Sometimes you can strike two Scripture texts
against each other like flint and steel, and it makes a spark.
That’s what our lectionary does.
It strikes lessons against each other so we see things we might miss
if we just looked at one of them.

In our Old Testament lesson,
David has just died after being King for 40 years.
After some palace intrigue,
the crown is now going to young Solomon.
On the eve of his coronation the boy is praying
as we pray only when we are scared.

Back when I was a boy,
your first summer in Little League,
you started out in right field.
That’s the position least likely to see action.

But when there is action out there,
it demands skills no Little Leaguer has his first year.
Catching a long fly ball and rifle-shotting
it to third base is not something a 9-year-old can do.
So every Little League right fielder knows this primal prayer:
“O God don’t let them hit it to me.”

According to Friederich Schleiermacher,
the father of modern theology,
who sounds as if he played a little right field himself,
that prayer is the basis of religious experience.
My spirituality hasn’t advanced very far beyond it.
Solomon was praying quite earnestly that night
like any 9 year old right fielder.

“My God you have made your servant king . . .
and I am only a little child.
I do not know how to go out or come in. . . .
Give your servant therefore an understanding mind
to govern your people,
able to discern good from evil . . . .”

Solomon prayed for the wisdom he needed to serve his people.
God liked that -- so he granted the boy’s request. He said:
“Because you have asked this,
and have not asked for yourself a long life or riches
or the life of your enemies,
but have asked for yourself wisdom to discern what is right . . . .
Indeed I give you a discerning mind . . . .”

People have lots of desires, which are mostly good in themselves,
but our desires unguided by wisdom can run amok
and get us into all sorts of trouble.
Not just individuals but whole societies
can go over the cliff with greed, fear,
the compulsion for revenge – you name it.

Each of us has inside a maelstrom of swirling feelings
– and that’s good.
It’s part of what makes us human and keeps life interesting.
But to live well, to flourish, we need a still center.

We need a core of wisdom and serenity out of which
we can discern truth and justice.
We need a balanced place from which to make decisions.
For 500 years before Jesus, Jewish Wisdom teachers
extolled the importance of that balanced place.
“Wisdom is more precious than rubies.
Nothing you desire can compare to her.” Proverbs 3 verse 15.

The lectionary sets our Old Testament lesson about Wisdom
alongside our Gospel lesson of parables from Matthew.
That sets these parables in a new light.
In Matthew, Jesus is first and foremost a teacher of wisdom.
He says, “the kingdom of heaven is like a treasure
hidden in a field . . . .”
When someone finds the treasure in the field,
he sells all he has to buy that field.”

When Jesus talks about the kingdom of heaven,
he doesn’t mean a place we go when we die.
Kingdom doesn’t mean a place –it means being in charge.
He’s talking about who’s in charge of our lives.
When Jesus says “kingdom of heaven” he means
a spiritual state where we are not governed
by passing whims or ingrained habits.
It is the state of being governed by Wisdom.
Jesus means the balanced place from which
we can see clearly and act skillfully.

Do you see how Jesus is echoing Proverbs?
“On finding one pearl of great value,
he sold all he had and bought it.”
Wisdom is the gift we must have first
before we can possess anything else.
Without wisdom, any other gift is apt to possess us.
That’s why Solomon was right not to ask for any other gift
but the gift of discernment.
Without discernment, how could he know what to ask for?

One verse of today’s lesson has been twisted
and needs a bit of special attention. It says:
The kingdom of heaven is like a net that catches all kinds of fish,
both good and bad.
Then the good are kept and the bad thrown out.
A later writer has added a line turning this verse
into an allegory about the last judgment.
But Jews didn’t use allegory.
Jesus would not have said that part.

Take the verse back to Jesus’ original message,
and it means Wisdom entertains all kinds of ideas,
all kinds of possibilities, then sorts them out,
tossing the foolish options, keeping the good ones.

Finally, Jesus describes the wise person.
He calls the wise person “the scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven.”
Jesus says, this scribe is the master of his household.
That means he is in charge.
He has his feelings but his feelings don’t have him.
He is in charge of his own life.

Then Jesus says, the wise person
can bring out of his treasure, that is call forth from his wisdom,
things that are old and things that are new.

The wise person does not forget the wisdom of ancient tradition,
but he is alert to new insight,
fresh creative approaches to life.
He is not rootless – but he is not mired in the past.

Wisdom starts small inside us,
like a tiny seed that grows into a tree or
a pinch of yeast the leavens the entire loaf.
It is that small stillness between our in breath and our out breath.

Now specifically how do we cultivate Wisdom
so we can live well and be fully human?
Step one: we study the wisdom of others.
We study Scripture, the lives of the saints, the teachings
of the sages.
The first step is paying attention to wise people.
The best way is to go deep into one tradition
and study a little in several other traditions
to get a broader perspective.

Second, we make a discipline of visiting that balanced place
inside ourselves.
We make contact with our souls when we pray or meditate.
Some people do that best on their knees in church;
others, on a meditation pillow;
others, while walking, swimming, biking, or dancing.
My spiritual director used to say
“Pray the way that you can and not the way that you can’t.”
It doesn’t matter so much how we pray or meditate,
but that we pray or meditate every day.

Third, we make a discipline of looking before we leap,
of watching our feelings, measuring our feelings,
knowing our feelings before we act on them.
Our natural practice is: ready, fire, aim.
Wisdom is a simple adjustment in that sequence.

Step four is the hard part.
Remember why Solomon wanted wisdom.
It was so he could serve his people.

There is no such thing as selfish Wisdom
because selfishness is foolish.
Selfishness is self-defeating.
Wisdom can only be cultivated while serving others.

Fr. Jim has led St. Patrick’s in a commitment
to become a Church for others.
A church for others sets an example for each of us
in the wise practice of self-giving.
Generosity is simply opening our hands and our hearts.
That turns out not to be just good but also wise.
Generosity is wise because
only open hands and open hearts can let life in.
So study, pray, and look before you leap,
then give yourself to Life that Life may give itself to you.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Labor Pains: Practical Religion For The Real World

William James was the father of American psychology.
In the early 1900’s, he was a leader
of a movement called pragmatism.
James was interested in what works in the real world.

When it came to religion, he wanted to know what works.
He asked what kind of religion actually sustains us in real life.
James said the two most effective religions in the world
were Buddhism and Christianity.
They were effective because they faced up to how hard life can be
and worked with that situation in a creative, helpful way.

For a religion to be effective, James said,
it has to be true to our experience
but it also has to offer us hope that goes beyond our experience.
He contrasted Christianity with another approach
to life he called “the religion of healthy mindedness.”
That’s the idea that if we just get our minds right
everything will be just fine.

Since the William James days, a lot of happy minded religion
has found its way into Christian churches,
and even more into Christian television and radio.
Just believe right and it will make you healthy, wealthy, and wise.
Get your religion right and your marriage will be smooth,
your kids will behave, and your stocks will go up.
It’s called “the prosperity gospel.”

If that kind of religion works for someone,
I wouldn’t want to take it away from them.
But what does the prosperity gospel say
when your marriage has issues, your kids don’t behave,
or your stocks go down?
It says: you aren’t right with God.

Whatever happens to you is your fault,
and by the way you’re probably going to hell.
The religion of happy mindedness works fine as long as things are alright,
but when the going gets tough,
the religion of healthy mindedness gets harsh.

Orthodox Christianity doesn’t tell us that everything is alright
or that it will be alright if we just think the right thoughts.
Christianity does not say that hardships are illusions
or that they are punishments for not having enough faith.

Christianity is clear and emphatic that this world is not yet
the way God wants it.
Libraries full of books have been written to explain
why the world is the way it is.
You can find several different ways of looking at it in the Bible.
But they all agree that things are not right.

There are religions that sing nothing but happy praise songs
all the day long.
There are churches that never sing a hymn in a minor key.
But orthodox Christianity knows how to sing the blues.
We have songs like Wayfaring Stranger and Balm in Gilead.
We have Lent and Holy Week.
We have saints and martyrs who were far from happy minded.
We have preachers like Charles Spurgeon who said,
“No cross; no crown.”
Folk singer Nancy Griffith sang,
“It’s a hard life. It’s a hard life.
It’s a very hard life.
It’s a hard life wherever you go.”
Of course, it isn’t always a hard life.
Sometimes it’s a lot of fun.
But when life is hard,
what is a Christian supposed to think about that?

Let’s look at what St. Paul says in today’s lesson.
“I consider that the sufferings of this present time
are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.”

Paul doesn’t say it’s alright now, but that there’s something coming.
Paul is dreaming of an uncloudy day.
He says that the world will be changed and that we ourselves will be changed.
Listen to this:
“For the creation waits with eager longing
for the revealing of the children of God;
. . . .the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay
and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. “
Right now life can be an ordeal,
but Paul calls all our ordeals “labor pains.”
He says this:
The whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now;
and not only the creation, but we ourselves,
. . . groan inwardly while we wait for adoption,
the redemption of our bodies.”

One of the best philosophers alive today is an Anglican priest
named Marilyn McCord Adams.
In one of her books, she looks at some of the explanations
for why things go wrong.
She talks about free will and that sort of thing.
When it comes to ordinary hardships,
those explanations work more or less.
But then she asks about the really awful things that happen.
She calls those things “horrendous evils.”

I won’t cast a pall on your morning with examples.
But you know what she means – the real horrors of war, crime, terrorism,
and natural disasters like the earthquake in Haiti.

In the face of those things,
the nice little philosophical musings all ring hollow.
Besides, Adams says, we don’t want those things explained.
We want them redeemed.
And so, she says, they shall be.
God is infinitely beyond anything we have experienced, she says.
God is infinitely greater than even the most horrendous evils
that have ever happened on this earth.

What does God have waiting for us?
God has God’s own self to give us.
God promises that all our hardships, all our griefs,
will be swallowed up
in the transcendent glory of his love.

That’s what Paul means when he says,
“I consider that the sufferings of this present time
are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed . . . .”
We don’t live in passive acceptance of things as they are.
We live in hope that things will not just be better,
they will be glorious.
The difference between Christian suffering and ordinary suffering
lies in a single word: hope.
And that single word makes all the difference.

St. Paul said,
“For in hope we were saved.
Now hope that is seen is not hope.
For who hopes for what is seen?
But if we hope for what we do not see,
we wait for it with patience.”

We have a faith that can sing the blues
but we sing the blues with hope.
Ordinary suffering is laced with despair
because it doesn’t believe in tomorrow.
We live with today because we have supreme confidence
in tomorrow – a tomorrow in the presence of God.