Sunday, February 26, 2012

Deer & Cattle & Bears! O My! or Rumi, Lent, and Deer Whistles

Jesus went out into the desert, a desert a lot like ours,
to get his heart straight with God.
I have been on long desert retreats,
but these days mostly I just drive through the desert
on my way from church to church.

The office staff always feel sorry for me.
They know I am going to wonderful places,
but they feel sorry for me because of the hours
of driving alone through the desert.
They don’t believe me when I tell them that I like it.
There’s a lot of geology out there – biology too.
And the light falls at different angles at different times of day
and in the different seasons.

It is a spiritual retreat for me to drive all day in the desert
“in solitude, where we are least alone” to quote Lord Byron.
I find God out there.

My family worries about me though.
That’s partly my fault.
I have told them stories of terrorist attacks on my car
by kamikaze deer,
aerial assaults by suicidal hawks,
and -- the worst one of all – bovine road blocks
by three cows standing stolidly
broadside across both lanes of Highway 6.
Like Jesus I am with the wild beasts.

I’ve actually never had a serious mishap.
The only wild beast that ever damaged my car
enough to go to the shop was not a deer, cow, elk, or bear.
It was an enormous mutant jack rabbit.
Still they worry.

So this week my elder daughter sent me a set of deer whistles,
to scare the wild beasts out of my path.
There’s a hot controversy about whether they work or not.
I don’t know, but my daughter gave them to me so I installed them
as directed on the front of my Ford.

The premise of the deer whistle is that the wind blows through it
to make the sound that scares the animals.
The interesting thing to me was the instructions on maintenance.
The maintenance issue is about smaller wild beasts, to wit: bugs
– the ones that splatter our windshields and grills
are apt to die in the deer whistle and clog it up,
block the wind tunnel.
No wind – no whistle.
So it is necessary, from time to time, to clean the bugs
out of the whistle.

And that brings us to this first Sunday of Lent.
The Persian poet Rumi said the human being is a flute
which makes music when the breath of God
flows through.
God breathes through us so that we speak, act, and move
with a grace like music – music that attracts people,
that draws them – not to our personalities – but to God.

Spirit means breath or wind.
The Holy Spirit is God blowing through our hearts.

All of which brings us back to deer whistles, bugs, and Lent.
Like the deer whistle, the spiritual passageway in us can get blocked.
The bugs that choke off our spiritual air passage, we call sin.

Sins are not just bad decisions.
Sin is something that blocks God out of our souls
and keeps us from sharing God out into our world.
Sin blocks the flow of God’s spirit through us
like bugs block the wind from a deer whistle.

That’s a poetic way to put it.
Let me explain what I mean.
Sin is a pattern or habit of feeling, thinking, or acting
that keeps us from attuning our lives to God.
Each new situation is a fresh encounter with God.
But fixed habits of feeling, thinking, and acting
make us oblivious to the wonder of God new in each moment.

Every feeling, thought, and action happens in the brain
when an electrical impulse fires from one nerve cell to the next.
Neuro-scientists have a saying. It goes:
“What fires together wires together.”
That means repeating the same patterns over and over
can trap us in a rat maze inside our own heads.

We get patterns of feeling, thinking, and acting
hardwired into our very bodies.
So new things may keep happening,
but we keep having the same old experiences.
We are deaf, numb, and blind to anything new.
We are deaf, numb, and blind to God.

These habits that shut God out are the bugs.
Lent is the time for a spring cleaning of our hearts,
to open up a passageway for God.

Now there are as many kinds of sin as there are bugs
along the highway.
But you can group them in categories.
Evagrius of Pontus became something of an expert on sin
the same way Jesus did.
He spent years as a hermit in the desert
and found every sin imaginable right inside himself.
He grouped the sins into three categories
corresponding to Jesus’ 3 temptations in the desert.

Turning stones into bread he called appetitive sin.
There are several in that file. One of them is gluttony.
But gluttony isn’t just about food.
Its’ the anxious craving to have more and more – of anything.
It’s the fear that we can never have enough.

Do you see how the mindset of constant craving
could keep us from seeing what we’ve got
because our eyes are scanning the horizon?

Psalm 78 tells how the people complained of hunger in the desert
and blamed God for their trouble,
so God miraculously fed them with meat and the bread of angels.
The Psalmist then writes this brilliant line,
“But they did not stop their craving
though the food was still in their mouths.”

The richest man on earth in his day was an oil tycoon, J. Paul Getty.
A journalist asked him, “Mr. Getty, when will you be satisfied?
How much money is enough?”
J. Paul Getty answered, “A little more. A little more.”
The habit of craving denies us the peace of ever saying,
“This is enough. Thank you.”

Evagrius said the temptation to rule the world
represents the category of relational sins.
These are habits of feeling about others like sadness or anger.
Having the feelings is natural.
Getting stuck in them is the danger.

I have found right here in this easy going diocese
good church folks who are still furious with other good church folks
over things that happened 30 years ago
– and they haven’t seen each other for 20
– but they’re still mad.
Having feelings is human and good.
When the feelings have us, they turn into bugs.

The temptation to work impressive miracles
Evagrius said represents the sins he called athletic.
He meant they had to do with achievements.
My favorite sin in this group is called “vainglory.”
Dr. Samuel Johnson defined “vainglory” as
“the vain attempt to fill the minds of others with oneself.”

It is an extremely frustrating sin,
because no matter what we may do
we can never occupy as much space in someone else’s mind
as they occupy in it themselves.
We will always be playing second fiddle.

Those may or may not be your demons, your deadly sins,
your habits of thought and being.
They are just three small examples
to invite your reflection on what it is in you
that keeps God’s breath from blowing through you
the way it blew through Jesus.
Is it a grudge, an addiction, a fear, or a shame?

Lent is the time to find it, name it, and give it over to God.
This calls for a shift in our prayer.
Many of us usually pray that God will change our outer circumstances
or that God will change other people.
In Lent, it is good to ask God to change us.
Invite Jesus to cast out whatever is in you
that is less than your true heart, less than your soul.
Invite Jesus to set you free to be who God made you to be,
a perfect flute playing a divine melody
for the world.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

God In A Human Touch

Our lessons about the Transfiguration say
what I believe about Jesus better
than most any other Scripture.
Some of you may not buy this. You don’t have to.
I didn’t buy it myself even when I was ordained.
But after a lot of years of Christian practice,
this seems true to me.

Jesus was a mountain man.
He led his disciples up there mountains
– the one where he taught them the Beatitudes
and to turn the other cheek
– the Mount of the Transfiguration
- and finally the Mount of Olives.

We can spend our whole lives climbing mountains
- the career mountain, the money mountain,
the mental health mountain,
the happy family mountain,
even the religion mountain.
There are so many mountains,
each with a prize on top.

Moses was a mountain man.
He climbed Mt. Sinai.
It had the law on top.
It had God’s moral standards.
Moses climbed the mountain of ethical living.

Elijah was a mountain man.
He climbed Mount Carmel.
It had prophesy on top,
the awesome silence of God’s voice,
the voice we hear in contemplation.
Elijah climbed the mountain of spiritual experience.

Figuratively speaking, St. Paul was a mountain man too.
He climbed both mountains – ethics and spirituality.
As a Pharisee he practiced the moral life to perfection.
As a Mer-kobah mystic, he experienced the most advanced
states of spiritual contemplation.

But one day Paul,
like the disciples on the Mount of the Transfiguration,
had a vision of light shining from Jesus
– and that vision changed everything.
20 years later, he remembered all his mountain climbing and said,
“Whatever gains I had, these I count as loss
because of the surpassing value of knowing
Christ Jesus my Lord.”
He no longer billed himself as a just man or a mystic.
He didn’t bill himself at all.
He said, “It is not ourselves that we proclaim.
We proclaim Christ Jesus as Lord and ourselves as your servants
for his sake.”

Paul tossed aside every prize he had claimed
at the top of every mountain and said,
“I’d rather have Jesus.”

The disciples in our Gospel lesson
had already left most things behind.
They’d given up homes, families, careers.
But they still had their religion.
They had the law of Moses and the spirituality of Elijah.
So when they saw their rabbi talking on a mountain top
with the father of ethical religion
and the father of Jewish spirituality,
it all came together.
And Peter said to Jesus, “Let’s build three dwellings here
– one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

He meant it as a compliment, to put Jesus on a par with those giants.
But Peter had missed the point.
So God showed up as a “bright cloud” and thundered,
“This is my beloved Son . . . . Listen to him.”
And the disciples were afraid.

They were afraid because they had rashly answered
life’s ultimate question
– the question of what really matters
– and they had gotten it wrong.
The pushed the existential Jeopardy buzzer too soon.

In a multiple choice question,
with the answers being morality, spirituality, and Jesus;
they’d answered “all of the above.”
But that wasn’t’ God’s answer.
They hadn’t grasped what blind Paul saw so clearly
– that the ultimate value of God’s own self
was fully present in this human person, Jesus.
All of morality and all of spirituality lead to this point,
what Pierre Teilhard de Chardin called the Omega Point.
The notion that the final answer is not
the moral order or a transcendent experience
but a person – that’s a lot to swallow.
But it is the key to intimacy with God.

The story of the Transfiguration shows us why.
The disciples thought the terrifying cloud was the Epiphany.
They thought the voice from heaven was the divine revelation.
So they fell on the ground and hid their faces.

But the real epiphany was what happened next.
Matthew Chapter 17 tells us this same story
with a little more detail than Mark.
The real epiphany was Jesus.
It happened when he touched them and said,
“Get up and do not be afraid.”

God is most perfectly seen and heard not as a thundercloud
sending us diving to the dust in fear,
but as a brother saying “Get up and do not be afraid.”

John Calvin, a man who was so often wrong, got this right.
He said,
“(A)ll thinking of God, apart from Christ,
is a bottomless abyss
which utterly swallows up our senses . . . .
In Christ, God . . . makes himself little,
in order to lower himself to our capacity;
and Christ alone calms (us)
so that (we) . . . dare intimately approach God.”

Jesus makes it possible for us
to be intimate with God.
In Jesus, we can embrace the perfect value
from which all good things derive their value
as we might embrace a friend.

Jesus brings divine love into the flesh of human life.
God can touch us only with a human touch.

A surgeon named Richard Selzer tells a story
from his medical practice that I believe
explains what happens for us in Jesus.
He writes:
“I stand by the bed where a young woman lies
. . . her mouth twisted in palsy, clownish.
A . . . facial never has been severed . . .
(T)o remove the tumor in her cheek,
I had to cut the nerve.
“Will my mouth always be like this?” she asks.
“Yes,” I say, “It will because the nerve is cut.”
She nods and is silent,
but the young man smiles,
“I like it,” he says.
“It’s kind of cute.”

He bends to kiss her crooked mouth,
and I, so close I can see
how he twists his own lips to accommodate hers,
to show her that their kiss still works . . . .
(I) hold my breath . . . .”

Just so, “Jesus touched them, saying,
‘Get up and do not be afraid.’
And when they looked up,
they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.”

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Limping Away From A Spiritual Crisis

Most people have a simplistic notion of the Christian faith.
That includes some people who believe it and the people who don’t.
The formula goes that you believe there is a God,
be reasonably nice, go to church some,
and ask Jesus to forgive your sins.
Do that and you go to heaven when you die.
In the meantime, don’t worry about things over much
since whatever happens is God’s will.

They often think that is what the Bible says.
Such people should be careful about reading the Bible.
It is actually a very strange book.
Christianity is a strange and wonderful religion.
The God we worship is a strange and wonderful God.

Take, for an example of strangeness, our Old Testament lesson.
Jacob had spent a lot of his life on the lamb.
As a young man he had swindled his brother Esau
who understandably set out to kill him.

So Jacob ran away to live with his Uncle Laban
in a far off country.
Laban and Jacob spent several years trying to outfox each other.
Eventually, Jacob had to run away from there too.

He was escaping from Uncle Laban
when he heard that his brother Esau was coming to meet him.
That was not entirely good news.
In our lesson for today, before Jacob confronts Esau,
he crosses the River Jabbok, a rapidly flowing mountain stream.
It isn’t easy to cross at any point or at any time,
but Jacob crossed it at night
with his two wives, two concubines, 11 children,
all his livestock and all his possessions.
Then he came back across to where he started
and he spent the night there alone.

It isn’t clear what Jacob was up to.
Probably he was moving his family and possessions
across the river to keep them safe from Esau.

But that night he ran into trouble bigger than his brother.
In the dark, beside the River, something attacked Jacob
and fought with him until sunrise.
They fought to a draw, but before the attacker left,
Jacob demanded a blessing from him.
The attacker blessed Jacob by changing his name to Israel,
which means “struggles with God.”
And Jacob renamed the place of the fight Peniel,
because he said, “I have seen God face to face and yet I live.”

This isn’t a moral example story.
Do as Jacob did because wasn’t he a good man.
Jacob wasn’t a particularly good man.
He wasn’t a hero of the faith.
He didn’t do anything right here.
He was running away from someone he cheated
about to face up to someone else he cheated.
Jacob was just scrambling for his life
when he found himself alone, in the dark, in a strange place,
attacked by a powerful stranger.
So he fought.

A strange story.
I don’t know what it’s doing in the Bible
except that it tells us how the people of Israel got their strange name.
But there are a couple of things we might learn.

The first is that we don’t really encounter God
until we are in trouble.
Karl Barth, the greatest theologian of the 20th Century said this.
He called it “crisis theology.”

Barth said it works like this.
Human nature and the way of the world don’t mesh.
So sooner or later, we all find ourselves in hot water.
What is the way out of the hot water?
There isn’t one.
We cannot save ourselves.

That’s when God shows up and saves us by his grace.
We talk a lot about spirituality these days.
We like to pray and meditate, listen to uplifting religious music,
and feel very good about everything.
Isn’t God nice and it’s a wonderful world.

That’s fine until our life falls apart
as Jacob’s life had fallen apart that night in the darkness.
Then God shows up with a blessing.

I have done major league spirituality in most of its forms and styles.
I have done contemplative serenity and charismatic joy.
I have degrees and certificates to prove it. It was all a rush.
It felt really good and I was proud of how spiritual I was.

But I didn’t meet God until I was in the kind of panic Jacob felt.
And I can tell you this.
God may be in the lovely sunrise and the babbling brook.
But we connect with God in the dark night of despair.

When God showed up for Jacob,
it was not as a kindly comforter.
God came to Jacob like mugger.
This is not a nice God, but a fearsome God.

So Jacob struggled. He fought tooth and nail.
There is a point in that too.
If we take God seriously, we don’t just smile and nod politely.
If we take God seriously, we don’t just sing songs
about how sweet everything is.
We struggle.

There are several ways to struggle with God.
We might not be so sure God exists,
and might want to say “Why don’t you just show yourself?”
We might not be so sure God is good,
since the creation seems pretty harsh.
We might not get how Jesus dying on the cross
does any good.

We might not like worshipping God
since it makes us feel small
-- as if God might be better than we are.
Or we might just want God to do something for us,
and God might not be coming through.
After all, what good is a God who does not conform to our will
and meet our expectations?

We don’t get to know God until we struggle with God.
That’s ok because getting to know God
isn’t actually that high on our priority list
– not until we need God desperately.

A young man went to see a Zen master and said “I want to learn Zen.”
The Master grabbed him by the neck, pushed his head into a stream,
and held him down.
When the young man came up gasping and coughing,
the Zen master said,
“When you want Zen the way you just wanted a breath,
then you will know Zen.”

That’s when we know God – when we need God like our next breath.
Then, and only then, do we get honest.
Then and only then do we struggle with God.
Remember what God named his chosen people,
not the beautiful and the good people,
not the nice and the moral people,
not the people who always obey God like children,
but Israel – the people who struggle with God.

And struggle they did. Read the psalms and the prophets.
For centuries, Jacob’s descendants continued to fight with God.
The honest spiritual life is not all flowers and valentines
anymore than the honest marriage is.
It’s a struggle.

Oh, there’s a final point.
Jacob did not come out of the struggle unmarked.
God blessed him and dislocated his hip.
So Jacob walked with a limp after that.
We can know God and still live in the world,
but we will never be the same, never quite at home here.

Honest religion isn’t about getting our spiritual sunshine vitamins
and smiling all the time.
It’s facing reality without blinking.
After that we will be stronger, wiser, saner, but not the same.