Thursday, May 14, 2020


Dear People of Holy Comforter, 

“My life flows on in endless song
Above earth’s lamentation
I hear the sweet and far off hymn
That hails a new creation.
Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing.
It finds an echo in my heart
How can I keep from singing?
No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that rock I’m clinging.
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?”
-- Robert Lowry

On September 11, 2001, I was parish priest in Macon, Georgia. I had not a clue what how to respond pastorally in my congregation. But the Bishop directed us to hold a worship service, so we did. We found some lessons that fit. But for the sermon, I had no wisdom to offer. What I had was e-mails from my friends in New York City describing the darkness, the fear, and the desolation there. So I read their e-mails to the congregation and wept. They wept too. Then my wife Linda sang this song we had first heard on retreat on the Holy Isle of Iona. 

“No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that rock I’m clinging.
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?”

It felt profoundly true that night -- as if that was the only truth that mattered. “While Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, how can I keep from singing?”  

So who is this Christ who redeems our suffering? How does he redeem it? What does it mean that he is “Lord of heaven and earth?” In last week’s letter, we talked about finding meaning in our hardships. We said emphatically that God does not cause our hardships, and that the meaning we find in our hardships does not justify them. A cloud with a silver lining is still a cloud. But the silver lining gives us hope. This week, we ask, “What’s God doing about it?” Looking for God in the midst of isolation, disorientation, and death is at the heart of our quest for meaning because “God” is our word for the meaning of this whole epic of journey of life. God is the Source, the Destiny, and the Meaning. God is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. So who is God and what is God doing about our calamity? 

Something remarkable happened to human understanding in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Basically, it disrupted our fixed assumptions about God. It took several centuries to make sense of it. When it came together in the Creed that defines our faith, we had a revolutionary understanding of God, which means a revolutionary new understanding of the Source, Destiny, and Meaning of life. We expressed that new understanding in metaphorical, poetic language because that is the only language in which we can stammer about the unspeakable mystery of God. We did not claim to have defined God, reduced God to a doctrine, or found a way to fit the Eternal inside our little skulls. But we had a new sense of God and we expressed it as the Trinity.

The image of the Trinity is a way of speaking about two things. The first has an off-putting academic name – the “Social Trinity.” I call it the “Family Trinity.” The Trinity is an image of who God is when home alone. It’s about God’s inner nature. The other meaning of the Trinity has an equally odd name – the “Economic Trinity.” I call it the “Job Description Trinity.” It means God reaches out to us in three different ways. To contemplate God, we have to consider both parts of the Trinity. But in times of stress, when we are worried for ourselves and each other, it’s the Job Description Trinity that is front and center for our concern. So let’s start there. The ancient language for the Trinity is regrettably gendered. I’ll use it for the sake of familiarity, but I’ll also use other language that will hopefully move our imaginations past the gendered language. 

It would be easier if we kept our image of God simple, one-dimensional. But when people have tried to do that, the results have not been good. The God they wound up with was often a cold, abstract principle or a celestial tyrant giving orders and coercing obedience. So even the most monotheistic world religions have acknowledged complexity in God. The Hebrew Scriptures call God a rock, a fortress, a parent, a mother bird, a king, a storm, a warrior, a lover, an earthquake. The Jewish Kabballah has 9 sefirot, or names of God, that are not just different names but different aspects of God. But wait, Islam has the “99 Beautiful Names of Allah.” The pre-Jewish fertility goddess, known as Ishtar among other names, was called the “goddess with a thousand faces.”  So, bear with us if Christianity’s poetry about God presents us with three distinct ways in which God appears to us. 

The First Person of the Trinity, usually called God the Father, is often confused with being the real God, with the Son and the Holy Spirit being his first and second officers. But that is not Christian teaching. We see all three persons of the Trinity as co-equal, each expressing equally valid parts of God. The First Person of the Trinity is the Serene Center of Reality. T. S. Eliot wrote,

“At the still point of the turning world
At the still point, there the dance is
Except for the point, the still point,
                        There would be no dance
                        And there is only the dance.” 

The Early and Medieval Church stressed that the Father is balanced, centered wisdom. They used the word “dispassionate” to say God is beyond time, beyond change, and above all beyond suffering. 

That preached to Greco-Roman folks steeped in Stoic philosophy. But to us “dispassionate” sounds cold, uncaring, aloof from our very real pain. We are apt to construct a more sentimental image of God. We want a God who would be a sympathetic guest on a talk show. There are legitimate reasons to object to a dispassionate God who literally has no feelings, who is anesthetized to suffering. Theologian Dorothee Soelle rejects the traditional picture of “divine apathy” because it leads to human apathy. Only a God who cares, Soelle says, can teach us to care.  A platoon of theologians I admire line up with her – Moltmann, Plantinga, McGrath, Whitehead, Hartshorne, and the whole school of Liberation Theology. Granted, they are partly right. Second Century Greeks might worship, adore, and emulate a Star Trek Vulcan. We can’t, shouldn’t, and won’t. 

But before we throw the baby out with the bath, I need to say Modernity’s God, the “fellow sufferer who understands,” is too small a God to get us through. As theologian, Karl Rahner, says:

“It does not help me escape from my mess, my mix-up,  
                and despair if God is in the same (situation) . . . .
From the beginning, I am locked into the horribleness.” 

Think, in the beginning is suffering. Our destiny is more suffering. The way through it is suffering. And the meaning of it all is suffering. Such a God offers companionship but no hope.

There are two answers to this problem. The first is that the First Person of the Trinity is part of God, not all of God. Just as each of us is complex, made up of a combination of subpersonalities, God is complex. There is a part of God who suffers with us. That’s the Second Person of the Trinity. More on that soon. The second answer is to clarify what we mean by the Serenity of God. 

Instead of saying the Father is “dispassionate” or “apathetic,” it is more correct to say God is differentiated. The Father cares, but calmly, confidently. The Father has feelings, but is not overcome by feelings. The Father can remain centered, balanced, because of his unique ability to take the long view of eternity. Because of his certainty that “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well” as he said to Julian of Norwich as she lay stricken by the Black Death, we have a God who cares for us but is not anxious about us. Such a God can be the Serene Center. Such a God can be our Rock. 

“What though my joys and comforts die
                          The Lord my Savior liveth.
                          What though the darkness gather round
                          Songs in the night he giveth
                         No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that rock I’m clinging.
Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?”

“Rock of Ages cleft for me
Let me hide myself in thee.”

There is in God a Serene Center who is the firm foundation of our hope. We can connect with that Serene Center through the Scriptures, through our hymns, but best of all through prayer and meditation. When we set our anxieties aside and place ourselves before the presence of the God who is and was and ever shall be, our lives fall into perspective. 

"Through all the tumult and the strife
I hear the music ringing.
It finds an echo in my heart
How can I keep from singing?"

Just as there is a Serene Center in God, there is Serene Center in each of us. It is the same Serene Center. “No storm can shake my inmost calm.” If we want to seek God in “the tumult and the strife”, the place to look is within, to attend to the “echo (of God’s serenity) in my heart.” Turn off the news, let the world flow by, be still and know that God is God, God is still God, always has been, always will be. That’s why “all shall be well.” That doesn’t make our troubles poof disappear; but it puts them in perspective.

The Second Person of the Trinity is altogether different, and mercifully so. Despite the fashions of modern theology, many Christians still think of God as sitting placidly at a safe distance from our grief and anxiety. Those good people have not gotten the point of the Incarnation. God was not in heaven nodding assent to the crucifixion. God was on the cross. We call the Second Person of the Trinity “God the Son” and think rightly of Jesus of Nazareth. God the Son became flesh in Jesus. But Scripture is clear that God the Son was from the Beginning and is co-eternal with the Father. The historical Jesus was the ultimate expression of God the Son, but that part of God was always engaged with Creation and is engaged with us today – but in a different way from the Father. 

The Father appears to us as a vastness, a great distance. The Son is “closer to us than we are to ourselves” as Meister Eckhart said. We glimpse the Father aspect of God when the desert sky, a mighty river, the mountains, or the ocean evoke the perspective of eternity. We meet the Son in the present moment – now, now, and now. Boris Pasternak said, “The instant far more than hours and ages is eternity’s rival.” The 17th Century Jesuit Jean-Pierre de Causade wrote of “the sacrament of the present moment.” Buddhists such as Tich Nhat Hahn create a whole spirituality of attention to the present moment. “Be here now,” the late Ram Dass said. 

Much of our suffering consists of fantasies of future sorrows. We borrow trouble. Or we dwell on old sadness, stuck in the past. Letting go of – at least loosening our grip on -- fantasized futures and sticky memories can spare us considerable anxiety and allow us to actually show up for our lives, which are happening now. We can meet Christ in this moment, only in this moment. Now.  But sometimes the present moment is painful. Some moments are excruciating. What then?

Jesus reveals how the Son responds to our suffering. His response includes the crucifixion, but it isn’t just that. The Gospels show Jesus searching and longing as we do – going to John the Baptist looking for a religious experience to change his life, going to the desert looking for his mission, trying to explain himself to his hometown but they don’t get it, exhausted and retiring for prayer, exasperated with his disciples who just don’t or won’t understand, weeping over Jerusalem and at the grave of Lazarus, desperately seeking deliverance from death in the Garden of Gethsemane but hearing only silence, and finally feeling abandoned on the cross. Jesus suffers with us every inch of the way. “No, never alone” the Gospel song says. “I will be with you.,” God says in Isaiah” 

             “So do not fear, for I am with you;
          do not be dismayed, for I am your God.
              I will strengthen you and help you;
              I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” 

Because Christ dwells in us and we in him, whatever we suffer, he suffers. One of the great errors wrongly attributed to Christianity is the idea that Jesus suffers instead of us, dies so we don’t have to. But clearly we still suffer. We still die. The Son doesn’t suffer instead of us. He suffers with us. God the Son is Compassion, which literally means “to suffer with.”

That raises the question: so what? What good does it do for God the Son to suffer with us? There are several good answers to that question. I’ll just offer the one that makes most sense to me. Philosopher Marilyn McCord Adams says that our redemption from suffering comes from our relationship with God whose Beauty and Goodness exceed all the ills of the created order, whose Love is so profound that in the fullness of time, it will wipe away every tear and redeem the whole experience of life including the tragedies. But where do we meet that Redeemer? We can’t climb up to Heaven. So he meets us where we are, on the field of suffering. By sharing our pain, God the Son turns our suffering into common ground, the place we establish the human-divine relationship that leads to “wonder, love, and praise.” God does not want us to stay stuck in suffering. It’s something to pass through – together – on our way to joy. But suffering is the point on the journey where our paths converge. 

I once spent an hour in a hotel lobby in Detroit in the wee hours – long story involving the norovirus and a fire alarm – along with the Bishop of Europe and a House of Bishops translator, arguing our case for faith with an Iranian atheist. At the end, as he was leaving he said, “Ok. Well I don’t need God. But if I ever do, I’ll think about it.” We said, “that’s fine.” I felt pretty sure he’d need God one of these days. He may need God right now.  

So to find God the Son in this ordeal, we can start with our own anxiety, loneliness, frustration, resentment, the whole kit and kaboodle of negativity that plagues our days and nights, then know Jesus is feeling precisely the same thing to precisely the same degree. That’s because he loves us too much to let us do it without him. We are in this together. We can also see him in the hardships and the deaths of others. And we can see him serving the suffering with care. In a recent class I asked the group to imagine a hospital room with an intubated patient struggling for life, a doctor, and a nurse. I asked which one of them represented Jesus. The answer was all of them. Jesus isn’t hard to find these days. He’s just about everywhere you look. 

We need God to be the Serene Center and also the Fellow Sufferer who cares.  But there is more. The Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit. In our day, we often confuse the Holy Spirt with a religious emotion we can work up. But our feelings, sincere, strong, and religious as they may be, are still our human feelings. They are not God. The Holy Spirit is a co-equal, co-eternal part of God. The Holy Spirit literally is God manifesting as breath or wind. It corresponds to what French philosopher Henri-Louis Bergson called the “elan vital,” the Life Force active through eternity and in creation. The Creed calls the Holy Spirit “the Lord, the Giver of Life.” God gave life to Adam by breathing his spirit into Adam’s nostrils. When Jesus lay dead in the tomb, the Holy Spirit restored him to life. Duke Theologian Geoffrey Wainwright says the Hebrew Scriptures show the Holy Spirit doing three things:

        1. Creating
        2. Bestowing life 
             (which in the Gospels includes restoring life that was lost)
        3. Empowering prophets, judges, kings, and warriors 

          Our ultimate hope lies in the Resurrection, but we don’t have to wait that long. We can’t wait that long. We need help now. Sometimes when disaster strikes, we say “it knocked the wind out of my sails.” Calamities and disappointments can sap our elan vital (vital momentum), our envie de continuer (will to go on). Losing that momentum, that will, is like losing God’s Spirit. The Psalmist prayed, “Take not your holy spirit from me  . . .  Sustain me with your bountiful spirit.”  The classic Biblical account of this experience is The Valley of Dry Bones in Ezekiel 37. The prophet surveys the valley of dry bones representing the people of Israel, defeated and despairing in exile. God shows the prophet this vision of desolation and asks, “Son of man, can these bones live?” Then the Lord says to the hopeless, forsaken exiles taken from their homeland and enslaved, “I will put my Spirit in you, and you shall live.” Then the bones stood up. Jesus promises in the 4th Gospel to send us a “paraklete,” which we usually translate as comforter or consoler, but Archbishop William Temple says that is a regressive translation. The term means more of a strengthener.  And leading Episcopal theologian John Macquarrie said the work of the Holy Spirit is “to enlighten and strengthen us.” 

But how does that work? There are two ways. The first is that God is not dominating everything that happens in creation. If God did that, there would be nothing other than God to be in relationship with God, history would have not meaning, and we would not truly live. But God is involved in the world through the life-giving actions of the Holy Spirit. God influences things and the more we invite God into the world through prayer, the more we free God up to do the good God already longs to do. 

The second way God strengthens us is quite paradoxical. When the Spirit raises us from despair, she does not just restore our old life. Life in the Spirit has a new agenda. When the Spirt descended on prophets or kings, it was not just to cheer them up but to empower them for a mission to others. Paul is clear in I Corinthians 12 that spiritual gifts aren’t just for the benefit of those who receive them, but so they can serve others. Jesus said the same about why the Spirit was on him.  Macquarrie said:

“Spirit may be described as the capacity for going out of
                oneself and beyond oneself . .  for transcending oneself . . 
The more a (person) goes out from himself, the more the
                spiritual dimension of his life is deepened, the more he 
becomes truly (human). 

           Carol, a woman in a congregation I served. lost her 20 year old daughter in the crash of TWA 800 and was prostrated with grief. Later Joanne, another woman in the congregation, a lonely woman with no family, was dying of renal failure. She needed someone to care for her. So the bereaved mother stepped out of her grief to care for the dying fellow church member. Carol later said that Joanne had saved her life by needing her help. The Spirit lifts us up from our woes to carry Christ’s love to a world in desperate need of it. 

Turning the question around is also asking the same question in a different way. In an old Pontius Puddle cartoon, one character says, “Sometimes I’d like to ask God why he doesn’t do something about war, famine, disease, injustice and pollution.” The other replies, “Then why don’t you just ask him?” The first admits, “I’m afraid he might ask me the same question.” St. Theresa of Avila famously said,

“Christ has no body on earth but yours
 No hands, no feet on earth but yours
Yours are the eyes with which he looks 
Compassion on this world.”

When we ask how God is responding to the pandemic, it is the same as asking how are we to respond to it. There are three leading secular prescriptions: Submission (just accept that life is like this); Stoicism (avoid suffering by changing what you can to prevent suffering and ignoring the rest); and Rebellion (shaking our fist at the sky). Each has its appeal but is ultimately unsatisfactory and shrinks our souls. 

The Christian answer is that our response mirrors God’s tripartite participation – Serenity, Compassion, and Redeeming Action. We practice Serenity because it’s sane and the world needs sanity in a time of crisis. Compassion is caring about each other, people we know and people we don’t. Compassion is vulnerable. It exposes us to caring about what we can’t control. But to shut down compassion is to shut out life. Compassion lets life in. Redeeming action is helping others in practical ways. When we are isolated, we are apt to feel helpless. But we can do what we can do. it may be a phone call, a letter, a gift, delivering someone groceries, writing a check to a Food Bank, or calling your Congressional representative to support needed governmental response to the situation. “God has not given us a spirit of fear but of power.”  We have the power to do good now. It may be doing good in different ways from last year. But that keeps us alert. I have two poet friends, Donald and Claudia, husband and wife. They live in Las Vegas, which as you may have heard, is in the desert. To ward off “omnicorus nostalgia,” (I misread it as omnivorous) they are planting trees. They are planting trees at a home they will sell next year. The trees will be for someone else. So, look around you and plant something – either literally or figuratively, it doesn’t matter. 

The Japanese symbol which we translate as crisis is two symbols overlaid. One means danger. The other means opportunity. A crisis is a dangerous opportunity. This is a unique opportunity to know God, to connect with God, to become more fully human. The two basic key actions are: 1. Pay attention. Keep an eye out for God active in our midst. 2. Mirror God in your own attitudes and actions. We are in this together. 

Blessings always,
Bishop Dan