Monday, March 21, 2011

I Have Not Loved The World

There is a term that comes up a lot in John’s Gospel.
It’s “the world.”
In John, “the world” doesn’t mean the planet earth or nature.
It means the way things are – the system
-- the way of the world, so to speak.
It mostly means human society.

The world doesn’t come off too well in John.
When he talks about “the world” John doesn’t have much good to say.
The world hates Jesus. The world hates the disciples.
The world in John is a fallen place, a realm of darkness.
Disciples unfortunately have to live in the world,
but they should not belong to it.

We find John’s basic attitude in the hymn
“I have decided to follow Jesus.”
You know the line I mean.
“The world behind me. The cross before me.
I’ll follow him.”

It’s all pretty clear. Jesus good. World bad.
But in today’s lesson, right smack dab in the heart of John,
we find a most peculiar-- a downright amazing -- verse.
When John saw what he had written, he shook his head and muttered,
“Where did that come from?”
It may be the most famous verse in the New Testament.
But we usually miss what a shocker it is
in the context of a book about how bad “the world” is.

John 3: 16 – “For God so loved the world . . . . //
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son
that whoever believes in him might not perish but have eternal life.”

It was hard for John to write that
because John and the world
were clearly not on good terms.
He felt hated by the world. He says that straight out.
And it sounds as if he hated the world right back.
That’s not an unusual attitude.

Lord Byron wrote:
“I have not loved the world; nor the world me.
But let us part fair foes. I do believe,
though I have found them not, there may be
. . . hopes which will not deceive, . . . I would also deem
O’er others griefs that some sincerely grieve,
That two, or one, are almost what they seem – . . . . “
“I have not loved the world; nor the world me.”

Byron didn’t much like the world because it didn’t like him.
John was the same way.
He felt rejected by the world, judged by it.
He wasn’t what the world thought he ought to be.
So naturally he responded in kind.
The world wasn’t what he thought it ought to be either.

I don’t know how that strikes you,
but sign me up with Byron and John.
The world hasn’t always judged me kindly
and I am perfectly ready to return the favor.

I had unkind labels for every girl in college
who declined to go out with me.
Nowadays, whenever someone honks their opinion of my driving,
I have to fight a reflex to express my opinion of their honking.

The world is addicted to judging, condemning, guilting,
and shaming.
Not good.
So I judge the world back, condemn it, guilt it, shame it
– and in judging the world, I join it.
I become part of the elaborate network of mutual condemnation.

Then I bump into John 3: 16 and it jerks me up short.
“For God so loved the world . . . . “//
That’s good news and bad news.
The good news is that I’m part of the world God loves.
The bad news is that God loves the rest of the world too.
What could he be thinking?

God’s love for the world runs right through Scripture.
Genesis Chapter 1 verse 31:
“God saw all that he had made and indeed it was very good.”
It wasn’t perfect but it was very good.

Sociologist James Davison Hunter has written a helpful book
titled To Change The World.
It’s about how Christians are called to relate to American culture,
how we can make a positive difference.
The first step he says is appreciation. Hunter writes,

“Goodness, beauty, and truth remain in this fallen creation . . . .
(P)eople of every creed and no creed have talents and abilities,
possess knowledge, wisdom, and beauty that are . . .
in harmony with God’s will and purposes. . . .

(T)here is a natural life . . . a natural order in creation. . . .
the dazzling processes of growth in a tree
or a bug or a newborn baby,
the intricacies of molecular biology
the stunning ordered complexity of mathematics,
the underlying logic of music
all speak of an order that God has created . . . .
These things . . . ,” Hunter says,
“Christians should neither dismiss nor disparage
but rather be grateful for and be delighted by
because they are gifts of God’s grace . . . .”

There really is something good about the world.
People may be wrongheaded, neurotic, and dysfunctional.
But there is still something there to enjoy,
something to shake our heads and laugh about,
something that makes us say, “That’s special.”

So here’ s a suggestion for a Lenten discipline this year.
Suppose we ease up on the world a little.
It’s easy to get stuck in an attitude
-- easy to get grouchy and grumbly
seeing everything and everybody
through a lens of negativity.

Suppose this Lent we keep eating chocolate
and checking our Face Book pages,
but we take a break from focusing on faults.

We have to start with a 3 step process of garbage removal.
The first step is knowing that the world’s judgments of us are rubbish.
The second step is forgiving the world for being too broken
to see us as we really are.
The third step is to know that our judgments of the others
are every bit as twisted as their judgments of us.
Then we are free to begin enjoying people.

Our appreciation and delight muscles
are likely to be out of shape.
It may be a strain at first.
This takes practice.

One way is to sit still for 5 minutes
and let people come randomly to mind.
As each person’s image pops up,
we hold onto the thought of them
just long enough to think these words:
“Equally a child of God.
Equally destined for likeness with Christ.”

So what does this have to do with the Christian faith
and the sacrament of Confirmation?
Check the vows of the Baptismal Covenant.
What have we promised in our Baptism?
What does Confirmation spiritually empower us to do?
“To respect the dignity of every human being.”
“To seek and serve Christ in all persons,
loving your neighbor as yourself.”

We cannot make a positive difference in this world
with our hands
until we have first looked kindly upon this world
with our eyes.

That is how we bless this world and convey God’s blessing.
We cultivate our appreciation of things and of people.
So this Lent, I urge you to take on this arduous discipline.
Cheer up. Lighten up. Be kinder.
Take a close look at someone each day
to find a spark of goodness to enjoy.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Gilgamesh And Jesus: Repenting Of "Spirituality"

In the desert Jesus faced an issue
that confronted the King of Uruk 2,800 years before.
His story is The Epic of Gilgamesh.
There are different versions of that story.
This is one.

Gilgamesh, the young king of Uruk, was a superman
– the greatest athlete, the greatest lover,
the greatest warrior – to busy being a superman
to pay attention to his people.
He best friend, Enkido, was another superman
and they had super adventures together
until Enkido fell ill and died.

Up to now Gilgamesh thought death was for ordinary people.
But if Enkido could die, then he too was mortal.
So Gilgamesh went on a quest to find the way to immortality.

He tried going back to nature and living like a wild animal,
but that turned out to be a subhuman life not worth living.
He tried hedonism. Eat, drink, and be merry.
If you live life with enough gusto it will go on forever.
But that just gave him a hangover.
So he crossed an ocean to find a spiritual master
seeking a religion to escape death.
But religion proved to be just beyond his capacity.
All his efforts to escape the common lot of humankind failed.

So he got back in his boat and went home.
As he arrived at the shore of his kingdom,
he looked up and saw his city.
The story ends with his words, “Lo the walls of Uruk.”

Gilgamesh, a mortal man, went back to his mortal people
and took up the task of caring for them.
He repented of his narcissism
and became a responsible member of the human race.

Last Wednesday, many of us had crosses traced in ashes
upon our foreheads and were told in somber tones
that we are dust and to dust we shall return.

In his classic book, The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker wrote,
“The idea of death . . . haunts the human animal
like nothing else.”
Psychoanalyst Erich Fromm said we suffer from this fear
because of all creation we alone are caught in the existential paradox.
We are spiritual beings, capable of reflection,
interpretation, and aspiration.
We treasure the spiritual realm like angels.
But we are nonetheless animals who die like animals.

The paradox is there in the 82nd Psalm,
“You are Gods. You are sons of the Most High.
But you will die like mere men.”
And Psalm 49:
“No man can redeem the life of another or ransom his own life
. . . . Man, despite his riches does not endure
but he is like the beasts that perish.”

Because we are spiritual, we do not feel that we should be mortal.
But we are – and nothing can change that hard fact.
Our Christian faith ultimately answers death with resurrection
to a new and better life.
But that does not happen until we have lost this life
which is so rightly precious to us.
We don’t get to Easter without walking the Lenten way
all the way through Good Friday.

If we feel spiritual, Jesus was more so.
He learned at the Jordan River that he was the Son of God.
But what did that mean?
He went to the desert to find out.
And Satan had some answers.

The desert told Jesus that he was still a mortal animal.
The sun did not spare his skin.
He was hungry and thirsty as anyone would be.
The desert did not care that he was mortal.

Then along came Satan inviting him to escape
from the common lot of humanity.
Along came Satan offering material sustenance and comfort.
Along came Satan offering protection from the death dealing
power of the nature’s laws.
“Jump off the temple. You will not die. Just claim your divine status.”
Along came Satan offering world dominion.
Surely if we can gather enough power, it will make us immortal.
Satan introduced each of the temptations with “if you are the Son of God.”
He said anyone as spiritual as Jesus ought to be exempt
from the fate of ordinary people.

But Jesus said no to all the temptations.
Gilgamesh has already tried all of those things
and knew they didn’t work.
Maybe Jesus had read Gilgamesh. We don’t know.
But Jesus didn’t escape his humanity by being the Son of God.
Instead, like Gilgamesh going home to Uruk,
Jesus went home to Galilee.
There, he didn’t call himself “the Son of God.”
He called himself “the Son of Man”
to claim his humanity, his brotherhood with us.

Being mortal together is a profound connection.
Poet laureate Ted Kooser wrote in his poem “Mourners,”
“After the funeral, the mourners gather
under the rustling churchyard maples
and talk softly, . . . .
They came this afternoon to say goodbye,
but now they keep saying hello and hello,
peering into each other’s faces,
slow to let go of each other’s hands.”

This life we share is precious because it is brief.
When we remember that,
we value each other a little more.
The brevity of life is reason enough to be kinder.
The vulnerability of life is reason enough for patience and generosity.

There is something proud and individualistic
in the spirituality of our time.
Whether it is Christian, New Age, or the Westernized versions
of ancient Eastern philosophies,
it all seems aimed at making ourselves alright
– at escaping the hardness of life and death.
Have faith. Fill up your tank with the Holy Spirit
and your life will be just fine.
Just meditate until you realize your problems
and those of your neighbors are just thoughts.
Get your mind right and be happy.

But that kind of spirituality is a pipe dream,
aptly portrayed in Paul Simon’s lyrics,
“So I’ll continue to continue to pretend
My life will never end
And flowers never bend with the rainfall.”

But Jesus did not teach, and did not live,
a spirituality of escape from the human condition.
He did not offer a way of salvation from life and death
but a way of salvation through life and death.
Jesus faced his own vulnerability and made it the point
of connection with us in our vulnerability.
The poem “In A Parish” by Czeslaw Milosz
expresses the compassion that comes from knowing
our own vulnerability and fallibility.
The poet surveys a parish graveyard and says,
“Had I not been frail and half broken inside
I wouldn’t think of them, who are like myself broken inside.
I would not climb the cemetery hill by the church
To get rid of my self-pity.
Crazy Sophies,
Michaels who lost every battle,
Self-destructive Agathas
Lie under crosses with their dates of birth and death. And who
Is going to express them? Their mumblings, weepings, hopes,
tears of humiliation?”

On Ash Wednesday the Church reminds us that we are dust
so that we will be a little kinder to the dust next to us.
In Lent we remember our sins so that we might be more ready
to forgive the sinner next to us.

The first step on the Christian way is a serene confidence
in God’s love and our ultimate salvation.
The second step is to know our own frailty – our total frailty:
physical, psychological, moral, and spiritual frailty.
The third step is to turn the knowledge of our frailty
into gentleness toward one another.

A great contemporary theologian, Nicholas Wolterstorff,
summed up the Christian way in this mortal life.
“Mourn humanity’s mourning,
weep over humanity’s weeping,
be wounded by humanity’s wounds . . . .
But do so in the good cheer that a day of peace is coming.”

This Lent, as a church, it is time to repent from escapist religion,
from Gilgamesh’s quest for individual ok-ness.
It is time turn our attention to each other and the communities
where we live, to organize and restore our communities,
as Gilgamesh rebuilt the walls of Uruk.
Isaiah 61, the Scripture Jesus chose to define his mission and our mission,
says, “They will renew the ruined cities.”
It is time to repent of saving ourselves and rather lose ourselves
in devotion God’s mission of mercy.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Light, Thomas Traherne, And Enjoying The World

Since the day I got here I have known Nevada is a special place.
Over 3 years deep into it now, two things about Nevada
still amaze me – the people and the light.
On this Transfiguration Sunday, I want to talk about the light.
I can’t describe what is different
about Nevada light, but it is decidedly unique.
It makes the sky bluer.
It surges up behind the mountains
in gold white auroras.

The only other place I have been so struck
by the sheer quality of light is the Outer Hebrides of Scotland
in the North Sea.
The Holy Island of Iona there also has light that elicits prayer.
That’s how it is with our light here.

Light is one of God’s great gifts.
In fact it was his first one.
In Genesis, when the earth was without form and void,
God spoke into the dark chaos
and the first thing God said was,
“Let there be light.”

Whether you read Genesis or a scientific account
of the Big Bang, creation begins with light.
The existence of time depends on light.
Life cannot exist without light.

So light becomes a metaphor in the spiritual life.
To see the light of day means to live.
We say Christ is the world’s true light.
When someone an insight, we say that have seen the light.

Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures,
when God appears to people
as God appeared on Mt. Sinai in today’s lesson,
God appears as “glory.”
Glory means a captivating light,
a light so beautiful we cannot look away.

Epiphany, the season of light,
concludes with the transfiguration,
that mysterious occasion when the disciples saw
holy light emanating from Jesus.
This is where we get our prayer for Vespers,
the Phos Hilaron,
“O gracious light,
Pure brightness of the everliving Father in Heaven,
O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed. . . .

We can appreciate light in two ways.
First, we can enjoy its beauty all on its own.
Some lights are harsh and unpleasant.
But other lights have their own distinct loveliness.
Think of starlight in the desert
or moonlight sifting through clouds.
You have just immeasurably improved the quality of light
in your chapel.

Light matters.
Light is its own art form, its own medium.
But there is a second way to appreciate light.
Without it we cannot see anything at all.
Light may be beautiful in itself,
but the main thing it does
is showing us everything else.

Now, the light of Nevada is unique and wonderful.
The only place I have ever seen this special light
is this special place, this unique landscape.
I wonder something though.
I wonder how another place might look
in Nevada light.
If we could bottle Nevada light and shine it on
Georgia or Texas or Colorado,
I wonder how they would look.

That’s impossible, of course, but if it were possible,
I bet those states would look different.
Light makes it possible to see things at all,
and the quality of light makes a difference
as to how things appear to us.

Just so, the season of Epiphany,
especially this Sunday of the Transfiguration,
teaches us that our joy and our salvation
depend on our seeing things through new eyes.
Being happy doesn’t depend as much on changing our circumstances
as changing our outlook – seeing the same people, the same situations
in a different light.
If we are going to find serenity and joy,
we need a new perspective.

The path of the classical Christian spirituality
is in 3 steps: purgation, illumination, and union.
Purgation is a process of detachment from the snares of life.
Illumination is enlightenment, seeing things in a fresh way.
That comes before union.
Before we can unite our hearts to the will of God,
we have to see the world anew.

Illumination is what our Epistle lesson means
when it speak of “the day dawning and the morning
star rising in our hearts.”
The day does not dawn and the morning star does not rise
in the world around us until it happens inside.

The 17th Century Anglican poet Thomas Traherne said,
Your enjoyment of the world is never right
till every morning you wake in heaven,
see yourself in your Father’s palace
and look upon the skies, the earth, the air
as celestial joys: having such a reverend esteem of all
as if you were among the angels.

To be a Christian isn’t just to acknowledge the existence of God.
It is to know that God is the beauty of all Reality.
God is a radiant beauty, the Bible calls it glory,
the splendor that shines over our mountains at the sunrise
and with a softer reflective glow at sunset.
God is the star shine over our deserts
and the firelight of our hearth
in a dark room on a winter night.

To believe in God is far more than acknowledging
the existence of a Supreme Being.
To truly believe in God is to trust
that everything that exists
comes from a primal beauty
and is destined for an ultimate beauty.
That includes ourselves and our lives.
To truly believe in God isn’t to have an idea
about something we cannot see.
It is to look at the things we do see
with what Traherne calls “reverend esteem.”

That includes – in fact it begins with –
how we see ourselves.
No matter how unfinished and crude we feel at the moment,
we trust that we came from primal beauty
and are destined for ultimate beauty.

If we see ourselves in this light, in God’s light,
it will set us free to see everything through new eyes,
like Bartimeaus or any of the other people
to whom Jesus gave vision.

God is glorious.
That’s the main message of the Hebrew Scriptures.
God radiates a light that is so beautiful
we cannot turn away from it.
God’s radiance shines upon our lives
and our world to show us their loveliness.

How often have we been critical of someone else,
until we learned something new about them,
learned about some wound they had suffered,
or some good deed they do or some burden they bear.
Suddenly we see them differently.

That is God’s gift to us, to show us ourselves,
to show us each other, to show us the world
in a way that evokes love.

Thomas Traherne spoke the God’s truth:
(O)ur enjoyment of the world is never right
till every morning (we) wake in heaven,
see (ourselves) in (our) Father’s palace
and look upon the skies, the earth, the air
as celestial joys: having such a reverend esteem of all
as if (we) were among the angels.

Jesus didn’t come just to get us out of trouble for our sins.
He came to show us ourselves, each, other and the world
in the way Traherne describes them.

So if we would have insight, if we would be enlightened,
if we would enjoy the world aright,
we must look at it through Christ’s holy eyes.
And we can practice that.
Brother David Stendahl-Rast teaches a very simple
practice in seeing the world anew.
It is called blessing.
That’s what God does.
That’s what God means for us to do.

Each day, we bless four people.
They can be friends or strangers on the street.
We bless them in two steps.

First we notice something good about them,
however small or insignificant.
We notice something good,
then we wish them well.

Remembering the source and destiny of all things,
we practice enjoying the world aright,
for that is how we praise and glorify God.
Your enjoyment of the world is never right
till every morning you wake in heaven,
see yourself in your Father’s palace
and look upon the skies, the earth, the air
as celestial joys: having such a reverend esteem of all
as if you were among the angels.