Thursday, April 30, 2020


Dear People of Holy Comforter, 

                 “The crowd outside the church seethed 
                 with rage. Cries went up, “Let’s march!” 
                 Behind us, across the street stood, rank on 
                 rank, the Alabama State Troopers and 
                 the local police forces of Sheriff Jim Clark. . . 
                 A young black minister stepped to the    
                 microphone and said, ‘It’s time we sang a song.’   
                  He opened with the line
                 ‘Do you love Martin King?’ to which (they) 
                 responded, ‘Certainly, Lord!’ ‘
                 Do you love Martin King?’ ‘Certainly, Lord!’ 
           ‘Do you love Martin King? 
           ’Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord!’

                 Right through the chain of command 
                 of the Southern Christian Leadership   
                 Conference he went, the crowd each time
                 echoing, warming to the song, 
                ‘Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord.’

             Without warning he sang out, ‘Do you love Jim
             Clark?’ – the Sheriff.
             ‘Cer. . . certainly, Lord’ came the stunned, 
              halting reply.
             ‘Do you love Jim Clark?’ ‘Certainly, Lord!” 
             It was stronger this time.
             Now the point had sunk in. . . . 
            ‘Do you love Jim Clark?’ ‘
            Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord!’”[i]
       During this challenging time, we have been asking: what’s the Christian thing to do during and after a pandemic? Over the long haul it feels better to be growing toward a greater wholeness than we have known before. Psychological tools for coping are fine. But we’ll get through this better if we are not just maintaining but growing toward wholeness and that happens through the intentional practice of Christian virtues. Virtues are habits of the heart, disciplined practices that over time become our very characters. 
     We started with the four cardinal virtues: Prudence (facing facts, living in the real world); Fortitude (courage, strength, endurance); Justice (treating everyone as if they matter); and Temperance (serenity, self-control). We started there because that’s where the most down to earth practical action happens. But the four cardinal virtues are intimately related to the Three Theological Virtues: Faith, Hope, and Love. Their relationship is reciprocal. On one hand, the Cardinal Virtues grow out of and express the Theological Virtues. On the other hand, practicing the Cardinal Virtues flowers in an experience of the Theological Virtues. That is my hope for all of us in this pandemic. The first theological virtue, Faith,  isn’t an unreasoned assent to doctrines, but giving our heart to God, trusting God to make meaning out of the seemingly chaotic disruptions of life, to bring us through and make us whole. The second is Hope, the strength to get out of bed in the morning, to take the next step in our journey, especially when we can’t see where the journey leads. “Three things abide,” Paul said, “Faith, Hope, and Love, and the greatest of these is Love.”[ii] Love is greatest because God is Love;[iii] so love is the Alpha and the Omega, the root and the flower of all the virtues.
     We have some notion what love is. We’ve been hearing pop songs about it all our lives, reading the word on Hallmark cards, hearing Love Divine All Loves Excelling at royal weddings suggesting love has to do with marriage (even royal weddings these days),[iv] and telling those near and dear to us that we love them. We have a hint of it. So I won’t start with “what is love?” though I will unpack this too rich, too complex word later.
     But the first question is “How is it possible?” How is love possible? In recent centuries, philosophy stopped writing about love; but Jean-Luc Marion turned that around in his classic (though challenging to read) book, The Erotic Phenomenon. He protested:
                 Philosophers have forsaken love . . . .    
                (O)rdinary people who love without knowing 
                 what love wants to say or what it wants of them,     
                 or above all how to survive it . . . believe 
                 themselves condemned to feed on scraps;
                 the desperate sentimentalism of popular prose, 
                 the frustrated pornography of the idol industry, 
                 or the boastful asphyxiation known 
                 as ‘self-actualization’ . . . . 
                 In this silence love fades away.[v]

Marion suggests we talk and even sing about love a lot, but are not so sure how to actually go about it. He thinks we all get off on the wrong foot by starting with the question, “Does anybody out there love me?” We need something, someone to make us matter. God knows we are “people who need people.” Our implicit assumption is that if we can get someone to love us, it will make us ok. So how do we get them to love us? We twist ourselves into lovability.
          In order to satisfy the question ‘Does anyone out  
          there love me?’ it would be enough to conform   
         myself to the image of those who areloved by all 
         (celebrities, the in group, our sibling who was the 
          favorite) so that, fantastically, all will love me and in 
         the end, I too, by proxy, will end up loving myself.[vi]
We live with anxiety about being loved so we try to be lovable, but even when we experience some acceptance, maybe affection or admiration, it does not feel like our own and it feels conditional on our keeping up the show.
     Marion argues we have started all wrong on a path that inevitably leads to a sense of failure, disappointment, and self-scorn.[vii] He proposes instead the daunting question, “Can I love first?” He argues that “loving first” means loving without preconditions, without criteria set to determine who deserves our love. We do not even – now here’s the hard part – expect our love to be returned. There is no condition of reciprocity. Life begins with the act of love. It constitutes us as lovers, which is the only meaningful, authentic, engaged way to live. All the other virtues flow out of and into the Love that makes us real persons – not “cogito, ergo sum” but “amo, ergo sum.” I love therefore I am” – regardless of what anyone else thinks, says, or feels. I constitute myself as lover.
     But that shows love is necessary – not that it is possible. The problem is where do we get the “I” who “can love first?” How is it possible to give what we have not received from somewhere? That’s where God comes in. We have the Scriptures as God’s love song to us. 
           “The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one 
             to save. He will rejoice over you with gladness 
             and quiet you with his love. 
             He will exult over you with loud singing.”[viii]

             “In all these things we are more than conquerors  
              though him who loved us.”[ix]

    “This is love. Not that we loved God 
       but that he loved us. . . .”[x]

        How do we know God loves us? We have the Scriptures. But more directly, we have our own experience. Even if we do not have a personal intuition of love, we have the fact that we exist. We are here. How is that? More importantly why is that? 
     In the 14th Century, a plague began in China and swept through Europe killing 75 million people. Called “the Black Death,” it was the most lethal epidemic in history. Lady Julian of Norwich was infected and lay on her bed near death. A priest administered last rites and held a cross before her eyes as she was apparently dying. In that state, she had 16 visions. She recovered and wrote an account of her experience, Revelations of Divine Love,[xi]the earliest known book written in English by a woman. Acutely aware of her own mortality and the frailty of the world in which she had lived, she saw a hazelnut and asked, “What is this?” The answer came, “It is the entire world.” “How can it exist” she asked, “what holds it in being? It is so frail.” God’s answer came, “It exists because I love it.”
     God’s love gave birth to the cosmos and each of us. God’s love is all that holds us in being. We know God loves us because, despite everything, we are here. We are not only here, we are sentient, and capable of seeing Beauty, laughing at jokes, enjoying a story, tasting food, hearing music. God has not only loved us into being, God has loved us into the capacity to be lovers. That is what it means to be made “in God’s image.” God. who is love, has created us as lovers. St. Paul says, “God has poured his love into our hearts.”[xii]
     So love is why we are here and how we live, but what is it? What do we mean by “love”?
The most common word for love in the Hebrew scriptures is “hesed” which means a kind of faithfulness, a sticking together. The most common word in the New Testament is “agape,” an unusual word, so rarely used in 1stCentury Greek that it is hard to translate it. But the best reading is it is “unconditional love.” It is regard for others not for any particular trait that pleases us, not because they return our love, but rather love for their very being. We love them just for being who they are. So these are the first characteristics of love we consider. It isn’t a passing infatuation. It is there to rely on. And it doesn’t depend on anything but itself. It is love for the other just for being. 
     But there are other words for love in Scripture that are more specific. The first is “eros,” which isn’t just sex, but it is romantic. It is a passion. Perhaps because of our discomfort with sexuality, we do not associate this word with God, but the Bible does not allow us to avoid it. There is an erotic quality to love in Scripture, most explicitly in the Song of Solomon. I am always amused by the way fundamentalists insist on a literal interpretation of the Bible, except for the Song of Solomon which even they treat as an allegory because it is literally it is an explicitly erotic love poem. The point here is that our romantic relationships are not foreign to God’s love but manifestations of it. Saints like Theresa of Avila and Bernard of Clairvaux used erotic language to express spiritual longing and union. 
We are not very good at love generally, and are especially clumsy with romantic love because we muddle it up with getting our needs met, which uses the other person as a means to our personal gratification. (We are likewise apt to use God just this way.) But eros is not a matter of need. It is rather a matter of delight. It is like hearing music or seeing art that one does not possess. One delights in them for their own selves.
     The Bible also speaks of “philos”. Abraham is the prime model for relationship in the Old Testament for our relationship with God. The Bible says Abraham was God’s “friend.”[xiii] Jesus called his disciples “not servants but friends.”[xiv] There is a quality of comradery in love, a sharing of the road. We also see “storge,” family affection as a Bible kind of love; and that image too describes our relationship with God. “We are God’s children now.”[xv]God makes us brothers and sisters of Jesus.[xvi] So our friendships and our love for our family are not just human nature. They are expressions of God’s love. When we love a lover, a friend, or our family, we are living out God’s love. Jesus said, “Love one another as I have loved you.”[xvii] That was the new commandment Jesus gave us on Maundy Thursday. He was elaborating on what he had already called the Great Commandment, to “love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your strength and to love your neighbor as yourself.”[xviii]
     The final and crucial question about is Love is: how do we do it? It’s pretty clear that Biblical love isn’t a feeling that we have, a passion that just comes over us, though it is bound to shape our feelings over time. It is common to say that Love is not a feeling but an action. It’s something we do – to which I say, “Yes, but . . . .” Love is not a lot of good deeds we do to impress God and make ourselves feel righteous. In fact, such good deeds can do more relational harm than good. One of my favorite writers about Love, literary critic, Cassandra Falke, says:
Feeding the hungry seems like an indisputably good political goal. However if we encounter another person as a mouth to be fed – an opportunity for charitable action and potentially for self-gratification – we lose the gift of being overwhelmed by that person’s individual humanity, a humanity that prompts us to share food in the recognition of shared need.[xix]
       So what does Falke think we should do if we are to love the world aright. Now this is crucial. To love the world aright is doing the right thing as a secondary act. The primary act is, in Thomas Traherne’s words, “to enjoy the world aright” and that is no small thing, for when we do, then we can “sing and rejoice in God as misers do in gold and kings in sceptres.”[xx] Love is not just a moral duty. It is our hope and our joy. So, Love is an action  --but it is first and foremost an inner action, an attitude. Falke describes Love in terms of three basic attitudes. She describes them as ways of reading literature, but they are the same attitudes that constitute Love in our encounters with other human beings: empathy, attention, and being overwhelmed.
     Empathy, which philosopher Martha Nusbaum sometimes calls “participatory imagination,” is seeing the world through another person’s eyes. It is intentionally (key word – we have to decide to do this thing – it isn’t a reflex) entering into another person’s experience. Falke draws on Marion and Emanuel Levinas to say that we only exist in relationship. We become ourselves through engaging with the experience of others. Only then can we say, “That’s how I feel too,” or “I get how they feel that way, but I don’t.” The moment of engagement with another person defines us. But Falke says skepticism and self-protection, dismissing people because of their race, class, political ideology, religious affiliation, regional origins, or any other box, not only shuts them out, it shuts us down. Nusbaum argues in The New Religious Intolerance that failures of participatory imagination (empathy) make our minds smaller and our hearts tighter.[xxi] They reduce our life. The experience of abundant life begins with relationship with the stranger, the alien, the one not-like-me. That is why the Bible is so emphatic about welcoming and befriending the alien,[xxii] with or without papers. 
     Attention. We can’t love someone until we notice them; and that noticing makes a difference to them too. Object relations psychoanalysis holds that we discover ourselves through being noticed, seeing ourselves reflected in the eyes of others. We may want to be our own masters, but we do need to be seen. When we aren’t seen, it leaves us with “a mirroring deficit” that leaves a hole in our selves. The kindest thing we can do for another person is simply to see them. I just got off a call with a priest who heard me, acknowledged my experience, my struggles. She didn’t fix anything for me. But she validated me just by attending to me. Falke says, “Our greatest obligation is to pay attention. . . . It is through attention to others that we are formed in love, so, conversely, it is through attending to another person I love that we help him or her come forth as a person.”[xxiii]
     The first crucial step of attention, however, runs into some obstacles. The first is distraction. Our own set of anxieties, attractions, aversions, and agendas can draw our attention away from the person before us. Today, I was praying the Jesus prayer but as I would address “Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God,” my mind slipped away to writing a sermon in my head, rehearsing what I would say at an upcoming church meeting, etc. Even in the presence of Jesus, my attention wandered. Paying attention requires the intention, the discipline, of setting other concerns aside, putting them on an “I’ll get back to you later” shelf, and being fully present to the other person. 
     The second obstacle is expectation. We are apt to approach the other person with a set of hopes, needs, or objectives. We want the other person to be the way we want them to be instead of being open to seeing them as they are. Falke says, “Love demands that we attend fully to the beloved in hope without allowing expectations to shape that hope in a way that would prevent love from being fully revealed.”[xxiv] Our hope must be for something as yet undefined. We see the other, hear the other with an open hearted interest in discovering something new.
     The third obstacle to attention linguistic philosopher Hans Georg Gadamer calls prejudice. We generally use that word to describe stereotypes based on suspect categories like race, religion, gender, age, etc. But Gadamer means something broader – pre-judging. When we approach another person with a fixed image of them already set in our minds, we hear what they say through a filter of who we already think they are. That prejudice keeps us from seeing the other person as they are, blinds us to surprises, and people are infinitely surprising. To really see another human being, we have to intentionally open our minds to allow them to reveal themselves as they are in this moment. 
     Being Overwhelmed. This third attitude sounds like an emotional overload, but that isn’t quite it. By “being overwhelmed,” Falke means the recognition of the mystery of each person. After we have laid our distractions and expectations aside and attended to the person the best we can, we will not have comprehended them. Another person’s soul is always too large to fit in our heads. Augustine said, “If you understand it, it is not God.” Just so, whatever image we form in our minds of another person is not that person, at least not the whole of them. If we truly attend to someone, we will come up against the limits of our capacity to know them. We can only get so far. What then are we to do with the remainder, the mystery of another human being. The easy option is to ignore it, dismiss it, disregard it. To be “overwhelmed” is to assume an attitude of reverent wonder. That invites us to keep paying attention in hopes of knowing someone better, but we can never know them fully. Falke understands love to entail respect the other person’s mystery. 
     So what does all this teach us about God, ourselves, and how to live, especially now?
For starters, how do you imagine God? For several hundred years now, we have been thinking of God primarily in terms of power, so it is no wonder that we worship power and scratch and claw to get whatever scraps of power we can. But suppose God is love as the Bible says. God “loved first” as the Bible says. Suppose God is faithful and loves us just for being who we are – perhaps flawed in our own eyes and the eyes of the world -- but God loves us all the more for that – for simply  being who we are. Suppose God is not dominating and manipulating us, but paying attention to us without distraction, expectation, or prejudice. Suppose God delights in us “sings loud songs over us” for our being ourselves? That, brothers and sisters, is the God we know in the Christian faith. 
     And who are we but the objects of God’s love created by Love as lovers – lovers of art, nature, life, and above all each other? And how are we to love? “Love one another as I have loved you,” Jesus said. This is a moral duty, but more than that, it is an invitation to a life well and fully lived. And who shall we love? The people who are there.
     “Do you love Jim Clark?” “Certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord!”

[i] Walter Wink, Jesus and Nonviolence: A Third Way
[ii] I Corinthians 13: 13
[iii] I John 1: 4
[v] Jean-Luc Marion, The Erotic Phenomenon, pp. 1-2.
[vi] EP, p. 44. (The parenthetical examples are mine.)
[vii] EP, p
[viii] Zephaniah 3: 17
[ix] Romans 8: 37
[x] I John 4: 10
[xii] Romans 5: 5
[xiii] II Chronicles 20: 7
[xiv] John 15: 15
[xv] I John 3: 2
[xvi] Romans 8: 29
[xvii] John 13: 34
[xviii] Mark 12: 30-31

[xix] Cassandra Falke, The Phenomenology of Love and Reading, p. 56.
[xx] “You never enjoy the world aright, till the Sea itself floweth in your veins, till you are clothed with the heavens, and crowned with the stars: and perceive yourself to be the sole heir of the whole world, and more than so, because men are in it who are every one sole heirs as well as you. Till you can sing and rejoice and delight in God, as misers do in gold, and Kings in sceptres, you never enjoy the world.

Till your spirit filleth the whole world, and the stars are your jewels; till you are as familiar with the ways of God in all Ages as with your walk and table: till you are intimately acquainted with that shady nothing out of which the world was made: till you love men so as to desire their happiness, with a thirst equal to the zeal of your own: till you delight in God for being good to all: you never 
enjoy the world.
[xxii] Leviticus 19: 34
[xxiii] PL&R, p.99
[xxiv] PL&R, p. 107

Saturday, April 25, 2020


Our Gospel lesson from Luke chapter 24,
     is the story of the Risen Lord appearing to
     two disciples on the road to their home in Emmaus
     after the crucifixion. 

“We had hoped he was the one,” they said. 
“We had hoped.”
It’s supposed to be Easter, right?
But our Gospel story begins in dejection.

 Clopas and his companion had seen sorrow all their days.
The nameless disciple is probably nameless 
         because she was a woman.
It wasn’t the greatest time and place especially for women.
She and Clopas lived in a poor country 
        where life was short and hard.
Their ancestors had been a great empire,
     but the empire feuded, then split,
     and in its weakened state, it was conquered.
10 of Israel’s 12 tribes had been deported, scattered,
and lost forever.

The remaining two were overrun by Assyrians, 
then Babylonians, then Persians, 
then Greeks, and finally Rome.
They were a defeated, disgraced people,
     living under foreign rule, which respected 
                 neither their culture nor their God.
Then along came Jesus and gave them hope.

They had hoped Jesus would drive out the Romans
     and restore the independent kingdom of David.
They had hoped things would get back 
           to the good old days.
“We had hoped he was the one to redeem Israel,” 
         they said. 
“We had hoped.” A poignant past perfect tense. 

Then came Good Friday.
The bloody humiliation of their hero
     showed how wrong they had been,
     how foolish to have hoped
                 that things could be different.
It turned out: the world is as it is. 
They were as they were.
Hope dashed and discarded.
They walked morosely home as the sun was going down.

Maybe you know how they felt.
We may not live in a conquered nation.
But we know that life is often disappointing 
           to say the least.
We know full well what Coleridge meant by
     “the tears in the nature of things.”

So many of us have at one time or another
found some kind of deliverance.
It may have been a relationship with another person
     we thought could make everything ok
                 like in the love songs.
Or maybe we thought  we could make it ok for our children 
                 even if it hadn’t been so great for us,
     and they would become the people 
                we should have been.

We may have found our hope in a new psychology
     or diet or exercise plan or investment strategy.
There are as many paths to redemption 
as there are slot machines on my old pastoral setting,
the Las Vegas Strip.

So we have placed our hope in this or that redemption.
We may even have tried the Christian faith,
     but if we tried to practice it on our own,
                 we found out pretty quick, that doesn’t work.
Christianity is a team sport. It’s a family meal.

So to place our faith in Jesus, we had to place our faith 
         in his Body, to invest ourselves in a church.
And maybe we found one
     where the worship felt holy, the sermon was uplifting,
                 and the people were friendly.
And we thought, “I am home now. 
This is a safe place.” 

But before long,
     we discovered that even the best of churches
     all have the same problem.
They are infested with people, 
some clergy, some laity, but all people,
     and we don’t check our human frailty 
                 at the narthex door.

Our church may have done something 
      unjust, insensitive, or morally wrong.
Maybe the priest said something or did something
     that a priest should never do.
The people may have resorted to power politics
     or character assassination.
The church we thought was the Body of Christ,
     the demonstration model for the Kingdom of God,
     turned out to be, in Nietzsche’s words,
           “human, all too human.”
Each of us has our own version of this story.
Each of us has found our path to redemption
     and has seen it come to a dead end.
That’s how it was for Clopas and his companion,
     on the road to Emmaus.
That’s the road where they met Jesus,
     but they didn’t recognize him.
He wasn’t the same old Jesus as before.

When we have been disappointed
     it’s hard, it’s very hard, to open our hearts again
             especially to something new.
Disappointment falls over our eyes like cataracts.
That may be why it took the disciples all day 
     and into the night to even recognize their Savior.

But let’s give them credit.
Even in their despondent mood,
     they were willing to walk the road with a stranger.

Better yet, they were willing to open their minds
     and to study the Scripture.
Many of us are so sure we already know 
       what the Bible says about this or that –
so sure we know the Bible’s basic themes.
But the deeper I go into the Holy Scriptures,
     the more wild, wonderful, and surprising they become.
If we assume we know what the Bible says,
     if we stop with a simple literal reading,
                 it closes our minds.

The simple literal meaning of the texts 
Jesus was teaching Clopas and his friend that day
     did not// point to a crucified messiah.
It took a bold new way of reading the Bible
     to open their hearts.
Jesus gave them a new creative, imaginative, 
     fresh interpretation,
     and to their credit, they listened.

And to their credit, 
     they welcomed the stranger into their home.
How often do we come to a church 
     or any path of redemption,
     wanting to be healed and consoled ourselves?
But the healing and consolation never happen
     until we drop that agenda for self,
                 and serve or welcome someone else.

So the disciples and Jesus broke bread together.
It wasn’t a worship service. 
There was no altar or prayer book.
There were no vestments, candles, or fair linens.
But it was a Eucharist. 
They hadn’t expected it to be a Eucharist.
They weren’t in a holy place. It was their house.
It wasn’t a religious ritual. But there it was.

After hearing the good news from Scripture –
they joined innocently in this simple domestic meal
 –  with no grand spiritual expectation.
In that moment, they recognized the Lord.
They opened their eyes and saw Jesus.
Then Clopas and his friend got it right again.
They hurried by night back to Jerusalem
     to share the good news with the other disciples.

But Jesus had been there too – appearing to Simon
– at the same time.
Stop. How did that happen?
Jesus was now appearing to people 
       in different places at once.
Wonders just keep multiplying 
        when broken hearted people 
share good news with each other. 

So what might we learn from our story?
The first lesson is about dejection.
It happens.
It is a common part of the spiritual life
maybe even a necessary part of the spiritual life.
Masters like St. Ignatius Loyola 
       and St. John of the Cross thought so. 
Necessary because dejection is the opportunity 
to open our hearts to grace in a new way,
                 perhaps a deeper redemption
                 than we had hoped for to begin with.

Disappointment is the opportunity 
     to open our hearts and minds
     to grace from the lips of a stranger.
But it turns out grace shows us 
       the Bible means something quite different 
       from what we had thought.
Grace slips into our lives through the back door,
     through the ordinary, simple, humble 
                 actions of daily life, especially
while we were helping or befriending someone else.

The eyes of these disciples were opened
when Jesus broke the bread.
“Open” is one of the most frequently used verbs 
     in the Gospels for what Jesus does.
He opens eyes. He  opens ears.  He opens graves.
Given half a chance, 
       he’ll open our minds, open our hearts.

May Jesus open our minds to his truth
and our hearts to each other.
“Be present, be present Lord Jesus,
     as you were present to the disciples,
            and be known to us in the breaking of the bread."