A Rainbow Connection?

[There is so much that I’m planning to write on—urgent things about God and justice and prayer, about racism and hurricanes and taking sides, and what this all means on a college campus. Those will come. However, this happened to me recently and I needed to get it out of my system first.]
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I didn’t take this picture. I found it online. But my rainbows were just this bright.

I believe that God created the universe. I believe in Providence, the idea that God didn’t just set the world in motion, watchmaker-style, but is deeply involved—or at least present—in the workings of the cosmos, caring about the sparrow that falls from the sky, but available to me in my every thought and breath.

Those two things are important to know before I tell you this story.
I was driving from Chicago down to eastern Tennessee, a 9+ hour drive that took me through the mountains of Kentucky. Stretches of the road had been no fun for driving: periods of driving rain, construction, accidents (I passed two serious-looking ones within ½ mile of each other going in the opposite direction). As I went further into the mountains, through towns that could spread only so far to the right and the left, constrained by steep slopes on either side, I was frustrated and wearied by the rain, unable to enjoy the drive as I gripped the steering wheel and looked through the windshield wipers whipping at their fastest speed.
Just before I drove through the tunnel at the Cumberland Gap, I posted as much in a Facebook status. I love road trips. But not in that kind of weather.
After the tunnel, the clouds lightened a bit, with rain spitting occasionally, so I could relax little, but not too much, since the road continued to curve perilously through the hills. As I came around one bend, the entire windshield was filled with the vision of two full double rainbows. They were were not far away on the horizon, beckoning me somewhere beyond, but RIGHT THERE in front of me, one end of each rainbow just a few dozen yards ahead of me on the road.
I yelled. I literally yelled at least three times, alone in my car, as it moved at 60 miles an hour, trying to see the rainbows and stay on the road. It was two full rainbows, not one full and one ghostly one behind. They were brazen. Confident. In my face.
My mind raced: what I should do? A fellow traveller pulled over just ahead of me, clearly planning to step out and take a picture, or at least take it all in. I pondered doing the same, but I knew that, as good as smart phone cameras might be, I’d never capture the magnificence, the scale, the in-your-faceness of this moment. So I kept driving, at each bend ready to let go of the brilliance as the hill obscured it, only to be delighted when it appeared once again. This went on for several miles.
Rainbow Connection Finale

There were no muppets at the end of my rainbows.

I wept—carefully, since I was still driving, downhill now. It felt like a mirror image of the awe I felt at watching the eclipse last month (fully on television, and partially in my yard): then it was awe at the darkness, this was awe at the light. As the vision settled into my consciousness and I tried to fix it into my memory—since there would be no photo—I began to wonder what marvelous experience meant.

This was a question my husband and I had pondered during the eclipse last month. For most of human history eclipses were rare enough and few people traveled far enough to know that they were natural and not portents of disaster. Eclipses were given meaning—cosmic, formidable, dire meaning. We now know that, at some point, the moon will inevitably pass in front of the sun—there is no prophetic message in it. The sun will cede its place to the moon and the world below, for a few minutes, will become something wholly other. It is eerie. It feels mysterious. And it is simply how the world works.
Now as I drove, stunned into silence and delight, I wondered if I should be feeling something somehow “spiritual.” Should I wonder if this is a message from God? Should I feel some kind of explicitly theistic gratitude or awe? Strangely, I didn’t. This didn’t feel personal. I have gotten messages from God before, and this wasn’t it. I could have manufactured gratitude, but, strangely, it didn’t feel necessary. God’s feelings were not going to be hurt if I didn’t stop to compose a psalm at the side of the road. My delight was enough.
It felt like the world doing what it was made to do, in surprising and predictable ways. The sun was shining at just the right angle behind me through the leftovers of the rain, and my car and I, as I drove, continued to return to that just-right angle. Physics and weather and geography all did what they had been made to do. And they did it well.
God didn’t need in that moment for me to stop seeing the water vapor transformed into prisms of light and, or even to use it as some kind of lens toward God. God was in the car with me, driving down the road at 60 miles an hour, sitting the in passenger seat beside me, yelling, just as delighted as I was, at the glory of the rainbows, doing just what they were made to do.
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Faith: It’s Not for the Weak

When Stacy and I left on our trip to The Holy Land, we were in two very different phases of our spiritual growth.  I will not name her stage, as it is far beyond me and, more than likely, it is rude to name another’s spiritual position on the Monopoly board of God.  But as  for me, I was in Jail, I could not pass go, I could not collect $200, and I wasn’t sure what to do about it.

Then, we went to Israel.

I had been reading the Long Discourses and the Short Discourses of The Buddha, two of the four major sacred texts of the Theravada Buddhist faith. And they’re goofy as hell.

That’s overstating it, of course. But it was far from the constant shower of wisdom I had expected. They were repetitive, conflicting, weird, polytheistic, and established that the Buddha had forty teeth, a sheath over his genitals and could rub his knees with his hands without sitting down.

All of a sudden, I had some doubts about my faith.

I had been drawn to Buddhism by its common sense approach to life.  All attention was focused on the problem: me. Heaven, hell, God and the Devil were things that didn’t matter. Life here on Earth mattered, and what you did here mattered. There were no long, drawn-out discussions about the Psychological gender of the Holy Spirit or how many dead Popes could dance on the Head of a Bowling Pin. No impossible miracles, no magic tricks, no unearthly creatures or realms . . . nothing which required a leap of faith.

IMG_1387And that’s what my problem was. Faith. Faith:  that odd word, that bizarre concept, that essential aspect to any well-lived life. It was a thing I never had. Something I had proudly eschewed my entire life. And now it was being asked of me by a man 2,600 years dead. He wasn’t supposed to do that. He had a plan, I follow it and then get all happy and shit. That was the deal. That’s what it was supposed to be!  Just “eightfold path” this and “four noble truths” then meditate a lot and Blam!  Nirvana, baby!!

Can you hear the Buddha laughing?

The truth I discovered was that as a human I have no reason to expect a simple solution.  The answer will need to handle all the convolutions that our psyche will fling to avoid it.  Problems are strong, pain is powerful, and the world is built on a foundation of suffering that feeds on itself and attacks us every day.

This was what Israel taught me: that place where Nationalism and Religion collide headlong, forcing all people there to act on their Faith.  I mean people who had given up all hope of comfort and luxury for ideas like family, Allah, Jehovah, and Home. Getting to know these people made a lot of concerns I thought important melt away, leaving only the essential.

The deeper I descend into Buddhist doctrine, the deeper into myself I also go, and it is a sticky precarious place. I will need help understanding these hard places, which is where those odd passages come in. Who knows what the stuff about 31 realms of existence or all the angel/dryad-like “devas” will yield to me.  But the Buddha’s done right by me so far, and I have a powerful streak of dumbass in me, so I will have faith that he knows best. (By the way, I did find a meaning to the passage about the “sheathed genitals, hands on knees and forty teeth” that gave me great insight.  But that insight is mine, and it is not proper to share it. Your insight might be different, and I joyfully leave that blessing for you.)

Now there is a backbone to my meditation that wasn’t there before.  I sit longer, and apply my lessons more times throughout the day.  The Buddha did not hold up a contradiction to me, he held up a mirror.  And that is why I recoiled.  Religion is easy; the “self” is the hard part.

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Christmas Birth: As Challenging as Death

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Manger Square with Nigerian pilgrims

We made our first journey to the Holy Land in 2015 and spent Christmas in Bethlehem, where, for Christians, it all began. Many picture Bethlehem as it is romantically depicted on Christmas cards: sweet, clean, calm. What I found, however, behind the wall, beyond the checkpoints, is a vibrant, welcoming, tragic, and complicated place. I offered the following reflection at the Christmas Day service at Redeemer Lutheran Church in the Old City of Jerusalem.

If you didn’t know a woman was giving birth, you might believe that she was dying. Even for the birthing woman, it can feel like death. In labor, my body ceases to be my own. Another life takes over. Its timing and rhythms and pace are in charge. There is no way back, no way around—only through. It is dangerous and overwhelming and unpredictable.

And yet . . . at the end of the process that feels like death there is life—a very particular life. A squirming, slippery bundle of flesh and DNA that, no matter what, will challenge and surprise those who choose to nurture it.

On Christmas we remember and celebrate that God not only initiated the birth of new life in the world—Jesus’ life and new life for us all—but that God surrendered Godself to the process of birth, that risky, intense journey into incarnate life.

Last night, Christmas Eve, Mary went through her own labor, her own being borne, carried through a process that felt like death, a process she could not know until she’d experienced it. This morning she rests, and the Divine baby as well. More unknown things lie ahead, more deaths, more births, until finally in that spot a stone’s-throw away from here [the Church of the Holy Sepulcher] her son entered his his own final labor, borne along by human sin, facing his own unknown, and bringing to light life for us all.

Jesus’ birth at Christmas is a hint of the Gospel promise: what looks like death can bring life.

St. Paul, in his letter to the Romans, reminds us that “the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now,” and all around and within us we experience things that may look like death, that may look like the end, that are overwhelming and painful, and we maybe tempted to despair. But just as a birthing mother should not labor alone, we do not struggle alone. We tell the Christmas story every year, not just because babies are, mostly, wonderful, but because we need company in the process. We need to be reminded that Mary survived the birth, to sit side by side with others who struggle with us to bring God’s love to light, to be know that, for 2,000 years, others—what we call the Communion of Saints—have labored and been faithful.

Christmas Eve is, of course, followed by Christmas morning. Mary’s birthing labor has ended, but God’s work of the world’s redemption has just begun.

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Buzzkill Buddha

happy-discuss1Recently an ancient Suttra, or sacred writing, of early 2nd century Buddhism was discovered on the Saraguptaskilihil Province in the Eastern Southwestern part of India.  The Suttra contains the precepts and teachings of an Avatar of the Buddha who is little known but very influential in the formation of international Buddhism.  The Wette Blanketteaman Buddha, or the “Buzzkill” Buddha first appeared in 156 BC, directly after the invention of the Waffle Ball, the ancient ancestor of the Wiffle Ball.

buzzkillThe Suttra of the Buzzkill Buddha lists 781 activities that are considered to be “fun”, and thereby declares them inappropriate for any Buddhist.  The Buzzkill Buddha also dictates that any thing that feels good, tastes good, smells good or looks good on you when you wear it is an enemy to one’s peace of mind and an ally to Mara, the Great Distractor.  The statues and other artistic representations of the BZK Buddha usually show him sitting in an uncomfortable chair wearing corduroy pants, sensible shoes and frowning at a picture of Pee Wee Herman which is held in his left hand.  Worshippers of the BZK Buddha were usually the mothers of teenagers, restaurant managers and telemarketers.  Gradually, this particular avatar of Buddha faded away into obscurity, though many of its tenets lived on in modern Buddhist thought, the most significant contribution being that “happiness” is not good for you. Modern studies prove that happiness causes cancer, sunburn, and major rashes in private places.

Contained in the Abu-Dahbi-Dharma, the manual for Super Suttra advanced students of Buddhism, is a seventy five page section that discourses on the dangers of such a lifestyle choice. Recently, the noted scholar of Sanskrit, Pali and the Southern New Jersey dialect of English, Thitch Nahthh Prahnh Hanhanh , translated this section into English, and then into American. It read as follows.

 “FUCK HAPPINESS”

“Who the hell are you kidding?  Happiness is nothing that can be found, made, dug up, plucked from a tree or shot at with a rubber band gun.  As to the illusion of happiness, oh sure, you can find that in spades!  Every marketplace in India is full of that!  Pretty much anything you can seek, find, make, dig up, pluck from a tree or shoot with a rubber band gun will contain the illusion of happiness.  But here is the deal, oh mortal dumbass,: happiness fades.  It goes away.  It doesn’t last.  It will end.  Just like your life, orgasms, and pizza—usually in that order.  Being happy is not a crime against the Buddha, though 99 of the 100 ways one can get happy are completely against the Buddha and he will leave Nirvana just to hate you if you do any of them.  Relying on happiness is like relying on a girlfriend who wears too much make-up.  Here endeth the lesson.  Please do not put this suttra in any place where it can be sought, found, made, dug up, plucked from a tree or shot with a rubber band gun by a cat, dog, lemur, wallaby or a three toed sloth.  NAMASTE.

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OK, so I’m kidding with all that.  But not by much.  The search for Happiness can be the most dangerous trap on the road to Nirvana. Getting happy is only half the problem, staying happy is the other half. The Buddha’s lessons on the general mental state that can be labeled as “happy” are delicate, deep and personal. Each of us must explore these questions on our own for the lessons to have meaning.  Of course the Buddha doesn’t want us to be sad, miserable or despairing.  But think about it, how many times has your life veered off course because you were trying too damn hard to be happy? And in contrast, how many times have you veered off when tried to be just content or at peace? Or, have you never even tried.

You will find many allies on the road to happiness. Everyone wants a piece of that lovely, perky, flaky, pie. Lots of people want you to buy their products to get happy or to get more happy, whether you deserve it or not.   But as contentment and peace of mind can only come from knowing yourself, it can be lonely, and often it must be. Contentment is not happy. Contentment is the place where you don’t need to make yourself happy. These places that seem to reject the concept of happy are strange and weird. And friends, family and enemies will take these changes in your life as a condemnation of their own choices, and some of them will hate you for it, and ask you that awful question. “Don’t you want to be happy?”

My religion began when a wealthy, married prince of a prosperous land stole away in the middle of the night in defiance of his father and his King. He had only the clothes on his back and one horse to start him on his way. Soon, he rid himself of even these things. Didn’t he want to be Happy? No. He wanted something more important. He wanted everyone to find peace. There is a difference. And he wanted you to find that out for yourself. There’s a lot to be learned here, and I am still learning.  This is a beginning, find your own end, and if you meet me on your road to enlightenment, you are welcome to shoot me with a rubber band gun.

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Despair

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My conversion to Buddhism came not from a flash of light on the road to Damascus or the view from a mountaintop, or even an intense gaze into the eyes of a newborn dolphin.  It was a process.  A hard slog that took a few years, marked by numerous discoveries within Buddhists texts and then watching those texts prove themselves true in the path of my life.  One of the first was the Buddha’s description of despair.  He called it laziness.

It pissed me off to read that.  I had been proud of my despair.  It was deep, and painful, and real.  It was the result of me being a deep thinker and from my having a vast intelligence that could not find a happy place in the cruel, unforgiving, unfair, unintelligent world.  I was fond of my despair.  I liked having it.  I was good at it.  And despair sounds so much better than depression.  In my despair, I could accomplish nothing.  Morosely unmoving, sadly sitting. Pointlessly meandering the streets; my pain was too deep to process or to be understood by outside minds and eyes.  There was nothing I could do.  There was nothing anyone could do.

Sounds like Laziness, doesn’t it?

The words of the Buddha on despair were electric.  My first reaction was shock; that a being of compassion could insult my precious despair?  What the hell?  Then as the current of the thought ran through me, I saw its accuracy.  And as the energy of the transforming sutra settled in my mind, I knew I wouldn’t be the same.  I could not be able act as I used to when despair came upon me.  If I did, I would remember what I read, and I would not allow myself to be that way.

It was a revelation.  Goddammit.

For despair is an act of laziness.  A slight-of-mind-trick we use to avoid our real problems.  A mask to camouflage our real pain.  Instead of attacking that which makes us unhappy, we wallow, warm and comfortable in the shit of our lives, convinced by Mara/Satan/ourselves that there is nothing we can do.  And with despair, it is the ego that reigns.  Ego is the voice that keeps it strong and permanent.  My pain is too strong: it is born of my uniqueness in the world.  There is nothing like me in the entire universe, and the fact I am angry, sad and alone proves it and makes it worthwhile.  The strength of the ego in despair is why the Buddha approaches so aggressively and directly.  The ego is fierce in its defense, and sly  in its tactics.  To defeat the ego it must be faced boldly, clearly and a hundred times a day.  The struggle against ego and the myth of the self is a major part of the Buddhism, and a struggle most Americans find outrageous, as the sense of self is a political foundation of our government and a financial pillar of our economy.  In a very practical sense, if we were to rid ourselves of ego, it would cause the American Way of Life to collapse.

It’s a revolution revelation.  Goddammit.

That  “Goddammit” refers to what Stacy and I have felt as we have travelled on our spiritual paths upon discovering certain revelations.  Some are pleasant, some are confirming, some are joyous, but some are hard truths that as soon as we feel them, we know we must change our lives.  That we cannot ignore them , no matter what useful rationalization creeps into our mind.

“Goddammit!  Now I have to change my life for the better.”

So what is goddammit-y about that?  It should be great?  Right?  It should be a joyous shower of feathers and chocolate and unicorns and sparkles and Perky Facebook Posts.  But it’s not.  It’s work.  That frustration, that hypocritical frustration, proves the hold that ego has on us.  For the ego is not merely our sense of individuality and personhood and self: it is the hold that the past has on our lives, whispering in that loud shout that what was, is more important and real than what could be.

And it’s not, Goddammit.  What could be is an infinity of love. What was is gone.  Bloody gone.

And for those who are in despair, deep depression, extreme sadness, do not trick yourself into thinking I am trivializing your experience by claiming the cure is as simple as just getting up, taking a shower and puttin’ on a happy face.  Or reading a little Buddha.  Or saying a prayer.  Or helping an old lady cross the street.  It’s a fight.  A friggin’ brawl.  A bloody slugfest, toe-to-toe against the only thing in the world that can truly defeat you: yourself.  And you will sometimes lose, and it will hurt. People will not understand, and you will not understand yourself.   But you can win.  You should win.  You will win.  And  the war starts with this:  You are suffering.  You suffer only because you are alive.  There is a way to stop suffering.  The Buddha can teach us that way.  That is the Four Noble Truths that all Buddhists must first accept into their lives.

Can I paraphrase that?  Of course I can!

The sadness you feel is real.  You are not sad because you are a bad person, you are sad because you are alive and all creatures experience pain and sadness.  You can stop feeling this pain, it can end, it should end.  And there is a way to make the sadness stop.

Isn’t that cool?

NEXT BLOG POST FROM JOHN—ECSTASY

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Ascension Day: Grief Rather Than Triumph?

I wrote this back on May 15th, but forgot to post it. Here you go:

Yesterday was the Feast of the Ascension, the day many Christian churches remember Jesus’ ascent into heaven forty days after the Resurrection. It always falls on a Thursday, which makes it hard to get folks into church, and it is overshadowed by Pentecost, the feast marking the gift of the Holy Spirit, which follows ten days later. The Ascension is the source of much bad—or maybe just awkward—art. Like this:

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Or this surreal one from Salvador Dali:

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Or this one, when the camera was snapped just a millisecond too late:

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I was to preach yesterday at our mid-week service on campus and as I pondered what to say about this strange little cast-off feast, I realized that, despite triumphalist associations with the day, the Ascension made me sad. The disciples, after meeting Jesus and leaving everything to follow him, have everything ripped from them: not only is the man they have come to love and respect ripped away from them in his arrest and crucifixion, but all of their concepts about the Messiah, about God, about power, are turned upside down, shaken up, and ripped to shreds. They get their friend and Lord back in the Resurrection, but it had to take at least forty days with Him even to begin to process what had just happened, and what it meant for them. And then, after too short a time (just six weeks), he is taken away from them again. And they have to wait, not knowing what was to happen next. (Yes, Jesus promised the Holy Spirit, but they couldn’t have any idea of what that meant!)

I am finishing up the 19th Annotation of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, a 30-week retreat with a commitment to 30-45 minutes of daily prayer and a weekly meeting with a spiritual director. It has been a life-changing experience, and I feel like I have come to know Jesus in a deeply personal and vivid way. I’ve been grieving and a little anxious about the end of this structured time, with the accountability that a weekly meeting with a spiritual director provides. I’ve wondered whether I’ll be able to continue to maintain the new habit, and whether Jesus will continue to show up with the wisdom and comfort and challenge that he has provided this past year. I feel like I’m saying goodbye.

It became clear to me that the two situations, for me, are parallel, and that the invitation of both the Ascension and the end of the Spiritual Exercises is to give myself permission to grieve a little the end of a particular experience and to trust that God will provide what I need for the next stage of my discipleship—something deeper, richer, or maybe just different.  The gift is permission to resist the change, at least a little, and to mourn it, and the hope is that even those things—the resistance and the grief—will be included and transformed in whatever new thing God offers me next.

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A sermon for the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene

marymagsPreached Sunday, July 19, 2015
Rockefeller Memorial Chapel, University of Chicago

Mary Magdalene. Apostle to the apostles, proclaimer to the proclaimers , the one sent forth to those sent forth.

At first it seemed to me that this is perhaps all we need to know. But it’s not. Mary’s story has been obscured and twisted and manipulated too much not to tell you more of it.

Most of you probably already know that it says nowhere in the gospels that Mary was a prostitute. Many of you have probably already realized that Mary was the first witness to the resurrected Jesus, as we heard in today’s gospel reading.

Mary’s name is mentioned at least twelve times in the four Gospels, more than most of the other apostles. Luke and Mark tell us that Jesus cast seven demons out of her. But then we hear nothing of her from Paul or in the Acts of the Apostles.

Less known is the legend that Mary gained an audience with the Emperor Tiberius. Upon meeting him, she held an egg in her hand and said, “Christ is risen!” The Emperor scoffed, saying that a person rising from the dead was as likely as a white egg turning red. Lo and behold, the egg in Mary’s hand turned red.

In the apocryphal Gospel of Mary, an early extrabiblical gospel that gained notoriety through Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code, there is an interesting pair of conversations between Mary and the other disciples. The Savior has departed from the disciples, having commanded them to “preach the gospel of the Kingdom.” The disciples are grieved, and weep, saying, “How shall we go to the Gentiles and preach the gospel of the Kingdom of the Son of Man? If they did not spare Him, how will they spare us?” Mary stands up and encourages them. Peter then asks Mary to tell them what she heard from the Savior, since He “loved you more than the rest of woman.” Mary then proceeds to tell them what she has heard. When she has finished, Andrew expresses doubt that Jesus has said these things to Mary, for “these teachings are strange ideas.” Peter chimes in and begins to question what Mary has said, not for its content, but because these “strange ideas” have come through a woman: “Did He really speak privately with a woman and not openly to us? Are we to turn about and all listen to her? Did He prefer her to us?”

Mary weeps. Levi, God bless him, comes to her defense, saying, “Peter, you have always been hot tempered. Now I see you contending against the woman like the adversaries. But if the Savior made her worthy, who are you indeed to reject her? Surely the Savior knows her very well.” This strange little gospel then ends with the line, “And when they heard this they began to go forth to proclaim and to preach.”

In these stories about Mary we have a picture of someone whose call is to proclaim, to tell her story, her truth, no matter how unbelievable, to say “Christ is risen” when all others know is his death. This is someone whose story is powerful enough, and whose presence was apparently compelling enough, that there is a memory—even though it didn’t make it into the Bible—of her standing before the most powerful person in her world and with simple words and action proclaiming the good news.

How do we recognize the bearer of good news? What do we do when the one proclaiming hard to understand truth doesn’t look “right”?

Recently we as a culture been wrestling with our own dismissal of certain witnesses, as story after story of African Americans stopped, arrested, injured, and killed have been making headlines. I’m not going to argue the merits of any particular case. What strikes me as important is the way in which African American folks are saying, in response to the shock and horror of the rest of us, “Why are you surprised? We’ve lived with these stories our whole lives. The publicity may be new, but the stories aren’t.” And people like me will respond, “But I didn’t know. No one told me.”

I wonder, in light of Mary Magdalene’s witness, whether that’s true. I suspect that if we’d had ears to hear, as Jesus often recommended, we would have known. To what extent do we ignore or deny certain stories because of who tells them? We may, like Andrew in the Gospel of Mary, say, “these are strange ideas”—he, you’ll note, is not corrected by his fellow disciples. It is Peter, however, who says, that because Mary is a woman, Jesus could not have set her apart for special knowledge, he is the one rebuked by Levi. The problem is doubting the source because of who the source is.

The issues around African American experiences of injustice are complex and thorny, fraught in ways that made me wonder whether I should even talk about this today. I won’t be able to untangle the questions of power and privilege, assumptions about values, the histories of slavery and Jim Crow and segregation, disrupted family relationships and violated communities. Or class issues or voting rights or poverty or drugs or education or infrastructure or jobs or straight-up prejudice. We must as a culture begin to look at, analyze, and untangle these issues, since we are all trapped in their webs. But that is more than a Sunday sermon can accomplish.

What I want to highlight, is that the Gospel, the good news of healing and dignity and new life that Jesus preached and that his life and ministry, death, and resurrection confirmed, has, from the beginning, been proclaimed by inappropriate witnesses, people without power, people without status, people who are simply not to be believed. The first witness to the resurrection, the first proclaimer of the triumph of life over death, was a woman—a powerful, articulate, faithful, and courageous woman, one who followed Jesus, who stood by the cross when most of the men had left, who planned to care for her Lord and friend’s body after death, and yet, someone who would not have been considered competent to offer legal testimony because she was a woman. And even within the Church, we have conspired to silence her with twisted stories about her identity, and through her exclusion, to exclude others.

This is the trick: if we really hear these strange stories—both the proclaiming of the Gospel good news and the disturbing experiences of our African American brothers and sisters—we will have to change. Truth being proclaimed from unexpected places forces us to see the world differently, to understand ourselves differently, even to think about God differently. We must loosen our grips on our assumptions about the world and about the people we think we know, and loosen our grips on our assumptions about who we think we are, opening our eyes to the fact that being “nice people” isn’t enough, that having a few black friends isn’t enough, that declaring “but I’m not a racist” isn’t enough.

Mary Magdalene invites us to hear her testimony—the tomb is empty, the Lord is risen—and through this invites us to listen to the testimonies around us, the truths that we miss because their tellers don’t have the trappings of sanctioned truth: the poor, the stranger, the child, the foreigner, the prisoner, the hungry, the sick, the thirsty, the Other. All the people that Jesus already told us to attend to and to serve. Listen, Mary says. Look, she says, holding out her simple gift. Christ is risen. The world is not what you assumed.

Let those who have ears, let us hear.

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Benedict and the School for Service of the Lord

A sermon preached by Stacy at Rockefeller Memorial Chapel (University of Chicago) on Sunday, July 12, 2015:

St. Benedict delivering his rule to the monks of his order, Monastery of St. Gilles, Nimes, France, 1129

St. Benedict delivering his rule to the monks of his order, Monastery of St. Gilles, Nimes, France, 1129

The readings:

From the Prologue to the Rule of St. Benedict

And so we are going to establish a school for the service of the Lord.  In founding it we hope to introduce nothing harsh or burdensome.   But if a certain strictness results from the dictates of equity for the amendment of vices or the preservation of charity, do not be at once dismayed and fly from the way of salvation, whose entrance cannot but be narrow. For as we advance in the religious life and in faith, our hearts expand and we run the way of God’s commandments with unspeakable sweetness of love. Thus, never departing from his school, but persevering in the monastery according to his teaching until death, we may by patience share in the sufferings of Christ and deserve to have a share also in his kingdom.

From the Gospel according to Luke 14:27-33:
Jesus said to the crowd, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not first sit down and estimate the cost, to see whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it will begin to ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going out to wage war against another king, will not sit down first and consider whether he is able with ten thousand to oppose the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? If he cannot, then, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for the terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.

The sermon:

When we decided to use the readings for the commemoration of St. Benedict of Nursia for today’s service—he is often commemorated on July 11th—it seemed like a no-brainer. Everyone seems to like Benedict. Benedictine spirituality has enjoyed a bit of a revival lately. This will be easy, I thought.

But first, a bit about the man himself:

Benedict lived from 480 to around 545 CE. He was the son of a Roman nobleman, probably a Christian. He was sent off to Rome for his studies, but after a time, disillusioned by the dissolute lifestyle of his fellow students, he left, taking his housekeeper, to live with a community of men at a church about 50 miles away. Benedict eventually leaves the town and his housekeeper and, under the mentorship of the monk Romanus, he becomes a monk and a hermit, living in a grotto for three years, with food being lowered down from a rope, fighting temptations and demons—in pretty expected ways.

Eventually he is asked to become the abbot at a nearby monastery. At first he demurs, knowing that, as Pope Gregory I writes in the only history of Benedict that we have, “their manners were diverse from his and therefore that they would never agree together: yet, at length, overcome with their entreaty, he gave his consent.” It did not go well, possibly because Benedict was too strict for them. Really. It did not go well. The breaking point was when the monks, having turned against him, serve him a poisoned cup of wine. Before taking the cup to drink from it, Benedict blesses the wine with the sign of the cross, at which point the glass shatters as if a stone had been thrown at it.

He returns to the town where he had been a hermit, only to be threatened again with a loaf of poisoned bread from a jealous local priest. He discerns that it would be wise to leave town (again), and in subsequent years founds twelve monasteries before founding his most famous community in Monte Cassino.

Benedict is most known for his Rule, a small book of instructions for the ordering of a monastic community, from how to pray the Psalms to organizing the kitchen shifts to the character required of the monastery’s cellarer (the one in charge of the provisions of the monastery).

The rule is striking for its practicality, its gentle balance of discipline and tolerance, its understanding that, for a community of people to be able to live and grow in Christian discipleship, room must be made for rules and exceptions. There is a wonderful pattern of sleep, work, prayer, and study that makes the life of the community not only sustainable but also, as we heard from Benedict today, “a school for the service of the Lord.”

A couple of excerpts from the chapter on the cellarer give a good illustration:

As cellarer of the monastery
let there be chosen from the community
one who is wise, of mature character, sober,
not a great eater, not haughty, not excitable,
not offensive, not slow, not wasteful,
but a God-fearing man
who may be like a father to the whole community.
Let him have charge of everything.
He shall do nothing without the Abbot’s orders,
but keep to his instructions.
Let him not vex the brethren.
If any brother happens to make some unreasonable demand of him,
instead of vexing the brother with a contemptuous refusal
he should humbly give the reason for denying the improper request.

I love that last line. The person who is probably second only to the abbot in power, when faced with an unreasonable request, one which his responsibilities require him to deny, he is to respond gently and clearly, without contempt or anger. (If only customer service departments would read Benedict’s Rule!)

Then there’s this:

Let him regard all the utensils of the monastery
and its whole property
as if they were the sacred vessels of the altar.
Let him not think that he may neglect anything.
He should be neither a miser
nor a prodigal and squanderer of the monastery’s substance,
but should do all things with measure
and in accordance with the Abbot’s instructions.

The goods of the monastery—the dried meats and grains, the stores of wine and herbs, the cooking pots and carving knives—all of these things are to be treated with the respect and honor given to the chalice and paten, the sacred vessels of the altar. The care of his fellow monks is in the same category as the highest ritual of their shared faith.

So. That’s great. There is much to reflect on, much that is edifying. I had plans to preach on the balance of discipline and flexibility in the life of the spirit, or the balance of a defined community and generous hospitality, or prayer, study, and physical labor.

But then the gospel reading assigned for Benedict pulled me up short. Jesus says, “Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” and “none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” In the verse just before what we heard, Jesus says that unless one leaves father, mother, wife, children, siblings, even one’s life, behind, one cannot be his disciple.

There is an all or nothing side to Jesus, something we have struggled since the beginning of this Christian venture to figure out—or evade. We have interpreted the sale of our possessions as optional, or symbolic, or a state of mind. We have elevated “family values” to the level of idolatry, despite Jesus’ call to leave family behind. And as far as Jesus’ command to carry the cross—that is, to live in such a way that the powers that be consider you a threat to their existence—we find all kinds of ways to make that less serious than Jesus meant.

So, for those of us who are not called—or not called yet—to sell all of our possessions, or to leave family, or to take a stand that would be considered a threat to the state, or to become celibate and live in a well-structured community of prayer, study, and labor for the rest of our lives: what of us? Must we, like the rich young man, turn away saddened, because we can’t do these hard things—yet?

First: despite what certain folks say, you don’t have to be a disciple of Jesus to be saved. Nor, in case you were wondering, must you be a monk or nun. If I’ve learned anything from reading the gospels and, yes, the apostle Paul and his letters, it’s that grace is free, salvation (a word with lots of baggage, but we’ll save that for another day) is free, healing is free, forgiveness is free. And, according to the gospels, if you follow Jesus around enough, lunch is sometimes free. It’s all a gift.

We do nothing to earn God’s love and can do nothing to lose it. In fact, one of the threads that winds through the history of Christian prayer is that God wants to love us, longs to share Her delight with us, is constantly inviting us to stop and pay attention to His prodigal gifts in creation and in human community.

The first thing that Jesus invites us to know, to understand, and to wrestle with is just that: we are beloved. We are God’s delight. This does not mean that we do not sin, nor that sin does not bring terrible consequence, nor that we need not do anything about it. But Jesus’ teaching and healing show that the sin cannot be faced until the love is embraced.

So for some of us, our lives will be spent learning and accepting that we are Beloved. For some of us it is a hard lesson and will take a lifetime of discipline to overcome the ways we try to make deals in exchange for God’s love, or act out in anger or self-loathing or passivity because love cannot be assumed. It’s possible that some of you are suspicious of this premise, since it sounds like “I’m OK, you’re OK” self-esteem pablum. It’s not. For some of us this is the hardest thing we will ever do.

Some of us, like Jesus’ disciples and the monks of Benedict’s communities, though, by the grace of God, will get it. We will know ourselves beloved and that joy will make us want to go deeper, to help others to learn it, to get closer to the Jesus who lived and died to demonstrate its truth. It’s then that the bar gets raised. Then we are called to take up crosses, find a new family, let go of our stuff, learn obedience and humility, die to self.

And that’s where Benedict comes in. Benedict’s Rule was for the long haul, for the complex process of learning to do Jesus’ work. The school of service is not just about loving God but learning to love neighbor, particularly the neighbor as found in the brother monk who snores, or is a know-it-all, or doesn’t do his share of work. Even when we know ourselves as beloved, we sometimes waver, we sometimes doubt. Even when we know that God loves our neighbor as much as God loves us, we find it can’t find that loving heart. Benedict managed to set the self-sacrifice that Jesus calls his disciples to in a pattern of life that allowed the monks to be reminded of God’s love: by being bathed in Scripture and prayer, in the give and take of mutual forgiveness and graciousness in community, in being able to use their bodies in work and their minds in study—their whole persons.

So perhaps this is what Benedict can offer us this morning: a promise that is possible to do the impossible work for the long haul. That it does, indeed, require a balance of work and rest and study and prayer. That sometimes we do need to suck it up and do the work and sometimes we get a break. The call to discipleship is meant to fall the call to be loved. Embrace the love first. If you’re ready for the next challenge . . . . well, then, it’s time to get to work.

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Forgiveness

The idea of Forgiveness doesn’t come up in Theravadin Buddhism. It rears its Christian head in Dalai Lama land, and in New Age Buddhism along with other higher vehicle (mayahana) Buddhist sects. However, as far as Gautama Buddha, my man, the Man, the actual guy the religion is named for is concerned, forgiveness is not what we do.

We go Vince Lombardi on the idea and do an end run around the entire concept.

If we are wronged, we do not return the wrong. If a wrong done to us makes us angry, then we address the anger in ourselves and focus on silencing these feelings and the source of those feelings. The jerk-off who did the bad thing, we let him pass on by. Of course, taken to extremes, this live-and-let-others-wrong-and-maybe-kill-us-all-day-long is a recipe for extinction. And in following the Buddhist philosophy to other extremes, there are options one may take to oppose injustices, such as the Buddhist monks who set themselves on fire to protest US involvement in Viet Nam.

We do not forgive anything, as we are supposed to be in a state that precludes the ability to take offense. But this sanctified mental attitude takes a long while to achieve. A long while and a lot of meditating. A whole lot of meditating. After all that meditating, you must then follow the Buddha’s teachings about the source of emotions and the path these feelings take through our consciousness. And then more meditating. And then a whole lot more meditating.

When we ourselves do wrong, that’s another thing entirely.

In any case, forgiveness is not the real problem with Mr. Roof and his murderous rampage. Whether or not we forgive him, the problem lies in what made him do what he did. Both the what, and the who. How is it even possible that this guy sat in that church, listening to the Bible study, then stood up and took their lives? Moreover, how did his racist beliefs come to be? The concept of racial superiority has been disproven over and over again, yet many still cling to these poisonous ideas.

What do the Dylann Roof’s of the world get from their beliefs? What comfort is delivered? What peace does their soul garner from these things they cling to: the Swastika, the Confederate Battle Flag, the Klu Klux Klan, Aryan racial theory? What happened to this man, what changed in him? What ideas did he learn to alter the lesson that all the Universe teaches us about love and acceptance with every breath of every creature, the fall of every leaf and the rising of every sun? What words could he have read or heard that would make meaningless all creation’s unity in favor of the idea that Black people deserve to die and suffer by the hand of white people?

Fear, insecurity, jealousy and the feeding of the ego are commodities that our civilization buys and sells, which then pay out in the dividends in Emmanuel Church in Charleston, in Ferguson, in the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X, in the sweat shops of Asia and every damn night on the streets of Englewood. And these commodities found a place to grow in the heart of Dylann Roof. There were planted by those around him, encouraged either directly or tacitly by the refusal to deny the ridiculous beliefs this person, literally, wore on his sleeves.

Forgiveness? That can wait. There is a fight we need not just to finish, but to start. And anger will not win it. Setting oneself on fire in the middle of a road will also not win it. Neither will be moaning mantras in front of a stick of incense. My faith teaches me not to return a wrong for a wrong, but it also teaches me not to sit quietly by when wrong things happen. So let’s start here. The end result of all theories of racial superiority will be murder and exploitation. To support these ideas actively or passively is wrong.   It is wrong for Christians, it is wrong for Buddhists, it is wrong for Americans, it is wrong for every human being under the sun.   It is not enough that we pull down that Confederate trash hanging from the State capital building. We must change and become intolerant of those who refuse to change.   Basically, we, as white people, need to get the hell over it. We are not superior, we never were, and we are going to continue to lose power and privilege. As we should.

I do not want the Black community’s forgiveness. I want to held accountable for my actions, to be forced to understand and to make reparations for any mistakes I have made. Racism, and all systems of injustice, are viable only by thousands of small actions and thousands of small refusals to act. Policy does not make hatred, only people do.   We can only end this by the supreme act of Grace, what we Buddhists call personal responsibility. It is the foundation of my Buddhist faith, and it will be the only thing that will save us all.

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Forgiveness and Anger

Forgiveness. After the horror of last week’s massacre at Emanuel AME Church in Charlotte, many were moved, comforted, and inspired by the expressions of forgiveness offered by the families of the dead toward the shooter. It was a powerful statement indeed, at a time when there seems to be very little grace and very little forgiveness in our culture at large. However, as with so many things involving race in this country, this “forgiveness event” was not unambiguous. An African American colleague of mine, the Rev. Dr. Maurice Charles, wrote, in a post called “Costly Forgiveness vs. Cheap Grace,” that “the readiness to laud forgiveness too early and too often horrifies me.” For people with “their backs against the wall” (according to Howard Thurman, those who live under the constant threat of violence), speedy forgiveness is one way of keeping one’s soul from a state of constant rage. Maurice says it so well: they are “faced with the hellish choice of lashing out in a destructive rage or freeing themselves from the power of hell by reaching into their ravaged souls and finding there a shred of forgiveness.”

Another article, written by Kiese Laymon, talks about hard conversations with his grandmother about the habit of forgiving white folks and the shame that black folks internalize. Roxane Gray, in her article, “Why I Can’t Forgive Dylann Roof,” echoes my friend Maurice, “Black people forgive because we need to survive.” Still others have written about the forgiveness offered by black people to white people that they cannot afford to offer to their own. (Please read the articles linked below. They speak much more eloquently and poignantly than I ever could.)

As I wrote in my response to John’s post about Karma, I believe in Grace. I depend on Grace. To coin a line from one of my student’s sermons, grace isn’t a get-out-of-sin-free card. Well, OK, it is, but it’s mostly a fundamental freedom from fear of condemnation in order to be able truly and courageously face down our demons, name our sins, recognize our complicities. Grace enables us to consider that we can be different, that we can, as the Prayer Book says, amend our lives.

As someone who survived two decades in an abusive marriage, the question of forgiveness has haunted me. The horrible phrase, “forgive and forget” (where did that even come from? It’s not in the Bible!) gave—and still gives—me the willies. I cannot forget that my ex-husband is occasionally and unpredictably violent; I make sure never to be alone with him. There is the quote, sometimes attributed to Anne Lamott, that says that not forgiving is like drinking poison and waiting for the other person to die. And yet, I wonder whether we white folks, in our rush to embrace this public act of forgiveness—black people forgiving a white person other than ourselves—are closing off the space for something equally Biblical: righteous anger.

There is an aspect of forgiveness that is about freeing myself from being destructively bound to a person who has offended or hurt me, but anger can do that as well. It was anger—anger taking the place of fear, and self-doubt, and self-recrimination—that helped me take the steps—slow, costly steps—to leave my first marriage. It was anger—anger that sometimes needed to be more for the sake of my children than for myself—that convinced me that it was misplaced compassion that kept me tied to a wounded, traumatised man. I do not hate my first husband, nor do I wish him ill. He is a generous, hard-working, justice-loving man who was damaged by a dysfunctional family and an oppressive government, a man who, most days, tries his best to make the world a little better. But my life is better, healthier, and freer without him. That didn’t happen through forgiveness. It happened through anger and a fierce realization that I had to take a stand for my children and for me.

The African-American folks in my life—my friends and colleagues, my children’s friends—do not, I assume, hate me, nor wish me ill. (And that assumption alone speaks volumes about white privilege.) I’m friendly and hospitable, and our racist history is, as we whites are wont to say, not my fault. But I have never had anyone cross the street when they saw me coming. I have never worried for myself or my children in an encounter with a police officer—or anyone else with a gun. I have never had anyone question my professional credentials for the color of my skin. I have never suffered the other myriad indignities and outright offenses and exclusions that they experience every day, that don’t make headlines, and with which they simply deal. Am I willing to hear their anger? Am I willing to allow (oh, that word makes me uncomfortable, even as I type it) them to take a stand for their own children—or for their own selves? Am I willing to be unforgiven, at least for a while, so that anger can speak its truth?

This is not what I intended to write. I meant to write about my thoughts on forgiveness in general and as a Christian practice, which clearly must wait for another day. I am grateful for my friend Maurice, and Kiese and Roxane, whom I do not know, for giving me a path to understand better, both my own journey toward freedom and the long, hard, not-yet-over journey for African Americans struggling to stay sane, and true, and alive. Forgiveness is, indeed, what Jesus commanded (and I’ll get to that in some other post), and a path to freedom. But anger, and its sister, fierce truth-telling, are another, just as biblical path.

Here are the articles I cited: “Costly Forgiveness vs. Cheap Grace”: http://pressedbutnotcrushed.com/imago/costly-forgiveness-vs-cheap-grace

“Black churches taught us to forgive white people. We learned to shame ourselves” http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jun/23/black-churchesforgive-white-people-shame?CMP=share_btn_fb

“Why I Can’t Forgive Dylann Roof” http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/24/opinion/why-i-cant-forgive-dylann-roof.html?_r=0

6/27/15

Here’s another, very clear and straightforward unpacking of these questions:

“Not Off the Hook: The White Myth of Black Forgiveness” http://the-toast.net/2015/06/23/misunderstanding-black-forgiveness/

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