Saturday, September 14, 2013

"Sell All My Possessions?" Really?



Now the great multitudes accompanied him; and he turned to them and said to them, “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me, cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build, and was not able to finish.’ Or what king, going to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and take counsel whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends an embassy and asks terms of peace. So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.”  Luke14:25-33.

The Gospel for this Sunday [September 8] looks like the worst  possible challenge for a preacher. On its surface there is one contradiction after another: we are to reject our loved ones, calculate the odds for making any changes in our lives, give away the things we treasure, and then take a leap of faith so we can follow Jesus. As my children used to say, “Big Whoop!”
As I said, on the surface all that sure looks to me like a contradiction --  not only to the values of the teaching of Jesus, but the heart of who we are as families. But after struggling with this Scripture for a long time, it seems to me that the key to this Sunday’s gospel and to much of our lives as Christians may be in that last word about our “possessions.” Note that the word is not “belongings,” but possessions. Or, to shift to the subjective pluperfect subjunctive (I’m kidding) it is about the things that possess us. I’m pretty sure Jesus is talking about the things in our lives which possess us, which work to diminish our identity, our authenticity, our God given vocation as human beings.
As an almost frivolous example, many years ago I inherited a lovely piece of furniture, a Queen Anne Highboy. But whenever I moved, and was looking a new house, the first question was always, “How will this house accommodate the Queen Anne Highboy?” The obvious question arose, “Did I own the Highboy or did the Highboy own me?”
On a more critical level, sometimes it is our children who possess us. There are parents of children who have quite clearly chosen a path toward self-destruction; parents who will sacrifice everything for that child, with the result that both parent and child end up with . . .or being nothing.  My Senior Warden in Madison, Wisconsin had adult son who for years was drunk or shooting up one substance or another -- and in the process had run through a good bit of her money. He was, of course, always repentant: “Honest, Mom, this is the last time.”
One December night, though, when the time was 2 am and the temperature was 12 degrees outside and it was snowing, Henry was knocking on her door. He just wanted a warm place and a few dollars.  Natalie said, “No.” The only way to love him was to reject being possessed by him or owned by him. And that can happen with any aspect of our lives.
Every level of our lives: note Jesus uses the word “hate,” not despise. He is talking about all those ties which more than bind. They choke our life, our possibilities, our souls. And it’s not that these things are imposed on us. Sometimes we create them out of own need.  Shortly after my wife, Ann, and I were married and trying to sort through all the complications of a blended family, Ann noticed something in my pattern of raising my own children. So she remarked, “You know something, Tom. Our job as parents is to raise our children to respect us, not to love us. If they end up loving us, that is a wonderful bonus, a gift. But when we raise them to love us, we cripple them for a lifetime. So, too, when we clergy or teachers condition our parishioners, our students to love us, we cripple them.
            All this is not unlike those who volunteer for one thing after another out of a sense of guilt or duty. Make no mistake about it, the recipients of their care know what is going on. It’s no secret. The worst thing about that is that it ends up as Sloppy Agape. It’s not about loving or caring: it is about being loved . . being affirmed. . and being relieved of guilt.
            Some would say that one of the requirements of tough love is detachment -- of not being possessed by. It’s refusing to idolize anything, anyone – not even the church, not even Jesus. That’s true. Sometimes we are tricked into wanting to be just like Jesus and we lose sight of ourselves and our unique place in world, in the kingdom.
This church was born from two traditions which, in the cause of being fully engaged with the living God, claimed the reality of Protestant, from the root meaning of “protesting.” The Lutheran and Anglican churches are committed to protesting everything that is less than or a distortion of the vision, the life of being in Christ.
            There is a rhythm to our time together in worship. We begin with our confession of sin, offering up all those ways our lives are possessed by the things, patterns, commitments, and emotional states that keep us from living lives of love and fullness and deep joy – lives for which we have been created by God. Week after week, there is that process of confessing, letting go. And then, with open hands, we receive the sacrament of Holy Communion, opening ourselves to God’s loving support and empowerment – empowerment for growing into our full authenticity and completeness. Week by week it is letting go and receiving:  letting go and receiving.
            So let us step back. Is Jesus saying that we can’t love our children, parents, friends? Of course not.  But we are not to possess or be possessed by them. We don’t own our children, our spouses, parents, friends. They come to us as gifts, as all things come to us, as gifts.  It should never come down to a matter of control. .but gratitude.
            To be a disciple: in my experience, one of the reasons we call Jesus “the Christ” is that in his words, in his ways, in his presence we see. . or surmise a quality, a depth of life and living that is far beyond anything that the world can offer. We see in him, I think, an invitation for living and loving, of integrity and the joy of serving. It is an invitation to a life of standing over against all that is life sapping or life denying and standing with the poor and those who struggle or are beaten down. There is nothing like it.
            So how to sum it all up, put it all together? I think if I had to choose one character (not from the Bible) as an example of vocation in the kind of world we are living in, it would be Murray, in Herb Gardner's play, "A Thousand Clowns."  Murray does not sound very religious, but a wise person would say that he is talking about life as it is given to us, and speaking deeply about the things of the spirit. Because Murray has been a pretty unconventional guardian for his young nephew, a social worker has come to see about taking the boy away. 
At one point, the social worker speaks sharply to Murray, saying "Murray, you've got to come back to reality!"  Murray responds, "Well, O.K., but only as a tourist," echoing St. Paul’s words about our being citizens of heaven, ambassadors from another world. Then Murray talks about the child's future and in these words we may find something of our own vocation: 

“And he started to make lists this year. Lists of everything: subway stops, underwear, what he's gonna do next week. If somebody doesn't watch out he'll start making lists of what he's gonna do for the next ten years. Hey, suppose they put him in with a whole family of list-makers?  He'll learn to know everything before it happens, he'll learn how to be one of the nice dead people. .I just want him to stay with me till I can be sure he won't turn into Norman Nothing. I want to be sure he'll know when he's chickening out on himself. I want him to get to know exactly the special thing he is or else he won't notice it when it starts to go.  I want him to stay awake and know who the phonies are. I want him to know how to holler and put up an argument, I want a little guts to show before I can let him go. I want to be sure he sees all the wild possibilities. I want him to know it's worth all the trouble just to give the world a little goosing when you get the chance. And I want him to know the subtle, sneaky, important reason why he was born a human being and not a chair.”

That's the crucial thing about living, all of living. Along with all that troubles or delights us from day to day and all the crises that befall us, it is the reaching for that subtle, sneaky, important reason why we were born human beings and not chairs that mark us as disciples of the Lord of Life.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013


Experiencing the Transforming Dimensions of our Faith

I believe the title of this forum represents the most important aspects of our faith. Why? Because it is not our beliefs or our morality that saves or transforms us: what transforms us is of a whole other dimension. However, before we get there, it would be good to provide the context for our discussion. It seems to me that there are two predominant understandings of the Christian faith.

The first is that our faith is expressed in our beliefs. The Nicene Creed defines our faith – we are the people who believe these things. While the creeds are important, they have little to do with the transforming dimensions of our faith. I remember well my freshman class in philosophy. Our teaching assistant, Bob Wolfe, took us through two spectacular proofs for the existence of God and then asked the class for a show of hands for all who were satisfied with the proofs. All hands went up. He then asked “How many of you, then, now believe in God?” I think a couple of others in the class joined me in raising our hands. I think the issue here was, given the substance of the god who was proved, so what?  That god was irrelevant to anything important in our lives. Interestingly enough, some American denominations have shifted the emphasis in their creeds to that of mission and witness instead of beliefs.

            The second understanding of the Christian faith has to do, primarily, with ethics or morality – a matter of following a moral code or vision. Thus, “he doesn’t go to church, but he is a good Christian (he obeys our moral laws).” I remember the first (but it was not the last) time I heard a very moral Jewish man described as “a good Christian.” And again, I believe that many parents bring their children to church for their moral development.

            When I was in Lawrence, Kansas, the Women’s Group at Trinity Church invited 80 year old John Rosebaugh to speak to them on the topic “What do we tell our children about God.” His response was startling: “Don’t tell them anything about God, because if you do you will preclude your children from discovering God on their own.” There is a truth in those words that may reflect our own condition throughout our journey into the heart of God.

For St. Paul the heart of the matter has to do with our faith – and that faith is not set of beliefs, but a relationship which has to do with trust, reliance, surrender.

One of the great novelists of our time was Reynolds Price, who also produced what I consider the single best translation of the Gospel of Mark and several significant segments from both Christian and Jewish Scripture (they are in his book “A Palpable Gospel”). The English translation of Mark reads exactly like the Greek reads, warts and all. In his childhood he was treated for cancer of the spine – and while he was cured of the cancer, the treatment left him paralyzed in both legs. As an adult, he describes his Christian faith as a response to three different events in his life, each disclosing the basis of his relationship to God. He writes that those three events have sustained him throughout his life. He did not attend church much, but the continuing recollection of the basis of his faith also provided a continuing deepening of his response to what he knew.

There is something very important for us in Reynold Price’s spiritual life. I believe it has something to do with the nature of religious language. In what I believe is the best book on the subject, Ian Ramsey’s “Religious Language,” it is clear that religious language is that of metaphor, of disclosure of something beneath the surface of the ordinary – the point of this language is, in Ramsey’s Britishism, when “the penny drops” or at the point of our “Aha!” This is what we find in John’s Gospel, in some poetry, for me in the writings of Frederick Buechner when we are taken beneath the surface of life into a different and more compelling reality.

            I want to try to get us there with a story. A true story. It was told by the great mystery writer, Erle Stanley Gardner about his neighbor and a police officer (I think his name was Phil). One day Phil was stationed outside of town near an intersection near the town’s river. Mid-morning he recognized his neighbor’s car turning into the exit to the river. He saw his neighbor take a bag out of his car and then doing something with it before returning to his car. Upon inspection what Phil found was the mother cat and five kittens that had belonged to his neighbor.

After putting the mother cat and the kittens in the back of the squad car, Phil raced back to his neighbor’s house and carefully put the little cat family on the front doorstep, to be discovered by his neighbor when he returned home about ten minutes later. From that moment on, said Phil, his neighbor continued to spend the rest of his life in a perpetual state of wonder. 

I think that story is an important one. There is so much to learn from it – so hold onto it while I tell you a second true story. Two weeks before Christmas I was in Brooklyn to visit my youngest daughter, Joy, and to see for the first time her and Jim’s eleven week old identical twin boys. From where I was staying it was about a mile walk to their apartment and it was a walk I could only do in the morning, because to get where I needed to go I had to walk between two very dangerous tenement projects. Most of late afternoon and evening it was pretty awful – dangerous and threatening guys all around and drug deals going down on nearly every corner. But during the morning, I felt relatively safe.

My second day there I put new batteries into my 20 year old Walkman and for some reason, I listened not to my favorite jazz musicians but to Bach’s Mass in B Minor, which is, I believe, the single most powerful piece of music ever composed. The great Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, said that if anyone needed proof of God, all they had to do was to listen to Bach’s Mass in B Minor. He also said that when the angels go about praising God they sing only Bach.

As I made my way into the heart of the tenements that morning, my earphones were flooding my whole being with Bach’s Gloria in Excelsis. The music was completely transforming -- not for my sake, but for what I realized. Almost step by step,  I realized that here, in the  midst of tenement squalor and hopelessness, side by side with the dreams and striving of the young families, all living such hard and unpredictable lives, there was the Holy.

Right in the middle of it all – their lives and mine – the Holy. What some refer to as  “mysterium tremendum.” That experience, that reality was not an “It” but an encounter with“Thou.” And it was, and it is . . not just as music, as real as anything else in existence, whether or not we experience it at any point in time.

The Holy. What I heard on my headphones was not the reality of the Holy, but it disclosed the Holy, allowing me to be struck and overwhelmed by it. This, I thought, is what all those nativity stories are about – in the cold and in the muck and the terrible fears about childbirth in a stable . . . Glory! How can you talk about it? How can you possibly describe it? it can’t be just with bare facts, but with story and legend and then hymns and rituals. Just as at that manger scene, our lives are surrounded and supported by “Thou,” by that mysterium tremendum. That is so in all that we do, in all the ways we strive and often stumble on our way to the light.    

In the telling of the Christmas narratives (this is important) there is no separation – no separation between heaven . . and earth. We have the star and the shepherds and the baby, the miracle baby probably bawling its little heart out, in a feeding trough. That’s what a manger is. . . a feeding trough. It happened – and the words and the stories and the legends and all the rest – they are not describing reality – they are allowing us to experience reality, the really real. The Holy.

And it is the Holy in the most basic and common setting of human life – in fact a setting much closer to the refugee camps in Jordan and Turkey than to our homes in Albuquerque, Espanola, Santa Fe or the tenements of Brooklyn, New York.  One person who knew this as well as anyone else was Bishop Dan Corrigan. I once heard him talk about the incarnation. Actually, he talked about “God becoming critter.” As he cupped his hands he said, “the reality and the fullness of God became so small, so very small, we could hold him in our hands.” And do you know what happened? We all rose from our seats to look to see what he was holding in his hands, fully expecting something mysterious and grand to be there.

In the Nativity stories, not everyone was aware of the shepherds falling all over one another as they ran towards the light. Not everybody heard the angels, saw the star, had their breath taken away at the sight of the baby. I think of the crackheads and the young mothers and the tired old men in that tenement. As the music was being played, however softly, on an old Walkman, they did what they did that morning, unawares. But if they could only hear it . . .know its reality -- and sense that that Glory, Holy, mysterium tremendum is there all the time – as Our Father, our brother, our lover. They deserve to know that – just as you and I deserve to know that.

But make no mistake about it: knowing, being overcome by that Glory does not mean that things will change. We continue in the dailyness of our lives and for those on either side that street, the squalor continues, the struggles remain. It is true that nothing may change, at least in our outward circumstance; but everything is different. Everything.

Early in our Gospels So John the Baptizer is standing  probably knee deep in the river, with the water smelling like who knows what and his voice raspy from yelling and preaching all day when a young man stands in front of him. Somehow the air stills and John hears the music of this man’s heart and he knows he is standing in the wake of Glory, the Holy. It’s like he can reach out and touch it. Which he does. And as he does so (in Mark’s gospel it happens twice – once here and once at the moment of Jesus’ death), the heavens SPLIT open (the Greek word Mark uses is “schizomeno,” the root of “schizophrenia”) and there is no separation . .between the heavens and earth. There is no separation between the Holy and the muddy waters in which they stand.

And those words “You are my beloved. . .” whether spoken or unspoken, both John and Jesus knew the truth of them. And, maybe they both knew – then -- that the sign of the heavens parting and of those words or non-words of absolute and certain blessing of Jesus. . . and John . .  and Benjamin and Mary . . and . . . would be in the water, washing over our heads, as John in his successors baptize us. Truly.

Now nothing has been the same after our baptisms. Well, that’s not true. Maybe we should say that nothing has changed. But that’s not true, either. It all depends, in some sense, on knowing about the music, that unseen reality. I remember my favorite Easter sermon – it was based on a fantasy that I had had in my head. It was about questions. Like, as Jesus emerged from the tomb, what was the first thing he saw –  the green and the brown splotches of color surrounding him, or the detritus of what was left by the mourners a couple of days before? What was the first thing he saw?

And what was the first sound he heard? Was it the guard,  just a few yards away, snoring away, the wind in the trees, or the sound of the breaking of a twig beneath his foot? What was the first sound he heard?
 And what was his first breath like? Was it hesitant or shallow as in dealing with shock or surprise - or was it more like gulping in lungsful of the Spring air?

Nothing had changed --  but everything, everything was different, everything had changed. And the heart of the Gospel is that we walk in that same reality as Jesus did that morning – we walk in that same reality whether or not at any given time, we are aware or unaware of it. For me, that is the great impetus for evangelism: what a difference it would make in the lives of those tenement dwellers, in the lives of our neighbors, in the lives of our children. . to know.

And for me, that is the great impetus for weekly worship – it is to remember, to recall, to know that we are, in effect, standing next to John the Baptist as he holds our hand and the voice comes from the heavens, “You are my beloved.” No ought, no should, no conditions whatsoever. Just like those words to us from Jesus “You are the light of the world” - no oughts, no should, no conditions whatsoever.

So how is that transforming? I think that depends on something like recollection. My guess is that we all have had something like the experiences Reynolds Price remembers. I sure remember the first time I felt really, completely loved . . .lovable. And the first time I felt forgiven, the first time I really understood the meaning and power of the Cross. And it was at, of all places, the Esalen Institute at Big Sur, California, that I first experienced a New Testament-like miracle in front of me.

            And the same is true, I’m sure, with our earlier experiences or apprehensions with the Holy or with the sure presence of Jesus Christ in one form or another. We are pushed down, beneath the surface of our lives where the Holy encounters us. But we lose our connection with those moments, those events. They get lost in the details of our lives. What could have the same power over our lives as finding that cat and her kittens on one’s doorstep is, instead, a distant memory.

            Sometimes we are able to access that dimension through events or insights or struggles. For me that sometimes happens through certain poems or short stories. Not too long ago I heard for the first time Ernest Hemmingway’s six word short story:

For Sale. Baby Shoes. Never Worn.

All of a sudden I was there, pushed beneath the surface of my life, vulnerable and open to being met by the mysterium tremendum. The same happens for me often with the poetry of Anne Sexton, Vassar Miller and Robert Creeley. It is a time, as in the hymn, to “let all mortal flesh keep silence. . .”

            In one of the most stunning sermons I’ve heard over the years was preached by one of my seminary professors, Norman Pittenger. He was speaking to the seminary community shortly before our Christmas break. What changed my religious understanding were his words, “I do not wish you a Merry Christmas. My wish for you is that you have a very Un-Merry Christmas, because only then will you be able to hear and to know the real meaning of what we celebrate.”

            One of the functions of liturgy should be honor this dimension which exists beneath the surface of our lives, but our Sunday liturgies seem to get trapped in the ordinary, in preaching about our faith instead of appearing to hold the pearl of great price, the mystery of the Holy in the cupped hands of a Dan Corrigan.  Sometimes we do make the connection through receiving holy communion – for me it is when I remember that the consecrated bread and wine are not static gifts from God. Those elements feed my DNA, the Christ, the Holy One lives not only in, but through me.

One of the ways we can experience the transforming dimensions of our faith is through mindfulness. That might mean remembering that we receive the Holy only with open hands. Open hands are an ancient sign that we are unarmed, defenseless, vulnerable. Kneeling at a stream, we cannot bring the water to our mouths with clenched fists, only with cupped, open hands. And then there is that matter of the DNA of Jesus Christ not demanding that we become like him, as he is being incarnated in our essence, our being, our utterly unique DNA.

The same is true, I think, with developing our own mantras. Some people work hard at the Jesus Prayer, saying it over and over and over again until it comes subconsciously with every breath. Other possibilities include the words “You are my beloved. . .” heard being spoken to us over and over and over again (they are hard words for us to believe). I think also of those words at the beginning of the Beatitudes, “You are the light of the world.” And my own favorite, from the Prologue to John’s Gospel, “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness will never overcome it.”  That is so close in meaning to the words within the twenty-third Psalm: “Yea, though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I will fear no evil. . .” It is not “if” and it is “through.”

One mantra that has saved hundreds of thousands of lives is the Serenity Prayer, written by the theologian Rheinhold Neibuhr. One does not have to be in recovery to benefit from it. I remember a time of deep confusion and disorientation in my adult life when I must have said it twenty or thirty times a day: 
God grant me the serenity 
to accept the things I cannot change; 
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
Living one day at a time; 
Enjoying one moment at a time; 
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace; 
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it; 
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life 
and supremely happy with Him
Forever in the next.
Amen.
--Reinhold Niebuhr

            The important thing in all this is remembering. And the world in all its allure, all its distractions and shifting priorities is not a place where remembering comes easily.  But we need to know deep in our bones who we are and who’s we are. As a model I always go back to one of the fantasy stories of Jesus in the book written by A. J. Langguth, “Jesus Christs.” Langguth is writing about the boyhood of Jesus. His fantasy about Jesus has its own reality in the imago Dei that is each of us.

“Jesus opened his notebook on the study hall desk. Using the ruler from his geometry class, he drew a ledger's line down the center of one page. At the top of the left hand column he wrote ‘ASSETS.’ and over the other, ‘LIABILITIES.’ Under ‘LIABILITIES,’ he printed in block letters, "IMPATIENT." Shielding the page from the girl across the aisle, he added:

DEMANDING
SELF-RIGHTEOUS
PROUD
MOODY
SUSPICIOUS
FILLED WITH DOUBT
TEND TOWARD ARROGANCE

With some dismay he counted the entries and began to contemplate the "ASSETS" column. With another look to be sure the girl couldn't see the page, he wrote, "SON OF GOD." In better spirits, he closed the notebook and started on the next day's translation of Cicero.”

Despite all our liabilities, confusion and the dailyness of our lives, you and I have been chosen by a God who, for some strange reason, delights in us. It is so important to remember the left hand column: we must never allow it to be taken away from us.

ADDITIONAL RESOURCES

Where is the Holy and how can we come into its presence?
            Karl Heim (see below) argues for a dimension of the holy. That dimension is always and everywhere present – even though we have no way of our own of comprehending or understanding it. His argument in brief is:
                                    a point cannot comprehend a line
                                    a line cannot comprehend a three dimensional object,
                                    a three dimensional object cannot comprehend the holy.

Going back to the presentation, this argument makes sense of Mark’s two instances of schizomeno, when the fourth dimension (the Holy) is fully present to humans at the baptism and at the death of Jesus. The same case would be made for the Transfiguration – and this is a wonderful way of conceptualizing and grounding our Sacramental theology.
                                                                                              
VASSAR MILLER spent her life struggling with her cerebral palsy – and often the struggles took place within her strong Episcopalian faith. She taught at the University of Texas until her death a few years ago. This is my favorite of her poems – and I don’t know of another reflection on Holy Communion with this kind of grace and power.
Thanksgiving After Communion

You come to me like a bird
lighting upon my palm,
nesting upon my tongue,
flying through the branches of my being
into the forest of my darkness.

Your wings have troubled my atoms,
set intangibles striking
together in crystal music
as the light flowers out of my body
as my body bloomed from the light.  
                        Vassar Miller.

In T. S. ELIOT’s play, “The Cocktail Party,” Julia could be speaking to any of us as we have struggled with a crisis involving our living a life alienated from being fully human:

All we could do was to give them the chance
And now, when they are stripped naked to their souls
And can choose, whether to put on proper costumes
Or huddle quickly into new disguises,
They have, for the first time, somewhere to start from.
                                    T. S. Eliot

HERB GARDNER’S character, Murray, in “A Thousand Clowns,” understands well the cost of getting lost in the world.  Because Murray has been a pretty unconventional guardian for his young nephew, a social worker has come to see about taking the boy away.  At one point, the social worker speaks sharply to Murray, saying "Murray, you've got to come back to reality!" 
           Murray responds, "O.K., but only as a tourist." 

Some time ago I used that line of Murray’s in a class I was teaching at Oberlin. In the class was a young man who had been a member of the cast of "A Thousand Clowns" at Kent State University.  He said that the play was about to go on stage when the terrible killings took place on that campus as the students and others protested some of the worst of the Viet Nam War and the invasion of Cambodia.  The university was closed in the aftermath of the killings, but when the university re-opened, the director and cast had to make the decision of whether or not to put on the play.  The decision was to stage it.  My student told us that when Murray voiced his line, "...but only as a tourist," there was sustained applause -- long sustained applause which eventually gave way to tears and then to stunned silence.
                                                                                                               TBW

REFERENCES
:
Frederick Buechner – is probably best known for the collections of his sermons, especially “The Magnificent Defeat” and “The Hungering Dark,” and his short books which combine humor and stunning insights, including “Peculiar Treasures: A Biblical Who’s Who,” “Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC,” and his brilliant “Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale.” You can find many of his books at the Public Library and St. Bede’s library.

Herb Gardner’s “A Thousand Clowns” was first a play, then a movie with Jason Robards as Murray. You can find some of the same strains of “A Thousand Clowns” in Peter Sellers’ movie, “Heavens Above,” which is a must see for understanding the heart of our faith.  Norman Pittenger, quoted above, believed that the only adequate way of understanding a saint is through the image of the clown/fool. These two movies fit the bill.

REYNOLDS PRICE: I love his translations in “A Palpable Gospel,” but he is best known for his novels, several of which deal with the lives of young men in their peculiar struggles. It is in his book, “Letter to a Man in the Fire: Does God Exist and Does He Care?” that he talks about his own faith in writing to a young man who is suffering as he did as a child.

The two books which speak to me most powerfully about the Holy are Martin Buber’s classic “I and Thou” and “The Christian Faith and Natural Science” by physicist Karl Heim (which should be required reading for all seminary students). Heim makes sense of so much of our riddles about the miracles, the efficacy of prayer, the presence of the Holy.  For a broader discussion of the worlds of the Holy and everyday life, you will do well to get St. Bede’s’ Scott Andrus’ paperback book “Meaning, Being and Breath.” It is a definite WOW.

Monday, August 06, 2012

Survival Guide for Congregations - St. Stephen's, Espanola


First, a Bible Quiz for you:
What is the first mention of baseball in the Bible?
“In the big-inning.”

Who is the shortest person in the Bible?
“Nehemiah . . . Bildad the Shuhite . . . Peter, he was so short he slept on his watch.”

Why was there only bread and wine at the Last Supper?
“It was a pot luck and only guys were invited.”

Next question is not really from the Bible . . but it is an important one:
Who is the absolute hardest person for God to work with?
Someone who is perfect – or thinks he or she is perfect – or never wrong.

We’ll come back to that, but first: while I was reading our passage from Ephesians over and over again in preparation for this morning, my first thought was “This is a wonderful, moving description of what a Christian congregation should be. I mean, it is really very inspiring.” Then I thought: why would St. Paul write that? He didn’t have a word processor – or even a decent typewriter. He, himself, acknowledged that writing was very difficult for him.

“I entreat you. . that you live up to your calling. Be humble always and gentle, and patient, too. Be forbearing with one another and charitable. Spare no effort to make fast with bonds of peace the unity which the Spirit gives. There is one body and one Spirit, as there is also one hope held out in God’s call to you; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (4:1-6)

I believe Paul wrote that because that congregation was struggling – most likely coming apart at the seams. You find the same thing in I Corinthians – only there it is worse. Almost the whole of that Epistle is “Hey, come on guys!”

On the other side, I think most people who come to the Episcopal Church have the same response: “What a great church.” “I really feel accepted here.” “Everything here is what I’ve always wanted in a church.” And do you know something?  That’s true. And you want to know something else? That’s not the whole story, the entire reality. And given that, what I want to do this morning is to give you a Congregational Survival Guide – through several images.

When I was an undergraduate, I got to take three different courses with the great theologian, Paul Tillich. From that experience, the one thing which continues to rattle around in my brain was his constant reference to a single verse in Paul’s letter to the Romans, always spoken by Tillich with such anguish: “The good that I would, I do not  - and that which I would not . . . is what I do, what I end up doing.” Every parent knows the truth of that. I know that despite trying to avoid what my parents got wrong I could hear my father’s voice in my own. That which I would not. . . is what I did.

            That is who we are: it is not all that we are, but it is part of who we are: “Everyone must have two pockets into which he or she can reach from time to time,” said the Rabbi of Kobryn.
“In the one pocket it shall be written: ‘For my sake were the heavens and earth created.’ And in the other, ‘I am but dust and ashes.”’ Both pockets.  The whole story of each of us . .and of this and every other congregation.

            The second image has to do with a friend of mine in Santa Fe – you may know her or have heard of her. Her name is Sallie Bingham – one of the wealthiest people in Santa Fe if not NM. She is also one of the kindest and most generous people I’ve known. About a year ago in the middle of our Sunday service at St. Bede’s, a really disheveled homeless guy wandered into the church and to the shock of everyone started checking out the altar and then knelt in front of it babbling nonsense.

I went up from my pew and knelt beside him and then quietly asked if he would join me in the front pew. Something quite magical happened then. As I put my arm around his shoulder, he rested his head on mine. And so it was through the service.

            It was then that the second and more important miracle happened. When the fellow had left, Sallie Bingham came up to me and said, “Tom, I am so glad there is a place for that man here at St. Bede’s, because that means there is a place for me.” I was. . and I remain . . stunned. What was it that Sallie understood? But she understood – as few people understand.

            The third image is from the beginning of Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5). Jesus, looking out over this large crowd which has gathered to hear him speak, says “You are the light of the world. . .” Just a week ago a know it all theologian quoted that verse and wrote, Jesus is telling us who we have to be – we need to be the light the world.”

BEEP     “Wrong answer, try again.”

When Jesus says to those in the crowd: “You are the light of the world,” there is no “ought,” no “should,” no “You better watch out, you better not cry, you better be good and I’m telling you why. Jesus Christ has come to town.”

            It is simply (and this is Jesus talking directly to each one of us) “You are the light of the world.” I think that is the hardest verse in the whole Bible. “I am the light of the world? Come on, get serious.” And then, once I begin to “get” that, comes the second step. All these other people here -- they, too, are the light of the world. Despite all those efforts by well meaning people through history to transform the Kingdom of God into someone’s notion of morality or being good, the kingdom is not a matter of having all the right moral merit badges.

            How can we stay in touch with that? Let me try with a Puppet Show: in two parts. The first is the World’s Shortest Hand Puppet Show - which probably should have been in the joke section: [two bare hands facing one another]  “Oh, look, Adam, we are naked.” “Oh, Eve, I am so ashamed.”

            Then, the second part: The World’s Most Important Hand Puppet Show! It could be two kids on the playground – or a married/unmarried couple. James and John, Peter and Paul, or Adam and Eve. [Again, hiding behind the pulpit, with sock covered hands serving as two puppets] “I heard what you said to them. You told a lie about me.” Did not. . . did too. . did not . .did too. You are the worst . . . no worse than you . . . I’ve had it with you. . . No, I’ve had it with you!” And then the puppeteer appears and, seeing that they have been given life by the same puppeteer, they each realize that their, that our lives are tied together –  and in a way that is different from any other place in world.

            Those stupid puppets and their connection with one another are so important to understanding the reality of Holy Communion. It is not the point that we become Jesus. Jesus gets to be Jesus – and he’s got plenty to do. The consecrated bread and wine. . they take on our DNA. Our Lord blessing and informing who we are. . . both pockets . . the homeless guy and Sallie Bingham . . the diversity of this congregation. Maybe it is only those who regard themselves as perfect or as always right who miss the blessing.

            With all that in mind, where is the survival guide? It is the same thing that happens in pre-marriage instruction. You know, marriages based primarily on romance nearly always go bad. I’ve seen it over and over again: “We are so much in love with one another and we know this will go on forever. I will feel loved. . . and I will be able to love him/ her forever.” Romantic love is good – but it comes and goes. And there are long stretches when it seems absent and there are times when we hurt one another and it is hard to forgive. . .

            But there are two kinds of love – Romantic and Necessary Love. While romantic love is sweet nothings, candlelight dinners, and sleeping in on Saturday mornings (notice that I did not say “Sunday mornings”).  Necessary love is taking out the trash, holding one’s flu-ridden partner’s head over the toilet during the worst of the flu and asking forgiveness, sometimes even when it wasn’t your fault. Christ is in the Romance – in every aspect of it. Christ is also in the Necessary Love – in all the day to day loving, forgiving and healing.

You know, we don’t get to have the opportunity to experience God face to face. Mostly we experience God sacramentally, through the gifts God give us – husband, wife, partner, St. Stephen’s. It is primarily through their love, their healing, their forgiveness that we will experience the love, the healing power and the forgiveness of God.

            In your life here, there will always be glitches – some through my fault, sometimes by those on this side of the aisle, sometimes by those on that side of the aisle. But there will also be miracles – miracles of love and acceptance, grace and goodness, forgiveness and healing.

The walls of this church have heard it all – heartbreaks, losses and deep sadness / baptisms, weddings and growing closeness with God and with one another. Do not let anyone fool you. . . please, don’t let anyone fool you:  this is the pearl of great price.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Question for Governor Romney

Would you be willing to accept an election won on the basis of voter suppression brought about by your party?


Friday, July 27, 2012

Bobbie's Aria from the opera "And the Winner Is. ."



What follows is the libretto for Bobbie Wentworth's aria from the opera "And the Winner Is," composed by Daniel Steven Crafts with libretto by Thomas B. Woodward. We hope to have the video of this aria as well as Tony's aria and the closing duet by Bobbie and Tony posted in the near future. If you want more information about the opera, contact Tom Woodward, 13 Calle Loma, Santa Fe, NM 87507; 505-474-4229 or 505-231-9829 cell.

During their wait offstage for Bobbie Wentworth’s appearance before the cameras, Tony and Bobbie have been involved in serious flirting with one another; but when, on camera, Tony asks Bobbie when she first became interested in the Ms. American Pageant, Bobbie responds, “It was about five months after my sex change operation.” Chaos ensues. When things die down a bit Bobbie reveals that her real talent is not baton twirling, but hiding her disability:

BOBBIE’S ARIA
Tony, I was thinking.
Twirling a baton, playing a piano, singing "It's a Wonderful World,"
or even overflowing, amply overflowing a one piece bathing suit.
None of that really has anything to do with becoming something like,
something like an adequate example
(to audience)for girls like you.

So I thought to myself:
“Self, how would it be if this year's Ms. American
were the exact same person,
no kidding, the exact same person
as Ms. Disability of the U.S. of A?”

Think of it, Tony. Wouldn't that be
a real inspiration to the American people
who need inspiration
from the likes of you and me?

Oh, Tony, the indignity, the utter indignity of it all.
Ms. Alaska, North Dakota and Utah and Maine,
they and the others are all feeling the same.
What I just heard from backstage
is a slowly developing rage
and it's erupting, corrupting the stage.

Look, I dare you to look at Ms. Alaska.
She's as pissed off as pissed off can be.
She has just come to realize
that to compete for the pageant's prize,
she had to have a boob job
and newly capped teeth and then,
the anorexic dieting for months upon end!

Oh,Tony, Alaska came to me, nearly in tears
while dressed in that gown from her neighborhood Sears.
She said, "If I" - that's her speaking, and really not me -
"If I were to win this thing,
the plain girls from everywhere
are soon going to think that they must have boob jobs
and teeth capped as well
and fake being brain dead
to be a real woman and not suffer Hell.”

So, calm yourself, Tony, forget about your pay.
Come stand here beside me.
This may be a new day.
Your sponsors have vanished and your producer's away.
It's time for the future to finally hold sway.
Oh Tony, this could be a real inspiration.

Oh, Tony, my leg hurts so much when I try
when I try, when I try to stand up
and look presentable, surrounded by glitter and such.
But my heart sings . . sings so gladly
when I think of my family,
my mother, my sister, my homophobic aunt.
May we, maybe together . . .
Oh, give me your arm.

Sing, sing, sing for our country an inspiring new song.
May you in the audience and you in your home
stand up as you can in your dress, jeans, or sarong!
Sing, sing, sing with our voices an inspiring new song.
May you in the audience and you in your home
stand up as you can in your dress, jeans, or your thong.
Dare to sing, sing, sing a new song!