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.
--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:


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.


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.

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.