Monday, January 27, 2014

A Gospel for the Weak?
Exploring Issues of Dementia, Identity, and Run-of-the-Mill Delusion

Iyesterday's homily, I wrote about the difficulties that arise in the project of knowing one's self: 
Whether being one’s self was possible was another question altogether. After all, if it was possible to not be one’s self (which the exhortation to be one’s self clearly implied), then being one’s self was not an obvious course; it threatened to become an inaccessible riddle, impossible to unlock from the inside. A cave, all in darkness, in which one blindly gropes past a litany of fantasies, distractions, and endless self-deceptions. As one writer puts it, "I never ask my friends: How are you? Because they don’t know.”
Today, a friend shared this beautiful, poignant, and sometimes difficult article titled Dementia, God, and the Christian Faith. It's worth reading in full, and it called to mind a supervisor's mantra from my clinical pastoral education at a state-run psychiatric hospital in rural North Carolina. This was the mantra: The mentally ill are just like us, only more so. In the spirit of that mantra, with tenderness, and without trivializing the uniquely painful realities of dementia, the blogpost's author connects the realities of dementia with the struggles we each face to know who we are:
Here is God’s truth for all of us: you may be uncertain about who you are, and you may be confused by the people around you, but God knows you. Who are you? You are God’s. You will not be forgotten. What did God tell us?  “Can a mother forget her baby? But even if she forgets, I will never forget you” (Isaiah 49:15). The thief on the cross asked Jesus, “Remember me” (Luke 23:42) – and God remembers us, always. God remembers everything you have forgotten, and clearly. No memory is lost in God; everything that is elusive at this moment will finally be redeemed.
On a lighter - if not less important - note, touching on issues of Christian identity and yesterday's gospel...

I recently read Tyler Wigg-Stevenson's (1) Captain Obvious but essential-to-say observation that Christians have fallen into the very bad habit of identifying with the characters we perceive to be the heroic characters - the good guys and gals - in Scripture. He gives the example of David. The king. Not Abner, the Israelite commander who didn't recognize David; not Eliab, David's oldest brother who resents David thoroughly; David. In ways that demonstrate the potential fruitfulness of an alternative approach, he writes:
...I don't think I've ever seen anyone read [the story of David and Goliath] and chuckle ruefully, saying, "Wow, I'm just like Abner, because sometimes God is doing something, and I've got absolutely no idea where it's coming from." I've never heard anyone lament, "Man, I am such an Eliab, because I am always tearing down the person that God's really picked for the job."
So last night I confessed to the students, post-worship, that I may have preached the wrong sermon. I still like the sermon I preached, I explained, but I don't know why I assumed they and I should identify with Peter, Andrew, James, and John. Why are we the ones Jesus called? Of course, in the grand scheme of the Christian story, we are. But are we also another? 

What would a sermon on the same gospel look like that identified the hearers with, for example, Zebedee? Why not? Surely, each of us has known a moment in which God's call to someone else - someone we loved - pulled at the attachments and loyalties we had come to expect from the other person. Parents are the most straightforward example of this, as we watch our children grow, develop, and choose in many cases to live with other persons. But not just parents, I think. Witness the church in which the values and priorities of one generation do not translate into central motivating factors for the generation that follows. The altar guild member that dutifully serves, waiting for the next wave to relieve her, only to discover that the new wave heard God call to go somewhere else.

But we are Americans, so we must be James and John. We must be the agents of change. The revolutionaries. The radicals. We find it unimaginable to be the ones left in the boat. But surely to be left in the boat is the experience of the one with alzheimers. We who worship a crucified God, dare we proclaim a Gospel for the weak?


(1The World Is Not Ours to Save: Finding the Freedom to do Good

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Why You Can't Be Yourself By Yourself
(and other disappointing good news)

SFH homily for the 3rd Sunday after Epiphany, January, 26, 2014.

“Be yourself!” her mother whispered. She made her way to the door. A band of friends waited for her from their various perches atop some daddy’s red and cream Buick Roadmaster station wagon, recently equipped with practicing subwoofers not original to the vehicle. She smiled the smile of polite disengagement and turned to meet her friends. Her mother’s counsel wasn’t new. She always said this. Every time. Every single time she embarked on anything new - every trek out the door - “Be yourself,” Mom would say.

“Oh Lord,” she would think. “Let me be anything but myself. 

Once upon a time her mother’s gentle exhortation had brought her peace, had given her surety. But increasingly she’s come to believe she knows herself, and she isn’t sure at all she likes the self she knows. She thinks of insecurities, her perceived imperfections, and also her failings. Even, and especially, her failing to see beyond her imperfections. 

In fairness to her mother, good parental encouragements are hard to come by. Parents have got to say something when their children leave the house, and even she had to admit that a parent could do worse than “be yourself.” Witness the countless, mindless and ranting parents assaulting their children with “encouragements” of all kinds on otherwise enjoyable Saturday afternoons from their aluminum bleachers in little league ballparks. The deadening voices of control, tinged with fear, launching children into age-old battles with the failures of their forbearers. 

No, one could do far worse that “be yourself.” In fact, she was pretty sure - when she was honest - that she wanted this more than anything, on some level. Whether being one’s self was possible was another question altogether. After all, if it was possible to not be one’s self (which the exhortation to be one’s self clearly implied), then being one’s self was not an obvious course; it threatened to become an inaccessible riddle, impossible to unlock from the inside. A cave, all in darkness, in which one blindly gropes past a litany of fantasies, distractions, and endless self-deceptions. As one writer puts it, ”I never ask my friends: How are you? Because they don’t know.” She turned to meet her friends.

As he walked by the Sea of Galilee, [Jesus] saw two brothers, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother, casting a net into the sea-- for they were fishermen. And he said to them, "Follow me, and I will make you fish for people." Immediately they left their nets and followed him. 

Moments later, it’s the same thing one more time. This time, two brothers up and leave Dad in the boat. They’ve been mending nets all morning. They love the good work of mending. It’s a love their dad has helped cultivate in them, and they love him for that, too. But just now, Jesus is calling, and he’s telling them he’ll make them fish for people; that the joy of their hearts and the skills of their fingers have not been lost on the Messiah of God. That is, he doesn’t see the fishermen and promise to make them businessmen. Jesus sees them as they are, and he calls them to follow him as no more and no less than themselves. And more truly themselves for following him. He loves that they fish! “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.” Believing, they follow.

These four men have been caught in the promise that he will make them fishers of people. That he will make them true. That he will somehow dispel the darkness around them, and they, in the light, will become who they are. Now, as then, the invitation to follow Christ is the invitation to become who you are; to be in Christ the true self made true by nearness to him. It is the uniquely Christian conviction that you can’t be yourself by yourself. 

We become ourselves in the moment we risk leaving the boat to follow Christ. 

We don't follow alone. Later in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus will send his disciples out into the world two by two. Clare pointed out at Wednesday's Bible study that it’s not just in the sending, but here too, in the calling - at the very beginning - that he gathers them in twos. It’s seemingly part and parcel of being with Christ: the communion of saints; the happy relief of holy friends with which to travel; the strange and sometimes smelly company of the people called the Church; the imperative of forgiveness and even love of enemies. Because you can’t be yourself by yourself. Because your real self is not a riddle to unlock, but a gift in Christ to receive and lift up to God for the life of the world.

This rhythm of receiving and offering is of course what we do, what we practice, every week in this space. Every week is a dramatic reenactment of the gospel account in which Jesus fed 5,000 folks, spread out on the lawn. Lots of characters in that story, but we play the part of the boy who had some loaves and fishes, and everyone knew that it wasn’t enough. Like a young girl unconvinced that her self is worth being. The disciples apologize for the boy’s scant offering. “It’s all we can find,” they mutter. But the boy makes no such apology. He simply says, “Here.” He offers and does not diminish the gifts of which he finds himself in possession. Likewise, in the Eucharist, we offer our gifts. Gifts of prayer, offerings, bread, and wine. The offerings, bread, and wine are signs and symbols of whatever work we do to earn our bread. So we lift up our jobs, our vocations - as students, musicians, software designers, priests - we lift up our fortunes and triumphs and burdens and joys and everything and anything that might tempt us toward possession of our identity. We are not our own; so we offer our selves, our souls, and bodies. We lift up all that we love. Like Andrew and Peter, we abandon the boat.

I wonder what you love to do as much as Andrew and Peter loved to fish. Where is the joy of your heart and the skill of your fingers? Do you see that these things have not been lost on the Messiah of God? That is, he doesn’t see the engineer and promise to make him an English major. Jesus sees you as you are, and he calls you to follow him as no more or no less than yourselves. And more truly yourselves for following him. He loves when you do what you love! “Follow me,” he says to Peter, Andrew, the others. Gifts on the table, laid bare in the presence of God, “Lift up your hearts,” the chaplain will say. And you, hearts toward heaven, will answer, “We lift them to the Lord.” And in that moment, we will together be the People whom, from the foundations of the world, we were created to be; foretaste of the Kingdom in its fullness. Because your real self is not a puzzle or a riddle to unlock, but a gift in Christ to receive and lift up to God for the life of the world.

"Follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fish for people." Immediately they left their nets and followed him.


Sunday, January 19, 2014

Privacy, Protection, and the Unguarded Kingdom

Sermon for the 2nd Sunday after Epiphany. Preached @ SFH, 1.19.14

It’s a harmless question, really. Safe for use in casual conversation. “Where do you live?” A question intended to help two people discover how they share a city and/or certain social circles, favorite restaurants, etc. On the east to near-east side, I say. Over by Ella’s Deli. I mention the restaurant, with its carousel and circus-like atmosphere, because 1) it’s a well-known landmark and, truthfully, 2) I am eager to steer the subject away from the specifics of my living place. “Now that’s a fine deli!” the other person will say, and she’ll tell me some story about the time she took her nieces, and I’ll nod my head and smile and let the conversation drift elsewhere. For some reason, I don’t like the idea of strangers imagining my home. With friends, this is different, but with strangers asking a question that can only be described as banal conversational filler, I pause. My home is not filler. 

Rebekah thinks my reluctance to share our address is odd, but, then, she closes all the blinds at dusk. She says she does this because she knows how much she likes to peer into other people’s windows on evening walks; likes to see signs of life: the chandelier hanging majestically above the rich wood of the dining room table or the gentle, bluish flicker of the television’s light against a facing wall. It’s inviting, she says. So she closes the blinds. And I, with my carousel diversions, am like her. After all, mine is the reality TV generation. (You’re welcome for that.) I know the appeal of voyeuristic windows into the soul of another. No thanks. Post Edward Snowden, Americans are especially mindful of how illusory our privacy may in fact turn out to be. So I cling to my illusion with two hands, and I tuck my children in their beds and kiss their heads and believe the space of this moment belongs just to my family and me. Don’t get me wrong, we love and practice hospitality - our home is always open - but usually on our terms, hospitable as they are.

Jesus hears the footsteps, quickening, behind him. He turns and jumps back, wide-eyed and alarmed. Two thugs. He’s been followed. Jesus sizes them up. Two scruffy looking characters. Surprising, but not threatening. “What are you looking for?” he asks them. “Where are you staying?” they answer.

And Jesus doesn’t do what I might do. He doesn’t offer vague allusions to local landmarks. He doesn’t pretend he has some errands to run yet before he’s headed home. He doesn’t even lie and point to the house of a neighbor he doesn’t especially like. [This one time, after explaining to a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses standing in my doorway that I was a priest and their odds were long - that there might be better fishing down the stream - they asked me if I could recommend any neighboring parishioners to them. I shook my head, confused, and shut the door - why on earth would I do… Oh. Shoot. I missed my chance.]  No, Jesus doesn’t engage in prankish misdirection. He sees these two men, their faces caked with wearied hope, following with the innocence and expectation of children, and he smiles a broad smile and says, “Come and see.” 

Come and see. No blind-closing self-preservation here. No locking the doors of his life to the stranger. No appealing to self-protection or 4th amendment privacy rights. No invoking, either, of the social and secular distinction between public and private so familiar to religion (lest she lose her tax exemption). Come and see, and they follow. He shows them around, takes them to the guest room in which he’s staying, shows them his study, complete with the inspirational quotes he’s taped to his desk, just above his extensive vinyl collection. He shows them his host family’s living room, walls covered with artifacts important to someone. He shrugs. They play a game of something with the children in the garden. Then it’s time to pray and, rather than send them off, he has them join him. And this is how love works. Things we love shared with those we love. Ordinary spaces transformed by the daily rhythms that make these spaces inexplicably precious to us. Dwelling places are never casual places because they’re where life happens, where we are when we aren’t trying to separate, hide, or otherwise qualify the different and difficult parts of ourselves. Just you as you are, all one piece. And this is exactly what the Son of God is sharing with them. God’s self as God is, all one piece, in this man. And he’s laughing. The home and habitat of God made open to two socially inept, awkward young men who don’t know how to arrange a proper introduction. 

Come and see.

Afterwards, Andrew goes and tells his brother the remarkable news: the Messiah, the Son of God, invited them over and opened his life. “Oh, he did, did he?” Simon says. And it’s Andrew, this time, who smiles broadly and answers, “Come and see.”

Christ’s unexpected welcome begets another in Andrew; the Savior’s invitation gives mercy the courage to speak up in the heart of the one he had called. The vulnerability of God becomes Andrew’s own. Andrew tells Simon what he has seen.

I wonder, who first saw and told you? And I wonder, what have you seen about God that’s worth telling?

John the Baptist saw the Spirit poured out on Jesus in the river Jordan. He told Andrew, who stalked Jesus into an invitation. Andrew told his brother about the vinyl collection. Simon became the head of the Church; he gave the Church’s first sermon after the Spirit descended; he stood up and told what he’d seen, Christ crucified and risen, and how many thousands believed? The whole history of God’s People, God’s Church, of new life in Christ, one long chain of show and tell - none of them seeing more than they saw, each seeing something uniquely different, but all seeing Christ, telling Christ - right up to us, and not ending with us.

Come and see.

Come and see. God’s invitation - the Good News that God has opened God’s home to the world. That this world is not forgotten. Or an afterthought. Or needing to prove its worth. Or anonymous. That you are not forgotten, or an afterthought, or needing to prove your worth, or anonymous. But, “Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” See, you are seen, you are forgiven. God has opened God’s home to you.

You are loved, and God is your home. And the blinds in God’s home are open.

Long after this gospel reading - with John the Baptist, Andrew, Simon, and the days of “come and see” - Jesus will get up after dinner and wash the feet of his friends. He’ll look up at his disciples and remind them that their home is in God, and that he’s going to prepare their place. A place to live in God, just as he came to live with them. Everything the Father has given to Jesus, Jesus has given to them. And they’ll wonder if he can mean it. He’ll see the silent fear in their eyes and think back to the expressions on those faces at the very beginning - caked with wearied hope, following him with the innocence and expectation of children. His tender smile at the memory will trigger their own, and they’ll feel their whole lives given up to this man and the moment they decided to follow him always. “Come and see,” he had told them. Oh, the things they had seen. Yes! The things they will see.

And we, also, with them.


Monday, January 6, 2014

(We Are Jerusalem)

Early Christian fresco of King Herod's slaughter of the Innocents in the
hypogeum of Santa Maria in Stelle, Italy. (De Agostini/Getty Images)

"When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him..." Matthew 2:3


Listless lament of
Unpredictable monarchs
Stoked by derangement 

We try to regret
Them, their fierce, lonely voices
With wild objections

To the beautiful
To life, the hope of the stars
The thing we would choose

If we could, if we
Would. If power were ours, life
Not helpless, hijacked

By mad, evil kings
Like the ones we've learned we need 
For our innocence

Too bad, we say, and
We want to mean it. But we
Are Jerusalem

We cannot mean what
Well-trained fears cannot believe
Hearing, we tremble.

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