Tuesday, December 13, 2016

God of Shadows

A Reflection for the Quiet Days of Advent
The Bishop’s Ranch
Healdsburg, California

This is a very strange Advent. And that, I suppose, is saying something for a season that is meant to be strange. Talk of angels appearing to virgin peasants, wild men shouting at crowds in the desert, and the strange intersection of prophecy, worldly power, and divine favor have always made Advent an odd season, filled with paradoxes and contradictions.

But this one seems especially odd with a body politic turned on its head and things I grew up assuming and trusting no longer reliable. This Advent feels like someone turned out the light of enlightenment and odd shadows are thrown this way and that as one person’s rising star becomes another’s heart of darkness.

Serving a largely politically liberal community has met me with unexpected questions that I could have scarcely imagined even a year ago. What does it mean, for instance, to pray for our our new government-elect? What do we ask for? What do we pray for when it comes to the world’s fiefdoms and principalities and powers changing hands in ways we did not expect, and in ways that many of us didn’t want? What does it mean when we pray (as we do in my parish) for our new administration-elect to be granted wisdom and compassion? What do we legitimize or de-legitimize with such a prayer?

Which takes us to an even more ancient question of faith: Do we only pray for what we want or desire? Do we only praise God when we deem something that happens is good? And do we pray for things to change only when something is unfolding that we deem harmful or bad? Do we face the darkness only praying for the light? Do we ask for darkness to fall on those whom we deem benighted, and light and gracious power on those we deem enlightened?

Our fundamental bias is that we often believe that ours is the God only of daybreak, of light, of illumination. Something or someone else commands the darkness and shadow. And so we, like the ancient Greeks and some of our early Christian ancestors, imagine or at least pray as though the world is divided up spiritually and even materially into light and dark, daybreak and shadow, good and evil.

The womb is also a place of shadows, and we all began our lives in the dark. Our habit is often to romanticize the womb as a place of loving warmth, and for all of us blessed with loving mothers, it can certainly be that. But the womb also contains the seas and storms of billions of years of evolution, of cells organizing over and against chaos, of marking the boundaries between the energy of life and the dissolution of death, between child and mother, between this life, that life, and not life. It is about the infinitely complex dance of genes, chance, and circumstance mysteriously created by and infused with a Spirit who knew us even before we were conceived. It is about the death of billions before us that taught our bodies and minds how to survive, develop, and grow for a brief time in this world. And even then, it is simple biology but hard for us emotionally that over two thirds of attempted starts on this journey fail. So our very being knew death, chance, and vulnerability from the very moment of conception. To the very essence of every cell, we learned death before life, we knew the shadows before we saw the light.

That God risked everything to emerge into our world through this dangerous, unpredictable, and astonishingly miraculous process is in itself a testimony that ours is the God of shadows, a God who knows death and the role it plays in our development and the unfolding of our universe. And ours is a God who knows daybreak in the darkness, and the shadows that come with the light.

It is only our very deep Greek and Eastern cultural and philosophical influences that often bifurcate a reality of life and death, light and shadow, death and life. But to God, all of this – including the light and the shadow – just like energy and matter, space and time — are made of the same unnamed, mysterious  stuff, part of the same process, part of the inextricably intertwined pattern of Creation. It is not enough to blithely say – as we sometimes do – that without darkness there can be no light, and without daybreak there can be no shadow. It is more accurate to say that God is the God of both, and there is a deeper reality in which both are one.

And that deeper reality is one that only God knows and understands.

So God is God, too, of our odd political moment. Which I suppose is not very odd in the grand scheme of things. Jesus was conceived and born in a world of odd political moments in his own time, and the quest for power and intrigue was already as old then as the tradition of prophets and kings, of powers and principalities, of despots, of empires.

God is God, too, of our shadows. Of our failings and of our blindnesses. Of those benighted parts of our souls scurrying for cover to nurse their neuroses or those parts of us yearning for the light. God is there, too, ever at work — an understanding both comforting and unsettling, paradoxical, and yet very much made to order for Advent.

The message of the incarnation that we lift up — as the shadows are long, the days are short, and daybreak comes late — is that God is the God of all of us, divided souls and communities, of diverse and conflicted peoples, God of a world teetering ever on uncertainty. Ours is a God who meets us in death as well as in life, a God who understands both the birth of stars and the vast darkness between them, a God who sees the death of every part of us making way for the new, who knows the fullness of not only our life, but our death as organisms, the deaths even of our very thoughts, the loss of memory, the dissolution of reason itself… and all their redemption and more.

As the mystic Psalmist has written:
Darkness is not dark to you;
the night is as bright as the day; 
darkness and light to you are both alike. (139:11)

An Advent practice then is to learn how to pray in the darkness, in the shadow, in the land of uncertainty and fear, in the creeping doubts and inchoate worries. For God dwells there, too, and God — always — has the last word.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Stirring in the Darkness

“Who then shall stir in this darkness, prepare for joy in the winter night?”
- Carol Christopher Drake

It is difficult not to feel this year that wider society has entered a collective winter night of the soul. We have gone rigid with fear in the wake of terrorism and in the midst of a campaign season that can find no bottom to lows in public discourse. Ghosts of nightmares stir in the swirling chill, old memories of history recent past but seemingly long forgotten: the cold of bigotry, willful ignorance, open deceit. No one seems to listen anymore. It is just assertions shouted over the voices of everyone else. Those who shout the loudest win. We are sorted, but not into goats and sheep with the care of simple husbandry. Instead we are sifted ham-fistedly into winners and losers with winner-take-all.

Who then shall stir in this darkness? Who would want to? And where can we find joy when the shadows grow so long and the chill seems unusually cold this year?

Anxiety has always been a part of our condition. It must have been, too, in the air and water and the chill of the winter night all those years ago in Judea and Galilee, when Herod danced with his puppet masters and Roman soldiers watched with suspicion as the people eked out a barebones living. What chills must Mary have felt when all that stood between her and certain ruin were the words of an angel and the dream of her betrothed. And even then the darkness was certain: This new life stirring in her womb was sure to be trouble. Herod would brook no rival, and Rome would tolerate no challenge to the status quo.

To imagine God stirring in the darkness of her womb must have been as terrifying as it was thrilling and dangerous. To be a peasant from a small town few knew bearing a promise that was too hopeful for so many, too hopeful to be more than whispered about in close company… Well, who could possibly imagine any of it? And yet it inspired Mary to speak of a world where winners are losers and losers winners. Maybe she was turned so upside down with this stirring in the darkness, she could not help but see it invite the utter overturn of the world about her.

Who do we imagine might stir in our darkness of today, and dare we imagine anyone or anything stir in the dark in this age of cynical doubt, of narrow materialism, of perpetual war and angst? Is the Virgin’s womb barren in our time, so much so that we must shut our borders and cast suspicion within? So much so that we ignore the plight of teeming refugees, of a world run mad with suffering?  So barren that we must be convinced that the gracious years are gone and now we are to grasp in the dark, scrambling over each other for only scraps in the waning days of empire?

We want strongmen to arise and lead us out of the dark. But we who pause and reflect long enough remember in our bones that strongmen are only part of the darkness themselves. They brood, posture, and bellow like Tolkien’s dragons. They threaten and menace with power and its seductive promises. They cast about for enemies and blame, point fingers, and count might and perhaps count the heads of those who oppose them for a coming purge. This is not the stirring of a baby as it quickens in the womb, with innocence and hope. This is only the stirring of the old games of war, politics, states, wealth, and domination.

Who then shall stir in this darkness and prepare, prepare for a joy that is too wonderful to imagine and too subversive to be disclosed? Where would Herod and Rome be if suddenly their military might and posturing was shown to be only a cruel illusion, a self-perpetuating myth? What if the hope were so great that fear no longer roiled our body politic and people turned away from desiring the power to cast death and instead turned to offering only life and love? Terror would then have no claim on us, no haven in our hearts anymore.

But this is precisely the promise of Advent: someone stirring in the darkness, preparing for a joy even in the depths of a world’s winter. John the Baptist was not out to overthrow empire or even the king who wanted the prophet dead. No, someone was stirring in the darkness, he said, someone who would change everything. And change it forever. He had met that someone only once, and even then, it had been while in the darkness of his own mother’s womb. That Someone had come close enough to be felt yet unseen, perceived in ways that were beyond sight or sound or explanation. And in that moment, John had leapt for joy and made his mother cry out with wonder. And so now, too, a grown man stands in the Jordan, peering into the darkness of his people, looking for that Someone stirring yet again.

The prophet peers into each of us, looking for that Someone stirring in the wombs of our hearts, stirring in our relationships, even stirring in that poisonous place we call the body politic: stirring in the darkness of this winter night and every night; quickening, and waiting to be born, to birth joy into our midst, with light, with hope, with love.

Richard Edward Helmer, BSG

A reflection for the Silent Days of Advent
The Bishop’s Ranch, Healdsburg, California
December 17, 2015

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Lessons of a Not-So-Clever Priest

After nearly thirteen years serving as a priest in The Episcopal Church, I’ve learned a few things the old-fashioned way:

1. Nobody really cares about your professional credentials or seminary education, and everybody has an opinion about how you should be doing your “job.” Live with it.

2. You can crack jokes in sermons, meetings, and cocktail parties, and be the cleverest priest they ever met. You can be the best preacher and teacher in the world and the most erudite theologian and liturgist on the corner. But what they really want to know is, “Do you love us?”

3. Don’t expect anything to really happen until: a) someone is offering decent liturgy and preaching on a regular basis; b) people’s basic pastoral care needs are being met; and c) the parish’s administrative affairs are in order and are competently managed. If you can’t accomplish this yourself, find the help to make it happen, and don’t work on anything else until you do.

4. Politics, housing, and church life are truly all local. Don’t get caught up too much in the news about the wider church or its demise. When most of the people we serve hear “church” they think first and foremost of the congregation where they are a member.

5. Never put full credence in either your harshest critics or your greatest fans. Both change their minds on a dime, and both will lead you down blind paths if you let them.

6. There’s a lot of talk about “leadership” in the Church these days. Much of it is egotistical baloney. It’s always a good idea to shut up and listen. It’s also a good idea to authentically tend to your own faith journey and prayer life. Most real leadership flows from there.

7. Be curious about the people you serve. This is not about you.

8. Knowing your limits is just as important as knowing your power and responsibilities -- perhaps even more so.

9. Never go it alone, and always check your own counsel with people you trust.

10. Be courageous enough to make mistakes and humble enough to apologize for them.

11. Bullies need the same thing you do: honesty and accountability. Cultivate both.

12. The Church generally moves slower than molasses in Vermont in January before climate change. Learn to be patient.

13. The Church is not primarily a social service agency. Nor is it a mere sacramental grocery store. Never forget that Christ is at work here, somewhere, despite the best and worst you bring to bear. For this priest, that recognition is often Gospel.

Sunday, March 01, 2015

That Not-So-Sweet Jesus

A Sermon for the Second Sunday in Lent, Year B
Delivered at Church of Our Saviour, Mill Valley, California on March 1st, 2015

Where did we decide that Jesus was sweet, kind, and gentle, and why? Maybe it has something to do with attempting to make the gospel stories (and the Bible generally) palatable for protected, young ears and tender imaginations. Maybe it has something to do with our habitual domestication and institutionalization of religion. That makes some sense – we institutionalize people deemed unruly, so why not scripture and Jesus, too?

It is easy to imagine and depict Jesus, blue-eyed and blond-haired no less, surrounded by laughing children, smiling platonically and knowingly that all will be well. Except that is our conceit, not scripture’s. Nor is it Jesus’.

Jesus was a frustrated man. And he was Semitic, not Teutonic or Anglo-Saxon, which meant he grew up in a culture where passions were at the surface of everyday life and relationships. And he was Mediterranean, which meant there was yelling in public and it mattered how you play verbal hardball, most of all with your opponents.

Perhaps most importantly for our gospel today, Jesus’ understanding of hatred was indifference, not wanton cruelty. And that meant his understanding of love meant engagement, reproof, and disclosure of the heart. And the heart for him was not a demurring, individualistic secretive seat of emotion, but an openly relational, communal dynamic of passion, thought, and conviction wrapped and delivered in action. For Jesus, there was no love at a distance. There was only love up close, personal, and, indeed, political.

So Peter gets an earful today, not for being evil, but for being errant and dense. And you can’t blame Peter. He’s feeling bold. He just got it right for a change, identifying Jesus first as the Messiah. And he knows what “Messiah” means. It means a political savior who will throw out the Romans and restore the kingdom of Israel to its former glory under David’s son. Maybe Peter is imagining a few divine things, too, but his Messiah is grounded in reality and is supposed to bring about some practical political change and honor to all of Judea, Galilee, and the people of God everywhere. And Peter has just witnessed Jesus feeding the multitudes, putting the religious authorities in their place and healing the blind. So what is Jesus talking about? All this nonsense about going to Jerusalem and being arrested and killed. Peter likely can’t hear much past that. Who needs a dead King? Or a dead Messiah for that matter? So, of course, he will rebuke his Rabbi, Master, and friend.

And Jesus’ counter-rebuke will be all the more stinging, but not because he calls Peter a “Satan,” which simply means “tempter.” But because Peter has just stumbled into yet another, even more disturbing truth:

The Messiah he thought he signed up for is not the Messiah he is getting.

We all know this feeling. The perfect house turned out to be mold-ridden or needs a major foundation repair. The perfect church just turned out to have everything all communities have: bad history, gossips, and skeletons lurking in dark places. The perfect job is tarnished by a grumpy boss, an incompetent co-worker, or the unexpected drudgery of paperwork. The perfect friend just stabbed us in the back. The spouse we thought we married has edges we didn’t know about and didn’t learn about until the wedding was over, the honeymoon was behind us, the bills were all piled up, and all of life with its bumps and windy roads lay ahead.

Love, we all learn again today along with Peter, is a choice. It isn’t the romantic confluence of perfect circumstances and emotions. Faith, we learn with him, is also a choice. It isn’t just a nice daisy chain of inspired moments.

And pain, we all try to learn along with Peter, is an inevitable part of love and faith. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something.

And life, particularly Life with a capital “L” — that Life with God, the author of creation and all true love — happens only one way: cheek-by-jowl with death.

The Kingdom Jesus has been talking about has, at least at first glance, surprisingly little to do with the stories about King David’s slaying Goliath with a sling and stone, or the glorious expansion of his mature kingdom. The Kingdom Jesus has been talking about is so fragile that it must die before it can live. And it is not made of stone walls and fortresses, but dry-rotted wood shaped into crosses. And it is not found at the heart of Jerusalem in the beauty of the Solomonic Temple, but outside the city on a bare hill where the criminals go to die.

Jesus tells his disciples and us — if we will but set aside our kindly, gentle, but largely harmless depiction of our Savior — that we must face our darkness in order to find light. We must see our imperfections if we are to be perfected by God’s love for us. We must confront death’s designs if we are to embrace life. And the Kingdom of God, that frustrated kingdom that still yearns to be born even now in the real lives of the suffering and the lonely, the fearful and the marginalized, is born on the sweaty, hard work of carrying crosses, both ours and those of others.

Richard Rohr talks about “necessary suffering,” the inevitable hard knocks of life that every human being experiences simply by breathing and being in relationship. There is suffering delivered by oppression, by evil, by negligence, and we can police that to a degree. But necessary suffering is as inevitable as old age. Peter, like us, would avoid that if he could.

But the command of Jesus to Peter and to us is to get behind him. The command is to get real. The command is to join the struggle and dispense with the selfish delusions of immortal youth, political glory, and the superficial salves of creature comforts. These are the temptations Jesus confronted in the wilderness. No wonder Peter’s oblique appeal to them equates him in Jesus’ mind with Satan.

No, God’s Kingdom is more radical than Peter imagines, more fragile than he wants to know, and yet — like that sacred covenant God made with Abraham — more consequential for the ages and peoples near and far than he can begin to realize. Yet it is remarkable that Peter, stung as he is, doesn’t leave Jesus at this juncture.

Maybe he recognizes a glimmer of hope in Jesus’ words, or at least a glimpse of deeper truth than he has yet to understand. The difficult, frustrating, winding road ahead is one of love, truth, compassion, and true justice: those divine gifts the world cannot commodify or control, and so it often ignores or marginalizes them. And sometimes it kills them. As it killed the prophets of old and as it kills the prophets of today.

Lent is about walking with Peter and following that road anyway. . . and trusting in a God who has whispered or perhaps just hinted in Peter’s heart and ours, too, that the path ahead could conquer even death itself.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Vexed by the Journey

Little vexed me more as an aspiring, struggling pianist many years ago than a trusted friend — also a musician — telling me to learn to “enjoy the journey.” It’s taken me nearly twenty years to even begin to grasp what he meant, noting my temptation towards quick fixes, thinking more often about arrivals, and craving a predictable stability in daily life that is worse than unachievable. It is entirely unrealistic. Worst of all, it is just another pet idol of mine.

Which brings me, of course, to the institutional church, from which we all benefit as we sit here this morning in the beautiful confines of St. George’s Chapel at the Bishop’s Ranch, bathed in a most blessed rain slowly eroding a long drought. How on earth — building on millennia of tradition with roots in Benedictine and desert spirituality along with Roman bean-counting governance and parochial proclivities — did we get the idea that Christianity should be institutional? At the very best, I suppose, we might say we need a vessel — and we might imagine that in the naval sense of the word — to help us sustain our essential needs while we attend to the inevitable spiritual journey of the inner and relational life. But I, as a parish priest and veritable church governance junkie, encounter too often the severe limitations of institutional Christianity, and I cannot quite convince myself.

This time of year, we remember a young woman, probably barely into her teens, literally bearing Christ not in the comfort of her own home in Nazareth with supportive, familiar faces and hands tending to her, but somewhere on the road outside of Bethlehem, in the midst of strangers. According to Luke’s account, at least, as a Galilean Jew, she had entered the somewhat foreign and hostile domain of her ancestral Judea with her betrothed, knowing full well she would bear her child, begotten under most dubious circumstances, while en route. I can only imagine what my wife might have said to me, in those interminable weeks leading up to the birth of one of our children, had I told her we were going on a long journey, and we would not be home before labor. There are probably more than a few suitable Japanese expressions for husbands spouting clueless ideas!

Yet Mary, the Godbearer, almost never has any significant interaction with Jesus in the gospels unless they are somewhere other than home. There is that precious glimpse of Jesus’ teenage years while on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where he incurs Mary’s fury for worrying her when he lingers behind in the Temple. There is that argument in a kitchen in Capernaum over a wedding party running out of wine. And there is, of course, that image of Mary with her suffering son about as far from home as they might imagine ever being: on a hill called Golgotha.

“Madonna of the Bamboo Grove” from Four Japanese Madonnas, an online collection curated by The University of Dayton
Mary has been called the first Christian, and I suppose it is not just for her willingness to physically bear the Son of God. It is for her willingness to journey with him into the strange, unexpected, and even terrifying; carrying him at times even into the loneliness of a stable with only the company of a somewhat mystified but stalwart Joseph and a handful of stinky animals and shepherds; or receiving her son’s body in that most poignant station of death on Good Friday.

Our predilection to reify Mary may at times obscure her witness to what it means to be truly Christian. It is not simply a matter of sitting in comfort, as we can this time of year, and sing Veni Emmanuel, unless we mean it like an expectant mother in the midst of labor. Nor is it simply a matter of hanging out for the Second Coming in the beauty of our institutional churches, unless we expect that coming to mean not one beloved stone being left upon another. The only stability we are meant to cultivate is that radical trust in the promises of God. Institutions, comforts, and even homes come and go. They can be as fleeting as a long-practiced piece of music, the fading tones of a performance, or the echoes of applause.

The Christian life is like Mary’s, after all, uncomfortable and dusty on the road, with no room at the Inn and unexpected meetings with total strangers, and the comforts and faces of home only a wistful memory. Our idolatry of stability, of sitting comfortably on the laurels of our accomplishments and conquests, explains a great many things wrong with our civilization today and across the ages. Journeys are powerfully vulnerable moments in our lives, but also the most profoundly real as we are exposed to the elements and uncertainties of a capricious universe. And so it is there that Christ comes – sometimes to us, but more often because we carry him and give birth to him there. It is there we also vent our fury at his mystifying talk about God and something he calls a kingdom. We, too, are vexed by his wandering ways and upside-down teachings. . . and we sometimes find ourselves receiving his body after the world has had its way with him and our journey — along with his — seems to have reached an abrupt end.

I suppose my greatest struggle with music and journeys all those years ago was with the “dirty laundry” of missed notes and frustratingly difficult passages and the lonely hours trying to master an instrument, a phrase, a chord, and, above all, myself. The truth of my friend’s counsel was that there was no short-circuiting, no circumventing that process. And then my even harder learning was to value that long journey when at last I would push a piece out in front of an audience, knowing even then that it might fail or I might fall to pieces in a pile of nerves. But that, too, is the journey of the true Gospel, the true Church, and all of us when we are sometimes approaching what we might call true Christianity. No amount of institutional comfort can save us from the journey we must undertake in this pregnant time. No amount of bean counting and careful preparation can forestall or circumvent the dangerous, uncertain, and sometimes seemingly endless labor of pushing Christ out into the world.

But as vexing as that is at times, it is our calling. And we, like Mary, undertake the journey risking a radical faith in the whispers of angels and the ephemera of dreams. I still take no comfort in clichés like “the journey is the destination.” But then, who said I am to be comfortable? This late in Advent is an ironic call to discomfort (“Comfort, comfort ye my people”), because nothing new comes without upsetting the old and the known, and until we learn to leave our idols at home and carry the living God with us on the road of life, we will not know our salvation.