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.