Tuesday, March 13, 2007

The Hellish Poker Game

The theme of tonight is the spirituality of the wind and cold – which might be a tough one to swallow, a hard thing to imagine after the beautiful day we had today, and the practically balmy weather we’ve had for the past three days, and really, the sort of global-warming winter we’ve had.

There’s something incredibly simple about a cold
Biting wind. One moment the day is clear and seems
Even warm, in comparison, and the next moment the wind
Takes you by surprise, cutting through your sweater,
Attacking your exposed neck, bringing tears to your eyes.

And yet, what is it? It’s just air. It’s just high and low
Pressure striving for balance. It’s just this one little thing
That has no feelings, no intentions, no hope that it didn’t
Bother you too much just now when it blew past and made
You wish you hadn’t left the coffee shop after all.
The wind has no desire for revenge, even though
We curse it, stepping out, our bare fingers suddenly aching
For the cold as we fumble with keys.

The wind is simple. It does not care.
It does not mean to, but it can affect us profoundly
Freezing skin, chilling our inner fire, driving us to seek shelter.
We cancel schools, rearrange our schedules,
Find ourselves shocked or angry or resentful
Because it bites, so. Because of the wind.

If only we could have a conference call with the wind,
Or maybe catch it online sometime, and drag it into a chat.
I can hear what might be said even now:
Excuse me, I hate to be picky, but there are just one or two things.
I know it’s part of your job, and please understand that I respect that,
But do you have any idea what a pain you can be?
It’s one thing to have a nice summer breeze, especially in the evening.
It’s one thing to have a nice wind off the water – we bring an extra layer
And smile into it. But could we discuss your windchill?
It’s rather uncomfortable, and really – is it strictly necessary?
I’m not talking all the time, of course, but maybe just those
Below Zero days – could we have those without the wind?
That’s not too much to ask, surely?

And what, I wonder, would the wind reply?
Why do you seek to change me?
I am doing what I am meant to do.
Perhaps, if I may be so bold as to suggest it,
The change you seek is your own.
I am the same breeze you exalt in the summer
And curse in the winter. My effect is the same.

And then the wind gets called away from the phone,
Pulled away from the keyboard. It seemed so clear
There was more to say, but it remains unsaid
It remains to us to guess the wisdom.
Or perhaps the wind had really just finished
Left abruptly, as is his way.

And so, I’ll guess the wisdom. Have you ever noticed
How we rant and rail, spending our energy – a limited thing,
Spending our attention, spending ourselves, day after day,
Year after year, generation after generation,
We spend ourselves in an attempt to change the
Unchangeable. Meanwhile, the changeable remains the same
Snickering in the corner as we rail at the wind
As we spend all our energy, knowing that when we turn
To see what the noise was that we wont have any energy left
To challenge the now straight face on the changeable as it stands there
Lying, mimicking eternity, faking us out yet again.

And so we’re left with two columns. Column A seems to have
All the changeable things. Column B seems to have all the
Unchangables. I wonder if we have things in the right column?

I wonder which column poverty goes under. What about corruption?
Where does war fit in? Is war fully entrenched in the unchangeable column,
Ready to fire its missiles at us if we beg to differ? Where is intolerance?

In a perfect world...
“in a perfect world”- what a terrible phrase
It makes it sound like a perfect world isn’t possible
It makes it okay to make choices that do not lead to
A perfect world, if by perfect, we actually mean
And end to war – not through victory, but through reconciliation
An absence of poverty, a lack of corruption, and an
End to intolerance. A perfect world.
But we’re not there yet, perhaps because for too many of us,
War, Poverty, Corruption and Intolerance
Are sitting in the corner, playing poker – poverty always
Looses her shirt and most of her rice – and when they think
We’re not looking, they’re laughing at us
And when we whip around, almost certain we’d just heard a noise
A bump in the night, a moan of a starving child, the murmur of a beggar,
The whine of torpedo, the flick of money changing hands,
When we turn around and peer into the shadow
All we see are the four figures, motionless statues
Carved in marble, enshrined for all eternity –
Or so they should like us to think.
Too bad, some of us just saw Intolerance smirk.

Re-inventing Christianity, Part 3

For the previous parts of this preaching series, as well as its continuation, please head on over to Cam's Blog.

The past two sermons have dealt pretty strongly with the deconstruction of Christianity – taking it apart,like you might take a toaster or a ’57 Chevy apart to figure out which bits are essential, which bits are the bells and whistles, and which bits are the ones that keep the other bits going. Well, today is a turning point in that process. There will be a bit of deconstruction, a bit of taking things apart, and then there will be a bit of construction too, a bit of putting the toaster back together, as it were.

Let’s start with Exodus. Let’s start with one of the most interesting, and maybe the most important stories that we have in the holy and inspired writings we call the Bible. This is where we meet God.

Sure, we’ve seen God before. There are the stories of creation, there are the stories of shenanigans of Abraham and Sarah and their offspring, there are the stories of Hagar and her descendants. There’s a story of a covenant, an agreement of love made between God and Abraham, and yet this story, this story of the encounter of Moses and God, this story where Moses is just hanging out doing his job, and yet gets distracted by God, this is the first story we have where God reveals who God is. God gives us a name. God’s name.

That’s such an interesting, such a powerful thing, but I think sometimes it gets lost. We, nowadays, don’t always associate the true meaning of a thing with its name. It’s like Shakespeare said – what is in a name? A rose called by any other name would smell as sweet. And yet – and yet… In stories both old and new – in ancient tales in the Bible and elsewhere, as well as modern tales of fantasy and imagination – names aren’t just important, they’re absolutely key. Names actually describe traits of the thing named, and if you’re lucky, a name – a single, yet profound word or phrase – actually captures the essence of the thing in question. That’s why people and places are constantly being renamed in the Bible. And here is the first time we see it, with God.

Now, the situation in the story unfolds this way: Moses is given something to do for God, but it’s a decent sized task, even for one who was raised in the royal Egyptian court, as the story goes, and Moses balks in two major ways: One of his issues is that he isn’t a good public speaker. God solves that and gives him a spokes person. But another of his major issues is this: How are the enslaved people he’s supposed to free going to trust him? How are they going to believe him? Why would they follow him? And which god is it, exactly, that’s giving him these instructions, anyway?

To this God offers reassurance, and God gives us… a name. But not just a name – a verbal, a vocal reflection of who God is. The Hebrew has it at “Ayer ashah ayer.” Ayer ashah ayer. I am who I am. I am who I am. That’s pretty profound, if we let ourselves stop to think about it, but it gets better, because Hebrew is not a simple language with exact translations that only carry one meaning, no, no. In this phrase, this simple sentence, there are a variety of ways that it could be legitimately translated, because the tenses aren’t what we would think of as stable and reliable. That is, it also means “I will be who I will be.” And it also means, “I am, that I will be.” And it also means, “I will be who I am.” And it doesn’t just mean one of these things, God’s name means all of them.

And what does that mean? Well, I think it means a lot of things – it may mean everything, actually, but among all of that, it means that God defies definition – I am who I am. Let me say that again: God defies definition. God defies our definition.

And yet, and yet… What is modern religion – and by religion I’ll say, Christianity, and by modern, I mean the last 1700 years – what is modern religion but an attempt to define God. Entire theological libraries have been written in an attempt to define God.

And yet, God has already pointed out, rather early on, and probably more than once, though in Moses’ case, we have a written story of it, so we’ll refer to that instance – God has already pointed out that God is who God is, and that is about as much definition as we can reasonably hope for.

So then, where does that leave religion? Where does that leave Christianity? In a really lovely place, actually, if it can get over its compulsive obsession with further defining God. If it can re-invent itself, getting back to the basics – the basics of being in relationship with God, instead of getting continually being caught up in the attempt to define God – If it can do this, if Christianity can do this, then there is great hope.

And, let me be clear. When I say, “being in relationship with God”, when I refer to Christianity coming back to its own roots in the state of being, and in the action of relationship with God, I not talking exclusively of personal morality, personal piety. I’m not talking just about coming to church every Sunday. I’m not talking just about living a good and wholesome life that our parents and grandparents would have approved of. I’m talking about the two great commandments: Love God – love God with everything you’ve got – your mind, your body, your spirit. And Love Your Neighbor – love them as you love yourself. Love the guy who asks you for a quarter. Love the politician you violently disagree with. Love the annoying person at work. Love them as you love yourself – which of course means that you have to love yourself, too. And not a sort of happy hearts and flowers love – no, no, no. Love as in the strong tie that goads you into respecting and valuing someone even though might not actually feel like do it. Love, it’s the bungee cord that secures you to someone else so tightly that you can’t help but to respect their dignity as a human being, and when they suffer, it is as if you are suffering, and you can’t help but to be bothered by it.

That is what being in relationship with God is. Loving God. Loving your Neighbor. Loving Your Self.

Now, just a moment ago, it may have seemed like I said, “You don’t have to go to church.” Lest this get me in really hot water, allow me to explain. God loves you whether or not you come to this church, or any church. God loves you whether or not you are Episcopalian, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, or Baptist. God loves you whether or not you are Christian, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Jewish, Sikh, or None Of The Above. God loves you. That’s sort of what that boils down to. God loves you – and me. That’s not even a question. The question is, How is your relationship with God? How is my relationship with God? And this is where religious communities come in. It’s all well and good to declare that you’re going to go it alone, that you don’t need Christianity or anything else for that matter, that your relationship with God is between you and God – that’s fine in theory. But the practice of it, if we are honest with ourselves, is somewhat sketchier. When you’re going it alone, there’s no one around to encourage, to inspire, and to hold you accountable for what you say is most important to you. A religious community, a church, is the place to come to recharge, and refocus. It is the place, the people gathered, that holds up a vision of that self-defining God, and what it means to be in relationship with that same God.

And so, it is not the case that you have to come to church, or something bad will happen to you. The hounds of hell will not chase you down Monday afternoon if you fail to get yourself to a house of worship at some point the day before. But the flip of that, is that when we don’t intentionally give our time and energy to regularly recharge and reinspire and be held accountable for the state of our relationship with God, like a muscle that does not move, it begins to atrophe – and it’s not always noticeable at first. Like a slacking off from regular exercise – you only really notice it when you start up again, a week later, a month later, a year later. And when your muscles scream at you the day after, you think to yourself – or, at least I think to myself – Gosh, I really haven’t exercised in a while, have I? And suddenly you can feel the difference very strongly.

But in all of this there has been a lingering question that has been in the back of my mind – perhaps yours as well. Why? Why a Lenten series, why this Lenten series? Why bother to try to reinvent Christianity? Why bother to dig deep, to deconstruct, to hold up nice, happy, comfortable practices that make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside, to evaluate them? If Christianity the way it is practiced in many churches, portrayed in many movies is so bothersome that it needs reinventing, why not just chuck it and become Buddhist, or Jewish, or Muslim? Why, indeed. I think we all have to come to our own answer to that question. But I’ll share with you the answer that I am coming to – coming to, in that this is still a work in progress for me, and may remain so until I die.

In the grand sense, I think that the grass isn’t actually greener on the other side. Each religion, in its historical practices, has abuses, corruptions, fringe elements taking over and attempting – usually with success – to speak for the entire group that they do not actually represent. Each religion has had moments and longer, of extreme ideological idolatry. Christianity is no different.

In the mezzo sense – in that mid-level point between the big picture and my own personal reality – Christianity is the religion and culture that I was born with. I worship the same god of my parents and my grandparents, and I worship that same god in roughly the same way. I find that to be a very powerful thought. I have to forge my own relationship with God, everyone does – in every generation – you can inherit religion, but you can’t inherit relationship – you’ve got to work at relationship, but there is a sense for me that Christianity is what I’ve got, and if it’s broken or mis-represented, then I probably need to help fix it.

And then, there is the personal sense. Whether or not the grass is in fact greener on the Jewish side of the hill, and despite growing up as I did as a Christian, inheriting that from my parents, there is my own personal compulsion: I really dig the Messiah. Jesus, the Rabbi, the Teacher, the Healer, the Prophet – the one who said, it’s not that the kingdom is coming, the kingdom is here, and you need to participate. Jesus, the human who is the closest thing I’ve got to… a definition of God? If I Am Who I Am, walked among us in tee-shirt and jeans, I Will Be Who I Am, would look like Jesus, The Christ.

So, I’m Christian. And me, I’m a priest. But I’m not your average manic street preacher, threatening hell and eternal damnation if a specific formula isn’t observed. And in fact, if that is what Christianity is – then I’m ready to reinvent it. How about you?