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And

 

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“In the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”  [Mark 1:35]

At her denomination’s annual meeting, a social justice activist listened impatiently to a keynote address about spirituality. She was heard to mutter, “The world’s in flames, and these bliss-ninnies want to do guided meditations.”

In her view, ‘spirituality types’ are several singing bowls removed from the problems of the real world, clueless about root causes and systemic solutions. You want to pray? Do justice. Let that be your prayer. Want to linger devoutly over Scripture? Linger over Matthew 25. Then get to work. Enough with the navel-gazing!

Meanwhile, the keynoter was wondering why the ‘social justice types’ always seem so touchy, so grumpy. They have this air of fatigued arrogance about them, she thought, as if everything hinges on them—world peace, justice for he poor, an end to hunger. They can’t relax for even a nanosecond, because maybe, just maybe, the next action or petition will be the thing that finally fixes everything.

Jesus, Scripture says, puts his body on the line all day. And in the wee hours he prays. He never separates inseparables. For him, the kingdom comes by wonder and strategy, protest and ecstasy, imagination and politics, beauty and meetings, service and solitude, rallies and gratitude, rest and work, resolutions and praise.

It’s not a competition between the soul’s silence and the noise of the street. It’s not the sanctuary versus the subcommittee. It’s not even a matter of finding a balance, or making equal time. It’s about that and. About yielding our whole selves—every gift and skill, picketing and praying—to the Living One, in the sure and certain hope that, with us and without us, the kingdom comes, work of our hands and pure gift beyond our dreams.

Prayer
In prayer and action, O God, we hope in you. In you alone.

Grounded

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“They drove him to a hilltop, intending to hurl him off… But passing through the midst of them, he went on his way.”—Luke 4:28-30

At Jesus’ baptism, God discloses his identity: beloved Child. Later, in the wilderness, Jesus resists the temptation to be something else—showman, potentate, Satan’s son. Then he goes public, healing, and announcing God’s reign. The buzz grows.

In Nazareth, his neighbors ask him to preach. He starts with a portion of Isaiah: “God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, freedom to the oppressed…” Then he says, “Today, in your hearing, this scripture is fulfilled.”

We could hear that line as a deep, solemn pronouncement, but I think it’s more giddy than grave; for nothing makes us happier than knowing who we truly are and what we’re meant to do. When he sees himself in Isaiah’s text, I think Jesus is struck with the joy of it, and the exhilarating truth just comes bursting out of him—“This is who I am!”

His neighbors aren’t as thrilled. After a tense exchange, they press him to the cliff. Then things turn mysterious: “But passing through the midst of them, he went on his way.”

I don’t know how he did that, but there’s something so spare and serene about that sentence that I think it has to do with being grounded in God, your identity, and your calling. Something to do with the lightness, the fearlessness inherent in being so grounded; the safe passage it grants you—not to avoid danger or suffering, but to go straight through it with your freedom intact, eyes on the prize, anchored in and lifted by the joy no mob can kill and no circumstance can alter.

Prayer

Ground me in the knowledge of who I am and what I’m called to do; and in that grounding may I find joy and safe passage forever.

Desire

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“Like a deer longs for flowing streams, so my soul longs for you, O God… When shall I see you face to face?”—Psalm 42:1-2

Waiting is the hallmark of Advent, yet the Advent psalms and prophets speak more about longing than waiting: panting, fainting, begging, crying, desperate human need.

Waiting can be active, but it’s rarely terrible and driving. Desire, however, is visceral, like the crazed thirst of a wild animal in a parched land. God is a fierce and unrelenting need. Advent craves God.

Do you?

No, you aren’t thrashing through underbrush frantically seeking water. You don’t really relate much to that panting deer. You don’t have those kinds of experiences of God. You’re no mystic.

Although there was that moment when you heard a loon on the lake and cried, couldn’t stop, didn’t know why, but so wished you did.

Although there was that moment when you felt incomplete, a restlessness, and wondered what you were missing.

Although there was that moment when you were suddenly and completely happy, consoled without cause, and you wish you could feel it again.

Although there was that moment at the peace march or serving communion or stargazing in pure black night when you grasped it whole, the way it is, the way it’s meant to be.

Although there was that moment when your heart lurched listening to a story about someone who risked it all, who loved the way you want to, yes, you do.

Although there was that moment your defenses were down and your suffering was great when you just cried out, cried out for God, and then got scared: what if God comes?

No, you’re no mystic, no thrashing deer.

But there was that time…

Prayer: I’m so thirsty for you, O God. Like the deer. When will I see you face to face?

 

Commemoration of Saint Nicholas, December 6

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“He had to be made like his siblings in every way, so that he might become a merciful high priest… For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses…”—Hebrews 2:17, 4:15

When his wealthy parents died, Nicholas of Myra gave away a fortune and gave himself to the church. As a bishop, he acquired a reputation for generosity to the poor. After he died on December 6, 354, his fame spread beyond Asia Minor. In Europe, Christian imagination transformed him into jolly old St. Nick. Here, cartoonist Thomas Nast made him Santa Claus.

These days, many Christians are down on Santa and the commercialization of the season he represents. Aiming for a holier Advent, they point back to St. Nicholas, Santa’s prototype. We’d be a lot closer to the right spirit, they say, if we looked to the bishop, not the elf.

If only it were that simple. It turns out that the kind bishop was also a harsh bishop. Once jailed for his orthodox faith, he gave as good as he got, persecuting pagans and repressing Arian heretics. He was an amalgam of utmost kindness and fierce certainty, passions sweet and cruel, a compromised person in a complicated world. Like ours. Like us.

And if we’re hoping to be squeaky clean in this expectant season; if we think there’s a right way to do Advent that will bring us to Christmas with bright shiny faces; if we’re striving to reach a spiritual place in our lives without defects, contradictions, and dead-ends, perhaps we haven’t yet begun to grasp the Mercy we’re waiting for, the One who reached eagerly for the compromised flesh we try to escape, entered the complicated world we try to smooth out, and loved them both to death, even death on a cross.

Prayer

On St. Nicholas Day, we surrender our compromised hearts, complicated lives, and earnest striving to you, O Mercy without end.

 

Image: St Nicholas, 16th c. Russian icon

Zacchaeus

 

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Image: Zaccaeus, by Joel Whitehead

 An old sermon (from 2001)…

Luke 19:1-10

Jesus’ encounter with Zacchaeus is a story that recapitulates all the great themes of Luke’s gospel: the anticipatory mercy of God, the joy in heaven when the lost are found, the moral precariousness of the self-made and the self-righteous, the necessity of deeds to authenticate righteousness – especially the divestiture of concentrated wealth and the just treatment of the oppressed.

It is also a charming story, filled with unexpected details that make it easy to imagine. We learn that Zacchaeus was short, that he ran fast to beat out the crowd, that he climbed a tree, and that it was a sycamore. We learn that, inexplicably, Jesus knew his name, and that on the spur of the moment he invited himself to eat and even to stay overnight at Zacchaeus’ house. When we hear that Zacchaeus responded without the slightest hesitation, we imagine him flattered, flustered, happy, hopping up and down like a child.

But he was no child. He was a grown man, but exactly what sort of man is hard to say. His name means “clean,” or “pure,” but his profession was anything but. He was a chief tax collector with jurisdiction over a prosperous region, raising revenue from Jews for the foreign occupier, a collaborator consorting with Gentiles. To ordinary people tax collectors were disloyal opportunistic extortionists, Roman lackeys. Religious professionals held them in contempt as the most impious of sinners. It would not surprise me to learn that even their Roman employers despised them.

And yet…

And yet, there he is, a tax collector running after the rabbi, eager for Jesus, going out on a limb heedless of possible scorn or injury, unconditionally responsive when Jesus calls him down, illustrating another of Luke’s great themes—that only outsiders and outcasts recognize the kingdom when they see it.

Now, there are outcasts and there are outcasts. Most of Luke’s outsiders, even the morally shaky ones, elicit our sympathy. Widows, possessed people, lepers, women about to be stoned—when they fling themselves at Jesus’ feet, beg for mercy, confess their sins, or clutch his hem in search of healing and a restored life, we feel the injustice, the pity and the pain of their ostracism.

But a tax collector? That’s a different animal. If Zacchaeus is as nasty a piece of work as his contemporaries assume, it seems like just-desserts that he should be shunned in polite company and blotted out of the Book of Life. We could be wary of Jesus’ apparent approval of him in the same way that we are often upset by the characters in his parables who get a lot more than they deserve: Why the favor shown to the prodigal brat and not to the older son? Why a full day’s wage paid to the man who worked only an hour? Why eat with Zaccaheus? Zacchaeus is the kind of outcast we would feel OK about leaving out there beyond the pale. He brought it on himself.

But is he really all that bad? Consider this: when the crowd begins grumbling about what a disgrace it is that the rabbi should lodge with a sinner, Jesus, who usually delivers withering zingers in response to such judgments, says nothing. Zacchaeus is the one who speaks. He delivers a vivid self-defense. And what he says precisely has long been a translators’ debate. It all depends on whether you render his verbs, which are in the present tense, as “future-present” or “customary-present.”

The more traditional approach has been to use the future-present. In this rendering, Zacchaeus has a converting encounter with Jesus, and because of it, from now on he will behave more justly. Meeting Jesus changes him, on the spot, from a bad man to a good man, concerned with fairness and the well-being of the poor.

But in many other gospel scenes in which conversions occur, there are always dialogues of repentance and forgiveness, requests for restoration from the supplicant, and the commending of faith from the savior. None of these typical exchanges happen here. So other scholars prefer to render Zacaaheus’ speech in the customary-present. When they do, what Zacchaeus claims is that all along he has been more generous, more scrupulous, and more self-aware than he’s been given credit for. His self-defense is a simple disclosure of fact: he has habitually given half what he owns to the poor—that’s 40% above the tithe—and whenever he discovers that he has been involved in a fraud, he makes a four-fold restitution—twice what the law required.

He makes this disclosure not as a boast to God, like the prayer of the Pharisee in the temple we read about last Sunday, but as a plea for vindication, a plea that Jesus answers by recognizing him, a rich man, as a true son of Abraham, ready for the kingdom with all his household. Here, then, is another characteristic Lukan theme: although it is indeed harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to pass through a needle’s eye, for God, all things are possible. Zacchaeus is living proof of God’s power.

Zacchaeus’ disclosure of his generous and just practice was also surely meant as an act of hospitality: after all, Jesus is his guest, and the grumblers are ruining dinner. If Zacchaeus can correct their judgment of his own morality, maybe they’ll stop heckling Jesus about his choice of host. But I doubt he was able to accomplish that, especially if there were Pharisees in the crowd, who, fairly or not (and mostly unfairly), the evangelists depict as men devoid of irony who wouldn’t know a nuance or a compromise if one rose up and bit them, and whose notions of goodness and religious purity were not susceptible to the kind of truly human complexity we may have in Zacchaeus.

And it is human complexity in all its infuriating nuance that is on display here. Zacchaeus is a man carrying out one of those morally-dubious jobs, like designing missile guidance systems. Yet we cannot simply say that he is corrupt: the very thing he gets right in his life is the same thing God has put forward since the dawn of creation as the touchstone of authentic humanity and right worship: care for the poor and justice for the oppressed.

If “customary-present” is the better way to understand Zacchaeus’ response to the critics, it makes the story more familiar to us, and maybe even more credible. Zacchaeus is not converted on the spot—this rarely happens in human experience, and it doesn’t happen here. No, it turns out that he is neither villain nor hero. Neither consistently evil nor an exemplar of consistent virtue. But in a few important areas of his life, he is capable of acting like a man of God, a true son of Abraham, and the effects of his conduct on the world around him are humanly profound.

He is, then, like most of us, a compromised man in a compromised world, leading an ethically-ambiguous life in an ethically-bewildering human landscape. His name notwithstanding, he is unable to be pure in a world that is not pure either.

Like Oscar Schindler, a man not to be trusted with your money or your wife who saved thousands of Jews from destruction.

Like Mother Teresa, a woman supported by donations from organizations opposed to population control in India who gave dignity to the dying and hope to the sick and a new way of service to countless young people.

Like me, when I went to give a talk to some church leaders at the home of the congregation’s head deacon, a fifteen room house on eight acres in Sudbury, more house than any Christian should need or want, I remember thinking judgmentally as I pulled up to the front door, only to be greeted by seven adopted special needs children living happily inside.

This is Zaccaheus, complex and compromised in a complex and compromised world. Jesus loves him, accepts him fully just as he is, and glowingly commends him to Pharisees, to bystanders, and to us.

As I ponder his story, I find myself thinking about the anxiety, apprehension, anger, and frustration running rampant in our roiled-up nation and our war-torn world. We have great need of unambiguous prophets, strong and fearless, who will go way out on a limb and scout a new humanity, a different way, who will speak uncompromisingly the language of peace. But I am also thinking about the hideous consequences of true believing, whether it comes from “them” or from “us,” the frightening fundamentalisms of the right and the left, about the bloody dangers of replacing our first allegiance to human beings with ideology of any kind.

I am thinking about how difficult it is to be pure without being proud. I am thinking about the need we have for truth, and the fact that truth always comes to us unpackaged, in fragments, never unalloyed. I am thinking about the wisdom, the humility it takes to know that, and still to dare.

I am thinking about our communities of faith and witness, imperfect and loved by God; full of people with strong minds and wills, fierce convictions and bright visions; deep and faithful people who are also, at the same time, weak and needy, sinful (I begin with me), plagued by mixed motives and impure hearts, who live in a complex and ambiguous world with which we compromise daily despite our rhetoric of ethical excellence and moral purity, despite the high standards we often hold each other to and the judgments we make about each other when we fall short.

I am thinking about whether we should even try to come before God in any other way except in our frank human nature, full of our ambiguity; and whether, perversely, we should be relieved and even glad that it’s hard and even dangerous to be pure.

And I am thinking gratefully of you, First Church, for if any grumblers should question whether we are an appropriate house for Christ to lodge in, we also can, like Zaccaheus, say in our own defense that by the grace of God, in the midst of our compromises and sins, we do care for the poor and we do work for justice; that at least we know that that is the thing we should be trying to get right, no matter what else we may struggle with, fail at, or fudge.

I am thinking how grateful I am, and I hope you are too, for this odd privilege of being accepted by a God who knows our dilemma, who shared our flesh, experienced our internal contradictions, was done to death by our compromises, and who loved us first, still loves us now, and will keep loving us to the end.

 

 

Saving Flesh

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“God will save God’s people on that day… They will sparkle in God’s land like jewels in a crown. How attractive and beautiful they will be!”—Zechariah 9:16-17

A good friend was in therapy for a debilitating situational depression. After a few months of treatment, there was less pressure in her chest, more songs she could listen to all the way through. But the depression was deep, and her progress was slow.

Each week she would walk to her appointment along the banks of the Charles River where on warm days Harvard undergrads lolled in various states of dress and undress, sunning themselves, tossing Frisbees, preening, laughing, and seducing each other with unapologetic sensuality.

All this she would see through a lusterless haze. Everything gray, everyone blurred, voices muffled and distorted, underwater. And she couldn’t bear them, those children, their youth and their joy. The pleasure they took in their bodies cut her. Their flesh was repulsive, a blasphemy.

Then one day she saw them, and they gleamed. Their light didn’t sting her eyes. Their laughter made her own heart sing. Their flesh was so beautiful it made her cry. And she loved them, loved their bodies and their joy, loved their life, their lust, their immodest abandon. She almost fell to her knees, adoring.

On the day she loved their bodies, she knew she was well. She knew she was whole when life in the body—in every body of every kind—became for her a parted sea, a burning bush, a holy of holies. She knew she was saved the day all flesh made manifest the Glory.

 

The Enneagram, the Myers-Briggs, and Other Idolatries

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When Myers-Briggs devotees ask me ‘what I am’ on the scale, I say I don’t know. Eyebrows go up. Haven’t you ‘taken the test’? Yes, four times, because two employers, one working group, and an ordination committee required me to. But I’ve always had a hard time recalling what ‘I am.’ In part that’s because every time I take it, the results change. Apparently I’m a moving target.

When the Enneagram people ask me ‘what my number is,’ I also shrug. I’ve never done it. When I admit this, they look a little sorry for me—Richard Rohr teaches it, for goodness’ sake!—and proceed to tell me what they think my number is. I guess they’ve had my number all along, which I find amusing when I don’t find it annoying.

What I have taken are those Facebook tests that tell you what country you should live in and what character you are in Hamlet. I get Fortinbras a lot. Who knew? They’re silly, of course, harmless, and pretty much always wrong, but I take them anyway, for fun. But more ponderous inventories and assessments like the Myers-Briggs and the Enneagram? Those, I confess, I resist.

It’s not that I’m incurious about who I am, or afraid to find out: I once had my palm read in a cave in southern Spain. And it’s not that I’m disapproving of the way such tools become all-explaining constructs for some people, in the same way that the labyrinth colonizes some folks’ entire approach to spirituality. It’s true that I pedantically fret about reductionist distortions of the spiritual life and can be querulous in conversations about it too (see, I know at least that much about myself); but I also know it’s not up to me to decide what people should find ‘powerful’ for their lives, and I can let my wariness go.

Nor am I put off because  there’s no scientific basis for the assumptions these tools rest on and the explanatory conclusions they deliver, although quasi-scientific claims are routinely made for them. The Enneagram also purports to be an ‘ancient’ tool, which for mystery-starved Protestant progressives lends it a great deal more authority than science ever could. I find this deference to the ancient supremely ironic in people who aggressively eschew dead white men and most expressions of tradition, but hey. In any case,  I’ve given my heart to lots of scientifically unreliable things, like Christian faith and the Red Sox, so the Enneagram gets a pass from me on this count, too.

And it’s not that I don’t understand that, as some fans of the Myers-Briggs and the Enneagram insist when I launch another tiresome critique, they’re only tools meant to help us in circumscribed ways, not the be-all and end-all, etc. You should do it, get inside it, learn from experience, let us explain it to you correctly, then you’d see. The truth would dawn. That’s sort of a gnostic argument when it comes down to it, and I don’t care much for gnostic arguments. Besides it’s just not true. I do get it that they’re only tools. But I also get that many facilitators and experts who fuel the monster self-knowledge industry are not so modest. Their ardor makes ‘only tools’ seem like existential necessities with unassailable validity, and skeptics like me would recognize that if only we would trust them when they say so.

No, what makes me a resister is more philosophical, I guess you could say, or maybe more theological. When push comes to shove, I’m just not very interested in the particular kind of self-understanding these tools offer. I don’t think self-knowledge has all that much to do with being able to unearth and describe particular personality traits or styles of being in the world. What I want is to know myself, not dissect and explain myself. For me, self-knowledge is a comprehensive thing, the sort of knowledge about my human nature that gives my soul stability, a capacity to be neither excessively enamored of its gifts nor abjectly shamed by its lacks, neither preening about its virtues nor shocked by its sins.

When I seek this kind of self-knowledge, I find I’m hardly ever preoccupied with the activity of knowing myself in particular detail. I don’t spend a lot of time negotiating the slalom course of interior self-investigation and segmentation because (as somebody once wrote, I can’t recall who) “knowing yourself is not the same as being interested in yourself.” I’m hoping instead to acquire, over a lifetime, a tacit consciousness of my human finitude and contingency, a deep background awareness of incompleteness and belovedness, a gounding knowledge to accompany me and shape my being and acting in the world.

In this sense, self-knowledge is a discipline and a gift. And what this sort of self-knowledge knows is not ‘things about me,’ but something richer and more encompassing: namely, that my human status vis-à-vis God, my neighbor, and the world is a sheer mercy.

Then there’s this truth: Even the most useful instruments for discovering the self, the shape of our personalities, and the contours of our human style obscure as often as they illumine, because human beings are necessarily elusive and hidden. We are always more than we know. More than anyone knows. And in the same way that ‘God’ cannot be nailed down, neither can we. It’s not for nothing that we were made in the divine image, so dark in its glory, so bright in its enigma. We can’t explain ourselves to ourselves, and no one else and no instrument, scientific or magical, can do it for us, either.

Trouble often comes when someone thinks they have us figured out, or when we think we know what makes another person or class of persons tick. Sometimes the trouble is trifling; sometimes it’s as big, nasty, and dehumanizing as patriarchy, racism, and, well, you name it. There’s nothing silly or wrong (despite my skepticism and occasional mockery) in knowing all kinds of things about ourselves. And I don’t doubt that there are tools  that can help in that enterprise. What I doubt is that there’s genuine wisdom to be had in it. I think there’s genuine wisdom in knowing what self-knowledge knows: the whole self cannot be known.

This truth often causes us pain. We all long to go in, to cross the threshold, to know and be known fully. It’s hard to be turned away at the door by the mystery of unknowability. And yet there’s also invincible freedom and dignity in living inside the truth that we can be captured by nothing and no one—not even ourselves.

None of these tools can deliver in any lasting way what they seem to promise (or what some people infer, correctly or not, that they promise): namely, that with numbers and letters in hand, we can understand each other more fully, get along better, make compassionate, or at least practical, accommodations for our differences, and not judge someone because they are a 2 or an INTJ. In my experience, discovering, sharing, discussing, even laughing about our ‘scores’ has rarely forestalled or resolved tension and discord in staff meetings, impatience and dismissive judgment among family members, or the facile excusing of ourselves from the obligation to grow up and behave better.

This failure isn’t the fault of the tool so much as it is a flaw in us. Same old story: we want what we can’t have. For at the core of our lives is a mystery whose entire scrutiny belongs only to God. Self-knowledge is given to us as we’re led to glimpse and embrace the nature of our creaturehood as God fashioned it and knows it, that simple human being most of us spend a lifetime evading even as we’re busily taking personality inventories to tell us who we are.

To seek self-knowledge is to enter a lifelong path of attention, faith, and surrender. It’s also to accept that no effort of ours will ever lead, or is meant to lead, to the kind of detailed understanding we crave when we sit down to take those tests. It will not hand us the keys we think will unlock us and explain us and make things better. That sort of knowing is fine as far as it goes, but to pursue and prize it is to settle for a lot less than we deserve. It may even be a kind of idolatry, depending for grace on gods that can’t bestow it. But to thirst for that larger self-knowledge is to concede divine sovereignty over our enigmatic lives. It is to worship the living God.