Pentecost: love and fire

This summer I will have lived in the United States for 15 years. This year, I have been a US citizen for six years already, and just the other night I was once again reminded that American English is not my mother tongue and that I still don’t always know the words to make myself understood, or to understand.

So it is a gift on the day of Pentecost to read in the Acts of the Apostles that the people can understand each other no matter what language they speak, no matter where they come from, no matter their background. They all hear the Spirit of God speaking to them in their own language, one that they can understand; and I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that the story implies, with its buzz of excited conversation among the crowd, that they understand one another. Certainly, they all heard Peter, that fisherman from Galilee who in his time crossed the borders of Lebanon and Syria, Jordan, Israel, Palestine, Gaza, without let or hindrance. They heard, and understood the gospel that he brought to them straight from the life and love of Christ.

It makes me wonder what we have done, how far we have come from that moment which threatened to reunite humanity within the Spirit of God, within the unity of understanding, standing under the love of Christ revealed to us by the cross and the empty tomb.

How is it that we no longer understand one another even when we allegedly speak the same language? How is it that we are so divided that some of us feel duty bound to arm ourselves against our own neighbours, instead of loving them to death? How is it that we are so threatened by the love of Christ’s death on the cross that we carry death in our pockets and expect it to lead us to life? How is it that instead of the empty tomb, we stand witness too often to the graves of God’s children who are no longer playing at killing one another?

What have we done, since that day of Pentecost, when the Spirit of God blew out the doors and let rip the gospel, the love of God demonstrated to us in Christ Jesus for the whole world to see?

Yesterday, I suspect that a good many of you saw our own Presiding Bishop Michael Curry offer a wedding homily. I knew that it would be a good one. The language of love can bridge wide oceans. The language of the gospel is always crossing boundaries. The Spirit of understanding can even heal the division between British and American English, with a little good grace and a following wind.

I knew that Bishop Curry would blow the minds of many who heard him. I knew that he would preach that love of God, that love of Jesus which threatens our divisions and thwarts our fears if we let it, which heals wounds that cannot be sewn shut by any other power; which heals them even they may still leave a scar.

I didn’t know that he would quote Teilhard de Chardin on the discovery and the use and the harnessing of fire, which of course is perfect for Pentecost, thought all the preachers in the land – except that really it isn’t. Whoever thought that fire could ever be a positive image for the Holy Spirit? I know, it’s in the Bible, and that without the fiery combustion engine of the sun we would have no life here on earth, but still …

We know the destructive force that fire can be – we see it in the melting of the earth and the ash that rises from the volcano on Hawai’i. We see it in wildfires and house fires, and we see it in the controlled explosions that ring out from shotguns and semi-automatic rifles and service revolvers. Only when it is tightly controlled and curbed does fire become useful to us, life-giving instead of life-stealing, productive instead of destructive. Only when it is drawn back, held back, reasoned with … even then, let’s be honest, having seen all that we have seen, can we still call fire our friend? If fire represents the Holy Spirit, then we have blasphemed the Spirit of God by making fire the creature of our destruction instead of the essence of our life.

The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, cannot be tamed, and does not destroy when given free reign, because she is not our creature to control, but she is the very essence of God, who is love.

De Chardin says that if we can but learn to harness the power of love, that Spirit which is God; if we can learn to use love to power our lives, our homes, our schools, our communities; if we can learn to share love as God has shared love with us, then it will be as revolutionary for humankind as when our ancestors learned how to pluck fire from the earth without getting burned.

If we can learn, not to hoard or to restrict or to control love, but how to live with it, live within its dance, let love live within us, then we can change the world.

Bishop Curry also quoted the Revd Dr Martin Luther King, Jr:

We must discover the power of love, the redemptive power of love. And when we discover that, we will be able to make of this old world a new world. Love is the only way.

If we can learn the language of love, instead of fear, or of fire; if we can learn the language of love then we might once again understand one another, and hear the voice of God on the wind, telling all who will listen of the love that gave up life itself for us on the cross, and plucked life itself from the grave, all for the love of God and of God’s creation.

If we can learn the ways of love – well, Bishop Curry said it this way:

When love is the way, the earth [our world] will be a sanctuary.
When love is the way, we will lay down our swords and shields down by the riverside
to study war no more.

Can you imagine a world without war? Can you imagine a world without gunfire? Can you imagine a world in which the murder of schoolchildren, and their teachers, and our neighbours, was unimaginable?

That is the world imagined by the Holy Spirit which blew through Jerusalem on Pentecost morning, bringing people from different backgrounds, languages, nations, ethnicities, and histories into an understanding of this: that God is love. That God would do, has done, anything for us to know love. That what God wants more than anything else in the world is for us to love one another, because in doing so, we live the life that God created for us, and because perfect love drives out all fear, and because when we love one another, we love God, because God is love.

Love God. Love your neighbour as yourself. It is still, and always, the only way to change the world.

Amen.

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Book review: Denial is my spiritual practice, Hackenberg & Spong

Denial is my spiritual practice (and other failures of faith),
Rachel G Hackenberg & Martha Spong (Church Publishing, May 2018)

In her epilogue to the book, Rachel writes*

Our best hope is not that you read these stories and say, “Wow, cool dirty laundry,” but that you find a mirror for your spirit somewhere within these pages, a glimmer of a reflection to assure you that you’re not alone – in faith or in life, in pain or in change – and that you recognize yourself within God’s broader story.

I had already marked the page where Martha described arriving for a coffee date:

Once inside, I listened carefully to the orders of the people in line ahead of me, managed to request a cup of coffee without sounding inept …

because I do so recognize that grown woman covering her adolescent anxiety about fitting in with careful tactics designed to demonstrate competency. I saw her in the mirror on her way out of my house this morning.

The gift that Martha and Rachel offer in their stories is not found in the information about their lives per se, fascinating and generous as they are, but in that invitation to the reader to find herself (himself, themself) within the stories that we share; the ones that haunt us since our days growing up within or without families, within or without the embrace of our spiritual ancestors, whose stories creep out of the Bible to interweave with these pastors’ words and remind us that it was ever thus, and that God was ever so.

In the years between moving to America and becoming an Episcopal priest, through a series of associations I won’t go into here, “The Summons,” that beautiful song by John Bell of Iona has become my mantra of sorts; my theme song. One verse opens, Will you love the “you” you hide if I but call your name? The song kept singing itself to me as I read these women’s words. In a way, they are asking the same question, and laying their own struggle to answer it on the table.

Rachel’s writing style has the texture of that brittle shell that we cast around those parts of ourselves we most need to protect, even from ourselves, even from God; its touch unmasks the truthfulness of her storytelling, the depth of her honesty, the leap of faith it takes to put down on paper the prayer that names the fear,

Unless
God doesn’t come.

Martha’s writing opens a well for the reader to dip her pen (his, their pen) and write themselves into the story, write their own story. The conversation between the two, indirect, yet lilting, like songs answering each other across a fence, brings the reader home.

I’m not sure when a book last sang to me.

I recommend that you acquire yourself a copy, read it, savour it, and then keep it close for those moments when, for the sake of faith or sanity, you need once more to find yourself reflected in the mirror of another soul, another spirit, one that has wrestled with God, and, against all expectations, lived to see dawn’s light limping across the valley.

_________________________

  • By way of disclosure: I’ve met Rachel; Martha, too, online at least, and in print in the RevGalBlogPals book, There’s a Woman in the Pulpit (SkyLight Paths Publishing, 2015), which Martha compiled and edited, and to which we all contributed, me least of all.
  • Get the book from Church Publishing, on Amazon, or talk to your favourite independent book seller.
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Eleison

Christ, have mercy,
we expostulate once more; he says

You do not know how often I
long to gather you to my arms
as a hen protects her chicks beneath her wing;
but are you sure that it is mercy that you want?

Instead of tenderness, how many times
have you sought solace in metal and kevlar;
instead of safety, preferred a hard perimeter;
instead of common ground, built
walls, chasms, barricades, as though history
were not littered with the ruins of your fortresses,
their stones repurposed to remember the dead?

Have mercy upon us, we pray, laying down
arms full of floral, teddy-bear tributes.
Have mercy, we say, from a sniper’s shot away,
watching the cross like a hawk for signs of life.

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The prayer bear

This article was first published at the Episcopal Café

A hundred years ago, or so, when they took my tonsils out, hospitals didn’t let families stay with their small patients. And they kept you for months (okay, maybe a week). As luck would have it, my mother worked next door to the hospital and could visit on her lunch breaks. In the meantime, I became quite attached to a rather worn, rather bald, brown teddy bear. When they finally released me into the wilds, the nurses very kindly let me take the ragged old thing with me. I do not know if they knew how generous they were being. The stuffed animal still sits in my entrance way at home, greeting me at the front door.

This month, during our irregular education hour at church, we talked about expansive and alternative images for God, in the Bible and in our prayers. It was interesting to stretch our imaginations, and to find out where the stiffness of our necks and our prayer muscles pulled us back.

Male and female pronouns were fine, we found, in their place; but when we messed with their assigned gender roles – letting Mother rule almighty and Father tenderly nurture – some of us were in danger of straining something.

Nonhuman images seemed safer: a soft-winged hen was less of a leap than a birthing, nursing human mother to describe God. Lions were easy. Pillars of fire, anonymous and impassive pillars of cloud and dust presented few problems. The lamb – that one gets complicated. We are not sure about making God cute.

God as the she-bear protecting her cubs kept coming back around to haunt us. The image comes from Hosea 13:8: the prophet threatens the enemies of God’s people with the ravening wrath of a mama bear. It could certainly be considered less than comforting; yet it was an image that encapsulated our awe, even our caution, while inviting us to trust in the faithful protection and fearsome love of a God beyond our strength to reckon with.

Eventually, I was reminded me of my bear back home, the one who has been with me since one of my first dips into that valley of shadows. It reminds me of the pain, both physical and spiritual, of that time of separation, as well as of the comfort that was available. It speaks to me of a simple and profound generosity which goes beyond the logical understanding of an eight-year-old, or of an adult taught to measure out gifts given and received; which entered my heart without touching the sides on its way into my soul.

Great God
if I am fearfully and wonderfully made
you are more fearsome and wonderful
since I am a pale image of your essence
yet you let me take you in my hands
I am lost to the mystery of your body
wounded and whole, dangerous, untame
but soft as bread on the tongue, speaking
in the wild, unintelligible language of love.

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The prayer of a lost Leviathan

My Creator,
when you made sea monsters for sport, why
would you not make me buoyant,
flattening the waves,
smoothing surfaces, resting
zen-like on the moon’s reflection, bathed
beautiful by her silver light; why not
fiercely playful, breaking unexpectedly,
tossing aircraft carriers after their cargo,
catching men and women on my tongue,
roaring laughter as I lay them out on life rafts;
why did you not make me deeper, less
defenseless against downbearing pressure,
the weight of salt water rusting my scales,
crushing my heart within its own cavity,
turning me into a fossil of my own, ancient self?

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Our own devices

A sermon for the sixth Sunday of Easter at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid

_________________________________________________

“Whatever is born of God conquers the world,” writes the author of the letters attributed to John. And as we heard from the same lips last week, “God is love.” Ipso facto, love conquers the world. And yet so often we are still sighing for the lack of love, and dying of its frustration. We are still waiting for the glorious victory of the kingdom of God, a battle song to proclaim its mission accomplished …

As most of you know, back in the earliest centuries of the church, the Roman empire, the one that had the power to order crucifixions, that washed its hands of God when it put Jesus to death, the one whose lord was Caesar – that Roman empire continued to flourish and grow, finding in its victories its vindication, while the Christian religion, young and yet vigorous, was by turns persecuted and ignored.

That is, until Constantine, who became known eventually as Constantine the Great. Legend has it that Constantine’s conversion to Christianity began with a dream, by which he was inspired to go into battle under the Chi-Ro, a symbol of Christ, using the first two letters of that title in the Greek, set against the sun. [i]

Constantine was a sun-worshipper, but he saw no conflict between his devotions to that celestial body and the Son of God, Jesus Christ. And he postponed his baptism into the Christian faith until his deathbed, not because he doubted the power of the Risen Christ to bring him victory; still, it seems, he thought that he might hedge his bets, and keep his freedom to kill, rather than to pray for his enemies; to pursue by all means the goals of the same empire that had used the cross with which he was now anointed to kill Christ.[ii]

Oh, how often do we want it both ways? We want to be faithful, to honour our covenant with Christ, our baptismal vows, our promise to follow the way not of Constantine, not of the empire, but of the cross; and yet we want to enlist God as our foot soldier, our secret weapon, to ensure our own victory, to conquer the world on our behalf.

Constantine’s prevarication is like the prayer of Saint Augustine, before he was sainted: O God, “make me chaste and continent, but not yet.”[iii] We know the kind of love to which we are called, but we would like to run riot a little longer before we are completely conquered by it.

There is a danger in our Easter hymns – because we are still in the season of Easter, and we are still singing them – of reducing Christ’s victory to one event. We sing of his victory over death, his triumph over the tomb, and we are right to do so. It is marvellous. It changed everything. The earthquake that rolled the rock away from the entrance to the cave where his body was laid continues to send its aftershocks through our lives, through our conscience, through our imaginations, shaking up hope wherever it is heard and felt.

Still, causing the soldiers standing guard to faint with fright was not the only victory that Jesus celebrated if we read the gospels again. We talked last week about how Jesus demonstrated love, gave us the example of how to love one another; and these were victories themselves. He fought demons, and he won. He fought illness, and gave life the victory. He won over critics, sometimes, and converted crooks into honest men. He rescued the impetuous joy of children from the hard hearts of those who knew better, and he fed the crowd on the hillside, conquering their hunger with God’s providence.

Small victories, born of God, have a profound effect on the people who encounter them. Small victories born of God, born of love, grow up to conquer the world. A word of comfort, of apology, of forgiveness; the sharing of a morsel of bread can become the seed for a movement that reconciles people to themselves, to one another, to Christ.

Small victories, like pulling off another community meal, or another summer music camp, or another prayer vigil. Small victories, like sharing the prayers that comfort and heal the hurting soul and give hope to the body. Small victories like hearing our own hearts confess the bets we are hedging, and hearing God’s word of absolute embrace, Christ’s ready forgiveness, the Spirit’s whisper of encouragement. These are the movements born of God that will conquer the world.

We wonder, always, if it is enough. We hear about the violence in our neighbourhoods, gunfire shooting children in their beds, drive-by death, statistical sin. We know how wrongheaded our own friends and relatives can be, those on the dark side, foot soldiers of the empire, or lawless rebels. We want to add our armies to the fight, to raise our voices, to run riot – which is fine, as long as we are sure that the flag we follow is the cross of Christ, serving the kingdom of God, and not some other standard that we, ever creative, dreamed up like Constantine.

I was reminded this past week at clergy conference of Bishop Curry’s words after the outrage at Charlottesville last summer.

I know too well that talk … of the kingdom of God in our midst, can be dismissed as nice but naive, idealistic yet unrealistic. I know that.

But I also know this. The way of Beloved Community is our only hope. In this most recent unveiling of hatred, bigotry, and cruelty, … we have seen the alternative to God’s Beloved Community. And that alternative is simply unthinkable….

We who follow Jesus have made a choice to walk a different way: the way of disciplined, intentional, passionate, compassionate, mobilized, organized love intent on creating God’s Beloved Community on earth.[iv]

Disciplined, intentional, passionate, compassionate, mobilized, organized: a force to be reckoned with?

We who have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, God’s victory over sin and death, God’s conquest of our hearts – we do not have the luxury of Constantine to postpone our decision to follow the cross instead of a device we dreamt up. We are already enlisted in God’s kingdom, the beloved community.

Our victories, the fruits of our labour, our conscription, our service are those moments born of God when we see love in action: healing, reconciling, feeding, renewing, resurrecting. No matter the noise or smoke of the battle that frighten and distract us, discourage us from our cause, draw us away from the cross, from trusting the way of Christ; no matter, it is love that will conquer all in the end. Because whatever is born of God conquers the world; and God is love. And we, reborn out of the waters of baptism; we are beloved. And beloved, love is a force to be reckoned with.

____________________________________________________________

[i] Henry Chadwick, The Early Church (Penguin Books, 1967; revd edn, 1993), 126-127

[ii] ibid

[iii] The Confessions of Saint Augustine (Book VIII, chapter 7), trans. Rex Warner (Signet Classic, 2001), 164

[iv] https://www.episcopalchurch.org/posts/publicaffairs/message-presiding-bishop-michael-curry-where-do-we-go-here-chaos-or-community

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Love/hate/relationship

A sermon for the Fifth Sunday of Easter, 2018

If it’s not about love, it’s not about God,” our Presiding Bishop is known to say. The First Letter of John is all about love.

Because God has loved us, the letter writer advises, we should love one another. Because Jesus has shown us the depth and height and expanse of God’s love, we should extend ourselves, should invest ourselves in loving God and loving one another. Because in the love of Christ we have seen the extent to which God will go to love us, we should not hold back on loving one another.

It sounds so simple, on the one hand; but we know that as soon as open our eyes from prayer, we will find ourselves mired in the complications of real relationships, and the silos of our segregated world, and the barriers, internal and external, that we construct and fail to deconstruct, that keep us from loving our siblings.

First of all, we have the semantic problem. What does it mean, to love one another? We are not supposed to love every person in the same way as we love our spouse, or our child, or our dog. We are not commanded to prefer the company of every individual, or to have warm, fuzzy feelings about every passer by. We are not obliged to approve of every action, word, opinion of those whom we love. We are obligated to love them, anyway.

If we are to try to work out some kind of working process for what that love looks like, we know where to look. “Abide in me,” says Jesus. “Have this mind in you, which was in Christ,” we are advised elsewhere. “God is love,” writes the letter writer.

Jesus demonstrated by plenty of words and actions what he meant by love. He healed people, sometimes without even thinking about it. The woman who touched the hem of his robe was able to steal his healing power, and he let her have it. He was as limited and as rationed in his time, his presence, his reach as any of us, during his walk on this earth; but he gave to all who asked of him, and healed all who presented their need to him, because he loved them, because he had compassion for them.

Compassion was the word that described his feelings towards the thousands gathered on the hillside to hear him speak. Unprepared and under-resourced, they had nothing to eat, but instead of sending them away empty, Jesus fed them out of the providence that he found in God’s love.

Jesus was not discriminatory in the dispensation of his love, but neither was he indiscriminate. He was not afraid to criticize the people he loved.

He rebuked his host at a dinner party when that host was rude to a woman in attendance. He rebuked his disciples when they shrugged away the children who were pushing forward to see Jesus. He rebuked Peter when he suggested that Jesus might want to take a less loving, a more practical, political, savvy route to salvation.

Which leads us to the more difficult part of this passage.

“Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen,” warns the letter writer, and if we are in any way human, our heart sinks. We know whereof we are guilty.

A century ago, Margaret Plath, writing about Judas Iscariot, remarked,

Another practical religious need to be kept in mind … [is] the need to hate – for not a few the most preferred, indeed perhaps the only form they have of showing their love for their Lord; many can still muster honourable hatred against the traitors and enemies of Jesus even though they find it difficult to express in deeds their love for their Lord through following him in the attitudes he demands: meekness, purity of heart, and peacemaking.*

I would add that for some of us our preferred form for loving ourselves, as our neighbours, may be to muster that same honourable hatred against those who have done us, or others, wrong. This is how we love what is right, we argue.

After his resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples in multiple attested places and occasions. He breathed peace upon them – those who had fled at the first sign of trouble, those who had abandoned him to a lonely death on a hard cross on a desolate hillside reserved for criminals and outcasts. He returned even to those disciples and breathed peace upon them.

He even appeared to Saul, later known as Paul, who was persecuting Jesus’ first followers. Jesus confronted him on the road to Damascus, and, refusing to let him continue in his abusive and murderous ways, converted him through the demonstration of Christ’s enduring power and of his overwhelming mercy.

“Love your enemies,” he told his disciples, “and pray for those who persecute you.”

He did not, as far as we are told, visit Pilate. He did not, as far as we know, seek out Herod, or the high priests. We do not know what he said to those soldiers standing guard when he first emerged from the tomb.

We know, from his own words from the cross: “Father, forgive them,” that Jesus, in his perfection, forgave them. He would not let his righteous anger, his appropriate indignation, his ready rebuke be reworked into hatred. Neither did he find it necessary to present himself to them for further abuse in order to prove it; he had no time to waste.

Here’s the thing: you all have families, of one kind or another. You all have friends, colleagues, acquaintances against whom you are mentally measuring the balance of hate versus love. You are wondering how far you have to bend to limbo into the righteous column.

I know this, because I have family, and without going into any kind of unnecessary detail, mine shakes out somewhere on the difficult side of normal. I have spent plenty of time wondering how to reconcile those difficulties with the admonishment to love the brothers and sisters and siblings whom we see, who carry the image of the unseen God, however distorted it may seem at times.

I have come to realize that I need to rest in Jesus’ advice: Abide in me. Abide in me, through prayer, through any and all acts of generosity where they are called for, through the self-preservation of staying away from Pilate, and did I mention prayer? Above all, the practice and perfection of love, its giving and its receiving, helps insulate the heart from hate.

And for the whole human family, the need for mitigation is obvious.

Yesterday, I heard of the death of James Cone, credited as the father of black liberation theology. In recent years, I travelled to hear him speak on his book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, but a credible threat of violence against the venue and his person prevented him from attending. Now, I will not meet him in this lifetime, because hatred kept him from us that day.

Cone died in the same week that a national memorial to victims of lynching was unveiled. Through his words and work, he brought into the light of Christ the consequences of our history, and the constant conviction and strange comfort of the cross. Like the visitors to that new monument, we hardly dare look away now.

Hate will not have the last word. Whether we speak it, out of our pain and bitterness, or whether we hear it addressed to us, the resurrection is our assurance that God’s love, which endures all assaults of the enemy, is stronger, more resilient, more radical, more righteous than the most outrageous acts of ours that we can imagine.

We abide in the love of a God who heals us without our asking, and feeds us out of God’s own hand, in whose image we are made, who has made us for love and reconciliation, who loves us unconditionally.

Without that love, we are lost.

________________________

* Margaret Plath, “Warum hat die urchristliche Gemeinde suffer die Überlieferung der Judaserzählung Wert gelegt?”, quoted in William Klassen, Judas (Fortress Press, 1997)

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