Thursday, December 25, 2014

The Future of Words

John 1:14

            “When you write, don’t think.” 

            If I were to list a dozen or so Words-with-a-capital-W that someone has spoken to me with a force that has lodged them in my soul and changed its course, that would be one of them.  “When you write, don’t think” was the first utterance out of the mouth of author Madeleine L’Engle in the first workshop of hers I attended over thirty years ago.  Her word freed me.  I had a history of sitting down at my typewriter to begin an article, an essay, a sermon—and starting again and again, striking through what I had written.  I was thinking.  That was the problem.  I was editing, which is a process very different—contrary, in fact—to creating.  I learned from Madeleine to put my hand in the hand of my own Unconscious, trusting that if I moved into a quiet space where my mind stopped manufacturing, I just might encounter inspiration.

            In the beginning was the Word.  That is the real story.  All of those Christmas things dear to our hearts, like shepherds and angels, wise men and mangers, barnyard animals and innkeepers and Mary and Joseph, are parts of the container holding the story.  But the story is much more than the crèche.  More even than the Baby Jesus himself, who would, after all, have had no special meaning had he not been born into a world to which he might speak his words, a world that might speak back its words to him and about him.  The real story is the story of the Incarnation:  how the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.

            Like all stories, the one about the Word becoming flesh can be misunderstood and distorted.  You might get stuck on the question that modern minds like to ask, “Did this really happen?  Is this the way it was?  Is the story factually trustworthy?”  If you do, however you answer those questions—yes or no—you will surely miss the story of a lifetime.  For stories are those things we live by, the means by which we humans make meaning.  And the Word becoming flesh is not so much about a time-bound, historical incident as it is a story eternally true.  Words do become flesh, and the way they do bears an eerie resemblance to the holy incarnation of the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us as a man called Jesus.

            You, too, could perhaps quite easily come up with your own short list of words that have changed your life, like Madeleine L’Engle’s word changed mine.  Choose any of those words and possibly you might see that (for lack of a better way of putting it) behind that word or maybe within it was something of the substance of the person who spoke it.  I think that was true of Madeleine’s word.  Let’s just say that that word clearly expressed what was in Madeleine’s very heart.  There is a good bit of evidence from the whole body of her writing and from her life that that was the case.  I used the expression a few minutes ago that Madeleine’s word lodged in my soul and changed its course.  Is that literally true?  Of course not.  There is no way to talk about the soul and be literal.  And no way to talk about a literal word lodging anywhere other than in type on a printed page.  But not one of you missed the thrust of what I was saying.  A word—a sentence, actually—changed my life, my behavior, my perception of what was true.  That is what the Word of God does.  It is the perfect expression of this awesome, creative, loving, imaginative, playful, flirtatious being that is Being Itself.  Words express.  And the Word of God God speaks and, lo and behold, things happen.  “Let there be light,” and there is light.  “Go down, Moses,” and Moses goes.  (Of course, if humans get into the act, the chances are that the word may be temporarily drowned out by some kicking and screaming.) 

           The Word becomes flesh.  The plot thickens.  The Word does not linger suspended in the air, but actually becomes flesh.  What a high opinion the Creator has of creation!  Energy is not sufficient for a universe, apparently.  Matter begs to be created.  And of all the material things to be chosen for the honor, the human body wins the prize, takes the cake, walks onto the stage to receive the greatest gift of all.  The human body bows its little head, and speaks the word, “Be it unto me according to your Word.”  That is why the story of Mary is so crucial to hearing the Word.  She is the prototype.  Not the only one, by miles, that ever did so, but the one who said “Yes!” at the moment when all heaven stood silent, awaiting word back from the human.  Flesh it was to be.  A womb, gestation, a birth canal, and finally the interminable pain and urge to push, push, push, until born was the Word, all red and raw and covered in the stuff of creation.  Not in his tiny little fingertips, or in his yet unused digestive tract, nor in his cute baby feet, nor in the stream of warm pee that soon enough would wet his swaddling clothes, was there a cell—not a single cell—where God was not.  And that was not because he was God himself but because he was human, or indeed because he was a creature in the great created universe.  No place and no time exists where God is not, for all things are alive with the Being that infuses every atom and quark and string. 

           The story of how the Word became flesh is not only the story of how God once said, “Let there be Jesus and there was Jesus.”  It is your story and mine.  It is the story of how words can be more than the product of the portion of the human brain controlling rational thought and language.  It is the story of how whatever resides as logos in the logic-producing and logic-policing places of you can indeed drop down, down, down into the lower parts of your body.  Words, in other words, can become flesh.  To put it one way, Christmas is not about something we believe or understand, but about something we live.  Words, and the ideas they convey, are cheap until they take on flesh.  And it is exactly that—how we actually live the life of God—that Jesus dwelt among us to exemplify and teach.

           A few of us specialize in making things more difficult than they need to be.  But most of us want things to be simpler and easier than they in fact are.  Give us a short answer, not a long explanation.  Give us a formula, not a course.  Give us a gospel you can write on the back of a business card, and we shall be satisfied.  The somewhat difficult truth is that we never hear the real words in the back of our minds or in the depth of our being until we learn to keep silent.  Silence, like the whiteness of a blank page, is the background necessary for words to appear.  And out of that silence a birth can take place:  the birth of a new you.  It might come in the form of a story or a meal or a book or a play or some role that has been waiting for you for ages.  You have a song to sing or a speech to give or someone to set free or a dream to realize.  Whatever it is, the word that will come out of your mouth will likely be a word that forms on the wings of love.  For the place where the word becomes flesh is in that manger called your heart. 

           It is said that the Grinch who stole Christmas might have had a heart that was two sizes too small.[1]  Whether we are Grinches or not, our hearts could stand to grow a little.  And that is what the Word does, when it comes down and becomes flesh in our bodies, in our movements, in our deeds:  it expands our hearts.  Sometimes it expands our hearts by first breaking them.  Disappointments, wars, illness, death, violence, injustice—a whole host of pains and memories live in our hearts until they may have turned to stone.  When the Word becomes flesh, it leaves its exalted space up in theory-land and leaps down, first emptying all the stones from the heart and creating there some fleshy room for love.  And, surprise!  Our hearts, like the Grinch’s, grow (at least) three sizes in that single leap.

           Pick up your pen and write; don’t think.  Speak your truth; stop measuring it.  Fight for your cause; stop second-guessing yourself.  Angels and archangels might gather to aid you, and you will never know until you just do it.  And when your words become flesh and your life starts speaking from your body and its heart, then might someone hear your word and say of your life that it is full of grace and truth. 

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2014

[1] Theodor Seuss Geisel, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Kindle edition (New York:  Random House,  1985).


Saturday, November 29, 2014

New Advent

Mark 13:24-37

Amazing to me is the fact that there always seem to be some people who are ready to believe that the world is about to end, just about to go up in smoke and (bam!) disappear.  More amazing still is the fact that many such people apparently think that that is a good thing.

Was Jesus such a person?  If, as I believe, we can say with some assurance that Jesus expected the end of the world as we know it to occur within his lifetime or at least within a few years beyond, we either have to say that he knew something we don’t know, or he was just plain mistaken.

It isn’t very attractive for Christians to imagine that Jesus was wrong about anything. In fact, it sounds to most ears nothing short of sacrilege to suggest that Jesus was anything other than perfectly accurate about everything.  So let’s not rattle ours or others’ cages by insinuating that he made a mistake.  Let’s imagine instead something very different when we hear his prediction that

the sun will be darkened,and the moon will not give its light,and the stars will be falling from heaven,and the powers in the heavens will be shaken.[And] they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory.
Now, it is true that we could imagine that he was talking about something ages and ages in the future—at least as far out as our own age.  But maybe there is something else going on here besides the physical world—earth, universe—collapsing.  Maybe instead what we have here is something like our creation story: eternally true but never intended to be technically factual. 

That in fact seems to track with what Jesus said about the Kingdom of Heaven, or the Reign of God. It is elusive, surprising, hard to pin down, more a state of heart than a product of rational thought, hidden, silent, beneath words, and, above all, “at hand,” already present within and among us. 

So what is this, then, that we try to grasp in the language of apocalypse?  What would be like the sun going out and the moon fading into nothingness?  What would be like the stars vacating their orbits and crashing into earth?  What would be so stupendous that it could only be described as the very powers of heaven being shaken?

What would you do if I told you that what causes the world to change in drastic ways begins as something so imperceptible that it is on the order of drawing a breath?  It is the tiniest decision to live differently. 

Let me explain. 

A friend of mine, John, once worked alongside a guy whom John found to be extremely difficult.  He was irritable, even irascible, critical, unpleasant, and totally self-absorbed.  He embodied every attitude that seemed negative.  John, a kind of hale-fellow-well-met, did his best to humor his workmate.  Nothing worked.  Finally, John was at the point of totally giving up on him.  Then it occurred to John that he would quit expecting anything.  He would simply think good thoughts, good wishes, and send a little bit of love toward his adversary.  He decided to love the guy without telling a soul.  Time went by.  One day a year or so later, it dawned on John that the fellow was behaving differently.  In fact, he was beginning to exhibit some strange characteristics.  He had become less critical.  He had begun to say positive things more and more.  He had in fact started becoming actually likeable.

I have heard this story countless times from dozens, maybe hundreds of people.  I have demonstrated it in my own life, prompted to do so by examples and testimonies of people like John.

Who would imagine that John had, in a split second, decided to do something that actually changed the world?  Yet he had done just this—simply by deciding to live differently.  Some will argue that, well, that was only one person, and not all that impressive.  What about all the evil people who are truly beyond being affected by niceness?  What about all the structures that limit and destroy the creatures of God—racism, sexism, heterosexism, and all manner of injustice?  Deciding to love some old grump in your workplace is not quite the same as reforming a world that is hell-bent on war and destruction.  No, it is not quite the same.  But there is something that we can count on.  All change is relational.  Change in people, and for that matter change that is transpersonal or non-personal, happens in the context of relationship.  So if we want to do battle with the forces that oppress, corrupt, twist, and damage the world and its creatures, ultimately we have to do it by being in relationship with others.  Not only do we have to join hands with our like-minded sisters and brothers committed to our ideals and values, we have to engage the hearts of those who resist the change.  And we cannot do that by refusing to be in relationship with them.  We will never conquer our adversaries by force and turn them into anything but victims and more hardened adversaries.  If we are to change the world, we have to learn and practice the power of unleashing love. 

Tom Shadyac grew up not far from here in Falls Church, Virginia. Tom had a fantastically successful career as a comedian and filmmaker, producing such zany films as “Liar, Liar” and “The Nutty Professor,” winning academy awards and making tons of money.  He had already begun re-examining his life when he had a serious biking accident that severely injured him and incapacitated him for months.  As he began to ask what, if he were going to die, he wanted to tell the world, he came up with a documentary called  I Am.  He interviewed scientists, religious leaders, environmentalists and philosophers, including Archbishop Desmond TutuNoam ChomskyLynne McTaggart, and Howard Zinn. The film asks two central questions:  What’s Wrong With the World? and What Can We Do About it? In the film, Shadyac answers that question, or rather hears that answer from others.  I Am” is the answer that G. K. Chesterton once gave when asked, “What is Wrong With the World?” Shadyac discovered through his own amassing of money and things what was wrong with the world:  our ever-growing addiction to materialism.  “I am” what is wrong with the world.  And the cure?  Human connectedness, universal respect for all creation, the power of one to effect change.

This is the stuff that moves stars, that shakes the powers of heaven, that alters the course of the universe.  This is the apocalypse that we are not only waiting for but are engaged in bringing about.  And how does it begin?  By someone’s deciding to love rather than to fulminate in irritation.  With a Rosa Parks who decides to keep her seat rather than yield to the force that is simply following uncritically a cultural script.  With a Mohandas Ghandi who refuses to resort to violence but whose persistence inspires millions and brings an empire to its knees.  With a Nelson Mandela that holds on to hope for years refusing to concede all hope for an end to apartheid.  With Peace Brigades International who dares to believe that ordinary people can take action to stop war and human rights violations, even when their governments cannot or will not.  It begins, this unearthly change, when one of you who decides when going through a divorce that it is better to love your way through hostile territory than to try to kick your adversary into poverty.  It starts when another one of you decides that you will defend yourself or your family from emotional or physical abuse without becoming counter-abusive yourself.  Is any of this easy?  Ask the ones who get thrown in jail for their witness.  Ask those who have let goods and kindred go, and have risked mortal life and the integrity of their own bodies in the cause of human dignity.

When Jesus says, “You don’t know either the day or the hour, so keep awake,” he is stating the basic requirement for starting the Advent of deep change that shakes the universe to its very foundations.  Keep awake means to be conscious.  The Advent the world yearns for is the new creation that depends upon yours and my being conscious of the way we settle in for the long haul with the forces of repression, narrowness, and hate.  True Advent begins when we take one small step to live from the heart.  From that moment, creation begins to be made new by the One who, living in you and me, makes all things new.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2014

End of Our Rope

Matthew 21:23-23; Philippians 5:2-11

Religion is a rope that consists of three strands.  Those strands are the spiritual, the institutional, and the moral.  The spiritual strand includes the things like prayers, worship, rites and rituals that people associate with the divine, called by whatever name.  The institutional strand encompasses all the structures, buildings, systems, hierarchies, rules and regulations, that  maintain, regulate, and control the activities of the religion.  The third component of the rope is morality:  setting boundaries, mediating relationships among people, and differentiating between right and wrong behavior. 

A perennial problem is that, no matter what the religion, folks tend to confuse these things.  For example, those invested in the institution frequently equate loyalty to the institution with moral uprightness, with the result that those who are detached from institutional religion are seen as flawed, bad, wicked, or even evil.  And sometimes those who have a moral passion for justice, for example, look down on those who withdraw to pray, imagining that they are less than they ought to be because instead of slogging it out for rights and liberties for the masses, they are busy going to masses, saying their prayers, and generally not very much helping to right the wrongs of the world.  Likewise, those who think that religion is fundamentally personal and is about doing whatever one finds personally rewarding are quick to miss the very powerful force for social change that sometimes religious institutions can effect, change that can be quite difficult to make if one is disconnected from an organized, focused religious community.

Jesus ran into a good bit of this tendency to confuse one strand of religion with another. He appeared overturning apple carts all over the place, calling accepted behavioral standards and institutional practices into question.  That did not go down very well with the religious establishment of his time any more than it would today. When he began to suggest that those who were outside the religious community, labeled immoral by the religious authorities, were actually more responsive to God than were the religious authorities themselves, he was inviting trouble—and he got into plenty of it.  Today’s gospel lesson is a vignette from that conflict that very much defined Jesus’ ministry. “Who gave you the right….?” “By what or whose authority are you doing these things?” These are questions that come straight out of the heart of the institutional regulation dimension of religion.  There is a good bit of evidence that Jesus was not unsympathetic to institutional religion in general—after all he was a rabbi teaching in the temple in this very story.  But what seems to have driven him nuts, so to say, was that the institutional crowd had gotten morality all backwards.  Hence his little parable about the two sons.  One refused at first to do the will of his father and later changed his mind and complied.  The second agreed to do what was asked and then reneged on his commitment.  “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you.”  If you had to throw an insult into the teeth of the religious establishment, that would be the line you would use. 

Most Christians, whatever their favorite strand of religion, imagine that they are doing exactly what Jesus would approve.  But the question for us today is what is the new frontier to which Jesus’ power is pulling us?  Into what new age is Jesus calling us?  Not everyone will answer that question the same way.  For some it will be immersing themselves in the battle for justice and equality.  For others it will be helping people to find their center through prayer, meditation, bodywork, or mindfulness.  For others it will be healing, or educating, or building, or art, or comedy, or parenting, or organizing.  The list is endless and includes things that have to do with one, two, or all three strands of religion or maybe a dozen or a hundred things outside any of the elements of what we usually consider to be religious.

So what, then, is the Center?  What pulls us together and holds us in community?  I can think of few other places where the answer is better articulated or more obvious than the one you have already heard this morning. “Let the same mind in you,” wrote Paul to the Philippians, “that was in Christ Jesus.  “Though he was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.” 

If there is anything that the Church needs today it is not to argue which strand of the rope is superior to the other strands, but to see what the rope itself is for.  It is not God, but it is the thing that gets us into contact with the living God.  Ironically, it is not holding on to the rope, and certainly not to just one or two strands of it, but letting go of our grip on the rope or any of its parts.  Or at least holding it so lightly that we can follow where it leads rather than have our hands be blistered by gripping what we hold too tightly.  It is, in short, following our Master, our model, our hero.  It is having in us the mind that was his, that emptied himself and embraced physicality, acquiesced to death, because the most godlike thing he could do was in fact to be an honest human being, living life with integrity, even if it meant dying on a cross.  That is why his name is above every name, and why at the name of Jesus every knee bows and every tongue confesses him Lord.  Well, not every knee bows nor does every tongue confess.  But the knees and tonguest that do belong to those who know that the center, the focus, and the whole purpose is in fact to come to the end of our rope—exactly what we are afraid of—where we will find ourselves totally surprised to be not tied to the rope, but tied to nothing, free as the God who made us.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2014