Monday, December 26, 2011

Christmas Present

Luke 2:1-20

I often wonder when we come to Christmas what you out in the pews are thinking.

The cat leapt out of the bag last Sunday and suddenly the whole congregation knew that I was marking forty years that I have been a priest. That means for forty years I have been engaged each Christmas in examining the story, listening to it, pondering it, sometimes fretting over it, all with a need to open it up afresh and find in it the thing that will make the whole festival somehow come alive, move, inspire, speak to—to whom? To you, but equally to me. It is not unlike the annual drama of Christmas morning. People go digging into presents, tearing through wrappings and popping off ribbons, pulling out things that sometimes call for gasps—oohs, ahs, “Darling, you shouldn’t have, you shouldn’t have”—a tumultuous party of surprises and delights, if, of course, you’re lucky enough to be able to have all that. Well, that is the kind of experience, though in a spiritual idiom, that I itch for Christmas to be on this holy candlelit night. For that to happen, somebody, though not necessarily I, must arrange a moment of connection. That in turn forces the question of who needs and wants to connect, with what or whom, and how.

Over the decades I have gathered a little information on what you are thinking, though it seems awfully sketchy to me. It appears, for instance, that many folks assume that the tale of Jesus’ birth is a piece of biography, much like any birth narrative. And, since popular imagination stitches together the very distinct and in some ways incompatible accounts of the two gospels with birth stories, the popular mind imagines that shepherds, wise men, angels, Mary, Joseph, and Baby Jesus were all right there somewhat on top of each other. Add “manger” and soon you have a full-blown barnyard, with oxen, asses, camels, lowing cattle, even chickens and the occasional duck or goose. It is all quite a lot of fun; and preachers, for example, don’t get very far by trying to deconstruct the entire scene. “That is just the way it all happened,” the average worshiper might say.

Still, people wander into church on Christmas, looking for only God knows what, and I wonder about them—about you, if you are one of that number. Is it the power of the old carols to awaken dormant memories of your youth? Is it the smell of greens and the flicker of candles that can transport you to a space where Mystery does not have to elbow its way through mindless crowds in order to draw you in, warm your heart and stir your soul? Do such as you give a dip of figgy pudding about somebody’s doctrine of the Virgin Birth or the meaning of the word “Savior”? Or do you deep down wish someone would explain those things to you because you sense that they might actually have to do with the Truth you need to live your life by?

The default position of the Church has long been that it is up to us insiders, and especially the learned, professional caste, to put on the show and tell the story, and let the audience get what it will. And that might not be too bad an idea. But suppose we want to push the boundaries a bit. Suppose we might wish to pause the tape and rerun a slice of the dialogue, and run it again to get a closer, sharper view of the characters in the story. Is it possible that there actually might be a layer or two of meaning that we never have considered? And might one or more of those layers of meaning actually help us, change us, alter us so that we get to, say, New Year’s Day and find that our whole approach to life has shifted ever so slightly, or even more than slightly?

In some ways the most intriguing feature of Luke’s story is the presence of shepherds. It really is not strange, considering that Luke’s setting is Bethlehem, the City of David, who himself was out keeping the sheep when the prophet and king-maker Samuel came, obeying the Word of God, looking for a potential king among Jesse’s sons. The shepherd, who happened to be the youngest, was exactly the one whom Samuel was looking for, as it turned out. And now, centuries later, perhaps in those very fields, other shepherds were minding their business when suddenly an angel appears with a peculiar announcement. The story is different, but the parallels are obvious enough to evoke a connection between an ancient anointing and this birth of one who has sprung from Jesse’s root, a new Davidic king. But something else is in play, too. Shepherds in first century Jewish society were among the least powerful and respected people. That fits very nicely into the gospel that Luke is proclaiming, with its continual emphasis on the marginal, the misfits, the underestimated, even the despised. The words of the Magnificat, the pregnant Mary’s song, are still ringing in the ears of the reader: “He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the humble and meek.” The shepherds are a case in point.
Romanian Shepherds, photo by Dennis Carlyle Darling

They become the very first ones in Luke’s gospel narrative to go looking for Jesus. Imagine. In the middle of the night shift, nothing much going on, suddenly they are in the middle of an other-worldly episode, seeing and hearing an alien being, having an eerie experience which can only be described as “glory” shining round about them, filling them with fear. And after a multitude of angels have appeared and then disappeared, the shepherds say to one another, “Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing.” And they go in search of the child wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger.

It is not only the shepherds who are key to this story; it is the search they undertake in the middle of the night. It will not do simply to have a birth unremarkable and unremarked. The Messiah does not show up in any way that could be expected, much less in a manner that is self-explanatory. No, that is the point. The birth of this marvelous person is so ordinary, so commonplace that it could be entirely missed. William Cowper’s words are sometimes taken to be scripture themselves: “God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform.” That is true. But the most mysterious thing of all is the way God performs wonders through very natural processes, like human birth, processes that are so much a part of the fabric of the universe that there is no reason to stop and pay attention to them at all.

Whether you have heard the message of Christmas so much and so often that it has become a part of you, or whether you have only the vaguest clue as to what it has to do with you if anything, the search is not only possible but highly rewarding. But be sure of one thing: it is a search. Bethlehem is even today not all that big a place, but you may be certain that running around trying to find a baby in a manger is no cinch. Luke does not tell us how many hours it took to find the Christ, nor how many alleys the shepherds ran down only to find nothing, nor how they might have made mistakes by following the sounds of other infants’ cries. We only know that the shepherds left their field and went to Bethlehem, seeking.

So the search is what ultimately leads to Christ and thus to the Great Joy which shall be to all people. That is a challenge for many people in our culture to get their minds around. We are not used to searching, but rather to having our desires instantly gratified. Even those who fancy themselves committed to a certain rigor in their faith and in their way of living have difficulty sometimes understanding that the meaning of the Messiah is not something that one can pick up by a quick internet search or a rapid read-through of a paperback edition of a paraphrased Bible. And why, you may wonder, does the search for Christ have to be hard? It is not the difficulty of the search that distinguishes it. It is rather the nature of the one being sought. Searching for Christ is not exactly like searching for the best bottle of wine for the money, or for precisely the right gift for the one who has everything. It is not quite like the scholar’s search for an obscure manuscript, nor like the researcher’s quest for the drug that will cure a disease, nor the explorer’s combing unknown territory to probe its secrets. Although searches are searches and share some things in common, the search for Christ is different because it is fundamentally a search for you.

And here is where the search of the shepherds is not necessarily the pattern for you and me. They are looking for something that matches the sign which has been given them by the angel. They are looking for somebody or something that, however important or even divine, is outside themselves. You and I can search for the Savior too, but the search means rifling through the bits and pieces of our lives, filtering the experiences that we have had and are having. If you are going to find God, you are going to find God in the details of your own life. True, you might decide to go on a pilgrimage to some holy island or sacred mountain. You can go on a retreat or go work among the poor—but these are only settings for your life, contexts for the search. The search itself, no matter on what island or mountain or sofa or desktop, is a search through the recesses and corners of your own life. The Bethlehems to which we go are inevitably the hard places in our lives. It is generally the places where we are sore from suffering, where we are most challenged, where some addiction is bleeding us, where some weakness has worn us thin. These are frequently the places we need to look for God’s gift. Don’t be surprised if these Bethlehems, these places where God shows up in your life, are not too far from the places where you are quite strong, where your passions burn the brightest, where your talents shine. For they, too, are places where you can and often will find the startling Babe.

This is what real Christmas, and therefore real Christianity, is about. It is not about going through the motions approved by society or family or even church. It is about searching for and ultimately finding Christ and therefore finding God and therefore finding this Peace on Earth and therefore discovering the One who can save us from uselessness and meaninglessness and deadly boredom and living hell. It is about opening yourself to the possibility of Mystery. It is searching for Christ even if it means fearlessly calling into question the points of view you hold dear, the habits that are the most comfortable to wear, the structures that frame your everyday routines. This baby lying in the manger, when he grew to become a man, said in one of his most shocking pronouncements, “except you become as children, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven.” And that is what we are searching for: the child, the infant, the new life in ourselves, new life that is often struggling to be born in a dark night, new life that we find in unlikely places, like a manger, like a cross.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2011

Saturday, December 03, 2011

Meaning Exactly What?

I want to spend this year with you examining the Search for Meaning. While it is true that a good many people in church on any given Sunday have found plenty of meaning in the Good News of Jesus Christ, many more are hanging around the edges wondering where they can find meaning, if there is any meaning, or whether the Church has anything to say that would help make sense of their lives. Even a great many people who already think of themselves as faithful Christians surely know that the journey with God in Christ is one that never settles on a particular meaning but always pulls us forward to explore possible meanings that we have not yet imagined.

Seeking for meaning will take us into all sorts of places. We will find ourselves looking at various stories, scratching around for the purposes in the story-originators’ minds as well looking at the features of the stories themselves. We will step back from various scriptures and ask how they connect with what is going on in our personal and corporate lives. We will also look at what I call the anti-gospel: the ever-present reality of things that promise meaning but which in the end rob us of meaning and purpose. We will meet shadowy figures and haunting themes that stalk through the Bible like ghouls whose echoing laughs mock the search for meaning, whose ploy is to seduce us into settling for easy answers and pious formulas so that we can steer safe of the risks of searching deeply.

Like any search, the one for meaning is a hunt with no guarantee of a trophy at the end. We never know whether we will find any meaning better than what we could patch together right now in the next five minutes. That is why so many people probably don’t want to fool with a search for meaning. To them—maybe you are among that number—there is no reason to search for meaning because it is perfectly obvious what the meaning is. After all, they were taught “the meaning” of things and of life in school or by their parents or indeed by the Church. All they have to do is to assume that whatever things mean is what they mean, and go on about their business. There is no scarcity of meaning, nor any dearth of systems that can supply it readily enough. We can go shopping for meaning just as we can go shopping for many things. Books and film, political parties and ideologies, a vast supply of things cooked up by the world’s various commerce systems, and a long parade of religious and philosophical alternatives provide a veritable bazaar of meaning. But most of those things, including some near and dear to my heart, are not in the end worth much unless they align with the Truth.

So this is not just the search for anything meaningful, which is not really all that hard to find. It is the search for meaning that actually lasts and outlasts everything else. If I were unconcerned about any but the stouthearted, I would stick a little notice up in the narthex that said something like, “Search for Meaning. Only the brave dare enter.” But my instincts are just the opposite. I believe that most of us are a little antsy, at least, if not downright scared, of beginning a search for meaning, unless we already have begun. And I want to sound a note of reassurance that comes out of the mouths of angels throughout the sacred story: “Fear not.” You have nothing to lose by asking questions. Not your balance, not your faith, not your life. But you have quite a bit that you might gain if you happen to discover along the way that there is a pearl of great price that you might have walked right past had your eyes not been open to looking for pearls. And should that one discovery change your life for the better, you will be glad you signed on to the search.

So much for prologue. Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. What do we make of John the Baptist? He appears for two weeks in Advent each year, and then comes back for a reprise on the First Sunday after the Epiphany. Beyond that, we don’t hear much about him. He is here today proclaiming his baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins because his is perhaps the clearest voice we hear telling us what it means to prepare for the coming Reign of God. And that is what Advent urges us each year to do. The Reign of God, mind you, not the celebration of Christmas, unless you understand that Christmas has something to do with the Reign of God, which would make you a rare bird indeed. John the Baptizer lets his hearers know that he is not the focus of that Reign, but the forerunner of a more powerful One that was on his way. The Coming One would inaugurate the Reign of God in an outpouring of God’s Spirit that could be described as a baptism, so effusive would be his power.

Now the search for meaning is not the same as pigeonholing something like this story in a ready-made grid of ready-made meaning. Fully 65% of us here this morning could do that without even blinking. That is because the function of the story is obvious: it is a prelude to the story of Jesus. The figure of John is likewise obvious: he is an announcer, a forecaster, the opening act in a story of salvation that is to center in the ministry of Jesus. But stand further back and what do you see? Possibly you see that John is a game-changer. He articulates a message (repentance) and an action (baptism) that on the long haul were to reorder reality for an enormous number of people, one might even say the whole world. For this message of repentance went beyond personal rehabilitation and became a call to humans to change from self-preservation to sacrifice, from tribal protectiveness to inclusiveness. And baptism went from being an act of personal purification to being an entrance rite into the Christian community, which dared to believe itself to be living in union with the Risen Jesus and therefore with God. Simply by seizing the moment; by giving voice to the groundswell of discontent with the way things were going and the way people were living; by allying himself with the old prophetic tradition that spoke truth to power; by refusing to conform to the expectations of respectable society; by thundering a sermon of inner change to accompany the outward washing of baptism; and perhaps most of all in refusing to make himself the star of his own show: in all these ways John changed the game.

Do you see any meaning in that? Who is a herald of the Reign of God right now? Are you? Am I? If we know anything at all about God, we know from the human experience that we call “history” that God is on the side of the poor and the oppressed; that God is busy welcoming the outcast and the sinner; that God’s righteousness transcends the moral pettiness of convention and shakes the foundations of power. Whose are the voices that announce the essential claims of justice? And, by contrast, whose are the voices that decry nearly any motion to change things in the direction of greater sharing in the common weal?

Sometimes our life on this planet can seem inordinately complex, like the mass of wires and cords under my desk at home that form a clot of interconnections past all order and comprehension. But that is just an illusion. There are complex problems, but there are a few truths that need to be heard. One such truth is fairness. Another is honesty. A third is kindness. It is not possible for one to speak the Truth unfailingly and still be nice all the time. But we can make room for and recognize the Baptizer when he appears. We can even be the ones who are the baptizers ourselves, announcing the coming Reign of Truth and Righteousness. It involves not going to the store and buying a coat of camel’s hair and a new supply of health food so much as it entails calling people, beginning with ourselves, to account. The Reign of God is coming whether we like it or not. We can join the forces of Peace and Justice, or we can serve the old order which is always about protecting the interests of the powerful. The little baptism of today is just a foreshadowing of an outpouring of Spirit tomorrow. One is coming who is mightier than any you see or hear today. And that one is the both the Alpha and the Omega, the Source and the Destiny of all Meaning.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2011

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Advent Meditations

Sunday, November 27: The First Sunday of Advent

Today begins a season of daily meditations based on the little book recommended by Bishop Mariann Edgar Budde, Always We Begin Again, by John McQuiston II. In his introduction, the author briefly relates his discovery of the Rule of St. Benedict, and how he came to take a sixth century rule for monastic life and put it in contemporary language for ordinary people in the twenty-first century world.

As we begin Advent, ponder how it is that when we are sometimes unconnected from the world of religious language and ceremony, something will fall onto our path that blows our minds, totally altering the way we see our lives and the world we live them in.

What happened to McQuiston is not terribly different from what happened to a friend of mine, nor what happened to me. In the mid 1980’s I was searching for a way to spend a sabbatical. I talked with a person who put me in touch with a woman who lived in a neighboring State. When I contacted the woman, she told me the story of how one day, hunting for antique china, she happened upon a bookstore. After it fell from its shelf onto the floor three times in a row, she picked it up and opened it. It was The Rule of St. Benedict. It led her to discover Benedictine spirituality. I later joined her and about two dozen others for several weeks at Canterbury Cathedral participating in one of the first Benedictine Experiences sponsored by the Canterbury Cathedral Trust.

Sometimes the moment must be right. Ironically, I kept Always We Begin Again by my bedside for upwards of ten years. Only now that our new bishop has encouraged us to do so am I taking it and reading it, more than simply looking at it. The time is ripe. That is not a bad image of Advent. Open and read. Open and ponder. The Reign of God is at hand.

Monday, November 28: Feast of Kamehameha and Emma, King and Queen of Hawaii, 1864, 1885

The First Rule

The meaning of life cannot be learned, says Benedict. To think otherwise is a delusion. The meaning of life can only be discovered by living faithfully a life which transcends understanding.

Wow! That calls into question some of my most cherished assumptions.

“The first rule is simply this:

“Live this life
And do whatever is done,
In a spirit of Thanksgiving.

“Abandon attempts to achieve security,
They are futile,

“Give up the search for wealth,
It is demeaning.

“Quit the search for salvation,
It is selfish,

“And come to comfortable rest
In the certainty that those who
Participate in this life
With an attitude of Thanksgiving
Will receive its full promise.”

Tuesday, November 29

Each Day

Resolve on waking each day to treat each hour “as the rarest of gifts.” I am not what some call “a morning person.” I am becoming more of one as I get older; but for years I have done well to drag myself from bed and begin the day with mindless teeth brushing. To begin again living consciously, mindful that every day is a gift to be enjoyed, not a to-do list to be completed, is a radical change.

Every day is shot through with eternity, if only I can stop to hear it. Every day is a portal of the divine, if only I peer through it. Every day is a coming of the Reign of God into the present. Can I, shall I, be present to the One who comes?

Wednesday, November 30: Feast of St. Andrew the Apostle

Paramount Goals

To live fully is to embrace life thoroughly. There is nothing to fear in life, nothing to fear in death. Whatever comes we can greet gently and firmly.

Andrew was the first one that Jesus called. The first thing he did was to find his brother Peter to introduced him to Jesus. Practically every picture of Andrew in the gospels shows him bringing others to Christ. I need an Andrew, a messenger or a message, to turn me towards the Truth and walk me to it.

The Truth is that I need training. I need to practice turning my heart to Grace. I need to cut loose from the fears and desires that often drive me, centering instead on the deepest Truth of the universe, which is God, and on the deepest Truth of my Self, which is non-self, which is God. Here I am, old as I am, and I am like a kid. I have to begin again each day. I have to be born all over again.

What sustains me is the knowledge that if I simply let myself be brought to Christ, he who is Truth itself will make me free to be the person I am created to be.

Thursday, December 1: Feast of Charles de Foucauld, Hermit and Martyr in the Sahara, 1916

Good Works

Do good. For whatever good you do, you do not just for those for whom you do it, but for the life you thereby give yourself.

There are many things in my life I could regret, were I one to make regret a habit. But of one thing I am confident: never have I regretted, nor shall I regret, a good deed. Even when I have discovered that the one who sought my helped actually ripped me off, I would rather have erred on the side of generosity than on the side of meanness.

Good works are good even if the motive behind them is less than pure. For no motive we can conceive is ever totally altruistic. When we are conscious as best we can be, we can decide to do good without seeking a reward for doing so—not recognition, not thanks, not some pat on the back by a God made in our image waiting to congratulate us for making it into heaven. Goodness is its own reward.

Friday, December 2: Feast of Channing Moore Williams, Missionary Bishop in China and Japan, 1910

Teaching and Learning

We spend millions and billions of dollars in this country improving education, or so we think. So we hope. But ask nearly anyone to tell about a favorite teacher and chances are you will hear a tale about a man or woman who demanded excellence, who was fair, who cared about the student, and whose example inspired others to learn. We learn because of the relationship we have with whoever teaches us. We learn because someone asks more of us than we are aware we have. All the techniques and tests and standards in the world are no substitute for a relationship of trust and respect.

The things I have learned best are the things I have had to struggle with. The greatest learning experiences I have had thrust me into that awful place of confusion and frustration. And the very best learning experiences I have had are those in which I was tempted to give up somewhere about mid-way.

Teach by example. Learn by emulation. That is the way the disciple grows.

Saturday, December 3: Feast of Francis Xavier, Missionary to the Far East, 1552


In his book Building the Bridge as You Walk On It: A Guide For Leading Change, Robert E. Quinn contrasts “the normal state” with “the fundamental state of leadership.” In my normal state, I am ego-driven, putting my interests ahead of the collective interests of my community. I tend to stay in my comfort zone, running no risks. I tend to define myself by how I think others see me. I usually seek comfort, which means that I stay in a reactive state, solving problems as they come along.

But I can move to the fundamental state of leadership, which comes not by my being elected or appointed a leader, but by my decision to accept my own creativity. Instead of fighting change, I begin asking what change I can create. I begin putting others’ welfare above my own, as I nurture trust in my networks of relationships. I move outside my comfort zone, seeking honest feedback, growth, and competence. I continually confront myself with my own hypocrisy, the gap between what I say I believe and what I actually do. And I pursue my life with confidence and a sense of purpose.

Is it possible for anyone to live in the fundamental state of leadership? Let’s hope so! Because another name which we could give it would be “living in the Spirit.” We could call it “walking by the Spirit,” a term St. Paul uses.

The irony in following Christ is that we become “leaders.” We move into that state of leadership which he embodies and exemplifies.

Lead without fear.

Monday, December 5: Feast of Clement of Alexandria, Priest, c. 210

Right Relationship

My whole practice of Christian living changed when I learned that the “righteousness” of which the Bible frequently speaks is not a kind of moral goodness, let alone purity, still less an unquestionable ethical rectitude. By “righteousness,” Scripture means right relationships. It is when those relationships are out of whack that the purposes of God are at risk. When, for example, I take on the role of God, I arrogate to myself responsibilities and privileges that do not belong to me. The same is true if I exploit others weaker or more vulnerable than I.

Our understanding of right relationships changes over time, and that is appropriate. There was a day when parents were assumed to be all-powerful over their children. We have come to understand that there are appropriate limits to parental power. Likewise in former ages people believed that the rich and the powerful had prima facie the blessing of God, and that those socially subordinate to them properly bent to their control. No longer do we believe that.

Preserving or restoring proper balance in relationships is what the work of the reign of God actually involves. We continue to goof it up, by such things as having too exalted a notion of our own importance, or too debased an idea of our own worth. The work of the spirit enables us always to begin again the task of bringing our relationships into balance.

Tuesday, December 6: Feast of Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, c. 342


Obedience comes from the Latin audire, meaning “to hear.” To obey is truly to hear, and to respond accordingly. It is no accident that Christian thought produced a powerful metaphor when thinking began to imagine Christ as “the Word.” It was not a new concept, but the notion took on new life when applied to Jesus. Word of the Father, in flesh appearing, announces that the Reign of God is at hand. It was then, and is now, at hand: the infinite wooing the finite, the divine penetrating the human, the eternal breaking into time. And the Word must be heard that his Way may be followed.
On one of Christianity’s most popular feast days, it is worth remembering that we know practically nothing about Nicholas, except that he was persecuted. If legends count for anything, he had a reputation for being particularly giving and especially good with children and seafarers. We can be reasonably sure that behind the reputation for saintliness lies the life of one who in his own way heard, obeyed, and followed his Lord. That he is remembered at all is not the point, nor would it be for you or me. All any disciple can do is to hear the call, obey the summons, and join him on his Way. Like Nicholas or those other disciples in the gospels, we drop our nets—our agendas, our plans—and follow.

He never takes our lives from us that he does not give them back again, whole and free.

Wednesday, December 7: Feast of Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, 397


I once lived by myself for a month. During that time I wrote, I prayed the daily office, I had a minimum of human contact, I called and talked on the phone with my family regularly. But as I recall it, I never experienced silence. I don’t know that I ever have been silent. My “monkey mind” continually chatters inside my head, thinking this and that and the other, jumping from subject to subject, rehearsing speeches it will make when given the chance, re-running conversations that I have had or wish I had had.

Right now I feel the pull of the Silence of the night, the quiet of the inner processes of my cells and tissues, the white of the page beneath these words, the spaces that support the weight of the things in the room around me. I need to listen.

No more words now.

Thursday, December 8: Feast of Richard Baxter, Pastor and Writer, 1691


“The way to affiliation with the sublime is not to add, but is to take away more each day until we have been freed, even for desire for perfection.”

I hear that and it evokes from me a sigh of relief. I do not have to add things, activities, resolutions, prayers, projects, in order to be right with God.

I hear that again and I get a little nervous. What about the people, the things I care about? What about the fight for justice and equality? Does that count for nothing?
I hear it a third time and smile. Humility is not being different from me. Humility is simply being myself. Not being myself defined by my ego, nor presented by my various personas, nor given over to my indulgences, nor eager and zealous about my spiritual state, nor fretful about politics or economy, nor second-guessing myself because I am too happy about this or not happy enough about that.


Shed, one attitude at a time, till having left old skin behind, I am simply the person of earth that I began by being and will end in being. A person of the earth, of humus, humble.


Friday, December 9

The Twelve Stages of Humility: 1

Keep consciousness alive. It is sacred. So is the time in which it exists and the space in which it lives.

There is a tremendous reluctance on the part of human beings to become a conscious species. We prefer to amble through life, repeating mindlessly the myths that others have spun, substituting things for relationships, developing armor to shield ourselves from our feelings. Those are not bad things necessarily; they are just the signs of massive unconsciousness.

Pay attention. Notice what is going on around you. Listen to your own heart. Do not judge. Just listen.

When are listening to things close at hand, including our own souls, we are practicing the humility that allows us to pay attention to others.

Saturday, December 10: Feast of Karl Barth, Pastor and Theologian; Feast of Thomas Merton, Contemplative and Writer, 1968

The Twelve Stages of Humility, 2

Distrust your own will.

Karl Barth and Thomas Merton, one a great Reformed theologian and the other a Roman Catholic monk, died on the same day in 1968. From Barth, who shaped much of the debate that dominated twentieth century theology, I have a story. Towards the end of his life someone is said to have asked him if he could sum us his rather vast theology in one sentence. He replied, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” From Merton, I have a prayer, a part of which is this: “My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so…”

It is clear to me that my desires keep me whipped into a state of excitement all the time. I do not mean just the desire for food or drink or sex. I mean the desire to be accepted, the desire to be effective, the desire to make some difference in other’s lives. Even this writing comes out of a desire to do something useful, a not insignificant part of my being.

And the fact that I think that I am following God’s will does not mean that I am actually doing so.

Notice what you crave. Do not judge; simply notice. Be aware that the second stage of humility is not to have no will, but to be very skeptical of your will. For chances are it arises from a clot of desire that might have nothing to do with the person you were created to be and are aching down deep to become.

Sunday, December 11: The Third Sunday of Advent

The Twelve Stages of Humility, 3

Accept our limitations.

The oldest characteristic of human beings, once we became a conscious species—if you can call us that—is the desire to be immortal. Most of our mythologies include a dimension, if indeed they do not center, on the obsession of human beings with immortality. Indeed many people today, Christian and non-Christian alike, assume that the whole thrust of Christian religion is to get the individual believer into heaven at death.

Still we die. And not just in the end, but all along the way. We die a thousand deaths, from the loss of innocence to the loss of memory, from the death of embarrassment when some family secret is exposed to the loss of a home or a driver’s license in our tenth decade. Much that happens to us is nothing that we can control.

Why fight it? There are fights worth having, but the fight against mortality is not one of them.

Embrace the fact that you will not live forever. It has nothing to do with what comes after this life. It has everything to do with coming to terms with who you are in this life.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a creature.

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Twelve Stages of Humility, 4

Be patient. Be thankful even for your injuries.

There is a fine line between embracing one’s hardships and being a masochist who seeks hardship for its own sake. A great many Christians take persecution in particular to be a sign of their own vindication, and thus are quick to don the robes of the victim, the persecuted, when in fact nothing could be further from the truth.

But there is something here not to be dismissed as neurotic or unreal. There are hard things that inevitably come our way, testing our mettle, causing us to question our motives, our abilities, our identities. Such things may teach us what we absolutely need to learn. While we are kicking and screaming at the fire whose flames lick and tear at our flesh, we might remember that absolutely nothing need be wasted. Everything, no matter how difficult, can be a means to bring us closer to God, and thus closer to the destiny that is ours to claim.

Richard Baxter, whom we commemorated last week, wrote a memorable line: “Take what he gives and praise him still through good or ill who ever lives.”

Tuesday, December 13: Feast of St. Lucy, Martyr, 304

The Twelve Stages of Humility, 5 and 6

Do not lie to yourself nor conceal your faults, but be ruthlessly honest.

Sounds good. The truth of the matter is that each of us lives by a story, one we tell ourselves about ourselves. Only rarely do we examine those stories, and more rarely still do we change them. One of my mantras is, “If you do not choose a story, a story will choose you.” Better make sure that the story we are telling is true.

My early childhood I lived in an alcoholic home where secrets were kept and bottles hidden. It took me years, on becoming an adult, to learn not to cover up mistakes or faults. Now and again I still encounter myself edging towards the needless lie (“I tried to call you;” “I was tied up in traffic”) which is nothing more than rearranging my façade to present a prettier persona to somebody else, who, if smart, will likely see through the lie immediately.

Confession is not bad news but good news. It is the practice of looking squarely at ourselves, neither exaggerating our faults nor minimizing them, taking stock of our lives, letting the light of Truth shine in all the dark corners, ready to own our defects, ready to make amends when possible and necessary, prepared to take a step towards becoming free and whole.

Wednesday, December 14: Feast of San Juan de la Cruz (St. John of the Cross), Mystic, 1591

The Twelve Stages of Humility, 7 and 8

Our most profound idea is the merest fantasy.

Well that’s disappointing. I don’t know that I have ever had profound ideas, but I have certainly loved some of the ideas that I have had. I remember when I was about 27, I spent a week in an inter-personal relationships lab. At that point in my life, ordained less than two years, I cared deeply about making an impact on the world. To be honest, I wanted to make a name for myself. The little boy who used to read the encyclopedia voraciously in the fourth and fifth grades wanted to be in it. The idea I loved was affirmation, recognition. Fame.

Our culture teaches us that certain things matter, and that a few things matter a whole lot. One is success. We spend much of our youth gearing up to be successful: building résumés, making connections, getting into the right schools, knowing the right people, getting the right job, networking the right nets to get the right career move or change. And all of it turns out to be empty, a “tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Ask nearly anyone who has made it to the top. They will tell you that it is not the top, but the very things you have right now, that make life rich and full: friends, relationships, opportunities to give, moments of quiet, maybe even time with God.

I have lived long enough now to see that a great many mediocre people made it into encyclopedias, as did a great many wicked people, and a great many unhappy people. Finding one’s true path generally involves tuning out the siren-songs wooing us with things like success, fame, security, and listening to the true guides who can help us hear the Word.

Who are your guides, and where are they leading you?

Thursday, December 15: Feast of Robert McDonald, Priest, 1913

The Twelve Stages of Humility, 9

Refrain from judgment.

Most of us understand “judge not that ye be not judged.” I am not so sure that we understand what it is not to judge in a more general, global sense. We are deeply trained to judge. This is hotter than that. That is softer than this. This is good, that is better, the other is better still. And so on. Some would argue that not only language, but the structures of the mind that produce language, are intrinsically tied to judging.

To move beyond judging is at the very least counter-intuitive, which is why so few people are able to do so. We find it very difficult to look at ourselves, let alone other people, and not think such things as, “I could do better. I could do more.” Nor is it inappropriate or unhelpful to be able to do that. Still the challenge for us is to be able to be present to something or someone, whether a part of ourselves or some other person or situation, not evaluating but simply being. It begins by practicing such actions as replacing “I caught myself thinking such and such,” with, “I noticed myself thinking such and such.” I thus can begin to observe, to ask questions, to pay attention, to let the organism that I am absorb data, take in information, without having to label everything with a value judgment.

Thus we begin to develop the strength necessary to be humble.

Do not fear that you will never be able to make a value judgment again! Judging is a faculty that we will hardly lose, so much a part of us it is. But training in humility requires exercising something besides judging.

One word for that something is openness.

Friday, December 16, 2011: Feast of Ralph Adams Cram, Richard Upjohn and John LaFarge, Architects, 1942, 1878; Artist, 1910

The Twelve Stages of Humility, 10-12

Never take pleasure in the shortcomings or misfortunes of another.

I would not think of laughing at someone else’s misfortune. Would I?

I cannot imagine or recall a time when I smiled with glee when someone I knew slipped and fell from grace, nor a moment when I licked my chops when a competitor or an enemy stumbled or took a loss. Well, not since childhood. Or maybe college.

But what I wouldn’t think of doing in the face of one of my friends, I find myself doing all the time when I see political figures whom I dislike suffering setbacks. I rejoice to see hypocrites exposed. I chortle when I hear demagogues make fools of themselves. And none of these things adds anything to humility.

What would happen if I practiced seeing my “enemies” as human beings with flaws? Could I do that and still oppose what seem to me to be clearly wrong-headed and anti-gospel positions? How would I go about that?

I am beginning to see how far from humility I am.

By daily pursuing the habit of humility I might be able to become more humble, more open, kinder.

I think am beginning to understand why grace is something without which I can’t do it.

Saturday, December 17, 2011: O Sapientia


Routine is good. Not all routines are good.

Most of us have routines, because generally we are creatures of habit. The question is whether your routines are good ones that serve you well.

St. Benedict saw the wisdom in having some structure in which to live daily life. His rule, which of course is the basis of McQuiston’s book Always We Begin Again, divided the waking hours into times for worship, times for study, and times for work. This threefold division has tremendously influenced Anglican spiritual life. We are at our best when we balance worship with study and work or Christian action. We are not so strong when one or more of these is given short shrift. The same is true for individual Christians.

I go through seasons. Some years ago when living through “The Benedictine Experience” at Canterbury Cathedral, I identified the fact that there are times when my rhythms seem naturally to resonate with discipline and other times when they don’t. Almost always in the fall, for example, I find myself getting organized. Frequently in the warmer months, I slack off. I have also learned that I cannot sustain but so many disciplines at once. I used to pile on the disciplines like so many layers of clothing until I would find myself bowed down by their weight and suffocating from too many resolutions bearing down upon me. I have learned to go lightly with the disciplines, and to strike a happy medium between routine and flexibility.

As we begin the last week of Advent (the days of which are called by the name of the “Great O” Antiphons sung on the Magnificat at Evening Prayer) it may be helpful to remember that the Wisdom (Sapientia) from on high that orders all things is the power that enables us to sort out soul-refreshing disciplines from soul-withering habits.

Sunday, December 18: The Fourth Sunday of Advent, O Adonai


The real issue of stewardship is nothing more and nothing less than the issue of how to be a (successful) living organism on this planet. It is the matter of how we relate to the world around us.

We have a choice between two options. Either we can possess, or we can share. If we choose to possess, we have at our disposal an entire physical and psychic system that has evolved to do exactly that: to get what it needs, but not to stop with that; to go beyond need to control. It can be argued that control itself is a need that we have developed. Perhaps. The point is, it comes naturally. We have only to observe other animals to see how natural it is.

The gospel introduces a second possibility—and by “gospel” I mean the Presence and work of the Spirit of God. That possibility to live in a way that recognizes our contingency, that sees everything in our lives as a gift. We own nothing, not even ourselves. That is the basis of a life of sharing. Not only might we share what we have with others, we can accept what they share with us. Sharing is more than largesse, either yours or someone else’s. It can also be a sort of common ownership wherein we take responsibility for the things we use (including public spaces, for example) as if they belonged to us with the proviso that we never be stingy or possessive.

Monday, December 19: O Radix Jesse; Feast of Lillian Thrasher, Missionary, 1961


Living life as if the pursuit of goods and recognition is its purpose destroys it.

Perhaps the clearest call of the gospel beckons us to give ourselves in humble service to those in need, sickness, or some other adversity. The woman whom we remember today is an example of what that means. Lillian Thrasher grew up in Georgia, heard the call of God as a young woman summoning her to a life of mission, and went to Egypt after she had read in her Bible, “I have seen, I have seen the affliction of my people which is in Egypt, and I have heard their groaning and am come down to deliver them. And now come, I will send thee to Egypt.” Would that it were always so simple to discern the call! Lillian probably thought it was anything but simple. She began an orphanage without any steady aid until the Assemblies of God gave her some. Despite hardships, political turmoil, and war, she kept her orphanage running, caring for nearly 25,000 Egyptian children during the course of her life.

In our struggles for justice, it is worth remembering that, while systemic change is difficult and necessary, along the way there are many times that the best, and perhaps the only, thing that we can do is to give a cup of cold water to the thirsty in the Name of Christ.

Tuesday, December 20: O Clavis David


What might happen if every meal we ate consciously as if it were a eucharist?

A trait that runs in my family is grazing. My mother grazed, frequently stopping by the refrigerator or a cabinet to get a handful of something that she could eat. My older brother seemed to have insatiable cravings. I am no stranger to the habit of grazing. The only way I seem to be able to avoid it is to make a conscious decision—and a periodic re-decision—to be absolutely ruthless in not eating mindlessly.

It is possible to eat mindfully. There are some simple practices that can transform mealtime. Choose one meal a day to eat intentionally and consciously, focusing on the act of eating. Refuse to do anything else—no texting, no emailing, nothing that will interfere with eating mindfully. Eat at a table. Appreciate the appearance of the food (it helps to eat healthy food that actually looks good!). Focus on each mouthful, its flavor, texture, and the feel of chewing. Don’t rush. Chew well. Use cutlery, and put it down between mouthfuls. Talk and share with someone, concentrating on the experience of eating as opposed to things that distract from mindful eating. Go for small amounts eaten thoroughly.

Eating is one of the most important activities that any living being can do. Let it nurture the life we seek to be living.

Wednesday, December 21: Feast of St. Thomas, Apostle; O Oriens


The heart of worship is thanksgiving. It is not an accident that eucharist means thanksgiving. There are other things that worship typically includes: confession, adoration, supplication. But giving thanks is central.

We can go nowhere where God is not. We can do nothing that is outside God’s awareness. God is nearer to us than the air we breathe, more accessible than our very bodies. But these are mere words unless we are open to the Presence that permeates everything we are and do.

Worship is not a matter of forms or words so much as it is being tuned in to the sacredness of life.

The Great O antiphon for today is, “O Dayspring, Brightness of the Light Eternal, and Sun of Righteousness: Come and enlighten those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.” Worship perennially invites the Dayspring from on high to come into our awareness (it is already around us and within us!) to enlighten our hearts and minds. There is no better way to invite the Light than to practice simply being thankful.

Thursday, December 22: O Rex Gentium


We are all guests in the world, and all equally present in time.

The most artificial distinction of all is the distinction between oneself and others. For practical purposes we make that distinction all the time. I am I; you are you; they are they. However practical that might be, it is indeed artificial, if not downright false. For we are all in this life together, part of one species, part of one history and part of one future. In perhaps his most frequently quoted lines, John Donne said, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Thus there is a sense in which every guest that comes into my house or my church is no more a guest than I. We are all involved in the human experience, and thus bound to one another in ways that defy easy categories and simple analyses.

Standing at the heart of profound and eminently practical truth is that we simply must do unto others as we would have them do unto us. I treat a guest as I would wish to be treated myself. I accord honor and defer to a guest realizing that I am giving away nothing—nothing at all—for the guest is as much a part of me as my arm or my face.

That is why humility, on which topic St. Benedict dwelt so much, is essential to living in accordance with deep truth. Humility is recognizing that the ego-drawn boundary between me and the next fellow is totally useless, not to mention false and demeaning. It is precisely when we give ourselves away that we discover our selves in the faces and hearts of those to whom we give them.

Friday, December 23: O Emmanuel


Humans live in groups, and honesty and candor are essential both to the health of the community and the individuals in it.

What would happen if our public discourse took into account that we are all members of a single human community? Sometimes I walk by the Willard Hotel downtown and muse on the fact that in the Old Willard the term lobbyist was coined to name the persons who hung about the lobby waiting to buttonhole legislators for their own purposes. What took on a name (it certainly was not born then, in the Grant Administration) has now become an art form, or a science unto itself. Everyone has an interest—and the competing voices build to a cacophony that drowns out not only the weak but even the strong who refuse to use their strength to degrade others.

It is not a pretty image to paint these two days before the Church begins to sing of the Savior born unto us at Bethlehem, of him who is to come again in power and great glory to judge the world and to right all wrongs.

Something must change. And the change that must come is not one “out there,” but one that first must take root in your heart and mine. Indeed the phrase “Become the change you want to see” is wise. That change is a rebuilding of the human self. God, the Architect and Builder of the New Self and of the New Age, is also the Mother who gives to us New Birth. We must be born all over again, begotten from above, so to say. Instead of living to protect our interests, the New Birth brings us to live essentially for others. Instead of living to acquire things, security, status, we inch with birthpangs into a world of giving, risking, sacrificing.

And this New Birth is nothing less than Emmanuel’s being born in us. God with us, God for us, God in us: O come, O come, Emmanuel, and save us. Build out of our disparate desires your own beloved community. Be born in us today.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Thanksgiving Beyond Good Luck

Thanksgiving Day may be our least corrupt holiday in the United States. It is hard to make giving thanks into much of a spectacle, as one can do with Halloween, Christmas, or even Easter. There is somewhere in the cracks of civil religion and its twin culture religion an allowance for thanksgiving as a worthy thing to do.

I am not sure what they do with Thanksgiving who do not have a god to thank. Perhaps it is sufficient simply to take note of one's good fortunes and to rejoice that one is lucky. But for those who have any semblance of belief in God, thanksgiving poses no problem. For even if our lives are clogged and pent with an abundance of misfortune, without much trouble we can find something somewhere that has come our way through no particular merit of our own, through no heroism or talent or ability that we have exercised, some little or big something for which we can take no credit. Instinctively we want to say something like, "Wow!" or maybe even "Thank God."

Thanksgiving began in a world of agriculture, an industry that few people in modern America engage in--certainly not in the sense of the cultures in which it arose. Harvest festivals, like planting, engendered rituals consisting of prayers, chants, dances, and other acts. When life depends upon good weather, rodent control, a minimum of mildew and rot, managing various pests, not to mention having enough to plant and not having to eat seeds instead of planting them, then it stands to reason that one might want to curry favor with the gods in charge of the universe to get some help in a daunting task. And when there is anything to harvest at all, much less an abundance, thanksgiving seems somehow too appropriate to have to explain.

Thanksgiving is not a situational activity, however, so much as it is a way of life. It is a state of mind and soul. One does not have to live on the margins of planet earth in order to be thankful--nor does one have to break records of good fortune in order to find a reason for Thanksgiving. Rather, the thankful heart is not preoccupied with counting blessings, but in noticing the benefit in all things. The thankful heart embraces not only good fortune but misfortune as well, knowing that even those things which cause us inconvenience or even grief can be the very agents of growth. The truly thankful heart accepts whatever comes as exactly what it needs.

Can one be thankful amidst suffering? Can we be thankful even when our souls are grieving or in pain? Can we be thankful even if, God forbid, we should be slowly starving to death or slipping out of this world sped along by deprivation or cruelty? You will never know the answer to that unless and until you get to the edge and find out there in the direst of straights you might ever imagine that you have it in you to give thanks even in those things and for those things. You do not want to go there and neither do I. But it is certain that in the most abject of circumstances one can find it possible to be thankful only if one has practiced being thankful over and over again. In hard times and in good, in depression as well as in joy, we can open our minds and hearts to the possibility that in the leanest of years there is something to sustain us; in the darkest night, there is some angel bearing us up until the dawn; in the strangest of countries, a companion who knows and charts our way; on the bleakest day, the gift of becoming.

To live like that is to live eucharistically, thankfully. It is to lift up our hearts to the Lord of Life, not measuring our blessings, but rejoicing in all things. Only the loss of such a God could ring the curtain down on thanksgiving. And the God whose hand is open wide to fill all creatures with plenteousness, is so lasting, so true, so sure, so dependable that you can actually believe God's promise: I will be their God and they will be my children and I myself will be with them.

Could we ask for more?

Saturday, November 05, 2011

Right Here Beside Us

Calling up the Ancestors on All Saints

On a cool August morning with about eighty other people, I stood in front of a Buddhist shrine in a Colorado valley as a Native American drummed and chanted, calling up the ancestors to accompany us on a pilgrimage that would last for a week. We had gathered to explore the stories that bind us together for good or ill in the present world. I do not know much about my ancestors—specifically mine—who lived before the 19th century. I remember only two of my grandparents and none who came before them. My parents’ stories ran as far back as their grandparents, aunts and uncles, with an occasional anecdote preserved about Great-aunt Julia, because a piece or two of her jewelry came my family’s way when she died. But I knew a handful of names that I could call out loud and strong in the swelling tide of sound raised by that four-score people. We sounded like a chorus of great birds, a swarm of giant insects as we voiced our names that rolled out into the mist for a few seconds that seemed magnified and lengthened by the sheer power of the sound.

That was a very human moment. We were humans, not crows or bees or some other species. We were doing something that human beings alone among the creatures of earth do. With our memories we preserve stories from our past, and with our voices we tell them, passing on the information we need to survive. Along the way we have learned to sing, dance, paint, mime, act, carve, and write. Sometimes we look into the future and imagine what a new world might look like. But nearly always we tell stories and create scenes from our past. You can go the world over and find that what we were doing on that morning in Colorado is of a piece with what peoples everywhere do. We remember the dead. We honor them, sometimes even when we would think in sober moments that they did nothing to deserve honor. We set aside days and seasons to remember simple deeds that become more heroic as passing time gives them height and weight. They are important to us, because we generally have a sense that somehow they do not abandon us when they die. They hang around, unseen and usually silent. We imagine that what they learned they can teach us.

What we are doing on the Feast of All Saints is very like what that crowd of people was doing in Colorado. We have invoked the names of ancestors, some heroes and heroines in the faith, some even known for their opposition and challenge to the faith as they inherited it. We have called out names and placed on the ofrenda signs and tokens of people known mostly or only to ourselves. Not only have we thanked God for them; we have cried out for them to stand here beside us as we walk our journey.

As universal as is this habit of relating to the dead, not everyone does it nor does everyone approve of it. There are lots of reasons not to, if you are looking for one. First, aside from occasional ghosts and poltergeists, there is little evidence that the dead are anything other than dead and gone. Second, in a large swath of our rationalistic Western society, anything that doesn’t serve immediate materialistic goals is suspect if not disdained. Moreover, a host of abuses and not a little silliness has grown up over the years in lots of places when people have turned things like prayers for the dead into elaborate schemes for money making, encouraging a culture of superstition and ignorance. One could go on, but I don’t want to give you gratuitous reasons for spurning All Saints!

The deeper question, far more important than the issue of how human beings can take a good idea and make a mess of it, is why we have this need. What moves us to keep an annual feast for calling up the ancestors?

On the most basic level, we humans are conscious that we are who we are because of so much that so many have done before us. It is no accident that nearly all of our major stories and sagas and epics crystallize around the idea of a journey. We know we are going some place. And we realize on a very obvious level that we did not begin the journey. Others have brought us thus far. It does not take much for us to see, too, that each of us is a product of our parents who are products of their parents. If you are lucky enough to live to see two or three or four generations in your family, you can see before your very eyes how it is that not only physical characteristics are passed down from one generation to another, but how behavior has an uncanny way of replicating itself, too. I look into the mirror and am increasingly startled to see my father’s face looking back at me. I see a photograph of myself and can tell that my mother’s smile is the one I wear. Over my bed hangs a photograph of my great-grandparents and their large Victorian family, taken in 1902. In the center is my great-grandmother Burroughs, who died 19 years before I was born, yet whose expression I see when I catch a glimpse of my face in a shop window as I pass by, and whose eyebrow arch I frequently see my younger daughter bearing. I doubt that dolphins and dogs are aware of such things, but you and I are aware of them all the time.

But the Christian community knows a truth that is stronger, deeper still. We know that the whole story of the human race is a struggle of life against death. We know that the things that often masquerade as life-giving—like power and status and prestige and money—are often the very things that wring the life out of us. And we know that some things like crucifixions and martyrdoms and persecutions and bloodshed that look like things to be avoided at all costs are sometimes the very things that mock cruelty, that in a peculiar way advance the journey of the human race in giant leaps, and even sometimes set us free. We know that ultimately the dying we must undergo is nothing to fear because nothing in this world can take us out of the hand of the Living God, and thus we cannot fall out of the reach of Providence. We know that we live in a world thinly veiled from a powerful reality made of non-material stuff, a spiritual reality that underlies and overarches and supports all that goes on in this workaday life of ours. Not only do we know, but we celebrate the openings to that world when the veil is torn by things like baptism, letting us glimpse and feel the Presence of God in the form of acceptance, incorporation, renewal, affirmation.

We know, too, that though our eyes cannot see them, there are hundreds and thousands of people known by their witness to the Truth and still felt by the love they left behind, now marching in glory. We ponder their examples, believing them to be no more “dead” in the true sense of the word than our latest breath. We know that they are aiding us by their prayers because prayer is nothing less than conversing with the living God to whom they are united. We picture them now, a great multitude which no one can number, from every nation, from all tribes and people and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands, singing, “Salvation belongs to our God who is seated on the throne, and to the Lamb!” Like most of the things in which we believe that encourage and strengthen us, like love, hope, grace, the image of our ancestors in the faith cannot be weighed and measured. But we capture enough of it that it drives us forward, confident that we, too, will get to the place where we will hunger no more, neither thirst any more, nor be struck by scorching heat. We have already taken our places beside the Lamb in the center of the throne, who is our Shepherd. You have a place there too, and he will guide you to springs of the water of life and wipe away every tear from your eyes, save perhaps those of sheer joy that has run through your marrow when you have called out the names of the blessèd dead, saying with all your might, “Stand here, stand here, beside us!”

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2011

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Holy God!

Leviticus 19:1-2, 15-18

Leviticus is not a name that engenders much applause among forward-thinking Christians. The third book in the Bible, in some ways the crown jewel of the Torah, with its elaborations of the Ten Commandments, is one that a number of us find nauseating because it has been hurled so frequently as a weapon against sexual minorities. But there are some things that are not so rough in the Book of Leviticus—not so rough, that is, unless you are really ethically challenged. Leviticus sees a deep connection between the nature of God and profoundly ethical behavior. The headline of the whole work is, “BE HOLY, FOR I THE LORD YOUR GOD AM HOLY.”

More than any other word we could think of, “holiness” expresses what we mean by “the sacred.” It is not something that is owned by one religious tradition. In his book The Idea of the Holy, written many years ago, German theologian Rudolf Otto noted that holiness is peculiar to the sphere of all religion, and is only secondarily transferred to the sphere of ethics as well. It is the experience of the holy that blasts the neat categories of the rational and puts us in the terrain of the inexpressible. We have come to use the word “holy” to mean completely good. Well, that’s not quite accurate. The holy is the real innermost core of any religion. Only in relation to that core can actions and behavior be said to be “holy.”

It is important to get our minds straight on what the holy is, because frankly it is not on the list of the top things that most Americans want to be. Or think they are. But the truth of the matter is we are created to be holy. Or, to be more precise, we are created with the capacity of being Godlike, else it would make no sense for God to issue the command, “Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” Sometimes I muse about where we human beings get that idea. Of course, the tradition is that God actually spoke in revealing terms laying the notion out plainly. And that may well be. But you have to allow for the possibility that God could speak on and on about holiness—or this, that, and the other—and it would all be for naught unless human beings had the capacity to hear it. And that is to say that we carry around with us the idea that it is possible to be different from what we would be if we were just left to our own devices and desires. Left in the wild, so to say, we would revert to basic mammal behavior, looking after ourselves, our young, and our own kind, with loyalties only to our den, our pride, our herd, our flock, our warren. Left to ourselves, we could quite easily behave more as reptilians than gods. William Golding’s Lord of the Flies is perhaps still the classic narrative of what happens to a community of humans that, with all constraints of civilization removed, goes down into the sinkhole of savagery. Boys will not only be boys, but savage boys if left completely to themselves.

But let us not make the mistake of thinking that there is anything necessarily godly about civilization itself. We continue to make that mistake by thinking and believing that anything that controls human behavior, that produces ostensible progress, that shapes human community is necessarily a good thing. We ought to know better. Crowns and thrones perish, kingdoms rise and wane, civilizations come and go. And while all that is happening there is in the center of human experience an impulse to live differently. And while that impulse may not in every instance equate with the current of holiness that comes out of the nature of God, still that impulse keeps surfacing. We humans keep grasping every now and then the idea that we are being called from outside ourselves to live differently, to lay aside some of our most intuitive and automatic behaviors. And the Book of Leviticus testifies that that call is from nowhere other than Yahweh, God, Lord. Yahweh frees and also commands, “Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”

The slice of Leviticus that we heard read today is not particularly hard to get a handle on. Indeed its ideas are very popular with many people, religious and non-religious. Don’t render an unjust judgment. Treat the poor and the rich alike. Do not go around slandering people. Do not hate your own kin. Reprove your neighbor, because you both are a part of the same community and what each of you does affects the other. Don’t be vengeful; don’t bear grudges. Love your neighbor as yourself. Who could take issue with those things? If this were all that is involved in being holy as the Lord God is holy, most of us would sign on without hesitation. We have Jesus to thank for teaching us that it is not so simple as that. Being right with God involves more than being ritually pure and legally flawless. And we have Paul to thank for hammering home the point that the essence of wholeness or salvation is not the keeping of a set of rules, no matter how sensible. We become holy by participating in the divine nature that Jesus embodies, and which through baptism and life in Christian community he shares with us.

And what is that divine nature, that holiness of God that God invites us into practicing and living? You won’t be surprised if I tell you that it cannot be neatly summed up, will you? No, it cannot be, precisely because the holiness of God stretches through all space and time and oozes as well into every cell of your body. We cannot cram it into the category of moral perfection, or even boil it down to right relationships, for holiness is like the source of all the energy in the universe, driving the entire cosmos. We cannot pick out a theme here or an idea there and say that we have laid hands firmly on what it means to be holy, because by its very nature, the holy eludes us. Nor can we reduce holiness to rational ideas or concepts, because what Otto called “the numinous” is trans-rational, mysterious, beyond our ability to describe and prescribe. If we had to choose some basic element by which to depict holiness, it would doubtless be the metaphor in which holiness most often appears in the Bible: fire. Like the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus, who saw the world itself as an everlasting ball of fire, the tradition sees the holiness of God as a consuming, purging flame, licking up everything opposed to the nature, truth, and faithfulness of God. So we may well scratch our heads and wonder what on earth or what for God’s sake does God mean by “Be holy, as I the Lord your God am holy.”

And yet, among all the ritual regulations and liturgical directions and sexual proscriptions in Leviticus, there is something that arises out of the Holiness Code that beckons us forward and upward in the progression from primal protoplasm to the God-nature shot through with glory. It is generosity. There is something about God that, when all is said and done, is exceedingly kind and generous. The fact that we would even be conscious of such a thing is itself a remarkable gift, for on our best days we realize that this life we are living can be so much better if we are not concerned only with our own safety and livelihood, but with the welfare of others, and that is a godly thing to think. “When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien, for I the Lord am your God. You shall not defraud your neighbor; you shall not steal; and you shall not keep for yourself the wages of a laborer until morning. You shall not revile the deaf or put a stumbling block before the blind; I am the Lord.” That is not all there is to holiness, but that is a key aspect of it. God’s hand is generously open with every gift humanity could possibly want, let alone deserve. And our hands are to be no less open. For we are to be holy, as the Lord God is holy.

And that brings us to the stretch of weeks which we inaugurate today, a season you have become accustomed to if you have been in this or some other church for much time at all. For this is fall, and it is the time when we talk about money and the virtue of generosity and such things. I want to level with you. I do not mind talking about money (Jesus talked more about it than any other single subject). I do not mind asking you to give generously to St. Stephen’s, where we try our level best to do ministry that we perceive the Body of Christ cannot not do. But I mind very much wrapping an exhortation to give your dollars for ministry in some kind of religious sophistry that constantly edges away from the plain fact that ministry costs. The older I get the more I realize that the things that cost much are not necessarily the things that are worth much, but the things that are worth much frequently cost a great deal. The relationships in my life that make my heart sing require gentle tending and nurturing. The things that I do that make much difference in mine and others’ lives cost time and effort. And the causes and communities that actually help make the world a better place for all God’s creatures deserve as much money as I can possibly share. The practice of stewardship is about nothing else than practicing the virtue of generosity–not just in church and to church, but everywhere. It has to do with how you tip the wait staff and how you give your time and whether you listen to someone else’s story as well as to how you give to St. Stephen and the Incarnation. It has to do with the attitude we have—or don’t have—which cherishes our neighbors the way we cherish ourselves, or ought to cherish ourselves. Generosity is the spark of holiness that lights the way for us to live intentionally the life of the One who says, “Be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.”

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2011

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Just Imagine

Ignatian Prayer and Scripture

Isaiah 5:1-7
Matthew 21:33-46

Over the years I have heard about everything in the liturgy criticized for one reason or another. But this week I have wracked my brain trying to recall if I could remember someone’s suggesting that scripture not be read in church. Perhaps there has been such a time, but I cannot recall it. Some have wondered why we read three lessons, as opposed to one or two. Some devotees of The Great Vigil of Easter want to read as much scripture as possible. But virtually no one suggests that we ought to dispense with reading the Bible. The reason to read it seems obvious. It is the sacred story of the Covenant People. Nearly all Christians, although they may disagree on how to read scripture, assume that the Bible has something to say. And if you ask folks what they most want out of a sermon, they will nearly invariably say that they want the preacher to show how the Bible is relevant to ordinary daily life.

Along comes a pair of passages like the ones from Isaiah and Matthew today on the theme of God’s vineyard. The meaning of them is not particularly obscure. The Isaiah passage, sometimes called “The Song of the Vineyard,” describes the House of Israel as God’s vineyard. As the planter and owner, God sees a vineyard that has not lived up to expectations. Instead of bearing lots of fruit, the vines have grown wild grapes. Thus God will destroy the vineyard. The parable of the wicked tenants in Matthew is even less obscure, since Matthew has taken care to put it in allegorical form. The prophets all come to Israel and one by one are rejected. Finally the Son comes and is thrown out of the vineyard and killed. It certainly conforms to what Matthew knew was the story and fate of Jesus.

Although their meaning may be fairly plain, what are we to do with passages like these? What are we to make of them? In a larger sense, this is the perennial question facing the community of faith in every generation: what are we to make of any scripture? How do we use it? How does it inform our life? One sermon, of course, cannot get into all the nooks and crannies of interpreting scripture. What I’d like to do today is to look at the way this image of the vineyard is used and to see what that has to tell us about hearing the message of scripture in general.


Picture a singer standing at the entrance of the Columbia Heights Metro station, singing something that sounds like a ballad. She begins with what sounds like an ancient couplet, “I will sing a song for my friend, a song of love for his vineyard.” We don’t have to know much about vineyards in Washington, DC, for such a singer to get our attention. What we need is for the singer to be good—good enough to get a couple of people per hour to pause and listen. But she is better than good. She is amazing. She halts our rush to Target or to Starbucks just to pause and listen to the sweet strains blending words and melody. By the time she gets to the second verse, we begin to realize that this is a tragic poem that she is singing. She begins to sing of how her friend who owns the vineyard despairs of vines that only produce sour grapes, good for nothing but to be spat out. The intent listener begins to wonder what on earth has gone wrong. Is the story about some disease that has invaded the vineyard? Is the singer an environmentalist making a point about the dangers of pesticides? We listen on. The riddle is solved, but in a way that is alarming. We, say singer and and song, we the people of Washington are the vineyard. And the lover who so sweetly planted us is the Author and Giver of Life. We are the ones who are his darlings. Then, in a plaintive, haunting lament, the singer ends the song, and by now several dozen people have stopped to listen. The vineyard planter looks to us to have produced justice but instead found only injustice. Instead of right relationships, he hears only a cry, only a cry. Only a cry. The singer stops, slips through the crowd and is gone.

Who was that singer? Where did she come from? Is she just another religious nut stirring up guilt? Shouldn’t we know the name of someone who is that good a singer? Her song hangs in the air; and the ending: what can we do about the ending? We walk away, not knowing exactly what, and get it out of our heads by continuing up the street, avoiding a street vender, ducking into Tynan’s for a cup of coffee, eventually being absorbed in the wave of people oblivious to anything but their own lists.

Look at what has happened, just in the last two or three minutes. A text—or even the oblique reference to a text—has caught our attention and in some way begun to work on us. You know what that experience is like because you have had it. You have seen a movie that has done slightly less than change your life, but that has entered your mind like hot steel, cleaving your soul, leaving you wondering, wondering. Or you have read a book that you can’t quite let go. That is what Isaiah intends to do. As he proceeds to show, the Song of the Vineyard was simply to get the attention of Israel so that they could identify with the plight of the vineyard, take responsibility for their own devastation, and know that the One to whom they owed their life was none other than Yahweh Sabaoth, the Lord of Hosts. Isaiah then proceeds to articulate a series of woes—seven in all—that implicitly indict those who have betrayed the covenant by undermining right relationships and by subverting justice. And why does he do all that? Ultimately his aim is to bring his hearers around to changing. It could be said that he is foretelling the future, and that might be true. But equally likely, he is describing a situation that is unmistakably true and present in the community’s life. His short-term goal is to proclaim the absolute trustworthiness and righteousness of God. His long-term goal is to bring the people into a renewed covenant relationship with God.


Jesus might or might not have told the parable of the wicked tenants the way we hear it in Matthew’s gospel. An older version appears in Mark. Unlike most of the parables it is an allegory, wherein everything and everybody represents a person or an idea or an event. Whatever else Jesus did, it is quite likely that he used the image of the vineyard straight from Isaiah to make his point. His hearers, the authorities of Israel, knew well enough the Song of the Vineyard. But Jesus introduces the figures of tenants, suggesting that the problem was not the vineyard at all, which unlike Isaiah’s vineyard, produced perhaps bumper crops of good grapes. The problem was rather that those who had tenancy of the vineyard were scoundrels. When slaves come from the owner to collect the produce, the tenants beat them up. Finally the owner sends his son, who he is sure the tenants will perforce respect. Wrong! The tenants, perhaps knowing that as tenants they have rights of possession, proceed to assassinate the one who stands in their way, the heir.

As a good storyteller, Jesus then sets up his hearers for the inevitable response. What will the owner do? The answer is obvious. He will avenge the death of his son! He will put the tenants to death, the hearers answer (Jesus does not comment on that!) and lease the vineyard to other tenants who would give him his produce in due season.
Then Jesus does something that later tradition was to make much of. He quotes from Psalm 118: “The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is amazing in our eyes.” He does not spell out the allegory but tells plainly its meaning. The kingdom of God will be taken away from the religious leaders (the tenants) and given to a people producing the fruits of the kingdom. He then issues a not-so-oblique threat, saying that the “stone” that was “rejected” will cause anyone who falls on it (stumbles upon it) to be broken to pieces and anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.

So here is another way that scripture is used. A metaphor, the rejected stone, referred to in scripture, is mined out of its setting and used to drive home a point, in this case a prophetic warning. The chief priests and the Pharisees get the point all right. They know that he is talking about them. And they react with characteristic and predictable rage, determined to arrest Jesus. It is absolutely fair to say that this was indeed the result that Jesus intended. The entire passage in Matthew’s gospel suggests that Jesus intended to press the point with the chief priests and Pharisees—and by extension the ones whom they led—that their days in charge of God’s community were numbered.

The story does not stop there, of course. Either the Church found in the tradition this nugget of a parable traceable to Jesus that it could confirm as a keeper precisely because sooner or later it came true. Or it doctored up the parable to bring it in line with recent events. Either way, it is a story that demonstrates what happens when those in charge of God’s vineyard are faithless, and a story of what happens in history when the rejected one (Jesus) becomes the keystone or cornerstone.


But the most important question perhaps is always, “So what”? That is indeed the question that The New Testament is forever addressing. One typical response to those who read the Bible, and especially to these kinds of things in the Bible, is to jump to a moral meaning, a “moral of the story,” as it were. That is not always bad or inappropriate, especially if one gets from Isaiah the message that we need to reform our ways and get ourselves on the side of justice; or if one gets from Matthew the message that we need to produce the fruits of the Reign of God. An unfortunate response that some make is to use such passages as anti-Jewish propaganda, projecting onto present-day Jews the profiles of ancient Israel ironically drawn from texts out of the heart of Israel’s own sacred tradition. A counter-response that liberals typically make is to silence Matthew and others from saying what they have to say because we are embarrassed at what can be and has been construed to be words and images that put Jews in a bad light. Another reaction can easily be that we treat all this material as far too abstruse to be of much use, all the historical issues having been settled, and the symbols and language too incendiary to risk using.

St. Ignatius Loyola in his Spiritual Exercises uses a method of pondering scripture that could help us here. He takes a passage, like the parable of the wicked tenants, for example, and encourages the listener to move into the content of the passage with one’s senses. What colors, odors, sounds do we hear in the vineyard? And whom do we relate to? The tenants? The slaves? The owner? The son? Typically one uses one’s imagination to move into an experience like that being described, always for the purpose of coming closer to Jesus, clearer in one’s relationship with God. In that way, reading scripture is definitely a form of prayer, a piece of communication with God that is continuous with external life as well as with internal psyche.


If the central question is, “So what?” surely the second question is, “What difference does it make?” What happens when we read scripture imaginatively, opening ourselves up to have the scenes, the words, the ideas make a deep impact upon our consciousness? Little by little—or perhaps on occasion, in a leap—we change, and that is the heart of what the entire gospel is up to. That can probably happen only when we begin to see ourselves in the stories. Are we the poor slaves who are just trying to do the master’s bidding, beaten and abused by the powers we confront? Are we the tenants who have robbed the owner by arrogating to ourselves what does not belong to us? Or are we some of both, depending on which day of the week it is and where we find ourselves in a particular pecking order? What is the Word that God is speaking and that Jesus is embodying right now? And do we rejoice at the rejected stone becoming the cornerstone, or become angry and depressed because in so doing he overthrows our own power? It is marvelous in our eyes or noxious to us, quite honestly?

The gospel, indeed the whole Bible, can be good news or bad news for us, depending upon who we are and where we are in any particular story. But that is part of, maybe the biggest part of, the challenge to which we open ourselves by opening the book in the first place. It is the likelihood that when we read or hear the scriptures, we will come to a moment of recognition. A split second later, we may well find ourselves having to decide exactly what we are going to do with this Jesus who shakes our foundations, how we are going to respond to this God who hounds us demanding justice. Such a moment came to the chief priests and Pharisees when they realized that he was speaking about them.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2011

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Lows and Highs

Prayer and the Mind of Christ

Philippians 2:1-13

“Son, don’t act like you’re going to die just because you are feeling a little puny,” my mother said on more than one occasion. “You’re just like Uncle George. The minute he got to feeling bad, he was moaning and groaning and telling Aunt Nora that he wasn’t long for this world. Just like him.”

Although I am not one of these people who hasn’t been sick a day in his life, I have been remarkably healthy for the most part for over five decades. Yet when I feel the first scratchiness that presages a sore throat, and especially if I succumb to lying in bed with a virus, as happened twice several winters ago, I begin to hear Mama’s voice overriding my own moaning, “Son, straighten up. You’re just like Uncle George.”

Mine must not have been the only mother who says such things, nor mine the only family where people get pegged as copies of ancestors. We come to this earth not only trailing clouds of glory, but, like the little girl on the Morton salt box, pouring behind us indications of undeniable DNA. I hear myself talking sometimes and have to stop and think if the voice I hear is really mine or if it belongs to my father. Or my mother. Or Uncle George.

In a very real sense, the project of Christianity is the project of changing human beings. As a faith system, Christianity is about transformation, a remolding or remaking the human person to be different. Partly, of course, it has to do with our moral training, despite the fact that many Christians remain dreadfully confused about exactly what is moral. Simply put, the entire effort of the Christian Church is essentially about the creation of a community that so catches the Spirit of Jesus that we manifestly live in a way that is unmistakably like him. Not to put too fine a point on my mother’s dictum, it is as if someone might see or hear us, observe us as individuals or as communities and say, “You’re just like Jesus, no kidding.”

Now the second thing you may want to say to this is, “No way.” The first thing you may want to say is, “But how do we know what Jesus was like? How can we be sure?” Hold on a minute. There is something more fundamental at stake here than our rush to react to what might seem a dubious proposition.

That fundamental something is the fact that Jesus deliberately gathered a community. For the average Christian, this is so unremarkable as to be taken for granted or ignored entirely. But did you ever wonder why the disciples were even necessary? Forget the canned explanations. Ask yourself why Jesus would even have bothered with them. He selected what seems to have been a monumentally obtuse bunch, don’t you think? Yet the tradition is not the least bit in doubt about the fact that Jesus chose a community to share his ministry and in some sense taught them. He did not choose instead to be a lone ranger. Christianity is not about individual projects of personal salvation; it is about a community in where all the members work out their salvation together, even if it means doing so with some trepidation and nervousness. Why? Because we are all in this together. It is the nature of humans to form community because we are interdependent, no matter what some politicians or the financial establishment argue to the contrary.

So when Paul writes to the Philippians, in the warmest epistle he ever wrote to a community, he betrays a certain concern that perhaps they still have the a bit of the Old Adam in them, what Mark Twain called, “ordinary human cussedness.” It was likely coming out in the form of petty jealousies and rivalries, things that are the very best ways to undermine community. Why else admonish them to “be of one mind, being of one love, sharing accord” among themselves? Then he launches into one of the most sublime passages in all his letters, perhaps in the entire New Testament. Maybe he was quoting from a hymn that he knew churches like the one at Philippi frequently sang in their worship. Or maybe it was a creedal poem that he or someone else had written. “Have this mindset, or attitude, or frame of mind,” he writes, and then proceeds to describe the “mind” or “thought” that Jesus had. The community is to exhibit the character of its mentor and master. Or, to borrow from one of Paul’s metaphors elsewhere, the body was to follow where the head led. Since there is plenty of encouragement in Christ, since there is the incentive of love, since there is mutual participation in the life of the Spirit, since there is shared affection, there is plenty of reason and abundant strength on which the Philippians can build a more solid community.

This “mindset” or “orientation” that Jesus had is not so easy to get a grip on. The essence is this: Jesus had every opportunity to be or to remain exalted, since he pre-existed this life as God. But in fact he chose not to “grasp” or “cling” to equality with God, but did the opposite. He emptied himself. The rich for our sake became poor. The powerful divested himself of all power. He submitted himself so thoroughly that he became the willing slave of all, humbling himself to experience the totality of human life, including death itself. And not just any death, but death on a cross, the ultimate badge of rejection and dishonor. It is totally counter-intuitive for human beings even to imitate that, let alone to choose to do it because we want to. Quite the contrary. We are taught, especially in this culture, from day one that the goal of life is to succeed, to acquire, to compete. It is not too much to say that the very narrative of Jesus has been warped and twisted by knaves to seduce many a marginal population into servitude on the strength of the notion that to be relegated to scut work, to be underpaid, to be knocked around and ripped off is to be like Jesus, or at least to be like the poor who he said would be with us always. But the essence of Jesus’ community is not to be cringing dogs who slink away from abusive masters, but rather self-giving individuals whose identity is not what we can get for ourselves but what we can give for others.

The project does not extend only to the people who happen to sit in church on Sundays. It goes well beyond the borders of the community. The Church in fact exists not for itself alone but for the sake of the world that Christ died to save. If he emptied himself, so do we. If he gave his life for the sake of the world, so do we. This is what the Church has not learned terribly well. In many places we still cling to old behaviors and old mindsets, which, though not necessarily divisive and destructive, are desperate measures to hold on to what we have and to who we have been. The model of Christ is just the opposite. Let go, let God, let grace guide us into continually spending ourselves for the sake of the world.

Fine. We can say those things and even maybe believe them for a few moments during a sermon. But how can we actually live them? Can we actually live them? And, if so, how? Notice that Paul, who is no stranger to scolding people, does not wag a homiletical finger at the Philippians trying to shame them into behaving differently. The whole point he is making calls them to ground themselves right where he grounds his argument: in the foundational story of Jesus. Think as he thought. Do as he did. The community can hardly do that without being committed to serious prayer and assiduous practice.

The truth is that if transformation is to happen, we have to open ourselves to the process of change. Prayer pries us open. Praying opens us up, of course, to the suffering of the world when we notice and care enough to intercede for those who hurt and ache, indeed for the entire creation that is groaning in the pain of abuse and misuse. But praying is not just, or even primarily the opener of the soul in that sense. To have the mind that we see in Christ Jesus involves our constantly turning to and gazing upon Jesus himself. Obviously a place to begin is the gospels. But Jesus is not just found there. Jesus is also present when the community gathers to share bread and wine, his body and blood. Yet Jesus is not just there either. Jesus, if you believe what he says, is present when two or three are gathered together in his Name. But Jesus is more than that, too. Jesus is in the faces of the poor, the dispossessed, the oppressed, the marginalized, the condemned, the executed, the hosts of men and women who are dragged through the courts and sentenced to die just as he was. Prayer sharpens both our sense and our senses to behold the Body of Christ in every part and every cell of his creation, each of which bears the unmistakable stamp of the Word which calls all things and all creatures into being. And prayer can also be shutting off the lights, turning down the sensory data, stilling the tongue, putting down the pen, pulling the shades down so that we, retreating into our deepest selves, meet the One who is resplendently alive in the heart of darkness and silence. It is not one kind of prayer or the other, but both. Activists need contemplatives and contemplatives need activists, and no matter which we are, we probably need to practice some of what does not come so easily to us in our prayer, just so that we can learn something of the fullness of him who emptied himself and submitted to death.

It is interesting that the Philippians hymn goes on to say that God has highly exalted Jesus as a consequence of his self-emptying. God has given him a Name that is above every Name, that at the Name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven, on earth, and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father. You may think that that piece of it has nothing to do with you. And perhaps you are right, inasmuch as it really goes beyond what Paul is saying about unity in the Church. But maybe there is something embedded in this old hymn, this majestic poem that is so true that it goes beyond even the confines of the Jesus story. Maybe the Truth, as heavy as gravity itself, is caught up in the paradox that giving is oddly the way of receiving; that abasement is followed by exaltation; that emptying oneself of power and prestige is the true road to glory, not just for Jesus but for all. Don’t count on the world to document that terribly finely. But every once in awhile somebody bothers to believe it and it makes all the difference. You can almost count them on your fingers and toes, they are so rare. Jesus, Buddha, St. Francis, Oscar Romero, Mother Teresa, St. Margaret, St. Elizabeth,… No, you can’t count them. The numbers stack up. There are more than you would think, more than you can number. Some are sitting right here who have given up a day to be arrested in the cause of justice or who have given up an evening to intercede for Troy condemned to die, who have gone to Israel to wage peace, who slug it out for the spurned immigrant. Long grows the list of ways in which ordinary folk do not count themselves as the darlings of God, but empty themselves and become obedient to the most human of all things, the leveler Death. Wherefore their names, united to the Immortal Son of God, are written in heaven.

© Frank Gasque Dunn