Saturday, July 30, 2016


Luke 12:13-21

I gave myself an inflated, pretentious title some years ago that I have rarely confessed in private, let alone in public. I began calling myself, “The Apostle to Suburbia.”  It had more than a grain of truth about it.  Although I grew up on a farm just outside a little South Carolina town called Conway, I have lived practically all of my life in suburbia.  It is of course, a hypothetical construct, suburbia.  Some of our Washington neighborhoods, while clearly a part of the city, look suburban.  I once lived in Newtown, Connecticut, which, although a small town, was in fact suburban in character, too.  I’ve served a number of churches, only one of which was anything other than suburban. 

In one of these suburban parishes down in Charlotte, my secretary came into my office one day and said that a man was waiting to see me.  “Elder Holt,” she said, was his name.  I said,  “Tell him to come in.” Elder Holt was a tall, handsome, soft-spoken African-American, who I imagined to be somewhere in mid to late middle age.  He began telling me his story.  He ministered to a small, struggling congregation on another side of Charlotte.  He had a passion for another ministry, however.  There was a large state mental hospital in Morganton, some distance away.  Elder Holt explained that he regularly drove to Morganton simply to be with the patients on the wards there.  Frequently he would visit with people who had no one else to visit them.  And because he found it helpful to have something to break the ice with strangers who were frequently untrusting, he had a collection of little gifts that he took with him—things like inexpensive trinkets or perhaps some candy, maybe a pair of socks or a little picture.  So he was always scrapping around for money to buy gas and to purchase his little gifts.  He wondered if I’d be willing to help him out.

I imagined for a moment that Elder Holt probably had an agenda to carry his religious message to patients.  Having worked in a mental hospital myself, I was a bit reluctant to give money to support such a project, knowing how vulnerable it was to being misunderstood, or even something that would play into the structures of disturbed minds.  “No,” he said.  “I want them to see Jesus, not just hear about him, so I just visit.  I make friends.  They look forward to my coming now.” 

As rector of a relatively small parish, I had no big discretionary fund.  But I did have a small one.  I gave him some money.  Thus began a friendship.  A couple of times a year he would show up.  As I listened I learned that his tiny congregation did its best to support him, but they had no real means to cover his expenses.  He would sell what few possessions he could do without in order to come up with gas money to go to Morganton.  Once he came with a few golf putters that someone had given him.  He was selling them for whatever he could get to help pay his bills.  The phone company sometimes cut off his service.  Occasionally he was without gas or electricity.  His old car was falling apart.  And Mrs. Holt did not like any of this and more than once wondered aloud if she should just leave him.

On one visit, I asked him, “Elder, tell me.  What would you ever do if you could just get out of debt—have enough money to pay your bills—be free of financial worries?”

“Pastor,” he said without much hesitation, “I’d go right back in.  I’d go right back in.”

My suburban mind, my suburban notion of responsibility, my middle class ethic of success, my goal to be free from my own financial worries, my thinly veiled god of security, all came together in my mouth, the weight of them causing my jaw to drop.  It might have been the first time I had ever sat face to face with a fool for Christ. 
St. Basil, for whom the famous Cathedral
on Red Square in Moscow is named, praying.
He wore nothing in either summer or winter.
A "fool for Christ," he was in the long tradition
of those who often did shocking, unconventional
things to challenge accepted norms, speak
their truth, and call attention to the gospel rather
than their own piety.

Do you know that term “fool for Christ”?  It is one that the Russian Orthodox frequently use to describe holy people that sometimes do crazy things because they actually love Christ enough to take him seriously.  The best-known fool for Christ in the Western tradition is St. Francis of Assisi, the most admired and least emulated of all our saints. 

The man in today’s gospel lesson is known as “the rich fool.”  His is a very different kind of foolishness.  He has made it big, perhaps even bigger than the average suburbanite.  His reward?  A life of luxury and ease, the kind of life that, truth be told, most of us aspire to either win or hold on to.  “Eat, drink, and be merry,” has become a byword for plucking the prizes of capitalism.  And fools imagine that such a good thing is endless and bottomless.  “Fool!” says the voice of Truth.  “This night your life will be required of you.  And these things…whose will they be?” 

Elder Holt was very much another kind of fool.  He was a fool that actually followed Jesus.  Though bankrupt and threadbare, he was rich toward God. 

Sometimes my suburban, middle-class mind wonders why it is that the gospel of Jesus seems so hard, so strange actually to follow.  “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight,” says the Apostle Paul.  “We are fools for Christ’s sake,” he claimed. 

Could it be that this Apostle to Suburbia is missing something?

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2016

The Rich Fool, Russian

Saturday, July 23, 2016

Heart’s Desire

Luke 11:1-13

There is hardly any way that I am ever going to be anything other than a Christian.  I am well aware that I am a Christian because I was born one, because my parents were at least nominal Christians when I became their son, and because the culture in which I began my life was to all intents and purposes Christian.  It is equally true that at a good many points in my life I have affirmed and owned this faith tradition in which I was born and baptized.

            But it is impossible to grow up in this particular culture and not be at least marginally aware that in the marketplace of religious ideas, Christianity is only one among many brands.  Rather than seeing these as competitors, I look at all of them as so many fingers that are pointing to the moon.  The fingers are interesting, even important.  But the fingers are only pointing, not the point.  “Look at the moon, stupid,” a friend of mine says.  And the “moon” is the Truth, the ultimate truth, the bedrock soul of the universe, the most common name for which is probably “God.” 
A wise friend, when I told him several years ago that I was interested in pursuing Buddhist meditation, asked me, “Are you prepared to give up desire?” I said no, I didn’t think so.  He said, “Well, that’s the ultimate line between Christianity and Buddhism and the essential difference between Christian and Buddhist contemplation.”  In Buddhism the cessation of desire is perhaps the key outcome of practices such as meditation.  In Christianity, desire is in harmony with reality and therefore in harmony with God, not opposed to God. 

            Desire is what I’d like to talk with you about for a few minutes.  My starting point is today’s gospel. In Luke’s narrative, Jesus and his disciples are on the trip to Jerusalem that will end with the crucifixion and resurrection.  Along the way he is praying.  His disciples take note of it, asking him to teach them how to pray as he does.  So he gives them some words.  They are not quite the version of the prayer that we know as “the Lord’s Prayer,” but they are the core of that prayer.  Notice how much of the Lord’s prayer voices desire:  hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, give us our daily bread, forgive us our sins, do not bring us to the time of trial.  All of these are desires stated as petitions.  The one thing that is a declaration rather than a desire is that “we forgive everyone indebted to us.”  What is conspicuously absent in Luke’s version of the prayer?  “Your will be done…”  And that is the way we normally think of God, isn’t it? As a being with a certain will—that things be done a certain way, God’s way.  We see ourselves as either in conformity with God’s will or not, usually not.  So we spend a good deal of time and energy imagining that God wills one thing and we another.  Many of our prayers suggest as much.  “Help us to ask only what accords with your will,” goes one.  A hymn, one among many on the theme, contains the verse, “Breathe on me, breath of God, so shall my heart be pure, until with thee I will one will, to do and to endure.” 

            What would happen if we were to shift from seeing God as having an unchangeable will for us and for the world and see instead that God desires something for us, desires something from us, desires something about us and the world?  What if our job on earth were not to figure out what God’s will is and to bring ourselves into line with that will? What might result from our shifting into a frame of reference at whose center is what we desire?

            Let’s get back to Jesus’ response to his disciples.  After he gives them the model for prayer, he launches into a little teaching about desire.  He tells them the parable about the fellow banging on the door of his friend at midnight asking for a loaf of bread to share with a guest.  The point of the parable is that even when inconvenienced, the friend will grant the neighbor’s desire if for no reason other than to shut him up.  Then Jesus distills his point in a direct piece of counsel that amounts to a promise.  “Ask and you will receive, search and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you.”  It is prayer that he is talking about, remember.  But what is prayer?  It is the deep desire of the heart.  Now Jesus is not saying that no matter what you desire, if you simply cast that desire in the form of a prayer to an external God somewhere “up there,” you’ll be sure to get it, as if God is Santa Claus and you are a kid making a Christmas wish list.  So desiring is something very much deeper than wishing. Desire exceeds dreaming about various possibilities that seem quite nice.  Desire is a stirring of the energy of our soul, something that comes out of our very nature.  That does not by any stretch of the imagination mean that our desires are good.  It is not a good thing to desire evil or harm to befall innocent people, though that may be a very popular desire.

            Jesus does not seem to be interested in parsing desires by sorting them into piles of “good” desires and “bad” desires.  He seems to be intent on saying to his disciples, “Cut loose, go ahead, ask for—what?  The Holy Spirit.  Fooled us, didn’t he?  We might have thought there for a minute he was talking about praying for just anything at all.  No, he specifically says to ask, seek, knock, for what assuredly God desires to give us, namely God’s very self, God’s immediate presence, which is what “Holy Spirit” above all means.  Holy Spirit is the code language for God here and now, not God in or from another world, another time.  Not God the transcendent Creator, but God with us right here, comforting, strengthening, guiding us.  The passage climaxes in the question, “If your child asks you for a fish, would you respond with a snake? 
Or if your child asks for an egg, would you present a scorpion?”  If that is beyond you, who are not all that great, how much more will God give you God’s own heart’s desire—God’s own Holy Spirit?” 

            All that is well and good until we begin facing what it is we really desire.  And frequently human desire is not for God’s very self at all.  I’m thinking right now of the cross-currents in this political season, and more widely, the differences in what people seem to desire on the whole for themselves, the nation, and the world.  I rather doubt, though I do not know for sure, that you who are here fall into the category of those who spew hate, who disdain people who are different from you, who cook up reasons to incite violence, who project your own worst traits onto those who are different, or who tell lies upon lies with absolutely no accountability whatsoever, and who then ask in so many words, “so what if I lie?  I’m popular with people.”  This is no joke and you know it.  Suddenly you may feel, as I do, that arguing against such a hideous caricature of desire is not what you signed on for.  You want to be peaceable and respectful, don’t you?  You want to respond to human need with compassion, don’t you?  And you don’t want to stoop to the level of the demonic clowns who make a mockery of respect by calling it weakness or who defame and insult people who try to make a point of calling for restraint to those who seem happy to kill people whose color is their own, as if to complain about that is itself a violent act?  What is this?  And why would we even be thinking about such idiocy on a hot Sunday morning in church? 

            The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind, to coin a phrase.  It is that some folks, and you know who they are, are pretending that snakes are fish and that scorpions are eggs.  The world is turned topsy-turvy.  What is evil is sold as patriotic, as safety, as greatness.  And worst of all, 75% of those who attend church weekly are lining up behind the liars because they honestly believe (apparently) that God’s desire is to sanction their claim to own the country, and maybe even the world.

            Well, it is not.   And there is no way—none at all—to justify all that as Christian, or even religious.  No holy book, not the Bible, not the Quran, none of the Vedas and Upanishads of Hinduism, not the dharma of the Buddha, none can be twisted to justify this kind of perversion of the truth.  The danger for me, and perhaps for you, is that I will let my own mind and soul be poisoned by the very presence of this cancer in our public discourse to the point that my own desire is warped and twisted and I become as noxious as anyone. 

            It is not just prayer that we need to learn how to do.  We need to become conscious of what it is our hearts truly desire.  And even more, we need to awake to what it is that God is desiring for the human community.  And remember that the dream of God is always that the creation would so look upon the Creator that it begins to mirror what it sees, and we become like God, not by being God, but by allowing God to possess us, to infuse us, to saturate us.  Most of us are, like those disciples of Jesus, clueless as to what is to come.  We only know that we are on the road.  It will indeed take us to Jerusalem, no doubt, where everything that we know and believe may be sorely tested and we ourselves may feel utterly lost.  But at the end of the journey we will find that desiring God with all our hearts, minds, and strength is worth far more than gaining the world and losing our souls in the process.

            Don’t be shy or fearful about witnessing to your faith.  The hour for true Christian witness is here.  Ask, search, knock. You will have everything you need—and all that your heart desires.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2016

Thursday, July 14, 2016

One Thing

Luke 10:38-42

Too much energy is wasted in splitting things that belong together.  Too little energy is spent seeing the unity behind everything.

Today’s gospel is a passage that has long given rise to a split.  We’ve used it over the years as one among many things to create an either/or proposition.  Either you are a Mary or you are a Martha.  Either you are in the kitchen or you are in the living room.  Either you are getting busy to feed Jesus or you’re busy getting fed by Jesus.

I don’t know how many of you are even aware of the history of choosing sides between Mary and Martha.  What I do know is that I have run into a lot of people, especially women, over nearly fifty years in ministry, that don’t like this passage one little bit.  The cooks think Martha gets the short end of the stick from Jesus.  Some of them are quick to point out that if Martha vacated the kitchen, the reality might be that Jesus won’t get dinner.  They are on the defensive about Martha.  They identify with her because they themselves have frequently been relegated to kitchen duty while the menfolk and some of the women too have been out in the den watching the game or telling stories or otherwise having all the fun.  Even in convents, somebody has to do the cooking.  And, just as certainly, those who side with Mary frequently have some sympathy with Martha as a woman trapped in a role perhaps not of her choosing.  But they applaud Mary for her courage in breaking the mold and choosing something besides housework to do.  I’m not sure where men come down here, but I can tell you that men are just as adept as women at dividing things into dualities, using the either/or category to split things apart, frequently arguing that one is at least superior to the other, sometimes so much so that one of the opposites is worthless.

Verna Dozier, great Bible scholar that she was, taught us that we first ought to ask what the passage means in its context.  Then we should ask why it was preserved.  Finally we will be prepared to ask what it has to say to us in our own day.  In order to do the first two of those things we have to stop, or avoid, getting caught up in the argument of who is better, or more necessary, or less well treated—the doer in the kitchen or the contemplative in the living room.  So following Ms. Dozier’s counsel, what do we find when we look at what these few verses mean in their context?

Georg Friedrich Stettner, Christus im Hause der Martha
In Luke’s narrative, this episode belongs to a collection of stories that he had access to but that apparently the other gospel writers did not.  It is called “Luke’s Special Section” and includes some of the most memorable passages in any of the gospels, such as the story immediately preceding it, “The Good Samaritan.”  A little later on it includes the parable of “The Prodigal Son.”  True, Mary and Martha and their brother Lazarus appear in John’s gospel, but this particular story does not.  Luke sets the story as a scene along the way to Jerusalem, where Jesus will ultimately offer himself as food and as life.  There is an important little nuance in the wording of the story, too.  Jesus responds to Martha’s insistence that he tell Mary to go help her prepare the meal by saying, “There is need of only one thing.”  The most probable meaning of that is, “we can do with only one dish, not a whole big meal.”  But the very next sentence reveals that the “one thing” has a double meaning.  Mary has “chosen the better part” which is in fact the “one thing,” namely discipleship—sitting at the feet of the master—that is essential.  So, you may say, there really is a dichotomy here, after all.  Martha has a part and so does Mary.  But we have it from the lips of the Lord himself that Mary’s part is better.  But notice that Jesus does not upbraid Martha for not being in the living room.  The text twice describes her as “distracted” by her many tasks, or as the King James Bible puts it, her being “cumbered with much serving.”  The comparison here is not between action and contemplation, it is between being anxious or worried or troubled or distracted on the one hand, and being focused on the teaching of Christ on the other. 

And that quite likely gets us to Ms. Dozier’s second question:  why was the passage preserved?  Given Luke’s interest in women and also his interest in discipleship, it is quite likely that this story was particularly appealing to him because it well illustrates how Mary, a woman, exemplifies discipleship in a world dominated both by males and by rigid roles for the sexes.  It certainly was not unknown for women to be engaged in study and contemplation in the ancient world, but it was not a commonplace either.  It would be entirely consonant with Luke’s general outlook to tell this story especially to encourage women by pointing out Jesus’ affirmation of Mary’s choice. 

Does that not have something to do with what the passage has to say to us today? We have come some distance, to be sure, in the whole project of women’s liberation from the sex role stereotyping that has sought to keep them involved in “women’s work.” Not only is that liberation far from complete, but we see ever more clearly as the decades roll by that if it isn’t somebody who is being held back or held down, it is somebody else.  Race, sexual orientation, gender, class are only some of the most obvious categories in which people either stick themselves or are stuck, sometimes stuck on the outside unable to get in the game at all.  Jesus will have none of that.  The Church frequently will.  So-called Christians frequently will.  But not Jesus.  It is entirely a misuse of the Bible to use it to beat people down in the name of Jesus, because he was busy liberating the very people who were being held hostage in a social and religious system that, like nearly all human systems, wants somebody to be on the bottom so that somebody else can be on top. 

Yet there’s more here.  The truth is we don’t just need Marthas as well as Marys.  We need to cultivate both parts of ourselves so that we can be both Martha and Mary in appropriate ways.  Service and prayer are not opposed.  Outreach and worship are not opposed.  Food preparation and study are not opposed.  When St. Benedict wrote his Rule, which was to be and still is the basis of all Western monastic orders, he set down a three part vow:  stability, conversion of life, and obedience.  Then he very carefully constructed a pattern for people to live the Christian life.  Each day was divided into sleep and three other essential elements:  worship, study, and work.  Prayer took its place alongside reflection and work.  Benedict’s monks did not disdain washing pots and pans, making beds, working in the fields, or doing laundry duty.  But neither was any one of these things exalted at the expense of the others.  They belong together in one whole. 

Although there is some evidence of its changing, American Christianity of all sorts has had a tendency to veer in the direction of Martha rather than Mary.  Vestries measure themselves by how many goals they accomplish.  Dioceses measure their success by the levels of attendance and giving.  Many individual Christians are convinced that the heart of the gospel is some form of doing—whether that takes the shape of works of mercy, like feeding the hungry, or works of justice, such as lobbying for fair housing.  Nothing is the matter with those things.  But when they are not accompanied by the Mary-like quality of being still in the presence of Jesus, that is to say, contemplation, those who do them are likely to find themselves burned out after awhile.  You can hear them all over this city asking, “Why is no one helping us?  Why are we left to do all these things by ourselves?  Doesn’t anyone understand that church is about doing, doing, doing?” 

When Martha is doing such complaining, Jesus responds:  “Martha!  Mar-tha!  The issue is not that she does not have a legitimate complaint or that what she is doing is wrong, but exactly that she is distracted.  Mary is, by contrast, paying attention.  Another name for paying attention is being centered.  Yet another name for it is listening. One of the stellar examples of a Christian doing justice in modern times is Dorothy Day, the famous Catholic Worker Movement icon who may be the chief example of a Christian social activist in American history. 
Dorothy Day
She was totally dedicated to social justice and yet no one could accuse her of being distracted by “much serving.”  Surely she must have had days when she felt overwhelmed, and certainly she must have wondered why the Church itself was sometimes so slow to come help her lead the cause of social reform.  Yet her life is one that was thoroughly human, grounded in the experience of her own conversion to Christ.  She kept on the move; but I would say that in her soul she sat at the feet of Jesus, paying attention to him as, frankly, few others of his disciples have ever done. 

And that is the key.  “Spirituality,” if it is rooted in Jesus Christ, does not lead its practitioners into some other-worldly, detached-from-reality, experience of inner holiness as if somehow God wanted to pry us loose from the very bodies that God has graciously given us as a means of perceiving truth.  If Mary, sitting at the feet of Jesus, ultimately gets up and forgets about the world, divorces herself from engaging the forces of oppression, and above all, follows the misguided attempts of huge numbers of people by despising her own physical nature as if by doing so she becomes more pleasing to God, then she will not have paid attention to Jesus.  And neither will you or I. 

But we can never allow ourselves to imagine that we are somehow serving God by fluttering around, filling up our lives with various activities, however useful they might seem, in the belief that we are somehow doing God a great big favor.  No, to carry on that way is frankly to be exercising our own egos, the reward for which is quite transient:  namely, the fleeting moment of self-congratulation that we have done something big for Jesus. 

One thing is needful.  Pray God we might not miss what it is.

© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2016