Pondering patriarchy’s seed at SCOTUS this week….
Pondering patriarchy’s seed at SCOTUS this week….
Mayor Bloomberg is having some powerful blow back this week, though a guy with his track record is probably used to it. The media courting NYC mayor was outed in a Salon article about the vested interest of uber-wealthy entrepeneurs financing school reform (read here) and his own tech-stock interest in a particular California School Board race. Yesterday a New York state court judge also put a hold on his attempt to outlaw super-size coke in the city (read here). Now his latest campaign, a media blitz aimed at shaming “teen parents” is receiving loud reviews (note: The Root offers both pro and con responses).
Before I go any farther, I should point out that I am not now, nor was I ever, a teen mom. Having named that truth, my credibility in the conversation immediately plummets. Quite frankly, anyone attempting to pass themselves off as an expert in the field who has not walked in the shoes is a fraud and ought be ushered off center stage. We humans have an incredibly unhelpful instinct to feign empathy when we in fact we have none, and we fool only ourselves and those equally inexperienced. We add insult to injury aware of neither.
This flaw in our empathy instinct became real for me when after years of acting as an ally for my LGBT friends, I left my hetero-life, came out, and began to experience the world as a lesbian. The learning curve was (and is) steep, and I very quickly came to realize that I had been totally blind to an experience in which I had had both instinctive awareness, deep sympathy, and presumably much empathy. Still, you don’t know what you don’t know. And there was a ton I didn’t know and could not have understood. As good an ally as I was, the blinders I wore were astounding. Allies are welcome and important, but when allies presume to mistake support for first hand knowledge, they cease to be allies.
With new found humility in this empathy gig, I find myself wondering how different our public discourse would be if we limited our platitudes to first hand knowledge. Rather than offering advice while blindfolded, what if we shared our experiences? My first child was born on the eve of my 30th birthday, but even so she was quite a surprise. Truth be told, I was neither financially nor emotionally prepared and two decades later I still feel like I’m trying to catch up. This is the experience that I know and that I can tell with integrity. My hunch is that if we get more honest about our own stories and the emotions that dance through them, we will have much that is worthy to share. In fact if I share mine with authenticity and invite you to do the same, we will likely find ties that bind no matter the age of our parenthood.
If I dare to be real about my own story and listen while you share yours, I will also begin to see the places where privilege has opened different doors. Gender, race, ethnicity, economics, academic ability, geography – these all open and close doors that for the most part we don’t even see unless they have been shut before we got through them. The sobering fact of life in America is that some of us skated through innumerable open doors that we didn’t even notice while others got knocked on their asses in the attempt. If I’m honest about my experience and listen openly and without judgement to yours, I begin to see the doors that open and close, the privileges that are not shared equitably and have very little to do with personal choices.
Sure, parenthood might be easier if we had strong happy two-parent marriages in communities that welcomed us, college careers to back us up, and bank accounts that allowed us to provide sustenance without worry. But this standard is an elusive myth not a realistic goal. The fact is that children come into our world most often at awkward times, steal our hearts, bleed our finances, and take every last ounce of energy we have. Given the world’s overpopulation and the reality that at least most of us no longer need procreate for our species to survive, a truly rational approach would be to remain childless. Period.
Short of ditching the whole enterprise, I would suggest that we hold our stones and limit our advice giving.
Years ago I was at a liberal love-in, a gathering of eco-friendly religious folk, and one of the invited guests dropped a startling piece of self disclosure. In the context of a policy-related question, one of the good liberals assumed solidarity with the Native American speaker as he made an anti-Republican comment. The speaker said simply, “I’m a Republican.” The room hushed and she continued. ”A Nixon Republican.” The silence was complete. ”Liberals tend to think they know what’s best for my people. But Nixon honored my people’s independence, he respected us and our right to self determination.” History aside, our stereotypes were set on edge where they ought stay.
I’m not the Mayor, I’m not uber-wealthy, and I’m not charged with directing legislative agendas. But having been hit by them, I do recognize stones. We have been all too liberal with the stones aimed at young parents. Let’s drop them.
Last night I joined the millions of Americans who’ve experienced Spielberg’s magnum opus, Schindler’s List. It was the twentieth anniversary of this renowned movie and I confess that it took twenty years to find the courage to watch. While devoid of gratuitous violence, the story’s context is hell’s inferno. To witness the hope embodied by a soul’s redemption is to face the fire from whence it emerges. I awoke this morning weary from the emotional assault.
The obligatory characters were present in the movie but it was not they who shook my soul. In addition to a self-absorbed socialite cunning to make a fortune on the war effort (Schindler), there was a sociopathic SS officer killing randomly to increase terror, and the silently brilliant (and cunning) Jewish accountant who is at once both powerless and in charge. These were towering characters embodying the edges of human capacities, but these primary characters are not the ones that took my breath. The characters that leveled my heart were the ordinary ones, the ones that would be me or you, the nameless ones in and out of uniform that simply allowed their bodies, their voices, their hands and feet, to be used to further the killing machines. The emotionless female guard as the train disembarked and the women that stood smiling beside the men who wore the uniforms, these were the ones who haunt me. They had no visible malice but likewise registered no awareness of the evil that filled their world. Silent. Complicit.
I suspect that the true danger of our humanity is our capacity to enter a place of denial and ride with the one that brought us to the dance. How else can we explain the millions of otherwise ordinary people who participated in such a heinous chapter of history? And (of course) lest we toss our stones, history is quick to offer similar chapters in every age and continent. There is nothing 20th century or European about evil’s cunning ways. Most fearfully, if history teaches us anything it is that unlearned it is also our future.
The exhaustion I feel in the morning light is in part the imperative to learn quickly lest we repeat some ancient terror. The lesson to learn is not about Nazis or sociopathic wardens. The lesson relevant to us otherwise nice folk is the one about silent complicity. Eli Wiesel, himself a survivor of Auschwitz, says, “There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.” Nearly a thousand years earlier, Dante had warned of the neutral players protecting self-interest; President Kennedy, quoting Dante, said that “the hottest places in hell are reserved for those who in a period of moral crisis maintain their neutrality”. More dangerous than the demented leaders are the silent followers.
If one dares to accept this truth, one quickly faces a more troubling corollary. Those that silently follow are rarely (if ever) consciously aware. Preposterous, but true. In the cold light of morning, the evil of slavery in America is inescapable. But just 140 years ago, ordinary white women, wives and mothers, throughout the southern states in this country silently helped their husbands perpetuate an unspeakable horror. These were, by and large, “good Christian women” who would have been very “nice”, the very best of what we call “southern hospitality”. The vast majority were not mean-spirited by nature or malicious in intent. How then did they manage to not hear the screams of those being tortured? How did they not notice the mothers separated from children? How did they make their peace with the obvious likeness of their spouse in the faces of young slaves? These are blind eyes that are cultivated. Occasionally the cultural conditioning fails, as it did for the South Carolina born abolitionist Angelina Emily Grimké, but her story was stunning in its departure from the norm. The even more stunning truth, if rarely faced, is that of our human capacity to blind ourselves to what is unpleasant. This ability to walk blindly is the untold story that must be faced.
A clue to our blinders is the role of greed in each of these stories. Some years ago I toured a plantation home near New Orleans in search of clues and began to hear the messages that might have filled the mistress’ mind and closed her heart; messages about the futility of one voice, the inevitability of the economic machine, and an instinct to focus on the positive. Inasmuch as our American holocaust was accepted as an inevitable consequence of an otherwise lucrative economy, I wonder about greed as an essential ingredient in our complicity. The role of greed was a key thread in the story of the Holocaust and presented in Schindler’s List as wealth was stolen from the Jewish community fueling the German war machine and lining the pockets of locals who scurried to gather the scraps. Surely greed is the common thread in our relentless human abuse of one another.
Rearview mirrors offer remarkable, if distorted, truth. What is more pressing is our need to use these mirrors to read our current context with more intention. What is it that our great-great grandchildren will see in our time which our eyes, blinded by greed and complicity, were simply not seeing? If I follow the money trail and notice where it intersects with grave injustice, I find myself facing the massive prison industrial complex. The term was coined before the new millennium but the incarceration rates, and those who profit from them, continue to rise (PIC in America: Big Business or New Slavery?). A new wave of industry is now supported by prison labor, which allows our American economy to compete with the prison labor in China. At best a distasteful topic and at worst a nightmare that our closet cannot contain, pleasant dinner table conversation steers clear of this topic. Nice white women like me simply don’t talk about such distasteful topics over dinner. And so greed runs roughshod over conscience and innocents lie trampled. But it is nice white women who teach our children; in fact, two-thirds of our nation’s public school teachers are white women and I’m guessing that most are nice. (Disclosure: I’m happily married to one and also applying to be one.) And, at least according to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), it’s time for us to talk.
In this month’s issue of Teaching Tolerance, the SPLC project takes on the “School to Prison Pipeline” addressing the connections between our public school policies and the prison industrial complex. This issue offers a new tool, a “Teacher’s Guide to Rerouting the Pipeline“, in an attempt to invite classroom teachers to be more conscious of the ways in which we all participate. In defense of teachers, already beleaguered from both left and right and sworn to serve the reigning god of test scores, we cannot lay the blame for our nation’s tragedy on their already burdened backs. What the articles do suggest, though, is one small window into how ordinary nice folk participate unwittingly in a heinous crime. To suggest that an individual teacher’s interaction with a student regarding sagging pants contributes to the unjust incarceration rates in this country would seem ridiculous, but the point that SPLC makes is that the path to the pipeline is paved with hundreds of seemingly innocuous choices made along the way. Lest we dismiss the challenge to quickly we would be wise to remember the millions of otherwise nice folk who were necessary to create and maintain the machinery that propagated the Holocaust. Evil cannot be carried by one or two sociopaths. Evil requires millions of good people choosing to ignore and a million or so choosing to play along on a seemingly innocuous level. In our time, what appears innocuous is to be “tough on crime” and have “zero tolerance” in our schools. In so doing, we unwittingly but unmistakably (at least according to Teaching Tolerance) become the evil we abhor. The remarkable shard of good news in their article is a practical guide to recognize unhelpful choices and an invitation to make different ones.
As my spirit nurses the necessary wound inflicted by Schindler’s List, I am aware that the moral of the story is not in defining our contemporary evil but in something far more fundamental. The call is to face our own capacity to deny lest we unwittingly condone and (worse), participate. For only when we face the potential within ourselves will we find the strength to speak against it. This spiritual movement of facing ourselves is the heart of the ancient Christian discipline of Lent; with or without the ashes, it’s time.
Downton Abbey fans are in mourning at the end of Season 3, an indication of the degree to which we identify with the characters in this upstairs-downstairs style drama of English aristocracy (circa 1920). Meanwhile the American Experience series, set on the other side of the ocean, has offered powerful stories about first Henry Ford and then the Rockefeller dynasty. Both of these fine features take incisive looks into the pathos and greed of the subjects as well as their impacts for the rest of us.
As we soak up these historic images of a gilded age, we have an opportunity to move beyond the temptation to idolize the privilege, to recognize the tragic costs of these disparities, and begin to take stock of the world in which we find ourselves today. Still unknown, however, is whether our identification will seed a revolution or inspire a selfish reach for the brass ring.
Throughout my lifetime the disparity between wealth and poverty has shifted dramatically. As I child I read Dickens’ novels in the shadow of the War on Poverty and had a mistaken sense of relief that we had evolved into a more compassionate people. As a young adult working with men, women and children who were living in Phoenix’s Central Arizona Shelter System (CASS), I realized that the poor houses of yesteryear were making a resurgence. Right before my eyes, the number of children in poverty was growing as our nation actually increased its wealth. The purchasing power of a minimum wage salary stagnated and then fell.
During those misty-eyed years of Reaganomics, we determined to grow the fiscal pie and agreed to take a smaller slice, allowing the economically advantaged to take an even larger slice of a growing pie. For decades now, we have been in the business of producing billionaires and scorching poverty with shrinking middle ground.
As I consider the landscape today, I wonder if we know the names of the men whose stories will be told a hundred years from now. We know the names of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs as we enjoy daily use of the tools that they brought into our homes. But do we know that the names of those who own the banks and finance the elections? What do we know of the Koch brothers or the Walton family? But lest we become mired in human interest stories, a more pressing invitation beckons.
Our intrigue with history could well provide fodder for meaningful redirection of our national priorities. Certainly in his second inaugural speech, President Obama attempted to prepare both our hearts and minds for this kind of shift.
Together, we determined that a modern economy requires railroads and highways to speed travel and commerce; schools and colleges to train our workers.
Together, we discovered that a free market only thrives when there are rules to insure competition and fair play.
Together, we resolved that a great nation must care for the vulnerable, and protect its people from life’s worst hazards and misfortune.
For we, the people, understand that our country cannot succeed when a shrinking few do very well and a growing many barely make it.
Yet as I watched Downton Abbey wind through this third season, I am struck by the increasingly prominent role of Sybil’s widower, Tom Branson, and his subsequent shift in aspirations. Once the Irish rebel schooled in the promise of Marx, he has become a (albeit lesser) Lord of the Manor complete with proper attire and manners. In the season’s finale, a downstairs maid attempted to coax him into relationship and invite him to remember his roots; but cooler heads prevailed and he closed the season upstairs where he now belongs. The message hints at a promise of class mobility and the stage is set for the unfolding of the new era.
But in this promise we find our curse. In the promise that we can rise with the barons, we unwittingly accept the plight of the chamber maid. To be sure there are random success stories like Henry Ford’s and Bill Gate’s. But lest we paint history too cleanly, both of these successful entrepeneurs began their careers with some measure of privilege as educated white men in country where these demographics have purchasing power. Yet even if we limit our sights on the class mobility of white men, an honest appraisal notes that every Bill Gates there are millions of footmen. My mother warned that the lottery is a “tax on people with poor math skills”, embracing unbridled capitalism in hopes of wealth is similarly misguided. Yet just as the lottery counters fill when the jackpot rises, we gather in anticipation at the feet of the uber-wealthy believing that just this once, it might be us (or our children).
Curious is the role of the church in these stories. In Downton Abbey (fiction) the church functions as the imprimatur of the status quo, presiding at the key transitions but pointedly absent in discussions of morality and conscience. For the first generations of Rockefellers, the church played a much more primary, if curious, role. The church was the motivator both to amass great wealth and subsequently to demonstrate great charity. Perhaps too the church in this story can be credited with moving those early Rockefeller’s to a deeper understanding of the power of philanthropy, moving beyond hospitals to fund research and build schools. For Ford, the church had less influence save to provide the foundation for his unconscionable anti-Semitic writings. Far from being the agent of salvation, the church functions in these stories predominantly as mirror of the people who attend them; there is no ninth hour savior emanating from the institution.
Finally the choice about our future and our children’s rests with each of us who gather in fascination at history’s window. Our fascination may be the seed of revolution and thereby gold; but if we mistake the glitter for our own and reach, we’ll find ourselves holding fool’s gold.
Yesterday I drove past a neighborhood church sporting the sign, “Jesus paid the price… you can keep the change.” Disconcerting was the dissonance between the progressive denomination (United Church of Christ) and the regressive theology invoked (sacrificial atonement). Having walked away from my life in ministry just weeks earlier, I am loathe to jump into a theological conversation and I initially pass on the bait. ”To each their own,” I reply when asked to comment.
Later in the day I received an email from a former colleague, expressing his concern with theological integrity and requesting conversation. Like me, he explains, he believes Jesus about God but does not believe the church about Jesus. With this truth, he asks, how can we stand before congregations uncritically parroting phrases that infer sacrificial atonement? What, he wonders, is the price for claiming that Jesus already paid it?
Before I reply to the theological question, I must confess a personal investment. Despite my dispensing of the church in all formal ways, I find myself showing up to pews on Sunday morning. I try to find places where the words won’t make me cringe, at least not much. I seek places that don’t look tolerantly surprised when I lean into my wife’s open arms. I appreciate signs of multi-ethnic sensitivity and, better yet, presence. Yet I admit that I still unwittingly seek community in houses of worship. And perhaps therein lies an important clue to the relevance of engaging the conversation. As one still experiencing the need for gathered community, I find myself grateful for the conversation and hoping that we can find and create and cobble together some communities that embody the life and teachings of Jesus even as we step away from the trappings of the church.
And step away we must for the trappings are destroying our communities.
I know that once upon at a time it was different. Even as I came into ministry there were still remnants of the glory days, but the past two decades have been brutal on the institution. As institutions face such massive assaults and begin to implode, they are not generally practicing their most compassionate stances. And in all fairness, I don’t know that Christianity ever truly experienced glory days if one is measuring by compassion’s rule. A decade ago, American Christians were invited to two very different movies. The Passion of Christ was Mel Gibson’s gory festival of macabre laud, dripping with almost as much insipid antisemitism as blood. Around the same time, James Carroll published Constantine’s Sword, an important work which looked at the dark side of Christian history (Oren Jacoby later created a movie based on the work). Perhaps it was the collision of these messages that pushed me to a new way of seeing. Perhaps it was the lynching of James Byrd or Matthew Shepard tied in cruciform to the fence that opened my eyes to the cost of our theological constructs. Perhaps it was the company that I was keeping in those years or more like still simply it was my time to see. Regardless, once having seen the tragic cost of our bantying around trite theological platitudes, I saw it everywhere.
To hang a billboard that says, “Jesus paid the price” is to perpetuate a cavalier theology that is commonly known as substitutionary atonement. In a nutshell, it is the idea that humans are intrinsically corrupt, that the supreme deity demands a blood sacrifice, and that Jesus fulfilled that mission. Not only am I a Christian that disagrees with each of these suppositions, I am follower of Jesus who is offended them. But more important than my personal beliefs and even my indignation (however justifiable), these theological beliefs unwittingly shape our cultural norms in ways that lead us further from the compassion that we desperately seek. To repeat these phrases and however unconsciously perpetuate the beliefs is destructive. While it is no doubt comfortable to repeat the prayers and songs we learned as children, to seek a world of compassion while sing about “our Savior” is like subscribing to a new diet program while savoring a Snicker’s bar.
And let’s face it, we allowed original sin and the power of human evil a good long run. These doctrines have reigned in our community consciousness for centuries and given us horrors like the Crusades, the Holocaust. They have insipidly undergirded otherwise atrocious efforts of greed like colonialism, Apartheid and the American holocaust of slavery. Believing in human deficit models and an imposed need for conversion, repentance and salvation, we have built a prison industrial complex, created a tiered education system, and demonized the ones who stray. But all we have to show for it is an earth that is groaning and a people morally exhausted. Business as usual in the church is, I believe, not only counterproductive (ie: the church’s decay) but also specifically destructive. What we need is a new paradigm.
The incredible good news is that such a paradigm is not beyond our reach. Like many people who believe Jesus about God, I seek a spiritual community that shares my belief that people are intrinsically good, that the sacred is immanent and known most fully in compassion, and that Jesus life and teachings embodied this compassion and invite us to do likewise. To share this community, however, we must together be willing to let go of the words, the traditions, the songs, and the trappings which pull us away from the simple goodness to which Jesus pointed.
To my brave colleague who asks the questions, I say simply “yes.”
Once upon a time when I was a young math teacher in a small college town, I lived in the upstairs apartment of an old house and an interesting grad student lived downstairs. Don had a bumpersticker on his refrigerator that said “Save the Humans”, he played Bruce Springstein full blast every morning, and he introduced me to Deloria’s “God is Red”. Don was very cool and a complement to my total geek. Don also had a friend named George, a fellow grad student that hung around a lot laughing. George’s role in the circle was that of mirth, a sprit who lived for nature, simplicity, and a good party. In the spring of the year, when hearts come out of hiding, mine pinned it’s sights on George and an ill-fated romance began.
I was finishing my teaching career to start seminary and a life of service in the church, and while he was also dedicated to service (studying to be a school counselor), George was a partying, atheist, vegetarian. He was the ying to my yang and my brief life with him opened windows I never new exisited. Together we canoed the Red Cedar River and the Boundary Waters, drank more beer than a normal might in a lifetime, and learned the fine art of dyfunctional relationship. With George, I was invited to behold the wonders of the Bald Eagle in the wild and a drunken fight on the front lawn. Intoxicated with libido and hops, I cashed in my full ride scholarship at the distant Presbyterian seminary and took out a student loan to attend the UCC seminary within communiting distance. The life lessons with George trumped any from a textbook. The relationship was filled with a full complement of firsts; first sleep over date, first AIDS test, first broken heart.
When I was working on my ninth step a few years ago, George and his wife (they married shortly after our breakup) were on my list. Revisiting the hurts, I had faced for perhaps the first time my own part in the dysfunction that was ours. Yet I had pushed this chapter so far back in the closet of my memory that even George’s surname was a mystery. I had no current contact information and living amends seemed prudent. As I remember those heady days with George, I am reminded of the futile nature of my righteous anger, how it served no useful purpose during or after that defining relationship. Too I remember another character flaw that began to shine in those years, that of my ability to see, describe, and even believe a situation to be as I want it to be; to so fully immerse myself in the delusion that I miss the clues that would lead healthier spirits to the nearest exit. These are lessons that presented themselves long ago, lessons I was not yet ready to learn, lessons that even now I am just beginning to understand.
This morning I am remembering this coming of age chapter in my life because I learned yesterday that George died last summer. Fittingly he died at the close of summer, the season he loved for it’s invitation to be in water. The circumstances of his death are a mystery (“at home and unexpected”) and so too are many things about his life. Apparently he spent nearly two decades as a school counselor, laughing with children and offering support. Listed in the obituary are his “former wife”, children, and “special friend”, our Don. The obituary offered a picture of a man that looked exactly like the one that captured my heart 29 years ago, a vibrancy at dissonance with the words that surrounded it.
As I consider our frailty on this earth, I hear again Mary Oliver’s poignant challenge: “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” On this late winter morning the question rings with a new resonance. My answer no longer reflects once familiar tag lines. Away from professional identity and with the nest emptied, the answer looks now deeper to the habits of my heart. The chapter from so long ago seems strange and yet the young love story bears more relevance than I might expect. Orientation challenges aside (and unnamed in those days), George was the first one that stood at my heart’s door with a hint of requited love.
It was in the spring of the year when I went to the river with George and my heart opened in a way I had not known possible. Tragically it opened to a place of breaking and for many years (years that became decades) it was tempting to remember that spring with regret and avoid all rivers. But twenty five years later, in the spring of the year, when the well guarded place opened once more, the possibilities were surprisingly both sustainable and exquisite.
As spring peeks around the corners of these lengthening days, my dear one promises to pull the kayaks out from behind the shed and take me to the river. I think I am ready now. Yes, I think I am ready.
The bane and blessing of aging is the growing collection of rearview mirrors. The mirrors are precious because they hold the sweet memories of our baby’s touch and the first kiss of our beloved. The mirrors are also painful as they remind us of things we’d rather forget and distort events in macabre ways. And with each passing year of our lives, they accumulate. As I careen through the second half of life, their weight is unmistakable.
While one might expect their weight to be an anchor which slows this second half of life, these mirrors function more often as the weight that speeds the downhill run. I am aware at points that I am racing in a failed attempt to stay ahead of the mirrors. What I wish my heart knew is that no matter how fast or slow I go, the mirror remains anchored in my side view. Always.
What does change is my awareness of these mirrors and thereby their influence on my life. While I cannot change a single event of my past nor the unsettling truth that more of my life is behind than before, I do continually face choices about how I engage with that past. I can deny the past and be haunted by it or I can welcome the perspective and allow it to be information that guides my choices.
Five years ago this week I made the decision to stop drinking and my carefully constructed life began to unravel. Then I was a woman married to a man with two teenage children; now I am a woman married to a woman with an empty nest. The most recent loss is that of my professional identity as I retire from my “life’s work” as a pastor. What is behind me seems clear, but what lies in front of me is not yet discernable. In seasons like this one, the invitation of the rearview mirrors is particularly seductive because the mirrors offer a clarity not available looking forward.
While living life in the rearview mirror is deadly, the mirrors themselves can offer invaluable lessons. As I consider the unraveling of my life, I can see the powerful promise that it is in the well tilled soil that the most beautiful new life emerges. It is in the places where I’ve loosed my grip most completely that the gains have swelled far beyond the losses. If I dare to face the mirrors with the deepest pain, I am aware that the seat in which I sit today bears witness to the trustworthiness of the road ahead. Neither running from nor living in the rearview mirrors, they provide context for the gratitude that is mine today.
A way watered with tears is the one lined with flowers. As I look today in the admittedly hefty pile of broken glass, I see bourgeoning bouquets in their reflection. And it is very good.
1. Swan Song
A swansong is the exquisite burst of music at the close of a silent life, at least according to ancient legends about the swan. So it is with amusement that after a lifetime of making words come together for worship, I come to you having just spent a month in silent worship with the Quakers, now re-entering worship words to share a “swansong”. Words for a minister are perhaps like drinks for an alcoholic, one is too many and a thousand is not nearly enough.
2. Veneration of Knowledge
As I ponder the invitation to share a bit of parting wisdom, it seems oddly appropriate that the text and theme for the day, chosen before the significance was known is “knowledge”.
The topic is appropriate for Peace UCC in Webster Groves MO because we are a community that lauds, perhaps even venerates, knowledge. We pride ourselves with our good public schools in WG, with the intellectual influences not only of Eden Seminary but Webster University and even the proximity with intellectual giants like Washington University and St. Louis University. Too we are proud that both in our zip code and even in our worshipping community we have an inordinate number of members with advanced degrees. We call ourselves an “educated congregation”. And it is very good.
Yet as I sat with this familiar text and teaching this week, I’ve been struck by the difference between knowledge (noun) and knowing (verb) and with my own particular challenge: the more I ‘know’, the less knowledge I have. In my own life I have discovered a consistent and inverse relationship between the two. Most significantly, the more that I’ve come to “know” the sacred, the more certain I am that God is not an external diety to be described but an internal presence to be experienced.
Which, of course, has been an occupational hazard… but let me back up to the beginning.
3. Relevant Heresies
Once upon a time when I was a child in Sunday School, I was invited to share both “knowing” and knowledge. Our Sunday School books were filled with knowledge (wondrous bible stories of intrigue and scandal) and traditional “born again” theology. But our books also offered a rather peculiar teaching in a story about a dude named George Fox. Fox taught about something called the “inner light”, that within each of us is a spark of the sacred, the very presence of God. Original sin or divine spark, which is at the core of our being?
The question was answered definitively when I went to a Christian college and learned about the Gnostic heretics who (we were taught) were an early but mortal threat to the very survival of Christianity, a heretical group who believed in a crazy idea that within all humans there is a … divine spark, the very presence of God.
Admittedly I was skeptical and was delighted in seminary to learn more about these heretics, connecting the dots with the Quakers, and being assured that heretics, though perhaps shunned in their day, were not always the bad guys. My history professor in seminary even encouraged us to study church history from the margins. As we read the theologians who’ve been labeled and set aside we discover that though an institutional religion has consistently affirmed sets of knowledge, there have always been spiritual teachers who’ve embraced a way of being, of knowing, that was outside of and/or at odds with the institution.
Charges of heresy aside, knowing the sacred trumps knowledge about God… every time.
4. Thomas 70
One of the parallel readings this morning was from Thomas’ gospel, an important example of a book that had been labeled as heresy and subsequently lost for many years. The particular verse that we heard this morning has been incredibly shaping in my life for more than a decade and one that speaks to the power of knowing. Elaine Pagels translates the verse this way: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
What we need for this day, all that we need, is as close as our next breath. If we bring it forth, we will find what we need, our salvation or safe-keeping. This teaching, of course, brings me full circle to the inner light of my childhood and the legends of the heretics. It is Marianne Williamson’s “who are you not to shine?” and the spiritual truth that we sing each January Sunday, “this little light of mine”. Found but not contained in our Christian story, this truth dances across continents and generations with a range of expressions and religious names.
The text has some critics, mostly for the second half or the corollary. If we hid our light, it will destroy us. Although I’m pretty much over with the binary categories, the painful truth of life is that a dream deferred not only dies in our closet but sets decay at the very core of our being. Inasmuch as we are gifted with an inner light, that light must be fed; as the light seeks nourishment, if we keep it locked inside it will eat us from the inside out.
So here is the conundrum of life:
If we embrace the truth that is ours, we will soar to new heights.
If we deny our truth, we will be torn asunder.
5. A Bellwether Moment
I had a moment of truth some years ago now when I was working on a bulletin, typing the word “Christ” in a community prayer. As my fingers formed the familiar word a question emerged from within, unbidden. Is that the most helpful word to use in that spot? A silly question for “Christ” is of course a common word for divinity within a Christian community, so why the question? I stopped typing and began to reflect. At the time (and now) there were many hyphenated families in our community: Christian-Buddhist, Christian-Wiccan, Agnostic-Christian, Jewish-Christian. Then, as now, folk familiar and comfortable with religious tradition and language sat in pews beside others smarting from “Christian-eze” and still others unfamiliar with religious language. As I considered the necessity of a particular word in a particular prayer, the answer was “of course not”. As I let go of my assumptions about the need to use the word “Christ” and tried more inclusive options like Spirit and Holy One, I realized that our doors of welcome opened wider.
And as the doors opened wider, we discovered that the windows opened too. As my own faith became increasingly light in words and deep in faith, you joined with me on the journey. Together we have wondered about the words we use at the table, what our ministers wear and where they stand, and more. The beauty is that as we become less attached to doctrine, creeds, and even liturgical traditions, we have (unintentionally but very clearly) become increasingly more inclusive. It has been an amazing and wondrous journey, filled with hope and promise.
But also at points an unsettling one. If not in the creeds and traditions and texts, then what can we trust? What is the solid rock? On what can we raise our Ebenezer?
When we pull on the dangling thread of the sweater, we fear we will soon find ourselves naked.
Admittedly I stand here pretty naked today. At some point I realized a painful inescapable truth: I absolutely believe Jesus about God, I simply don’t believe the church about Jesus. In very real ways, I realize that I have prayed my way out of the church. I wonder if I am a “none” (one of the growing number of Americans who identify themselves as “spiritual but not religious”) and as I step outside of the comfort of our community I won’t pretend that the way hasn’t been watered with tears.
I share this story because, directly and indirectly, the theology that we’ve shared has brought us to this fork in the road and presents important questions for you as a community moving forward. I share my experience because I continue to believe that there is a felt need to gather in communities like this one in which we’ve dared to practice a “spiritual but not religious” expression and the temptation will be to reach backward for familiar traditions. Please don’t, at least not without prayerful consideration.
Since I was ordained, our denomination has shrunk by more than half. Churches all around us, even ones with good music and good preaching, are in decline and many are closing. This beloved community has been steady and at points truly brilliant in these same recent years – not in spite of but in fact because we’ve dared to flow with the current and lose our grip the trappings of “religion”. Inasmuch as we have been willing to explore the edges of progressive religious expression, we have found new life, new relevance and new growth. This is a season to stretch the welcome, to be bold and daring, to paint with purple and bring in drums into worship.
The light shines from within. Embrace it and thrive, for we deny it to our own peril.
6. I Sit by the River
And with that I’ve come to the end of my words. Except, of course, there is always room for one more story:
As the teacher grew weary from pointing, she knew it was time to step away in order for the community to see what was right before them. “What is it we fail to see when you are with us?” they asked for they truly couldn’t see.
She waited until perhaps the very last moment to speak her truth, for its simplicity was quite unbelievable.
With a twinkle in her eye and a heart filled with love she explained, “For years I have sat on the edge of the river, handing out water. Now it is time for me to wade in the water. And after I am gone, I trust that you will notice the river for yourselves.” (based on an Anthony de Mello story)
Ready or not, we have come to the water’s edge.
I’m ready to wade. And you?
A story is told of an old man who falls into a raging river just above the rapids. His friends frantically reach for him as the current carries him toward danger. Helpless they watch as his lifeless body is plunged into the whitewater. Racked with grief they race to the bottom to retrieve his body. At the bottom of the rapids, however, they watched stunned as the old man stands and walks towards them. ”How?” pleads their question from disbelieving eyes. “Simple,” says the old man, “become one with the river and it carries us safely through the difficult passages.”
I believe this story and repeat it often, but I confess that in my own life I am most often found on the shore remarking in awe about the water’s power. More dangerous still, when I am sucked into the currents of life, I make the mistake of holding on to branches or rocks or anything stationary to which I can cling.
The problem is that while I am clinging, the river is pulling. And with my energies rooted to the stationary, the current can be both painful and also incredibly destructive. Broken bones, mangled bodies. And I curse the current for it’s brutal assault.
The real problem with the current is that I can’t control it. I can’t even pretend to control it or convince myself that I am controlling it. The current comes from a place beyond what can be seen and moves with a passion that is not ours to own. We are merely spectators along the way and our choices, should we enter the river, are whether we will be carried by the current or casualties in its wake.
In the rare moments when I am able to accept life on life’s terms, to float in the water with my hands resting at my side, I confess that the current has been trustworthy. The bruises and scars that are mine from the river are, every one, a testimony not to the current itself but rather to my struggle against it.
And admittedly I have plenty of bruises bearing witness to too much clinging. Yet as I stand at the bottom I am almost surprised to realize that despite the bruises I have been safely carried to this new landing. As is most of life, learning to be at one with the current is about progress not perfection. I am grateful for a pause in the action and a new day in which to practice.
there is nothing so apparently lifeless as a milkweed pod in the autumn
nothing so apparently lifeless as a stone shrouded tomb
more will be revealed
there is nothing as pernicious as a milkweed seed in a farmer’s field
there is nothing so pernicious as a voice for justice
where is our serenity?
there is nothing as sweet as a fresh green milkweed pod
there is nothing as sweet as the promise of freedom
where is our enough?
integral to the wider community as the milkweed leaf feeding the monarch larvae
integral as the life of shared in service to others
Jesus shared, healed, taught.
beautiful as the delicate blossoms in the spring
beautiful as the teachings that inspire compassion
Jesus was a wisdom teacher.
nothing as powerful as the seeds fluttering in the wind
powerful as the story of an empty tomb