Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Rector's Monday Message: October 31, 2011

What’s With All These Vampires and Zombies?

Today is Halloween, a holiday with several meanings. For Christians it’s the eve of All Saints Day; for young adults it’s an excuse for parties; for children it’s the funnest day of the year; for TV programmers it’s the time to schedule one more horror movie marathon.

Anyone who follows popular culture must be aware of the increasing number of vampire and zombie movies and television shows in recent years. For vampire fans, we have Twilight, The Vampire Diaries, and True Blood. For zombie aficionados, we have Death Valley, Dead Set, and Walking Dead. And for those who love the two types equally, there is the new show, Deadliest Warrior, which features face-to-face combat between both groups of the Undead.

Word has it that vampires are fading and zombies gaining the upper hand these days. However we understand their relative cultural power, though, it’s clear that this pervasive fixation on the Undead is saying something that we need to hear. Why do so many people in our world find that tales of vampires and zombies provide them meaningful parables of life and death?

Vampires come to us from medieval Eastern Europe, and it doesn’t take a genius to see how Balkan peasants would have made up stories about local nobility who were figuratively and literally bleeding them dry. Remember that Dracula is a nobleman, a count; he’s a representative of the elite who exacted blood and money from those who lived in fealty to them. In more modern accounts, vampires have morphed into scary monsters (the Dracula movies) and then into Romantic figures living beyond the grave.

Zombies derive from West African and Haitian varieties of Voodoo. Originally, zombies were those who had subjugated their will to a more powerful figure and existed thereafter to do that person’s bidding. In contemporary culture zombies have become emblems of the breakdown of civilization, traveling in hordes preying on the living and eventually turning the entire population into flesh-eating zombies. If the vampires were figurative predators, zombies were metaphorical prey. Either way, they projected images of power and its abuses.

However you think of vampires and zombies, their resurgence in the 21st century suggests some pervasive cultural worries that should make us people of faith take note. While vampires may live beyond the grave, their ongoing existence doesn’t seem to resemble what Christians would understand as resurrection. That younger people find vampires to be symbols of everlasting love should signal to us that the young don’t know much about the Christian hope. And the kind of disintegration the zombies usher in feels like a parodic vision of Armageddon: in zombie land, the world ends in an orgy of mutual predatory destruction, but it does not usher in the City of God.

In the 1930’s horror movies spoke to a shared experience of economic devastation. In the 1950s they expressed anxiety about living in the nuclear age. In the 21st century, the resurgence of vampire and zombie drama suggests another era of cultural dis-ease. Vampires live forever with romantic but without divine love. Zombies bring about social destruction that suggests judgment without redemption. Both visions tell us that many younger people experience the world as a predatory place. They see themselves hanging on in a world with little hope of joy or peace.

As Halloween modulates into All Saints’ Day, those of us who follow Jesus need to remember a couple of things. We should remember what the Christian hope really is. It’s a hope of resurrected life in Christ that redeems and transforms our lives and the world’s. We should proclaim that hope to a culture that confuses the vampire existence with eternal life. We should also remember that we share our world with people who increasingly find it a fearful and hostile place. What kind of a picture of God and human destiny are we in our witness showing to the world? What kind of comfort, care, and ministry are we providing for those who find life a frightening enterprise?

Vampires and zombies are abroad in our culture as signs of the pains and fears you and I as God’s loving agents should be attending to. They’re not just harmless monsters. They stand for what upcoming generations fear and dread the most. If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, we’ll let these creatures alert us to opportunities for love, service, and the proclamation of good news.

So much for my amateur cultural theoretics; take them for what they’re worth. Sometime I’ll share my thoughts (and strategies) on Angry Birds! Happy Halloween. And, more importantly, Happy All Saints’ Day.

Gary Hall

Homily: The Twentieth Sunday after Pentecost [October 30,2011] Christ Church Cranbrook

When I was Vicar of St. Aidan’s Church in Malibu, a generous parishioner gave us the gift of a new processional cross. Malibu has a 1950s modernist building, an architectural landmark in its own right but very different from this building, so the church furnishings there are very different there from the ones here at Christ Church. The processional cross was made of highly polished brass and it looked really good when lifted high by a muscular surfer acolyte, especially as it glinted in the sunlight and reflected the light off the ocean from across the Pacific Coast Highway.

One Sunday not long after we received that cross, I noticed an acolyte looking rather intently at the cross. For a minute, I thought he might be unusually pious for a teenager. Then I realized what he was doing. He wasn’t pondering the mystery of the cross at all. He was combing his hair, and admiring his own reflection in the cross as he did it.

Like all teenagers, this boy was obsessed with his appearance. He was not unusually narcissistic. He has, in fact, grown into a mature, faithful, compassionate adult. But I thought about his preening in the reflection of that cross as I thought about these words from our Gospel this morning. Among other things, Jesus says this about the hyper-religious people of his day, the ones Matthew’s Gospel calls scribes and Pharisees:

They do all their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have people call them rabbi. [Matthew 23: 5-7]

All of us can smile knowingly when we see a teenage boy looking a bit too intently at his reflection in a mirror. But Jesus’s remarks about those who “do all their deeds to be seen by others” probably elicit a different kind of knowing grimace when we think about how we all behave as adults. I can’t speak for you, but when I look back on my own life I recall many times when my behavior has been dictated principally by how it would make me look to others. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be authentically moral or generous or pious or compassionate. It’s more that I surely wanted you to see me as moral and generous and pious and compassionate.

Jesus’s critique of human moral pretension and hypocrisy often turns on our unwillingness to ask of ourselves what we demand from others. In today’s passage, though, Jesus turns our attention to a subtler and perhaps more dangerous form of human hypocrisy: the way in which we let what others think of us dictate how we will live our lives.

Of course, there is a good side to the social dimension of human behavior. We are social beings, and we learn to be fully human by habituating ourselves to the values espoused by our religious, civic, and political culture. Reputation—what the Greeks called klaos , the lasting fame whose pursuit drove the heroes of the Trojan War—has always been important in human affairs. We erect statues and monuments to those who we believe have lived exemplary lives. Each of us wants the story told about us to be a good one, especially when we’re gone.

But if we orient ourselves entirely to what others think about us, if we get all our moral and spiritual bearings from outside ourselves, then we never come fully into authentic living. Jesus’s point about the scribes and Pharisees was not that they were doing something wrong. His point was that they were doing something--perhaps something right--for no authentic, personal reason. They were obeying the law without having internalized the law’s values. They may have been technically following the law, but they were not organically living it.

Authentic human living—life lived on Jesus’s terms, and God’s—is respectful of opinion but is motivated from within. In the essay of his we all read when we were self-involved teenagers, “Self-Reliance”, Ralph Waldo Emerson says this: “Absolve you to yourself, and you shall have the suffrage of the world.” His point is that a truly good, loving, selfless, moral act does not need to be validated by society. Such an act is its own validation. And if you do such an act you do not need to appeal to an external authority for either forgiveness or permission. For Emerson, as for Jesus, the goal of human life was authentic living. One learns to live authentically by living from within.

To live from within does not mean that we do not attend to the values or standards of our culture or society. But living from within does mean that we take the time and do the work to articulate and live out the values and affirmations that are most deeply true for us. Emerson’s point is, essentially, Jesus’s point. If you have made the values of the Gospel your own and not somebody else’s, and if you can hold your actions to the standard of your own highest values, then you do not need to appeal to the world’s opinion to justify yourself. Mercy, forgiveness, healing, blessing, compassion: these are the core of what it means to be a human being on Jesus’s terms. As Jesus says elsewhere in Matthew’s Gospel, orienting yourself toward these values and away from the rules is not lawlessness. If anything, Jesus’s followers are called to a “higher righteousness” than are the rule scorecard keepers. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” [Matthew 5:20]

To live from within does not mean to withdraw from the world. Again, we are social creatures, and we become who we are through extended interaction with each other. Neither you nor I came out of the womb fully formed as the people we are. We have come to be those people in relationship—collaboration, enmity, love, conflict—with each other. So living from within does not equate with rugged individualism. It’s neither “I Gotta Be Me” nor “I Did it My Way”. But living from within does mean doing the work to connect my own story with God’s big story, to take from the faith and the tradition and my engagement with others those truths that connect with my own experience and make them mine. I believe in compassion, forgiveness, blessing, and healing because I have both seen and experienced them in others’ lives and my own.

I believe in crucifixion, resurrection, and transfiguration because those biblical events have connection in my life and the life of the world I inhabit. I used to believe them because, as a Christian and a priest I thought I had to. I believe them now because I know they’re true. And I know they’re true because I’ve lived long enough, with Bible and Prayer Book in hand, to be able to make and understand the connections. And I’ve had a lot of help from others along the way.

Last Thursday, the psychologist and author James Hillman died. He was an interesting and provocative figure, if only because he wrote a book with one of my favorite titles: We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy—And the World’s Getting Worse. Hillman was famous for criticizing psychotherapy for the way it tended increasingly to pursue individual “personal growth” at the expense of a corresponding commitment to social justice and care for the world. He understood two things, both profoundly true. One is that we need to go inward. As he said, “There is a place for the strength of character and subtlety of insight that the investigation of interiority produces.” The other is that we need to go outward: “The plight of the world” has “certainly forced us to feel that we cannot go through the world for our own benefit and that we are actually destroying our souls by an attitude that pretends to save them.” [Both quotations, James Hillman and Michael Ventura, We’ve Had a Hundred Years of Psychotherapy—And the World’s Getting Worse p. 50, 51]

The scribes and Pharisees believed, as many in our world believe, that they could be righteous without being just and spiritual without being compassionate. They believed they could achieve personal purity in a broken world. What Jesus taught us, and what we come to know internally as we gather around his table, is that such a bargain is impossible.

We live from within so that we will not be dependent on someone else’s truth to be the guiding principle of our lives. If it is faithful, that inward living calls us out into a world whose brokenness is as much a part of us as our own most deeply personal story is. The world is not an obstacle to our salvation. It is the location where that saving journey happens. As we free ourselves from our need to have the reputation of being faithful, and as we make God’s truths our own, our inner and our outer lives will begin to resemble each other, and the more we look in the mirror—whether in the processional cross or in the bathroom--the more we will begin to see the face of Jesus reflected back. Amen.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Rector's Monday Message: October 24, 2011

Why Moses Did Not Enter the Promised Land

Yesterday in church we finished our sequential reading of the story of Moses with the account of his death and burial just on the edge of the Promised Land. [Deuteronomy 34: 1-12] This passage presents one of the most puzzling moments in all of scripture. Moses was called by God as the prophet who would gather the Israelites and lead them out of bondage in Egypt in a great journey that has become known as the Exodus. For forty years Moses led an often recalcitrant group of people in the wilderness. As they approach the entry into Canaan (what we would call Palestine) we learn that Joshua, not Moses, will be the one to lead them across the Jordan River into the new land of freedom.

What’s puzzling about this passage is what God says to Moses as he lies dying:

Yahweh said to Moses, "This is the land of which I swore to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, saying, `I will give it to your descendants'; I have let you see it with your eyes, but you shall not cross over there." [Deuteronomy 34.4]

Generations of Jews and Christians have wondered and argued about this passage. Why would God let Moses lead the Israelites through the wilderness and then not allow him to cross over? For some, the answer to that question involves divine displeasure at an earlier act of disobedience by Moses. In Numbers 20 (where God is about to provide water from the rock for the thirsty wandering Israelites), God tells Moses to order the rock to produce water. Instead, Moses strikes the rock twice. This refusal to invoke water from the rock was seen by one textual tradition as the cause of Moses’s exclusion from the Promised Land.

To blame Moses’s exclusion from the Promised Land on a single act of disobedience in a lifetime of faithful service seems to project the image of a God who is stubborn, vengeful, and obsessed with triviality. As we think about the God whom we know in word, sacrament, and life experience, are there other explanations that make sense?

One explanation might involve recalling how different Moses and Joshua were. Moses was a prophetic visionary, one who gathered a community out of oppressed nomads in an imperial culture. The leadership he exercised was prophetic, inspirational gathering leadership. The skills he exhibited served Yahweh well during the initial stages of Israel’s journey from slavery to freedom. But when the Israelites found themselves ready for the entry into Canaan, they needed a different kind of leader. Joshua, the successor to Moses, was essentially a military figure, a general. He was skilled at strategy and tactics. One way, then, to understand God’s words to Moses is to see them as a transitional moment in the entire process of divine deliverance. Moses had served his purpose. It was time for a new leader to take the next steps.

Another way would be to think of what it means to be a person of faith. As God’s followers, we (like Moses) live always in a mode of expectation and hope. We expect, we hope, that God’s promises will be fulfilled. We live and act in trust that the works we have seen begun in our lifetimes will be completed in God’s time and on God’s terms. We expect and hope those things, but each of us will die without achieving absolute certainty about them. That was certainly true for Moses—he glimpsed the Promised Land but did not enter it—and it is true for us. Christian faith is not about certainty. It is about hope and trust. That is why God has given us a community—each other—as a source of support and encouragement along the way. We are always called to live in the light of the promise. Sometimes living hopefully gets difficult. We have each other to hold us up, to show us the Promised Land, to remind us when we flag or fall that all will finally be well.

What do we hope for? Moses hoped for a land. You and I hope for some other things. My favorite collect in the church year, the Collect for the Sixth Sunday of Easter, puts our hope in the following words:

O God, you have prepared for those who love you such good things as surpass our understanding: Pour into our hearts such love towards you, that we, loving you in all things and above all things, may obtain your promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Gary Hall

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Rector's Monday Message: October 17, 2011

God’s Hidden Face

Certain wonderful things always take me by surprise. Driving around the area this past week, I’m reminded once again of how beautiful Michigan can be in the fall. By now that knowledge should be an ingrained part of me, but from year to year I forget. I have a similar experience when I go to the mountains or the seashore. I have a vague, abstract memory of the beauty of the experience, but it only comes on me in full force when I’m actually there.

One of the ways theology has changed in my lifetime concerns the relationship of God to the environment. Historically, Christianity has been oriented more to the human and less to the natural order. The environmental crises of the 20th and 21st centuries have caused theologians and biblical scholars to reassess how we understand creation and our place in it. Where do we find God? In a church building? Beside a lake? In the midst of human interaction?

Clearly we find God in all those places. And, as the beauty of this year’s autumn attests, we find God in the fullness and splendor of the natural world. That’s not to say that the natural world is God. But it is to say that God is revealed to us in nature in ways that complement God’s self revelation in scripture, in sacrament, and in human community. The theologian Sallie McFague called the world, “the body of God”. That’s as good a formulation as I’ve ever heard.

One of the questions we routinely ask ourselves concerns God’s “hiddenness”. Although we see signs of God’s presence in the trees and streams and hills and lakes around us, why is it that God does not come plainly and overtly into our presence? Why must we always infer God from the evidences in scripture and the world? Why doesn’t God go on television, write a blog, have a Facebook page, or tweet?

One answer to that question was suggested by Archbishop Anthony Bloom, who suggested that God’s hiddenness might actually be an act of mercy: taken full on, God’s presence might just be too much for us. As John Irving once asked, how could I have a direct experience of God without being obliterated by it? How can God and I relate and still leave room for there to be a me?

In yesterday’s reading from Exodus, Moses concludes his visit atop Mount Sinai by asking that Yahweh show himself. Yahweh replies that he will be faithful to Israel in any number of ways, but he politely turns down the request to allow Moses to look directly at him. “You cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live." [Exodus 33]

What Yahweh seems to be saying in this passage is that we humans will always have to content ourselves with seeing God obliquely. We cannot see God’s face and live. But we can see God in other ways. We see God in deep and mutual human relationships. We see God in the quest for justice. We hear God in scripture and we experience God in sacrament. And we see signs of God’s beauty and purpose in the natural world that surrounds us, especially now, in such plenitude and grace.

The theologians’ word for this kind of theology is apophatic, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “applied to knowledge of God obtained by way of negation.” Or as a seminary professor friend of mine once put it, “God is not in creation. God is behind us, with his hand on our shoulders”. It seems that’s as much as we can take.

As you experience the beauty of October in Michigan, let it be a sign for you of the One who is behind and around and among us. We cannot see that One’s face. But we can know that One’s presence by opening our eyes, our ears, and our hearts to the world.

Gary Hall