Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Rector's Monday Message: November 28, 2011

Advent: What Are We Waiting For?

When Thanksgiving is over, it isn’t only Black Friday (or, this year, Black Thursday) that tells us Christmas is coming. Our culture labels the days between late November and late December “the holiday season”. In the Christian liturgical calendar, though, this time of year is called the season of Advent, a word we take from the Latin root meaning “coming”. These four Sundays before Christmas together make the time we prepare for the coming of Christ at Christmas.

As in all seasons of the church year, each Sunday of Advent has its own special prayer, called a collect. Here is the collect for the first week of the Advent season:

First Sunday of Advent

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

As a season, Advent is organized around the mystery of time. It begins at the end and ends at the beginning. Waiting in expectation for the coming of God into our lives, we begin the season by thinking about the end of time. You’d think that Advent would be an orderly progression from past to future, but it’s actually the other way around. We start with the future and, over four weeks, work our way back to the past. We do that because we understand that God’s self-revelation happens in three ongoing moments: the last day (the end of time), the present day (the here and now), and the first day (the birth of Jesus in first century Palestine). The Sundays of this season work both backward and forward at once. The Fourth Sunday features the archangel Gabriel’s annunciation to the expectant mother Mary. The Third and Second Sundays focus on the warnings and predictions of John the Baptist. The First Sunday starts with us, as we are, today and then jumps forward to “the last day”, when Jesus Christ will “judge both the living and the dead”.

By initially directing our focus to the last day rather than the first day, the Prayer Book asks that we use this season as a time not only to prepare for Christmas but also to pose some larger questions to ourselves. Specifically: what are we waiting for? What is our hope? What would God’s authentic presence in our lives look and feel like?

The Advent season’s simultaneous focus on past and future gives us a way into considering these questions. We get our image of what redeemed, transformed, liberated life will look like by looking back to what we have already seen of that life in the ministry of Jesus and the community he gathered around him. The Christian hope is not vague and gaseous. It is specific and particular. We hope, when all is said and done, to experience God’s love as those gathered around Jesus did. We look back to the first Christmas so that we can look forward to the final one.

So when the collect for the First Sunday of Advent says that Jesus will come at the end of time “to judge both the living and the dead” we should hear that not as a harsh final exam on life given by a divine monarch—but rather as a loving summation made by one who has already loved, healed, taught, touched, and blessed us. We “rise to the life immortal”, in the prayer’s words, through sharing the love, compassion, and forgiveness that continually marked Jesus’s ministry. If we only looked forward, we would do so in fear. If we only looked backward, we would do so with grief. That we can look both ways at once allows us to see the past as the pattern for the future and the future as the completion of a process begun in the past.

The phrase that always arrests me in this collect for the First Sunday of Advent is the one that prays we may receive “grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light”. The vision of future judgment informed by a gracious past and dynamic present gives us a way to organize our preparation for this season. Christmas will come in its own time. It already has. God has been, is, and will be with us. What are we waiting for? We move, in these four weeks, toward the present and future coming of Christ, one that will reprise an ongoing love we already know. This time of waiting is the season’s proper gift. To make ourselves ready, let us remember that what we really hope for at Christmas is what we have already seen in the life of Jesus and in the expressions of human compassion and mercy we know in the fabric of our lives. Let us cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light. Jesus is coming toward us. And even in this holiday season we are moving toward him and the One who sent him.

Gary Hall

Saturday, November 19, 2011

The Rector's Monday Message: November 21, 2011

Spiritual, Religious, or What?

The longer I work in the church, the more I realize how important and challenging good communications are. Last week we had a great visit with Jim Naughton and Rebecca Wilson, two friends and colleagues of mine who do consulting through their company, Canticle Communications, for parishes, dioceses, and institutions in the Episcopal Church. Over two days, they worked with parish leaders and staff members to explore Christ Church Cranbrook’s core values and practices. They had made an initial visit here in June to evaluate our parish communications; they returned in November to help us do some message development for both internal and external audiences. Jim is a newspaper person and the editor of Episcopal CafĂ©, the best website around offering Episcopal Church news, commentary, and opinion. [Check it out at www.episcopalcafe.com.] Rebecca has done a lot of work for and with nonprofit organizations and churches. Together they bring a great deal of insight, skill and experience to their work.

Jim and Rebecca are also faithful, engaged Christian people, so their consulting is informed by more than mere expertise. They have a theological vision for what they do. They care deeply about the vitality and the future of the church, and they have a deep understanding of what churches need to do to be effective places of worship and centers of mission in the world.

One thing they helped us all see over the course of the weekend was the gap between what current parishioners value about a church (any church) and what prospective members might be looking for. Essentially, those of us who attend church value the traditional things that institutional Christianity has offered: worship. pastoral care, opportunities to serve, staying connected to friends. But the things we value are not necessarily what non-attenders are looking for. When asked, increasing numbers of people say they are not particularly attracted to the traditional menu of established church practices. They describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious”. They care deeply about discovering what God is doing in the world and in their lives. They are less interested in the traditional institutional expressions of Christian faith.

As you can imagine, this new perspective on why more people don’t come to church provoked a lot of thought and discussion. It got me to thinking about how we Christians “read” the culture we’re in. I think we have tended, in mainline churches, to under-read the spiritual interest of our culture and to over-interpret the decline of church attendance as a call to provide more (secular) services. Megachurches offer coffee bars, exercise facilities, teen dances, child care. We tend to think that if we had only more amenities like these we would be more popular. We tend to think our friends and neighbors don’t come here because they’re not interested. It doesn’t occur to us that they stay away because they don’t think we’ll help them attend to the big questions they have to ask. From the outside, we look more interested in organizing taffy pulls than prayer groups. The people who avoid us do so not because we are too spiritual but because they see us as not spiritual enough.

I must admit that I have always detested the phrase, “spiritual but not religious” because I have seen it as shorthand for a kind of laziness. I have (rather judgmentally) concluded that they wanted the consolations of a religion without the attendant obligations. But as I’ve thought about last weekend’s conversations, and as I’ve reflected on them with others, I am beginning to see that what I believe to be true about churchgoers is also true about those who spend Sunday with the newspaper. People no longer have to go to church for any reason save an inner compulsion to go there. Those who do show up on Sunday are responding to something God is prompting in them. The corollary is this: those who stay home on Sunday are no less subject to God’s nudgings. They simply don’t believe that we in organized churches have anything deep or compelling to tell them anymore.

Knowing and loving the church (and this church) as I do, I believe we do have something deep and compelling to tell those who live and work and study and play around us. We have to do a better job of letting them know that a liturgically serious, intellectually open, socially committed, pastorally engaged faith community like ours will provide a place to root themselves in the life of faith. I also know that we have to go deeper, together, on the journey of faith so that we can offer what we know with some credibility. It is my job to offer the language, the framework, the skills, and the trustworthy community in which we all can reflect on what God is doing within us and through us. It is your job to bring the depth of what God is doing within you to the conversation. Together we can find a way to be both spiritual and religious.

Gary Hall

Homily Earth Sunday/The Last Sunday after Pentecost [November 20, 2011] Christ Church Cranbrook

In the summer of 2004, Kathy and I and a group of parishioners from the Church of the Redeemer in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania spent several weeks in the African nation of Malawi. We were there to evaluate agencies working with AIDS orphans for a parish outreach project that is, I’m happy to say, still going strong. Eight of us traveled by van around the entire country for three weeks, visiting a dozen AIDS agencies and choosing to work ultimately with five. It was hard, disturbing, and inspiring work.

Near the end of our trip we wanted to take a break, so we arranged to spend a weekend at a wilderness camp in a national park there. The camp, Mvuu (Chichewa for “Hippo”) Wilderness Camp, sits on the shore of the Shire River in Liwonde National Park. To get there you cross the river in a rickety boat dodging hippopotami and crocodiles as you go. Once there, you lodge in quite luxurious tent chalets, each with a deck that looks out over the river.

The first afternoon we were there, Kathy Hall made some tea and sat out on the deck, hoping to enjoy the serenity of the river scene. As she read her book, she had the feeling she was being watched. When she looked up from her book, she discovered about 150 vervet monkeys were standing on the deck railings and hanging from the surrounding trees, staring directly at her. That night, when we went to bed, in addition to the sound of the gently flowing river we heard the sounds of natural selection at work. All would be quiet, and then suddenly you’d hear: Thunk! Splash! Scream, Scream, Scream! Munch, Munch, Munch! And then it would be quiet again.

Those of us who live in urban/suburban settings tend to think of “nature” as placid, peaceful, serene. Get to know nature, though, and you realize that there’s a constant struggle going on there beneath the postcard vistas. Our trip to the wilderness camp in Malawi reminded me of the great American nature writer Edward Abbey’s description of the Great American Desert:

Survival Hint #1: Stay out of there. Don't go. Stay home and read a good book, this one for example. The Great American Desert is an awful place. People get hurt, get sick, get lost out there. Even if you survive, which is not certain, you will have a miserable time. The desert is for movies and God-intoxicated mystics, not for family recreation.

It has been said, and truly, that everything in the desert either stings, stabs, stinks, or sticks. You will find the flora here as venomous, hooked, barbed, thorny, prickly, needled, saw-toothed, hairy, stickered, mean, bitter, sharp, wiry, and fierce as the animals. Something about the desert inclines all living things to harshness and acerbity. The soft evolve out. [Edward Abbey, “The Great American Desert”, from Desert Solitaire}

Edward Abbey, of course, was trying to get you to stay away from his beloved desert. He was one of the original movers behind the radical environmental group, Earth First! Like many of the Earth First!ers, Abbey believed that when it came to ecology, human beings are the problem. We are the problem, in their eyes, for two reasons: because we essentially mess up the place, polluting and exploiting it to our own purposes. And we’re the problem because we are sentimental about it, valuing, in theologian Sallie McFague’s words, “snow-capped mountains and pandas” while shunning the insects, rodents, and stinkweeds that also make up a valuable part the natural world.

Today is Earth Sunday, the second Sunday we have set apart to observe the season of Creation. In the course of my working life in the church, from the 1970s to now, the environmental movement has had an enormous effect on Christian theology. And it’s good that it has. For most of its existence, the church has read Genesis 1:28 as a warrant for doing whatever we want to the planet:

God blessed them, and God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.’

Since the 1960s and 70s, the increasing awareness of the environmental catastrophe that we humans have brought on the Earth—pollution and overpopulation, originally, now global warming and chaotic climate change—that awareness has caused many in the church to try to understand stewardship of creation in a different, less exploitive, light. Still, those who think about the environment have become conflicted about the role we human beings should play in the overall scheme of nature. Does nature exist for us? Are we the problem? Or is there some other way to understand how we and the earth relate?

The Earth First!ers might take some comfort from our Old Testament reading, the creation story as recounted in the Book of Job. As you remember in that story, Job is a prosperous person whose life suddenly turns upside down. Job complains to God about his suffering, and God responds “out of the whirlwind” with today’s account of the depth and mystery of creation.

Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind: . . .

‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements—surely you know! [Job 38]

Although God loves Job and hears his complaint, the point here seems to be that the mysteries of life—from human suffering to the origin and purpose of the universe—are beyond human comprehension.

However you understand God’s words to Job here, there is a point being made in them we need to hear. Whenever we think of the world as the mere raw material for our commercial or aesthetic processes, whenever we think that nature is here simply for us to use for our own ends, whenever we treat the natural world as ours to do whatever we want with, then we are not honoring the natural world on its own terms. When I treat nature merely as a place to mine raw materials, support arguments for my version of reality, or provide placid vistas to enhance my own serenity, I am not doing justice to the natural world as it is in itself. The world is not here for my exploitation. It has its own integrity and meaning and purpose. It is, in theologian Sallie McFague’s metaphor, “the body of God.” As she says, “The world is the bodily presence, a sacrament of the invisible God.” [“The World as God’s Body” in The Christian Century, July 20-27, 1998, pp. 671-673] The point here is that the world is God’s body, not ours. It deserves the respect we would give to God’s incarnate presence in Jesus. We should treat the world as we would treat our incarnate God.

But lest we overvalue the earth at our expense, we also should realize that human beings deserve a particular kind of respect, too. In our treatment of the world, of God’s body, we have “erred and strayed like lost sheep” in our exploitation and misuse of the world. But just because we have overzealously run with God’s gift of dominion does not mean that we don’t matter. If one point today is that we should treat the world as if it were Jesus, the other point is that we should treat one another that way, too. As Jesus himself says in Matthew’s Gospel this morning,

I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me. . . . Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me. [Matthew 25]

Just as we can become sentimental about snow-capped mountains and pandas, we can become Romantic about how human beings express the divine image. As Linus once said to Charlie Brown in Peanuts, “I love humanity; it’s people I can’t stand.” Nevertheless, Jesus reminds us of a central truth of Biblical faith. God created human beings in God’s own image. That means that together and separately we express, we represent, we embody something uniquely divine. We Christians may have used this truth, selfishly, as a warrant for doing what we want to the planet, but the misuse of the truth does not negate it. God is involved in us and we in God. God is involved in the world and the world in God. We are precious and we are responsible. It’s not that everything else is an imperfect version of us. It’s that everything exists in its own integrity and we are the caretakers, the shepherds, the stewards whose principal task is to love it all for exactly what it is.

So this morning, on Earth Sunday, our tradition and our faith tell us two powerful truths. Truth one: God made and loves the world. Truth two: God made and loves us. We do not own the world, but we do belong here. The best image might be of a fabric, a texture, a web woven to include the humans, the monkeys, the crocodiles, the stinkweeds, even the snow-capped mountains and pandas in one seamless garment of life.

When I was in college, almost everyone I knew had a copy of “The Desiderata” tacked up on their wall. It’s a sappy poem that begins,“Go placidly amid the noise and haste” and sounded better to mind-altered teenagers then than it does today. But it does have one line that says something profound: “You are a child of the universe; no less than the trees and the stars; you have a right to be here.”

On this Earth Sunday, let us remember that the world and we are incarnations, embodiments, enfleshments of the divine. We all, together, are the body of God. Treat the world as you would treat Jesus. Treat everyone else—the poor, the sick, the imprisoned—as you would treat Jesus. Treat yourself as you would treat Jesus. It is too simple to say either that the planet matters or that we do. Everything matters, because everything that is somehow expresses the love of the One beneath, behind, and before it. As the Medieval mystic Julian of Norwich said when contemplating the hazelnut, that One is the maker and the keeper and the lover of all things. That One who makes and loves and keeps us now invites you to this table. As we come forward, may we be made open to seeing all creation—even ourselves—as threads in the fabric of God’s body. Amen.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

The Rector's Monday Message: November 14, 2011

Life in the Uncanny Valley

I’ve been reading a new collection of essays by Lawrence Weschler, a writer who regularly reflects on art, science, and culture in The New Yorker and other publications. His new book, Uncanny Valley: Adventures in the Narrative, opens with an essay about the difficulty of digitally animating a human face. It turns out that, as close as digital animation gets to replicating all the muscle movements and structures of the human face, it still cannot get there entirely. Digital animators call this distance between the real human face and computer approximations of it the “uncanny valley”. We know it’s almost right but not quite. And we don’t entirely know why.

Weschler makes a convincing argument that living in the uncanny valley is a condition of being human. In putting forward this case, he appeals to an dispute between two great Medieval Christian thinkers.

In the Middle Ages, the great Italian theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) posited that you could attain a knowledge of God by just cataloging, in Weschler’s words, “everything—books, rocks, flowers, human emotions—so that by the end you have cataloged all of God’s creations.” The great German Cardinal and mathematician, Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464) countered Aquinas with a geometrical concept. In Weschler’s words,

So Cusa, who is a mathematician, says: “Well, I suppose that’s a bit like an n-sided polygon inside of a circle.” In other words, you take a triangle inside of a circle, and you keep adding sides to it, and the more sides you add the closer it comes to being a circle. And yet, at the same time, you keep getting further away, because a circle only has one “side,” one line, and here you’ve got a million lines and angles. Cusa was the one to come up with this concept that at a certain point, you have to make a leap of faith–from the n-sided polygon to the circle, say. And that leap of faith is accomplished through grace, which is to say, for free. [Lawrence Weschler discussing Uncanny Valley in a radio interview]

In other words: Thomas Aquinas thought that we could get to God (compared to a perfect circle) by adding up all of God’s creatures and attributes. Nicholas of Cusa also compared God to that circle but concluded that all we would ever achieve from our own efforts would not be a true description of God (the circle) but a very close approximation that would still be a polyhedron with a million sides and angles. For Cusa, the relationship of God and theology is like the relation of the human face to a digital animation of it. The distance between the two may be small, but it’s an uncanny valley. You and I can never prove or disprove God through our own calculations. We have, finally, to walk or leap or run across the valley to get there.

Where I find Weschler’s essay most meaningful is the implications he sees in the uncanny valley for the human condition. Try as we might, we can never achieve absolute certainty about God or about anything else. We can take a gradual series of steps toward the truth, but in the end we all have to embrace the truth more as an act of faith than as an act of knowledge. As long as I am alive in the world, I will have to live with the disparity between what I know is true and what I believe is true. . As Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13, For now we see in a mirror, dimly,* but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.”

This understanding of the provisional nature of all truth ought to help us evaluate the absolutist pretensions of human systems claiming to know how things really are. If these systems are led by faith, political, or cultural figures, and they insist on one version of truth that excludes all others, they assuage our anxiety at the expense of our freedom. Whether they like it or not, even these systems must dwell, with the rest of us, in the uncanny valley, in the gap between what we can know and what we can hope.

God has given us each other as companions as we traverse the uncanny valley. Instead of lamenting the ambiguity of life’s processes and possibilities, let us rejoice in the fellowship and celebrate the mystery toward which we travel both individually and together.

Gary Hall