Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Rector's Monday Message: January 30, 2012

Lying, Spinning, and our Common Life

They utter lies to each other;
with flattering lips and a double heart they speak. [Psalm 12:2]

This spring I’m teaching a class at Cranbrook for seniors called “Ethics: The Problem of Evil”. One of the pleasures of teaching this course, aside from daily engagement with high school students, is the opportunity to study Martin Buber’s book, Good and Evil. Buber was a great 20th century Jewish philosopher most famous for his book I and Thou about the dialogical relationship between the human being and God. Good and Evil is not as famous, but it is an equally profound investigation into the problem of lying in personal and social life.

My predecessor in teaching the class, recently retired Cranbrook Chaplain Dave Tidwell, chose the book because most students of philosophy would agree that lying is the foundation of what we would call evil. Before one can proceed to “evil” actions, one needs to deceive others, and that deception often leads to a general corruption of social and personal relationships and values.

Martin Buber holds that there are two qualities necessary for human beings to live together. The first he calls “well-wishing or the good will”. The second he calls ”loyalty or reliability”. Good will is necessary because, for society to function, we all must intend that each other flourish. Lying undermines good will. If I lie to you, I clearly want to seize an advantage over you. Similarly, reliability is essential because if we are to help each other mutually flourish we must be counted on to do what we say we’ll do. If I promise something and don’t deliver, my behavior corrodes the fabric of our common life.

Writing in 1952—what many would consider the “good old days”—Buber says that well-wishing and reliability “have disappeared so completely that the basis of [our] common life has been removed. The lie has taken the place, as a form of life, of human truth.” If Buber could have written that before the exponential explosion of technological ways of communicating (and manipulating messages), I wonder what he would say about truth and our common life in the 21st century.

As I have listened to the political rhetoric ramp up this winter—I’m speaking about speakers on both sides of the aisle—I have become increasingly concerned that most of what passes for political discourse today is in fact spin. It’s gotten so bad that I’ve stopped listening even to the people I agree with. I know when most political speakers open their mouths they are not going to say anything surprisingly truthful. They are going to use the occasion to achieve an advantage, largely by massaging the facts in their interest. In doing so, they undermine both underpinnings of our common life, good will and reliability.

Obviously mendacious and meretricious political rhetoric is not new. But what is new is our widespread unquestioning acceptance of it. We do not seem to want a serious conversation enough to demand it. We do not subject untrue speech to real criticism. We appear content to remain comfortably ensconced in our familiar and safe ideologies.

The contemporary ethicist, Sissela Bok, says, “A society whose members are unable to distinguish truthful messages from deceptive ones, would collapse. But before such a general collapse, individual choice and survival would be imperiled.”Bad political speech is as dangerous as bad personal speech. Clearly we cannot give up either personal or political speech. But we can, both as private people and as citizens, commit ourselves to truth-telling as a fundamental value of what it means to be human.

“The lie,” says Buber, “is the specific evil which man has introduced into nature.” I am not na├»ve. I know that, because we are human, we will always lie and be lied to. Human self-interest will always make lying a seemingly less costly choice when figuring moral equations. But real self-interest should also prompt each of us to realize the long-term, hidden costs inherent in lying. Every time we lie, we corrode the fabric of our common life. And if that fabric finally disintegrates, there is no safe hiding place left for anyone.

The truth is not always easy, but it is ultimately our friend. Jesus knew that. So did Martin Buber. Here’s hoping all of us can come to see that, too.

Gary Hall

Homily: The Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany [January 29, 2012] Christ Church Cranbrook

A couple of weeks ago I had a free evening and went to see Martin Scorsese’s new movie, “Hugo”. It’s a beautiful motion picture, a combination of children’s fantasy and loving history of the early days of movies. I’ve long admired Scorsese’s films: even though most of them deal with New York street people and gangsters, they always exhibit a surefooted cinematic style. No matter what the subject of a Scorsese movie, you always watch it with the awareness that you’re seeing a movie made by someone who really knows how to make movies.

It’s a mystery (at least to me) how some people have an innate grasp of what they’re doing and others don’t. That grasp or the lack of it has nothing to do with intelligence. It’s a question of inner orientation.

Some people really know how to do what they do; others, not so much. When discussing visual art, the painter Frank Stella calls this quality “pictoriality”—in his words the sense that painting “can rise above the self-concerns that determine its own ends”. [Frank Stella, Working Space, p. 1] What Stella means is that a great painting uses the visual field with a kind of authority that renders the subject matter irrelevant. Caravaggio has it. Cezanne has it. De Kooning has it. Their paintings are totally dissimilar in style and subject matter, yet each one commands the space on its own terms. Frank Stella calls this quality “pictoriality”. And we might apply that idea to different forms of human endeavor.

Jesus had a kind of moral pictoriality. He preached and taught in a way that was surefooted and authentic. In our Gospel for this morning, we are told that the people at Capernaum “were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.” [Mark 1.22] In the Judaism of Jesus’s day, the supreme religious authority was vested in the Torah, the law of Moses, the first five books of the Bible. The scribes were a class of Bible experts who would study the scriptures, render opinions, and resolve disputes about how to interpret Jewish law. When the crowd at Capernaum says that Jesus does not teach like the scribes, what they mean is that he does not ground his teaching in a claim of professional expertise or an appeal to someone else. He teaches as one who knows what he’s doing, with authority. In Frank Stella’s language, he is like an artist who paints with pictoriality. He is the Caravaggio, the Martin Scorsese of teaching. He knows how to tell you something in a way that you will be sure to take it in. And he tells you truth that he knows personally, not that he heard from another source.

What Jesus has, according both to Mark and the crowd, is “authority”. The Greek word that we translate “authority” is exousia, and exousia (authority) is always contrasted in the New Testament with another Greek word, dunamis, which means “power”. In the Gospel stories of Jesus, we are told that he has authority, meaning that he speaks and teaches with an inner sense of the right to do so. In the Bible’s understanding, authority comes from within. It is an orientation toward what one is doing, a sense that one is entitled and privileged to do it. Jesus teaches as one with authority, not like the scribes. He does not talk or sound like someone who has spent his entire life in the library. He talks about God not with textual evidence and citations but from a living inner experience.

So Jesus teaches with authority, with exousia. What he does not teach with is that other word, dunamis or power. Dunamis is the word from which we get the word “dynamite”, and it has less to do with inner confidence than it does with the ability to compel somebody to do something. If I teach with authority, you listen because I’ve convinced you I know what I’m talking about. If I teach with power, you listen because I’m holding a stick of dynamite to your head. Bad teachers teach holding the grade book in one hand, threatening students with their power. In the New Testament, power is a military word, authority a spiritual one. Caesar acts with dunamis, with power. Jesus acts with exousia, with authority.

At this point you are probably asking yourself why I have dragged you through this seemingly endless word study: “pictoriality”, “authority”, “power”. I’ve done so for a couple of reasons. One of them is that I love words and can’t help myself. The other, more serious reason, is that I believe this contrast between power and authority is important for each of us to grasp if we are to live in the world as followers of Jesus, children of God, and as brothers and sisters of those around us.

One of the problems with being a Christian is that we have received this authority teaching of Jesus all wrapped up in a system of ecclesiastical power. It is perhaps only one of the ironies of the Jesus movement that what began as a critique of power (the state power of Caesar, the religious power of the scribes) became, for centuries, embodied in a world-historical power projecting institution. When Christianity moved from an outsider movement to the official religion of Western culture, it became hopelessly enmeshed in questions of power. Look, for example, at the title I carry as the presiding priest of this parish. “Rector” comes from the Latin word, rex: king, ruler, power-wielder. And look around you at the building you’re sitting in. At least one of the purposes of Gothic architecture is to make you feel small, to emphasize the power of the institution that inhabits it. Want to think for yourself? Just look around and see how far you’ll get. The church, as a human institution, became obsessed, as all human institutions are, with the internal distribution and external wielding of power. But the Jesus we meet in the scriptures is not interested in power. He lets Caesar and Herod argue about that. The Jesus of Mark’s Gospel is interested in authority.

And it is the authority of Jesus—what I’ve called his moral and spiritual pictoriality—that causes the crowds to follow him. In today’s Gospel he casts out a demon. In other stories he heals people, curing lepers and paralytics and restoring sight to the blind. Jesus can do these things not because he has a certificate from an institution telling him he can. He does these things because of his own internal connection to and grounding in a relationship with God. He does not force or compel people to be well. He draws them toward wellness because of the depth and quality of his inner life made visible in his outward actions.

Last week I was trying to explain to some students at Cranbrook the difference between “moral” and “moralistic”. What I finally came up with was this: “moral” people say, “I ought”. “Moralistic” people say, “thou shalt”. A truly moral person is concerned with his or her ethical obligation in a particular situation. A moralistic person wants to tell you what you should do. It is Christianity’s tragedy that we have often confused the two: over time, we’ve behaved less as a moral movement and more as a moralistic institution. Jesus taught not as one with moralistic power—the ability to compel other people’s assent—but as one with moral authority. He openly lived the Gospel he proclaimed from within. He drew other people into the expanding circle of his enfolding love.

There are, for me, two implications for us in all this. One has to do with our shared, Christian community stance toward the world. The other has to do with how we, as individual people appropriate God’s authority in our lives.

As to the first: as a community, the church is called to be moral, not moralistic. We are called to exercise authority, exousia, not power, dunamis. If we think we are still a world-historical power-projecting institution, we are kidding ourselves. There is lots of bad news in the decline in church membership and attendance across the globe these days, but hidden in all that loss is at least one gleaming nugget of good news. We are no longer the official religion of the western world. Therefore, we are free to live again as the church lived before Constantine. We can become, again, the Jesus movement, a group of fragile, faithful women, children, and men called into new life in the fellowship of Jesus and his table. As a body, we are now free from the burden of telling other people what to think. We can turn to the much more energizing and illuminating task of standing for what we believe: justice, compassion, inclusivity, love.

Freedom from having to live from power is our greatest gift as a people. As individual people, there is also an implication in the shift from power to authority, and living into it starts with seizing an insight delivered late in Martin Scorsese’s movie, Hugo. Near the end of the film, Hugo says this to the girl Isabelle who has become his friend:

I'd imagine the whole world was one big machine. Machines never come with any extra parts, you know. They always come with the exact amount they need. So I figured, if the entire world was one big machine, I couldn't be an extra part. I had to be here for some reason.

There are no extra people. We are each here because we matter, because we count. Live your life not with power but with authority, with pictoriality, with joy and generosity and compassion and hope. Live from your authentic self, out of what you know to be true. If we all did that, we’d be just like Jesus. And everyone around us would be astounded. Amen.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The Rector's Monday Message: January 23, 2012

The Answers to All Life’s Big Questions

Well, not really—but I knew that nobody would read an essay titled “Thoughts on the Annual Meeting”. But now that I have your attention, I hope you’ll read on.

By canon law, parishes in the Episcopal Church have annual meetings, usually in the month of January. The purpose of these meetings is threefold: to hear reports on work and finances for the preceding year; to elect members to the church’s governing board, the Vestry; and to discuss important issues in the parish’s common life.

Some years, parish annual meetings can be quite contentious. Most years, they are quite routine. While I do not anticipate any major controversies this year, there are some important issues to come before us. Let’s take them by category.

When you come to the meeting, you’ll receive a hefty packet of Annual Meeting reports. Virtually every ministry area in the parish—from worship to pastoral care to education to outreach—is represented in these reports. The size of this packet might be daunting, but I hope it won’t deter its avid reading. Most of Christ Church Cranbrook’s ministry is carried out through the work of its people. The staff, while essential to the optimal functioning of the congregation, serves primarily to support, train, recruit, and supervise the baptismal ministry of the church’s members. So I ask that you read the work reports not as staff report cards but as reflections on what God is doing in and through the people who make up the congregation.

I’ve asked that the chairs of the four working groups designated by the Vestry and me as of high strategic importance (Stewardship, Outreach, Children and Youth, Communications) report on their ongoing work in 2011. By highlighting those areas, we’re NOT saying that their work is more important than that done by others. But we are saying that these areas are so vital to the vitality and future of the parish that they need our shared, constant attention.

Next comes the Vestry election. I am deeply grateful that eight dedicated and able parishioners have offered themselves to be considered for five slots. I hope that when you vote for those five people you take into account the deepest needs of Christ Church Cranbrook as it moves ahead. Most vitally, it’s good to remember that all Vestry members are “at large” members: each one is elected by the congregation as a whole. While the nominating committee tries to plan for diversity of age, interest, experience, and for gender balance in the slate, the priority for a governing board of a congregation as large as this one is less about the representation of constituencies than it is about the presence of vital competences. The Vestry is called to think, act, decide, and plan for the whole system. As you consider the nominees, think about what skills you believe should be present in the group that, above all others here, speaks and acts for you.

Finally, we’re considering some changes to the parish By-Laws. The proposed amendments attempt to align our standing committee structure both with our missional priorities and with the functional realities of the way things work. We’ve added Children and Youth and Outreach as standing committees of the Vestry. When surveying the committee structure, I noticed that there was no structural Vestry connection to church school and youth ministry and that Service and Outreach was only an ad hoc group. The proposed amendments give these priority areas a clear connection to the Vestry’s engagement. In two other areas we’ve proposed structural refinements that bring clarity to the current system. The Stewardship Committee is the only standing committee charged with developing parish financial resources. The new language gives the Stewardship Committee authority to create subcommittees that will carry on its work in three areas: annual giving, capital giving, and planned giving. And the language making the Columbarium Committee a subcommittee of the Building and Grounds committee merely confirms current practice.

The Vestry and I think of these By-Law changes as non-controversial. Their intent is to conform our structure to our practice. Please read and reflect on the changes (they’re posted on the website) and bring your responses and ideas to the meeting.

So much for the answers to all life’s big questions. In a sense, though, that’s what we get by living together in the community that gathers in response to the life and ministry of Jesus. The answers to all life’s big questions come finally not in ideas but in relationships. Living out our baptismal covenant with each other, in the context of the Eucharist, is the real meaning of what life is all about. I’m grateful for everyone here and their companionship in this community.

Gary Hall

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Rector's Monday Message: January 16, 2012

Chaos, the Multiverse, and God

In an article in December’s issue of Harper’s magazine, the physicist and novelist Alan Lightman describes what he calls a “crisis of faith” among theoretical physicists. In the history of Western thought, he says, scientists and philosophers have largely held that certain phenomena (the sky’s color, the temperature of boiling water, the patterns of snowflakes, and so on) were “necessary consequences of the fundamental laws of nature”—laws fixed at the beginning of time and subsequently discovered by human beings. But this belief in fundamental underlying natural laws is giving way to a new understanding, and that view is producing some anxiety among scientists. As Lightman (a professor at MIT) explains,

Dramatic developments in cosmological findings and thought have led some of the world’s premier physicists to propose that our universe is only one of an enormous number of universes with wildly varying properties, and that some of the most basic features of our particular universe are indeed mere accidents—a random throw of the cosmic dice. In which case, there is no hope of ever explaining our universe’s features in terms of fundamental causes and principles.

[Alan Lightman, “The Accidental Universe: Science’s Crisis of Faith”, Harper’s, December, 2011]

In other words: the idea of a “universe” (a unified cosmos comprising the total of everything there is) has given way to the idea of a “multiverse”—a collection of universes each governed by its own rules and characterized by its particular features. Objects may fall at 32 feet per second/per second in our universe, but who’s to say how fast they might plummet in another one?

Order is important to us humans, and so the idea that we inhabit a cosmos made up of a bewildering number of chaotic universes sounds, at first, like a challenge to all we hold dear and believe in. But before we despair, we should remember that even order has its limitations. As Lightman suggests,

The multiverse idea does explain one aspect of our universe that has unsettled some scientists for years: according to various calculations, if the values of some of the fundamental parameters of our universe were a little larger or a little smaller, life could not have arisen.

The idea of an orderly cosmos appeals to our desire for order; but on its own, order has no generative power. It is the very chaos of our universe that allows it to sustain conditions that give rise to life.

As a Biblical scholar friend of mine suggests, the first verses of Genesis are often mistranslated in English. In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters.”[Genesis 1.1] The word we translate “void” (in Hebrew, bohu) really means something more like “lifeless”, “confused”, or “chaotic”. So Genesis 1 never precisely says that God created the world ex nihilo, “out of nothing”. What it does say is that God made the living, abundant world we know out of the formless, lifeless, confused chaos that was there to start with.

Why does any of this matter? I think it’s important for two reasons. First, it’s important because as in the world of theoretical physics, so in the world of the scriptures, God is better understood as an artist than as a magician. God does not produce the world the way a magician pulls a rabbit out of a hat. Instead, God makes the world out of the materials at hand. And the materials God works with are the very fragments of chaos. The world is like a sculpture made out of found objects. It is beautiful, and it is also random. In fact, its beauty emerges from its randomness. Only the asymmetrical can be really beautiful and alive. If the world were perfect ly symmetrical, it would be perfectly ordered and therefore totally dead.

The relation of chaos to God and creation matters, second, because it suggests that our own chaos (personal and internal, corporate and shared) is a condition of being alive. Our lives are chaotic because the world is chaotic. Our world is chaotic because God used the stuff of chaos out of which to make it. The point is not that we need to be orderly, perfect, and dead. The point is that we are called to be chaotic, random, and alive. As is God, so are we artists. We spend our lives making our lives out of the random hands we have been dealt. God is both in that chaos and in our working with it. We find God not by trying to be perfect but by making life out of what we have.

So: theoretical physicists and control freaks: take heart! As we move more deeply into the season of Epiphany, we join Jesus in the manifestation of God’s glory in our lives and work and relationships in the world. That glory is made manifest in personal and shared asymmetry and chaos. Say no to perfection and death. Say yes to chaos and life. Help God continue to create a beautiful and random world into an ever more hospitable, gracious, compassionate, and joyful place.

Gary Hall