Saturday, April 28, 2012

The Rector's Monday Message: April 30, 2012

 “Keeping Ourselves from Ourselves”

Last week I heard an interview with actor Frank Langella discussing his new memoir Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them. Frank Langella comes across as both a wise and interesting man, and something he said during the conversation has stayed with me all week. He was talking about how the famous people he met when younger, as they got older had (in his words)  “a deep and profound terror, and so kept holding on to all the outside things, all the toys we use to keep ourselves from ourselves” [“sex appeal, pills, booze”], so that “as they got older and older and older there was very little center in any of them, very little sense of self.”  He then went on,

The Eastern philosophy is whenever you feel nervous or scared, throw something out of your box, if you’re a box. Those of us here in this culture keep packing our boxes with things like fame, like money, like success, so as we get closer to death we’re very heavy, we’re weighted with all those things. [New York Times Book Review Podcast, April 20, 2012]

I found Langella’s remarks compelling on several fronts.  Since both my parents worked in show business, I spent much of my early life around famous people.  I know from my experience of those years the truth of Langella’s analysis of the corrosive aspects of fame.  Over the course of the rest of my life, though, I’ve consorted with many people who, while not famous, have been highly successful in some area of human endeavor—business, the academy, the church.  And I know from my relationships with those folks that success—even ecclesiastical success—is never finally enough.  We spend much if not most of our lives pursuing success, and when we achieve it we pause, look around, and realize that even success does not ultimately satisfy our deepest needs. And so we find external things that will help “to keep ourselves from ourselves”. For some of us those things are toxic relationships.  For others they are toxic substances.  Whatever they are, they keep us from personal authenticity and depth.

This week I’ve also been rereading one of my favorite books on the life of prayer:  English Spirituality, by Martin Thornton.  This book dates from the early 1960s and is now long out of print.  Thornton, a Church of England priest and pastoral theologian, wrote a history of English spirituality in order to show how Anglican worship and prayer had their own unique, sensible, pragmatic characteristics, rooted in the Benedictine tradition of monastic prayer, study, and worship.

Here is what Thornton says about Benedict’s understanding of the relevance of monastic vows to the lives of everyday people.  In Benedict’s understanding,  “obedience, poverty, and chastity are not monastic but Christian virtues”.  What he means is that these virtues are the virtues not just of monks and nuns but, understood properly, of all Christian people.  All of us are called to be obedient, poor, and chaste.  As to obedience:  “obedience is to be ‘according to the Rule’; what we might call canonical obedience, holy obedience, or even loyalty, but not servile submission.”  Poverty “consists in keeping a happy mean between rigorism and laxity.”  And chastity “is both a practical monastic rule and a general Christian virtue, applicable to both married and single alike”.  [Martin Thornton, English Spirituality, pp. 79-80]

I have always found Thornton’s explanation of the monastic virtues deeply helpful in understanding my own attitude toward life’s desires and challenges.  As Frank Langella says, we have a choice.  As we grow and mature, we can either put more things into our box or take more things out of them.  The culture we live in tends to exalt grasping, consumption, and excess as the signs of the fulfilled life.  Rome was not that different than the First World of the 21st century, and its temptations and blandishments were pretty much the ones we’re offered these days, too.  There is, though, another way. Jesus, the one we follow, lived under Rome’s shadow, and his life and teaching suggest that our true fulfillment consists in going in the opposite direction from putting more stuff in the box.

Live simply.  Live compassionately.  Live thankfully.   That’s how Jesus lived.  He gathered a group of companions who shared that mode of life, and they were able to experience, celebrate, and share a joyful abundance in living that they could not otherwise have imagined.  As you and I contemplate the myriad invitations we have to accumulate things that keep ourselves from ourselves, we hear as well Jesus’s invitation to throw the things out of our boxes that draw us from knowing ourselves and so from knowing God.  Poverty, chastity, and obedience may not sound as alluring as fame, power, and success, but don’t just trust me, trust Jesus: their benefits exceed all that we can ask for or imagine.  Living as Jesus lived, our boxes may be empty, but our lives will be full.

Gary Hall

Sunday, April 22, 2012

An Earth Day Lament for the Rhodora

I spend some time each day wandering around Bloomfield Hills and Birmingham—walking between Christ Church and Cranbrook School, bicycling or running through the neighborhoods.  One of the pleasures, of course, of living and working here is the beauty of the surroundings, especially the way plants display themselves in autumn and spring.
Since returning after a thirty-year absence, though, I’ve noticed that the blooming times of bushes, trees, and flowers seem dramatically to have altered.  When Kathy and I were married in April of 1978 (in Massachusetts) we had to force forsythia to bloom as a low-cost decoration to our wedding reception.  This year, the forsythia were finished before Easter.  By the month of May, known proverbially as “lilac time” in the old days, the lilacs will be all but a memory.  They’re in full bloom on most bushes right now. And even my office is not safe from these changes:  the flowering cherry I view from my window was finished blooming in Lent.
It turns out I’m not alone in noticing this trend. This past week, The New York Times ran an article, “Early Bloomers”, by two scientists who discussed Thoreau’s 1853 observations of the flowering of several native species in Concord, Massachusetts that are now blooming earlier or disappearing altogether because of the gradual warming of the planet.  In their words:

Warming weather in Concord is most likely the cause. Over the last 160 years, April temperatures at the nearby Blue Hill Meteorological Observatory have warmed by around five degrees, because of a combination of global warming and warming associated with the expansion of paved surfaces and buildings in metropolitan Boston. Plants on average flower two days earlier for each degree increase in Concord — thus, the town’s plants are generally flowering about 10 days earlier than when Thoreau made his observations. With temperatures predicted to rise by four to eight additional degrees this century, plants could flower 8 to 16 days earlier than they do now.
Of course, it’s not just Concord. Records from every continent and the oceans in between show changes in the timing of plant and animal behaviors, including flowering, mating, migrating and emerging from hibernation. Some species are changing faster, some slower, but the changes matter. Pollinators may arrive too early for their favorite flowers. Predators may arrive too late for their preferred prey. Species will have to adjust or perish. No doubt, there will be — and already are — winners and losers in this great shake-up. [Richard Primack and Abraham J. Miller-Rushing “Early Bloomers”, The New York Times, April 19, 2012; illustration by Becca Stadtlander, reproduced above.]

Concord, Massachusetts, was home to Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, two writers who have meant much to me over the course of my life.  When I saw the article’s illustration of the rhodora, a wild azalea native to New England, I recalled one of Emerson’s most memorable poems.  It’s short and worth rereading today:

The Rhodora

On being asked, whence is the flower.
In May, when sea-winds pierced our solitudes,
I found the fresh Rhodora in the woods,
Spreading its leafless blooms in a damp nook,
To please the desert and the sluggish brook.
The purple petals fallen in the pool
Made the black water with their beauty gay;
Here might the red-bird come his plumes to cool,
And court the flower that cheapens his array.
Rhodora! if the sages ask thee why
This charm is wasted on the earth and sky,
Tell them, dear, that, if eyes were made for seeing,
Then Beauty is its own excuse for being;
Why thou wert there, O rival of the rose!
I never thought to ask; I never knew;
But in my simple ignorance suppose
The self-same Power that brought me there, brought you.

“Beauty is its own excuse for being.” Even in the mid 19th century, you probably wouldn’t have seen a rhodora unless you’d gone out of your way to find it.  And once you did, you would probably have asked yourself, “Why is all this extravagant beauty wasted on a wilderness where there is no one else around to perceive it?”  Emerson’s answer was that the “charm wasted on the earth and sky” is a sign of some spirit at work in the natural and human world.  We Christians would call that spirit, “God”.
There are all kinds of reasons to lament the way human beings are degrading the planet.  Many of those reasons are more serious than the disappearance of a wild native azalea.  But it is perhaps easier for us to focus on the rhodora’s gradual decline than it is to think about the sinking of island nations and the exponential increase we’re seeing in tornadoes every spring.
Global warming, and the climate change it causes, is no joke.  It is not a political issue.  It is scientific fact.  And because it is a real, demonstrable degradation of God’s world, it is necessarily a theological concern.  Christianity has come late to the understanding that ecology is as at the heart of its moral and spiritual mission. Now, in the 21st century, all Christian traditions agree that stewardship of creation is central to the work of God’s people and the church.
Earth Day may be a secular holiday, but it has theological implications. Caring for the earth means making it a place where the highbush blueberry, marsh marigold, birdfoot violet, sweet pepperbush, flowering dogwood, garlic mustard, canada lily, rose pogonia, and yes, the rhodora can thrive.  That self-same Power that made us made them, too.  As we continue to enjoy this beautiful spring, let us honor the creation and commit ourselves to advocating policies that will preserve and enhance God’s fragile, abundant, vulnerable world.
Gary Hall

Homily: The Third Sunday of Easter [April 22, 2012] Christ Church Cranbrook

            As the years roll by, I am increasingly aware of the ways the way polite, refined churches like ours are always trying to do the impossible.  We have taken what is essentially an irrational, extravagant, sometimes terrifying experience and attempted to make it precise, predictable, and rational.  Think about our three biggest holidays.  At Christmas we tell the story about how the Creator of the Universe got born in a stable in an out-of-the way backwater of the Roman Empire.  At Easter we proclaim that the one previously born in the barn was now resurrected after having been executed by that same empire. Fifty days later, at Pentecost, we celebrate the settling of that one’s wild, unpredictable spirit on those of us who follow him—an event compared in the Book of Acts to a massive, uncontrollable windstorm and flames of fire.  Do we observe these holidays with week-long rave parties, mosh pits, and wild dancing?  Episcopalians? No way!  We walk demurely into stately buildings (like this one) in an organized and dignified manner, we read these bizarre and powerful stories aloud but very calmly, and then a person like me gets up in a pulpit like this and says something nice and soothing and maybe interesting about them.  We say some prayers, we distribute tiny, symmetrical wafers that we claim to be real bread, and we sing songs that while certainly beautiful are not in danger of increasing our heart rates—unless, of course, it’s a C3 Sunday. Then just as calmly and discreetly as we entered, we leave. 
            And so we’ve survived another encounter with the divine.  That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but not much. Over the years, people like me have done our best to keep the holy at bay, held safely as far away from people like you as we can.  But domesticating the holy is an impossible task.  No matter how much people like me try their best to insulate you from it, the divine keeps breaking through.  It’s no accident that backwoods Appalachian Christians call themselves “snake-handlers”.  If you keep messing around with God and Jesus, you’re bound to get bit.
            The writer I know who best explains this phenomenon is Annie Dillard.  This is what she said in her short, sharp, powerful book, Holy the Firm:
The higher Christian churches—where, if anywhere, I belong—come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though they knew what they were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God.  I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words that people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed.  In the high churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger.  If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked.  But in the low churches you expect it any minute.  This is the beginning of wisdom.  [Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm, “Day Three”]
For Annie Dillard, sitting in a church is not like sitting in a concert hall.  It’s like going to a circus where high-wire acrobats are doing something they used to describe as “death-defying”.  You and I go to church as if it were the most natural thing in the world.  But as I read the Easter stories we’ve been given this year, it’s clear that churchgoing isn’t natural at all.  It’s risky business.  It celebrates something powerful, irrational and weird. Most times it should be surprising.  Sometimes it can be downright scary.
            Today—a Healing Service on the Third Sunday of Easter--is one of those scary days.  We’re dealing, this morning, with two terrifying realities.  We’re dealing with resurrection.  We’re dealing with healing. What we call God’s power—in Greek, dynamis, the root word of our dynamite—is at work.  God’s power is not like our power.  It does not use force to compel people.  It is not interested in coercion or control.  God’s power is like dynamite:  it comes at us out of nowhere, scoops us up, and takes us places we thought we’d never go.  That power is at work in resurrection.  It is at work in healing.
            First, because we’re in Easter season, there is resurrection. Consider again the Gospel for today:
Jesus himself stood among [the disciples] and said to them, "Peace be with you." They were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost. He said to them, "Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have." [Luke 24: 36b-40]
The important part of this gospel passage is Luke’s information that the disciples “were startled and terrified, and thought that they were seeing a ghost.” Imagine how you would feel if you saw someone whom you both loved and knew to be dead actually walking around alive.  Eventually, you’d be happy, no doubt.  But before you’d be happy you’d probably be scared.  And this isn’t just anybody. It’s Jesus, and even without the being dead part, when God shows up in the Bible, the first response is almost always abject terror.  In our polite attempt to make God manageable, we’ve turned relationship with God into a walk on the beach.  But the disciples didn’t get a walk on the beach.  They got a resurrected dead man.  I’m sure there was nothing beautiful or sentimental about the resurrected Jesus.  He had, after all, been brutally executed.  He appeared among them with wounds in his hands and feet and sides.  He did not, in all probability, look like the placid, happy shepherd we see in stained glass windows.  He probably looked like a crime victim or a homeless person. 
            Now my point here is neither to disturb nor upset you.  My point is to say that Easter, and the power of new life unleashed at Easter, can be terrifying.  In raising Jesus from the dead, God has done something both wonderful and unthinkable.  God has totally overturned hateful human systems in favor of divine compassionate love.  You and I, who live with, in, by, and sometimes for human systems might find that action a bit unsettling.  As much as Jesus’s disciples grieved the death of their leader, at least they knew he was dead.  Finding him alive meant they could no longer count on the things they had come to take for granted, if only for three days.  All bets were now off.  The new life they were invited into might be glorious, but at the beginning it probably was totally destabilizing, too. It probably felt like handling snakes.
            So resurrection was a new experience for Jesus’s companions. But if they’d been paying attention they might not have been all that surprised. Think about the beginning of Jesus’s ministry in Galilee.  As we read mostly from Mark’s Gospel this year, we hear again and again how Jesus started out primarily as a healer.  We polite Christians, who value education, tend to think of Jesus as a teacher. We want to think of Jesus more as a college professor than an itinerant faith healer. True, Jesus was a teacher.  But he was a healer first. The crowds follow him around Galilee less to hear his words of wisdom than to experience the power—the dynamis—of his healing touch.  Jesus casts out demons.  He cures lepers.  He restores sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf.  And more than that, in healing people he reconnects them to the human community.  In Jewish law, the sick were considered unclean and so were shunned.  Jesus not only restores people to health.  More to the point, he restores people to community and to life.
            We polite Christians have tended to downplay the healing ministry of Jesus.  We’ve done that partly as a result of the rise of science and the advent of rationalistic ways of reading the Bible.  We’ve done that partly because we fear the consequences of opening ourselves up to the dynamic power of what God might do to us.  Healing involves change. And you know how much we all love change. Sometimes it’s less frightening to stick with what we know (even illness) than to venture into uncharted territory (even health).  To open yourself up to healing means acknowledging that there’s some part of you that needs to be healed, and that means being open to change.
            Today we take two steps toward engaging God in all of the unpredictable, wild freedom and love that we see and know in Jesus.  We’re celebrating resurrection (as we do each Sunday) by gathering, with Jesus, at his table.  Jesus’s table is a resurrection table.  It’s a meal at which we take on the abundance and compassion and forgiveness and freedom that Easter, even its terrifying aspects, announces.  Death could stop neither God nor Jesus.  It cannot stop us, either.  We gather at Jesus’s table to share the bread and wine of forgiveness and freedom with each other, to nourish ourselves for living new risen life on God’s terms.  This may look like a decorous sacramental rite.  But it’s really a dangerous resurrection feast.  When you come to this table, you will be changed.  You will leave the experience a new person—one who has been embraced by God completely for who you are, as you are.
            We take the other step toward engaging God when we come forward for healing.  In laying hands on those who came to him, Jesus showed that God wants all human beings to experience life in the fullness of its abundance and grace.  In laying hands on those who came to him, Jesus declared that our brokenness does not need to define us. Our brokenness is our ticket of entry to that table where all who sit around it with Jesus know themselves to be broken too.  At Easter, our brokenness ceases to be a badge of defeat.  It’s now a sign of our oneness with God and each other in Jesus.
            Today is the Third Sunday of Easter.  Today is our Healing Service.  God’s word of yes, of life, of hope, of abundance, of joy is spoken to you that you may hear and respond.  At my core, I’m a polite Episcopalian, and to be truthful, talking about life and power and change and brokenness and healing sometimes scares me, too.  Healing is risky. Change is hard. Handling snakes is dangerous.  It’s all a high wire act.  But we will survive this high wire act, this dynamite, and be blessed by it.  We can be healed because Jesus is our healer.  We can be risen because Jesus was risen first.  Come forward in hope, come forward in faith, come forward even in fear.  Let God do in and through you the surprising work you can’t even imagine as you contemplate it.  It may be a bit scary, but it’s also life-giving.  And that new, healed, risen life is what even our polite form of Christian faith is finally all about.  Amen.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

The Rector's Monday Message: April 16, 2012

Easter, Luxury, and Time

Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common. . . . There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. [Acts 4: 32, 34-35]

Yesterday we heard the above passage from Acts as one of the readings for the Second Sunday of Easter. Many churchgoers raised on the idea that Christianity has a necessary link with capitalism are surprised when they hear Luke’s account in Acts 4 of the earliest Christian community’s primitive socialism. As with Jesus’s parable of the relative ease with which camels can transit the eyes of needles compared to the difficulty of a rich person entering the kingdom of heaven, so with this narrative: many preachers struggle mightily to suggest that the plain sense of the text is not actually what it means.

But any dispassionate reading of the scriptures will reveal that the Bible is hardheaded about the corrosive effect of money on the human soul. The book of Leviticus has far more to say about the evils of lending money at interest (considered a sinful practice in Christianity up to the time of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations) than it does about sexual practices. Ancient Israel observed the practice of a Jubilee Year in which debts would be forgiven. Jesus, when he made the remark about rendering unto Caesar, had to ask somebody to hand him a coin.

There’s a lot of talk in our culture about the way we Christians have strayed from the “old time religion”, but perhaps the greatest deviation concerns our corporate forgetting of the Bible’s economics. What mattered most (both in Israel and in the early church) was that the abundance of God’s creation be available to all. According to the Hebrew prophets, the major reason God judged Israel by sending it into Exile in Babylon was that the rich had forgotten their obligations to the poor.

As we do on politics and theology, Christians will always stake out a variety of positions on economic theory. Early Christians did not study with Keynes or Friedman. There is no one Christian way to think about money.

As I’ve thought about these issues, I’ve been mindful of the ways in which what we say about money might also be said about time. (“Time is money,” after all.) Early on in my work in the church, people were often more eager to give their time than their money. These days, the reverse is true: it is often easier for us to part with our money than it is to make a gift of our time. Sadly, this could be said of how we treat our families and friends, too.

One of the things I noticed this Lent, as I thought about the connection of time and money, was that my personal view of luxury and impoverishment have dramatically changed over the course of my life. This new appreciation of time as more precious than money may result from my getting older; it may be because I’ve gradually stopped doing altogether the things I used to give up for Lent. This year I found that making time—for people, for prayer, for reflection, for rest—was in fact for me far more luxurious than any object or service I could possibly buy.

Charlie Chaplin once said, “The saddest thing I can imagine is to get used to luxury.” When it comes to things, I think we’ve become a society that has become satiated if not overwhelmed with material excess. The earliest Christians were on to something: they knew that while their stuff might be expendable, their relationships with each other were not. They gave over their money to the common purse so that they could more fully experience the luxuries of relationship and time.

What made the Apostolic Christians establish new priorities for living was their joyful experience of the risen Jesus and the implications of his resurrection for how they could live their lives. In the light of Easter, the true value of all our possessions and commitments readjusts toward honoring the simple gifts of life, relationship, and time. May this Easter season be for us a time of taking in the depth of God’s love, the abundance of life, and the preciousness of each other and the time we can share.

Gary Hall

Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Rector's Monday Message: April 9, 2012

Holiness versus Purity

I recently had occasion to attend an evening service in a large, urban church run by an inner city monastic community. The mix of people there was very different than what we normally see in the suburbs. There were men and women of every possible description present in that church service—the prosperous, the poor; the young, middle aged, and old; people in almost every conceivable human category were present in the building.

As diverse as these people were, they were united by one thing: the way they looked when they came back from taking communion. They appeared, for the moment, transformed. Something had happened in the liturgical transaction that made them, well, beautiful. It wasn’t as if they’d been cleansed. I was as if they’d been changed.

As I’ve reflected on this experience, I’ve come to think a good deal about the difference between purity and holiness. Religious systems seem to be interested in the former. Jesus offers the latter. It seems to me that when we confuse purity with holiness, we do so at our souls’ peril.

There is, of course, a good deal about purity in the Bible. Much of the book of Leviticus, and other sections of the Torah, is concerned with ritual cleanliness. Over time, the Temple cult in Israel built up a system of purity. If you were going to offer a sacrifice, the system said, you’d need to be ritually clean. So you’d better not defile yourself beforehand by touching certain types of people. There are pages and pages of regulations in the Bible telling us who’s clean and who isn’t. They all have to do with the administration of a purity system.

One of the ways of understanding Jesus’s ministry, though, is to see it as a critique of the purity codes. Jesus regularly consorted with all kinds of “unclean” people and in fact sat with them at his table. He questioned the reliability of any system that would provide ritual purity as a guarantee of righteousness. He offered in the place of purity a vision of holiness. For Jesus, holiness consisted in a compassionate, thankful stance toward life. It involved inner motivation as much as outward behavior.

The people I saw at this urban church may not have been—by their or our or anyone else’s definition—pure. But they did seem to me to be holy. Something about the unconditional acceptance they had received at God’s table had illuminated them from within. I don’t know what they did when they left the building, but I do know that for a moment at least they had known themselves to be loved and so made new in God’s image.

These days in the Episcopal Church it is common practice, during the great fifty days (Easter through Pentecost), to omit the Confession of Sin from the liturgy. Many people ask me why we do this. The technical answer is that, just as Lent is a penitential season, so Easter is a festival season, and so one way we mark the contrast between them is to omit the penitential markers that frame our Lenten observance. But the deeper answer has to do with this question of purity versus holiness.

Somehow, even though Jesus tried to reform the purity system of his day, we have built up one of our own. We in the church have fostered the idea that you need somehow to be “clean” in order to take communion. We have also fostered the cognate notion that you need to be “clean” in order to serve communion. In so doing, we have unconsciously conceived the bread and wine of the Eucharist as some kind of metaphysical cleaning solvents.

But the Eucharist has nothing, really, to do with cleanliness. It has to do with holiness. And by holiness I don’t mean being pure. By holiness I mean being internally aligned with what God is doing to and for and within and through you. Easter is about resurrection, about new life. It is about God’s transforming freedom as a new way of living. You don’t have to clean yourself up to deserve it. God offers this Easter living to you because God knows and loves and accepts you as you are.

So for the fifty days between Easter and Pentecost we won’t say the Confession. If that omission makes you nervous, perhaps God is asking you to think less about cleanliness and more about holiness. How can I be an Easter person? How can I live out the resurrection in my life and work and relationships? How can I both manifest God’s freedom in my own life and extend it to others?

Living with the risen Jesus at Easter may not make you and me clean. But it will over time make us holy. And we can be holy only because the One who loves and frees us is holy. That is a truth worth celebrating and living into. Happy Easter!

Gary Hall