Saturday, April 28, 2012
Sunday, April 22, 2012
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.
Saturday, April 14, 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.
Sunday, April 8, 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!