Thursday, December 18, 2014

11th EPISTLE TO THE NEVADANS: A HOLY AND BLESSED CHRISTMAS

It does not matter that Christ was born long ago in Bethlehem
unless he is born in you today.– Meister Eckhart

Over the years, I have quoted Meister Eckhart in many a Christmas sermon. The truth of his words rings like a Christmas bell with its manifest truth. For us, Christ is not one who just lived well so we could get away with living badly; he came to set us free from the power of sin so that we might live well ourselves.

It does not matter that Christ was born long ago in Bethlehem
unless he is born in you today.

And so this Advent, I am once again waiting to see Christ born in my own life and in the Church, which is the place of his birth in the human community. But will I see it?

I recall toward the end of Advent one year ranting on to my sage consultant about all the ways my congregation was botching the Christmas services. He said, “Um hmmm. Um Hmmmm” several times as I groused on. Then when I took a breath, he said, “Maybe Christ will have to be born in a stable again this year.” And that rang as true as the wisdom of the 14th century mystic, Meister Eckhart.

It does not matter that Christ was born long ago in Bethlehem
unless he is born in you today.

Maybe Christ will have to be born in a stable again this year.

Advent is purgatorial. One night this week we drove through the early darkness in jam-packed aggravating urban traffic to Trader Joe’s for a minor grocery shopping only to find that the traffic and irritability on the inside matched the traffic and irritability outside. It was chaotic – like a stable. I did not cheer myself with untimely Christmas carols. They only make it worse. That’s part of why I like being an Episcopalian. We know good and well it isn’t “the most wonderful time of the year” – yet. Instead I hummed the Merle Haggard classic, If we can make it through December.

It has seemed to be a hard time for a lot of us this year. My best friend from 40 year ago wrote me about this urge he sometimes has to phone his son, but his son died last year. A deacon tells me how this season makes her miss her late husband. I find myself missing my parents, my brother, any number of people I wasn’t even close to, but they made up my world. I miss the world I grew up in, even though I wasn’t that happy in it at the time. I still miss it.

We Episcopalians don’t have to make a grouchy principle out of insisting there is something hard and challenging about Advent. There just is.

My older daughter gave birth this week. It was a long, hard labor and a dangerous delivery. As I think about that long day and night of bringing forth -- the pain, the exhaustion, the anxiety -- I ask how is Christ brought forth in us? For Christ to be born in us today – what does that take? What does it look like? What does it actually mean in some fleshy way that a simple person like me can get his mind around and recognize? Is it in some way like my daughter’s long hard labor and delivery. Is it hard and risky.

And I find the first few clues in Scripture. Paul said to the Philippians,
“have the same mind in you that was in Christ Jesus, who being found in the form of God did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but humbled himself, taking the form of a servant . . . .

When Christ is born in the mucky stable of our lives, he shows up as a humility, a lowliness. Paul was admonishing the Philippians to refrain from ego-defending, ego-asserting conflicts over who would get their way. Christ shows up in us as a certain indifference to getting our way, as a humility that looks at others with an eye seeking something to respect, not criticize. Let your minds be filled with everything that is true, everything that is honorable, upright, and pure everything that we love and admire.” Christ appears in us as an eye that can see the good in others. Like Superman seeing through walls, we can see through the off-putting or threatening personality to see the image of God hidden in the heart.

Christ is born in us when we sincerely pray Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done . . . “
We say praying shapes believing, and out of our beliefs come our actions, and repeated actions shape our characters. Christ appears in us as a prayer relating to God as Father, inviting his Kingdom into our world, and submitting our lives and our world to his will. It is a simple prayer of surrender, confession, forgiveness, a sharing – sharing in that Jesus’ prayer is all in the first person plural, our father, our daily bread, our sins, those who sin against us. Christ happens when we pray our way into a link to God that inevitably ties us to the whole human race. If God is our Father, we are all brothers and sisters.

Christ is born in us when the same spirit that filled him animates and vitalizes our lives, shapes our actions.

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor, to heal the broken-hearted,
he has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives,
sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor (forgiveness of debts).

When we do that work – and it is hard work – we are giving birth to Christ. We are becoming the Church (represented by Mary) the Theotokos, the God-bearer.

Christ will be born again in us, born in this stable. He is always born in stables. He is only born in stables. He is born when we lay down our pride, love our Father, and serve our brothers and sisters, not with pity but with respect for the beauty and the goodness we see in them. Christ is born in us when we see the world through Jesus’ eyes and act on what we see.




Tuesday, December 9, 2014

HEALING THE WOUND OF FERGUSON TOO LIGHTLY

Many have said much and will say more about the deaths of black men in Ferguson, New York City, and elsewhere at the hands of police officers. I share the sadness and the shock of so many speakers and writers, but will try not to repeat their insights. As a lawyer I learned not to judge an individual case by what I read in the press. But the failure of two grand juries even to return indictments in these cases, especially the New York chokehold case, certainly looks as if a thumb rests heavily on the scales of justice when the suspect is a white policeman and the victim is a black man. Whatever the specific facts of these particular cases may be, they have exposed a latent violence and inequity in American society that cannot be ignored.

When law enforcement turns deadly to unarmed people, especially those of historically subjugated races, we see something at work that the late Bible scholar Walter Wink called “the domination system.” The whole stories of the lives of the people who killed and died, the story of their neighborhoods, the story of the economic and social context are part and parcel of the domination system. That system was revealed at the cross. It was revealed at the deaths of martyrs. It was revealed in the genocide of indigenous peoples in the Americas, in slavery in the United States, in the slaughter of coal miners at Ludlow, Colorado, and in countless instances of violence and threats of violence to preserve the social order. I say this not to deny the particularity of black/ white injustice. All injustice is particular but it is also all connected to the exercise of “power over” by the domination system. The problem revealed by Ferguson and New York is deeper and wider than officer involved homicides, tragic as they are.

Because the problem is deeper and wider, it is more complex. It will not yield to simple technical fixes. Putting cameras on the police may be a good idea. It may reduce the incidence of these tragedies. If it will help, then let’s do it. But we must not think we have addressed the deep, wide problem.

Can we imagine a concerted effort by churches to build personal relationships across racial lines? Could we recommit to public education for our children, of all races instead of whites escaping to private schools while public schools go unsupported and underfunded? Could we care as much about bringing small businesses to poor urban neighborhoods as we do about expanding hi-tech plants in wealthy suburbs? Can we imagine fundamentally changing both the social network and the economic power structure of our country?

Until we take on the domination system – spiritually, politically, socially, and economically – we will not have responded to these tragic deaths. “They have healed my people’s wounds too lightly, saying ‘peace, peace’ where there is no peace.” Jeremiah 8: 11. We must not heal these wounds too lightly.

The protests in the streets are both right and natural. My fellow bishops, priests, deacons, and Christian lay people have been part of the demonstrations. But history tells us of many a street protest that vents our feelings without changing our world. I suspect the reason the domination system preserves our right to such expressions of political passion is to provide a safety valve lest real change break out. Just as technical fixes to reduce the incidence of officer involved homicides would be too little change, street protests will be an inadequate, albeit reasonable and legitimate, response. Real change will take a deep conversion of the American heart, and that begins with the slow, hard work of changing each of our hearts through disciplined work to build relationships, to join hands for the common good, to build a better world for all our people.



Thursday, December 4, 2014

THE DEATH AND RESURRECTION OF C. S. LEWIS: FINDING OUR WAY IN LIFE

How do we discern our vocation? How do we find our way in life? Sometimes it takes some disappointment, some closing of doors. I am thinking of the story of how C. S. Lewis the apologist for the faith (“apologist” doesn’t mean someone saying he’s sorry; it means one who explains the faith and offers a reasoned defense for belief) became a children’s fantasy writer.

Lewis was first hooked by faith through his imagination, according to theologian biographer Alister McGrath, but he immediately began to construct rational arguments to show that his new faith was true. He was a genius at making big abstract philosophical arguments into ideas accessible to ordinary people. He wrote several books along that line, the most famous of them being The Pilgrim’s Regress, The Problem of Pain, and Mere Christianity. Then when he wrote the whimsical morality book, The Screwtape Letters, he became famous throughout the English-speaking world. His real vocational identity was grounded in a series of BBC radio broadcasts during WW II in which he articulated the reasons for belief.

I confess I am lukewarm about all of those books. The well-loved Mere Christianity does not seem to me to really get the Christian faith. What’s more, it is all pretty individualistic and intellectual. It reminds me of Mozart saying “The problem with Protestantism is that it’s all in the head.” Lewis doesn’t articulate a sense of the Church as continuing the Incarnation in a community and why it takes a community to continue the Incarnation. He doesn’t have a handle on Christian mission to a broken, suffering world. He is pretty weak on grace.

But then I see I am not really criticizing what Lewis wrote. As far as it goes, it’s fine. I am criticizing him for not writing other books I wanted written. Academic theologians were quietly critical but only quietly, since people were flocking to the faith through his words, not theirs. So the critics of Lewis, like me, tend to keep quiet.

Then in 1947, something happened. Lewis became the faculty sponsor for The Socratic Club, a philosophical student discussion group of Christians at Oxford, primarily women. One day Lewis presented to them a paper, which was an early draft of a chapter from his work in progress Miracles. In that paper he took on the fallacy of the naturalist argument that our beliefs are unreliable because they are the product of chemical processes in our brains. 28-year-old Elizabeth Anscombe was in the room. She agreed with Lewis that naturalism is “self-refuting” but she did not think his arguments made the case. Anscombe was a devotee of Ludwig Wittgenstein and would go on to become one of the great analytic philosophers of the 20th Century. At a subsequent meeting, she presented a paper using analytic philosophy to punch holes in Lewis’s arguments. He then rewrote the chapter to cover her concerns.

After that point, there are various versions of the story. Some say Lewis was publicly shamed and personally shaken. Some say he lost faith in the rational basis for belief and turned to imagination instead. Others (including Anscombe) say it was a collegial conversation that merely refined his ideas and he appreciated it.  What we do know is that he stopped making apologetic (rational defense of the faith) presentations and writing books on that theme after 1947. In 1950, he was asked to pick a lineup of speakers for The Socratic Club. His first pick was Elizabeth Anscombe to speak on “Why I Believe In God.” He said to the President of the club, “Having obliterated me as an apologist, ought she (Ancombe) not succeed me?”[i]

My speculative opinion is this: Lewis was a bright guy. He knew that as a philosophical/ theological defender of the faith, he was not as good as he was popular. He knew that he was weak in philosophy, theology, history, and other key elements of rational argument for faith. He knew and he said that others could do that job better. But he also knew that rational argument is secondary. Anselm said that theological arguments were “faith seeking understanding.” Faith first; then understanding follows. Lewis knew that the sacred imagination is not just a fantasy game but also a way of accessing truth. He knew the distinction G. K. Chesterton made between imaginative (meaning finding truth through images arising in the mind) and imaginary (essentially escapist fantasy).[ii] Perhaps he even knew that the sacred imagination was the main vehicle of Ignatian spirituality.

So Lewis turned from what he had been doing – writing that was more popular than it was good – to do something new, something important. He wrote imaginative literature to express the faith rather than explain it. He had already done a bit of this with the Ransom Sci-Fi Trilogy, but now he did it brilliantly, beautifully, magnificently in The Chronicles of Narnia.

It may not have been an easy shift. Lewis seems to have been a bit gloomy between 1947 and 1949 when he penned The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. There were various reasons for his unhappiness, but I wonder if he was not mourning the loss of his identity as the apologist for the common person. Still, he had been muddling over the idea of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe for 10 years before he actually wrote it. In the next 5 years, he went on to write 6 more books on the Narnia series. Something had to die to clear the way for his masterpiece.

When I think of Lewis I wonder how my identity may encase me and hold me back from doing what God has in mind for me. I wonder how many of us are encased in identities, which are in some sense comfortable and rewarding – but less than we are capable of becoming.





[i] This story is well known and widely reported. But I am indebted to A. N. Wilson and Alister McGrath for my limited knowledge of the whole affair, as they both describe it in their respective biographies of C. S. Lewis.
[ii] A point emphasized by McGrath.