Monday, March 22, 2010


This morning I'm struck by these lines from this perfect psalm, Psalm 126:

Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves. (v.6)

If it is true, as the author of the book of Ecclesiastes says, that “for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven… a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance…” (Ecc. 3:1) If that is true, then this is the season, at least for many of us, for mourning.

I don’t believe this has ever happened to me in my career before. Last Sunday afternoon I jumped in a car with the Reverend Chris Bell and his family and headed out to Camp Noel Porter, so that the next day we could go skiing. And it was perhaps the finest day of skiing I have ever had – maybe one of the finest days I’ve spent outdoors. And then, on Monday night, we were all resting our bones when I got the call that Betty Wallenius had died. I spoke with Shirley on the phone, and then went to bed, praying for the restful repose of Betty’s soul; and then the next morning I woke up to the phone ringing again; this time it was our friend, Jamie Knutsen, saying that his mom Elaine had died; after a long and epic journey through several illnesses.

So two deaths in about 12 hours.

I was able to get home in fairly short order and spent the remainder of the day with the families. Our hearts go out to S. R., Betty’s younger sister, and to J., Betty’s daughter, and to Fr. J. and M. and A., Elaine’s children; and to all those who loved Betty and Elaine and grieve their loss.

When we consider these two deaths, in addition to a couple emergency hospitalizations last week, and the continuing echoes of the 2 other deaths we’ve had since Lent began, combined with the usual surge of activity as we prepare for Holy Week and Easter, you will perhaps understand that it has been a busy time around the parish, with plenty of grief to go around.

But it’s also been a deeply joyful time for me; and I pray for you. Because grief is nothing but the outpouring of love; where grief is, there love is also, and where love is, there also is God.

The Bible knows this – when we consider our lives in their entirety it’s all about victory over adversity; that for all the pain and challenge of our lives, we end in joy. And so we find in Scripture that supreme confidence expressed in our Psalm today: Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.

It’s that confidence that I find so moving today; on this second day of Spring; that for every winter there is a Spring.

Well, yesterday was the first day of Spring; and in my enthusiasm I got a little ahead of myself – I showed up to our all-day training for the pastoral care team in shorts and a Hawaiian shirt. I walked into Farlander and people didn’t recognize me. I heard someone say, “Who’s that old guy walking round in shorts?”

In truth it was a little cold yesterday for that outfit. But I say, we’re Episcopalians; we go by the calendar; and the calendar says it’s Spring, so I’m staking a claim on Spring today. I’m gonna wear shorts whether it’s 40 degrees or 80 – because it’s been a long, cold rainy winter, and it’s time for us to sing, “Here comes the Sun.”

I’m not sure why, but this year I didn't take on any particular Lenten discipline. I know that might be surprising – and even troubling - to some of you, but for some reason I just didn’t feel the call to give something up. In fact, this is the first Lent since my ordination 20 years ago that I haven’t given something up, usually something significant, during Lent.

Instead, I entered Lent with a decision to just open up a little bit; just be a little bit more open to the world around me. And what I found is that as I opened myself just a little bit, I found myself more engaged in the world; and as the world emerged into Spring, so did I.

So this renewal around us - this renewal of the first day of Spring - feels more like my own renewal. This awakening, as it pours through nature in the form of green grass and blue sky and bright sun and the prospect of many more long perfect days ahead, feels like my awakening.

The earth has come alive, and so have I.

This is the resurrection, folks; plain and simple, this is how life's renewal works, through chlorophyll and oxygen and the moist, fertile ground.

Rose and I have been living in Santa Rosa now for almost 7 years and just yesterday I discovered a walking trail in Annadale, no more than a mile and a half from my house, that weaves into the woods for about a mile along a burbling natural creek.
I am not sure that it is possible to walk along that trail and not believe in God.

It’s walks like that that help me understand why people worshiped mountains and lakes and forests. When I was on the mountain at Lake Tahoe, my skis strapped to my feet and with that massive blue lake spread out at my feet, I thought "It’s the womb of the earth" and I almost wanted to get on my knees.

Its moments like that that make me think that the sun and the moon and the stars and all the trees on the earth are all singing songs of praise to God. As our capacity for awe deepens - and who cannot feel awe in front of Lake Tahoe – it seems as if the lake herself is giving praise to God; that all of nature sings of a power beyond all nature and sustaining all nature. Nature sings with the love of God, the way the wind sings through the sails of a clipper ship.

Not to get too theological about all this but this is the difference pantheism, which has traditionally been considered a heresy in our church, and panentheism, which is not. Pantheism is the idea that God is in the world but does not transcend the world. In other words, what you see is what you get. So why not worship it? Pantheists find God in nature and see nothing wrong with keeping God in that box of the natural world. But panentheists believe that the God is found in nature but is not contained by nature - that God is greater, infinitely greater than nature. God transcends nature, but God is in nature too; and everything, from the plants and animals to the angels themselves are swimming in the same substance of God’s Body which we know as the Body of Christ.

And so we proclaim, with John’s gospel, that “all things came into being through him.” And we see that creation itself is a kind of brokenness – all of matter is made up of time that is broken. Just before the big bang happened something broke; something gave way and the energy of the universe was released in brokenness and so the universe itself bears the image of Christ; the Body of Christ broken open the way we break open a loaf of bread; broken open the way morning is broken.

Christ is broken the way morning is broken. And so at the altar we raise the bread and break it; and we proclaim Christ, broken and risen and coming again. Christ is broken the way morning is broken; and we, in the midst of our pain and grief, are broken into joy.

This idea of panentheism is important because it allows us to have a complete spirituality of the Incarnation. Because nothing is left out of the sphere of God's active life; we find God in the flesh; in the midst of our real lives and our real bodies, which grow old and break into new life. This is what it means to have an Incarnational theology: it allows us to sink more fully into the real world; so that we can sink into this Creation fully confident that we can trust it; all of it.

Every aspect of our lives can be trusted because every aspect of our lives is inhabited by God; in the birthing and in the dying and everything in between, God is being born.

Of course, it might not always feel like it at the time; at any given time in our lives we might be struggling with despair or fear or pain. But we trust this God; just as we trust this Earth and this renewal of life; and with the ancient ancestors who have gone before us, we are confident in the outcome; we know that new life comes from being broken open; who go out weeping shall come home with shouts of joy.


Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Hey Glenn Beck

Dear Glenn Beck:

I'm a Social Justice Priest.
Social justice is at the very heart of Scripture.
Without social justice there is no Bible.
Without social justice there is no church.
Except maybe a church that just doesn't care.
Is that your church?

Without social justice there is no law.
Except maybe the law of the strong.
Do you like being strong?

The original remarks by Glenn Beck on You Tube:

I applaud Jim Wallis for calling this man out on this attack on American and Christian values:

[For some reason I can't get my hyperlinks to work on my blog today. You'll have to copy and paste until I figure it out.]

See also NY Times article:
March 11, 2010 by Laurie Goodstein

Saturday, March 13, 2010

God Needs to Move In Order To Live.

Back about 100 years ago, when my son Tom was in the 2nd grade, his best friend was a boy I'll call "Jeffrey."

Jeffrey was one of those kids that was always smiling and laughing and talking, and always in motion: running, riding his bike, roller blading everywhere. And for a seven year-old, he was an amazing athlete. He could do a standing back flip: one minute he’d be standing in front of you, and then all of a sudden he’d say, “Watch this,” and then he would jump into the air, flip backwards, and land back on his feet.

He loved to see the look on my face when he did that.

And Jeffrey always had trouble in school.

One day Tom got on the school bus without his lunch so I stopped by his school later that morning to drop it off; and that’s when I found Jeffrey sitting on the floor in the hallway outside his classroom. I knew something was wrong because I called his name and he didn’t look up at me with his usual big grin. Instead he kept his head down; and when I knelt to talk to him I could see he was crying.

I said, “Jeffrey, what’s the matter?” And he said, “I’m so stupid! I keep getting into trouble! I don’t know why! I’m so stupid!”

I said, “Hey, Jeffrey. You are NOT stupid! Don’t you ever believe that!”
Later that day I spoke to his mom. Usually, when you see a good kid like that, who has trouble controlling his impulses, you think maybe he’s got ADHD or some other learning problem. I asked if she had ever had him tested. Well, the color rose up in her face and she said, “There’s nothing wrong with my son!”

I agreed with her. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with him. But he is having problems. But she couldn’t see the difference. “If I have him tested he’s just gonna get labeled for the rest of his life,” she said.

The next day I ran into Jeffrey’s teacher and shared my concerns. I mean, I didn’t want to meddle, but here’s a talented boy who thinks he’s stupid. She just shrugged her shoulders. “I’ve got 28 kids in there,” she said. “I can’t be giving everyone special treatment.” It seemed to me she was more interested in punishing a bad boy than treating a kid who was having problems.

Jeffrey and his mom moved at the end of that year. I think about him now and wonder: did he ever graduate from high school? Did he ever make it to college on that football scholarship he used to dream about?

Jeffrey, for me, illustrates the difference between having a problem, and thinking you are the problem.

Anyone can have a problem; and if you have a problem, that means the problem might be fixed. But if you are the problem, what solution is there for you? Millions of youngsters like Jeffrey just take themselves out of the equation: they are taught to think they are the problem; and long before they’ve given up on school, they’ve given up on themselves.

If a kid genuinely believes he’s stupid, what hope does he have? But if he sees that he’s having trouble controlling his impulses; that maybe his brain is firing off confusing signals – well, that’s a different story. That’s a situation that can be fixed.

You see what I’m talking about here? It’s the difference between being and doing; between being the problem and having the problem.

That’s exactly what’s going on in today’s parable. There’s this fig tree that has a problem – it isn’t producing figs. The owner is convinced that the problem is in the being of the fig tree. It’s just a bad fig tree! “Cut it down!” he says.

But the gardener sees something different going on. It’s not a bad fig tree; it’s just having problems. “Don’t cut it down just yet,” he begs. “Let me loosen the soil around its roots. Let me lay in some fertilizer. Let’s see what happens if we stop blaming the tree and instead start looking instead at what’s really going on.”

One way of thinking about this difference is the difference between people who think primarily in terms of nouns, and those who think in terms of verbs. Now, I know that sounds pretty strange or simplistic but hear me out. When we think in terms of nouns, we focus our attention on things and their attributes. We see a boy and we give him an attribute: Oh, he’s not very bright. Or he’s ADHD. Or he’s gifted. He’s good; he’s bad.

Like Jeffrey’s mom was afraid of: we label things – even a 7 year-old boy; we treat him as an object frozen for all time with a certain set of attributes.

But nobody is fixed; we are all changing and responding to various influences in our environment. Kids especially! Psychologists have proven this time and again: kids who are told they are stupid will underperform; kids who are told they are smart will achieve more. It’s not that they are stupid or smart – those are fixed categories. It’s that they are in motion, constantly responding to expectations and influences.

Kids are in motion; we are in motion, the world is in motion.

The truth is that the world is much better understood when we focus on the verbs than the nouns; when we focus more on what is happening than on what is. He’s having trouble concentrating. His brain is sending mixed signals. His teacher is feeling overwhelmed. His mom is feeling defensive.

The fig tree is not a bad fig tree. It’s not a good fig tree. It’s a fig tree that is having problems.

Some people might think this is just a matter of semantics but in fact there is a profound distinction here: Quantum physics tells us that at the deepest heart of reality, sub-atomic particles are not particles at all but better understood as "occurrences". In other words, at the most fundamental level of reality, there really are no nouns – only verbs. It turns out that reality is a verb! Matter is nothing but time slowed down. Or something like that.

I’m no physicist but this is what the physicists are telling us. We used to think of the smallest elements of matter as a bunch of nouns – a vast field of tiny billiard balls bouncing off each other. But it turns out this is utterly wrong. Elements of energy/time/space come into existence because they are in constant fluid relationship with other elements of energy/time/space; and nothing simply “is.” Instead, everything is happening.

Focus, in other words, on the verbs, not the nouns; on the doing, not the being.

In theological circles this way of thinking is called Process Theology. Process theology encourages us to think about God as a Verb rather than a noun.
In other words, don’t ask, “What is God,” but instead ask, “What is God doing?” “How is the divine breaking into my life? How am I responding to God?”

Whenever we start talking about God as a fixed object with certain attributes, we start putting God into a box. And God doesn’t live in a box. God needs to move in order to live.

I was talking to a homeless man the other day; he was asking me for money and I could smell alcohol on his breath. When I asked him if he’d been drinking he said, “Look, man, I’m just a drunk, alright?”

“I’m just a drunk.” To me that sounded like a man who was begging to be treated as a noun instead of a verb: I’m just a drunk. Because he didn’t want to change; he didn’t want to cast himself into the dangerous waters of God’s possibilities; he couldn’t take on the action verbs of repenting and healing and growing; instead he was begging me to just let him be… a drunk.

But the bad news for him, and for all of us, is that life is all about change. The only things that don’t change are dead. We can’t escape change because our very existence is defined by change.

Churches that define God as a fixed object want the world to just stop turning. This is natural - we all want this – we want something stable and permanent that we can hold onto. Sometimes it feels like we’re in the middle of the ocean, clinging to a buoy – we want something solid; something that won’t change on us.

But we know that’s an illusion. Our bodies are changing, our families are changing, our society is changing, our world is changing. Even at the end, at our own burial service, the priest will declare that in death, life is “changed, not ended.”

And that’s where we find God, too. God is in the change. When we refuse to accept change as the only constant in life, we are not only denying reality; we’re denying God as well.

So we ask ourselves: Where is God in the changes of our lives? Jesus says, God is in the gardener: loosening up the soil; digging around the roots; laying in the fertilizer.

And we are in motion: we are turning toward God; we are opening; we are taking in God’s life and light; we are giving thanks.

Our bishop has a favorite prayer; it memorized it many years ago; and as he is fond of reminding us, it appears in the Prayer Book no fewer than four times. And it’s all about finding God in the change:

O God, we pray: look favorably on your whole church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord….

May this be our prayer today, on this day of divine change.