Monday, January 31, 2011

The Geographical Solution

Sermon: January 30, 2011
Epiphany 4, Year A

Text: 1 Corinthians 1: 22-25
Matthew 5: 1-12

A lot of people have been very good about asking me how I’m doing in the wake of P. K.’s suicide. You know that P. was a friend as well as a member of the parish, and I am grateful for your words of support.

The very first thing we need to keep in mind, of course, is how our friend S. is doing, and her son, D., and P.s’s two children, G. and J. We need to be supporting them, sending them our love, praying for them. We can only imagine what they are going through.

Speaking for myself – and I do so only because I suspect I am not alone with these feelings – I have felt the presence of God throughout this time of terrible grace.

P’s memorial service was as healing for me as I hear it was for many of you. And I want you to know that I have taken my own advice – I have been spending more than the usual amount of time in retreat and prayer; I have been talking to friends and opening myself to the consolations of God’s healing love.

But I also want you to know that I am not “fine.” This is hard for me. I know that I will get to the point when I’m not thinking about P. pretty much every 30 seconds, but that seems a long way off for me right now. I have been opening myself to God’s gift of acceptance but I’m not there yet.

I found myself the other day dreaming about an exotic vacation – getting away to someplace else, someplace nice; someplace where it doesn’t hurt so much. Like anyone who is in pain I want the pain to go away. But I realized I could go to the other side of the moon and this pain would follow me there.

As a preacher once said, “There’s no geographical solution for the human condition.” There is no amusement park or shopping center or movie theater that lets you check your old coat of grief at the door and just leave it there. There’s no drug, no TV show, no job that is powerful enough to make us forget our pain for good.

Since the beginning of time we humans have been trying to run away from our pain. If we could just make more money; if we could just get that new house; if we could just move to the south of France….

Well, who can blame us for trying?

So where do we go with our pain?

There’s something to be said for the Buddhist approach – if life is suffering, and suffering is inevitable, then cultivating a capacity for detachment makes sense. Christians could all learn a thing or two from the Buddhists about how this is accomplished – and of course, learning to let go is at the heart of all Christian prayer. So that’s one place to go: detachment.

But then we have St. Paul – mad, whimsical, difficult Paul – who dares suggest another route. A different kind of geographical solution, if you will. He suggests we travel to the lovely vacation spot of Golgotha. The place of the skull. In the depths of our suffering, he says, travel to the cross.

“For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified…”

Foolishness – no?

Some scholars believe the place where Jesus was killed not only served as a place for executions; it was also a place for dumping your trash. It was a place outside the walls of the city; a place of filth and devastation; packs of stray dogs on the loose, birds picking at the corpses.

Why would anyone want to go there?

Paul had one of the finest educations of his time. He had studied the Greeks; he had been a star pupil in his studies as a Pharisee; he had traveled widely, enough to meet plenty of rich, well-educated, well-fed people who were also despondent. He saw that their learning had not solved the uneasiness of their hearts.

When I was a young man, searching for God and the meaning of life, hitch-hiking all over the United States, living in communes and ashrams and homeless shelters, sleeping on beaches and under freeways, I kept thinking there must be some religion out there that had the key. I imagined a place somewhere – somewhere, perhaps, over the rainbow - a community of enlightened souls; a place where Wisdom was cherished and nurtured. I would find a guru who had found the right meditation, the right technique, the right teaching, and I could go there and be with him, and find the Truth that would set me free.

But everywhere I went, I kept running into the human condition. Gurus who slept with their disciples; disciples who were just as petty, and shallow, and anxious for status, just as manipulative and dishonest as anyone outside the ashram.
In other words, I kept running into the human condition.

But the alarming thing was how everyone in the ashram would practice a careful kind of blindness with respect to this condition; they kept nurturing the fantasy that someday they, too, would lift themselves by their karmic bootstraps and slip the bonds of the human condition, like Harry Houdini escaping from a straight jacket.

And so it seemed to me there was a kind of state of denial about the fact that, at least as far as I could see, they were still pretty normal, flawed people. One minute they would be describing their latest ecstatic epiphany, and the next minute they’d be bitterly complaining, or furiously gossiping, or sneaking off to the 7-11 for a Hostess Twinkie.

And then I met some Christians. I was suspicious; I didn’t want to get too close to them; I disagreed with some of them about their interpretation of Scripture and it seemed to me that many of them were in the thrall of a homophobic panic; I saw that they, too, were no better or worse than the disciples in the ashram; there was just as much pettiness and hypocrisy among the Christians as anywhere else; but the only difference was they freely admitted that they were just as full of it as the next person.

Someone once said that the only thing that distinguishes Christians from everyone else is that they know they are sinners.

Nobody is better than anyone else.

The homeless folks who show up here on Sunday morning for food and hot coffee – the thing about that ministry is not that we feed hungry people. Anyone can put food out for hungry people. What makes it Christian is that we all know that not one of us is any better than any of them.

We are all equally full of it.

On one level, that’s not very encouraging. But you know what? As a starting point, it’s not a bad one. When I saw that in my Christian friends, I could see some wisdom there.

The cross, raised high for everyone to see – set in the middle of a dump.

I heard a preacher, admired and celebrated, who spoke openly about his struggles with depression. I had never heard a guru admit to any such failing. That impressed me. He said that a lifetime of prayer and meditation hadn’t achieved what six months with good therapy had. He said that if we didn’t pay attention to the simple basic rules of mental and physical health, we would only be chasing our tails. He talked about paying attention to the body – and not some impressive athlete’s body; not the body we think we should have, or will have as soon as we get around to going back to the gym and losing those 10 or 20 pounds – but our bodies as they are: flab and wrinkles and all. He talked about how facing down our shame about our bodies and honoring the blessing of our bodies was the beginning of wisdom.

That impressed me.

I read the writings of Martin Luther and how he wrote his sermons while sitting in the outhouse.

What kind of religion is this, I wondered?

Well, it seems to be a religion without illusions. It seems to be a religion without pretense; a religion that has come to terms with the human condition. A religion where I could begin to just be… myself. With all my insecurities and failings; all of my anger and all of my shame and all of my selfishness – I could take it to the town dump; I could take it to the cross. And there, at the heart of this religion, there, at the very beginning of it all, I would find all of it –the worst of the human condition – all the crap of the world: lust for power; violence against the innocent; persecution of the poor; public humiliation; judgment and shame in every shape and form; abject failure; including the ultimate failure - death itself – there it all was.

All of my pain. All of my suffering. All of my bruised ideals and crushed hopes. Everything that I had ever been ashamed of. Every bit of myself that was death to me.

Blessed. Forgiven. Made whole.

What happens when the worst thing in the world takes place: Christ has died. And worse, we’re the ones who betrayed him. What happens when even that crime is forgiven, and blessed?

What happens when everything you’ve been ashamed of is suddenly made whole?

What happens when everything you’ve been trying to let go of is suddenly ...gone?

What’s left?

Maybe what’s left is the only thing that ever existed in the first place: love.

And blessing:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit.
"Blessed are those who mourn.
"Blessed are the meek.
"Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.
"Blessed are the merciful
"Blessed are the pure in heart.”

That’s the starting point: blessing.

Where we go from there – well, that’s the great adventure.

All I know is that we’ll get there together.

Somebody say, AMEN.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Prayer for the Despondent

Holy One, comforter to the broken-hearted: bless all those who struggle with depression or despair. Inspire them to reach out for support; give them strength and courage to endure their pain; console those who love them and feel helpless in their love; guide the minds and hearts of all their counselors, therapists and physicians. See to it that their burdens are laid down, and that their families are brought together, in the Spirit of that Love which lives and moves and has its being within all of us. Amen.

Prayed at Peter Kingston's Memorial Service, 1/23/11
ML+, author

Peter Kingston, RIP

Homily for Peter Kingston's memorial service, January 23, 2011.
The Rev. Matthew Lawrence, Rector
The Episcopal Church of the Incarnation, Santa Rosa, CA

Shirlee asked that we read this familiar story of the Good Samaritan because it was, for Peter, something of a defining text. Peter, growing up within the cold stone walls of a British boarding school, heard this story preached with regularity during mandatory chapel services, and took it to heart. He became devoted to a path of service; a true believer in the old-fashioned ideals of chivalry and honor; love for God and love for neighbor.

Peter sincerely felt the obligations of his class - but far more than that, he felt a deep empathy and compassion for everyone who suffered.

Jamie told me this week that the only person Peter didn’t like was a bully; as a good-sized athlete, Peter never had a problem with bullies himself, but he often witnessed bullying behavior in the sometimes brutal atmosphere of the boarding school, and he always rose to the defense of the weaker boys. Once, we are told, he held a bully by the ankles out a window.

The Good Samaritan goes out of his way to help those in need. We only wish he had practiced the same compassion on himself; that he had found a way to defeat the nagging, bullying voice inside his own head.

The word “compassion” literally means “to suffer with.” In acts of compassion we enter into another person’s suffering; sometimes, like the Good Samaritan, compassion can lead us to literally take on the weight of another’s suffering.

As I imagine this story from Luke’s Gospel I see Peter coming across that man lying half dead by the side of the road, and lifting him into his rower’s arms, effortlessly, without a second thought.

It was not the suffering of others that ever weighed him down; it was his own. Peter would be the one who ignores the advice of the flight attendant about the oxygen masks, making sure everyone else had theirs on before securing his own.

The Samaritans were the most despised members of Jesus’ society; they were considered morally impure; idolaters; even subhuman. The Samaritans knew suffering on a profound level. Which was how they learned about compassion.

Like Peter, the Samaritans came to learn one of life’s hardest lessons and deepest consolations – that suffering opens us to love.

It’s a good thing that some good comes from suffering – because look how we’re suffering now. Perhaps Peter’s death will inspire us all to have more compassion for those who suffer, often in silence, with the deep and lonely pain of clinical depression.

It is a sad testimony to the devastating effects of depression that someone as loving and kind as Peter – the last person on the earth to ever want to hurt anyone – would find himself doing something that hurt us this much.

In his final days, Peter spoke - quite lucidly - about feeling incoherent. It struck us as odd because to us he always seemed so reasonable, so well-assembled. But now we know just how incoherent he was. We have caught a glimpse into the unreasoning depth of his despair – that he would do something so senseless and so completely out of character.

Since those first, horrible moments when we heard of his suicide, we’ve all been looking for answers. That night, the first thing we did was search his house, his computer, his phone, looking for a note, a text, an email, anything that could help us understand this senseless thing.

But that’s just it. There is no sense to this. This is literally the act of a man whose illness drove him from his senses.

There is no reason that explains his desperate act – the only reason is not a reason: that he died from a terrible illness.

Survivors of suicide all have this in common – we all feel guilty; we all feel we should have known; we blame ourselves for not having read the signs. And every single person who has ever lost a loved one to suicide feels this way. We're all in this club, now.

But this is what we know. Peter died of an illness. There was not a single challenge in his life that a healthy person could not have survived. A healthy person can survive the closing of a school, the loss of a job. But Peter’s very severe and very private illness weakened him too much to hold on any longer. Like a house whose foundation has crumbled and whose timbers have been eaten away, he blew over in a wind storm.

So if there is one thing that each and every person here needs to take home today it is this: This was not your fault. Don’t give his depression that victory.

Today, in your deep sorrow: maybe you might feel like this death is a withering blow. Maybe you feel like the one left by the side of the road, beaten, robbed of sense, alone. And maybe you are the one that’s been beating yourself up.

If that’s true, let this story of the Good Samaritan speak to you. Even now, at this very moment, your rescuer is approaching. He sees that you are in pain. He comes down from his horse and kneels beside you. Let him left you into his arms. Let him bind up your wounds. Let him take you someplace safe.

This is no time to refuse his help; this is no time to pretend you are fine; this is no time to try to be the good Samaritan to the Good Samaritan himself. Allow yourself be cared for, and looked after, and loved.

If you’re anything like Peter; if you, too, walk this earth with a heart that’s a little too open, and a little too broken; if you, like Peter, are a little bit too eager to care for others while your own wounds go untreated; if the only time you let yourself sit still is when you’ve been beaten-up by life’s many challenges; do us all a favor: sit with this story. Make friends with the Good Shepherd. And let yourself be loved.


Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Given, to the Glory of God...

It feels like I’ve been away for awhile. I would like to take this opportunity to put to rest any rumors you might have heard that I was taken away by men in white coats after the Christmas Eve service. There is no truth to that rumor. But I did go into hiding after Christmas - to finish my doctoral thesis, which I’m happy to report was accomplished – and then I took a few days of vacation to catch my breath and prepare for the New Year.

As some of you know, I rather needed the break. During the Christmas services, a couple members of our congregation expressed concern for me – one said, “I recognize the signs of depression in you.” I was a little bit surprised by this – because actually, I really haven’t been feeling all that depressed. It’s a little more complicated than that, actually - and also not very complicated at all.

The not-complicated part simply has to do with the stress of finishing my doctoral thesis. It’s not easy doing that while also working full time through Advent and Christmas. So if I seemed a little distant or pre-occupied during that time, that’s a big reason.

But the more complicated part, coincidentally, has to do with some of the themes we’re dealing with this morning, as we celebrate the Baptism of Jesus, and dedicate our new stained glass windows to the glory of God and in memory of Don McIntyre and Diane Williams.

I know this is going to sound kind of strange, but in a way I’ve been kind of envying those stained glass windows.

Let me explain.

There was a preacher once who was giving a children’s homily and he asked the kids if they knew what a saint was, and a little girl raised her hand and pointed at a stained-glass window and said, “The saints are the ones that the light shines through.”

Which is just about the best definition of a saint I’ve heard.

People who have had religious or mystical epiphanies often describe their experience in terms of light, a superabundant light that illumines everything, including their own minds and hearts and souls. People who meet them during these times say that they seem to be lit from within.

They say this is what it’s like to experience the glory of God - the Greek word for “glory” that’s found in the Scriptures – “doxa” – means (among other things) the brightness of God, shining like the sun – the angels are said to manifest God’s glory in the magnificent, uncreated light they give off.

Some of us have had a taste of this glory when we’ve dedicated ourselves to God. Just like when we dedicate a stained glass window, we say that the window is “dedicated, to the glory of God, in memory of so-and-so.”

During the season of Advent and Christmas, with all the talk about the light coming into the world and lighting of the candles and the following of the star, and then with the new year and the dedication of Jesus and all the to-do about New Years’ Resolutions, I was feeling like that was what was missing in me; I needed to find a new way of dedicating myself to the glory of God – and I wasn’t sure how that would happen.

In today’s Gospel Jesus dedicates himself to the glory of God by submitting to baptism. Everyone is mystified by this: Why would Jesus need to be baptized? John the Baptist tries to talk him out of it. But Jesus knows what he has to do. Maybe he was feeling a little bit like me, I don’t know.

But he kneels down in the river; he bows his head; he lifts his heart and opens himself up… and in response, the heavens open up; and they are flooded with the uncreated light of God’s glory - and a voice is heard: This is my son, the beloved; with whom I am well pleased.

This is why I was kind-of been envying those windows. I wanted to be like that image of Jesus back there in the “artichoke window” – I wanted to feel God’s light shining through me. I wanted to be “Given, to the Glory of God…”
…but the more I craved that light and that Glory, the more aware I became of the shadow side of all this brilliance.

A few weeks ago we had a lunar eclipse on the same night as the Winter Solstice; a very rare event, apparently; so Rose and I stayed up and watched the shadow of our earth, with all our busyness and striving and consuming, overwhelm that round full moon; until the moon turned into a red ball, like a hot coal, covered in a layer of ash, glowing in the darkness.

It took about an hour for the moon to be completely covered; Rose had to get up early the next morning so she went to bed and I stayed up for another hour or so, staring at that moon, meditating on light and shadow. It was kind of confusing, spiritually, in the midst of all our bright Christmas celebrations, in the middle of my own existential yearning for light and for Glory - to shift my focus a little bit - to pay a little attention to shadow… but it felt that God was encouraging me to let go of all my striving after light for a little bit…

This was not easy for me.

Maybe I’m not the only one who feels the presence of that shadow side a little more keenly than we’d like; and the more it seems to overwhelm us, the more urgently we run the other way.

So I just stopped running. And I found myself in a pretty dark place. And I was there for a while.

And then, one day, it occurred to me that it might be a good idea to talk about it. And so I did – to my best friend; to my men’s group; and then, finally, when she got home after being away for a week, with my wife. For a couple hours I poured it all out for her – my grief, my anger, my sorrow, my doubt – and she just listened, and listened…

That’s when I realized it’s one thing to be wallowing in your own darkness; it’s another thing entirely to take someone’s hand, and step into that territory together. It’s as if the friend brings a light with her; just having someone with you makes a huge difference.

And when we were done, I felt like we had gone into the heart of my darkness together; and it felt like, in the middle of all that muck and shadow, a door opened just a crack; and the light came streaming in.

The words from John's Gospel come to mind: "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overwhelm it."

Since then, some amazing things have been happening – too many things to talk about today – but amazing moments when the Spirit broke into my life in fresh ways; when the heavens opened up and a dove, so to speak, descended.

Since that time, I’ve been doing the work of dedicating myself, all over again, to the glory of God. As I think about and plan for the coming year of ministry and service, I feel a fresh energy to dedicate this year to God.

These moments of glory have reminded me, all over again, of some fundamental rules for the spiritual life:

1. We are not meant to do this work alone. Jesus could have baptized himself; but he went instead to John, and to his community. We all need spiritual companions, people who are not afraid of the dark; who can hold our hands and explore the depth of our lives together. The person doesn’t need to be a professional listener – they just need to listen. Sometimes we need to say, “I’ve got to talk to somebody – would you mind just listening for a little while?” or “Thanks, but I’m really not looking for advice right now. I just need to talk. Is that okay?”

2. Some of us, on the other hand, do need a professional listener, and when we do, we should get one. If you ever feel like you could use one, and you don’t know where to start, consider making a call to your friendly neighborhood priest.

3. The more we run away from our shadow, the more quickly it will overwhelm us.

4. Artificial light – man made light – is no substitute for the light of God; all the urgent , all busyness, all our striving, doesn’t begin to penetrate the shroud.

5. There are no shortcuts.

6. Finally, some things about God. God is playful, and joyful, and fun. God is surprising; God doesn’t give up on us. And the more we dedicate ourselves to God, the more light will shine through us.

This is a time of dedication; as we affirm our Baptismal vows, let’s take a moment to rededicate ourselves to Christ; that we might be given, to the Glory of God.

Somebody say... AMEN.