Monday, June 25, 2012

Passage Through the Wild-ness

The Very Rev. Dr. Matthew Lawrence
Shepherd-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church, Gualala, CA
June 24, 2012
Propers for St. John the Baptist

Good morning.  My name is ML…

Today we’re celebrating the feast day of St. John the Baptist, that famous old crank who lived in the desert, living off locusts and wild honey and wearing an animal skin for clothes.  

I’ve been up here to Gualala only a couple of times before, and this time, to get here, I took a road I’d never been on before – the Skaggs Springs Rd over from Geyserville.   [Huge groan of recognition from the congregation.]  Now I know that most of you probably know that road like the back of your hand, but for me it was something of a revelation: those first ten miles, heading out of Geyserville?  When you start out, it really is one of the most beautiful roads on the planet.  It’s so clean and smooth and well-maintained it made me proud to be an American all over again; you swing through those hills with their hairpin curves and those red cliffs and sky breaking out – there are moments when you feel like you’re in the middle of Handel’s Messiah.  

I came to that fantastic old bridge over the gulch – you know, the one with the sheer drop you just don’t want to think about - and then some time later I was driving along the very top of that ridge, with the earth falling away on both sides of me, and breathtaking meadows and valleys and mountains in the distance – and not a single person in sight.  

I turned on my CD player and suddenly George Harrison was singing “All Things Must Pass” at full volume, and now I’m singing along with him at full volume; I’m singing Hare Krishna and Hallelujah at the top of my lungs; and that’s when  I had one of those rare thoughts.  I thought, “You know what: if I were to die right here, tonight; if some drunk driver were to come along right now and just take me out, I would die a happy man.”

I felt complete, right then; one of those rare moments when I knew it doesn’t get any better than this, and this is more than enough .  If my entire life is nothing more than a means for getting here, to this place of beauty and harmony and gratitude, well, you know what, it’s all been worth it.  I could die now and be perfectly happy. 

Now listen, I don’t want anyone to get freaked out or anything: I’m not saying I want to die or that I’m having morbid thoughts, or anything like that.  In fact it’s exactly the opposite: It’s the kind of thing that happens only a few times, if you’re lucky, in your life – this feeling that this moment is so beautiful that it is entirely sufficient – that you are complete, right here; and that everything else after this is just gravy.  

Have you ever been lucky enough to have a moment like that?

I think about how fearless John the Baptist was in the face of death – how he had such incredible courage that he could look King Herod in the eye and tell him he was going to hell.  He knew full well that nobody talks to the king like that without losing his head – and I wonder if that fearlessness in him came from the same place that this moment of fulfillment came for me – this sense that your life is so complete that no threat of death can dissuade you – that you are so fulfilled, so complete, that it just doesn’t matter any more – you can die now and be happy, so die with words of truth on your lips.  

And then I realize that yes, of course, that’s exactly how John the Baptist and Jesus themselves described the Kingdom of God.  It’s all about this sense of completeness.  He comes preaching that the Kingdom of God is here, and the metaphor he uses is this one of completeness: The grain is ready for the harvest. 

In the Greek world, everyone believed that they had something like a seed within them, which was their essential self – it was called their daimon – it was their essential self in all its potential; and to the Greeks, the point of their lives was to come into completeness, into ripeness, into wholeness; to be ready for the harvest. 
That’s exactly what both John and Jesus understood the Kingdom of God to be: When Jesus said, “Be ye therefore perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect”, what he was talking about was this sense of completeness.  The Greek word is teleos – it means perfectly ripe, ready for harvest.  Think of a juicy red tomato, or a stalk of grain standing golden and ripe in the sun, ready for the sickle.  That’s what the kingdom of God was like for John and for Jesus.  Everything in all of creation was approaching this moment of perfection, when God would come and reap his harvest.  

To feel that your life is complete – that is a rare thing.  But maybe that’s what comes from living in the wilderness, as John the Baptist did; and as you do, out here.  Because, I’m sorry, after that drive over Scaggs Springs Road, you might be Shepherd-by-the-Sea but as far as I’m concerned, you’re Shepherd-in-the-Wilderness.  Not to mention this great wildness that you all live next to [pointing to the Pacific Ocean, visible through giant plate glass windows] – that great ocean out there.  There’s nothing more wild and treacherous and lonely than bobbing up and down in that ocean out there.  That is the ultimate wilderness.

And so maybe there’s something about living in the wilderness, out here, that makes you particularly compatible with this thing that Jesus and John the Baptist were talking about.  Because there are some things that wilderness people know, which the rest of the world is becoming increasingly oblivious to.

So there I was, feeling complete and ripe and whole and driving along with a song in my heart and musing on this sense that I could die right now and be happy…. And then I started getting worried … that maybe God would take me up on this idea.  I could imagine him saying, “Ok, clearly you need some kind of challenge.  Maybe I will send a truck into your front end – clearly you’re just a little too happy for your own good.”

It was funny because this voice sounded a lot like the voice of my mom, who, if she ever caught you just lying in a hammock on a beautiful summer day staring up at the sky, would just have to find something for you to do.  And in that moment I felt a sense of dread – as if this great cosmic balance was shifting toward catastrophe – just because I was clearly too happy in my present condition.  

Have you ever had to contend with a voice like that inside you?  

And just as I was thinking about that, those wonderful first ten miles of beautiful two-lane highway changed into something more like my driveway.   No shoulder, just a crumbly edge that drops away into a chasm [heads nod in recognition]; the road in places not much wider than my car.  

You know what I’m talking about: the sky disappears, so that you feel like you’re entering an enchanted forest or something, and you begin to wonder if you didn’t take a wrong turn back there somewhere.  And by now the sun had completely set; and I realize that taking this road by night, with no lights along the road, no markers, scant little in the way of assurances that you are not about to drive right off the edge….  I glanced at my odometer and realized I had 20 more miles of this, and I thought, “Oy vey: this little adventure is turning into one big metaphor for my life – and I’m not sure I like how it’s turning out!”

After another ten miles I realized that I hadn’t passed a single car since I had gotten on the road.  I realized just how alone you can be out here; I found myself glancing at the gas gauge, and reminding myself that the tires were still good and the car just had its check-up, and I remembered the news article a few months back about how a guy on one of these roads drove off the edge and they didn’t find him for weeks….

A voice said, “You are in the wilderness now.”  

And that’s when I started praying.

I think about Maurice Sendak and his wonderful book, Where the Wild Things Are.  This is where the wild things are.  And as if in confirmation of that notion, a troupe of wild pigs crossed the road in front of me.  A few minutes later, an enormous owl flew straight at my car and swooped up over my windshield at the last second.  This is not wilderness; this is wild-ness. 

This is the place where John the Baptist came from.  

So I’m snaking my way through these mountains, and to distract myself from a rising sense of dread, I begin to reflect on the values and virtues that living in the wilderness encourages.  These are the virtues that John the Baptist would have known in his bones.  We’re talking now about things we know in our bones – because Nature herself has taught us these things.

The first thing is humility and respect for the wildness of Creation.  You spend enough time out in the wilderness, you learn pretty quickly that this life is not for sissies.  Nature is a strong and ferocious beast and it will kill those who are not prepared.  Minnesotans know this too (that’s where I grew up): out there on the edge of the prairie, when the temperature dips below zero and stays there for weeks, you learn to rely on your neighbors, because nature cannot be trusted.  Death is never far away.  If you see a car broke down by the side of a snowbank you never drive by – of course you stop to make sure everyone’s okay and don’t need your help.  Everyone does that – they still do.  Because in the wilderness, we aren’t under the illusion that anyone gets through this alone; and in the wilderness, Nature claims us all, eventually.

And now George Harrison starts singing  “The Art of Dying”:

There'll come a time when all of us must leave here
Then nothing Sister Mary can do
Will keep me here with you
As nothing in this life that I've been trying
Could equal or surpass the art of dying

And isn’t that what we’re all learning? The Art of Dying?

We develop a kind of wisdom about how life can beat you up.  You’re not so special – this is the Minnesotan’s mantra, actually: don’t think you’re so special.  You’re definitely not the center of the universe; you are definitely not the Messiah.  You’re an ordinary man or woman trying to live a good and just and ordinary life, and you’re thinking if you can get to just one more of those moments when it all seems complete you’ll be ready for the harvest.  Because you come to see that life is all about the Art of Dying.

John the Baptist was like that.  He mastered the art of dying.  He wasn’t under any illusions that he was the Messiah – he knew his limits, he had given away any thought that he was the One.  Despite the fact that he was surrounded by people who wanted to believe that he was the messiah, who were desperate to believe he was the One to rescue Israel.  John the Baptist had spent enough time in the wilderness to know better. 
And so he told everyone, plainly and clearly – there will be one who comes after me – he I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.  He will be the one – not me. 

He took one look at Jesus, and knew it right away.  He saw it in every gesture and movement Jesus made: Here is the One who doesn’t just have that sense of completeness once in a while; he carries it with him, always, at every moment.  He sees it everywhere he looks.  The Creation is complete, with him in it; somehow just by walking the earth, he completes it.  John could see it; Jesus lived it.  And they both knew they could die knowing it was all exactly as it should be.  

Well, as you can see, I survived the passage; I have come over the mountain and I stand before you now, a little bit more wisened, a little bit humbled, and opened way up.  I pray that each one of you will share with me this sense of completeness that I was blessed with last night; and I pray that you share with me this sense of awe in the face of our great and mysterious God, Creator of the Wild-ness and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, our companion along the way, who brings us into unity with the Creator of all that is, seen and unseen, now and forever. 


Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Our Separation

Dear Friends in Christ:
      With heavy hearts, we make this statement together so you have news from the source, from us:  After 29 years of marriage we will begin living apart—at least for a time. We are entering into a trial separation. 
      This is a time of reflection, discernment and private conversation between us. Our love and affection for one another has always been, and remains, strong. We are friends. We respect each other, and we are proud of the many accomplishments of our marriage.  And so we enter this separation with deep gratitude as well as sorrow.
      We have been faithful to each other and are doing our best for one another. Yet we are humbled by regrets we share. Several times over the course of our years together we have sought counseling and professional advice, and we have continued to talk. So our decision now to live apart is the result of a long and thoughtful process. Our reflections lead us to choose this path at this time in the same spirit of affection that has held us together as best friends and partners.  We like one another and enjoy each other’s company.
      Furthermore, each of us feels drawn to a renewed awareness of God’s Spirit through this process—which sometimes expresses itself through the frank confession of our own truth, and which gives us the faith and courage to confront life’s challenges in a spirit of adventure and good will. 
      If there is any hope for our reunion, we believe we can achieve it only by taking this path.  We are profoundly aware that we can never know anything with certainty, but this feels like the best course of action.  For the sake of our mutual growth and fidelity to God, we need to take this step. 
      Finally, our reasons for taking this action are both substantial and deeply personal.  We ask for your support and your prayers; and, please, we ask only one thing: that as tempting as it may be to speculate about the nature of our difficulties, please respect our need for privacy. 
      Remembering to strive to see Christ in all persons, we ask all our friends to do your part to challenge gossip, and meet anxiety with words of peace.    
      We thank you for all the ways in which you walk in compassion, following the way of our Lord Jesus.
      We remain yours in Christ,
            Rose & Matt

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Wedding Advice by Rilke

The point of marriage is not to create a quick commonality by tearing down all boundaries; on the contrary, a good marriage is one in which each partner appoints the other to be the guardian of his solitude, and thus show each other the greatest possible trust. A merging of two people is an impossibility, and where it seems to exist, it is a hemming-in, a mutual consent that robs one party or both parties of their fullest freedom and development. But once the realization is accepted that even between the closest people infinite distances exist, a marvelous living side-by-side can grow for them, if they succeed in loving the expanse between them, which gives them the possibility of always seeing each other as a whole and before an immense sky.

That is why this too must be the criterion for rejection or choice: whether you are willing to stand guard over someone else's solitude, and whether you are able to set this same person at the gate of your own depths, which he learns of only through what steps forth, in holiday clothing, out of the great darkness.

To take love seriously and to undergo it and learn it like a profession - that is what young people need to do. Like so many other things, people have also misunderstood the position love has in life; they have made it into play and pleasure because they thought that play and pleasure are more blissful than work; but there is nothing happier than work, and love, precisely because it is the supreme happiness, can be nothing other than work. So those who love must try to act as if they had a great work to accomplish: they must be much alone and go into themselves and gather and concentrate themselves; they must work; they must become something.

For the more we are, the richer everything we experience is. And those who want to have a deep love in their lives must collect and save for it, and gather honey.

Rainer Maria Rilke
The Very Rev. Dr. Matthew Lawrence, Rector Episcopal Church of the Incarnation
636 Cherry St
Santa Rosa, CA 95404
707-579-2604 x102

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

What DO we believe?

Good morning… and Happy Trinity Sunday!

Yes, here we are, once again, at the beginning of what we call “Ordinary Time” – which for us begins the week after Pentecost and stretches like the Sonoma Valley into Spring and Fall and the early days of Winter, one long green swale of ordinary life, populated by sheep and vineyards and ordinary people just trying to get by, until we get to Advent, at which point everything ordinary abruptly ends.

Trinity Sunday usually features long-winded and abstract sermons about arcane matters of Hellenistic and Neo-Platonic philosophy.  These are sermons that try to help us make sense of that which makes absolutely no sense.  Actually, I suppose that could be said about every sermon; but in this case, preachers actually go out of their way to explain the unexplainable.  Trinity Sunday sermons are often filled with strident over-confidence and easy answers – as strident and easy as the topic is difficult.  

The image comes to mind of the Great White Hunter from the days of the British Empire, manfully marching into the dense Amazon jungle, slashing his way into the heart of darkness, blissfully unaware that his army of indigenous baggage handlers has long since stopped following him – because they know better.
So don’t worry, I’m not going to charge too far into that jungle – for one thing, I know better, and for another thing, I rather prefer your company.

You might have heard that, beginning a week from this Wednesday, I’ll be leading a 4 week class entitled “My Favorite Heresies.”  Actually, I’ve just changed the title to “My Favorite Heretics” because my heretical friend, Chris Bell – the Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Theist who works across the street – will be joining us for two of those 4 sessions, to defend the heresies of Arianism and Pelagianism.  For my friend, Chris, that’s just the beginning of his apostasy – he also claims to follow several other heresies, including Arminianism and Socianism – thus confirming our worst fears about Unitarian Universalist Buddhist Theists….  

Actually, I have no idea what Socianism is… but I’m sure it must be evil….
And this is kind of the point, I think, about ancient church doctrines generally speaking, and the Trinity more specifically: we are so far removed from the worldview that gave rise to these doctrines that they take on a kind of museum-like status.  And worst of all, they give us the impression that these arcane ideas, no matter how difficult they are to comprehend, must nonetheless be believed.  It’s like what Allen Jones used to say, that Christianity can sometimes seem like a religion that requires us to believe ten impossible things before breakfast.  Sometimes it feels to me like the doctrines of the church are the brussel sprouts at the wedding banquet, which you have to eat if you want to get any of that cake.  And this is a terrible way to think about your faith.  

A few years ago, somebody in one of our Inquirer’s Classes asked whether, instead of being invited to affirm the mysteries of our faith as found in the Nicene Creed, we could be invited instead to just consider them.  That was such a perfect expression of our condition that I think I’ll never forget it.  Which leads me to the discuss something that I’ve been meaning to talk about for some time: What are we supposed to believe in this church?  What do we make of the Nicene Creed?

Someone the other day came to my office and asked me that, point blank: What do Episcopalians believe, anyway?  

Those of you who know me, or have long experience with the Episcopal Church, can imagine the vague and evasive answer I may have given to this question.  I often talk about the Episcopal Church as a kind of giant smorgasbord: we lay out before you all the resources of Christianity – the creeds, the scriptures, the traditions, the history of our faith, the music, the rituals – but one thing we tend to avoid is telling people that in order to be saved, they MUST choose this creed and this scripture and that tradition.  Instead, we say, here it all is.  The job of the church is to lay it all out for you, help you understand it all, and let you choose what is most nourishing and delicious for you.  Now, we might, like a good parent, encourage you to eat your brussel sprouts, because they contain iron and folic acid or whatever; we might even cook them in butter and cheese so you might actually try them; but we will never, ever do what my grandpa once did to my brother when he was 8, which was to forcefully open his mouth and shove them in there.  I won’t go into the details of what happened after, but suffice it to say it was memorable, and the word “projectile” comes to mind – which pretty well sums up the mess that other churches have on their hands when they think they can force-feed anyone the truth.  

Now, as you might imagine, this explanation was not particularly helpful to the young man who showed up in my office – because for someone who was new to our church, he wanted some indication of what he was getting himself into.  And I can’t blame him.  Which leads me to my second answer to the question, What must Episcopalians believe?  And that is to point to a prayer book, and say, “We’re more interested in how we pray than in what we believe.”  

This, as true as it is, did not seem to satisfy my visitor either.  Which led me, finally, to the third and final answer, which was to turn to the Baptismal Covenant, as found on page 304 of our prayer books.  Here, we actually find specific things that all persons who are baptized into our faith are expected to believe.
You’ll notice it is in two major parts.  The first part is the Apostle’s Creed – that ancient statement of belief that is based on what is called the “Old Roman Rule” which dates back to about the year 180.  And the second part of the Baptismal Covenant is the section of vows that we make as we embrace this way of life. 

Most of you have probably heard me talk about this before so I won’t belabor the point, but the important thing to remember is that, if we were to be true to the ancient understanding of the word “believe,” we would probably do better to translate it as “trust” than as “belief.”  It makes a huge difference to me, and draws me closer to the original meaning of the creed, if I say the word “trust” instead of “believe:” 

“I trust in God the Father…. I trust in Jesus Christ, the Son of God….  I trust in God, the Holy Spirit…”   When we replace the word “believe” with “trust”, we skip over the modern hang-up around “what we think is true” and let ourselves consider instead the trustworthiness of this God we proclaim.  

Last week I was brushing up on my reading about heresy and came across the excellent point that the problem with a lot of the heresies is that they make too much sense.  That is, they reduce the paradoxical and mysterious and impossible nature of God with a version of God that makes more sense:  Jesus can’t possibly be both fully human and fully divine – so let’s say he’s one or the other.  And what the early church fathers kept saying is, no, we refuse to reduce the mystery of God to something that we can fully comprehend.  What makes God worthy of our devotion is precisely the thing that drove the heretics off the deep end: the absurd, impossible notion that God becomes flesh and lives among us.

Which leads me to the other thing you’ve probably heard me talk about, which is that it is helpful to think of God as a Verb instead of a Noun.  That is, the key to understanding who anyone is is to focus on what that person actually does.   What does God do in this Creed: God creates heaven and earth; God is born into the world, where he suffered at the hands of a despot and was killed – etcetera.  Focus on what God does in the faith of this church and you’ll be so much better off than the people who get all hung-up on trying to figure-out the essence of God.

And then finally we come to the vows – and again, here we focus on the Verb, this time, on what we will do in response to the actions of God.  We will continue in the teaching; we will persevere in resisting evil; we will proclaim the gospel by word and example; we will seek and serve Christ in all persons, we will strive for justice and peace.  

This, in a nutshell, is what we believe.  We believe in a God who is active in the world; not only throughout the ages, but here, in our own lives, by the choices we make, and the promises we make to one another.  God is found in what we do.   

One of the worst things that ever happened to our religion, I think, was this notion that we are saved by virtue of some kind of esoteric thought process – as if, if we could only manage to swallow those brussel sprouts of ancient metaphysics, if we could only somehow find a way to twist our minds into the pretzel logic of some kind of magical formula like “Jesus died for my sins,” then we’d be fine.   

Wisdom tell us that the truth is much simpler, and far more difficult.  The Christian journey really begins when we commit ourselves to a godly path, and then discover that we can’t do this alone.  The spiritual journey is a lot like mountain climbing: if you want to scale a large hill or even a small mountain, it’s possible to do it alone; but if we want to take on the truly magnificent mountains, the really transcendent ones, we can only do it with others.   As we get closer to the summit, we rely more and more on the team of people we came with – including the invisible folks, the angels and the saints.  And then, even with all of their help, we will inevitably come to the point of failure.  And that is when we call upon the name of the Lord.  We can do nothing without God’s help.  

This is why we’re in such a good place here at Incarnation these days.  It’s not because of what we say we believe so much as what we actually do, together, that makes us a light to others.   Because God comes alive for us in what God accomplishes through us.  God comes alive for us whenever we break bread together; God comes alive for us whenever we share our food with the hungry, God comes alive for us whenever we see the eyes of Christ in the eyes of our neighbor, God comes alive for us whenever we proclaim our deepest truth with respect and reverence, God comes alive for us whenever we stand for peace and justice in this world.  

And so that is what we do, with God’s help.  Thanks be to God.