Loving and Leaving the Intersection

Today marks the day of one of the most ambivalent Christian habits of mind: a sacrificial dying for the sake of a received living. Not very eloquently written, perhaps, but each word and grammatical choice is significant. Ambivalent traditionally refers to an emotional state from being pulled in two directions, or a lack of expressiveness from feeling two contradictory emotions at the same time. It may look like one doesn’t care at all, but in the etymological sense, one may be aware and devoted infinitely in opposite directions. Here, I use all that to describe the bi-directional day of death that purports to be about life. This day, of all days, creates ways of thinking within my tradition that, without awareness, urge us to err boldly in one direction or the other. Some revel in the violence of this day, and glorify a gory and excruciating death. Others disregard the violence of the death completely, bypassing any remembrance in order to rush onwards to Easter. The task, I find, is to maintain an ambivalent habit of mind: be infinitely aware of and be with the death while simultaneously, infinitely, looking for life.

Adjectives and gerunds are required, at least as I stand within Mother Church. ‘Sacrificial’ always seems to be required, probably thanks to Paul. Today is the day that sacrifice, however it may be (mis)understood, is glorified. ‘Received’ is offered in light of one of the main interpretations of this Christian day of atonement: a sinless life was offered up, to be received by God as payment or substitutionary punishment for sin. Life for us, not death, is to be received as gift. The gerunds remind us that while we prefer nouns, God does not. This day is about all the dimensions of dying, intimately related to all those of living. Not death, or life, like some word could actually represent the ‘suchness’ of either.

An earlier engagement with kashrut in devotion to an ‘other’ was (partially) about how liturgy impacts the way we think, the way we see the world through ir/religious lenses implicitly chosen or imposed. Not surprisingly, I wrestle the most with Good Friday liturgies. If your Good Friday is all about the violence of Jesus’ death, why? If you avoid any of the implications from Good Friday’s liturgy, why? How do your answers show you your mind?

For myself, the day has gotten increasingly heavy these last years—both chock full of intimate insights into my own Teacher, Lord, and largely void of any shared meaning with my own tradition or worshipping community. I hate that Christian tradition(s)—perhaps seen in most stark relief in Gibson’s The Passion—glorify Jesus’ death, revel in the violence, instigate stringently ascetic practices of repentance like physical self-flagellation. I have become sensately aware of how this propensity to glorify violence exacts violence on the world, Mother Earth, the ‘other’ or ‘scapegoat’ whom the community exiles or executes (thinking of work of Rene Girard here). I stopped participating in the litanies shared by the community a couple years back. Just couldn’t say the words, though I felt I needed to be at the service and be shaped by the community on this day. I continue to ask myself, “If I avoid Jesus’ death and its implications, why?”

Yet this day, the Good Friday liturgy, has taught me my Teacher as well. I resisted the litany last year, feeling distanced from the glorification of violence and the propensity to worship Jesus himself—a phenomenon I do not believe he ever desired, or desires now. Instead, I found myself listening within for how the disciples experienced the humiliating death of their teacher, their rabbi, their Lord. What would it be like to see one for whom devotion flowed out of you like a living spring, dying on a cross? In a flash, I saw faces of my own beloved intimates—a Buddhist lama, a rabbi, another rabbi, a woman. One after another, and the tears flowed. “The inanity of it all, the senselessness of death,” I thought. “If I only didn’t know the one who was dying, perhaps.” Then the ton of bricks fell: What would our world be like if we could so mourn the death of one we had never known, or those we do not like, such that our lives became intimately intertwined with theirs, such that they could feel and know undying devotion for them at their very last breath? That was worth bearing the felt-distance with my community in a liturgy I can no longer speak. That is the question that has been with me, taught me, all year. To feel and know devotion for another who is dying, to have that love cross the chasm between who we know and who we don’t, who we find easy to love and those we don’t. In a strange way, the faces of those dying began to smile back at me.

So I continue to receive nourishment from and stand within Mother Church. Much like my grandfather, Benjamin Musser Hess, I cannot speak truthfully all that Mother Church offers. (He would say the Apostles’ Creed, omitting the phrases he could not speak truthfully while offering thanksgiving for the Church that continued to profess all of them around him). I do not pretend clarity about dying that is righteous and that which is senseless, or, for that matter, life that is righteous and that which is not. I receive both her milk, as the infant in Christ I will always be (Hebrews 5), alongside the solid food that the raven brings, necessary to sustain life on the peripheries of community life I can no longer share (I Kings). What I have learned for this day, what I share with you amidst seeing it with my own eyes, is that Good Friday is not to be a glorification of the death of Jesus, nor about his life sacrificially given for the sins of many.  It marks a renewing, covenantally-driven way to live an old lifeline into human relationship.

“You shall not boil a kid in its mother’s milk,” it is taught. A scripturally authoritative text for many, commonly associated with the so-called ‘legalistic’ practice of separating meat and milk dishes in kitchen and at table. If you immerse yourself inside it, however, you see and can know in your bones the everpresent mindfulness of a lifeline humans are commanded to cherish, to observe. A lifeline through which one becomes most fully human in relation with the Holy. One side, mother’s milk, honors the nourishment that comes from our forbears, all those who have fed and sustained us in body and spirit. The other side, the meat, honors the life given up for our nourishment, and that of others. Both sides are ever cognizant of death, but in such a way to honor life. Without nourishment, we die. With meat, some creatures die for others. With nourishment, we live. With meat, we remember the life of others.

So I ask my fellow Christians: If Good Friday is all about glorifying Jesus’ death for you, how is that not boiling a calf in Mother’s milk? Or lamb, in this case? How is that not succumbing to a felt-imposed choice between life or death when the fully human task is to welcome both, to know one cannot be truly cherished without the other? Death is not punishment deferred onto another, or something to be avoided, but simply one ‘figure’ to life’s ‘ground,’ both of whose whole reality is held in the Oneness of God. (Thank you, Tanya). For me, as this Lenten season concludes, the cross has become a reality not about death into new life or a glorification of Jesus’ death connected to the depth of my sin (however deep it may be). Neither does it require that an absolute commitment to life avoid or overshadow the ever-present reality of death, or the particular significance of this death.

The cross, here, today, marks an ambivalent lifeline demonstrative of devotion. Its bi-directionality—vertical and horizontal—is to connect heaven and earth just as much as it is to connect each of us to one another. We Christians tend to focus on the intersection, the place where we see our teacher and Lord, the only place where we think you can focus. But it may be time for us to breathe awareness into the lines instead, to be with the death while looking for life, to receive the living as we honor the dying. It may be time to see the figure/ground or either/or way we have traditionally entered into Good Friday, and sit instead with an inexplicable lifeline that arises in all directions underneath and around it. Not as proof of or sole movement to a particular one’s Resurrected Life, but as invitation to lives of devotion for the known and the stranger, our intimates and irritants.

May the cross, this day, bring in you the milk of loving-kindness through which tradition nourishes life, and the meat of humility that comes with the reality that others die—everyday—so that you may live.



Sanctuaries and Stumbling Blocks

God is both sanctuary and stumbling stone, the Lord is a rock that brings Israel down, the Lord is a trap and snare for the people. (Isaiah 8:14).

Richard Rohr always seems to soothe and discomfort, both at the same time. He opens a chapter of his Falling Upward with this scripture, then simply observes, “Sooner or later, if you are on any classic ‘spiritual schedule,’ some event, person, death, idea, or relationship will enter your life that you simply cannot deal with, using your present skill set, your acquired knowledge, or your strong willpower.” (p. 65). This is an obvious statement, of course, but in the context of a life of service, it does take on some undesirable if then desirable realities.

Unless this is not an obvious statement, I suppose. For many of us, failure at faith has been deemed as “lack” of faith. A personal failing. A weakness of spirit. A moral negligence even. But any classical “spiritual path,” in this case an orthodox Christian one, requires this failure, this hard-wall slam into the limitations of human finitude. We always hope the ‘slam’ will be the least painful possible, but ‘slam’ is really the only word that gets at the experience. The word I often use is ‘fracture,’ but the sense of difficulty, painful awakening, brokenness that is necessary for new awareness remains the same. Vulnerability in the face of righteousness of God is the only pathway to wholeness. We so often fear the vulnerability in the assumed righteousness of “others” or “them,” however, that sometimes we resist any vulnerability at all. Then we die, either spiritually or emotionally, because without growth and change, there’s no life.

So the failing, the stumbling stone, instigates the necessary discomfort, what Rohr calls “necessary suffering.” Whether we call this (as Rohr does) the groaning of creation, along with Paul (Romans 8:22), or the hating of family along with the Gospel voice of Luke (Luke 14), a travail or separation lies at the heart of spiritual formation unto maturity. We want the ego truths of our notion of good news, an easy intimacy of home, the thrill of the mountain top. We face the challenges of community or the dysfunction of denomination with an ego’s sense of injustice, lack of vision of ‘others’ or Them. Yet if we hear Isaiah’s words, that God is both sanctuary and stumbling stone, then we must also hear and surrender to all these things as somehow within the provision of God, a “necessary suffering,” however it may be redressed in our actions along the way.

Take the church we have been taught to hold in holy awe…and (for some of us) in proactive disdain. Organized religion takes it on the chin every day in the news, in the hearts of frustrated (and wounded) ex-religionists (ex-Catholics, ex-Baptists, ex-denominationalists, secular Jews, non-observant “fill in the blank”). The largest category of statistical community in this respect to religion is the “nones,” those who may understand themselves as spiritual but not religious. My own path could be described as a love-hate relationship with the institutional church that professes the Gospel and distracts itself with arguments about sanctuary carpeting, that proclaims the Kingdom is at hand and bickers amongst itself about ideological stands deemed either about “purity” or “justice.” Many of us participate in communities whose identity is to be “purer than they are,” or “more filled with the Spirit” than where we were before. Or perhaps our token of truth says Our community enacts justice while They are only about words or worship or care of themselves. Protestants are by and large the most concerned with the authority of the Word and unity of faith, yet we fracture our Communion, split to avoid this “hypocrisy,” more than any others on the planet.

I’m beginning to smile with Rohr about now, however. You can almost hear his wry smile and gentle laughter: “Before the truth ‘sets you free,’ it tends to make you miserable.” (p. 74). What if the most hypocritical “burr” of the institutional church is actually the necessary suffering by which we are forced to grow up in faith? What if the institutional church is the brilliant seed of “necessary suffering” which we refuse to allow ever to blossom every time we “leave” to be more “fill in the blank” than “them”? Rohr describes it in this way: “The pedestrian and everyday church has remained a cauldron of transformation for me by holding me inside both the dark and the light side of almost everything, and by teaching me nondualistic thinking to survive. It has also shown me that neither I nor the churches themselves really live much of the real Gospel—at least enough to actually change our present lifestyles! It is just too big a message. … the church is both my greatest intellectual and moral problem and my most consoling home. She is both pathetic whore and frequent bride.” (76-78; and if you’re startled or offended by the language, read Hosea; it’s canonical-scriptural).

Regardless of what I think, however, perhaps this is timely for the start of a new learning path, a seminary degree program, a calling into certification where the institutional body says it wants one thing while its actions suggest another. Or perhaps one could even imagine a covenantal peer-group in this light too—a space of sanctuary at times, but then also a stumbling block of wasted time, irritating colleagues, over-emotional peers or under-emotional and distant ones “who are supposed to care.” However we experience this “classical spiritual path,” it seems to be a rhythm of sanctuary spaces and stumbling blocks. Both of which Isaiah suggests are divinely intended.

Rohr concludes with a word of reminder, and of hope. For reasons unbeknownst to many, “It seems that in the spiritual world, we do not really find something until we first lose it, ignore it, miss it, long for it, choose it, and personally find it again—but now on a new level.” (p. 67). If you’re not losing something, then you’ll never find it again at the next level. And however we may rail against the community in which we practice, or the Body in which we serve, we are also given the full assurance of the good news. As Rohr says, alongside the church that is both whore and bride, “The Gospel itself is my full wedding partner. It always tells me the truth, and loves me through things till I arrive somewhere new and good and much more spacious.” (p. 81). Just because the truth may make you miserable at the outset does not mean it’s not true or God is not trustworthy. The truth will always love you through the stumbling block and though we may struggle to conceive it, believe it, God’s Truth is always more spacious on the other side than within our tightly-grasped, ego-driven truths.

But do be warned. If you insist upon only the sanctuary, it will simply become your stumbling block. You will always be a child of God, of course, but you can never determine in the end the nature of the path other than this “necessary suffering.” The world will simply pass you by as other journey-folks build the Kingdom all around you.

Book Providence and Boats

I believe in book-providence. As I am a Presbyterian, perhaps that’s not very surprising. One of our gifts to the Christian communion has historically been this reminder of God’s sovereignty and the manner in which events—planned and unplanned—will eventually fit into the plan God intended from the start. “How Providential!” we say. “Book-providence” refers to something a bit less dramatic than all that. Certain books seem to find me precisely when it’s time for me to hear what they have to say. In my business, we call that a Spirit-nudge, a Matrix-Oracle-tinged collision of a human hunger and God’s sustenance at just the right time.

Predictably, in excess of freedom, I sometimes try to make it happen all on my own. I’ll buy a book or check one out from the library that fits my current image or sense of what it is I need to learn. I suspect Spirit looks on such hubris with a heavy sigh and a smile, “There she goes again.” I sit to feast on such a book and it sits there in my lap, saying almost nothing of interest to me. I take it back to the library or put the book on the shelf with a sense of guilt or remorse for having either wasted the money or the time at the library for something that clearly wasn’t connecting with my prayer-life, discipleship, what-have-you. I forget about it, or more importantly, I lose the image I had grasped in my mind about where I am in Spirit’s learning/teaching.

It could be days, months, or even years later when I’m browsing my book shelf with an aimlessness or restlessness of spirit. My eyes light on a book that surprises me with its title or cover or topic. I pick it up out of curiosity, often not remembering when or where I got it. And in just the right amount of ‘will,’ the words jump off the page at me. I can hardly put it down. Something in its pages feeds something I did not know was hungry. I hear or see or sense a vision or Presence outside my ken or expectation. Book providence.

Books finding us precisely when it’s time for us to hear what they have to say. Authors’ voices on their own experience that come at a time when a particular loneliness opened us enough to hear new things. Never in the control of human will or imagination, but often requiring an intuitive, or even counter-intuitive willingness of human beings to venture into the risks of faith, a path of offering into the larger world what has been nourishing of self or community in unseen hopes that it will be received in grace, with grace, for grace.

Falling Upward: a Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr found me in this fashion about 3 weeks ago. I meant to browse a chapter over dinner then treat myself to a movie. Pulled into his text, I cancelled the movie-plan and devoured the text in one sitting. I’ve been ruminating on pieces ever since. While his words may or may not be fodder for such “book providence” for your learning, he does chart a pertinent path for all of us to consider on the formative journey of deepening discipleship.

Rohr observes much evidence suggesting at least two major tasks to human life. “The first task is to build a strong ‘container’ or identity; the second is to find the contents that the container was meant to hold. The first task we take for granted as the very purpose of life, which does not mean we do it well. The second task, I am told, is more encountered than sought; few arrive at it with much preplanning, purpose, or passion.” (xiii). He acknowledges that North American, Westernizing culture is very much a “first task” culture. We are intent on surviving successfully, whatever survival or success comes to mean in media-speak. Caught in the thrall of a (perceivedly) successful church pastorate or regular affirmations of our gifts for ministry, we often miss the “tasks within the tasks” we are about, that drive us. Rohr calls this “what we are really doing when we are doing what we are doing.” (xiv).

He’s getting at a root of curricular intent in Formation/Integration, in the challenges of training Spirit-led leaders for the church and world: if you think you’re doing what you’re doing for the only reason you are aware of, you are indubitably missing all kinds of other reasons you’re also doing what you’re doing.  How’s that for complicated?! Shaping one’s container for Spirit’s journey may seem so obvious to some of us, until we meet others whose shaping-container seems no less valid but so very different from our own. What makes it even more difficult, of course, is that this “task within a task” observation is scriptural. Think of Joseph. Ruth. Deborah. David. Peter. Each purported to be doing one thing while God had completely other ‘ends’ in mind, in the long run. None of us can really know, though we are gifted with conviction.

The formative journey in companionship, then, is learning new skills of paying attention, seeking integrity in the task within the task. Rohr argues that when we learn these things, the first task of life (shaping the container) opens into the second half of human living (filling the container with Godly surrender, whatever God places within). “Integrity largely has to do with purifying our intentions,” Rohr writes, “and a growing honesty about our actual motives.” (xv). No work is more demanding, and nothing else quite requires covenantal companions as much as this does.

The journey of container-shaping also requires sustaining a creative tension particularly difficult for Christians: living both law and freedom at the same time. Both are necessary for spiritual growth. And living, not necessarily understanding. Paul says it in Romans and Galatians. He learned it from Jesus “who says seven times in a row “The Law says…but I say” (Matthew 7:21-48), while also assuring us that he “has not come to throw out the law but to bring it to completion”” (35-36). Regardless of our intentions, we with Western dualistic minds “do not process paradoxes very well. …very few Christians have been taught how to live both law and freedom at the same time” (36).  The contemplative path is the only one I know so far that shapes Christians for such a tension.

So I ask, with an impish smile: how do you understand the “container” of your life, for God’s purposes, within the paradox of law and freedom in our tradition? Have you dressed up what you’ve been taught as God’s Way, disguising reliance on your own or your community’s competence with biblically-accurate words and phrases? That was my favorite of choice. It wasn’t until I began to track my actions, ask intimate companions in a covenantal circle for feedback, that I saw both my ego at its boat-building work in the sand and the rippling waves of grace just off the shore. Professional viability requires practice of good competence, after all. We negotiate the tensions here. We spend part of our time building a convincing, viable boat, knowing that the invitation is actually to invite ourselves and others to set sail in the boat of the Spirit. The boat was not the point. The life of Spirit is. Trusting God’s directions over 88-fathoms of deep-sea water and Leviathan.

Or perhaps your container is scriptural authority… the norms of your believing community? Perhaps your ‘container’ is a denominational identity—in my case, “being a good Presbyterian”—or defined professional role like pastor, educator, deacon, etc.? Perhaps you choose “social justice” or “liberation of self and other” as your container. Whatever you decide as “your own container” here amidst learning the historic-Christian-faith: how established is it and how open are you to having it shaped anew? How is Spirit inviting you into living the paradox of law and freedom, underneath and beyond your understanding?

The invitation to you here is toward shaping a ‘container’ that will last, which means one that must be refined in God’s potentially painful but purifying ways through doubt, failure, “lack of faith,” sustenance of creative tensions. These are the difficulties-opportunities in which seminary students think they are losing their way but which are actually the exact fodder for refining “blind faith” into one sturdy and supple for a much longer journey, a much more powerful witness. It is so human to attempt avoiding doubt or failure, and to assure everyone that our faith is unbroachable. Meanwhile, we miss the holy free-fall required to learn dependence upon the One who called us in the first place. We miss the reality that faith-fractures actually grow stronger faith, if we hold on long enough to welcome the Physician.

Then it gets even more ironic, which philosopher-theologian-poet Søren Kierkegaard identifies as a prime characteristic of faith. However you answer this question of container—crucial to answer and commit to faithfully within covenantal community—the container is not actually the point. It’s only the first half of what God holds in store.

Nothing to do but smile at yourself, saying, “There I go again.” Do the work. Shape and be shaped into a container. But prepare for the point that lies off shore…in God’s good time.