May 21, 2006
Valley Covenant Church
I want to tell you all how much I’ve enjoyed the past few days, how nourished I’ve been. This is a faith-filled and generous community, and it’s been a privilege to spend time with you. And I’m glad to be able to preach to you this Sunday, and at such length. Steve said I had about 20 minutes or so, and that’s amazing. We Catholics have a much shorter attention span.
My old pastor, Bishop Steiner, used to say, when I sat down from preaching: great homily, Chris. 8 minutes.
What I’m going to talk about this morning will repeat what I’ve been talking about this weekend, so those of you who have come to my lectures will recognize the themes. What I hope to do now is just bring them all together, wrap them up somehow.
And I want to start by telling you all more about an experience I had.
A year ago, in late June and early July, I spent 30 days on the coast on a silent retreat. I lived in a hut above Nestucca Bay and tried to do the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, the man who in the sixteenth century founded the Jesuits. Following the structure as best I could, I meditated on the scriptures and journaled four or five times a day. I met with a spiritual director every morning, a Jesuit, a wonderful, wonderful man and dear friend who died just a few months later--who was dying as we worked together. I walked a lot, and talked to myself, and tried to discern the will of God for me.
And I thought I was going to go out of my mind. I hadn’t realized how addicted I am to television. I hadn’t realized how addicted I am to people calling me “Professor” and “Deacon.” I hadn’t realized how addicted I am to reason, to thinking, or at least to all the busyness of the monkey mind. A lot of those 30 days were like detox for me, long, barren stretches of time where I just had to turn and face my own emptiness, my own need.
And it was wonderful, too. I had no idea God existed. Not really. I’d sensed it, I’d been living my life as if I believed it, but it wasn’t until the 30 days that I felt God crashing down on me and flooding me and overwhelming me, and not in some generalized, generic way either, but by name. I could feel the whole universe bending towards me, as I know it bends towards you, too.
It doesn’t make sense. But I felt it then and I know it’s true.
Now, two things before I go on. First, I am no spiritual athlete. I am in no way spiritually advanced. What I experienced on Nestucca Bay is something that any one of you would experience, in your own way, with the same gift of time and place. This joy is our birthright. It’s our natural condition, what we are all given. And we experience it anyway, everyday. We all do. We all glimpse the presence of God.
And secondly, I realize what a gift this was. It was a gift from my wife for my 50th birthday, an enormously gracious gesture, and besides, I’m a teacher. I have the summers off. Most people are too tied down, too constricted by poverty or by wealth, to be able to pray like this and think like this and feel like this.
But that’s exactly my point: that the world is crazy, that we’re all lunatics, and that we have to eliminate the violence and oppression and materialism that make it impossible for us to live as we were meant to live.
I had a lot of a ha moments that month, moments when I suddenly got something I’d never gotten before, and in some ways this was the most important realization of all.
Jesus didn’t drive an SUV. Jesus didn’t drive anything. Jesus didn’t talk on a cell phone and Jesus didn’t work on the internet and Jesus didn’t have a microwave. There were always animals looking through his windows, with their big, liquid eyes, like planets, and there were always fields and hills outside his door, and he was always walking in them, and this isn’t an incidental thing. It’s not just one thread in the gospels. It’s their foundation. It’s not just a matter of scene or setting. It’s the way of life the scriptures presuppose.
God could have made the Incarnation happen in any historical moment, but he didn’t. He made it happen in first century pre-technological Israel, and that in itself has great theological significance. Jesus is our model. We’re supposed to act like him and do what he does, and what he did he did in a world radically different than ours, radically closer to the earth. Slower. Quieter.
It was a world a little like the one I was living in for 30 days, among the alder, above the bay, detoxing--though I had electricity, thank God, and my coffee pot.
Consider the lilies of the field, Jesus says in the gospel reading today, look at the birds of the air, and he’s always saying that, or something like that, always inviting us to consider the world around us, as he must have. Only a person who has looked at the sky and listened to the wind, who has observed what the animals do, can speak in the way that Jesus speaks and preach in the way he preaches, and here, in the sermon that he gave on a mountain, in a meadow, among the flowers and the birds, he makes the flowers and the birds the center of his message. They are his message.
One way to go with this is to say with certainty that the gospels are radically and without question environmentalist. We have to love the earth as Jesus does, both because it’s made by God and because without it we can’t eat. Christianity is intrinsically environmentalist, for spiritual and moral reasons, for reasons of beauty and reasons of justice.
But the other way to go with this is to say with certainty that we, too, are supposed to be wild, and natural, and spontaneous, and free. We’re not just supposed to take care of the birds. We’re supposed to be like them. We’re not just supposed to protect the flowers, we’re supposed to read them, and I mean literally.
It’s funny what we choose to focus on in the Bible and then argue about. Why aren’t there any ballot measures drawn from the Sermon on the Mount? Measure 99: One Life, No Television. Measure 100: Slow Down. Measure 101: Hush. Hush now.
The great Jesuit thinker Anthony DeMello gets to the heart of this when he talks about the addiction that underlies all the others. Our babies are born just happy to be alive, just happy to be here, playing and sitting in the sun. But over the years we convince them in a thousand subtle ways that they have to do something, that they have to be beautiful and popular and smart and successful, or they won’t matter, won’t be loved. We do it everyday: we addict our children to approval. I think about this a lot, about the difference between the babies I baptize at St. Mary’s and the teenagers I see hanging around Fred Meyer or tuning out with their I-Pods in my classes. What’s happened? Look at all the loneliness on all the faces, all the hurt. All our babies are crack babies, and we are, too. We live for what other people think and so we don’t live.
Not the Wilson Warblers. Not the Swainson’s Thrush. They sing whether anyone hears them or not. They hide in the branches. They are who they are, beloved by God, tiny things that are yet infinitely important.
The Franciscan thinker Richard Rohr gets to the heart of this when he talks about the wildness of God. The love of God is always pouring down on us, overflowing, but we’re threatened by that. We’re frightened by such generosity, Rohr says, because, “it takes away all our ability to control or engineer the process. It leaves us powerless, and changes the language from any language of performance or achievement to that of surrender, trust and vulnerability.” Life in this sense isn’t about winning battles but about losing them--about not fighting them at all. It’s about recognizing, as Rohr puts it, that “we cannot control God by any means whatsoever, not even by our good behavior,” that to be in relation with God “has nothing to do with order, certitude, clarity, reason, logic, church authority or merit!” God is the wild one, not us. And so, suddenly, he is in charge, not “our explanations of things.”
That’s the paradox of the Sermon on the Mount, the paradox of the meadow: that we are no better than the birds, no more important than the flowers--no less temporary, or fragile, or dependent. Or beloved.
And from this comes all joy. All freedom.
From this comes a way of reading the Bible, not just with our heads but with our hearts. The head is a much overestimated organ, Joseph Campbell says, and he’s right. Let’s read like a bird. Let’s just be there, in the scene, in the moment, taking it all in with our senses and our intuition and our feeling, setting aside questions of history and hermeneutics, however important they are. Let’s read scripture as if it’s a fairy tale, as if we’re watching Lord of the Rings, as if the Jesus Seminar doesn’t finally matter. Because it doesn’t. Biblical scholarship is good for a while, it gets us to a certain point, but then we have to move on. Much of it is mired in the old empiricism, the old liberalism. Let’s be post-liberal, let’s be post-conservative, which is to say, let’s be wild. Like the flowers. Like Christ.
The Catholic theologian Luke Timothy Johnson gets to the heart of this when he talks about the radical availability of Christ. “Nowhere in ancient literature,” Johnson says, “do we find an equally accessible character.” This really struck me when I first read it. It floored me. As Johnson puts it, “Jesus is so defined by his faithful obedience to God that he is free to be available to whatever presents itself. . . .Jesus is never distracted. Nowhere--except for those moments when he retreats for prayer--does Jesus give the slightest sense that there is something more important to do than what he is then doing.”
Yes. Yes. I am to be like him. I am to follow him. And this is who he is, radically available in the moment--wildly available--as spontaneous and free as any bird or flower. And because of this--because, as Johnson puts it--and I want to quote him at length here--because Jesus “refuses to be defined by any finite plan or project,”
he is not enslaved by any finite plan or project. Because he is defined by the God who transcends all, because his project is only to respond to the project of God, who chooses to work out that project moment by moment, Jesus is free to be available to all others in their projects and plans, without being defined by them either. In his being present to every moment given to him by God--with every moment’s pleasure and every moment’s pain--Jesus is perfectly faithful and fully free.
I can’t tell you how freeing I find this--and how difficult to put into practice. What an enormous sense of release it gives me, and what an enormous challenge.
I can’t live in a hut forever, of course. I can’t sit in a meadow everyday, and neither could Jesus. But I can go back to the meadow now and then, to remind myself of who I really am. And then, at home, I can turn off the television. I can fast from the news for a while. I can say no to a few committees, a few evenings out. I can go to bed earlier so I can get up earlier so that I can pray. I can just keep track of my plain, ordinary, garden-variety sinfulness, and not with any sense of self-loathing but with a sense of joy, because these are things I can name, these are things I can do something about--and underneath them, behind them, is my real self, my real identity. The big things require grace. All is grace. But how big a fire can start from a little flame, St. James says --the flame of overeating, for example, or drinking, or swearing, or gossiping--and these are things I can watch out for and admit to and sort out, these are things that I can exert some control over.
The problem isn’t God. It’s me. Isn’t that wonderful?
It’s like I clean off my glasses. It’s like I feel my little gears engaging the great gears, coming into alignment with the great pattern.
I log on.
Now again, don’t get me wrong. Even the little things are really hard, and in fact, the year I’ve spent since I came back from the 30 Days has been one of the hardest years of my life. I’ve been so lonely and afraid sometimes. I’m still fighting my own addiction to approval. For the split second that I am actually in conformity with Christ, actually speaking and acting out of my true self, with any degree of courage or clarity, I am immediately resisted by my colleagues and friends. I put down my gloves and they haul off and hit me. And I don’t like that, I don’t like it one bit, and so I fold, I run, I retreat in the wrong sense.
After the ecstasy the laundry. That’s the title of a book I like a lot by the Buddhist thinker Jack Kornfield, and it’s exactly right.
But before the laundry, the ecstasy. That’s what I most want to report.
My spirituality before the 30 Days was based as much on the experience of the absence of God as on the experience of His presence. Everything I preached and taught depended on the sense that God isn’t always visible and that our lives usually feel barren and that everything is beyond even our intuitive experience.
But then I reached out and touched the bark of a tree and felt something like electricity passing through my body, right up from my feet through the top of my head, and it felt like tears, and it felt like grief, and it was as real as anything I’ve ever felt in my life. I fell asleep and dreamed and in the dream I heard my name. In the dream I fell in love, and when I woke up, I found the dream was true. I watched the clouds form and the weather come in. I watched the thrush lift up his head and sing. I read the scriptures and saw my own face, as in a mirror.
And this wasn’t a dream finally and it wasn’t an idea. It was real, it was happening in the moment, and when I felt it everything else became secondary, everything else became irrelevant, everything else I had ever cared about and striven for was immediately revealed as the object of a form of idolatry, the object of a form of adultery. Because this is one I love and the one who loves me, this is the morning star and the evening star, the wave and the tree and the whole life of the world, flowing through my body and flowing through yours, and when we know this and feel this, when this knows and feels us, this energy that is yet a person, this vastness that is yet a lover, this sadness that is yet joy, this Spirit, this Christ, we are totally free, entirely who we are, entirely who we are meant to be.
And however hard it is day to day to keep our lives in right alignment with this, however hard it is to keep clarifying ourselves, however hard it is to keep from being distracted and covered up, there’s absolutely no doubt anymore: this is what we must do.