“Here, right matters.”

Riding upward on Fortune’s wheel (Paolo Manucci, pavement of Siena cathedral, 1504-1506)

“. . . their motives escape us like rites of an unknown religion.”

––– Gilles Deleuze [1]

 

At the end of the eighteenth century, the President of the United States, supported by the religious right and a wealthy elite, began to round up dissidents and throw journalists in jail. He garnered support for this assault upon civil liberties by stirring up fears about war and foreign enemies while dividing the country along the fault lines of self-interest and resentment.

The Vice President, deeply disturbed by this mockery of America’s founding ideals of liberty and the common good, tried to summon hope.

“A little patience,” he said, “and we shall see the reign of witches pass over, their spells dissolved, and the people recovering their true sight, restoring their government to its true principles. It is true, that in the meantime, we are suffering deeply in spirit, and incurring the horrors of a war, and long oppressions of enormous public debt. … If the game runs sometimes against us at home, we must have patience till luck turns, and then we shall have an opportunity of winning back the principles we have lost. For this is a game where principles are the stake.” [2]

So wrote Thomas Jefferson to a friend in 1798.

After watching this week’s Congressional impeachment hearings, I am trying hard to “have patience till luck turns,” but whether our nation can ever truly recover “the principles we have lost” remains an undecided question. The lawlessness of crimes, corruption and coverup appears to be more than a match for constitutional processes, at least so far.

“This is America,” insists Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman. “Here, right matters”[3]  But the President and his allies are doing their worst to prove him wrong. It’s become so difficult to stay ethically focused in the blizzard of bad acts that is the Trump administration, with its distracting whack-a-mole of endless evils.[4] Words and actions which would have scandalized prior generations have been normalized into the banality of daily, sometimes hourly, experience. But during the past week, the House Intelligence Committee has extracted one particular crime out of the ceaseless flow, enabling millions of Americans to examine it in depth.

In the face of a mountain of damning evidence, Congressional Republicans cover their ears and shut their eyes. Their posturing at the hearings has been shamelessly mendacious and painfully childish. Whether their behavior is driven by fear, ambition, or blindness, they act under a malignant spell which not even a clear and present danger to Constitution and country can dissolve. Their motives escape us like rites of an unknown religion. They sleepwalk toward the abyss, dragging America with them.

“We are better than that!” cried Elijah Cummings earlier this year. And Adam Schiff, the chair of this week’s hearings, chose his late colleague’s passionate plea to be the final words of yesterday’s concluding session. So now we must ask: Are we? Are we better than that?

A foundational American myth has been the story of rebirth and renewal. Unburdened by the weight of the past, perpetually empowered to reinvent ourselves, we want to believe in our own agency, the chance to start afresh in every moment. No Old World fatalism shall deter our capacity to act. If there’s a problem, we’ll solve it. If there’s an obstacle, we’ll overcome it. “I know if we come together, there’s nothing we can’t do,” says presidential candidate Joe Biden, expressing a mandatory trope of American rhetoric.

Writing about American cinema, Gilles Deleuze says that it “constantly shoots and reshoots a single fundamental film, which is the birth of a nation-civilization.”[5] And in that sense our politics are like our movies. We watch in order to rediscover America. But, as Deleuze cautions,

 “. . . we do not perceive the thing or the image in its entirety, we always perceive less of it, we perceive only what we are interested in perceiving, or rather what it is in our interest to perceive, by virtue of our economic interests, ideological beliefs and psychological demands. We therefore normally perceive only clichés.[6]

Epistemology––the study of what we know and how we know it––is not just the domain of philosophical reflection. When 30-40% of Americans now perceive the world as a place where monstrous and murderous acts are somehow acceptable, epistemology is a political problem. Trump will be gone, sooner or later, but the toxicity of unknowing will take decades to dispel, assuming we manage to survive this perilous time with our democracy intact.

In yesterday’s impeachment testimony, foreign affairs specialist Fiona Hill warned Americans about the Russian strategy to destabilize western democracies:

“When we are consumed by partisan rancor, we cannot combat these external forces as they seek to divide us against each other, degrade our institutions, and destroy the faith of the American people in our democracy.”

Hill went on to say, “Russia’s security services and their proxies have geared up to repeat their interference in the 2020 election. We are running out of time to stop them. In the course of this investigation, I would ask that you please not promote politically driven falsehoods that so clearly advance Russian interests.”[7]

In other words, if America lives by the lie, it will die by the lie. If a deluded public loses the ability to distinguish what is imaginary from what is real, we are lost. The false narratives of others will be substituted for our own freedom of thought. Who, then, will rescue us from this “body of death?”[8]

This week, in addition to missing three days of rare and precious Northwest November sunshine while staying inside to watch the hearings, I curated a conversation about St. Paul at the Episcopal church of St. Barnabas on Bainbridge Island, Washington. We began with a pivotal passage from his letter to the church at Philippi:

“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus.” (Phil. 2:5)

These words were inscribed in large letters on the wall of the assembly hall in my boyhood school, and for six formative years, from seventh through twelfth grade, they were before my eyes at every morning assembly. Ever since, Paul’s invitation to a radically new kind of perception has continued to challenge my ethical complacency and disturb my spiritual sleep.

To have the mind of Christ, I believe, isn’t asking us to do a little better, but to be radically different, to make our center not the ego or all the assumptions and biases implanted by nature and culture, but something transcending our limited (and limiting) personal standpoint.

As Episcopal theologian Mark McIntosh puts it, faith becomes “a new cognitive framework . . . restructuring the mind and prying it open to the infinite, deathless reality of God.”[9] With the mind of Christ, we see with the eyes of the Compassionate One, the Merciful One, not only desiring what God desires, but becoming the very means of actualizing divine desire in the mending of the world.

In the seventh century, Maximus the Confessor said that “to have the mind of Christ is, in my opinion, to think in his wayand of him in all situations.”[10] In other words, when we “put on Christ” (to use another Pauline image), the question of “what would Jesus do?” becomes existential: What would we do? What will we do? It’s not simply a way of thinking. It is a way of acting and being.

St. Paul was an itinerant pastor to some pretty wayward and quarrelsome congregations, who, he worried, only “bite and devour one another” (Gal. 5:15). He repeatedly exhorted them to renounce partisan rancor and fearful self-indulgence, to let Christ’s mind be in them, manifesting itself in the way they live with each other, and in the way they exist to invite everyone else into Love’s dance.

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If is it possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all (Romans 12:9-18).

The gap between Paul’s exalted vision of communal life and the present reality of America’s broken public could not be greater. You don’t have to be a Christian, or conflate church and country, to see the wisdom of Paul’s words for our common life as citizens and neighbors. Our refusal to love cannot stand. Paul’s warning to his congregations is aimed at America as well:

Take care, lest you be consumed by one another. (Gal. 5:15).

 

 

I recently photographed the 16th-century pavement image of Fortune’s wheel in the cathedral of Siena in Italy. There are 4 figures riding the wheel; one at the top, one at the bottom, one going down, and one riding upward. I chose the latter for this post as sign of hope.

[1] Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Time-Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989), p. 94. Deleuze was describing the wealthy characters in the films of Luchino Visconti, but it seems an apt image for the inexplicable behavior of Trump’s political allies.

[2] Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Taylor, June 4, 1798.

[3] Testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, Nov. 20, 2019.

[4] This does not seem hyperbole to me. My post before the 2016 election, Ten Reasons to Stop Trump Now, has proved all too accurate as far as it goes, but who then could have predicted children in cages, the pardoning of war criminals, the betrayal of Kurdish allies, etc. etc.? Just today I read that almost 10,000 premature deaths per year can be attributed to Trump’s gutting of EPA rules. As I said, endless evils.

[5] Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement-Image (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 148.

[6] Deleuze, Cinema 2, p. 21.

[7] Fiona Hill, testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, Nov. 21, 2019.

[8] “Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24)

[9] Mark McIntosh, “Faith, Reason, and the Mind of Christ,” in Paul J. Griffiths & Richard Hutter, eds., Reason and the Reasons of Faith (New York/London: T&T Clark, 2005), 141.

[10] Maximus the Confessor (580-662), Chapters on Knowledge, II, 83, cited in McIntosh, 121.

I Say Rejoice – A Homily for Advent 3

“Pay attention to the open sky / You never know what will be coming down.” –– Jackson Browne

Rejoice in the Lord always. Let me say it again: Rejoice! . . . The Lord is near. . . And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

 –– Philippians 4:4-7

So said St. Paul 2000 years ago, and we have heard him say it again today: Rejoice!And because these words became the traditional opening chant in the medieval mass on the Third Sunday of Advent, this day became known as Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin for “rejoice.”

Rejoice is one of the most important words in the Bible. It’s full of electricity, meant to jolt you out of sleep and despair. “Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” said the prophet Zephaniah. “God will rejoice over you with gladness…God will dance with shouts of joy for you.”

God will dance! In Aramaic, the language of Jesus, the word for rejoice is also the word for dance. An old Jewish Midrash takes great delight in this double meaning:

 In the Time to Come, the Holy One, blessed be He, will lead the chorus of the righteous…and they will dance around Him…and point to Him…saying, “This is God, our God forever and ever; God will lead us…with youthfulness, with liveliness.”

So on Rejoice Sunday, as we celebrate the dancing God, who’s this wild man of the desert crashing our party, calling us snakes and shouting about wrath? Who let him in?

You brood of vipers! You snakes! What are you doing here? Do you really think you are going to escape from the mess you’ve made of this world? Is that what you think? Don’t tell me about your spiritual heritage. That’s not going to save you! You’ve got to show you mean business. You’ve got to turn yourselves around and get right with God. You say you’re Abraham’s children. Well, God doesn’t care a fig about that. You say you go to church. So what?

Are you bearing any fruit? I don’t see it. Your hearts are nothing but dead trees. Where’s the fruit? Where’s the juice? You know what happens to dead trees? They get cut down, leaving nothing but stumps.

Look, I’m baptizing with water the ones who really want to change. But I tell you, there’s someone coming after me who’s a lot more powerful than I am – I’m not even fit to tie his shoes. And he’s not going to be using any water to baptize you. He’s going to baptize you with the Holy Spirit – and with fire.

The winnowing fork is already in his hand. He’s clearing the threshing floor and gathering the wheat into the barn. But the chaff? Oh, the chaff he is going to burn in a fire that will never go out.”

So people, listen up. It’s time to get ready.
Stay awake. Keep watch. Change your lives.

Such an intrusion, such a message, and such a messenger, seem shockingly out of place on Rejoice Sunday. Thank God no wild prophets have wandered into our assembly today. But you never know!

About 25 years ago, a pastor in California asked me if I would make a surprise Advent appearance at his church as John the Baptist. No one else in his congregation knew this was going to happen, not even the ushers, who looked at me nervously when I entered the church in bare feet and a tattered old robe. At the moment when the gospel was to be read, I came up the aisle, looking people in the eyes as I delivered my fiery message. Then, after one last warning to stay awake and keep watch, I slipped out the door and disappeared.

This bit of guerilla liturgy got mixed reviews from the congregation, as you might imagine. But if the Bible is a living word, it doesn’t just tell stories about people in the past. It confronts and challenges us in the present as well, as the biblical truths retell themselves in our own stories.

Be that as it may, what are we to make of the Baptist’s unsettling message? Perhaps his most troubling phrase is “the wrath to come.” It conjures up all those abusive old images of an angry, judgmental and vindictive god, images which have done a lot of harm over the centuries, even though Jesus made it pretty clear that the heart of the law is mercy, and the end of all our stories is the victory of Love.

So what is the “wrath to come”? I believe it is really something of our own devising. If we break the laws of the universe, we will find ourselves contradicted by a reality more true and lasting than the constructions of our own self-will. If we engage in destructive behaviors, those chickens will come home to roost. Or as C. S. Lewis put it, “We are not punished for our sins; we are punished by our sins.”

We all experience this kind of blowback on the level of personal behavior, whenever we reap what we have sown. But it is true on a collective level as well. The rapid acceleration of climate change makes this abundantly clear. For decades we humans have been either unwilling or unable to change our ways, and now the consequent “wrath” is getting too big to ignore––although some still try!

A recent cartoon depicting a climate change denier puts this perfectly. A skeleton is lying on its back on ground that is baked and parched. Nothing is growing there. It’s a wasteland devoid of life. And the skeleton still has its fingers in its ears. Nobody’s going to convince himabout the wrath to come.

Perhaps the most interesting­­––and hopeful––thing about today’s gospel reading is that the people, even after being so fiercely chastised and challenged by the prophet, do not put their fingers in their ears. Instead, they ask the Baptist, “What then should we do?” John responds to each questioner in very concrete ways. And as the story concludes, what looked like judgment––the axe and the fire––turned out to be a strange form of good news, the best thing that could have happened, because it spurred people to let go of the unsustainable chaff and begin to change their ways.

Prophets can be hard, but they are so necessary to move us to repentance and action. Thank God for all those who push us where we need to go, who urge us toward transformation. We must change our lives, they tell us. And the time is now.

It’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by the immense challenges looming before us. Where do we turn for the hope and courage and strength we need for the facing of this hour? What faith says is this: We turn to God our Savior. We turn to the one in whom all our hope is grounded.

But in a world as secular as ours, where divine intention or activity is not a natural presupposition, and things just go on happening whether God is thought about or not, it can seem unintelligible to call God our Savior. What does it mean to say that God will save us? Doesn’t our culture teach us to act as if we are pretty much on our own, for better or worse? Isn’t God an unnecessary hypothesis?

If the question of God were nothing more than a theoretical proposition with which we agree or disagree, or simply ignore in the daily course of our lives, then it’s easy to live as if God makes no difference. But belief is not a theoretical matter. Belief is about how we live, and what kind of story we belong to.

It is certainly possible to live inside a story where God is absent or nonexistent. A lot of people do it. But I find that to be a bleak and unpromising account of reality––perhaps satisfactory, or even exhilarating, when things are good, but too vulnerable to cynicism and despair when the world goes off the rails.

People of faith, however, abide in a different story, a story where death does not have the last word, a story where Love wins. To say that God will save us is to belong to thatstory, and to live accordingly. And what are the fruits of faith’s life-shaping story?––trust, confidence, hope, and the kind of invincible joy which St. Paul proclaims with such passion. “Rejoice! Again I say, rejoice!”

Paul’s own joy was often tested. Even in jail, he wrote to his friends, “Do not worry about anything. Live in hope.” And countless saints have done exactly that.

In the book of Lamentations, a text drenched in the tears of profound suffering, we find one of the most hopeful verses in all of Scripture:

When my soul is bowed down, I keep one thing in mind, and so recover hope: Love’s mercies are never exhausted; they are renewed every morning (Lam. 3:20-23).

In the faith story, no matter how rocky the road or dangerous the journey, our path leads beyond every annihilation toward an unimaginable fulfilment. What has been broken will be restored, what has been wounded will be healed, what has been lost will be found. If such a hope were a statement about the world, it would be a foolish optimism, soon blown away by the winds of calamity. But Christian hope is not a statement about the world. It is a statement about God.

Hope is not about what the creature can do; it is about the never-ending resourcefulness of the Creator, who turns darkness into light and brings life out of death. Even to the blackest night, God will bring the dawn.

One of my Advent rituals is to play my recording of Jackson Browne’s “For a Dancer,” an encouraging song imbued with prayerful hope, despite being written in a time of personal loss:

Keep a fire for the human race,
and let your prayers go drifting into space
you never know what will be coming down.

Perhaps a better world is drawing near;
just as easy it could all disappear,
along with whatever meaning you might have found.
Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around.
Go on and make a joyful sound.

Into a dancer you have grown,
From a seed somebody else has thrown,
Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own. . .

We are all dancers, the people who rejoice in hope, come what may. Don’t let the uncertainty turn you around. Go on and make a joyful sound.

Now to say that God is our Savior does not mean that God does all the work. Faith is not passivity. To be called into the story of God’s unfolding future means we ourselves have a lot of work to do: the work of changing our lives, the work of letting go what is unsustainable, the work of repairing the world, the work of becoming Love’s body in the here and now. Go on ahead and throw some seeds of your own.

We do not do this work alone.
The Eternal One works beside us––and within us.
Our strength lies in a power deeper than our own capacities.
Our story is more than a dream of our own making.
And God’s mercies, Love’s kindnesses, are never exhausted.

What Happens in Bethlehem Doesn’t Stay in Bethlehem

Giovanni Bellini, The Madonna of the Small Trees (1487)

If you want, the Virgin will come walking down the road, pregnant with the holy, and say,
“I need shelter for the night, please take me inside your heart.
My time is so close.”

 Then, under the roof of your soul,
you will witness the sublime intimacy,
the divine, the Christ,
taking birth forever.

 –– St. John of the Cross

 

The story we celebrate on Christmas Eve isn’t just about a long-ago wonder. It describes something that is still going on, as the divine “takes birth forever” in mortal flesh and human stories. The infinite God, the Creator of time and space and matter, the Source and Sustainer of all existence, yearns to be born in us, to express the life-giving Word in the vocabulary of human flesh. Your life, my life, our common life as the body of Christ––these are God’s Bethlehem tonight.

In other words, the Nativity isn’t just something we remember. It’s something we do, something we become.  As St. Paul said, “all of us . . . are being transformed into the image that we reflect in brighter and brighter glory.” In other words, we are destined to become God-like.

But what does that mean––“God-like?” It doesn’t mean having superpowers or being invulnerable. Look at Jesus. His life tells you what God-like means. He was born in poverty and weakness, in a stable not a palace, and he lived a life of utter self-emptying and self-offering, giving himself away for the life of the world.

To let the divine be born in us, then, means simply this: to let our humanity achieve its true fullness by allowing divine Love to have its way with us. A 13th-century mystic, Mechtild of Magdeberg, put it like this:

“When are we like God? I will tell you.
Insofar as we love compassion and practice it steadfastly,
to that extent do we resemble the heavenly Creator
who practices these things ceaselessly.”

O come, let us adore Christ. But not only that. O come, let us imitate Christ. Let God’s life be born in us. And when the divine is born in us, when the divine takes place in us, we will not be the only ones changed by it. Everyone we meet will be changed. And perhaps one day, the whole world will be changed––into “brighter and brighter glory.”

I think it all comes down to this: What happens in Bethlehem doesn’t stay in Bethlehem.
It goes out into all the world, to all people, all places, now and forever.
And nothing will ever be the same again.

+

 

Dear reader, thank you for taking the time to consider these posts. You are a writer’s best gift. I wish you a most happy and luminous Christmastide. May your own encounter with the embodied God––whatever form it may take––bless and empower you in the days to come.