May 10, 2012

His distressing disguise

I'm reading this lovely book about spiritual direction.  The author is a wise, experienced woman, Episcopal priest/teacher/midwife, and she uses language that would be quaint were it not so accurate.  My favorite of her expressions is the way that she talks about shabbiness.

"Shabby" is my grandmother's word, but it is so well-suited to what it intends to denote that I cannot think of another word in the vastness of English that quite matches it.  It's not just about something's being worn or old or decrepit.  There's a sense in which, when I'm shabby, I don't see it or can't help it.  That's often me.

It's me in my pettiness.  It's me in my laziness.  It's me in the thousand little things that I leave unsaid and undone, because I have to check my e-mail one more time.  But it's worse than that too.

I'm like the caricature of the aging starlet.  Too much rouge.  Too-false eyelashes.  Faded gown.  Drooping, drawling, dreaming.  Looking in the mirror and seeing youth and fame and beauty while projecting to the world something that looks cheap and tawdry.  Shabby.

I feel safe in some ivory tower of rightness, and I look down.  If I'm strong up there, you're weak down below.  If I'm right, you must be wrong.  If I'm put together, you're falling apart.

To keep me on my perch, I find ways to identify with other people on perches.  Sometimes I lift them up and steady them on my own pedestals -- where they'd better perform according to my expectations -- if they don't want to get knocked off.  They can stay as long as they help me preserve the illusion that I am somebody.

When I'm intent on preserving my Somebodyness I am wary of the "nobodies."  They don't get it.  Where's the make-up?  The glamour?  The show?  They are exposed, with all their brokenness hanging out.  Dirty.  Toothless.  Poor.  Or...  Divorced.  Atheist.  Republican.  Fat.  Whatever.  So long as I can feel superior.


Not them.  Me.

Mother Teresa said with perfect clarity, "Everyone is Jesus in a distressing disguise."  I think about that.  When I feel that feeling well up, the feeling that says he or she or you are somehow not good enough for me, I think, "There's Jesus in his distressing disguise."  It does distress me, and I have to pause and recognize what's hiding underneath.  And not only underneath your distressing disguise.  Underneath my shabbiness.

What's true is that the faded gown and the fake jewels and the cheap dreams I'm still holding onto hide the real beauty that is underneath.  When I scrub off the rouge, what's underneath is ravaged and broken.  And beautiful.  And free.

I want to believe that even underneath my shabbiness, Jesus sees himself, in disguise.

May 9, 2012

Not a bug but a feature

I recently made the acquaintance of someone whose childhood appears to have been, at least in the rear view mirror, idyllic.  Now, admittedly, I don't know the whole story, but what I heard was like a report from my dream world.

As a little girl, I had this idea that there was this way my life was supposed to be.  I don't quite know where I got the narrative, but I did watch a lot of T.V., so maybe that explains it.

From as far back as I can remember, I knew the kind of life I wanted, a life that was tidy, where everything and everyone had their place.  Mommy would stay home while Daddy would go to work.  I would dust the furniture and set the table.  (I also wanted to gather eggs in my apron from the chickens we'd have on our farm, but that's a story for another day.)  There would be pretty party dresses and fresh flowers.  We'd go to church every Sunday.  Father would preside over meals.  Everything would be neat as a pin.  We would all live happily ever after.

For a while we did.  Or, I did.  Apart from the chickens, I had just what I thought I wanted and two little sisters besides.

Then one day my parents told us my dad was moving out.  No more Mommy staying at home; she went to work.  No more Daddy shaving in the morning or cutting the grass on Saturday or sitting at the dinner table.  Just us girls at home with my mom and Daddy's house every other weekend. 

But still, somewhere in my mind, I was still living in that other world.  If only I could make it be true!

I remember in college, someone from the counseling department, upon hearing my story, introduced me to the words "dysfunctional family." I was horrified and defensive. Not my family.  We loved each other.  It would be years before I understood what that man was trying to tell me -- the truth.

As self-aware as I imagine myself to be, it's rather embarrassing to confess that I was into my thirties before I connected the dots from my adult dysfunctions back to my parents' divorce.  Every single neurosis I could think of seemed to have its genesis when I was about ten years old, when my dad moved out.  For a long time I felt sorry for myself.  Now I don't.

Labels like "dysfunctional family" or "co-dependency" have their place, but they don't really say what needs to be said for my story to feel true.  It's true that I was emotionally wounded by my parents.  It's true that their divorce was emotionally devastating to me.  It's true that I pretended, mostly unknowingly, for years and years to be fine when I really was sad and angry and lonely.

I'd like to say that I'm just this amazingly magnanimous person and I've forgiven everyone because it's the right thing to do.  In fact -- and maybe this is the truly amazing thing -- I'm grateful.

While I thought my family was healthy, the only explanation for my personal crazy was that I was wrong.  I felt the wrong things, wanted the wrong things.  But that's not true.  I feel what I feel and want what I want.  How I act on my feelings or my wants can breed love or destruction, but the feelings and the wants just are what they are.  I don't have to judge them all the time.  I don't have to judge me all the time.

I don't know that I could ever have understood all that unless I'd suffered a little.  I've never been hungry or sick or, thank God, abused or victimized, but I have suffered loss at the hands of the people that I thought were supposed to make my life perfectly safe and lovely.  Thing is, they were human, just like I am, so they made mistakes.  They suffered.  I suffered.

But that suffering has opened my eyes to the possibility that life holds more than I imagined.  My dreams, my little Leave It to Beaver/Brady Bunch fantasy life, was so much less rich than the life I have.  It's not that there were no chickens.  It's that it was too perfect, and life's just not that way.

Life is messy.  Everybody's life is messy.  If I don't understand and embrace the messiness of my own life, I cannot possibly be trusted with the messiness of yours.  I wanted my life to be perfect.  I thought if it was I wouldn't be sad or angry or lonely, but that isn't true.  It's because I'm sad and angry sometimes that I don't have to be lonely.  We're in this together.

May 5, 2012

I preach Christ crucified

I recently met a lovely and wise couple.  They offered me generous hospitality, shared their story, and gave me encouragement on my path.  This couple has carefully studied the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth and those of the Buddha.  They have found life-altering sustenance from their recognition that the underlying wisdom messages of both men are fundamentally the same.  I would put it like this:  Truth is Truth wherever you find it.  I honor that this is where they have sought and found.

Many deeply spiritual, honest seekers find fulfillment in the recognition that God's creation is infused with ultimate Truth:
 The heavens declare the glory of God! - Psalm 19 
Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. - Romans 1:20
Where there is truth or beauty or goodness or love, there is God, for "God is love" (1 John 4:8).  In the natural world, in a loving heart, in church and synagogue and temple and mosque, where truth and love abide, God abides.  A lot of people are content with that and breathe a relieved sigh affirming that it is enough.

God, however, said it is not enough.

There is ever and always the problem of suffering.  The heavens declare the glory of God -- and the heavens wreck havoc with wind and storm, hurricane, tornado, lightening.  The earth brings forth its shoots (Isaiah 61:11) and every living creature (Genesis 1) -- and the earth brings forth fire and earthquake, tsunami and flood.  The harvest yields food and healing herbs -- and poison.  Animals walk beside us as companions -- and they kill and are killed.  The human heart loves -- and the human heart hates.  We die.  We decay.  "[A]ll are from the dust, and all turn to dust again" (Ecclesiastes 3:20).

There is no wisdom teaching, however wise, to answer the psalmist's cry, "How long, O Lord?" (Psalm 13).  Philosophy, a gift to the rational mind, is no balm for a broken heart.

Here is the genius of Paul's grasp of the Gospel.  In 1 Corinthians, he rhetorically asks, "Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?" (1 Corinthians 1:20).

Jesus and the Buddha appear to concur in their wisdom teaching.  To wit:
Jesus: Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.
Buddha: With the relinquishing of all thought and egotism, the enlightened one is liberated through not clinging.
Dying to live, they agree, is the path to fulfillment.  The difference comes down to the cross.
When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God to you in lofty words or wisdom.For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.  (1 Corinthians 2:1-2)   
Do we hear what Paul is saying?  "For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified."  

As we've discussed here before, crucifixion was the ultimate failure.  It was horrible, crushing death by torture at the hands of the all-powerful state.  Of what consolation are words of wisdom, however true, in the shadow of crucifixion?

Let us be honest.  When our hearts are broken, when my heart is broken, words, however well-meant, however true, do little to heal.  I need your compassion, your "suffering with" me.  There are no words or teachings or arguments or rituals or practices that speak to the deep suffering of the world and the heart of woman and man.  There is only the cross.

To the world, it is a stumbling block and foolishness.  To Paul, it is the only thing

For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.

In contrast to the teachings of Buddhism, which suppose that "suffering can be overcome through human activity, simply by removing the cause of suffering [and a]ttaining and perfecting dispassion," Christianity affirms that human suffering, and indeed the brokenness in all of creation, is the result not of attachment, but of dis-attachmentThe Christian story, as a continuation of the Jewish story, assures us that it is in becoming rightly rejoined in love with the Creator God that all creation -- including suffering woman and man -- is restored and made new.

This is why the crucified Messiah matters above all else.  In him, that which has been dis-attached -- sinful humanity -- is perfectly united with that from which it, we, have become separated, that is, God.  And it is that, Him, the God-Man who, in his body hung upon a tree, is attached to all the suffering that sin has wrought on earth, and, through that attachment, reclaims creation for its purpose:  God's kingdom come on earth as in heaven, humanity bearing God's image --  suffering love, crucified and risen.

May 3, 2012

To an unknown god

Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, ‘Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way.For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, “To an unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. - Acts 17:22-23
As Christians we think we know God.  And we do.  And we don't.

In Acts, when Paul preaches at the Areopagus to the Athenians, he proclaims God as the creator, the father of Abraham and the Israelites -- indeed, the father of us all.  He proclaims God as judge of all God has created and as the One who raised Jesus from the dead.

In the great hymn that he quotes in Philippians 2, Paul testifies to his Christian sisters and brothers that, when we seek to discern the image of God, we need look no further than Jesus, emptied, broken, obedient, on the cross.

We know these things.  We know so much more than the Athenians worshipping an unknown god.  We know so much about God that we start to think we know everything.

I used to think I knew God.  I went to church.  I said my prayers.  I learned my catechism.  I learned my Bible.  I learned a lot of theology.

None of this is God.

I knew that I could see God's handiwork in nature.  I can see the face of God in Christ in my neighbor.

This is still not God.

It came to crisis for me.  My life wasn't working very well.  It caused me to question why my god wasn't helping me.

I believe now it was that the god I thought ought to be in my court wasn't God at all.

All the things I knew or thought I knew about God weren't enough.  All they did, ultimately, was to encourage me to rely on a god of my own making, in my image.

And that's not God.

Here's where it turned for me:  I came to understand that no matter how much I knew about God, it would never be enough to allow me to know God.  A god I can know all about isn't big enough to have created the universe.  The god that I can figure out isn't big enough to deal with the injustice of this world.  That god isn't even big enough to take care of me.

God is bigger than what I've made him.

That means that no matter how much I read or study or pray, I can never, ever understand God.  That is a God I can rely on -- a God that I cannot grasp.  I cannot hold that God or control that God or -- and here's where I'm grateful -- overwhelm that God.  Sometimes I worry that I'm too much.  But God is bigger than all that.

I used to pray to a god that I thought I could manage.  Now I pray to a God who is unmanageable.  I used to pray to a God I could imagine.  Now I pray to a God who is beyond imagining.  I used to pray with lots of words, always looking for just the right words.  Now I mostly pray without words, because I'm praying to a God who doesn't need my words.

This God, big and mysterious though he is, is not inaccessible, because he still reveals himself in the broken body of the crucified Messiah.  I can still conjure in my mind's eye that Jesus who is the perfect God-image-bearer.  But I no longer kid myself into thinking that what I can imagine or understand is all God is.  Thank God, He is so much more.

May 1, 2012

Am I or am I not?

I've been reading a variety of articles on the Vatican's rebuke of U.S. nuns.  Naturally, I've been drawn to articles like this one that tend to reinforce what I already believe.  But then I went and did something risky:  I read some articles by people who think the Vatican is entirely justified and that the sisters are committing acts of apostasy.

This makes me uncomfortable.

I have long struggled with whether I am a "real" Catholic or not (as I discuss in small measure here and here).  My struggle is theological and cultural and personal and painful.  I have studied and read and prayed and prayed some more, and I find myself, still, wondering how I can remain a Catholic and how I can be anything else.

I'm not sure I believe a lot of things that are supposed to make me a Catholic.  I don't believe in the absolute authority of the all-male hierarchy.  I don't believe that Jesus thought he was making Peter the first Pope.  I don't know whether the elements of bread and wine are changed in their substance when the priest says the consecration, and I don't know that it really matters.

These are big problems for a lot of people, many of them bishops. 

It's not that I don't want to believe.  I have tried, repeatedly, to be a "good," orthodox Catholic.  And I have repeatedly failed to reconcile my heart and my life experience with the rules of that game.

So, for a while, I tried being a Protestant.  I felt like I couldn't, with integrity, call myself a Catholic any longer.  Here's why:  When I first started studying the Bible and Christian theology seriously fourteen or so years ago, I discovered some things that I had never learned in catechism class or at my Catholic college.  The one that struck me most deeply was the notion that I didn't have to earn my way into heaven.  Now, I don't mean to say that that is what the Catholic church officially teaches.  Let's be clear about that.  But there are many teachings of the church that can -- and do -- lead people to that sort of conclusion.

I already knew that I did not believe that missing mass (a mortal sin) would exclude a person from eternal salvation.  But I didn't know the first thing about the theology of "salvation by grace through faith."  At last, I felt like I was hearing the gospel, real "good news."

Still, I had plenty of trouble swallowing some of the Protestant theology with which I began to be acquainted.  I don't believe that God excludes people from his love for failing to believe or say the right things any more than I believe he excludes people for not being Catholics.

The problem is, I've gotten to know this Jesus that Catholics claim created the hierarchical Roman church, and that some Protestants claim said all there is to say between the pages of a book.

I keep worshipping as a Catholic (after spending seven years worshipping as a Lutheran) in part because it's what I know, where I come from and where my family has come from.  I keep worshipping as a Catholic because I can't seem to do otherwise.  I keep worshipping as a Catholic because catholic means universal, and there are signs, signs that I have seen since I was a kid, that the Catholic church can be a big tent, incorporating any and all comers who want to say YES to Jesus' call to receive and give sacrificial love for the glory of God the Father.

I'm not a Catholic by a strict definition of orthodox belief and submission to the authority of the Magisterium.  I'm not.  Neither am I a Lutheran, if being a Lutheran means, even in part, that I have to accept the idea that humans can do no good in their natural state.  That just doesn't jibe with my life experience.

What I am is a deeply flawed, desperately clinging, hopeful disciple of a first century laborer-rabbi-prophet-messiah who died an ignominious death on a Roman cross.  I might be wrong about a lot of things, but I'm not wrong to follow him.

I was wrong

I said yesterday,
There are too few American men entering the priesthood, so many have to come from other countries around the world. Otherwise, one might expect to find an older, guitar-mass-and-felt-banner Vatican II Catholic priest or a young, right-wing, traditionalist American priest. That seems to encompass the range.
I was reminded this morning that there are important exceptions, and that one of them serves at the parish where I grew up.

I met Father Jon Pedigo in 1984 when he came to our parish as a seminarian.  I was only a few years younger, and we found we had some intellectual and spiritual connection.  A dozen years later, he officiated at my wedding.

Over a decade ago he became the pastor of that same parish where we first met.  In the intervening years, the tech boom had caused radical changes in the demographic composition of the old neighborhood.  So had shifts in the culture -- both that of the secular society and of the church.  Jon was ready to lead in this changing world, because he is deeply grounded in the thing that never changes, that is, the gospel of the Christ.
Fr. Jon is an activist.  He is a community leader in matters relating to immigration and equality.  In his most recent homily he speaks profoundly -- and prophetically -- about our call as the body of Christ to include rather than to exclude
It is to walk on a razor's edge these days to "name out loud our diversity" in a Catholic parish.  But it is to proclaim the savior, Jesus, who scandalously offered open table fellowship to exactly those people the law, God's law, said must be shunned.
In Falling Upward author Father Richard Rohr (another notable exception, although not a parish priest), says, profoundly:
Every time God forgives us, God is saying that God's own rules do not matter as much as the relationship that God wants to create with us. (italics original)
What I see in communities like the one at St. Julie's is people dedicated to this vision of what it means to be the body of Christ, to embody the coming of the kingdom of God.  How do we participate in this mission, the mission of receiving forgiveness and relationship and reaching out in forgiveness and relationship?  That is how God's kingdom comes.  That is how we proclaim the gospel.