Sunday, September 12, 2010

prodigal god

We are drunken ecstatics who have let our hearts
Go to the wild. We are musty scholars
Of love, and old friends of the wine cup.

People have aimed the arrow of guilt a hundred times
In our direction. With the help of our Darling’s eyebrow,
Blame has been a blessing, and has opened all our work.

Oh, dark-spotted flower, you endured pain all night,
Waiting for the wine of dawn; I am that poppy
That was born with the burning spot of suffering.

Today we read that great parable of the prodigal son at church. It’s one of those stories where you almost don’t want to say anything at all so as not to ruin what’s already there! Or else you have to talk for hours because it has so many facets to it. Proof yet again that whatever else he was, Jesus was certainly a master storyteller. But it actually wound up making me think about something else: the relationship between Jews, Christians and Muslims.

This is a particularly powerful time in the history of our world, and even these days specifically here in the middle of September 2010. Just the other day our Jewish brothers and sisters marked the feast of Rosh Ha–Shanah, the Jewish New Year, which is also the celebration of the anniversary of the creation of the world 5771 years ago. And in just a few days, following on that, they will celebrate Yom Kippur, the day of Atonement. This year those feasts serendipitously coincide with the end of the month of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting and penance, when our sisters and brothers of Islam spend a period trying to purify their hearts through self-restraint and good deeds, asking for forgiveness for their sins, and pray for guidance and help in avoiding evil. This was the first year I was really aware of the three-day feast called Eid al-Fitr that marks the end of Ramadan, when there is traditionally lots of food and gift-giving. That feast just ended last night, though it was curtailed considerably by many in the US due to its falling on September 11th this year. Sad to say, some Muslims were worried that there would be violence; and others were concerned that it wouldn’t even appear as if anyone was celebrating the anniversary of the terrorist attacks. That of course is the other anniversary that we just remembered yesterday, that horrendous event that changed everything in the course of history and tied our religions together in a more horrific bond than we ever thought we would have. I don’t have to tell you that this has coincided also with a string of violent acts against Muslims around the country––the stabbing of the cab driver, the desecration of the prayer rug, the fire bombing of one mosque and the protests against the Islamic center in New York, culminating with this crazy controversy around the evangelical Christian pastor in Florida threatening to desecrate some copies of the Qur’an by burning them. In this day and age of the 24 hour news cycle and the Internet, for better of for worse, this has pointed out just what an increasingly smaller web of relations we are involved in now, where the actions a virtually unknown man in Florida can foment violence all over the world––in some way we are psychically connected with nearly everyone on the planet. If there’s any good news in this it’s that virtually everyone knew that this action would have been heinously wrong, and so many people publicly condemned it, from the President to Sarah Palin, from the Pope down through members of Pastor Jones’ own denomination. So we do have some sense working even in this day and age of craziness.

So it seemed to me that this was a particularly good time to start trying to find and talk about what common ground we share.

In my study of comparative religion, I like to use the phrase “source and summit”––the beginning and the end, and what I have discovered in my studies is that while we diverge about various things, our three traditions––who we sometimes refer to as the “prophetic traditions”––definitely agree on the source and the summit of faith. What is the source? When I refer to Jews and Muslims as our brothers and sisters, I’m not just being metaphorical. We are all the spiritual children of Abraham since all three of our traditions trace their origin back to the covenant with Abraham. (I’d like to be inclusive and say Sarah too as some feminists prefer, but Muslims consider Hagar to be their mother, Sarah’s serving girl who gave birth to Abraham’s other son Ishmael.) That word “covenant” is very important: it’s a relationship. Our common source is our covenant with God. From there on the three traditions diverge on some very fundamental things: our view of the world, our understanding of Scripture and revelation, certainly at the level of doctrine (the Trinity for example), and even in our various understandings of God (and certainly the place of Jesus). But what we discover at the other end, the summit, is that the great mystics of our traditions––be they the visionaries of the Kabbalah, the Christian mystics, or the Sufis––converge again in that they speak about the end of this journey of life. They all use language about union with God, and they all teach that the life of faith becomes a longing for and a striving for union with God, so much so that an erotic love poem––the Song of Songs––was included in the canon of Jewish scriptures, some rabbis referring to it as the holiest book in the Bible; so much so that the Christian mystical tradition speaks of “mystical marriage of the soul with God”; so much so that the Sufi mystics write ecstatic love poems about the spiritual life––witness the poetry of Rumi or Hafez or Rabi’a. So it begins with union––the union of the covenant––and ends with union, the mystical marriage.

But what is equally significant about this covenantal union is it’s not simply a matter of our longing for and striving for union with God. Perhaps even more fundamental is that God is longing for union with us! What’s significant about the story of the covenant with Abraham is that it was God’s initiative! What’s significant about the Exodus event for the Jewish people is that it was God’s choosing a people to be his own. What’s significant about the Incarnation of Jesus is that “God so loved the world that he sent his only Son” not merely as an afterthought, but part of the plan to draw all things to God’s self. What significant about Islam is that Allah called out to Muhammad (peace be upon him). Our traditions all teach that the Divine One is longing for union with us!

And that brings us to today’s story of the prodigal son. You know the word “prodigal” means wasteful and extravagant, like someone who spends money freely and recklessly. This story could easily be called the story of the prodigal father. The image of God that Jesus is trying to convey to us is that God is very reckless even wasteful with love. This young man barely deserves to be let back as a servant, but there is the father with the robe and the ring and fatted calf. You gotta imagine, this is God standing in the middle of the road covered with dust longing for his child’s return, not just meting out justice, not just begrudgingly letting us sit at the table but––as Jesus says in the two previous parables––there’s more rejoicing over a repentant sinner––robes, rings, fattened calves and banquets! This is why the prophet Ezekiel says, “I do not want sinners to die; I want them to turn to me and live.” This is why every surah of the Qur'an begins with the phrase ir-Rahman ir-Rahim, the most common way to refer to Allah, “the all merciful and compassionate.” This too is our common ground: we believe that God is a prodigal parent who longs for us!

I heard a great line recently on a retreat: “When you act like God, you get to feel like God.” This parable is not only about our returning to God no matter what we have done wrong, knowing that we will be welcomed and even feted and fed. It’s also a warning! It warns us to not be like the older brother, who was not like God. In most of our dealings with the world we are looking for justice and rights. Well, if that father had been just, that kid would have been right back out in the cold. But as Jesus sees the world, mercy trumps justice! Compassion trumps rights! So while the old man is inside dancing with his son and the guests at the banquet, the older kid is out there being just and demanding his rights––bitter and cold. Well, if we act like God, we get to feel like God! We get to come in to the banquet. If we are merciful and compassionate, we get to feel divine! We get to be partakers in the divine nature.

So with our Jewish friends, let us pray for atonement (at-one-ment); with our Muslim friends let’s ask forgiveness, pray for guidance and help in refraining from evils. And this would be a good time for all of us to try to purify our hearts through self-restraint and good deeds. As Jesus taught, no matter what has happened let’s not be afraid to approach the Divine One, who is All-Merciful, All-Compassionate, who stands in the middle of the road with a robe and a ring longing for union with us.

Then, let’s act like God, and be merciful and compassionate for the sake of the world that God loves so much.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

wisdom on top of confusion

We need to give up something. We can’t try to layer wisdom on top of confusion. The spiritual path is about what we give up, not what we get. We seem to always want to get something––spiritual insights or experiences––as a kind of commodity. But don’t these wisdom traditions teach us that, in essence, there’s nothing to get? We need to give up what obscures the abiding wisdom and the abiding reality that is already there.
Tim Olmstead

I ran into an interview with the Buddhist teacher Tim Olmstead recently that played right into my hand for what I wanted to teach on this weekend. He and the interviewer are discussing spirituality and the spread of spiritual practice in the West. He is talking about Buddhism, but if I were to slip in the word “Christianity” or “Christian” or really just about any religious tradition, it absolutely applies to us as well. In other words, this is some universal wisdom.

He is discussing how for an historical religious figure like the Buddha (and I was thinking too immediately of saints such as Francis of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola or, especially, Antony of the Desert), their turn to the spiritual life begins with a certain dissatisfaction with every day life, what the Hindus and Buddhists call samsara, the endless round of birth and death to which we feel tethered. I don’t mean reincarnation when I use this phrase. What I mean by it is the hamster wheel that many people feel trapped on––death and taxes, “working for the weekend”––asking themselves, “Is there something more to life?” If religion simply becomes just another self-identifier, another cultural conditioner, another societal expectation, and if we don’t let it challenge us out of our complacency we may never experience its power. And its power is the power to transform us.

If we look at the life of Jesus or the Buddha, or the lives of the great saints or great enlightened people throughout history, we see people who were willing to give everything up, people who were willing to endure tremendous hardship to find out what more there is to life. And it is that kind of dedication and bravery that the spiritual life is founded on. And so Tim Olmstead says, “… if we approach [the spiritual life] on the basis of what is comfortable for us––what we like, what we don’t like, what fits into our lives conveniently without having to give anything up––that may be some kind of path, but I’m not sure it reflects the example” of the lives of these great saints. And, further, he says, “I wonder if it will bear fruit.”

That’s when he is asked: Do you think sacrifice is critical? And he answers, “We need to give up something. We can’t have it all.” And why can’t we have it all? I think he gives a beautiful answer. Because, “We can’t try to layer wisdom on top of confusion.” There’s a phrase that I first heard in Italy at a formation conference––
spogliamento progressivo
. It sounds so nice in Italian, but it means a “progressive stripping.” We find out along the way that the spiritual life is not about accumulating anything. It’s a progressive stripping away of things. Why? Because, “We can’t try to layer wisdom on top of confusion.” We need to progressively strip away the confusion, the falsity, the false security.

In the course of our lives, largely through no fault of our own, we accumulate layer upon layer of persona, of role-playing, or societal and cultural expectations, that may or may not have anything to do with the spiritual life or the Gospel or authentic holiness or the path to it, not to mention the psychological baggage we load up. And our real self––who St. Paul says is hidden with Christ in God––is quite often buried beneath all those layers, layers of confusion. And we can’t build wisdom on top of confusion. It’s like trying to build a house on a landslide. We need to build on bedrock, and the bedrock is our real self hidden in God, but often also hidden underneath layers of false persona.

Tim Olmstead says, “We seem to always want to get something––spiritual insights or experiences––as a kind of commodity… But don’t the wisdom traditions teach us that, in essence, there’s nothing to get?” Instead, what we need to give up is “what obscures the abiding wisdom and the abiding reality that is already there.” This is an essentially optimistic teaching, really, that there’s nothing to get. And it’s very much in keeping with Christian moral theology as I understand it, because we believe that grace builds on nature, just as St. Paul taught that “My inner self agrees with the Law of God,” which merely hearkens back to the late prophets of Judaism who taught that the new covenant is the one written on the heart. Our real self, our inner being is somehow already in union with God, if for no other reason then by the fact of our Baptism and the sacramental life of the church, through which the love of God continues to be poured into our hearts. What we need to do is give up all our possessions, as Jesus teaches. But those possessions may not be so much things, stuff, riches. Our possessions are for the most part our masks, our prestige, our opinions about the world and how it should run, and our opinions about ourselves, our safety nets of security and social position, all the things we cling to so as not to stand naked and vulnerable but real, authentic, before God, each other or the universe. Our real self is hidden under there somewhere.

I don’t think it’s either practical or advisable nor in keeping with Jesus’ essential teaching to expect householders––spouses and parents and folks living and working in the world––to live lives of poverty, chastity and obedience in the same way that religious––monks and nuns and priests––are called to (not that we always live up to those vows very well either). After all Jesus didn’t send everyone out with no extra tunic and no sandals and no walking stick, poor and homeless; he only sent his apostles out that way. But every one of us––every one of you––is challenged by those vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, what we call the evangelical councils, to ask what they mean for you. So you might ask yourself, “What is my form of poverty, of living simply so as to strip away some of the things that are not necessary but may be distracting us from the work of love and the demands of the spiritual life? What does chastity mean to me? How am I rightly ordering my relationships and keeping my mind (and my computer screen) pure? What is the way of life I have chosen and committed myself to, and am I being obedient to its demands?” Renunciation is built of mundane stuff: day to day fidelity to our daily lives and our real selves.

If we are really going to embark on the spiritual life, Jesus teaches in the Gospel we heard today, we had better know what it entails, what demands it is going to make on us, otherwise we are going to get caught like someone building a tower who didn’t sit down and count the cost, or like someone marching into battle who underestimated the strength of the enemy. And the cost is this:

We can’t try to layer wisdom on top of confusion...
The spiritual path is about what we give up, not what we get,
because in essence, there’s nothing to get.
We need to give up whatever obscures the abiding wisdom and the abiding reality that is already there…
our real selves hidden with Christ in God.