Thursday, April 23, 2009

Oregon Again!

What follows is my first retreat address from the Associates Retreat at Mt. Angel Abbey near Portland, Oregon last Friday evening. The second address was totally off the cuff, so I have no idea what I said. The third and fourth I have some notes for… so I'll post them eventually.

I had a long involved dream the first night I arrived in Oregon. I had not had any sleep the night before, and I had lain down to take a nap in the late afternoon. Only I slept through… the whole night. When I sleep long and hard like that, I dream. 

In the dream some people were coming for a retreat and I was going to show an audio visual meditation. Some others had heard about it and brought the rector of the church, who in turn brought some church officials from another country. All this took place in the basement of the church where I work on Tuesdays and Fridays, so… as in a lot of dreams, everything was all mixed up. My conscious mind was probably still concerned with Friday’s pantry session that takes place in that same basement, as well as with the Associates' retreat that I was to begin that next night. So, in this dream, as in many dreams, everything that could go wrong did go wrong. 

For some reason we needed batteries for the projector and there weren’t any. A few of us left to go buy batteries and got caught up in rush hour traffic, then an endless series of school buses and subway transfers… a wrong turn here, a blocked intersection there and every decision took us farther and farther from where we had started, farther and farther from where we wanted to be.

The emotions that were running high in the small group I was with, were anxiety, worry, fear…frustration, and

There were about four or five of us in the group, and at some point, while we were waiting in a train station, someone asked about the retreat, and I gave them a little mini meditation on the subject of “embracing what is.” The truth was, I
had no meditation on embracing what is (until I woke up from the dream that morning,) but it sounded really good (in the dream), and I’m always on the lookout for Holy Spirit input, so there it was.

It went something like this: When you get up in the morning you always have some expectations about what your day will look like. Certain things are supposed to happen. If you’re a scheduled person you probably keep a calendar. You know if today is a workday, a volunteer day, a play day. On my calendar, if it’s Tuesday I leave right after mass to go to St. Bart’s where I manage the food pantry. If it’s Wednesday, I’m the breakfast cook and the doorbell queen. That means I answer the door, listen to the phone messages. So Wednesday is
not a day for me to schedule a doctor’s appointment or to go out grocery shopping.

But, even though we wake
up with certain expectations, life will intervene. So the annoying interruptions, the unexpected crisis, the unannounced visitor will all (in some way) derail our best plans. What happens then?

Well, stuff happens.

It’s only in how we respond to the stuff that makes the difference. Now this thought is not unique… to either me, or my dream. Intellectually we each understand that you can’t
change your neighbor. You can’t change the weather. You can’t change the fact that you cooked dinner for ten and fifteen showed up. Or that you cooked dinner for fifteen and five showed up. What you can change is your response. You can be angry. You can rail against the injustice. You can envision elaborate plans to punish whoever ruined your day with their incompetence, their thoughtlessness, their lack of attention to detail. Self-righteous anger is one of the first places we can go when stuff happens. But we also know that a steady diet of self-righteous anger is hard on the stomach and bad for the heart.

So, in my little train station meditation, I suggested they keep a little supply of one-word responses for each new day, and to pick one out of the stash first thing each morning when they woke up. The words that I suggested were all the usual suspects: gratitude, forgiveness, acceptance, humor… Holy and enlightened people have been suggesting these same words for centuries, nothing new here. Why then, is it so much easier to get angry or annoyed or irritated than it is to feel gratitude? Your best friend learns she has cancer. You’re supposed to feel gratitude? At what?… that it was her and not you? Of course not.

But in the context of my dream, when we were off in Timbuktu through no fault of our own, and those we left behind were tired of sipping their cold coffee and were no longer waiting patiently for us to return… the responses that all of us were giving forth were ALL related to either anger or fear. Some were actually yelling into their cell phones, looking for someone to blame.

Blame, now there’s a concept. Think about blame. Blame relieves accountability. That’s really all it does. It’s not my fault. It’s not my fault. Well, that part is absolutely right. Too bad we can't stop there.

If it’s not my fault, then
who’s fault is it?!?

Finding out who’s fault it is, is big business in our culture. Really. Think about it. People spend extra years in college so they can get law degrees. So they can spend long hours at work in law firms so they can make big bucks in law suits defending and accusing each other’s clients, just so they can determine who’s fault it is.

“Your client was negligent. Left a wet floor, and as a result, my client slipped and fell down.”

“Well your client was blind or stupid, because he didn’t even pay attention or
ignored the wet floor sign and walked over the place my client had just mopped.” 

All that to determine who’s fault it is, when in many cases, if not most, it was an

I said that all blame does is relieve our accountability; that’s not exactly right. We also blame someone to make the pain more bearable. Shame is perhaps the most painful of all the emotions human beings can feel. And if something is our
fault, we’ve added insult to injury and we are ashamed. I’ll come back to this thought, but for now let me finish the dream.

I’ve had these anxiety dreams many times… always trying to get somewhere to fulfill some obligation, and obstacles are always preventing me from getting there. Some people can wake themselves up in this kind of dream, but not me. Maybe once or twice I’ve been able to stop and say “look, I’m just not going to make it in time for this meeting… or event.” And when I can do that, I usually wake up. But mostly I just keep plugging away, trying to get wherever it is I’m supposed to be. This was the first time I’ve ever been with
other people trying to get back, and that was different. Seeing others reacting badly mirrored both my own internal turmoil and my own progress, if you will, from how I always used to react in these situations, and how in some ways the religious life has changed me. 

So, as I said, I entertained my own little group with the word possibilities (which I must say they all loved immensely and thought I was very enlightened) and we all managed to arrive at some central meeting place in downtown Manhattan. The rector of my church was there and he was furious.
Seething would be the best word to describe him. His important guest was from France and not at all happy about all the waiting they had been doing all morning. He had in his hand the day’s itinerary schedule, and he said, “Ah… Union Theological Seminary. Let’s see, we did that at 8:00. It was lovely.” And he scratched it off his paper. Well of course he had not seen Union Seminary at 8:00 because at 7:30 that we had all left in search of batteries for the projector… which had started this whole series of unfortunate delays. I was trying to decide if he was being sarcastic or if he just had a dry sense of humor when I woke up.

That was the dream. I cannot remember my dreams unless I immediately write them down, but since this one seemed to be speaking to me, I got up, found a pen and started writing. So, where is this going? This long-winded description of anxiety dreams and response words and in the midst of all that the concept of blame?

Well, originally I said that blame is a tool we use to relieve accountability,
culpability when something goes wrong. And, I revised that to say it’s a tool we use to make the pain more bearable. Martha said to Jesus “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” We read those as loaded words. Martha blamed Jesus. Then Lazarus was raised. People were overwhelmed when Lazarus emerged from the tomb. And… they drew an erroneous conclusion from that miracle… that the blessing would go on and on and on.

Some scholars believe that the raising of Lazarus was the culminating factor in the Pharisee’s decision that Jesus needed to be eliminated. That this kind of miracle would only incite the masses to revolt, and that
any revolt would lead to the inevitable destruction of the Jewish people. "One man’s death would be better than the death of many."

So, if you follow that very logical line of reasoning, Jesus could easily have blamed Martha and Mary for his subsequent arrest and crucifixion. It was
their fault. The Jews didn’t kill Jesus. The Romans didn’t kill Jesus. Martha and Mary killed Jesus. The last words on the cross would have been: If you had not whined so much, I would not have raised Lazarus, and if I had not raised Lazarus, I would not be hanging on this cross. It’s all your fault.”

Jesus didn’t do that. Jesus understood, perhaps as no other human being has ever understood, that it was not about him. Down through the ages the church has
made it about him, but he didn’t.

Heresy? Perhaps. Let me explain where I’m going with this, what I’m really getting at. When something doesn’t work, we find someone to blame. We externalize the frustration and find fault with someone, and
then we imagine a savior. Not especially uplifting, but it’s a tool we use to cope. When Martha and Mary blamed Jesus for their brother’s death, they were speaking out of their pain, trying to make it bearable, externalizing their problem… and dumping the burden on Jesus. 

This is what we do with God. A lot. From the Israelites whining in the wilderness to our modern ways of blaming God for every tragedy, we tend to relieve our own agony by blaming God. Then we stay there. And wait.

We wait for God’s response. If the agony ends, we thank God for favoring us, and we look for ways to make the favor permanent, so we won’t have to feel that same agony again. However, if the agony continues, or gets
worse, we still may think God will rescue us once we find the perfect formula for appeasing God or honoring God. We make it, whatever it is, all about us. If I don’t get what I want, I blame God. If I do get what I want, then I imagine it will be forever.

This makes no sense, does it? There’s a lot we do, and keep on doing that makes no sense. 

So, lets explore some of what we do (and don’t do) that makes no sense. Lets look at ways we limit God and limit ourselves by the way we’ve developed and interpreted the beliefs we hold so dear… look at possibilities for expanding upon some of those cherished beliefs… especially when they have lost their ability to uplift or comfort or sustain us in times of crisis and unrest, in times of agony or despair, in times of fear and trembling.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

The downhill slide

The religious life is a strange place. 

This is, of course, Holy Week, called that because we're leading up to the holiest day of the year for Christians: Easter... resurrection. I've read a few books this past year that have suggested that resurrection is the only reason to be a Christian, and I've read some that say the resurrection most likely never happened and so what? That Jesus' life, in and of itself, was a testimony to the inner being of God, an example for how we should be patterning our own lives.

I find I have not experienced a major crisis of faith over either viewpoint. I tend to lean on the side of "so what?" simply because I wasn't there, and so many stories of the encounters with the resurrected Jesus describe him as unrecognizable. By his best friends. That said, I also believe in a God who can and does work miracles when it suits God's purposes. The nature of those miracles seems to be what we all get in a snit over. Was he bodily resurrected? Maybe, maybe not. 

He was resurrected. The power and intensity of his presence after the crucifixion glows from the pages of all the accounts of the sitings and interactions that people had with him. His teaching and example did not die with him.

Today is Maundy Thursday, the day we celebrate the Last Supper. We remember tonight that he ate one last hearty and joyful meal with his friends before the downhill slide into tomorrow. We remember that he washed the feet of his disciples as a servant washes the feet of their masters... that he was betrayed by one of his own. We remember that he gave a final commandment to those at table with him... to love each other in the same way he had loved them. We haven't kept that commandment very seriously. I certainly haven't.

Most of my Lenten meditation this year has been on the fifth Station of the Cross: The cross is laid on Simon of Cyrene. I have tried to imagine every emotion Simon might have had in being forced with this obligation: horror, suppressed anger, repulsion, resentment, fear, relief... I can only imagine how he may have felt. But I know how I feel when I'm stuck with a dirty job I didn't ask for. It's been a good one for me.

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

from hero to villain

I've probably mentioned before that Palm Sunday, the way we do it in the Episcopal Church, has always been a sore spot with me. This might be because I was brought up in an assortment of Baptist-Congregational-Unitarian churches, where Jesus got the whole day to be the son of David, the hailed messiah. 

When I was little we marched around the entire block in the Baptist church, around the pews in the Congregational church; I can't remember if we marched at all in the Unitarian church, but the entire service was given over to hosannas and palm waving.

Not anymore. Now we re-enact a "Passion Narrative" (one of the Gospels) and it's actually called Passion Sunday. We speed through the hosannas and boom! it's time to crucify him. All inside of minutes. That's just wrong.

And yet... as our celebrant preached on Sunday, it mirrors life. It mirrors the mob mentality. I don't like mobs. Crowds either. They can turn on a dime for no apparent reason. And so, Jesus goes from hero to criminal in a matter of minutes. How easy this turning.

Our celebrant also examined the concept of of scapegoating... distancing ourselves from our own accountability for whatever may be wrong with the world. Yesterday I saw a news report about Obama telling the truth about the American mentality (he said we have sometimes been arrogant) and the news reporter jumped all over it. As Jesus was well aware, telling the truth is a dangerous endeavor.

But one thing she said struck me as especially important for me this year. That in the Passion narrative, especially this year's version from Mark, we are allowed to walk through all the experiences of humanity. The drama of the journey lets us (if we are willing) see ourselves in the story. Of course.

The parable of the prodigal son has always been like that for me... seeing myself in all those personalities (I always identify first with the older brother... no surprise there.) But never in the Passion narrative. We are all Judas, Peter, Pilate... at different times in different situations. It's a good reflection for Holy Week, I think.